“You want a game plan?” Tristan said. “Do you mean for here or for the big picture?”
I was thinking big picture, I thought, I have doubts right now and a plan would help.
Without voicing that, I said, “Here, but I’m open to hearing about either. If you have something in mind.”
“I want to wait on the big picture stuff so we can include Rain into the discussion. He and I chat regularly, and he’s heard some, but Ashley and I were talking while we waited for you and there’s bits to discuss. Comfort levels.”
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll focus on this for now.”
“I’m in charge, then?” Tristan asked.
“If Sveta is okay with it, you can give it a shot.”
“I’m okay with it,” Sveta said.
He made a small amused sound, his face obscured by his helmet, his hands busy adjusting the fit of his armor as he paced. “There was a time I thought I might end up being in charge of Reach. Things fell through before then. I don’t know if my current mindset works for it, but let’s give this a try.”
I had my own bag, which I’d brought with me. My computer, masks, and the flags, one red and one blue. I fished out the flags, holding both in one hand, and put on one of the masks.
“Victoria, you and I are on defense, then,” he said. “Ashley is going to go hard offense, that’s who she is, and I don’t see Chris holding back. Sveta, you’re going on the attack. You loop around, go the long way if you have to. You might have to dodge Kenzie, but I think you can manage that okay. It’s only her hook thing and flash gun.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Sveta said.
“Alright,” I said.
“I think the benefit here is that we all have some experience,” he said.
“Kind of,” Sveta said.
“They’re young. Ashley too, in a weird way. They’re led by Ashley and we know how she thinks. I can put my confidence in you, Sveta, if you’re going for their flag.”
“I hope I deserve it.”
“I’m confident in myself and my ability to hold up against a two-person rush, assuming that’s what they do, and I know you’ve got a background, Victoria.”
“Yeah. Confidence goes before the fall, though. I think one of the things I regret most in the past is my overconfidence.”
“This is just an exercise. If I’m wrong on this, I’ll own it. Let me plant our flag and get my stuff to adjust my armor, I’ll be right with you.”
As he said it, another wall materialized behind us. A fort with ten foot walls was slowly forming. Tristan wasn’t even focusing that much on the construction, attention-wise. He took the flag before walking off.
I had intentionally chosen a less level area. We were on a hill, playing on a bit of a slope, roughly a ten degree decline with taller grass, weeds, and some pebbly dirt covering the area. Some trees and rocks dotted the space between where their group would set up and where we would.
I had a few reasons for choosing the area. Part of it played off something I had experienced with New Wave. The team had always been split between the fliers and the people on the ground. Me, Aunt Sarah, Crystal and Eric had all been airborne, while my Uncle Neil, Mom, and Dad had all been landbound. It created a dilemma in logistics, and this slightly sloped ground and uneven terrain emphasized that logistics in a way that having to go through and around buildings might in the city.
Sveta functionally had a mover ability, I wasn’t sure about Chris’ capabilities, and Damsel and Rain both had some capabilities in that realm. Supposedly. I wanted to see how the more mobile members of the group worked in coordination with the others.
It was interesting that Tristan had picked both Sveta and me. We were both mobile and Tristan wasn’t. Ashley’s team had three people on foot.
Another reason for this particular location was Rain’s power. It helped him keep his balance, and that was supposedly the extent of it. When he arrived, I wanted to see if it factored in here.
Finally, there was the fact that it put us out of the way. No bystanders, no property to damage.
Kenzie had her head down, her attention on her phone. Ashley and Chris were both smiling. All three were talking. I waited a short bit for them to finish.
“I’m so unbelievably nervous,” Sveta said.
I glanced at her, and confirmed that Tristan had stepped away, rummaging in his bag. He was out of earshot.
“I definitely hear you on that,” I said.
“I really want this exercise to work somehow, like Tristan said, but for different reasons. The way you were brought in, you might have come in looking for the bad, and it’s… it’s not all bad. Really. I always wanted a team and the idea of finding one and fitting myself to that team with all of my problems, it seemed impossible or far away.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You talked about it in the hospital. That you’d talked to Mrs. Yamada and other people about how, putting aside all your issues, you wanted to be a hero.”
“And I wanted a boyfriend, and I wanted to be functional again, and I wanted friends,” she said, staring off at the other three. “And I have almost all of it, but I feel like it could slip out of my grasp if things go wrong. If this goes wrong. I don’t know what I can do if that happens. I’m worried this is going to be a disaster, and that’s making me so anxious.”
“What can I do?” I asked. “I don’t want you to be unhappy.”
“Like I said before, I really want you to believe in us here. I want you to give us a chance. Even if this is bad to start.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And- I’m sorry if this is pushing a line or if you have reasons, but don’t be so stiff?”
She sounded so uncertain as she said it. I drew in a deep breath and smiled at her.
“I’m the one with a prosthetic body. We’re friends, right?” She smiled, uncertain, and I smiled at her. “So I don’t want you tense around me.”
“I’m nervous in my own way, and I think that’s how it shows,” I said. “It’s not you. Can I give you a bit of a hug, here, emotional support?”
I put one arm around her shoulders and squeezed. Sveta moved her head in my direction, I moved mine in her direction, knocking heads with her a bit.
Off in the distance, even though she was more than a hundred feet away, I could hear Kenzie cooing and ‘aww’ing over the hug, as she looked at us.
“What did I miss?” Tristan asked.
“I’m anxious,” Sveta said.
“Me too,” Tristan said. “Your control gets bad when you’re nervous, right? You have more reflexive movements?”
“It gets so fucking shitty,” Sveta said. “I’m sorry. I’m worried I’ll be terrible because I’m all over the place inside here. I don’t know if you can hear it, but I keep fumbling because I’ll reflexively reach out to grab something off in the distance and hit the wall of the suit instead, and then I have to reach for the right control ring again.”
“Do the best you can,” Tristan said.
“This isn’t about grading you as an individual,” I said.
“It’s about the team,” Sveta said. “I don’t want to let the team down. Can we start? I’ll get more nervous if we wait.”
“Sure,” I said.
The other three weren’t wrapped up in their discussion anymore. I called out, “You guys want your flag?”
“Here,” Sveta said. She held out her hand. I passed her the blue flag.
She passed it to the others, hand and forearm gripping the flag, tendrils pushing the hand and forearm. She stopped short, relying on only the momentum so it only punched Chris lightly in the man-boob. He caught her hand and arm in one large hand, plucking the flag free before releasing her hand. He smiled as he held it up, then he reached low to hand it to Kenzie. The two of them went to plant it, with Chris picking up a fallen tree on the way.
It seemed Chris and Kenzie got along better like this.
Ashley didn’t join them. Instead, she started walking toward us, picking her way through weeds and grass. She still had a partial smile on her face from before.
I flew to meet her partway.
“Ground rules?” she asked, when I was closer.
“Place your flag. You grab ours and bring it to yours, or vice-versa. Whoever has both flags at their starting point wins. Try to avoid hurting the trees. No personal injuries that aren’t going to heal in a day. Bruises and scrapes are inevitable, but let’s avoid them if we can.”
“Understood.” She turned to walk away, one hand raised to give me an over-the-shoulder salute as she did.
Tristan began altering the battlefield behind her, drawing out fifty little sparks to move along the surface of our side of the hill.
The other team was just on the other side of a trio of trees. The nervousness we all felt was apparent as Kenzie’s cube lit up, making a deep beep sound.
All three faces of the cube that I could see had lit up. Numbers were apparent. ’10’… ‘9’… ‘8’…
“It’s worth remembering that she can remotely control the cube,” Tristan said. “Hm.”
“Just the flashlight gun and the eyehook, right?” Sveta asked, giving Tristan a look.
Tristan moved his hand, and finalized his alteration to the slope between our fort and the halfway point of the battlefield. Uneven ground, raised segments and lowered ones. Most of it was flat, the spikes sticking out of the sides or toward the ground at an angle. The material was solid, white with orange-red in the crevices, running through it like ore in rock.
The timer continued. ‘3’… ‘2’… ‘1’… ‘Go’.
They came out of the trees. As Tristan had suggested, Ashley’s plan was to go on the attack.
All three of them. Kenzie had changed, overalls gone, replaced with a skintight suit that mirrored her outfit in color and where it changed from black to pink to red. Chris had his head turned, and he was using one hand to cram the last few feet of the dead tree into his mouth.
Ashley was on foot. White eyes were wide open behind her mask, the pupils not visible from this distance.
“This is fine. Same plan,” Tristan said, not sounding bothered in the least.
Two versus three, while Sveta grabs their flag.
Sveta reached for a tree and found her grip, hauling herself away.
Tristan began creating barricades and obstructions, aimed at being knee-height, to slow them down.
Ashley hurdled the first two. Chris trampled his way through the three that had been put in his way.
Kenzie turned, aimed, and fired her flash gun in Sveta’s direction. She missed, aimed again, and fired. The second shot caught Sveta in its area.
“You take Chris and Kenzie, I’ll work on Ashley,” Tristan said. He sounded confident. “Keep an eye on Kenzie, make sure she doesn’t fall.”
I flew to intercept. Chris had one hand full with the tree, mouth distended with a fat tongue sticking out, apparently to keep the tree from rubbing against his lower row of teeth; his hand served to protect the other teeth.
I was put in mind of the man I’d seen during the broken trigger, who’d had a tree come out the other direction.
Chris laughed, deep and booming, tree digested. He lowered his chin, mouth closed, hands and arms up to protect his face and guard Kenzie.
I could deal with big and strong. I flew closer- saw Kenzie turn, aiming her gun at me, and changed course, covering my face and head, my forcefield up.
Even turned partially away, my arms up, the momentary flash of light blinded me. A full second passed, and my sight didn’t return. I could hear Chris’ laugh, Kenzie’s amusement. My forcefield hadn’t helped.
I felt the forcefield meet resistance, and I forced it to shut off before Chris’ hand could close around me. I pushed out with my aura to try to throw him off balance and buy myself a second, and changed course. I felt his fingers graze my back, dragging against cloth and not finding enough slack to get a grip.
Blindness was disorienting. Blindness when flying made it hard to tell which way was up and which way was down, and I knew it would get worse before it got better.
I flew away and at the ground, forcefield up, and landed hard. I felt Tristan’s creation shatter under and around me as my power absorbed the hit, fragments bouncing off of me, dust collecting on me.
“Are you okay!?” I heard Kenzie call out.
“I’m fine!” I replied.
“Don’t give away your position if you’ve blinded them!” I heard Ashley.
I heard a noise, and at first I thought it was Chris dismantling the fort. It sounded like someone was tearing the world’s largest sheet of paper, nails on a blackboard, an alien’s scream from a science fiction movie that echoed far more than it should, a sharp explosion, and any number of other things, all overlapping and working against one another.
I opened my eyes and tried to make out the surroundings despite the spots of light that were exploding against the backs of my eyeballs.
Chris was large enough for me to make out his general shape. I could make out Ashley and Tristan’s positions, but the only reason I could distinguish the two was because Ashley dressed in black and Tristan had more color to his costume.
Right. I had a few tricks up my sleeve I’d been considering. This was an opportunity to try one.
I took off, and I activated my forcefield momentarily as I did it, pushing out at the cracked chunks of stonelike ground, sending pieces rolling and sliding in the wake of my takeoff. I needed their attention. I saw Chris slow momentarily, mid-stride as he walked toward the fort.
I didn’t fly straight for them, but around, circling closer to the fort. I paused, giving them time to see me, and then flew straight for Chris’ face, full speed.
I stopped only a few feet short, hitting him with my aura instead of my fist. Full-strength, point-blank, a hit to the emotional rather than the physical.
The reaction was much the same as if I’d punched him. Forward movement stopped, reversed, an off-balance stumble backward.
“Holy fuck,” I could hear Tristan.
I heard Damsel’s response, but I had other focuses than making out the words. It might have been ‘pay attention to your opponent’ or ‘pay attention to who you’re fighting’.
I was busy flying around Chris, one hand extended so it maintained contact with him, let me gently push him, all while helping me to navigate while still partially blind. Before he fully had his balance, I caught him by the shoulders and pulled him back and down toward the ground.
He walked backward rather than topple, helped by the fact that his head was small, his shoulders and neck narrow relative to his lower body. It was part of why his center of balance was low to the ground, with his weight gathered around gut, butt, and legs.
Kenzie’s pincer-claw grabbed for my arm, then pulled my arm away from Chris. I let it, grabbing the prehensile length of it between Kenzie and me. Not a huge factor. One hand still on Chris’ shoulder, I activated my forcefield, using the added strength to pull at Chris. He continued his backward walk until he stumbled into one of Tristan’s sections of raised ground.
He toppled, and I shifted my position to guide his fall for the first half of the way. The focus on the latter half of the way was letting my forcefield down and catching Kenzie.
Chris fell flat on his back. Kenzie wriggled momentarily, and I deposited her on Chris’ chest, to make getting to his feet just a little bit harder. The claw slipped free of my arm.
My vision was clearing enough for me to see vague expressions, without precise detail. Chris was grinning, shaking with a laugh or chuckle.
“Come on, get up, get up!” Kenzie goaded him.
“Get off me then!” Chris boomed.
Orange motes were starting to surround them.
“Victoria!” Tristan called out. “Switch with me!”
The words were barely out of his mouth when Ashley used her power again. It was noisy to the point I worried my ears would be ringing an hour after this exercise. I could see it as a visible blur of shadow aimed behind her and toward the ground. She used the recoil to launch herself off to one side, to help her get around and past Tristan. More orange motes appeared in the direction she was going.
She used her power again, changing course to fly straight for Tristan. She planted one foot on his shoulder, stepped down so her back grazed against his, her long hair draping over his head and shoulders, aimed forward with both hands, and used her power a third time just as she touched ground, her back to his.
A power-augmented body-check. The recoil of her power pushed her in the opposite direction she fired, but because she was in contact with Tristan, she pushed him too. She stumbled, but he sprawled to the ground, his armor striking the hard platform he’d created on the slope, metal screeching and clashing against stone.
The orange motes that had started to appear around Chris and Kenzie came to life around them, an especially spiky, irregular outcropping with a thin ridge extending out to the growth he’d been making in front of Ashley’s original course, which became its own vaguely pineapple-shaped formation.
He’d wanted me to deal with Ashley. Okay. She was rolling her shoulders, rubbing at one, while she stalked toward the fort.
I could see better, so I could possibly pull this technique off better. I flew at her, and she barely seemed to pay me any mind.
My feet touched ground, helping to stop me as I reversed my direction of flight to cancel out my forward movement. I’d wanted to avoid all physical contact, but I did bump my shoulder into hers as I went from flying at near-top speed to a full stop, my face a couple of inches from hers, well inside her personal space.
As with Chris, I used my emotion aura.
As had been the case with Chris, the effect was immediate and profound. She stumbled back much as if I’d flown into her and given her a strong shove, her eyes wide.
I’d barely found my own footing when she found hers. Another blast, jarring for my ears. My vision was already suffering, and it was made worse by the plume of dust and debris around and to one side of her. She used the blast and a push of her legs to throw herself at the wall.
The moment she made contact with it, she used her power again, flinging herself out into empty space, hair and dress fluttering.
My first instinct was that she was going to have a rough landing, that I might need to catch her. Before I’d even figured out how I might do it, she used her power once more. She was aiming up at an angle, so that meant she was pushed down by the recoil.
It wasn’t a mere drop-kick or a fall, but a spearing plunge. I did much as she’d done, pushing out with my legs in conjunction with a use of my power, my flight, to get out of her way.
With the speed and general profile of a pickaxe head driven into the ground, she landed on hard ground, in the same spot I’d been standing. There was a second where she stood there, hair draping down, hands out at her sides with fingers splayed, and then one of her legs wobbled and she dropped to one knee.
“Are you-” I started. I thought I saw her move and paused. “Are you okay? That landing looks like it hurt.”
She raised her face and looked up at me. White eyes behind a black mask, behind white hair.
She used her power again. Cords, columns, and shaped explosions of lensing, bending, and darkening within the roughly cone-shaped area, over the one or two seconds that she was creating each blast. She didn’t even rise from her kneeling position. She threw herself at me, and this time she caught me entirely off guard. Her knees hit my shoulders, at least one of her arms caught me around the head, the fabric of her dress pulling against my face as she tried to fold herself around my head.
Holy shit, was my first thought. She was not letting up. Every time she acted, it was with the energy of a sprinter taking off from their starting position, except her power gave her more of a push, and the jarring noises only magnified the surprise of it.
My second thought was that she had seized my head. She wanted to take me down to the ground, much as I’d toppled Chris. There were two ways I could go. To roll with the movement and use it, or to fight against it.
My instinct was to fight against it. I used my flight, going up when she wanted to take me down. I used my aura, which was more effective when people were close, and she was wrapped around my head. I used my forcefield, only for one moment, while reaching up, putting my forearm against her ribs, and pried her off of me.
She used her power in the same instant she was pried off- fast enough that I was left with the feeling she had expected to use it while still holding onto me. Her landing looked like a rough one, sprawling, one shin, one foot, one hand bracing against the ground as she skidded.
I saw her slowly clench and unclench her hands, rolling one shoulder. She didn’t stand.
“Hoo,” I said. My heart was pounding, and I fanned myself a bit with my hand. “You do remember this is a training exercise, right?”
“You do realize my team is going to win this?” she retorted. Her hands shifted position slightly.
Her face gave away nothing, I realized. It didn’t help that with the dust, her hair across her face, and the last remaining spots of light in my vision, I couldn’t make out her pupils. Her hands and where they were pointing were one of her tells. Her shoulders another. She was thin, but especially as she crouched there, hands slightly behind her and at her sides, shoulders pointing forward, I could see the muscles underneath the skin around her shoulder and shoulder blade.
Was there power or Manton protection there, keeping her from dislocating her shoulders when she used the recoil to move around like that? Was it just strength and practice?
I’d relied on instinct to respond to her, and I didn’t love that I’d relied on that instinct. I wanted to be careful and thoughtful about the moves I made and Ashley’s approach allowed absolutely none of that. I was left to digest that I’d reacted to her by fighting, going the opposite direction instead of the Judo-like approach of using the enemy’s strength against them.
Was I okay with that? If I had to rationalize my choice, I’d fought her because I could only use the enemy’s momentum against them if I knew which way they were going, and Ashley was hard to predict.
Well, just a bit less difficult now, as I stopped looking for more obvious tells. She had stopped rolling her shoulder. I saw the muscles tense.
The shout interrupted both of us, as she planned her next move and I readied my response. It was Tristan calling. Ashley and I both looked.
“Come and help!” he called out.
I flew back and away, out of Ashley’s reach, looking.
Chris, legs embedded in spiky rock, was using both hands to haul what looked like a long, thin rod out of his throat. He’d swallowed the length of the dead tree like a sword-swallower swallowed a blade, and now he was drawing it back out, changed.
Narrower, thinner, smoother, and slick with fluids.
Chris, it seemed, wasn’t just the kind of changer who could adapt his form. He was the kind of changer who gained new sorts of powers while in an alternate form.
He hauled the last of the tree free of his mouth. Fifteen feet long, thicker at the end he had just removed than at the end he held, now that he was turning it around to get it in a position he could wield it. Too long to be a proper club, not quite a rod either.
Kenzie had her flash gun out. Tristan had thrown up a short wall, just tall and wide enough that he could hide behind it. Kenzie’s eyehook extended from her belt, through one of her hands, and out to Tristan, with a grip on his leg. She was simultaneously trying to circle around to get at an angle where she could shoot and blind Tristan and she was using the claw at the end of the prehensile arm to try and drag him out of the cover, helped by tugs with her hand.
Kenzie’s efforts left Chris entirely unmolested as he brought his weapon down, shattering Tristan’s created ground, freeing his legs.
“Leave her!” Tristan ordered. “We’ll let her get the flag, deal with these two, and catch her on her return trip!”
I flew a little further away.
Sveta- I looked off in the direction of the enemy’s camp.
Little blue flags decorated the landscape on their side of the playing field. They were situated on every rock, in every crevice, on every flat expanse of ground, on every tree branch. Sveta was perched on a rock in the midst of it all.
I looked at Kenzie’s cube. One face of it was glowing. The projector.
That would be why they had been smiling, then.
I started my flight toward toward Tristan.
“You’ll regret ignoring me,” Ashley said, behind me.
Pride, respect, they were key factors here. I could remember the meeting, the narrowing of the eyes. I knew Tristan was in a tough spot, but I paused, turning around in the air. I had to raise my voice to be heard with the distance between Ashley and me, as I said, “We’re not ignoring you. We’re dealing with you two against one.”
I left her to limp toward the wall while I flew to Tristan’s side. I landed beside Kenzie, hard, pushing out with my aura.
She twisted around, gun in hand, and I caught the gun, snatching it out of her hand.
“Hey,” she said. She reached out with her hand, and I pulled the gun away. She let go of Tristan and reached out for the gun with the eye-hook. I grabbed the eye-hook, and then wrapped the length of the prehensile arm around her upper body, tying her up with it.
“Hey!” she said, again. She laughed. “Chris help!”
I didn’t need to ask, and I liked that I didn’t need to ask. Orange motes began to surround Kenzie.
“No, no, no, no!” Kenzie said. “Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris!”
The head of the long club was poked out between Kenzie and me, separating us. Kenzie started to back away, and the orange motes became solid rock, encapsulating her legs. Tristan lunged forward to catch her before her upper body came down and her head cracked down against his rocky terrain.
I flew up a little ways, putting myself between them and Chris. Chris drew the fat end of the club back, and then smacked it against his palm. He laughed, deep and low, and pointed at Kenzie.
“Stop laughing at me and help, you doofus!”
I had Kenzie’s gun in hand, I could have shot Chris, but I had my deep reservations about using a tinker’s stuff, even a nonlethal gun that temporarily blinded.
Ashley used her power. I could hear the sound of it, and I saw the wall break.
“By the way,” Tristan said, looking in that direction. “We’re not catching her on the return trip.”
He blurred, and with that blurring, the rock blurred too. White with orange-red veins became clear water, reflecting the blue of the sky and the green of the trees above and grass below. The front wall of the fort that Ashley had just penetrated and the platform that Kenzie and Chris were standing on became frothing water.
With the slope, that water flowed downhill, carrying Ashley and Kenzie down to the base of the hill, amid branches, mud, and sticks. Ashley used her power at the start and toward the end, to little effect.
Chris brought his rod down, stabbing it deep into the ground, and held onto it for leverage. It had to be sturdier than the dead tree had been, because it didn’t bend and it didn’t break. Condensed down, maybe, shaped to be hard.
He reared back, and he blew. He’d broken down and processed more of the dead tree than what he’d used to condense it into a giant club-staff. He exhaled a cloud of wet sawdust.
I didn’t want to put up my forcefield if it would catch the sawdust, so I endured it, flew closer, and used my forcefield for only as long as it took to kick the stick he was holding onto with all of my strength.
It broke, and with it breaking, Chris fell down the hill, rolling over wet grass and weeds, until he came to a stop against a cluster of two trees that had grown next to one another.
He began to pick himself up, working his way up the hill, stabbing down to pierce the ground with his half-stick and plant it there like an ice-climber might use a piton. The slope was just a little steeper at the base of the hill, and the water had become rock again, smooth and with the spikes all pointed downward, not good grips.
He swallowed hard, giving me a suspicion about what he was about to do. He spat out a ball of wood pulp and phlegm, and I flew to one side, letting it sail past me.
I was put in mind of Crawler – the changer power, the spitting, the joyful monster. Crawler had laughed too.
Crawler had critically injured me with his acid spit, and that had let Amy get her hands on me the second time.
It was a dark, unpleasant thought.
Tristan was focused on a point off to the side. I turned to look, and I saw that he was creating orange motes around the projector box.
The motes solidified, and the box was encased in a thorny encasement of rock.
I turned to look, keeping one eye on Chris, and I saw the flags were still there.
“Nope! That’s not going to work! Good luck finding our flag!” Kenzie called out. She loosed an over the top, mocking laugh.
Tristan turned the encasement to water.
“I said it was waterproofed before! That’s not going to do anything!” Kenzie called out, before doing her level best to laugh harder, even though she had already been laughing at her limit.
“It doesn’t matter,” Tristan said, loud enough for them to hear.
Sveta made her way back in three moves, from the other team’s camp to a rock, rock to tree, tree to our camp.
She hauled herself up to the top of one of Tristan’s walls and she held up the two flags.
Ashley and Chris, who were making their way up the hill, stopped climbing.
“Yes! Yes! That was so great, that was fun, we have to do this again!”
From what Kenzie was saying, she didn’t seem to mind losing much. She practically bounced with excitement.
Tristan created stairs on the slope.
Sveta joined Tristan and me as the others climbed the stairs. Tristan put out one gauntlet, and she tapped her prosthetic hand against it. I offered my own fist to her, and she tapped her fist against it, before wrapping her arms around me in a brief hug.
A stoic Ashley had Kenzie clinging to her as she reached the top.
“-were so cool, it was like how you were in the videos-”
“Ease up, Kenzie,” Tristan said.
Kenzie let go of Ashley, bouncing on the spot before reaching up to her lens-mask and pulling it off. With the mask’s removal, her costume flickered in places, like an image that had been badly compressed, with heavy artifacting.
“This was everything I wanted it to be and more,” Kenzie said. “I can’t believe you found the flag.”
“I-” Sveta started.
“Waitwaitwaitwait,” Kenzie said. “Wait. Um. Okay. I have this covered.”
“Okay,” Sveta said.
Kenzie pulled out her smartphone.
The projector made a sound, and then images streaked the hill, before correcting. Ghostly images of all of us, life-size. The images included the constructions Tristan had made.
It looked like where we had all been standing earlier in the match, when I had been facing down Ashley.
The images zipped around as Kenzie changed the time, blurring and streaking before correcting into their proper shapes.
“I saved everything, so we can look back and watch how things played out or compare notes,” Kenzie said. “So we can do stuff like this…”
The images blurred and moved, then shifted, so the scenes that were projected no longer lined up on the battlefield.
It was Sveta, perched on a branch, flag in hand. Another blur, moving the clock back.
Sveta removed one of her prosthetic hands. Fifty or more tendrils snapped out.
“You grabbed every flag,” Tristan said.
“I grabbed at every flag,” Sveta said. “I had to reposition a few times, so I probably grabbed at some fake ones several times. It didn’t help that I couldn’t see that well after being shot.”
Kenzie cackled. Chris smothered her cackling with a large hand. Kenzie fought back, trying to get out from under Chris’ hand, and she did a pretty poor job of it.
It was weird and good to see her finally acting like an actual kid. Too much excitement in her system, but that wasn’t a bad thing.
Once Kenzie had settled down more, we walked through the entire fight, focusing on each person. Sveta was first, easy enough.
Tristan was next, and he made mention of the platform, and how he’d wanted to make sure nobody had footing when the rock turned to water, so he’d raised the ground some. He had obviously plotted the trap from early on.
“Kenzie? Do you want to report what you were doing?” Tristan asked, once he was done explaining what he’d done to Sveta.
“Wait,” Kenzie said. “Rain’s here. I’ll point the way.”
It took a couple of minutes before Rain and Kenzie’s camera-drone arrived at the base of the hill.
Chris was half the size he had been, and his proportions were returning to normal. As he shrank, he rearranged the voluminous shorts he’d been wearing, ensuring his modesty was protected. His old outfit was contained within a pocket on the inside of the shorts, and he gathered it together, folded up, the clothes piled on his lap, along with what looked like a pencil case.
Even though he was returning to the person he’d been, physically, his smile lingered.
“Rainnn!” Kenzie called out, while Rain was still making his way to us. “Did you bring tinker stuff!?”
“Yeah!” Rain responded.
“Yusss,” Kenzie said. “This is the best day.”
“You could have waited twenty seconds for Rain to show up and asked him in a normal volume,” Chris said.
“I wanted to know now.”
Chris groaned at her, putting his face closer to hers.
Kenzie groaned louder, exaggerated, putting her face closer to his.
Chris groaned even louder, guttural, using some of the residual transformation to play up the sound. His forehead pressed against hers, hard enough she had to push back to avoid being pushed over.
Rather than try to top it, Kenzie sat back down. “I like you when you’re like this.”
“Naked?” Chris asked.
“No!” Kenzie said. “Geez.”
“Why does it feel like every time I enter a conversation, it’s a weird topic?” Rain asked, joining us where we sat on Tristan-created seats and benches.
“I like you when you’re happy,” Kenzie said. She fussed with her hair, looking down. “I like you a lot like this.”
I was put in mind of her comments about Chris before she’d gotten in Erin’s car, after leaving the group meeting. Like she didn’t have the worldly experience to know people didn’t say stuff like that in such an unguarded, dead obvious way.
“I still think you’re annoying as shit,” Chris said.
Sveta kicked him.
Kenzie snorted, smiling as she looked up at him. “I know.”
“Nah. I’m joking. You’re fine. I think we did pretty good.”
“I think we did too. It would have worked except Tristan and Byron are strong and Victoria is oof and Sveta was the best counter to what we were doing. We should fill Rain in.”
“That would be nice,” Rain said. “It was you two and…”
He turned to look around the group, saw Ashley, and didn’t finish the sentence.
“And me,” Ashley said.
“Here, I can show you the replay,” Kenzie said. “But I want to see your tinker arms too, before we run out of time.”
“There’s plenty of time,” Tristan said.
“Wait, here, you take the remote, and Rain, you can hand me the arm, I won’t break anything, I promise.”
Rain rummaged in his backpack, “I wouldn’t blame you if you did, it’s fragile and shitty. You think it would help your eyehook?”
“It might! But I’m really interested in the interface. You like to have multiple arms, you said?”
“Yeah. For what little it’s worth.”
“And you control it with your brain, once it’s plugged in?” Kenzie asked. When Rain nodded, she asked, “How does the brain know how to control it?”
“I map the brain patterns for input and output and the panel here, between the attachment and the actual arm, it acts like an extension of the brain.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sveta said.
Tristan was fiddling with the remote, and seemed to be having trouble with the progression of time, with images jumping all over the place. Sveta, Kenzie, and Rain were all focused on the arm, with Ashley periodically joining in when prodded.
Chris was sitting on the bench, cloth around him as he shrunk down to a more ordinary size. He was smiling more than before as he rummaged for his headphones and a chocolate bar.
“Your mood seems better,” I said to him.
The smile dropped away. He looked at me and shrugged. “It’s different. I feel more human, mentally and emotionally.”
The change hadn’t seemed to make any difference in how he looked, either. Were the changes subtle?
“I’m not sure I grasped it all,” I told him. “Once you change, it’s…?”
I trailed off.
“It’s like a hit of a drug,” he said. “Focus, surprise, sadness, appreciation, disgust, fear, anger, and then this one.”
“I call this particular flavor of it Wan Indulgence,” he said. He bit down on the chocolate bar, then closed his eyes, clearly enjoying it. He talked with his mouth full, “Can be enjoyment. I’ll feel it more normally for a few days now that I’ve changed.”
“Oh my god,” Kenzie said. “Tristan, give that back, you suck at it.”
Tristan was still fiddling with Kenzie’s remote for the projector box.
“It doesn’t make any sense. Why isn’t it easier to move forward and back in time?”
“Because the box doesn’t perceive time, you dummy. It perceives images.”
“Why not have it perceive things like time, so you can go backward and forward in time without doing… whatever arcane thing you’re doing right now?”
“Because if it perceived time,” Kenzie said, patiently, her focus on the smartphone remote, “Then it wouldn’t perceive images. And that would be a dumb thing for a projector box that works with images. Dummy.”
“You can stop calling me a dummy now.”
“I will if you stop being dumb. This stuff is obvious.”
“It’s really not,” Chris said.
Kenzie sighed, very dramatically. “Who are we following next?”
“It’d be nice to show Rain the entire thing,” Tristan said.
“It works best with a point of view,” Kenzie said. She looked at Tristan and rolled her eyes a little.
“If you keep that up, you’re going to see orange lights swirling over your head. Then a rock is going to fall on you or, more likely, I’ll swap out and you’ll get a spray of cold water.”
Kenzie stuck out her tongue at Tristan.
I was aware that Ashley hadn’t participated enthusiastically in the conversation. I suspected why. I hesitated, then ventured, “I’d really like to see how Ashley approached things.”
“Why?” Ashley asked.
My suspicions were stronger. I went on, “Frankly, I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way, but you’re really intimidating to go up against.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s the intention.”
“A big part of the reason I swapped out with Victoria is that I had no idea what to do,” Tristan said. “I couldn’t catch you with my power, and you’re faster than me on foot.”
Kenzie was changing the perspective. She created a projection of the hillside and shrank things down, then created more projections, showing an image off to one side of our gathering, showing a zoomed in portion of what the little diorama-sized projection was showing as a whole. The focus started with the three emerging from the trees, trampling through and hurdling the barriers Tristan created.
She jumped to Tristan trying to deal with Ashley.
“Those blasts are as scary as shit,” Tristan said. “Every time you used one, even if you were five feet away and you weren’t aiming at me, I was flinching. I saw what it was doing to my powerstuff, and I did not want that to happen to my bodystuff.”
He’d realized what I was doing, and why, I realized. Ashley was dejected at losing and we could give her a bit of a morale boost. She seemed to like being scary.
I wasn’t wholly sure it was good to feed her ego on that front, but I wasn’t sure I liked the alternative, either.
“I have better control than that. I’m not an idiot,” Ashley said.
“I’m not saying you are,” Tristan said.
“It’s obvious you have control,” I said. “Kenzie, can you show the walljump?”
“There are two.”
“The one with me,” I said.
Kenzie jumped to the scene. Ashley leaping off of the wall with one foot, her power just starting to explode out from her hands. The power looked more solid in projection than it did in reality.
“For the record,” Kenzie said. “If I was moving through this recording in time and not space, then I’d have to fast forward and rewind and skip around to find this, but I don’t, so I hope people are realizing why this is better.”
“I’m fully in support of dumping water on Kenzie’s head,” Chris said.
“The walljump,” I said. “The sequences of blasts to maneuver and the whole-body coordination it must take. That, to me, says control.”
“All for nothing,” she said.
“It was not for nothing,” I said. “I got to see and experience what you do, I respect the spatial awareness. The instinct-”
“I fell for a trap,” she said. “I knew there would be water and I thought I could avoid it if I used my power in time, I didn’t expect there to be so much.”
“We’ve never seen each other’s powers in action,” Tristan said. “Surprises are inevitable. You surprised the shit out of me, many times, and I got one good surprise off. When we do it again, we’ll know each other’s powers better. It’s part of why we’re doing the exercises in the first place.”
“I failed,” Ashley said. She stood up, and she rubbed one shoulder. “I was tested and I failed.”
“Right from the start,” Sveta said, jumping into the conversation “When we were standing around figuring out what we’d do, Victoria told me that this wasn’t a test of us as individuals. It’s a test of our coordination as a team.”
“I can find that on the recording,” Kenzie said. “It’ll be hard to find, though.”
“Hah,” Chris said. Kenzie pushed his shoulder.
“My team failed,” Ashley said, oblivious to the pair. “No. My team was set up to fail.”
“Wait, woah,” Tristan said.
Ashley clenched one hand into a fist. “You realize if I hadn’t been holding back, I could have annihilated each and every one of you?”
“Woah,” Tristan said, with emphasis. “Ashley-”
She whirled on him, pointing, and he flinched, going silent. I stood from my seat.
“Ashley,” I said, because I wanted her attention off of Tristan.
“I’m not Ashley,” she said, her voice hard. “Nobody has called me that in a long, long time. I’m only Ashley because the therapists insisted and the others needed an actual name to put on the paperwork. I’m Damsel of Distress!”
“Okay,” I said. “Can we-”
I was spoken over. “I was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine. They selected me. They had me kill and maim people. I didn’t mind doing it then, and I could do it here without blinking.”
“I don’t believe you,” Sveta said.
“I’ve died and I came back with only the vicious parts of me intact! All of the warmth, the good memories, the family, they’re just a fuzzy, indistinct dream. Those memories have no hold on me. The killing? Taking people’s arms and legs and watching them bleed out? That’s clear as anything. I could do the same to any of you.”
I wanted the younger and more vulnerable members of the team to back away, to get clear of trouble, but I worried that if I tried to indicate that, it might provoke her. Everyone was still, and nobody, myself included, was really breathing.
“This was an idiotic game, and I. Don’t. Play. Games.”
“Count down from ten,” Rain said.
Ashley whirled on him. I left the ground, flying closer, stopping when things didn’t escalate further.
“Count down from ten,” Rain said. “That’s what Mrs. Yamada says, isn’t it? When you’re wound up.”
“It’s fine when she says it.”
“It should be fine when any of us say it,” Rain said. “Count.”
Ashley tensed. I could see it in her shoulders and the way the tendons stood out in her hands.
Everyone was silent.
I waited. Ten seconds passed. Then the fifteenth, then the twentieth.
“Feel better?” Sveta ventured.
Ashley turned, staring Sveta down. “No.”
“Count down from a hundred,” Rain said.
“I’m not going to-”
“Count,” Rain said, his voice soft. “Please. You’ve said before, when you get like this, there’s a part of you that’s saying you don’t want to act this way, and you can’t listen to it. So listen to the numbers first, then listen to that part of you.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“It’s not that easy,” she said. “And I’m going to walk away. You do your thing. Let me do mine.”
“Okay,” Rain said.
She limped away, hands in fists at her side. We were silent as we watched her go.
She walked up the hill, found a rock, and leaned against it, her back to us, and I let my feet touch ground.
“We knew it was coming sooner or later,” Chris said.
“Spooky,” Sveta said.”I expected a small outburst to start with. That was-”
“Medium-small,” Tristan said.
Kenzie stood up, gathering her things.
“Stay, Kenzie,” Sveta said.
“She wants to be left alone.”
“This thing?” Kenzie asked. “It’s not you guys being the adults and me as the kid, listening to what adults say. We’re all equal members of this team. And this is what I’m going to do, and if I get hurt that’s fine, but this is right for me. You can tell me what to do with some other stuff but not this stuff.”
“It’s dangerous,” I said. “Leave her be.”
“No,” Kenzie said, voice firm. She put her hand on her flash gun. She looked at all of us, then said, softer, “No.”
“Okay, Kenzie,” Sveta said. “Go. Be careful.”
“You’re sure?” Tristan asked Sveta.
But Kenzie was already jogging off in Ashley’s direction.
When Kenzie was out of earshot, but before she had reached Ashley, Sveta raised one hand and said, voice quiet, “If there’s a problem, I’ll haul her back.”
“That takes a second or two,” I said. “Sparring with Ashley, I gotta say she moves faster than that.”
“And your grip isn’t a hundred percent,” Tristan said.
Sveta set her jaw, hand pointed at Kenzie.
Kenzie reached Ashley, and with Ashley’s movement, we all tensed, preparing to act.
Ashley turned back to look out at the distance, and Kenzie climbed up on the rock Ashley was leaning against.
A moment later, Kenzie had her headphones out of a pocket. She plugged it into her phone, reached down, and put an earbud in Ashley’s ear, then put another in her ear, before lying down on the rock.
Slowly, Sveta lowered her hand.
“Why?” I asked.
“I gave my reasons before, so did Rain, so did Kenzie,” Sveta said. “We’ve had this discussion. This isn’t news.”
“It’s one thing to know it and see it in therapy, it’s another to experience it in the wild,” Rain said.
“Why?” I asked, again. “You can’t- I understand reaching out to people, but can you really reach out to people who aren’t reaching back? Can you give forgiveness and understanding to someone who isn’t looking for it?”
“I think she is,” Sveta said.
Tristan said, “I don’t know what you guys talked about, but I discussed this with the others, and I have an idea what they probably said. Do you know how many appointments and meetings she goes to?”
“It came up,” Rain said.
“Okay, good. But did you talk about why?”
“Because she needs careful handling?” I asked.
“Because,” Tristan said, “She’s a special case. She’s not the original Ashley, I’m not sure if you picked up on that.”
“I got the gist of it.”
“Like she said, her memories aren’t hers. She was cloned, they took her and they made up composite memories, but they had no reason to give her those fuzzy memories of other, nonconfrontational stuff. That wasn’t Bonesaw’s work. It’s the agent.”
I drew in a breath and I sighed.
“The world ended, and it ended because of them. We can’t have a sit-down talk with Scion because we killed him. We have a shitton of questions and the only kinds of people who can answer them are the people who got really close to the agents, like Bonesaw, who made Ashley-”
I felt a chill.
“-and the people like this. Who are very little of the human, shadows of the human, and a lot of the agent. All of us have problems, and a big part of those problems are the agents, handling their side of things. I know I’ve talked to Rain about this, I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but when I’m talking to her I’m also talking to the agent that’s very close to the surface. I feel like if I can get along with that agent, I can get along with mine.”
“Yeah,” Rain said.
“I want to get along with the human,” Sveta said. “I don’t want to define her as the monstrous half.”
“That’s fair too,” Tristan said.
I folded my arms. I looked down at Chris, and I saw that he was half-asleep.
He saw me looking, and he said, “The world was invaded by aliens. People don’t know it, we don’t like to think about it, but they’re here, they’re a part of things. Getting along with the most accessible of them makes sense.”
I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it. My own agent had a hand in my life. It was the wretch, the sapience behind the forcefield. I had seen what Amy’s had done to her.
Thinking too hard about it stirred up countless ugly feelings, and those feelings choked out and clouded the words I wanted to articulate.
“Let’s leave them be,” Rain said. “Let’s assume we’re not going to have our second exercise, and walk me through how things went.”
“Alright,” Tristan said.
As the discussion continued, I didn’t take my eyes off the pair in the distance.