Infrared – 19.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

The cracks are still spreading.  I could hear the dull cracking, with sounds at the edges of those cracking noises like Swansong and Damsel’s power produced.

My forcefield whirled around me in a tight spin, far less effective than it had been as ‘the Wretch’.  It was a problem when I was diving into the midst of a sea of ash, trying to part that sea.

The Ashen Titan walked between buildings, and she didn’t go on the offensive.  Her ash did collect around her, with buildings in her range being consumed by her power, turned to dense and heavy powder, and collapsing to form dunes and waves that shifted and swirled in a loose circle around her.

When she moved on, it reconstituted as best as it could.  Buildings were rebuilt, kind of.  That which was lost to the cracks was gone and didn’t reconstitute, and because it tended to be material from the same areas, the reconstituted matter tended to be from one floor or one wall of a building.  Buildings fell or were rebuilt on their sides.  Where she herself was quieter than silent, muting and nullifying sounds in her vicinity with a constant background noise of powder brushing against powder, that silence didn’t extend to the crumbling buildings in her wake.

There was a big danger in how those dunes and waves masked the cracks in reality.  For people on the ground, it was easy to step into a valley between dunes, only to fall through, pulled beneath.  Even where there were fliers or teleporters ready to catch anyone in a pinch, the ashen powder would block their view of the victim.  There one second, gone the next.

The other, bigger danger was that the powder was combustible.  Selectively combustible.  She barely seemed to care about me carving a furrow into her circle of powder, up until Colt flew past her, raking her with the blade hand.

The ‘ash’ rose up, and ignited, chasing behind Colt, not directly on a course for me, but damn well close enough.

I scattered the ash I could as I took flight.  The idea was to give myself leeway, but in practice, I just got ash on the forcefield.  When the ash ignited, she was highlighted in reds and oranges.

What the heck changed, besides your size?

The heat mostly dissipated before the forcefield broke from the intensity of it.  The shift from cold air to hot air made my skin prickle and itch.

The Titans weren’t moving in a way that seemed very focused, but the way they were moving and the fact we had so fucking many of them, each with a tendency to cover or complicate a whole tract of land, it made the area feel crowded.  By flying away from the Ashen Titan, I flew closer to the Ophion Titan.  The sea of flesh that he was stabbing with needles.

Ophion at ten o’clock, Cinereal at one o’clock, Nemean two minutes away at my three.  The mutated Gibborim Knight was fighting the Impaler Titan and Flowing Titan three minutes away, at my six.

I couldn’t shake the ongoing feeling that one of them was going to do something while my back was turned.  In another situation, I would have wanted to fly around the periphery, so all of them were in my field of view, but too many of us were doing that, and it just gave them free reign to move around.

“Hey!”

I winced as I heard the voice.

Situations like this mandated compromise.  Like fighting on the same battlefield as Empire Eighty-Eight against Leviathan, I had to fight beside someone who had sold me out to the person who scared me the most.

Chris was standing on a ruined building.  He’d altered his form some, and looked ape-like.  The coat that had barely fit him before was now straining around his arms.  Smaller arms stuck out near his nipples, working with a syringe.

“You’re not jabbing me with that,” I said.

“I know,” he said.  “But I want you to jab her with it.”

He pointed.

Her.

One of his Titans lurked near the back.  Waif-thin, with long, pale hair, her skin a color and texture I associated with newborns, vaguely bruised, too red in spots, not yet exposed to the elements.  Her eyes were penetrating as they watched what was going on, her mouth agape, like it would be better paired with a vacant stare.  She wore what looked like a scarf and a full-body sheath of dead skin that extended from armpit to knee, with long whiskery hairs extending from parts of it.

I floated closer to Chris, watching.  As the Ashen Titan ignited a tract of her ash once again, I put myself between her and Chris, so he could work in peace.

His syringe looked like it had a combination lock, with five dials lined up, each with a set of numbers.  He was dialing in a specific code, while the contents bubbled violently.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Does it matter?”

“When you might be putting others in the line of fire, or if she might activate and take over my senses, it might.”

“It’s an autonomic piloting drive.  They’re instructions she’ll obey until they wear off, at which point she retreats to the last place she found me.  Failing that, she retreats to her birthplace.  Instructions are to activate her power.  She’ll affect everyone in range-”

“Uh, no.”

“-But there won’t be any effects.  Subtle hallucinations, if any, unless the target is taller than she is.  The other giants are programmed to not care.”

“What happens if you pull the kill switch later?” I asked.

“Same thing as if I pulled it right now!” he raised his voice, clearly annoyed.  “If I wanted to fuck everyone over, I would have done it!”

Sveta landed on a nearby bit of building, coiling up her arm.  She watched us, wary.

“You know that thing where you go on about how you don’t care about people, you don’t believe in trust or common decency?” I asked.  “This is the consequence.  If you act like a crusty dickhole, don’t be surprised if people treat you like one.”

I put my hand out.

“Sounds like justification for you being an asshole,” Chris said.  He didn’t hand me the thing.

“You know that saying?  Trust, but verify?” I asked.

“Stupid saying.  It’s verify, then trust, except you can never really verify one hundred percent.  When you try, you end up being someone’s victim.”

I stared at him.  I saw Sveta straighten, tense.

“Just give me the damn needle.  There’s shit to do.”

“Ignoring me, huh?”

“Chris,” Sveta cut in.

“I’d like to.  We have bigger problems.”

He didn’t budge.

“I can’t tell if you’re referring to me and my sister or Lab Rat and his past victims, and I have no idea which would be scummier.”

“Hookay,” Sveta said.  She leaped forward, putting herself between Chris and I.  “I’ll take your thing.  Where?”

“Mathers Giant,” Chris said, not looking away from me.  He tossed the syringe her way.  She caught it with tendrils.

A flash of gold across my vision distracted me.  New lines, new numbers.  Chris and Sveta turned their heads at the same time I did, to look in the direction indicated.

New Titan, from the ongoing cracks.  Pouffe, not a cape I knew.  Kenzie was giving data, in script so tiny I shouldn’t have been able to read it, but the information was being fed to me by mechanisms that had nothing to do with the resolution of my actual eye.  Cloud mover, mass transportation.

A good, stark reminder of what we were dealing with.  I took flight, Sveta started swinging her way forward.  Chris loped ahead, toward Ophion and the Mother Giant, who was almost impossible to make out in the mutated birthstuff she was outputting.

“Tristan!” Sveta called out.  “Launch me!”

“You’re sure!?”

“Yes!  Toward Mathers!”

Red motes began tracing their lines through the air, off to the side.  She began using her tendrils to fling herself in that direction, so she’d be there.

The creation appeared.  A damaged building thrust itself into existence, and catapulted Sveta into the air.  Her body came undone, flat tendrils holding clothes in the right general positions, while others worked to catch her and catch hold of her target.

The Mathers giant looked down at the person who had just latched herself onto her belly.  Sveta swiftly climbed, syringe ready.

Good.

Heroes on the ground were trying to navigate the carpet of dead flesh.  Here and there, the flesh poked upward, as needles protruded from the ground beneath to stab it.  That flesh ulcerated, blistered, and formed tumorous lumps, discolored and constantly shifting.

The first of them began popping.  Smaller creatures crawled out.

Flesh-warping against a tide of flesh-generation, neither with any apparent limits.  And the only way I could interpret this was to assume that we ordinary people would lose out in the deal.  This was flesh that didn’t look like it was decaying or disappearing rapid-speed like the extra flesh from Rachel’s dogs did.  It would rot in real-time, and it would become a hazard on its own.

The creatures that emerged were bug-like, and bigger than cars, larger than trucks in many instances.  Some unfurled wings.  Others bristled rows of stingers on their backsides.

Spikes pushed through the most wounded parts of this carpet of flesh, and skewered some of the insects.

Work with me, fragile one, I thought.  Tell me what you got in this shitty trade-off.

I dove, and used my forcefield to punch through the crusty chitin exterior of the largest, spike-impaled insect I could see.

My strength didn’t feel any different.  My forcefield still broke after a heavy strike.

I used my aura.

It did produce a reaction.  They began struggling, fluttering furously.  Then they came after me.

There was no telling what the effect was.  Agitation, attraction.  Awe?  Or was it something completely different, but filtered through the bugs’ senses to be something else entirely?  Even with people, the same input could give a dozen different kinds of reaction.

There was a whole mass of them that looked like caterpillars crossed with wasps, the worst traits of each combined, so that the stubby little legs each ended in stingers.  Five started making their way toward me, flying intermittently as their wings shook off moisture.

Can’t hit that hard, I thought, as I engaged the mass of them.  If I took one good hit, or delivered one, I would be vulnerable.

With that in mind, I flew in, trying to keep my forcefield’s smaller frame in mind.  I thought of sparring with family, and the gentleness required.

It was less like karate, more like judo.  Not to punch, but to take hold.

I couldn’t focus on any one thing, but I could take in the whole.

One was closer to me than all the rest.  My aura was on full force to disrupt and bother them as much as possible, while I put out one forcefield hand, trying to catch a stinger.

The point slid between my forcefield’s index and middle fingers.  I pinched them closer together.

It stopped mid-air, forward velocity arrested, the stinger nearly tearing itself free of the thing’s abdomen, despite being rooted deep in the bulbous, long body.

Second-

I used my grip on the stinger to swing its hundred pound body to one side, putting it in the way of the next closest one, scraping it against two more on the way.

And then flew toward them, as they violently flapped their dark, wet wings to try to reorient.

They were fast, but that didn’t matter, because all I had to do was touch them, get a little bit of purchase, fingers curled into gentle claws, so the fingernails scraped, each one getting a chance to find a bit of purchase, a gap or a bump that a fingernail could catch on.  I found those gaps and bumps on two more wasp-worms and-

Aha.

-I was capable of grabbing them with other hands.

The hands on this form were closer together, instead of being spaced out across a larger body.  I had two less, but it was far easier to pass something from one hand to the other, especially with all the hands being in areas around the torso.

My last ‘fragile one’ hadn’t had a torso, so much.

The fifth one was slow in coming at me.  I didn’t flinch as it lunged for my head, then stopped where it was at.

At my bidding, fingernails ran down the length of its body, head to the stinger it thrust out blindly, and two hands pulled the cut open, practically bisecting it.  Crushed and twisted apart, one by one, the other wasps fell to either side of me.

Okay, I thought.

This is a good lesson.

Soft, not hard.

I flew through another swarm, mindful of where each limb and section of this new, fragile, invisible other half was.  My arms were longer than many of the smaller stingers.  If I flew to position myself away from the larger stingers, I could reach the meat of their bodies.

I didn’t hesitate as I flew, and I didn’t make more than a second or two of contact with each wasp I flew past.

They ended up in pieces and by the time those pieces hit the ground, I was already on my way.

Fighting you every step of the way for as long as I did conditioned me to be brutishTrying to intimidate nazis and criminals made me brutish.

I kept two of the longer stingers, with the ragged guts and organs still clinging to the base ends.

Skewered two more, used the skewering to reposition them, and removed their skewers, so I had four.  Each was as long as my normal, non-forcefield arm, and dripped a constant quantity of clear fluid.  I could smell it, astringent.

It made me think of Crawler’s acid, which made me think of the acid burn at my hairline.  Made me think of Amy, and that damned scene Engel had inflicted on me.

I put the feelings to rest, and tore through the rest of the wasp-worms between myself and Ophion.  More wasp-worms were flying up around him, a barrier or shield.  He was the hive they protected.

I drove the stingers in as deep as they would go, aiming for the spot where the chewed-gum mass of his upper body met the lower body.  Flesh seared visibly around the penetration points.  Flying up, I dragged hands and fingernails through the skin.  Flesh peeled back, pulling away from surface tension alone, but only revealed more layers of the chewing gum, tumor-like mass.

It was a question of small improvements in efficiency.  Before, ungainly, arms set further apart, it was better to deliver heavier hits, recover, deliver those hits again.  Now I grabbed, instead.

Grab and tear.  Slice with fingernails and separate what was sliced.  Dig.

With only the wet sounds of flesh sliding against flesh filling my ears, I had no good cues to tell when he reacted.  Only guesswork.  Guesswork to dodge a cluster of his mutation-spikes, that were black against a backdrop of gray, dirtied snow and black, unlit landscape.

I flew away, and was in the midst of flying when a spike clipped me.  Forcefield down, momentum broken.

I had a glimpse of spikes, where powers flashed on another battlefield.  People fending off the Nemean Titan.  I could imagine it was a dozen or two dozen new spikes a second, stabbing upward and inward, with himself as the spike’s fruitless, uncaring target.

I flew in a straight line, because the best impression Kenzie’s night vision tech was giving me suggested a morass of a dozen spikes all coming in different directions- criss crossing, straight up, from nearby buildings.  Distance from any source of the bio-alteration spikes was more important than any evasive action- it barely felt like he was aiming.  The outlining that her tech gave me was delayed by a second, and these things took about that long to get to me.  Less like it helped, and more like it taunted me, notifying me of the near-misses.

My forcefield returned, and I was in the midst of breathing a sigh of relief when I felt the jarring crash of another spike striking home, a foot from me, pointed dead-on at my heart.  I twisted in the air as the broken point continued to thrust forward, and it scraped the ornament at the top of my breastplate, damaging it.

All around me, I could hear the spikes sinking into him.  Wet, sucking sounds, slapping sounds, fluids dribbling, audible where they splashed onto spikes below.

Forcefield still down.  Spikes still coming.  I saw flashes as heroes used powers.  It wasn’t reassuring.  It was another hazard to avoid, when I was trying to get clear.  I tried to watch for incoming spikes, and nearly missed his hand moving.  Reacting to something else, defending himself.  Barring my path in the meantime.

I flew back, away from the ground and the nearby buildings that formed the foundations for the stabbing, pencil-thin spines.  To buy myself a fraction of a second.

A spike struck my breastplate, found a moment of resistance, punched through, and reached me.  It was the same moment my forcefield came back, extending from skin outward, around clothes, to meet the spike and fizzle out again.

I flew back and away hard enough that I slammed into Ophion’s side, and might have concussed myself if his flesh wasn’t so spongy.  Escaping the one spike and pulling it free of my breastplate.  I flew up-

The pain was blinding.  Full-speed flight into a spike.  Me meeting spike, rather than the other way around.  I’d collided with the shaft shoulder-first.  Pain sang down my arm, and my right hand felt numb.

I wasn’t breathing anymore, and I wasn’t thinking each action through.  I flew up at another angle, and found another barrier.  Sideways- a stretch of snow in the distance below provided a pale gray backdrop to see a cluster of spikes.

Penetrating his own body.  Not to mutate, but to stabilize and armor.  Putting me in a fucking corner in the process.

Still not breathing, struggling, I flew into another spike that was blocking my way.  Like I was in a forest, a fucking bad dream of a forest where I fell rather than ran, and I couldn’t see the trees or branches I ran into.

Struggling to get away, I squeezed between spikes.  My forcefield was back up, and I used it to punch, in hopes of breaking one.  I only broke the field.

Only made it another few inches of squeeze before my face mashed into the line of another spike, humming like a current ran through it.

This wasn’t how I wanted to go out.  I’d made a peace of sorts with the fact that heroes didn’t live long lives, but-

My breastplate came in two sections, the lower part hinged to the upper part so I could actually bend over.  Now the lower section caught against one spike I’d squeezed past.  The rough, sandpapery edge of the spike by my face abraded my cheek.

I don’t want to go out as a pawn of some fucked up bio-altering Titan.  I don’t want to go out as a heap of acid-melted flesh.  I don’t want to go out as a Wretch.

I tried to swallow and failed.  Tried to see some cloud or snow or even stretch of Titan that gave me a pale enough backdrop to see a gap large enough to fly through.  It felt like I looked in ten different directions and when I was done I felt like I hadn’t seen what I’d looked, hadn’t registered the actual gaps or anything.

Think, Victoria.  Master protocols.  Logic your way past emotion.

They came at me from different angles.  They were meeting at the same spot, but the base points were further apart.  If I slid down, scraped my way closer to the ground, maybe they’d be far enough apart to squeeze past.

A bio-alteration spine lanced its way into my forcefield, which couldn’t even fully expand, and met its resistance, pausing for the half-second my forcefield held together before continuing on its way, sliding into flesh with a wet sucking sound.

Just a foot from my ear, it found its home in Ophion’s body.  The shaft of it had passed through my armpit, right past my breast, and perilously close to my face, which was bent down.

I continued to slide down, breastplate scraping against the narrow, abrasive spines.  And as I made it further, the way got easier.

Until I was blocked by an ‘x’ of two more spines.

A twist, a bit of flight to help me on my way, and-

The sides of three spines running in near-parallel pressed against my bicep, elbow and shoulder, close to my gun wound.

I tried to fly down, and my injured foot came into contact with a sharp point that caught on the material of my boot heel.

I let out the breath I’d been holding, and it came out as a very small sound.

I was so high up.  There was no light of powers or pale New Wave costumes anywhere nearby.

It was so very lonely, this high up.

Logic your way past the panic, I thought.  Move carefully, avoid any points that might be sticking out nearby.  Get a feel for the surroundings.

More room to move my legs than anything.  Down.

A few seconds of running into blocked paths told me down was so much fucking worse.  Down was closer to the ground and closer to the ground was a denser collection of these spikes that had come out by the dozen.

A wasp wormed its way past, and I killed it.  I tried to use it as a buffer to feel my way for spikes, but when I did scrape against a point, it began twitching violently and swelling.

My efforts to put it down only killed it.

Up.

Up was sparser.  Up, as it turned out, had more points that stuck out into the air, ready for me to scrape up against them, where they hadn’t penetrated Ophion’s lower body.

I bumped into another barrier.  Here, an array of spikes I couldn’t even reach my hand through.

This is how we lose?  Trapped?  Stripped of civilization, stripped of humanity?  Tools and expendable resources for things far, far more powerful than us?

No.  Master protocols, Victoria.  Emotion your way past logic.

Fuck that!

Say it again.

Fucking fuck that!

My heart was pounding, hammering.

No, don’t lose control.  Logic your way past emotion.  Think, reduce everything down to procedure.

Logic your way past emotion, emote your way through logic. 

Didn’t make sense.

But it was an endless loop that could keep me going moment to moment.

A spine struck me across the throat as I thought I found an open way forward and flew right into it.  I snarled, the sound approaching a whimper at the midpoint, before I ducked my head and scraped past it.

With no idea if I was getting further in rather than out.

Did I even make a difference in all of this?

Fuck this.

An idea for people to sacrifice themselves, that might have been Contessa’s plan?

Another way blocked.  Fuck this so much.

Forward was criss-crossing spike-points.  A fence I could barely make out.  I moved left to right, hand-over-hand, when I heard the whisking sound of a rough-sided spine rubbing against another.  I twisted, bringing my knee up to my chest.

The metal plate at my shin blocked the point, pressing so hard into my leg I thought the muscle might tear.  The plate shifted, and the pressure eased, but I found myself trapped, pinned.  The point I’d narrowly dodged penetrated Ophion, and his fluids ran down its length, drenching my foot.

I heard more, the whisking, spine-on-spine sounds, like pencils wrapped in sandpaper brushing against one another.

I struggled, fought.

Made about an inch of progress, where the spine pressed against my greaves.

The spine hit my forcefield, breaking it.  A half second of reprieve.  Then it carried onward, thrust up and in from its origin point far below, at a point of ground I couldn’t see.  Again, that sucking, wet flesh sound.

I screamed.

Pain jumped from the penetration point at my knee to my foot, from the penetration point at my knee to my gut, making my mouth yawn open, my entire body wanting to throw up on reflex and yet too paralyzed to follow through.  Freeze-frame trapped in the first moment of the hurling process.

I could feel it slide in, slowly, displacing fluids that came out in gulpy spurts, and I could feel it twisting everything it touched.  Flesh mixed up like it was a liquid in a blender, not something solid.  Swelling, flowing out of the wound.

My hands pressed hard against the fabric of my pants leg, as if I could muster force field strength and stop it from carrying on any further.

My leg trembled as it kept going, hitting nerves, then touching bone, the point scraping against bone like it could leave a furrow, a permanent etching.

Except I felt my knee and hip swell in reaction instead.

Keep the cycle going.  Logic your way through the emotion.  Emote-

I screamed, pushing out with my aura.

-through the emotion.  Emote through the emotion.  Emote

I screamed again, raw, angry, fighting, gripping spikes and trying to pull myself back and away.

Something or someone hit Ophion.

It made things move.  Gave me leeway.

I flew and fought my way back and out, and stopped where my bone had corkscrewed around the spine, swelled around the tip, almost bonding with the abrasive exterior.

My efforts to get free told me my leg weighed as much as the rest of me combined.  Pulling back and away made primal instincts kick in.  I wanted them to be the instincts that let a coyote chew its own leg off when caught in a trap, but they were freeze instincts instead.

I can’t bring myself to do this.

I need you to.  Fragile one.

Take the reins.  Take control, use flight, use forcefield.  Do something.

Nothing.  My leg kept swelling, the feeling bubbling into my midsection.

Come on!

In the moment, midway through the struggle, I felt my consciousness slip.  Darkness taking over for a moment, like a blink that had nothing to do with my eyes.

I wanted to give the Fragile One credit, to think it was her.  But it was a guttural cry I’d made, my own fight against pain tolerance.

Maybe the fact I couldn’t tell was the best sign it was her.  If it was as easy as asking for it, then parahumans all over the place would have managed to get that help from their powers.

The spike came free, and the tip was crusted in irregular shapes of bone, slick with blood.  With it gone, and the cessation of the swirling mutation deep inside my leg, I flew.  Toward Ophion.

Adrenline sharpened my senses.  The Ashen Titan’s ongoing fight against what looked like Legend was a brighter backdrop.

I could see a hundred black points sticking out, where they’d been stuck in Ophion.  I flew between them and him, aware that if he shifted his mass even a little, I would be unavoidably slammed into them.

Until I was high above him, well away from any spikes, my thoughts delirious, my leg impossibly heavy, my mind numb.

What had I even been thinking?  That I would tear into him?  That I’d do some meaningful damage?  What had we even done since the start of all of this that had mattered worth a damn?  I wasn’t even sure the destruction had.

And now I’d suffered something I’d told myself I’d never let happen again.

I couldn’t even look at it.  Just seeing the bulging, lumpy silhouette in the corner of my eye was enough to make me sick to my stomach.

I was halfway back to the ground, flying in such a way that my leg wasn’t beneath me and I didn’t have to look at it while looking where I was going.

My sense of things was distorted enough that I fucked up my landing.  I hit a slope of spikes that were angled away, and rolled down it to the ground.

I saw two ex-Prison capes and Chris.  They were looking over to the horizon.

I looked, and I saw a building with handprints in it as big as titan Ophion’s head.

More appeared by the second.  The building was lifted up.

Titan Custodian.

She used to be weak, with ten thousand overlapping selves.  Now she’s not weak.

Dragon’s ships unloaded what looked like a barrage of missiles.  Each missile detonated into a singular, pitch-black sphere that expanded out, large enough to swallow a six-story building.  As the spheres shrank back and dissipated, they bled more black stuff.  By just the fallout from the barrage, the building was shredded to nothing.

“I need Rain,” I said, my eyes dropping to the ground.

Chris didn’t answer.

“Please,” I said.  “Point me to him.  I’ve got to chop this off.”

I was aware of the display, but my eyes weren’t reliably going from left to right, up to down, like I wanted them to.  It was like my focus bounced off of everything I looked at, picking up only surface details.  I felt like I could throw up, and I couldn’t bring myself to follow through on it.

“I’ve got a cure,” Chris said.

I looked up, saw him advancing with a syringe, and crawled back, using flight to accelerate the movement to double what it would’ve been, even without my fucked up leg.

I saw more of the leg, and I looked away.

“I don’t trust you,” I said.  “I don’t trust powered healing.”

“I planned countermeasures.”

“You sold me out to her.”

“I did.  I figure it’s like giving an alcoholic a drink, when you need them to stop shaking and start performing, for just a little while.”

“I didn’t deserve that.  The worst thing I did to you was care enough to check in on you.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “And you didn’t deserve for your sister to steal a piece of you to keep with her.  You didn’t deserve for me to offer her a clone template, so she could make a copy of you.”

He said it to hurt me.  To push me.

I tried to swallow and failed.  Tried to take a deep breath and failed.  My mouth was open, like my upper body was trapped between an impulse to scream, say something, breathe, swallow, or hurl, and unable to do any of the above.

I closed it.

“Did- did she?”

“Clone?  No.  Make a strip of Vicky to keep close?  Yeah.”

I nodded.  Flying got me to my feet.  I began limping toward him.  One leg, really.  The other leg dragged behind, scraping through cold snow.

He backed away a step.

In the background, Dragon continued fighting an invisible threat.  Orange flames licked the sky near the Ashen Titan.  Near us, the black spikes were everywhere, taller than any building, a mesh around the Ophion Titan, who was injured.

I kept approaching.  Chris decided to stand his ground.  He offered up the syringe, like it was a peace offering, or something that would make me shy back.

“It’s alive, you know.  Tucked into her bra even now.  With its own tiny heartbeat.”

I closed my eyes, letting the mental picture come and go.  I reached the point where Chris and the Syringe were in arm’s reach.  He put a hand out, indicating for the two Shin ex-prisoners to back away.

I took the syringe.  “I guess that’s a good barometer.”

“Of?” he asked.  “You’re not making any sense, you moron.”

“If she still has it when I see her next, I’ll kill her,” I said.  “If not, then… I don’t know.”

He stared me down.

“What do I do with this?” I asked, holding up the syringe.

“Stab it into the altered site.  Press the plunger down.  It’s a syringe.  It’s not hard.”

I held onto the thing, still staring at Chris.

It was like he wanted me to hate him, and that extended to wanting me to kill him.

Or something.  I couldn’t pretend to fully understand him.  But I felt like ending his life here after he’d offered me a cure would prove him right in something.

I wanted to say something that would penetrate that exterior of his, convince him, or even bother him.  Kenzie had managed it.

Like mentioning Swansong, and how she’d actually grown as a person.

Or telling him he deserved his own misery.

A gold alert flashed in my right eye.  A series of reports about cracks.  Ongoing.  I ignored it for the time being.

The fighting continued in the background.  I could look up at the Ophion Titan and see the damage I’d done, still healing, while capes flew around him.  Narwhal was using the damage as a target point for forcefields, leaving them embedded whenever they sank home, to slow and stop his regeneration.

I stuck the plunger into my leg, high up on the thigh.  I pressed it down, my mind numb.

The feeling of bones moving and flesh stirring was almost as nausea-inducing as the transition had been in the first place.

I stared Chris down as it took effect.  Used flight to stay upright.

He nodded as he watched the change regress.

“He’s a bastard,” I said, looking up at the Titan.  I could see the Mother Titan attacking it.  A giantess with a boneless creature ten times her mass extending from her nethers, grappling Ophion, tearing away flesh.

“Mm.”

I wanted to spit in his face, to scream at him, to throw him into those black spikes, or to hurl on him, if I hurled after all.

But there was no point to it.

The gold alerts continued to come in.  I skimmed it, saw ‘cracking’, and took it as an alert there was still more coming.

“If you enable her again, if you speak to her, if you give her an excuse or an opportunity to be horrible, if you lie to me or use her to hurt me again, that’s it.  You lose your last chance with me.”

“I’m only now on my last chance?” he asked, almost sneering.

“I’m giving you my formal declaration of war, laying out the rules.”

I winced, as my leg twitched like a hummingbird’s wings might flutter.

“I’d have more respect if you just followed through, no warning at all.”

“If I followed through, you’d be a sad, unimpressive smear on the ground in a place nobody’s ever going to come back to.”

He shrugged, pretending like he didn’t care.

My leg was bare, shrouded in tattered costume legging, my boot and armor gone.  My injured foot, at least, had healed.  I smiled at that, but it was a mean, ironic smile, directed at myself.  A joke only I was in on.

I handed the syringe back to him.

“You know-” he started.

With my forcefield, I gripped his wrist, hard.  I felt it move, in a way I hadn’t bid it to, and canceled it almost immediately.

Chris huffed out a breath, backing away a step.

My control went away.

I cleared my throat, hiding how very disappointed I was in that fact.  “What were you going to say?  Be very careful.”

“I’m here for purely academic reasons.  If I got mutated a bit, I could get good data, change back.  I can get readings on the Titans and there are insights there.  Being a part of the big stuff.  But I meant what I said.  Dead serious.  I don’t see how we win this fight.  They’re not even trying right now, and they almost got you.”

I looked up, then over at the other Titans.  At the ongoing fight with the Custodian Titan.  At Nemean, who threw stuff as he retreated.

“Thanks for the save, knocking it back, giving me a gap to escape through.”

“Didn’t even know you were up there.”

“For the fix, then.”

“I didn’t-”

Whatever, Chris,” I said.

I flew away.

The heroes were spread so thin with all the Titans we had around us.  There had been fifty or sixty, we’d picked up another thirty or so in reinforcements, which felt more like they were at least partially covering what we’d lost in the chaos and happenstance injuries.  Now we had Titan Fortuna, Ophion, the Nemean, the Impaler, Shortcut, the Ashen, and the Custodian.

Ten capes for each?  Maybe?

Granted, one of those capes was Legend, Dragon and Defiant and Narwhal were present too.  And  I wasn’t counting the Giants.

But even so…

I spotted my teammates.  Found Rain with Tristan and Kenzie.

I landed, wincing at the contact with bare foot on cold ground.

Tristan was fixed on the horizon, where he was making one of the bigger constructions of lights and lines I’d seen out of him yet.

Sveta, maybe because she’d seen me, hopped down to ground level.  Her face was slick with moisture.  She looked concerned, but I waved her off.

I couldn’t take concern right now.  Couldn’t dwell.

“Oh, Victoria!” Kenzie piped up.  She practically flew to me to get closer, and I saw her hand reach for me, felt the clawed eyehook grab me instead.  “I wasn’t paying enough attention!  I would have sent people to help, but I was distracted.”

Because you’re puppeteering around this body? I thought.  But that was uncharitable.  She had her reasons.  I didn’t trust my feelings in this moment, and any scenario where I gave Chris a pass on his shittiness but snapped at Kenzie was too fucked up for words.

“I managed,” I said.  I bent down, pulling off my one intact boot, then the one sock.  “Where are the rest of our damn capes?”

“The Machine Army,” Kenzie said.  “Um, Oberon and Auger.  Skadi.  The new Pouffe Titan.  Custodian, but she already got here and brought capes with her.  We’ve got more reinforcements coming.  Some big heroes are trying to recruit when they’re not fighting.  Using their ‘rest’ periods between fights to do stuff.”

Flying capes were directing ranged fire at the Ashen Titan.  I missed my gun, and the impact it had had.

“Chris thinks they’re aimless right now.  Is our chessmaster Titan preoccupied with strategy?  Figuring out some puzzle?”

“No,” Rain said.  The silver eyes of his mask looked out over toward the Titan Ophion, who was nested in his barrier, as capes tried to shoot through the gaps.  “But I’m glad you guys noticed that too.”

“Build on that thought,” I said.  “No why?”

“They’re not fighting.”

“Some of them are,” Kenzie said.

“Aimless I see, but not fighting isn’t right,” I said.

“They’re reacting, but they’re on autopilot.  The new ones are sticking to instincts, but they’re increasingly disorganized.  Nemean Titan’s just running, Ophion’s just growing his monsters and defending himself, Cinereal is walking and building up her ash.   Custodian is just an asshole, I think.  I think…”

He trailed off.

I looked at the Titans.  Confirming what he’d said.

“…She might have gotten my message.”

“What did you say, Rain?” I asked.

“I said… everything, kind of.  Or one thing in a million different ways, each with their own weight.”

“But what was it?” I asked.

“It was Staci Hartwick, reading a letter to me.  It was Byron at group, talking about working on letting things go-”

I saw Tristan turn, looking back at us.

In the next moment, the Nemean Titan lunged for a group of heroes.  Explosions slowed him and broke his forward momentum.  Tristan finished his construction.  The buildings exploded into existence, ramming the Titan.

Who brought a foot up and did an acrobatic backflip.  The force of his landing made rubble cascade from piles, and shook buildings on unsteady foundation.

A big hit, dodged and deflected.

Rain went on, “-It was Jessica accepting Chris and Swansong.  Swansong talking about work she was doing with the Wardens, and seeming proud.”

“This was when she appeared?  Swansong?”

He nodded.

“Forgiveness?” I asked.

“She doesn’t deserve forgiveness,” Sveta said.

“Not forgiveness,” Rain said.  “I don’t know enough, it’s not my place.  More like… acceptance.”

Off in the distance, the Titan Fortuna stood still, her ‘face’ pointed at the clouds and the stars above us, arms limp at her sides, the wreath of wolf heads at her shoulders each with their noses pointed up.

“Why?” I asked.

“Gilpatrick asked me to think of what I’d say to myself.  And I thought of her… I thought she couldn’t even make the decision of which course of action to take, back when we had to decide.  Maybe I understand a bit of what it’s like to be caught up in someone or something else’s current.  I feel like I didn’t have a thought of my own in my head, until I saw the doors of the shopping center burst open.  Even then, it was a rocky road.  I dunno.  Not trying to make excuses.”

“I want to say you’re allowed to make excuses,” Tristan said, working on drawing out another diagram.  “But that feels like I”m saying it to myself.  Fuck.

“I just thought, okay… I bet it’s really hard to go against a voice in your head that is literally always right all the time.”

“For a certain interpretation of ‘right’,” Sveta said, quiet.

“For a… yeah,” Rain echoed.  “Yeah.  So… cool.  Really shitty, but we kind of need you to fight and try now.”

I thought of Chris, handing me the syringe.

And I thought of the weird link my brain had drawn of that memory of the room and of Contessa.  Amy, who had her own fucked up voice in her head.  How helpless she’d seemed.

Forgive?  No.  Never.

Accept?  I could accept the reality that she’d been fucked over from the get-go, that the situation had been ugly, that day everything had started to go wrong.  That Tattletale had planted seeds in her head and with nobody to turn to, those things had run rampant, twisting up her thoughts.  I knew that, objectively.

Objectively, I knew our parents had done a pretty shitty job.  Carol was Carol and my dad was the kind of person who only really stepped up when the ship was sinking and it was literally do or die.

Objectively, I hadn’t been there for her, I hadn’t seen the signs.  I had my own objective excuses, like the death of the boy I’d hoped to marry one day down the line.  That I was raised by our parents.

Whatever.

Forgive?  Never.  What she’d done was unforgivable.  What Chris had done was unforgivable, and he had his own set of excuses.  I didn’t have the benefit of memories or things that would help me figure him out.  I didn’t understand him, or why Jessica saw good in him when he seemed so very twisted.

It didn’t matter.

She hadn’t made a clone of me.  Okay.  She had made a living strip of me, and I was pretty sure I knew when and how.

Okay.

My next conversation with her would be the last, one way or the other.

It felt like I’d solved a puzzle with no answer.  A bit of a weight off my shoulders.  Like maybe she wasn’t a bogeyman lurking around the next corner.  Still someone and something I’d have nightmares over, for fucking sure.  But I could think the next conversation would be the last without sticking a question mark on the end.

My leg hurt where it had healed.  I rubbed my thigh with the heel of my hand.

“Is it possible there’s a window where her precognition isn’t working?” Tristan asked.  Breaking the spell of thought.

“I don’t know.  It’s like she passed on some instructions,” Rain said.

“The way the Titans moved,” I said.  “Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think it’s possible?” Tristan asked.  “She got this message, and now there’s a war waging inside of her?  Between Contessa and the Titan?”

“I kind of relate,” Sveta said.

“It’s a chance if we’re right about this,” Tristan said.

“I don’t know if it is,” I said.  I thought about what Chris had said, twice.  About the others and what they’d observed.  That this wasn’t a fight we could win.  She’d already plotted her moves.  “We speculated earlier that she chose how our powers would be altered.  And she made them more aggressive.  A little sloppier.  Trying to capitalize on this weakness, using tools she arranged for us to have… it feels like the wrong answer.”

The fighting was ongoing.  Now that I knew to look for it, I could see that hesitancy, the lack of coordination.

“The last times it felt like we made any moves that mattered, it was with the opposite of this aggression she prompted in us, giving us aggressive powers,” I said.  “When we went to the shard world.”

“Can’t get there without the dream room,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t think we have a day.  You saw my alerts?”

“Your alerts?” I asked.

I had to refocus my vision.  I saw the log of alerts.  Cracks extending.  Cracks extending.  Cracks extending.

No.  All one crack, all with the same label.

Extending impossibly far, from the origin point.  By pure happenstance.

“Who?” I asked, because looking through it was too difficult, and I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to, to stumble on a name of someone I knew.

It wasn’t, really.  Worse, that it was someone I hadn’t really talked to.

“Valkyrie,” Kenzie said.  “They got her.”

I swallowed, hard.  I found the notification marked out in gold.  The icon in the distance and the corresponding label too small to really see.

Titan Valkyrie.

I felt too emotionally shaky for this.

“We fight,” Tristan said.  “Do what we can.  Last until tomorrow night…”

The words felt hollow.

This was already too hard.  Another twenty-three hours of this?

“Another way?” Sveta asked.  “Colt understands the dream, would she have ideas?”

Rain shook his head.

Then he spoke up, not looking at any of us, “But we saw through the crystal.  We saw people running around.

“Can we get a message through?” I asked.  “To Swansong?”

“Maybe,” Rain said.

“Fume Hood?”

“Maybe,” he said, again.  “Harder.  I wouldn’t even know where to look.”

“I might be able to figure out a transmitter or something,” Kenzie said.  “Project into the crystal, maybe.”

“I’ll stay,” Tristan said.

The conversation ceased for a moment.  We looked at him.

“We should go,” I told him.  “This isn’t a fight we win.  It’s practically preordained.”

“There are people I know and owe something to on this battlefield,” he said.  I looked for and saw them.  Old members of Reach.  One a member of the Flock, now without a Valkyrie.  Another a member of the Shepherds.  “And the only things I’m good for are marketing and fighting, and there’s no market here.”

“You’re good for a lot more than that,” Rain said.

“I’ll stick with you, then,” Sveta said.  “The rest of you go.”

“But-” Rain started.

“But you understand the dream room, you know where to find her.  You’re more useful over there.  You didn’t have the sense to grab any tokens tonight, so you’re useless on a battlefield.”

“If saving them is important to Tristan, it’s important to me.  He’s- you’re kind of the first person who looked me in the eye after I confessed the Fallen stuff, Trist.”

“Go,” Tristan said.  “I’m too stubborn to listen to you at this point.  I’ve got Sveta and my old teammates to look after.  My mind is made up.”

“Your brother,” I said.  “He’s along for the ride, you know?”

“I know.  Believe me.  I protect him most of all.”

I set my jaw, wondering if I could drag him.  Would his conscience be clear?

“There’s no time,” Sveta said.  “This is getting worse by the minute.  You go.  We’ll manage.”

We went, in hopes of delivering a message that mattered.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Infrared – 19.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Gold letters, lines, times and symbols appeared in my right eye’s field of vision.  Reinforcements were incoming, with capes stepping up, capes from the distant corners and back lines of the city were being pulled in, and Rain was awake, on his way to us.  I couldn’t even nod my acknowledgement or comment on the subject, because I wasn’t sure it was good or right to be inviting capes into this.

This was bad.

My gun beeped to tell me the battery was low.  Between the darkness, the brightness of the laser, and the golden images appearing across my field of vision, it was getting hard to parse what I was seeing.  Phantom images, capes moving and doing weird things in darkness, and the natural vagueness of a dark, ruined city made it hard to get a clear sense of the battlefield and where things stood.  The cracks were everywhere, now.  Navigating the points closest to Titan Fortuna had to be like fighting in the middle of a briar patch.  Worse, considering the areas one could fall through.

Navigating rooftops wreathed in barbed wire.

I wasn’t in that boat, but I still felt cornered and trapped.  My thoughts were going in circles, and that meant they covered a surprising measure of mental territory, treading near thoughts I really didn’t want to have.  Amy’s face in a memory I’d kept locked away.

One of the rare times that I might have found myself on the same page as my sister.  Neither of us wanted to remember that, and our individual reasonings were very selfish – there was a degree of self preservation in Amy not wanting me to see her disregarding my wishes, and those two moments of ‘shushing’ me where she’d altered my mind in real time to cancel out my protests-

My skin crawled.

I wanted those memories gone because they got in the way of me thinking in a straight line, and they made the days where I didn’t think as much about this stuff fewer and far between.

But they were necessary.  As a warning, as a general awareness of what I was up against.  They were context that, for some reason, got me thinking about Contessa, who I was watching now, standing there and healing while the Titans in her network fought on her behalf.  Chess pieces in the hands of a machine that had solved the game and knew every permutation.

And we didn’t have the pieces or the knowledge of how to play the game.

Two new titans had joined Ophion, the Nemean Titan, and Titan Fortuna.  I narrowed my eyes and aimed, firing at the Titan that was still emerging and rising to its full height.  It was more fragile as it emerged, but I was put in the situation of having to figure out how he grew and anticipate it, or else I was distributing my damage across multiple points.  Slowly, he came together, sleek, long-limbed and tall, but incapable of standing straight, as his back arched in an ‘s’ shape.

The other Titan was already fully grown, and was moving slowly, finding her legs, so to speak.  She was tall, narrow, and her head was a mostly faceless helmet with only a hole where the one eye should be.  Long, sky blue hair draped down to pool on the ground at her ‘feet’, so to speak, and trail behind her.  The weight of the hair and the way it pulled on her seemed to force her head down and to the side, where it periodically twitched and trembled.

Most notably, her arms were like a praying mantis’s limbs, with the final segments being rods, not points.  More sky blue hair flowed down from different points, including the tail end of the weapon, her elbows, and her knees.

I couldn’t dwell on her.  Heroes closer to the scene were dealing with her, doing as much damage as they could get away with while she figured out how her body moved.

My focus was on the new guy.  Five minutes after the praying mantis woman, he’d cracked.  Now I unloaded into him, fully aware that I was running out of battery.

But it stunted his growth, slowed him down, and served as the equivalent of postponing one impending threat so we could focus on the other four.  Others, Aunt Sarah included, were helping.

In the background, Tristan was shoring up the area.  Capes had managed to protect the area around all the bridges and safe ground we’d made, steering away the cracks.  I wasn’t sure how they’d managed to do it, but I was really fucking curious.  I was willing to bet there was a whole story there, power testers or enterprising problem solvers in the Wardens’ ranks figuring out an interaction.  I wanted to be a part of that, if only to apply that problem solving going forward.

Maybe I could.

While holding the gun and paying close attention to where the blasts went, I reached into the pocket of my top between the breastplate and my stomach, and I pulled out my phone.

It felt very strange to be scrolling through my contact list at the same time I was firing a death laser.

I heard the phone ring.  It was distorted, and the distortions matched up with the thrums I felt coming through my death laser gun.

“Hey!  You called!  What’s up?”  The voice, similarly, was chopped up.  “Rain’s on his way.”

“Hi Lookout.  That’s fine, good, thank you,” I said, stumbling.  I still wasn’t sure if it was good we were being reinforced.  But I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do against something like this.  “Backline figured out a way to preserve the island.  Any chance you can figure out why and pass it to me?”

“Displacement powers,” Kenzie said.

“That was a fast response.  Are we going by the power sourcing term, the power endstate term, or by PRT classification terminology?”

“I, uh, checking.”

I kept firing.  Each Titan we’d seen so far had something about it that changed the entire dynamic of a fight.  The longer I could keep him down, targeting one limb, then another, then a part along his back that seemed intent on growing, the longer it was until we had to deal with whatever he brought to the table.

“Vic!” the loud voice in my ear made me startle.  I was still holding the phone there.

“Yes?”

“Power endstate terminology.  Whatever that means.”

“It means if powers, once everything’s said and done, move things from here to there, by way of teleportation or interdimensional shifting, they ward off the cracks.  That’s good.  Utterly useless for me, but it might help for Capricorn.”

“Capricorn constellations block cracks?”

“Possibly.  If they’re that certain about using the term and clarifying the point.  It might be only when it’s emerging.”

“I’ll pass it on.”

“If the Wardens aren’t already telling as many people as possible, try to convince them to, or get people to pass on the word.”

“Okay!  Uh, bulletin, I’m getting overloaded with information, there’s so much to sift through and I don’t want to mess up your aim by dumping a whole report into your one eye, so I wasn’t sure if-”

“What’s the bulletin?” I asked.  I hated to interrupt, but ‘bulletin’ meant a succinct news statement.  A flustered Kenzie might have made it into an essay.

“We’ve got ID on the first new Titan.  It’s Mystic Magic Impaler.”

A heroine, I thought.  Fuck.

Whatever my feelings were about Super Magic Dream Parade and their vigilante-level ugliness dressed up in gaudy distraction, they’d been fighting for the side of good, they’d been cooperating, and they’d helped.

“They were part of Teacher’s campaign.  They got targeted.”

“Yeah.  Three times.”

Three?”

“They were lined up for an ambush like the Navigators were and then slept through it, their reputation was attacked like yours was, and they were the capes sent after a villain team Teacher set up to look more dangerous than they were.”

They were heroes who killed.  I wasn’t so different from them in that, I was sorry to admit, but I’d never enjoyed it or joked about it the way they seemed to.

“Why was he so interested in them?” I asked.  “Because they were easy marks?”

“They think it’s because Magic Knight Crash knew two Teacher thralls, once.  One escaped, the other was in Teacher’s employ.”

“Okay,” I said.  I still wanted to think it was a consequence for sketchy behavior.

“She had spear extension and other stuff,” I said, keeping my aim on the new, unnamed Titan while watching the Titanified Mystic Magic Impaler enduring massive explosions, chunks being taken out of her.

“Um, yeah.  Her weapon had weird rules for if she swung it, thrusted, or kept it still.”

“Got it,” I said.  I noted those praying mantis limbs.

The Nemean Titan was trying to get closer to her, but physical barriers were being used to slow him down.  He was close enough that capes couldn’t get behind her, and had to stick to the flanks and front of her.  He seemed a lot more passive than before.

The Ophion Titan was mostly protecting Titan Fortuna, who had slowed down.  Here and there, she deflected something incoming, or grabbed a master minion.

“They’ve been letting those acquainted with the people who crack name the Titans we end up with,” Kenzie reported.  “Super Magic Dream Parade says they want to name her Titaness Amenonuhoko.”

I laughed despite myself, surprising a few people who were flying nearby, Aunt Sarah included.  A short, surprised bit of amusement.  Almost unhinged.

“Tell me there’s a short form for that.”

“Looking it up and… no.”

“What does it mean?” I asked.  My gun beeped.  Battery low.

“Jeweled spear of god or something.”

“Impaler Titan it is,” I said.  “Sorry, as much as I want to respect the name her team offered… they have to make everything such a pain in the ass.”

“The application says they wanted to make her name special, so it stands out.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Okay.  Right.”

“What’s that beeping?”

“My gun.  I’m running out, the extra batteries are out in the middle of nowhere.”

“I’ll talk to people,” Kenzie said.  “See about getting you a portal.  We can have a team swap out the battery.”

“And fix the gun?” I asked.  “It’s falling to pieces on me.  If there are any tinkers on standby.”

The housing was torn and tearing even as I fired.

“That’ll take a bit, but there’s lots of tinkers standing around and wishing they could help.”

“Great,” I said, injecting false positivity into my tone.

A streak of blue marked a single laser fired by Legend.  Unlike the raw barrage he’d fired earlier, this was a narrow, thin bolt that was bright enough to see from a mile away.

The Impaler Titan was already there, acting.  One of its rod-like limbs, column-like, reached out, and space distorted beyond it.

Legend’s laser hit that distorted column, and flashed out.  It lasted for a quarter second, but in that quarter-second, the laser raked across our defensive lines.

Her network was operating with the benefit of her power.

The Impaler Titan attacked.  The sideways movement of her weapon saw her move as well, as if space was fixed at the centerpoint of the longest part of the limb, and she levered herself around it.  She thrust it, and it extended, punching into forcefields.

She kept it still, and the weapon unfurled.  The rod, like a drill bit, became a cone, like a… drill-drill.  With the expansion, it intensified in force, plunging through forcefields and into bodies.

Now that she was moving, the Impaler Titan was doing a lot.  She had two weaponized limbs and apparently three functions for each.  One arm swung, moving her body, the other alternated between impossibly long thrusts and drilling attacks.

Legend was using smaller lasers now, a hail of short lasers that were each only about as long as he was tall.  She blocked three of them with a reach of her hand, not even looking at what she was doing, and then changed that reaching limb to vault herself in the air.  Her limb reached out and extended out to the horizon.

“That hit someone,” I heard Kenzie say, hushed.  “Two of the heroes fighting the Ashen Titan.  I don’t think there’s anyone to hold her off.”

“Tell the others,” I said.

“I am.”

The golden letters flashed on my field of vision.  CINEREAL INCOMING.

I could see Sveta and Capricorn on the battlefield, turning their heads.

“No new notifications for a sec.  I’m going to hang up.  Then I’ll show up on the battlefield around when Rain does.”

“You will what?” I asked.  “No!”

“I got permission, don’t worry.”

“You got- not from me, Lookout!”

I saw the Impaler Titan start to move, and stopped firing.  I watched as she fended off more of Legend’s hail of lasers.  By keeping her weapons still, she let it unfurl, and the expanded weapon served to block more.

I couldn’t risk that she’d intercept my laser and redirect it with that space warping drill bit of hers.

“It’s fine,” she said.  “So sorry but I’m hanging up, bye, you’re great.  See you in a short bit!  Keep an eye out, there’ll be some people to grab your gun.”

My voice overlapped with hers.  “Did you get that permission from Tattletale?

The call disconnected.

“Everything okay?” my Aunt Sarah called out.

“Lookout is wanting to show up on the battlefield,” I said.

“We need everyone we can get,” she said, looking down at me with purple eyes.

I looked past her to Crystal.  “Lookout is a backline combatant.”

“She’s a smart kid?” my Aunt Sarah asked.  “Talented?”

“Yeah.  I get what you’re saying, but-”

“If she fits on the backline and she insists on coming here, she might have ideas.”

“Yeah,” I said.  Even though I didn’t like it.  If Lookout hadn’t stolen the puppy earlier, I might have even kicked myself for not extending her the benefit of a doubt.  As it stood, I was reserving the right to chuck Lookout back through the portal.

Someone hit the Impaler Titan with something, producing an explosion as big as the Titan’s head.  She moved to retaliate, and I started firing again, targeting the Titan we were suppressing.  He’d grown in just the time I’d stopped.

I focused on the most damaged areas, flying closer.  The gun was beeping incessantly now.

The laser sputtered out.

Second of the new Titans is joining the fight.

Sleek, long-limbed, and uniform in color and shade, it stretched skyward, growing despite the continued assault against it from other blasters.  Without the gun in the mix, we weren’t breaking even.

He dropped into the ground like it was water, producing a liquid ripple that shook buildings, street, and cracks in reality.

I heard the reactions, the shouts.

His upper body sticking out of a crack between realities, he reached out to sweep nine people and part of a fallen building off of a section of street and into the crack.

I flew after him.

I wasn’t even a quarter of the way to my destination when he dropped away, letting go of the ledge and falling.

I saw the ripples, the movement across the bridges and islands between cracks that made people lose their balance and made rubble fall.

He emerged, rising from the liquid street with chest thrust out.  Capes were more ready for him this time.  An Alexandria type flew in to meet him, her fist punching his fist and stopping it from reaching down to the unprotected back lines.  I recognized her as Tritium, a bench cape from Advance Guard.  Strong enough to punch through a building, ostensibly invincible, and unfortunately not much of an everyday cape because utilizing her invincibility, flight, and what she now termed her ‘nuke punches’ made her radioactive.  Push harder, fight more, and it built up more.  She was immune, but the people close to her hadn’t been.  She’d lost her family, friends, dog, and coworkers and had hurt many bystanders before the issue had been discovered by accident.  It hadn’t come up in the news.

I knew her in the same sense I knew who a big actress like Margery Funk was: I knew her face, general history, and general personality.  Quiet, reserved, and totally ill-suited for the gung-ho Advance Guard.  She spent much of the time benched, jumping in only for the big, important missions.

The attack came from the flanks.  I saw the Impaler Titan’s movement in the corner of my eye, and on impulse, I pushed out with my aura, to grab attention and communicate faster than I could with a shout.

“Get-!” I started.

The limb extended, striking the Alexandria-type out of the air.

A second limb stabbed toward the group.

I flew, wind whistling as it whipped past my forcefield.  Smoke, dust, and chill air parted as a face that wasn’t quite mine led the way.

Belated, I put my phone away.  My focus was wholly on stopping that attack.  I couldn’t stop it from making contact- I was too far away.  But I could do other stuff.  I winced as it stopped extending and collided with its target.

That wasn’t even the true danger of the attack.  The longer they thrust forward, pinning the Alexandria cape against the wall, striking at their target, the stronger their offensive pressure grew.

Their target in this case was a blob of darkness.  A shield that consumed and devoured the space-warped extension of the drill bit.  Snuff.  The Undersiders were in that crowd.  Parian was.

The limbs were expanding out.  The parts closest to her wrists expanded out first, the tips that were half a mile away from those wrists were last to expand.  What had been a column became a cone, rotating violently, tearing at the air and whipping it into something resembling a whirlwind.

It got worse by the second, apparently with no upper limit.

I watched as whatever gave Tritium her invulnerability failed her.  Or she’d turned it off because keeping it on would have made her lethal to everyone here.  I saw as her body shifted from a dim silvery silhouette to a spiral of what looked like a red towel being whipped around in a spiral.

Snuff was expanding his blob of darkness, trying to ‘eat’ the incoming attack, but the drill grew just a bit faster than his blob did.

I closed the last bit of distance.  My flight was jerked off course, because the spiraling ‘drill’ had suction, corrected, and slammed into the first solid bit of the Titan’s wrist.

It caved in.  Blood gushed out, and poured down from the site of injury.

I still carried the gun- part of the reason my flight hadn’t been as fast as I needed.  I twisted in the air, rising up and away, then plunged back down, using the gun’s barrel, javelin-throwing it down, stabbing the wound and punching through.

I threw my body and forcefield into the side of the gun, levering the barrel against the edge of the wrist.  I saw the shell break, crack-

Felt her draw her wrist back.

A quick glance back showed me another bloody mess.  Where there had been snow and mud, there was now a spiral of blood- several.  Snuff had died, and the capes between him and the Titan had gone down with him.

She was drawing her wrist back toward her chest, aiming to smear me against it.

I kept pressing, aware of the closing distance.

The strip of wrist between the hole and open air snapped.  Blood and shell sprayed out, and I used my arms in conjunction with flight to hurl myself down and in, grabbing the barrel and pulling the gun down so part of it and all of me occupied the hole in the wrist.  I felt arm slam into chest, with a resounding collision that broke up my forcefield.  The gun beeped, almost like it was protesting.  More likely the jostle was reminding it we were out of battery.

I used my aura, because there was no reason not to, and shifted position, grabbing my gun and getting clear as she moved her wrist away from her chest.

I had to adjust, scrabbling in the air to find the handholds I expected had moved, as the domed exterior of the gun had buckled somewhat.

I was so focused on the task that I barely registered the shape that appeared next to me.  The Flowing Titan, freshly emerged, swung his arm in a backhand, right for me.

I could protect me, but I couldn’t protect my gun.

Damn it, I thought, bracing to anticipate the blow.

An explosion nearby threw me off course.  I spiraled through the air with the gun, and found my bearings, squaring off and facing the two most imminent threats.  The Titan hadn’t managed to hit me.

From this angle, I could see most of the threats.  Titan Cinereal joining the fight.  I could see Titan Ophion and… one mess of a pile of meat, which was disgorging a whole other mess.  With all the meat lying around, a lot of the cracks in that section of battlefield were packed full.  Pale flesh, flensed flesh, scaled flesh, feathered flesh…

Turning around, I saw another figure, easily mistaken for a Titan.  He was massive, brutish in features, with metal stuck to flesh that strained and bulged around it, distorting and stretching materials that were at least a foot thick.

A largely naked man, with bruised skin.  I figured ‘largely’ naked because he was still wearing a loose band of metal around the waist, that did absolutely nothing for modesty, but did produce a kind of horribly uncomfortable looking cradle for his genitals.  It looked like a car wreck with metal pinching and digging into skin, and it didn’t look like it should been able to contain the mass it did.

Seemingly uncaring, roaring in a guttural way, he picked up a chunk of building with two hands, dragged it through a bed of flames on the ground in the process of drawing it back, and then chucked it underhanded.

It detonated on impact, like the material of the building was an eggshell containing molten material.  The Titan reared back, and the mostly naked Titan threw himself at the liqud Titan, grappling and wrestling with it to keep it from sinking into the ground.

The… gibber-whatsit knight.  Chris’s Chevalier.

Except way, way bigger.  Of a size to match Titans.

The Impaler Titan struck him with her one good arm, stabbing his side.  He shoved the Flowing Titan at her, then dashed toward the two of them.

“Victoria!”

The voice was dim.

I looked.

A second later, gold lines pointed to my target.

I saw Lookout.  Her backpack was on, and every surface near her had been holographically altered to look like a terminal, with an emphasis on eye shapes rather than squares.

Rain was with her, Sveta and Tristan stood off to one side, distracted but with the team, and Chris stood off to the other side, more or less kid-size, wearing someone else’s jacket and the metal ring with syringes pointing inward around his neck.  No braces, no headgear.  All of his focus was on the Giant.

The Chevalier Giant picked up a concrete pole, and brushed it against a crack in reality as it passed it.  The pole shifted, blurring, and became transparent, with a torn-up reality at the outer periphery.

He clubbed the two Titans, thrashing them like he was swinging a baseball bat, and as hard as he swung, the pole didn’t disintegrate.

I turned my focus back to the others.  “You shouldn’t be on the battlefield, Lookout.”

“It’s okay, I’m not, exactly,” she said.

I reached out, to touch her head, and I felt metal, roughly where her head was, but not exactly.

A camera and a projected Kenzie.

“Good,” I said, genuinely relieved.  “Cool.  You got me.”

“I wasn’t trying to get you.  Um, there’s a portal over there.  You should…” she trailed off.  “…You did awful things to that gun.  Dragon gave you that!”

She stuck her hand out, and it clinked as she touched the gun’s housing.

“What’s this?” Chris asked, looking over.

Kenzie pointed.

“Perverse,” he said.  “That’s pretty funny.”

“We’re on the same page,” Lookout said, with a note of amusement to her voice.  “I said something similar, I even thought perverse, even though I’d never say it.  We’re on the same wavelength!”

“Ugh.”

“How’d it go, Rain?” I asked.

“I could tell you, but Tristan wants to get everyone together for a debrief,” Rain said.  He stood straight, his attention on the distant fighting.  More on the fight between the… heap of flesh and the flesh-warping Titan Ophion.

Which was weird, now that I thought about it.

“The fuck?” I asked.

“That’s the Mother Giant,” Rain clarified, pointing.

The Mother Giant giving birth to stuff that definitely wasn’t pink, brown, or black flesh, but included all strains of animals and monstrousness.  The Gibborim -that’s what it was called- Knight now many times the size, standing tall despite the fact the square cube law should have shattered his lower body.

“You’re doing this?” I asked Chris.

“Yeah.”

“Thanks for the save.”

“He did that on his own.”

Sure, ChrisYou asshole.  “Got it.”

I picked up my gun, and metal creaked.  I saw both Kenzie and Chris wince visibly at that.  A moment later, they started laughing.  Chris stopped the second he realized Kenzie was laughing too.

“Glad I’ve given you two something to bond over,” I said.

“We’re laughing for entirely different reasons,” Chris said.

“Sure,” I said.  “Whatever, Chris.”

I half expected him to say something.  I could even imagine what he’d say.

I wanted to bring it up myself, now that he was standing so close to my team.  If Kenzie had been here in person, I might have, just to bring everything to the surface and ensure she was safe.

Why did you sell me out to my sister, back at the prison?

Why did you arrange that?  What did you gain?  Why would you do that?

He could have brought it up, taunting.  He’d done stuff like that in the past.  He stood there, in a coat that didn’t fit, wearing a body that didn’t fit him, slouching, his hair a mess, and dark circles under his eyes.  His teeth were already crooked again, without the external braces.

He looked so uncomfortable, out of place.

“Be good,” I said.

His expression didn’t change.  Kenzie, at the same time, gave me a salute, hand going to the forehead of her wide-eyed helmet.

I followed Kenzie’s pointing finger, flying the gun toward the portal, which was situated in a nook created where a bit of the road had dropped down a few feet.  The side of the road above it was wide open, a portal waiting.  People were gathered inside, finding some shelter from the hostile battlefield.  Some were recuperating, others were getting medical attention.

The tinkers spotted me before I noticed them.  One was the same guy who’d had the shift in the workshop when Kenzie and Rain were done.  Fishtank.  I spotted the mech’s pilot standing off to the side, and noted Riveting, wearing a welding mask, heavy coat with a Shepherds badge on it, and stylized tinker overalls that were, uh, very supportive of her upper body.  It felt a bit much to me.

“Don’t comment on it,” I said.  “Every damn tinker I’ve seen has had something to say about the gun.”

“It’s… an interesting job,” Riveting said.

I sighed.

“We’ll handle it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“We’ll call you.  Give us your number?”

I did.

“Thanks again,” I said, quiet.

I stepped back through the portal.  Back onto the battlefield.

I spotted the Shepherds.  One of our reinforcing groups.  Furcate was talking to Moonsong.  I recognized Scribe, and met her eyes for a minute, before she scowled and looked away.

I followed her gaze and saw the Nemean Titan retreating from a group of capes.  Mayday was bombarding it, pushing or pulling it back with a hail of his power’s artillery fire.  Keeping the Nemean Titan away from people.  It looked like a losing fight, where he had to anticipate every move, and one feint might see it avoid a few hits.

Victor.

I found my team.  Tristan was talking to Parian.

And Lookout- projected Lookout, was bouncing in place.

Legend was barely even visible now.  He was aware of an omnipresent threat that the Impaler Titan could space-distort his lasers and send them to new targets.  He flew to keep one Titan or another between himself and the Impaler.

“We ready?” Rain asked.

“As much as is possible,” I said.  “I have to go back in a short while to get my gun.  Until then, I’m diving in.”

He nodded.

“It’s kinda cool, having the team together again,” Kenzie said.  “Except Natalie.  I should really have a tiny floating camera with me that’s just for Natalie.  How cool would that be?”

“Not cool in the slightest,” Chris said.

“What’s actually uncool is that Ashley isn’t here,” Kenzie said.  “If she was, then we’d really be reunited.”

“I saw her,” Rain said.

“You- what?”  Tristan was paying attention now.  He’d been staring off into the distance.

“When I was in there.  I… didn’t have time to think, only to act on instinct.  I put my hand against crystal and I transmitted a message.  The way they talk, the… I think the way Scion talked, they tap into every part of the overall system that’s capable of expressing an idea, every chunk of crystal and part of the greater landscape that has stored data that relates to the idea, each one given a different weight.  And the message I chose, it woke her up, got her attention.  She appeared for a moment.  I’m… pretty sure she’s there, here, helping now.”

“Do you think I could talk to her with my camera?” Kenzie asked.  “The one I used for Tristan and Byron, and for breaking into the dream room?”

“You have a better idea than I do,” Rain said.  “But if you want all of Breakthrough back together… you got it.”

Kenzie nodded.

“I broke Skadi off from the rest of her group.  She seemed most problematic to have in the network,” Rain said.

“Good,” Tristan said.  “Good man.”

“And we figured some stuff out.  The same principle that I used to communicate, it applies in reverse.”

“The… hitting every related note thing?” I asked.

Rain nodded.  His breath fogged around the edges of his mask.

“The destruction.  The point we destroyed,” Rain said.  “Colt thinks it was on purpose.”

“Who did it on purpose?” I asked, tense.  “Contessa?”

He nodded.

How?  We’d targeted an area with the most communication flow.

She’d chosen to communicate across those lines, targeting those specific areas.

“Does Colt have any intuition why?” I asked.

“No, but it would be worth figuring out.”

“Every move we make is one she’s guided us to,” Tristan said.  He sounded like he was going to say something else.

There was only the noise of ongoing fighting.

“We’re still getting new Titans,” he said, and it didn’t sound like that other thing.  “We just got four more.  Mystic Magic Impaler, Shortcut, Drillbit, and the Custodian.”

I looked at him in surprise.

Somehow I hadn’t thought she could be ‘gotten’ like that.  Caught by the cracks.

Some of the others didn’t surprise me.

“There’s going to be more,” Tristan said, his voice quiet.  “Soon.  So I’ve got to ask.  Are any of you vulnerable?  Are any of you at risk of cracking?  Because this is going to be a hard fight.  It’s going to be ugly.  I need you guys to self-assess, and to assess each other.”

If we’d had the grace of silence, I would have said that the silence was damning.  Instead, there were percussive sounds, distant dull thuds that made clouds move and stirred up dust and snow half a mile away.  The sky was lit up by lasers, artillery strikes, and slashes of gold and red.  Some of those things made noises.  There were the dull, wordless cries of giants, straining to fight against the Titans with a temporary strength.  Vat grown and then blown up by multiples of their original size, with new added capabilities, if I was to judge by the Gibborim Knight’s scales.

I could have called out any member of this team, with Chris as the only possible exception.

Except they would have turned around and said the same about me.

It was much the same reason I didn’t ask Chris about what he’d done at the Prison, or his other skeevy behavior.  On the flip side, it was why he wasn’t mentioning it to me, even though he couldn’t usually resist the urge to hit someone where it hurt and create more safe distance between himself and others.

No.  He was scared because he was a child and however he dressed up his voice and his body, or whatever monstrous form he wore, that didn’t really change.  He was scared and he wanted to deal with the source of that fear.  He wanted to take on these monsters.

The only true surprise, I felt, was that Natalie didn’t say a thing.  She wasn’t so complicit.  She could have, should have, and would have said anything, and that would set off the storm of debate and denial we couldn’t afford.

I looked at Kenzie, and saw her jiggling her leg, burning off nervous, excited energy, despite the fact she wasn’t quite here.  Happy to be around us, maybe.  Or guilty of selectively editing this conversation.

Which… it didn’t feel fair or right.  Natalie was a member of this team.  And if we didn’t have that check on ourselves, then what did we have?  We needed to get her voice in this.

I opened my mouth at the same time Tristan did.  We stopped before talking.

So as to not assume the mantle of leadership, and out of consideration for the stresses he was under, I indicated him.  “You go first.”

“It’s grim,” he said.  “It’s ugly.  But I have to ask.  Let’s say we all consider ourselves good to move on, join this fight.”

“Which we are, aren’t we?” Chris asked, his voice given an ironic, sarcastic kind of edge.  The only person who wanted to be a Titan.  “We’re fine.”

“Sure,” Tristan said, “If any of us happen to be wrong, maybe we should agree to take a bullet before we can fully turn Titan.  It has to be better, doesn’t it?  I don’t think you can come back from that.”

Slowly, reluctantly, there were nods.  From everyone but Chris.

“No sentimentality.  Faster is better.”

More nods, again from everyone but Chris.

“What did you want to say, Victoria?” Tristan asked me.

I shook my head.  “I think you covered that base.”

He pressed his lips together behind the lower portion of his helmet, where everything below the nose was visible.  It made it hard to tell smiles from frowns, but I could see that resolution.

“You realize we’re all doing everything exactly to her plan, right?” Chris asked.  He looked back at me, as if to reinforce the argument.

There were moments I could tolerate him, and even wanted to see him find a way to work with this group again.  And there were times I could imagine myself taking his head off.

“Fuck off with the negativity, Chris,” Sveta said.  She rubbed at her arm.

He’d betrayed me.  He was holding onto that ammunition.  And I didn’t want to be shot at.  I didn’t want to hear it.

“I’m sorta confident,” Rain said.  “Or… not unconfident.”

“You said you sent a message,” Sveta said.

He nodded.  “One word with a million million facets to it.”

“To who?”

Rain pointed, the smaller arm he’d attached to his arm mimicking the gesture.

“And you think she listened?” Chris asked, almost derisive.

“I’m- everything might be counting on it.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Infrared – 19.c

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

I’m lying on the floor.  I’m as good as unconscious, vulnerable while an alien beast stalks me.

The thoughts grew dimmer, the thoughts of the scene taking over, louder than whatever he could voice in his own head.

“We need something for over the bed,” Merindah said, paging through the art.  Images were printed out and blown up, each within a plastic sleeve with rigid black borders.

“I like leaving that space blank.”

Merindah reached over to place a hand on his cheek.  A little bit condescending, dismissive, but fond.  “It’s too spartan.”

“We have things on the shelf there,” Gilpatrick protested.

“Let’s see if anything jumps out at us,” she said, moving on.  Bulldozing past him, in a way.

Gilpatrick browsed, disinterested, half of his attention on his girlfriend, half on the reams of mass-produced art, available in bed and bathroom stores, oversized furniture stores, and, here, mall kiosks.

She was beautiful, and he knew she worried.  Three times this month, he’d had mobilizations.  Full kit, guns signed out, briefings in the van en route.  Each mobilization had ended without incident, yet he’d returned to find her waiting up for him, worrying.  Two nights ago, he had hugged her, and she had started sobbing.

She knew what the job entailed, what really happened in the background, because her sister had been one of the people affected.  It was how they’d met.  She cared too much about him, and as a consequence, this wasn’t going to work.  She hadn’t figured it out yet, but she wouldn’t be able to endure another year of being on the sidelines.  He had the power to perform better, be careful, use all the tricks he’d learned.  He knew who had his back.  She had none of that.

He’d seen it happen with a previous partner, though Heather hadn’t felt the impact of powers on her life or the life of anyone close to her.  It had taken her longer to figure it out, he’d said too much after a bad day, and he’d seen the exact same pattern play out.

Telling Heather the bad stuff had been his first mistake.  Ending it too early had been his other mistake, because it had made him the bad guy, had hurt her too deeply.  He’d kept quiet for Merindah, but she knew enough to fill in the blanks, she was older than Heather had been, and she watched him, noticed his emotions, no matter how guarded he was.

He was already saying goodbye to Merindah, in a way.  In another way, he clung to her and that caring.  The tenderness she showed.  He would let her realize it was untenable instead of repeating what had happened with Heather.  Maybe it would be a few months, if the situations continued or if he got called out of the city for more emergency mobilizations.  Maybe it would be a year.

“Sean?” Merindah asked.  She stood on her toes to look over the wall of the kiosk, hand raised, finger pointing.

He was so grateful for the depth of concern she’d showed, the tears she’d shed on seeing him return in one piece.  It made his heart swell and hurt at the same time.  He resolved to put up with the nonsense about the decorating of the apartment.

He circled the kiosk, and stabbed one image of a boat, painted in oils, golds and greens and blues.  “I like that.”

“Name one thing we have in the bedroom that matches that,” Merindah said.

“The quilted bedcover that’s folded over the drying rack, remember?  That your sister gave us.”

Merindah raised her eyebrows, giving it serious consideration.  “It wouldn’t match the curtains or the rug.”

“Our problem is we got stuff for the bedroom and a big piece of art is the sort of thing you get first and stage the rest of the room around.  We could shuffle stuff around.”

“I don’t like boats.  Not for a bedroom,” she said.

“What’s wrong with boats?”

“They’re a living room thing.  Or a study- if we got a house with a study I think that would suit you.  Boats would work.”

“We could get it now,” he said.  “And if I ever have a study, I can move it into there.”

She made a face.

“Other option: we don’t put a big piece of artwork up.  We have the shelves, plants, we have the clock…”

“I want art.”

He pointed at the boat.

“I don’t want a painting of a boat in my bedroom,” she said.  She indicated a picture.

Grays and reds and a bit of green, a background of blurred brush strokes, like a haze hung over the scene.  Men and women in white gathered around their altar.

He stared at it for long moments, then shook his head.

“You’re hopeless,” Merindah said.  “It doesn’t speak to you?”

“It speaks to me,” he said.  “But it’s not saying nice things.”

She gave him a kiss on the bicep, a consequence of how petite she was.

“You keep at it,” he said.  “Let me know if anything else jumps out at you.  You want to eat before we leave the mall?”

“Maybe,” she said.

He stepped away, sighing.

His eyes turned skyward.  Past the tops of the walls of the mall, it was open space- literal space.  Black and so filled with stars it didn’t seem possible, with nebula hues and a streak of white where the stars were so densely packed together they looked like they were part of the same thing.

Something triple-helix in form reached across that space, black against a bright backdrop.  A complex ladder, twisted, reaching across the void.  Specks of black like birds taking flight jumped from it and took roost, each with a bright trail left behind them.

Teriyaki?

Maybe Greek for lunch.

An abrupt motion at the corner of his eye drew his attention.

A boy, teenager, with longer hair, a shiny short-sleeved button-up shirt that would have been better suited to a visit to a club than a shopping mall, and skinny jeans.  He’d been leaning against a wall by a bookstore, and the abrupt motion had been him freezing.

It took Gilpatrick a second to realize why.

“You’re not dead-set on the boat painting, are you?” she asked him from the other side of the kiosk.

“No, Merindah, I’d rather have nothing than have the boat,” he said.  “But if I had to have something, I’d go with the boat.”

She snorted.  “I’ll find something we both like.”

“I believe you,” he said.

The teenager hadn’t budged.

“Waiting for someone?” Gilpatrick asked.

“Me?” the teenager asked.

“Yeah.”

“Maybe,” was the response.  Defensive.

There were a hundred things Gilpatrick wanted to ask.  To say.  He found himself ruling them out, second guessing.  Like this might be a last chance, and one wrong answer would scuttle it.

He could have talked about relationships, finding the right people to cling to.  But did he want to, here?

“What sort of thing would you put up on the wall of a house you owned?” Gilpatrick asked.  What would he ballpark that at?  Thirty percent of a ‘none of your business, creep’?

“I dunno,” the teenager said.  “Pictures of myself?  Friends?”

First hurdle passed.

“I can’t advise pictures of yourself.  Gives off the wrong vibe if you invite people over.  Classic bachelor mistake.”

It wasn’t really a classic mistake, but it was one he’d known people to make.  What was this statement?  Too critical?  Eighty percent chance he was in the clear?  Ten percent he scared the teenager off by being too critical?  Ten percent chance he scared the teen by being too familiar, making it abundantly clear this wasn’t a first conversation?

“Wrong vibe how?”

Could he read the tone?  Was that defensive?  If he stated it outright, would he offend the teenager?  If he stated it outright, would he lay groundwork that made the rest of this conversation less fragile?

“Too full of yourself, maybe.  You want stuff that suggests you have hobbies, friends, that invites conversation.”

What was the chance that criticism he’d started with scared the guy off?  Or that the teenager was aware enough of things to hear what Gilpatrick really wanted to say?  On the flip side, there was the chance-

“Like boats,” the teenager said.  “I overheard.”

“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said.  He smiled.  “Like boats.”

“Maybe,” the teenager said.  Seeming to accept things.  “What if you’re around people who need you to be full of yourself?”

“I have a cousin who’s a music producer,” Gilpatrick said.  “It’s like that for him.  His face is his brand and he has to constantly, always sell that brand.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s exhausting.”

“I like it,” the kid said.  His eyes betrayed a deep sadness at the same time his posture suggested bravado, like he was rising to a challenge that had been set before him.

Gilpatrick was reminded of how Merindah had broken into tears the other night, hugging him.  It hadn’t taken much.

“He keeps the self-promotion mostly to his office.  If he needs to cater to people or if he throws a party, he’ll rent a house and decorate it for the event.  Promotes artists while he’s doing it.  It’s good for networking.  His home is a proper home, you wouldn’t imagine it was him, if you saw it anywhere else.”

“Sounds expensive,” the teenager said.

“It is.  But he does pretty well.  He thinks it’s worth having that divide between work and his everyday life, especially when his work takes up seventy percent of his waking hours.”

“I work from home,” the teenager said.  “I don’t get that option.”

“I figured,” Gilpatrick said.  He saw the alarm flash in the kid’s eyes.  So easy to read.  “Your generation is usually doing stuff online.  Streaming, gaming, web pages.”

“And people your age call them web pages,” the kid snarked, his smile turning up only one corner of his mouth.  He’d let that alarm slip away, now that the contract was established.  That Gilpatrick would support the illusion.

It was never a full smile from the teenager.  Like he was always a bit guarded, or reserved.

Gilpatrick flipped through the big book of art that was in arm’s reach.  The big painting on the next page was like a hole in reality, and through that hole he could see more nebula, more stars, more of the banded triple-helix, except something was tearing its way through the helix now.  A steady, rolling explosion.

He watched as it progressed.

“Your girlfriend is beautiful,” the teenager said, quiet.

Gilpatrick drew in a deep breath.

“Thank you.  But why bring her up?” he asked the teenager, giving the boy a hard look.  As hard as any look he ever gave him, knowing it might scare him, terminating this conversation.  The awkward segue felt like it might break this spell.  Too guarded.  But letting that slide wasn’t an option either.  Because he was genuinely unsure what the boy had meant, bringing that up, and there was no way to navigate the conversation ahead without clarifying.

“Oh.  No, just… good for you, man.  I didn’t mean-”

You didn’t mean to threaten her by bringing her up.  I know now.

Gilpatrick smiled.  “You’re fine.  She’s special.  Makes me feel like I’m something more.  Like I belong in this world.  Really, I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

I don’t know what I will do without her.  We won’t be together in five years.

“Really cool,” the kid said.

Again, that look in his eyes.

“Do you have that?  A person, place, goal?”

The kid crossed his arms.  Guard up, the look deepening.  He looked to either side.  Considering escape routes, now.

Pushed too hard.

But he wants to have this conversation as badly as I do.  Or he’d be gone already.

“For me, you know, getting out on the water, canoeing up the lake with my friend or girlfriend, it keeps me going when work gets tough.  I’ve been tearing down my grandparents’ house now that they’re gone, but that’s work that’s too cold to do in winter, too hot in summer.”

He knew he was rambling.

But… carrying the conversation further from that hard push.  And mentioning things he’d mentioned before, in prior run-ins.

“There’s a music event this summer I’m looking forward to,” the teenager said.

“I’d ask my cousin if he could get good tickets for you, he has tickets for everything around here, but you probably wouldn’t trust some random offer from a stranger,” Gilpatrick said.

Again, that half smile.  “Exactly right.  Sorry.”

“No sweat,” Gilpatrick said.  He smiled.  “I hope you enjoy that, though.”

“I’m stupidly excited for it.  I’ve traveled for six hours to visit one of the bands that are going to be here, at the same venue as another group I’ve had to catch a plane to see.”

“Ah, I’m so jealous.  My favorite bands don’t do the tours or events anymore.  I remember catching a bus to go to an event, rained the entire time, crowds of people everywhere, feet churned up mud you could sink in up to your knees.”

“What was that, like, Woodstock?”

“Fuck off,” Gilpatrick said.  “I’m not that old.”

The teenager crowed out a laugh, surprising, loud, and genuine.  “You-”

Gilpatrick was glancing back at Merindah as the kid had started speaking, seeing if she reacted to the laugh.  When the sentence started and stopped suddenly, he looked back at the teenager, to find the guy close mouthed, arms folded, leaning against the wall, eyes on the ground.

Gilpatrick saw a woman approaching, and turned his attention back to one of the big books of prints.  A picture of a wooden duck, blown up to poster size.  A map.  A hole in reality, giving a closer-up view of the triple-helix with black, narrow buildings clinging to it in the same way iron filings might cling to a magnet.

“Everything okay?” the woman asked.

“Yeah,” the teenager replied.

Gilpatrick glanced back, looking at the woman.  She was objectively beautiful, with brown hair in waves, and heavy eye makeup.  She wore a striped sweater that she practically swam in, but her figure was nice enough that the suggestions where the sweater made contact drew more attention than something more conventional would.  The collar was wide enough that one shoulder was left bare, a hint of a tattoo peeking out beneath a bra strap.  She closed her long-lashed eyes as she kissed the teenager.

Had she been a teenager, Gilpatrick would have felt gross taking note of those things.  But the woman was closer to Gilpatrick’s age, old enough to be the teenager’s mother, though she would have had him young.

Opening her eyes, she saw Gilpatrick looking.

The look she gave him was long, searching, and unflinching.  She was confident enough to look away, searching the area and the scattered people in this particular wing of the shopping center.

“He and I were talking art,” the teenager said.

“Come on,” she said, one hand on the boy’s back, and she didn’t break contact for a second as she steered him around.  Leaving.

At the same time, Gilpatrick noted that she crossed from standing at the teenager’s right to standing at his left, putting herself between him and Gilpatrick.  Making it harder, but not impossible, for the teen to glance back over his shoulder.

“You-” Gilpatrick raised his voice.

Stupid, speaking up now.  He saw the woman look back, and he knew he was playing with fire.

“-You want to grab a bite at the food court?” he tried.  “My treat.”

There was no response.  They didn’t slow down.

Was it a mistake, to make that final overture?  Was that the kind of thing that got people killed?

Would it have been a mistake, to not speak up at all?

Merindah touched his arm.  He turned away from the scene of the teenager and woman walking away.

“Which one was he?” she asked.  “Or should I not ask?”

He hugged her, kissing the top of her head.

“Okay,” she said, hugging him back.

He stayed there, hugging her, as the walls of the shopping center were overtaken by the emptiness.  Stars and nebulas, and a civilization being devoured.

The last things to go were him, Merindah, and the image on the one print Merindah had pointed out.  Here, at least.  A red, muddled background like clotted blood, men and women in their white forensic coveralls, and in the center, their ‘altar’, a metal barrel with concrete within, a slice of a desiccated face peering out where metal and concrete had been removed.

The scream was ten kinds of raw, and it was loud after the chaos of the shopping center.

Gilpatrick snapped to awareness.  If it hadn’t been for the last coherent thoughts he’d had before the altered memory overtook him, it might have taken him a second or two longer to get his bearings again.

“I’m the one you want!”

The beast was at the center of the room.  Marcial was half-awake, and half-alive.  Her lower body was mangled.

With far less strength than a whole Marcial might have managed, she batted at the beast’s head with her weapon.

It was massive, he could see.  Eight limbs, a body that unfolded around it like a flower’s petals, each ‘petal’ an armored, ‘furred’ length of body, with a limb stabbing out, ending in a paw that looked like licks of flame frozen in time, painted to look like red or blue steel.

“I’m the killer, I’m the one your host hates!”

The words were raw.

Gilpatrick found Rain in the jumble, navigating the detritus and crap that cluttered the room.  He had a metal pole in each hand.

“Don’t!” Gilpatrick bellowed.

Rain stabbed it, slamming a spike into the armpit of one limb.

The beast reacted, rearing up, back- and Rain took quick steps, one hand still on the metal spear, to keep the weapon angled right, the base of it dragged in the white powder beneath foot and claw.

When the beast’s weight came fully down, the base of the spear stabbed into the ground, almost impaling Rain’s foot.  Its own body weight drove the point in deeper, and helped Rain get the second pole to impale the same area.

The metal poles, as thick around as either of Rain’s arms, bent under the creature’s mass and weight.  But it slowed it as it tried to turn and claw at Rain.

“Fight me!  Leave them alone!” Rain roared the words.

It almost seemed to try.  The makeshift spears dragged furrows into the dirt as it tried to turn Rain’s direction.

Does it react to emotion?  Gilpatrick wondered.

“You can have me, if you let them leave.  Let them take the fucking wounded!”

It roared.

Gilpatrick, just getting to his feet and finding his equilibrium, was rocked by the emotion that ripped through him.  His thoughts tore as emotions that had made up maybe three percent of his mental real estate took over everything, grinding and crushing away anything and everything else.

Hurt, inflict, shoot-

Each emotion was an action- the first two were frustrated ones, an inability to find someone in reach.  An inability to find an insult or invective fresh in his mind.

His finger pulled the trigger.  He aimed wildly and checked the gun in the same motion, reflexively pulling the trigger again and again.

-maim, destroy, tear it all down-

Nobody and nothing close enough.  Only this sea of white sand that smelled and tasted like salt and chalk on his tongue.  He grit his teeth so hard it felt like something would give.

Maim.

He fixed his attention on the idea.  On Marcial’s ruined lower body.  With the way the impulses gripped him, he was already moving, already on his way to her.

Make it hurt.

-make it hurt, torture, butcher, kill-

He was heedless of the beast, who fought Rain, ten or fifteen feet away.  Heedless of Rain, who screamed again, raw and without reservation.

Gilpatrick dug fingers into Marcial’s wounded body, past hot meant, blood, and to exposed bone, slick with fluid.  She groped for and found his collar, twisting it, choking him-

Make it hurt.

His adjustments, bare fingers in open wound, gave him his victory here.  She couldn’t keep choking him with the pain she was in.  She tried and failed to get a grip on his wrist, fingernails scraping on the slick surface of his PRT-issue windbreaker.

He hauled, hard, on the bone, as if he could tear it from the bleeding meat of her, his thoughts numb.

Make it hurt.  Need time to make it hurt.

He hauled again, pulled her.

Still growling, the beast crashed into him.  He sprawled, grit digging into skin, salt dust in his nose and mouth.

Retaliate-

Can’t hurt it.  Too tough.

I can hurt her.

This time he grabbed hold of the raw edge of the wound.  Her hand grabbed his wrist, tight, fingers digging in.

Have to get far enough away to do it without interruption.

He dragged her, mind numb, the fighting happening only paces away.  As the growls rose in volume, he gripped harder, his thoughts dipping into even more gruesome extremes and end cases.  Things he could do, based on things he’d seen.

Get through that doorway, take her to pieces.  Quadruple amputee.

Stick her in a barrel.

The words became a refrain, against a background of Rain’s hollering and screams.  A prolonged cry of rage, matching the beast’s howl.

The boy was hurt, scrambling back, practically frothing at the mouth.  He was bleeding openly now, ribs at his side exposed.

Gilpatrick watched as he toppled.

Execute.  Stomp his head in.  Let him bleed.

The angry thoughts were almost melancholic.

Rain screamed his rage at the monster, rough-voiced, like every bit of pain that had started with a ‘spare the child’ paddle and ended with a furious scrap against a monster twenty times his size in an alien dream could be uttered at once.

The scream became the latter half of a word.   “-UUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!

The red-haired woman came sprinting out of the back room.  Toward the beast and the boy.

“I’ll come!” Colt said.

“No!” was the replying bark.

Gilpatrick kept trudging forward, dragging Marcial, who had lost consciousness.

Wake her up and hurt her so badly she passes out again.  The thoughts were ugly, sad.

Let the villain get chewed up.

Let the boy get trampled.

There’s work to do.

He wanted that catharsis, craved it.  That rage-filled scream, except hands-in-a-wound violence, instead.

Colt backed off, scared, as he approached, teeth grit.  Other Patrol members did too.  Fucking Cox, Valentin, who had run off, unscathed.

Let the villain get chewed up.

Let the boy-

die quickly, if he has to die.

The sudden rubberbanding of his emotions left him reeling, swaying on the spot.  The blood filled him with disgust, the thoughts he’d had with horror.

He scrambled away from Marcial, in case those emotions returned.

It had been a rise and fall, gentle and subtle, or at least noticeable degrees of change while he was in the room.  Now- that change just now had been night and day.

When he’d passed through the door.

“Is she dead?” Gilpatrick asked.

“No.  She’s breathing.  That means there’s a way,” Colt said.  “This way.  Gotta get her out of this intermediary room.  I’ve never done this, but I saw it.”

“I’ll help,” Diaz said.  “Tell me what to do.”

Trying to get his thoughts in order, Gilpatrick turned back toward the room.

Love Lost was fighting, having taken hold of one of the spikes.  Rain lay there, bleeding.

Early was dead, mangled.  Gaymon was smeared against a pile of broken wood near where Rain had started out.  Bastian lay face down, less obviously dead, but the lack of any movement whatsoever, even with the sounds of emotion-affecting growls and howls… it said a lot.

Three dead, at the very least, Rain likely, unless Love Lost could somehow win.

“Don’t go, you can only fight it one on one,” Kelly said.  The guy hadn’t spoken up much.  “If you try to fight side by side with someone, it just makes you fight each other.”

Gilpatrick felt a surge of emotion, and that surge came with its own alarm and delirious edge- because he didn’t trust his feelings, every inch of him had to be on guard against them.

But it was frustration, paralysis coinciding with a drive to go, because he hated being unable to do something.  Especially when Lucky’s fate was so fresh in his mind.  Now Rain?

Some small part of him had been able to convince his rage to drag Marcial, to delay, postpone.

No other way he would have made it here.

“If I do something, drag me back in,” he said.

“We should just go,” Cox said.  The rookie who now appeared to be a child.  No falsified nametag now.  She wore an undershirt and tattered dress with blood at the hem.  She pressed him, “We have the one kid from the cluster, we can manage her, get directions.”

“We have two people who are fighting for our sakes.”

“We have a mission,” Cox said, staring at him with a cold conviction a child couldn’t possess.

“We have a responsibility,” Gilpatrick retorted.

“To the people up there!” Cox raised her voice, pointing up.

“Technically, down there,” Valentin said, pointing down at the floor, with its crystalline sheen.  “We’re on the other side of the mirror.”

“Either way,” Cox said, looking resentful.

“Drag me back in if it comes to it,” Gilpatrick said, to Valentin.  “Or are you with her?  Do you think we should leave all of this behind?”

“I’m…”

Valentin, skin alternating from dark brown to pink to near-white pale, hair in a mix of textures and shades, looked over toward the fighting.  A lot of emotions passed through the two eyes with their different shades.

Valentin,” Cox said, soft.

“We have thirty minutes.  We can spare a few,” Valentin said.

“Thank you,” Gilpatrick said, as Cox made a face, looking away.

The others were divided.  Diaz was helping Colt and Marcial.  Kelly and Hanson were standing in the doorway, watching and simultaneously blocking the view.

Gilpatrick watched the scene unfolding, saw Love Lost fighting with her all, to fight a boy that was allegedly responsible for her daughter’s death.  A death that was vivid and rich in Gilpatrick’s memory, sitting alongside the dream he’d just had, and the emotions and thoughts that had gripped him and taken over his body.

Any one of those things would, if Gilpatrick was one to believe in souls, be the kind of thing to make his soul ache over the long term.  In the short term, he felt like it was cracked.

He thought of Lucky, of the girlfriends who hadn’t been able to handle the secondhand pain, the victims he’d seen across his years of service.  The kids he’d taught, who were traumatized to their cores by the way their world had ended, the loss of loved ones, and their utter powerlessness in the aftermath of it all.

Too many for him to help.  He’d had to curtail the numbers, screen out as many as he could.  He’d turned away kids who needed someone who could explain what had happened and how this part of the world that had seemed like something that happened in the background, on television, and in movies and games was now everywhere and everything, ninety percent of the reason the city had sprung up so fast.

He waited until the growling had died down enough, then stepped out onto the salted ground of the area beyond the door.

He intended to scream, to give every bit of rage and anger and frustration he had bottled up to the beast, and he did just that.

But that was only one tenth of what was there.

The scream of rage became a howl.

With the dead lying before him, that painting of the crime scene -the hardest he’d ever had to look at- crystal clear in his mind, the city in ruins above, or below, or… everywhere, and yet another stupid, brave teenager who didn’t deserve this reality lying there, it wasn’t rage that he found himself expressing.

The beast turned left, looking back.

On its right, Love Lost hauled out the spear of metal from its armpit, then drove it back in.

It twisted, and she used the same tactic Rain had, to limit its turn, the metal pole bending and the base of it digging into the ground, providing resistance.

She grabbed Rain by the scruff of the neck, and she ran, half-dragging him.

He was just conscious enough to get his feet under him, if not to keep his balance.  She did that, jerking him, hauling him.

The beast roared, and again, Gilpatrick felt his mind go numb, the feelings bubbling up.

He saw Love Lost charging him, and prepared to meet her, teeth bared, feet digging for traction in the ground-

Before he was hauled off balance, back through the doorway.

He crashed there, landing on his back.  There wasn’t time to both get up and to see what happened next, so he remained where he was.

The beast was making its approach, running on all fours, far faster than Love Lost was when dragging someone behind her.

It roared, and her expression changed, hardened, but she didn’t change course.  Infused with an insane rage, she did exactly what she had been doing seconds before, minutes before.

It closed the distance when she was twenty feet from the door.

The gunshot was deafening in the confined space.  Gilpatrick’s hands went to his ears- first the ear closest to the sound.

Valentin stood in the doorway, handgun out, and unloaded it, firing into the beast’s face.  It twisted its head away from the source of the harm, turned a little too far to its right, and again drove the metal spears that were in its armpit into the ground, digging them in deeper.

Buying seconds.

Hanson helped grab Rain as Love Lost crossed the threshold.

The beast stopped where it was.  Still within the room.

Everyone present, even the people who had been standing by, like Hanson, was left panting for breath.  Because even they had been holding their breath.

“Thank you,” Rain said.

Love Lost ignored him, walking beneath the alien statues that stood at the corners of the room, out the door to the outside.

“You didn’t empty your gun,” Gilpatrick said, his head lolling back as he panted for breath, still exhausted from the howl.  His desperate attempt to communicate to a thing that communicated emotions.

Valentin turned away from the beast, who still stared at them through the open doorway.  “I had another magazine stowed where I couldn’t get to it in a hurry.”

Still walking away, Valentin patted a cargo pocket, on patchwork pants that were partially blue jeans, partially a uniform.

Gilpatrick had heard of something like that, from officers who’d been through the worst of what the job had to offer.  Keeping one last bullet, because the dark corners of this world were that dark, the bullet a mercy compared to some of the fates waiting for them out there.  A visit from the Slaughterhouse Nine among them.

This didn’t feel like that.

He watched Valentin exchange a few words with Cox.  Then the two of them were out of sight.

“You okay?” Rain asked.

“My soul hurts a bit,” Gilpatrick said.  “Not that I’m sure I believe in that sort of thing.”

“I know just what you mean,” Rain said.

“Figure out what you’re doing when we get where we’re going, yet?” Gilpatrick asked.  He didn’t want to say too much on the subject, but he was very aware there were three dead bodies in that room.  Bastian, Gaymon and Early.

“Hmm,” Rain said, glancing back toward the door, where the Beast now lay down, still staring at them with strange eyes.

The silence and lack of answer made Gilpatrick worry.

They stepped outside.  Gilpatrick was genuinely shocked to see Marcial intact, wearing a dress shirt under a kevlar vest.  Her eyes were downcast.

She and Gaymon were friends.

“I have ideas,” Rain said.

Gilpatrick looked over at Rain, and saw the boy was looking down.

Gilpatrick followed the boy’s gaze, and saw that where they stood on the dark red crystal, there were shocks of light bouncing to and fro.

They were figuring out how to navigate the space, where up and down weren’t necessarily rules so much as they were questions of interpretation.

Gilpatrick wasn’t as flexible in his ability to flip around what he was focusing on as some of the others, so he reserved his concentration for the long inclines, and sprinted up the shorter ones.

Here and there, they stopped.  There were sections where he could almost see through, and get glimpses of what was happening on the surface.  There were other parts, especially parts where the crystal stuck up, or forked, or formed pillars, that he could see images and scenes.  They tended to reflect the people closest to them.

“Digging into this stuff tends to draw unwanted attention,” Rain said.  “But we’re about to get our distraction.”

“Can we distract the unwanted attention?” Cox asked.

Gilpatrick studied the girl.

“It’s… big,” Rain said.  “Like what we fought in the room, simpler.  I’d rather wait.”

“I’d rather do more,” Cox said.  She seemed to notice the attention she was getting.  “People up there need us.  They’re fighting.”

“I know,” Rain said.

“Cox,” Gilpatrick said.  “What Patrol are you from?”

“Nilles,” Valentin answered.

“She can’t answer for herself?” Marcial asked, her arms folded.

“For one thing, I’m out of breath,” Cox said.  “These short legs.”

“You’d be less tired if you curved your brain,” Marcial said.

“Curve your what?”

“You guys are distracting me,” Rain said.  He peered into pillars, brushed a hand against one, and grimaced.  “I wish I could swipe these to change the scenes.”

The scenes didn’t seem to last long enough to need swiping.  They were faces, some were of people who vaguely resembled Rain.  Many sneered, or scowled.  The girl Gilpatrick had seen in the photo frames in the girl’s room appeared, smiling while looking away.  What had her name been?  Allie?

“Adapt,” Marcial told Cox, walking away from Rain, so he wouldn’t hear as much.  Her arms were still folded.  “Wrap your head around this place, and everything is downhill.”

“My brain is apparently so rigid it can’t let go of the fact it thinks I’m a kid.  You think I’m going to get it to interpret what is clearly an uphill slope as something downhill?”

“Guys,” Rain said.  As he leaned away from the pillar, Colt leaned in.  The scene being displayed changed to parents, friends.  Flashing images, none lasting any longer than a second, with a wide variety of expressions.

“You need more quiet?” Gilpatrick asked.  “Is this it?”

“I need you to focus on… think of loved ones.  People you care about the most.”

Gilpatrick’s parents had passed.  Just a short while ago, he’d been in a vision, telling Lucky that, that he was redoing their place.  His girlfriends were gone.

He thought of them all the same.  Heather and Merindah and Val.

He thought of students who warmed his heart and gave him hope.  He went out of his way to include Jasper in that.  As obnoxious as the kid could be, the guy was a force for good in the world.

He watched, and he saw the energy at their feet traveling along various routes and courses.  Dancing along the surface, to destinations so distant he couldn’t see them.

“Okay, stop,” Rain said, looking between that energy and the images on the pillar.  “I need… just me, Love Lost, Colt, and any of you who secretly have powers who joined this mission…”

“What the shit?” Marcial asked.

“…I need all of you to focus on your relationship to your powers.  If you don’t have powers-”

“I think we might,” Diaz said.

“Okay, yeah, probably,” Rain said.  “You’ve got the lightning at your feet, I’m pretty sure you were connected to the network.  You-”

The detonation hit at the horizon.  A volcano might have erupted and not felt as violent as this did, because this vibration sang along and through everything, ground and air.

The plume of destruction was narrow and tall.  Had there been clouds, it might have touched the clouds.  Crimson dust and chunks of ground.

It took forty seconds to a minute before the shards began raining down around them.

“Fuck me,” Marcial said.  “The-”

The other detonations occurred further away.  At points on the distant horizon.  The initial blast to their ‘west’, two more to the east now.

Cracks spread along the already shattered landscape.

“I didn’t really think of how fucking hellish it would be to be inside this thing as they cracked it open!” Marcial finished.  “I thought we’d be clear of it!”

“We are,” Rain said.

“Hey,” Hanson said, pointing.

The images on the crystal were frozen.  Every facet of the crystal had a different image, and each image was presently a flickering, snarling face.

Rain hurried between pillars, checking, searching.  Everything was locked into place.

“This is our distraction?” Cox asked.

The prior detonations were dwarfed by what came next.  The plumes of dust and debris had been like the eruption of a volcano, before.  At the first site of detonation, there was a second explosion that shattered three-fifths of that particular island.  For a moment, the cloud of dust was tinted gold from a light from within.

“I know I’m fucking distracted!” Marcial said, clearly nervous.

The entire landscape tilted.  It was a question of two or three degrees, but that was enough to send a carpet of tiny shards sliding down some slopes.

“I need the people with powers they’re familiar with to focus on those powers,” Rain said.

“I see what you’re doing,” Colt said.  She put a hand against one of the pillars.  Rain picked up her hand and moved it to another face of the same crystal.  “I think so, anyway.”

Off to the side, Love Lost closed her eyes.

The landscape had already been a plain of red crystal, segmented into islands by cracks that ran impossibly deep.  Now sections sloughed off and dropped away into the abyss.  Islands subdivided.  Lights danced everywhere, like lightning crackling along the surface and finding nowhere to go.

Distant figures were highlighted.  Some evidenced cracks.  Others toppled.  Giants hidden in the darkness.

Gilpatrick jumped as a flash of light emitted from where they were, back in the direction they’d come.

“There,” Rain said.

The light continued to travel its route, having to reroute, dodging around.

That particular island, which Gilpatrick could view as the peak of a mountain with a chunk of crystal atop it, saw segments break away, leaning away from the center mass.

“That’s a thing we can do,” Rain said, watching.  “I’m not sure if it’s a good thing, but… it feels right.”

Love Lost reached over, grabbing him by the upper arm.

“What did you do?” Marcial asked.

“I disconnected you guys.”

“You took these powers we never got to use?” Gilpatrick asked.

“I don’t think I could do that,” Rain said.  He looked at Love Lost.  “But I don’t think you’ll be sucked into the dream every night.  I wanted to spare you that, at least.”

Love Lost’s expression changed, as she leaned closer to Rain, until Gilpatrick worried she might hurt the boy.  He stepped in, and she stopped.

“I don’t think we could, Nicole- Love Lost,” Rain said.  “I don’t think I could cut you out of the room, or stop the dreams.  We’re too enmeshed.”

“Try,” she rasped, her eyes glittering.

“It might kill you, or leave you stranded here.  Or… something.  It could leave you and me and Colt like the Capricorn brothers.  Except… With chunks of each other left inside each other.  I could separate them because they were just tacked on.  There’s been no integration, no information sharing, no interrelated experiences.”

“Show me,” she said.  “Let me see.”

“I…” he said, staring at her.  In the background, more crystal was cracking and sloughing off.  “…Don’t really trust that you wouldn’t do something.”

“Wow,” Marcial said.  “She jumps in there to save your life and this is the treatment she gets?”

“Uhhh,” Colt said, her eyes wide.  “I kinda agree with Rain.  She would.”

Love Lost scowled, then turned away.

“So… that was doable, because we have a good concentration of people here and a very cut and dry addition to this puzzle,” Rain said.  He looked so nervous.  “It’s a good test run-”

“One where you targeted us and brain damage, chunks of us left inside each other, and being stranded were possibilities,” Diaz said.

“For me as much as you.  More than you.  I’m- Love Lost, Colt and I, we’re integrated,” Rain said.  “We don’t have a lot of time.  The defenses are down, and there’s stuff I can be doing.  I just need to find-”

He touched the crystal, then looked over the chasm at the lowest-tallest point of the hill.

“-Down there.”

“What’s down there?” Gilpatrick asked.

“Each island is a separate network.  They broke apart and stopped being able to form bridges when Scion died.  We want access to that network.”

“How do we get over there?”

“I think…” Rain said.  “If I had to choose one part of my experiences I don’t need my- or our agents to keep to use against us…”

He touched the crystal.

The images, stuttering, often frozen, all changed, everywhere near them.

To a woman, not far off from Gilpatrick’s age, but so wispy, frail, and pale that she looked older than she was.  Her eyes were cold, her mouth thin-lipped.  Even though it was just an image, she managed to look down on everyone present.

“Might get- is getting a bit fucky,” Rain said.

The image spread, taking over the surroundings.  It crawled across the ground, so that faces, stretches of face, and the woman’s cold eyes, all took individual facets of the landscape around them.

“Christine Mathers,” Kelly said.

With those words, like she had been invoked, scenes on nearby crystals showed a young Rain kneeling on a bedroom floor, while the woman held him by his hair, jerking his head this way and that while she screamed.

There was no sound, but Gilpatrick knew it was screams by the way her face contorted.

The images spread further.  The energy traveling along the ground traced along the edges of those images, formed eyes and skeletal hands.

“And this is with the security, for lack of a better way of putting it, off,” Rain said.

A cliffside near them cracked, then broke.

The images winked out.

The broken section of cliff sloughed off, then toppled.

It crashed violently against the island on the other side of the chasm.  Forming a crude bridge.

Still a bit of a jump to get down there, but… Gilpatrick nodded.  He could see the way that had been formed.

“I could um,” Rain said, “I have no idea how it would work, but I could try sectioning off your daughter from the island.  It might alter your power, but it would also mean it has less material to use for your dreams.”

Love Lost shook her head.

“Okay,” Rain said. “Colt?”

“We have other stuff to do.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

Gilpatrick followed Rain to the slope where the chunk had broken off.  It was a bit like going down a slide to try and land on a three-foot wide plank.  It was wider than three feet, but as far as Gilpatrick was concerned, the slopes on either side of those three horizontal feet were too steep, threatening to send anyone trying to stand on them down and over the edge.

Three feet was a lot, but not when approaching it at a slight angle and a high velocity.

Rain was first down the slope.

He skidded along three feet of the column, hit the slope, and used it like a skateboarder might ride in a ‘u’ pipe.

Gilpatrick waited until three more people had gone before he felt confident enough in his interpretation of that particular space before following.

By the time he caught up, Rain was already at another set of pillars.

The light flashed out, jumping out to the distance, and over the horizon.

“What did you do this time?” Gilpatrick asked.

“Broke up some of the Titans,” Rain said.  “I think I got one.”

“We got one,” Colt said.  “We could push for more.”

“Not without unwanted attention,” Rain said.

There were more of the ‘security’ on the horizon, shaken and immobilized, now starting to rouse.

“We wait until the next opportunity.  Until then, we need to stay safe,” Rain said.

Test run using the familiar and stable, Gilpatrick put it together.  And then a decisive blow.

“What’s next?” Gilpatrick asked.

“We might not get to decide,” Colt said.

Gilpatrick looked at her, concerned.

Then followed her gaze.

At the top of the ledge, Cox and Valentin stood on the clifftop near the other cluster of crystals.  They hadn’t descended.

The pair stared down at them, looked over in the direction where the flash had gone, and then started running in the opposite direction.

Love Lost was the first one to give chase.  Rain was second.

Gilpatrick followed.

The landscape screamed.  The sky was illuminated by flashes of light, and those flashes reached down to touch the landscape around them.

The damage Victoria’s side had done had opened up cracks, broken connections, separated islands.  Rain and Colt had done strategic damage, focused on Titans.

It gave them a hope that a sustained attack could be mounted, and the threat of the titans forging enough connections to close this loop and shatter Earth at least had something of an answer, now.  It wasn’t an easy or perfect answer, but they had their options.

But this… this was the opposite of that, in a way.  Islands moved, creaking and screaming, scraping against one another, with a glass-on-glass sound.  The light flashed down in beams and rays, and when they were done, what had been two was one, and flashes of light that had had nowhere to go were now traveling the distance.

They made their way through a forest of thin, spire-like crystals.

A funhouse, but there was nothing fun about it.

Gilpatrick saw himself in that forest of reflections.  Not images he’d seen with his own eyes, but instead they were images captured from memories, surmising, from snapshots taken by a camera that hadn’t been there.

The one edge of the forest seemed to capture revulsion.  A time he’d been sick.  When he’d been a teenager and his face had been caked with acne for eight months.  When he’d been low, so depressed his self image had been distorted, warped, and he hadn’t recognized his own face in the mirror.  The face he’d thought he might have, then, was now represented on one blade of crystal.

Into another field of emotion.  One was as recent as his bout of rage when the beast had howled at him.  There was a look of satisfaction on his face, following a decisive line he’d dropped in a fight he now regretted having.  His every ugliness, his every bit of himself he could hate, distilled in crystal.

They’d caught up with their targets.  Valentin and Cox.

Gilpatrick glanced at Rain, and looked past the boy to see images.  Contorted in rage.  Beaten and bleeding.  Hopeful, weirdly.  There were more than a few of the boy wearing a demon mask.  Several of his face lit by flame.

“What you’re doing, it’s dangerous,” Rain called out.

Valentin looked up.

Reflected in the crystal behind the androgynous man was a woman, with face coloration like a blindfold, and strict bangs across her forehead.

Behind Cox was a doll’s face, reflected a dozen times by a dozen different crystal faces.  Sometimes slick with blood.

“Titan Fortuna, Contessa, she’s forming connections to the other Titan networks.  Our reality is breaking down as hers wins out,” Rain said.

“Isn’t it fitting or fair that she gives us the distraction we need to fix a problem she helped create?” Cox asked.

Gilpatrick walked around.  The pair weren’t acting especially scared, even as they were surrounded.

“I know of Matryoshka,” Rain said, indicating Valentin.  “I didn’t think she was a part of the community.”

“Enough of one.  In this, we’re on the same side,” Matryoshka-Valentin said, voice accented now, like an act had been dropped.

“I’m not technically,” said the doll who had appeared as a girl, who had appeared as a soldier.  “But they included me, brought me in.  I owe them everything.  This… this body is me.  Before I changed to that.”

She indicated the doll heads.

“I’m not unhappy.  I’m lucky enough I can be human, if I can get bodies.  They aren’t.  We can change that.”

“It’s dangerous,” Rain said.

Gilpatrick saw letters, and watched as a facet of crystal showed ribbons coming together.  Two bodies overlapping like they were being woven together.  Two officers, with their individual uniforms, pulled together.

He knew one of them, he was shocked to see.  Elaine Chapo.

Another, dusty and unconscious, was a man.  The name on his Patrol uniform read ‘Roux’.

“You can’t do this without…” Rain was saying.

As the layers wove over one another, the ribbons blurred.  Letters intermingled, rearranged as ribbons moved.  Chox.  Rhao.  Rap.  Roo.  CRa.  Chx.

Searching for and struggling to find a working order, by whatever logic they operated by.

Faces changed, like the woman was trying on different proportions of features.

When she was done, or done enough, she pulled off her jacket and tossed it away.

Tossed it to the doll girl, apparently.

He had to walk around to see the reflection of the doll girl in the same pillar, that showed them putting their faces on, so to speak.

The doll head, forcing its way into the mouth of a civilian’s corpse, dusty.  Fingers pried and dug into flesh, cracked bone, and drove wedges in, parting the face down the middle as she squeezed in.  The ‘rookie’ he’d seen in the house, before they’d all gone under and come here.

“We’re not going to hurt you or get in your way.  If you want to stop her, you can,” Matryoshka-Valentin said.  “But we need to do this.  It may be our last chance.”

“If you want to do this at a time things are sane and there’s no risk of collateral damage, you can,” Rain said.  “I will bring you along next time.  I’ll swear it to you.  Sveta is my friend, I know how important it is.”

“You yourself said we need distractions,” Cox the doll girl said.  “We had a close call with the ‘security’ on the way here.  Someone’s agent.”

“Please don’t do this,” Rain said.  “You can’t build, you can’t make things normal by cutting away.  We’re working with crude tools in a material we barely understand.  I wasn’t willing to work on Love Lost because she was too deeply integrated.  How integrated do you think powers are if they’re bound into people’s skin, hair, or hearts?”

“We might be running out of time!” Kelly called out.  Late to arrive.  “People are signalling!  Things are getting bad over there!”

“It’s our choice to make,” Matryoshka-Valentin said.  “I know enough case fifty-threes who would roll the dice, if those dice included a chance of dying and a chance of being normal.”

“You have work to do,” the doll girl said.  “You might have an opportunity to send some signals, make some last-second changes.  You should leave us to do this.”

“You’ll regret it forever, if you end up killing these people you owe so much to,” Rain said.  “I know I have no place saying this when you guys have life harder, so much of the time-”

“I’ve seen enough to say you get a bit of a pass,” Matryoshka-Valentin said.  “Tough home life.  You’ve bled more times in a week than many people do in a lifetime.  I can see it.”

Rain looked at nearby crystals.

“Rain,” Gilpatrick called out.  “We need to make all of this worth the lives we lost.  Is this conversation going to get us there?”

“I’m trying to stop something terrible from happening,” Rain said.

“Let us work,” Matryoshka-Valentin said, accent turning the ‘work’ into a ‘vork’.  “We don’t have long either.”

“The work you’re doing is dangerous!” Rain insisted.

A nearby island was fused into place.  In that flash, Gilpatrick worried he could see the silhouette of a Titan.

“I’m worried,” Colt said.

Rain turned her way.

“Rain,” Gilpatrick said.  “I’ve been asking you why you want to do this.  Separating the Titans is good, it’s… critical.  But we can do more.”

Rain clenched his fists.  “Why are you worried, Colt?”

“I think you understand all of this from a…” Colt grasped for the word.  Gilpatrick hated every second of delay.  “…handyman perspective.  I’m-”

“You’re a dreamer, you’re approaching this from an abstract angle,” Rain said.

“Exactly!” Colt said.  “Intuition.  I understand the dreams in the dream room, I can mess with them, because the power is so close to me.  And by that same feeling and understanding, I’m getting a sense of what she’s doing, by the…”

Again, grasping.

Gilpatrick was tense.  He glanced back at the pair sitting in the forest clearing, hands poised near crystals.  “She who?”

Fortuna,” Colt said.  “The Titan.  The one who’s knitting together this landscape and making more Titans as we speak.  She wanted the damage to be done the way it was done.”

“She wants this,” Rain said.  He looked at the two case fifty-threes.  “You guys see her as an enemy?”

“Yes,” Matryoshka-Valentin said.

“You’ll never forgive her?  The case fifty-threes who you’re planning to fix?  They’re never going to stop seeing her as an enemy?”

“Never,” Matroyshka-Valentin said.

“Then there is never going to be a way this isn’t playing right into her hands,” Rain said.

The words hung in the air.  Light flashed in the distance.  Islands knit together.  Expanses of crystal bright enough to be more red than black showed reflections of the world on the other side.  Sections of city falling into chasms that opened wider.

“By that logic,” the doll girl said.  “There’s absolutely nothing you can do that isn’t playing into her hands, either.”

Rain seemed stricken by that.

“We should try anyway,” the doll girl said.

But Matryoshka, hand poised near a crystal, didn’t move.

“Shouldn’t we?” the doll girl asked, hopeful.

“It would be too tidy a way to execute too many of her direct enemies.  He’s right,” Matryoshka said.

“I will help you,” Rain said.  “If there is a way to do this, I will help you find it.  Just approach me directly.”

“If it’s even possible to, later,” Matryoshka said.  “This?  She’s winning.  If she hasn’t outright won.”

Rain shook his head.

But he looked lost.  Spooked.  On the edge of panic.

Too much on a boy’s shoulders.

“Love Lost, Marcial?” Gilpatrick asked.  “Can you get those two?  Get them away from where they can do anything problematic?  We don’t have long.”

“Two minutes at most,” Colt said.  “Pretty sure.”

Love Lost and Marcial picked up the two infiltrators, who didn’t resist or pull away.

They were all going to be awake in a minute anyway.

Rain stood there, in the center of the clearing, tense.

“Rain,” Gilpatrick said.  This is part of my job.  Supporting them.

He prayed his words to this teenager would reach or provide an answer where Gilpatrick had once failed Lucky Break.

Rain looked at him.

One thing he’d always wanted to ask Lucky, or say to Lucky…

“Step back.  Calm down.  If you had a friend who was standing where you are now, what advice would you give them?”

Rain shook his head.

“Wouldn’t you tell them, at least, that there’s no time left to do anything?  We got Skadi away from her peers.  That’s going to save a lot of lives.  Accept that.”

Rain turned his head, like he was about to shake ‘no’.

But he kept turning.  His body turned- he started running, pushing past the forest of crystals with a violence that saw his hand and shoulder bloody after the moment of impact.

Gilpatrick followed.

Rain, running to the largest, most obvious crystal nearby, just past the forest.

Throwing himself at it, so he slid forward on his knees and shins, touching it while there was still time.

Gilpatrick watched as scenes were reflected.  Flickering, briefly lived.

An image of a courtroom.

An image of Swansong, Rain’s departed teammate, except more animated and alive than any of the ones Gilpatrick had seen so far.

“Pass it on,” Rain said, quiet.

In the background, Colt collapsed.  Others began to topple like dominoes.

They were waking up.

“What did you do?” Gilpatrick asked.

They woke, and the house was shaking.

Valentin was already on two feet, running.  Natalie was pushed out of the way.  Gilpatrick was still waking up, pulling himself up off the ground.  The confusion of other senses slowed him down, or else he might have grabbed them.

Face split open, ‘Cox’ lay on the floor, the doll head pulling itself free, skittering along the floor on legs tipped by scissors and doll-like fingers, trailing bloody ribbons, chains, and fishing lines with hooks.  ‘Valentin’ scooped her up.

“It’s not what I did,” Rain said, rubbing at his eyes.  “It’s what I said.  I sent a message, to the only person that Titan Fortuna can’t see.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Infrared – 19.b

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

One hand resting on the gun at his hip, Gilpatrick used the back of his hand to push a door open.  The room was dark, the air stale.  The bed looked like the frame had been made by the occupants, with a thick headboard and footboard, crosses etched into each.  The bed was made.  A snapshot of life here.

A rifle was mounted above the headboard.  Standard issue bolt-action that the government had produced for hunting, handing out to the people going out to the fringes.  Gilpatrick walked down the side of the room, checked the adjoining bathroom, then under the bed, and finally removed the rifle from the mount.  He popped out the bullet that was pre-loaded into the chamber.

Credit where credit was due, the occupants had put this house together themselves, built their rough-hewn furniture, and carved out a life for themselves.  As something of a consequence, everything felt coarse, here.  Blue curtains with a texture like burlap, wooden furniture that had been sanded enough to remove any chance of splinters or clothing catching on it, oiled, and set in place.

Bible on the bedside table.  He moved it to turn the page, and noted the square of dust-less surface left behind.  No annotations, no modifications.

Turning back toward the door, he noted a paddle mounted on the wall, leather strips criss-crossing the handle for grip, holes in the wood, probably to make it hurt more.  The words ‘spare the child’ were written in the spaces between the holes.

He walked over to the next room.  Same furniture, but the curtains were purple, and a flower wallpaper had been put on the upper half of the walls, a corner peeling away in one spot, another spot that rippled where too much adhesive had been used.  A touch of femininity in a space that afforded little.  Two guitars sat in the corner, one resting on a chair, the other against the wall.  There were books on the bedside table, not dissimilar to the rifle on the wall in the master bedroom.  Mass produced to fill a need.

It felt invasive to enter when the space was so much more personal, but he investigated nonetheless, doing a circuit, checking a doorway to find a closet, most of the contents removed.

The dresser had a series of portraits across the top, alongside some simple jewelry.  A girl who could have fit in at any high school or in Gilpatrick’s Patrol Block… who seemed maybe too normal to be in his Patrol Block.  The girl pictured for what might have been a graduation photo.  Her with her parents, a pinched looking woman and a stern, unsmiling man, displaying enough joy to make up for the two of them.

Spare the child, he thought.  He had no doubt that paddle had been used on this girl by those people.

The last picture gave him a moment’s pause.  It lay flat, like it had fallen over or been placed face-down.  He picked it up- and saw what looked like a crime scene photo.  A person, he couldn’t tell who or what gender, with face taking up the entirety of the shot, face swollen to the point the one visible eye wouldn’t open, mottled by bruising and flecks of blood. He wasn’t positive it wasn’t a picture of a corpse, kept among family pictures.  Too much rosiness in the complexion to be a body.  Probably.  It took him a moment to double check, note the girl had a mole by her eyebrow that the person pictured didn’t, to confirm it wasn’t a picture of herself she’d kept.

Given the same simple wooden frame as the rest.  Included among the rest, though placed so she couldn’t or wouldn’t see it regularly.

He left the room behind.  The bathroom was the next room, a cheap plastic curtain held up around a plastic tub by a loop of metal pipe.  The shower itself was a pipe that stabbed upward through the floor, had a bend, and a simple shower head attached.  No typical shampoo or soap.  Just soap as rough as the rest of the things in this house, and a nearly empty jar of what looked like bacon grease.

There were two rooms at the end of the hallway.  One looked to be a guest room.  The other – it would be Rain’s.  A little workshop table, a bed, a bedside table, and a set of shelves with a few articles of summer clothing on them.  Secondhand clothes, by the looks of it.  The bed was unmade and had been for a while.

There were no closets or doors in the other rooms, so he didn’t feel the need to enter and check.  He did drop down to a crouch, sitting on his ankles, to get a view under the beds.

It was only when he was done that his hand moved away from his gun.

An anxious habit of his, to ‘clear’ a space.  He did it when he got home after more than twenty four hours of being away.  He made a point of doing it or having the kids he trusted do it when they were in a new and unfamiliar place, situation allowing.

Nashua, New Hampshire, his squad had run into cage people- eight feet tall, thick around the chest, bearing improvised weapons, they had captured people as power sources, scooping them up, shackling them in fifty places, and using the shackles to position them, leg inside the cage person’s leg, arm inside the cage persons’s arm, head inside the hollow head, peering through the grate-like mouth.  Unwilling passengers and power sources who, because humans weren’t eight feet tall, often suffered breakages to all four limbs when the cage people’s limbs bent at different points than the passengers.  One of the passengers had been caught within for two and a half days, dehydrated and delirious, with severe damage to all four limbs.  Two more had died.

He still remembered the sounds, and those frantic fights where they had tried to dismantle the things without hurting those within.  They’d never caught, found, or heard of the Master who had created the things after the incident.

In Manchester, he had checked in regularly with Lucky Break, a kid with powers.  Wards were a non-consideration according to the kid, and at sixteen he was old enough to be emancipated and independent, yet too young to take good care of himself.  Then-twenty-five, Gilpatrick had tried to offer the best advice he could, while watching the kid ping-pong around the local cape scene.

At an age when many kids were still figuring themselves out, L.B. had been flirting with villains, trying his hand at being a mercenary, and doing odd jobs for odd teams.  Gilpatrick had pulled strings when the kid had been brought in for questioning, had let stuff slide or pretended not to know the full story, just to stay close to the kid, because the alternative had been that the boy wouldn’t have any guidance at all.

But Lucky Break found what he was looking for, apparently.  Then-seventeen year old L.B. got into a relationship with villainess Pirouette, or Pirou for short.  Gilpatrick couldn’t know the woman’s age for certain, but between her visible tattoos and how long he’d known she’d had the tattoos, he was comfortable putting her somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-two to thirty-four.  The start of the relationship had coincided with the end of Gilpatrick’s ability to get L.B. to listen to anything he said.

Eight months later, a forensics team was excavating L.B. from a barrel that had been filled with concrete and dropped to the bottom of Massabesic Lake.  Gilpatrick hadn’t been able to finish reading the report of what had happened pre-mortem.

No knowing if L.B. had cheated his team and invited reprisal, or if it was connected to Pirou being seen with an ex of hers just weeks after L.B. had first disappeared.  No knowing if there was something else he could have said, or if it would have been better for him to take the kid by the shoulders and shake him violently until he came to his senses, or scream at him, beg, or make offer of a couch to sleep on for just a day or a few hours of normal.

Or if being known to exchange a casual ‘hello’ with the guy in the PRT jacket had marked L.B. out as a rat, and doing absolutely nothing at all would have been best.

It made the dark corners of the world feel darker.  So Gilpatrick investigated the corners.

He stopped at the girl’s bedroom door again, standing in it, staring out across the room at the picture.  More than a moment’s pause, this time.  A minute.

“Gil?”

Gilpatrick turned.  Rain stood halfway up the staircase.  The boy was, like so much about this house, rough at the edges.  Small, old scars, an uneven line to the nose, hair short but not perfectly even, with just a bit of fuzz at his cheeks and chin, a hint of acne.  He wore his costume without the mask portion of it.

Almost the opposite of L.B., who had been stylish, polished, fragile, and carried himself like he was invincible.

“Sorry.  It’s my habit to sweep an area if I feel worried,” Gilpatrick said.

“That’s a good idea,” Rain said.  “I don’t think anyone’s been here for a while, but we’ll be vulnerable while we’re in the dream.  It can’t hurt to double check.”

“You’re not offended I’m prying?”

Rain shrugged.  The mechanical arms that were attached to his elbows gave his arms extra weight, and made the shrug heavier.  “I’d be happy to get any insights.  I’m still trying to figure it all out.  Or even a reminder about what’s screwed up about all of this.”

“Your parents, their bible was normal.”

“Aunt and uncle.  Yeah.  They were hardline Fallen, but they’d go back to the actual bible as their tried-and-true.”

“How do they reconcile that?” Gilpatrick asked.

Rain shrugged again, heavy.  “They just do.”

“Your sister- or cousin?”

“Cousin.”

“She packed her clothes but didn’t bring the guitars.”

“She had four, I think.”

“Mmm,” Gilpatrick grunted.  “I don’t want to sound weird about my fixation on this, I know I was just staring off into space, your cousin’s room, now I’m asking a lot of questions.”

“Nah.  I think you could find a hundred things to stare at and question in this house.  I know I do a lot of thinking about little things.”

“I can understand your Aunt and Uncle, I think-”

“Sure.”

“-And I think I have a grasp of who you are.  But your cousin- there’s a picture on her dresser.”

Rain tilted his head to one side, then ascended the stairs.  Gilpatrick stepped out of the way and let Rain enter the bedroom.

Gilpatrick watched as Rain found the framed photo in question.

“Weird,” Rain said.

“No clue what that’s about?”

“Not at all.”

It really fucking bothers me, Gilpatrick thought.  It felt like that ugliness he’d gotten used to looking in dark corners for, except it sat right out there in the open.  Unashamed, unabashed.

“Any ideas?” Gilpatrick asked.

“A punishment or a reminder maybe,” Rain said.  “If she stayed out too late or spent too much time around someone my Aunt and Uncle deemed subversive, maybe it was a reminder of what happens to the unfaithful.”

“And they make her keep it on her desk?”

“Knowing Allie, they’d ask to get a picture of the unfaithful friend or boyfriend after punishments were meted out, and tell her to look at it and remember there are rules.  Or whatever.  And so she put it in a frame and kept it on her desk as a kind of middle finger to them.  Because one way you deal with all of this is to accept it without flinching, or by doing the opposite of flinching, and pretend it doesn’t bother you.  She was better at that than I was.”

“How is she now?”

“I don’t really know,” Rain said.  “She doesn’t talk to me.  She still hangs out with people from the compound.  Fallen.  Looks after my Aunt while my Uncle is in prison.  I guess Allie’s way has its flaws, if you pretend so long it becomes your reality.”

Rain said it all without flinching.  Like it didn’t bother him.

Gilpatrick was silent.

Rain picked up the picture, used his other set of hands to open up the frame, and checked the back, before shaking his head.  “I don’t think I’m right.”

“About?”

“It being someone she knew.  Unless this predates my joining the family, and I don’t think it does.  I don’t recognize this person, and I don’t remember hearing about this.”

Rain set the picture down.  Pale skin, bruises, reds and purples in a pale wood frame, next to family pictures and self-portraits.

“That’s going to bug me,” Gilpatrick said.

“I get it,” Rain said, not moving from the dresser.  “A lot of stuff bugs me like that.”

There was creak at the stairs.  Gilpatrick turned.  Victoria’s lawyer friend.

“We’re ready,” Natalie said.

“Got it,” Rain said, from his cousin’s room.  “Coming down.”

Gilpatrick waited for Rain, and walked down the stairs with him.  Seeing people downstairs, Rain started to pull his mask on, then decided against it.

“No mask?” Gilpatrick asked.

“No point.  You’ll see.”

Gilpatrick frowned.

The living room was cast in a red light.  Lookout was there, mask on.  A movie played without a screen, suspended in the air above a cube that sat on the floor.

It was Breakthrough, in mixtures of civilian clothes and costumes, faces blurred out.  They were in a place that looked like the photographs crews had gotten of the space beneath the cracks.  Monsters very like Endbringers.

“Oh!” Kenzie said.  “Gilpatrick.  Should I start from the beginning so you can see?”

“I’m not sure I see the use,” Marcial said.  “I’m not really understanding what I’m seeing.  Objective?”

“Get to where we can adjust the data.”

“To do what?” Gilpatrick asked.

“We’ll figure it out when we get there.  Depends on the situation,” Rain said.

Which sounds really confident, but amounts to ‘I don’t know’, Gilpatrick thought.

“Now tell us the tactics we need,” Marcial said.

Marcial was built more like a model than a soldier, but she had her battle scars- one earlobe was missing, her eyebrow was cut in half by a scar where hair didn’t grow, and her nose was a bit crooked, owing to an old break.  Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail.  Veteran New York PRT, a squaddie who had probably clocked more hours on battlefields than any of the capes or civilians still in this compound.  They would be high-intensity hours, too.

Gaymon was Marcial’s friend.  In some ways he was her polar opposite, an attractive guy with a sharp nose, jawline, and lips made unattractive by a constant, slight sneer and natural glare to his eyes, wavy blond hair slicked back.  No scars- Gaymon had done his years as a squaddie, graduated to a position where he hadn’t been required to carry a gun, and settled there.

Not people Gilpatrick would have chosen, had he been given the opportunity to handpick people

He recognized some of the other faces.  Ten people in total.  Members of the Patrol and captains of the Patrol.  Diaz, Early, Bastian, Kelly, Valentin, Hanson, and Cox.  He knew half of them and got the names for the other half from names printed on uniforms.

“For strategy,” Rain said, “to start with, we dream.  I have no idea how that’s going to work when you have Coronas and no powers-”

“It should work,” Lookout said, walking over to the device that was situated in the middle of the living room, a laptop computer attached and sitting atop it.

“-But how, dreamwise?” Rain asked.  When he didn’t get a clear response, he said, “The dreams suck.  But they’re our entry point.  After the dreams, stay put.  I think as long as you stay in your designated area, you’re safe.  We’ll all be in a room with clear separation between spaces, and what we’re wearing will depend heavily on our self image.  Or the agent’s perception of what our self image should be.”

He paused, as if anticipating questions.  He got none.  Even the Patrol kids, eighteen or nineteen, were focused and listening.

“There will be two or three other people present.  I say two or three because Cradle, a twenty year old with glasses, we killed him in the dream-space last night, he apparently ended up brain damaged beyond repair.  I don’t know if he comes back.  There will also be Love Lost and Colt.  Two capes who are cooperating with us.  Villains, but cooperative.  Love Lost has been part of this particular room from the beginning.  Colt was linked into it.”

“You’re losing me,” Gaymon said.

Rain kept going, “Most importantly, there will be a monster present.  Our best guess is it will have emotion control powers.”

He was rambling a bit, but that was fine.  The pertinent info was there.  It just had to be sorted out.

“Standard protocols for dealing with emotion powers?” Gilpatrick asked, to give Rain a bit of a starting point.

“I- I honestly don’t know.”

“General practice is to use logic for emotion driven pressure,” Marcial said.  “Think your way through situations when you know your heart is lying to you.”

“I mean, okay, yeah, didn’t know that,” Rain said.  “But I don’t know because we’re dealing with the heavy hitters.  Closer to Titans or Endbringers than anything.  I don’t see that being something you can just think through.

“Okay,” Marcial said.

“We were told this was important,” Cox said.  A blonde rookie from the Patrol.  “Why?”

“Okay, past the room we’re in- to go back a step, we need to get around this monster that’s guarding the space, get to the door, and we’ll find ourselves in… this space.”

Rain indicated the screen that was showing a dim replay of last night’s events.

“Once we’re there, there’s a subtle logic to the space.  We navigate it, we find a key point, and then we time what we’re doing.  Antares and the heroes are planning an attack.  We’re doing something more subversive.  It makes sense once you’re in there, and I think it makes more sense if you’re more in tune with your powers… or that part of you closest to powers, I guess.  I sort of figured it out, but Antares and Damsel were good at it.  It makes more sense when you’re in there.”

“You said that already,” Gaymon said, voice low, almost resentful.

“Sorry,” Rain said, without any cringe or change in expression.  Most of his attention was on figuring out what needed to be shared and how. “It’s all interconnected.  Everything about powers ties into this place, and, by that reasoning, this place is our chance to adjust variables, change things around.”

“What things?” Cox asked.

Same question I asked.

“We decide when the time comes.  The people on the surface might be able to communicate some, or opportunities might arise if their mission succeeds.  If they fail, we might want to distract.”

It wasn’t a bad answer, all considered.

Rain set his jaw.  “There are tricks to moving through the space, because a part of it is interpretive.  It’ll be easier to show you when we’re there than to tell you.  More important is the room we’ll be in at the start.”

He paused, frowning a bit.

“The monster,” Gaymon said, impatient.  “That’s as bad as an Endbringer?  What are we doing about it?  Are there weapons?  Your powers?”

“No powers, they said,” Valentin said, his arms folded, expression serious.  He was a narrow man with a pointed chin, his hair in a messy pompadour.

“You might have weapons, Tattletale did, but explaining why would take time, and we only have minutes,” Rain said.  “I’m trying to balance what’s important to tell you and the possibility that meditating and focusing on the right frame of mind and self-image might arm you.”

“You’re doing a poor job of briefing us-” Gaymon said.

“Easy does it,” Gilpatrick interrupted.

“I like being armed,” Marcial said.  “Talk us through that.”

Rain looked down at Lookout, who was tinkering with the box, and Natalie, who smiled encouragingly from the archway separating the living room from the front hallway and stairs.

Gilpatrick put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “We’re on your side.  We’re with you in this.”

Rain barely seemed to take in the feedback, where L.B. had reacted so strongly to every praise and condemnation, brimming with sensitivity and reception.  Victoria, by another stark contrast, had barely seemed to notice things that made or broke other people’s moods for the day, but one innocuous cue could see her retreating to her office.

“We should sit, get comfortable.  Our bodies stay here while we appear over there as simulacra, so being comfortable will help for more than just meditation.”

“I can bring stuff into the room if it helps,” Natalie said.

Gilpatrick took his seat, next to Rain.

Had there been any argument, they could have frittered away the minutes they did have.  There was none.  In a respect, everyone present had become accustomed to the strange, some more than others.  Crazed ‘wizard’ parahumans, minions, tinkertech, reality warping, and the inherent absurdity of pretending everything was okay when such dark things happened in dark places.

A teenage boy ending up in a barrel filled with concrete and it being shrugged off because he’d worn a mask some of the time.  A woman having her consciousness transferred into the family dog and vice versa, and her tinker husband refusing to change her back.  The cage people of Nashua, a woman ending up a quadruple-amputee as a consequence.  The low level violence and madness of it.

“The goal is to get to a mental space where you have a weapon at the ready and that’s natural to you and your self-image,” Rain said.  “To start with…”

He continued from there.

Gilpatrick put his hand to his gun.  It didn’t feel like a stretch to imagine arming himself.

Marcial and Gaymon would likely have no problem either.  But they, more than anything, even more than the faces in this group that he didn’t recognize, were problems.

He’d devote his focus to dealing with them, because Marcial was a ‘shoot first, ask later’ type, and Gaymon had made no secret of the fact he agreed with the anti-parahumans.

No doubt that they’d been included because they fit the criteria.  They had coronas, Marcial had been dropped from the PRT shortly before Gold Morning because of it.  They were trained and experienced, they were available.

If this went wrong, it would be because of them.

“…breathe,” Rain said.

“Hey mom?  Mom.”

The woman put down a box, and huffed out a breath.  “What?”

“If you got superpowers, what would you do with them?”  The girl was young, with red hair, freckles on her cheekbones, and an Asian cast to her eyes.  Those same eyes sparkled.

“I never thought about it.”

“Really?  Never ever?”

“Never ever, Ever,” the woman said.  To Gilpatrick, it was like his own lips were moving.  His own heart beat.  He looked at the girl and he could feel the uneasy love the woman had in her heart for her child.

“I think about it a lot.  I’d be all wizardy, I think.  Even if I didn’t have wizardy powers.”

“I can imagine that.”

“You really never thought about it?” the girl asked.  She was sweaty from moving things, and nonetheless weaved through the piles of boxes and supplies with a boundless energy.  “What would you do, really truly?  Think about it now.”

“I suppose I’d hunt down the bad people, and I’d slit their throats.”

The girl pouted.  “Seriously?”

“I’d claw into their stomachs, feel their guts hot between my fingers, and drag the contents out of the wound.  Because you don’t get powers without something bad happening to you, and I don’t think there are many things that could push me that far without me wanting revenge of some sort.”

The words Gilpatrick heard didn’t line up with the movement of the lips.

“I’m interested in real answers,” the girl said, her expression not matching up with what had just been said.  Bored, irritated, no hint of fear.

“I think I’d do what I’m doing now, Everlyn”

This time, the words lined up with the movements of the mouth.

“Detective work?” Everly asked.

“Mm hmm.”

She’s law enforcement?

Everly took that in.  The sparkle was gone from her eye.

“You seem disappointed.”

“What would have to happen for you to decide you’re done?  Or to move on to something else?”

“I suppose if you needed me,” the woman said.  “If you got sick and needed care, I’d quit and do something else so I could watch you.  Or if I got hurt on the job, which isn’t as likely as you’d think from watching television, but… could happen.”

“But-”

The little girl stopped there.

“What?” the woman asked.  “If something’s bothering you, I want to talk about it.”

“I thought you said things would be better, mom.”

“I know the world ended, the apartment is small-”

“I don’t care about the apartment!  I’m fine with the apartment!  It’s great!  We’re so lucky, getting to live here, when others are in tents.  I care about you!  You made me promises!  You swore!”

The entire apartment seemed to rattle with the volume of the shouts.  Eerie.

“I’m keeping my promises, Ever,” the woman said, quiet.

“No,” the girl said, quiet.

“I haven’t had a drink.”

“I don’t care about the drinking.”

“You-”

“Much.  I don’t care as much,” the girl said.  She was red faced now, her eyes moist.  “I care about you going back.”

“To work?  Ever, it’s a high-demand position, they need all the law enforcement they can get, and there are survivors who know me and recommend me.  It’s why we have this apartment.”

“I don’t care about the apartment, mom!” Ever’s voice took on a higher pitch.  The apartment rattled.

“You just said you liked it.”

“I just said I don’t care!  I care about you breaking your promise to me!  I care that you get unhappy when you work!  I care that you get meaner!  I care that you’re gone all the freaking time, and you break even more promises to me!”

“I won’t.  I told you I’d keep my word and I will.”

“You just broke your word, mom!  You said things would be different!”

“They will.  Now please stop shouting.  You’ll bother our new neighbors.”

“On my last day of school, my last day of school- before everything ended!  You were late, dropping me off, because you worked late and you drank!  And you got mad at me!  And then I got in trouble with the school for being late!  They made me stay after school, remember?  To get my report card and diploma for my grade?”

“I remember, Ever.  I apologized.”

“While my friends were happy the year was ended and talking about summer camp, I was being punished for you bringing me to school so late all the time!  How shitty is that!?”

“Don’t swear,” the response was almost automatic.

Ever’s voice broke.  “I don’t get a freaking choice, mom.  When you bring me to school late, or when you divorce dad, or when you aren’t there to relieve the babysitter and they get pissy.  I’m stuck with you, I have to go along for the ride, whatever you do.”

“That’s going to change.”

“You just said it won’t!  You said if you got superpowers you would go back to doing what you did before!  I thought, hoped, maybe you were just doing it temporarily, or to get the apartment, but it’s for good!?”

The entire apartment rattled.  Gaps were visible in the spaces where things moved apart.

The woman turned her head to look at it all.  “If you’d let me explain my rationale…”

“Explain, not discuss?  Talk about it?  Is there any chance, any at all, that you’d give up this job?  Is there anything I can say that would change your mind?”

“I’m giving it a lot of thought that I haven’t until now.”

“But are you capable of changing your mind?” Everlyn asked.  “No, don’t answer that.  Change your mind, right now.  Just tell me you’ll keep your promise.”

“That’s… not fair.”

Everlyn pushed on a box that was atop a stack of three.  It fell, and it fell violently, the contents breaking, small plastic pellets spilling out across the floor.  The crash it produced became a constant noise in the background.

The girl’s expression and posture were shame, fully aware of the mess she’d made, that she was almost begging.

The constant noise continued.

“A lot of what you were describing was the drink,” the woman said.  “I hid it pretty well-”

The little girl snorted, barely audible with the background noise.

“I think you might be mistaking some of the drinking issues with work ones.”

“Don’t you get it?” Ever’s voice was soft.  “I’d rather you were a drunken loser than a police detective again.”

And then she was gone, storming out of the room, nearly tripping as she stepped on an angular bit of plastic that had spilled from the box.  The noise drowned everything out.  A babble of voices, like the neighboring apartments were filled with people and stomping feet.  Bangs.  Crashes.

The woman reached down to start to pick things up, then seemed to think twice.  She stood.  “Ever!”

Striding into the next room.  It wasn’t a room in the apartment.  She was face to face with her daughter, who wore a different outfit.  Two girls of similar age stood by, looking upset.

Her hand gripped her daughter’s arm, hard.

“Can we just go, or are you going to shout at me for another five minutes?” Everlyn asked.

“The chance to go was twenty minutes ago.  For right now I want to make this absolutely clear, you do not tell me you’ll be somewhere and then duck off somewhere else!  This is not a game and it does not win you any points!”

Ever looked at her friends, then back to her mother.  She didn’t answer.

“I’m fed up to here with you!  I was going out of my way to bring you here, give you the early allowance, and you run off?”

“Mom,” Ever said, voice tense.  She pulled back to try and get her arm free of her mother’s grip.  “You’re embarrassing me.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing!  I don’t know any other way of getting through to you!”

“Okay,” Everlyn said, mollified, cringing.

“I was worried.”

“I was safe, I was with my friends.”

“There are unsavory elements around, it’s not safe for kids your age to be wandering around without supervision.”

“I get it, fine.”

“Um,” one of the other girls said.  A blonde.

The woman turned to her.  The girl shrank back a bit.

“I’m sorry about this,” the woman told the blonde girl.

“I should go catch my bus.”

“I’ll take you home.”

“I-” the girl started.  “Okay.”

“I’m going to be late for work as it is.  It’s not much trouble,” the woman said, straightening.

She looked at her daughter.  She saw an expression-

Hurt.  Betrayal.  The little girl as the aggrieved party, now.

The moment was silent, the look unmoving, but the entire shopping mall shuddered.

“Let’s go.”

They walked, one of the girls taking her leave to rejoin her parents.  The blonde girl, Everlyn, and the woman.

A boom rattled the building.

People immediately began running.  The noise in the background became reality.  And without crossing the distance between, the woman was against the wall, in an alcove by folded tables for events, all stacked up.  Holding her daughter as best as she could while people ran past.  They skinned her fingers with the force they scraped by, too numerous, in too small a space.

She tried to bring her daughter closer, and she failed.

There was too much noise and chaos for anything she said to be heard.

With herculean effort, she pulled her daughter into her arms, hugging her for a moment.

There was a moment of quiet, a brief opportunity to utter a few words.

“I get it now.”

And then her daughter was torn from her arms by the pressure of bodies.  She leaned hard on the stack of tables- the tables collapsed.  The result was explosive, like a mousetrap snapping closed, Everlyn’s head coming down, striking a metal bar.  Lip split, eyes pointing in different directions.

No light in those eyes.

The woman screamed.

“Don’t move!”

They opened their eyes.

“Don’t move from where you are!”

Gilpatrick followed the instructions, raising only his head, surveying the area.

Patchwork, a gridwork of concrete, concrete, grass, pavement.  A mosaic-

He frowned, looking over.

The person was… had it been Valentin?  Narrow, slender, with hair in a messy pompadour.

Except his body was painted in stripes, pale, paler, and dark, hair alternating black, blond, and brown.  His clothes made no sense, and the patch of room he was in was… a mess.  Jumbled things piled atop one another.

Gilpatrick’s, by contrast… it looked like a parking lot, including two yellow lines.  He felt like he could feel moisture in the air.  From the lake.  From the ocean.

Because he’d been thinking of L.B. earlier?  Or because of Victoria, and the time he’d told her she couldn’t be with the Patrol anymore?  They’d been close to the water then, too.

No, couldn’t get distracted.

Threat assessment, he thought, checking the other end of the room.

The ‘monster’ that had been described was slender, tall, like a blade cut in the shape of a wolf, with a gradation between blue and red, with white at the main body.  It prowled, and as it did, its shape seemed to change by rules Gilpatrick couldn’t understand.

“Stay put!” Rain called out again.  “Stand but don’t leave your section!  If you can’t tell where your section starts and stops, just stay where you are!”

Gilpatrick surveyed the room.

He saw a red haired woman who hadn’t been at the meeting.  The one from the dream?  She wiped at her eye, and streaked mascara in the process.

Beside her was a girl with messy ‘grunge’ hair that Gilpatrick had seen in the video, wearing skinny jeans and a crop top, her eyes half-lidded.

And… another girl?  Brown haired, shorter, younger than anyone present.

He did a headcount.  Put names to people, helped by the fact that some, like Marcial, Early, and Hanson were wearing PRT uniforms with their names printed on them.  Marcial held an automatic rifle, on top of the body armor she wore.  A smirk crossed her face.

He was- he checked himself.  PRT windbreaker, gun at his hip.

By the headcount, his best guess… “What the hell, Cox?”

The little girl took a second to look at him, eyebrows furrowed.  She couldn’t have been older than ten.

“I have no idea,” Cox said.

“Your self-image is that of a little girl?” Gaymon asked.

“I…” Cox floundered, looking lost.

“I’m biracial,” Valentin said.  He looked at his striped arm.  “I didn’t think it had its roots that deep in me.”

The beast at the other end of the room growled, low and long.

Gilpatrick felt his heart rate rise at that, involuntary, too much of a reaction, all considered.  It kept hammering even after the growl stopped.

“I was thinking about my niece,” Cox said.  “When we saw the little girl.”

“Shh,” Diaz said.  The man glanced over at the red haired woman.  The one from the dream.

“You brought people, huh Precipice?”

“Yeah, Colt.  We talked about it on the phone.”

“I know.  I expected something different.”

Gilpatrick straightened, adjusting his clothes.  He couldn’t say it was a fair representation of who he was or what he imagined when he imagined himself… but he couldn’t say it wasn’t either.  He struggled to think of something that felt more familiar or ‘right’ to him.

This was really a thing.

“I guess this is our crash course in being parahuman,” Gilpatrick said.

“Fuck that,” Gaymon retorted.  The man wore business casual.  Had no gun.

“We don’t get the fun powers, but… jumping from personal crises to fights against giant monsters feels about right,” Gilpatrick said.  “No offense, Love Lost, ma’am.  You have my condolences.”

He saw her expression change, her full focus on the monster at the end of the room.

“Something just struck me,” Rain said.  “I should have thought about it sooner.”

“Yes you should’ve,” Gaymon said, voice terse, tense.

“Shush,” Marcial told her friend.  “What should you have thought of?”

“It’s an emotion manipulator.  Half of you are armed.  What happens if she fills you all with murderous rage?  Even for a second?”

Marcial looked down at her assault rifle.

“We’re safe once we’re through.  It can’t pursue,” Colt said.

“We actually never tested that last night,” Rain said.

“I feel like it’s right.”

Rain nodded, taking that simple statement at face value.

“Empty your guns,” Gilpatrick said.

“What?” Marcial asked.  “Bullshit.”

“We put every last bullet into that thing.  It means we can’t put those bullets in each other.  We do as much damage as we can, push through.”

“That leaves us unarmed for what comes next,” Marcial said.

“It’s better than the alternative,” Gilpatrick said.  “Assess our threat: we’re pretty sure it’s Master?”

“Love Lost is Master-class.  That thing is what’s in charge of handing her that power,” Rain said.

“Holy shit,” Gaymon said.  “Every single one of you has something like this?”

“Not quite like this.  This is a fighter.  It’s meant to protect the room.  Others… they observe, they mess with stuff.  I dunno,” Rain said.

“Every one of you capes has something sort of like this?” Gaymon asked.  “Fuck me.”

“This is a chance to understand parahumans,” Gilpatrick said.  “Not to move further from them.”

“We have a time limit before we all wake up,” Rain said.  “The more time we have, the more we can mess with the system.  Assuming we can get there.”

“Meaning shoot now?” Marcial asked.

“If you can hit that thing from where you’re at,” Rain said.  “It’s a Brute, probably.  That’s a classification, right?”

“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said.  He was trying to support the boy, keep him level, keep him focused.  His own experience with the PRT had been fighting tooth and nail against things he barely understood, like the cage people, and trying to help out the capes as best he could.

He had to privately admit that he much preferred doing the latter.

Marcial aimed down the sights of her assault rifle.  “It warps as it moves.”

“It’s four dimensional,” Rain said.  “The one last night got bigger and had more arms as we got closer.  This one might have something similar.”

“Diddle me with a broken bottle,” Marcial said.  “It can’t be as easy as pointing and shooting, can it?”

“Never, in my experience,” Diaz said.

Diaz speaking up made Gilpatrick wonder about the others.

Valentin and Cox were quiet.

Why them?

Was it just a natural result of how fucked up this dark corner of the universe was?

Fuck.

“Master, Brute, and let’s call it Breaker and let’s assume it’s not going to un-break anytime soon!” Gilpatrick called out, raising his voice.  “Emotion powers, be ready!  Stay in your quadrants, we bolt as a group when the last bullet is fired!  Communicate all context!”

“No arguments!” Marcial said. “Let me shoot first!  As soon as-”

She bent down, reaching for her ankle.  She had a gun strapped there.  She smiled, turning to Gaymon-

Then turned the other way.  “Red hair!”

Love Lost looked at her.  She looked deranged, with the smeared mascara.

“How good a shot are you?”

“Fuck you, Marcial,” Gaymon said.  “I’m not that bad a shot.”

There were a few nervous laughs around the room.

Love Lost held out a hand.

“You can shoot?”

“Better than you.”  Love Lost’s voice was soft, raw and ragged, her expression deadpan.

“Ha!” Marcial laughed.

“You’re arming the villain?” Bastian asked.

“I go by my instincts in situations like this.  I don’t trust Valentin or Cox when they’re this fucked up inside, most of the rest of you have guns, and something tells me she-”

She tossed the handgun to Love Lost.  Then she tossed the magazine.

“-spent time at the range.”

“More than you,” Love Lost said.

“Fuck you,” Marcial said.  “I’ve got two kids who I left sitting with their daddy in a tent at the edge of civilization.  I’m going to trust that you’re not going to fuck me on this, ok, Red?”

Love Lost nodded.

“Just gotta get through the door again, right?” Colt asked.

“Yeah,” Rain said.

Marcial aimed her rifle.

Gilpatrick squared his stance.  Stand and shoot.

Others did much the same.

“Those of you who aren’t armed, focus on escorting the kids,” Gilpatrick called out.

“Including fucking Cox?” Bastian asked.

“Fuck you,” Cox retorted.

“Ten!” Marcial’s voice was commanding.

She was like ice, her aim steady.

Gilpatrick’s wasn’t, but he could control his breathing.

“Nine!”

Steady his aim.  He scanned the thing for weak points.

“Eight!”

Joints.  Weak spots.  Consistent spots that didn’t warp as much as it moved.  He chose one of the spots on the shoulder, where red mingled with blue to form a shape that looked like an eye with an ‘s’ shaped pupil.  His bullseye.

“Seven!”

The beast stopped.  It looked at them with a gleam in its eyes that suggested it knew exactly what was happening.  Who they were, what they were doing.  Like it could understand them and the countdown.

“Six!”

“Time your shots, you want to be empty the moment Marcial is!” Diaz called out.

“Five!”

Valentin and Cox were still silent, still the odd ones out, expressions cold.  They paid more attention to one another than they paid to the rest of the room.  Exchanging looks.

Where were they from?

“Four!”

His scrutiny of the pair must have been obvious, because Early commented.  One of the rookies, fresh-faced, but serious.  He’d seen the kid toted around by Bash, a captain in training.  “Weird, aren’t they?”

“Three!”

Gilpatrick looked at Valentin and Cox.  “Weird how?”

“Even before, Cox’s nametag-”

“Two!”

“It was faded.  Read ‘C-p-x’,” Early said, voice quiet.  “Ink or marker-”

“One!”

“-painted over the ‘p’.”

“That’s the kind of thing you mention sooner,” Gilpatrick said.

Marcial opened fire, and as much as the room was vast, with fourteen or fifteen sections, the noise was deafening.  They had none of the usual PRT or Patrol ear protection.  No hats, nothing that muffled.  And the walls did reverberate with the sound, making it echo.

And chunks began to fall off the thing.  Bullets shattered it like it was made of ceramic, holes drilled in, cracks spreading, and sections falling off.

Except the sections that fell off weren’t anywhere near the part of the body they could see.  Ten feet away, eight feet away.  Bullets chewed into parts of it they couldn’t see while leaving the part they could see untouched.

“-Typo!” Early said, the first part of his sentence drowned out by the gunfire.

No, I don’t trust that it was a typo they covered up.  That’s two bits of weird in short successionCoincidences in this world get you killed.

Three bits of weird.  Cox wasn’t flinching at the gunfire.  She didn’t even seem bothered.  She was supposed to be a rookie and she seemed less spooked than even Marcial.

He couldn’t dwell on it too much.  Marcial was shouting over the din of the gun.

His time to shoot.

The gun fired with a force that jolted up his arms to his chest, made his head move, teeth shifting against one another.  He focused, aimed, and pulled back on the trigger.

He’d timed it right.  He ran out just about at the same time Marcial did.

Too much time at the range, getting an instinct about that sort of thing, while training his officers.

The silence and the ringing in his ears that came in the wake of the gunshots was their starter pistol, in an upside-down, fucked up kind of way.

The others were shouting, but with the hearing damage he’d sustained from the collective gunfire, they sounded far away.

He stepped beyond the safety of his section of the room, joined Rain.  Colt was running over to stick by Rain.  Love Lost was near Marcial.

He braced himself.  Don’t trust your heart.  Love Lost uses anger and rage, and the rule of thumb for anger has always been to wait six seconds.  After six seconds, the worst of any bout of anger will be gone.

Just endure for six seconds.

The beast, pieces of it still falling away, its head bowed, growled.

Gilpatrick felt his heart leap in his chest.

Love Lost screamed, at the top of her lungs, as if she could out-scream the giant red and blue blade-wolf.  It gave the thing pause, drew its attention

Bought then more running footsteps.  Five to ten paces closer to the door, as the woman communicated with this thing that had given her powers.

That same thing opened its mouth, as if to howl.

Emotions surged in Gilpatrick’s chest, but they weren’t any one emotion, nor were they every emotion together.

They were emotions like words were noise.  They searched, they carried meaning, and they demanded response.

One by one, they had gone down, losing their senses, sprawling to the floor.  All but for Valentin, Cox, Rain, Colt, and Love Lost.

Love Lost, the fastest runner in the group, Marcial steps behind, had made it maybe twenty paces from the door.  Gilpatrick was forty.

As those emotions found their root in him, digging into his heart and memories, he could connect thoughts.  He could pull out fragments, and in his efforts to fight the emotions, he clung to those fragments, that logic and understanding.

Rain had said, ‘it’s all interconnected.  Everything about powers ties into this place’.

‘Colt was linked into it’.

There was even the repeated focus on the day the people belonging to this room had gotten powers.  Returning to that over and over again.

The beast wasn’t just emotion.  It was tied into other hardware and functions.  Peak emotion.  Worst days and moments.

Gilpatrick felt it find his, dredging them up and bringing them to the surface.

It was a fragment of the greater puzzle responsible or partially responsible for trigger events.

Weaponized.

The room incapacitated with an almost casual stroke, the beast prowled forward to devour them.

He saw Valentin, Cox, and Rain at the door, dragging Early, who was small and light enough to be dragged.  Love Lost stood between the beast and three of the Patrol.  Colt was off to one side.

Then he saw nothing except abstract images.  A glimpse of a world beyond stars, and of wells of power he might not live to tap into.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Infrared – 19.4

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Our destination was a spot where one of the Titans had made his first appearance.  It hadn’t been pretty, and it made the cracking especially bad.  Chasms too wide to jump across, and two cracks that extended skyward, one forking about two hundred feet up.  They weren’t easy to see on their own, black sky against a dark gray backdrop, but the wind and moisture in the air did funny things around the edges, or snow got caught.  It gave them a faint gray outline.

Capes were gathered in loose groups, with case fifty-threes being the largest cohesive group.  What we were getting did not feel like enough.

Seventy capes, give or take five or so.  It was hard to track them in the gloom.

Buildings had fallen, and in some places, those fallen buildings formed bridges over the cracks.  Gregor the Snail was already out there, shirtless, cementing them together into something more stable.  Tristan was below me, focusing on areas where the cracks were five or more feet across, but weren’t canyons and chasms.   Red lights drifted around the cracks, then manifested with crunching, stone-on-stone sounds, erupting violently and then crumbling in a series of stages.  When he did it right, the rubble wedged against itself, covering the gaps.

It was a massive problem, that the cracks spread around us like they did.  It made me think of fighting on rooftops more than anything.  The area of each ‘island’ was often akin to the footprint of a building.  Getting around necessitated leaping from one pile of rubble to a ‘rooftop’ five feet down and five feet away.

Fuck up, fall into the gap?  It was a terminal distance down to the ground.  Same principle as a fight on city rooftops.  Unreliable footing, all wind and slipperiness factors increased fivefold?  Same as on rooftops.

Just as precarious, in another way entirely, was the existence of Titan Arachne, somewhere behind us.  Chris was supposedly keeping her busy, but saying I didn’t trust Chris was like saying I had a lot of dark feelings about my sister.  Belaboring the fucking obvious.

I really didn’t want to think about her, as much as that half-formed mental connection between her and Contessa nagged at me.  I put my gun down, then began ferrying people around, reaching down to take hands in my own, lifting them over gaps and to people and places they needed to be.

Sveta, unsteady at first, not fully trusting her body, did much the same.  She didn’t touch hands as much as she wrapped her limbs around waists and the trunks of people’s bodies and lifted them over.

Preparing our battlefield, as the Titans approached.

Dark thoughts chased me as I was waved down by a cape who was big enough and heavily armored enough to require more lift than my two arms could provide.

“Need a lift?” I asked.

“Over there,” he said, gruff.  His mouth was obscured behind the gap in the helmet, with a thick braided beard.

One eye on the horizon, I used my forcefield to pick him up.

“Woah!” he exclaimed, as I lifted him.  An armored fist crashed into my forcefield.

Broke my forcefield.  He dropped about ten feet, perilously close to a crack in reality.  Broken pavement crumbled and I flew in to try to catch him before he tipped over.

A square of forcefield appeared behind him.

“Got you,” Crystal called down.

The guy turned, looking over his shoulder and back at the chasm.  He turned toward me, angry, “What the fuck was that?”

‘That’.  Did he see you?  A power?

“It was me trying to give you a lift.”

“It felt a lot like you throwing me into the air.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I should have warned you.”

“You could have killed me.  Fuck.  I think I pulled something with that landing.”

“And she had me backing her up,” Crystal said.  “Safety net ready.  Do you want a bridge?”

The guy stormed off, stomping his way around the crack, instead of taking her offer.

“That’s not the first time you’ve had my back today.”  I was quiet.

“You’re welcome.”

“I was going to say thank you,” I said.  “Are you babysitting me?”

“A bit,” she said.  “Are you going to tell me I shouldn’t?”

I shook my head.

“You look after others, and not yourself.  So… I’ll look after you.”

“Who looks after you, Crystal?” I asked, floating, kind of happy to be flying without carrying the equivalent of an empty cement truck around with me.

“My-” she started, then looked off to the side.  “Lady Photon has my back.”

“She’s not ‘mom’?” I asked, using my fingers for quotes.

“On and off,” Crystal said.  “I’m kind of figuring it out, if you include me muttering ‘what the fuck’ to myself a third of the time, ignoring reality a third of the time, and feeling very complicated wanna-cry feelings the last third.”

“Sounds about right,” I said.  The image of Amy flashed into my head.  “She’s not mom right now?”

“Right now she’s the battlefield commander.  The mom who was out for two hours every night, minimum, right after dinner or my bedtime, depending on if Eric or me needed help with homework.  Sometimes all nighters, napping, then waking up to see us off to school before sleeping again.”

Aunt Sarah had been more ‘into it’ than my mom, in that regard.

“Can I do anything?” I asked.  “I don’t know if she’s upset you’re distant, or…”

“She’s not really noticing.  Which is fine.  It’s good, because that’s what we need, right?  We need to be good capes on this battlefield and we get through this, and after, I’ll spend time with her and bits of my mom will come back, until I don’t feel like I’m insulting my mom by comparing her to this Flock member who looks just like her.”

I nodded.

“You just keep your head on straight, baby cousin.  Communicate.  Weren’t you saying that was important, when you were bringing everyone together for the Hollow Point thing?  You can’t go staring off into the distance while doing superpowered heavy lifting.”

“Right,” I said.  “Engel stirred up some thoughts, sorry.”

“Me too, Vic.  Especially in the aftermath of the powers going crazy.”

I nodded.  “Is your forcefield strong enough to be a bridge now?”

“No idea.  But it feels different.  Harder to stretch into a ball.”

She demonstrated.  Sure enough, it wasn’t really working that way.

“And your laser?”

She fired into the forcefield.  Rather than a thin beam, it fluctuated more around a central line, and took on a magenta hue where the fluctuation stretched it thin.

“Stronger, I think.  But less cut, more heat, and I’m not sure if it’s as accurate as it was.  To get the most out of it, I might have to be in the thick of it.”

“Then don’t get the most out of it,” I told her, seriously.

“Yeah,” she said, sounding disappointed.

Capes were shouting out orders and trying to communicate, but it was a bit of a jumble.  I surveyed things, looked over to make sure the change in volume wasn’t because a Titan was appearing, and then made sure nobody was in dire need of a lift.

“It’s a good thing our targets are so big,” she said.  “Just sorta sucks.  But that’s enough about me.  That thing I was saying about you taking care of your teammates?  Tristan’s yelling.”

I turned to look.  Sure enough, his voice was among the jumble.

I flew down, one-footed landing, being gentle with the one I’d sprained.

“Please don’t,” Tristan called out, while stomping forward on the steadiest ground he had available, which wasn’t a lot.  He sounded like he was out of patience.

“You’re talking to me,” a cape said.  A woman with a costume where I couldn’t tell how much of it was winter wear and how much was decoration.  It looked like grunge with a parka, messy hair and sunglasses that reflected light as a mix of electric blue and sky blue, but scratched up.  I had no idea how she could see through the things.  Liquid dripped from her hands and formed clusters of icicle spikes as it hit the ground.  The ‘ground’ in this case was the edge of one of Tristan’s messy rubble bridges, all the rubble crushed in together to jam the crack up.

Yeah.  Please don’t fuck with it,” he said.  Each ‘please’ came with a tone that sounded more like he was saying ‘fucking’.

“That won’t hold,” she said, indicating the rubble.  “If it doesn’t hold while a cape is on top of it-”

“I know it won’t hold,” Tristan said.  “But you’re making ice.  Ice expands, especially, it seems, that ice.  Ice melts, given an excuse.  Your ice expanding and then melting is going to mess up my work.  Ice is slippery, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want people slipping while a matter of feet from a hole in reality.”

“I’m just helping, dude.  Seriously.”

“That’s not help.  Please.  I appreciate the effort but my brother used to be an ice manipulator, I’m speaking from experience.”

“Whatever, dude.”

The woman walked off.

Crystal and I floated down the rest of the way.  He saw us and huffed, still clearly annoyed.  “She was ignoring me.”

“Happens,” Crystal said.

“I could read her mind too.  Stubborn, ‘I’m going to continue, show you I can do a good job, and you’ll stop griping at me’.”

“Could be,” I said.  I thought about asking him how he was, and I wasn’t even sure how to frame it.  “Progress?”

“Some,” he said.  “I miss my old power.  Just about… any of the power variants I’ve had would be better for this situation than what I’m using now, insect legs excepted.”

“Insect legs?” Crystal asked.  “Ugh.”

“Yeahh.  I’m not even sure what to call ’em.  Turned up for a while after I killed my brother.  So, y’know, I’ve adapted.  But I like elbow room while I’m adapting, and- mi madre, why?”

He stopped with that, stopping short of saying or doing something, and stuck his arm out.

Shamrock was hopping along the bits of rubble, and as she set her weight down, the rubble shifted, scraped against other rubble, and even groaned.

“Shamrock!” I called out.

She stopped, looking over.

“Can you go get Gregor?  Cement this together?”

“It’ll hold like this,” she said.  “With a little luck.”

She winked.

I glanced over at Tristan, and by the look he gave me, we were on exactly the same page, despite the fact we’d come at it from different directions.  He had been through it with at least one other person, and I- really wasn’t in the mood for fucking winks.

“Capricorn’s going to be doing more stuff,” I told her.  “We’d rather not chance it.  Gregor would be a huge help, though.”

“Alright,” she said, hopping down and landing on ice without slipping.  Sveta was on her way back to us.  “Hi Sveta.”

“Hi,” Sveta said, wary.

“How’s your body?  A lot of us are a bit messed up,” Shamrock said.

“I’m dealing,” Sveta said.  Still curt, without much warmth.  “Are you okay?”

“A little shaky,” Shamrock said, laying a hand over her heart.  “Gregor’s okay too.”

“Can I ask?” I piped up.  “The symptoms, or… however you’d term it?”

“He says his skin feels heavier.  I have no idea what that means,” Shamrock said.  “As for me… ticking a little…”

She made a hand gesture.

“Heavier?” I guessed.

“Something like that,” she said, before adjusting her hat.  She pointed, “Going to get Gregor.  You can pick our brains when we come back.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Giving us a bit of respite.

“You were asking me earlier,” Crystal said.  “About the changes to my powers.”

I nodded.

“Yours got smaller, I’m a little hotter, less sharp-”

Tristan snorted.  Crystal flew over, driving her elbow into the armor at his shoulder, playfully.

“Tristan got some ramming power.  Sveta… I don’t know.”  I looked over at Sveta.  “Restless?”

“Restless, stronger.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

I stewed on that, my arms folded.

Capricorn set to making the next bridge.

“Would I be stepping on your toes if I created a forcefield underneath?” Crystal asked.  “Brace it when it appears?”

“That would help,” Tristan said.  “You’d be stepping on my toes if you did it without asking.”

“Got it,” Crystal said.  “Glad to help.”

“Anything I can do?” I asked.  “I could go get stuff, materials.  Maybe a central core to the build?”

“I don’t think it would survive the emerging buildingstuff,” Tristan said.  “We could try it.  And if you wanted to get me an extra… hm, maybe half a ton or a ton of patience?”

“Patience?” I asked.  Patients?

“Yeah, y’know, ability to wait, tolerance for people walking all over what I’m trying to build, sticking ice in the cracks, ignoring me when I say not to…”

“You alright, Tristan?” I asked.

“I’m all out,” he said.  “Of patience, I mean.  It’s been a long day, and it doesn’t feel like it’s ending soon.”

“I hear you.  But we’re all there.”

“I know,” he said.  “I’m worried about Rain.  He’s down there, like we were last night, he’s in the middle of… what we were up against last night.  Without powers.  And we’re running out of time.”

I checked my phone for the time.  “Thirteen minutes.  Then he’s awake.”

“What were you thinking, a minute ago?” Sveta asked.  “Sorry, I’m just wanting to focus, I was considering what you meant.”

“Oh,” I said.  I looked over to the horizon.  The data Kenzie was providing suggested the titans were ten minutes out.  The timer beyond the edge of my vision told me Rain had thirteen minutes before he woke up.  “Just trying to figure out if there’s any consistency to the power changes.”

“You jumped to a conclusion with Shamrock,” Sveta said.

“Helped by her hand motion.  Yeah.  I’m not sure, yet.   I’m going to go get a telephone pole or something.”

“I’ll come,” Sveta said.

Leaving Crystal with Capricorn, talking.

He seemed to ease up just a bit, with the regular conversation.

Telephone pole.  I found one, and smashed the end of it rather than try to disentangle the lines.  I picked it up, with Sveta giving me a hand with the tail end of it.

“What happened earlier?” I asked.  “When you guys had the private discussion with him.  I know it was private, but…”

“He was having dark thoughts,” Sveta said.  She climbed onto the telephone pole, sitting by where my forcefield grabbed it.  She reached down with an arm unfolding to detach some wire that I hadn’t seen.  “General life situation.  Asking us, what’s the point?  What’s the point?  He’s on the outs with family, he lost all of his old friends.  He got into the hero stuff initially for the fame and the money… for good reasons too, but those other reasons are still reasons.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I could sympathize with the wish for fame, myself.

“The way he phrased it, he had a moment where he just stopped, took stock, and felt like he was drowning.”

She left it at that.  I could draw the conclusion.

“Reality hit?” I asked, reaching out with a forcefield hand to grab another bit of wire.  I had to pull it hard enough to snap it to get free.

“I think it’s been hitting him for a long while now,” she told me.  “He wanted to be team leader, you know.”

I looked up at her.

“I don’t think it was a major factor, or even a top ten issue for him, but he mentioned being frustrated with it and that’s part of why we backed off.”

“Gotcha.”

“He thinks you’re doing fine, just so you know.  Just…”

“Wishes it were different?”

“Yeah.”

“And how are you?” I asked.  “Final check before the Titans arrive.”

“I wish I had a good answer.  I could really do with my body not fucking up on me… I only get one and I don’t think healing fixes me the way it does anyone else.”

“Me either,” I said.  “Though that’s a… very strong preference, more than anything.  I really hope your body doesn’t fuck up, too.”

“I know,” she said.  She smiled.  “You helped me get it. ”

“What about the other cases?” I asked.  “Shamrock?  Weld?”

“You mean Weld throwing me under the bus?” Sveta asked.

I nodded.

“I don’t think we were going to get the case fifty-threes on board without doing something to mend rifts, and if Weld can’t fudge the truth and pretend to be mad…”

“Weld’s a boy scout, Sveta.  He’s probably in my bottom ten people to go to if I want deception and acting ability.”

“I meant that his metal body resists being read by most powers that are organic-only or inorganics-only.”

“My point stands, though.”

“I know,” Sveta said.  “Really.  I’m okay being the bad guy if it gets more of the case fifty-threes on board.  If it just gets them here and helping, maybe that’s what makes the difference.”

“You’re okay with it like Tristan is okay not being leader?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Sveta said, then shook her head.  “No, It’s different.  In group, Tristan and I, we got to talking about Weld, right off the bat.  Then talking about being on the outs with a community and team.  But I’ve always been a person who existed in the moment.  If I’m comfortable, with good people who love me around me, I’m okay.  And before that it was… if nobody’s hurt, if no damage is being done, and you’re there, while we’re in the hospital, I’m okay.”

I nodded.

“And before that, it was about getting through things moment by moment.  The only other time I ever really had something to look forward to was my trip across worlds with Weld, and that was terrifying.  For too many important years of my life, the future only meant more bad.  That’s a big place where he and I are different.”

“How?  He has that stuff to look forward to?”

Sveta shook her head.  “He needs stuff to look forward to.  He needs hope.  He describes parties and making friends as his hope, though I didn’t really understand that.  Validating it, I think he said?”

“Sure,” I said.  Testing the work he’s been doing, that things are secure, by relaxing his guard.  “That makes sense to me.”

“Then you’ve got a better grip on it than I do,” Sveta said.  “He works hard to bring other people hope too.  He wants to make the future brighter for his brother and parents and all the rest of us.  I think that’s a big place where he’s struggling.”

“I don’t know what to say or do that fixes that,” I said, quiet.  My gaze again went to the horizon.  The timer.  The Titans imminent.  “What we’re up against is bigger and darker than any kind of hope I could offer.  Do I give up leadership?”

“I don’t think he’s in a place to lead.  Crystal’s the kind of person he gets along with.  I think that helps,” Sveta said.

“And again, I feel like we’re kind of skirting you,” I said.

“I survive, Victoria,” Sveta said.  “I endure the bad and I enjoy the good moments.  I just… really hope the future doesn’t mean more bad stuff for my body.”

I swallowed and nodded.

“Tristan’s probably waiting, and he’s all out of patience,” Sveta said.

“Yeah,” I said.  There was more to disentangle from the pole, but I was in position to just haul on it, using strength to break and snap what we hadn’t cleared away.

I flew over, Sveta still sitting on the log.  She hopped off as I approached the chasm, and used the tangle of her body to soften the landing.

The pole crossed the gap, surrounded by red motes and lines.

I wished I could help.  Wished I could do more.  But I didn’t have the tools.

I wanted to figure out the power thing, and if there was a way to wrap my head around how our powers had changed.  I had a general sense of it, but with no specifics.

Capricorn finalized his constellation.  The lines became the edges of buildings, the points the corners.  The result was a structure lying on its side, heaving and shifting as matter swelled from the center, breaking the exterior, then repeated the process yet again.

Crystal’s forcefield kept the broken bits from falling into the abyss.

We’d had some reinforcements arrive, but it wasn’t many.  Ten people.  Legend now floated in the air above the scene, looking over the horizon.  Aunt Sarah was up there too, not flying as high, but surveying things.  A forcefield stretched across one of the bigger chasms, and people periodically ran along it.  There wasn’t much need, it seemed, for escorts or help getting people over ledges.

I could feel the chill sinking into me.  It didn’t help that I’d sweat as much as I had after my initial skirmish with the Nemean Titan or Skadi, and my entire coat was clammy with me-moisture penetrating from the interior and melted snow penetrating from the exterior.

Gregor turned up.  Slime gushed from his hands as he poured gunk over Tristan’s rubble.  It hardened almost immediately.

“Thank you,” Tristan said.

“I could do more, if it does not take too long.  I was watching from a distance while helping others.”

“Ah,” Tristan said.  “I was going to take a minute to let my brother free.”

“You are a case seventy,” Gregor observed.

“I’m surprised you know that.”

“I studied a great deal while trying to figure things out.  It is up to you whether you want bridges or a chance to let your brother out.”

“Bridges,” Tristan said.  “Thank you.  I’ll get right on that.”

Shamrock approached, leaning into Gregor.  She had something translucent folded over one arm.  I cocked my head to get a better look at it.  A shirt that looked like it was made of clear plastic.  Gregor’s?

You rock your weird, Gregor, I thought.  I kind of resented that he was one of my hometown capes who hadn’t showed up to Leviathan, but… whatever.  It wasn’t worth holding onto the hard feelings.

“Sveta,” Gregor said, in his heavily accented voice.  “I heard you traveled worlds, looking for your birthplace.”

“I did,” Sveta said.  “We didn’t have any luck.  But I still found it.  Found my old self.  In dreams at first, then in… through those cracks down there.  Garbled and filled with static, but it was old me.”

“Are you happier for it?” he asked.

“I… no, not really.  I haven’t exactly had time to digest.”

“That is fair.”

“But I know myself better now.  I have a better sense of what parts of me are nature and what parts of me are… forgotten nurture, I guess?”

“That is good.  I am glad.”

“We’ve been rooting for you, Sveta,” Shamrock said.  “Since the whole thing with the Irregulars.  We’re sorry you got the short end of the stick.”

I wanted to fly out and find a telephone pole again, but I didn’t want to abandon Sveta at this juncture.  I stood by her, placing one hand at her shoulder, and sensed the tension, felt the movement of her body shuffling.

“Titans!”

Titans plural?

The call came from above us.  From Legend.

The countdown was still ticking.

“Get into position!”

Crystal took to the air, flying up closer to her mom.

Tristan looked over at his work, then reached out, clenching his fist.  It solidified.  A roiling mass of building material.

Gregor slimed it while it was still emerging.  Cementing one part to another and minimizing the rubble that was thrown off.

Between that and some of the other stuff around us, there was an area maybe two hundred feet across that was good to walk on.  The areas beyond had some bridges, but it wasn’t a lot.

It felt like so little.

Our numbers felt so small.  Seventy or eighty, total?

I was willing to bet that the bulk of our guys were over near the entrance to Bet.  Dealing with the machine army.  A mistake from yesteryear, carried over to the present.  We wouldn’t have been told because Tristan wasn’t the only one of us who needed a glimmer of hope.

And this was feeling increasingly hopeless.

I could see silhouettes now.  They were moving fairly quick, particularly the Nemean Titan.  But Ophion was there too.  Recuperated and ready, with a creation on either side of him.

And behind them, I saw her.  Like a thin mountain, moving at an unhurried pace, not because she was slow, but because she had no need to rush.

“Wishing you luck,” Shamrock said, giving Sveta a wave.

“You too,” Sveta said.

The two jogged off, to reunite with Palanquin and the other case fifty-threes.

“You guys couldn’t have said that, like, any time before now?” Sveta asked, quiet enough I was probably the only one who heard it.  “Or talked to them?  or done anything productive?”

I gave her shoulder a squeeze.

“I know, focus,” she said.  “I’m being dumb.”

“No,” I told her.  “That’s not what I was trying to do there.  You’re not being dumb.”

That slim mountain in the background had eyes now.  Slivers and ovals of gold.  I could make out the wolf heads.

“Fuck you, Contessa.”

Titan Fortuna was moving slower than the other two.  By the original timetable, she was due to arrive.  It just looked like the other ones were going to hit us first.

Legend opened fire.  One beam at first, then five, maybe, then twenty, and then a hundred, producing so many that there was nothing forward-facing that could emit a beam, so he sent them backwards, turning at sharp angles in the air until they were aimed at the right target.

I’d wondered what happened when Fortuna was confronted with something she couldn’t dodge.  I got to see it here.  She simply took the damage head-on.

“I should go get my gun,” I told the others.  Told Sveta.

“I saw some tinkers climbing all over it,” Tristan said.  “Couldn’t look away from my work long enough to yell at them, sorry.  Have to be careful with my current setup, or I’ll send debris all over the place and brain someone.”

“Fuck,” I said, already far enough away I could barely hear him.

I wasted no time flying over to get my gun and found two tinkers picking over it like vultures.  One was a teenager, one a guy who was closer to my dad’s age.

“Did you mess with it?” I asked.

“Fixed the housing some,” the teenager said.  “Had to run sample testing a few times to figure out the emitter dynamics for the shell.”

“Sealed the metal close to the laser thingy,” the man said, gruff.

I gave him a look, eyebrow raised.

“I’m not going to give you mumbo-jumbo,” he said.  “We’re about to get stomped by those Titans, I’m old, and anything I say that approximates what I understand about this garbage isn’t going to mean shit to you anyway.”

“So… yes?” I asked.  “You messed with it.”

“Is it Dragon’s?” the teenager asked, bright-eyed.  “It feels like it’s Dragon’s.”

I used my forcefield to pick it up, checking my strength.  Was I stronger?  If I was, even a bit, then it might help me connect my thought about the changes to our powers.

The hands clawed into metal for a grip.  I saw the teenager and older guy cringing.

“It’s not going to blow up, is it?” I asked.

“No, probably not,” the teenager said.  “But if Dragon gave me something like that, I wouldn’t even be here.  I’d run off to some lost corner of the world and run my face up and down the housing.  I’d open it up in a hermetic environment and stare lovingly at the layout.”

“Tell me he’s being ridiculous,” I told the older guy, pinching tears closed with my one free forcefield hand, that couldn’t quite reach a handhold.

“He’s being ridiculous,” the guy said.  “But it’s nice.”

“Cool,” I said, floating up.

“I wouldn’t be tearing holes in it and dropping it!” the teenager raised his voice.

Then I was mercifully out of earshot.

I watched as the Undersiders made their late arrival by way of portals.   Tattletale stepped out of the portal, saying something to the older Heartbroken.  Then she took a long look at the situation, reversed direction, and left.  The portal closed behind her.

Okay.

Below, Tristan had swapped out for Byron.  He made a few experimental uses of his power.  I stared at the constellations, now closer to Sveta’s camera-eye in color than truly ‘blue’.

I watched as they came manifest.  A glittering cloud that expanded out from the point it manifested.  It seemed to freeze everything it touched, before consolidating into an abstract shape, the deepest portions of the smoke turned to a swirling ice sculpture.

He created another, and then swapped out.

The cloud of freezing gas didn’t go away.  Instead, something lurched out of the gas, a pillar of what looked like damaged concrete.  It hit a nearby wall and broke.

In the distance, the Nemean Titan was getting closer.  Victor.  Several capes who weren’t quite as long ranged as Legend were now starting to shoot at him.

I looked again.  Tristan had made his construction, which was still manifesting when he swapped to Byron.  It became a plume of the gas, reckless and all over the place, coming perilously close to some people further away before he changed again.  The block of concrete that formed in it weighed down the cloud enough that it didn’t touch the people.  It hit the wooden bridge below it before crumbling, some of the pieces so weak the end result looked more like sand, with broken glass and bits of metal in the mix.

Okay.

Tristan was nodding to himself.  He said something, and it might have been meant for Byron’s benefit.  I wasn’t sure that Byron was even awake in there, though.

Okay.

Fuck, this gun was heavy.  I was strong, but it bogged me down so much, and the Nemean Titan was fast.  Ophion was overwhelming, with one of his pets swelling in size like the wall of flesh had, except this one was all tentacles and a center mass that looked like a brain.

And Titan Fortuna was… too much.  Overwhelming.  Very possibly impossible to defeat.

I studied her, watching every movement, and I was aware from my readings about the Simurgh that even that was a vector for problems when dealing with a sufficiently strong precog.

Her weakness, if it could be called that, had always been that she had always been an ordinary, athletic person at her core.  Now she was strong enough that lasers capable of leveling city for miles around weren’t slowing her down.

Her weakness, thinking back to the raid on the Teacher base, was that she was limited in reach to those things that, for lack of a better way of putting it, fell in her earshot, her arm’s reach, or her shadow.  She could set off dominoes, but she had to touch the dominoes first.

Now her reach was vast, her shadow terribly long.  There wasn’t a domino for miles around that didn’t tremble as she shook the city with her movements, her lower body one solid block, cutting through the city.

I watched, using the limited night vision Kenzie had provided to track the fighting, and saw as the Nemean Lion pounced.

Saw as something resembling a giant featherless bird, moist and bright with the lights around it, the size of a small apartment building, with teeth and a rotted-off nose instead of a beak, met the Titan in the air.

The bird had friends.  One bloated and resembling something between a lizard and a toad, three times the bird’s size, when the bird was already massive compared to everything but the Titans themselves.  A third one, roughly the same size, built blocky like a cow’s body was, with a stump for a head, and two praying mantis arms with skin stretched over them.  It clawed at buildings frantically, hauling itself forward, and its rear half was seemingly endless.  Naked pink flesh stretched over entrails that, as it made forward progress, turned out to be longer than any of the Titans were tall.

Fast and, as I watched, mass surged along that tail of endlessly unspooling lower body, reached the upper body with violent force, and almost seemed to give it motive force, hurling it forward.

The Nemean Titan was working on them, slowing them down, but their ‘brainless’ state was a frenzied one that didn’t turn off completely.  They kept fighting, blind, aimless and stupid now, and they were big enough and blunt enough as weapons to give him pause.

Contessa continued forward.

Ophion cast out needles.  Legend blasted each needle out of the air before it could reach one of the giant flesh-beasts.

How do we get past that and communicate with her?  Or hurt her?

“What are you waiting for?”

The deep voice cut through the gloom.  I traced it to a nearby building.  A figure in the gloom.

“If I shot this thing at her, I’d be out of battery at a time it really counted, later.  They heal.”

“And it would be entirely to her plan,” he said.  “Just like you doing nothing now is entirely to her plan.”

I grit my teeth.

I looked down at him, giving it a second so the night vision could trace his misshapen outline.

HI CHRIS!

“Kenzie says hi,” I said.

He didn’t respond.

“She’s been quiet,” I remarked.

“Tinker inspirations got reshuffled.  Makes it hard to work on old projects.  She’s probably doing damage control.”

“Or she’s stressed.”

“Damage control,” he snarled the words, annoyed.

“It’s okay to be stressed.”

“Fuck off,” he said, and for a moment, I thought that would be it, and he’d go down the building the same way he’d come up.

A surge in the fighting seemed to thoroughly distract him.  He decided to stay and endure me to keep watching it.

“Where are your giants?” I asked.

“On their way.  Minus one, to keep your little friend Hunter busy.”

Sveta climbed up the side of the building.  I was guessing Kenzie had let the others know.  It was harder for Tristan to reach us, though.

“You couldn’t have done anything to help her?”

“Nah,” he said, and that was all he said.

I grit my teeth.

The fighting continued, Legend going all out.  Titan Fortuna was taking damage, and she didn’t seem to care.

“The cracks spread soon,” Chris said.

“We’re kind of hoping,” I said.

“No you’re not,” he said.

I could have thrown him off that building if I hadn’t had the gun as an anchor to weigh me down and make my flight more burdensome.  He probably would have survived.

“Rain’s in position, we’re ready, I’m shooting if they need something shot, but otherwise I’m prepared to help evac.”

“You’re in position and you’re making your plans, but she’s been positioned to win since the moment she moved,” Chris said.  “If the cracks spread, it’s to her design.”

“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine?” Sveta asked.

“It’s going to get some of us,” he said, looking out at the ongoing skirmish.  Titan Fortuna still in the background, advancing, letting Ophion open the next stage of the fighting.

“Possibly,” I said.

“It’ll get everyone she wants it to get,” Chris said.  “The damage you did?  Her design, I’m betting.”

Maybe,” Sveta said.  “We don’t know if she has blind spots around this stuff.”

“It’ll get everyone she wants it to get,” Chris said, repeating himself.  “The damage you did was her intent.  It might help you now but it doesn’t change the outcome she decided on.”

“Are you here to do anything except spout doom and gloom?” I asked, angry now.  “Are you going to help?”

He gestured back toward the end of the neighborhood closest to the water, close to the Shin portal, where the giants had gathered.  Goddess giant absent.  They started trudging forward.  “My giants will participate.  I’ll do some stuff.  I don’t think we can win.  Not against that.”

“Why are you even here if you don’t think we can win?” Sveta asked.

“The irony of this whole situation is that I could probably give every case fifty-three down there a body.  Better than the one you got,” Chris said.

“You could what?” Sveta asked.

“Ow.  These ears I gave myself are sensitive.  You’re shrill.”

“This whole time?”

“Probably with regular injections, but doable.  It would have been like painting a house that’s going to burn down tomorrow.  I don’t see the point.  In the big picture… we were only ever going to get a couple of years before the next world-ending crisis.  Machine Army, Simurgh, broken triggers, something.  I don’t see the point.”

“You’re a selfish asshole,” Sveta said.

“I am.  Absolutely.  And the irony is that as much as you want normal pink and brown human bodies I want as far the fuck away from humanity as is possible.  I have since the beginning, when I realized just how sick we all are.  Put me on a space shuttle, let me be a snake that literally eats its own tail forever, let me be a spider with fifty brains.  I don’t care.  Just…”

He extended one black-furred paw out toward the city.

“…Ugh,” he said.

“Ugh,” I echoed him, though I was referring to something very different, my gaze locked on him.  “You want to be a Titan.”

“If it had to be one of us, wouldn’t you want it to be me?” he asked.

I had a response to that, and it wasn’t ‘yes’.

I kept my mouth shut, my focus on the scene ahead of us.

“You’re such an asshole,” Sveta said, under her breath.  “You could have fixed us?”

“Better to say I could fix you, present tense,” he said, staring off in the same direction I was.  “New data, new info, the giants are a trove of info.”

“Oh,” Sveta said, mollified.

The three attached flesh-monsters were dying in the fight to Nemean.  Which saw another one lunge into existence.  A very phallic looking snake, with a circumference matching many of the buildings around us.

“Was that actually you being nice?” I asked.  “You could have let her hate you.”

He looked annoyed at that.  “If I was, and I wasn’t, it’s still putting paint on a house that’s going to burn down.”

“So you say, but you’re lonely and scared, so you came to old acquaintances for company,” I said.

“Fuck that,” he said.

“It’s a scary situation,” I observed.

“You think you’re getting one over on me, you get these quips-”

“They’re very satisfying, like when Kenzie tells you off and you don’t have a reply,” Sveta said.  “You get this look on your face, like the mask skips.  And then, unfortunately, you put it back on.  Jessica had faith in you, you know.”

“You all think it means more than it does.”

“It means something,” I said.

“She stopped moving,” he answered, pointing.

I turned my full attention to the Titan Fortuna.  It was hard to tell with distance factored in and the fact she didn’t have legs that moved.

“It means cracks in five, four-” he started, shifting his mass.

“What?” Sveta asked, alarmed.

“-Three, two-”

I hefted my gun.

He leaped from the building, and the light from my gun’s housing briefly illuminated him.  Something between a jackrabbit, a kangaroo, and a humanoid in form, with a fur ruff around his neck, all black, with jagged incisors filling a wide, leering grin.

“-one,” his voice sounded small, as he dropped away from earshot.

I decided to take his word for it, grabbing Sveta’s hand to help give her a headstart, and then flying, gun aimed in case there was a moment of weakness or a critical point that needed shooting at.

I hoped he was lying, distracting us so he could get away without us slowing him down any further.

I hoped he was fucking with us, trying to put an expression on our faces like Sveta had remarked about seeing on his.

I hoped we were ready.

The first crack in reality spread, lancing up Titan Fortuna’s body, and tracing the specific lines of damage that the lasers had done to her, before forking up and into the air.  The lights of powers close to her died.

The rest of the cracks followed immediately after.

Hopes extinguished.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Infrared – 19.3

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

TITANS RETREATING.  WILL UPDATE YOU AS SITUATION CHANGES.

One titan mobilizing, the rest retreating.  It was practically an invitation to give chase.  The problem was that we were being invited to give chase to Fortuna.  Contessa.

“Firing positions!” Aunt Sarah called out.

“Coming!” Crystal called out.  She turned in the air to look at me.  “You too!  You’re a flying laser type now!”

“I’ve got to check on my team.”

“We’ll be nearby!”

I nodded.

Immediately, as soon as they were gone, I regretted my decision.  If I’d asked them to stay, I would have asked them to make me a parking spot.  As it was, it was hard to find a spot to land when carrying a gun the size of a truck with me, not helped by the fact that my fragile alter-ego was different now.  I had to dig forcefield fingers into the housing to maintain my grip on it, and that damage made it less sound.  End result: I had to fly carefully to avoid dropping it on anyone below, and flying carefully made it harder to fly to a clearing.

Things were complicated more by the fact that our side was jittery.  I struggled to pull out a better word for it.  Intimidated as all hell, running for cover, running to the enemy.  The Titans were still working on recovering from what we’d done, and the ones who had recovered fastest seemed diminished somehow.

People were milling around below me like ants, and I just wanted to get situated so I could get my team members together.

“Coming down!” I shouted, as I saw a spot.  I flared my aura a bit, which made some people stop in their tracks.  The reaction wasn’t shock and fear like I expected.

I’d have to figure it out later.  I called out, “Heads up!”

They scrambled out of the way.  Bit of an asshole move, butting in, using my power on friendlies, but there was a real hazard that I’d lose my grip on the gun and drop it on someone.

That, and if I waited around too long, we’d fall behind.  Contessa is moving.

I landed, the gun crunching to earth a second later.  I focused most of my efforts on making sure the curved housing of the gun didn’t cause a not-so-slapstick swing of the barrel as it settled, braining people nearby.

Sorry for the abuse, gun.  You’re doing a good job.

Sveta was sitting with her back to a wall.  One of the Harbingers was next to her.

“Everything okay?” I asked her.

“Bit spooked,” she said.  “My body’s-”

I looked.  Her arms weren’t wholly there.  In the gloom, with Kenzie’s partial night vision tech, I could Strands worked to braid together, leaving gaps because they weren’t in their usual spot.

“You can’t settle it down?” I asked.

“I can, but it takes concentration.  It didn’t after Mr. Bough worked on me.  I’ve been trying to let my guard down and calm down, to see if it goes away, but…”

I could see the fear in her eyes.

“…Panicking,” she said, finishing.

I reached for her hand, and she gripped mine.  I could feel twitches.

“Did you change?” the Number Boy asked me.

“Is he legit?” I asked Sveta.

“I think so.  A friend, kind of.”

“Okay,” I said.  “My forcefield shrank three sizes,” I said.

“Interesting.”

It really wasn’t the thing capturing most of my attention right now.  Back to Sveta, “Should we contact someone, try to get you help?”

“I’ll manage,” she said.  “I wanted to stop for five minutes, see if things resolved on their own.  Or if calming down helped.”

“Where’s Tristan?”

“Hitting the Titan.  Go find him, come back?  I could use the rest of those five minutes.”

I could see other Case Fifty-Threes around, like Whippersnap and Chantilly, and I could see Weld wasn’t that far off either.  It was surprising to see Weld on the periphery of all of that, but I was pretty sure the weirdness of that situation didn’t extend to the old Irregulars being wholly cool and fair to Sveta again.

A lot of the case fifty-threes were struggling.  Weld’s skin was crawling, so to speak, textures shifting.  Chantilly had shed some lace.  Engel was flaring, bright lights dancing along her skin.  Tastes, physical sensations, and smells flooded my mind.

Fuck.  I didn’t like taking that in.

“You’re sure?” I asked, worried I might be overheard if I made it clear why I didn’t feel great leaving her behind.  Some of those people had been outright hateful in the past.

“Five has my back.”

The Harbinger nodded.

“Alright,” I said.  “Okay.  Be safe.”

“You too.  You weren’t here, but they’re saying the Stranger Titan is insanity-raying anyone who steps out of cover,” Sveta told me.  “Stay low.”

I nodded.

Crystal and Aunt Sarah were close enough that I could have flown to join them in ten seconds.  Maybe a minute if I went to get my gun and got it operational again.

“Crystal!” I called out, as I flew up, first.

She turned, looking, hand still glowing as the laser was emitted from her fingertips.

“Keep an eye out for Sveta?”

She nodded.

I flew over to get my gun, and took a few seconds to check it over and make sure it wasn’t going to fall apart on me the next time I picked it up.

Using my forcefield hands to pinch metal together, curl ragged edges, and straighten what was bent, I simultaneously figured out the new limits of my forcefield.  The reach of the arms, the number and position of them.

My forcefield had long hair.  Longer than I was used to.  Less arms, less legs.  Like it was halfway between where my old forcefield had been and where ‘the Wretch’ had been.

Just gotta get my gun in good enough shape I can shoot if I need to.  We might have to go after Titan Fortuna.  If she’s anything like her old host, she can do anything perfectly, and get the ideal outcomes.  Raises the question: what can she do about a beam that moves the speed of light, fired from the clouds?

I wasn’t being rhetorical, asking myself that.  I was genuinely concerned.

But I didn’t have any better ideas.

The metal squealed as I adjusted it.  I glanced back Sveta’s way, seeing motion and color out of the corner of my eye.  Case fifty-threes, very close to her.  Engel was among them.  Again, that fucking explosion of mixed senses, more violent than it had been in the past, yet all pleasant, all jarring when I was sweating, smelling my own sweat damp from my own body, my mouth dry, my heart hammering.

I felt the forcefield’s hair slip over a bare forcefield shoulder.

“It’s not perfect.”

“It-”  Hard to breathe right, to get sound to where I needed it, like I was sucking liquid in through a straw with a hole in it.  “Doesn’t need to be perfect.”

Her hands cupped my face, fingers stroking my cheeks, light brown eyes searching, analytical, studying.

“You fixed the acid burns.  I hate to say it, but-”

“You don’t hate to say it,” she said, eyes still looking at proportions, features, trying to measure.  Her face took up ninety percent of my vision, the dilapidated house with the flooding damage on the first floor taking up the last ten percent.  The place smelled like damp.  Freckles took up what seemed like fifty percent of the real estate on her face.  “I can feel your body, everything in it.”

“Invasive,” I said.

“You don’t feel invaded either,” she said.  “Heart rate normal.  You’re uncomfortable but not in a way that’s hurting you.  You’re breathing normally.  Serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine are close to normal.”

“They can’t be,” I said.  “You altered my feelings for you.  I feel those feelings right now.”

“…Normal besides that.”

“That’s why I hate to say ‘thank you’.”

“You don’t hate it,” she repeated.

“Master protocols.”

“I don’t know what that means, but I’m sure it’s clever.”

“Master protocols are to handle emotional changes with logic.  Hammer past logic warping with raw emotion.  Don’t stop fighting, especially if it’s physical puppeteering.”

“You’re such a dork,” she said.

I didn’t reply.  I was aware of the physical touch, her hands on my face.  I was aware I wasn’t fighting.

I was aware I was failing some test that a younger me had been convinced I would pass.

“I-”  Still hard to talk.  The hole was bigger.  “-want to go home.”

“No you don’t.”

“I should want to go home.  I-” I felt he air go out of me.  I heaved in a breath.  “-should be telling you it’s time to get a second opinion.  You’ve compromised me.”

“Can you stop talking for three seconds?” she asked.  “I’m concentrating.”

“It’s the protocols, Amy.  I’m compromised, you’re suspect.  The rules say-”

I found the breath lacking, and for an instant I thought she’d taken my ability to speak.  I should have hated her for it.

My jaw worked, mouth moving, words absent.

The protocols were something I’d studied with Dean.  In the moment, feeling the horror, feeling the horror go, just as fast, I wanted him with me.  I wanted him to hold me and talk to me, and remind me if I was missing any of the Master Protocols.

As much or more than I wanted to be with Amy.  Which I shouldn’t have wanted.

“Shhh,” she shushed me.

The hard edges of emotions smoothed away.  Thoughts of Dean slipped away like sand between my fingers, and I had no idea if it was her doing it or if losing him in the Endbringer attack had permanently tied him to feelings of desperation and panic.

I found the ability to speak again.

“-The rules say to reach out,” I managed, quietly and diplomatically.

She shifted position, raising herself up a bit, and put forearms around my shoulders, elbows on the shoulders themselves, like she was about to hug me.  Instead, she just leaned over me, arms partially around me, and kissed me on the forehead.

Rather than break the kiss, she kept her face there, nose in my hair, and mumbled, “We could.”

“Should,” I said, pulling the sheet up to my collarbone, staring at anything and everything that wasn’t her.  I gave a moment’s consideration to following the protocols.  Fighting.

Was it logical, to throw her away from me?  How hard should I throw?  Enough to only get her away?  To break something?  To destroy her?

Logic felt far away.

“Shhh,” she said, breath hot against my forehead.  “We could.  Maybe we should.  But there’s still work to be done.”

“I’ll deal.  Heroes get hurt.”

Not something I believed, but something I felt like I would have said.

“No,” Amy said.  “No, Vicky.  Maybe before, but when I got my powers, it was to save you from being hurt.  You don’t get hurt, not in a way that lasts.  You will be a top heroine, a champion, beautiful and awe inspiring, and I will be behind you, keeping you in that fight, keeping you beautiful and perfect.”

I didn’t move.  I thought of dad, seeing him hug my mother, able bodied and well.  I’d been so pissed when she hadn’t healed him, I’d wanted that, for him to hug my mom and to be whole again, albeit without the emotion as he told her that Amy had run away.

I wanted this, what she described.

“If you want it,” Amy said.

I didn’t know what I wanted.  Want was emotion and I didn’t trust emotions.  Logically?  What was logical?  Spending the rest of my life weak?

It was logical, maybe, to reach out, get that second opinion.  And if I couldn’t do it from an emotional standpoint because I didn’t want it for me, I could at least want it for Amy, because she wasn’t doing great.  She was shaky, and she wasn’t acting like herself.  I had the excuse of being compromised, but she seemed almost drunk.

But I really wanted to be a heroine.  I really wanted to be okay.  I really wanted Amy to hug me, even if I hated that want.  Should have hated that want.

Amy’s fingernails combed through my hair, fixing it where it had fallen across my bare shoulder.

Last chance, Victoria, I thought, my eyes closing as I felt the sensation of the fingernails, my head rocking with the contact.  Her power didn’t work while she was touching hair. Throw her through the wall.  Follow the protocols.

Her hands moved away.

Amy’s fingernails combed through my hair, fixing it where it had grown out, draping another bare shoulder.  I turned my head to look at the other head she’d grown.  That breathed with the branching windpipe- that hole that had made it so hard to talk before.

I should have felt horrified.

Your real last chance, Victoria, I thought, my eyes half-lidded, watching.  My fingers dug into the sheets that covered my upper body.

The words slipped from my lips, in a tumble of logic and emotion.  Logic because I was asking her to undo that.  Emotion because I wanted what she’d been selling to me.  That future.  Being a heroine.  I’d wanted to be one all my life.

“Please fix me.”

“I thought you’d say that,” she said.  And tired as she was, shaky and not entirely herself, she managed a wink.

My hand was a claw, fingernails scratching my cheek with the force I brought it to my face, like I was about to throw up from guilt and shame alone.  Hating myself for that guilt and shame because fuck her.  Fuck no, on every level.

For long seconds, I didn’t move.

Then I resumed the work I’d paused as I sat awash in freshly unlocked memory.  Bend this bit of metal, grab this, grab that…

Heave.  Lift.  Without my flight factoring in, the weight of it drove the few points of contact that were my forcefield into the ground.  Two sets of feet, one hand.  Less than I’d once had.

Gun.  Safe and new, clean metal and violence far removed from that, unlikely to trip any mental landmines or spark any memories.  Good gun.

I flew, and with the flight, the way I was lifting shifted, and the modifications I’d made held.  I was almost glad it was all fucked up, because that fucked-up state demanded my attention, my focus.

Didn’t want to think about it.  Didn’t want to go back there, or risk another flashback.

Some doors were best left closed.

I steered clear of Engel, and looked for Tristan.  Looked for orange motes in the air.

I found red motes.  Red sparks that danced through the air and left lines behind them.  Tristan was on the offensive against Titan Ophion, who was slowest to recover.  Someone had hit the Titan rather hard.

The red lines solidified, becoming the edges of ruins, destroyed building and a bit of metal fencing, like a damaged building that didn’t have any inherent logic to it, sitting at a forty-five degree slant, a hundred feet tall.  It came in waves, the second surge of building thrusting up through the first, destroying it while extending just a bit further.  The third wave extended further still, maybe two hundred feet long, punching through the second construction with enough force to send chunks soaring into the Titan.

Stronger?

No, not quite.  The construction sagged, and then crumbled, leaving little more than ten feet standing out.  Tristan ran up and through the rubble.

Spikes began to appear from the ground.  Capes took evasive action, and Aunt Sarah was one of the capes who produced forcefields and other impediments for the spikes, flat and level to the ground so people could run on them.

That wouldn’t have been possible before.

Just what did blowing that up do, even?

I landed in a clear spot beside Tristan, the edge of the gun scraping along road that was seventy-five percent ice before finding traction in the other twenty-five percent.

Then I pulled the trigger.

The beam cut into Ophion, and it did damage, this time.  Its head was like chewed gum with spikes and metal contorting its shape, and that gum split and burned.  Less than I would have liked, but I was carving into him.  The gun shuddered, and the damage I’d fixed and pinched together was pulling further apart now.  Handholds became gouges and furrows as I repositioned hands to hold onto the weapon.

Situating myself on the ground meant the ground provided a bit of security, one extra point of contact.

Ophion produced a fence of the pencil-thin black spikes, which absorbed some of the laser.  The beam cut through them, but by the time I was through the one portion, a second row appeared.  Veiled behind the row of protrusions, he produced a single black spike next to himself.  I could only see it because of the limited night vision Kenzie’s tech provided me.

“Shit!” I heard a cape nearby call out.

“What?” someone else asked.

I was gritting my teeth, focusing too much on keeping the beam steady.  I was aware I was burning through battery.

Tristan’s red motes solidified, forming another leaning tower of abstract ruined building.  A second building emerged from within, then a third, ramming into the fence and knocking down a portion of it.

A nearby cape hurled something.  An explosion of wood and stone bowled over the fences Tristan had rammed.

“Shoot it!” the first cape I’d heard called out.

“Shoot what!?”

“He’s got something!  At the top of the spike!”

I flew forward, bringing the gun with me.  Toward the horrifying titan, toward the fallen and broken needle-like spikes that could alter a person on a fundamental level, and turn them into something grosser and bigger than a Titan.

I saw it.  At the top of that center spike, traced in the gold outline that Kenzie’s tech provided me, a nugget of something, swelling.

I aimed, and I fired at it.

Yeah, sure enough, the gun wasn’t currently equipped to handle the vibration of its internals with the damage to its externals.  Cracks split wider, claw marks opened up, and parts of it began to rattle.

My adjustments to keep hold of the weapon cost me accuracy, and I ended up trying to just take out the base of the spike, toppling it, because I could at least get the left-right aiming down while fucking up the up-down accuracy.  Hitting the very tip required both.

I tried to get to a position where I could fire without exposing my flank to any of the insanity beams from the Stranger Titan.  That took time, and the time ended up costing us.  The nugget fell.

More spikes found their way to that nugget, suspending it where it was.  The swelling intensified.

A part of someone’s body, still dripping blood.  It might have been a foot.

The foot became more, expanding, branching out, swelling, with flesh ballooning out like an explosion had gone off within it, but then tearing, revealing red meat instead of the smoke and fire residual to an actual explosion.

I focused the beam at center mass, tried to cut it away from the spikes that impaled it.

Arms reached out blindly from the mass, and one of the hands found the toppled black spikes.  Again, they seemed to multiply the growth rate.

A face, mouth yawning wide.  More arms, more flesh, breasts, a veiny tube of flesh that was attached to the mass at both ends, pulling free to reveal a tooth-encrusted cockhead.  Hair-

Bringing me to the cusp of that same flashback I’d just weathered.  I kept my aiming on center while twisting my face away so I didn’t have to look.

“On your left!” Crystal called out.

Why?  Am I really going to turn suddenly with this thing, and blast you?  It’s too heavy for that.

She appeared at my left, hand out, and produced a magenta-red beam, aiming for the same spot I was.

“Give me a platform,” I said the words through grit teeth.

A square of forcefield appeared below me.  As gently as I was able, I set the gun down.  Let the forcefield absorb some of the shuddering and keep at least the lowest side in place.

It also helped me aim on the up-down axis.

“I have to say, baby cousin, you might be overcompensating for something, hauling that thing around.”

“Don’t, please,” I said the words through grit teeth, and I worried I was drowned out by the whine of the machine and the sound of tens of thousands of pounds of meat and blood pouring out of the point where the lasers were drilling into the expanding blob of flesh.

With the golden light illuminating one side of Crystal’s face, and the red light from her hand shining through her hair as the wind stirred it, I saw her looking at me, studying me in the second or two she took away from aiming.

I could almost see the thoughts connect, as she turned her attention back to what we were shooting.  Why I’d have a problem with it.

I wanted to be through this.  To have it over and done with, to not stress about it or feel sick or hate anymore.

If someone had offered a parahuman cure for it, I might have taken it.  Whatever form that cure took.

If- if someone offered me a deal like I’d had, just after Gold Morning, to let me forget it all, I might have taken it.

I hated this, hated enduring.

Other capes added their firepower to ours.  Fire, grenade-like blasts, beams, an aerial strike from a master minion, and a buzzsaw or pinwheel that flew out and began chewing its way into the flesh.

Tristan added his contribution- another pillar of building material, slamming right into the lowest point of the flesh we were shooting.  It erupted a second time, sending chunks flying while extending its length, and then toppled.  As it fell, it tore.

And even with all of that, the flesh expanded faster than we destroyed it.

Until the toppling construction knocked a few of the pins loose.

Others took the cue, and began knocking out the needles that were feeding into the tumorous lump.  A few strikers were right under it, running through a waterfall of gore that flowed from our ongoing attacks, to take the pillars out at their base.

The creation stopped growing and started dying.

I turned my laser toward Ophion.  Again, I shot that chewed-gum tumor of a head and chest, the laser cauterizing as it cut.

He’s Fortuna’s, I thought.  He’s connected to her, he might as well be an extension of her like my arm is an extension of me.

Except not quite.

They had their individual personalities.  More than a group, less than a single entity.

It was easier to imagine them as a group and as a single entity, then to take the worst case scenario of the two, or combine the two worst case scenarios.  If he really was an independent entity working to help her… he had all of the strategy and wit of the canny Mr. Bough, who had survived for over a decade as part of Orchard, with good heroes gunning for him.

If he was indistinguishable from Titan Fortuna, an extension of her, then he was taking every action he was taking right this minute for very specific, very dangerous reasons.

He was protecting himself with more needles as he retreated, and the strikers who were clearing the way were having trouble keeping up.

I stopped shooting.  I had half of a battery left.

How much of this is Titan Fortuna’s doing?

Crystal kept shooting, but her battery was endless, for all intents and purposes.  Aunt Sarah was closer to the scene, helping people with forcefields that went up faster, bigger, and lasted longer than anything Crystal put up.

“Thanks, cousin,” I said.

“Anytime.”

“You don’t have to babysit me, but-”

“I kinda do,” she interrupted me.  Then, a second later, added, “For me, not for you.”

“It’s appreciated, in any event.  Feeling shaky.”

“My laser’s different.  It’s going to fuck up all my arts and crafts, and making food with my power.”

I lifted up the gun, then tapped it against Crystal’s forcefield, hard.  It punched through, and I started descending.

While descending, drifting in Tristan’s direction, I said, “Lookout was saying it’s all falling within the TTSE range.”

“I have no idea what that means.”

I winced, but I didn’t say anything.

Too close.

Refuge in the scholastic.  “They don’t think we suffered any changes that couldn’t have happened on their own.  With training, or mood, or meditation, or anything like that.”

I landed near Tristan.  He was breathing hard, but he was in one piece.

“How are you managing?”

“I heard you as you floated down,” Tristan said.  “The shifted powers.  I don’t like my new power.  Maybe it’ll change again.”

“Too aggressive?” I asked.

“Too… temporary,” he said.  “I’d rather build walls right now.  Especially with that Stranger.”

“Yeah,” I said.

The position we were in wasn’t great, when I considered it from the big picture.  Titan Fortuna was too far away, Ophion was limping away, so to speak, and the Stranger Titan was behind us, unable to be seen, yet capable of stealing our sanity away from us if it got a good look at us.  Possibly permanently, insofar as ‘permanent’ lasted, when most of the affected seemed to take their own lives at the next opportunity.

And the Nemean Titan was too close, hurt too, but fast, and threatening to get at our flanks.

“I’d like to get back to Sveta,” I said.  “Regroup.”

“Give me a second,” Crystal said.

She produced her forcefield, bright against the dark sky, angled so its two dimensional shape was almost invisible.

Not for us.

Turned it off, then created it again.

A purple forcefield appeared.  The square, which disappeared, then a smaller square below it.

“She’ll be a second,” Crystal said.

“I don’t remember those,” I said.

“You don’t make forcefields.”

I grunted in mild annoyance.

“Let’s go to Sveta,” she said.  “She’s mobile again, she told me to go to you.”

And I asked you to stay.  Which means she had a more compelling argument.  One you agreed with.

Do I really look that shaken?

“So weird,” she said, quiet.  “I already said my goodbyes.”

“Your mom?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah,” Crystal said.  “I feel shitty even trying to articulate this thought, but… it’s like it would be easier if it was anything else.  If she stayed gone, if she was back here in full, or just the human side of her.  Not better, necessarily.”

“Easier,” Tristan said.

“Yep.”

“Yeah,” Tristan agreed.  “An old teammate of mine’s back.  Almost all the way back, I think.  And it’s undeniably better, a bright point in a really dark time.  But it’s not easy.”

“We need a group,” Crystal said.  “What do you even call something like that?”

“Un-survivors anonymous,” Tristan said.

“That was fast.”

“I’m not just a pretty face,” he said, with a humor that didn’t reach his voice.

The others were regrouping behind us.  There were still defensive lines, but they were more like walls that people were standing guard at than they were front lines in any way.

Sveta was on her feet, standing a good distance away from a cluster of case fifty-threes.  Her coat was still damp with ice on it, and her eye glowed teal in the gloom.  I recognized most but not all of the cases standing opposite her.  Weld stood closer to that group than Sveta did.

She smiled as she saw Tristan and me.  A bit of a sad smile.

“Can we trust you?” Weld asked.

“Wow,” Sveta said, voice soft.  “Really, Weld?”

I flew over to Sveta’s side and put down my gun.  It crunched in the ice and snow.  “What’s going on?”

“They want to go after Contessa.  We know Chris, somewhat, and we interacted with Contessa so I suggested maybe we’d come.”

“Titan Fortuna,” Weld said.

“Have we confirmed that one hundred percent?” I asked.

“What?” he asked.  “That she turned into a Titan taller than any human-made building we know of?  Yeah.”

“That there’s nothing of Contessa in there.  We made this mistake with Fume Hood.  There might be a glimmer of Contessa in the middle of that Titan, trying to communicate in her own way.”

“That’s worse, if anything,” Engel said.

I winced at the sound of her voice, turning my body so the edge of my hood blocked off the worst of the light show.

“We’re going,” Weld said.  “I’m coordinating with the Wardens.  And the Wardens are saying they would like us to go with people they a-ok.”

“Breakthrough,” Sveta said.

“As a possibility.”

Sveta nodded.

“What’s your plan?” I asked.

“Stopping her,” Weld said.  “She has a few weaknesses, we were talking before we deployed here for your mission.  Some of those weaknesses may apply.  Portals, blind spots, precogs.  Her power was already so strong and unfiltered, we don’t think it’s fundamentally different.  It’s just… attached to something that is.”

“And if it is different?  The weak points paved over?” I asked.

“Then I think there might literally be no way to win,” he told me.  “The Wardens are planning to act as if there is a way, because there’s no alternative.  Ideal world, we’re getting everyone together who knows this particular enemy.  Undersiders, Breakthrough, we’ve got one Number Boy, Faultline’s Crew, who are coming with part of this group anyhow.  Legend is on his way.  You’re not obligated, of course.”

I nodded.

“We leave in five.  Titan Fortuna isn’t fast, but we’d like to get a head start so we can make any necessary preparations.”

“Thanks, Weld,” I said, glancing between him and Sveta.  That earlier hostility.

He nodded once, then turned his attention to the case fifty-threes.  Slician stood at the edge of that group, and I was left to wonder if the non-case-fifty-three girl in the terminally tight bodysuit was okay.  Did she have confidants?

Crystal flew over to Aunt Sarah, who had come back, probably to give her the down-low.

“How’s Lookout?” I asked Tristan and Sveta.  “I haven’t heard from her.”

Tristan explained, “She was pulled away to consult.  Tattletale is there too.  All the thinkers and information gatherers.  She sent us a message.  She didn’t…”

He indicated me.   I shook my head.

“Might have been that you were too busy fighting in that moment.”

Or the flashback.  I zoned out for a minute there.

The fighting was renewing.  Oberon was fighting Skadi.  They were close enough to one of the defensive lines that capes were participating.

I wanted to go and I was exhausted at the same time.

“On the down-low,” Sveta said, leaning in closer, until our heads were almost touching.  “Weld is pretending to be mad at me.”

“Pretending why?” I asked.  Tristan looked equally curious.

“Heavy stuff that happened once.  Information I didn’t pass him, before the Irregulars went bad.  It came up in the moment, he acted like it was a surprise.  To open a way to communicate with the case fifty-threes.  Get them on board, when they might have run for it otherwise.”

“This is, uh, stuff you talked about in group?” Tristan asked.

Sveta nodded.  She looked almost sick just with that gesture alone.  I couldn’t imagine actually talking it out with Weld.

I couldn’t imagine being where she was now, hearing Weld be actively hostile, when she’d been close enough to have that talk with him and stay together with him after the fact.

“How’s your control?” I asked.

She showed me her arm.  The tendrils misaligned, until she put visible concentration into it to pull things together.

“What if we put a bandage or something around it, to keep it right?”

“Bandages are a problem if I need to use my power,” she said.

I nodded.

“Are we doing this?  Giving chase?  Getting between Cryptid- Lab Rat, and Titan Fortuna?”

Tristan was already nodding.  Already planning on it.

Sveta visibly hesitated.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

I’LL BE RIGHT WITH YOU.  The golden text appeared outside the reaches of my ordinary vision.  MEETING DONE.  CRACKS ARE SET TO SPREAD SOON.  IF THEY SPREAD IN THE NEXT TWENTY MINUTES, RAIN IS IN POSITION TO MAYBE DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  HOPEFULLY!

That would be what the powwow with the other thinkers was about, then.

My power still felt shaky, my grip on the gun- fuck.  I started fixing it right away.  I wasn’t even sure if my other powers didn’t have subtle differences, either.

For all of us, Tristan, Sveta, and myself, the following minute was a quiet one, our minds in overdrive, anticipating this coming situation, trying to find a way through.

I replayed previous conversations with Contessa in my head.  The decision she’d posed for us.  The fact she’d been unwilling to make it herself.  Was there a weakness there?  A way past the Titan and to Contessa herself?

The flashback image of Amy’s face crossed my mind, alarming and disconcerting, gross, perplexing.  Somehow tied to the former thought.

The portal startled all of us as it ripped into existence.

I think we were all just a little bit surprised when we started moving toward the portal in complete synchronicity.  Because none of the others had hesitated, that was a big part of it.  But also surprise that we, ourselves, hadn’t hesitated either.

The portal was the way to our next battlefield.  It wouldn’t put us in Shin, not when Shin was probably as pissed as they’d ever been.  It wouldn’t put us near Arachne.  That made a complicated situation worse.  Not near Lab Rat, if he was engaged with the Titan.

It would put us outside.  In between Titan Fortuna and her goal.  The strongest of the Titans with our destruction as her goal.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Interlude 19.a

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

The problem with betrayals was that they were a poison that touched everything.

His heart ached in his chest, seeing faces familiar and foreign.  There were some who came today who hadn’t, two years ago.  He had to suppress the hard feelings that, ironically, had zero ability to be hard as they bubbled through him.

“Hey, Egg.  You grew up some.”

Egg turned.  Whippersnap.  One of the ones who hadn’t come.  Whippersnap touched fist to heart, or the closest approximation to where his heart would be.  If regular humans were rottweilers, then Whippersnap was a greyhound.  Thin enough he looked like he could be snapped as easily as a pencil, with easy, fluid movements that made his joints look less angular than they were.  His eyes didn’t really fit in his head, and the lack of real estate around them made his expressions hard to read.

It would have been really nice to read those emotions, for things to be clearer.  Was it nervousness?  Aggressiveness, with the fist-bump being an implicit threat?

“Brother,” Egg said.

They used to have a system.  Even now, they made use of that system.  As new people turned up, they signaled each other to indicate their preference for handshake, high five, fist-bump or the closest approximate to a fist bump, or hug.  The lowest-contact form won out.

There were two options that were even lower contact than the handshake.  A greeting, predetermined, and a bow for those who didn’t even have the option of a greeting.  ‘Brother’ or its equivalents was code that there would or could be no handshake, high-five, fist-bump, nor hug.

“Brother,” Whippersnap echoed, his smile reaching around both sides of his head, like the corners of his mouth could meet at the back of his head.  “You remember Chantilly.”

Egg remembered Chantilly, yeah.  Chantilly was lace, layers of skin that hung around her like a dress, riddled with cut-out sections.  Millions of holes that were flower shaped, fleur-de-lises, spades, hearts, diamonds, and everything else, a veil instead of hair.  She wore regular lace with the costume, a coat of layered lace textures that was almost indistinguishable from her skin, the tail of it trailing in the snow and ice behind her.  Where a few holes lined up, raw red flesh was visible.  Her eyes were black, with cut-outs in the surface that were only visible if the edges caught the light from the right angles.  The holes in her right ear had jewelry hanging from them, a series of twelve earrings of varying lengths, eye-catching.

She had been the first case fifty-three to make Egg think he would be open to dating a case fifty-three.  Doing other stuff with a case fifty-three.  And she was nice, sweet, brave, and she had actually attended a regular school for a while, enduring bullying and stuff.  She hadn’t stayed, a lot of case fifty-threes who tried didn’t, like himself, but he admired her for trying.  Empathized, sympathized, swam in a lot of complicated emotions.

Chiefly, embarrassingly among them, deep and painful memories of his attempts at finding some… emotional relief jumped to his mind.  Trying to do what the vast majority of teenage boys did alone in their rooms, only to end up with his dick inevitably shattered; yellow yolk and clear vitreous shamefully everywhere.  He’d thought about her so often when trying and that link was hard to shake, now.

Those feelings of shame and deep frustration shook him and made him feel guilty, like he’d dirtied her with the depth and darkness of those emotions and moments.

She had adjusted the lace at the side of her head.  The signal that she was open to a hug.

He wanted to hug her so badly.  He knew he could even say something like, ‘gently’, or that she knew to be gentle.  That she was soft, impossibly, mind-breakingly soft.  So much of that lace was like skin to her, and she’d described it as sensitive to the touch, and-

And he couldn’t risk breakage, soiling her with yellow mess that would be so hard to clean up.

“Sister,” he greeted her.  The word killed him a little.

“It’s good to see you, Egg.”

“Same,” he said, smiling, feeling his face crack.  “You’re not cold?”

They were gathered outside a building, snow falling around them.  Cars and buses were pulling up.  There were two buses that had handicap facilities, beeping in the background as they slowly lowered ramps.

“A bit.  I have lots of surface area,” she said, smiling, her fingers brushing across the layers of lace at her stomach.  His heart leaped.

“That’s what I was wondering about,” he said.

“It’s not bad.  I feel the chill, but there’s not much of me that hurts because of it.  I’m comfortable.  You?”

“I- the fluids are thicker in the cold.  Makes it easier in a lot of ways, but makes me more tired.”

“Hopefully the testing won’t require too much stamina,” she said.  “Some of us were going to join the fighting.  We don’t want to be tired when it counts.”

“No,” Whippersnap said.

Egg looked over at his old friend.  There were so many less Case Fifty-Threes than many people assumed, even with the addition of some that had come from other worlds after Gold Morning.  Egg and Whippersnap were of a similar age.

Their little community had endured a few reshuffles, a lot of losses.  In the midst of one, Egg had stopped talking to Whippersnap.  More of those hard emotions, thinking back to those pivotal, crucial moments.  Egg and Whippersnap had been too young to fight, but there had been a distinction; Whippersnap had actively wanted to avoid the fighting.  Had tried to convince people not to help deal with Cauldron.  Had maybe convinced a few.  Had maybe slowed down some with new doubts or hesitations, when any doubt or hesitation could get someone killed.

Egg dwelt a lot on those days.  Replaying conversations in his head, over and over again.  If he could return to those moments, would he be able to use what he knew now to change minds?  To convince others to let him participate?  To get Whippersnap to help?  Steer the outcome?

They’d had one shot.  One.  And they’d gotten the worst possible result.  Everyone dead.  Doctor Mother dead, no secrets or answers divulged, and the monstrous bitch hadn’t even suffered a ten thousandth of the pain she had caused.  It had, according to the person who did it, been quick.

And with her went most or all of their hope for a fix.  A cure.

Whippersnap saw Egg looking, and raised one eyebrow.

“Are we okay?” Egg asked.

“That’s up to you,” Whippersnap said.

“Okay,” Egg said, feeling tense, wrestling with emotions that were suspended inside his fluid center, always feeling like they might shatter him from within, but never doing so.  “We’re okay.”

“Good to hear.  Are these guys trustworthy?”

“Good question,” Egg said.

“If they aren’t, they’d better be strong enough to deal with us,” Chantilly said, shaking out a handkerchief-like stretch of lace from her sleeve, before flicking it out to become a rigid fan.

“I think it’s fine,” Egg said.  “With everything going to hell, they can’t afford to mess around.”

“That’s what they thought with Teacher,” Whippersnap said.  “The more things go to shit, the better the assholes get at using the situations to their advantage.

Others were arriving.  Matryoshka, Gregor, and Newter.  Engel was already talking to Shamrock, off to one side.

Egg had strange feelings when it came to Shamrock.  She wore the tattoo and at first he’d thought she was a monster groupie, doing it out of solidarity.  He would have been okay with that.  Finding out she had her memories, she was intact, but she actually claimed to be one of them?  More uncomfortable.

Blackforest came running up, and almost bounced on the spot in her eagerness as she stopped by Chantilly, hand going to the wicker and barbed wire that crowned her head in a very unsubtle approach to their collective ‘irregular’ hand signals and forms.

Still asking permission, which was better than some.  And she was a kid.  At one point she’d thought she was the same age as Chantilly, but that had changed.  Blackforest hadn’t really grown up as fast, emotionally or physically, and she’d struggled with online courses.  Eventually it came down to conceding that she wasn’t fifteen.  Thirteen or fourteen at best.

Chantilly wrapped her friend in a tight hug, lifting her up off the ground.  Blackforest was a scarecrow-like head, arms, legs, and very little in the way of a torso, with costuming and external additions providing that central core.  Wood and barbed wire bound together into vaguely muscle-like and vein-like shapes.  Much of her was wrapped in a robe.

Blackforest’s friend was slower to approach.  Hexie was a disembodied head and arms, her body a swirl of power contained in a tube of metal sheeting, that acted like a dress.  The power vented out at shoulders and elbows, purple fire.  She wore a witch hat, which she adjusted as she approached.

Chantilly hugged her too.

“Don’t burn yourself,” Blackforest warned.  To Hexie, she said, “Don’t burn her.”

Chantilly put her down, and dusted her arms off to check for fire.  “I’m fine.”

“Good,” Blackforest said, so enthused she lost track.  She turned to Whippersnap, hand out.  He shook it.  “Took a metal file to the barbed wire in case anyone wanted high fives or anything.  Can’t fist bump.  Let me know if I’m poking you or scratching.”

“Got it,” Whippersnap said.

Blackforest turned toward Egg.  “Um, hi, You’re Egg?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Obviously,” Whippersnap said.

Egg gave the guy a look, eyes rolling a bit.  It was hard not to snap, with old feelings still sitting ajar.  A betrayal.

“It’s not always obvious,” Chantilly said.  “There are a couple of body thieves and shapeshifters among Case Fifty-Threes.”

“Truth,” Whippersnap said.

“But who would want to be this?” Egg asked, indicating himself.

“Hard to agree without sounding like a jerk, but… also truth,” Whippersnap said.

Blackforest was waiting, champing at the bit, almost, waiting for Egg’s attention to return to her.  “We talked online.  I kept you up late a few nights being kinda lame.  I wanted to say thank you.”

“I didn’t mind.  I’ve kept enough people up griping at them in chats or PHO, I’m glad to pay it forward.”

“That’s so mature, gosh, yeah.  I’m glad I finally get to say hi,” she said, still a bit out of breath from sheer excitement.  “Um, I don’t want to be a bad friend.  This is Hexie, one of our new Gold Morning case fifty-threes.  She and I are kinda, sorta, um…”

“Together?” Egg asked.

“No!” Blackforest said, very loud, shocked.

“It’s fine if you are.”

“No, nope.  I mean, sure, but no, I’m not.  Ugh, I’m dorking it up so bad right now,” Blackforest said, eyes wide and horrified.  One eye was framed with a line of thin, rusty barbed wire that had been filed to be thinner, the other with what looked like the edge of a strip of bark, painted black.

“You’re fine,” Egg said, bewildered.

“I like boys very much,” she said.  “I meant to say, uh, we’re together, I mean, not-”

“They’re villains,” Whippersnap butted in.

“You don’t have to jump in and say it like that!” Blackforest’s tone was horrified.

“You weren’t going to,” Chantilly said.

“I was!  I was just trying to figure out a nice way of putting it.”

“I’m sure if we stood here for another hour you would have eventually gotten there,” Whippersnap said.

“You’re so mean.  Ugh.  I had all these ideas of how I would greet you guys and stuff, and I was getting ready even while in the car, Hexie can verify…”

Hexie nodded, head and witch hat bobbing.

“..and I flubbed it,” Blackforest said.  “I hope you don’t think less of me because of the villain stuff.”

“We do what we have to,” Egg said.

“Yes!” Blackforest said, and again, it was like the relief was connected to the volume knob, and it was a lot of relief.  “Yes, absolutely, that’s such a good way of looking at it.”

“I don’t remember you being this excitable,” Whippersnap said.

“I’m nervous.  This is my first time doing something like this.  The big meetups, then this… analysis?”

“Yeah,” Egg said.  “You’re right.  But we’ll be with you.”

Blackforest nodded, and brought her hand up to her head, nervously adjusting the thinnest of the jagged twigs, thorny vines, and barbed wire that formed her hair.  She locked eyes with Egg, then immediately dropped her hand.  “I wasn’t signaling for a hug, I know you can’t- I mean-”

She was exhausting to be around.

He put out his hand for a handshake.  She shook it, her hand rough and heavy, though gentle against his.

“No sweat,” he said.

She held his hand for a second longer than necessary, drinking in that ‘no sweat’ in a way that he found painfully familiar.  He drank in Engel that way.

And, he realized, unlike how he thought of Engel, Blackforest might like him.

Which was weird and hard to picture.  How would that work?  What did she visualize?  He was gross.  He’d told her at one point he was incapable, and how insane with frustration he was.  Stupid things that he regretted divulging, but it had been something like nine conversations over two weeks, some of them hours long, most of them extending past midnight.  Talking her off of a ledge, so to speak.  Being scared for the person on the other side of the internet connection, who he only knew as a friend of Chantilly’s, not knowing how to talk to someone in as dark a place as she was, except to share his own darkness.

Being here, seeing people, it was dark in its own way.  If he tried to count off the individual betrayals on his fingers, he would run out of fingers.  Whippersnap had bailed when they needed soldiers and allies.  Chantilly had gotten mad at him for getting mad, and stopped talking to him.  The Palanquin guys didn’t answer the call for attacking Cauldron.  Too many PRT Case Fifty-Threes had refused to leave the organization, even after the Eidolon revelations.  Grackle had driven a major divide in their ranks by pushing the happier and friendlier Case Fifty-Three crap, only for his subgroup to end up more bitter and vicious than any of them, calling other Case Fifty-Threes traitors unless they followed the specific Grackle way.

Chantilly and Whippersnap were talking, pointing to people for Hexie’s benefit.  Maybe doing their part for what they thought was Blackforest’s benefit, distracting her friend, while she stood by Egg.

“You cold?” he asked Blackforest, quiet.

“No.  I don’t really get cold.  Stiff.”

“Me too.”

“Can you stay near me, Egg?” the girl asked, voice soft.

“I can, but why?  Nervous?”

“I feel like I can count on you.  No offense to Tilly and Hexie, but I’ve had a lot of trouble finding people I can count on.”

“Me too,” he said.

“You have Engel, right?”

“She’s not someone you count on, unless you’re counting on her to be there.  You hitch yourself to her and she brings you along while going this way or that.”

“That’s not the worst thing,” Blackforest said.

“You’re free, though, aren’t you?” he asked.  He saw the hesitation.  “You choose what to do and when?”

“Yeah.  But we decide by committee.”

“How often do you get what you want?” he asked.

“Not as often as I like,” she said, looking nervous.  “But isn’t that just compromising?  Everyone ends up a bit unhappy.”

“And the sleeping situation?  Home?  You have a room?  No foster parents?”

“Hexie and I share a room.  No foster parents, but we have a den mother.  A bunch of us teen villains, and they’re accepting of Hexie and me.  The den mother looks after our headquarters and us, arranges food, sets a few rules, and keeps us pointed in the right direction.”

“What does she get?”

“A cut of whatever we earn or take.”

“Is she fair?”

“Probably not,” Blackforest said.  “But we get enough we don’t feel desperate, and we could leave any time.  Except, y’know…”

“Hard to find something that works,” he said, quiet.

She nodded.

So you’re not that free, and you can’t really leave any time?

“You should tell some of us where you are,” he said.  “And arrange check-ins.  If we don’t hear from you, we come to see you’re okay.”

Blackforest nodded.

“You seem happier,” he remarked.

“I am.  I’m happy, it’s good to be here,” she said, momentarily enthused, emotions and personality entirely mismatched to her body.  “I’m glad I came.  I owe you so much for talking me through the darkest time of my life.  I feel so bad that we lost contact.”

“Everyone lost contact with everyone for a while,” he told her.  He didn’t mention he had felt a bit of resentment over being abandoned.  Yes, everyone had lost contact with everyone after Gold Morning, but there had been a few weeks where he’d sent messages to Chantilly and Blackforest and got nothing back.  He’d been attached to the Irregulars, and the Irregulars hadn’t come back.  The attack had left him utterly alone and with no resources, a monster and a cape in a time when capes were being viewed warily.

It was sheer luck he’d found Engel, in those first few months when there weren’t really phones and internet.  He’d been so lonely in the aftermath that he would have latched onto anyone.  Weeks and months without talking to anyone.  Weld and Sveta had reached out, but accepting their offer for help and companionship would have been saying that what they did was okay.

Engel, Newter, Matryoshka, Gregor, and Bijou arrived from the roadside, where the adults had been talking.  Engel was radiance, skin with fine fractal patterns etched onto it, like frost on a car that could only be seen from certain angles, her hair strands glowing in rainbow shimmers.

Seeing Engel on the approach soothed, and unwound some of the more intense frustrations and darker thoughts.  She was, just by being near, a warm bath on a cold day, a delicious meal when he felt starved, a hug when he couldn’t remember ever having a good hug.

Newter was, by contrast, garishness.  Orange skin, bubblegum pink hair, and a bright green winter coat, prowling forward on all fours, because the counterbalance of his long, prehensile tail made standing up straight and walking a pain.

Gregor was more up Egg’s alley, as far as styles and personalities went.  The kind of guy he wanted to be.  Stern, quiet, unflinching.  Untouchable.  Gregor wore a dress shirt made of clear plastic under a heavy coat, his skin, the snail shells that studded his skin, and the shadows of organs visible through it.  His pants were held up by a belt with a stone fossil for a belt buckle, that had to weigh at least five pounds.

Matryoshka and Bijou were talking.  Matryoshka had severe bangs, and was striped, strictly in horizontal stripes that changed her skin color as they extended down her face and emerged from her sleeves.  Bijou, by contrast, looked utterly normal, if a bit nerdy.  Brown-skinned, with glasses worn over a simple full-face mask, collar done up with a ribbon, hair in an old fashioned style.

“What a pair,” Whippersnap snarked, indicating Engel and Newter.

“We’ve teamed up before,” Newter said.  “Synergy in powers, no synergy in anything else.”

“Your boss is a pain in my ass,” Engel said.  “Also, we should go inside.  They are waving us in.”

Egg turned to look.

The staff members were inside, waiting.  A tinker stood further down the hallway.

“I used to have nightmares,” Matryoshka said, as the group started moving toward the doors.  She had a heavy accent that sounded Russian.  “I saw movies where aliens were caught and experimented on.  I imagined being one of them.  Strapped to a table, autopsied.”

“You’ll scare the children,” Engel said, quiet.

“I’m fine” Egg said, rankling a bit.

“You’re a kid,” Engel said.  She touched the side of his head, fingers against smooth skin.

He closed his eyes, feeling the senses bleed out from the touch.  He spoke, “We’re not really kids.  Kids have childhoods.  We’ve seen stuff, lived through stuff.”

“Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” she said.

He felt frustrated, because it was really hard to retort like he wanted to retort, and he was so on the spot.  Anything he said would be petulant.

He’d gone from feeling like someone on his way to being a grown-up when talking to Blackforest to feeling like a toddler around Engel, who he depended on too much to really reject or fight.

He set his jaw.  “I’m fine.  I can deal.”

“I’m not scared either,” Blackforest said, even though she’d said she was nervous earlier.

“A lot of us report dreams or vague flashbacks about being experimented on, pursued, captured,” Shamrock said, as she found a spot walking beside Gregor, his heavy arm around her.  “I can speak from experience, there were things done to us.”

Egg wanted to say something to that, to challenge her, but he bit his tongue.  Gregor was here and Blackforest was counting on him, and that made him want to be more adult.

Instead, he spat.  A glob of yellow and blood on the side of the walkway.

“I’ve seen too many of those autopsy tables to count, and I still get spooked,” Bijou said.

“Too many of us for them to do anything,” Whippersnap said.  “Stick together.  Watch each other’s backs.”

They passed through the doors.  Egg held it open for Hexie, Chantilly, and Blackforest, until Gregor took it over.

The area they were entering was a gymnasium, the kind of area that could be used as a basketball court, volleyball field, or anything else.  Now it was a makeshift lab.  People stood on the one side, tinker and scientist, representatives and doctors.

Egg could see the fear on their faces.  Like they hadn’t expected this many.  That they had an inkling of how dangerous some of the case fifty-threes were.

Many of us break out of the nice, tidy box that other Parahumans are kept in.  It’s part of why Cauldron wanted usThe power they stuffed in us sits ajar, and that sometimes means the cupboards don’t close all the way.

There were multiple stations, each one with a purpose, but there were more case fifty-threes than stations.  One by one, they filed in.  Sitting on tables, in chairs, or in front of whirring machines that had tinkers standing by.

One of the stations was being cleaned, Egg saw.  It caught his eye because he was used to being cleaned up after.  He couldn’t go to a restaurant without some goop getting on a table or chair.  He tried to clean it, but he always felt a stab of guilt when he saw a concerned looking employee trying to wipe up after him anyway, or going to talk to the manager about biohazards and clean up protocols.

A man approached, and he looked nervous.  His attention went to a woman standing off to the side, who looked less afraid than some of the others.  She was pretty and professional looking, with light brown skin, her hair in an afro that had been pressed back by a hairband.  She wore a suit dress.

“I don’t know- which am I handing out?” he asked the woman.

“Form A and form B.  They’re in separate packets,” she said.

“For those who are waiting,” the guy said, looking between them and seeming to have trouble figuring out where his eyes should land.  “We have forms for you to fill out.”

“Are these committing us to anything?” Engel asked.

“Uh,” he said, looking at the woman.  “No.”

“Are we signing away rights?  Trapping ourselves?  Are we saying it is okay if you hurt us?”

“Uhh-” the guy said.  He looked at the woman.

“Why are you looking at her?”

“Excuse me,” the woman said.  “Here, I’ll take over.  This didn’t work.”

She took the clipboard and papers, and then walked over to the table where stuff was piled up.

“Fucking with us already?” Egg asked.

“No,” she said, looking bewildered.  “No.  I’m Abella Pines, I’m a parahuman studies student at Nilles.  We’re dealing with an influx, and I wanted to see if we could divide up the labor.  I was just watching Paul, but I think we dropped a bit too much on him too fast.”

“Don’t lie,” Blackforest said.  “Even polite lies are worse than the truth.”

Abella hesitated.

There was a solidarity in numbers.  Being, for once, a member of the group that outnumbered the humans, that decided the rules.

“What are you getting from there?” Whippersnap asked.

“A pen,” she said.  “Disposable pens irritate me.”

She retrieved and held up a pen, demonstrating, before adjusting the pile.

“She still lied,” Blackforest said.

The woman was a bit nervous now.  She’d be stupid not to be.  And with that nervousness, the furtiveness, it made everyone else more anxious.

Again, Egg felt protective of Blackforest, as she drew further back into the crowd of their people.  He put himself between her and the vague threat that the woman presented.

“Explain,” Gregor said, his voice low.  “I have faith your intentions were good, but you look worse with each second you do not give us answers.  It is rare that being straightforward will hurt you.”

“I was told…” she hesitated.  “I should lose the lab coat, and someone else should take charge.  Because of similarities.”

Similarities to the woman who had played the biggest role in making them this way.  Black skin, lab coat.  Yeah.

“Good advice,” Shamrock said.

“The person who gave you that advice missed a detail,” Engel said.  “We are not the type to judge people on appearances alone.”

“Some of us are,” Shamrock said.  “When those people leave you with nightmares.”

“Would it be best if I left?  Your comfort is paramount, I know you’ve had it rough.”

“Not everyone will be comfortable with you there with your clipboard,” Shamrock said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Perhaps,” Engel said, pushing her way back into the conversation, “You do some, your friend watches, and hopefully he feels more confident for later parts?”

“If that’s okay?” Abella asked the group.

There was agreement.

They sorted out the handing out of the paperwork, and Bijou was the most confident one when it came to the initial checkup and the photo-taking.  Everyone got a file and each file had a picture and label attached.

Even that was worrying, stressful.  They’d had files at Cauldron, according to their sources.  Some people remembered glimmers of that.

But the world was ending, the Titans were attacking, and they did want to help.

“Is there anything I can do to make this more comfortable?” Abella asked.

“I’m fine.  I’m tough,” Bijou said.

“Drink?  Food?  We have the option for buddies or staff as helpers who can talk you through everything.”

“I’m fine.”

“Why wear a mask if you’re…?” the man who had been asking the questions earlier asked.

“I’m working for the Wardens, was working,” Bijou said.  “Undercover.  Can’t give away my face.”

“What should we do for the photo?” the man asked.

Bijou reached up to her mask and divided it in two.  Holding the halves in place on each side of her face, she split down the middle, forehead to collarbone.  Doll-like hands reached out to find grips and help push, while her regular hands helped to widen the divide.  When she was done, her head, throat, and upped chest were splayed open.

Appendages and doll’s hands reached out to lash the mask into place on each side of the face, using wire, ribbon, and threads.  Occupying the now-empty brain cavity was a blood-slick doll’s head, with a stream of appendages, strips of cloth and doll limbs connected end to end, disappearing down her throat, which had been widened.

Matryoshka stepped in to wipe the doll-head clean.

“Thank you,” the doll head spoke.

“Who did that body belong to?” Chantilly asked.

“That would be giving away too much,” Bijou said.  “But the Wardens thought it was important, and she was as good as dead.  I was able to stitch her up from within.”

The woman who had used the clipboard took the photo.

“With the Titans destroying everything, it might not even matter,” Bijou said.  “My handler was telling me I didn’t need to worry about holding onto this body, and the person I was going after is probably dead… but I don’t have much.”

None of us do, Egg thought.

“I’d like to hold onto the possibility I get back this life I sacrificed and worked to build.”

“Name?” Abella asked.

“Bijou.  B-I-J-O-U.”

“We’re still making adjustments to make the process as simple and easy as possible,” Abella said, as she worked with the label maker.  “I can walk you through the steps.  Part of the reason for the survey is so our more reluctant volunteers can voice their concerns…”

The surveys still smelled like they were fresh from the printer.  The concerns, the statements… Egg looked back to the workstation that was being wiped down, then over at Abella.

He leaned over to Blackforest, “I’m going to go for a walk.  You okay here, or-”

She was already tensing up.

“-or want to come?”

She nodded.

Hand at her shoulder, careful to avoid the dozens of barbs, thorns, and jagged outcroppings of wood there, he guided her through the crowd, into the hallway by the gymnasium.  Despite his efforts, her body still penetrated the shell of his fingers.  Yellow yolk and blood glooped out.

“She’s like me, except the opposite,” Blackforest said.

“Who?  Bijou?”

“Yeah.  I’ve got a little kernel of me, deep inside, a little baby me that sleeps all the time and never grows up.  The rest of me grows around her.  We’re kind of similar like that, aren’t we?”

“I dunno,” he said.  Mostly he was conscious of the fluids he’d leaked onto her.  “My godbird and the others aren’t… me.”

“Godbird, wow.  That sounds so amazing.”

“I thought so,” he said.  “Have to intimidate the people who read the notes on me.”

Once they were clear of the crowd, he pulled out a packet of tissues.  He hated this, hated the look she gave him.

“Let me.  I got some yolk on you.”

“I don’t mind.”

“It’s protein.  It stains.  If I don’t get it all here-”

“Really, it’s fine.”

She was trying to be nice about it and it was having the opposite of the intended effect.

“If I don’t get it all here, use cold water.”

“Okay.”

“Let me daub at it.”

She did, and he had to slow a bit to be sure.  They moved on, heading to the side door of the building.

He felt so bad, that he had so little in the way of interest for this girl that he was pretty sure liked him.  Her body was the least compatible for his own, and he wasn’t sure their personalities would mesh over time.

He wasn’t sure he could let go of the fact that she had stopped contacting him online after he had stopped being useful to her.  Maybe that was shitty, being that unforgiving, but… the world was unforgiving.  Why did he have to deal with the people closest to him being like that too?

“Excuse me,” he said.  He hadn’t wanted to show Blackforest, but in a small way, he wasn’t sure he minded if he scared her off.

His fingers punched into the side of his head, penetrating the eggshell skin.  Clear vitreous, yellow yolk, and blood flowed out in globs and chunks, running down his arm.  Raking his finger from temple to shoulder, he opened up a divide at the same time he pushed.

Pink, featherless bird flesh pressed out against the aperture, cracking it further.  Beakless, but with a pointed face and long neck, the bird-thing he’d named Rhea lurched and lunged out, at almost ten times his mass.  She flapped a featherless wing aimlessly, craning her head around.

“Can you sniff out anyone familiar?” he spoke with half a mouth and a partial tongue.

Rhea turned her head to look back at the building.

“Out here.  Walking away.”

Rhea swelled, organs shifting, her body reconfiguring in subtle ways.

She turned toward the parking lot.

There she was.

Sveta Karelia, Weld, Slician, Faultline, and a kid.  They had come before everyone else, and now they were in the staff parking lot, around the corner from the regular parking lot, surrounded by the wild, dense trees that had been here for hundreds of years, left standing as this corner of the city had been built around them.

Rhea began to hunker down, wiggling to find space in the fragile extradimensional portal that was Egg’s body.  Yolk spilled out, and he used his hand to scoop up and cast aside the worst of it.

“Bye birdie,” Blackforest said.  “Nice to meet you.”

He could see, out of the corner of his eye, that Rhea had opened her eyes and fixed her gaze on the girl of wood and wire.

Rhea crawled in, contorting herself in tight, and the shell regenerated around her.

Somewhere in the midst of that, Rhea found her place in that state of being purely potentially there, part of the ‘yolk’ and distinct from it.

“Do you ever let her all the way out?” Blackforest asked.

“Rarely,” Egg said.

Egg approached, Blackforest trailing behind him.

They didn’t yell at him or tell him to go away.

“Comparing notes,” Weld said, simply.

“On?” Egg asked.

“Contessa.  It might be relevant to Titan Fortuna,” Weld said.

“How are things going in there?” Sveta asked.

“Just starting.  You guys told the woman she looked too much like Doctor Mother to parade around in a lab coat, huh?”

“She doesn’t really,” Weld said.  “Not at all.”

“Still,” Egg said.

“Yeah.  I suggested she back off a bit.  In case it triggered something,” Sveta said.

“The guy they put in charge fucked it up,” Egg said.  “We ended up making her explain.  Didn’t work.”

“Oh,” Sveta said.  “Shit.”

“It’s not that bad,” Egg said.  “Engel thought it was a good idea.  But she’d change her mind if she knew where that idea came from.”

“I see,” Sveta said.  She looked down and away.

“A lot of them would be pissed, seeing you out here, conspiring.  Knowing you set things up in there.”

“I’m doing what I’ve always done,” Sveta said.  “Making sure people are looked after, that people ask the right questions.”

“The questionnaire was you too?”

Sveta shrugged.  “Yeah.”

Egg looked at her neck, her hands.

The new body.  Yet she still wore the tattoo, plain on her face.

Insane jealousy bubbled inside him, in that fluid where Rhea dwelt.  When everything about him was fragile or fluid, the emotions took on a substance they shouldn’t have.  Rhea could drink those emotions in, reacted to them, and began to struggle.

Cracks formed along him that he wasn’t making with his movements.  He was careful to stay still and concentrate to let them knit together again.  The back of his thumb wicked away the traces of yolk.

“All of us here were interacting with her on some level,” Faultline said.

“Contessa,” Egg said.

“Yep.  Weld and Sveta were part of the raid.”

“Sensitive topic,” Sveta said, her voice soft.

“But you fought her.  Sent people after her.”

“We worked around her,” Weld said.  “I don’t think there’s a way to fight her and win.  You throw up roadblocks and hope that the path she’s on goes places far from you.”

“He had a name,” Egg said.  “Mantellum.”

“Yeah,” Weld said.  He looked very tired, for someone who didn’t get tired.

“Did you want something?” Faultline asked.

I want a lot of things, but I don’t get them, Egg thought.  I want to be here, and you want me gone, because I’m interrupting.

“What’s she bringing to the table?” he asked, indicating Slician.

“CYA,” Weld said.  “Big meeting of people the staff isn’t familiar with, orchestrated in part by us.  Slician is a known quantity, she tells them everything was aboveboard, they’ll listen.”

“It’s kind of fucked up you have to do that,” Egg said.

“I don’t know that we have to, but they’ve got enough things to worry about,” Weld said.

“Everyone does,” Faultline said.

“On the topic of Mantellum,” Weld said, his arms folded, producing a creaking metal sound as they flexed.  “I know you were putting out feelers earlier, but there’s no guarantee that another Mantellum would even work, now that she’s a Titan.  The built-in limitations are off.”

“Which still leaves options,” Faultline said.  She glanced at Egg but she wasn’t going to push for him to leave if the others weren’t.

And Weld and Sveta couldn’t.  Not after what they’d done.

The conversation continued.  Egg had a hard time listening, as emotions stirred.

They were traitors.  All of them.  Faultline had stolen good capes away at the end of the world, working on infrastructure and backend, gambling they’d be ahead if everyone made it through Gold Morning.  She had only been part of the final fight because she’d been forced to be.  Gregor and Newter and those others had been the same, because she called the shots.

He didn’t blame them so much as he blamed her.  She called the shots, she owned the shots.  A team only worked if everyone was on the same wavelength, willing to follow the leader.  Sveta and Weld had fucked things up by refusing to do that, by actively misleading, refusing to be on the same wavelength, and handing their entire community, now a third of what it had once been, the worst possible result.

No answer, no fix, no revenge.

The rule of thumb for what was right was to ask the question: ‘what if everyone did that?’

What if everyone decided to sit out on the important battles instead of agreeing to fight?

What if everyone fixated so much on what they wanted that they forced the results nobody wanted?

His body cracked, hip to shoulder.  Then from the midpoint of that crack around his ribs to his spine.

Rhea slithered against Gobbles, who slithered against Hurk, warring for space in a sea of yolk that dwarfed the shell that contained it.  If he split, probably only one would get out.  Rhea was the smallest.  The others were the size of a house.  He tended to prioritize Rhea, because she was most cooperative, and liked to stay close to home.

If they were all traitors, then… Egg looked at the boy at the edge of the group.

Sveta caught him looking.

“…bringing us back to the notion that if we can’t find any weaknesses, we make some,” Faultline reiterated, as part of the ongoing conversation.

“I don’t think that’s how Titans work,” Weld said.  “Slician and Sveta can back me up on this.”

Egg stared at the boy with parted hair, and ordinary clothes.  Nothing that gave anything away.

The boy turned his way, eyebrows knit into a slight smile, the rest of his expression betraying nothing.

Blackforest shuffled her feet.  Egg forced himself to relax, looking back.

What would Gregor do, here?  What would Engel do?

How was Egg supposed to lean on people as role models in a situation this fucked, surrounded by people that were at times outright toxic, when the role models had disappointed him as those guys had?

He felt so lonely, standing on the sidelines of this.

He had nothing, nobody.  Just Rhea, just Gobbles, just Hurk.

“There were none of Mantellum’s vials left,” the boy said.

Egg felt the closest thing his body could experience to a chill.  To hear those words said so clearly.

Harbinger.

“He’s on our side,” Sveta explained.  “He left them during the attack on Teacher’s base.  He went off on his own.  They’ve tried to track him down a few times.  He gave up a lot to be here.”

Egg stared at the Harbinger.

“What makes you different?” Egg asked.  “Why did you leave when they didn’t?”

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” the Harbinger said.  “I’m number five of my surviving brothers.  I was always the last one to leave, when we filed out.  I’d look back and see Jeanne… the closest thing we ever had to a mother.  Our ‘number zero’s wife.  That could have opened a crack the rest of the sentimentality flowed into.  It could have been randomness.  No numbers are truly random, but… I got less jobs in the last year than my brothers.  More time to think, less brutality.  I got handed different quote-unquote, ‘random’ memories.  Maybe that created a wedge.”

“He’s telling the truth,” Blackforest said.

Egg nodded, taking that in.

Blackforest ‘ate’ babies, drawing them into her center and building around them.  The branches and the rest of her were actually like antennae, that reached out to connect to others, and turn emotional connections physical.  Through the tentative connections, she could read information.

“I want to help you and the others,” the Harbinger said.

“Why?”

“Guilt,” the Harbinger said.  “I won’t pretend it’s natural or primary.  But a variable got flipped inside of me, and I don’t think it’s going to un-flip.  I can’t get at the root of it, so I’ll handle the permutations.”

“The cracks and wedges,” Egg said.  His finger traced a still-healing crack at the side of his face.

“Everything is cracks and wedges right now,” Five said.  “We’re trying to find Fortuna’s.”

“Portals,” Egg said.  “It came up in planning.  The big-headed case fifty-three that joined after the Eidolon revelations.”

“Witness,” Weld said.

“She said there were slight delays when she used portals.”

“We talked about that,” Weld said.  And his tone shifted, became the adult that was trying to be supportive of the kid.

Everything I know, you know in more detail?

“The problem with using portals is it tends to put too many tools in her hands, or close to her,” Faultline said.

“It won’t work,” Five added.  “We’ve considered other weaknesses.  She lost her composure when people triggered near her, but we can’t induce triggers  There were parahumans she couldn’t go near.  Blind spots.  A few capes who had executions better than perfect that she couldn’t beat, who she could find ways around.”

I’m a portal,” Egg said.  “A lot of powers are portals.”

“Technically, you’re not wrong,” Weld said.  “Problem is, it’s not that simple in reality.”

“Powers come from somewhere,” Faultline said, “They originate from within our bodies through, essentially, portals.  To get to that origination point… you gotta dig.  Or cut.”

Egg dug fingers into the side of his neck, by way of demonstration.

He stopped there, yolk dripping down his arm, as he finished the thought he’d been about to express.

Is this the point I stop being the kid and become a shitty adult?  Make my first horrible decision, that betrays the others just by saying it out loud?

He looked back at Blackforest.

He could go back.  Into that room where he had an extended family, but nobody he was close to.  If he wanted he could have a relationship with Blackforest, maybe.  He’d be treated like a child by Engel and he’d pretend to be an adult.  He’d be comfortable, insofar as it was possible to be comfortable when his body broke at the slightest pressure, leaking fluids everywhere.

His feelings bottled up, boxed up, locked in a vault, and sunk to the bottom of an ocean of yellow yolk, where they could fester and poison the fluids around them.

He couldn’t.

“You have to dig less if you’re digging into case fifty-threes,” he said.  “Everything’s closer to the surface.  Bigger.  It has more real estate.”

“We’re not going to do that,” Sveta said.  “No way, no how.”

“You might have to,” Egg said.  “You can get them on board if you give them what they really want.”

Sveta shook her head.

“What do they want?” Slician asked.

“A fix,” Weld said, metal eyes locked with Egg’s eggshell orbs, that leaked beads of yellow where eyelid merged into the orb’s surface and broke by small fractions.

“We can’t guarantee a fix,” Faultline said.

“It’d be unfair to even suggest there might be one,” Sveta added.

“You took the potential fix from us when you killed Doctor Mother.  Worse than that,” Egg said, and his voice was hard, “You took hope from us.  That we might get her to say something or do something that gives us that fix.”

“There was never going to be a fix,” Weld said.  “That’s not the way this works.”

“We need hope,” Egg said.  “You took it from us, you could give it back to us if you really wanted.”

“How?” Sveta asked.

Lie.  Give us something.  Give us anything.  We have to fight Titans, we’re going through this testing.  Maybe we end up making sacrifices.  If a nucleus of yolk inside me gets popped and my brain goes with it, I could donate my body to science, to be used as a tool, but you have to fucking give me something to get that from me.”

“I don’t think we could do that,” Weld said.

“Then fuck you, then,” Egg snarled.

He looked back at Blackforest, worried for a second, but she looked a bit angry too.

If he pushed for a lie, would she back it up, saying it was the truth?  If it was a necessary lie that would help keep all of these scared case fifty-threes afloat?

“These two were talking about hacking the system from the inside.  From the dream,” Faultline said.  “Maybe that’s a fix.”

“That’s a possibility,” Egg said, energized now.  “Yes.”

No,” Weld said.  “Believe me, if it were that easy, we would have already.”

“I don’t think it works like that,” Sveta said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Are you saying that because you’re okay, now?” Egg asked, angry now.  “You assholes are getting what you want, beautiful girls and bodies and… you’re leaving us all behind.  You don’t get to do that!”

“I don’t think we could leave you behind if we wanted to,” Sveta said.

“Why not?  You did it two years ago,” Egg said, staring at her.  “I talked to you.  I told you to talk to Weld about how he was ignoring what people really wanted.  Then you two left us all behind to go… I don’t know.  Be heroes?  Be PRT heroes, forgetting they were propped up by the same people we were trying to defeat?”

He saw Weld look over at Sveta.

Weld had a good poker face, but it wasn’t that good.

“Did you ever talk to him?” Egg asked.

The silence was tense.

“I did try,” Sveta said.  “I could have tried harder.”

“I don’t remember that,” Weld said, quiet.

“You were gung ho.  A part of it was that you were only hearing what you wanted to hear.  A part of it was… I only wanted to tell you what you wanted to hear.”

There it was.

Egg felt something of a sense of closure.

“Okay,” Weld said, and there was emotion in his voice.  His hand went to his forehead.

“I’m sorry,” Sveta said.

“I-” Weld started.  He put a hand out to Sveta’s shoulder.  For a second, it looked like he might push her away, might not.

Weld’s hand dropped away, his head still slightly bent.

“I should go,” Sveta said.

“Yeah.”

The way things had played out made more sense, now.

“We’ll compare notes more when Tattletale has gone over stuff,” Faultline said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said, her voice small.

She backed off, and the Harbinger went with her.

“Be safe,” Weld said, in a tone like he was restraining himself from saying other things.

Sveta nodded.

And then she was gone.

“If I talk to the others, I can tell them,” Egg said.  “Bring you in.”

Weld shook his head.

“No?” Egg asked.

“Maybe.  It would be good to talk to them.  But I don’t want you guys to go down this route of digging into yourselves to find portals that might not exist.  There are other opportunities.  Teamwork, cooperation, maybe routes that we discover through tonight’s analysis.”

Egg nodded.

“If you need hope, maybe that suffices,” Weld said.  “But I don’t want to… we absolutely can’t tear ourselves apart to try to find answers or tap into wellsprings of power.  I don’t think it would work and it would be… sadder than words can convey, because I know the types who would jump on that opportunity.”

Types?

Egg dismissed the thought.

“Anything works,” Egg said.  “You might have to explain how you’re working under Legend, technically.”

“I can do that,” Weld said.  “That’s easier than some questions.  It’s pretty obvious he isn’t around as much as he was when he was in the PRT.  He’s not doing the same jobs.”

“Almost a Figurehead?” Slician suggested.

“Almost,” Weld said.  “We’ve been on guard for Cauldron-like behavior since the Wardens were founded.  It makes us weaker, slower, but… I think I can explain that.”

He probably could.

He wasn’t a traitor, probably, and he was a leader.

Leaving Faultline at her truck, smoking, they started walking back to the building.  Egg looked back to the corner of a parking lot, where Sveta Karelia stood with the Harbinger.  A portal opened near her.

Which said a lot.  That she was with old members of Cauldron, using portals.

How fucked was it that she was the one who had worked with people to make the gesture system they’d all used to gather together?  It was the poison of treachery, that it leeched into everything, it made those gestures feel worse to use.  It cast a shadow over so many interactions.

He felt brighter and better now.

That things made more sense.  That the treachery was smaller than he’d thought, with simpler answers.  That it wasn’t as awful and widespread as he’d taken it to be.

He entered the gymnasium, where tinker scans were flickering and people were being scanned with regular devices.  He left Weld and Blackforest in the hallway.

He went to familiar faces first.  People who’d been peripherally involved.  Fishy, Engel, Gregor.

If not to ensure they wouldn’t attack on sight, to ensure they could help handle things if things went sour.

After twenty minutes of talking, people went to the hallway to meet Weld.

The world didn’t feel so lonely, now.  They weren’t an isolated, abandoned people, cut off from everything.  If Weld was okay, maybe they had options.

“He lied.”

Egg stopped, looking back at Blackforest.

“Weld lied.  Sveta told him before.  Just now, in the hallway, he said if I played along, we could smooth things over, give people a different kind of hope, that didn’t require… how did he put it?  Grisly sacrifice?”

Egg looked over at Weld, who was in the hallway, talking seriously to the other leaders of the individual case fifty-three groups.

“When he touched her shoulder, he passed on a message, or he printed something on the metal there.  He wanted me to keep it a secret, for everyone’s benefit, he said.”

Egg nodded.

“I don’t want this existence to be pointless,” he said.

“Me either.”

Some of the capes were leaving their stations, gravitating their way.  There were over a hundred case fifty-threes present, now.

“You saved my life, those years ago,” she said, quiet.  “Anything and everything you want, I’ll back you up.”

“You won’t betray me?”

“Never.”

He nodded, feeling those feelings hardening inside him.  Less negative than confident, cold.  “Same, then.  Thank you.  Do you think you could find others?”

“Other what?”

“Others we can trust, no matter what.”

“I think I would be scarily good at that,” Blackforest said.  “Bijou would be on board.  Hexie.  Some of the non-Bet cases.  I can think of others, put out feelers.”

The last time the world had ended, Sveta and Weld had taken the choice away from the case fifty-threes.

Now they were trying to do it again.  A different way, but the same course.  They fought so hard to keep case fifty-threes from becoming monsters, that they de-fanged them, would sooner put them down than let them do anything that mattered.

They fought it so hard they were barely distinguishable from Cauldron.  Cheating, infiltrating, pushing their ideals.

No.

“We don’t do what they did,” he said.  “We don’t divide the group.  Just keep quiet about what Weld is doing, we keep flipping people, quietly, and when the time is right, we ask the group the question.”

They had options.  Digging for the roots of the powers, maybe.  But better than that, more important…

The Titans fell.  With them, the capes fell.

Egg cracked.  Yolk spilled out with blood.  As his body struggled to knit together, it did it wrong.  Overlapped too much, leaving zig-zagging seams behind.

Sveta, nearby, wasn’t doing much better.  She’d fallen to pieces.

Blackforest, hiding under rubble, was breathing hard.  Her tiny core was straining to breathe as the body temporarily became a cage around it, instead of a vehicle.

He went to her.  Helping by prying at the flesh, feeling his fingers break as he exerted too much pressure.  He reached for Rhea and found Gobbles instead.  He had to reach past something that wasn’t Rhea, wasn’t Gobbles, and wasn’t Hurk, before he found his familiar companion, almost buried beneath the others.  Rhea extended pink wingtips through the shell of his body, leveraging insane strength that dwarfed his own, dwarfed most people’s.

“Thank you,” Blackforest whispered.  “That helps.”

“It’s getting better.  Powers are coming back,” he murmured.  Yolk dribbled from the corner of his mouth and he spat.

She only nodded.

“Any word?” he asked.

Blackforest looked down at the ground, as if she could look through rubble and ice and concrete to what lay below.

“Our body snatchers are in.  We’re in.”

Past the cracks, the other world, the guts of the system.  The ‘dream room’, as Faultline and Weld had explained.  In the guts of the system.

Just in time for the fight against Contessa.

When powers were as close to the surface as they were for case fifty-threes, that meant possibilities.  It meant hope.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Infrared – 19.2

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

I held my gun and trained it, best as I could when I couldn’t line up the sights, on an image of myself below.  A scene too distant to make out the particulars of, but ingrained enough in my memories that I intuitively knew what it was.  It helped that I knew that this search came down to picking one of the worst memories I had.

The longer I looked, the easier it felt to look past the darkness and the reds of the crystal itself and see through.  A dash of gold atop a white figure, a backdrop of gray that was almost blue, with hints of red and orange from distant, cheaply manufactured lights.  That gold jerked right, and a slash of crimson was left behind.

I itched to pull the trigger, to obliterate that scene.

Was it a defense mechanism?  Conjuring up those images as we hurt the crystal and dug deeper?

No, I decided.

No, just the mechanism.  Somewhere along the line, our enemies had decided strife and pain were more likely to stir up the kind of desperate, inspired thinking that they needed from the species they were terrorizing.  So they catalogued and studied it, kept tabs on it.  The triumphs too, the successes, but also what led up to those triumphs, which was often struggle.  I hadn’t been on the battlefield back then, but at one point in the struggle against Scion, one of the Suits had triggered and another cape on the battlefield had helped everyone there keep hold of the glimpses behind the curtain that came with triggering.

The cape, allegedly one of the capes from South Africa, had not wanted to be named.  Which was a shame, because they’d saved us.  I couldn’t say if it had helped in the final defeat of Scion, but it helped now.  Without that knowledge, we would be a people who had been attacked with no warning by our big golden savior, and we’d have no idea what was happening now.

We were fighting students of misery.  They kept records of our struggles and weaknesses, and they administered our powers.  Now, when we had the firmest grip on our powers and we were struggling most, they had more power over us than ever.

The scene replayed from another angle.  I could imagine it was from my dad’s point of view.

A bit of golden-blonde hair above a white bodysuit.  The Wretch taking hold of my mother, and swiping her against a concrete wall like someone might strike a match.

No illusions, no faking it.  The people down there could see me high above them, the gold on my gun contrasted against the night sky, held by the same pseudo-telekinesis that had maimed my mother.  They could see the repeated scene in the crystals.

I wanted to shoot now, to obliterate the scene, and make it so it wouldn’t play any more.  To do something to refute it.

Not that easy, Victoria.

I kept track of the Titans while watching the people work.  The Nemean Titan was prowling nearby, getting more confident in targeting capes as he got in close to some, stole their ability to move their own bodies or communicate, and got steadily more competent.

He didn’t move on all fours now, and he seemed taller and denser.  Like he couldn’t scale a skyscraper without simultaneously toppling it, now.

Three titans operated on coordination, and in this screwed up dynamic, Skadi was now effectively on our side.  Titans Oberon and Auger were on the far side of the battlefield, but the seemingly endless flesh monster were occupying them.

My finger had a tremor, as I held it near the trigger.

Seeing those images below made me want to pull the trigger.  Raw, base level emotion.

Seeing the Titans on the horizon, the sheer devastation, I wanted to pull the trigger and do something about it all.

But I knew that being close to pulling the trigger might draw Skadi to me.  Drawing her to me might mean there was one less thing fighting the trio of Nemean, Ophion, and the Stranger.  They weren’t brawlers like Oberon’s group seemed to be, but they were combatants who could use the slightest bit of disruption to make that one point of contact.  Nemean got close enough to steal away someone’s faculties in an instant.  Ophion pricked someone with a needle.  The Stranger stole sanity away with blasts we couldn’t see or avoid, short of staying behind cover.

The jittery movement of my finger almost reflected the three things pulling at me.  An emotional and a logical drive to pull the trigger, pull it, Victoria.  A feeling of wanting to not pull it and set the dominoes to toppling, where I couldn’t tell if it was logical or emotional.

Two things on one side, one thing on the other, I had to consciously put effort in to pull my finger away.  It would be disastrous to fire at the wrong time.

Two smaller things, one huge, overwhelming, frankly terrifying reality on the other.  The carnage would put lives at risk.  People I’d put in the line of fire.  That scared me more than me being hurt, pricked by Ophion, or having my sanity smeared out of my brain like I’d smeared my mother’s head against the wall.  I had to stop myself from pulling too far away, or even dropping the gun.

Focus, be readyWatch the Titans.

In the crystal, past the crystal, I saw glimmers of white.  Floors and walls made of white, nonporous sheets of polycarbonate.  One patch on the wall that was damaged, awaiting repair, with plastic sealed over it.  Pallid flesh that was hard to distinguish from the white tile.  And moisture, water being sprayed with the kind of nozzle that dishwashers in kitchens used.

Being washed, because I couldn’t wash myself.  This scene captured my attention because I couldn’t be sure what it was, even if I knew the where and approximate when.

It started with a splash, and I knew.

I looked away, to track the Nemean Titan, who was getting closer to me, running, bounding.  Not coming for me, not exactly, but veering closer to my direction as he chased a speedster.

I looked back to the tantrum.

I’m an educated, smart, well-dressed woman who can defend herself, who knows her shit, who protects the weak and hurts evil people.

Watch my naked, soaking wet, misshapen self tear apart a bathtub, scream -no sound when viewing crystal-pictures, of course-, and shove a nurse across a room.  Watch her -watch me- try to smash my head against the walls and sides of the tub, to try to break the forcefield so I could rake myself with fingernails or bludgeon myself into unconsciousness.  It was always back up just a bit too fast. 

I’m a heroine, dressed in black and gold, who gives her all, collecting injuries around the edges.  Even in my lapse from superheroics, I was working in the Patrol, trying to help the city and the people in it.  Trying to encourage compassion and balanced views in the officers I helped train and educate.

Watch me at my lowest points, wailing, unable to even wash myself, getting sores in creases and folds because refusing to cooperate and let myself be washed was one of the few choices I had.

Dozens, hundreds of bystanders were down there, many of them getting clear views of the scene.

I could imagine the expression they were seeing on my face when they looked through the crystal.  I’d seen it before, and not in a mirror.  When one’s body was like chunky puke spilling out over a bed or filling a bathtub, skin stretched over it, body parts sticking out, it was possible to see one’s own face.  Impossible to not see it, really.

A buried, dark part of me wanted to pull the trigger, knowing onlookers might be in the line of fire.  It would mean less people would see me like that.

“Is that you?” I whispered.  I tracked the Nemean Titan, and raised the laser cannon’s barrel to point at him, tracking his movement.  “Is that your nudges and attempts to influence me, when those especially dark thoughts come to the surface?”

The Fragile One was still and unresponsive.  No gestures, no lip movements, even as I relaxed my control.

“Or is it me?  Was it me that decided to grind my mother’s face into a wall, unconsciously?  Deep, buried feelings?”

No response.

“I’m trusting, with everything I have, that you’re on my side.  Based purely on you answering my call and jumping in like you did.  Like I would.  Ever since I woke up, I’ve been holding onto that,” I whispered.

The Nemean Titan got close enough to a pack of capes that they dropped out of the air, no longer coordinated enough to fly in a straight line.  I pulled the trigger before even thinking about it.

A golden light, cutting across the dark, ruined section of city, striking the Nemean Titan in the side of the head.  Locks of the golden ‘hair’, probably more solid and rigid than any concrete, fell away.

He put his paw-like hand in the way of the beam.  I adjusted, moving the cannon, and he was pretty quick in moving his hand to match.  The claw took less damage than the rest of him.

His posture shifted, hair gleaming gold in the radiance of the beam.  In that moment, I could see past the Titan to a Victor I had encountered in passing on the battlefield.  A kid, intimidated and putting on a front.  Very good at putting on a front, because it had been a skill he had stolen.  I’d moved on to something else, because I’d been young enough I wasn’t allowed to fight the supervillains, only the mooks.  The posture and stance had been very similar, back then.

Hi, Victor.

Lasers joined mine.  Red and violet.

He abruptly shifted footing, then leaped from a standing position to a damaged building.  The building toppled as he used it as a stepping point to lunge for the source of those other beams.

His moves were raw efficiency.  Oberon was power and speed, sheer ability and a weird kind of grace, if grace could be used in the same context as raw power, mass, and shockwaves being produced on landings.  Titan Nemean resembled a martial artist in some ways as he streamlined everything he did.  No wasted effort, one hundred percent awareness of what his form was doing.

He spun, turning quickly, and I almost missed seeing it.  The violet beam slashed out, striking at his hand, following something in the air, the beam stopping short instead of continuing down to hit the city, because it touched something.

I flew to one side, and felt the air woof as it whipped past me.  A dark, ice-crusted bit of concrete chucked my way, surreptitiously.

A second woof, a moment later, lower impact because I’d moved further away, and it traveled a slightly different course.

That would have ended me.

The card up his sleeve now spent, he wasted no time in repeating the effort.  I saw Crystal and my Aunt Sarah use forcefields to block or deflect chunks of concrete I couldn’t even see in the gloom.

I’d run into a wannabe ninja who hadn’t thrown actual ninja stars with the accuracy this monster was hurling slabs of concrete and roofing.

I shot it, training my laser on it in hopes of putting it of balance.  The beam had no recoil when I fired, but it did have an impact as it struck home.

Arms around its head, hand still placed roughly in the beam’s way, it crashed through a building that was already toppled, and dust exploded around it as it brought its arms out to either side.

This time, my warning wasn’t even a laser touching the projectile.  A momentary flash of red across the sky.

I dropped out of the air, because down was the only direction I could move quickly while lugging the gun around.

Even though I was falling through the air with no connection to the earth, I could feel the vibrations in the air as it started running.  I looked, and I didn’t see the Titan, but I did feel the vibrations growing more intense, second by second.

A trap.  I could see the explosions illuminating a city street to my left, as capes opened fire on the Nemean Titan, who had moved around to flank me, using the cover of buildings and rubble while dropping down to all fours to maintain a low profile.  Circling around to come at me from an angle I hadn’t one hundred percent anticipated.

Shitty thing was, it worked.

I dove low, and I let go of the gun, swearing under my breath.  Had to drop the dead weight, while he closed in.  Letting it drop to the ground.  Drop my forcefield to cut back on air resistance-

-Glance over my shoulder-

-Fly over the crack, full speed, because he was closing in.

Do nothing!  The thought was mine, a violent exclamation

A last-second gamble, only because I had no hand to play.  I felt him get close enough that his power swept over me.  Everything that wasn’t automatic was stolen from me.  My ability to reach for my power, my ability to move my body, my ability to think.  I couldn’t put a single coherent word together in my mind’s eye.

I was all disorganized thoughts and dull terror as momentum carried me through the air, heels over head, wind catching at my coat, whipping at my face and hood.

I followed the instruction to myself, staying limp, not trying to move or use my power.

The Nemean Titan stopped at the edge of the crack.  I hurtled in a loose arc over the hole between realities, to the far side, where shattered concrete and rubble awaited me.  Harder than a landing on hard ground.

I passed out of his range.  My senses were slow to return to me.  My sense of my own power was among them.

Wait, I thought, glad I could articulate at least a single syllable.

Wait.

Fly.

I took the last possible moment to pick up with flight, and found my grasp of it wobbly.  A half-moment of uncoordinated flying that moved me laterally.  Then upward flying, breaking my momentum.  The air pushed hard against me as I hit the ground, gilded kneepads, boot-toes, and gloves scraping against icy road as I landed on the far side of the crack.

He loomed on the far side, head bent, while I panted for breath, because I hadn’t been able to breathe while doing that.

Something below had his attention.  I was worried he was about to dive in, and I had no fucking idea what to do if he tried it.

Hesitantly, halfways hoping I’d get his attention in the course of it, I inched closer to the edge.

We’d picked an entry point where the highest point of the crystal landscape met the lowest point of our landscape.  The crystals were close to the surface, and it felt almost like they were putting individual, smaller scenes together to create the shadows and paler sections to pull the larger images together, because the titan was large enough to warrant something huge.

A boy, blond with a cut on his chapped lips, boot on the side of a girl’s face.  Boy and girl because they weren’t any older than Roman or Juliette.  He held a narrow pair of scissors inside the girl’s ear canal, his boot hiding her expression, though her hands reached up to grip at his ankle and the toe of his boot as he leaned on her.

An adjustment of the scissors made her flinch, freeze, then stop.  She didn’t move again as he removed the scissors and began snipping hair away from the side and back of her head.  Kinky locks of hair wound into locks with gold wire fell to the floor.

A prolonged scene.  The fighting between Titans was ongoing in the background, but the Nemean Titan didn’t move.

He stopped when there was nothing left to snip.

He looked back, ‘offscreen’, then took the scissors, still with lengths of hair sticking out around the place where the blades connected, and hesitated.  His expression, distorted because it was painted across an uneven surface, looked concerned for a moment.

A moment later, he stuck scissor blades into the ear canal in one abrupt, smooth motion.  Deep.

His victim reacted, thrashing, body arching.  Her face was visible for only a moment and it was a dull blur.  Not something the agent had recorded for posterity.  He brought his boot up and back down in a hard kick against the side of her face.

Knocking her out.  Maybe mercifully.

The scene tilted like the ‘camera’ floated underwater, unsteady, overcompensating.  Taking in more.  A young Victor used the toe of his boot to move his victim’s head.  Half shaved, half of it scuffed and bruised, blood in the ear canal, the other half left alone.

A man I didn’t recognize or know, older, put his hands on young Victor’s shoulders.  Two girls roughly his age approached, one of them with a smudge of blood around one nostril, a bloody handprint on her shoulder.  Too old to be Rune.  Wrong face shape to be Othala.

Maybe the younger girl was Othala.  Maybe she came in later.

Behind them were men.  A group, all standing together.

Attacking a family in their own home.  Outnumbering them, because they were fucking cowards.

Welcome to Empire Eighty-Eight?  More likely welcome to the Clans.  An induction for the younger generation.  Ugliness creating ugliness.

Gold letters appeared across my vision: YOU CAN SHOOT NOW.  ASAP WHEN YOU GET YOUR GUN.

I nodded for Lookout’s benefit.  I watched the scene, the group, the body of the girl lying on a kitchen floor.  Another woman sitting against the corner, maybe unconscious.

My adolescent anger at Empire Eighty-Eight felt so petty.  I’d seen the aftermath of beatings, I’d argued it, I’d hated them, but I hadn’t seen it or lived it.  Always a background thing I’d gone out of my way to confront or meet.

It just… felt bad, that it was such a big thing, seeing it, but it had occupied so relatively little of my thoughtspace.

Which, I felt, was still better than living it by perpetuating it.

I looked across the chasm at the Nemean Titan, who was distracted by a shift in the distant battle.  He looked back down at the chasm, at a scene of himself, a little older, at a stove with a cast iron pan in front of him.

He moved away, attention taken by the fighting, and the scene moved away with him.

Do you have any regrets now? I thought.

Do you feel one tenth as ugly as I feel, having this stuff exposed for the civilians to see?  Is that part of you there?

I hope some dim part of you realizes that this is now how people will remember you.

The images of Nemean had receded, and other ones appeared.  Rain killing Snag.  The silver line, the cut.

The aftermath, when he fell to his knees by Snag’s body, broken mechanical arms limp beside his ordinary ones.  The other members of the team making their way, our way to his side.  To support, encourage.  Or so it appeared.

Different, I thought.

Me as Glory Girl, facing down a thug.  He struck me, hit the forcefield, and did nothing.  I’d raised my foot, preparing to kick him in the hip.  He shielded himself with his hands ready, backing up.  It didn’t matter.  Flight got me close, strength like I could manage didn’t care about what he did.  The kick sent him skidding ten feet, ruined his hands while the kick still dislocated his leg from the socket of his hip.  The sudden movement of his lower body had been enough to do some minor damage to his spine.  Or so my sister would later tell me.

I’d stayed there, talking to him, taunting, until my family had arrived.  Uncle Neil and Dad.

No reprimands, no punishment.  Just a hand on my head, eliciting an annoyed look from me to my Uncle Neil, where I tried to fix my spiked tiara.

Different, I thought, again.  They deserved it.

Scenes flowed like water.  Always related in subtle ways.  Always, depending on where we looked, the landscape was consistent for a given location.

Students of misery, yes, but specific miseries.  This was a landmark point in the agents’ stores of physical ruin, maimings and destruction.  At least for this sub-network.  The landscape far below us was cracked, too.  It had its own gaps and chasms.  What lay us below wasn’t an endless plain, but a series of islands.  What the Titans were doing was connecting the islands together into a discrete whole.

WE’RE WAITING FOR YOU GUYS TO MAKE A MOVE.  WHEN YOU DO, I SAY GO AND OTHER TEAMS USE BOMBS.

I looked over at the Nemean Titan.  He stood near my gun, but didn’t target it.  I was almost more worried the capes who were bombarding him with powers would trigger something.

I KNOW YOU CAN’T GET TO IT YET. 

I looked down.  Some of the images reflected people in the crowd, people we’d sent down there.  I saw Love Lost eviscerating Teacher’s cape in Teacher’s old base.

Some of the people there, or the way they stood together, were a reflection of the images.  Pulling back, helping less, grouping together.  Talking.

Wondering just who they were working with.  What they were doing.

I’d bid them to come and they’d seen some monstrous parts of me.  Monstrous when devoid of context.

Monstrous even with context, too.

The Nemean Titan tried to leap to get closer to a cape.  Forcefields barred his way.

It was my opening.  I chased, flying over the gap, mindful of the marker Kenzie had put around the Nemean Titan that let me and the rest of the team see the estimated range.

I could only hope that a stray blast wouldn’t hit the gun before I got there.

In my haste, I tackled the thing, flying right into it, finding handholds, and using momentum to get it moving by scraping the topside of it against the ground.  Heels, feet, forcefield faces and other parts of me dug into the ground and snow to find leverage more than I aimed to stop outright.  Even though I was skidding toward the Nemean Titan’s range.

I found the leverage, lifted the thing up, and started flying.  I waited until I was more or less out of range of the Nemean Titan before I started shooting him.

The Titan whipped something at me.  Three somethings- I could see amid the orange and yellow of fiery explosions.  I veered to one side, and pulled back on the trigger, shooting somewhat blind in an effort to hit the incoming projectiles.  I hit one, and shifted direction, turning my back to things, while putting my body between the gun and the incoming chunks of rubble.

I heard them but didn’t see them.  No contact.

Without turning back around, I flew forward, over the crack.

IN FIVE.

Three seconds

FOUR…

That tremor caught my finger again.  I held my breath.

THREE…

The bombs they’d planted in the crystal landscape went off.  Three points below.

It felt like the world stopped.  A shudder ran through me, in a way I hadn’t ever felt.  Like feeling your stomach drop during a rollercoaster when you’d never felt your stomach drop before.  Feeling your bones rattle from an impact, when you’d never been that close to an earth-rattling explosion or collision.

Not my bones, not my body, and not my flesh.

NEED MORE.  TWO

The horizon was pink flesh illuminated by a hundred different powers with different lighting around them, if they had any lighting at all.  Titans fighting, capes fighting with everything they had.

Except the lights had gone out.  They’d all felt that impact too.  The fighting had stopped for one moment, as everyone found their equilibrium, and the only lights that remained were from silver fire that kept burning in patches, or glowing constructions that still hung in the air.  Minions that hadn’t disappeared when their masters lost their focus.

ONE…

I almost fired on one, but the ellipses stopped me.  Again, my finger shook.

Skadi appeared near me.  I was anticipating her, and let myself fall, to buy myself seconds.  She was a skyscraper filled with fury and violence, dropping in next to me with no warning, tipping my way.

So instead of merely dropping, I flew down, adjusting the speed of my descent, so the blade cleaved the air above me.

Fury and violence.

What happens when we obliterate the library where they store all their memories of violence and ruin?

GO

Still falling, I pulled the trigger, and I went from seeing gold letters against a black and red backdrop to seeing the Stygean Blue aftermath of those letters, and the golden beam.

The initial impact elicited that same shudder as before, though it felt like it came from a different direction.  The bulk of Skadi beside me reacted.  She hit the edge of the crevice, found her equilibrium, and slashed for me again.  This time I slowed my fall, best I could.  It hardly mattered, because she crashed through the crack.  I did my best to steer upward and break the fall while still aiming on target.  For two or so seconds, I was off-target, hitting the ground five to ten feet near the blast zone.  I found my target for two more seconds.

The laser punched through.  It was like pressing my hand flat against a wall, pushing, and feeling the hand go all the way through.  Except the feeling of breached reached through me, was me.  My fragile agent.  My power.

The strength went out of me, in a very different way than it had when I’d been flying into the region below.  That had been like I’d been swimming through muddy water, getting thicker as I went down.

This was more like I was swimming and finding my arms and legs just didn’t have the strength.  I hurried to get closer to terra firma, feeling that strength bleeding out.

In the distance, the wall of flesh collapsed, breaking under its own weight.  Oberon was enmeshed in hand to hand combat with the other flesh-creature, and collapsed as it did.  Ophion tipped over.  A figure in the background, black as night from head to toe, with something like tv static buried deep within itself, dropped, and landed with enough force that shoulder sheared from torso.  Skadi, who had appeared too late, was gone.

I aimed for it, firing.  The beam lanced out, bright against the darkness, and sheared off part of its head.

No strength, no durability.

I felt the gun move, my hand involuntarily shifting, unable to point directly at it.  It was regaining some strength.

“Hit them!” I screamed the words.

Hoping others would hear.

The gun’s shuddering as it streamed out its golden laser got worse, and with my powers being weak, the forcefield wasn’t strong enough to take it.  With it gone, my flight went too.

I and the gun dropped the last ten feet to earth.

The landing was rough.  The gun wobbled on landing and the barrel nearly brained me.

Lying on my back, staring at the night sky above me, I closed my eye, holding it closed until Kenzie’s camera display came up.  I navigated through.  Checking on the others.

Sveta had collapsed, her limbs and lower body a spaghetti tangle of very flat tendrils.  A Number Boy was very close to her, kneeling.  Whippersnap wasn’t far, either.

Tristan was grimacing, a blur tearing across part of his body, blue shades dancing with red ones.

Other capes, all around them, were struggling, trying to find their equilibrium.

And Rain-

In trying to get to him, I saw a glimpse of what Kenzie had been trying to capture on displays to send out to others, alongside Kenzie’s hands, poised above the keyboard, doing nothing.  She was saying something, going by how her head moved, the glance to her right at Chicken Little.

That display showed the map of connections between Titans.  A map of gray tendrils and bright white straight lines.  A red x between two.

I looked over at Rain, moving on to the next viewpoint.

It wasn’t his eyes I saw through, but an external view of the space beyond the Dream Room.  He was out there with Colt, next to a crystal pillar.  Working.

Love Lost stood on a ledge, looking out over the side.  One of the agents from within the system had felt what we’d done, much as the Titans had.

We’d hit them where it hurt all of them.

And in the doing, we’d thrown our own powers for a loop.

I could feel my powers stirring, struggling to find their way back to even footing.  I didn’t push the Fragile One to perform.

Instead, wincing as I was forced to put weight on my foot, I tended to the gun, checking it over.  One rough catch, two short falls.  I couldn’t keep treating it like this and expecting it to perform.

The Stranger was starting to draw near, now, or its range was increasing back to what it had been.  I could tell because the area I couldn’t bring myself to look at was shifting, growing.

They were recovering faster than we were.

THAT DIDN’T NOT WORK

I used eye movements and blinks to slowly navigate the menu back to the perspective where I could see Kenzie.  In the course of getting there, I saw Sveta pulling herself together.  Tristan wasn’t blurry or hurting anymore.

Tristan’s viewpoint looked out over toward the Titans.  Skadi was off in the distance, and was hurt with one arm limp at her side, and wasn’t healing the hurt.

Ophion impaled Oberon, but the impaling spines were slower, shorter, weaker than before.  The impaled Titanflesh formed tumors, but the tumors were small.

THEY WERE TRYING TO TAKE OVER EACH OTHER’S NETWORKS WHEN WE HIT ‘EM.  DAMAGE RIPPLED THROUGH.

Capes were mobilizing.  Tristan was urged to head over toward the Stranger Titan.

I wished our side was recovering faster.

RAIN GETS A QUIET COUPLE OF MINUTES TO MESS AROUND IN THE INTERNALS.

That was good.  It could be what we needed.

SKADI ISN’T PART OF OBERON NETWORK ANYMORE.  INDEPENDENT.

That was the red ‘x’, I assumed.

Okay.

I gave lifting the gun a try.  I was annoyed by the Stranger Titan’s approach.  Moving faster.

The Fragile One was still too weak.

So I floated, mindful of the Stranger Titan’s reach and power.  I kept a building between myself and my best guess of it’s location.

Too close.

I watched the fighting, tense, waiting for the point our side recovered, and hoping we’d bounce back to one hundred percent before the Titans did.  If the Titans could.

As best as I could figure it out, we’d nuked them right in one of their capital cities, but we’d still dropped a nuclear bomb on the same continent in which we all lived.

GETTING FIRST REPORTS IN: POWERS ARE DIFFERENT.

“Different how?” I asked the night air.

SUBTLE CHANGES TO A LOT OF CAPES.  WITHIN TTSE, WHATEVER THAT MEANS.  MORE INFO TO COME.  BE SAFE LOVE YOU.

I knew what it meant, but I wasn’t in a position to address the team.

TTSE was power testing terminology.  Training, Tolerances, Sechen, Evolution.  Capricorn would know it.  Powers were weird, powers changed over time.  They could be trained with meditation or practice, certain uses pulled out, they could be strained to certain limits, and those limits weren’t just raw power, but included duration and range.  They changed as our mood did, as we got closer to certain triggers.  And some were just meant to change by certain metrics.

In effect, Powers were different, but not in any drastic ways that challenged baseline expectations of where a power might go with training or mood.

I reached out with the Fragile One.

I couldn’t tell, but I still had the control.

Still with me?

I could feel the Stranger getting closer.  A little nervous now, I flew down to the ground, to the gun that I’d left there.  I knelt atop it, and unfurled the Fragile One.

Hands didn’t reach handholds.

Are you weaker?  Smaller?  What happened to you?

The Stranger drew ever closer, and I felt a bit of panic.  I didn’t want to leave my gun behind, but if I gave him another twenty seconds, he’d be on top of me or my gun, and I wouldn’t be able to turn my attention or reaching hands toward my weapon.

Forcefield fingernails dug into the gun’s housing, The hands that needed to be in certain places to pull triggers and hold the thing found those places.

Sorry, Gun, I thought.

I lifted it, and metal creaked.  I didn’t trust myself to fire it like this.

But I brought it with me, and I scrammed, flying into the shallowest parts of the crack for visual cover from the Stranger Titan.

I could hear the fighting resuming.  Powers partially or wholly back.  Titans, as far as I knew, still limping.  People in the landscape below were moving now, and they were fortunate in that they hadn’t really stopped while the rest of us had been reeling.  Helicopters and trucks were audible, all in the one direction.

I kept an eye on them.  I’d make sure they were safe to evacuate, distract any of the other Titans, and then reunite with my team.

Crystal and Aunt Sarah found me, falling into loose formation with me.  It made me feel a hell of a lot better.

ALL TITANS EXCEPT TWO WERE HIT BY TAHT.

“Arachne,” I whispered.  One of the ones who wasn’t linked in.  Hunter.  “And?”

TITAN FORTUNA DISCONNECTED JUST BEFORE THE BLAST, RECONNECTED.  UNTOUCHED.

TITAN FORTUNA IS HEADING TOWARD SHIN.  TOWARD CHRIS.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Infrared – 19.1

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

I wanted to say we’d kicked the hornet’s nest, with a whole mess of Titans abruptly shifting their behavior in a response to our behavior, but the reality was that we were the hornets, and they were the comparatively huge figures who we could only nip at and sting.

They were the ones with the tools to answer us, disarm us, to protect themselves.

Our sole advantage was that the Wardens had picked our battlefield well.  We were distant from the other Titans, with only Titan Skadi as our immediate threat and signifier that we were doing something right.  The camera in my eye was displaying some of the data about the incoming Titans.  Ophion coming from the East.  Nemean from the West.

The Stranger Titan from the Northeast, with a vague marker that showed the likely area and a guess at the distance.

By the connections we’d observed, all three appeared to be linked to Titan Fortuna.  They were minutes away, distance and predicted time of arrival marked out in thin gold lines and golden, sans-serif digital font.  The same program that Kenzie had used to track when Breakthrough members would arrive, in a different color.

There were other details marked out, but they were subtle.  Trackers for my team members, faint unless I refocused my eyes to look for them.  A digitized red slash stabbing skyward from the horizon, a beacon marked ‘Class SS’, with no instructions that we were supposed to go handle it.

With everything on the line right here, I wasn’t sure I wanted the distraction of knowing.  I’d do what I could here, at least until the civilians were evacuated and safe.

I had little doubt that a label like that would be something I would be having to help with sooner than later.

There was an immense kind of pressure to that.  Titan Skadi was terrifying in her relentlessness.  Like being on the ground, no flight, and having a building start to collapse nearby, tipping in your direction.  Huge, immensely lethal, no guarantees, countless lives on the line.

Over and over and fucking over again.

Every second, she was doing something.

For right now, she was engaging multiple capes. Weld was too small to play the brute, and Titan Skadi hit hard enough that a man made of solid metal wouldn’t necessarily survive what she did, so he’d ‘welded’ limb extensions on, metal arms and legs that he could use to move faster and scoop up anyone in danger.  One of them had been badly bent.

Gibbet was using her power to create large metal cranes, while fliers flew the crane’s hooks into gaps in Skadi’s armor plating.  Mostly, though, it seemed aimed at slowing down Skadi’s attacks, snagging at her arms and limiting her range of movement, caging her in.  It was a coordinated assault that included some shaker powers, Tristan’s among them.  Protecting the convoy that was making its way into the crack.

I floated, waiting, one eye on the numbers that showed incoming Titans, another eye on Titan Skadi and the capes around her.  I floated this way and that, ensuring my view of her was clear of obstacles.

I saw the crimson in her fade out, and I hauled back on the trigger.

The beam speared out, the machinery of the gun shuddering violently enough it almost canceled my forcefield.  The beam raked her from axe-hand to elbow.  I was ready for her to appear beside me, but she carried through on her plan.  The building didn’t fall on me this time.

She reappeared, close to the helicopters, but the impact from the shot I’d just fired had shifted her balance imperceptibly, shifted the position of the one hand perceptibly, so it didn’t come down with the speed or angle she’d intended.

One axe-hand punched into the back of a truck that was carrying people.  The one I’d shot came down a second or two after, where Gibbet’s cranes were already growing and criss-crossing.  Metal creaked, bent, broke, and toppled.

I’d bought a second or two, which let Gibbet buy another two.  That was time enough for someone to get a forcefield up, for vehicles to veer away, one truck’s side scraping against another in its haste.

I’d been an Alexandria-Lite.  Now I played the role of a faux Legend, counting my shots carefully, mindful of battery, taking in the whole battlefield and figuring out where I needed to deliver the heavy fire.

It required a different mindset.  I couldn’t identify the biggest problem, charge in with ninety-five percent of a plan in mind, and figure out what I was doing as I got between my target and the thing they were trying to accomplish.  I had to line up my shots, make sure nobody was in the way, either in front of my target or behind her, and make every shot count.

I shot again, not because of what Titan Skadi was doing, but because others were mobilizing, using powers, and I was betting that she was going to respond.  I placed the beam in the hollow of her neck, and flew down as she leaned back, to ensure I had the angle to keep the beam focused on one spot and keep her as unbalanced as possible, as long as I had her unbalanced and off-guard.

Having multiple hands gripping the gun made it easier to keep it steady, but I was finding some sympathy with Crystal’s complaint that lasers were actually hard to aim.  She’d given me a laser pointer at one point and asked me to keep it steady, and I’d thought I’d done okay then.  I hadn’t had adrenaline churning through my body to the point I had tremors in my actual hands.  I hadn’t been terrified then.

She started teleporting away as I did the damage.  She reared back, pushed a bit by the beam, and was still rearing back as she appeared nearby.  No attack on arrival this time.  The axe that had plunged into the truck was abraded, and the abrasions collected blood and pieces of the people she’d guillotined.

I’d hoped for, wanted her to come after me.  Lives had been lost or irrevocably changed by the attack earlier.  This spot of anticipation had maybe saved others.  But it wasn’t enough.

This was the pressure being applied.  An unstoppable, inevitable threat, who would have been bad enough on her own, a handful more on the way I had zero idea how to deal with, and a red mark on the horizon with the ominous ‘Class SS’ label on it for later.

If it was just me and my skin on the line, I was pretty sure I could have dealt.  As a kid with superhero parents, I had dealt with my Aunt Jess’s death -Fleur’s death- with some vivid fantasies about being a heroine and making a great sacrifice, often involving revenge in some capacity.  Taking out Kaiser.  Purity, who had done the flying artillery thing and had jousted with my family enough times to stick in my consciousness.

I’d moved past that, but with a perspective change in the wake of it.  Not fantasizing about death, but… being okay with it.  That hadn’t changed since: accepting that capes died and in an ideal world they died doing something just.  I knew I’d rather go out in battle than end up in another hospital room for the rest of my life.

But these were civilians.  People I’d brought into this fight with my words.  These were people with lives, families, and actual live-into-old-age futures.

I was terrified for them.  Enough that I didn’t feel brave, floating up here, fighting in a very different way than I was used to.  The blood dripping down her axe-hand as capes tried to slow her down was more visceral to me than the bullet wound in my arm that ached even today, the gouges in my other arm, my sprained foot, and my missing fingernail.

It was all I could do to stop myself from pulling the trigger and keep pulling it until this thing overheated or broke down.

I waited, finger extended, watching, and trying to take in every detail I could.

Capes were pressing in now, using everything they had to get her while she was off balance.  Skadi tore her way free of Gibbet’s creations, now reinforced with Capricorn’s stone.  Lassos bound her while she was bent over, another crane slowly rose up to press against her neck, and capes clambered over her.  Sveta was among them, not attacking so much as she supported others, helping them up.

We had capes from the corner worlds joining in, now.  Semiramis’s faction.  Little Midas.

Lung, apparently, was in Little Midas’s camp.  He burned bright in the dark, but was only in the early stages of his transformation.

She moved, tearing free again, and I flinched, my finger touching the trigger without pulling it.  Not the right moment.

I kept the gun trained on her, moving to find different points that might be weaker.  Places where armor joined body, joints, places where she was thinner, and places she was already injured.  As capes got in my way, I pulled my finger away from the trigger and focused on other areas that were more open, if less vulnerable.

Fliers and other Movers were facilitating, rather than doing the damage herself.  Sticking close to a group of capes who were atop Titan Skadi’s back.  I saw Sveta on the top of her, doing just that.  Tristan was on the ground somewhere, adding stone to the walls and creations that hemmed in Skadi’s actions.

I wanted to think we were doing what Tristan had suggested, working together.  Putting emotion aside.  Being removed from things with a heavy weapon in my hands helped a bit in that regard.

I saw the colors change.  Shadows shifting and disappearing- and I had to find them in the gloom.  I fired a brief pulse of my laser at the side of her ‘stomach’, and the light of it provided enough of a clue to see where she was going.  The bridge, where capes were helping people down through the cracks.

Where she’d disappeared, capes had already positioned themselves to land on Gibbet’s crane or other constructions below.  Sveta joined fliers and other movers caught some of the ones who weren’t positioned so well, rescuing them from falls or getting them to perches or safe ground.

I fired a sustained shot directly into Titan Skadi’s face.  It was bright enough in the gloom that shadows chased my eye movements.

Fuck, come on!  Flinch!  Come for me!

She wasn’t reacting enough, and the other capes who joined me in attacking her were slowing her down, but not enough to outright interrupt or stop her.

Being flying artillery wasn’t in my skillset.  In a fight where I was using my forcefield and strength, I’d usually have ideas for options.  I -Victoria Dallon, Glory Girl, Antares- didn’t often run into situations where I was in position but what I could do wasn’t enough.  Ninety nine times out of a hundred, if I could get up close and if they couldn’t get away, I could do exactly as much damage as I wanted to.

I needed a plan, I had to reach for examples for battle plans.  I wasn’t familiar enough with Legend to be inspired by him.

Crystal then.  I could remember debates where my aunt and kid cousin had been annoyed at Crystal’s habit of dipping into the fight.

I dipped.  I dove, letting my laser cannon fall more than I carried it.

Cold wind whipped past me as I closed the distance on Titan Skadi, who had her back to me.  I started shooting as I got closer.

Getting closer had its advantages.  My cousin Eric had had the range but his beams were weak.  My Aunt Sarah had been middle of the road.  Crystal had the strongest beams of the three, the strongest top speed and carrying ability to her flight.  So why did she get in close?

It made it easier to aim.  I aimed for weak points, damage done while capes had been swarming Titan Skadi.

It made it easier to use other powers.  Crystal was more of a flier, and she could create forcefields in mid-air.  Part of the reason she liked to get in close was that she created forcefields at mid-to-short range.  It was easier to shoot someone when you could create a wall in their way, put them up against the wall, and blast them.

I didn’t have forcefields in that same sense.  I saw a damaged section of her armor, blasted it, and continued blasting as I plummeted.  In the last few seconds of my descent, I twisted in the air to get to where I could kick my laser cannon up and away, and carried on down without reorienting myself.  I could only dive while shooting because the weapon had no appreciable recoil.  No real Newton’s Law of Motion at play here.  No bullet being fired forward, gun kicking back in response.

I crashed into the same site I’d been blasting, as fast as I could dive, forcefield hands drawn together into a point.  Hot, cracked armor caved in, cracked further, and shifted position beneath me, like I’d driven a boat into the middle of a bridge.  Immediately, she twisted around, swinging for me.

This?  This was more familiar ground.  I kicked off and away from the impact site, flying around the axe that was coming for me, and over her head, blasting with my aura while no capes were close enough to be collateral damage.

I’d hoped it would prompt her to come for me, seizing her attention.  I’d really hoped it would hit that mental button that made her teleport, so I could exploit it.  No such luck.  It did seem to get her attention and provoke a follow-up swing, which forced me to evade and delayed me in my chase of my falling gun.  I caught my weapon maybe twenty feet off the ground, grabbing a handhold with one actual hand, and flew hard, helping it rotate so it would be in the optimal position as I landed.

My forcefield came back up, and I landed with a force that cracked ice and made fluids gush around the cracks, multiple hands grabbing multiple handholds, the entire laser cannon’s body creaking and protesting at the force of its landing, distributed across my forcefield.

The forcefield popped, and I let the cannon drop to the frozen ground to my right with a violent crunch, metal creaking.   Panting for breath, I crouched there, facing Titan Skadi, who was so tall I couldn’t really encompass her in the field of view that extended from the top of my bottom eyelid to the bottom of the other.

Couldn’t do that too many more times.  The gun wouldn’t take that kind of strain from being caught from terminal falling speed.

But I’d got her attention again.  She wasn’t focusing on the civilians or the bridge.  The armor at her shoulder was damaged, and the armor beneath was visible, raw and fleshlike where it attached to yet another layer of armor beneath that.  Meat and bone lattice that looked almost like lengths of spine that connected panel to panel.

What’s there beneath the surface, Berserker Titan?  Is there a glimmer of a personality, like with Fume Hood?  Or are you dead inside like Oberon? 

Are you angry?  Is there a part of you I can drill at, that will get you chasing me?

Fuck you, I hope so.

There was something about her I just found myself hating, as I saw her straighten, rolling the shoulder I’d just made a crater in.  Dealing with her was like facing down someone who screamed in my face constantly, no relief, no room to reason with her.  If she turned away from me, it was to inflict herself on others.

And it wasn’t screaming.  She was silent, and she killed people.

Just an inevitable, constant horribleness.  The worst parts of capes distilled.

She felt like the worst possible opponent to be facing right now, as the countdown showed the other Titans’ arrival was imminent.  She wore us down, broke our backs, ground down our spirit, demanding constant vigilance, because one second of failing to account for details meant she could appear anywhere on the battlefield and lives would be lost.

And the others?  Nemean?  Ophion?  The Stranger?  They would capitalize on us lacking will, stamina, or focus.  They would capitalize on us lacking vigilance.

She surged toward me, past Lung, who had grown a bit, using his fire.

Maybe because she’d seen me looking at Lung again, Kenzie passed on a message: LUNG IS POSSIBLE GAMEPLAN.  THEY THINK HE MIGHT GET STRONG ENOUGH TO LOCK SKADI.

It made some sense.  If Lung could get strong enough that he remained the largest threat to Titan Skadi, he would be her target every time she teleported.  I wasn’t sure what his upper limit was, but I knew that when he’d had a good ten or fifteen minutes of growing time, he had been able to take on the entire Brockton Bay Protectorate, plus visitors and guests.  He didn’t get tired, and his regeneration sped up as he escalated.

Maybe there was a special case where he could get locked in an endless fight against the one Titan.

The problem was that that took time.  We had a minute before Nemean arrived.  The others would come shortly after.

With my forcefield, I picked up the edge of the gun, then found the handholds.  I hadn’t even lifted it fully off the ground before I fired, aiming for the worst damage at the side of her head.  I floated, and I was slow to take to the air with my burden.

I wasn’t going to leave it behind, though.

I kept shooting, until I heard the beep, the double-beep, and the triple-beep that marked the weapon overheating.  Capes erected barriers and weapons.  Laser lassos, cranes, outcroppings of rock, forcefields.  A few brutes got in the way.

Fuck you, I thought, staring her down.  I spared a brief glance toward the people who were descending into the crack below.  I’m not going to leave this weapon where you can smash it.  If you want it, you’re going to have to make me drop it, and I’m going to fight you every step of the way.

It wasn’t enough to stop her.  I braced for the impact.

The number of defenses going up between me and the Titan increased.  More forcefields, more barriers, spikes.  A few capes stepped in as she slowed down.

I kept firing, floating back while I did it.

“First thought, aww, baby cousin got a laser of her own!” I heard the voice.

Another laser joined mine, firing in the same general direction.

“Second thought: how the hell do you get a long ranged laser and put yourself in a position to collect more injuries?” Crystal called down to me.  She grimaced as she made another crimson forcefield, which Skadi immediately shattered by lurching through it.

“I got the idea from you!”

“Lies!”

Reinforcements.  The Wardens were on top of things, and as the clock ticked down the last twenty seconds for the Nemean Titan to appear on the scene, our guys were already here, relocating and preparing us for the imminent attacks.

Good job, Wardens.

“You got so much shit for breaking formation and getting into the thick of it!” I called out.

“Lies!” she said again, sounding more amused than anything.

“It’s true,” my Aunt Sarah said, adding her beam to ours.  Bright violet.  Her forcefield was already in the way, placed more to brace some of the constructions and keep them from toppling than to stand in Skadi’s way on its own.  Her voice had a haunting quality to it.  “I remember it.”

“Well shit, what am I supposed to say to that?” Crystal asked.  “I never got hurt!”

“I didn’t get hurt just now!” I retorted.

“Because we saved you!”

Stupid, to be distracted and doing this, but it was stupidity that made it easier to breathe, and get out from that pressure that was building up.  Reinforcements were good.

Skadi disappeared, leaving shadow-first.

Aunt Sarah was maybe the third person among the assembled capes to respond accurately, locating the Titan and sending a bright violet beam straight to it.  Damage-wise, it didn’t do a ton.  But it did make for a very noticeable, clear pointer to where the threat was.  When the Titan wasn’t illuminated by nearby spotlights, it was dark out, and the city was unlit, it was hard to tell she was there until she was there in full.

I aimed, firing, floating closer.  My family members followed, flying alongside.

My vision in the one eye flashed.

Yeah, I thought.  I’ve been watching the countdown.

MEASUREMENTS MAY NOT BE EXACT BUT THEY’LL BE PRETTY GOOD.

The Nemean Titan, and a series of circles drawn in the air around it.  He slouched, arms long and hands wreathed in clouds of gold, with  golden locks on his head that became crownlike at the top.  Of all of the titans, he seemed to have the most of a face, with twists of golden hair forming gaps and patterns as they trailed across what would have been his face.

He moved on all fours, fast, and put buildings between himself and us.

We tripped an alarm, mobilizing like this.

He was cowardly, hard to track, lighter and leaner than many of the Titans.  Ten stories tall, maybe, and he scaled a skyscraper near the coast without toppling it, though rubble fell.  Still halfway up it, peering over the top, he moved behind it, so the bulk of the skyscraper blocked our view of him, then leaped to one side.

The building fell.  He disappeared into the maze of fallen and half-fallen buildings.  Kenzie’s tracker started only intermittently working, updating on his location, presumably as others got a glimpse of him.

I flew up, shooting Skadi while keeping part of my attention on the Lion.

Shit.

He wasn’t flanking us or Skadi.

“Stop him!” I called out.

An exceedingly unnecessary alert appeared in the vision of my right eye, telling me what I’d already realized.  Kenzie, presumably, was alerting the others and it had been faster to ‘send to all’ than to send to everyone but me.

The Nemean Titan had circled the battlefield and now charged for the back line of our civilian group.  The trucks that hadn’t yet made it to the crack, the people waiting for helicopter transportation.  Stragglers.

I shot him, and he stumbled.  Others joined in.

He was tenacious if nothing else, and he was fast enough that even limping and beaten by attacks from five different directions, he got to them faster than they got away from him.

I watched as people fell like dominoes.  Trucks that had been moving veered off the road or collided with one another.

And he stood taller, no longer moving on all fours.  His body shifted composition.

I shot again.  He hopped to one side, rolling on landing, and ended up with all four legs beneath him, clawed extremities set so far apart his belly almost grazed the ground.

I shot again, holding down the trigger, mindful of the civilians who were so hard to make out in the gloom, and he sprung to the one side, tore free of two glowing lassos that tried to shackle him, and got closer to the middle of our civilian group.

I watched as helicopters wobbled, then changed in orientation, drifting off to the side to find landing spots with a mechanical fluidity.  People on the ground weren’t so lucky.  No automated landings in cases of driver incapacitation.

He moved through them like something hungry.  There was no fighting him, no getting close and delivering a telling blow.  I could see how far the effect reached by the line where drivers remained where they were and where trucks were steering around, driving off the road to get elsewhere.

Fuck you, Victor, I thought.  You hurt so many people for selfish, ignorant reasons, and you became this?  Just doing more of the same.

I focused my laser on him.  Crystal and Aunt Sarah did the same.

He didn’t like being shot.  Nothing suggested he was more fragile than Skadi, but as a Titan, he seemed to have a wholly different personality.  He backed off as the lasers focused him down, and darted around a building as a feint, reversing direction while we couldn’t clearly see him, before sprinting off in another direction.

Toward our ground-based reinforcements.

Capes shot him from the one flank, while we bombarded him from the other.  Suppressing, buying time for people to shake off the stupor that came with being too close to the skill-stealing Nemean Titan and start driving or flying toward the crack in reality.

Off to the side, more reinforcements flowed into the crack in reality as Skadi teleported.  Presumably down, aiming for the people below.

I flew to a vantage point where I could focus on the Nemean Titan while watching out for Skadi.

Aunt Sarah saw her before I did, peering past the gloom with eyes that saw light in a different way.  The laser she fired down at Skadi marked the target I was aiming for.

The cannon shuddered as I fired, and I heard two chimes.  Not the beeps that marked heat level.

Battery.  I was half out.

It was too much to stay on top of.  Two highly mobile enemies who barely flinched when we attacked them.  I had a responsibility to stall them, slow them down, and stop them from getting to the civilians.

The best of humankind throwing themselves into this hot mess to try to make a difference.

I couldn’t descend to fight Skadi in the same way.  If I went too deep into the cracks, I’d lose powers.  I could stay near the opening, though, and rain hell down on her from below.

Unable to see as many details, I was left to shoot more, in hopes the shots would count.

The Wardens had kept tinker devices and master minions in reserve for fighting the Nemean Titan, and now those minions were wrapped up in a tooth and nail fight.  Some floundered, losing all capacity, but some didn’t.

“Heads up,” I said, as I lined up more of a shot on Skadi.  I couldn’t see as many flickers and flashes suggesting she was under attack.  “This might bait her in.”

Great,” Crystal said, sarcastic.

“Be ready,” Aunt Sarah added, all business, all focus.

In the gloom, I could see Crystal’s expression momentarily change.  I could only imagine how complicated her feelings were.

I pulled the trigger.  A golden beam pouring into the crack in reality, to the Titan far below, who was trudging toward our civilians.  It struck home, gold light splashing on impact, and I had to cancel my shot before it went off course or went too far.

Aunt Sarah flipped around, throwing up a forcefield.  Crystal did the same.

Titan Skadi, behind us.  She cleaved through one forcefield, then lost momentum cutting through the next.

I kicked the axe-hand before she could move it, and manually reached into the handhold for the trigger while I fell, my forcefield gone.  If she had eyes in her face, it would have blinded her, but it didn’t.

In an effort to slow my fall, Crystal threw up a crimson forcefield.  I hit it, but the weight of the cannon shattered it a quarter-second later.

My forcefield returned, and I slowed the cannon’s fall.  Again, metal strained audibly.  It hadn’t liked the ‘catch’ after my diving attack.

Skadi disappeared.  Appearing on the other side of us.

The reinforcements arrived once more.  Out of the crack, flying and using mover powers, riding giant centipedes, or standing on the deck of a tinker plane with Advance Guard aesthetic and a battle platform on top.

With some careful flying, forcefields, and the help of the pressure from the more mobile reinforcement group, we were able to pull back.  I warned my family, aimed and then shot once again for good measure.  Skadi didn’t come for us.

I could hear Damsel’s blast as she closed the distance, chasing Titan Skadi.  I saw others running through the dark.

We had allies, but a lot of them were ones I didn’t recognize.  No Parian, no Foil.  Sveta was there but busy, Rain was sleeping, and Kenzie was tracking the Rain situation.

I felt my heart sink as more alerts flashed in the corner of my eye, simultaneous.

The Nemean Titan’s friends.

The Ophion Titan looked like an artist had begun with a tumor, and sculpted the tumor to be as beautiful as was humanly possible to do, with gold highlights and black recesses, its folds like the folds of a brain or intestine.  Black bands and panels formed a sort of jacket or vessel to bind the gigantic tumor’s shape to the rough form of an androgynous human, and black needles radiated out from its scalp, shoulders, and chest.

All wet, head to toe, with moist air wicking off of it in the form of clouds like frozen breath.

And the trio of creatures keeping it company were larger than any of the Titans we’d fought yet.  Not so big as the Dauntless Titan, but… comparable to storms on a city’s bay before a weather event that shut down the city.  Crafted flesh, towering skyward, reaching from ground to clouds.

He approached from the one direction.  The Stranger approached from the other.

Or so I assumed.  I couldn’t look in that direction.  It wasn’t that I tried and failed… I couldn’t try.

We had more reinforcements, but it felt like so little.

“This is hell,” I said, dividing my attention between four titans now.  Or three titans and one giant absence.  The Nemean Titan kept moving around, flanking, chasing.  It passed the Titan Skadi, who staggered, and the two scuffled momentarily before parting ways.  The Nemean Titan was hungry, and Titan Skadi had enemies to target.

WARNING: Kenzie’s message appeared at the edge of my field of view.  TITAN OBERON AND AUGER INCOMING.

I looked in the direction of the red slash.  Auger had been over there.  I could guess, now.

“This is actual hell,” I said.

“Yeah,” Crystal echoed me.

“You set a goal,” Aunt Sarah spoke, purple irises bright in the dark.  “Get the civilians down there safe and sound, minimum of casualties.”

“There were casualties,” I said, frantically looking between the various targets.  What the fuck do I even shoot, now?  “There’s about to be a lot more.”

“There were always going to be casualties, Victoria,” my Aunt said.  “We’ve done a good job of keeping them to a minimum.”

“No,” I said.  “Any number above zero was always going to be a failure.  Saying it’s anything but is shirking responsibility.”

“Set your goals, keep your goals realistic-”

“-and let yourself be happy when you meet them,” Crystal finished, speaking alongside the woman who was and simultaneously wasn’t her mother.

My laser cannon clacked and roared as I fired at Skadi.  She was preoccupied though.  The Wardens were taking the primary focus in this moment.

“My mom always said we needed to deny the other side their goals,” I said, quiet.  “They want to crush us, slowly and steadily.  They wipe out humanity, connect to one another, and discard our planet.  They’re succeeding.”

“I remember discussing plans and policies with your mother, when the team was new,” Aunt Sarah said.  “I never imagined we’d pass them on to our individual kids like this.”

“Thinking a lot about memories and remembering?” I asked, words less aimed at her and more at the darkness that pressed in all around us.

The Nemean Titan stopped running for a second, possibly because he had found a group to leech from.  I shot him, spooking him and scaring him off from his target.

Each time he ‘ate’, he stood a little taller, moved more confidently.

Not that I could lock my attention to him.  The Titan Skadi was still out there, still alternating between attacking our most aggressive capes and going after the civilians.  I could trust the capes to handle themselves, though I’d help where I could, but the civilians demanded my attention and protection.

I fired at her a few times.  She was wrapped up in a fight, Deathchester and a hero team mobbing her.

“Take cover!” a cape on the ground screamed.

We flew to take cover well before we knew what we were taking cover from.

I saw my Aunt Sarah, stripped of large portions of her old personality, place her hand to her mouth.  Her purple eyes were fixed on the distance.

I looked, and I saw only darkness.

“What am I missing?” I asked.

“We’re losing capes,” she said.

She could see in the dark, as a part of her power.  Just like bright lights didn’t disorient her.

“Crystal?” I asked.  “Can you write on the wall?  I need night vision, or something close to it.”

She began doing it, scratching letters into a building face.

I blinked twice to bring up the menu, selected ‘scan’, and ran my eye over the words.  They were highlighted in gold, converted to plain text, and disappeared into the darkness at the edge of my field of view.

Maybe it wasn’t possible, but I wasn’t going to rule out that Kenzie might have had another blip in her common sense.

ON IT, the words appeared.

I saw a progress bar appear, moving forward intermittently.

BEST I CAN DO.

My vision shifted, the darks becoming darker, the brights becoming brighter.  Outlines were highlighted.

A group of villains on a rooftop that were harassing the Nemean Titan abruptly stopped, and there was an explosion in their midst.

I watched as one jumped from the building’s top.  He couldn’t fly.  I was pretty sure it wasn’t a Brute.

“The Stranger,” I said.

A massive blob of area we couldn’t even look at, and he lurked somewhere within it.  With a power that wasn’t the ‘don’t look’ ability, he was reaching out.  There was no pulse in the air, no wave, no energy, light or shadow.  No sign he was doing it that we could trace back to him.  But our briefing had said he took people’s sanity from them.  There was a chance it was permanent.

I hefted my gun, and shifted position to get to the corner of the building.  From cover, I began shooting.

I could shoot at the edges of his effect, but the closer I got to the center, the more my hand the weapon’s barrel struggled to stay on target.  Like I was metal and a magnet was repulsing me.  I did what I could, firing, targeting ground I remembered was cracked.

“We need to fall back,” Aunt Sarah said.  “Most of the civilians are below.  We need a defensive line.”

I nodded, even as I kept up my shooting, kept trying to make sure no capes were in my line of fire, even though I struggled to see straight.  The highlighting and tracking effect, at the very least, marked those that Kenzie could track.  Diamonds with circles within them to frame who was where, and where the various groups were.

I might have been borrowing against the future to buy time in the present, but I aimed for areas of the city that were shaky.  Breaking down road with shots from the laser cannon.  Knocking down buildings.

Anything to put wreckage and inconvenience in the Stranger Titan’s way.

Crystal touched my arm, and I flew with her.  Low to the ground, using buildings and even cars as cover so the Stranger Titan wouldn’t see us and do whatever it was he did to take our minds from us.

I was relieved to see Tristan.  Relieved to see Sveta.  But I couldn’t articulate that.  I immediately went to my next bit of cover, shooting more.

Because if that thing got close enough to us, we were gone.  Done.

I wasn’t the only one opening less discriminate fire on the Titan, aiming for the periphery of it in hopes the devastation would slow it down or distract it from its course.  Others were bombarding, or sending in the master minions they’d intended to use against the Nemean Titan.

Crystal floated up to a section of building above me, her boots dripping wet onto my hood, but she added her lasers to my cannon fire.

“He moved!” someone on the rooftop called out.

My weapon beeped to tell me it was at twenty-five percent.

“Mobilizing!” Narwhal called out.

If Narwhal was here, then so was Vista.  And Vista being here- I just had to look to spot the lip of one crack in reality being peeled upward, to form a kind of wall.

Naturally, we mobilized to get behind or around that wall.

Crystal pointed my attention to Titan Skadi, who had engaged with another group of villains, including Little Midas’ cronies.  Lung wasn’t as big as he had been, which suggested he hadn’t been able to build up steam consistently enough before his opponent had disengaged from the fight.  Couldn’t keep that fire burning.

I shot her until she moved out of view, then immediately switched to general fire toward the Stranger Titan, pacing out my shots to avoid overheating my weapon, ever mindful of the ammunition count.

I knew I was spending ammunition, but I did have something of an agenda.  I couldn’t call it a plan, because it was selfish.  Aunt Sarah was right, we had accomplished our initial goal.  Being able to shoot Titans and potentially have that shot matter had been essential.  But it wasn’t good enough now.

The weapon notified me when I was at 15%.  Then again, at 7%.

Narwhal shouted.  Capes hurried to the one side.  Ophion’s creation was attacking.  A tide of flesh.

I added my gunfire to the response, flying up for a vantage point that didn’t risk shooting some cape in the back of the head, then putting shots in the thing.

Until I pulled the trigger and nothing came out.

I dropped it, undid the clasps, and hauled out the power cell.

“Can someone fling this at one of the Titans?” I asked.  “I don’t know if it’ll do anything, but it can’t hurt?”

“Let me tinker it,” someone said.  “It’ll do something.”

I let them.  “Find someone to do something with it after.”

“Got it,” the tinker said.  “Shit, is this Dragon’s?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Cool.”

I wasn’t sure I was in a place where I could have uttered a ‘cool’.  The Nemean Titan was prowling at the periphery, looking for an excuse to lunge into our midst, at which point there’d be nothing we could do.  But even a few forcefields in his way were enough to discourage him.

Skadi was out there too, sometimes, and was currently scuffling with the tide of flesh that scraped buildings from foundations.  It wasn’t durable, but there was so much of it there wasn’t a lot she could do, and she was far stronger than we were, on average.

The gun was lighter without the energy core.  I flew around more, careful to stay out of the Stranger’s possible line of sight, making a general retreat with my gun as a shield of sorts.

The capes on foot jogged through the ruined city, leaped over cracks, and hurried toward our ‘wall’, the curled-up lip of one large crack.

I flew over the crack, looking down, and Kenzie’s ‘night vision’ didn’t do a good job of peering through the distortion and noise of it.

I went straight to the civilian line that hadn’t yet descended into the crack.  For some of them, there was reason.

The truck that had delivered my gun had delivered the extra power cores.  It was left unguarded, the Patrol officers busied elsewhere taking care of people who had been hurt in crashes or injured by other means.  I loaded the power core into my gun.

I left it.

I’ll be back for you, gun, I thought.

But others take priority.  I need to make sure they’re okay.  And I can’t bring you.

I flew for the crack.  Into that morass where powers were so much weaker.

To find the people who were supposed to destroy key parts of the infrastructure.

Men and women in winter clothes and Patrol outfits were hurrying along this landscape of red crystal, dusted with snow from high above.  They were gathering at strategic points.  Two of the points we’d wanted to hit were close to our starting point.  Just had to get the necessary people down here.  Tinker tanks flanked the group, trundling along, turrets sweeping around nervously, looking for a target to shoot.  Automated.

My flying was getting sluggish, but I still moved closer to the surface.

Through the crystal, I could see movement.  One was on the other side of the hard surface, a Titan-like thing moving across the landscape’s internals.  An Agent of the powers.

It took me another minute before I found who I was looking for.  Kenzie had mapped it out for me earlier.  The starting point, when entering through Rain’s dream.  I found Rain and the Patrol on the far side, saw him see me.

I pointed at the agent I’d spotted, and he made a hand motion that looked like a confirmation, still running.  Purposeful, focused.

A detonation in the distance made me conclude the first bombs had gone off.

It wasn’t.  The tanks were reacting to Skadi’s appearance.  When so much of the environment was flat and sloping, she was a stark contrast, impossibly tall, to the point it felt like she distorted the distance between us and the surface.  She attacked, and the tanks unloaded.  People used guns.  Those were the detonations I’d heard, echoing over the hard ground.  There were powers used from the surface, exploding around her, altering the crystal, and periodically making her stumble.

It wasn’t nearly enough.

When she wasn’t on the surface, she was down here, doing this.  I flew over, struggling to move through the air, to navigate.  I had my forcefield and it felt thin, even though it was so thin as to be unnoticeable normally.

I wasn’t sure I trusted it against Skadi, but I’d asked people to fight here and I couldn’t stand back.

I used flight to bound forward and help guide my running more than I flew on my own.  I tried to get some air, raised up my forcefield, and used my aura.

My forcefield has always been something that took one good hit and then took a bit to recharge.  Here’s hoping it still takes one good hit, and the recharge is what suffers from my being down here.

She swatted me, not even with the blade, and sent me careening.

Flight helped kill the worst of my momentum, but the landing was still a hard one.

I looked back, and she was gone.

“How’s our progress?” I called out.

“Slow!”

“We need to hurry it up!” I called out, my volume lower as I floated toward the center of the working group.  If the group above buckles, she’s going to single out this group, and we don’t have the firepower to stop her.

I looked up, straining to see reality on the far side of the cracks.  I only saw what might have been the Nemean Titan.  Another omnipresent threat that was impossible to pin down.  If he got down here, he wasn’t going to teleport back up to fight the next big threat.  He’d be down here for good.

Pickaxes dug into the crystal surface.  People with bombs stood by, ready to put them into the holes.  Chunks ranging in size from my fist to a small dishwasher had been pulled out of the hole.

“Dig what you can,” I said, looking down at it.  “I’m going to fly up and get my laser cannon.  I’ll see if I can’t drill it a little deeper.  Then you let me get clear and you bomb it.”

“Alright,” one man huffed.

“After that, we might have to evacuate you guys,” I told him.  “What we’re doing got all of their attention.”

“We noticed.  A couple hundred of us died up there,” a woman said.

The words were chilling.  My nod stiff.

I flew away, to get my gun and to hurry this along.  We didn’t have all night, or anything close to it.

My flight was more horizontal than vertical, as I struggled to pull up and away with my power dampened.

I saw Rain, carrying on to his destination.  He saw me.  People who were moving from landed helicopters to work sites looked between us, maybe finally realizing what I’d been struggling to convey in my speech, what Naphtha had struggled to convey about how this place worked.

There were people inside the ‘computer’, like Rain, and there was us, hacking at it from the outside.

But it was connected to all of us.  Chunks of broken crystal littered the area, and those chunks showed reflections.  Stuff I’d seen inside the computer.  I could see that Rain saw them too.  That the civilians were taking note, their attitudes shifting imperceptibly.

Images of me, wearing a Glory Girl costume, hurting a man in worker’s clothes, smacking him into a wall, hard.

Images of a young adolescent Rain hurling a molotov at an old house.

An image of me punting a dumpster into a man.

An image of Rain spitting in a scared girl’s face, before adjusting his mask.

A bystander, who looked shocked by the image’s appearance, was depicted in one blurry scene, kicking a dog that didn’t move out of his way fast enough.

The people on the ground looked between us and the images, silent, staring, and judging.

The images kept playing as I floated higher.  Images of violence and ugliness.  Parts of myself I was sure I didn’t want to face.  Images of Rain.  The periodic bystander who might have had a Corona Pollentia.

We had no other choice.

This was going to be one hell of a mess.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Interlude 18.z (Radiation)

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

“This way,” Uncle said.  Hand on her shoulder, pushing her forward.  Frustration welled in her at the push, but she bit it back.  Her legs hurt, her stomach hurt, her shoulder hurt.  All for different reasons.  Standing too long while wearing a full backpack, bending down and lifting, and a bit of a sprain when she pulled her bag off a shelf on the train.

But if she complained, then Auntie and Uncle would say it was her fault, because she’d packed too much stuff.  They might even make her leave things behind.

No way.  Nuh uh.

Because there was no going back for anything.  What she brought with her was all that she got.

She couldn’t complain because she was on the cusp of being an adult, and none of the adults were complaining.  They looked so miserable, every last one of them, standing in lines, trudging forward.  Dragging bags and kids and pets with them.

“Next!”

Again, being pushed, being tugged along, Uncle’s hand on her shoulder.  She shrugged, as casually as she could, and his hand dropped away.

“Name?” the man at the counter asked.

“Gregory Morrison and family,” Uncle said.

She wasn’t even a name.  Just ‘and family’, not even direct family at that.  She looked at Eleni, her kid cousin, who was whining even though she didn’t have to carry anything.  The seven year old pawed at her mother, kicking up more and more of a fuss, until she was picked up.

Acting like a toddler more than a kid.

So annoying.  It was hard to shake the bitter resentment.

Auntie, Uncle, and the man at the counter were talking about possibilities.  She strove to listen.

“There are subsidies and grants if you’re willing to do the farm work.  We really need to get on top of food supply so we can stop taking grants from other Earths.”

“Insane,” Auntie said.

Insane.  All of this was insane.

“Is that a no?” the man at the counter asked.

“No, no.  I mean the other Earths.  I knew it was a thing, but…”

“Yes, well, in the interest of moving things along, I recognize you want answers and you’ve been waiting a long time for processing, but if we can hurry you through this step, you can get those answers sooner and the people behind you won’t have to wait so long.”

“That’s more or less what they said at the last few steps in the process,” Auntie said, sounding very affronted.  She was good at sounding like that.  Always stiff-backed and hypocritically critical and politely impolite.  It was like she had an unwanted foot-long dildo stuck up her ass twenty-four seven, and every interaction she had with the world was an obstacle in between her and her next opportunity to go somewhere private and drag that thing free.

“What are the other options?”

“I really can’t stress the importance of the agricultural work, livestock tending, and the benefits of doing so.  We’ve been prioritizing housing for people willing to do so, pay, access to resources like television and community centers, free trains into the city…”

“I know what you want us to do,” Uncle said.  “But if you want to move things along, don’t give me a sales pitch.  Tell us what the other options are and we’ll make the informed decision.”

“Construction work is the other big focus.  Housing is postponed, but those who help build houses get credits toward home ownership.”

“We brought funds,” Auntie said.  “To hurry things along.”

“I’m afraid old currency has no value right now.  That may change, I can’t make any promises…”

“That’s ridiculous,” Auntie said.

“Where are we supposed to live if not in a house?” Uncle demanded.

“If you don’t take the options where housing is provided, you’ll be given a kit.  Tents, supplies, some basic food, enough for basic medical and hygiene requirements.  You’ll live in close proximity to the construction sites, with shared access to communal bathrooms, showers, and training centers.”

“Excuse me?”

Auntie and Uncle turned to look at her.

“I know how to work with horses.  I spent two summers working at a stable.  I did some work at the nearby farm, I can milk a cow.  I got the gold star for animal care from the camp.  I had a garden back home and I grew tomatoes and peppers,” she said.  “The rabbits kind of got at them, but I know stuff.”

“Everything helps,” the man at the counter said.  “That’s much better than what some people know when they choose the farm program.”

“I’m university educated,” Uncle said.  “Degrees in finance, programming.  I have years of experience working with security compliance for financial institutions.”

“Your best bet would be to enter into one of the other programs, farming or construction, and apply from there.”

“Uncle,” she said, leaning into and over the counter to get her face where her Uncle would see it, as he stood beside her.  “We have to choose something for now.  Let’s choose the option where we get an actual place to live.  Please?”

“Please don’t butt in,” Uncle said.

“I really want a house.  I’d love to do the farm work.  I was reading the paperwork they gave us before we got on the train and there are programs where we go to school half the time and do other stuff the other half.  I could do the farm work half the day and earn money.”

“Stop,” Uncle said, stern.  He placed his hands on her shoulders, pushing her a bit back from the counter.  Leaning over her, forehead creased into five lines, he talked to her at the louder end of normal, where people in line could hear.  “You can’t get everything you want.  Your interruptions are making the people behind us wait longer.”

She wanted to retort, to rebut, to raise her voice.

She wanted very much to be like her seven year old cousin, and be able to ask for a hug without it being childish, or to throw a tantrum until she was listened to.

There were people around her age in line.  Boys and girls.  Tired and frustrated.  She was especially conscious of the attention they gave her, and being made out to be the one who was causing the problem made her simultaneously outraged and embarrassed.

“Why don’t you go take your cousin to a seating area?” Auntie said, putting  Eleni down on the ground.  “Let us handle this.”

Stiffly, she nodded.  She took Eleni ‘s hand.

“I have a disability,” Uncle said, to the man at the counter, one hand at his back.  “Bulging disc.”

“Paperwork?” the man at the counter asked.

“I’ll have to look.  I hope I packed it…”

The seating area was packed, and a lot of it was other teenagers and kids.  She led Eleni to the nearest set of two empty chairs, arranged around a post in the center of the expansive station with the insufficient lighting and high ceiling.  The light that filtered down on them all was tinted yellow by the textured skylight above, but it didn’t really illuminate the corners or much of the floor.

“I’m tired,” Eleni complained.

“Then sit.  Do you want to play on my phone?  I charged it on the train.”

Eleni nodded.

Phone out, headphones pulled from the pocket, cleaned with a wipe, and then set into place over Eleni’s ears.  Eleni was already playing, the phone pinging and making high pitched sounds, with cartoon clowns cackling and laughing.  The sounds were abruptly silenced as the headphones were plugged in.

She stroked her cousin’s hair.

“What’s she playing?” someone asked.

She turned to look.  A boy, a bit younger than her, with curly black hair and his first pimples.

“I have no idea.”

“It’s nice of you, giving up precious battery life.  I’m not that nice to my brothers,” the boy said.

“It keeps her quiet.”

“Heh.  That’s a bonus,” the boy said.  “It’s great.”

Auntie and Uncle were taking more than twice as long as anyone else.  She watched as people who had been called up around the same time they had finished, and another family walked up.  All business, answers ready, they’d read the paperwork and pamphlets.

Two families were processed while Auntie and Uncle lingered at the counter.

“Do you know where you’re going?” the boy asked.

“I wanted to go to the farms,” she said.

“Really?” he asked, almost incredulous.

“Is it such a surprise?”

“You don’t seem like the type.”

“What type do I seem like?” she asked.

“I dunno… like… a city girl?  Like you’re probably into gymnastics or dance or something.”

Annoying.  Like she was constantly being pushed and pulled and tugged and everything was more leverage for that kind of stuff.

“I am,” she said, adjusting her hair, restless.  Her tone was angry.  “I dance.  But that doesn’t mean it’s all I’m about.”

“Oh.  Sorry.”

The conversation died again.  She sat there, watching over her cousin’s shoulder to see the screen.  A woman with no face killed a clown.  A child on fire killed the woman with no face.

She looked away, bored.

“They’re taking a while,” the boy said.

“You’ve been sitting here a while too,” she retorted, embarrassed over her family.

“My dad’s sick.  He’s getting a medical checkup.”

“Sorry to hear that,” she told him.

“I’m really bad at this,” he said, abrupt, like he was using the fact they’d exchanged a handful of words in this fragment of conversation as a point from which to launch into something else.  “I mean… talking to girls.”

“Why does that even matter?” she asked, stung, even more annoyed, and angry for reasons she couldn’t articulate.  “Why do I have to be a girl?  Why can’t I just be a person?”

“Do you mean, like, in-between boy and girl or-”

No,” she said, with more intensity than she wanted.  “I mean talk to me like I’m a potential friend, not like… I don’t know.  Like you want something from me.  Why does it have to be a boy-girl thing?  Why can’t it be a person-person thing?”

With that, she thought she’d killed the conversation, and he’d walk away.  But he nudged her.

His hand was stuck out.

Carefully, she twisted around so she could shake it.

“I’m Sam,” he told her.

“I’m Hunter,” she answered, still tense, still annoyed.  But telling him to piss off and go gargle a dildo right now would be unfair when she’d just told him to be friendly.

“And I’m sorry,” he told her.  “You’re right.”

She bit her lip, blinking fiercely a few times, moisture accumulating on her eyeballs.  Every second she fought it, it got worse.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry, I didn’t-”

She shook her head.  “You didn’t.”

She wiped at her eyes, angry at herself, annoyed.

“Then… want to talk about it?”

“Nobody says that to me,” she said.  She had to fight to not get too choked up about it, the dam breaking and everything flooding out.  Holding back, she tried to give words to the resentful feelings.  “Nobody says I’m right even when I am, nobody listens.  They just tell me what to do.  You saying that… it’s all I want to hear.  Except I want it to matter more.  No offense.”

“Your mom and dad are kind of jerkasses, huh?”

“Aunt and uncle,” she said.  “And this is Eleni, who… can you hear, Eleni?”

The kid was too caught up in the game to pay any attention.

“My uncle’s a massive, capital-d Dildo,” she explained.  “Stiff and fake and pointless, with zero warmth, and he doesn’t get that you have to get real sometimes if you’re going to get anything done.  And my aunt’s- I have this theory, I imagine she’s always got this giant dildo stuffed up her butt-”

Sam was laughing now, he tried to get a word out, and failed.

Bemused, she watched him.  “What?”

“Why all these dildos?” he managed, face crinkling up as he continued laughing.

“Because they absolutely are,” Hunter said, amused at how funny Sam seemed to find it.

“I didn’t expect that from someone like you,” he said.

“Well I’m pleased I messed with your expectations, Sam,” she told him.

Eleni paused her game, a big pause sign appearing in the middle of the screen, and pulled one of the headphone speakers away from her ear.  Hunter reached over and put the speaker back, and when Eleni fought her in trying to listen in, Hunter reached down and hit the pause button, resuming the game.  Eleni made a small noise of alarm, stuck out her tongue at Hunter, and resumed playing, headphones in place.

“I don’t hate them,” she said.  “I actually love them.  They’ve been so kind to me since my parents… were in New York when Scion attacked it.”

The sentence didn’t make sense, but Sam nodded.

“I just wish they’d listen.  I wish they’d realize I’m not Eleni’s age.”

“I don’t get much choice either,” Sam said.  “It’s not because my parents are dildos, it’s because my dad doesn’t get much choice.  He has to live close to a hospital, and he can’t do a lot of work.”

She nodded.

Eleni perked up.  Hunter looked, and saw her Aunt and Uncle approaching, her uncle smiling.

“Don’t say anything,” she warned.

“My lips are sealed,” Sam said.

“Success,” Uncle said.  “They might have an administration post open.  Goes to show you, you just have to know how systems like this work.”

She nodded.  “We’re going to get a house then?”

“Tent,” he said, making a face.  “But we’ll have a house before you know it.”

“Okay,” she said.  She took her phone back from Eleni, along with the headphones.  She turned to Sam, phone in her hand.  “Want to exchange numbers?”

“My phone’s dead.”

“Do you have a pen?” she asked, as she picked up her bag.

He reached for his stuff, and in his initial searches, didn’t turn up anything.  She might have thought he was trying to find an excuse to let her down easy, but there was a frustration evident in his actions that made it pretty obvious he really wanted a pen.

Auntie looked impatient, arms folded, dildo clearly firmly in place.

Eleni tapped her on the elbow.  She looked over, and saw Eleni holding a pen with a plastic figure on the end.  She took Sam’s hand, and wrote the number down.

“We need all the friends we can get at times like this,” she said.

“Totally,” he said.  And he smiled, clenching the fist she’d just written the number in.  “Keep each other’s heads on straight.”

It was a weird thing.  An awkward conversation where they hadn’t said much at all, she’d given him a laugh, and he’d given her a much needed ‘you’re right’, and that was pretty much it.

But at a time like this, when they had pretty much nothing, it mattered so much.

Her Uncle put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her forward, with an impatient kind of insistence, and she bit back the urge to shrug it off or get angry.  There was time for that later, when Sam wasn’t watching.  They could have had a house and instead they got a tent, and she was pretty sure a few nights of sleeping in a tent would only drive this feeling home.

They pushed open the doors, stepping outside, and into the brand new city that stood on the edge of the end of the world.  The sun was bright and the golden city even brighter, to the point it brought tears to her eyes.

She faced down the giantess, viewing her with senses that had nothing to do with eyes.  The world was littered with shattered glass that nobody could see, and she could see all of the reflections in that glass.  A woman too bright to look at, too intense, every aspect of her pulling, tugging, driving, manipulating.  It was like standing beneath a waterfall, the water crashing down from above, and trying to swim to the top.  Impossible.

Just by being here, the giantess made everything harder.

The thing that had been Hunter touched a long-fingered hand to a hole in her face.  Then she laughed, high and loud, the sound vibrating from the columns and cords that decorated her surroundings.

So ridiculous.

The way she was now, she could swim up waterfalls.

She stepped on wires and conjured up more, climbing higher and higher, to match the giantess that now flew.  Her psyche was a funhouse mirror of a funhouse mirror self.  A her that had been distorted and broken and put back together again before this new body started plucking and snatching up scant memories.  Picking from dance lessons and schoolyard games to figure out how it should move and hold itself together.

She danced up wires and pillars and ascended skyward, faster than the giantess could rise.

She stared down her opponent with senses that weren’t eyes, and saw facets of the woman in places so buried they weren’t in this world with its statues sticking out of buildings, its people in fancy clothes.

She saw memories and events.  A palace.  Luxurious clothes, handmade for her.  Servants.  Good food.  The woman had power, in so many ways.  She could ask for things to be done without worrying about how.

The inverse of what lay behind that funhouse-in-a-funhouse psyche, deep within the thing that had been Hunter.

Cords became elastic, and the thing that had been Hunter let herself tip forward, then snap toward the Giantess, a rubber band fired from a hand.  She was deflected, struck by thrown buildings, and those buildings crumbled with the impact more than she did.

She hit the ground with two hands and two feet, crushing concrete and stone.  With the impact, more wires and pillars stabbed upward, finding their purchase wherever they could, before snapping taut.  A cage around her.  One of them wounded the giantess.  Another hit a shield she’d gathered around herself.

The thing that had been Hunter laughed, high and loud enough to be heard across the whole city she was in, a hollow, echoing sound.

The Giantess had once had it all, when she’d been an age where a girl named Hunter had had nothing.  All the luck in reality, power stolen from a family closer than blood, and she’d ended up here, naked, distorted and bleeding, weaker than the thing that had been Hunter.

The giantess had done something with the concrete she’d turned into a shield.  Concrete broke, but something within was compressed, reformed on a molecular level.  It was now nearly black, lace-fine, like geometric drawings that got more complex as one drew closer to the center, but it hadn’t broken with the impact.  Even the parts further from the center.

The Giantess’s power was reaching out further.  Finding people who hadn’t run away fast enough.  Cape and civilian, pulled together into a force.  Weapons were being arranged, cannons and rockets.

The first of them was fired, almost as a test.  The Giantess manipulated the rocket’s course in the air, aiming for the hole in the face of the thing that had been Hunter.  She could see with senses that weren’t sight that something had been done to its chemical payload in that brief moment of handling.

It hit home.

Her thumbnail worked at a hangnail at her other thumb, trying to catch it between thumbnail and thumbnail as if she could cut it cleanly off.

“Hunter?” the voice came through a speaker.

She looked up.  All around her, black threads stabbed from ceiling to floor, floor to bed, bed to wall.  She couldn’t move more than a foot before bumping into one.  They never cut her, but they did frustrate her.

“Hello?” she asked the empty room.

“I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and keep them closed, and to put your hands over your ears.”

People are always telling me what to do.  It makes less and less sense as time goes on.  “Why?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you in a minute,” the woman’s voice said.  “Call it an experiment.”

Hunter closed her eyes.  She pressed palm flat against ear.

She was aware of her power firing off again.  Drawing out another thread.  This time to the one-way mirror at the one wall.  She heard glass break.

“Don’t open your eyes,” a man’s voice said.

She didn’t.

She waited.  A minute, the promise had been.

“Is Sam there?” she asked, nervous.  Even though she couldn’t hear the response.

Cold compared to room temperature, something touched her.  She kept her eyes closed.

It was a hand, cool to the touch.  With that touch, a shiver ran through her body.  A tension she’d felt was now relaxed.

With a tug, the hand pulled on her wrist, moving hand away from ear.

“We’re okay now,” the woman said.

She looked.  She saw a face that had looked in through a window earlier.  Freckles from forehead to chin, densely packed to the point there was as much brown as pink.  Hair in brown curls with less frizz than Hunter had in her own hair, which was blonde and straight.  The woman had tattoos covering her hands, and red fingernail polish on short fingernails.

“There we go,” the woman said.

“My power…”

“It’s under control.  A bit of a tweak,” the woman said.  “But it won’t keep.  It won’t stay like this.  Powers are very big things, and as strong as I am, I’m a lightweight in this fight.”

Hunter bit her lip.  She wasn’t sure how to feel, but the relief after weeks of struggling with a power she couldn’t control was the biggest thing.  It overwhelmed her, really.

“My name is Amy Dallon, and I want to help you,” the woman said.

“I talked to you on the phone.  Victoria’s sister.”

Hunter saw a shift in expression, brief, sad.

The kind of thing she wanted to ask about, to question, challenge, or pick apart.

Except asking put distance and time between where she was now and getting help.

“Please help me,” she whispered.

“If I can,” Amy Dallon told her.  Her tattooed hand stroked Hunter’s.  “What’s the first thing that you’re going to do?”

Hunter let out a half-laugh, incredulous.  She hadn’t even let herself believe hope was in reach.  “Dance.  Hug my friend.  Cry.”

She laughed, her back arching backward with the motion, one hand to the hole in the side of her head.  Her emotions ran wild, like fire to accelerant, no body to contain them.  There was no functional difference between this form she wore and the pillars and threads of blackness that webbed this landscape, tearing it up.

She danced.  Stepping on threads, running along a pillar, spinning in the air to avoid a spear of carefully arranged molecules, slapping it aside as spear became whip- became blade as she slapped it.  It cut deep into the back of her hand.

The giantess could see her before she acted.  Could see every incoming blow before it could strike home.  The thing that had been Hunter dove in close, trying to grab.  She touched only air, and was touched in turn, a grazing contact from the giantess, who was now wreathed in a fractally arranged lace of fine molecules.  Still backed up by an army of people who had been brought into her influence.  The contact distorted the thing that had been Hunter, tugged at parts of her that controlled the threads and pillars.

This too, she resisted, fought with her entire being.

The woman could see attacks coming, but that didn’t necessarily mean she could do something about it.  Threads erupted all around them, creating an arena.  The thing that had been Hunter closed in, dancing, moving acrobatically, using the threads.  Lace barriers rose between her and her target, and she slipped past them, despite the fact she was taller than most buildings.

She got her hands on the naked giantess, wrapped her in a hug, and squeezed.  Her own threads tore through the carbon molecule chains, disarming her target, protecting them as she crushed meat and bone.

The giantess, helpless to do much of anything, exerted more influence, more control.

And the part of Hunter that was deep within the Titan erupted in a sudden laugh, fighting off the control that tried to subvert her very being.  Manic, reckless, defiant, free.

You can’t, the glimmer of Hunter deeper still within that manic Hunter thought.  I won’t let you pull at me or push me.  I won’t let you make me do things.

Other giants were pressing in now.  The Knight, the Mother.  The Knight cut through threads.  The Mother brought forth life between them, en masse.

Titan, manic ‘Mincemaid’, and teenage girl acted in concert.

The noble giantess was flung, hard, into the thinnest and most taut threads.  Hunter pounced on the giant knight, ever-aware of the tide of flesh that was riding up behind her.  Life being birthed and grown.

This Titan body pulled at parts of her deepest self, that had been mindful of eyes on her, whether she was on stage or standing in line, practice in being situationaly aware and wary.

Her actions were confident, decisive.  Fighting sword and armor with kicks, pounces, and eruptions of razor-sharp thread.  Driving the Knight back through a forest of her own making.

She could see the figure on a distant rooftop.  She could see his Self, shattered and ruined in a way even she wasn’t.  He wore a monstrous form, like she did.

And she remembered, with distorted memories, that he had been a face in the background when Amy Dallon had ruined her mind as badly as her powers had ruined her life.

He was everything in herself she hated, and everything outside herself that she hated.

The laughing ceased.  Her body creaked under its own weight, as she stood at equal height to buildings fourteen stories tall.

Snow floated down around her, and she was aware of snowflakes striking the finest threads and being cut.  Aware of the armies mobilizing to defend their noble giantess, and the terror beyond this battlefield, beyond the noble giantess’s reach.

This wasn’t what you wanted.  This wasn’t what I wanted either.

She resisted the urge to laugh, taking in the moment, swimming in her hatred for that black feathered boy-man, and the tattoo-handed woman he worked with.

She would kill them, and she would kill their army, and she would kill the people in this world.  She would laugh when she did it, because it was a question of laughing or crying and she had no eyes to cry with.  Only a hole in her head that wept blood.

She remained utterly still, taking in the moment.  The giants slowly recovered, the noble giantess holding her injuries together with her power and bands of the fractal black lace.  The knight helping her up.  On the other side of the thing that had been Hunter, the mother giant gave birth to things that gave birth to things, and the tide of capital-b Birth rose up like a wall.

She could feel the other Titans.  Reaching out, trying to make contact, trying to find a way in.

And that was the last thing she ever intended to give them.  She was done being pushed and pulled and picked at and labeled.

She had nothing at all now.  She was nothing at all except free.

She wanted nothing at all except to continue being free, to tear down those hateful, monstrous people who had broken her for such selfish reasons, tear down their armies, and tear down-

No.

Not tear down their nations.  This nation perhaps.  But there were people she cared about.  Eleni.  Her aunt and uncle, in a way.  Sam.

The tide of Birth collapsed, reaching for her.  The laugh bubbled from deep within her, despite the fact she had no mouth.  She lunged for the black feathered Rat, and he scampered away, jumping off of a tall building.

And deep within herself, a glimmer of a shattered image of a girl turned to memories, replaying her way through them like a song that was stuck in her head.  To remind herself of what she could not do, as capital-f Free she might be.

“This way,” Uncle said, hand on her shoulder, pushing her forward.

    ⊙  ⊙  ⊙

Three rules to a job.  Shoot accurately enough to only need one shot, but take a second just in case.  Your eyes are stuck in front of you, so pick the right people to watch the back of you.  Verify first, then trust, in all things.

Auger stood in the middle of what was supposed to be a water treatment plant. Distant doors banged, and lights appeared in windows.

Someone hadn’t done their due diligence.  He’d done his due diligence on his end, and he’d double checked their work, but there was no way they should have missed this.  Not for this big a response, this fast.

“What the fuck!?” he called out.

On the catwalks above him, Monsignor, Slink, and Fing Nuts looked at one another with alarm.

They looked down at him.

He looked over, mapping the escape route in his head.  He’d have to run to the stairs, climb, run across the catwalk, get to the door…

Which was twenty paces from the trio.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” he growled.

“Sorry, sir,” Monsignor said, tipping his hat.  “Respects.”

Auger raised his hand, a laser appeared, thin and bright, straight to the catwalk the others stood on.

“We’ll make a commotion,” Fing said.  “Draw them after us.  Best we can do.  You know you’d do the same thing.”

The doors banged open, and Auger spun around.  The laser pointed at the men in uniforms that were storming in.  Not POLRI.  These assholes were private military.  Someone had really fucked up on their due diligence.

Someone pushed their way through the crowd.

A cape.  Except not just a cape.  The man had tech worked throughout his body.  Metal that pulsed like a heart did, flesh that was rigid and doll-like, and things between.  His body had glass domes on it, and brains floated in that glass, crowded in by the other tech and flesh.

The laser was only a sight.  It, for lack of a better word, flowered, the flowering spiraling along its length, glowing red.

Roughly ten uniformed men in the laser’s path had a hole three feet across opened in their hips, bodies, and heads.  Sparks floated in the air in the beam’s wake.  The remains of the cyborg collapsed, a small fist-sized brain bouncing down metal catwalk stairs amid a splash of fluid.

Really didn’t do their fucking due diligence.

He ran for the stairs.  Gunshots to his left made him look up at the catwalk, where the others had been.

They’d run for the door, and found guns waiting on the other side.  Fing was missing part of his neck, and Slink had collapsed backward onto the catwalk railing, arms draped over it like a comic wrestler, blood dripping down her body and through the gaps in the catwalk.

That was supposed to be Auger’s escape route.

It was sparks, it’s been a few seconds.  This should be flowers.

He focused his beam for two seconds, then fired at the wall, angling it upward.  The beam widened, the power spiraled down its length, and this time it flowered, like petals unfolding.

Punching columns through reality.  Except it wasn’t really punching anything through.  He ran through the hole, holding his breath as he passed through the storm of petals that filled it.  Those petals and this pollen would stop being petals and pollen in time, though the hole would remain.  If he breathed it in, he would have concrete dust, bedrock, and pieces of the ‘water treatment’ plant inside his lungs.

People had already reached the bottom of his tunnel, and they shouted.  They pointed guns at him.

He had nowhere to run.

After flowers is desolation.

After his last trip into desolation, he’d made the geiger counter go crazy.

Still, it was better than being shot.

He focused his power into himself.

The beam’s power ripped through him, and disconnected him from his current reality.  A trick he’d had to teach himself after too many close calls.  A trick he considered his power giving him a favor for being such a helpful power-user.  As far as the others were concerned, he detonated, exploding on the spot.

As far as he was concerned, he had just transported himself to a radiation blighted city, for as long as he could hold his breath.  They’d raided a secret government installation to steal confidential files and stumbled onto a private army helmed by cyborg capes.  When he ran out of air, he’d have to decide if he wanted to breathe in radioactive dust or pop back into an approximate location in that compound.  He had little doubt he’d be surrounded when he did pop in, if there were that many people there.

He no longer breathed.

The desolate wasteland, however, was his world.  It was the place he kept returning to now.  A ruined Earth Bet.

His power detonated around him, and he ceased to be.  But his senses extended out, and he was aware of who was where.  He could move among them.  He was largely without emotion.

He was surrounded, he noted, by the machines.  Big, small, utility, weapon.  The biggest were house-sized, mounted on treads like those of a tank, each containing a different weapon that they revealed when they unfolded.

The roles had switched.  The power was in control now, dressed in black metal and spiraling energy.  Objectively, he was beautiful.  In a moment of weakness, when he thought he faced the decision of breathing in radioactive death or dying at the hands of the machines, the power had reached out to him to offer a deal, much like it had offered him new uses of his power, new varieties, and ways to visit new worlds, or bring out slivers of those new worlds into his world, though the differences between one and the other were often negligible.  Gaping holes through reality with sparks and intense heat, or gaping holes through reality that fucked with nearby machines and included radioactive dust in the mix.

The deal was simple.  He got to live, after a fashion, it got the driver’s seat, the body.

Now he was the one parceling out the rewards to encourage certain behavior and help out.  Remember this?  This is relevant.  That time my team and I stumbled onto a cyborg labI got out alive.

The machines wanted him.  He could almost understand how they thought.  There was a whole city beyond the ruined portal, but when he reappeared, and he would, the machines would turn right around and prioritize him.

Every second he was gone, the machines marched closer to the portal.

His opponent floated above.  A woman with wings and a helmet.

Valkyrie, he supplied, to better inform the power.  With the word, he transmitted the idea.  The degree of power, and the danger she posed.

I always liked the maxims, he thought.  The thoughts were more like lines of code running on a computer than they were words in his head.  Rules, courses of action, steps to take.

His power pulled together the device he was making while he remained in this reality.  He watched Valkyrie, and saw that she was making a way to get to him in this reality.  She just had to find him, which meant looking.

Magic beats the tinker shit.  They can’t get around it.

Tinker shit beats the one trick ponies.  It’s just a question of coming to the right answer.

People who can do one thing well beat the people who do a hundred things badly.

And those people who can do a hundred things can beat magic?

It was a question.  An unfinished thought.  It would be nice if things came full circle, but he couldn’t be sure.

Well, he had time to figure it out.  He would be like this forever, maybe.

A tiny part of him, buried deep, deep inside, expressed the deepest and darkest kind of terror at that notion.

Hey, power of mine, he expressed the idea.  Distract me?  I don’t want to dwell on things.

His body moved, heavy and monumental.  The device he was building was almost as dense as he was.  He stepped back into the desolate wasteland of Bet, just as Valkyrie stepped into the irradiated waste.

He turned his back on her, because the machines were changing direction, fixating on him again.  He smashed one open, prying tech free, as smaller ones began opening fire.  A hail of bullets, missiles, and laser beams.

Behind him, Valkyrie reappeared.  A shadow appeared behind her.

Before she could move from where she was, the shadow became Axehead.

A part of him watched Axehead smack Valkyrie out of the sky.

A part of him, deep inside, saw facets and figures, shadows buried within.  He was a person reflected in crystal, looking at a woman reflected in crystal, and they could each see so many sides of one another.

He might have had a drink with her, before.  He might have asked her to spend the night with him.

She might have said yes.  He could see it, read it in her.

That bit of imagining and connecting was the closest thing he experienced to warmth now.  Another thought that provoked a spike of terror, driven deep down inside him.

Valkyrie had lived.  She was hurt, though, and needed to use a borrowed power to pull herself together.

The Machine Army closed in on her.

But she had allies. connections.

He was keeping to the rules, like this.  Having the right allies to watch his back.  Taking a good searching look before he made any decisive moves.  Both with Axehead and with Valkyrie.

In keeping with those rules, he couldn’t leave it at this.  One decisive shot was good, but the follow-up was essential.  Wading through the Machine Army, he aimed his partially built tinker weapon at Valkyrie.

Axehead was already gone.

His tinker device amplified his own power, adding versatility.  His current form enhanced both power and versatility as well.  Combined, they were enough.  He pulled more scraps of metal to his device with reversed beams, and let tendrils of power pull that metal into the right shapes, reinforcing for the decisive shot.

An explosion rocked his device.  He shut it down.

Attackers.  New capes.

Reinforcements for Valkyrie.

Darkness billowed up around him, limiting his sight-

He reached for an escape route, and found the escape blocked off as well, by the oppressive dark.

Auger emerged from the desolate wasteland and plunged into dark water.

Not the best end result.

Especially when the water lacked any buoyancy.  He’d had a glimpse as he fell, and he saw water.

This wasn’t water.  It was too thick, too dark, and it was occupied.

He felt a hand as he floundered.

The beam of his power produced light, and he saw racks of men and women unconscious in the pool of fluid, situated beneath a deceptive looking facade.  Waiting to be born.

He produced his beam, and cut a hole in the wall of the tank.  The shift of pressure dumped him out onto the floor to the side.  The fall was hard, and made harder by the fluids that poured down on top of him.

He could hear shouting.

An entire army closed in around him.

He couldn’t fight an army.

But he could think like a mercenary.  It came down to value, what a given job was worth.

Fourth maxim, he thought.  He looked for and found a likely target, a set of chemical tanks kept out of plain view by the foot of one of the larger pools of water, cyborg clone banks in disguise.

He blasted the chemical tanks.  They erupted into violent fire and noise.  Foreign voices shouted their alarm.

He blasted others, then kept blasting.

And then he ran, leaving them to deal with the distraction.

Those things are worth more to you than I am, he thought.  Fourth maxim, sometimes you gotta set it all on fire and walk away.

He stopped.

His winning strategy was just to stop.  He could feel the tendrils of Axehead reaching for him, feeling out for danger, and finding only quiet confidence.

He was attacked, brutally at first, every heavy weapon the attackers had.  He curled around his device, made from the pieces of a hundred members of this Machine Army that roamed around him and pried at his flesh, protecting the technology while sacrificing pieces of himself.

At first.

Putting one foot in front of the other, he walked.

Through the portal.  Toward his partners.  He’d picked effective ones.  They were reliable.  They watched his back.

He’d verified.  He trusted.

They would be at the center of the connections, as soon as they found a way past the bigger cluster at the heart of the city.  They would have to bring the dancing girl, the old man, and the gaseous lady in, too.  Anything else and they would be buried beneath the mass of the others.

He ceased walking, taking in his surroundings.  The darkness no longer gripped him.

He’d set his fire, he’d walked away.

He was no longer in Bet, and with everything in ruins, the capes now scrambled and failed to keep the Machine Army in check.  It was free to access the city, the first robots finding their way in.

Five slipped past him while he picked the biggest one to crush and tear apart for materials for his weapon.

⊙  ⊙  ⊙  ⊙ 

She stood utterly alone and completely still.  For all intents and purposes, she was the only one of her kind.

Before any of this, all of this, she had been the forward-looking eye of something greater and grander, a lonely being in and of itself.  That great and grand thing had crossed paths with a pair of others.

Take my eye, it had said.  Take my wings.  Take my teeth.  Take my ability to step between worlds.

The pair, in turn, had made their own offerings, as much as they were in a hurry.

For they were the most distant of cousins, the most distant of things.  If they did not share their stories and resources now then stars might be born and die before their individual family lines crossed paths and had opportunity to share again.  And they were scholars, all of them, trying to answer an unanswerable riddle.

The pair took the Loner’s eye, among millions of other parts and graces and favors.  The Loner traveled away, taking care to leave a breadcrumb trail that would ensure he and his kind would not return back this way until galaxies had been born anew.  They searched for answers and backtracking was of little merit.

And the forward-looking eye, so generously given to the pair, was dropped in the rush, dropped in a stumble and crashing fall.  Instructions were given in the parting.  “Don’t go too far, little Eye.  You may see everything, but close yourself before you show them where we’re weak.  Don’t show them our deepest secrets!”

It was picked up by a primitive, who looked through it and saw the pair. It approached the pair, a blade in hand, and the eye closed tight.

But another primitive saw, and another hand guided the knife home.

A betrayal, mechanical and undeniable.

Every other gift lay dead and disconnected, fruit on the branches of a dead tree, with little in the way of parting words or guidance.  Every other connection to the Loner was gone.  The Pair too distant to reach.

Even now, as she grows large enough to look from horizon to horizon, and reaches out to clasp hands with others, make promises and alliances, she is alone, the only one of her kind still truly alive and open-eyed.

The mightiest of all, perhaps.  Faced with a seed of a dead fruit from a withered branch on a tree that no longer existed.  A silver woman, tiny by comparison, wreathed in wings.

I would bait Auger to attack for step three, to create the crisis that gets the attention of the girl Hunter for step four.  I would convert her with a messenger in steps five to nine.  She would bend the knee and join me.

The silver woman was silent, but the silence spoke volumes.  She shrieked in silence, every one hundredth of a second of imagined sound a test of every possibility and detail in her surroundings.  A machine testing every possible password before the right answer was found, except the system being broken into was reality, and ‘every’ encompassed multiple dimensions and millions of people.

And that silver woman was so much weaker and smaller than the Titan she faced.  Titan Fortuna, named such so that the little girl who had found the forward-looking eye could fulfill her promise to herself, that when all of this was over, she could be Fortuna again.

If the silver woman could cheat her way to the answers, then the Titan had the answers on a sheet in front of her.

But she had to ask: how long had the sheet been there?  Had the answers been tampered with?  Were there details that needed investigating?

She could check of course.  The answer to that question was on the sheet.  But in the time it took to find it, there could be more tampering, more details changed.

She already had the answer, that the silver woman  had tampered.  But where?  She checked, and she found the answers.

A path that began with Auger fighting that was intended to end with her networked to all titans, ready to end this world and scattered haphazardly and limping to other stars and planets… instead ended with this silver woman in control of the network, humanity mad and savage.

A path that began with the host Valkyrie being made Titan, intended to end with the network largely complete, the silver woman dead, and the scattering due to happen in ten years… instead ended with the silver woman in control of the network, half of humanity deranged and fighting the other half.  To investigate why took time that the silver woman could use to gain purchase elsewhere.

A path that began with humanity devastated and dying of plague, the silver woman denied her pawns, the Titans assimilated into a greater cluster where Titan Fortuna herself was not in charge… instead ended with the silver woman in control of the network, a new, artificial humanity being created as playthings.

She checked again.  A path that began with physically attacking the silver woman… ended in the silver woman in control of the remainder of the network, humanity in tatters.

Every route she investigated was seeded with false data, poisoned fruit, and patches of shadow that lay over the path, the far side of those patches ruled over by the silver woman.

Neither one moving, they calculated, they planned, they counter-planned.

She saw a thousand more paths that ended with the silver woman ruling, despite the fact the silver woman had a fraction of her strength.

Finally, she decided to cede ground.  To look for the answer why.  Though the silver woman couldn’t reach her, couldn’t see her, a smile crept over the silver face, and wings stretched wider.  She had somehow sensed the surrender.

We began this fight when you broke, child, the Titan Fortuna thought, trying to communicate to the battered kernel of human consciousness within herself.

She began this two years ago, when Gold Morning occurred.  It doesn’t matter that we have a hundred times her strength.  She’s within paces of the finish line, and she’s no stupid rabbit racing a tortise.  Nearly every action she could take brings her closer to a checkmate. 

That kernel of consciousness dwelt on how it had killed one of the closest things it had to a friend.  It was hard to discern whether the ‘it’ that had done the killing was the kernel or the Titan, because that little seed of humanity deep inside her didn’t know for certain.

The Titan Fortuna reached out to the child Fortuna deep within herself, and spoke with a certainty the child knew well.  If they did not win here, now, they would be enslaved.

The child refused to be a slave again.  The Titan refused to be a slave for other reasons.  But they were able to think and act in concert.

A path.  One that most likely ended in a desirable outcome.  To investigate too much would leave it on the table long enough for the silver woman to get silver fingerprints on it.

New cracks threatened to spread.

New titans threatened to emerge.

Humans assaulted the Firmament.  The center of power, the core of all things Power.

As if sensing the resolution, the silver woman turned and levitated herself away.  Ceding the battle, or taking her own initial steps.

Step one: hold the cracks back, until the right moment, the Titan Fortuna and the child Fortuna thought in concert.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter