From Within – 16.10

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The tinker device the thing above us made was spinning up, producing a metal-on-metal sound that grew louder by the second.

Too much of me was numb, and the rest of me felt like it was still on fire, the skin still bearing residual heat that hadn’t faded.  When I moved, most often involuntarily, I found myself in contact with grit, pushing it into the wounds.  Every breath was a labor, and that labor was made worse by the fact the rest of my body was struggling too, offloading issues to body parts I needed to breathe.  Gorge rose in my throat, interrupting a breath in process, and receded just as quickly, leaving only acid in a windpipe that had already been in a sorry fucking state.  I coughed, and that made everything else hurt.

We come full circle, I found myself thinking.  Shitty circle when it starts and ends in burns across most of my body.  Acid from Crawler, now burns from… this.

Acid in the throat, burns on the body, acid on the body…

If I’d been on the way to a coherent thought or deeper understanding, which I probably hadn’t, the pain that seized me derailed all thinking.

Sveta grabbed me, pulling me into a hug, with emphasis on pulling.  I could feel her hands drag across skin that might as well have been attached by mere threads.  I grunted, guttural, my thoughts dissolving into incoherent animal panic and-

I felt the impact.  She’d been pulling me out of the way of danger.  As she let go of me, I landed on my back, facing this creature that was as vast as the sky, and what looked like a faint blue glow in the center of a flower made of quicksilver.  The flower expanded outward, rotating madly with that metal-on-metal sound, and it touched the creature’s arms, painting, augmenting, and decorating them.

It splashed into an arm, then congealed into armor with a technological component to it, covering up joints, adding spikes, arms that branched off, and faint blue plumes that might have been rockets, to accelerate the arm’s movements.

An arm crashed down amid shelving units near the bulk of the group.  The quicksilver that coated it splashed out, mechanical limbs in a dozen varieties appearing around the impact site, reaching out, groping, clawing and tearing.  The metal receded, arms shrinking and dragging components with them, and then those blue jets fired down, torching the surroundings, and hauling the arm and the shelving units it and the smaller arms held into the sky with the speed of an elastic band’s snap.

Three more plunged down, aimed at my teammates.  Some came down as fast as the other had gone up, but the force of it seemed to damage the underlying arms.

Fuck, I could barely think.

It wasn’t like this thing was going to run out of arms anytime soon.  Hundreds of arms.  We’d only damaged a few.

“Get Cradle,” I said.  Had I said it earlier?

“I can’t leave you here,” Sveta said.  “I have to pick you up.”

I wanted to say no, but then she was grabbing me again, and my skin wasn’t in good enough shape to be grabbed.  I started to black out, and forced my way back to consciousness.

Have to help if I can.  Even if it’s-

Pain distracted, broke up the flow of thoughts.  I had to get my thoughts back on course, and this time I could.  Perhaps I could credit the mental agility of not thinking about certain topics, dodging around the thought of them constantly, or thinking despite factors.

I wanted to think I’d gleaned something from it.  I felt victorious as I remained conscious and finished the thought with, advice.  Lend them my eyes.

Except time had passed.  Nearly blacking out and coming to felt like it took a couple of seconds.  Sveta had hauled me across the white beach to the shelving units in what had probably taken at least two minutes.

Most of the others were there, or were here.  Scattered around us, amid various pieces of cover.

And above us- the many-handed monstrosity was trying to find its balance.  I had to twist to look, despite the pain twisting caused.

Damsel slashed at the hands that were resting on the ground, aiming for wires.  More and more of the hands that appeared around her didn’t have any, with the living metal coating protecting the joints.  She looked like a fencer, favoring one arm.

Focus, I thought.

Same thing I’d been doing.  And it had a similar effect.  This thing was ungainly, lopsided, ill-fit to the space it occupied.  When a hand came down and incredible amounts of weight came to rest on that hand, it suggested a needed support.  Weight-bearing.

With a metal-on-metal scream, the hands around Damsel lifted up.  The thing had stopped for a moment, repositioning to put its hands out of the way of us, hands planted on the far end of the room, and against the wall on our end.

And I saw Damsel cradle her arm against her chest, claws curled in to almost touch her elbow.  Four claws.  Her thumb was gone, along with a whole strip of her forearm, with strings of blood, strips of muscle, or tendons dangling from the wound.

She saw me looking and pulled her arm away from her chest, leaving a slick mark diagonal across it.  She let her arm hang at her side, finger-claws almost touching the ground.  She raised her chin and looked up at the monster.

Choose, I remembered.  That had been our Ashley standing there beside her in the dream.

You don’t have to hide that you’re hurt, Damsel.

I knew Ashley, and I had a good sense of how she thought and processed things.  Seeing the dream, I knew what was on her mind.  She thought, given the chance, we’d get rid of her and get Swansong back.

I wasn’t so sure we would, but it didn’t matter, because she was convinced.  I could tell.

The way the thing was getting further away from us de-multiplied the number of arms around us.  With more arms pulling up and finding positions elsewhere, the room was distorting again.  I could see the process of how the room distorted in reverse this time, see the distant distortion as Tatttletale’s distant area bloated and smeared around.

Put two arms fifteen feet apart, and the space increased to twenty feet, with everything around accommodating.  Put two arms ten feet apart, and it increased to twelve or thirteen feet.  More arms, more distortion.

In the distance, it placed limbs to expand and stretch out my room.  When it tore up and removed panes of glass and those solar panels that were black except where they caught direct light and reflected gold, those things remained expanded, distorted in dimensions.  Arms hauled them up to the core, feeding them into that quicksilver flower that it had teched up.

The metal-on-metal scream was joined with the sound of glass scraping and breaking, churned up by a blender.  The quicksilver flower was soon decorated, gilded with gold-tinted glass and the black panes of the solar panels.

The noise set my nerves on edge.  Good thing I have less nerves than I had when I entered this fucking place.  I smiled at the dark thought.

“Hey, hey,” Sveta said.  Her hand was very cool against my cheek, sparking pain while being welcome at the same time.  “Stay with us.”

“With you,” I said, before trying again.  “I’m with you.”

“She okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Victoria wants us to go after Cradle,” Sveta said, not answering the question.

“I want to go after Cradle.”  I identified the voice as Darlene.  “He hurt Candy and Precipice.”

I heard Chicken Little but didn’t make out the words.  He might have been talking to Rain.

“What’s the logic?” Tattletale.  “It means going the opposite way we’ve been headed, chasing down a guy who doesn’t want to be found.”

“He’s this thing’s host,” I managed.  I started to cough and stopped myself, because I knew it’d make my whole body move and I wouldn’t be able to stop.  I choked on the next word I intended to say instead.  “Cut him off and maybe we cut off the power?”

“Might kick us out of the dream,” Tattletale said.

“Wouldn’t object,” I grunted out the words, suppressing another cough.  My throat still burned with acid.  “This dream sucks.  Can’t believe Rain had to come here every night.”

“Precipice,” Sveta said, quiet.

“The way looks clear,” Tristan said.  “We could make a run for it.”

“It won’t look that clear when you get there,” I said.  “It’s a feint.  It can hear us.  Everything in this room.”

“You know this?” Tattletale asked.

I shook my head slowly, feeling skin at my neck crack.  “But it makes sense.”

“Come here,” Tristan said, as he settled beside me.  I saw Kenzie just a short distance away, her back to shelving, her attention divided between me and the sky above.  Tristan muttered, “I don’t know enough medical stuff, but…”

“Get Cradle,” I said.  “Take him out and this might all stop.”

He touched a finger to my throat.  “Your heart is hammering.  I can’t even count this fast.”

I winced at the shock of crushing pain through my left arm as he leaned in.  “Makes some sense.  Just… go?  Stop kneeling on my elbow and shit while you’re at it.”

“I’m not,” he said.

I looked.  Sure enough, he was nowhere near the blackened mess where what remained of sleeve and skin were indistinguishable just from the residual heat that had come through the shield, and where the metal of the buckler was slag.

The pressure swelled with the realization there was no source.  Like the Wretch had me by the bone and was squeezing hard enough to crush me.  It was one of… too many things that were going wrong or giving way.  I kept the sounds that I made small, to minimize the chances that I’d scare the kids.

Every part of my body felt like it was defaulting to wrong inputs or wrong outputs.  A brain to not process, to not dwell.  An arm that didn’t move where every sensation it did have was a false one.  A throat meant more for holding the acid of puke I’d swallowed again before it could leave my mouth, for holding the feeling of being burned, and a knot at the base of it like the Wretch had her fist there, right behind the collarbone, stretching it out.  A hummingbird heartbeat that was beating so fast it felt like I had no heartbeat at all.  Skin that was more a gaping, massive vulnerability than a wall between the inside of me and the world outside.

“Get Cradle,” I said, wincing at the pain in my arm.  “You’re a natural superhero, Trist-.”

I winced.

“Not your first rodeo,” I tried again.  “Maybe your first dream-zone fight.”

“Second,” Tristan said, looking up.  He looked like such a superhero in that moment.  Square jaw, intense.  A giddy and delirious part of me wanted to kiss him, hug him, embrace that as much as the handsomeness of him.  Which would probably traumatize him on a few levels.

It scared me that my emotions were so out there, so far out of bounds, when I’d prized and fought so fucking hard to establish my bounds.

Maybe- yeah.

The outcome looked and felt grim enough that I was finding a whole lot of stuff I’d been holding onto didn’t matter.  There was a very real chance I’d never see my parents again.  Amy.

Things I needed to come to terms with.

“I’m not using my power or anything,” Tattletale’s voice cut through my thoughts, forcing me to focus my thoughts like I might try to focus my eyes in a moment of double-vision.  “But now would be the time to go if we were going to go.”

Focus, I told myself.

“Go kick some ass,” I said, reaching over and across my body for Tristan’s arm and missing it entirely.  I pointed instead.

“I don’t want to be the guy who charges in and leaves his friends vulnerable behind him.  Not anymore.”

“You have my permission.  Go.  Vamos.”

He stood at that.

The relief that hit me came with another momentary blackout.  Sveta’s cool hand on my forehead stirred me to awareness again.

Tristan was talking to Kenzie.  “-don’t want to see this.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

“That-.  Okay.  Keep talking to her.  Keep her alert and aware.  If she needs something, give it to her.”

“Can we move her closer to Precipice?  Chicken’s watching him and-”

“Can’t move her,” Tristan said.

“Okay.”

“Sveta,” Tristan said.

Sveta lurched to her feet.

“Eyes on the sky, Kenz.  Same rule we gave to Chicken.  If it comes for you guys, you run.  Leave the wounded behind.”

Kenzie looked down at me, her eyes large in the gloom.

I nodded.

“I mean it,” Tristan said, sounding as intense and almost angry at Kenzie as I’d ever heard.  “You run.”

“I’ll run,” Kenzie said.  “If you start running now.  The sooner the better.”

“Look after Victoria, Kenz.  Tattletale, look after these guys?”

“I will.”

“Love Lost?  Colt?”

I heard Love Lost’s footsteps.  Obviously, she wasn’t one to reply.

“I’ll stay,” Colt said.  “I’m too slow like this.”

“Okay.  Damsel!” Tristan called out, his voice booming.  “Want to help kill an asshole!?  Might end this!”

The thing was moving, and all I could do was lay there, focusing on breathing, while Kenzie crept closer.

Darlene and Candy kept even more of a distance.  Candy had both of her hands pressed to the side of her head, and Darlene had one hand pressed there as well.  They hunkered down by a shelf, hiding, their position apparently chosen to keep an eye on me and Kenzie, and on Chicken Little and Rain.

I could see the blood that streaked down Candy’s arms, into her sleeves and to her elbows, seeping through the cloth in blobs.

Darlene looked hurt too.  Her ear and eye were bleeding, the eye closed, but she was using her hands for Candy’s sake.  She might have been hit by shrapnel at one point.

“Put pressure on that,” I said, too quiet for them to hear.

“Are you putting enough pressure on it?” Kenzie asked.

“Yeah,” Darlene said.

The thing made its next move.  Arms were augmented with metal and glass now, and when arm plunged like a thrown spear, the impact site where it penetrated was a dozen arms of metal and glass.  The glass exploded, and the arms ripped and tore.

The resulting cloud of dust concealed the scene.  Shards of the glass glinted in the dim light.  I had to imagine it’d be nigh-impassable.  Blocking the other group’s path.

God, my arm hurt.  Like the bone, muscle, and everything else was being crushed endlessly, but never actually broke.

Tattletale walked over to stand over Darlene and Candy, pulling medical stuff from her bag.  She looked over at me.

We’d seen each other’s worst moments, or interpretations of those moments.  That… it kicked down doors.  More boundaries gone.

Three more arms plunged into different points in Cradle’s territory.  The first arm receded.  The remainder were working on maneuvering the large body closer, so more arms could reach.

Protecting Cradle.  Looking between shelves and through the gap between two pieces of sheet metal that backed two shelves, I could see the silhouettes of the others.  Charging in nonetheless.

“Thanks Tats,” I said.

“What’s she saying?” Tattletale asked.

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.

“For shooting the thing.”

“For-”

“I heard that one.  What were you doing charging in like that?  You reckless idiot.”

“Had to distract it.  Stick to the game plan.”

“Brute mentality, no brute powers.  See where it gets you?” Tattletale asked.  “You-”

She stopped as more hands plunged down.  Four, at my best guess.  All aimed for the other group.

I had a sinking feeling, watching.  The onslaught was increasing in intensity as the thing drew nearer to them.

“Any insights?” I asked.

“No power,” Tattletale said.  She sounded bored, detached.

“Still,” I said.  “You don’t cape for… years without figuring some shit out.”

“Are you trying to be nice, Antares?” Tattletale asked.  “You saw where I come from, you feel bad?”

“Let’s not fight,” Kenzie said.

“You feel sorry for me?” Tattletale asked.

More crashes.  It had to be ten arms, though I couldn’t see the entirety of it.  Some speared down, some raked their individual paths.  One after another.

It was so hard to breathe, and the pain when impacts shook me interrupted the process.  My heart was still aflutter and it was probably contributing to my thoughts being a little… lightweight.  Shallow thinking, like the twilight before sleep, that I could steer only with constant attention.

“You don’t know anything about me, okay?” Tattletale asked.  “You don’t get any points if you end our relationship with some well-intentioned questions.  You triggered because mommy and daddy didn’t love you because you were normal, then proceeded to show you were the last person who ever deserved powers, maiming people and using your sister to dodge the consequences when you hit them a little too hard.”

“Stop,” Kenzie said.

“Hey,” Colt said.

The silence was maybe the heaviest silence that I’d ever heard.  Heavier than the times after my family had left during visiting hours.  Heavier than the rooftop after Dean had died, when I’d flown up there to cry on my own because I couldn’t cry in front of his family and everyone else in the hospital.  Heavier than the silence after I’d been fouled in basketball, in the before and after of my own pained cry.

Heavy because the hands had made an all-out attack on the other group.  Ten hands, all together.

And then they’d stopped.

I could taste the dust and the glass particulate in the air.

Tattletale’s voice picked up, starting slow, then building in speed, “I bet you knew she liked you, you knew she was in a bad place, but it was convenient to keep using the girl instead of getting her help.  Bit you in the ass, huh?  I bet what gets you is that you know you deserved those years in the asylum.”

I focused on breathing.

Kenzie reached for and took my hand.  She held it in two of hers, clenching harder than was necessary.  “Tattletale-”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Is it, Victoria?  Is it really?  You’re dying.  You’re not going to last the… thirty-one minutes that remain, here.  This is it, we’re probably going with you, and I’m not going to mince words or tell you some convenient things that help you go without regrets.”

She didn’t address me further.  Darlene stared up at her, and Tattletale reached down to push a lock of hair from Darlene’s forehead.  Darlene pulled hear head away, then hugged her cousin.

Regrets.  Things I needed to come to terms with.  I’d been dwelling on it earlier, a tangent.

I felt like I could let my mind touch on the subject of my mom and dad and how they’d betrayed me in their individual ways, and I could make a kind of peace with that.  I could touch on the things they’d said and done and ways they’d let me down and a kind of tension that had been there since I could remember was released.

Amy.

The thought didn’t provoke fear or defense reactions in the same way.  A deep sadness and feeling of loss, yes.  A small stab of alarm, worry, like a primal part of me had to cover the bases in case she could somehow reach out and find me here.

But I was out of her reach, and a growing part of me was feeling like I didn’t need to worry because the chances of me seeing her again were getting a lot closer to nil.

My breathing was hoarse, more because of the fuckery in my throat than anything.  Every breath hurt.

I was free to make peace with… I wasn’t sure I was coherent enough to summarize what that whole thing with Amy was.  In a state where all the edges were rounded off and thoughts could glide from one to another, if I didn’t think or pry too much, I could extend a measure of understanding, see where she had been coming from and why.  Maybe.  I could forgive her, probably, find that internal compromise.  Forgive her for myself, at the very least.

But like hell was I ever going to do that.  Like hell was I going to forgive her for anything, even my own peace of mind.  Like fucking hell was I going to compromise.  Understand?  Yes, but only as a defensive measure, like I tried to understand this many-handed fucker.  Fuck no, hell no, fuck.  If there was a chance she could find out how I’d felt about her in the end, and powers meant there was always a chance, I wanted the answer to be bitter and hurtful.  Because she’d remained too much of a coward to own up to it in reality and totality.  Because fuck her.

Anger made my blood pump and woke up the pain, bringing me back to reality.  My parting throughts on the subject, as I labored to breathe, were simply that I could make peace with my lack of peace on this one subject.

“I don’t need your words to help me get there,” I said, my voice soft.  Probably too soft for Tattletale to hear.

“Antares said-” Kenzie piped up.

“I don’t care,” Tattletale said.

The thing was gravitating more our way.  It hadn’t attacked since that burst of ten attacks all at once, aimed at the others.

“I’m pretty spooked,” Colt’s voice could be heard.

“Me too,” Chicken Little said.

“Not me,” Candy said.  “Nope.  Ate fear for breakfast the first six years I was alive, sometimes for real.  Can’t touch this.”

“Braver than me,” Darlene said.

“Way braver than me,” Chicken Little could be heard.  “Mr. Hugs sucks.”

I laughed.  Out of sync with the tone of the situation, fed by a little deliriousness and released frustration.  It wasn’t a happy laugh, but it was a mighty one, full-body, in a way that made me hurt in twenty different ways, made me cough between laughs.

“Antares thinks you’re terrible at names, Chicken,” Kenzie said.

“I’m not that terrible,” Chicken Little said.

“You kind of are,” Tattletale said.  “But it’s one of your many good points.”

“Uh huh?”

Hands crashed through something distant with a sound so sharp it made my ears ring.

I looked at our exit, and there were overly long, mechanical hands near and above it, barring the way, along with dropped pieces of concrete and rubble that had been picked up elsewhere and brought to that pitch black wall we were supposed to run through.  Even if we sent the kids, there was no way they’d get past.

“Hey Tattletale,” Candy said.  “Hey.”

“What?  If you want to tear me down because I gave Antares a reality check, you can save it.  That thing is on its way, as soon as it can find a hand to stand on that Damsel didn’t hack at.”

“I gotta, though,” Candy said.  “Reality check.  You helped give us the best years we ever had.  I know Imp went to you for money now and again and you paid, even though we were more hers than yours.  I know you found the tutors and you found the fashion people and junk.  I know you found Aroa’s mom and I know that didn’t go well but it was real nice you tried.  Um-”

I heard a sniffle.  From her or Darlene.

“Chicken Little, you’re one of the best guys I know, and I don’t really like being around guys, especially ones that seem nice.  But you’re cool enough and nice enough that you kind of won me over and I think you helped fix a little bit of a part of me that’s broken, just by being you.  I know you think you’re a scaredy-cat and I want you to know you’re braver than anyone because you step up despite being that afraid… I don’t really know how to start and end these little speeches, except, um… if you somehow get out of this and I don’t, marry a Heartbroken your age and become an official member of this family.”

I heard Darlene hiss something.

“If you were gone, then the only Heartbroken his age would be Flor and Darlene,” Kenzie said.

“Well, I guess that makes it simple, doesn’t it?” Candy asked, her voice artificially bright.  “Flor it is.  If I made it out I’d volunteer myself, but-”

“I will kill you,” Darlene said, audible this time.

“I think we beat him, Dar,” Candy said.  Harder to make out, because she was talking to someone sitting next to her.  “We made some of the coolest friends, we figured out how to like each other again, after he turned us all against each other.  We had a family and homes and puppy piles and swimming and shopping and crushes and schools… terminally boring catch-up classes.  Everything he tried to take away from us we got back in spades.  Yeah?”

Darlene’s answer was broken up.  She cleared her throat.  “I messed up tonight.”

“Yeah.  But that’s ok.  It doesn’t change things.  Nobody’s holding it against you, right Kenz?”

“Right,” Kenzie said, right next to me.  Holding my hand.

I felt hands strike the ground, supporting the greater whole.  It loomed larger over us, the loser it got.  More hands, emerging from that swirling tinkertech core.

“You’re the most beautiful person I know, Kenz,” Candy said.  “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that your hair right now is a hairstyle I gave you.  I know we grumble, I know we gripe, but I would spend every day with you if we could get away with it.  Okay?  Maybe that doesn’t sound as fancy but-”

Kenzie gripped my hand, harder.

“I would too!” Chicken Little piped up.  “I didn’t get to say anything earlier tonight but I really didn’t mean things I said and I want to make it up to you.”

He yelped at an impact.  A sweep of a hand, crashing through a metal shelf, mostly sheet metal.  The crash spread the living metal and living glass, with reaching arms that tore at other cabinets.  I peeked around the corner and I could see another two shelves get torn to pieces.

It reached all the way back toward the concrete, the hand in question hovering, then picked up a broken piece of slab.  It threw it in our general direction, bowling through a few more shelves.

Gonna be a minute now.

“Yeah,” Candy said.  “I’m sorry if we didn’t get that far.  I would’ve wanted sleepovers and adventures and for-real visits to Aunt Rachel’s until you were sick of us.”

“That’s not possible,” Kenzie said.  Ms. Talkative, reduced to three and a half words.

I gave her hand a squeeze.

I didn’t have it in me to stand, let alone fight.  No flight, no powers, no connection to the shard.  Just me.

I heard a distant shout.  An instruction.

A female voice.

Someone in that group was okay.  And they were… way over there.  Trying to communicate with us.  Too far away, muffled.

I sat up, and immediately regretted it because it meant my senses were on full alert as a hand swept through an empty glass display.  Loud as shit.

Something had happened, or they were doing something.

“Help me up,” I grunted.

“I don’t think you’re in any shape to get up,” Kenzie whispered.

I could feel my heart now, but it was in the nauseous imminent-heart-attack sense.  Adrenaline surged, giving me the energy to perk up, pay attention to my surroundings.

“Go,” I whispered.  “Run.  Toward the others.  If they’re safe and it’s not after them, you need to figure out why.  Go.”

She held my hand, and I could remember the scene I’d seen in the dream.

She wasn’t about to let go.

“Darlene!  Candy!  Chicken!  Tattletale!  Colt!  Take Kenzie and run!  Someone’s still alive over there, go to them!”

Kenzie gripped my hand.

But Candy and Darlene, leaning on each other, were there in a flash.  Chicken Little stood at the end of the haphazard aisle, looking.

“We won’t make it,” he said, looking up.

“We will,” Tattletale said.

The Heartbroken girls hauled on Kenzie’s arm.  Tattletale hauled on Chicken Little.

Colt lingered, looking back toward Rain.

“Antares- Precipice!” Kenzie called out.

“No goodbyes,” Tattletale said.  “I should have drawn the line earlier.  No goodbyes.  Run.”

The hands came down.  Between them and their destination.  Through shelves.

The pump of adrenaline and the rush that was dulling the pain served to put me straight into cape-thinking mode.  There was a logic or a rhythm to how it went on the offense.  We just hadn’t figured it out.  There was a good chance we wouldn’t, still.

But we could try.

“Hey!” I bellowed.  I banged my hand against metal shelves.  “Here!”

It loomed over me, hands plunging down to support its weight.

The dust of its attacks swept over us, obscuring every last thing, bringing a rain of glass fragments that pattered off of the metal shelves, fallen and otherwise.  A sweeping limb dashed it just as fast, turned the precipitating shards into a barrage.

It had stopped its attack again.

As the scene cleared, I could see why.  Tattletale stood there, kids behind her, Colt beside her, gun raised, pointing.

Cradle stood in the way.  He looked so young, and he stood there with glasses scratched up to the point they looked unusable, wearing bloodstained clothes.

It had stopped attacking because any attack against Tattletale risked hurting Cradle.

“I heard you earlier.  No bullets,” Cradle said.

“Did you also hear us say that your shard-buddy can probably hear everything in this room?  Gotta keep some tricks up our sleeves, and I gotta tell you, it’s really satisfying to successfully bluff an extradimensional monster like this.”

Cradle moved his arm, and it was apparent he carried a large combat knife.  He’d perhaps brought it into the dream the same way Tattletale had brought her gun.

They stood a mere ten feet apart.  Tattletale in the area with the shelves.  Cradle in the area with the concrete slabs.

“You brought a knife to a gunfight?” Tattletale asked.

“I don’t think you have much fight in you,” Cradle said.  “I dare you to pull the trigger.”

“Cradle.  Ryan,” Colt said.  “Hey.  Things were going so well.  The dreams were getting better, I could at least control them on my nights, and give tips to the others to make them less bad.  We weren’t all screaming at each other or getting mad.”

“And then you pull this,” Cradle said.  “It wasn’t ‘better’ for me.  Not really.”

“Wasn’t it?  You can’t have enjoyed that?”

“I’m supposed to enjoy being stuck?  Being trapped in the wilderness, only two people to keep me company?  No way to get home, no way to tinker, my agent slowly pressing in on me, demanding I build when I can’t?”

“I’m talking about the dreams.  You and me, we’re in prison because we hurt a lot of people.  Some of these people.  But we can at least keep the dreams peaceful.”

“I don’t want peace,” Cradle said.  “I want revenge.  You all intruded on my life, my deal, my space, my dreams.  Now I’m really, really hoping that when my agent here tears you to shreds, it puts you all in comas where you have nightmares every damn moment you’re under.”

“You’re kind of a terrible person,” Chicken Little said.

“So why doesn’t she shoot me?” Cradle asked.

Tattletale kept the gun leveled at him.

“Thought so,” he said, barely audible.

Cradle started forward, marching her way.  She swung the pistol, aiming to pistol-whip him, but he had the knife, and the knife gave him more effective range.

The cuts were deep, the slashes painting sprayed arcs of blood momentarily into the air.  Forehand and backhead swing, into Tattletale’s forearms.

The many-handed thing creaked, hands picking up and orienting, ready to plunge.  Cradle barely seemed to care, one eye on the hands, the rest of his attention on the attack.

Hands came down.  Aimed at distant points.  The others.

“Can’t get me from behind,” Cradle said.  “And in front of me-”

Tattletale attempted to back up, and in the doing, she nearly tripped over Chicken Little, dropping to a crouch in the process of catching her balance.  Colt rushed in, and Colt got stabbed- twice, her punches and grabs ineffectual.  She wasn’t combat trained.

The kids were backing up, the hands finding position as the main ‘body’ of the thing reoriented.  Cradle, too, backed up, until his back was to a fallen concrete slab.

“Heads up!” Chicken Little called out, voice high.

The hands came down.  Three of them.  I had to turn my face away.

It was like Cradle anticipated it.  Or he understands how it works.  He-

And I could connect some of the dots.  Why Cradle was safe, why the others hadn’t been attacked and why the many-handed thing had drifted our way instead.

I drew in a deep breath, the skin of my chest cracking and oozing.

“It isn’t avoiding just Cradle!” I called out, with every bit of volume I could manage.  “It’s avoiding killing anyone that’s in their own room!”

Meaning if they could get to their own rooms, they’d be safe.  By leaving our boundaries, we invited attack.  And here- in the room with the empty shelves and displays-

It kept hesitating.  Avoiding striking home.  Waiting.

Snag’s influence at work.  Maybe he was here, in a fashion.  There was some other logic at work too, maybe a desire to emulate Cradle and maim or corner us to torment us as much as possible.  But for right now, this knowledge of the safe spaces was all we needed.

“Get closer to Cradle!”  I called out, my voice straining around attempted coughs.  “Try to kick him out of his room!”

A man with a knife was less threatening than that thing, and the entire group that was over there seemed to agree.

Darlene picked up a piece of fallen shelving, a long bit of sheet metal.  Unwieldy, inconvenient, floppy, she held it up at an angle with the bottom end dragging on the floor, the rest of it aimed at Cradle.

Pushing it aside took focus, time, and movements he didn’t have in excess, when the rest were getting closer.

When he had a moment, he aimed for Chicken Little, knife out, and lunged.

Tattletale threw herself in the way.  She’d dropped her gun, so she only had her hands.

He sliced her, again and again.  Back, back, shoulder, arm- she looked up, trying to get a sense of him, and he caught her above the ear and near the eye.

Darlene threw something, and Tattletale found a moment to get a grip on his shirt, trying to drag him around, closer to the other room.  Colt was there, kneeling, too badly hurt to move from where she was.

Knife fights were ugly, and Cradle seemed to know that.  There weren’t good moves to defend oneself from a knife user who was aware of the full potential of the weapon, and any move that was anything less than good meant horrific damage, often going past skin and into muscle, if not organs.

Tattletale took the brunt of it, because the alternative was that the kids would do the same.

Hands plunged down around us, but they didn’t come down directly at that little fracas.  They were aimed at Damsel, Love Lost, Sveta, and Tristan.

Keeping it busy was good.  It forced it to stay at a certain orientation, a certain height and position where it could reach them at the edges of their territories, should they step out.

I heard a cry, a roar that was so filled with anger and emotion that I honestly mistook it for Love Lost’s scream.  I didn’t even take it for a word at first, and it was guttural and filled with pain.

Cradle’s name, turned into a ragged cry.  Cradle turned to look, because the volume of the shout no doubt made it sound like the source was close.

But it was Rain, injured and unable to move.

Providing Tattletale an opportunity to stagger to one side and pull at Cradle’s sleeve, slinging him around in a quarter-circle.

Cradle staggered back, banging against shelving.  A piece of rubble the size of a fist bounced off of his arm.  Darlene’s continued ranged offense.

His expression twisting, Cradle started forward- and his shirt snagged on the shelving.

“Go,” Tattletale said, talking to the kids.  “Back to your rooms until we come for you.  Go.”

They went.

And the others came.  The cavalry was there.

And the many-armed thing had more targets it could attack, all in close proximity.

Tristan had his shield, protecting Sveta and Damsel from the flack, but it bowled him over in the process, living metal arms reaching for his shield and dragging him across rubble.  Sveta and Damsel carried on.  Love Lost was just really athletic, even in this world, and managed to avoid the worst of it.

“Get Cradle!” I called out.  Unnecessarily.

It was Damsel who reached him first, spearing him before he could unsnag himself from the twisted metal of the empty shelf unit.

Spearing him through the shoulder.

“No killer instinct,” Cradle snarled at her.

“You really want to tempt-” she started replying.

He hacked at her already damaged hand with the combat knife.  The injury brought her to her knees, interrupting the retaliatory swing with her other hand.

Sveta reached the shelf, and kept her distance from Damsel and Cradle both.  Instead, she leaped onto the shelf itself, one foot and both hands finding purchase near the top.

It wobbled, and it wobbled more as a hand plunged down right behind where Sveta had been.  Glass arms, liquid metal arms, and floorboards went flying all around us.

And it crashed down, impossibly loud.

The dust cleared, the glass stopped raining down.

Love Lost had joined Sveta in bowling over the shelf.  Bringing it down on top of Cradle.

And without the host, there was no agent in this space.  No light source in Cradle’s portion.  No monster looming over and around us.

“Where are you going?” Tristan asked.   He was injured himself, badly enough I’d be sending him to the hospital in any other circumstance.  The shield was a mess now.

The question was directed at Damsel.

“Out,” she pointed at the far wall.  “These are simulated bodies, aren’t they?  I don’t know about you, but I want to move to a simulation where I’m not so scratched up.”

She swayed as she stood.  She was missing a thumb, and had a deep notch in her forearm, more damage along that arm.  The limb trembled where she held it against her chest, to try to stem the bleeding.

‘Scratched up’.

There were more injured than able bodied.  It was Sveta who picked me up, sweating and grunting as she dragged me, putting in enough effort there weren’t words.

Tattletale limped about halfway.  Love Lost helped Colt.  Tristan helped Byron.  The kids stayed with Rain while waiting for escorts.

We passed through the wall of darkness.  Into a room like the one we’d just left.  More stark, barren… and with three more things like the one we’d just left behind.  One made of blades that flowed in and out of themselves while having no individual substance beyond what they kicked up from the ground and carried up into their own mass.  One was sleek, cat-like, and multicolored, quadrupedal, with a pattern like flames along its pale length, starting pale blue at the shoulders and reaching a pink-red at the hindquarters.  Another existed as a mess of geometry, suspended in air, dark and still.

And all were still.

I could imagine this room rotating, the gates opening, the guardians taking their turns.

We carried on.  out of the mutable rooms, and onto a plain of carmine crystal, with veins that could have been cracks, ore, or blood vessels.  Above, just darkness.  Below, more darkness, with flashes here and there.

We weren’t healed by the transition between spaces, and too many of us were dying.

Tristan didn’t speak as he laid his brother down, then went back for Rain and the kids, but I could see how stiff he was.

I looked into a spike of crystal to my right, and I saw my reflections.  Faint, so fleeting I could barely make them out.  They seemed to go blacker, illuminate again, then dim, and then I realized that was my own vision suffering.  Each face had something different.  A fixation on mouths.  A fixation on- I could only interpret it as similarities to my parents, if I wasn’t seeing memories of them in the crystal too.

“How?” Sveta asked.

I looked.

Damsel was in one piece.

“Offer me something and I’ll show you how,” she told Sveta.

“Accolades,” I managed, my eyes not focusing well enough.  “Awe.  Admiration.  When and if we figure out anything about this space, we’ll have to admit it was you who pioneered it, you who figured it out first.  We’ll even have to tell the Wardens, eventually, and your name will come up.”

“Laying it on a little thick,” Damsel said.

“Is that even possible?” I asked her, managing a faltering smile.  My lip cracked.

She approached, and motioned for Sveta to move with a sweep of the claw.  She reached for me with clawed fingers, and I went stiff.

The blades didn’t touch me, but the lengths and backs of the fingers did.  She caught me around the head and throat.

“Can’t replace me if I’m this good at this,” she said, forcing my head around so I looked at the spike of crystal.  I could see myself, in various dimensions and aspects.  And I could see her.

I could see Swansong, prominent among those jumbled images.

She pulled me off balance, accidentally scraping me with a finger, then pushed me.

I fell into and across the recess, that looked like a spike from a certain angle.  Or that was both.  I could see just how bad the injuries were in the faces and facets, magnified large by the broadest, flattest planes.

I came to a stop, panting for breath.  I reached for my shoulder where I’d been scratched- and found my shoulder intact.

My hands explored my face and arms.  No burns.  No wounds.

“I was being tongue-in-cheek before, about the awe and admiration,” I said.  “But now it’s for real.  You’re… scarily good at that.”

“No shit,” Sveta said.

“I’ve been here before,” Damsel said, as she headed over toward Tattletale.  “Spent a while here when I was dead.  You learn your way around.”

The light danced around like a subsurface lightning bolt.  Images were illuminated.

And I could see others.  Reflections that weren’t me and weren’t us.  Glimpses of the real world, pale in the midst of those flashes.

This was it.  The system.  The source of powers.

As vast as Earth was.  Maybe more so, if each piece of the landscape had multiple interpretations and variations, depending on how you approached it.

How the hell do we find Teacher in all of this?

The able-bodied joined Sveta and I.  The kids all holding each other’s hands, clinging to one another.  Love Lost.  The injured awaited Damsel’s attention.

Everyone a little haunted, traumatized a few times over.

We’d… we’d revisited our starting points.  The traumas that plunged us into this world.  And by Candy’s words to the others, I was pretty sure there had been a point or two there where just about all of us had resigned ourselves to our deaths.  We’d faced the visceral ends of our journeys.  The end of the vast majority of parahumans- death at the hands of powers.

Starts and endings, all faced together.

And this…  I looked out at the landscape.  Is everything that was in between.

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From Within – 16.9

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The entire ‘room’ shook as the many-handed beast reached to its right and tore a concrete slab out of the ground, reached to its left, and grabbed a chair and a fistful of floorboards from Rain’s room.  Cradle and Rain were almost mirrors to one another in how they moved away from the respective damage.  Difference was, Rain kept running.

Cradle only moved as far as he needed to get out of the way of any immediate hazards.  He maintained a kind of eerie calm, finding a position on another slanted concrete block that was  like a massive tombstone with no epitah, that had been tilted to a thirty degree angle.

I had the impulse to fly and I couldn’t, and feeling that lack while facing down something as big and intimidating as this many-handed thing was suffocating.  I’d never been especially afraid of spiders, but this thing was like three spiders of varying sizes all overlapping one another, each limb ending in a hand.  It was fluid enough in its arrangement that it could be as tall as a two story building, then sweep out to be barely any taller than I was, but with limbs reaching out to every surface across a twenty foot span.

No eyes to look into, but the glowing cords in gaps and joints drew the eye, and gave suggestions of slanted eyes or opening apertures, that weren’t actually there.

It was hard to convince myself to breathe, to move.  The thought that broke the paralysis, fleeting as it was, was that I’d seen and been frustrated with civilians in the midst of the Endbringer attack and the broken trigger.  It’d be hypocritical to cast aside all self preservation now.

“Up,” I spoke to myself as much as the people around me, my voice gaining volume as I continued,  “Focus, process later!  Survive now!”

Sveta was already getting to her feet.  She was wholly human, tattooed from the fingertips to her shoulders and up her neck, with the tattoos clearly aimed at covering up deep seams in her arms.  I saw her wince as she moved her foot and cut the outer edge of it on what looked like a bed of obsidian and igneous rock that was nearly invisible with the black coloring and the gloom of the room.

“Watch your step!” I called out.  This was a time for punchy orders that got everyone on the same page, communicated necessary, lean information with no ‘fat’.  “Rooms can have hazards!”

“You’re all idiots!” Tattletale growled.

Exactly what I was just thinking we shouldn’t do.  Pure fat, no lean.

Rain was getting to his feet to my right.  A ways to my left, Tristan had hurried over to Byron’s side, and Kenzie was near him but unable to really help.  The other three kids gravitated toward that end of the patchwork room. Tristan and Byron’s areas looked like concrete floor with spilled paint on it in ‘their’ colors, narrow metal pillars inset in concrete stumps making the entire area like a forest.  Byron’s area had blue-green paint and was tinted like it was night-time, Tristan’s area was reds and yellows with traces of orange, and shone like there was a window with sunlight shining in from outside, though the window was nowhere to be seen.

Damsel stood, her expression hard and cold.  I’d noted before how she seemed to freeze up or go still when angriest and most dangerous, and she was pretty much there.  Difference was, she had to get to her feet first.  Her area backed on Rain’s and one of the Heartbroken’s, and looked like a derelict apartment, with lighting like it was nighttime and the only light came from the moon through windows, even though the windows weren’t actually there.  The hand she placed up against a partially intact wall for balance had long bladed fingers.  She kept those, I supposed.  I wondered what the distinction was, that made it matter.

I could see varying degrees of animation and emotion among the others.  For most, the many-handed monster didn’t seem to even register, because the specters of their past chased them.  Ashley, the Heartbroken.  Tristan barely flinched because his concern was wholly for Byron.

Love Lost and Colt just looked bewildered.  Bewilderment became alarm as the many-handed thing crushed the concrete slab it held with two arms, then swiped the partially crushed mess in their direction.  The result was a hail of rubble.

This is a fucking mess, I thought.

“The kids,” Sveta said.

We needed a battle plan.

“Colt, Love Lost!” I called out.  “Look after the kids and Capricorn Blue!  Be prepared to carry him!  Cap Red, we need you!”

“But-”

“Don’t be stubborn!  You have armor!”

I saw him hesitate, then he turned toward his brother, his back to me.  I thought for a moment he was rejecting me, but he was unstrapping Byron’s chestpiece, pulling it free.  Once they saw what he was doing, Kenzie and Chicken Little helped with the strap at the other side.

The many-handed thing didn’t come after us, and the rationale could have been that it didn’t want to go too far into the room and leave us room to slip behind it.

But it was tearing up the floor and tearing up the terrain.  Where the ground wasn’t rendered almost impassable, it was littered with enough debris that we’d have to be careful where we put our feet.

And it was gathering materials.  Rebar, wood.

I wasn’t sure armor counted against a threat like this, but I had seen Tristan fight, I knew he had experience.  If we were going to make it through that forest of limbs and get past the guard dog and into the darkness behind it, we needed some experience and we needed to organize by some metric.

“Precipice,” I called out.

“I’m fighting,” he said.  He had a length of floorboard that he held like a spear.  I didn’t think it would matter, but…

“Grab me one?” I asked.  That got me a sharp nod.

Tristan jogged over, Byron’s scale-mail breastplate loosely strapped to one arm, his hand gripping loose straps at the other end.  He stood beside me, Sveta just behind me.

Love Lost and Colt were in the jungle of rusty iron beams and concrete, that was the Twins’ portion of the room.

I looked back at my section.  Panels of tinted glass and what might have been the texture of solar panels, cracked but not broken.  Though they were gold, with the more solid solar panel texture having a backing of black beneath that surface level, there was no warmth to it at all.

I turned back to the threat, pushing away the idle wondering as to whether the others were subtly bothered by their own spaces like I was by mine.

Rain tossed me one short spear of wood, and it hit me in the ribs as I caught it.  The sensation startled me, and as I looked down, I could see I didn’t have my breastplate.  I wore the black hooded top from my costume over the white dress with the watercolor skyline of Brockton Bay across the front.  My hair was braided, and it had been… a long-as-fuck time since I’d done that with any regularity.

He handed more wood to Sveta and to Tristan.

“I can’t unfurl,” Sveta said.

“No traumatic forcefield for me, either,” I said.

She met my eyes, and in the gloom of the room, I knew that our sentiments were very much the same.  For her to actually have a body with no associations to her power.  For me to not have that shadow hanging over me.

I reached out to squeeze her upper arm.

“Tristan and I will distract it, fend it off,” I said, turning to the thing we were up against.  I watched as it moved, continuing to tear concrete apart and harvest the rebar.  Slow, methodical, I felt like its mannerisms were defined by it keeping three-quarters of its attention on us and one-quarter on what it was doing.

It shook more concrete free of the rebar.  Damsel had to step behind a damaged wall, and still got plaster dust on her when the concrete punched through one portion of it.

“Sveta, Rain, focus more on distraction,” I said.

“Okay.  Harry, harass?” Rain asked.

“Just… bait it to attack and move.  Circle around.”

Cradle, off to one side, was watching everything.  He didn’t move, didn’t try anything.

Is this thing like Cradle?  Lurking in the background, before stepping in to do some horrific violence? 

“Damsel,” I said.

“Don’t you dare give me orders,” she snapped.  Her claw cut light furrows into the ruined wall it was still touching.

“Tattletale, then?” I asked.  “Can you help Love Lost and Colt with the kids and Byron?”

Tattletale had stood but hadn’t moved from her starting position in her room, which was the furthest from the monster.  Her dream was furthest removed from the mall, too.  Her area, despite being so far back, was bright like a room with a window open and the sun shining directly in, with a stretch of plush white carpet and a white wall cutting it almost in half.  Wall and carpet were stained with large blotches of bodily fluids.

“You were going to ask Damsel to try to hurt it,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah,” I said.

She reached to her hip and drew a handgun.  She still wore an expression like she hadn’t quite left the dream behind.  Sad, a little lost, not looking at us or the many-handed thing.  “I’ll do what I can.”

“Ah.  Okay.”

“How?” Rain asked.  “How’d you bring the gun?”

“Every day since I started working for Coil, back in Brockton Bay.  Even before Leviathan, I had it with me.”

“She shot me with it once,” I remarked.

“If I’d known you’d be dragging me into this, I would have shot you with it twice.  I thought the worst thing I’d have to deal with was maybe consoling your tinker if none of you came back.  No, I get dragged into this.”

“Power didn’t predict this?”

“My power didn’t,” she said, her voice tense.  “That niggling little voice in the back of my head did, but I ignored it.”

I looked back at her, studying her.  Costume, gun, all was cohesive, complete.  Tristan didn’t have his helmet, Rain had a hooded jacket on with no mask, no costume elements except for the solid pads along his jacket sleeves which the mechanical arms he built could normally be mounted on.

Love Lost was in costume, Colt in civilian clothes, still with that massive mane of dirty-blonde hair that frizzed and puffed out to either side.  Kenzie wore a black pinafore dress over a t-shirt, but she had sneakers, Chicken Little and Candy wore civilian clothes.  Darlene, I noted, had a nightdress on, a bit old fashioned.

This is us, I thought.  I pulled up my hoods, the hood built into my dress nestled inside the hood from my costume top.  Protection from any debris.

The many-handed thing had been tall, initially, almost wispy with how drawn out it was, how thin the arms were in comparison to how long they were, then it had flattened out, to cover and guard more ground, and to reach more things it could pull apart and scatter around as debris.

Now it drew in together.  Small enough in how each limb folded in or hid others from view, with more of the orange wiring and joints exposed to plain view than any of the hands were.  Mere seconds had passed and I was already having trouble tracking just how far those hands had reached when arms were fully extended.

That is… that, I thought to myself.  And that’s a deceptively open path to the exit it very much wants to guard.

“Look, near the shoulder bulge,” Sveta said.

The ‘shoulder bulge’ was one extended part of the ‘body’ where all of the hands seemed to reach out from, a lump toward the upper left part of its mass.  There, illuminated only by the general orange-yellow glow from the wires connecting arm pieces together, a hand as big around as my upper body was from crotch to throat gripped rebar, bent it neatly to a right angle.

I could see other machinations now.  Six hands closer to the core of the body were doing their individual parts, taking components that unseen hands passed to them, each performing specific actions that were methodical, sure, exact in the spacing of everything.  Like it was a machine.

My eyes widened.  Is it tinkering?

“Go!” I shouted.  “Right now!  Before it can finish building!  Love Lost, Colt, get ready to go!”

It was so big, and it hung there, partially in the darkness, like there could be more behind it that I hadn’t yet seen.  It didn’t breathe, didn’t make noise, and only the shuffling of the sleek material of arms and hands against itself was really audible.

“Go!” If I hadn’t been shouting, I might not have had it in me to take that first, involuntary-at-the-outset deep breath.  If I hadn’t been able to take the deep breath, I might not have been able to lean forward, when all I wanted to do was step back and hope it wouldn’t do anything until the forty minute timer ran down.

If I hadn’t leaned forward, I wasn’t sure I would have been courageous enough to run forward.  And if I hadn’t done that, then the others might not have budged, not when Sveta and Rain were following Tristan and I, and Tristan was distracted.

My foot hit black stone, and I avoided stepping on the almost invisible outcroppings.  One step, then another, legs moving to push my weight more forward than up.

With the third step, the timing not quite coinciding with my footfall, I heard the heavier step of Tristan’s boot.

Be mindful of the arm’s range, any weapons it might have, deflect if you absolutely have to, I thought, trying to visualize the upcoming situation, trying not to think about how my mom had drilled ‘visualize’ into me back when I’d played basketball.  It’s okay to get hurt, so long as we all get through the door.  Watch for anything it might push into us.

The arm unfolded, pulling free of the shuffle of forty or more limbs that were folded into one central area -No weapon- and swung backhanded.  It couldn’t reach me.  Nothing in its path to throw.

Others slowed.  I was dimly aware of them behind and beside me.  I didn’t slow down.  I was confident of my estimation.

The hand dipped low, striking the damaged section of floorboards.  It carved out a furrow, turning a hole into a ditch, a gap in the room with only ruined wood below, like it was broken floorboards or rafters with foot-wide gaps between pieces of wood, all the way down to fucking infinity.

Which meant that when I shifted course to favor the smallest portion of the gap leaped the ditch, I was simultaneously going weak kneed, my mind wrestling with the idea that it might really be infinity, that what happened here could really be forever.

Muscle memory saved me, if nothing else.  I landed on all fours, scooted one foot forward to be sure I could spring to one side if I had to, and twisted around to look up.

Just seconds ago, I’d estimated the number of limbs at forty.  How long before that had I called it three spiders- three times eight?

Now I was closer, within reach of the longest arms, which were thin, tendril-like, and immensely strong.  I could see it pulling more limbs free of the jumble, revealing something that looked like a disc, suspended in lightning that had been frozen in time.  The disc barely concerned me, because I could have put the number of limbs I was seeing at anywhere from eighty to one hundred.

“It’s multiplying its arms!” I called out.

“No,” Sveta said, and the statement was punctuated by one arm high above me stabbing in my direction.  It might have sounded like a sad, resigned thing, even an acknowledgement that I was well and truly fucked.

The hand was slender, considering the arm was about as wide as I was and the hand was disproportionately narrow and long-fingered for the arm.  It speared down wrist-deep into floorboards, then moved, tearing another trench.

I had to back up and to the side, mindful of where I set my feet.  There was a bottomless ditch behind me, a trench in front of me, the floorboards starting to fall away, with a loose precipitation of pine needles and leaves that had dried out a long time ago.

“-It’s not three-dimensional,” Sveta finished her statement.

Four dimensional?

The closer we got, the bigger it was, and the more its arms multiplied.  More joints existed in more shades of color, and the color that radiated out from those joints was mild, less than a candle might shed, but so numerous collectively that they made something brighter.  They were the source of the seemingly sourceless illumination that made it possible to see in the rest of the room.  I could map it from room to room, including that cold golden light that was apparently meant for me.

As it moved again, I jogged over to one side, so I was further from the trenches, and so a third strike wouldn’t see me fall into the abyss.

Rain’s space was a shack that had been left exposed to the elements, and it was my battlefield for the moment.  The hand altered course, coming right for me.  I saw a work bench, jumped up, and planted my foot on the top.  I looked up, saw the hand, and let myself fall back, kicking backward from the edge of the desk to throw myself onto my back.

The desk was- not even obliterated.  Smashed down and through floorboards into whatever oblivion lay beneath.  The arm seemed to continue plunging down forever, while the body barely moved in accordance with it.

I lay there, on my back, arms out to either side, floorboard plank as a spear or tool gripped in my right hand, held against my chest.  I remained where I was because the thing was above me, and being on my back made it easier to see what it was doing.

I turned my head to look to my left.  At the others.

The room had once been five-sided, maybe a hundred feet across, like the ground floor of a house in Brockton Bay.  The damage to Rain’s section took maybe a quarter of the space we had available to maneuver away from us.  Twenty or thirty of that hundred feet of breadth gone.  Maybe five feet at the far edge, closest to the back wall.

Another two quarters weren’t so doable, because they were a mess of concrete slabs, some a dozen feet long and five feet across.  Slabs that had to be climbed, climbed beneath, which was more difficult because they were littered with crushed concrete and stray rebar.

And because Cradle was there, staring us down, acting like the many-handed power that loomed high above me was a non-threat.  One small push or kick at the right time, and he could end anyone’s attempt to get over any one of three different concrete slabs.

The additions had been stacked onto one end, Tristan and Byron’s maze of rusty support pillars and paint, Sveta’s black rock.  Darlene’s stark room with a table and bed overturned, food and cloth strewn so densely on the floor there wasn’t anything visible.  Candy’s- it looked like a car interior, with barely enough room to squeeze through.  Aiden’s looked like a rooftop with building faces pressing in on either side.  Kenzie’s- a bedroom, almost utterly black.  One of the few that was illuminated by any discernable source – panels like the glowing screen of a phone or monitor, like they were turned on but displaying black, with that natural, cold glow.

The kids were hanging back, Love Lost’s unadorned hand held out in that universal sign for ‘stop’.  Colt was a little further ahead.

And the thing, it was there above me.  A hundred feet tall and a hundred feet across, with more than a hundred thin reaching limbs holding it up, gripping things, or reaching inside itself to fiddle, to grasp, to take snatched-up materials from the room and feed them into the center.

When it moved a few feet this way or a few feet that way, I could see the loss or addition of arms, as though quantity and distance were inversely correlated.

The bulk of its body was directly over the wall we wanted to get to, and even from my current vantage point, it looked like there were more arms occupying that space than there was empty space.

“Tattletale-!” I called out.

I saw arms move, reacting to the noise I’d made.  It was simultaneously attacking the others.

“-Don’t shoot it!”

Three arms, three hands almost as long as I was tall.  By how slim the hands and fingers were, and how hard the floor should have been, I could picture them shattering as they hit the ground.  But they were tough.

They didn’t come for me.  They went after the floor around me.  Three separate points, with the very start of the most recent ditch between the two of those points I would have most liked to run between to get to the door.

I rolled to my feet, stumbling as the floor sloped beneath me.  A sick feeling gripped me, like the plunge of a roller coaster, with zero thrill, only a feeling of despair.

We wanted to distract it?  It could hit all of us at once if we were in reach and it would have eighty more arms to spare.

Dark floorboards an infinity below me on three sides were illuminated only by the many green-tinted joints and digits that the endlessly long arm had at irregular intervals.  I moved to back up, ready to leap again and retreat toward the back of the room, and an arm moved to block me.  I turned another way, and an arm swept across that exit to sweep out and destroy floorboards between two of the penetration points.

Nothing to grab onto, no handholds with the nearest joints  a couple of feet below my own two feet, and higher above me than I could have jumped or easily climbed to access.

The floor dipped precipitously again.  My feet began sliding on dusty, pine-needle covered floorboards, and that horrible rollercoaster-drop feeling became an ongoing thing.

Too wide a gap to jump, no footholds.

I adjusted my grip on the spear, stabbing down at the joint below, driving the tip into the mess of faint green wires.  It penetrated, doing some damage, and remained jammed in.

The arm dipped another foot, and the bottom end of the floorboard was pulled out of my hands.  I backed away, not because of fear or immediate threat, but because I was one more shift of the floor’s angle from sliding down into oblivion, and I wanted a chance to be able to think and react before I did anything there.  With hands and feet, I could move back three or four feet, and I would summarily slide two feet back toward the edge.

I wasn’t even breathing, and I had to force myself to start, because I could not afford for my muscles to be oxygen starved at a moment like this.

Tinker, I thought.  It’s a tinker and it’s a shaker and it’s a changer, for all intents and purposes. 

There were rules for engaging with tinkers, changers and and shakers.  Tinker especially, you deprived them of their stuff and blitzed them where possible.  The rule for shakers was to avoid fighting on their turf.

I couldn’t stay put.  The two ideas were half-formed and they combined into one notion, that I put into motion before even being able to fully visualize it.  My mom had dropped the ‘visualize’ part of her general encouragement when I’d become a hero.

Like the basketball was always a thing of dreams, fancy, and imagination, and the hero stuff, that was what required practical advice and attention.

I pushed myself forward, rising to a standing position and running down the slope, to plant my foot on the very end of that floorboard.  It bowed and splintered under my weight, and I dropped toward the infinity below.

My other foot came to rest on the angled surface, scraping down it as I sought to push the bowed part straight more than I sought to find any balance or extra traction.  My right foot remained on the floorboard and my right knee hit my chest painfully as I dropped.

The hard edge that separated the front portion of my boot tread from the heel portion caught on the floorboard, giving me control and a semblance of awareness over the position of the piece of wood.

Maybe steadying it that tiny fraction I needed to keep it from bowing further.  When I kicked off, I used one leg to launch my full body weight, and the board didn’t spring or fall away from me.  My belly hit broken floorboards, and my legs and hips dangled.  The buckler and armguard were more hindrance than help as I fought to get a grip.

A hand smashed, palm flat, into the ground about ten feet away from me, floorboards crowning up around the impact site, and I lost an inch of ground.  The hand was added traction for whatever heavy lifting it was doing elsewhere.

I wobbled left and right, trying not to make sound or alert it to my presence, gaining quarter inches of progress as I wormed my way forward.  I scraped my thighs bloody in the process of getting them over the shattered row of floorboards.

I crawled forward, hands and knees, then shifted to a kneeling position.  I was almost directly beneath it.

I looked up, and I saw what I could imagine another planet might look like, if it were separated from our world by only a few hundred miles.  A tangle of reaching limbs, recesses, never repeating, not a funhouse mirror or kaleidoscope, but wholly unique when I looked at any portion.  Its dimensions distorted the dark portion of the room in retrospect, making it seem like the distance to the gate was miles, and those miles were punctuated by hundreds of arms that were planted on ground that had ceased to be floorboards and was now a plain of what looked like hard, packed salt, granular against my scraped knees and palms.

I felt like my body was nonexistent between my ribcage and my knees, after having my stomach drop so much and so intensely across those frantic minutes.  Standing was an exercise in convincing myself not to flop over like Torso had.

Blitz it, I thought.  It’s a tinker, supposedly.  Let’s hit it before it can hit us.

Moving forward was disorienting.  Normal rules for perceiving this thing didn’t seem to apply, as things moved at the wrong speeds in my peripheral vision when I moved past them.

I found the arm that looked like it was straining to bear the most weight and I punched at the purple-tinted cordage with my buckler’s hard edge.  Light danced with blinding brightness from the damage I’d done, so I hit it again, my eyes averted.  Every muscle in my shoulder, arm, and forearm hurt, and the old bullet wound in my bicep was shot through with a feeling like I’d been stabbed.  Because of course it was turned into a part of me.

Four hands came plunging down, one for me, three to provide support that this many-handed monster wasn’t getting from the one I’d punched.

I backed out of the way of the one, and used my hood to shield my face from the cloud of granules and dust that exploded around the impact site.

I could see phantom images in that dust.  Traces of writing hanging in the air in three dimensions with diagrams.  Shadowy figures, like people who were too stooped over, almost bean-shaped, their faces lost in a puckered mess I couldn’t interpret.  They even wore clothes.  Three large and one small, as they placed a limb on the small one’s side, where no limb had existed before.  As the dust got thinner, the clarity of the images gave way to lines and numbers, like some vast over-blueprint written throughout this space.

As I moved away from the scene, it changed.  Distance correlated to other things.  Or perhaps correlated to quantity, still, but the memories took on another, fuller form when viewed in aggregate.  Written behind the air here to be uncovered like pencil rubbings on a sketchpad.

You fought the same fights we’re fighting now, I thought to myself.  And if they moved on, that means they got you.

I couldn’t stop moving, so I ran like I normally flew, straining my legs, seeking any opportunity to reverse course, feint, and make my path hard to predict.  It swiped at me, brought hands down, tried to bar my way by laying one arm flat to the ground.

When it didn’t come for me specifically, and when there were joints in plain sight, I punched the buckler into the vulnerable spots.  Here and there, it cut.  In other places, it bent rigid filaments and components.

It pulled entirely away from the others.  They were fighting their own uphill battle, and as it twisted, facing me more than anything, they were given a reprieve.  Time to get an injured Colt to her feet, to run forward unmolested, to find their equilibrium.

The entire room groaned as the many-handed, planet-sized guardian shifted its ‘stance’, for lack of a better word.  Arms found positions on walls far too out of our reach to access, and others were placed strategically where it would take far too long to run to, or near broken sections of ground.

Other limbs , I could barely see, even a majority of others, were gripping a ceiling far out of sight in the darkness high above the room, so the rest of it could hang down.

It reached into itself, and it pulled out finished work.

I counted ten pieces of tinker technology, built to be larger than I was.  Then I revised my number to fifteen, then to twenty.  Discs, gauntlets, claws that glowed too bright to look at directly.

“Hurry!” I called out, with one word taking up my full capacity of air.  The next two words were the same. “Devices incoming!”

I could make out the others past dust and images of a world past.  Their route was close to the dais, beneath an outcropping of Cradle’s slabs.  That outcropping served as their cover from the worst of it.

Filaments extended down.  Not a hand, but a thousand prehensile strings that snatched at my clothing, the roots of my hair, my arms, even my nose momentarily, my tit, and the toe of my boot.  One moment I was free, the next I was being wrenched skyward, filaments cutting into clothes and skin like razor blades, and in the third moment I tried to move and I realized the sheer limitation of movements available to me.

I shifted position, wriggling my shoulders until I was out of my jacket.  I hoped to slip free, and I found the cords cutting into my sleeves too tight.  It was a good thing the material of my costume top was made to be rugged.  I hung from my forearms and one toe, my jacket bunched up around my elbows.

My midsection almost didn’t have the strength for me to twist, to bring my foot up, and to get it to where my elbow was.  To push, scraping the sleeve against my arm inch by inch, as the ground disappeared beneath me, half-foot by half-foot.

I got one arm free, and I swung.  I kicked off my boot, and swung again, dangling only by the one arm.

And inch by inch, my body weight now pulled my arm free of that sleeve.

Cords were reeling in, possibly ready to reach out again.  I focused more on the moment than the future I could be dreading.  I kicked out, swung, and wrapped both legs around the nearest arm, giving me the leverage to pull with almost my entire body.  Getting my arm free.  It got my costume top.

Which apparently wasn’t okay.

From one disc above me, a flare of orange, a burst of flame.  Like Colt’s lighting arms, but it was fire, and it was sinuous, with three digits like a bird’s talon.  When it hit the granules beneath me, it turned them to glass.  Forming a shape like a letter ‘Y’, two talons slid in the ground around to point away from me, and the third stabbed up and in my direction, aimed right for my upper body.

I punched out with the buckler, my other hand going to my wrist, to push against the wrist that bore my armguard and buckler, bracing it against the force of incoming heat and flame, that threatened to throw me from my perch.

The heat swelled, metal melted, and residual heat blasted my face and scalp, despite the fact that my shield, part of the thing’s arm, both of my arms, and my hood were between the source of the heat and me.

The intense burning sensation hit a dizzying crescendo, then changed to something approximating coldLike all sensation was gone.  It felt like it took half of my consciousness with it.

I barely even heard the gunshot.  I did hear the ringing silence after, dimly registering the fact the flame talon wasn’t firing anymore, and instead hung limp, sparking.

Thanks Tattletale.  I bet you’re going to be smug about this.

I tried to slide partway down using thigh-strength alone, but the fire had damaged the thing’s own arm, and I wasn’t all there.  I hit a stopping point and nearly fell from there, but found the wherewithal to slide down a bit more, to punch my arm in the general direction of the melted section of smooth white ‘skin’, jabbing the contents within with a buckler of glowing metal that easily bent and smeared globules of molten steel amid dense wires and filaments.  They burned with an acrid smell.

I tried to slide down a bit more, and somewhere along the line, numb, I lost my grip.

The impact knocked the wind out of me.  A blinding pain at my leg made me twist away, but it was the pain and blurry vision through eyes that might have been burned that informed me my shield and arm had come into contact with my knee.

The others were more in this section now.  Last leg of what shouldn’t have been this insane a journey.

More devices were going off.  Claws that scattered shelving units and propelled them away with force.  Limbs sprouted from the ground, and Tristan carried Byron’s weight on his back while charging one, throwing their full weight and the shield into the limb to push it back and away, giving Sveta room to move, as she jabbed at another with a stick of metal.  Damsel kept her distance from the pair, but as the smaller hand recoiled from Sveta’s stabbing, she took advantage to turn the hand into a stump with a swipe of her claw.  Given the logistics of the claw, the weight of it, and possibly the fact that tinkertech that didn’t belong to the many-armed agent itself wasn’t working, the slash seemed to require a lot of effort.

That, or it had always been a weapon more for show and shaping her power than for practical slashing of any opposition.

Chicken Little called out a warning about a bombardment from above, and Sveta and Tristan split, moving in opposite directions as fresh Tinkertech was unleashed.  Sveta went deeper in, Tristan backed up to the nearest cover, adjusting his grip on Byron.

I saw Sveta look up and see the sky I saw, all darkness, pale arms, and glowing points of light.  I saw as it dawned on her, the nigh-impossibility of getting through this forest of limbs and now almost-continual bombardment.

I saw Sveta look at me, my burned self, and seem to despair more over that than anything.

Tattletale fired with thought behind each shot.  One bullet for a given device, not every device got a bullet.  It might have been only the ones she thought she could break, and most of them broke.

She wouldn’t have access to her power, I was pretty sure.  I thought of the girl in her trigger event.

You’re not dumb, I thought.  You know what to do.

Rain, Tattletale, and Love Lost passed beneath the granite slabs, guiding and shielding the kids.  Cradle loomed above, unmolested, still watching.  I opened my mouth to shout a warning, and the air in my lungs tasted burnt, my lips split, and the effort dizzied me.  The pain was coming back, but it was simultaneously profound and disparate, touching some parts of my upper body and leaving others entirely numb.

A casual two-handed throw of a piece of rubble.

Rain was sheltering the kids with his body.  In the end, it meant that when the rubble came down, it struck both him and Candy.

He stared down at us with scuffed glasses, saw Tattletale taking aim, and ducked down, hiding in his portion of the room.

Sveta started my way, but the ground between us was suddenly riddled with phantom handprints, forceful enough to turn the granular into something solid.  She shied back behind the wreckage of empty shelving units in what I presumed had been Snag’s area.  Writ large with the spatial distortion that came with being directly under this thing.  This guard dog.

Long seconds passed, and was feeling colder and colder with every heartbeat.

The bombardment was slowing.  The thing was drawing back into itself.

“Why did you go ahead?” Sveta asked.  Asked me.

My throat felt impossibly dry.  I’d inhaled air that was too hot, maybe.  “Needed to distract,” I said, intending to say ‘it’, and getting only a mouth movement with no air instead.

“You did that.  You followed through,” she said.  “Gave us that opening we needed.”

Tattletale and Love Lost worked together to carry a partially caved-in Rain, Tattletale with a gun in her hand, her eyes on the concrete above her.

Darlene, Chicken Little, and Kenzie carried an injured Candy.  Rain had apparently absorbed most of the blow.

“Essalated,” I managed.  “Esc-”

“Escalated,” Sveta said.

“It did.  Like an Endbringer.”

I pointed, using my less burned arm.

It was escalating even now.

Disparate parts and pieces of technology knitted together into something big.  Some tinkers specialized in the big stuff.  Others worked toward it for a long time.  In Boston, the original Damsel had faced off against Blasto’s big project.  At Gold Morning, String Theory had unveiled her own, apparently.  The tinkers had collectively built one.

Now this nest of arms was forging something else, and by the looks of it, the glow of individual energy cells powering on, it was nearly complete.

I could remember the files, the information only for team leaders and Wardens.  Information on the Endbringers, provided in retrospect, only after Gold Morning when the Endbringers cooperated against Scion and the attacks stopped.

“We can’t get through.”

Sveta looked, and I saw her purse her lips.  Too many limbs, and too much tinkertech had been used to complicate the way through, riddle it with hazards.

“I don’t think we can, sweetie,” she said, barely audible.  The kids were yelling, pointing at what Sveta and I had already noticed.

I shook my head.  It wasn’t time to give up like this.

“Get-” I managed, pointing.  “Him.”

Cradle.

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From Within – 16.8

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“Okay,” Rain said.  He was getting off the phone, and his statement came with enough finality that it made more than a few of us turn our heads.

“You got through?” I asked.

“Talked briefly with Colt and Love Lost.  Couldn’t talk to Cradle, he’s off in the wilderness, and they’re really antsy about drop-ins to chat with tinkers, since tinkers are most likely to try something fancy.”

“Probably for the best,” I said.  “Might tip them off that we’re trying something off the wall.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “I just said it had stuff to do with dreams, which isn’t too weird since you asked for details on dreams earlier.”

Others resumed doing what they were doing, getting ready, with costumes on and low conversations.  I had my own costume on, and Kenzie now wore her costume from the neck down, her helmet set to one side.  It looked like she was trying something new, as a cross between her head-encasing helmet and the Heartbroken masks.  She still wore the visor across her eyes as she tinkered away on the keyboard.

Above her, projected on the wall, was the short clip of the room’s denizen moving from the darkness into the space at the center of the room, then into what Rain had labeled as Cradle’s portion of the room.

“Precipice,” Kenzie said, without looking up.  The tool she held looked like a screwdriver, but sparked when she touched it to a circuit board.  “Walk me through the timeline again?”

“Lookout-”

“Any dates you can tie to the costumes changing?  Or when what you had on you when you went into the room changed?  Anything?”

“You’re trying to apply logic to dream, Lookout.”

“Yeah, uh, duh?  Kind of!  We don’t know what it’s going to be like in there, but the way you talked about the room, you don’t have powers in there?”

“Not really, no.  And powers from outside don’t normally apply inside.  I was haunted by Mama Mathers for a while, and she didn’t have any hold on me in there.”

“If this turns out that we’re more like your usual dream-self while we’re in there than like ourselves out there, all you’ll have is your stuff.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Which is the theory we’re going with.  Drag everyone into the dream room and go from the room to the general shardspace.”

“But if we can figure out the rule that determines if you can bring stuff in, then you can bring in tinkering stuff, and we can figure out a battle plan.  So let’s focus and go back over stuff, and see what maps out!”

She sounded so impatient, constantly frustrated.

“Don’t be rude,” Chicken Little said, quiet.

“I’m-” Kenzie looked momentarily frustrated.  “Please?  Can we try, Precipice?”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said.  “No specific dates.  It went back and forth a lot.  It’s only recently that I stopped having the plastic demon mask with me when I appeared in the room.”

I wanted to ask Tattletale for her input, but she was wrapped up in a conversation with Sveta.  I motioned to get her attention, and she glanced at me, nodding, without breaking stride in whatever she was telling Sveta.

Rain continued explaining, “Love Lost and Snag went to wearing costumes pretty quickly.  No tinkertech, exactly, but the housings stayed intact.”

“Housings,” Kenzie said, motioning for Candy to take notes.

“Uh, Love Lost’s mask.  Same general shape, but no tech.  Snag had the arms, toward the end, but they weren’t tinker-managed and he left them behind when he approached the dais.”

“Colt?” I asked.  “If she’s new, does she fluctuate more?”

“Her clothes change some, but it’s pretty minor.”

“Does it match to what she wore that day?”

Rain shook his head.  “No idea.  Probably not.  She wears her own style of clothes even though she’s in the prison near the bunker, with prison-issue clothes.”

“That leaves me with two ideas, just going off of usual shard stuff,” I said.  I had Kenzie’s full attention, the other kids arranged around her, helping.  Rain was nearby too.  Everyone else was getting ready, strapping in like they expected a fight, even though there was no guarantee we could put up any.  “Idea one: it goes off of self image.  Love Lost and Snag changed to wearing costumes because they quickly dove into the mercenary villain thing.  Precipice keeps the Fallen mask because it takes him a while to let go of the guilt, self-image, how he was raised, whatever else.  Did it go away when you fought Christine Mathers?”

“A bit before.”

“Okay,” I said.  I looked down.  “Well, that doesn’t disprove idea one.  With this idea, Colt keeps her civilian clothes because her being in prison hasn’t fully sunk in.  If this idea applies, it might be worth meditating before trying this.  Solidify a self image in the mind.  Works for Breakers and some Changers, where their form changes every time.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

Kenzie groaned a little.  “I can’t do anything with that.”

“Idea two is that it’s the agent’s concept of us.  This might sound a bit more woo-woo, but I think there’s some foundation to it.  They build up their own picture of us, and costume factors in.  Breakers who wear a mask will have the mask become part of their breaker form.  Valkyrie’s flock seems to incorporate minor details into their physiology.”

“So my losing the mask is… what?” Rain asked.

“I don’t know, Precipice,” I said.  “Maybe the agent was sitting latent inside you for a long time, it recorded a lot of impressions of your time with the Fallen, while the others had comparatively less time, so the time they spent in costume got more traction.”

“Maybe the agents like masks,” Darlene said.  She’d been pretty subdued since the incident earlier and her car trip with Tattletale.  Tattletale had kept her back for a little while as part of a continued time-out from her time with the Tenders, but Lookout had needed to scan her again, and Tattletale was too busy to call her away again.

I smiled, taking the effort to give Darlene one because it seemed like she was dejected enough to need one.  She stopped fidgeting and clasped her hands together.  I told her, “Could be.  You definitely see that in Valkyrie’s flock of warriors.  It’s never civilian clothes that got absorbed into their appearance.  There are a lot of theories around how agents work with twins, similar or identical powers, uh, how to phrase it?  They’re bad at telling one of us apart from the next, twins especially, so maybe masks make us easier to tell apart?”

She nodded pretty vigorously at that, looking over at Capricorn.  He was on his phone, looking pretty wrapped up in his conversation.

“That’s sorta dumb,” Kenzie muttered.  “Massive interdimensional, cosmic-tier power and they need masks to tell us apart.  Right.”

“Take two grains of sand off a beach.  How easily can you tell them apart?  Does it help if you paint each one?” I asked.

“Well, I’d love to know how I can paint each of us the right colors,” Kenzie said.  “With… not that long left.”

“Focus on what you can do,” I told her.  “Don’t feel you have to cover every base.”

She nodded.

The time had passed quickly, my trip to get my costume and pick up Kenzie’s hadn’t been too lengthy, but the little things like last-minute research, changing, touching base and scheduling an email to let Crystal know what had happened if I wasn’t in a position to come back and cancel said email… they felt like things that should take a few minutes, ten or fifteen, and they took two or three times that in reality.

“Do you want to use our hands?” Darlene asked.  “We could network, like we did when making the eye things.”

“No, that only works for mass production,” Kenzie said, looking away from the hardware to focus more on software.  Behind her, Darlene deflated a bit.  Kenzie seemed to notice, and turned, “But thank you for offering.”

“Anything I can do?” Darlene asked.

“There are some snacks under the table over there, can you get me some?  An electrolyte juice box?  And some snack I can eat with my hands, ummm, I want something salty but I don’t want to get salt on my hands.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Darlene said, happy to be useful.  Chicken Little went with her to go raid for snacks.

“Grab me something!” Candy called out.

“Go,” Kenzie told her.

“I’m here to cheerlead for you,” Candy said, sitting on the edge of Kenzie’s desk, looking down with her eerie smiling mask.  “Rah rah, go Kenzie, go Kenzie.”

Kenzie snorted.

“We could project a cheerleader outfit onto Chicken Little,” Candy said.  “How’s that mental picture for you?”

“You’re distracting me!” Kenzie cried out, but she didn’t sound bothered.  She worked more vigorously, tapping at a screen projected into the air.

Tattletale approached, but she approached Darlene and Chicken Little first.  She didn’t break them up, simply checking on them as they brought back a bunch of stuff to Kenzie’s work area, jogging with enough vigor they nearly dropped stuff.  Tattletale’s pace was more sedate.

Darlene tore open a bag, nudging Chicken Little.  “Open, Lookout!”

Lookout opened her mouth.  Candy threw a pretzel at her, missing the open mouth, and a bird caught it.  The second throw was on target enough that Kenzie got the mini-pretzel in her mouth, the bird that was diving to intercept instead landing on her forehead.  She wiggled with amusement as she bent over her work, chewing, the bird peering down with her.

“What do you need?” Tattletale asked.

“We’re wondering about masks, gear, what might translate.  Any ideas?” I asked.

“No friggin’ clue,” she said.  “Kids are being good enough?”

“Yep.  We were brainstorming a bit with Precipice.”

“Mm,” Tattletale made a noise, looking at Rain.  “Nervous?  It’s your head on the chopping block.”

“Might have been nice to get advance warning that we’d be letting the beast out of its cage, there,” he said, looking at the wall.  Kenzie looked up at him, and he conceded, “It’s probably a good thing we found out about it before we did this.  I’d rather know in advance.”

“If you had to fight it, could you?” Tattletale asked.

Rain shook his head.  “No powers in there, pretty sure.”

“That, right there, is the administrator of your weird dream room.  Dreams are especially hinky as far as agents are concerned, and they might have been anxious when setting up the dynamic you have.  Before Gold Morning, minds got wiped, you’d have the dream room thing and you’d forget everything, but that’s not there now.  So instead they set up this role.  Manager, distributer of your token things, and guard dog.”

“Giant lightning man guard dog,” Rain muttered, looking over at the projected screen.

“It’s not going to look like that when you’re in there,” Kenzie said.  “Just FYI.”

“Great.  Now I feel even less prepared,” Rain said.

Tattletale explained, “You’ve knocked down the dividers between sections, including the guard dog’s pen.  It’s going to be pissed, but I don’t think it’s going to want to kill you, Cradle, Love Lost, or Colt.  Maim, maybe, and I don’t know how that translates to you being awake, but you’ll get more deferential treatment than Snaggletooth did.”

“That’s… a bit reassuring, I guess?”

“Nah,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t be reassured.  Because the walls are down and that thing isn’t going to act by human standards.  I’d say you have fifty-fifty odds that it comes after you, hard, to guard its corner, and it’ll come after you tomorrow night, and the next night, and the next…”

“Oh,” Rain said, and his voice was light, airy, “Oh great.”

“That’s if you and your clustermates are lucky.”

“What happens if they’re unlucky?” Chicken Little asked.

“Maybe don’t answer that,” Rain said.

“Something like Ash Beast,” Tattletale answered it anyway.

“I don’t know who or what that is,” Chicken Little said.

“The human essentially gone, the powers at full, reckless capacity, always on.  You get the part where you’re repeatedly torn apart, but it’s more of a twenty-four seven, every second of every day thing than it is a once-a-night thing.”

I swallowed, looking at Rain.

“What do I do?” Rain asked, very clearly steeling himself.

“Couldn’t tell you,” Tattletale said, her voice level, almost bored.  “Do what you were going to do, I guess.  You white-hats go sit in your cube, get transported in there, try to get your hands on the controls of this fucked up system we’re all hooked up into.  Do it before Teacher gets set up and starts tampering with the shardspace again.  Do it before things start breaking down on the city-wide scale.  Just, you know, dodge or distract that thing while you’re in there.  Use the fact it probably doesn’t want you or your clustermates dead, shield your guests, give them the opportunity to go for the goal.”

“Knowing it might tear me to shreds, physically or mentally,” Rain said.  “Snaggletooth ended up brain dead.”

“The alternative is that it’s just you and it might do that anyway,” Tattletale told him.

“With that alternative, at least I don’t put my team at risk.”

“You would be putting them at risk if you went the Ash Beast route,” Tattletale said.

I saw Rain clench all four fists, and not because he was ready to swing at Tattletale.  Stress, strain.

I spoke up, “What’s your goal here, Tattletale?  Because this feels a bit more like you’re rubbing it in than if you were giving it to us straight.”

“I’m here on pure goodwill,” she said.  “And while I’m here, enjoying the chance to get a deeper look behind the veil.  Bonus is, I’m guilt-free this time, and I get to be a bit smug that my kid didn’t make this mess.”

She motioned toward Kenzie and Chicken Little.

“Oh fuck off, Tattletale,” I said.  “This isn’t a competition and we really don’t need to be dwelling on this stuff when there’s a deadline.”

“Not dwelling,” she said.  “Briefly commenting.”

“Um,” Chicken Little said.  He raised his hand like he was in class.  All heads turned his way.  “Didn’t you kind of mentor Skitter?  Wasn’t she your ‘kid’, kind of like this?”

“No,” Tattletale said.

“She kind of was,” I folded my arms.  “By just about every objective account we have.”

“Including stuff you’ve told me,” Chicken Little said, to Tattletale.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “You’re way off base, bud.  Skitter was her own woman.”

“But Imp said you taught Skitter about the cops and robbers game, and we all know how that went.”

“Alright,” Tattletale said.  “I might have to put a new rule in place, where you’re grounded every time you bring her up.”

“Why?  That’s not fair!” Chicken protested.

“It’s not fair,” Darlene echoed, in a tone reminiscent of the ‘don’t hurt the Chicken’ chant from earlier.

“It’s an opsec thing,” Tattletale said.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Chicken Little protested.

“If I ground you enough times, maybe you’ll learn, hm?” Tattletale asked, sounding way too pleased with herself over browbeating an eleven year old in an argument.

“I bet it’s ’cause you keep beating her in arguments whenever you do it, Chicken,” Candy said.  “What are the unwritten rules again?  You don’t attack innocents, we know Skitter did that, you don’t use guns, we know she did that.  You don’t kill, well, we have to remember Alexandria…”

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “I think it’s time to head back to Aunt Rachel’s.  I’m sure there are some stables to muck out, as punishment for the whole debacle earlier tonight.  If Breakthrough wants the rest of my Tattletale insights, I’ll have to ask for my standard fee.”

The kids protested loudly, voices overlapping, with Kenzie adding her voice to the outcry without looking away from her work.

“You’re more of a child than any of the children in the room,” I told Tattletale, incredulous.

“I’m a mastermind supervillain with limited hours and mental resources.  I’m being nice, offering my insights, but I am one hundred percent willing to take the cheap-shot shortcuts if it means conserving those resources or keeping my mentee safe.”

“Does that mean if we make it less mentally exhausting to stay and be helpful, you will?” Candy asked, innocently.

Darlene must have chosen that moment to connect their little squad, because Darlene, Candy, Chicken Little, Kenzie, and Chicken Little’s four small birds all looked at Tattletale in eerie, simultaneous sync.

“Do you really want to go to war?” Tattletale asked, sounding amused.  “I know your dirty little secrets.  Swimming hole, Chicken?”

Chicken flinched out of the synchronicity, looking down.

“Your frequent stints over at the greenhouse, Decadent?”

Candy didn’t flinch to the same degree that Chicken had, but she wasn’t in sync anymore either.

Darlene looked over at Candy, “Wait, was that what Chastity was teasing you about the other day, or-”

“Shh,” Candy muttered.  “You’re playing into her hands.”

“Which of the gardeners is it?” Darlene asked.

“Shhhh,” Candy made the sound through clenched teeth.

Tattletale folded her arms, silently gloating.  “Darlene?  Where do I even start?  The nightmares, or the twigs?”

Darlene might have broken the connection between the kids, because there was no sign of sync-up anymore.  She slumped a bit.  She’d already looked a bit dejected and crestfallen since the whole issue earlier in the night, but it was more pronounced now.

“I know about the nightmare, but twigs?” Candy asked, barely audible.

Darlene didn’t answer.

“You’re an actual child,” I said, to Tattletale.

You try wrangling a whole family of Heartbroken.”

“Tattletale,” Rain said, and his tone was clear and stern enough that it got our collective attention.

“Hm?”

“Any other information you could provide would mean a lot,” he said.  He didn’t look at her, but at the ground between them, his fists still clenched. “I don’t have a lot of cash, but I will pay if I have to, and I’ll go into debt if you need me to, I’ll pay you later if I can’t pay your fee now.”

“We can chip in,” Chicken Little said, piping up.  “Right?”

“Right,” Darlene said, sounding a little less confident or willing.

Tattletale sighed.  “You don’t need to pay.  Neither of you.”

“Thank you,” Chicken Little said, quiet.

“Even if you could fight it, you’re not going to kill it,” Tattletale said, indicating the monster on the screen.  “It’s going to bounce back from just about anything you could do to it.  Prepare for it to have a few tricks up its sleeve, because it’s an extension of a species that plays the long game and that knows we don’t have it in us to permanently stop it.  So don’t underestimate it, don’t assume it’s shown you everything it can do.”

I frowned.

“It isn’t human, and it never was,” she went on.  “Don’t expect it to have human rationales.  Do expect it to have a program it follows, a set goal that may or may not be one hundred percent clear.  It’s going to be somewhat predictable, but powerful enough that the predictability isn’t reassuring or an easy answer.”

“Does it have weaknesses?” Capricorn asked.  He’d joined the conversation.

“Yep.  I’m betting it can’t go much further than the room.  If you can get through that gap-”

Tattletale walked over to the projected image, where two thirds of the room were cast into ‘shadow’, before indicating the far wall.

“It can’t follow?” Rain asked.

“I’m thinking… ninety percent odds it can’t,” Tattletale said.  “But you’re going to find other stuff on the far side, a little less consistently solid, and from what Damsel said, it’s going to be a bit like everything’s gone breaker.  They like structure and they like redundancy, so expect details pulled from host awareness, specific and collective.  When you don’t have structure, you’ll have vast amounts of connective tissue.”

“Valleys that are simultaneously mountains?” I asked.

“You got it,” Tattletale said, sounding like she was having far too much fun.  “That stuff on the far side?  Doesn’t move far beyond its confines.  Be ready to run.  If your tricks to try to force waking up don’t work, you just need to live for long enough to time out.”

“Talking to Colt and Cradle, our best guess for how long we’re in the room is a little under forty minutes,” Rain said.

I couldn’t help but glance at the clock.

Eerie, that he said that, and the clock showed 35:12, 35:11, 35: 10… counting down.

I adjusted the buckler at my left arm.

“Dinner’s here,” Kenzie said.

It was Snuff, back from his errand, with bags bearing the unappetizing name of ‘Roadkill’.

I walked over to Tattletale, as she backed away from the defused situation with the Heartbroken.  Chicken Little was unwrapping Kenzie’s dinner for her, holding her burger out, while Darlene tried far too hard to be okay with it.

In this moment, at least, with the stress of the clock hanging over her head, Kenzie seemed to be as happy as I’d seen her since Ashley had died.

“Tattletale,” I murmured.

“Hm?”

“The way you described that thing in the room.  Sounded familiar.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Fair warning: it’s all educated guessing at this point.  Very educated, but no guarantees.”

“Sure,” I said.  I looked at the constantly replaying image of the thing emerging from the shadows.  “Is it an Endbringer?”

“Nah,” she said.  “Smaller in stature, more limited in scope.”

I realized I was holding my breath, and I didn’t release it.  I felt like there was a ‘but’ coming.

“It’s the same scaffolding.  Same construction material.  Similar principles,” Tattletale elaborated.

“Thanks,” I told her.

“You’re not taking your kid in with you, are you?”

I looked over at Lookout.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” I said.

“Say something happens to your team,” Tattletale said.

I held my finger to my lips.  I turned my head toward one of the more obvious cameras.

She brought a hand up to her nose to scratch it but then left it there, cupped over her mouth. “Do you have any preferences?  Messages to pass on?  People you’d rather see looking after her?”

I didn’t see Kenzie acting strange.  With Darlene crowding in to take over burger duty, Aiden holding out a napkin to catch drippings, and Candy laughing at something, the group of them were probably a sufficient distraction that Kenzie wasn’t monitoring my conversation with Tattletale.

I covered my own mouth as I talked, “If anything happens, contact the Wardens.  Dragon and Defiant can handle the tech side of things, but you’ll probably need the heroes to get a handle on her.”

“I’ll waive my usual fees for handling contingencies if you’re quiet about Chicken Little and his loose lips.”

I nodded.

With that, Tattletale walked away.

We have to do this, I thought.  Then I had to amend my statement, because we’d already let the guard dog out of its pen.  We had to do this.  We can’t be following behind every crisis.

The clock counted down to Rain’s bedtime.  31:32, 31:31, 31:30…

2:15, 2:14, 2:13, 2:12…

“Don’t try to control your breathing, ignore all of that usual stuff about deep breaths or breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose,” Sveta counseled.  “Breathe naturally.  Don’t get mad at yourself if you stop breathing naturally, just move on, move forward, return to what we’re focusing on.”

Sveta was the person to talk us through meditation, because she’d had to do it several times every day, as a part of managing her control.

“Our focus is on ourselves,” Sveta said.  “Body image, the costume we wear, and what led to us getting the costumes we did.  If your thoughts go outside of this area, bring them back in, but don’t get mad at yourself, or the emotion will become the focus.  You don’t get anything from being mad at yourself.  We are the clothes we wear.”

It was hard to bring myself to follow her general roadmap.  So much of what I’d done I’d done because it hinted at or stood in stark contrast to things that were very fucking good at distracting me.  I’d chosen a black costume because Amy’s was white.  Gold because of Gold Morning.  My icon at my shoulders with its spires was evocative of the Wretch’s hands, the symbol extending to be a circle with the dot within to emulate the armbands that so many wore.

And if I thought of Amy and the Wretch, and if those thoughts took hold, if this meditation worked, would the me of the dream room be the Wretch?

The thought chilled me and invaded my thoughts over and over, which only made it worse.

All were roads I could have spiraled down, so I turned to surrender instead.  I didn’t fight, I didn’t struggle.  If I thought of the current me, I tended to think of myself in costume.  Antares in black and gold.  The number of layers varied, sometimes a coat, sometimes a few bandages.  But I was quietly confident in that background self image, mostly confident that it was the me as I visualized myself.

When I tried to let my mind drift with only nudges here and there, to explore the buckler and the armguard that was attached, to go back to the routine of suiting up and pulling on the individual costume components, it was loose, fragmented, easy, but always with dangerous thoughts lurking around the exterior.

I didn’t make myself meditate, and instead, focused on maintaining a good mental state, grounding myself in reality as I tended to do when I needed to bring myself out of the well of dark thoughts I tended to associate with the Wretch.

I was in a square with my team.  We sat within the boundaries of Kenzie’s ‘cube’ that she’d used to let Tristan communicate while Byron was dominant.  Wires streamed in from every direction to the ‘cube’s’ perimeter and the boxy keyboard that was the actual device.

I peeked, and saw Damsel fidgeting, bladed arms in her lap, the sharp inner sides of each blade turned upward.  Each fidget was faintly audible as a metal-on-metal sound.

Tattletale, Kenzie, and Kenzie’s team were all on the far side of the room, giving us a wide, wide berth.  Snuff and Sidepiece had left at our request, Snuff watching Sidepiece at Tattletale’s instruction.  If we were going to be collectively unconscious, then we couldn’t have that unpredictable element out there.  It was part of why we had Damsel in here with us.  She knew the terrain, so to speak.

Buckler, I thought, idly.  I imagined its dimensions, committed the weight of it to my mind.  I thought of the zip of my top, the form-fitting nature of it, the feeling of boots being pulled on, uncomfortable and tight, then suddenly comfortable, as my feet found the perfect fit waiting for them.  The bottom of my foot imprinted on the material as much by hard landings and downward kicks as by any great amount of walking.

I felt impatient.  It didn’t help that I had to feel like I was ready to jump to action the moment we ticked over, while trying to stay calm and steady enough that my costume-complete self image held true.  It felt like the clock should have hit zero by now, and I was ready to voice a comment, asking if it had worked, if Rain was still with us, but first I’d look at the clock.

I turned my head toward the display-

Voices cheered and jeered, and people bustled around me.  Tinny noises and different music formed a cacophony of sound.

Where?

I took a step forward, and I realized I wasn’t in control.  The motion happened on its own, which was a good thing, because if I had been in control, I might have stumbled or fallen.  My legs were shorter.

The faces of girls running just in front of me, almost cutting me off, they were familiar, but this scene wasn’t.

I ran forward, reaching for a joystick, my hands going to buttons.

The joystick was the standard ball on top of a stick, common to any number of the arcade cabinets around me.  But this ball, it was orange with black stripes dividing it.  A basketball.

Even the motion of the hand on the joystick was familiar while the context was wrong.  Down, down, down- selecting my team, three superheroes in basketball uniforms.

“Victoria,” my dad said.

I twisted around, but the game was starting.  A girl shoved her way in beside me.  On the far side of the cabinet, other girls were there.  Two versus two.

“Just one game?” I asked, my attention divided.

He looked so tired, so disinterested, but he smiled.  My mom, beside him, managed to feign interest, but didn’t smile.  Amy sat off to the side, cheering loud enough to make up for both of them.

“I’m good at this,” I murmured.  Emotions were unsteady, unsure, and small, as they found their places in my chest.  “I’ve practiced.”

“Focus on the game,” the girl next to me said.  She was my opponent, having butted her way in, choosing her own roster.  She was bigger, square-chinned, naturally strong.

Naturally good at the game, I soon found.

I could have matched her, maybe.  I had my own strengths, I’d studied, I’d put in the hours, and as my mom had said, it wasn’t enough to have natural talents, you had to put in the effort too.  I wanted to think I had both.

I stole a glance, and I could see how they were barely holding on.  Some people had approached them, talking to them because they were heroes, everyone knew about them, they were cool.  Even as they fielded questions from the crowd of parents and friends off to the side, they forced smiles, feigned interest, kept watching.  My mom pointed, indicating for me to focus on the game.

Down, down, down.  The joystick mimicked the dribbling of the ball.  I input the commands for a Legend-ary half-court shot, a score.  I chanced a look back, and saw Amy there, cheering, pumping a fist.  My dad mimicked her.  My mom hadn’t even seen.

I had a flow going, a routine.

The girl beside me elbowed me.  She was stronger, and in the moment, she got my hands off the controls.  She took the ball.  She scored.

I stole another glance.  Of course it was a moment like this that both of my parents were looking.

Down, down.

It was my last game, they’d agreed to let me play it.  Fail here, I could continue until I failed.  For the other girl, it might have been the same, but it couldn’t have felt half as important.  I wanted to show off, I wanted to show that even if I wasn’t on the same stage as my parents, I could use what I’d learned, be excellent in my own way.

Trailing a few points behind.  I passed, passed.  But there wasn’t any cooperation from the other player who was supposed to be on my side.  The opportunities didn’t come.  Didn’t come.  The clock ticked down, 31, 30, 29…

I didn’t know the script, but I knew the tempo, the rhythm, the way this was supposed to go in the way I might know the beat of a song even if I didn’t know the specific words.

15, 14, 13, 12…

I got the ball.  I got my shot, everything on the line, chance to be a hero.

And the girl casually shoved me.  I fell, and on the dirty floor of the arcade, my arm skidded on grit from shoes and bits of food.  A sandpaper scrape, a slam to my elbow that felt like a steel rod rammed up my elbow to my shoulder.

“Owww,” I mewled, cradling my arm, and belatedly, I realized that this particular stage had gone quiet, just in time for me to sound like a girl closer to four than to fourteen, my voice overly loud with the acoustics of the space.

The silence and the stares felt damning.  As if this girl wasn’t the one in the wrong.  I was.  Because I was the daughter of superheroes.  I was supposed to be better.

I didn’t want to look, this time, but I did.  Amy had her eyes downcast, like she couldn’t even look at me.  She would later tell me she knew how much this had mattered to me.  My mom, though, she stared at me.  It was a look of condemnation and disappointment, followed by a glance away.  I could almost understand that.

My dad, though, arms folded, was talking to a man beside him, idly chatting.  He glanced back over his shoulder at a man with a heavy beard and dense tattoos.  Too disinterested to notice my efforts or failure when a hundred other people nearby had seen and heard every last bit of it.

What is this?  I thought.

The game showed a countdown.  I made myself get up.

Free shot, for a chance to continue.  One shot wouldn’t win this, it was just a stupid fucking game.  My arm hurt.

Fingers maneuvered the joystick, I hit the buttons.

I missed the shot, with everyone except for three people still watching.  Their love was conditional.

The blare of the game over sound was loud, jarring, shattering my senses.

What is this?

Who is this?

The legs could have belonged to the same person, but the sensations and the subtleties were different.  The body wasn’t as athletic, but it was lighter, skinnier.

A girl.  Sveta?  In a… house?

I felt a weird surge of hope and dread.

No.  I felt a bit crestfallen.  This had to be Ashley.  Was this as different for her as it had been for me?

The body I was riding inside reached the top of a third-story stairwell, then started navigating hallways and rooms, padding around on white carpet.

The house was so large, so empty.

The room she went into had posters on every inch of every wall, with some tacked to the ceiling.  It smelled like sweat, with a faint bathroom smell, making her wrinkle her nose.

“Gross,” she said.

I felt a stab of fear and concern, hearing that child’s voice.

She went straight to the bedside table, hauling it open, and poked her way past magazines of women wearing swimsuits.  She found a digital music player with a cracked screen and the cover for the batteries missing, batteries exposed at the back.  She had her headphones on, cord dangling, and she plugged it into the player.  The music sounded muted, not as sharp as a modern digital player might be.

“Stop stealing my stuff, loser,” she said, clipping the music player to her pocket.  She fished through more of the drawer’s contents, rolling her eyes as she turned the page of the swimsuit magazine, revealing it to be a cover stapled over a much more lewd kind of mag.

She backed away, continuing her search through the room, but the bathroom smell swelled, and she turned her head.

In the walk-in closet, gym stuff on the floor, more fancy clothes to the right and out-of-season winter clothes to the left, a teenage boy dangled from the central railing, toes touching the ground.  Urine and shit ran down his legs to his nice white sneakers, and onto the floor below.  Blond, but with face purple-blue, his features already distorted.

She made an incoherent sound, lunging forward to wrap her arms around him, to try to lift him up, as if she could.  He was almost twice her size.  The damp from his pants leg pressed through her shirt and to her stomach, and she flinched away, aware of how cold it was.

She turned to the side, and the movement of her head brought another involuntary sound past her throat and lips.  Her eyes traced the path, the plan, the route of climbing up onto clothes, getting to the rope he hung from.

The clothes and the hangers weren’t strong enough to support her, and she only managed to tear clothes off the rod.

The actions were frantic, senseless, and each one seemed to punctuate the cold, grim reality.  He didn’t move, he didn’t struggle.  His skin was cold.

She hit him, scratched him, as if somehow that could rouse him, wordless, her throat choked, pain gripping every part of her chest and throat.

Her fists balled up, and a strange sensation at her fingertips made her startle.  She looked down, then startled again, her eyes going from the underside of her fingernails to the gouges she’d left in his arm.  Skin, balled up under her nails.

She almost tripped over his things, as she backed up, hand held out between them as if she could somehow back away from it, too.  Vision and breathing were incoherent, and there was a dazed, lost sensation as she stepped out of his room into the hallway, and didn’t even seem to know where she was.  The hurt was constant, pressure on her chest, her head pounding, the bathroom smell lingering because her efforts to grab him had gotten some on her.

I’m sorry, Tattletale.

The scene shifted, the path from her brother’s bedroom to the phone not even committed to memory.  She reached the phone, and she held her hand over the list of numbers.  Parents, names that might have been family friends, emergency services.

“I don’t know who to call, Rex,” she mumbled, and her voice was small, timid.  “Ambulances are for people who are alive.  Police are for investigating deaths, but it’s obvious who did it.  I feel so stupid.”

Tears blurred her vision, and she blinked to clarify it, looking at the names: ‘June Livsey’.  ‘Fred Livsey’.

She didn’t press the button.  Quietly, she hung up the phone, and headed out the door, head hanging.

“If I’d been a bit sooner…”

Across the street, jarring in juxtaposition to the nice house and the nice houses on either side of it, was a shopping center.  Lost, dazed, she started toward it, not even glancing either way to check for traffic.

“I’m sorry.”

If Tattletale is here, then…

The rocks and plants outside of the shopping center were exaggerated in size, and not because of the dream.  They were exaggerated because this was a place that had been made before Gold Morning.  As a larger group, they played on the rocks.

“Hurry, Michael, Dimitri!  There’ll be time to practice jacking each other off later!”

The larger of the boys laughed, even while other kids jeered at him.  The point of view dropped to the ground.

“No need, Nadia!” the large boy called out.  “I’ve practiced, studied, and mastered that, all on my own!  I bet I could teach your dad some things, so he could please your mom for once!”

The jeering continued.  Nadia laughed.

There was a display board with swappable letters by the trees.  Nadia began toying with it, putting vulgar words up there.  Kids jeered and joked, topping each other, with comments about Dimitri’s uncle and inventive approaches to dog breeding.  Dimitri joked back.

Motorcycles rumbled with a deepness that sank in, right to the belly, as bikes pulled in around the mall.  Men with tattoos climbed off, heading inside.  Some had masks, dressed up like demons.

The point of view didn’t join in, remaining quiet, face heated.  Some other kids were scraping stones against the big rock in front of the mall, to make drawings as vulgar as the words Nadia was putting up.  Hands scraped rock against rock, leaving pale markings behind, to draw swirls, birds, fish.

I know those swirls.

“You’re looking good, Nadia.  Almost like you’re a real girl,” Michael teased.

Nadia curtseyed, pluckign at the corners of her dress.  She smacked her lips to blow a kiss.  “And here I thought your family only had eyes for dogs.”

“You’re the dog, Nadia!” one of the others jeered, almost drowned out by Michael’s laughter.

The efforts to draw the birds and fish renewed, more vigorous, more violent.  There were tears, ready to spill forth, that were quickly blinked away, as a faint rain pattered down around them.

There were more rumbles.  More motorcycles, joined by cars.

“Maybe we should go in,” someone said.

The hand scraped stone against stone, hurrying, a hand gripping a branch to maintain a position, to finish the picture-

Feet slipped.

Then the fall, and a stunned darkness.  Faces peering down, the pain, a disoriented jumble that came with a disorienting, slightly askew scene.

I wanted nothing more than to hug my friend, but she was already slipping out of reach.

“I’m sorry,” the words were a faint croak, thick in the throat, before the scene faded.

Her entire body convulsed, as she emptied her stomach’s contents into the toilet bowl.  The force of it was so violent she almost lost her grip on the toilet seat.  Her hands were trembling, and her shoes didn’t have the traction needed to stay beneath her.

Sidepiece?  She’s not anywhere near us.

“Are you okay?” a voice came from outside the toilet stall.

She heaved, but she didn’t have anything left to produce except for a dribble of fluid.

“Can I call anyone?”

Non!

Bodyless, only an observer, I could only feel a nebulous but profound moment of despair.  The word was French.  It wasn’t Sidepiece.

The voice was so young, hoarse from the recent vomiting.

“Are you sure?  You don’t sound well.”

The hands that fished for toilet paper were so small, wiping around her mouth.

She wasn’t even tall enough to kneel by the toilet.  That was why her shoes had slipped, had been necessary.  She wiped at herself some more, then looked down, at a nice dress and hard shoes with buckles, more useful for being pretty than for any activity, let alone finding traction on bathroom floors.

She hiccuped, and the motion was so close to the recent vomiting that her entire upper body convulsed, hurting a bit.  It at least seemed to disturb the hiccup enough that she didn’t hiccup again.

“I could call a doctor.”

“No!” the child cried out, and the word was outlined in fear.  She hurried to reach up and find the door latch, opening it to find a concerned middle aged woman there.  “Please.  I’m okay.”

“You don’t sound okay, hon.  Where’s your mom?”

“My papa is outside,” she said, in halting English.  She went to the sink, standing on her toes to get water and wash her face, washing her mouth.  “I didn’t want him coming into the girl’s bathroom.”

“Okay.  Should I go find him?”

She shook her head.  With damp hands, she wiped at her dress and then her hair.  She half-walked, half-ran for the bathroom door, the fancy little shoes nearly slipping on the tile.

A group of men with tattoos got in her way almost immediately.  She shied back, waiting for them to pass, then saw the woman behind her, and hurried forward.  Into the food court.

A man, round-headed, round-bodied, bigger than any man she’d ever seen in real life, rose from the bench he sat on.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice gentle, the words French but understandable.  “You ran so quickly for the bathroom.”

“I’m okay,” she said, clasping her hands in front of her.  Every word French but translated.

“Do you want to go home?  I can drive you now.”

She shook her head, fierce, emphatic.

“Okay, then,” he said.  He put out his hand.

Looking back at the middle aged woman, the little girl reached out and up, putting her hand in the man’s.

“Do you want to try the arcade again?” he asked.  He indicated the arcade at one corner of the food court.  A crowd of parents and onlookers was gathered.  “It looks busier than before, but that can be fun in its own way.”

She shook her head.  “No thank you, Keith.”

“Whatever you want to do.  I want you to have the best time,” he said. He gave her hand a squeeze.

“Thank you, Keith.  Can we, um, can we sit?”

“Sit?  Surely we can do something else.”

“I want to sit,” she said.  She looked at his hand, and the squeeze she gave it seemed calculated, intended, the look up at the towering figure tremulous, unsure.

“Okay,” he said. “Here, I have an idea.  Sit, wait there.”

She did, sitting at the table in a large food court, looking around her at the people, eyes lingering on families.

Her hands touched her stomach, which was tender.  She saw someone glance at her, and dropped both hands into her lap, clasping them together against the stiff fabric of her dress.  It wasn’t cold, but her hands shook.

She saw Keith return, navigating the crowd, smiling at a mother and her kids.

Her stomach flip-flopped when she saw what he held.

He placed the cup of ice cream in front of her, then did the same with an ice cream cone, which had a paper holder to keep it upright.  “I wasn’t sure whether you’d want a cone or a cup, so I got both.  If you want both, I won’t tell.”

He winked, and she smiled, tremulous, unsure.  She reached for the plastic spoon, and her stomach did another flip.

“You don’t want it?” he asked.  “Are you okay?”

Paralyzed, she sat there.

Candice,” he said, and he hurried over, kneeling beside her to bring himself more to her level.  It only made his presence feel more oppressive.  “Do you want to go home?”

“No,” she said, her voice small.  Her lips formed a word she didn’t utter: never.

CandyI’m sorry you had to go through this.

Candice, look at me.”

Obedient, she did.

“I am your ally.  I know some men pay your father for access to his, um, girlfriends, wives?  To have them keep them company?”

Candy shrugged.  I could feel the movement, as deliberate as the hand squeeze, like the lie or manipulation was more obvious than anything in its intentionality.

“I don’t know if you remember, but I joked before about running away with you, when we first got into the car.”

Candy nodded.

“If you wished, Candice, we could get in the car now.  We could drive away to a far away place and he would never find us.  I would never hurt you or do anything like he thinks I would.  Like you might think I would.  No, every day would be a best day, like today.”

“My sister,” Candy murmured.  “I can’t leave her.”

“I could pay for her to come join us, perhaps?”

A different kind of paralysis took hold.

“I have… many sisters.  No.  I can’t.  Even if not, I have to do what daddy says.”

“He said to listen to me, didn’t he?”

She went stiff, nodded.

“Then I order you to listen to me.  Tell me what you want.”

“I-”

“Yes?”

“I want to sit here.”

“Alright.  We can sit.  You can have your ice cream.  I know it’s your favorite, your dad told me.”

She picked up the spoon, hesitating.  Her stomach cramped.

“I know we’ve had three desserts already, and three big meals, but we’re allowed to enjoy ourselves on a best day like today, aren’t we?” he asked.  He squinted his eyes together, like he was being mischievous.

She nodded, unsure.

Mange, mange!” he urged her, chuckling a bit.

She lifted a spoonful to her mouth, closing her mouth down around the cold ice cream.  She shied away as he got back up to his feet beside her, and drew herself in to be small as he settled on the bench to her right.

Her stomach hurting with every action, she lifted another spoonful to her mouth, while he sat beside her, chin on his hand, looking at her like a fucking lovestruck schoolchild looked at their crush, his hand on her back, rubbing.

A tear ran down her cheek, and she hurriedly wiped it away, looking to one side to avoid letting him see.

She saw a familiar face, and reached out.

That familiar face reached for her.  Darlene.  But there was too much distance for them to make contact.

“I’ll go get some more ice cream,” he said, almost giddy.  “Some to take home.  You can have some on the car ride back.”

Darlene’s hand dropped to her side.

She was tugged along, her head ducked low.  The grip on her wrist was like iron.

“This way,” the mall’s staff member said, meek, deferential.  She bowed slightly, then looked abashed to be bowing.

The door was pushed open, and they entered a back room.   special event space, decorated with streamers and big paper letters that were all strung together.  Kids were already assembled, half of the group gathered at one side table, expectant as the cake was cut.  The other half were playing with presents that had been opened.

The streamers spelled out a name: Yasmin.  Darlene’s eyes, our window into this scene, moved to a girl in specific.

People turned, people noticed.  They reacted.

And then they didn’t react.  Cries of fear and alarm were silenced without word or gesture.  Each of the adults went still.

“Come,” the voice was French-accented, but it spoke English.  Smooth, cold, calm.  “I think you should sit at the head of the table, my Darlene.  Any objections?”

There were none.  Darlene’s eyes moved around, tracking adult, child.  The chair was pulled out for her, and she sat.  Every adult obeyed.  The children, however, were indecisive, frozen in fear that was wholly natural.

“Take down the other girl’s name.  You and you, you can watch the doors.  Nobody leaves until my child has had her birthday party.  Sit, everyone!”

Darlene watched as Yasmin’s name was ripped from the wall.

His voice was loud and smooth in her right ear.  He was quiet, but nobody present made even the slightest noise, so everyone heard.  “Now, who do you like?  Who likes you, hm?”

She looked at a boy, blond, and saw his eyes widen in fear at the eye contact.

The boy smiled.

“Come, sit at the head of the table.  You can be the prince for my princess.  You will do whatever she asks of you.”

Darlene was stiff, frozen, staring down the length of the table.  She shivered as she felt the boy next to her take her hand.

“Now pick one, Darlene.  Who do you like least, in this room?” he said, his voice held the threat.  “It is your birthday, this is your test, you will choose.  Both your brother and your sister got their powers, and so will you.  But you won’t leave me, as they did.”

Hands on her shoulders, a hand gripping her left, adults smiling all around her, she pointed at a boy at the end of the table.

“Why?”

“He- he spat at me once.  S-s-said I smelled funky.”

“What shall we do with him?”

Darlene was silent.

“If you don’t choose, I will, and I’m far crueler than you are.”

“Extinguish him,” Darlene whispered.

The chair skidded, the boy thrashed, fighting despite the fact there was nothing there.  He fell from his seat, while children all around the table shrieked and cried out.

Then he went still.

All around her, children looked shocked, stricken, horrified.  They looked at her.

“Look at their faces, Darlene,” he murmured.  “They never knew who you were, did they?  Now they know the truth, and they will keep it with them forever.  We will make decisions for each and every one of them today.”

Darlene nodded, eyes dropping.

“We are family, my Darlene,” he whispered.  “That is all you will ever have or need, yes?  Blood ties us together.  Cosanguinuity.”

The detonation rocked the shopping center.  People turned, looked, and saw the tattooed people standing on tables, standing on stairs to the upper level above the food court.  Blue fire and shadows danced around them.

The figure we rode in was another small body, this time.  A boy.  Breaths huffed.  He looked for help, support, and saw none.  Alone, he was lost in a tide.  People pushed him without even meaning to.

“Imp!” he called out.  “Aisha!  Charlotte!  Forrest!

There was no returning cry, or if there was, it was drowned out.  The people around him increased by the second.

But they reached the end of the long hallway with the big exit sign above it, and they stopped there.  They didn’t open the doors.  People pressed in-

He stumbled, falling, and he saw the people running at him, so fast it was clear they wouldn’t stop.

A large figure put himself between the boy and the people.  A man with a thick beard, old fashioned glasses, a piercing in his nose, and kind eyes.

Snag.

He fell as well, blocking the tide of bodies with his own, gripping the side of a sign that was built into the wall, scratched plexiglass case and frame protecting the image beneath.

“I’ll do what I can to protect you,” the man spoke, and his voice was deep enough to be heard through the din. “I’ll try to keep the path clear.”

“I-” Aiden tried.

But Snag gripped him, then lifted him up to the top of the plexiglass case, away from the stampede of people.  Pushed, shoved, Snag nearly lost his footing, but then managed to get Aiden to a secure spot, standing on the frame, the window above him.

But Aiden was too small to reach.  He looked down, and he seemed to search for and find familiar faces, vertigo making his vision swim.  Voices jeered, mixed in with panicked cries, and he shrank against the wall, feet slipping, finding footing again, slipping again- fear lurching in his chest.

“Help,” he whispered.  “Anyone?  Please?”

The perspective distorted, and the way down might as well have been five stories, not ten feet.

In the midst of the trample of bodies, Ashley twisted her head to one side as she was smacked across the head.  Her vision swam.  She tried to stand and she wobbled.

“Stop,” she said.

They tucked themselves into a space by the wall, but it wasn’t possible for everyone to occupy it.  Her father loomed above her, struck out.

“Come on!” he shouted, voice loud, hoarse.  “Make your decision!”

She winced, face turned away.

“Answer me!  Don’t go mute on me like she does!”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“That’s not an answer, Ash,” he growled.  People pushed past them.  “Come on.  If I have to get rid of one of you, is it going to be you, or is it going to be her?”

Ashley turned her head, and she stared past her longer hair at herself, small and short-haired.  She cringed, fearing the next blow, and the other her stood a little taller.

“Come on!” he shouted, gripping them by the arm.

Kenzie reached out, trying to find a grip.  The mass of bodies pressed in, and she was pushed back.

Her foster parents reached out for her.  Two black men, one barrel-shaped, hair short, wearing a colorful shirt.  Another man, skinnier, with a tidy dress shirt, a worried look on his narrow face.

She fought to hold on, as people pulled them apart, and her fingernails dug in, scratching, scrabbling, skin filling the space under her nails.

Until the desperate fight to maintain the grip made the reaching hand flinch in pain, pulling away.

She reached out, vainly, with every muscle in her body.

And there was hesitation on the other side.  A fraction of a second.  When they reached out, only fingertips touched.  Then they were separated.

“Byron,” Tristan gasped.  He was trapped under the press of bodies, his brother on top of him, Byron’s arm leaning against his throat.  He couldn’t breathe, and the view through Tristan’s eyes darkened around the edges.  “Listen to me, damn it!  Wake up!”

But Byron was unconscious, eyes partially lidded.  The pressure on Tristan’s throat was involuntary.

“Wake up!  Please!”

Reaching, scrabbling, Tristan found a splinter of wood.  He stabbed his brother, perhaps to try to get him to wake up or come to reality.  It didn’t work.

So he stabbed again- and again.

The doors opened, and Rain was there, in the too-bright light, as people spilled forth.  Darlene, Aiden, me, Tristan, Byron’s comatose body, Sveta, Candy, Kenzie, Ashley, Tattletale, Colt, Love Lost, and Cradle.

Rain greeted us all with a desperate, mocking laughter.

And then, as though a light switch had been flicked, the scene was gone, and we were in the room, divided into fifteen sections, each haphazardly connected to the last.

I had my costume and my buckler, but not my flight.  I hurried over in Sveta’s direction, crawling at first, then staggering, and crossed the boundary.

And in the shadows furthest from me, the watchdog woke.  It lumbered forth, reaching out to grab the concrete of Cradle’s area, a table in Rain’s, and to the shattered dais at the center of the room.

Too many limbs, all smooth planes like marble, with cables running in the gaps, each glowing with an intense heat.  A twenty foot tall titan made of reaching arms that could have been tentacles, they were so many-jointed.

It was nothing like the beast of lightning we’d seen on the video.

That wasn’t a single watchdog administrating this room.  It was one of four dogs.

Cradle’s.

“Cradle!” I called out, and I felt like the words were futile even as I uttered them.  “It won’t hurt you!  We need you to get in its way!”

All around us, the others were still reeling from reopened wounds.  They were slow to move, and the many-handed beast was quick.

And Cradle did not get in its way.

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From Within – 16.7

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The number of people we were heading back with had necessitated a second vehicle.  Tattletale took one car, and because Syndicate was being punished, Syndicate rode with Tattletale in that car while Chicken Little rode in the other.

I wasn’t positive that this was the time to be dropping the hammer, going for the obvious sore spot, driving in any wedges, or making the kid’s mood worse, but I wasn’t positive about anything, and if something went wrong here, I could at least have the satisfaction of blaming Tattletale.

Still, it made for a much quieter car ride.  Tattletale was free to give Darlene a talking-to in the other car, while five of us were crammed into Natalie’s car, which wasn’t the most spacious on its own.

Kenzie was in the corner opposite mine, knees up against her chest, head turned away, her eyes out the window.  Candy sat sideways, and fussed with Kenzie’s hair as best as she was able.  Natalie and I had combs, but they weren’t suited for Kenzie’s hair type, and Candy was using fingernails instead.

Chicken Little, quiet and aromatic in a slightly bird, slightly dog way, sat just behind my seat.

“I was secretly hoping we could make up, and you could show me around.  Ever since you all told me about Rachel’s place, I’ve wanted to see the swimming hole-”

“It’s too cold to swim,” Chicken said.

“I know!  I know, but I wanted to see it.  I wanted to see the puppy pit, and the horseback riding, and the den where you have big sleepovers.  You guys don’t have video footage or cameras around your place and the internet doesn’t reach there, so I couldn’t really find footage to fill out my mental pictures.”

Combing with fingernails, Candy murmured, “That’s how you reach across the gaps, hm?”

“Yeah.”

“There are some kids who live in the area who join in for some swimming and den sleepovers,” Chicken Little said.  “You can’t tell them to go away because if you’re bad or rude you don’t get to participate and you’ll get kicked out, but they’re kind of outsiders and it’s really awkward.”

“You’re more an outsider than they are,” Candy said.

“You know what I mean, don’t you?  They don’t know about all the cape stuff, or they’re really snotty.  Some are okay, like Mason and Kathy, but a lot of the others are such a pain.”

“They live there.  They have more right to the swimming hole and den than any of us.  Some of them have horses of their own, and they work and do chores with the animals for the whole year to get special privileges,” Candy said.

“But- the Heartbroken always complain about them.” Aiden protested.

“The Heartbroken, in case you missed it, can be the absolute worst, Chicken.  Man, I’m so mad at them right now.”

“Ow,” Kenzie said, as Candy tugged too hard.

“Sorry.”

“Am- am I the annoying snooty outsider that’s butting my head into things at Aunt Rachel’s?” Chicken Little asked.

“Yes,” Candy said, at the same time Kenzie said, “Maybe.”

“Woah,” Chicken Little said. “I don’t know if I can even process that.  My head is exploding right now.”

He moved his arms to demonstrate, while making a little explosion sound with his mouth.

Kenzie giggled a bit.

“Mannn,” Chicken Little groaned.

A beep of the other vehicle’s horn made me twist around.  I looked back and I could see Tattletale and her driver in the armored black land rover, above the glare of their headlights in the heavy snowfall.

“Oh, whoops, sorry Tattletale,” Aiden said.  “Shit.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“When I did the explosion sound,” he mimed the sound he’d just made, while moving his hands.  “I also made the birds react.”

“React how?”

“Short, silly freak-out from all of the birds.”

The birds that weren’t capable of flying along were packed up in the other car.

The other car honked again.

“I stopped!” Aiden said.  He twisted around and looked back, calling out, “I stopped!”

I twisted around myself, to try to get a clearer view of Tattletale, Snuff, and the land rover.  It didn’t look like they were honking to warn  us about anything.

“She’s going to be mad,” Candy said, sing-song.  “We’re going to arrive at Kenzie’s old headquarters and Tattletale’s going to bend you over her knee and give you a spanking in front of everyone.”

“Again with the spanking?  Don’t be weird.”

“I’m not being weird.  I’m taking an idea I know bugs you and drilling it in there.  We’re gonna drive for another hour or more and you’ll sit there with the idea… Rain would see.”

“It’s annoying and uncomfortable.”

“I’m trying to annoy, so good.”

“Guys!” I interrupted.  “Please.  Candy, we’ve had way too much uncomfortable for one night.  Let’s be as nice to each other as we can.”

“Okay,” Candy said.  “Sorry, Chicken.”

“It’s ok.”

The car trundled along.  As we got deeper into the city, the snow on the roads got less bad.  We were at the point where the road was cleanly delineated, when some of the areas outside the city or closer to the ruins of Gimel’s Brockton Bay had barely had an indent in the snow to mark where the sidewalk dipped down to the road.

“I’m sorry,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t want to stir anything up, but I do want to say it.  I’m really sorry I hurt you guys.  I know I can be a blockhead sometimes but I think I’m really sorry enough that it’s going to carve something into that block.”

“Shh,” Candy said.  Her fingers continued to comb through Kenzie’s hair, long after the point she’d combed out the buns and had the hair just long, kinky, and parted to one side.  Kenzie had refused hugs, but accepted this.

We pulled onto a road where there was a long line of cars sitting bumper to bumper, many with things attached to the tops or backs of the cars.  All of the cars were on their way out, while the road in was mostly clear, and half of the cars that were on it were ones that were trying to pull ahead or were pulling into the incoming lane to get a view of how bad things were further down the jam.

“You were in Brockton Bay, right?” Chicken asked.

“I was.”

“Did you know Armsmaster?”

“Only a bit.  I knew him more as Defiant.  Saw him earlier today, even.”

“Cool.  I can barely remember the times before my parents died, but I had some Armsmaster stuff.  I had one of the video games, but I never got past the first level.  I read about the bad guys in the manual and I was too scared to go fight them.  I mostly just ran around as Armsmaster.”

I smiled.  “Which one?”

“Seasoned Heroes Northeast.”

One of the games that was re-released every ‘season’, with slightly different content each time, with variations for every major region.  I had never understood the appeal of a game like that, when they could have run it all online and patched it instead.  Money and lots of kids willing to pay, I supposed.

“Do you still play?” I asked.

“Nope!  I’m doing it for real,” he said.  “I’m not scared any more, and there’s no manuals for these villains.”

“Too true,” I said.

“Did you know Dauntless?”

“I ran into him on patrol here and there.  We had a jurisdiction we were supposed to stick to, and it was close to his, south end of downtown and the Towers.  We’d meet and compare notes.”

“Was he nice?”

“Yep.  It’s… kind of one of those things where I wish I’d done something different.  Back then I just wanted to patrol more, so if my dad stopped and had a twenty minute talk with Dauntless, I’d be so eager to get going again I wouldn’t be listening.  Now I kind of wish I paid more attention when the more legitimate heroes were talking.”

Especially with how things turned out for him.

“And Miss Militia?”

“Super cool.  Very serious.  She’s been a hero for a good long while now, actually.  When I was trying out for the Wards she was in charge, so I saw her more than most of them.”

“And… aunt Rachel?”

I drew in a breath, then held it, before sighing.

“I kind of like her now, and my friends like her too.”

“But how was she back then?”

“I don’t want to say stuff that gets me in trouble with the Undersiders.  I don’t like the villainy that they’re involved in, but I think we need to work together at least in the short term, so we can handle the bigger issues.”

“I won’t tell,” he said.  “If I don’t ask in a moment like right now, I don’t think anyone’s ever going to tell me.”

I looked at Natalie, then at Candy and Kenzie- Candy’s hands moving through Kenzie’s hair in a repetitive motion while Kenzie might have been asleep.

No, I could see her eyes in the window.  They reflected strangely. She was using the time to tinker or program or something.

“What do you think?” I asked Natalie.

“I think tell him.  If he swears to secrecy.  If everyone in the back seat does.”

The kids uttered their oaths and swears, overlapping.

“Back then… angrier, I guess.  Violent.  Vicious.  I saw her hurt people.  When you looked her up online, there were warnings about her that there weren’t for most villains.  Then there was a time she got worse.”

“Oh.  Huh.  That bums me out,” Chicken Little said.

“It is what it is.  Dwell on who she is now.”

“Tattletale?” he asked.

“Tattletale is… scarily similar.  She’s one of the people who hasn’t changed much, except maybe some of the sharper edges have rounded off.  Maybe.”

“Sometimes I try to talk to her or convince her of stuff, and I have these points I’m pretty sure are good ones, but she won’t budge at all.  You’d think someone with her power would be better at seeing other people’s points of view.”

“No comment,” I said.  “I don’t want to make enemies.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Imp?”

“Imp… I forget.”

“Jar!” Candy piped up.

“What?”

“Jar.  Dumb Imp joke jar.  You have to put in a fiver.”

“A fiver?”

“Yep.  It’s a rule.”

“It is,” Chicken Little echoed.

“There’s no jar here.”

“Give it to me, and I’ll put it in the jar,” Candy said, her face solemn.

“This feels like a scam.”

“No,” Candy said.

“It’s a real rule,” Kenzie said.

“I don’t have a five dollar bill.  And what currency-”

“Doesn’t matter, you gotta,” Candy said.

The kids were rebelling, and the tranquility of the drive was disturbed.  Which seemed perfectly in line with the chaos that came with Imp entering the picture in any context.

“I’ll lend you five,” Natalie said.  “Give it to Candy, and you pay me back.”

“This seems overly complicated,” I said.  But she pointed out where her wallet was, and I took the five, handing it to the back seat.

Tranquility restored.  Paid for, but restored.

“Skitter,” Chicken Little said.  “Did you know her?”

“I… some.  A few run-ins.  I’m afraid I can’t tell you much that Tattletale couldn’t.”

“Tattletale says some stuff, but she’s biased.  I barely remember her.  I spent more time around Grue than I spent around Skitter, and-”

Chicken Little stopped abruptly.  I peeked into the mirrors, side view and rear view, and saw the utterly silent exchange between Chicken Little and Candy.

Confirming what had been a lingering suspicion.  A link they didn’t want us to know about.

Between Chicken Little and Skitter, who had become Khepri, who had become public enemy number one and a legitimate class-S threat when she had taken over the minds of thousands of parahumans in the final confrontation against Scion.

“Do you miss her?” I asked.  The silent conversation was becoming one of hushed whispers, intense enough it threatened to become something I heard.  I felt like it would be complicated if I did.  Asking my question served to interrupt that escalation.

“I didn’t know her, so no,” Aiden said.  “That feels bad to say.  She did help me and a bunch of the others.”

“It’s fair, though.”

“Tattletale says that when you kill yourself, or you act so recklessly you die so you essentially killed yourself, then it kind of means people won’t care about you.”

“Is that what she did?” I asked.  Heavy topic for a car full of eleven and twelve year olds.

“Yeah.  Tattletale says the people who love and appreciate you will be hurt or angry and that hurt and anger makes it so they won’t be able to hold onto the memories in the same way.  And your enemies will forget you and move on and grow, while you just fade away.”

“She makes sense sometimes,” I said.

“I think about her once in a while.  Skitter, I mean.  Weaver.  Taylor.  I go a month without thinking about her at all and then I’ll get really curious because-”

Candy cleared her throat.

“-she was there not long after my parents died.  But I think about her less and less.  You can only ask the same questions so many times, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think that happens with any loss, eventually.”

“But with losses like we’re talking about, when someone basically kills themselves, it happens more.”

“Except for the hurt and pain, which will stick around for those that cared, yeah.  They fade.”

“I think Tattletale probably isn’t the same person she used to be. She’s carrying a lot of that with her.”

“Hey!” Natalie said, injecting fake cheer into her voice.  “Long drive ahead, let’s talk about something happy.”

“Chicken,” Candy said.  “Is Scurvybeard in the car with Tattletale?”

“Uh… huh?”

“Can you talk through him to say something to her?  What’s the funniest thing we could say or do?”

“Whisper, really quietly, ‘underpants’, and leave everyone in the car wondering who said it,” Chicken Little said.

“Whisper ‘murder’ and keep saying it louder and louder until Tattletale flips out and makes Snuff honk the horn again,” Candy added.

“Okay, wow, not sure that’s better,” Natalie cut in.

“I could probably get into her car dashboard if I tried,” Kenzie said, perking up, before Candy pushed her back into the more relaxed position she’d been in.  “Barnaclebeak could tell a long joke or story that never has a point or punchline.  I think that would bother Tattletale more than anything, while Darlene would just be happy because Chicken’s there.”

“Don’t actually do any of this or I’m the one she’s going to come after,” I commented.  “Also, did the name change?”

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “It’s a game we play sometimes.  We imagine Chicken has a pirate parrot who he can talk through, when he can’t talk through any birds, and we think of what we’d do.  Coming up with stupid names is part of the game.”

“Gotcha.”

“Also, just so you know, I could totally put a microphone on a bird.  It’s not my specialty but it’s so close to being a regular thing someone could do I could do it.”

“Got it, Kenzie.”

Chicken piped up, “In my class, there’s a boy and girl who sit in the row in front of me.  Let’s call them, uh, Atticus and Scout.  My seatmate leaned forward and said, ‘Hey Scout, Atticus likes you’ and Atticus got real flustered.  We could have Polly Roger do something like that with Snuff and Tattletale.”

“That won’t work, I guarantee you,” Candy said.

They continued.  I snuck a peek here and there, and saw Kenzie remained where she was, curled up in one corner of the back seat, knees to her chest, apparently looking out the window, but the expression on her face was the jaded, partially-lidded one, and the light in her eyes was from images dancing on the surface, as she navigated menus and code, one ear on the conversation, periodically joining in.

But even when Candy stopped fussing with her hair, she wasn’t left entirely alone.  Candy situated herself in the middle of the back seat, feet in Kenzie’s lap, head near Chicken’s leg, chattering away.  Physical contact maintained.

And with that, at least, I at least didn’t see Kenzie’s sad smile.  This was contentment, mixed with nervousness.

The car doors slammed as the kids fished around for the things they needed, Snuff taking in the boxes of Kenzie’s stuff.  Chicken Little, Decadent, and Syndicate donned their costumes, while Lookout stood by, bundled up in winter clothing, looking a little left out.

For my part, I flew up to a vantage point where I could blow my nose, wipe my face with a wet wipe, and fix my hair, before flying back down.

“Want to put on your face, Kenz?” I asked.

“Just about everyone’s seen my face already.”

I winced.  “That’s not a good thing.  Also, we don’t know exactly who came-”

“I know.”

“Because cameras.  Right.  Do me a favor and put on a fake face?”

“Can’t.  Disassembled my hairpin.”

“Mask?”

“Didn’t bring it with me.”

I fished around for my mask, which was more for formal occasion than anything.  I handed it to her, and she rolled her eyes before pressing it into place at her eyes.  A visor without eyeholes.

“I don’t really see the point,” she said.  “But if it makes you happy.”

“Come on,” I said.  I went up the fire escape first, kicking snow off the stairs to clear the way.  Tattletale and Snuff had already gone up, as had others, but the snow was wet and the wet was freezing over, so it was a bit precarious.

Into our old headquarters.  At the cusp of Hollow Point, which was dark, evacuated.

The car had been warm-ish, but getting inside the headquarters was the first time since heading through the new Warden’s headquarters in the old Cauldron base that I’d truly warmed up.  Space heaters thrummed, as did some servers, and enough people were gathered that body heat was probably a consideration as well.

Tattletale and Snuff took a spot relatively close to where Chris had once situated himself.  Swansong and Sidepiece were present, sitting and exchanging words with Tattletale, no doubt about the villain collaborative.

I could see Darlene turn and stare at the Deathchester duo, before Candy tugged on her arm.  She resisted, but Chicken Little seized her other arm and she went along.

Sidepiece being here meant Disjoint probably had eyes on the scene, based on my understanding of his power.  That meant the rest of Deathchester would be close, to jump in if something happened.  Something to watch out for.

Tristan was back.  He’d gone back to the hospital room to let Byron rest while I’d taken Kenzie.  I could see that things were wearing on him, and heavy armor and helmet weren’t enough to mask the weariness that seemed to be taking hold of him.

He put out his hand for Kenzie to high-five as she ran over to her console, her group following her to the point in the room furthest from Tattletale and Deathchester.  She checked something on her computer, bringing up a sketched-out blueprint, and then fell to her knees by the box of stuff Snuff had brought in.

“Lookout,” Rain said.  “Stop.  Pause for fifteen seconds.”

She turned around, hands still on the box.

“Have you removed your tech?”

“I’ve got a project, it’s a big one, and we have a timetable,” Kenzie said.

“What was it you showed me a few weeks ago?  The phase map?  When we were seeing if I could phase arms I built into the body?”

“Oh.  Um.”

“Can you bring it up?”

“I could, but that’s going to take, like, minutes, and I have tinker ideas right now.”

“Kenzie,” I said.  “Faster you listen, the faster you can get to those ideas.  Rain’s got the right idea, I think.”

“Ugh!” she groaned.

Rain leaned against the table with his own stuff strewn across it.  The whiteboard had fresh notes, including a sketch of the room, color coded.  Out of all of us, he might have looked the most whole, the most there.  Four arms were folded, some of those arms needed more work or had been taken apart for parts, and he’d done something with his mask to have more around his mouth, which looked more like function than style, but… he was intact.  If he had stuff going on with Erin and family, he was toughing it out.

Kenzie brought up a projection.  An image of herself, standing a few feet to her right.  Like she had a slide projector going through slides, she brought up an alternate her, where her body was a silhouette.  Her eyes slightly glowed, and the two antennae stabbed into those eyes and out through the back of her head, each one bent in what I could describe as spider legs as long as my forearms, if the hairs on a spider’s legs were their own circuits, transistors, and smaller antennae, thick and dense.  Points along those legs glowed white, and the structures gave off their own wave of heat, which was visible in the air and more visible in the shadow the projection cast.  As Kenzie turned her head, so did the projection.

Spooky, to see her with tools stabbing out the back of her head, but-

She brought up another.  The antennae were shorter, sticking more out the top of her head.  The points that glowed were different.

Another set.  Antennae as long as my arms, but curled to stab back into the head.

And another, four antennae on this ‘slide’.

Then the final image.  All ‘slides’ together, the silhouette crowned with ten antennae emerging from its head.  Heat radiated off of it with waves that distorted the air, more intense than above any barbecue, and the individual lights blinked on and off along their mass.  Blinking being the operative words for those particular orbs.  The faint glow at her eyes overlapped to become an intense white that didn’t all line up perfectly, so it bled out, while casting its own heat shimmer.

And a few feet away, regular Kenzie, a slight smile on her face, still wearing her periwinkle blue duffel coat and winter hat, hair down as it had been arranged by Candy, a bit behind one ear, in the exact same stance.  She wore the mask I’d given her.  Eyeless, while the other figure had eight overlapping eyes, each pale and ghostly.

“I’ve got a project to get back to,” Kenzie said, in maybe the first instance of her being self conscious that I could readily recall.  She turned and the silhouette turned as well.

“No,” Rain said.  “I think you need to cut back.  Let’s go down to… half the number, to start.”

“But-”

“It’s a good idea,” Sveta said.

Sveta was wearing a top she’d bought while shopping with me.  With her new body, it fit differently.  Her arms were exposed, and those arms had holes in them, like very geometric jigsaw pieces, the muscle showing beneath.  She had drawn on her arms, covering them with sketched out artwork in pen that didn’t hold up with smudges here and there.  The cauldron mark stood out on her cheek, no makeup covering it, and she looked exceptionally tired, in a way that was as different as it could be from Tristan’s exhaustion while still sharing the same word for the condition.

“But-”

“Sweetie,” Sveta said.  “That looks like too much.  We have one tinker here who can give us an objective opinion, and he’s saying no.”

Sidepiece piped up, “I’m sitting here on the sidelines and I’d say no, if it wasn’t so gnarly.”

“I don’t care what you think,” Kenzie said.

“It’s pretty badass,” Damsel added.

Kenzie took that in, then looked at Sveta, one hand extended toward Damsel, as if that verdict was evidence in her favor.

“No, honey,” Sveta said.  “Those are the opposite of objective opinions.”

“But this is serious,” Kenzie said, one hand extended toward the screen.  “What we’re doing is big.  Isn’t it better if I do it with all the tools at my disposal?”

“Heating,” Rain held out a hand, grabbing his thumb.  “You once said that phases at a rate of ninety-nine percent or something.  If that includes heat inside your eyes and skull-”

“You’re misinterpreting me!  It’s ninety nine point nine to seven decimal places.  That’s way different from ninety nine percent.”

Still.  I’m terrible at math, but I suspect you’re running the equivalent of a constant fever.”

“If I was, it would be a very small fever.”

“Point two?  If the slightest thing happens dimensionally, a weird power interaction, Vista using her power, the portal at the station nearby cracks open by ten percent, there’s got to be a chance that this very delicate house of cards flops over.”

“Okay, but-” Kenzie said, holding up her hands.  “Counterpoint.  That’s a very small chance.  There’s a big chance that what my eyes and systems are giving me are going to be important.”

“Third,” he said, grabbing a third finger.

“If you do it like this it’s going to be forever before I can sit down and pull this together,” she said, plaintive.

“Infection, laceration.  Super small percentage of it is anchored in reality, but it’s still in there.  One is doing damage.  But that’s not just one.”

“Counterpoint?  If my eyes did pop or something, I could make really cool bionic eyes.”

She looked to one side.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  He followed her gaze, much as the rest of us did.  To Ashley’s whiteboard, which hadn’t been touched or modified, except for a small drawing by Kenzie in one corner.  There was a note about black bread, for some damn reason, and something about hair, all done in small script that was just meant as a reminder for her.  “I remember her talking about the eye thing too.”

“Let me help you, let me be useful tonight, and I’ll take it out after.  I’ll go however long you want without using it again.  But I don’t want to do something this big and do it half-blind, only for something to happen to you guys!”

Fuck.  There was a chance certain members of our team had rubbed off on her.

“You’ve got me,” Darlene said.  “You’ve got Tattletale watching.”

“But I haven’t even scanned you, and Tattletale doesn’t get this like I do!”

“Lookout,” I said.  “Listen to Rain.”

“Rain probably knows what he’s talking about,” Chicken Little said.

“Don’t,” Kenzie said, and she somehow sounded hurt in a way she hadn’t when facing off against the Heartbroken.

“I’m just saying,” Chicken Little said, apologetic.

“Just take ’em out, rest your eyes?  If we can just see you didn’t hurt yourself already…” Rain said.

“What if I say no?” Kenzie asked.  “What if I refuse?  I wasn’t brought onto this team as the team baby.  The rule was I wouldn’t be left behind or given a stupid, silly job while you guys did the real heroics.  I was brought on as an equal.”

“I think we’ve more or less lived up to that,” I said.

“Kind of!  Sure, but you’re not living up to it now.”

“We call each other on our crap,” Tristan said.  “Keep each other in line.”

“That’s even less of a kind-of than the last one!”

“You go, kid,” Sidepiece chimed in.

“Shut up,” Kenzie said, wheeling around.  She sounded angry.  “I don’t like you and you’re not funny.  This isn’t your business.”

I turned.  “Deathchester, Undersiders, do you mind stepping out?  You can go into the hallway or step out onto the fire escape if you want a smoke or something.”

Sidepiece smirked, looked like she was going to say something, but then Damsel straightened, walking in front of her.

Sidepiece and Damsel went out to the fire escape.  Tattletale remained put, but sent Snuff out to the hallway.

“Staying?” I asked.

“I’m keeping an eye on things.”

“I’ve got that covered, thank you,” Lookout said.  “Just like I’d have this project covered if people would let me.”

“Why are you fighting us, Lookout?” Sveta asked.

“Because you’re fighting me!  This is what I do!  This is what I’m good at!  This-”

Candy had tried to reach for Kenzie’s hand, but Kenzie pulled away.

“-this is why I’m here!”

I felt a pang at that.  A stab of… not guilt, but sympathy.

I’d been going easy on her, letting her coast and stick to known habits, because I’d had something of a guess that this was in the works.  That she wanted to be needed.

And the shitty thing was, I agreed with her.  That the tech probably made more sense to keep than to discard, given what it enabled her to do.  I would have been okay with her keeping it on until she was done, and that wasn’t because I valued this project that highly.  It was because she was an eleven year old kid who had just lost her most important person for maybe the fifth time in her life, and she needed her security blanket, even if that security blanket was eye-penetrating alien hardware.

I flew over, and the flight aspect of that seemed to give her pause.  I put my hand on her forehead.

Warm, but not quite fever-warm.

She kept going, “Listen, I want to do this!  I want to do it with all my eyes open.  I want to help, I want to make a difference.”

“Count down from a hundred,” I said.

“That’s-” Kenzie started.  She stopped.  “Not fair.”

I kept my hand where it was.

She counted, under her breath.  She was at fifty or so when Candy reached for her hand.  This time, she didn’t pull away.  Darlene stood behind her, a hand on each of her shoulders.

She reached zero.

“Array one,” Rain said.  “Talk me through it.”

“Array one connects to systems and mainframes in the area.  Cameras, mostly.  Refracts within camera architecture, hijacks signals.  Some hosting architecture too, so I can see a feed and think about it some without it taking up all of my attention or keeping me from looking at other stuff.”

“Do you really need that for this project?”

“It lets me keep an eye on Sidepiece in case she tries to hurt any of you, even when my back is turned.  I can watch outside, and watch the horizons with the cameras I mounted outside.  It means I can work without worrying.”

“Array two, then?”

“That’s mostly a mainframe with a lot of hosting.  Alternate vision modes, zoom, analysis, scanning.  One hundred percent essential for the work I’m doing.  It lets me see inside tech and work on it without taking it apart.”

“Array three?”

“Hookup to my main database, offsite hosting, onsite hosting.”

“With hosting being the thing where you’re using it to think and watch stuff?”

“Yeah.  Thanks to scans of Chicken Little.”

“That was what was making you overheat?”

Kenzie nodded.

“Array four?”

“Miscellaneous tools.  Managing projections, eyes as cursors, drone management, not that I have a lot of drones.  Onboard computing.  I can keep tabs on all of you while you’re wearing my projection stuff.  Monitor vitals, cause, y’know, I’m doing that.”  She’d trailed off to a mumble by the time she was done with that.

“Onboard computing?  Using your brain?” Rain quizzed her.

“No, that’s array three.  This is just, y’know, like having a laptop with me, except it’s way easier to jam it in my eyeball instead of carrying it around.”

“Can we get rid of array one and array three, do you think?” Rain asked.

“But… I want to keep an eye on everything.”

“Can you trust us?” Tristan asked.  “We have your back.  You don’t need to watch all of our backs for us.”

“We have your back,” Candy said.  “Both of your teams.”

“Put on some music,” I said.  “Tune out, focus on your stuff.  If you still want to do it.”

“I do.  I have to.”

I drew in a breath, ready to say the hard truth.

“We have to,” she said.

I deflated.

“They’re going to bust a hole in the city,” Kenzie said.  “Teacher’s going to try to control it.  We need to get there first.  Head him off, see what he’s doing.  We have to see if we can’t slow down the damage.”

“We can’t do all of that tonight,” Rain said.  “Set expectations lower.  This is exploratory.  Figuring out the tools we have at our disposal.”

I waited, tense, ready to tell Kenzie this whole thing was off.  Embarrassing, with Tattletale and Deathchester here, but I could deal with a little embarrassment, if our heads weren’t on relatively straight.

Kenzie sighed, then nodded.  “Exploratory.  We see if we can get Rain in there.”

“Put on some music?” Candy asked.  “Can I show you what I’ve been listening to, while you work?”

Kenzie looked at me, then at the rest of the group.  Sveta.  Tristan.  Rain.  Natalie stood off to the side.

I snuck a glance at Tatteltale, and saw a small nod.

“Saw that,” Kenzie muttered, giving me a look.  “You had to check.”

“A bit, yeah.”

“Good to go?” she asked.

“If you remove one and three,” Rain cut in.

“Can I keep three?” Kenzie asked.  “I have my notes and stuff in there, some processes running math that I’d have to start over from scratch…”

“Yeah.  Keep two, three, and four, then.”

Things settled from there.  Kenzie extracted the lengthy antennae from her eyes using a tool to find the right frequency and dig into the orbs for a grip, then laid them out by her computer.  Then she set to work.

Damsel came back in, while Sidepiece remained outside, smoking up a storm.  Snuff checked in, then left to run an errand.

I stepped into the bathroom for a break, because I hadn’t had the chance during the road trips, then decided to run the shower.  There was a chance I wouldn’t get the opportunity, and I needed my head as fresh as I could get it.

And it gave me a chance to breathe, without looking weak or anything in front of the team.  Clear the sinuses, clear the mind.

I wanted to help Kenzie and I had no idea what to do, except to give her support.

Once I was done with the shower, I toweled off and pulled on the same clothes as before.  Clammy.

“It’s a plain of red crystal,” Damsel said.  She’d apparently been prodded to give an explanation.  “Except the crystal is alive.  The cracks are veins and the shifts in the landscape that look like tricks of the eye aren’t.  If the mountain suddenly looks like a valley, it is one.”

“How often do you see it?” I asked.

“In the first year after Gold Morning?  Twice.  Your Swansong saw it three times.  More lately.  It’s picked up.  I saw it five times in the last week.”

“I’m feeling a bit intimidated,” Rain said.

“You should.  What we have here in this world is the tip of the iceberg.  What they have there is the rest of your iceberg,” Damsel told him.

Kenzie was scanning Darlene and Chicken Little with a drone the size of a football, while the pair held hands.  She aimed the drone at a cube the size of a microwave and blipped data to it like she was shooting a bullet from a gun.  The cube changed color.

“Where to?” Rain asked.

Kenzie looked, and a projected dotted line marked the boundaries for the cube.

“Got it,” he said.

“We can try bringing others in,” Kenzie said, looking over the red cube with the scanned data from Syndicate.  “I think I can lasso people with this, transmit sensation and awareness.  It probably knocks us out.”

“I’d be careful,” Rain said.  “Remember what I said about Snaggletooth?  Cradle hired someone to invade the dreamspace and try to screw with the rotation.  They got mauled.”

Chicken Little stopped spinning around in Kenzie’s computer chair, birds moving from his shoulders to various perches nearby.  “Mauled as in…?”

“Mauled.  Taken to pieces, uh, the details are graphic.”

“I hang with Imp.  I can handle graphic,” Chicken Little said.

“Chunky bits were still dripping and settling into puddles a good five or ten minutes after it left,” Rain said.  “It’s big, scary, and it apparently beat Snaggletooth in something she specializes in.  I think I need to go in alone.  At least for the test run.”

“Aw,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah, no, seriously.  Though I won’t be completely alone.  I talked to Cradle, Love Lost, and Colt.  They know what we’re trying, they’ll be on their guard.  They say they’ll cooperate.”

“You don’t sound confident,” Tattletale said.  “No, correction.  You sound confident.  But you aren’t.”

“Never one hundred percent with that group,” he said.

“Not dumb,” Tattletale told him.

“Do you want me to say something to Love Lost?” Damsel asked.  “She liked me.”

“No.  And it would take a while to get there.  Have to get to the Warden’s base, get permission, then get access to the prison.  Slower because they’re busy and things are shuffling around.”

“Too bad.  I was hoping for a peek.”

“There’s that too, consideration-wise,” he told her.

“I’ve got frequencies for the cube,” Kenzie said.  “Once you outlined the room boundaries, I was able to look for something that fits those metrics, in the mess of data.  If I map it out…”

The cube lit up.  A projection of the room appeared in the center of our hideout, sprawling across the floor in what I had to assume was actual size, all in silvery, shimmering lines.

The image resolution clarified moment by moment, as numbers flew, jagged lines and angles resolving into shapes, then into small details.  Everything writ in silver.

A five-sided room with what looked like a crooked sundial in the middle.  Two parts of the room were cast into deep shadow.

“There it is,” Rain said.

“Not what I saw in the dream,” Ashley reported.  “Except-”

She extended one bladed finger toward a forked line.  It could have been a more organic vein, a bolt of lightning frozen in time, or a crack.

“The cracks like veins.  Right,” I said.

“I figured that was an image resolution error,” Rain murmured.

“Your brain paves over the gaps and cracks, but they’re there.  I’m not sure you can do much about them, but… yeah,” Kenzie commented, working on her keyboard not-cube.  “So if I transplant the alter-space that I set up for the Capricorn twins, can you move this cube to the center?”

“That’s not a cube,” Tristan said.

Thank you.

“It’s a cube, trust me,” Kenzie said.  “Over there?  I’d have to unplug from everything to walk it over.”

Tristan picked it up, moving the not-cube over.  Kenzie remained plugged in, with headphones jacked into her computer, wires looped over the backs of her hands.  She worked with a set of menus.

The keyboard illuminated, projecting a rough cube shape in roughly the center of the room.  The projected sundial toppled, and things throughout the room shifted.

“Wait,” Rain said.  “That’s the actual room, not just a sketch?”

“It’s the actual room,” Kenzie said.

The light from the projection flared, so bright it was hard to look at.

A figure, taller than any shelf or piece of furniture in the rooms, stepped out of the darkness and into the light, into an area riddled with concrete slabs.  It was drawn out in the same silvery outlines, and its body didn’t seem to hold a consistent shape.  Like mountains flipping to become valleys with a perspective shift, but it moved across the room in that manner.

“What the hell is that?” Rain asked.

“Tip of the iceberg, meet the rest of the iceberg,” Damsel said, her voice dry.

“I bet it’s been there every night,” Kenzie said, way too cheerful for the occasion.  “In the shadows on the other side of the glass.”

The thing touched a wall, and the bright distortion of it seemed to extend to the surface.  The camera struggled to hold integrity, then went black.

Leaving the room we were in feeling darker than it had been before the demonstration.

“Walls are down,” Tattletale said.  “And our buddy there is on high alert.  He’ll be waiting for you all on your next visit in…”

“Two hours,” Rain said.

“We can do it,” Kenzie said, too cheerful and bright.  “But let’s reconsider you going in alone?”

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From Within – 16.6

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The snowstorm was about as intense as I’d seen it, this fall or last winter, and the degree of the city that had been evacuated left the building interiors dark and unlit, especially this far out.  The lights I did see were just as worrying, because it marked people who would be lost to us if we let the city break.  It was better to look at them as distress flares than anything reassuring.

So much goddamn effort put into this city. It felt like my family dog had been run over, but I couldn’t even say anything about it because anyone I’d complain to had been closer to the dog and consequently was more affected than I had been.  I’d at least had a chance to save it, to step in and do something more, and I hadn’t managed it.  I’d scraped my knees and palms diving into the road and I’d failed, but those other people hadn’t even had the chance to try.

So shut the fuck up, Victoria, right?  Can’t bitch when other people are hurting worse and are way more helpless.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

Kenzie trudged through the ice-crusted snow to my right.  The snow was piling higher, and the city infrastructure that would have cleared the sidewalks had already been cut down to a tenth of what it was.  It should have been zero infrastructure, zero people left, but it wasn’t.  Zero infrastructure now would have left some people trapped, without any choice to leave.

My question hung in the air, unanswered.  It was just Kenzie and I, now.  Damsel and Deathchester, Breakthrough, Etna, and the Wardens’ megabase were behind us.  Dark, hollow city, ice, and uneven road stretched ahead of us, along with sections of the city that had been abandoned for a few weeks now.

“My foster dads had a system, where we’d put these smiley faces on the fridge,” Kenzie finally said.

Bit of a non-sequitur there, but it had to be on her mind, because she rarely talked about them, and now she was jumping at the excuse.  I put a hand out to help steady her and to support her.  In more than one sense.

“Frowny face or grumpy face if we were in a bad mood, there was an anxious face and a happy face, a calm face and a sleepy face.  Most of the time you’d come in the door, and the kitchen was the first place you’d go, and you could check in while updating people on how your day went without even saying a word.”

“Good system.”

“Whenever someone asks how someone else is doing, I think of that board. I think of how I could be in a really crummy mood, but I’d put a smiley face up there anyway, and how everyone sort of does that, you know?  I do it a lot but everyone does it, don’t they?”

“They do.  I know.”

“Jessica once told me that we all have different kinds of intelligence, and she asked me where I think my strengths are. I’m really good at schoolwork and organization, and staying motivated, and I’m not that intelligent when it comes to figuring out what faces people are putting on. Especially when I get excited, and especially especially when it’s about people.”

She ducked her head down as a snow flurry blew right at her face. I pulled my hood around the side of my face to shield it.

I didn’t interrupt her.

“It’s like there isn’t room for being excited about people and loving people and also understanding those people in the ‘people’ part of my brain.  But then things go wrong, they leave, the excitement becomes dread, and I have all the time in the world to go back and look at every conversation, every moment, and realize how badly I fucked the dog.”

“Fucked the dog, huh?” I asked.

“Heartbroken slang. Candy says- said that Imp and the older Heartbroken try to get the younger Heartbroken to start saying it because it really really bothers Rachel.”

“Got it.  I’m not sure she’s the type you want to tick off, though.”

“That’s the fun of it.  She gets so grumpy, apparently.”

I thought of Rachel ordering her dogs to maim people, breaking legs, when my mom and I had turned up at one crime scene.

The night everything had gone so wrong.

“I think, uh, whatever happens, you shouldn’t go out of your way to annoy or bother Rachel Lindt.  I think that should be a rule.  I don’t think you lose anything by doing your best to stay on her good side.”

“Except fitting in,” Kenzie said.  Then, “Except I’m not even fitting in normally, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do there.  I hate it.”

“I know,” I said.  “And I don’t want to add pressure or more rules.  I think I get what you’re saying.  People are frustrating and nonsensical and it’s all so hard.  The clearest system in the world where you’d expect people to take their feelings and put them up on- it was the fridge?”

“Fridge.”

“Fridge.  Even that doesn’t work out clearly.”

“You asked if I’m okay.  Um, I learned tips and tricks from Jessica and I found my place in the team and the world, and I thought I was doing okay.  And I wasn’t, was I?”

“You’re doing better, according to everyone that’s been paying attention.”

“…I don’t think I’m better.”

“I didn’t say better.  Just… you’ve improved.  Sveta would say to keep your eyes forward, build the you that you want to be.”

“After the first incident with my foster dads, I had other stuff around school and my dads.  People would say I had a tough start, growing pains, you know?  But I lost my foster dads.  I went to the Wards and I talked to professionals, and they said I was doing better, I was improving, they liked how things were going, and… I lost the team.  I got sent away to training camps, and they said a change of scene was doing me good, I was better, I was improving.  And I got people in trouble there.”

I shook my head.  Snow fell from my hood.  “It’s a pattern, but that doesn’t mean you’re not making headway.”

“I’m going to be your age someday, if I live that long, and a friend is going to be patting me on the back, telling me I’m doing better, keep looking forward.  But I’ve had it explained to me and I still can’t stop it.  How do you stop yourself from doing something if you can’t see yourself doing it in the first place?”

I had a moment’s thought about whether she was calling me old or being way too fatalistic, then pushed it out of mind.  It wasn’t the issue she was trying or wanting to deal with.

“Things change, Kenzie.  Nothing stays the same forever.”

“Ashley was supposed to stay by my side forever.  She said she’d be by my side forever so long as I was her minion, and then she stopped saying the minion part and kept saying the forever part,” Kenzie said.  “I’m so mad at her I could cry.”

I couldn’t see her face, as she had her head turned down to face the ground, watching her steps as we trudged through snow.

“If it was just the Chicken Tenders, I’d be able to deal.  If it was just Ashley, I think I could deal eventually.  But this is the first time since I first ruined everything that I feel like it’s all gotten so much worse.”

We’d reached the end of the city.

No more sidewalk, no more road.  Just wilderness.  A tear in reality taller than any building off to the east, making the weather so much worse, snow everywhere, and ice on everything.

“I wish I knew what to say or do, Kenz,” I told her.  “A hug?  A reminder that there’s always a sleepover and hot chocolate waiting?”

“You make really good hot chocolate,” she said.  “You make a lot of really good stuff in general.”

“After Gold Morning, I drifted a bit.  I focused on the Patrol, school, trying to get into University.  But food, eating healthy, and having meals to look forward to were a thing for me.  Figuring out how to be an adult.”

“Yeah.  Makes sense,” Kenzie said.  “Chris said once that when I became an adult, or when I started to become one, it would be a nightmare.”

“Chris is an ass.”

“But he’s an extra big ass because he’s right, a lot of the time,” she said.  “I’m worried because the nightmare started already.”

I floated down so I was in a sitting position, my rear end a couple of inches from the snow below.  Putting myself more on Kenzie’s level, my legs crossed.  I leaned forward, but she maintained a position where she stared off into the distance, not facing me, so I couldn’t see her face, even now.

I ventured, “I noticed this morning that you took some toiletries from under the sink.”

“I can replace them, sorry.”

“No, no need.  It’s there to be taken, so help yourself, take some with you the next time you come by.  But if you have any questions…?”

“Not that,” she said.  “Maybe a bit of that.  There are two of the Chicken Tenders that I really like.  Being away from them hurts extra.”

“Crushes?” I asked.

I couldn’t see her face, but I could see her swallow hard.  “I keep getting double-whammied.  Two crushes, then I’m sad and my stomach hurts because of Ashley and I’m weird-sad and sore because yay, I’m a woman or something-”

Might need to chat at another time and place.

“-and I’m missing them because I’m not there and they hurt my feelings and I screwed up by reading their stuff, and I’m missing them extra because more weird feelings and hormones.”

“These things level off, they balance out,” I said, to say something, even though it felt like an empty platitude.

“I’ve been told for years now that I’m scaring people, I’m hard to predict, I’m out of control.  And for most of that I just kind of felt like… no?  Not really?  I meant well, it wasn’t that bad.  It was an accident.”

“Yeah.”

“Feeling like I do right now…” she trailed off.

“What feelings?” I asked, to prompt her, because it seemed like she really needed to get this out, and because I had no answers to give, and asking questions had a chance of moving the conversation to a point where there were answers to give.

“Desperate feelings,” Kenzie said.  She hugged her arms to her chest.  “Like some of the worst feelings I had, like when my foster dads were almost gone, or I knew something had happened to Ashley but I hadn’t looked to check for-absolute-sure yet.  Or when Chris left but I thought maybe he could come back.  It’s like there’s someone really deep inside me, and she’s scratching at the walls of the box she’s in so hard she’s leaving marks in the metal.”

I took in a deep breath.

“I’ve been in that box,” I said.  “Scratching.”

Dean.  Me sitting in the hospital room, pining for Amy.

It was hard to even think about, hard enough that I felt like the facade I was maintaining and had been maintaining for a while might crack, and past those cracks I might be right where I started, right after I got a ‘me’ body again, compulsions removed.

She seemed to absorb that, then said, “There have been a lot of times in the past where people described what I was doing as scary.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that.  Feels unfair?”

“No.  It did.  But feeling like I do now is the first time I’m a little scared by my feelings and what I might do.”

Uh.

Fucking hell.

That was making me reconsider a lot about what we were doing right now.  What the hell was I even supposed to say to that?

“Do you think you’re a danger to others?” I asked, as gently as I could.

“Maybe?  No, not… I really don’t know,” she said, quiet.  “I said before that I couldn’t see in the moment, but then after when people ran away, I could see it.”

“Yeah.”

“They’re running and I can’t see it, now.  It’s getting harder, the feelings weirder and crazier.  So what do I even do?”

Her hands in her pockets, snow a quarter-inch thick on her hat, shoulders, and arms, she turned to look at me for the first time in a good while.  The smile on her face was the saddest and sweetest I’d seen her wear.

I could see the headlights.  Our ride.  The car drove slowly through snow that reached up to the undercarriage.

“There’s a set of guidelines I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about before.  You do what the law says.  That’s absolute.”

Kenzie hesitated, then nodded.

“Then you do what’s right.  When you’re dealing with people, that means being honest, truthful, you show caring, share, be respectful -respectful of privacy-.”

“Oof.”

“-but you treat people right.  I think your intentions are good.  After that, if those two things are in conflict or you can’t figure it out, reach out.  Ask for help, ask for advice.  Hold back, move slowly, put on the brakes as best as you can, and leave room for others to say stuff.”

“What they say isn’t always what I hear.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

“And just… try to live so you have no regrets.”

“That’s your system, then?” she asked.  “I think you did mention it, but I was distracted.”

“It’s my system, yeah.”

When was the last time I’d even invoked it, or invoked it fully?

I felt like such a hypocrite.

“A part of me wants this to fall apart,” she said.  “Because that’s something I’m used to.”

“That’s a hell of a trap to fall into.”

“Yeah.  Have to do this.”

The car had started at the end of the road, moving at maybe thirty miles an hour, and it was halfway to us.

“Can I give you a hug?” I asked.

She shook her head, shifting her weight, still wearing a smile, even if it wasn’t the scarily sad and sweet smile I’d seen earlier, that would forever be ingrained in my mind as an expression that was indelibly Kenzie.

“I know I’m sick, but would it be sufficient excuse if I said I was the one who wanted or needed a hug?”

“That’s cheating,” Kenzie said, quiet.

“A bit.”

“And the answer’s still no.  I shouldn’t be hugging anyone right now.”

I nodded.

“You’re usually safe,” Kenzie said.  “But if I let myself slide with you, then I slide with others, and I really, really can’t slide right now.”

“Okay,” I said.

The car had to stop, because the snow piled up at the front was slowing it down.  It backed up, then began to drive over the hump that had been created.

Why am I usually safe?  I wondered.

I couldn’t dwell on it.  Not when there were bigger concerns.

Had Kenzie confessed these desperate feelings to me earlier, I wasn’t sure I would have arranged this.

The car stopped.  I opened the door for Kenzie, kicking aside a bit of snow so the door would open all the way and close without scooping in a heaping of snow with it.

“Sorry to have you come all this way,” I said.

“Not too long a trip,” Natalie said.  “But the roads are awful.”

Past a certain point.

Rather than open another door, I climbed into the back, while Kenzie scooted across the back seat.

“Project done?” I asked Natalie.

“Yeah.  A lot of last minute changes.  Being more aggressive, laying out more rules.  We really missed having your mom there.”

“What project?” Kenzie asked.

“New laws and rules.  Figuring out consequences we could levy against parahumans that don’t rely on prison.  I ended up using a lot of what I observed and saw.”

“Do I need to be worried?” I asked.

“No.  Nothing targeting you.  I did make an argument at one point that if we didn’t make parahumans listen to us or include us, they wouldn’t,” Natalie said.

I sat with that for a bit, aware Kenzie was looking at me.  I conceded, “Fair.”

“It’s my fault as much as anyone’s.  I could have been more insistent when I had issues, but I wasn’t.  I was being paid to be available, and past a point you didn’t need me to counsel you on the work you were doing.  I get that.”  Natalie glanced at me in the rear-view mirror.

“A lot of what we were doing wasn’t hero work,” I said.  “Aftermath of the Fallen, investigations that started and ended with cape business, Goddess, diplomacy…”

“Absolutely,” Natalie said.  Her forehead creased above the overlarge, round lenses she wore.  “I’m not trying to condemn you or make my unhappiness known after the fact, Victoria.  It was a learning experience.  I learned, I applied what I learned.  If I hadn’t worked with Breakthrough, I’m not sure anyone would have even listened to me.  So I owe you something.”

Natalie began fiddling with her dashboard map system.  I would have told her to watch the road, but there were barely any cars this far out.

“What changes did you make?” I asked.

“I convinced them to be strict.  Where there are voids, capes and people in general will develop their own systems and rules within those voids.  The laws include rules of forfeiture, labeling capes as noncompliant with rules for any media or businesses dealing with them…”

“Forfeiture?  Government takes their stuff?”

“Yes.  Property, cash, vehicles, assets, any tinkertech,” Natalie said.  Again, that concerned look.  Like she thought capes might go ballistic at new rules and restrictions, and I was among those capes.

Maybe that was unfair.

“You run into the problem of the government having to actually take the stuff.”

“We don’t.  We have Dragon and some thinkers to keep an eye on the digital marketplaces, and they can swoop in to seize any funds there for fines.  For everything else, we put out a bounty on assets equal to the amount specified by the legal action.”

“A bounty,” I said.

“If you cause undue property damage, for example, you get a chance to appear in court.  You don’t need to reveal your identity, though it helps, and just showing up gives you a reduction in any penalties.  If the ruling is against you, you can pay the fine, but if you don’t, your stuff is up for grabs, in an amount up to double the value of what the fine was.  If someone wants to take your hideout, they can, and the government will consider it a fair transfer of property.”

“Kill orders for stuff,” I said.

“Hitting where it hurts.  If you’re deemed noncompliant with the local government, then there are other penalties.  Restrictions on language and images that can be used, so the media isn’t promoting villains or dangerous vigilantes.  Businesses have to do paperwork to establish paper trails when working with the noncompliant, or face penalties…”

“Making it easier to ignore the problem capes than to cater to them.”

“Yeah,” Natalie said.  “Other stuff, too.  Formalizing the processes where you guys send capes off to a mystery dimension with limited or no contact thereafter.  We get our guys in on that process, victims get a jury of their peers, and we’re requiring a few more rights be afforded to the defendants.  Scummy as they are.”

“Honestly, that would probably be a relief,” I said.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I think it makes sense.  I think you’re going to be sparking a lot of individual conflicts and fights when you’re saying people can legally take one another’s stuff-”

“Yeah.”

“-But that might be intentional.  Diverting those of a mercenary mindset and setting them against the troublemakers.”

“That was part of the intent,” Natalie said.

“Won’t be easy or clean,” I warned her.

“No.  I never thought it would be.”

“Follow the law, then do what’s right, reach out if you’re not sure,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Minimize regrets.”

“It might not even matter,” Natalie said.  “We’re going to try to spread the word, but we’re worried nobody’s going to listen because the anti-parahumans are louder and they just got a quote-unquote ‘win’ by attacking the mayor and killing her boyfriend.”

“And there’s the city itself,” I said.

“Either we evacuated for nothing and people will be so mad they won’t listen to reason, or we evacuated for a reason and nothing’s going to matter for a while,” Natalie said.  She sighed.

I heard that sigh, and it sounded like a perfect distillation of the feeling that had seized me earlier.  A dead dog sigh.

I hadn’t felt any profound degree of kinship with Natalie until that sigh.

“Let us know what we can do,” I said.

“I will,” she said.

The conversation turned, and we recapped our encounter with Deathchester, with Kenzie chiming in, in a very Kenzie way.  Not quite the happy Kenzie I wanted to hear chiming in, but happy was expecting a lot.

She’d still lost her favorite person.

I’d noted my ability to sense the turbulence of the world where the reality had been wounded and scarred over too many times, in too fragile a place.  In this car that wasn’t meant to drive through snowy dirt roads, I was aware of different sorts of turbulence.  Natalie and her underlying feelings on things.  Kenzie, and the rising nervousness and intensity.

Emotions crowding out emotional intelligence, maybe.  Compensated for with more verve, hype, excitement.

I could hear howling well in advance of anything being visible.  As we got closer, I could hear the barking.

Massive cabins, and there were buildings I might have tentatively called stables.  As we drove up, a dog larger than Natalie’s car ran up alongside us, separated from us by a fence it could have easily jumped.  No rider.  Some bones that should have been on the inside were on the outside, connected by webworks of mystery bone, ligament, muscles that didn’t correspond to normal body type and shape, and were studded inconsistently with spikes and longer, thinner bits of bone that might as well have been spines.  The tail that flicked out behind it was like two human spines joined together and then joined to the butt by a haphazard tangle of meat.

Kenzie rolled down her window, which saw snowflakes and cold air streaming into the car interior.

“Doooooon!” Kenzie called out.

The beast crashed into the fence in its sudden enthusiasm.  Natalie swerved a bit, as if anticipating the dog would crash through and cut her off.

The smell of horses, dogshit, and horseshit followed in after the wash of cold air.  Kenzie remained at the window, staring out at the scattered settlement of large cabins and larger stables.  Whole areas were lit by spotlights, but it seemed more inwardly focused than previous iterations I’d seen.  It wasn’t Earth N setting up to defend themselves against an assault.  It was about illuminating fields that had been cleared for animals to run around in.  It was the mid-afternoon, just starting to get dark with the season being what it was, and people were out on their own sorts of patrol, with poop collection tools and trashbags.

“They said to pull into the round parking lot,” I said.

The round parking lot was situated near a cluster of buildings.  Just between one of the buildings was a skating rink.  It looked like a couple and a father with his daughter were out on the ice.

The Heartbroken were near one of the main buildings.  Not just the Tenders.  Chastity, Romeo, Juliette, Aroa, Amias, Flor, and a few others I didn’t recognize.  Darlene, Aiden, and Candy were slightly apart from the rest, and all three wore their costumes.  Syndicate, Chicken Little, and Decadent.

Imp stood by.  No Rachel.  Remembering the bit about Imp convincing the kids to use a swear that would upset Rachel, I wasn’t exactly glad to see her hanging around.

Kenzie pulled off her hat, and squirmed around to see her head in the rear-view mirror, with Natalie moving it to help.  It hardly mattered, Kenzie’s hair was perfect.

“I’m having second thoughts, but I can’t exactly leave now that I’m here, can I?” Kenzie asked.  She hadn’t left her car seat.

“We could,” I said.

“But it’d make things worse,” she said.

“If you want to stay in the car, I can ask for your stuff.  It simplifies things.”

“And it makes the gaps bigger,” Kenzie said.  She shook her head, like she was shaking something off, and she got out of the car before I could say anything more.

The door slammed.

“How bad is this?” Natalie asked.

“I couldn’t even guess.  It’s the Heartbroken, and the only rule is that they’ll surprise you, and they have the ability to make their surprises especially nasty.”

“Okay.  What do I do?”

“I wish I knew,” I said.  “Just back her up.”

“Okay.”

I climbed out, Natalie did the same.

It was Decadent who closed the distance, jogging along the snow that had been trampled to a hard packed and mostly flat plain around the major buildings.

Kenzie brought her arms up to block the incoming hug.  I saw Decadent pull off her grinning, heavily decorated mask, and I saw the hurt on her face.

The others approached.  All of the Heartbroken but one had black hair, the exception being a red haired girl I hadn’t seen before.  All but two of them were the same slender, slightly-shorter-than-average, body type, with buxom Chastity and a more robust looking little dude being the exceptions.  And so it went.  Juliette and Roman were the only two who had straight hair and not the unruly, wavy hair of the rest of the group.

Of note, Candy was one of three to dress in brighter colors, with nice clothes in a very modern style.  Her hair done over in a dramatic tumble over to one side of her head, a complex set of braids at the side turning what might have been an eighties-style disaster into something elegant.

Darlene was wearing more ‘high fashion’, with a ruffled dress and jacket that could have been the very thing for girls to wear to an event eighty years ago, her hair cut to be level with her chin, makeup done up to include bold red lipstick and similarly red eye shadow.  The effect was better and more striking than I’d seen it in the past.  Practice paid off.  She stood out from the pack because of her nervousness, when so many of the others were more the laissez faire sort of confident.

And then Chicken Little, who couldn’t come off as anything but a kid, when surrounded by so many others who seemed so bad at acting like regular kids.  The amusing thing was, he was showing off more power than the others, with three birds perched on his shoulders, where his red jacket had straps arranged to be extra padding and grip-points for talons.  But he didn’t seem more powerful.

It wasn’t fair, that it had to be one against thirteen.  Fourteen if I counted Imp.

Wasn’t fair, that there was so fucking much pain, implicit in the fact that these kids existed and all had the same dad.  That no moms were present to watch over them.

I approached Kenzie, standing behind her so at the very least it wouldn’t be quite so one-sided.  She looked back at me.

“We can leave at any time,” I murmured.

“Okay,” she said, barely audible.

“You’ve been doing your hair the way I showed you,” Candy said.  Kenzie had her hair in the two buns at the back, but had left some kinky hair she’d arranged to frame either side of her face and tuck behind her ears.

“I cheated,” Kenzie said.  “I liked it when you did it, so I took pictures to save them for later.”

As if to demonstrate, she waved her hand through one of the locks of hair.  The hair didn’t budge.

“That’s not allowed.  You won’t get better if you don’t practice.”

“I know.  But it’s been hard to find the time, the last few days,” Kenzie said.  And with those words, a few people dropped their eyes or reacted.  She seemed to gather up a bit of extra energy, pushing herself to add, “I’m sorry about Samuel.  I’ve already said it to Darlene and Candy and to Chicken Little too, but I liked him when I met him, and I… sorry.”

“Condolences for Swansong,” Chastity said, from the sidelines.  She glanced at me, and I nodded.

“I didn’t want this to be a big thing,” Kenzie said.  “You said you packed up the office, and you got my tinker gear?”

“It’s here.  We were extra careful,” Darlene said.  “Knowing how tinkers work, we might have broken some of it no matter what we did.  We tried to call.”

“I was in a fight.  With the other Ashley.  If it’s just small issues I don’t mind.  Thank you for being careful.”

Kenzie sounded so earnest.  Forced-earnest.

“What’s going on?” Candy asked.

“I didn’t want this to be a big thing.  I just thought I could get my stuff, we could chat for a bit, bring up some stuff to talk about more later, um, cover more of this later.”

“Tattletale said you were coming and you needed stuff, but that we had to have a serious talk.”

Approaching a sensitive situation with the social equivalent of a sledgehammer, I see, I thought to myself.  And you’re nowhere to be seen.

“Is there a reason you haven’t been around?  That isn’t Swansong?” Chicken Little asked.

Kenzie wrung her hands in front of her.

“She’s scared,” the heavier-built boy that was under Kenzie’s age said.  “And guilty.”

“Please don’t do that,” Kenzie said.  “When I was in Teacher’s system, I ran a system snapshot tech, reorganizing and sorting the files and contents by a few different metrics-”

“Don’t tinker-talk at us,” Candy said.  “Talk to us.”

“I am!  I found files about us.  Stuff he watched or captured.  Stuff pulled from our computers by hackers, from your computers before I put my own security on there.  From your phones.”

“You read our stuff?” Darlene asked.

“I thought it was faked stuff like he set up to divide teams and my first thought was that I wanted to protect you guys, in case he wanted to split up your family or attack the Undersiders through you, so I ran some system check and comparison stuff.”

“But you read our stuff?” Darlene asked.  “My writing?  You saw my pictures?”

“Yeah.  What I saw was good!”

I cleared my throat.  Kenzie turned around and looked at me, and I shook my head a bit.

“Did you look at Chicken Little’s stuff?” Darlene asked, sounding more offended than she had about her own things.

I saw Chicken Little stiffen.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.

Chicken Little piped up, “I told you to leave my stuff alone.  You said you’d respect any rules or requests if we had any, and I said to leave the ‘family’ folder alone.  But you went in there?”

“Okay, but you have to understand, I thought it was faked, like a bunch of the other stuff he did.  Stuff was flagged with the parameters I set.”

“No tinker-talk,” Darlene said.

“It’s not-”

“My pictures of my mom were flagged?” Chicken Little asked.

“No.  But other stuff near it was, and the sort structure I used linked-”

“No tinker talk!” Darlene raised her voice.  “Stop.”

“I’m not!  It’s not tinker talk!” Kenzie raised her voice to match.  “It’s regular computer talk.  I think.”

“To go into pictures of my mom you’d have to go into the folder,” Chicken Little was quieter, while everyone else was louder, but everyone listened to him when he talked.  “You snooped.”

“I didn’t, not like you’re thinking!  I wanted to be sure we were safe and nothing was there that would drive us apart.”

“How would those pictures ever do that?”

“I don’t- I can’t say without talking about them and I won’t talk about them because that’s private for you.”

“It was, until you snooped,” Juliette said.

“Guys,” I said, cutting in.  “Hey, let’s tone it down.  This is for Kenzie and the members of her team.”

Juliette shot me a look, cold and pointed.  Like she was more ready to pick a fight now that I’d asked her not to.

I looked to Imp for help and I saw none.  Was she waiting for things to get worse?  Was she in the same boat as Tattletale, wanting Kenzie out of the team?

“Might as well tell people,” Chicken Little said, sounding sullen, dejected.  He shrugged.  “I’ve been saving pictures of people that remind me of my mom, since I don’t remember her at all.  It’s random and stupid, but it’s supposed to be my private random and stupid.”

“It’s not stupid,” Roman said.

“It’s a bit stupid,” Aroa cut in.

Roman stuck out his foot, lightly kicking Aroa in the butt.  “Shut up.  You know the rules.  And you know that moms and dads are tough topics.  Nobody’s going to laugh at Chicken for this unless they want my foot jammed up their ass.”

“I wouldn’t laugh,” Kenzie said.  “I could even help, if you wanted me to do a composite image for you using the parts you thought fit, or if you wanted me to search old databases.”

“It’s my thing,” Chicken Little said.  “I specifically asked for you to not butt in, and you’re butting in more now that you’ve been caught?”

“That’s not-” Kenzie stopped herself.

“Do you want to go?” I asked.  This was more aggressive than I’d anticipated.

“Hey, Lookout,” Aroa called out.  “Since Roman just mentioned the rules, do you need a refresher?  The most important rule.  They would have warned you pretty early on.”

“It’s fine,” Chicken Little said.  “No, not fine, but I don’t want-”

“You don’t hurt the Chicken,” Aroa called out.

“Don’t speak for the group, Aroa,” Imp said.  She’d been leaning against the side of a stable.  Now she was cutting in.  “This is about the quartet and their team.”

“You don’t hurt the Chicken,” Darlene said.

“Okay,” Imp said.  “I’ll rephrase, don’t speak for Chicken.  He said he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, right?”

“Right,” Chicken Little said.

But some younger Heartbroken had picked it up.  Amias, the chubbier eight or nine year old.  The red haired Heartbroken.

“Okay,” Imp said.  “I guess that’s the conch shell broken.”

Okay, way more aggressive than I’d anticipated.

And Kenzie stood there, wounded.  Candy a few feet away, passive, while her big sister approached, bending down to whisper something in her ear.  Candy nodded.

I looked at Imp, and I made a surreptitious motion, toward the car.

She nodded.

I put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder.  I had to give her a tug to break her out of her daze and get her moving.  Leading her back to the car.

I nearly tripped as she jerked to a stop.  I used flight to catch my balance, then turned around.

Kenzie, stricken, wasn’t moving a muscle.

I looked past her, and I saw Juliette in the background, unmoving.

Imp put herself between Flor and us, while Flor tried to duck around.  She got closer to Chicken Little in the process, and it was Roman who looked after the kid.

But that left a few others who were approaching.

“Guys,” Imp said.  “You do this, you don’t get to come to Aunt Rachel’s for a long, long time.  I’ll be disappointed.  I think a lot of people will.”

Chastity faced off against some of the younger group, whip out.  Candy was beside her, arms at her sides.

Darlene caught my eye, because Darlene was on the side of the aggressors, and I’d had enough warnings about her to date that I knew she was almost as bad as Flor.  More than any of the others, she reminded me of what I’d seen of Cherish, and of Jean-Paul Vasil.  Regent.

I used my aura, blasting it across the group.  Fat lot of good it did.  Three out of four of the kids didn’t even react.  The rest barely seemed to be affected.

I bent down, swooping the frozen Kenzie up into my arms, in something approximating the hug I’d offered her earlier, but emptier, purely in the interest of saving her from whatever this group was threatening her with.  The swiftness of the motion gave me a coughing fit, which I did my best to suppress, face turned away from Kenzie.

The freeze gripped me.  My every muscle ceased to listen to me, and only my flight kept me from falling over.

She fell from my unmoving arms, landing on the snow.  I flew to rotate myself around, but my body remained statue-still.

“You looked at my computer?” Candy asked.  Kenzie was a matter of five feet behind her, kneeling in the snow.

“Yeah.”

“The letters I wrote to dad’s friends?”

“Yeah.  Yes.”

Candy looked back, her expression pained.  “I didn’t want you to see those.  Not yet.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re going to be really sorry if they get to you,” Candy said.  She took a step to the side, putting herself between Darlene and Kenzie.  To Darlene, she said, “Don’t.”

“She hurt the Chicken.”

“The Chicken says he doesn’t want this.  The reason you’re doing this is you’re jealous, because he likes her and she likes him,” Candy said.

“Saying that out loud means it’s more likely I do something to her,” Darlene said.

“You like her,” Candy said.  “You’re happier and more friendly when she’s around.”

“When she’s not hurting him!”

“You enjoyed her company more than anyone.  You had the least complaints about her.  Sorry.”

“I read all that too,” Kenzie said, still kneeling, eyes downcast.

“Oh,” Candy said.

“Get out of my way,” Darlene said.  “You don’t want to get on my bad side.”

“Try me.  This is stupid.”

Natalie had exited the car, running forward, and was stricken mid-stride.  She fell hard, stopped for just a pivotal second while running.  Juliette again.

Roman had left, taking Chicken Little with him.  She used her power, as someone ran across Roman’s path, to make that someone stop in Roman’s way.  Roman nearly fell, then pushed the civilian aside.  Getting Chicken Little clear of a bad scene.

Someone else exited the main building, a big guy with a black beard, his attention on our group.  He fell down the bottom three stairs when she froze him.

Aroa laughed, and it was a haunting, joyless child’s laugh.

I was free, and I flew closer, only to be caught in a cloud of blinding pain that made my nerves sing high, sweet notes.  I couldn’t fly into the crowd of Heartbroken when I couldn’t see straight, so I plunged into the ground near Chastity.  A fierce enough impact that it spooked some of the kids nearby.

“You’re being selfish and shortsighted, and you’ll drive away all of the best people here.  Chastity, and Imp and Tattletale and Rachel, Char and Forrest, Ben and Old Bird,” Candy said.  “You’ll lose Chicken, and not because he likes Lookout.”

“Why are you defending her?”

“Because she’s our best friend, you tit!  It sucks we lost Sammy and it feels like balances are broken but that doesn’t mean we go bad!  It means we try to fill the space he left behind!  And she lost someone too and maybe she was dumb and she broke rules, but I think that matters.  Swansong was cool.”

Darlene huffed for breath.  I remained in a crouch, feeling more like a feral dog than a person as the pain crackled off me, my entire body tingling in a way that brought back the worst of bad memories.  About four kids were keeping their distance just because I was where I was.  Darlene sort of included.

“Lookout,” Candy said.  “When you looked at all that stuff, was it after Swansong?”

“Before.  But we knew we’d lose someone.”

“You weren’t thinking straight.”

“No.”

“It was shitty,” Candy said, her attention split between Kenzie and the ongoing skirmish, kids fanning out.  Some, I was pretty sure, were unpowered.  But some weren’t, and I didn’t know all of those powers.  “Those letters were for me and my doctor.”

Rachel’s dogs were on the scene now.  The one from by the fence, Bastard, Yips, and two more.  They approached, and they interjected themselves into the middle of the fight.  Crazy or sadistic, the kids didn’t fuck with the dogs.

Rachel hopped off Bastard’s back, joining Imp, who seemed to be recapping.

“I know.  Really.  I know I upset you guys, I pushed things too far.  I crossed boundaries without meaning to.”

“You’re talking about the other stuff.  Like when we complained about you waiting outside the bathroom while we went.  Or that day you didn’t go more than five minutes without calling one of us.”

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  “I read the things you said.  The jokes.  Like when I called and you said ‘look out, another Kenzie call!’ or Candy calling me thirstier than a humpless camel.  You said I was so broken it would take your dad to fix me, and you hate your dad.”

Rachel turned away from Imp.  I held up a hand.

“Some things are so horrible you have to joke about them,” Darlene said.

“I’m that horrible?” Kenzie asked, quiet.

“Dad is!”

The fighting had stopped.  Various kids looked sullen or wary.  Others like Chastity looked exhausted.

“We’re all kind of broken or horrible,” Candy said.  “Obviously.  But we grew up with each other, so we got over it.  We said a lot of nasty stuff about each other over the years, as part of learning how to live with each other.  You’re… can I say she’s part of the family?”

She’d asked Darlene.  Darlene frowned.

Candy didn’t press.  Kenzie clasped her hands together for warmth, crouching and making for a very small, slight figure, still kneeling in snow that had to be freezing.

“Yeah,” Darlene said.

“Okay?” Candy asked.

“I have to think about it.  I really want to hang out with you guys again, even if the team isn’t a thing anymore, but Ms. Yamada told me I have to be careful and watch out for anything like people who treat me badly and then draw me back in.”

“We’ll ease back in,” Candy said.  “Make amends over time.  Please?  I like having a girl as a friend I’m not related to, who wears normal clothes.”

“Time to go,” Rachel called out.

She was addressing us.

I stood, using my flight.  I gave Kenzie a hand, and had to pull her up.

“I need my stuff,” Kenzie said, her eyes downcast.  Her voice was so quiet it was more for me than for anyone else, even Candy, to hear.  “For tonight.”

“Can we get her lab stuff?” I asked.

“After.  We’ll send it to you.”

“That’ll break stuff more,” Kenzie said.  Still talking to me, not Rachel.

“We’ll go,” Candy said.  She stepped forward and took Darlene’s hand.  “As a team.  Whatever you’re doing.”

“That might not be the best idea,” I said.  It makes a sketchy situation worse, and embroils the Undersider’s kids in this.  If this goes sour, the Undersiders will kill us.

“It would help, actually,” Kenzie said.  “Having Syndicate, especially.”

“Please,” Candy told Darlene.  “You said she was your best non-family friend.  You enjoyed having her around.  You complained less than any of us.  Right?”

Kenzie nodded in affirmation.

“Can we go?” Darlene asked Rachel.  “For a project tonight?”

Rachel looked pretty unimpressed.

“No, I think,” Imp said.  “Not until we get all the lords and ladies of the flies loaded up onto the warship.  Sort out what happened.  Keelhaul a few of you.”

“It’s important,” Kenzie protested.

“And Darlene didn’t do anything except get mad,” Candy added.

“I didn’t!  And you should be focusing more on Aroa and Juliette!” Darlene cut in.

The protests overlapped.

Rachel whistled, hard.  The kids shut up.

“She said no,” Rachel said.

“I say yes,” Tattletale said.  She was just joining the group from behind Natalie’s car.  One of the other buildings.  “At least for now, the kids should get in the car and make up.  Bring Chicken back, have them talk.  It does more damage if they don’t at least say sorry to each other and get on the same page.”

Rachel heaved out a sigh, staring Tattletale down.

“Really,” Tattletale said.  “I have the impression this is important.  Let’s get someone to get the tinker stuff while we wait.”

“I swear,” Imp said, and her voice was hard.  “If I have to have another funeral for the Heartbroken so soon, I’m gone, and I’m taking them with.  Samuel was bad enough.”

“Okay,” Tattletale said.

Slowly, quietly, the mob was broken up, the kids sent their separate ways.  Kenzie, Darlene, Candy, and after a minute, Chicken Little all gathered in the back of Natalie’s car, with Natalie sitting in the front, hands on the wheel, staring out at nothing in particular.

“You want me to bring your Damsel of Distress into the villain inner circle,” Tattletale commented.

“It’s what I said on the phone.  Yeah.”

“Talk me through it.”

“You can work with controlled chaos.  Semiramis wants a Little-Midas-like violent subfaction to bounce off against, it’s how she operates, and I know Damsel will like Semiramis’s shtick without them being so similar they’ll threaten each other.  Prancer knows her and knows her team, pretty much.”

“She’s a known quantity, sure.  But she’s a mess, and she’s petty.”

“She’s looking for direction.  You’re looking to expand your collective power base.  She captures a share of the villains out there that the rest of you guys don’t.  Her being petty is her having aspirations without having a lot of hard-to-meet needs.”

“And what do you get out of this?  You get to play kingmaker?”

“I get a villain who could blow a hole in reality off the streets and into a place where she’s being watched and encouraged to be cooperative,” I said.  “For right now that’s all that matters.”

“Until this big, scary side project of yours comes through.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“You’re taking my kids and you’re taking my Chicken Little?”

“Lookout seems to think it’ll matter.”

“And she’s… really the one you want to be leaning on, in this specific moment?”

I sighed.

She looked out over the area where the skirmish had been happening.  Most of the kids had cleared out.

“This is my mess that boiled over.  I’ll babysit your Damsel for one day.  After that, I suspect she’ll either lose interest, or we’ll have other distractions.  In return, you keep my kids safe, and whatever you end up doing, you don’t point it at me or my people.  If you can fuck Teacher front-on with a nail-studded baseball bat while you’re at it, I’d consider it a favor.”

“I’ll look into that,” I said.

“Do I go talk to Damsel now?”

“No,” I said.  “You say yes, and I’ll believe you.  That should be enough to get her on board.  She has details to share for our Teacher-fucking project tonight, but they were conditional on getting some promises.  I had to ask you first.”

“Face to face.”

“It helps,” I said, shrugging.

“And you’re meeting her now.  You’re meeting everyone now.”

I nodded.  I looked back at the car.  Kenzie sat in the back, knees drawn up to her chest, a smile on her face.  It was not, at the very least, the horribly lonely smile from before.  “Talking to Damsel and getting the tech going.”

Tattletale grinned.  “Then I’ll come, to keep an eye on the kids in my charge, and to see what kind of glorious, horrible mess you’re about to make.”

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From Within – 16.5

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I took Kenzie’s keyboard-sized bit of tech that she’d brought with her, slinging it over my shoulder with a strap she’d attached.  I would have let the others do the carrying, but the others were working.  Huntsmen, Tristan, and Sveta pushed a car that had been put into Neutral out of the middle of the road.  Rain still had his silver blade and was chopping down the fully-grown wooden growths.  With Backwoods out of the way, they didn’t seem to be triggering with proximity.

If I’d been in costume, I might have felt like I needed to do more while in the public eye.  Instead, I surveyed and I took a break to cough violently for a minute.  My head pounded.  I’d taken the time to go talk to the people who’d lost property.  Kenzie had taken pictures, she said, of the damage, license plates, and what she’d seen of the looting.  I’d asked the car owners where they were headed.

Kenzie stood next to me, and it wasn’t the normal kind of standing-next-to.  We all had our normal expectations of personal space, and she stood within mine, as close as she could get to hugging herself against my side without actually touching me.  I’d nearly elbowed her in the head while attaching the strap for the keyboard not-cube.

I put a hand on her shoulder.

“Tonight?” Kenzie asked, looking up at me.

“Hm?”

Making the sound made me cough.

“Rain’s thing that we were just talking about.  Tonight.  Um.  It’s about noon now, I think if I got some things together and checked old readings, ummmm… I think I still have readings from the Shin prison.  And he’s slept over at other times.  I have most of what I need.  I could really use some tips from Ashley, um, Damsel, but that’s not super needed.”

“Tonight was sooner than I was thinking,” I admitted.  “Damsel?”

“Tonight is better, isn’t it?  They’re saying things could break like they almost did here, sometime today or tomorrow.  Isn’t it better to be soon?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, it’s better.”

“Cool,” she said, before dropping her head, hands up to her hair.  “Shoot!  Not cool, ugh.”

I could feel her shoulder tense beneath my hand.  “What?”

“Some things I need are back at my workshop.  The one I set up with my other team.  Uuugh.”

“Alright,” I said.  “It’s up to you.  It doesn’t have to be tonight-”

“But it should.”

“Probably.  And we were talking about this as a conversation that needed to happen.”

“Ugghhhh.”

I rubbed her shoulder.  She let her head wobble with the motion.

“They’re out of the city, by the way,” she reported.  “They got into a pair of cars.  Ash- Damsel of Distress is riding shotgun.  There’s less cameras near them now.”

“Okay.  But you can track them?”

“I put a tracker on Torso.”

“I’d say that’s perfect, but I don’t like you getting that close to the action, especially with an unknown power.”

“Sorry,” she said.

I gave her shoulder one last rub, then stuck my cold hand in my pocket.  What was I even supposed to say here?  What would Ashley have said, that would be so out of sync with normal expectations but so right for Kenzie?

Who’s going to stick around to tell me I’m awesome if you go and get your head smashed in?

No, not that blatant about the ego.  But…

“Who’s going to tell me to use challah for French toast if you go and get your head smashed in?  I like having you around, Kenzie.”

After a pause, she let her head tilt left, resting against my arm.

“And for the record,” I said.  “I’m saying that to Kenzie, not Lookout.  I like Lookout too, but I think we got along from the start, when we first met.  That was before tinker powers came into play.”

“I always get along with people at first.  Usually, when it counts.  Then I ruin it.  It’s dangerous, saying stuff like how you like having me around.”

“I can handle dangerous,” I said.

Of course, finishing that sentence made my throat tickle, and I had another coughing fit.

At the very least, when I was done, I could feel Kenzie’s head trying to find its place resting against my arm, while she laughed to herself.

I craned my head down to see, and there wasn’t a smile on her face.  If anything, she looked pensive, jaded, eyes half-lidded and downcast, even as she shook with the last few chuckles.  I felt in the moment like she’d grown up by years in the past few months.

It was a fucking shame, in so many ways.

The others rejoined us.  Tristan signaled, and I nodded.

My hand on Kenzie’s back to give her the initial impetus, we started walking, heading over to the Huntsmen.

“Good work,” Snow White said.  Etna was just a bit behind her, floating while leaning against a car, still holding the glass spear.

“I mentioned we might be able to trace them.  We can, we have a tracker on them, and we know they’re leaving the city, heading into the woods to the west.  Do you think you’d be willing to negotiate to know where your rivals’ HQ is?”

“What are you looking to negotiate for?” Snow White asked.

“A ride.”

“As much as I’d like to accept, we have other obligations.”

“The moving trucks?” Etna asked.

“Yeah.  They’re only available for a few hours,” Snow White said.  She turned to us, to me.  “Packing up our base.  I’d invite you to come and see if there’s a chance to make a detour, but we’ll be loading up two of our apartments as well.”

“I just helped someone move,” Sveta said.  “It’s a pain.”

“Any other time, I’d put off the moving trucks, but they’re booked solid.  They’ve taken trucks from the city’s construction companies and they have them hauling houses twenty-four seven, and it’s still not enough.”

That made me regret not packing up more, kind of.

“I can take ’em,” Etna said.  “It might be a bit cramped.”

“Yeah?” Snow White asked.

“I don’t have anything to move.  It lets me be useful, I can bring some of the info back.”

There was a brief confab within the Huntsmen.  I took the opportunity to check with the others, more in the sense of looks and shrugs than anything else.

No objections.  If anything, my own reservations about Etna, however small, were probably overblown compared to everyone else’s.

“Good luck,” Snow White said.

“You too,” Tristan said.  He shook her hand.

“Hey,” I said, just to get their attention before they left.  “If this thing happens, this shattering of the worlds, the damage, whatever Teacher was working for.  What are you going to do?”

“How bad are we thinking it’s going to be?” Snow White asked.  “Gold Morning bad?”

“Maybe.”

“We survive.  Scatter.  I think we stick together as a team, we keep doing what we’ve been doing for a while.  Put arrows in the worst bad guys and manage the rest.”

“That simple, huh?”

Snow White shrugged.  “Simple yes.  Easy no.”

I nodded.

She gave us a short wave by way of farewell, then left with the rest of her team, leaving us with Etna.

Etna led us back to the portal, a couple of blocks and an elevator ride away.  From there, we crossed a part of the complex to reach another portal that extended further out.

It felt like an interminably long time, especially because Etna was the type to kill any conversation or small talk by giving short answers that were impossible to follow up on.  I would have thought she didn’t want to chat, but her responses were earnest, and what little I could see of her expression suggested she was trying to be nice and she was pleased and bewildered that we were taking her switch from villain to hero in good stride.

And I wanted to reflect that attitude of hers so much, but I was mostly being quietly down and introspective, all of my defenses up so I could fend off intrusive thoughts.  I was doubly annoyed with everything and doubly distracted because I couldn’t fly.  I’d stopped flying to try to make an ‘I’m disarming’ point to someone who didn’t see it as me being armed, and I couldn’t conscience using my power until we were away from the highest danger part of the city.

Fuck it.  I was grumpy, I was letting myself be grumpy.  My ego felt bruised after Mockument’s had hatched that creation, and I felt so many different instances of bad for people that I felt bad overall.

Felt bad for Kenzie.  Felt bad for Tristan.  Felt bad for the dozen or so people or families that had seen their cars get trashed and their life’s possessions totaled.

It felt so petty, to go after these guys with half our rationale being to get jewelry and clothes back, but… it was important too.

We found ourselves back outside and the group trudged along sidewalks that hadn’t been cleared of snow in the last day.  I spent a minute tuning everything out, my head pounding, my heart trying to channel every bit of negativity into hating the snow and the winter.

As long as the trudge felt, the use of portals had let us cross some surprising ground.  Flying, the trip might have taken me fifteen or twenty minutes.  As it was, it took maybe twelve, and the rest of the team got to come with.

Etna and I at least floated above the snow, but I flew low enough that my toes trailed in the snow, so I could give Kenzie a hand if she reached up to get over the snowbanks that piled up at each intersection, barring the way to crosswalks.

“Any tips on making weapons with a power?” Tristan asked.  Most of the attempts at conversation seemed to be him taking stabs at it.

“Not really,” Etna said, holding up her glass spear, as if to launch into another bit of conversation or explanation.

Nope, her arm dropped.

“I know we come at it from pretty different directions, but there are factors like weight, balance, edges… the sharper the edge, the more brittle it’s going to be.”

“I run into that with making knives,” Rain said.  “I made a mistake using too pure a steel once.”

“Exactly,” Tristan said, enthused.  “Do you run into that, Etna?”

“Oh.  I guess so.  I figured that out as I went.  I never really thought about it.”

“Ah, so it’s instinct,” Tristan said, “But even with instinct, there are different kinds.  For a parahuman, there’s the instinct that comes from you, and there’s the instinct that comes from the connection between you and power.  Or you and agent.”

“I like that a lot,” I said.  “You could say there’s an instinct that comes straight from the agent.”

“You can definitely say that,” Sveta said.  “I’ve been fighting it for all my life.  It’s only recently I got to stop fighting and finally relax.”

“I think most of my instincts are learned and come from me,” Rain said.  “Or is it more accurate to say I’d like to think that?  How do you know?”

“You know,” I said, at nearly the same time Sveta did.

“Then I think I know it’s me,” Rain said, his tone a little different, like he’d been subdued a bit.

“Three kinds, then,” Tristan said.  There was an energy to his mannerisms and tone that wasn’t always there.  I might have thought it was related to him being away from the hospital bed or energized from the fight, but it wasn’t.  Not exactly.  He turned to Etna, “Any theories or thoughts?”

“Hmmm,” she said.  “Not really.  But I’ll think about it.”

“Are the Huntsmen treating you well?” Sveta asked, her tone bright.

“Yes, they really are.  Nice, but they’re very serious when it comes to the cape stuff.”

“Good serious?” Tristan prodded.

“Yep.  It’s good.”

Tristan was strong enough to move through the snow without difficulty, due to that small boost his powers gave him to his physical capabilities.  He put a hand back to give Kenzie a hand, while I took her other hand.  We lifted her up and over a tough patch of footing.

I could just see how much agony he was in.  The energy he was putting into bashing his head into this brick wall was a consequence of his stubbornness and his extroverted nature catalyzing together.  I could picture him dragging fingernails down his cheeks.

It was comically amusing at a time comical amusement felt out of place.  My thoughts were on Mockument and on Swansong, on Kenzie and on Byron.

“You remind me of my brother when he was a kid,” Tristan told Etna, his tone still light.

“Really?  Should I take that as a complement?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “He’s a good guy.”

“Neat.”

More agony for Tristan.  Ten or fifteen minutes of this.

“Here’s my car.  Sorry it’s a bit of a mess.”

The hatchback had been painted a bold red, but aside from some rust on the passenger side door, there wasn’t much mess that I could see.  Her car was cleaner than just about anyone I knew, and even the back was mostly vacant, with a second spare tire within.  She had to unlock all four doors manually with her key.  It was one of the post-Gold Morning cars.  Early-era by the look of it.  In a world where everything went perfectly, humanity got over its current crisis and we found our equilibrium, I could imagine it being a collector’s item.

Everyone climbed in.  I took the back seat, Kenzie on one side of me, keyboard not-cube on the floor by my feet.  Sveta took the next spot in the back seat, followed by Rain.  Tristan in front.  Sveta loosened up her body, looked for a space to occupy, and then went over the back seat into the trunk area, looking over the top.

“You drive, huh?” I asked.

“Yep,” Etna said.

“I can, but I couldn’t convince myself to get a car when I fly most of the time.”

“Oh, that makes sense,” she said.

I wondered if I’d given her any brain damage after all.

The car was in the process of pulling out when something struck the windshield, which made Etna hit the brakes, hard.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the point of impact.

Some of us climbed out, to look for the source of the attack.  I was one of them, floating up to get a better perspective.

There were maybe ten people close enough to have thrown- it looked like a car part.  Ten people close enough, twenty people in total all standing along a street with mostly one-story businesses.

They stared.  Their attention was wholly on us.  The classroom dynamic of every kid looking at the class clown that had just disrupted things wasn’t in effect.

“Let’s go,” Etna said.

“You’ve had this happen before?”

“No,” she said.  “But I’ve heard about incidents with capes and angry people.  Let’s just go.”

“Are you sure?” Sveta asked.

“I can fix windshield damage.  I don’t know what I can do if other parts of the Etnamobile get damaged.”

There was none of the eager awkwardness from before in her voice.

“Ballsy,” Rain said.

Tristan was looking around.  “It’d be more ballsy if they stepped up and admitted who did it.”

“I know who did it,” Kenzie said.

Of course.

“Let’s leave it alone,” I told her.  “If we make an issue of it, we make ourselves look worse, not better.”

“I joined villains because it seemed fun and easy,” Etna said.  “Everything else seemed so much harder.  There’s money in being a villain.  The costumes are better.”

“Ehh,” I said.  I remembered Etna’s skimpy fire sorceress outfit from Hollow Point, before the weather had cooled.

“They really are,” Kenzie said.

Traitor, I thought, with no venom to the thought.

“But it isn’t easier.  It wears on you, you have to worry about being caught.  People will like you from a distance because you’re cool, you’re dark, you’re edgy.  Then they hate you to your face, even if they don’t talk about it because they’re afraid.  I went hero and… they hate us anyway?”

“Might be because so many people chose being a villain first, because they thought it’d be easier and more fun, even if it meant stepping on the civilians along the way,” I said.

“Oof,” Etna grunted.  She sounded genuinely wounded as she said, “That’s fair.”

“It’s fair but a little mean of Antares to say,” Sveta said, poking me.  “She’s in a mood.”

“Sorry,” I said.  “I really do think it’s great you joined the side of the heroes, and I think the costume looks cool.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s not just me saying it because Tress is jabbing at me.  I don’t have the energy to be fake.”

Etna made an amused sound, which had the benefit of not being another conversation aborter.  At the same time, Sveta stopped poking me.

“Turn right,” Kenzie said.  “Then head pretty much straight until we’re out of the city.”

As Etna turned right, I let my head go left, resting it against the window.  I partially closed my eyes, tuning almost everything out.

The buildings to our left grew thinner, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in a vehicle to watch the city go by, that hadn’t been me with the Patrol.  Jasper, heading to the community center.

As the buildings got thinner and further between, I could see past them to the city proper.  I could make out the slice of the highest density portals all mixed in together, like a pane of glass that had broken, each segment a different piece of sky, many of them brighter than the sky we had here.  The wind that came through seemed to repel clouds and storm, as they emanated high-pressure air.

Was that going to be the entire city?  How much of the rest of our world would follow it?

I didn’t sleep, but I wasn’t wholly awake either.  Kenzie used the windshield to start talking about glass and lenses with Etna, and Etna didn’t seem to know how to disengage from a conversation with a tinker who was deep into her subject material.  Kenzie needed the distraction and we’d exhausted our collective conversation starters with Etna inadvertently shooting every single one of them down, so I didn’t expend the energy to steer Kenzie away.

My thoughts turned to the upcoming conversation, ways to handle it, and from there they spun off in a bunch of different directions.

I brought up a few with the team, and we had a back and forth, before the conversation died for reasons having nothing to do with Etna.

I lost myself in thought and in the absentminded tracking of the sensations of power.  If I paid attention to my flight while sitting in the car, could I feel the difference as we got further away, like I’d felt a difference while rising in the air?

The drive felt like it took the question mark at the end of that question and dragged it out into a long, unconscious drone.  A question without firm answer.

My eyes opened as the car slowed, rumbling over a frosty dirt road that had barely been looked after.  Kenzie was leaning into me, fiddling with a button, a needle-thin screwdriver, and what looked like the world’s smallest arc-welder, her cupped hand containing the brilliant light.

“Slower,” Kenzie said, without looking up.  “We’re close enough they could hear us coming.”

“Okay,” Etna said.  She slowed down considerably, to the point the car had trouble making it over roots that cut across the top of the road.

I opened my car door and slipped out while the car was still moving.

The woods were dense on either side of the road, and the ‘road’ such as it was, was just a strip of dirt cutting an irregular path through the trees, less like it was intended to take a straight line and more like they’d cut down as few trees as they could get away with while still getting where they wanted to be.

The house itself was half concrete and half prefab, thick walls on the lower section and the side facing downhill, slabs like shipping container walls locked into each other on the other faces.  The prefab slices were construction yellow, but it had been painted over in a paint that wasn’t entirely sticking.  The effect was almost cool, because it looked like it was glowing through.

The chimney smoked, and two cars were parked under one corner of the building, which was held up by a pillar.

The others gathered below, Etna momentarily looking like a deer as she bobbed up and down to avoid branches above and annoying undergrowth below.

“Do we knock?” Rain asked.

“We could,” Tristan answered.  “But I don’t think that would go over well.”

“Wait,” Kenzie said.  “This is my specialty.  Here, Etna, take this.”

Etna took the button.  “What do I do with it?”

“It’s a gift,” Kenzie said, while she busied herself with her phone.  “For giving us a ride.  It gives you a cool effect, but probably only for thirty minutes.  Use it to look intimidating and cool or if you have an event and want to look cool for the cameras or some junk like that.  It was supposed to be for a friend, but I swapped out the aesthetic tiles and mapped in molten glass and regular fractal glass patterns.  Just press the button when you want to use it- not here!  Not here, or you’ll give us away.”

“Uh, okay.  Thank you.”

“And use it before the next year is up.  Then dispose of it somewhere far from any people, or deplete its battery.  Just to be sure nobody gets hurt.”

“A-alright.  Thank you.”

“Here,” I said.  I had my wallet in my jacket pocket.  “Money for gas, and for the windshield, while we’re at it.”

I forked over the bills.  Etna handed me back a twenty-five New Dollar bill, waving it off as too much.

Kenzie got Rain to pull out his phone, because he’d apparently let her tinker with it, then had it display a feed from an external camera outside the forest headquarters.  I could see us- or the general area where we were, though we were too small and muted to be easily made out.

Her own phone showed the interior.  The villains were settling in.  A few were working on first aid.

She motioned for me to get my phone out, then positioned herself so she wasn’t looking at any of the phones, instead staring out toward the cabin.

My phone flickered, then showed an image similar to the interior shot.  All villains were highlighted in yellow, their names above their heads, while the rest of the place was there in shades of blue.  X-ray vision.

“I’m going to point out again that you’ve got way too much tech packed into your eyes, Lookout,” Precipice said.

“I used the concepts from the contact pads you showed me, to have eyeballs outside the head, remember?”

“I remember.”

“And then I figured, why not just have eyeballs inside my head like a normal person?  Phase them in, each one on a different channel, with the contact pads going straight on or near the brain?  Fake optical nerves, minimum connection issue.  Like how you talked about your stuff working better if you planted the pads nearer to the spine or the median nerves of the arms.”

“I have about six different problems with that,” Rain said, his voice low.  “Seven, now that I think about it.  How hot are you running?”

I put my hand on her forehead.  “I’m not feeling anything.”

“I’m not running any side routines on my brain,” Kenzie said, sounding exasperated.  “Look, first of all, we have a job.  If I zoom in, focusing in on the car… the trunk is still in there.”

The phone I was holding up had the x-ray vision.  Kenzie had tuned the view to capture the loose luggage shape in the back of the car.

“We could sneak down there, crack that open, and steal it.  No fight, obviously we wouldn’t get a chance to talk to Ashley, or it would be an ugly and unfriendly talk, but it’s an option, okay?”

“I feel like you’re distracting us,” Rain said.  “I have six problems with your tech load and how you’re carrying it.  I’m not even a good tinker and there are red flags here.”

“Can we deal with it after?” Kenzie asked.  She pointed.  “Mission.  Ashley.

“Damsel,” I said, quiet.  “Not Ashley.”

She sighed.

“I get it.  I’ve been doing the mental flip-flop in my head, myself,” I told her.  “That’s Damsel, that’s Ashley, that’s Damsel.  But that first talk was to look for Ashley and reach out.  This time, we’re here for Damsel.”

“And Damsel’s here for us,” Kenzie said, turning her head.  “Did they see us?  Do they have a thinker?”

“No thinker,” Etna said.

The Deathchester group was leaving the headquarters.  They fanned out at first, which suggested they hadn’t directly seen us.

“I was careful with the camera,” Kenzie protested.  “Shoot!”

Tristan reached out to touch my shoulder.  We looked at Sveta, who nodded, then at Rain, who didn’t protest.

We stepped out of the cover of the trees, away from our parked vehicle.

Deathchester lined up, facing us.  A few of them had stayed inside.  Sidepiece was thankfully one.

Gibbet reached for a log from a stack of firewood, and broke off a stretch of bark.  She dropped into a crouch and pressed it into the ground before turning it like a key, ignoring the hardness of the ground she was turning it through.  All around her, like a ripple expanding out, jagged, thin walls of wood stabbed up and around us.

Until we were surrounded, walled in.  Not that it was much of a wall.  Cardboard thin.

I supposed her use of the gallows before had been a style thing.

“We didn’t see a tail,” Trophy Wife said.

“How did you know we were here?” Kenzie asked.

“I’ll tell you our secret if you tell us yours,” Damsel said.

More at ease, even surprised with a situation like this, than she’d been back in the city center.  Oddly so.  Because she was further from the thin ice?

“Can I?” Kenzie asked Tristan, before looking to me.  “It’s a security thing.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I saw Tristan nod at the same time.

“Tracker,” Kenzie said.  “On Torso.”

“I told you to check yourselves over, you in particular,” Damsel hissed the words, before striking Torso on the back of the head.  He toppled, landing on frozen earth, the back of his head scuffed by the claw-marks.

“How did you find me?”

“You’re getting sloppy,” Damsel said.  “I hired someone because I had a sneaky little suspicion that a sneaky little heroine would be snooping around.  Epeios.”

Kenzie groaned.  “He’s going to have his greasy fingerprints all over my stuff, now!”

“With way too much of that stuff in your head,” Rain muttered, under his breath.

“No whispering,” Damsel said, extending a bladed finger our way.  She seemed pleased with herself.  “We might get paranoid, and I destroy anything that might make my underlings paranoid.”

“You got your trial run as leader, Damsel,” Trophy Wife said.  “It doesn’t mean we’re all underlings.”

“Shh,” Damsel said.  “I’m leader until someone says otherwise.  If you want to oust me, do it formally, not in front of the riff-raff.”

“Can we talk?” I asked.  “You scored your win, walked away.  I want to strike some deals.  Think of it as walking away with something more.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite understand you, with that mask in the way,” she said.  “Mockument, could you do us all a favor and bring us out an impartial translator?”

“Do that and you’ll be picking a fight,” Tristan warned.  “We can’t negotiate with a distraction like that.”

She waved Mockument off.  “Since you’re pleading with me, I’ll be gracious.”

“Sure,” Tristan said.

“Three things we want,” I said.

“Greedy.  You know, it’s really hard to take you seriously, Antares, when I’ve seen the ugliness that lies within you.”

I tensed.

She smiled.

The cast of figures around her were either stone-faced or masks covered their faces.  Mockument was utterly still and expressionless, as were Trophy Wife and Nailbiter.  Gibbet and Backwoods had masks, and Hookline and Sidepiece were inside.

I answered, careful to keep my voice steady.  “We could have come after you hard, with the stunts you were pulling and the risk you were putting all of us in.  The only reason we’re here talking to you is that we’ve seen what lies within you.”

Her smile dropped away.  She went completely, dangerously still.

Maybe it wasn’t the best move from a diplomacy standpoint, but it was satisfying on a visceral level.

“We want the loot back.  That’s thing number one.  it’s not a lot to you, but it means a ton to those evacuees, sentiment-wise.  We’ll pay you more than it’s worth, you won’t need to fence it.  Provided you agree to our other terms.”

“What if we want to keep it?” Gibbet asked.  She still crouched.

“Clothes too big for you and random jewelry?” I asked.

She shrugged.

“It makes sense,” Trophy Wife said.  “And we need to sell it to give the boys their cut of the earnings.”

Damsel cleared her throat.

“But-” Gibbet started.

Damsel’s power flickered along the blades of one hand.  Gibbet shut up.

Maintaining control.

“Two,” I said, while she remained silent, glaring.  “Swansong provided the Wardens with information about dreams.  She got money for it.  She’s gone now.  Lookout wants some details to prep something we’re looking to do tonight, you want money, do you think we can talk about a short term deal?  Brief twenty or thirty minute conversation, couple hundred New Dollars to share with your team?”

“What dreams in particular have your kiddie all up in a tizzy?” Damsel asked.  She paced a bit, now.  Pacing was better than dangerous stillness.  “Do you want to know if I have any fond memories of Swansong?  Are you having a service tonight?”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “No service yet.    All the places we’d normally hold one are evacuating.”

“We can get into which dreams when we’ve agreed on prices,” Tristan said.

Damsel shrugged.  She flexed her claws.

She was dangerous.  In another time and place, I wouldn’t have wanted to work with her.  But Damsel of Distress was chaos, and we needed chaos under control.  The only alternative was to extinguish her, and I was pretty sure that the ramifications of that would be far far worse than at least trying this.

“Third thing,” I said.  “We can’t have repeat incidents.  We need you to back off, for real.  We need to know we don’t have to worry about you attacking our most vulnerable areas or causing interdimensional disasters because you’re willing to take those risks.”

“But Antares,” she said, putting an inflection on the name.  “You’re prostrating yourself before me, offering me all of these things.  Money, free reign, escape.  I bet I could ask anything of you.  I know you like your discussions over tea or bread and wine with black and white movies.  I know our deluded Swansong enjoyed her breakfasts with her desperate little supplicant, but those things don’t have any hold over me.  Why would I tie my hands?”

She moved her claws to demonstrate just what hands would be tied.

I could see too much of her eyes, too much energy in how she moved and moved those claws.  She was bringing up details she had no right or ability to know.  Things she’d picked up from the dreams, from Swansong.  Ashley.  Using them.

Earlier, I’d thought maybe she was less on edge because she was further from the thin ice.  Now, I was thinking it was different.  She’d been caught off guard back there, and any variation of Ashley or Damsel that was caught off balance would often rebound the opposite way, violent, devastating, and unpredictable.  It had been the case even in our first match against one another.  In many unfamiliar situations.

Here, she wasn’t off guard.  She’d had time to consider the situation, and while I’d been thinking of how to approach this conversation and what to offer, she had been coming to terms with that glimmer of Swansong within her.

She felt in control, poised, and powerful now because she was harnessing that glimmer.  She’d used knowledge of Kenzie to hire Epeios, probably before today given the timing.  She was using knowledge of me and Kenzie to get at us on a personal level, show how much she knew.

“Think of it less as you tying your hands, and more about… elevating them,” I said.  “Moving up in the ranks, big-picture.”

She didn’t immediately respond.

That blade cuts both ways.  I know you too.

“You’re a new team, pulled together, you can tolerate each other for the most part, okay.  You’ve got power, a first win, some credibility.  Geography’s changing.  We put you in contact with Semiramis, Prancer, and the Undersiders.  The rules we’re suggesting are the rules they want to play by too, I guarantee you.  Play by their and our rules, you can sit at their table.”

She betrayed nothing in her expression, but her team sure did.  I saw Trophy Wife smile a bit.  Gibbet was nodding.  Torso, still lying face-down, stopped trying to get up and twisted his head around to look up at Damsel.

They were transparent, but I felt like I knew her well enough that I was more sure about her answer.  She would quibble, but she would say yes.  She’d called her group Deathchester, after the territory she’d wanted back in Boston.  Where she’d almost but never quite claimed her seat at the table among the local villains.

I could take a stab at giving her that.  Give her exactly what she wanted, while embodying so much of what and who I didn’t want to be.

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From Within – 16.4

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What a shitty, shitty battlefield.  Cold, snowy, tall buildings on either side, cars sitting bumper to bumper down every bit of road and street I could see, and people who had evacuated their cars gathered at the edges, in doorways, nooks, crannies, building interiors.

I kept up in the air and out of the way, flying across the street and turning around so I could watch them and keep an eye out for Breakthrough as they advanced.

I relocated as Damsel directed some of her people my way – Mockument, Gibbet, Hookline, and Sidepiece, then relocated again.  She wanted to come after me, it was clear, but I was more mobile.

I didn’t mind being a distraction, if that was what it came to.

The Huntsmen were heroes who had set up shop in the city outskirts, west of the area that was geographically approximate to where New York had been on Earth Bet.  I could see them already, mostly hanging back and ensuring people were evacuated.  Heroes with something of a vigilante edge, and that edge combined with their aesthetic of black costumes and hoods to make me think of Shadow Stalker, to the extent I almost expected her to pop up among them.

But they had a nature theme, and Shadow Stalker didn’t, and they were serious about their job, policing the park territories.  Thing was, they were probably more corporate and business-driven than the likes of Auzure.  The park territories were tracts of forest multiple acres in size, which the government had contracted out to companies and groups of people who agreed to provide the city a scheduled allotment of game meat, wood, and other natural resources.  So long as they provided that, they had the excess to use as they saw fit.  Most subcontracted, to fill criteria, and most also subcontracted to hire the Huntsmen to protect their ends of the deal.

All of which was probably fucked, now that we were moving people out and away from the city, to alternate worlds and areas a half-day’s drive away from the city.

Trophy Wife, Backwoods, and a few others had preyed on the system the Huntsmen and park territory companies had set up.  Now they positioned themselves between the Huntsmen and Deathchester, but they watched me most of all; Damsel had pointed me out and warned them.  Their position and mentality reflected their experience with their nemeses.

Trophy Wife had a white fur coat with a trophy wrack sweeping up from her back, behind her head, with animal parts and what might have been human bits dangling from it.  Very intimidating, regal, messed up.  I could see why Ashley liked her.  Backwoods had a gnarled wooden mask, black toque, black overalls, heavy boots, and a dark green canvas coat that looked like it had been liberally smeared with oil or black grease.  Maybe to dull colors or to turn a regular coat into something resembling forest camouflage.  He held spear-like branches in each hand, and had a ‘v’ of two more branches sticking up from his shoulders.

Nailbiter and Hookline were the ones who had reacted most to Damsel’s alert, and walked on top of cars to get closer to me.  Nailbiter had extended her limbs.  Same principle as Trophy Wife putting herself closer to the Huntsmen.  Old grudges, and they had some sense of how to fight me, both in terms of what I was capable of and how that actually applied in the real world.

Gibbet was sticking close to Hookline, I noted, despite being a member of Mockument and Torso’s troupe.  She wore a truncated red noose around her neck, a black head covering that covered everything from the neck up, with a tear for the mouth that had been stitched up with red cloth, and tears around the eyes, which had been painted black, with red ‘x’s over the eyelids, and either contact lenses or a minor mutation that gave her actual eyeballs the same red ‘x’.  She wore a long and heavy black coat that probably weighed as much as she did, with more stark red imagery embossed on it.  She looked barely over five feet tall, petite enough I doubted she weighed over a hundred pounds, and she carried a L-shaped length of wood, telephone-pole thick, with a noose hanging from the short end, bearing it across her shoulders.

I guessed Hookline had a girlfriend now.

Hookline’s hook flew up at an angle, flying past the rooftop’s edge and past me, then did a u-turn, reversing course to travel back down to him, hook looped around and scraping against the chain on the way down.

Gibbet hopped up onto the hook itself, swayed a second for balance, and then found her position.  The hook started to retreat back up toward me, carrying her.

Nailbiter, too, started climbing, using the chain as a handhold.

I flew away from the roof they were aiming for, which made Nailbiter stop.  Gibbet continued to be carried up.

Mockument was in his own sub-faction, with capes who tended to hang around together.  Jokers and ‘randoms’.  He had a look that made me think of a jester proportioned like a gorilla, predominantly done up in the new group’s aesthetic of white and black checkerboard.  Torso was a mannequin or doll’s head and upper body in a hard and bulky stone-like material, the rest  black and slim.  with doodle-like drawings on it.  Mismatched cartoon eyes, a heart roughly where the heart would be, and a few words so scribbled out I couldn’t understand them.  The look seemed immensely top-heavy and uncomfortable.

Mockument, Torso, Sidepiece and Damsel were in the center of the mess, breaking into cars and collecting things, or cutting off the ropes that tied luggage to the tops of vehicles, so they could open the luggage and fish through the things.

I winced as I saw Damsel using a power to blast open a lock on a hard plastic case.  She held up a bass guitar.  Sidepiece said something and Damsel threw it to her, followed by the strap.

Damsel looked up at me, and I could see her distant expression.  Whoever Damsel was, I knew the kinds of expressions she wore and why.  My ex-roommate was almost exactly the same.

I took her bait, flying toward her.

“Damsel!” I called out.

She pretended to ignore me.  I avoided flying in close enough that she could use her power to close the distance and try to tag me with a blast.  I didn’t want her one blast, let alone two in short succession.

“You can’t use your powers!  This area is high-risk!”

“Fuck you!” Sidepiece screamed the words.

“How convenient for the heroes.  Scared!?” she called out.

“Heck yeah we’re scared!” I answered.  “You’re like an arsonist at a gas station!”

“Can we do that later?” Sidepiece asked Damsel.

Backwoods was using his power too.  He hurled his wooden spikes, they hit a car near the Huntsmen, and then exploded into a dozen more spikes, impaling the car from within.

I looked in that direction, anxious but unable to do anything.  I had to trust the Huntsmen.

“Can we talk?  Face to face?” I called down.  “I know Lookout really wants to chat, and I know you like her!”

Mockument used his power.  Hand held over ground, then slowly lifted, raising up a pillar of pavement from the road.

“Don’t-” I started.

The pillar broke like an egg.  Flesh spilled out, reaching, groping.  I had no idea what it was at first, until I saw the blonde hair and the extent of naked flesh.  I flew back about ten feet just from the unconscious recoil.

A caricature of a monstrous caricature.  Features distorted, with mouths yawning open in horror, lips lipstick red, or whole faces smooshed into distorted kissy faces.  I saw a tattoo of a heart with an arrow through it, the space within with a word in it.  ‘Amy’.

“Listen to me!” it screeched, shrill.  A hand slapped against a nearby car, caving the tire’s housing in while pushing the car a few feet away.  “Ugh!  I have a runny nose and a sore throat!”

Sidepiece began cackling.

“I… actually don’t know what to say,” Damsel said.  “I was going to joke I didn’t have to go with you to have a face to face with you.  But there’s nothing to joke about.  It’s just sad.”

“Get rid of it,” I said.

“Get rid of me!” the thing screeched.  “I’m so done with this shit!”

“You’re so ugly inside,” Damsel said, before looking up at me, locking eye contact with me, narrow pupils staring.

I tried to draw in a breath to say something else, and the breath hitched.  “Let’s call a truce.  Thirty minutes, we have tea, you tell us what you-”

The thing used my aura, its power spurting and stuttering, washing over me as something I had too many resistances against.

No, that wasn’t enough to interrupt me.  What was enough to get me to stop talking was that it kept talking over me, louder, echoing my words.  It flopped around, trying to use flight while having no less than six different frames of orientation fighting against one another.  “-have some fucking tea!  Tell us what you want!”

Sidepiece fell over, laughing.

I couldn’t get distracted.  We’d been told our presence helped the numbers.  I’d work toward that.

“-tell us what your demands are,” I said.  “If you guys back down and don’t stir things up, we’ll pay you off, strike deals, give you a territory.  You picked the right time and place for this.  You win.”

“-right time and place for this.  Fuck!  You win, we lose like we always do, boo hoo!”

“Can we keep it?” Sidepiece asked.

“You want to deal?” Damsel asked.  “Truce?”

“Yes!” the thing on the road screamed.

“Let’s shake on it,” she said.  Her eye contact didn’t waver.  Her clawed hand extended my way.

I knew Ashley.  I knew that she had her tells, and one of those tells was that she tended to go very still and quiet when poised for the attack.  Swansong had done it with Beast of Burden.  Before any outbursts, there was often a moment where she was more terse, quiet, as if something below the surface was simmering, and a part of her was trying to keep it from losing control by doing nothing.

Which was ironically what I wanted her to do.

“Stop ignoring me!” the caricature screamed.  Sidepiece laughed every time it talked or tried to fly and hit a car instead, the laughter completely new each time.

Torso and Mockument were hanging back, watching.  For how ludicrous their costumes were and how Mockument’s power worked, neither seemed to find much humor in this.

Ashley stared me down, pupils narrowing and then disappearing entirely, until her eyes were pure white.  She wasn’t trying to bluff.  She was challenging me on my convictions, with the implicit threat that she would slash me or use her power to annihilate me.

I called her Ashley in my head because in this moment, in that dangerous frozen position, her mannerisms were one, the same, and both.

“I just noticed, the tattoo says Amy,” Sidepiece cackled.

“Amy!” the thing screeched, abrasive.  “Amy, I love you!”

“I wouldn’t have thought, Antares!” Sidepiece jeered.

“How I love you, let me count the ways!”  It was demolishing a car in the process of trying to drag its bulk onto the trunk.  The strength seemed to come and go, as did the flight and the aura.  “Sweet sexy sister of mine!”

Sidepiece, already mid-laugh, stopped mid-laugh, dragging in a wheezing breath, before collapsing against the side of a car.  She made a sound that might have been her saying, “Oh my god!” while wheeze-laughing at the same time.

It was all I could do not to use every power I had to wipe that thing from the face of this earth.  Sidepiece a close second.  Mockument third.

I shot Mockument a look that made it unambiguously clear what I was thinking.

“No truce?” Damsel asked.

“Truce yes, but I’m not stupid enough to come down there and shake your hand.  Besides,” I said.  I pointed to the mask I wore on my lower face. “Cold.”

You’re cold!?” the caricature asked.  “I’m naked and I’ve got ten different tits pressed against icy pavement and I’m also sick!”

“Yeah!” Sidepiece called out.  “Have some consideration, you pious, sister-fucking bitch!”

“Those were the happiest days of my life,” the caricature said.  “Because she forced me to be happy.  But they were still the happiest.  I might go back if I could.  Things were simpler then.  I had everything I wanted.  Because she made herself the only thing I wanted.”

“Ooh,” Sidepiece said, “Oh.  That recontextualizes a lot.”

“If you had an ounce of decency in you, you’d kill that thing right now,” I said.  I turned in the air to face Mockument and say, “Or unmake it, send it back to where it came.”

Sidepiece retorted, “If you had an ounce of decency, you wouldn’t be a sister-sexual and a sister-romantic!  You think you have the right to preach morality and tell us what to do!?  Hypocrite!  Sister fucker!”

I flew back another ten or twenty feet, feeling a horrible kind of sadness welling in my upper chest, to the point it hurt to breathe.

Damsel had been planning something, and as I retreated, she lunged forward.  She created a ball of power in one claw, and a lateral blast in the other, as if to push the ball out my way.  The ball unfurled, traveling a surprisingly long distance.

If I hadn’t been wary, that might have grazed me.

My heart sank further, and I floated further back, staying relatively low to the ground.

I couldn’t get distracted.  If nothing else, I had grown up around heroes.  From the day I’d first started playing at being a hero, my parents had both been giving me tips, using some to manipulate me into doing homework or chores, because didn’t a good hero need to be smart?  If a heroine wouldn’t keep her room clean, how could she keep a city free of crime?  Tell that to Crystal.

They’d hammered in situational awareness, a need to stay in control.

I couldn’t come here, looking to keep power uses down and keep control over things, then turn around and use the full capacity of my strength on these guys.  I couldn’t provoke them or risk provoking them.

I tried to tell myself that if I was at least getting them to stand down in this moment, if they were standing there laughing at me, at least they weren’t using powers and threatening everything.

Backwoods was still periodically using his power, lobbing stakes of wood that exploded into multi-pronged outgrowths of wooden spikes.  Each time he pulled one from his shoulder, another grew out.

I saw Gibbet and Hookline huddled together, his hand at her waist, their hips touching, his head bent down to talk to her, while he kept one eye on me.  His hook…

I saw the line of it trailing down to the ground, and the slack seemed to run beneath cars.

He saw me looking.  The hook had been creeping in my general direction, snaking between cars.  It didn’t have to travel far, and it was whip-fast as it rose up toward me.

I put my foot up to give me a chance of kicking it or deflecting it if I needed to, while flying in another way.  It wasn’t necessary, and I managed to avoid it.

I hadn’t used my forcefield on going through the portal because I hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone on either side of the heavily guarded hole in reality, and I hadn’t wanted to damage the architecture of the portal itself.  Now I acutely felt the lack.

I looked down at the caricature, which was crash landing after another aborted flight attempt.

It was his power, right?  He created copies of people that reflected what they hated most about themselves.  Threw in a few mistruths, like the ‘I’d go back’, if they’d fuck with the target’s head enough.  Right?

I had to deal with it like I’d deal with any emotion power or secret-penetrating thinker power.  If I melted down now or did something that impacted innumerable others, I’d just be doing what my sister did.

And there was way, way more to that line of thought, and I was nowhere near being able to tackle it.

I was in a position to go after Backwoods.

Trophy Wife shouted, “Flier!” as I made my approach.  Backwoods responded by throwing down a spike, surrounding himself in spiked branches.

I couldn’t plow through, but I could dodge through, if-

The Huntsmen were motioning, waving arms in certain directions.  The ones on the left waved me left, the ones in cover to the right waved me right.

I headed left, because the only consistent message was not to fly straight for him.

As I got closer, branches forked, stabbing out, and then bloomed, exploding into foliage with gray-green leaves and tiny white flowers.  They grew with enough violence I could imagine I would have been scraped up, if not outright flayed or stabbed with a branch that then expanded out into five branches pointing out in different directions.

I could see some spots where the foliage was already grown, perhaps strategically located to block the defending capes from being able to shoot.  As I flew over, toward the Huntsmen, they motioned again.  This time it was unanimous.  Up.

I flew up and over, giving the growths an extra-wide berth.

Leaves and flowers came to pieces, detonating into what might have been poisonous gas or pollen, a heavy cloud that was about as dark as green could get while still being green.

Backwoods began to make other growths sprout and bloom, filling the area.

“I’m guessing they weren’t up to talking,” the leader of the Huntsmen said.

I shook my head.

Two Huntsmen were holding their ground behind cover that in itself had enough cover that the branch detonations wouldn’t reach them.  One used the length of a bus with some cars on the opposite end.  Another used a bus stop.  It seemed someone had tried to drive on the sidewalk to circumvent the traffic, out of selfishness or because the villains had spooked them, but they’d hit the stop and the mailbox that was built into the one side of the stop.  That car was the added cover for the cape there.

The third Huntsman was crouched by a row of cars, looking through a succession of windshields and rear windows to get a blurry sense of what was going on.

Three more were guiding the crowd.  They weren’t having a lot of luck in convincing people to get the fuck out.

“They sent us backup, huh?” one of the Huntsmen asked.  A woman with her hood down, wearing a white mask with a lot of airbrushed details on it.  It made me think of Snow White- black hair perfectly arranged, overly rosy cheeks and eyeshadow, crimson lips.  Their cape and hair blew against the wind, not with.

“Precog said it improved the numbers.  We’ve had a few run-ins with Damsel, Sidepiece, Hookline, and Nailbiter.  Disjoint’s not around?”

Snow White answered, “Recovering from an injury.  Sidepiece has a few parts of him with her, from what she said.”

“Damsel’s twin was on our team as Swansong.  Swansong died in the raid, it’s part of why Damsel is acting out now.”

“Good to know.  That wasn’t in the briefing.”

“Questions?  Concerns?  Any way I can help?  Need any rundowns on power?”

“We got the rundowns.  The priority is evacuating.  There’s a lot of people still out there.”

I looked and I saw a few.  People hunkered down in their vehicles, periodically putting their heads up to look around.

“I’m not positive what we can do.  They might be better off staying put,” I said.

“They keep using maximum danger powers.  Damsel of Distress’s chaos storm power.  If something goes wrong, those people are right in the middle of it.  We tried to bait them away, but they aren’t biting.”

“Loot’s too tempting,” I said.  Torso started to pick up a piece of luggage and fell over, faceplanting into the top of a car, shattering the windshield and partially caving the roof in.  Hookline and Gibbet were sorting through a suitcase, with Gibbet holding something lingerie-ish up against her front.  Way too big for her.

Hookline, meanwhile, cracked open what might have been a jewelry box, going by the glitter as he emptied the contents into his hand.  Gibbet laid the see-through top over the top of the case, and Hookline emptied the jewelry box onto it, so they could sort through.

Damsel put bladed fingertips to her mouth, then whistled, sharp.  Backwoods and Trophy Wife looked, then began to retreat.

“Move up!” Snow White ordered her people.

“Looks like my team just arrived on the scene,” I said.  “She’s pulling back to defend.”

“Stay out of their ranges, do what you can.  You know the restrictions?”

“Yeah.  Minimize powers, only use always-on powers or ones that were turned on before the fight,” I recited.

“Any help you can give is great.”

“Rundown on Trophy Wife, anything else about Backwoods or Mockument?  What does Torso do?”

“Trophy collects parts, has an aura that grants subtle mutations to people around her based on what she’s collected.  She gets the same thing at double strength, just for herself.  Nightvision if she tore out a cat’s eyes, manual dexterity if she has some person’s amputated hand, ability to land on her feet if she has a cat’s tail, raw strength if she has a strip of muscle from a large animal, sharpness of nails if she has the claws from someone’s pet cat.  She’ll have important ones inside her coat.”

“Great,” I said.  That made Backwoods even more problematic.  He was the most wanton with his power, that power was disruptive and dangerous, and now he apparently had a mess of minor benefits granted by being close enough to Trophy Wife.

“Backwoods, nothing too special.  He’s dropping traps here and there, trying to be subtle.  There are two big branches extending over his shoulders, but they really form an ‘X’, and he’s grabbing from the lower prongs.”

“Good to know,” I said.  I floated up a bit, watching the guy.

“Mockument… we don’t really know.  The minions aren’t strong, they barely have powers, they don’t really have brains, they’re just conduits for a thinker aspect to his power, but…”

Snow White looked over at the caricature of me.  It was perched on top of a car now.

“Jesus,” she said.

“Yeah,” I tried to sound casual, and I sounded too quiet instead.  I spoke more normally as I deflected with.  “It targets parahumans only?”

“Think so.”

“Probably uses some weak connection to the power or replicates what it can track nearby.”

“Barely replicates.  Weak powers.”

“Its good to not underestimate powers.  Even broken, intermittent ones.”

Snow White seemed to accept that.  “Right.  About Torso-”

There was a crash.

Powers in use.  Damsel, primarily.  With a blast, she totaled someone’s car and most of the things they’d brought with them through the end of the world and this evacuation.

I clenched my fist.

“Do what you can,” she said.  In the tone of someone who was resigned to not doing a whole lot.

I flew straight up.

The tallest rooftops downtown were left below me.  The air got colder and the precipitation more ferocious as I rose up higher, and if I had any trouble breathing, I wasn’t sure how much of it was my cold constricting nasal passages, and how much was the thinner air.

My eyes closed, fists clenched, I slowed my ascent.  I continued upwards, more gentle now.

I could feel the transition.  My flight was like an ice cube, sliding across a slick floor.  If there was any resistance, it was in the air.  But up here, the air was thinner.  I panted for each breath.

Maybe it was how pure things were up here, now small the problems below were, how there was little to see except the diffuse clouds that made it impossible to see twenty feet away from me.  There was no noise up here, except the wind against my hood and the bottom end of my coat.

Maybe it was that the air was thinner, so there was more room to feel other things.

I could feel distinctions.  The ice cube slide of flight became smoother still.  It was a slide over skin, not scar tissue.  No bumps, no tiny bits of turbulence that weren’t actually wind.  If I controlled fire and paid the most acute attention, would I see the difference in how the flames touched and tongued the air?  If I mutated from head to toe, would it shape my form, the whorls of metaphorical fingerprints, and the spacing of pores?

Go, I communicated.

I activated my forcefield and aura, and then I let myself fall.

Surrender was the name of the game here, so I pushed everything out of mind.  I held onto that tranquility and peace of the cloud cover above, with the thin air and the scarcity of noise.  I held onto nothing else.  My plummet was almost meditative.  The wind didn’t touch me, but it touched the Wretch, catching the broad side of one part of the form, and flipping the Wretch vaguely around me.

My head was below my feet as I watched things unfold.  Sidepiece had a double now, shorter, fatter, more missing around the middle.  My double was still there, but her double was dangerous, where mine flopped around.  It was more wanton in how it tore itself to pieces, but those pieces didn’t all explode, and didn’t explode as violently.

But it was fucking loud.  Shouting, squawking, taunting.

Anger and instinct fed into my actions, as I went with the flow.  I wanted a weapon and I didn’t even have the buckler or armguard.  I patted pockets, found small change, and extended my hand.  I let go of it, and it collected within the forcefield.

Then, just as easily, it escaped the forcefield.  A mouth or other cavity yawned open.  The change leaked out and found another invisible trap to fall up into, one or two coins being lost in the process.

I’d thought about this, a long, long time ago.  As a ‘what if’.  In reaching for the change, I hadn’t even consciously recalled the memory.  It was only when I realized what was happening that I connected the thought.

The change moved, then disappeared.

I saw the violence, heard the impact of change striking car doors and icy road.  I’d been plunging toward my caricature and now I changed course.  My caricature was dead.  A coin dropped from the top of the tallest building in the world wouldn’t kill someone.  A handful thrown with the kind of strength and force that could lift trucks had a treatment like a low-impact shotgun.

Fuck the ‘wretch’, I thought, the thought punctuating the full collapse of her body onto the road.

I blindsided Sidepiece’s caricature, flying up close until the forcefield got a grip on her, then let the forcefield do its thing.  All around that same area of the road, everything was transforming.  Telephone-pole thick gallows were lurching and spearing up out of the ground, ropes snagging and pulling at my teammate’s arms, legs, and in Rain’s case, neck.  He slashed the rope twice before a full-body kick jerked it enough to trigger the silver lines.  He dropped ten feet to the ground.

“Holy,” Sidepiece said, as I disengaged from her other self’s remains.  I reached for the Sidepiece caricature’s lower rib, then hurled it at Gibbet, finishing the action before I fully realized I wasn’t grabbing it with my hand.

It hadn’t been my idea, I was pretty sure.

The rib detonated, more of a focused blast in two directions, that seemed to punch through a nearby bit of metal construction fencing by the side of the road.  The rattle of it knocked  Gibbet from her perch atop the tallest and sturdiest of the gallows, and she fell into the darkness beneath a sea of structures that loomed over parked, dark, and snow-colored cars.

Rain was cutting a piece off of a car that had been demolished by one of the attackers.  Tristan picked it up to use as a shield, while beating a retreat.  Most of the aggression was targeted in a way that meant he couldn’t run or the flying bits might hit people at the very fringes of things, so he just ran straight for Sidepiece, trying to limit how far her power could reach or what she could do in the motions of her arm or reaching down.  He began to bend the metal around.

Sveta was almost at full capacity.  Her ‘power’ was always on.  Her focus was Nailbiter, who was much the same.  As with Croc o’Shit, Sveta showed her stuff when faced with enemies who were too big and tough to take down in any normal way.  I imagined they became accustomed to being too big to wrestle or crush, and let their focus and skills slip when someone like her effectively tried.

Torso charged into our group’s back line, and our guys scattered for the most part.  That wasn’t the focus here.  I turned around, spotted Mockument, and flew toward him.

He was already creating another minion.  Pillar raised from the ground, already cracking.

I was trying to be careful to preserve the forcefield.  I kept my flight speed controlled to grab the rusty little post-GM car instead of just punching it.  To partially push, partially pull, but mostly just to get it from where it sat to Mockument.

I wasn’t going full-bore, so he had time to react.  He tried to get out of the way, and he wasn’t quite that fast.  He put his mis-proportioned arm out, and he managed to exceed the strength of the forcefield.

Well, for the most part.  The forcefield didn’t get tired, and every fraction of a second that passed, Mockument was losing ground.  But he did manage to bring feet up and out of the way, so being caught between two cars wouldn’t sandwich and pulverize his legs.  Flexible, strong, he had the ability to create minions and the ability to gather information from those minions, because they reflected deeper things about the targets.

I saw his eyes, and I saw the trick.  Irises of a different shape beneath that jester mask.  That would be Trophy Wife.

I twisted around, saw her looking, and moved my hand, fingertips grazing a car’s side-view mirror.  Multiple hands slammed the side of that car, indenting it a half-dozen times.

In another time and circumstance, I would have berated the Wretch.  I would have cursed it out for the unnecessary property damage, for not doing quite as I wanted.

But I was pissed, hurt, sad, sick, and a little door had opened before, back in Teacher’s headquarters.  Once opened, it didn’t close quite the right way again.

Hands gripped the side mirror, and I twisted as the Wretch did the same.  The mirror was flung so fast I had trouble tracking it with my eyes.  It hit Trophy Wife, hard, and flew off with enough speed still driving it that it shattered a car window, striking ragged side first.

Trophy Wife was tough, and we’d hit her where the trophy rack was attached to her back.  But that was a hit that would have been bone-breaking without the armor, if not purely lethal.  Backwoods started to run to her side, but the Huntsmen fired bows and crossbows, one using a net that was thrown at least two hundred feet.

Backwoods started producing more outgrowths to act as cover so he could get to his partner’s side.  She was leaning over a car now.  He helped her straighten.

Behind me, the Wretch pushed the car.  Mockument was still there, one hand sealed to the roof of the car by Capricorn’s power.  With one leg dangling while he fought to get leverage, the movement of the car pinned that leg.

“I hate your power,” I told him.

“I hate it too,” he replied.  He smiled wide, but his eyes were cheerless.  “The person who had it died, and I’m the mess they left behind.”

I backed off, leaving him to it.

Damsel was using her blasts.  A lot of it was focused on fending off the attack from the Huntsmen, who were closing the gap.  The villains were closing their ranks, Hookline and Gibbet together, Trophy Wife and Backwoods joining them from one direction, while Torso faced off against Breakthrough at the other.

One of the Huntsmen had a flier power, a helmet with a cowl built in and a flame motif at the sides and was flying near outcroppings, provoking them by stabbing at them with a glass spear, then flying away.  The wall that was created was almost a barrier to the villains escaping.

Except for Damsel, who blasted at the nearest one.

“Idiots, imbeciles, incompetents!  We finally get a good thing going and you can’t do the most basic things!”

She blasted again.

That ugly feeling I’d felt free from in the clouds above was worse.

Hookline’s hook came around.  I tried to dodge it, or to catch it, and in that moment, the spell was broken.  Training working against me.  It was me acting, not the Wretch, and the Wretch in that moment wasn’t as smooth or focused.  The hook struck it, and I lost my forcefield.

Damsel used her power again, a continuous burst used as a shield as another net was thrown.

“No powers!” I shouted, top of my lungs.  I dropped out of the sky and onto a car, the impact punctuating my shout.  My throat felt tight from the cold and the recent high flying.

Damsel blasted again.

Not listening.

“Damsel!” Lookout shouted.

You were supposed to stay back.

Kenzie ran forward, into Torso, who was facing Capricorn and Rain, and pushed Torso out of her way, toppling him, to the extent he faceplanted.  He couldn’t get up on his own.  She hopped onto his back for the extra eight, then hollered, “Ashley!”

Ashley stopped, hesitating.  She flexed her claws, glaring, going very still.

In the midst of that stillness, again, I saw mannerisms that were more Swansong than Damsel.

Bleed.  Personality leakage.

Followed by anger.  Recognition of what was going on.

“Don’t,” Kenzie said.  “Can we talk?”

For an instant, I thought there might be compromise in that internal war.

Then she looked at the crowd.

Pride, I thought.  That’s a no.

“She already offered,” Damsel said, pointing a claw at me.  “I made my answer clear.”

I’m offering,” Kenzie tried.  “We got along, didn’t we?”

“You’re annoying me,” Damsel said.  “I destroy things that annoy me.”

I could see Kenzie absorb that, a twisting of a knife in an already tender wound.  She shrank into herself to the point she seemed an inch or two shorter, backing up until her back was resting against a car.

“We surrender,” I called out.

Damsel turned.

“We give up,” I said.  “You win.  Take your loot, leave.  Let people continue evacuating.”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“Take what you wanted.  Take your wounded if you care about them, leave them if you don’t and we’ll give them treatment.  I’ll argue to release them after.  All we want right now is peace.”

It was like all of the fight had gone out of me the instant I’d banished the Wretch.  I just felt that sadness again.

“Weak.”  She said the single word softly.

“You’re too strong, you’re too dangerous, it’s not worth it.”

“I wanted to talk,” Kenzie said.

“I want you to shut your mouth for once,” Damsel said.  “I can guess what you have to say or to ask and I don’t care, I don’t want to talk about it.”

Trophy Wife said something, approaching by a few steps, when Damsel twisted, looking like she might lash out, out of a purely defensive, paranoid place.

“-go,” was the last word Trophy Wife said, through the pounding in my ears.

I motioned to Tristan, who walked over to where Sidepiece was.  She’d broken free of the section of car roof, and now lay slumped against a car.  She took his hand without a fight, and wobbled as she made her way toward the rest of Damsel’s group.

Mockument was over there too, but it took Backwoods’s help to support him.

It didn’t look like Damsel believed us, and I didn’t fault her.  The Huntsmen only had three of their capes here.  The rest were making a more concerted effort to get people clear.  Technically, we were matched in number, or slightly ahead in numbers if we counted the members of Damsel’s team that had been knocked out or hurt.

But we were knocked out too.  We didn’t have our powers, or we had them and we weren’t willing or able to use them.

Lookout stepped off of Torso’s back, and Snow White worked with Rain and Tristan to help the guy up.  He fast-walked to catch up with his group.  They had to weave through the cars and the outcroppings of Backwoods’ power, using the gaps created by Damsel’s blasts earlier in the fight as a kind of path.

They left, Hookline and Gibbet grabbing two massive suitcases, including the one they’d dumped jewelry into.  Backwoods threw sticks behind him, littering the road.  If we gave chase, he’d turn this road into a thicket.

Sveta, off to the side, was the last to release the villains, letting go of Nailbiter.  She found her way to us.

“Doesn’t feel right,” Snow White said.

“Really doesn’t,” Sveta said.  “What was the reasoning?”

“It’s the old reasoning.  Years of cops and robbers distilled into moments,” I said.  “Isn’t it?”

“Mm,” Snow White made a sound.

“Lookout, can you do us a favor?  It’s okay if you can’t, but-”

“Give me something to do,” she said.

“Okay.  Trace what belongs where.  Whose cars were damaged.  We have funds, and money might not mean enough right now, but…”

“Money for the people who had stuff break.  Okay, I can look up license databases.”

“Do you need to go back for tech?” Rain asked.

Lookout shook her head, tapping her eyeball.

“How much brain-overheating tech did you jam into your eyes, Lookout?” Rain asked.

“Lots.  Enough.”

Sveta looked at me, the team mom worried about the team kid.

Yeah.  We had to talk about stuff, arrange stuff, get everything in order.  Kenzie was grieving, but…

“Can you track their group?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Are we following?”  There was interest in her eyes, but not hope.

I nodded.  “We need to get that loot back for the owners, if you could keep tabs on what’s from where?”

“Can do.”

“And I want to try talking again.  On their turf, away from this mess, away from the high-risk area, and without all these people watching.”

“Ashley isn’t as conscious of her standing if there isn’t a crowd,” Kenzie said.

“Hopefully not,” I said.

The Huntsmen were getting sorted out.  The flier with the glass spear pulled off her helmet, because she was sweating, and I recognized the hair and facial features.  Etna.  That would be who filled the Huntsmen in on ‘our’ villains from the stretch between the New York and Boston areas of the megalopolis.

“I don’t want problems,” she said.  “I moved way out to the woods on the end of the city to get away from everything else, and I still get dragged into it.”

I shook my head.  “We’re good.”

She gave me a wary look.

“Really.”

“Alright,” she said.

“Good showing,” I said.

She nodded, then walked over to her team.

“I saw Swansong in there,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“It sucks.  Because if she’s in there, then she can’t be out here.”

I nodded.

“I’d rather nothing at all and a bit of hope or pretending, than this.”

“Agreed,” I said.  “Yeah.  Absolutely.”

I pulled her into a one-armed hug.

“We were talking on our way over here,” Rain said.  “She once mentioned she had dreams.  She was studying them with the Wardens.  Might be relevant, before we try anything with…”

Sveta arched an eyebrow.  Tristan, at the same time, elbowed Rain, giving a look to the Huntsmen, who weren’t close by but were potentially close enough to hear.

We walked away from the others.  The civilians were starting to make their way back to cars.  Tristan bent down to pick up luggage, and Sveta did the same.

I was a little dizzy and fatigued, so I kept my work light, gathering things that had been knocked from luggage and boxes atop cars onto hoods and trunks, or the big things that had tumbled to the ground.

Further discussion was delayed as people approached Tristan with questions.  They left, others approached.

Then those people left.  Traffic began to crawl forward at its glacial pace, slower and more awkward because of the damage, the pulverized cars, and the spiky outcroppings of wood that had to be navigated around.

All accepted with resignation, or quiet glares in our direction.

“We’ll talk about it,” I said, when I was sure the coast was clear.  “After we talk to her.  Because this situation as it is is untenable.  If we’re going to have to take the high road again, I don’t want it to be because we’re accepting more losses.  We might as well take the highest road and decide things.”

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From Within – 16.3

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The interview between Miss Militia, Dinah, and Gary Nieves continued on the screen, the timestamp marking it as having happened ten minutes in the past.  The onlookers who’d gathered to see what Golem was showing us had peeled away, turning their attention to other, more current feeds at the front end of the bullpen.  On those feeds, if I squinted to see, Gary had pulled off his jacket and stood in the corner, arms folded.

On our feed, Miss Militia stepped out of the room.  Gary turned to Dinah, and spoke, “The more you talk about how people with the ability to see the future can manipulate things, the more I question why I’m here, in this nightmare of a place.”

“You’re worried I manipulated you.”

“Didn’t you?”

“Not to get you here.  To get you to change your mind about things?  Some.  But you have to keep in mind, I used my power to find someone with the power and ability to change the course of things.  A brainless patsy who didn’t believe or have any convictions wouldn’t have worked.”

“Why not?”

“I  can only ask so many questions a day.  My biggest manipulation was in choosing you in the first place.  I couldn’t function if I had to manipulate your every move, and if I picked someone weak willed who easily changed their mind, then I’d have to constantly watch that their mind didn’t change back.”

“You could still be manipulating everything I say, finding the best numbers.”

“Gary,” Dinah said.  She twisted around in her chair, and she lifted her blindfold to give him a serious look, eye to eye.  “You aren’t that important.  I have other things to focus on.”

He seemed to absorb that.  I thought there was an opportunity to ask a question without interrupting our watch, but then he said, “A very blunt way of putting it.”

“I’m being honest.  I’m not going to pretend we’re equals or fluff up your ego.”

“Yeah,” he said.  That small face on on a fifteen inch screen didn’t look happy, but it didn’t look mad at her either.

“This thing about the Harbingers killing Citrine at Contessa’s command?” I asked.  “That’s the message she sent?”

“I wasn’t there, but I read the notes you guys gave us,” Golem said.  “Contessa tells one Harbinger to leave, the Harbinger left to communicate with Jeanne and Kurt Wynn, who were making calls from their office, calling in favors and resources.  They had assumed a leadership and tactical role, and were making their last preparations before joining the fight.”

“They were going to ask me where they were needed as soon as they were back,” Kenzie said.  She stared at the screen without blinking, which was part of why I studied her more, and which played into a double-take on my part.  I looked closer, and the image reflected on the surface of her eyes wasn’t what was on the screen.  One glowing screen was in front of her, and four were arranged on her eye.

“They left as soon as they got the report, trusting Contessa.  The anti-parahuman faction had prepared a bomb.  Kid Cassandra alleges they wouldn’t have missed the bomb if they hadn’t received the message.  By that logic, sending them the instruction killed them as surely as if she’d pulled the trigger of a gun.  Do I have that right?”

He’d asked Rocketround, who stood nearby.  Rocketround, wearing the PRTCJ uniform with his stylized rocket icon on his chest, only nodded.

“Do we know what else Contessa’s done?”

“No,” Golem said.

He tapped a button on the keyboard a few times.  Each press seemed to tick things forward by ten seconds.

Miss Militia re-entered the room.

“We’d like more information on what you’ve been doing and why, if it’s no trouble,” Miss Militia said, while taking her seat.

“Sure.  If you could avoid phrasing things as questions, I’d appreciate it.”

“Doable.  I imagine you’ve asked a number of questions today.”

“Three.  I anticipated coming here and I wanted to keep my options open.  I’m not ruling out that the Wardens, PRTCJ or any of the subordinate teams might try to kidnap me.  I hired mercenaries to get me out, just in case.”

“Palanquin.”

“Among others.  I am a target.”

“Understood.  I understand you can ask more questions than you used to.”

“Forty to fifty.  It’s not as many as it sounds like, but it’s more than it used to be.”

“It might get easier as you work with the anti-parahumans or other high-conflict factions.”

“Some.  Is this leading to you painting me as conflict-seeking and dangerous?”

“I didn’t mean to give that impression, no.  I think you came here at what you see as great risk to yourself because of what you see as a critical danger.”

“What I ‘see’.”

“We’re absolutely looking into this, Dinah.  But as clear as your power is to you, we have to make our own judgment calls.  We have two people with very credible powers with apparent agendas, sitting opposed to one another.”

“My agenda is and always has been what’s best for humanity.  I predicted the end of the world.  I positioned the right people in the right places.  Khepri.”

“You did.  But I could ask two people what the perfect end result looks like and get two very different answers.  This is why I need to question you about things like your involvement with and focus on the anti-parahuman movement.”

“They were a bigger threat than anyone was aware, because they’re a massive weak point that nobody on our side is aware of, while foreign powers are eager to foster them.  They were the biggest factor with the least noise around them.”

“Tell me about this noise.”

“Other thinkers, complicating factors, power-induced randomness, blind spots.  An example would be how I couldn’t act against Teacher as long as he had Christine Mathers.  If I look at her future then she starts appearing in all futures I can see.  I slowed him down when I could but that was a lot of effort and a lot of risk he’d target me.  There are a few things like that.”

“My colleagues want to know how you started and how this is supposed to end.”

“I started by identifying key players and figured out the courses of action that helped them climb.  Up until the election I was putting a lot of time and energy into working out if I could put Gary or one of the other two in charge, but I didn’t like the numbers after that point.”

“You manipulated the election.”

“No.  I could have, but it wasn’t worth it.  I changed my focus to putting things in as positive a place as they could before the portal disaster.”

“Tell me more about that.”

“Massive interdimensional effect.  I couldn’t see past it and I didn’t know what it was.  I planned things and ensured everyone was as healthy and safe as possible before it went off.  Then I steered things after.”

“Steered Gary.”

“Only a little.  The movement was rising around him and people were angry.  Cheit’s theocracy desperately wants Gimel and interfering with their agents has been a major focus of mine.  Keeping them in the background.  Keeping the anti-parahumans they were fostering as a thing that was simmering.  Keeping Shin’s role in things simmering.”

“My colleagues will want proof.”

“I can send you my redacted notes on questions asked, with the when, why, and who, as it pertains to that.”

“Will you talk to a thinker?”

“No.  No mind control, no interference, no powers or people I don’t know and trust.”

“It would be a thinker, not a master.  Someone who reads, but has no other impact.”

Dinah shook her head.

“You have to realize this makes convincing people much, much harder, if you refuse.”

“I realize.”

“Let’s go back to the process and end goal.”

“You realize how scary we are, right?  How scary you are, Miss Militia?”

“I think I see where you’re going with this, Dinah, and I know what you’ve been through and how it might color your perceptions.  But don’t make the same mistake the anti-parahuman groups do.  We aren’t our powers.  We’re people.”

“If you picked twenty random people out of a crowd and asked me to put my life in their hands, I wouldn’t be able to,” Dinah said.  “The difference is that when they have powers and they have an incredible amount of say, the ability to take my life into their hands no matter what I want, there’s no choice in the matter.  Believe me, I get the irony of it being me who is saying that.  I know how much power we have.”

“Do you drive?” Miss Militia asked.  “Sorry, that was a question.”

“Yeah.  I drive.”

“Then you put your life in the hands of more than twenty people every minute you’re on the road.”

“I have car insurance, Miss Militia.  My car has seatbelts and airbags.  There’s no insurance against what a parahuman can do to you except being very wealthy and hiring competent mercenaries.  I can do that.  Gary can’t.”

“You want rules in place.”

“Laws, consequences.  The goal was to have all violent retaliation fail, to put Gary Nieves at the head of an outraged and energized majority of the population, letting him choose a course of action.  Gary?”

“You’re asking what I’d do?”

On the screen, Dinah could be seen wincing.  “No questions, please.  And yes.  Your actions, assuming you were in charge.”

“Sorry.  If I was going to go with the most extreme idea, because I don’t think small could have any impact…”

“Do,” Dinah said.

“A city-wide strike.  Or… a strike across the resettlement camps.  Peaceful resistance, work limited to subsistence only.  Shelter for ourselves, food, clean water.  Parahumans want amenities, clothes, convenience, they want to reap the benefits of the society the rest of us build.  It’s a long shot, we would be opening ourselves up to being preyed on and to retaliation, I know that, but…”

“The Wardens would do their best to stop any predation or retaliation.  Most of the heroes would,” Miss Militia said.

“I can’t help but doubt that,” Gary said.  “But I would respect it if you did.”

“They would have,” Dinah said.  “You could get the message out at a time shortly after the internet is online at the new settlements, when a pair of videos are making the rounds.  A man and a woman talk about how they wish they’d struck out on their own, and discuss self sufficiency.  I went and looked.”

“Going to look for specific futures and eventualities devastates you,” Miss Militia murmured.

“Yep,” Dinah said.  Her smile was slight but confident.  “But it was important.  The words inspire people who need inspiration and who want to do something different but don’t want to leave the settlements.  Which is most.  Gary has the capacity to direct that inspiration to something they can do.  The weeks that follow the resulting strike are ugly, but only two people die, and they’re people who would have died regardless.  Mostly it would have ended up being about control, with the worst instances resembling hostage taking or tyranny, and the Wardens would have stopped those instances.”

“I don’t necessarily believe you,” Gary said.  “It sounds too neat.”

“That’s fine, I get that a lot,” Dinah answered.  “In the aftermath, fences mend, the worst villains are gone, a big disaster I can’t clearly see sits in the middle of where the city used to be, but the damage to the city is controlled.  Nothing suggests it reaches further in the next five to ten years.  Not in that course of events.  Not so long as the most reckless villains are dealt with and everyone’s focused on cooperation.”

“That’s your goal,” Miss Militia said.

“It was,” Dinah’s voice had a touch of anger to it, even through the computer’s speakers.  “She ruined it.”

“By killing Kurt Wynn.”

“Gary can’t take power, there are no numbers that scale those steep odds now.  Violent anti-parahumans will precipitate the disaster you’re worried about in the center of the city.  Now ask me what our new odds look like.”

“You want me to…”

“I want you to ask me, Miss Militia.  It’s fine.”

“What are the odds?”

“Eighty point three six one five percent chance of mass death that extends across realities.  That remaining nineteen percent?  Fifteen percent of it is worse.  Where we don’t even get to die.  The other four percent isn’t pretty either.  Do you see why I’m upset?”

“I run the risk of sounding overly aggressive by bringing this up, but someone could charge you with playing with fire, with a very incendiary group, and put yourself in a position where this sort of chain of events or disaster on this scale was possible.”

“I took every precaution,” Dinah said.  “I double checked every major move I made.  I triple checked they wouldn’t lash out, and I mitigated the damage if the anti-parahumans had to act, except when I was blinded.  There were two instances where I had to let Teacher use them unfettered, because he would have found me if I’d stepped in.  Those times excepted, I kept them out of your hair.  I would have kept Kurt Wynn alive and Jeanne Wynn uninjured.  I was as careful as you could expect me to be.”

Miss Militia wrote something down.

“I made no mistakes.  I wasn’t reckless.  I was careful and she woke up, blinded me, and slapped everything I was setting up out of my hands, and she did it for a reason. And in every one of those eventualities I talked about?  She makes it through.  She’s there, after all the blind spots pass, and she leaves us to our fates, for as long as we still exist in any sense.”

Through the speakers, Miss Militia’s chair scraped against the floor.  “I’m going to go talk to my team.”

Kenzie reached over and hit the pause button.

“You can see where we’re concerned,” Golem said.

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.

I expected Kenzie to say something because she’d been the one to pause, but instead, she sat there, staring at the screen.

I crouched, and I brought my face closer to hers, to look at the reflection of the screens on her eyes.  Each one moved independently, the tiny black silhouettes that were Miss Militia, Gary, and Dinah all at different points on different screens.  Eight screens at once, and-

“Done watching,” Kenzie said.

“You watched the entire recording,” I said.

“How?” Golem asked.

“Split it into parts and watched all the parts at once, with some lipreading tech, because that’s easier than dealing with sound.  Um, Breakthrough needs to go.”

“We do?” Rain asked.

“I had questions,” Golem said, “And frankly, I have way more questions since you’re apparently wanting to leave right away.”

“It’s nothing bad,” Kenzie said.  She grabbed the mouse and selected a point on the time bar for the recording.”

“-can do, with the curfews-” Gary said.

“That’s before…,” Kenzie said.  She moved the bar again, twice in short succession.

“-either the group attacking the evacuee caravans or a group making a move tomorrow morning.  I can help you with the caravans.”

“Tell us about the caravans.”

“They’ll be raided by a group calling itself Deathchester.  Reckless power use, violence, they’ll steal from people who only have the most precious things they could afford to bring with them, and those people aren’t in a position to fight back.  You can save some lives right now by sending some people to go recruit heroes and send them to the location.  The Inwood highway.”

“We’d need to vet you first.”

“Send them now, vet me in the meantime.”

Kenzie hit the pause button.  She twisted around to look up at the rest of us.

“I don’t get it,” Rain said.

“Deathchester.  It’s the area of Boston the original Damsel of Distress tried to take over.  This is new Damsel, Sidepiece, and Nailbiter, along with, uh…”

She reached over to the computer, opened a browser, and typed in a long sequence of numbers.

“You know,” Golem kept his voice quiet, “It’s a good thing I like and trust you guys, because the way Lookout was talking about the recordings, she had database access to play multiple recordings at once and relay it to whatever tech she’s using.  And now she’s-”

Kenzie hit the submit key, and surveillance footage from a camera outside a store showed a group of capes striding along the sidewalk, a couple of them hopping up onto cars in deadlocked traffic.  Black clothes, torn clothing, and blood seemed to be a dominant theme.  Some had armbands, scarves, or coats in checked white and black.

“-doing that,” Golem finished.

Kenzie rewound a bit, bringing up the shots with clearest views of faces and masks.  As the camera tracked each face, it stuck names over their heads.

Torso.  Gibbet.  Nailbiter.  Trophy Wife.  Sidepiece.  Backwoods.  Mockument.  Hookline.

“Most of these guys are ones we’ve been dealing with off and on in the heart of downtown,” Golem said.  “You’ve got ones like Trophy Wife who start up an enterprise or something and other low level villains will join in.”

“What enterprise?” Tristan asked.

“Poaching, animal slaughter.  We sent in people from the city core who have some familiarity with them.  They’re a small team but they’re smart and reliable.”

“Yeah, that’s super great,” Kenzie said.  “Um, so can we go?”

“Why is this so important?” I asked.  “You want to see Damsel?”

“Kind of, yeah, but also because we know how to deal with a lot of them, and because there’s no way she didn’t account for us going in the numbers, since we have to go once we hear about this, obviously.”

“Kenzie, slow down,” Sveta said.  “Why do we have to go?”

“Because there’s no way we don’t go if we think Cassandra mentioning this is meant for us to hear and us going to help,” Kenzie’s voice was rapidfire.  She saw Sveta motion to take a breath, and paused to do so.  “And because Damsel’s there, and others we know how to beat are there too.  And Damsel.”

I reached out and touched her forehead.  “You’re warm.  I got you sick.”

“Nope.  No.  I’m fine.  I overheated my brain a little bit by watching all that video at once, that’s all.  Really.  So you don’t need to worry.”

“Kenzie.  That’s far more worrying,” I told her.  I looked at Golem.  “Is there water?”

“On it,” Tristan said.  For a split second, I thought he would absentmindedly turn into Byron and we’d have another health crisis.  “Point me the way to the office cooler?”

Golem did.

“I want to call in my brownie points.  Every time I’ve been good or helped or put a smile on your faces, or did what I was told, or made a machine to help Tristan talk while deep in his brother, or held back or shut up or any of that, if I got any points at all I want to spend them now and I want to go.”

“Codenames,” I told her.  “Golem’s trusted, but…”

I saw her put the brakes on, which was really my point.  We were being really sloppy, even with Rain’s introducing of us to Bullet Time, and Golem was trusted, but I was tired and the shitty thing was that when I was sick and tired, I became more like my mom.  Rules and petty manipulations.

Her having to stop to rein herself in and check her words meant she wasn’t rambling or getting worked up.

She visibly slowed herself down, but she looked anxious.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” I told her.  “We’re being pretty loose with those rules.  That was a kneejerk thing from me.”

“Okay,” she said.

Tristan made it back, and handed Kenzie a glass of water, which she downed.  He took a paper towel he’d wet and folded, and pressed it against her forehead while her head was tipped back to drink the water.  She lowered the cup from her mouth but kept her head back, eyes closed.  She sighed, full-body.

“I want to go,” she said.

“Really?  You seemed a bit wishy-washy about it,” Rain said.

Kenzie’s eyes opened, and she moved her head fast enough she nearly lost the paper towel compress, catching it with one hand.  All energy, almost alarmed at being misinterpreted.

“I was kidding,” he said.

“You want to do this?” Golem asked.

“Possibly,” I said.  I looked at the others.  “Probably.  Unless we get an objection as strong as Kenzie’s desire to go for it.”

“Let me run it by people,” Golem told us.  “Decide in the meantime, and don’t leave so fast you don’t tell us something about Contessa.”

“Deal.  Thank you,” Tristan said.

“The other group of heroes are five minutes away,” Kenzie said, as she brought up an overhead map of the city.  “We’ll be six minutes behind them.”

“If we go,” I said.  “Look, I don’t want to be paranoid, I know we technically met Contessa’s predicted outcome of having two members of Breakthrough out of action for the long term, but I’m not positive, I’m worried.  Nothing says we were out of danger the moment Teacher ran.  I know this is a touchy subject so soon after Swansong-”

Kenzie drew her shoulders in together a fraction.  I put my hand on one of those shoulders.

“-But one of us could still die as a direct consequence of the events we set in motion during the fight.”

“We could die anytime,” Tristan said.

“Let’s just be mindful of the risks.  These are some unpredictable, violent, and dangerous villains.  Some of them are goofballs, but not all of them are,” I said.  “We’re not at the top of our game, or I know I’m not, and…”

I trailed off.

“I’m not, I’ll admit that,” Tristan said.  “I’m going stir-crazy.”

“I really want to though,” Kenzie said.

“On a scale of one to ten, how are you doing?” Sveta asked her.

“…Four?  But I won’t be fighting.  I just want to be there and help people and then see her after you’ve all kicked her ass.”

“Making us do the hard work,” Tristan said.

“Unless you’ve got a way to age me up by six years,” Kenzie said.  “Yeah.  That’s how it goes.”

“I’m just teasing,” he said.

“Not super great then,” Sveta said.  “Seven for me?”

“Six,” Rain said.  “I prefer to tough things out than complain, but… six.  Maybe seven since I’m happy to have met a guy I can talk to about workshop stuff with.”

“Putting all of us between ‘poor’ and ‘good’, with an average that’s below par,” I said.  “Yes?”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

Kenzie tapped on the computer.  It brought up the meeting room, the time differential replaced with a ‘live’ icon.

Golem was knocking on the door to the room in reality and in the video feed.

“Come in,” Miss Militia said.  “Hi, Golem.  Problem?”

He shook his head.

“Heya,” Dinah said.  “It’s been a little while.”

“Hi,” he said.  “Good to see you.  Been too long, yeah.  I’ve been listening in with Breakthrough.  They’re considering going to Deathchester, should…?”

He stopped himself.

“Sorry, that was almost a question.”

“It was a question.  It clarifies the numbers,” Dinah said.

“I don’t know if that means it improves them,” Miss Militia said.

“It does.  Just… working on clearer terminology and understanding of my power.  Yes.”

Miss Militia looked up at the camera.  She seemed to think for a long second.  “I wouldn’t object.  Except they need to know the rules.  Did they overhear the restrictions we put on the other team?”

“Yeah,” Golem was audible through the speakers.  “I’ll go over them.  Sorry to interrupt.”

Guess we’re doing this, then, I thought to myself.  Hearing it improved the numbers was maybe more inevitable a thing than Contessa telling us it was so.  We had to.

I looked at the others.  They seemed to get it too.  Kenzie was bouncing.

Fuck.  I’d have to get my costume.

Tristan punched one fist into his palm.

Golem was out of the meeting room, and started toward us.  When we all headed his way, he stopped, waiting for us to come to him.

“What are the restrictions?  Minimal power use?” I asked.

“The powers you can use are restricted based on the power,” he said.  “Powers you willfully use or turn on are a no.  That would be your aura, Antares.  Probably your power, Capricorn.  Sveta should be fine.  Lookout should be fine.  Precipice…”

“I turn on all of mine,” Rain said.

“Are there any you can turn on now and keep on?”

“My blades.”

“Do that, then.  This way.  The portal at the end of this hall will put you close to the Inwood region.  We opened it ourselves.”

“I can keep my flight on?”

“Same idea, yeah,” he said.  “Someone had a metaphor for it.”

“The ice is cracked, it’s fine if we spread out our weight and don’t make any sudden movements,” I said.  I started flying.

“I think their metaphor was about animals on the other side of the glass at the zoo, and not wanting to tap or tap so much it irritates whatever’s on the other side.  Yeah.  If you have to use a power, don’t use it while everyone else around you is.”

“The villains aren’t going to be playing by these rules,” Tristan said.

“No.  We instructed the Huntsmen to communicate with the villains if they could.  They should warn them of the risk.”

“That’s not going to work, knowing Damsel,” I muttered.  “And if she’s in charge-”

“No guarantees,” Golem said.

“She likes to be in charge,” I said.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said, still bouncing.

Fuck.  Fuckity fuck fuck.

“That’s about it.  She says the numbers get better and I trust her,” Golem said.  “Before you go, is there anything you can tell me about Contessa?  Stuff I can pass on?  I let you through security and I tacitly signed off on this… it’d be nice to throw the skeptics a bone.”

“I hate that we have skeptics,” Sveta said.  “You guys already know this, probably, but she let her guard down before she got caught.  Gave herself a day without using her power, and that’s the day Teacher attacked her.  Or so she says.”

“You don’t believe her?”

“I think the words that come out of her mouth are engineered just as much as she engineers every last action to produce an outcome.  Dinah has a limit to the number of questions she can ask.  Contessa doesn’t.  She can manipulate every last detail.”

“Fair.”

“I don’t think we got into the nitty-gritty details when we briefed you after the raid, but when it came to deciding how I should deal with Saint, she immediately assumed I’d kill him.  Then she shut off her power before I could ask whether I had to.  I think that’s an ongoing problem.  She takes the most efficient route, regardless of the casualties or side effects.  What Dinah is talking about, with how her plans were spoiled?  I think that might be a side effect.”

“Something that happens regularly,” I elaborated.  “If she isn’t mindful about it.”

Sveta nodded.  “Maybe Contessa gets stronger when she can build up plans over days and weeks, and she was just woken up when we met her and she didn’t have a backbone of pre-existing plans and safeguards in place.  So she took the cutthroat route.  And maybe it gave her an added two seconds of confusion for Teacher if she killed someone she had worked with for decades.  I think that would be okay in her books.  That’s why I think she’s awful.”

Golem looked at me, then at Tristan and Rain.

“…I’ll pass that on.”

“I’m biased,” Sveta said.  “But I don’t think I’m wrong.”

He nodded.

I could see the staff and the general effect that surrounded one of the portals in and out of this place.

Kenzie had her coat over her arm, and pulled it on, wrapping her scarf around her neck.  I still had my coat on, and made sure to button it up.

Fuck.  I wasn’t even going to get to put on my costume.

“Here,” Golem said.  He indicated the portal.  It was the same rip-in-reality style that Kenzie’s cube made, rather than the electricity-framed doorway that Teacher’s tech tended to produce, or the three-dimensional-hole style that Faultline’s group and Khepri had made.

I did have to wonder if putting more actual fucking holes in the glass or the cracked ice wasn’t a really questionable idea.

But they had to have thought of the same thing.  They’d have taken precautions, especially if they had Teacher’s tech for tracking all of this stuff.

Golem’s word was enough to get us through the checkpoints.  It put us in the city.

He walked with us right up to the tear.

“What you said about that two seconds of confusion?  It might line up.  Some of our thinkers were there in the room before he ran.  They reported he was distracted.”

“Makes sense.  We were pressuring him,” Tristan answered.

“They also reported that your group showing up was part of what made him decide to shut down.  You, specifically, Antares.”

I frowned.

“I don’t know why and I don’t know what it means, but I figured you’d want to know,” Golem said.

“I have no clue,” I said.

“The guns,” Sveta said.  “You picked up six guns, using your forcefield.”

I looked through the portal at the distorted picture beyond it.  I thought of the rising anger, the frustration at Byron’s condition and not fucking knowing.  Then the black mood that had settled in, as Kenzie had reported that Swansong was dead.

In the midst of that mood, the Wretch hadn’t moved how I’d wanted it to.

I’d moved like it wanted.

“Thanks, Golem,” I said.  “You’re the best.”

I flew through the portal.  Even remembering the black mood left my own attitude today touched.  Being grumpy as fuck because I was sick, my eyes closing in the face of the sudden cold, it certainly didn’t help.

The top of the building was protected by a fractal forcefield that looked like a blooming flower.  Layers peeled away to give us an avenue out and forward.

I could see the traffic that had stopped, three blocks away.  The people that had left their cars and backed away, but who weren’t willing to abandon their vehicles entirely.

Rain had his silver blade out as he emerged with a bit of swagger, Tristan right behind him.  I gave him a look.

“He’s happy because he has two friends.  Golem wants to hang out,” Tristan said.

The others followed.  Kenzie all bundled up, tech in each hand.  Sveta looking normal, though she’d had her mask in her pocket.

“I’m scouting ahead.  You guys okay making your way down?  I’d carry you down but my arms and hands are a mess right now.”

“Aha, I don’t trust you to haul us around while sick,” Tristan said.  “Fuck me, I don’t even get to use anything except my strength?”

Kenzie said something, but Sveta talked over her.  Kenzie was talking to Tristan and Sveta to me, so I listened to Sveta.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She put an hand on my arm.  “We’re okay.  Scout.”

A small part of me wondered if she was telling me to go because she had something to say.  A suspicion.

Except that wasn’t Sveta.  My mood was just dark, my interpretations the worst.

I flew away, over rooftops, and closer to the scene of the ongoing crime.

A group of ten villains who weren’t holding back.  I could see Trophy Wife with her rack of animal parts and keepsakes mounted on her back and sweeping up behind her head and shoulders.  I could see Hookline, who we’d chopped up the last time we’d run into him.  No Kitchen Sink.  I’d caved in his chest, and he apparently wasn’t in good enough shape for mass robbery.

And Damsel, with Sidepiece and a cape I didn’t recognize in her company.  Having the time of her fucking life.

I flew closer to watch her and see if they had a clearer agenda, and the jester-type figure I pinned as Mockument pointed at me, calling out a warning.

She twisted around to look, and I didn’t miss that her expression changed.  A fleeting look, more Swansong than Damsel.  I’d thought of white behind black or black behind white, of villain and hero and the layers behind layers, and here I caught it, manifest and clearer than ever.

Just for a moment.

Damsel, too, seemed to catch it.  Her expression twisted, anger not just at me, but at that same moment.  She raised a hand, long blade-fingers pointing.

What a fucking mess this all was.

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From Within – 16.2

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“Listen up!”

Conversation throughout the dining area ceased.  There were six teams present across thirty tables, with maybe another twenty capes and ten non-capes using the edges of the hall as passages to get from point A to point B.  All stopped and turned to look.

Tristan, Kenzie, Rain and I looked as well.  Vista had left to go to work.

Naphtha was a Warden, but not one of the major ones, likely standing somewhere between Vista’s tier and the rookie tier.  He stood on a table, decked out head to toe in glossy black, with bold yellow decoration standing out as a kind of light armor.  His power made everything within fifteen feet of him, teammates excepted, slick with what looked like crude oil that periodically produced bubbles.  The effect looked like it was perfectly circular if looked down on from above.

“No obligation, but if you’re up for it, we could use the help.  I’m going to list off some current problems we need to address.  Put your hands up or let us know if you can contribute.  We have a villain group with an aggressive hold on an isolated population of non-English speakers preventing evacuation from a part of the city we’re considering high risk.  They had a protection racket going, a lot of power and control, and they don’t want to give it up.  Teams have tried to be as firm as they could without upsetting the locals but it’s time to break their hold and get this settled.”

“Where?” someone called out.

“West of downtown.  Three city blocks with two apartment buildings.”

“What kind of non-English speakers?”

“Does it matter?” Naphtha asked.

There was no answer from the guy who’d called out.  Vessel, from the Shepherds.  He was one of four who sat at the same table, three on one side, one on the other.  Scribe sat two seats away from Vessel, her elbows on the table and her hands covering her mouth.  Her costume still didn’t suit her.  She hadn’t joined the Fallen like a lot of the racist shitheads had after Gold Morning, which counted for a bit of something, but I felt like I needed to see more from her before I could stop thinking of her as Rune from Empire Eighty Eight.

And one of those things I needed to see was her speaking up instead of being silent when a question with that kind of undertone came from her corner.

“We doing any of this?” Tristan asked.

“Victoria’s sick,” Kenzie said, before I could answer.

“I could do something minor,” I said.  “But-”

“Someone just took that one,” Rain cut in, pointing.  A team had raised their hands.  Naphtha’s teammate was briefing them now.

“It’s not our skillset,” I finished the sentence I’d been saying.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “And I think we’re all running on empty right now.”

“Not me,” Kenzie said.  “I had the best breakfast, I’m all revved up and ready to go, if you guys want to do anything.”

I held my tongue.  Kenzie’s issue wasn’t that she didn’t have the energy.  Kenzie’s ’empty’ was another gauge entirely, and it related to her team and her process of grieving Ashley.  My concern was more that our collective energy levels and focus weren’t where they needed to be to handle a small crisis and keep an eye on Kenzie.

Naphtha called out, “Issue two!  We have a broken trigger at the top of a high rise apartment complex in one of our highest-risk areas.  There is no oxygen or gravity in the area, but we need to minimize the use of powers to avoid the risk of added damage!  We need changers without the need to breathe, anyone with tinker suits already built to host their own oxygen supplies, or anyone comfortable wearing a bulkier suit!”

“I’m going to go suggest Love Lost,” Rain said, standing.  “I know she has a mask like that, and she could handle the low gravity.”

“She’s in her cell right now, isn’t she?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah.  Went back to prison after we raided this complex,” Rain said, looking around at the white walls of the dining area.

“She’s still the person that butchered a lot of us and who would probably be okay with you dying,” Tristan said.  “I’m not sure how cool I am with us continually offering her hero work in exchange for lighter sentences or whatever.”

Kenzie rubbed at her fingers.

“Should I not?” Rain asked.

I spoke up, “The last mission we brought her on, she- cover your ears, Kenzie?”

She did, but while she did it, she said, “If you mean the part where she cut someone’s arms open, I saw that.”

I motioned for her to put her hands down.  “That, yeah.  It sort of had to happen, but it’s scary it happened that easily and that brutally.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  He was still standing by his chair, hands resting on the table.  “I- yeah.  I guess I want to cut her some slack over Cradle’s influence, because I want that kind of slack myself.  But I’m not the only person she hurt, I guess.”

“I’m not saying don’t,” Tristan said.  “I’m just saying… what happens if we do this twenty more times and she’s whittled her sentence down to nothing by deals she made?  It doesn’t feel right that she’d be back on the streets anytime soon or go unpunished for what she did.”

“I’m on the same page,” I added.  I was trying to keep half an ear out, because Naphtha was already on issue three, and was saying something about another group of villains.  It sounded like a similar dynamic to issue one with villains messing with the evacuation, but more to do with random fuckheads stealing from people who were leaving the city with their most valuable things, complicated by more power use restrictions.  Another team was asking questions, and I felt like it would be weird to interrupt Rain and Tristan and interrupt the other team that seemed to have a more avid interest in the job.

Besides, I wasn’t in the mood to deal with random fuckheads.  Over the past five days I’d been prepared to jump in if there was a pressing issue, and that held true, but I was okay taking the backseat and focusing on my team.

Losing Ashley hurt.  Her absence at the table was felt.

“What if I told them she was a possibility, but stressed no special favors, or gave them a better picture?” Rain asked.

“That would be my instinct,” I said.  I looked at the others, and Tristan nodded.  Kenzie seemed distracted, but nodded when I sought out her eye contact.

“Cool,” Rain said.  He walked over to the table to wave down one of Naphtha’s teammates.

“Four!”  Naphtha called out.

Someone at a nearby table said something snarky I didn’t quite hear, about the number of crises that were popping up and how we should have it handled.  The annoying thing was, this was the events that they were having trouble finding manpower for.  There was a lot of other stuff going on that already had teams assigned.

“The Machine Army reached Boston in Bet.  We delayed them as best as we were able, did a final sweep, and found a crude interdimensional effect that was left over from an ongoing power.  We cleaned it up, but the Machine Army is reportedly building a housing for the traces of power effect and trying to build what might be an interdimensional portal.”

“What the fuck?” Vessel asked.  “How?  They can do that?”

“Using tech they collected elsewhere and ferried to the site.  We have capes on the scenes, plenty of firepower already, but given how tenacious the threat is, the higher-ups want some secondary firepower.  We want powers that can do damage.  You’d be replacement for any wounded, relief, and if we had to pull some of our capes back to the city or one of the evacuation areas, you might be one of the ones asked to stay.”

“I always wanted to get a look at one of those robots, see how they ticked,” Kenzie said.

“It means going to Boston, being hours away from everything else,” Tristan said.  “I hear it’s intense, relentless.”

“Kind of,” I said.  “Less about constant fighting unless someone really slacked off, more about worrying there could be an IED rigged to anything you touch, or a beartrap under any patch of dirt… except it’s not an IED, it’s a giant robot that tears you apart.”

“I could help, scan with my cameras,” Kenzie said.  “You could help… kind of?”

“They want unconditional firepower, Rain’s firepower comes with conditions,” I said.

“Tristan… no.  You could, Victoria.  Kind of?” Kenzie mused.  “I want to go, though!”

“I have to stay close to the hospital, so you’d be going without me,” Tristan said.

Kenzie slumped in her seat.

Naphtha was talking to someone, “-situations where we can’t let people use powers at their full strength.  If you want to help but your power is big, constantly on, or inherently reality-distorting, this is a big way to help.  If you’re anti-violence or you don’t want to be in a situation like we had when we fought Teacher where we had to take lives, dealing with the Machine Army is one way to contribute.  Nobody’s going to fault you if you’d rather contribute that way.”

No takers.

“That’s all,” Naphtha said.  “Thank you for your time.  Reach out to any Warden if you change your minds.”

He stepped down from the table.  The circular pool of oil moved with him, leaving things untouched.  He joined the conversation between Rain and the other Warden.

We finished off the plate of deep fried chicken and zucchini.  More of a brunch than a lunch, but I had the generally ravenous feeling that came with the decline of a spot of illness, and I didn’t mind the chance to fill up.

“Tristan,” I said, as I wiped my mouth and discreetly wiped my nose, before pulling the medical mask back on, “What’s the status with Barcode?”

“We’re fine.  They’re appraised, they believe it wasn’t intentional, their thinker vetted me.  I put them on some other stuff, a few weeks back.  Finding some people.  Paris was one, but then we ran into him before Barcode did.”

I looked across the table at him.  “What were they supposed to do with Paris when they found him?”

“Tell me,” he said.

“Then?”

“Then we’d see,” he said.  His expression was flat, betraying nothing.  He looked back in Rain’s direction.  “Moot point.”

“That’s not what moot point means.”

“What does it mean?” Kenzie asked.

“Up for debate.”

“Right.  We can debate it if you want,” Tristan answered, with a hint of the stubborn tone I’d learned to watch out for, like he was willing to fight over it.  He sighed.  “I asked them to find other people.  Goddess put us all in the worst mental states and circumstances, where we had zero reason to trust one another, only protocols and rules to go by, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“It reassured Byron, I think, that things were that bad and we could still cooperate.  Reassured me.  I’m not sure I trusted myself, before that, like I could’ve done something stupid again if things lined up wrong.  Ever since, I’ve been reaching out to people we knew back in the day, because I wanted to own up, and I was so goddamn sick of running into random people from our past and having everyone think they needed to worry about Byron.”

“They know about his current state?”

“Sleeping ninety percent of the time, might never get full use of his right arm again?  Most do.  I know he was in contact with a few online.  I had to keep my distance from all that, which meant he had room to reconnect and find his niche, I guess.”

“He’s grown up a lot in the past few weeks.”

Tristan nodded.  “The contracting we’ve been doing with Barcode has been using them as private investigators with a deeper knowledge of the cape scene for Byron’s sake.  Ninety percent of it was for Byron, five percent was me covering my ass and Breakthrough’s ass, making sure we wouldn’t be attacked by heroes with good intentions who wanted to save Byron from me or some shit.”

I thought of Moonsong attacking us in the old Warden’s headquarters and nodded.  Beside me, Kenzie turned and waved.  It was the ‘eyes in the back of her head’ thing, given the timing of it.  I followed her gaze and saw Sveta navigating her way between the tables and chairs of the dining area.  Behind her, I had a glimpse of Weld and Slician.

“What’s the other five percent?” Kenzie asked.

“Me looking up an old boyfriend,” Tristan said.  “I haven’t had the guts to make the call.  I’m ninety percent sure he hates me, and I rationalized away the fact I hadn’t called by telling myself I couldn’t even do anything with him if he was forgiving and single.  Except now I theoretically could.”

“Ahhhh,” I said.

“I think that’s great,” Kenzie leaned forward as she talked to Tristan.  “Love, making up for old mistakes.  I think you should go for it.  Life’s too lonely to not be with people.”

Sveta took her seat beside me, giving me a bit of a hug.  She handed me a manila envelope with some heft to it.  “Present.”

“I can deal with lonely,” Tristan told Kenzie.  “I tried to murder my brother and get away with it.  Right under this guy’s nose.  I lied to his face a thousand times.  I felt like utter shit doing it, but I’m not sure that matters.  And… I’ve had years to think about it, but I’m wondering if he suspected or knew.”

“He knew?” I asked.

“I think he got an inkling when I couldn’t… wouldn’t.  Not while Byron was in there.”

“Marriage?” Kenzie asked.

“No,” Tristan said, blinking.  “No, I just saw stars and lost track of my thoughts at the thought of marriage.  Don’t hit me with that sudden mental image at ten in the morning when I’ve only had one cup of coffee.”

“Oh,” Kenzie said.  “Boning.  That’s how Candy puts it.”

Christ.  I looked around to see if anyone had overheard.  How the fuck was I supposed to navigate this?

Tristan, meanwhile, had put his face into his hands.  I wasn’t sure if it was laughter, crying, cringing, or some combination of those.

“Heartbroken are giving you a mis-education, huh Kenz?” Sveta asked.

“Oh yeah,” Kenzie said.  “Tristan, Tristan, look at me.  Maybe he figured it out, maybe ten percent of him knew, and that’s why he’s so angry, because the whole of him is angry at that ten percent of him.  But if you call, sure, he might be angry, you might be upset, but at least you’d know.”

“That could be worse.”

“It could be!  But maybe, maybe he’d be willing to forgive you and things would be better.  You could do what you couldn’t and wouldn’t do before, which is probably a lot of things, considering you told Rain and Chris you and Byron uh… can’t and won’t, even alone and that’s a lot of not over years and years.”

Tristan stabbed a finger in her direction.  “We need to ban you from talking about certain things.  It’s uncomfortable.  Serious ban.  Really.”

“My point is, If you don’t call, then it’s the same as the worst case scenario.  Him angry, you miserable.”

Tristan sighed.  “I’m trying to think of a nice way to phrase this.  This is where I kind of miss having Chris around, because he’d just say it.”

Kenzie nodded, but I could see her shrink into herself a hair.

I put my hand at her back and gave it a little rub.

“Uh, the sentiment is very much appreciated.  I think you’re probably right, Kenz.”

“Cool,” Kenzie said, bouncing a little in her seat, before leaning forward to grab the paper basket that had held the deep fried zucchini and tipping crumbs into her palm.  “That’s not something Chris would say.”

“But… take this as gently and lightly as it can be taken, with a pinch of good humor?”

“Can do,” Kenzie said, before tossing the handful of crumbs into her mouth.  “I always do, I think.”

“It’s a huge step forward that you’re giving what sounds like good relationship advice,” Tristan said.

Yeah.  That was probably as diplomatically stated as it could be, considering.  Chris would’ve been meaner about it.  Maybe it would have been better to leave it unsaid, though.

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.  “I know I’m a fuckup when it comes to relationships.”

“Not how I’d put it,” Tristan said.

“I am, though.  I always was and now I’ve gone and fucked up my whole relationship with the new team, and they don’t want anything to do with me.  When I saw them because I had to it was super awkward and stiff and…” she huffed out a breath, smiling.  “Really, really sad, because of how awkward it was.  I get why you’re afraid, Tristan.  They say it’s better to have loved and lost and it really, really isn’t.”

“Isn’t it?” Sveta asked.

“Not when you put your everything into that love,” Kenzie said.  “Not when it happens over and over.  You can only lose everything so many times.”

I put my arm around her shoulders and hugged her closer.  I could feel the vibrations through her head as she crunched down on bits of deep fried food that were still in her mouth.  Given the force of the chew, the bits had probably deep-fried into chunks of pure carbon.

“I didn’t mean to rub a sore spot,” Tristan said.

“You didn’t.  I’m just sore in general.  So you need to go find your romance so I can live vicariously through you, okay?  Or try.  But make the call.”

“Okay,” Tristan said.  “Later.  I can’t do it from here.”

“Vicarious romance, Kenz?” Sveta asked.  “Is this a new interest?”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “No, not really.  I have some people I might like-like but I talked to Candy about it and Candy says I might be in love with the idea of being in love, which is different from infatuation, which is what Darlene has, which is different from love, which is what Parian and Foil have.  I was already going to move super slow so I wouldn’t do anything dumb and ruin it all, but now I can’t and won’t do anything because they hate me.”

“Hate isn’t the right word,” I said.  “You might be reading too much into this.  It might be worth taking your own advice, and just… confronting them?”

“The difference is I don’t need to call to know.  It’s like I picked up the phone and then I overheard something, and I got something more honest than if they said anything to my face.”

“A biased take.”

“Fine, it’s like I got to listen in through the phone and hear everything they ever said about me and it hurts as much as anything because I didn’t even get to see things start to fall apart before it happened.  With my parents, my foster dads, the Wards team, the summer camp, the other Wards team, the school group, the girl I’d talk to before and after class in Math, my old teams online, my music teacher, my parents the second time, Houndstooth, and even Ashley, there was warning.”

Hearing Ashley’s name come up as part of that was a gut punch.  I wanted to say something but the heaviness of that gut punch made it hard, and Kenzie was on a roll of sorts.

“I loved them with everything I had and at least I got to see where things were going and pull back maybe five or ten percent of that everything.  With Chris and with Chicken and Syndicate and Decadent, I didn’t get the warning.”

“They said a lot of those things when you weren’t there and then when you were there, they thoroughly enjoyed your company.  I don’t think it paints a good picture, Kenz.  We hear and register the bad more than we hear and register the good.”

“Chris said I don’t, though.  Chris said I could meet Hitler and get along with him because he loved dogs, and I’d chatter at him about dogs and wave at him through the window while he turned on the gas.  Chris said I don’t see the bad enough, so maybe it’s the opposite and I didn’t even pay enough attention.”

“Or it could be that you’re growing up, Kenzie,” Tristan said.  “You’re meeting people like the Heartbroken, your tastes are maturing, you’re getting a questionable education-”

“Standard education, I think,” Kenzie said.  “Just… very all at once.”

Maybe.  You’re dealing with loyalty inducing Goddesses and mind controllers, bad guys and crazy clusters, you’re dealing with a lot, and maybe you’re getting a better understanding of good and bad.”

“I think the you we first met might have gotten along with Hitler, Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “But the you of today is less innocent and wouldn’t.  The you of today called out Chris.  And that’s a little bit sad and a huge relief at the same time.”

Kenzie shrugged.

“What would Ashley say in this moment?” I asked.

The smile that touched Kenzie’s face for a moment could have been the fleeting happiness of her thinking of her friend, the smile falling away when she remembered.  Instead, it suggested the opposite, like I’d stuck her with something sharp, and the pain was fleeting.

Odd, because I could feel like it was the worst of both.

“She’d say… if they really said all of that, then they aren’t worth anything and they don’t deserve me,” Kenzie said.  “Maybe.”

“True,” Tristan commented.

“Except,” Kenzie said, making her voice a hush like she was telling us a secret, “They are worth something.  They’re cool and I miss them.  But I couldn’t tell Ashley that sort of thing.”

The issue with loving everyone you meet and seeing their best sides is that when there’s fault in the relationship she thinks it’s all hers.

“They can be cool and still make a mistake,” I said.  “And I think if you asked them, they’d say you’re cool but you made a mistake by reading what they said in private.”

Kenzie smiled, cringing a bit.

“The best way forward is to arrange a meeting.  We could arrange for you to talk to them, you clear the air, you apologize, they do the same.  Then everyone tries to do better.”

“I can’t fix all the problems they say they had with me.”

“That’s a cop-out,” Sveta said.  “You can’t fix all of them, no.  But you can fix some and work on others.  You pledge to do that as part of your apology.”

Kenzie sighed.

“Yeah?” Sveta pressed her.

“Yeah,” Kenzie admitted.

“I’ll call Tattletale later, then.  We’ll work something out.”

Kenzie sighed.

At the other table, the Shepherds were packing up.  Scribe was doing a lot of the talking, and the three others were listening.  She drew something on the head of her staff, then let go of it, letting it float down and flip over, until it was horizontal.  She stood on it, a witch with her broomstick, and used her telekinesis to manipulate it and help keep her balance.  The entire time, she was speaking in a voice that was more quiet and for her group only than anything we’d said at our table.  Not that we’d broadcast it, but…

Fuck, I was being unfair, wasn’t I?

“We should go check on Rain,” I said.  “I have a hard time believing he’s been talking about Love Lost for this long.  We done?  Do you want to grab something to go, Sveta?”

“No, I ate,” she said.

We packed up our trays and gathered the cutlery into one glass.  I gave Scribe a glance over my shoulder, and saw her staring.

She rolled her eyes, her expression just shy of being a sneer, pure disdain in every account.  That done, she floated away, still surfing on her magic stick.  Her trio walked behind her.

Maybe I wasn’t being unfair.  Fuck, I really didn’t like her.

“You were with Weld,” I noted.

“I wasn’t really,” Sveta said.  “He was there, but I was with Armstrong.  Filling him in on Ashley, asking questions.  Just, uh, Weld was there for part of it, and so was Slician.  As a friend, Weld said.”

“That sounds fucking miserable,” Tristan said.

“He’s still one of my favorite people, even if he’s being a complete butthead right now.  It was nice to talk about him.  He was nice about Ashley.  Do you mind, Kenz, that I’m talking about her?  I could understand if it was…”

“No.  It’s the opposite of minding it,” Kenzie said.  She was walking in the midst of us, and from my angle I couldn’t really see her face.

“He had some anecdotes from when it was just him and her talking.  Armstrong had some too.  I’ll share them later.”

“Please do,” Kenzie said.

“Armstrong was so proud of how well she was doing, it really affected him that she was gone, you know?  I can’t say I felt exactly the same, I never really felt… I don’t even know how to put it.  She wasn’t someone I clicked with, not in a general sense.  But I have a ton of memories of conversations like the one I mentioned to you a bit ago, Victoria, about Ashley wanting to be Case Fifty-Three.  Times our differences made the bridging of the gaps feel really meaningful.”

“That makes a ton of sense,” I said.  “I kind of feel the same way.  Probably about very different things.”

Sveta smiled.  “Very different things.”

Rain was talking to a cape with a helmet covering the upper half of his face, a scar across both lips at the lower half.  The armor the guy wore was partial, covering one shoulder and pectorals but not the other shoulder or belly.  It was all done in the chrome dome look, all smooth surfaces, with the rest of the costume being dense red mesh with metal threading through it.  He had something like six modified revolvers with barrels the size of toasters holstered along his spines, so the handles fanned out, and four more at his belt.

I didn’t count myself a fan of the look.  Maybe a small part of that was being being grumpy from being sick and grumpier with the general disheartened feeling over Swansong.

“Still talking about Love Lost?” Tristan asked.

“Nah.  Told Naphtha, he’s going to run it by Warden leadership.  I was recounting what happened with Nieves in our last run-in, and Hardboil.”

“This is Bullet Time, Bullet Time, meet Tristan, Victoria, Sveta, and Kenzie.”

“Public appearances scare the crap out of me,” said the cape who looked like he was tough enough to smash his face into a brick wall until the wall gave.  “My knees knock, I’m not even joking.  It came up because I mentioned Nieves arrived and asked what Precipice knew.”

“Nieves is here?” Sveta asked.

“He’s here,” Kenzie piped up, in a little announcement that made Bullet Time give her a curious look.  “He brought, uh, what’s her name?  She went by Kid Cassandra while doing contract work, the Heartbroken said Tattletale coined the name to annoy her.  Then she wanted to change it because she’s barely a kid anymore.”

“I don’t think she confirmed a name change,” Bullet Time said.

“Names are hard,” Kenzie said. “I’ve been through, like, five.”

“Guys,” I said.  “I kind of want to check in on that.  Do you mind?  Is this in a secret holding area or something, Kenz?”

“No.  Just an office,” Kenzie said.

“We’ll come,” Sveta said, her voice firm.

“Good talking to you, Precipice,” Bullet Time said.  “Show me your stuff later.  No tinkering, though.  I’ve learned my lesson after giving a tinker carte blanche to ramble at me.”

“Sure,” Rain said, smiling.

“You made a friend,” Tristan said, as soon as we were out of the dining hall.  “And you weren’t just talking business, were you?”

“We were talking about Nieves before,” Rain said.  “That led into talking about hobbies.  He machines his own guns, no tinkering, I do some metalwork, knifemaking, trapmaking, except I barely have time these days…”

“A chronic problem,” Tristan said.  He had less time than any of us, because he was giving his brother his time to speed up the healing process.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “That led into talking about my workshop, and the view from my workshop, swimming in ice cold lakes-”

“Macho stuff,” Tristan teased.

“I- maybe.  We were sharing stories but it didn’t feel like one-upping one another.  It was nice.  He’s very different from me.  I was rural, he grew up in one of the areas that got designated H.O.S.V., like Brockton Bay almost was, after Leviathan.  Is that right?”

“Yeah, it’s right,” I said.  “Mayor went to testify about it, said not to, that things were recoverable.  If he’d said the opposite, maybe the city would have had all power and water shut off, to encourage evacuation.”

“He grew up in a place where they did that,” Rain said.  “Except his family was among the people who stayed.  He said he shot someone before he was Kenzie’s age.”

“I shot someone before I was my age,” Kenzie said.

“Flash gun doesn’t count.”

The conversation continued, and I wondered at how we were glossing over the reality.  As of right now, we were making small talk and letting Rain geek out over making a friend, when it wasn’t something he did a lot, and we were ignoring that the topic of H.O.S.V. was very close to what we were collectively doing in this moment.

Naphtha was striding down the hallway, coming in our direction.  He stopped us.  “Changers?”

“No changers in our team,” Tristan said.  “Why?”

Naphtha getting close enough meant I felt the oil touch my skin, as it touched everything in a certain radius of Naphtha.  He pulled it away from me as it touched me, but my skin crawled with the memory of the feel of it.

“Another crisis.  Similar to the others.  Going to announce it to the dining hall,” Naphtha explained.  “I don’t suppose any of you feel brave enough to go up against Sleeper?  Absolute invulnerability better than Alexandria’s, special brains, absolute annihilation powers?”

“Ha, no,” Tristan said, genuinely amused.  Then his face fell, “Wait, is he moving?”

“Yeah.  But not fast enough to matter right now.  It’s another thing demanding attention, focus, and manpower.”  He was already leaving.  “If you can, put in some hours helping to evacuate.  It helps if we show our faces, even if we do nothing else.”

“After,” Tristan called out, “Recovering from injuries and a death in the team.”

Naphtha was essentially out of earshot already, still moving quickly toward the dining area.  He gave us a thumbs up at Tristan’s comment, which felt jarring, but it was also one of very few ways to effectively communicate we were still on good terms.  Maybe I would have done a salute or something, I wasn’t sure.

Evacuating.  We’re conceding, I thought.  We’re facing this looming threat and we’re having to cut and run.  To take this city we devoted so much to and let it go.

And every step of the way, we were running into obstacles.  Gary had been a big one, we had petty criminals, monsters, broken triggers, and our hands were continually tied by other obligations, by this new fragility at the center of the city, where any intense power use could break things or catalyze disaster.

Villains had been told, and villains were apparently holding back enough that alarms weren’t going off and we weren’t being told it was all hands on deck.

But collectively?  We weren’t that good at that.  We made mistakes.  We had people with issues, or buttons to press, or agendas.  We had fucking Teacher, waiting in the wings, and he’d made his agenda perfectly clear.

I wanted three things.  I wanted this team to be okay, because even if Jessica had shifted focus and career away from this, I’d made my promise to look after them to myself in addition to my promise to her.  I was trying to do that now, because it was at least something I could do without draining myself, sustaining more wounds, or getting sicker.

Thing number two was answers.  I wanted to know more.  Which led me to open the manila folder Sveta had handed me earlier.  I had my hopes about what it was, and those hopes were exceeded.

Files on findings and research about portals and interdimensional fuckery were part of it.  We were heading to get to the rest of it.  Gary had some answers, at least when it came to anti-parahumans and what the people on the ground were doing.

Thing number three for me was taking those first two things, my team and those answers, and doing something about it.  The door that Kenzie could apparently open in Rain’s dreams was the definitive thing.  An idea communicated with a glance, that would make us zero friends if we attempted it.

But it would let us do something, when we were faced with a series of situations that felt hopeless.  Fucking Sleeper.  The Machine Army.

The city was so vast it took half a day to get from the west end to the east end.  Three quarters of a day to get from the southwest to the northeast, though the Dauntless Titan had kind of trashed the Northeast by appearing there, so it wasn’t a real consideration.

And yet, with so many things pressing in on us, the city felt small.  Claustrophobic.  This city-sized complex where we were bringing in some of the refugees and evacuees felt the same way, not helped by whole sections that were devastated or off limits.

Kenzie led us to the area where Gary was talking to the Warden leadership, a parahuman in his company.  Security stopped us.

“ID?”

We handed it over.  We let them check the records and systems.

“It’s like they’re old people pecking at the keyboard with their fingers, except more, because I’m way faster than them and they’re way slower,” Kenzie muttered.  “It’s adorable and really frustrating.”

“Be good,” Sveta admonished.  “If you say something they’ll hold us up for longer.”

“But if I get locked up I won’t have to watch them take forever to do what I can do in a literal eyeblink,” Kenzie whispered.

“Be good,” Sveta said.

We were saved when Golem stepped out into the hallway.  He saw us and approached.

“Precipice, hey.  Hi Breakthrough.  I’m sorry about Swansong.”

“Thanks,” Rain said.  “Appreciated.”

“You guys saw Contessa, right?  You met her?  Did you get an impression about her character, or anything weird.”

“My impression is that she’s awful and fuck her,” Sveta said.  “But I’m biased.”

“Understandable,” Golem said.

“My impression is that she’s awful and fuck her,” I added.  “I’m not as biased.  Why?”

“Something came up.  Can they come through?  I’ll vouch.”

“They can go through if you know them,” the security guy said.

Thank you,” Kenzie said.  “You’re my hero.”

Giving us a quizzical look, Golem led us down the hall.  We passed a meeting room with the blinds partially closed, and I could see the silhouettes of Dinah Alcott, AKA: Kid Cassandra, and of Gary Nieves, sitting across from Miss Militia.

We didn’t stop there, though.  We weren’t asked to watch.  At the end of the hall, there was a wider area that resembled a police bullpen or the cubicle zone of a computer startup – a lot of desks and computers.  Heroes were gathered, watching the interrogation on a monitor.  Some were huddled around computers.

Theo led us to one system, and brought up a recording of the interview.

Dinah Alcott was speaking, sounding annoyed or upset.  She wore a nice suit-dress with a wild pattern to it, and a similarly patterned cloth as a blindfold.  “You can’t trust her.  I’ve run the numbers, I can’t see past her but I can see everything around her, and I can at least see things that have yet to happen that are right behind her point of influence, understand?”

“Barely,” Miss Militia said.

“Not at all,” Gary said.  He was a big guy, one hand wrapped around one fist.  He looked entirely out of place, like a grown man with a fear of kids sitting in a kindergarten.

“Contessa is doing things that have nothing to do with saving lives or what you explained with what she did after being released.  She sent a Harbinger to kill the Number Man, and when she did, she set off events that messed up everything I was working on with Gary.”

“What were you working on?”

“Me.  We were in contact,” Gary said.  “I didn’t realize the extent of it.  I had a few eye-opening moments in a row and then she reached out, we talked.”

“I put him in charge of the movement and I showed him some fundamental truths,” Dinah said.  “I put in years of work to help with things, to keep things from boiling over, and it’s been destroyed because she did something and she’s still doing it.”

“It’s manipulation to a degree that’s… very uncomfortable to think about, and makes me second guess…” Gary said.  “But I like the attack on the Mayor even less.  I despise Jeanne Wynn, but that’s not the kind of change I wanted.”

“And he’s not in charge anymore,” Dinah said.  “It’s all about the violence now, fighting back, it’s going to blow up, and I can’t stop it if I spend five days asking myself questions – I checked, it’s really not an option.  This is the catalyst for the disaster you’re anticipating, and it’s her.  Infighting to distract your capes?  Her.  Just like you said she had you do to distract and scare off Teacher.”

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From Within – 16.1

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I woke up, my arm sliding across a file folder I’d left on my bed, with a stinging sensation I was sure was a six inch long papercut.

I made myself sit up and swing my legs to the floor without using flight, and I sat where I was, feeling the muggy, lethargic, slow sensation of being sick.  I unwrapped bandages, and with some gentle prodding, I checked my arm and hand, where stitches still connected the flesh that had been flensed from finger and hand.  It wasn’t puffy, and it wasn’t an inflamed red.  The red line that had been tracing its way from the wound up my arm was gone.

After everything, after winter cold, damp prison hallways, skipped meals, injury, several periods of unconsciousness, about seven minor injuries and two bad ones, my immune system had thrown in the towel.

Five days.  I’d decided I was okay with being sick for a set period of time, I’d scale down what I asked of myself by doing only one necessary thing a day, recuperate, find my equilibrium.  Then I’d ease back into things or I’d go to the hospital.  Not that hospitals were an easy thing to wrangle right now.

I was annoyed I’d moved the papers, so a stack of papers in one file folder had fanned out to smear into another file folder, to the point I had to figure out which belonged where.  The folder to the right was Professor Haywire.  Multiple personalities, with each personality living in one Earth.  He’d gone full mad scientist and opened the first portal we’d known about.  We’d later found out there was one in Europe and, apparently, the one in Cauldron.

The file folder to the left was more recent.  It was from the infodump Dragon had given me, detailing everything we knew about agents and how they were structured.

The door we’d glimpsed bothered me.  I wanted to wrap my head around it.

I stood, and I pulled on something more decent to wear- the long top with the black hood and the Brockton Bay skyline across the front that I’d worn to first meet Jessica’s therapy circle.  I fiddled with my hair, braided for overnight, tucking loose strands behind my ears as I made my way to the kitchen.

Kenzie was sleeping on the couch, drowning in an excess of heavy blankets and comforters, with only the top of her head and the buns of her hair sticking out of the top end of the blanket burrito.  The coffee table was littered with tinkering stuff, a few plates, and a couple of glasses, and the television had been left on.  In the sunless hours of the winter morning, they were running some kid’s show with a crew of a spaceship.  I thought the protagonist looked a bit disturbing, but whatever.

From the fact the television was on and that she hadn’t done her usual routine for her hair, wrapping it up to protect it, I guessed she had gone straight from tinker stuff to turning out the lights, pulling blankets down on top of herself from where they’d been set up at the back of the couch.

Routine was important for kids in grief, and this wasn’t routine.  I picked up two ends from ice cream cones that had been half-eaten, putting them on a plate.  Two ice cream cones definitely wasn’t normal, nevermind that Kenzie liked to eat the top part of the cone, lick out the ice cream that had been packed in all the way, but didn’t enjoy the cones enough on their own to finish them.  Didn’t matter on the cone type.  Just your standard eleven year old type weirdness.

I found another two-inch long bit of uneaten cone between two glasses.

I was indulging her.  Letting her do her thing and find her own routine.  If she wanted something, I let her have it, within reason.

I was careful not to make any noise as I collected dishes, avoiding moving any tinkering work.

“Breakfast?” she asked.  She didn’t poke her head out.

“Did I wake you?  Sorry.”

“I set an alarm to wake me up if you got up,” the Kenzie burrito said.  “You look healthier than you did yesterday.”

“I feel better.  Eight out of ten.”

“Good.  Do you want breakfast?  I can make stuff.  My foster dads used to teach me.”

She wiggled and struggled until her head was out of the burrito, and craned her head around to look up at me.  She gave me a half-smile, only one side of her mouth turning upward.

“Nah.  I’ll make something.  What do you want?”

“You have that yellow egg bread stuff, right?”

“Challah.  Yes.  I’m not sure how good it is.”

“It’s good.  Can you make french toast with it?”  The smile had dropped away, and her eyes were big.

“If you agree to something with vitamin C.”

“O.J.”

“Alright,” I said.

I made my way into the kitchen to drop off the dishes.  In the background, I heard her say, “Yes!  I love this show.  I’m never awake to see it.”

Kenzie had been my day one thing.  I’d tackled one priority in each of my five days of dealing with the infection in my arm and whatever I’d had that was between flu and cold.  I’d asked her what she wanted and needed and she’d said she wanted to stay over.  I’d warned her I was sick, that I couldn’t give her my full attention, and she’d said that was fine.

She’d stuck as close to me as I let her, as I did my best not to pass on whatever I’d picked up.  During the day, she either accompanied me on my errands, or she went off with other teammates.  Her team had asked for help with a job, and she’d gone to do that yesterday.  She had stayed for three hours, just long enough to handle the job and come back.

I knew her team was worried.  That they didn’t know what to do about her, and she didn’t know what to do about them.

Kenzie thumped to the ground, prompting me to look away from the bread I was cutting up.  She’d rolled out of her burrito and onto the floor, and was in the process of kicking and punching her way free.  She bolted once she was out of it, straight down the hallway.

“Ad break gonna pee real quick back soon.”

The bathroom door banged shut.

It had been Candy who had given me the data stick.  I’d plugged it into my phone while waiting for Kenzie to get her things together.

I had no idea how Candy had even got it, but it was surveillance footage from the Warden’s HQ.  Kenzie stricken.  Kenzie pushing things off of the desk she’d set up at.  A faltering attempt at smiling had given way to tears, sobbing.  She’d started shouting and pushing more things to the ground when her teammates had tried to reassure her.  In the end, it had been Tattletale who had caught her in a hug, pinning her arms at her sides, and held her there.  Tattletale who, despite the video not having audio, had apparently told Chicken Little, Darlene, and Candy to go.

When Kenzie had been released from the hug, she’d gone back to her computer.  To keep updating us.

After everything had wrapped up, we had spent a few hours together recapping, but Tristan had wanted to get Byron looked after, Kenzie’s ride had come to pick her up, and the rest of us had needed medical attention.  I’d gone back to the apartment, cried some, and crashed hard.  I woke up sick and Kenzie had been the first thing on my mind.  She’d come over that evening and she had stayed every night since.  She had opted to sleep on the couch rather than disturb Ashley’s room.

She ran down the hallway and up the stairs to the living room, banging into the table in her hurry to get situated in front of the television again.  I peeked, and saw her bundling up in her blankets.

No sign of any agitation.  Her eyes weren’t red, she wasn’t smiling incessantly, she wasn’t crying.

I made the french toast, quickly fried up some hash browns with sweet potato, and got the O.J. out.  I turned the kitchen T.V. onto the channel with the spaceship show.

The process of putting it all together was nice, even if I had less than zero appetite, still feeling groggy from the illness.

“Kenz, breakfast!”

She came without protest or hesitation, but I did see her perk up when she saw that the show she was so into was on in the kitchen as well.  Ashley’s thing had been to have a lot of televisions and radios.

Kenzie leaned over her plate to reach out and touch the screen.  She dragged the image aside, beyond the confines of the screen itself, and onto the wall.  She did it a few more times, bringing up email and a news channel that was currently showing the weather.

“I didn’t know you tinkered the T.V.,” I commented, as I sat down with my own plate.

“I did it to keep myself busy the other night, while you napped.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“No, it’s fine.  We did something before, and we watched that movie after, that was nice.  And this is really nice, thank you so much.”

It was.  I had no appetite, and my senses were dulled, and it was still surprisingly good.  I liked challah and I liked french toast, and I’d never thought to put them together.

“I feel guilty, not being able to give you my full attention.”

“You’re sick.  It’s okay.  I’m just really happy you’re keeping me company,” she said, speaking between bites.  “I would have gone crazy if I was at the facility.”

The place for the orphans and foster kids in transition.  Chris’s old place.

“Are you feeling like you need more routine, or get back to where you have your stuff?”

She shook her head, shrugging.  At the same time, she started trying to cut the crust of the bread.  Her top had only the two narrow straps at the shoulders, leaving the arms and the rest of the shoulders bare, and I could see tension there.  It would have been easy to chalk it up to the effort of cutting through the thicker crust of the bread, but… Kenzie was very good at hiding what she was feeling.

“Talk to me.  I can’t help if you don’t tell me what you’re feeling.”

“I don’t want to go back just yet.  I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know what’s happening with my team or our team or the city or anything.  This is nice, I-”

She turned her head to look at one of the screens that was floating around the television, tilting her head slightly.

I ducked my head down, until my chin was nearly touching my hands, which were flat on the table, trying to get a better look at her face.

She met my eyes.

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be a problem, I don’t want to scare you away or bother you.  It’s really obvious to me now that I can think everything’s fine and then it’s really not.  I thought I was better and I’m not.”

“But?”

“But I want to stay.  Just for a little while longer.”

“When I dropped you off that night, at the end of the day everything happened with Teacher, the staff said they were concerned, because you made those images, and they said it looked like a projection of Ashley with something that looked like-”

“Don’t-” Kenzie interrupted, her mouth partially full.  She swallowed.  “Don’t say it was A.I.  It wasn’t A.I.  it was just a picture and a few minor triggers.  I still get flack for some stuff I did at the end of Summer that wasn’t A.I.  I got questions from Parahumans Online about it after, and then from the team, and I told Jessica, and Jessica had to double check it wasn’t A.I. because that’s the kind of thing that makes the heroes crack down on you and they checked and they agreed it wasn’t so no.  No.  Not A.I., no intelligence.  If you say it was, I will actually get mad.”

“Not A.I.,” I said.

She huffed a bit and nodded.  She took another bite, and chewed it more than necessary.

I had no fucking clue how I should read the things like Kenzie crying and sobbing instead of smiling, or her getting angry in a way that showed, like here or with Chris.  Was that growth, genuine and healthy displays of emotion?  Or was it worrying because she was getting upset and ranting a bit, that she was grieving, or that her emotions were running this high?

“I miss her,” I said.  “Enough it hurts, and that it surprises me a little.”

Kenzie looked up from her food, chewing.

“She was really good company.  Maybe the best kind of roommate to have.  We had a good sense of each other’s rhythm and boundaries.  I feel like she forced me to grow up a lot about some stuff.  About the faces we put on and the roles we play, and… it sucks so much.”

“Sucks,” Kenzie muttered.  She smiled, eyes downcast.  “You know it sucks for me.  You saw that video Candy gave you.”

“I-” I shouldn’t be surprised she knows.  She didn’t even seem to mind, but that was just how Kenzie worked.  “-Yeah.  I worry about you.  About the projects you’d put together or what you’d get up to when I’m not looking.  Because I care about you too, and I know I’d do some crazy stuff if I had your power and I’d just lost someone I cared about.”

“I won’t do anything,” she said.  “I only made the Ashley projection with some basic expressions because I was lonely and I didn’t know what to do.  It made me feel worse because it wasn’t quite right.  So don’t worry, I’ll be good, I’ll stick to old projects.”

Because it wasn’t quite right.  It made me think of Amy, about the process that had led to the Wretch coming to be.  It made me worry about Kenzie more.

“Okay.  That’s reassuring.  We need you to talk to someone, I think.  And we need to talk to your team.  Chicken Little, Syndicate, Decadent.”

“Whatever you want me to do.  So don’t make me go back?  At least for a little while?”  Her eyes were puppy dog big, her smile small and unsure.

“That’s not- it doesn’t have anything to do with anything, okay?  You can stay tonight unless they say you have to go back.”

She nodded.  She glanced at the screens beside her.

“No cheating the system, sending false messages, or sabotaging things so they don’t want you to come back or, I don’t know, because you set up a hologram that makes them think you’re there.”

“I thought about that but I wouldn’t do it,” she confessed.

I didn’t press.  We ate, Kenzie chugged the last half-glass of her O.J., then she hurried over to the sink to begin washing.

I would have protested she didn’t have to help out, but instead, I just joined her, doing my share of it, and putting away the stuff on the rack.

Ashley’s obsidian mug, still on the drying rack from a week ago.

“What are you up to today?” I asked.

“I don’t know, what are you doing?”

“Everything,” I said.  “Catching up, Byron, seeing where we fit into things with the whole…”

I indicated the television screen where the weather update had dropped away and the tail end of a news segment showed.  There were cars on the road bumper to bumper, red taillights and white snow.  The scene changed to people moving down the sidewalk, all carrying things.

“I know some of the rest of the team is helping, and Chicken, Deca, and Syn are helping too, in their own ways.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Can I come with you?  I wanted to see Byron too.”

I thought about it for a second, then nodded.

“Costume or no costume?” she asked.

It was a good question.

“No costume for today.  While we work on bouncing back.  If we wear something costumey we’ll feel compelled to do something costumey.”

“Good plan,” she said.

I looked back at the television, where they showed rows and rows of fresh new tents.  Then protests, riots, and anti-parahumans gathered together in something that looked like it was going from protest to riot.

Calling for a ride and getting through all of that?

“Want to fly there?” I asked.

Mass evacuation.  The ice was cracking, we’d been given a deadline suggesting disaster would strike within a week or two.  All it would take was a precipitating act, the ice would crack, and, well, we’d seen the data lifted from Teacher’s computer.

With full knowledge that it was winter and we were putting lives at risk, our side was working with local government to force people to vacate.  Some resisted, and some of that resistance was gathered at the front of the Warden HQ.  A line of police was all that was keeping them from storming the place.  One of them was being disarmed of something they’d lit on fire, with police taking advantage of the fact that people had backed away from the protester to gang up on him three against one.

I landed on the roof, easing Kenzie down so she could stand beside me, and then adjusted the heavy bag full of her tinker stuff and my supplies.

“So angry,” Kenzie said, peering over the ledge.

I wore a medical mask, out of consideration for the people around us and the people we were bound to run into.  I didn’t want to get any heroes sick.  It made talking annoying, with the way it rubbed against my nose.  “They’re losing their homes.  Just like we’re probably going to have to say goodbye to the apartment.”

“Can we get stuff out?  I have workshop stuff I’d miss.  And furniture?  Books?  Ashley had so many things she was so fond of.  I want to keep some.”

“We’ll do something,” I said.  I struggled with keys, my left hand not fully cooperating, the gloves I wore not exactly helping.  “But not everyone can do something, that’s why they’re upset.”

“Yeah.  But if they spent less time protesting and more time preparing, they could bring more with them.”

“Maybe,” I said, as I unlocked the door.  “Some of them don’t care about things, they want to keep other things.  Security.  Not having to worry they’ll keep facing tough winters.  Not feeling like there’ll be one world ending threat every few years.  Endbringers, then Scion, now this, which we’re being vague about, and which we haven’t made any major arrests on.”

We let ourselves into the top floor of the Warden’s HQ, not that this was much more than a cardboard cutout building propped up in front of the real HQ.

“Because we’re saying it was the portals and the long term danger is worse than we thought, and the portals were done by the religious nuts at Cheit, who we can’t do anything about because diplomacy.”

“We can’t attack them without losing diplomatic support.  We’re the big guys in terms of the weapons we hold and the little guys in everything else.  And honestly, it would be really nice to have clearance to go into Cheit right now.”

Kenzie nodded.

We made our way down the stairwell to the passworded hallway.  Kenzie could do the hallway with her eyes closed, so I let her do the steps to take us to the bunker.

The road to the bunker was framed by two new buildings, and the bunker had a neighboring structure.  The number of guards had tripled, many gathered on the rises on either side of the path, looking down at us with weapons at the ready.

But they knew my face.  I raised a hand in a wave, and they waved me through.

We didn’t stop in at the bunker itself.  We continued down the path, took a hard left, and passed beneath more guards on our way to our destination.

Into Teacher’s facility.

“My first time here,” Kenzie said.

“You haven’t visited Byron?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “I was planning to.”

As there had been armed guards guarding the way between bunker and facility, there were capes waiting for us on the other side.  One of them handed me an info sheet.  They hesitated before handing Kenzie one, and after a quick glance, I motioned for them to hand it to her.

At Large
Earth Cheit, Church Capitol West
Teacher – Benjamin Terrell
Overseer/Custodian – A76
Moord Nag – Lou Joubert

Greater City Area
Ingenue – Miranda Webb
Leister – Jamar Lafranca
Usher – Ray C. Rudolph
Captain Claw – Charles Ali
Black Goat/Scapegoat – William Giles
9 Soldiers, Mixed Squads

Unknown (Last seen Earth N)
Squad Leader (Green-Black)
6 Green-Black Soldiers

Unknown
Squad Leader (Orange-Red)
Squad Leader (Gray-Gray)
12  Soldiers, Mixed Squads

“Thanks,” I said.  It was always good to get an update.  The list had been twice as long on my last visit, two days ago.

“You’ve been here before?  Do you need a guide?”

“No, but she might if she wants to go do something.”

“This sheet has some basic information and a number to call if you want a guide or escort, and another number to call if you see something concerning.  We’ve painted or taped areas that are high risk.”

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.  “I wanted to use some tinker gear, but Victoria said I’d need to get it checked out.”

“We can page people and see who’s available.  Go on ahead, and we’ll have them find you.  Where are you off to next?”

“Hospital wing.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem.  Take the elevator.”

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.

The place they had picked for the portal to exit was a hallway that could be defended if need be, that opened up into a larger area of the complex, a central room with stairs, hallways and, at the far end, a series of elevators.  There were people mopping and cleaning, because the tromp of boots was depositing a lot of muck on the white tile, and there was a lot of muck, with some areas having been reduced to debris.

We’d moved in, more or less.  Thralls all relocated and quarantined, until such a time that Teacher no longer had a serious hold on them.  Some people from the city were being brought here, to select and specific areas that could be cut off from the areas we were using to conduct business.

There was food here, there were beds, there were storage areas, shower facilities, plumbing, power, and backup power.

The elevators weren’t like the usual.  The doors were open, the elevators waiting, each large enough to drive a car into.  We got inside, hit the button, and the door whisked closed, before carrying us two floors up.  The doors opened, and Defiant stepped inside, wearing a reduced-down version of his power suit.  The effect was similar to a fireman shucking off coat, belt, gloves, and headgear while still wearing the rest, but Defiant’s stuff was green and gold armor so heavy it needed tech to move with.

He found a spot to stand next to Kenzie.  She only came up to his waist, with the way his gear and boots extended his height.

“Hello, Lookout.”

“Heya.  How are you guys?”

“We’re staying on top of things.  Victoria, always good to see someone from home.”

“Likewise,” I said.

From home.  We still weren’t thinking of this city as home.

We hadn’t even fucking named it, and now we were abandoning it.

Or had we not named it because we’d known on some fundamental level that we might have to abandon it, that it was temporary and fragile?

“What you did over last week was a big help.  Figuring out Teacher’s info-attack vector, Shin, and the raid.”  He extended a hand for me to shake.

“I’m sick,” I told him.  “Sorry, I would otherwise.”

“I don’t mind,” he responded.  “I don’t think I can get sick.”

I shook his hand.  He wasn’t wearing gauntlets, but his hand was still large as it folded around mine.  I could see seams and patches where it wasn’t skin, with too smooth a texture.

“The tech?” he asked.  “I’d stay to talk, take as much time to talk shop and catch you up, but there’s too much to do.”

I lowered the bag to the ground so Kenzie could fish out the tech.  It was akin to a double-thick keyboard with no buttons, and a depression along one side.  It looked heavier, and she needed two hands to lift it up to Defiant, who held it in one.

“Not a cube, huh?” I asked.

“It is,” she said.

“She’s right, it is a cube,” Defiant said, while investigating the thing that wasn’t a cube.  “Should you tell me what this is, or would you prefer I figure it out?”

“You can figure.  Twenty-five percent of the reason I’m asking is I don’t want to step on toes.  Seventy-five percent is because there’s that slight, teeny-tiny chance that this isn’t what we want to do in any place with a chance of fracturing.”

“I see what you mean,” he said, as he opened up the casing, looking at the internals.  Lenses were arranged in arrays, to the point it was more glass than anything, and the tech that was there looked like the arrays that extended back from the ocular cameras she’d had us place in our eyes.

The elevator came to a stop.  We stepped out into the hallway, remaining where we were, while he produced a laser from his gauntlet, shining it through some of the lenses.

“Careful of polarities, please,” Kenzie said, shifting her weight from foot to foot.  “I know you know your stuff, but…”

“Understood.  I didn’t change any numbers.  Looking at this, you should be fine.  You’re not outputting anything, you’re clarifying things that are operating within the sector-space.”

“Yeah.  Yep.  But sometimes when you point a camera at someone, they look into the camera.”

“They don’t reach through to hit you or break your camera, either.”

“Um, uh… I’m not smart enough to keep the analogy going.  But they’re multidimensional space monsters.  They could.  Um, sometimes you don’t want to agitate someone on the other side of the glass if that glass is close to breaking.”

“I think you’re safe,” he said, handing Kenzie the keyboard thing.  “And about what you just said, I do think you’re smart.  More importantly, you put in the effort, and I put a lot of stock in that.  If we were still in the PRT, I would want you on my team.”

“No you wouldn’t.  Nobody who’s seen my record would.”

“I’ve seen your record, and I would.”

“I’m a fuckup, though.  I leave a trail of messed up relationships and regrets behind me, wherever I go.  I’m doing it right now.”

“With me?  No.”

I bit my lip.  I wanted to comment, but- this was between them.

“No,” Kenzie agreed.  “My new team.”

“I’m very much the same, Lookout.  I made… almost no friends, over the years.  Chevalier, Myrddin, Miss Militia.  I’m not even sure most would look at those relationships and think of them as friendships.”

“Dragon?” Kenzie asked.

“I was getting around to that.  Dragon was my first real friendship.  I had immense respect, trust, and fondness for her.  It did require some leaps of faith, challenges.”

“Because she’s an A.I.”

“Yes.  And because we’re different people.  We figured it out, because it was worth it for both of us.  That laid a foundation for a relationship that was more.”

“I’ve talked about those sorts of foundations with people before.  It’s not that easy.  It sounds easy on paper, but…”

“I know.  Believe me.”

She wiggled a bit, “But if you want more friends, I’m always down.  You’ve seen my record so it’s okay if you say no.  But if you say yes, then you’re saying yes while knowing I’m a bit of a nuclear-powered screwer-upper of relationships.”

“I would be happy to be your friend, Lookout.  And if I’m welcome, I’d like to see the tech in use.  I have a guess about what you’re doing.”

She nodded, enthusiastic, then looked at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah, though we’re not the only people involved.  If they say no…”

“Of course,” Defiant said.

We got moving.  Though he’d just handed us the keyboard thing, Defiant ended up carrying it and carrying the bag, which I was secretly grateful for.  I didn’t feel like I was at a hundred percent, and fatigue set in easy.

Even though it was against my personal policy, I ended up flying rather than walking as we made our way through the hospital wing.

“Is Dragon okay?” I asked.

“Dragon’s fine.”

“What’s she up to?”

“Infrastructure development at Carroll Hill and Aadams, two as, two of the new tent cities and hopefully one of the places we can settle for good.”

I suppressed a comment at that.

“Your teammate fought Saint, did he mention her?”

“No, I was just asking because she was absent.”

“As was I, for the latter part.  Dragon is immensely powerful, but she, like any tinker, is dependent on her pre-established work to function at optimal capacity.  The Dragonslayers knew this and used it against her in the past.  Teacher used it against her here.  With no satellites to use for remote access except the ones she deployed after passing through the portal, she was limited in what she could do.  If she dies without redundant systems and infrastructure behind her, she dies for good, just as any of us would.”

Kenzie’s eyes dropped to the floor.  At the same time, I made a bit of a face.  I wasn’t sure he’d seen with the medical mask covering my mouth.

He’d seen.  “…And there I go, proving my earlier point.  I’m not always good at conversation, even or especially casual conversation.  I heard about your teammate.  I didn’t mean to prod a wound.”

That was casual?

Talking about death, dying, and the cape stuff?

Either way, I nodded.

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “I’ll forgive you your foibles if you forgive me mine.”

“We’ll work on them,” he said.  To me, he said, “I don’t suffer from that same general need.  I don’t often lose my technology.  But I suffer for a lack of allies and friends.  I could have gone ahead and cut my way through an army of people who only committed the crime of getting brainwashed, but I thought it better to support my team, my wife, and force him to keep committing forces.”

“It wasn’t easy,” I said.

He shook his head.  “No, and neither is the aftermath.  Teacher is free and untouchable for the time being, Ingenue is on the loose, and other thralls are operating elsewhere.  Gary Nieves is wanting to make a meeting, bringing Dinah Alcott with him, of all people, and he has a great deal of political clout because of the ongoing riots and protests.  We’re trying to secure the city and ensure the evacuation goes smoothly, and the only asset we have in the process of that is that Contessa is working with Citrine to manage it.”

I winced.

“Yeah,” he said.  “My feelings exactly.”

Byron’s room was at the end of the hall.  Rain was there, as was Vista, who wore the cloth part of her costume, but not her armor.  She was curled up in a chair near Byron.  Rain sat on the opposite side, shoes kicked off, sock-covered feet up on the side of the bed.

They were watching a movie, to the tune of regular beeps.

Byron lay on the bed, bandages on one arm, shoulder, and at his side.  The bandages were clean, but there were hints of seepage, too thin to be straight blood, but with telltale crimson.  He wore a t-shirt with parts cut out to accommodate the bandaging, and pyjama bottoms.  He hadn’t woken as we’d entered.

His eyes were half-lidded.  I’d seen him awake and I’d seen him unconscious.  He had slept through eighty percent of my visits.  Seeing Byron had been my thing on day three of being sick, with me keeping my distance because of the illness.

“Oh hey,” Vista said, her voice pitched to be quiet, so she wouldn’t disturb Byron.  “Hi boss.”

“Hi, Vista,” Defiant said, matching her tone.

“Hanging out?” I asked.

“I was up all night with patrols, I came by and stayed for the movie,” she said.  True enough, she did have circles under her eyes that had nothing to do with the thick black eyeliner she’d applied.

Kenzie hurried into the room, getting the keyboard.

“We’re trying it?” Rain asked.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said, double checking with Defiant.

She was doing a lot of double checking.

She set the keyboard on the foot of the bed, reconsidered, and had Rain stand up, before placing it on his chair, scooting the chair over.

“You’re not using your power, right?” she asked Vista.

“No, why?”

“Because even if Defiant says there isn’t, I’m worried there’s a teeny, tiny chance this could blow up everything.”

I stopped flying.  Rain backed away a step.

She placed her phone over top of the buttonless keyboard, then used it as her console, to activate parts.  She slid it over, hit more buttons, slid it over, and hit more.

It came to life, light shining from the seams.

And orange-red motes began to move through the air, diffuse and smaller than what Tristan normally created.

They settled into a general silhouette, and then that silhouette clarified, until we had an ethereal image of Tristan, just a bit fuzzy around the finer details like individual strands of hair, eyelashes, and a thread or two on his clothes.

He overlapped Byron at first, but as he tested his movement, he slipped off to one side and stood away.

He attempted to cross the room, and he hit an invisible wall.  He reached out to touch it.

When he spoke, though, his words came out as audio garbage, all the right sounds if those sounds had been into a blender and mixed in with static.  He tried again and seemed a bit put out.

“Fine tuning to be done,” Kenzie said.  She shut down the box.  The motes began to scatter, peeling away and dissolving.  “Can we wake up Tristan, see what it’s like for him?”

Rain reached down and jostled Byron’s shoulder, trying to wake him.  It didn’t work.  He sounded discouraged more than upset as he said, “I’ll get a nurse.”

Had he sounded very upset, I might have panicked.  As it was, I was anxious and uncomfortable with so much about this.  Kenzie literally wrung her hands.

Rain stepped out of the room.

“It’s cool that it worked that well,” Kenzie said.  “He could move around.  I was worried I wouldn’t be able to let him do that.  They can make micro-adjustments to have a slightly different pose or posture when they swap in.”

“Is that why you had the perpendicular set of high-distortion prisms?” Defiant asked.

“I thought it might grease the track if he wanted to move down it.”

“It’s a good idea.  You do sacrifice some clarity.”

“I made so many mistakes early on, trying to get perfect clarity or better-than-perfect clarity.  No, it’s not what we need.  We need to be able to communicate with him.”

The nurse came back in.  She had a syringe.  She addressed us all, not looking the least bit intimidated about being surrounded by capes, let alone Defiant’s massive frame.  “He scheduled a wake up this morning, but are you sure you want to do this?”

“We are,” Rain said.

She removed the tubes from his nose, the covers from over top of him, and the heartbeat monitor from his finger.  It produced the tonal beep of a flatline as she disconnected it, a sound that made ten kinds of bad emotion jump all over the place in my chest and stomach.

She gave Byron the syringe in the shoulder, depressing it.

His eyes fluttered, opened, and he stirred.

“Change,” Rain said.  “Swap out.”

Byron hesitated, then blurred.

A moment later, he was Tristan.  He sat up, hopped down.

“Couldn’t talk,” he said.

“We know,” Kenzie said.  “I can work on that.  Next time.”

“It would be a lifesaver,” Tristan said.  “It would mean a lot.”

Kenzie bounced a little with excitement.

“Can we look for Byron?” Tristan asked.

Kenzie nodded.  “Sit on the bed?  Pull your legs up.  You have to stay within bounds.”

Tristan did.

She activated the machine again.

The blue motes appeared, and they coalesced into Byron’s form, partially curled up, lying just behind Tristan.

He looked to be unconscious.

Byron had sustained light brain trauma and more severe trauma to his body.  The pair was trapped in a tricky dynamic now, because Byron went in and out of consciousness, something the nurses said was a consequence of the kind of healing he needed to do.

But he didn’t heal while Tristan was out and about.  He had to be phased in, lying there, with people checking on him, for best results.

Tristan had been giving up extra time just to give his brother a shot at a faster recovery.  And he was recovering, but it was slow.

And, apparently, while Byron was in that twilight state of recovery, Tristan was aware.  There was no sleeping in sync like they normally did.  Not for most of it.

“That makes this the first time in years he’s not looking over my shoulder,” Tristan said, sounding awed, or stunned, or horrified, if not all three.

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Vista said.

“Maybe,” Tristan said.  “We’d have to do more tests.  Do this a few more times.”

“I’m down!” Kenzie said, sounding excited.  “Yes, absolutely, but I have to go home and tinker and then I can bring it back, and in between phases, I need to visit Rain while he’s asleep.”

“Me?  Why?”

“Because I think the principles we’re using here could help give a sense of what’s going on there, in your head, when you’re in your dream room.  And if we can do that-”

“The door,” Rain said.

“If we can move static things or grease the way, maybe we can get it so you can go through.”

Holy shit.  Do what Teacher was doing?  Going into the Shard’s space and affecting things there?

“No.”

Everyone assembled turned to look at the speaker.  Defiant.

“No, I’m sorry.  I could talk to other members of the Wardens about it, but… I don’t think we could conscience it.”

“If we don’t, Teacher will,” Kenzie said.  “He’ll figure out how to get in there and how to mess with powers or do whatever else he was doing.”

“Maybe.  He doesn’t have his tinkers or tech.  That slows him down.  We’re maneuvering to deal with him.”

“This is a possible answer.  What do you think the danger is, if we’re basically doing what Teacher is?”

“I don’t think there’s any particular difference in the degree of danger you face, compared to him,” Defiant said.  “I think it’s very possible what you’re talking about could work and would work in the same way.”

“Then why not?”

“Because you’re eleven, and he’s a criminal with the remainder of his punishment pending, and that’s… frankly, if it is what we think it is, it’s a horrific amount of power.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“I’m not sure I would trust Dragon with it, and I trust her more than I trust anyone.  This is something we could reserve for emergencies, we could pull multiple tinkers in, and spread out the load, maybe, but… my instinct is no.  It’s too much, and it’s too dangerous.”

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry if this spoils our…”

“Friendship?” Kenzie asked.  She shook her head.  “No.  You’re still cool.”

“I’m glad.  I should go and look after things.  This, in its current form?  Very interesting work.  Keep me up to date on the progress?” he asked.

“Can do.”

He gave a nod to Vista, then turned to go.

The conversation resumed, Tristan getting his stuff together, Vista talking to him about a movie they’d watched, apparently Tristan’s pick, except she or Rain had picked up a similar movie to one on Tristan’s list, same name, same director, same year, wrong Earth of origin.

Kenzie was quiet, staring down at her work.  Her hand ran along the flat surface.

Then she looked up at Rain, who was already watching her.

Her eyes found me.

As she’d done earlier, checking with me, checking with Defiant, checking with Rain.

Asking for permission.  Permission to delve into stuff despite the warning from the top.

I didn’t say no.

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