The weather had relaxed some, but the barn we were in had a corrugated metal roof, and each drop that hit it snapped against the hard, hollow surface. The sound was like dull static, punctuated by Rain’s gasps.
Nobody around. Most of the fighting had moved to the fringes and perimeters. Whether it was upside or downside to our secret plan to get behind the fighting and hit them somewhere vital, I couldn’t be sure.
Had to admit, after seeing Rain, I really would have liked to hit something. It might have been nice to have some regular bad guys around. Something told me Cradle wasn’t about to let himself get smacked around.
He was smiling slightly. Asshole.
I kept an eye on Cradle and his assistant as I got closer to Sveta. She adjusted as she could to put Rain closer to me and further from the crack in her shell where the tendrils were licking out.
I knew the rule that the badly wounded weren’t supposed to be moved, less because of any medical knowledge I’d picked up, and more because I’d seen an awful lot of people with injuries over the year.
Rain? The rule should have applied. It was the kind of badly hurt that made me worry that any further tampering would break him.
He had a cut on his face that parted his mask and the bridge of his nose, extended through his upper lip, through the lower lip, and down to his chin. His mouth was open as wide as it could go, bloodstained teeth showing, and the cut on his chin was open wider than his mouth. There wasn’t darkness beyond that wound- it was the opposite, with the white of bone showing.
Sveta cradled his head with one hand and arm, even after moving him some, and her hand pressed against the chin, blood getting into the gaps of the prosthetic, the fingers doing very little to hold the wound closed or staunch the bleeding.
I knelt at her side, felt Rain jerk his head as I moved her fingers. I pushed the wound closed, then moved her fingers with my hands, positioning them, holding them firm. I took my fingers away, and it was sticky enough I felt her fingers move as mine did. They didn’t move so much that the wound opened again. Better.
There was another cut at his eyes- eyelid, bridge of the nose again, and the orb of the other eye. Shallower, but the damage to the eye made for a lot of fluid. His good eye was closed, a mixture of blood diluted in damp settled into the creases and cracks. He pried it open, jaw chattering a bit with the effort, and stared at me with one eye that was shot through with blood, but not bloodshot.
“Come on,” I said. “Hang in there.”
“We should go,” I heard the man with the red handprint on his mask say.
“If you try to walk away from this, we’re going to have a problem,” I said.
“Don’t be unreasonable,” Cradle said.
“Thinker,” Sveta whispered. “Combat focused. Cradle hit me with something I couldn’t see. It might have been a laser not visible to the naked eye.”
I nodded, trying to divide my attention between the villains and Rain.
What was I even supposed to do? In any other situation, I would have picked up Rain and flown him to the nearest hospital. The reason I wasn’t was that I was genuinely worried that a firm shake would make what little blood he had in him fall out.
A mercy, maybe, that Capricorn, Vista, and Chris all turned up. Less a mercy that they had to see.
“What did you do?” Capricorn asked.
“And they all turn up,” Cradle said. “You swapped one member out.”
“Oh no,” Vista said, as she moved close enough to see Rain. She hurried to my side.
“There’s no point,” Cradle said.
I was undoing my belt, a faux-gold band that I’d used to add some color so my costume wasn’t too top-heavy. The process was hard, complicated by the fact that my left arm had a hole in it and my hand wasn’t cooperating as a consequence.
I needed to refresh myself on things- I’d learned about tourniquets from the patrol block, but in the moment it felt like half of what I’d learned was that tourniquets were a complicated, complicated thing. Compartment syndrome, damage from long-term use.
“You bastard,” Capricorn said.
“I’m not the bastard here,” Cradle said. “He is. Everyone we’ve told the story to has agreed it’s fair. When the bad guy is shitty enough, it stops being revenge and starts being justice.”
“That’s not right at all,” Sveta said.
“Does ‘everyone’ include Tattletale?” I asked.
“I don’t see how that matters,” Cradle said. “This is done. He’s done. Things have come full circle, telling you would only…”
His machine’s hands moved. Everyone, myself included, tensed.
One hand moved, palm upward, elbow pointed down. A one-armed shrug.
“…Multiply the grudge,” Cradle finished his sentence.
Rain’s hand and one arm were my focus here, as I grit my teeth and tried not to be distracted. He was cut up pretty badly- defensive wounds, with the degree of damage hard to discern. The way cloth draped and the hand-coverings he wore obscured things. Like his teeth, the blood ran between the decorative elements of his glove.
His other hand had cuts, ones I might have called serious, if not for the fact that I was having to look at things in totality. If Crystal had cut her hand like that on an ordinary day, in some hypothetical universe where she tried and failed to use a real knife, I would be rushing her to the hospital. As it was? Low priority.
There were cuts on his chest- I’d look at those after. Vista was tending to his leg, which was as bad as the arm.
“Multiply the grudge?” Capricorn asked. He stood between us and Cradle.
“You’d walk away wanting to kill against me and against any co-conspirators I named. You go after me, after them, and assuming they have friends and contacts, assuming you succeeded, those contacts would go after you. Each time, it becomes something bigger, until one side gets wiped out. Let’s end it here.”
“What do you think is going to happen, Cradle?” Capricorn asked. He was incredulous as he asked, “You really think I’m going to walk away when you’ve done this to my friend?”
“What I want to happen, is for Operator Red and I to walk away. You walk away, and leave the Fallen asshole here. Your friend killed my friend and clustermate, the scales are even, we can resent each other and still never see each other again.”
Capricorn barked out a laugh.
“I hate that kind of life-death calculus,” Sveta murmured. Not loud enough to be heard by Cradle. Her focus was more on Rain and on herself. Her tendrils kept groping at the more ragged edges of her shell, then pulling away, sometimes bending them in or twisting them around.
I focused on Rain’s more damaged hand and arm as I attached the belt. He fought me, struggling as I tightened the belt, which made the pain in my left arm all the worse… but the fight wasn’t nearly as intense as I wanted it to be. A more intense fight in response to what had to be agonizing pain would mean there was more life in him.
This tourniquet would have to do. I was pretty sure I was good to go if the risk from blood loss -real and present-outweighed the damage from amputation.
“I don’t think they’re going to do that, boss. They look ticked,” Operator Red said. He was still holding on to one of the Cradle-machine’s fingers. He dropped, and fell about ten feet to land on his feet, legs bent. He straightened, and Chris moved forward a step.
Chris looked back with one bulbous, dark eye. He had no expression to read. There was only armor and coarse hair, and a long snout with eyes set on the side, the head more fishlike in dimension than mammal. His eye protruded and narrowed, more conelike than round as it pointed in Rain’s direction.
“Let me turn the question back on you, Capricorn,” Cradle said. “How do you want this to go? A fight? You all fight me and Operator Red, you get your vengeance on behalf of your murderer friend, and this makes it better?”
“Might help,” Chris hissed the words. Broad blades with a swirling damascus-style blend of white bone and steel were emerging from his various armor plates. Retractable weaponry, but not in a quick way.
The ‘Keen’ part of Keen Vigilance.
“It might,” Capricorn said. “But if you really think it was justice, how about we… leave? We arrest you, we go talk to authorities, and if you’re right, if it is justice, you’ll be free to go.”
“Free to go. I’m sure,” Cradle’s voice was quieter, not because he was quieter, but because he’d shifted position, turning his back to us as he straightened up. He turned back to us, and his voice was stronger, “You don’t see the hypocrisy? How wrong it would be for him to be free while we’re in custody? He killed people. He laughed about it, to my face, to Love Lost’s, to Snag’s.”
“He turned himself in,” Capricorn retorted. “He tried. At the first opportunity, he left the camp and went to confess. He was so twisted up about it he wasn’t coherent. They had him talk to people, but he couldn’t say much. I guess because of Mama Mathers.”
“He tell you that too? I was always fifty-fifty on it being a lie,” Cradle said. his tone was so casual and conversational, even pleased with himself. Maybe he was, with Rain bleeding out.
“It’s true,” Sveta said.
I focused on what I could do. Cuts marked Rain’s upper chest, shoulders, and stomach, until there wasn’t much of his top that wasn’t wet and shiny with blood. In one place where the cuts ran in horizontal parallel, the flesh had come away in a ribbon, the ribbon dangling toward the ground. I fixed it as best as I could, pressing a hand down on the wound.
It felt futile.
The wounds to his right leg were as bad as the defensive wounds to his hand. I could assume they were early wounds, intended to keep him from running. Vista was bandaging them with strips of cloth.
There was only so much I could do. I could go through two first aid kits and still run out of material to to bandage and tourniquet this. I staunched the wounds with my hands, as best as I was able.
“Capricorn,” I said. He turned his head. My voice was tense as I asked, “Can you use your power? A cast, or something to seal the wounds?”
The first orange lights appeared.
Cradle kept talking, like we weren’t trying to save a life. “He killed Love Lost’s daughter. The girl’s friend died too, and another one is devastated, even after a year.”
“He knows!” Capricorn said, raising his voice. “He went to the authorities! He wants punishment! He wanted jail, because it would at least get him away from this, except you all were coming after him, Mama Mathers had him locked down with her power.”
And because there wasn’t necessarily room, I presumed. If it was as serious as Cradle was saying, though…
“That way doesn’t work, this way does,” Cradle said. “Tidier.”
Operator Red clicked his tongue, “Tidy is high praise.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Capricorn said.
“This is a fucked up way to go about it,” I growled the words, adding my anger to Capricorn’s. “This is barbaric.”
Cradle, despite being younger than I was, managed to sound condescending. “The Fallen are barbaric, and your friend was right there with them. He locked us in a shopping mall and let us burn. Snag lost the last mementos he had of family and the old world. Snag was left with nothing, no escape, only his life… and your teammate got around to taking that from him too.”
“Move your hands,” Capricorn said, glancing back at me.
I took my hands away. The orange solidified into an encasement around Rain’s arm and hand. I put my hand to the edge, felt the gap- too much space. It wasn’t a tight enough fit to staunch the blood or keep things contained. I looked at Capricorn and shook my head.
“You suck at first aid,” Chris hissed. He cleaved at his sash, and the contents fell to the ground. The containers were like tupperware, but metal, with rubberized lids, apparently color coded. I reached for the nearest one.
“Careful what you touch,” Chris hissed. “Green lid. Open.”
I grabbed it, prying the lid off. It was a tight fit.
Syringes. There was colored tape around various syringes, no labels, no words. A foam insert had been carved at in a rough way, to give the needles places to fit in.
“Red band. Coagulant. Use little.”
“What are you doing?” Cradle asked.
“How little?” I asked.
“Maybe half inch.”
A half inch as a unit of measurement for a liquid?
“It won’t save him,” Chris hissed. “Might help.”
“Why do you have this?” Sveta asked.
“One day I change, come apart instead of changing back.”
I prepared the needle, holding it over Rain’s heart.
“Stop,” Cradle said.
“The man said stop,” Operator Red said.
“Didn’t want to use,” Chris was quiet. “I like him more than most of you.”
I plunged the syringe in.
“Operator,” Cradle said.
“Yeah,” Operator Red said.
Operator paced forward. Chris put himself in the guy’s way, the eye I could see opening wide, ears going back.
I pressed the plunger down. Half of an inch. I pulled it free before anything could happen to make me put in more than was necessary.
“Combat thinker!” Sveta called out.
“Aw fuck,” Capricorn swore.
“Cradle has invisible weapons!” I added.
“Fuck!” Capricorn said, as orange trails surrounded his hands. He gave Cradle a nervous glance.
Cradle, at least for right now, was hanging back, letting his hired assassin do the dirty work.
Operator reached behind his back, drawing another meat cleaver. He flicked it around, so it rolled off the back of his hand, and he caught the handle, with the blade beneath his fist.
Capricorn created his weapons. Two swords of the stone material. He thrust one in Operator’s direction, and was almost immediately disarmed of it.
He held the other out, to keep Operator more at bay. Orange lights danced around us without any seeming rhyme or reason. I left Rain behind and took flight, going high above Operator.
“Put the needle back,” Chris hissed, more insistent than before.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“I need it,” he said. He put his arm in Operator’s way. The cleaver bit deep into an armor plate. Operator ducked low, swinging under Chris’ arm.
A blade at Chris’ elbow extended as he clenched a large, brutish fist, and he drove his elbow back. The two cleaver blades caught the elbow-blade, and Operator was pushed back toward the door.
No sign that he’d lost his balance or been caught off guard in any way.
I reversed course, dropping to the ground. I placed the needle in the foam insert, and then started to replace the lid.
“Victoria!” Capricorn called out.
I looked to Operator first- the most immediate threat, and then I heard the crash. Metal fingers and hands reaching up to the roof, finding a grip where it had been bolted or hammered to a broader wooden beam, and then crumpling it.
Water poured unevenly throughout the barn as hands that could have wrapped around a small car brought down the roof. Beams cracked and split.
I flew for the largest, most pressing part of the roof, and the beam that was attached to it. The walls were shuddering in a way that made me think the entire barn could come down.
Cradle had apparently lost patience.
The Wretch and I hit the roof in Cradle’s machine hand with enough force that it would take a couple of minutes to walk to wherever it landed.
Sveta, Rain and Vista weren’t in the building anymore. Sveta had dragged them out through the open door. Capricorn and Chris were facing down Operator Red, and Cradle loomed in the hole in the roof he’d made, looking up at me.
He swiped a hand in my general direction, coming almost ten feet shy of connecting. I put the Wretch up anyway. I glanced at what was happening below- Vista was distorting space, keeping Operator Red in the building and giving Chris and Capricorn time to escape. Chris was delaying his escape.
Something hit me like a truck, knocking the Wretch out and knocking me almost twenty feet through the air, before I could right myself.
Cradle turned, his attention on those on the ground. A lot of strength in those mechanical hands. There had to be a good fifty feet of armspan when the two longest arms were extended, and he had a lot of arms. He hopped over to one of the shorter arms- almost just a wrist that connected to the central hub, and stepped onto the hand, where he crouched with the hand cupped around him.
I flew at him before he could do whatever he planned to do to the others, my aura down. A hand came up, intercepting me, and I hit it. The building creaked and crumbled as hands twisted and wrenched at wood to maintain his position. He turned his attention back to me.
Another swipe of the hands. I flew down, away from the direction of the swipe, and again, something collided with me, knocking me downward at an angle this time.
“Looksee,” I said,
“Mm?” was the response, small and emotional.
She’d seen Rain.
“Can your cameras see-”
I flew to evade as the hands moved. They weren’t moving my way, but to get him oriented, as he closed on the others. I changed course, flying more toward Cradle himself.
Two hands came up, one to either side of Cradle himself, as if they were going to slam together, catching me in the middle.
They didn’t. I hit something, a field or barrier between the hands. It didn’t hit the Wretch so much as it dashed the Wretch to pieces, with me bouncing fifteen or twenty feet back. The hands came after me, and I flew to evade.
“Can you see what he’s doing?” I asked.
“I think so,” Looksee said. “I need the projector disc, and you need to connect it to my camera, it’s easy to do, and I need to get it ready.”
Operator Red had exited out the far end of the building, and was circling around. I wondered if Capricorn’s power had given him pause. Chris was only just now going out the door that the others had left by. He had the cloth bundle with his boxes and things.
A… mess of emergency measures, it looked like, for a boy who thought he might fall apart with any transformation, but who had no choice but to transform.
I had to get past Cradle to get to him, and I had to get to him to get the projector.
Sveta hauled Rain a distance off to one side, his back to her chest as she used herself almost as a sled, for the easier ride. She pulled herself to a fence.
I could see Cradle’s thought process, as he considered going after her, as he turned his mind to the others- to Vista, to Capricorn, and more specifically, to Chris.
The hand came down, a good distance from Chris. Chris, a mound of armored, furred flesh, hopped, ducking and rolling, as the entire area around him was demolished. Dirt and soil became a cloud of particles and mud, as something smashed into it and sent the destroyed ground up ten feet in the air.
And as it settled, splattering against one outside corner of the barn, and everything around them, Chris was there, moving slower than an ordinary person might run, with short, heavy running steps.
Vista was using her power to create distance. Cradle crossed that distance by leaping, each hand pushing against ground or the edge of the barn, with one hand up and outstretched, ready to come down on top of them.
I flew after him, and it was easier to close the distance when Vista was using her power.
I reached him just as he’d almost reached them. Then his hand came down early, touched ground, and his entire form rotated, a second hand grazing the ground, turning the landing into a cartwheel, one of the longer arms coming around my way.
Whatever he hit me with caught me and knocked me down into muddy field. The landing reawakened the pain in my arm, to the point where I felt the sensation swell, my body telling me that passing out was a possibility.
Not a possibility, body.
Chris having run off to one side and Cradle being fixated on Capricorn and Vista meant I could reach Chris. I flew to him, landing.
“You can see what he’s doing?” I asked.
He gave me a single nod, and his eyes opened wide, ears twitching.
“Of course,” I said. “Projector disc?”
He tapped the sash he’d made with the cloth bundle. The disc was a belt buckle, as large as a dinner plate, as thick as a textbook.
“Looksee wants it,” I said.
Operator Red was on the approach, jogging our way with cleavers in hand. Cradle- fixated on the others. Vista was trying to keep both opponents at bay by increasing the distance between them and everyone else.
Chris managed to get the disc free. He passed it to me, then turned toward Operator Red.
The thing with Vista’s distance power was that the closer two people were to one another, the harder it was for her to utilize the distance that remained.
“Keep backing up,” I said.
I flew straight up.
“We have a teammate who needs help,” Looksee said, in my ear.
“I know,” I said. Sveta still had Rain. He wasn’t moving much. She could have left with him, but I wasn’t sure that kind of movement was any good for him. “But if I leave with him, I’m not sure I won’t come back to more of the same.”
It was already so dark out. The clouds were heavier, even though there was barely any precipitation anymore. In the gloom, Capricorn’s lights and the glowing points at the joints and knuckles of Cradle’s robot were eerily bright.
Equally as bright, Looksee’s camera flew to me. Football sized, with a round lens on the front.
“How do I do this?”
“Attach it on front. Press it on, rotate. Like a smoke detector.”
I wasn’t sure I’d used a smoke detector with that setup, but I could guess how it was intended to go.
The entire thing thrummed as the connection was made, the small, quarter-sized lens in the middle of the projector disc illuminating.
“Not much battery,” Looksee said. “You can let it go. There’s going to be a time delay. It’s not accurate.”
“Okay,” I said. I dropped it. It fell a short distance before taking flight on its own.
“Help- help everyone.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
“I wish I could do more,” Looksee said.
So did I.
I flew after Cradle.
I could see it now. Cords or cables, normally transparent, were illuminated in red light. There was lag, the light tracing one cord that extended from each fingertip, snapping to another position when it fell out of sync.
“Annoying,” Cradle said. “Doesn’t change anything.”
He raised a hand, bringing it down from overhead, in Capricorn’s direction.
I flew in, and I used the wretch to hit and deflect.
Again, that unreasonably intense force, exploding out and away, as the impact hit the Wretch and the aftershock cascaded out to thrust me away in the air.
The attack was off course- not so much it couldn’t have hit Capricorn, but he’d seen me coming and had moved away.
Vista was a short distance off, using her power. They’d decided being split up was better, and I knew her power was best when she was alone.
She wasn’t using her ability on Cradle’s robot. Was it immune?
He kept going after them, trusting his robot to deal with me. I didn’t have a lot of tools. Some ideas, now that I thought about it, but…
I’d try for the most basic, tried, and true option.
“Cradle!” I called out.
He glanced back at me, but he continued to ignore me.
I grit my teeth, scowling briefly, and flew in. His hand came out, and the red lights showed me the rough path of the cables. They moved like a flail would, delayed, swinging out in a lazy arc, the five cables fanning out as they cut through the air.
I could evade, draw closer- and the hand itself got in my way. As I moved, so did it, staying between Cradle and I.
I was quicker than the hand, and I could change my path and catch him off guard, but other hands moved, complicating things. It would be too easy for hands to close in around me.
Above me, cables were swung up, and they connected to another hand, extending from the fingertips of one hand to the fingertips of another.
That’d be the barrier I ran into, then.
As I flew around, they broke free, snapping out with more force than a swing would provide. They hit me- hit the Wretch, and knocked us off course.
I shouted at a volume that made my throat hurt, “You left yourself out, Cradle!”
Again, another glance my way, before he turned his focus to other things.
“He did all that to Love Lost and Snag, he didn’t do anything to you?”
I chose those words with some intent. Not just to ask what Rain did, but to imply there was nothing, and invite the retort.
“He took people and things from them!” Cradle roared out his response, so he could be heard. “He took me from me!”
With that last exclamation, it was an actual show of emotion- not that he hadn’t said emotional things, but it was the first time he’d put the emotion out there.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chris sit down rather heavily, clawed hands raised. He was bleeding in multiple places, and he didn’t have any fight left in him.
Operator Red turned toward the rest of us, and walked away from Chris, cleavers in hand.
Combat thinkers. Worse in a lot of ways than fighting someone like my mom, with her energy weapons. She could slice a grown man in half with her weapons. A combat thinker? There were ones who could hammer at you psychologically by mirroring mannerisms of people you knew or feared, ones who could hit your nerves or arteries any time, with any strike or weapon they had at hand, and there were ones who could win most fights without trying, because they had the fighting skills without working for those skills, combat precognition, or they saw the fight move at a hundredth the speed.
I was mentally slotting this asshole in that broader ‘win without trying’ category. There might have been some of the former, though, if Snag’s team been drawn to him. The awareness of biology and weak points could both help in combat and in torture.
“He took you from you?” I asked Cradle, keeping one eye on Operator. Cradle was looking up at me.
I did have his attention now. Objective achieved, I guessed.
“I was getting everything set up, finally living the life I wanted to live, and he fucked it all up. He pulled me into this, he infected me, and now I’m different!”
I opened my mouth to respond, to retort, bait out more and keep Cradle’s attention, so we could figure out a way to get Rain away. If Vista could get to Sveta and Rain- and it looked like she was heading that way-
“He violated my self!” Cradle’s words were more raw than any others I’d heard from him. Angrier.
My train of thought stopped where it was, as Cradle’s words entered my head and overrode everything else. In those four words, I got Cradle.
There were so many responses I wanted to give, about everything from the preceding events, the event, and everything that followed…
It was upbringing. Really questionable upbringing, sometimes or even a lot of the time.
He was in a bad place, desperate, with nobody to turn to.
He regrets it. He’s trying to do better. He was willing to turn himself in, even though that wasn’t what Cradle wanted or needed.
He didn’t want any of this any more than Cradle did.
It wasn’t him that screwed with Cradle like that. It was the power, acting according to some alien programming.
There wasn’t one response I could give without feeling like I might be compromising my integral self.
Well, there was one response.
“Yeah,” I said. “I… yeah.”
He was too far away to properly hear me.
I nodded, instead.
“If you understand, let him die!”
This time, I shook my head.
“No,” I said, knowing he couldn’t hear.
That would violate my integral self too. Just as much. More.
He moved a hand, and the red-highlighted cables swung out, and connected to the ends of other cables, which separated from other fingertips. One hand now had cables of double the length.
He repeated the process again.
Arming himself for combat.
Chris was okay, it seemed, limping toward the fight. Operator was crawling toward Capricorn and Vista, who had reunited, and who were only a short distance from Sveta. Vista was more focused on making the way between Operator and them as steep as possible.
Operator’s cleavers periodically stabbed into the earth for handholds, as he trudged through muddy field at a forty degree incline.
Cradle swiped his cables at me. I flew back and away, evading. He swiped again, a backhand, and I barely needed to evade.
Not meant for me. He’d swiped at the camera.
The camera dodged.
The hand shook, and cables reconfigured. The one at the middle finger was longer.
One swipe, angled to connect with either me or the camera. I hit it with the Wretch, and saw the crimson highlighting twist and distort, as the camera struggled to keep up with the outline of the cable.
The cable hit the ground around the base of Cradle’s robot, and the soil exploded with the impact. Again, that surrounding force.
His version of Rain’s power. Or something he’d begged and borrowed for, maybe, another tinker’s tech, modified to work with his gear. That was a thing tinkers could do- a thing that drove them into tinker enclaves or the PRT. Past tense ‘drove’.
That effect meant I couldn’t catch it, but I could still deflect. Where things got harder was that I wasn’t sure of the fallout now. The cord was over a hundred feet long now, the arm was twenty five or so feet long, and even if I knocked the cord to one side, I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t land in a way that put it near teammates.
I closed the distance. There were still other cables, and if I couldn’t control the whip-
The hand came up. I flew to intercept, and hit the back of the hand as hard as I could, before it reached the momentum necessary to flick the whip. The impact dented the surface of the hand, but didn’t stop it from raising up, catching me as it rose. The movement was too slow for the impact to hurt, but it was an impact, and that impact made my gunshot wound hurt more. Again, there was that suggestion that I could pass out if I let myself.
I maneuvered with more care, aura blasting to try to distract Cradle, for all the good it did.
A tinker who’d had a year to prepare, a team funneling him resources, and apparently a bit of talent to boot.
A hand moved to shield an attack from the side. Something crashed against the hand, and Cradle turned his head to look.
Capricorn’s power. Water had splashed against the hand and then turned to stone.
A moment later, there was another.
The hand closed, and the stone broke.
I flew back and up a little, to get a better vantage point.
Capricorn was with Vista and Sveta. Capricorn was creating a sphere somewhere between the size of a beachball and basketball, though spikier than either. Sveta grabbed it, used her power to fling it from fifty feet behind her to Cradle.
Stone became water, which became stone immediately after impact.
Operator’s advance had been stymied, as the top of the hill folded up and overhead, creating a ridge he couldn’t climb. He was going around, which only served to give them more time.
Cradle moved his whip hand. I smacked it down, then evaded the various cables that swung in my direction, while I waited for the Wretch to return.
Chris was closing the distance, slow as he was, approaching the hands. Capricorn unleashed another shot. The shot clipped the top of a finger, splashing well over Cradle’s head, and then the water became stone. Each bit of water was now a stone smaller than a fist, raining down on Cradle’s head.
Vista shouted something.
Good, this was the part I liked, that didn’t make me miserable. Having a team. Finding a way to work together and mesh, solving problems.
I just wished it wasn’t at the expense of time.
I struck an arm again- getting past the endless barriers was next to impossible, especially when the cables were whipping around and I was vulnerable right after any impact. This hit was aimed at destabilizing, putting him on tilt, so he had to adjust, shift weight, and move arms around.
Capricorn and Sveta had been delivering the projectiles at a fairly steady rate. Now there was a pause.
“Above,” I heard through my earphone.
I got out of dodge.
One shot, larger than the others, fired so high it had disappeared into the clouds. Now it came down, and the descent was guided by my favorite space warper.
Cradle put a hand over his head.
The stone became water at the last moment, but the impact was still enough that the hand came dangerously close to the top of Cradle’s head. Water filtered between the fingers in streams- and then froze, like the bars of a cage around him.
I flew in, straight for him.
He hurled himself at the bars, at the same moment hands moved apart and the stone shattered. The bars had broken just in time that he didn’t collide with them. A hand moved to provide footing below him as he descended, bobbed to absorb the impact of the fall.
Was that intuitive sense of how to stay steady on his contraption his mover power?
It had cost him time, and he was purely on the defensive. Chris was climbing up one arm- something Cradle could have easily dealt with, if he wasn’t dealing with all of us.
I glanced at Operator, thinker-one bird’s eye view at work, and saw that he was at the edge of Vista’s wave-shaped crest of earth. A few more steps and he’d be able to walk around it and charge them. Vista had been too distracted guiding the stone from above to keep tabs on the guy.
“Operator incoming!” I shouted.
An arm moved- not the hand or the arm itself, but the elbow that came at me. I deflected.
Every second we couldn’t end this was a second Rain was bleeding. I was worried at how long it had been already. I could have flown, but I would have been leaving the others at Cradle’s mercy.
I renewed my efforts, taking more risks, as I flew in closer.
“Don’t dodge,” I heard another report. Looksee.
Capricorn and Sveta hurled another projectile. A hand blocked it, then shook off the stone. Other hands were warring with Chris, who was slowly climbing, stabbing, and doing a better job than I was at keeping tabs on everything immediately around him. It was another distraction for Cradle, but I doubted our changer would manage to get in close if I couldn’t, situational awareness or no.
Speaking of- what was I not supposed to dodge?
“Looksee?” I asked.
“One second, fiddling!”
I got within ten feet of Cradle, only for a hand to block me. I flew around it- and he wasn’t there anymore.
He’d hopped down to another hand.
The whip hand moved, and I moved to counter. I struck it, closer to the elbow than the hand, and the hand slapped down toward the ground.
I went straight from that hit to flying for Cradle, to keep him on his toes and create room for a mistake.
A blur of red in my peripheral vision gave me pause.
The long whip? It was falling down on top of everything. Cradle saw it too, moved hands to provide a shield.
I trusted the Wretch, and used the opportunity to hammer him.
The red line passed through everything. Projection. A feint. Cradle had an intuitive sense of where things were, but seeing the red lines had preconditioned him, toyed with that perception as an optical illusion, and with that deception, I could get close enough to make contact.
I grabbed him by the fabric at his back and hauled him up and away.
“Victoria,” I heard Tattletale over the phone call.
“Stop breaking in, please,” I heard Looksee’s reply.
I flew Cradle away from his machine, and dropped him harder than was necessary, relatively close to the others.
Operator was still trying to navigate the Vista-modified battlefield. He’d managed to dodge some traps already, ground cupping over him like a dome, pitfalls.
“Call off Operator,” I said.
Cradle was silent.
“Call him off!”
“I need him intact and free,” Tattletale said, over the phone.
“Get bent,” I said.
“I’m willing to negotiate,” she said.
“Set him in stone,” I suggested, to Capricorn. “Leave him for the Fallen when they come back.”
“You’re not going to do that,” Tattletale said. “You’re too righteous.”
“Wah!” was the distant shout.
I turned to look. It was Chris, and Cradle’s robot was still operating. The whip hand was moving-
I flew to intercept, as the whip came around. I knocked it away.
“Again… we can leave you for the Fallen,” I told Cradle. “Or you can call Operator off.”
“Red!” Cradle called out. “Enough.”
That meant the assassin wasn’t an immediate concern.
“How’s our guy?” I asked.
“Not good,” Sveta said. She pressed her forehead to Rain’s. “He’s not really breathing. He’s cold.”
“Advance Guard. They have a healer,” Tattletale said.
“I know,” I said, annoyed. “Go away. You led them right to him, didn’t you? Through our video and phones?”
“Yes, but not like that. It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters,” I said. I bent down by Rain. Capricorn gave me a hand in scooping him up. I checked to make sure the robot was being good.
“We can handle this now,” Capricorn said. “Get him help.”
I flew. Advance Guard had been to the northern end of everything, where a road exited the settlement. There were some sparse buildings in that direction, but it looked to be mainly for logging and maybe some quarrying as well.
“Victoria,” Tattletale said.
“I can kick her off,” Looksee said. “I think I figured it out now.”
“I’ll talk to her,” I said.
“The Crowleys came out ahead in this. I know they’ve got a reputation that makes people underestimate them, but their own people were just attacked. They’ll be out for blood, and the Fallen have far more reach than you’d imagine.”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” I said. I checked my charge. Rain was limp. No fight, no response to anything.
“Let Cradle go. I’ll keep him and Love Lost out of your way. He promised to help me after I helped him here. Do that for me and I will help you.”
“You were talking about the Fallen.”
“I’ll coordinate. I can get you March and what’s left of Prancer’s band. The Crowleys are already on their way out, they’re hitting the road, we can hit them before they get where they’re going.”
“I don’t know what games you’re playing, Tattletale, but one of mine might be dead. Someone I pledged to help and keep alive. You pointed the killers to him. You were a cog in Snag and Prancer’s thing, and that turned out pretty shitty. How much of that was intentional?”
“That’s the kind of conspiracy thinking that gets you put in an institution,” Tattletale said.
“Either you’re incompetent or you’re malicious,” I said. “Neither lends themselves to us working together.
“Or I’m wrestling with bigger things, Victoria,” she sighed out the words, sounding exasperated, annoyed.
I spotted the first glimmer of color in the trees. I flew closer.
“I made my offer. Feel free to accept it,” she said.
“She’s gone,” Looksee said.
There was a pause.
“Is he really that bad?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I wasn’t willing to spare the time to check, either. “But if this doesn’t work-”
I didn’t finish the sentence.
If this doesn’t work, thinking about all the responses I couldn’t give Cradle… would I be willing to try another route?
I dropped down the rest of the way, through the largest gap in the foliage.
Not Advance Guard. Prancer and his team- half the size it had been, and that was after the defection of Beast of Burden.
Prancer had no Velvet at his side, and he had no Moose. He did have a dark expression on his face, one that darkened further as he recognized me.
“Advance Guard?” I asked.
No fight, no resistance. I just hoped he hadn’t lied.
He hadn’t lied. Advance Guard was with the patrol block, and the patrol block was trying to corral a hero team and somewhat hostile evacuees who outnumbered them four to one.
I landed in the center of the camp.
I spotted Mayday with Gilpatrick.
“Healer?” I asked.
I saw the hesitation, and my heart sank. The sick feeling was worse.
“Is your healer hurt?” I asked.
“He’s- he’s here,” Mayday said. “Unhurt.”
“But everything went to shit,” Mayday said. “Come.”
I followed, giving Gilpatrick a look over my shoulder. He was already talking to others, the moment Mayday was gone. Things to do, people to coordinate. It looked like other leaders of other patrols, that he was helping to coordinate.
One of the buses had the remnants of Advance Guard around it. Mayday hopped up and hauled on the lever to open the emergency door of the bus. Capes converged, ready to guard
The cape wore a goat mask, golden, and a black costume. He sat on one of the benches of the bus. There were others in the bus, men and women in cuffs.
Now that I looked, the cape had cuffs on as well.
“This is Scapegoat,” Mayday said. “He can heal. Sort of. It’s complicated.”
“It always is. What happened, Scapegoat?” I asked. I used flight to stead myself as I dropped low.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“He went Fallen,” someone supplied.
“He’s not the only one,” Mayday said. “We had one other, who died in the scrap. A lot of people were looking for answers after the end of the world, and the Fallen were promising them.”
Reach, as Tattletale had put it.
I wanted to ask him things, to shake him, to push for more than a shrug. I imagined a lot of people did.
But I needed his help.
I draped Rain out on the road. Scapegoat looked down at him.
“Hey,” I said. I pressed a finger to his pulse.
I couldn’t tell if there was something there or if it was my feeling my own pulse reverberating through.
But he moved. His head shifted slightly as he looked at me, eyes flickering as he tried to open them – but one was cut and the other was crusted with blood.
“I want someone to heal you,” I said. “Okay? Hey. I need your okay.”
I saw his head move a fraction, then again.
When he tried again, there was more of a nod.
I looked up at Scapegoat. He looked away, looked at Mayday.
“You want to play games, Scapegoat?” Mayday asked.
“Not games,” Scapegoat said, voice soft. “But I’ve helped you a lot already, and it doesn’t seem like my situation is any better. My power sucks to use.”
“I got a message from Tattletale,” Looksee reported, coming in over the phone. “Tell Scapegoat Tattletale says to, and that he needs the goodwill. He needs a lot of it.”
I didn’t hesitate. “Tattletale. She says to. You need goodwill, here.”
A tense moment later, he nodded, crouched, and held his hands over Rain. He looked up at Mayday. “Can you get him warm?”
“We have blankets,” Mayday said. “Shortcut, grab some.”
I didn’t look for my would-be nemesis; my focus was on Rain and on Scapegoat, making sure Rain was safe, as flickering images overlapped with him.
“You’ll need help too?” Scapegoat asked.
My gunshot wound. He’d seen the bloody bandages.
“No,” I said. “I’ll heal it naturally.”
He seemed to take that in a matter of fact way.
There were more things to handle. Tattletale wanted to cooperate to wrap this up in a better way, and I was not ready to forget or forgive her role in this. I didn’t want to engage in life and death calculus, as Sveta had put it.
I pressed a hand to my ear, so it was clearer that I was talking to someone.
“Looksee, I’m not sure if you can see-”
“I can’t. My cameras are down or repurposed.”
“I think he’s getting the help he needs, okay?”
The minutes passed as the injuries disappeared. Ashley joined us, with Gilpatrick standing behind her. Her power sparked a few times, and Scapegoat said something. She moved to situate herself further back, in a place where she could still watch.
I wasn’t sure what to say or do- a smile felt wrong, I couldn’t think of what to say that wouldn’t be too casual, too personal, or too confrontational.
I raised a hand in a bit of a wave. She did the same with her good hand.
For now, I could put everything out of mind for the moment. At the very least, I’d stand watch over Rain like nobody watched over me.
“Looksee,” I said, hand at my ear.
“Tell Tattletale I’m willing to consider it, but I want something else on the table.”
“We’re going to need more explanations. I want to know what the hell is going on.”