Gary Nieves was trying to save a world, and he was failing.
Twenty-six million people. The world had ended two years ago, and, as of last week, there were still twenty-six million people trying to survive on Earth Bet. The attacks had hit the portals, and some of the most accessible avenues between Earth B and Earth G had been wiped out.
He was pretty sure that they hadn’t been able to process more than a few million in the last week. Over twenty million people were out there, ready to file through with the things they could carry or pack. Many had been forced to relocate to other portals, after months of waiting for their turns at the portals in Earth B or equivalent areas in Earth B’s New York. Many found themselves at the back of the line at whatever stations they were forced to move to. Some would get on trains. Here, they had to get on trucks, because the portal was too narrow for anything else. The narrowness slowed things down more.
The only light was from spotlights, and for a moment, every spotlight was on a giant robot with a glass face, a giant eel swimming in the fluid within. Metal and strange technology gleamed in the instant before the spotlights changed focus, some turning to the convoy that followed the giant robot. The parahuman who managed the robot stood atop the thing, waving at someone on the ground as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Gary saw more of the trucks come through, most were logging vehicles with benches fixed to the back, every bench crammed with people, shoulder to shoulder, knees often touching the people on the bench in front of them, bags crammed beneath them. There was no exterior to the truck, nothing to break the intense wind that whipped through the area and stirred up the dirt and dust. Many of the people on benches faced off to the side, looking at the world they were being brought into.
Some looked directly at Gary, who was beneath a canopy tent, open on four sides because the wind that blew across the city was liable to blow any tent with walls down. He was surrounded by foldable tables, computers, communication gear and plastic crates.
Jeanne Wynn from Mortari had told him that people were getting sick over there. He’d seen people come through looking pale, underweight, and listless, but up until recent days, he’d chalked it up to the weather on the other side, the rationing, and the wounds that many had sustained to their very soul, to lose the universe they called home.
He wanted better for them. He did. Earth G was better than what they were coming from, but it wasn’t nearly good enough.
He’d made his bid to run the city, and he’d been ousted, because he wasn’t willing to cheat. Now he felt the acute lack of leadership in this situation. This was so far from being good enough.
“Ed!” Gary bellowed, double checking the monitor in front of him. This was triage at this point – there weren’t any locations that were actually ready to take people in, so he had to send them to the closest thing to ready, but there were other factors. The plaza at block nineteen was most capable and had the most capacity, but security had been called there five times in the last hour. Tess, the woman in charge, had called for some parahumans to help keep the peace, and Gary knew that she hated the people who ran around in costume. He had Ed’s attention, and now he had to make a call. “Take the convoy to block three!”
Ed was atop a concrete tower by one of the gates. The man moved the illuminated batons he held, indicating the direction to lot C. His partner would be on the radio, talking to others, ready to indicate the rest of the direction.
Gary hoped that the plaza would be peaceful enough to accept new people, because there were already messages coming through, saying that there would be another convoy in two minutes.
Sixty people could be packed into the back of one logging truck. Ten trucks had come through with the giant robot and its eel.
Not even a dent. This convoy marked six hundred out of an estimated twenty million.
Trucks passed. He recognized one of them as a military supply truck that had jackknifed and rolled while carrying civilians, just two weeks ago. A mechanical failure. People had died, and the image of that same truck carrying both civilians and bodies covered by white plastic sheets had burned into his mind’s eye. Now it was back on the road, because they were short on vehicles that could carry large numbers and traverse some of the rougher, broken terrain on the far side of the portal.
He saw mothers and fathers who couldn’t even bring themselves to look hopeful as they made it through the portal. He saw others, more heartbreaking, who came through with light in their eyes- until they saw the distorted portals looming along the horizon. There was no doubt they’d heard about them, but to see it? He was thankful that it was late evening, and that the portals weren’t that visible. He didn’t have to see the expressions change.
The giant robot with the eel inside stepped aside, the hand raising to give the person on top a platform to stand on. It lowered, putting the parahuman on a level with his teammates. The Shepherds.
Gary wasn’t the only one who was watching their every move. Reasons differed- children looked because costumes were brightly colored, personalities standing out in bold relief. Men looked because they worried, like Gary did, or, he assumed, because their eyes were drawn to young ladies in dresses that showed bare legs and left no illusions about chest size. Women- he had no idea why women stared. Probably the same things.
“Are they getting in the way?” Heather asked.
Gary shook his head. “Not so far.”
Heather was Gary’s relief, meant to be available if he took a break, with a five-hour shift due to start when he wrapped up his evening to get his five hours of sleep. That would have been an hour ago, but there had been so much to do he hadn’t been able to conscience stopping. She could have stood down, taking the extra opportunity to rest, but she was working in the background, supporting and double checking his work for mistakes, because mistakes happened when people were as tired as they were.
Given the fatigue and everything else, it would have been so easy for them to be at each other’s throats. Even if they’d both followed the routine outlined, stress, proximity, and fatigue could easily have seen them at each other’s throats. It didn’t happen. They worked well together, he felt. He had zero complaints, and she hadn’t suggested she was upset in the slightest.
As trucks slowed to round a corner, heading off to lot three, people were hopping up onto the sides of the trucks, bags in hand. Water and some basic food, to greet the newest refugees and look after those in need.
The heroes were still caught up with their discussion. The Shepherds were one of two hero groups present, the other being a loose assortment of the parahumans that had been guarding stations. The other stations were closed so all available personnel and parahumans could focus on getting people out of Earth B.
The Shepherds broke from their huddle. Each of them moved with a direction that suggested they knew exactly where they were going. Nobody came his way, though he was supposed to be in charge of this station and the connecting nodes. Nobody went to Ari, Mortari’s representative on scene- technically the person who was supposed to have final say from the higher-ups. Had they gone to Ari, Gary would have felt snubbed, but he would at least have felt like the parahumans recognized that people were working here, trying to get stuff done.
Had they come to him, or even if they’d gone to Ari, they’d have been told to stay clear of lot nineteen until things settled down. Gary could have told them where they would be useful.
He could taste acid in his mouth, and swallowing was hard. It was nothing to do with powers, and nothing to do with medical problems, not this time. It was his body’s unique way of telling him that he was stressed out.
“Ed!” he called up to the tower. “See if you can’t get any of the Shepherds on the radio! We need to know where they’re going!”
“Right!” Ed called back.
“One hand doesn’t know what the other’s doing,” Heather said.
She was half his age, liked by just about everyone, and, despite the fact that everyone here was supposed to be on the same side as they tackled this crisis, it didn’t work out that way in practice. She was one of the few he could count as being unreservedly in his corner. For much that reason, the talk and grumbling about hands and the struggle to get people to cooperate was a common refrain between them.
“Shepherds are doing their own thing, the… whoever they’re supposed to be, that used to be Wardens and are keeping an eye on things-”
“The thinkers,” Heather said.
“Sure, if you want to call them that. No leadership, no communication. They come, they do their shifts, they leave, and they act as if they’re insulted if we try to ask for details or if they can appoint a liaison. Those thinkers don’t think,” he said.
“And then John Druck, and Mortari, and the organizers on the far side, in Earth Bet-” Heather went on.
Gary checked the timers. His main window was an overhead map of everything with lots marked out and an 8-bit bus ticking along the map millimeter by millimeter. It was supposed to be black, but it was now ticking back and forth, an alarming red.
She leaned close. “Late.”
“Help me out, Heather? See if you can’t find Ari and figure out if he knows where we’re getting tripped up tonight? People keep showing up later and later, and they’re getting processed slower.”
“I think we’re all tired, Gary.”
“Feels like more,” he said. “Find Ari?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Don’t fall asleep.”
“I’ve got coffee.”
A thinker near the main portal relieved the detestable girl with the rats.
The ‘heroes’ did their own thing. Other factions were serving their own leaders. Druck’s labor, Mortari reporting to Wynn. That left a share of maybe twenty or thirty percent who were citizen volunteers, serving under him. He’d organized the volunteers and set the systems in place to train them. The backbone was a team of people that he’d once hoped would be able to go back to Earth B and start cleaning things up enough that they could start resettling it.
He’d hoped they’d be able to go home.
It was the numbers that slipped through his fingers, and drove home how out of reach it all was. Six hundred bodies out of twenty million. Twenty to thirty percent of the three thousand people here were his, or were supposed to be. But so many of them believed in the Shepherds, felt the Shepherds’ views aligned with their own. Gary knew they didn’t.
The lights flickered, spotlights going off, then coming on one at a time, unevenly, as the power came back on. He could hear the distant machinery buck into action as generators came online.
He looked around his tent, spotting his bulky flood flashlight in the moment before the power went out for good.
The generators only ever really bought them a second.
Blind, he went to the flashlight, hitting the button to turn it on. There were battery powered lanterns in one of the totes. People nearby came to him like moths to a candle. He was one of the only proper sources of light. The others were Patrol, officers, and others with flashlights as part of their standard operating gear. Those lights were more for personal use.
Gary’s supply was the kind of thing meant to light up work areas. He passed them out until he saw a face he recognized, and then delegated.
“Where’s Ari!?” he called out.
He got mixed, inconsistent answers.
“Full patrol,” came a nearby report.
He had no idea what that meant. He’d tried asking about terminology before, too.
Up on the tower, Ed had battery power for a floodlight.
“Conserve batteries!” Gary called up. “Only half on at a time, until we know what’s going on!”
His computer had a battery of its own, and the machine it was hooked up to gave it a satellite feed. In a vast sea of darkness, with much of the city unlit at this late hour, people were retreating to Gary’s tent.
It was a primitive instinct, like cavemen retreating to the shelter of the campfire. The instinct made it hard to check his computer.
It couldn’t be easy. The stalled convoy was moving again. If it had stayed put, then at least they could get organized and ready before it appeared.
“We don’t get a break just because it’s dark! Another convoy is coming through, and it looks like eight hundred!” he called out. “There are construction helmets with lights mounted on them in the tent with the barricades! There should be flares! We need enough light that we can point them in the right direction and keep them from driving into anything! Go!”
People ran to do as he’d ordered. Others were moving the opposite direction, clustering closer.
Why wasn’t Mortari leading? Why couldn’t the heroes be here to offer up one of their magical solutions?
As if thinking about them had summoned them, he saw how the girl with the rats was part of the crowd, and her eerily terrible mask with its bent nose was made all the worse by the dim lighting that came from low, below-the-neck angles.
“I’ll help,” she said. “Even though I’m on break.”
Then she turned to go.
When he’d been in fourth grade, an abysmal teacher had left him so stressed out that he’d gotten an ulcer. It was the kind of person he was. He could remember the ambient pain across his stomach, the distended way he’d felt, as if the stress had gathered inside him and was stretching his skin, and he could remember the acid taste in his mouth. That teacher and that experience had shaped him, driving home a distaste for authority figures who couldn’t lead.
He hadn’t had an ulcer since two years ago, but something psychosomatic made him feel echoes of those old sensations and tastes when he was acutely stressed.
He’d been feeling the acid in his throat and mouth and a dull pain in his stomach for a while now. It felt more pronounced now, to the point it probably exceeded what he would feel if it was real.
“People with headlamps on each side of the road!” he shouted. “Make sure they know where the road stops! The rest of you, if you don’t have business in this tent, there’s lights going up under the concrete towers! Go there, or go get water and hydrate our refugees!”
“He’s saying he wants you out of our tent!” Heather shouted. She was back, or she’d turned around when everything had gone dark.
The shouting didn’t help with the acid taste in his mouth.
Most people left the tent. The ones that stayed were recognizable faces- people he didn’t mind seeing. Not his, not one hundred percent, like Heather was, but they were friendly enough.
“Ari’s occupied. He’s tied up in policy stuff.”
Gary shook his head. “Well, I don’t envy him, but I think if he was going to be this busy, Mortari could have sent more people here.”
“Wholesale agreement here, Gary,” Heather said.
The headlights of the convoy were visible.
“Make sure they come in slow!” Heather called out instructions. “We don’t have enough light!”
He looked at his monitor. He hated it, especially since there was no sign that nineteen had resolved its disputes, but this was a big load of people, and he couldn’t conscience overburdening others with an influx of refugees when nineteen was mostly empty.
“Block nineteen,” he said.
“Nineteen!” Heather shouted, her voice high. Others passed it on, and on the concrete tower, illuminated batons touched tips to form a chevron shape. ‘Careful’.
The trucks were overburdened. People were almost falling off or walking alongside because there wasn’t enough space on the benches. The wind was fierce, as it so often was around the portals, and the trucks were having a hard time driving in a straight line as a consequence.
What was this? A thousand people? It was supposed to be eight hundred at most. Even if every single waypoint was ready, stocked, and fresh, there wouldn’t be a good place for him to stick a thousand people.
He left his canopy, waving down the lead driver. A hero sat on the roof of the vehicle- a man with a costume that had some technological aspects hooked up. Purple fluid glowed like it was under a blacklight, running through tubes to bracelets and something he wore along his spine. When the guy smiled, the saliva in his mouth was more glow-in-the-dark purple.
Gary tried to ignore him. There were things to do, answers to get. “What’s going on? A thousand people?”
“Fuck me,” Gary said, his voice pitched low so that any kids at the back of the truck wouldn’t hear. “Come on, man.”
“They’re sardines over there. Logistics are a nightmare. Sir, seriously, just bring them over here and set them loose into the woods. It’s gotta be better than what we’re dealing with on the other side.”
“We’ve got to give them ID, make sure we aren’t letting dangerous people in. We give them a bit of money to start off, because they almost always have immediate needs. If we do like you’re saying, they’ll be second class citizens.”
“These guys are all people we vetted ourselves.”
“We don’t know your standards,” he said. “Can you split up the convoy?”
“You’d be parting some people from their belongings.”
Gary turned to Heather, who was standing back, a walkie talkie to her ear. She mouthed the word ‘Ari’ to him.
It took a minute. People were restless, and all the more restless because there were so many refugees coming through on foot, who weren’t staying in one place.
The thinkers were walking around and through the crowd, checking people. That was supposed to be some solace, he imagined. They’d see any weapons or traps.
“Ari says we can split up the people.”
“Have people get their belongings if they can. Trucks should get into position, moving slowly enough that we don’t run over anyone. One to block nineteen, one to block six.”
The trucks began to move at a crawl, a mile an hour if that. People hopped off or moved to the other truck, or made sure they had their bags. If this took too long, Gary knew, the next load of people would arrive. Backups and jams led to dissent, which led to violence and people who had only frustration as their first exposure to Earth G. It set bad precedents.
Things were still creeping forward when a sharp sound cracked through the air. His first instinct was to think it was something like the truck jackknifing. A mechanical failure, a backfire-
He heard the screams. The parahuman that had been perched atop a truck hit the ground, luminescent purple blood splattering to the ground around him.
There were more shots.
“Get down!” he shouted, but so many people were shouting or shrieking at the very tops of their lungs that he couldn’t be heard. It was a noise and a sudden onset of chaos that made it hard to see straight. He did what he could, motioning, indicating direction. The blood had sprayed in one direction, the parahuman knocked from his perch by a shot from the west. He had people take cover by the base of the truck, backs to wheels. People hugged the bed of the truck, using the benches and luggage as cover.
The next battery of shots came from the east. That was- it had to be automatic weapon’s fire.
A planned maneuver, to give them no place to take cover. Flanking gunfire from two separate directions, with serious firearms. Even the blackout-
Had it been planned? The idea filled him with a terror that somehow had more certainty than the bullets coming from the opposite direction.
“The tents!” he shouted, and nobody could hear him. “The tents!”
He started toward the tents, crossing open ground, and a shot hit the dirt a foot from where he stood. He beckoned, urging. Here, at least, there were plastic totes filled with equipment and supplies, enough that a bullet wouldn’t necessarily pass through.
He saw the woman with the rat mask. She ran low to the ground, straight toward the source of gunfire.
People followed him. People got shot for following him, because they were exposed, and each person he saw fall was a wound in the fabric of his very soul, because he was responsible.
Not wholly for the deaths. People would have died regardless.
Not wholly as leadership here. Others were supposed to be here to take charge. He was trying.
But between and through some alchemy of the two, he was responsible.
“Hurry, hurry!” he shouted. People weren’t screaming as much. They went to the tent, ducking inside. He found his back to one crate heavy enough his weight resting against it didn’t budge it. It would be cover- if it was placed in a better spot. His face distorted with effort as he dragged it across dirt. Someone else put a hand on it, helping. “Stack crates if you can!”
People did. He did what he could to help, when he was close enough to reach, but he and most others prioritized keeping their heads down. When crates were lifted up, it was by groups of four people who were careful to use cover. One of the heavier crates was being emptied, so the bin could be placed up high and then filled.
Assailants who lurked in the deep shadow around the portal station emptied their guns into the camp, placing their shots in the vicinity of people who had yet to take cover. Gary watched people die. All ages, all creeds. He felt a stabbing pain in his stomach like he had been one of the people shot, ten times worse than anything he remembered of the ulcer he’d had as a child.
Someone was calling his name. He looked back.
Ed was at the door at the base of the concrete tower. He had guns -rifles. They fired one shot, then needed a multi-step process to reload. They were meant for hunting and maybe for self defense, for the vast majority of instances that a single bullet would serve for.
Not for- for an outright battle.
He had been in one fistfight in his life, with his brother when he had been twelve and his eleven year old brother had called him gay. He knew his guns, and used them for fun, but he had never been one of the people who had dreamed up scenarios where he might have a justifiable excuse to use one or be a hero.
Ed pressed the gun and a box of ammunition into his hands.
In this situation, he felt the furthest thing from being a ‘hero’.
Every second, someone was dead or set firmly in that direction.
Ed was handing out more guns, favoring people he knew. The stockpile- weapons meant for refugees, kept more for their barter potential and in case of what had once been thought of as a worst case scenario, that the refugees might riot here in this camp.
There were only ten of them with shitty rifles.
He didn’t want to do this, but he couldn’t ask it of anyone else- he knew he could land his shots, if he could see his target. It would be hard to see.
“If one of us shoots, we all shoot. Hold your fire unless you think you can make it count,” Ed said, only audible because his mouth was almost against Gary’s ear. He spoke to the group, two people at a time, in much the same fashion.
Gary stared at the scene.
Flashlights had fallen. Yellow construction helmets with lights attached to the front lay in dirt. There were places the beams sliced across sprays of blood that had formed fluid balls or layers atop the dirt, rather than soaking into it.
He was so rattled he couldn’t count the arms and legs he saw strewn across the area around the trucks. It wasn’t that they were dismembered, but that the light and darkness chopped things up, so only one thing was visible at a time.
Too many moved- still hurting. But it was impossible to get to them if the guns weren’t dealt with.
Beyond those isolated beams of light, there was so much darkness. There were no flashes in the darkness as the automatic weapons fired.
“Go,” Ed said.
They broke away, using a hill for cover as they circled toward the group with the guns.
It felt like a suicide mission- they would each fire once. At best, they could drop half of the people on this one side of the station. Then what?
The opposition would open fire. Even with cover, they’d have no chance. There would be no returning fire.
But to do nothing?
Every second or third step he took, he tripped, because the ground wasn’t even, or there were obstacles. He thought the noise of it might disturb the shooters, but the sound of the guns drowned everything out.
Only darkness, absence of light. Only cacophony, overabundance of sound.
Only the cold feel of a weapon in his hands, hot feel of arm against body, armpit sweaty. Foot in boot, his awareness so sharp and out of place that he was aware of toes rubbing together, swimming in sweat like it had dripped off his body and filled his boots.
They hunkered down around one stone that stuck out of the hill.
No heroes in costume, no Mortari, no light, no help.
“Ready,” Ed said.
They got into position, guns pointed in the direction of the sound.
“Fire,” Ed said.
There was a hesitation after the word, as if the tried and true, universal ‘ready, aim, fire’ that had been imprinted in the collective consciousness had been broken, and that in itself created the doubt.
At least, that was what it felt like to Gary Nieves. The fact he might be shooting at someone was lost in the moment, because he couldn’t see them, and he couldn’t hear them. They were disembodied and if he straddled any fence at all, for all that he’d lived a mostly nonviolent life, the outrage he felt put him firmly in the universe where he pulled the trigger.
The guns were so loud- louder even than the semiautomatic ones that fired eight or more bullets in a single violent ‘splaaat’ sound. His jaw clenched so hard that his temples hurt.
Then, fumbling, he worked to reload.
The next wave of semiautomatic fire was directed at them, hitting the rock they were using for cover.
Gary slid down to the ground, crawling around the rock. Peeking around the corner at the very base of the rock, he took aim as best he could in the near-pitch darkness, and he fired.
The shot provided a hint of illumination. There was a figure striding toward them- a man in a knit mask with no holes for eyes or mouth. By his posture, he didn’t seem to care that people behind him were shooting past him to try to hit Gary’s group.
Others saw, and they opened fire.
The man darted around, jumping a half-foot to the right, a foot to the left, a step back, two steps forward. Teleportation or something like it. No bullets landed because he was relocated in the instant before anything -friend or foe- could hit him.
He hopped up onto the rock, boots scuffing, drawing a knife from his belt.
No, Gary thought.
“Run!” he barked out the word.
Half the group, Gary included, ran.
The other half tried to fight, with ‘try’ being the fundamental idea at play. Gary’s third rifle shot was aimed at the man in costume.
The first attack on the man’s part missed, because he relocated mid-swing, avoiding a bullet. He swung back the other direction, however, then back again, almost careless in how he swung back and forth. Ed’s friend Shane died. Ed kicked out- hit only air as the man relocated to a spot just to the left. A knife plunged into Ed’s chest.
Gary fumbled to reload, dropping his ammo. They’d left their cover, and they were still under fire. Soon was hit in the midsection and sat down hard, falling back because they were on a slope. Even in the dark, the whites of his eyes were visible.
Gary found more ammunition, slotting it into the side of the rifle.
The man with the knife had three bodies near him, now, and the dark silhouette on a dark background was fixating his attention on a fourth person, who was trying to run for it. That person -another of Gary’s volunteers- wasn’t nearly so camouflaged in the dark. His blue shirt stood out in the gloom.
The knife-wielding parahuman didn’t get his hands on that person- but only because the people with the semiautomatics landed a killing blow before he could get there.
A loud noise and an intense gust following the movement of aircraft bowled him over. He skidded on the slope below him.
A giant robot, and not the one with the eel inside.
Anyone would have recognized this kind of design. Sleek, green with gold trim, with enough lights on it that it seemed to glow. The craft landed a short distance from where the shooters had been.
The flashes as the machine attacked were brilliant, though Gary wasn’t in a position to see what had caused it.
The parahuman who nobody could touch was approaching Gary’s group. A sharp whistle from behind gave it pause.
A man in green scale armor with gold trim, a faint beard on his chin, a spear in hand. He swung the spear, and the head detached, swinging like a flail with what had to be a thirty foot cord or wire.
The parahuman disappeared, reappearing at a point close to the base of the hill. Just out of reach of the flail.
The man in green armor swung the flail again, but this time the head came loose. It disappeared into the darkness.
An explosion ripped through an area at the foot of the hill. The spear’s head had detonated- and the parahuman stood at the periphery of the explosion. His arm went up to his nose and mouth.
“You can’t touch him!” Gary shouted. “He killed three people!”
“More than three,” the man in green and gold armor said. He held his spear-shaft like one might hold a rifle. It bucked like it had fired something, but it was silent, and there was no light nor smoke.
Another explosion, but this was more of a firecracker, detonating before it made impact with the parahuman’s head.
“There,” the man in green said. “Who can give medical attention?”
Gary couldn’t. One of the people Ed had conscripted could. He went to the man in green armor’s side.
The parahuman at the base of the hill was coughing violently, now at his knees. Gas.
The situation was resolving. The gunfire had ceased with the arrival of the big craft. Other capes were down in the town below, including the giant robot with the eel in it. They weren’t- he refused to let them be important. Gary could only see the carnage, the massive loss of life. People who had come here hoping for better. They hadn’t even had a chance.
How unjust a thing was that? How galling? They’d had no part in Gold Morning. They’d had no part in the waits or the delays, the plodding efforts to move people through when people were getting more sick or more desperate every day. By whim and the movements of greater players, they had lost their lives.
He dropped the gun. It wasn’t needed, and it wasn’t him. He wasn’t the kind of person who could give medical care.
He made his way down the hill and toward the station, where the road emerged from the portal and concrete walls with a few towers for vantage points helped to secure the area. The people within guided people coming through to other locations. The lights of Dragon’s craft illuminated much of the area.
People were in a daze, as they tentatively emerged from the shelter of the tents and the surrounding crates. They stared around them at the bodies. The trucks had taken enough gunfire that tires had popped and small things like door handles and side-view mirrors had broken away.
“If you’re able bodied, try to find the wounded among the dead,” he called out. “We need clean water, get it boiling so it’s sterile, for the wounded. Jim, use the coffee machine with no coffee grinds- it handles large quantities.”
Jim got moving.
“Kath- blankets, we have rescue blankets in one of the totes. Recruit help, see if you can find them. They might be under other crates. Lay the ones we aren’t using for people on the ground. Dominic, you-”
He stopped as he saw Heather.
He walked around her body, the words failing him.
So many eyes were watching him, looking to him for leadership. They saw him crack a little in the moment. He’d let them. He clenched his fist, like he was grasping something in front of him, then let it fall. He thought he might cry, but he stopped himself from going that far.
“What do I do?” Dominic asked. The poor fucking kid, he was only sixteen, and he was trying to hold it together and help.
It helped Gary to pull himself together. “Radio. Let other places know what happened. Uh- we’re going to need people for-”
So many. Attacked and shot for no clear purpose. It caught him off guard.
The ground rumbled as the giant robot landed nearby. Mechanical arms reached out to the nearby power poles, and the power came back on. It wasn’t a good thing, when it brought the losses into sharp relief.
Dragon and Defiant emerged from the craft.
“I’m Dragon, that’s Defiant, and that’s my ship. We can take wounded in her,” Dragon said.
People tentatively drew nearer to the two heroes and their giant robot.
“It was an act of war,” Defiant said. “More brazen than the other recent attacks. They’ve been testing the waters, going after areas they see as vulnerable.”
There was a pause.
“I’m so sorry for your losses,” Defiant said.
“You’re in charge here, Gary?” Dragon asked.
She knew his name?
“You were a candidate for mayor,” she explained.
“I’m-” he started. His voice was small.
That was the thing. He wanted to show emotion but he couldn’t show that emotion, because he would break down.
“Ari was in charge,” he said. “From Mortari.”
“Ari Burke, I assume?” she asked. He nodded.
She knew the names so easily. His. Ari’s.
“Ari’s dead,” she said, her head turned. “Does that put you in charge?”
“I-” he started. He shook his head slightly. “I guess.”
“Let us know if you need anything. Until we get other instructions, we’re going to tend to the wounded and shuttle them to hospitals. We’ll take routes that let us keep an eye out for trouble. When the refugees start coming through again, we’ll take some with us, if they’re willing to settle a location a little further afield. Jeanne Wynn already signed off on it.”
There it was. The magical solutions. Getting to be a hero. Jeanne Wynn was a parahuman, he was ninety-five percent sure, and she got her own magical solutions.
There was no acid taste in Gary’s mouth as he digested that. It had been a long, long time since he’d felt this bitter about something and his body hadn’t conjured up that strange sensation.
It felt too far away, when the here and the now were in such brutal, bloody relief.
“This is horrible,” Dragon said. “Seriously, anything we can do to help, let us know. We’re putting ourselves on the line by showing our faces, but I don’t think we can conscience holding back any longer. We can help with this.”
“Help?” Gary asked. “Why- I mean, if you want to help, let me ask you. Why did this happen?”
“Greed and wrath,” Defiant said. “People want this world and the resources it has, everything it’s connected to, and the possibilities it offers. They’re willing to hurt others to get what they want.”
Gary shook his head. “It’s you.”
Defiant looked confused, but Dragon said, “I don’t think that’s especially fair, Gary. Heroes as a whole are doing their best. Defiant and I haven’t been showing our faces, but we come with potential solutions to key problems. Give us a chance.”
“Parahumans took the world from us,” Gary said. “They took the sky. Our greatest hero turned out to be the greatest monster, and we don’t get any answers about why. Haven’t we been giving you chances from the beginning? How much worse do things have to get?”
He’d barely remembered that he had people watching. Like always, people in costume drew intense focus, and so his debate was drawing more attention than an argument already would.
It surprised him that the people were nodding along as he talked.
“We’re doing the best we can, just like any of you,” Defiant said.
“I think we’re owed better than this,” Gary said. He gestured. Emotion seeped into his voice, unwanted. “This- this isn’t good. I was a candidate for mayor. I heard things, saw the photos and video. There are things out there that, sure they aren’t as strong as Endbringers, but we’re fighting them with a fraction of the number. There are worse things out there. Tinker devices gone haywire. Sleeper. Monsters who look like men and women. And now war?”
There were murmurs of agreement.
“Perfect is the enemy of good, Gary,” Dragon said.
“The ‘good’ guys ran! Where were the Shepherds!?”
Again, he had to remind himself of where he was, but he did so too late, here. The people here weren’t necessarily his. Twenty to thirty percent of the people at this station were people he’d recruited or people who worked alongside him. Ostensibly, they were largely in support of recolonizing Earth B. But the Shepherds had linked their group to the ‘go back to better’ cause, and that ran contrary to something fundamental in Gary’s view of the situation. They hadn’t earned that publicity, only rode the wave of popularity as the movement found traction.
To speak against them was to potentially lose his own people.
His own people drowned out Dragon’s initial response, joining their voices and growing outrage to Gary’s. Some weren’t as loud as the others, but all the same, it surprised him.
“They were stopping a third group,” Dragon said. “They left discreetly when they got word that there were trespassers. We didn’t think it would be that bad. The flanking party was unexpected.”
“You got it wrong,” he said. “We put our trust in you when you come to places like this, but I’ve been here for a week and the Shepherds have barely said a word to me. They barely communicated with Ari. They left tonight and I had to send someone after them to try and open channels of communication. I didn’t get a chance, and now dozens are dead.”
“That could be how they operate, let’s not get carried away,” Defiant said.
“No,” Gary said. His voice was firmer. “No.”
“I talked to them,” Dragon said. “They didn’t want to tip anyone off that something was wrong. They thought they would deal with this discreetly.”
“People died! A- a horrendous amount of people died!” Gary Nieves shouted. At ‘horrendous’, his voice cracked like a teenager’s. He’d been a politician, a businessman before that. Had anyone laughed, he wouldn’t have blamed them. He might have stomped off. But there was only silence. When he turned to look, people gave him encouraging nods. He went on, “In Gold Morning. Broken triggers. The monsters you try to keep secret from us. Here.”
“They got it wrong. We’re only human, Gary. We’re trying our best.”
“No. You make yourselves out to be more than human. You have more, you put on costumes and you dress yourselves up, but you know… the Shepherds not talking to any of us and going it alone isn’t an isolated incident.”
“Defiant and I had our reasons. If you’d sit down and talk to us, I could tell you about our ongoing projects, and how we can start making great strides.”
“I don’t want your answers,” Gary Nieves said. “Your solutions- if they worked, if they properly worked for us, then we’d be leap years ahead of the other worlds. Instead? When the power went out and people flocked to the light of the monitors and flashlights, I was left imagining that we were primitives gathered around the light of a fire. That’s where we are.”
“You exaggerate,” Defiant said. Dragon laid a hand on the man’s arm.
“I want to open a dialogue,” Dragon said. “But there are wounded.”
Gary looked at the wounded who were being tended by the paramedics. People that had been on site already, ready for refugees to arrive, and people from nearby areas, who were starting to filter in.
Many were paying a wary eye to Gary and his stand-off with Dragon.
“It’s not where we are overall, but it’s where we were that moment. You want to open a dialogue, but- you weren’t here. The Shepherds weren’t here. In my limited interactions with parahumans, I keep on noticing- over and over again, even the good ones, we’ll hear you say that you forget our names, or we all sort of ‘blend into each other’. Again and again. There’s a disconnect, where we don’t even rate.”
“I remembered your name, Gary,” Dragon said.
Gary shrugged. He looked around at the fallen, at the wounded- the critically wounded were already being taken care of.
“The power may go out when I disconnect to take people to the hospital,” Dragon spoke, her voice carrying.
“Flashlights,” Gary called out, giving the orders. “Lanterns, same as before. Don’t conserve battery.”
Back to work, to the impossible numbers, and the hills with peaks that seemed to climb out of reach as he ascended.
But different, now. People avoided the Shepherds. They cleaved closer to him. People had felt lost, confused, scared, and his explanation had been an easy one to accept. It made sense, for one thing, and it spoke to justifiable fears that every single person harbored even before the first and best of the parahumans had wiped out landmasses and extinguished a good portion of the population.
They were angry, and the snippets of conversation where people voiced their anger were audible here and there. He could have stopped them and he didn’t. In the wake of this tragedy, of so many hurt and killed, they needed someone to blame and this was an instance of blame that had been a long time coming.
Dragon’s ship disconnected from the local grid, and Gary Nieves and his people were left in darkness.
From the safety of darkness, someone threw something in the direction of the Shepherds. The girl in the moon costume raised a hand, and stopped the thrown object in the air.
He could have said something to the thrower, but he didn’t.
Silence became murmurings and before the murmurings became a roar, the Shepherds left for another patrol of the area. They didn’t return to the main camp.
Gary tried not to begrudge people for the lines, especially when it was an effect of population saturation in small areas, but he hadn’t eaten earlier, and the services hadn’t had food. Not with people going lean for the coming winter.
He stood among people in clothes with cement on the pants leg or paint on the edge of the sleeve. Mud-caked boots flowed seamlessly into mud-caked pants, in places. He, in turn, wore a black suit, black tie, and a somber expression.
The person asking was narrow, Asian, with a very pointed chin and short hair. He wore a red tie with a gray shirt.
“Can I help you?”
“Question is more along the lines of whether I can help you,” the man said. “I heard some of what you said to Dragon, three days ago.”
It was hard to think about. Images of blood and bodies weighed heavy on his mind. He closed his eyes before fixing his focus on the food behind the glass displays.
“Were you there?” he asked, to maintain the conversation.
“No. Word of what you said reached me secondhand. Could I buy you lunch? I’d like to talk about things.”
“Ah,” Gary said. “I’ve just come from a funeral. My second today. She was a friend. I’d like some peace and quiet to grieve.”
“Of course. Could I give you my card, so you can call me at your convenience?”
The man was quick to present a card. Erwin Daeyoung. The English writing of the name was mirrored by what he presumed was the Korean translation. Mediation and Public Relations. The remainder of the card was in fine gold script- Korean letters to go with a Korean name.
He reached the end of the line, paid, and then waited for his food. He tried to think of what he could do for Heather, and for the others. His thoughts went in circles as he considered gestures, worried about whether the gestures would flop – donation drives were difficult when everyone anticipated a difficult winter. He thought of statues and symbols and nothing fit. Heather had always been a doer, not someone who put emphasis on things. Ed had been practical, and would have said something about any statue. The refugees who’d never gotten their second chance, because they so often didn’t matter- how did he even pay respect to that?
He was pissed, and he couldn’t even express it. He’d tried to write two articles before abandoning them, and there were no people to speak to that understood things quite like Heather had.
In one corner of the cheap little diner, a television showed Jeanne Wynn addressing the city.
Gary’s finger tapped against his leg. The card was within his pocket.
Looking back, he saw the man in line, and signaled him.
“My lunch is already paid for,” he said, “But if you want to talk, you can sit with me. My thoughts aren’t where they should be.”
“I don’t blame you. These are confusing times. I’ll join you as soon as I have my meal.”
He sat, setting his sandwich and fries down on the table, the card turned over in his hand while he waited.
Erwin sat across from him.
“You’re a mediator? And PR.”
“Are you a politician, Gary Nieves?” Erwin asked.
“No, not anymore,” Gary said.
“Then no, I’m not a mediator or a PR person. Not anymore. Despite that, I could be said to resemble one, because I have the skills. Maybe the same is true for you.”
“Maybe. It’s still cryptic.”
“You’re right. There are too many secrets,” Erwin said. “That’s why I started paying attention to you. You’re honest. You’ve had the position and opportunities to see things clearly. I think you and I, we’re similar in where we stand and how we feel.”
“How is that?”
“Angry,” Erwin said. “Lost. But you tapped into something as you talked to Dragon and people were willing to listen. I can tell you what you need to know. I can provide some direction, even make some radical suggestions. We could use that anger and loss, the righteous indignation, along with the very clear view of where we currently stand. Bronze age barbarism and stone age huddling around fires for warmth.”
“Given my background, I have something of a talent for spotting bullshit,” Gary said.
“You’re burying the idea of ‘radical suggestions’ in between promises and hope.”
Erwin nodded slowly. He drew his phone from his pocket, and searched for a minute, nibbling on his sandwich as he went. He turned it around and pushed it forward. As his hand left the phone, he pointed.
Jeanne Wynn was still on the television.
On the phone-
A woman in costume.
“Stop me if this sounds familiar. A supervillain by the name of Citrine worked under a mastermind by the name of Accord, who was on multiple lists but skirted prosecution because he was very clever and very careful.”
Gary nodded. He’d suspected, but…
His lips pressed together.
“Accord wrote booklets. Booklets spelled out things like city planning, economy, efficient feeding of the many, logistics, environment.”
“This sounds familiar,” Gary said, saying the words slowly, as if he were trying them on and then deciding to keep them. “I’ve seen these booklets.”
“As have I,” Erwin said.
“From what I’ve read, thinker plans go sour. Things that parahumans create fall to pieces, as a rule. They create problems, first and foremost.”
“Is that your plan then? Do you wait until disaster strikes Jeanne Wynn, then swoop in to make your next bid at leadership?”
“I don’t know. I may retire. There are enough things to do. I keep it in mind as a possibility.”
“What if I told you it wasn’t possible?” Erwin asked.
“Keeping it in mind?”
“For disaster to strike. What if I told you that Accord’s plans will work? Through texts he wrote and Jeanne Wynn’s slavish adherence to the terms of those texts, he will turn things around with a minimum of casualties. People will be fed as well as you could hope. We’ll be able to defend ourselves, get set up in terms of shelter, and things will be good.”
“Isn’t that positive?”
“She’ll hold her seat. It would be madness to remove her from it if she was doing so well, which she will. So she’ll continue forward. There should be no disasters at all, beyond unavoidable external events, and she’ll handle them with aplomb.”
“Like the event earlier this week?”
“The handling of it was technically correct. Resources were moved, people hired and fired, and mercenaries tapped as an external resource. People higher up in government are applauding her. People on the ground feel safer.”
“Then the threat is… she does too well?”
“Government by parahumans. Once established, it’s hard to shake. There will be no opportunity. No mis-steps, no character weakness. The biggest skeleton in the closet is her past.”
Erwin picked up his phone. He fiddled for a moment, then set it down.
Gary looked. It was Sierra Kiley, one of the other past contenders for the mayorship. She too had stepped down. In the picture, she stood talking with the leader of the Undersiders and Citrine- Jeanne Wynn.
Gary nodded. “The game was rigged.”
“It so often is. But being down doesn’t mean you’re out. I looked for you and approached you because I think I have a plan. You would mobilize on the ground and swiftly rise to power.”
“You want me to use the dissent against parahumans?”
“That’s a sliver of it,” Erwin said. “I think you can get enough people behind you that they can’t ignore you. That would be your first step, and you’re already on your way.”
“What’s the last step? What’s your end goal?”
“That is a very complicated question, and it depends on a lot in coming weeks,” Erwin said. “But… we go back to what I said about the radical.”
“Think, Gary. What do these other Earths want? Why do they threaten war and pick at our weaknesses with increasing viciousness? They want the territory. A world of resources, and a network of portals.”
“We give it to them. We promise leadership without parahumans in charge, stacking the deck. We turn to an established government we’re on friendly terms with and we invite them in. We become a vassal state.”
“Who are you thinking of?” Gary asked.
“Nobody. That would be a decision for you to make without my input. If I told you one or the other, you would think I’m working on their behalf. There are options. It’s an idea that takes some getting used to, but if you’re thinking you’d like to go home… perhaps a middle-ground solution would be to open communications and borders with a world that has hints of our old amenities and culture.”
It was an idea that took some getting used to.
It was ominous, uncomfortable.
He looked at the television.
The idea of Mortari failing to see the Megalopolis through the winter was terrifying. The people that would die, the desperation.
The idea of Mortari and Jeanne Wynn succeeding like Erwin had described… doubly terrifying.
The notion of banding together with another Earth was tempting, if it meant a steady supply of food in the winter. More people that could fight off attacks like the horrendous one earlier.
“I can see the beginning. I could perhaps see the end,” Gary said. “What would fill the gap?”
“For that, you need ammunition in the chamber,” Erwin said. The man smiled. “I have a list.”
He picked up his phone. He found a page and showed it to Gary.
“A list of people with stories to tell. Horror stories about parahumans. Stories that stoke anger. You would pick the right stories at the right time to hand over to the press, see if they bite. You use these narratives to build something.”
Stories about people in positions on teams. Stories about the monsters. Stories about those who had re-engineered their identities.
“You’ve been keeping this up to date,” Gary observed.
The most recent was from four days prior. A family, it looked like. Julien and Irene Martin.