Gleaming – 9.7

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“I’m going to need fifty different explanations,” Natalie’s eyes were wide.  “Goddess?

“It’s complicated,” I said.  “And it’s not really a question of the law, exactly.  I-”

“I think Natalie should be heard,” Byron cut in, his voice firm.

Master-stranger.  If she was untainted… did she qualify as the next person in the chain, should Byron be occupied?  There was a possibility that we’d have to put him in a coma or something like it if we couldn’t get all of this handled by tonight.  Did that mean Natalie would be taking point, somehow?  What would that even look like?

“Natalie,” Sveta said.  “We owe you a lot for looking after Kenzie.”

“Mm hmm,” Kenzie made an affirmative sound.

“But Victoria’s right.  This is complicated.  Before Victoria and Byron left to check on the Majors, Byron attacked her.  We’re really only letting it slide because she has the strength to keep him in line, and I’m not that convinced it’s right to do that.”

“That’s not entirely accurate,” Byron said.

“Um,” Natalie said.  “I can mediate, then.  But I need more information.”

“No,” Sveta said.

Yes,” I countered.  It wasn’t easy to do, to go against every instinct and rational thought and put something forward.

Sveta turned, her expression hardening.  Harder still to see that.  My friend.

“We lose nothing by doing it,” I said.

“We lose time.  Teacher is making his moves and we’re two steps behind.  The woman on the screen right there is preparing drugs for reasons we don’t know.  We can’t take time to catch someone up when they’re about to be distributed, and we definitely can’t fracture the team and let things go to pieces with infighting!”

“Kenzie’s work won’t be instantaneous.  It’s worth bringing more trusted people in, giving them information, and letting them have a voice.”

“I don’t trust them!” Sveta retorted.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really sorry, I’m grateful for what you two do, Byron, Natalie, for what you three do, if I include you, Victoria.  But I feel like conversations are happening in the background, like you guys talked a lot while I was stuck here, and I don’t like the direction things are going.  It feels wrong.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I glanced at Kenzie.  She was behind Sveta, hugging one knee against her chest, the other dangling, a small smile on her face.

“I was trying to figure it out,” Sveta said.  “And the only thing that makes sense to me is if Byron drugged you while you were dealing with him.”

“Drugs don’t work that way,” I said.  “Kenzie would have video of him applying the drugs.”

“I would, I do.”

“Something in the water?” Sveta tried, almost plaintive.  “His power has changed before, and with things this warped… it’s not impossible that it’s not pure water, now.”

“It’s a bit of a reach,” Kenzie said.  “I think simpler drugs are more likely.  I can check my video.”

“I would really like to see that video,” Natalie said.

“I can show you,” Kenzie said, spinning around.

“Careful,” I said.

Natalie stopped in her tracks.  Sveta’s expression didn’t change an inch, but the tendrils I could see moved with more energy now.  She seemed to notice that I’d noticed, and broke eye contact.

“We don’t know if it would work across recorded video.”

“The Lady in Blue has the ability to influence parahumans,” Byron said.  “Natalie isn’t one.”

“That’s our line of thinking,” I said.  “But I don’t think anyone in this room is going to say that they’re super happy with the way things have gone in the last couple of hours…”

“I’m not super happy, but I’m happy we’re hanging out and doing something together,” Kenzie said.

“…And it started because she surprised us with what she’s capable of.  However major, minor, or insignificant the influence might be, let’s avoid future surprises.  Capes keep tricks in their back pockets.  Especially ones as effective and powerful as she is.”

“Noted,” Natalie said.

“If she could affect regular people, she would have,” Sveta said.  “She would have a population under her thumb.  From what we’ve heard reported about her and her world, that’s not the case.  It’s something she has to struggle against.  That’s our reality: people don’t like parahumans, even when the parahumans didn’t do anything to deserve that dislike.  I think all of us here have seen that in some form.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Very probable, but yes, while there are powers that discriminate to be parahuman only, there are rare cases where people with the potential to get powers can be included in that group.”

“If I could have triggered, I think I might have last night.”  Natalie’s voice was quiet.  She touched her shoulder.  “I think I’m safe, but thank you, Victoria.”

I opened my mouth to say something about how triggers didn’t necessarily work that way- that the popular thinking was that the reason they were so hard to provoke was that the trigger event needed to match the power that the person was primed to get.  That someone could have a trigger of abject loss and heartbreak and not get a power, only to get one a few days later because they were threatened with bodily harm, or because their agent was waiting for a trigger event involving fire.

But I was grasping at straws, clinging to the science and the chances of danger.  Was the risk really that great, that Goddess’ power included those with potential, that Natalie had that potential but mercifully hadn’t realized it, and that Goddess’ influence would also work through a recorded video?

“What’s going on with you, Victoria?” Sveta asked.  Her face showed something closer to pity or disappointment.

My eyes dropped to the ground.  “I don’t like this.”

“I don’t like this either.  I wish we could be on the same page about why we didn’t like this.”

I nodded.

“Sveta,” Byron said.

“Hey,” Sveta said, still in that small, sad voice, as she looked at him.  “I don’t want you as an enemy either, Byron.  I feel like I haven’t even gotten to know you.”

He pulled off his helmet, clasping it in front of his stomach with both hands.  Droplets of moisture from the rain still beaded some of his cheekbone, nose, and chin, and he had a spot of redness around one eyelid that had white edges in its midst, like skin peeling from a slight burn.

“I’m not totally on board with this, but Victoria and Chris were right.  There are things we can all agree on, and being careful is one.  That Teacher is dangerous and dangerous to our teammates is another.”

Tension didn’t show in Sveta’s body, but it showed in the details that wriggled around the edges and gaps, at her prosthetic neck that her head was perched on, and around her wig, almost indistinguishable from the locks of hair.  It showed in the lines of her face, in features I would have called Eastern European.

Byron seemed to take Sveta’s silence as reluctant agreement.  “Kenzie, when you’re done with showing Natalie the video, can you talk us through what you’re doing?  In the interest of being careful, I’d like to make sure we’re not making any missteps when it comes to this… what is it we’re doing, Victoria?  Shutting the door so Teacher can’t?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“I’ll show you in a sec,” Kenzie said.

“Let’s make sure we have a good game plan,” he said.  “And… Sveta, you and I stand at different sides on this, but we can balance each other out.  We each justify where we’re coming from, that keeps us level.”

She remained silent.

“I get where you’re coming from,” he said.  “Your past experiences-”

She shook her head.

“But that was heated, irrational, driven by anger and emotion.”

“Communication is better,” I added.

“Speaking of staying level, or of balance,” Sveta said the words slowly, almost dangerously, in a way that made me unsure if the words themselves were dangerous, or if she was implying threat.  “Are you going to release Tristan?”

“No,” Byron said.  “Not like this.”

Sveta pursed her lips.

“We took measures to ensure neither of us could go too far.  Tristan isn’t a stupid guy, Sveta.  Trust in that.”

“Let’s focus on helping Ashley and Rain,” I jumped in, before an argument could start.

“Okay!” Kenzie said, clapping her hands together.  “My time to shine.”

Sveta walked over, her gait less even than usual, before stiffly placing a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder.

“So, based on what my scanner is picking up -I built one into my phone’s camera to read any computer’s data on the sly- these gates cross dimensions, and they have to see where they’re going.  That’s where I come in.  Because machines see with… anyone?”

“Cameras,” Byron said.  His eyes weren’t on Kenzie, but on the video footage of the fight.  Natalie crouched by the table, watching.  She glanced at me over one shoulder.

“Cameras!  Well, there are other ways for machines to see, and this is closer to feeling than to seeing, but I won’t get bogged down.  It’s close enough, and it’s not that different from what I was experimenting with, when I was making a camera that might see Byron when Tristan is out, or vice-versus.”

“Versa.”

“Versa!  Yes.  So!  A couple of ways I can do this.  To use an analogy, I could take the camera’s flash and crank it to always-on.  Other gates trying to look in would see an overexposed image and they wouldn’t have a clear picture.”

“Would the prison notice?” I asked.

“Flickering cameras and lights, maybe.  Hair standing on end if you’re in the right place for long enough.”

“And would it be traceable to the source?  To us?”

“After a little while.  But Goddess only needs a little while to do her thing, right?  So we could turn ours off just long enough to let her in and let her out, while not letting the other ones start up.  That would leave the exit portal intact, which would be best for her.”

“I don’t like that it could draw attention.  What other options are there?”

“Um.  The way these gates work, they warm up and map out the surrounding area.  It’s a slow boil and it takes time, and I think they use multiple cameras to get a clearer picture.  Then they flash, pulsing, to make sure there isn’t anything new in the area, like a person walking through the space at that time.  Because that would skew the signal, I think.  That part of it is a kind of mapping program, but it’s instantaneous or spontaneous.”

“Can this camera be one of the multiple cameras?” I asked.  “Giving the other ones wrong info?”

“It could.  I think they could decipher that this one is the culprit and block it out, especially if they’re already warmed up with their mapping done.  And you asked about tracing the signal – I think that would be a pretty big red alert for them, with a huge ‘we are here’ sign above us.”

“That’s a no, then.”

“It’s good that you’re thinking along those lines, though!” Kenzie said, like an instructor applauding her student for trying.  “And I don’t blame you for not thinking of what I’m thinking of, because the answer is more abstract and it’s harder to make an analogy for.  The best analogy I can think of is… our camera flash is white light and white light is centered, but if we tint the light from one camera’s flash blue and green, which is up, then any other cameras are going to adjust more red because the image is skewed, which slants everything down.

“What does that mean?” Sveta asked.

“It means everything looks right for them until they try to make their electro-gate, it goes zap, and it tries to put a gate down, only it puts it in the ground.  And it’s subtle enough it won’t make people’s hair stand up or make cameras flicker.”

“And the regular portal that lets them walk in?” I asked.

“Well, that’s sort of the thing.  Because it’s not light, it’s dimensions, so it would still skew with the signal and block it off.  So that might tip people off if they try to use it.”

“Do they?” I asked.

“Um.  Not often.  From surveillance, it’s usually when work ends or when new prisoners come in, and nobody’s acting like they’re bringing anyone in.  No prep, no prepared apartments.  I think we’re clear.”

“Surprises happen,” I murmured.

Kenzie nodded, very enthusiastically.

“That’s good, though.  It’s a shame we can’t keep the front door open just to make sure that everything doesn’t go to hell the moment one employee tries to leave because they have an upset stomach, then close it later, if we have to.”

“Maybe we could?” Kenzie asked.  She made a bit of a face, scrunching everything up.

“You don’t sound sure,” Byron said.

“If I situated our blue-green light right, maybe we could put it far enough away that the, um, the front door wouldn’t close.  Except I’m making an educated guess at that point.”

“And if we need to close the front door, we take the blue-green dimensional light this gate is making and move it closer?”

“Turn it off, cool down for a few minutes, then turn it back on, situated closer.  Yeah.”

“Are those few minutes long enough for them to do something?”

She scrunched up her face again, shrugging slightly.

“We should contact Goddess,” Sveta said.  “Let her know what we’re doing.”

“And talk to the other teams?” I suggested.  “The Major Malfunctions wanted to know, and we could use help.”

“Chris wanted to keep things discrete,” Byron said.  “Each group as a cell.  We share info and maintain contact in a limited way.”

“She’s our network hub, she can lead,” Kenzie said.

“We don’t have a way of getting in touch with her.”

“We have a way of getting in touch with Chris, and Chris is with her,” Sveta said.

“I’ll call him!” Kenzie said.

“Don’t- just…” Byron started.  He trailed off, looking to me for help.

I wasn’t sure what to give him.  I was aware of Sveta’s stare.

“…I’m going to step outside,” he said.

“Can I talk to you?  I’d really appreciate your perspective on things,” Natalie said.

Sveta’s eyes bored into me.

But just as he couldn’t really argue for a reason to not call Goddess, we couldn’t give a reason for him not to step outside.  Not without fights breaking out, one way or another.

The phone rang.  Natalie hurried to get her coat on, flipping up her hood, before following Byron outside.

“Who is this?”a strange voice asked, voice amplified by the speakers.

“It’s Breakthrough,” Kenzie said.  “Is Chris there?”

“He is,” the voice came through.  It was male.  “He’s not human right now.  He gave me the phone.”

“Show us?” Kenzie asked.

“I’ll take a video?”

“Please.”

There was a pause.  Then Kenzie brought up a video on the wall.  It was an image taken from the ground, looking up.  A tall figure, feathered, looked like a vulture might look if it had been rolled over with a truck.  The neck twisted around and bent backward, the head lolling back and hanging with curved beak extending down, one yellow eye staring.  Along the inside of arms, black eyes that were nearly invisible in the black and gray plumage blinked.  It moved its head, raising one arm with taloned fingers at the end, and gestured in the affirmative, blinking slowly.

“He’s scratching something on the ground.  He… didn’t give you his number?”

Kenzie snorted.  “We’re in the middle of something big.  We wanted to talk strategy.  Can you get her on the line?”

“She’s close.  Let me get her, and I’ll put you guys on speaker.”

There was a moment’s pause, the only sounds in the room being the sound of the rain outside, a torrent of water flowing from a gutter that was ajar, and the noises on the other side.  As wrong as everything felt, my little betrayals of Sveta, my complicating things when they could be so simple, the idea of having Goddess decide on a course of action was awfully tempting.

I could hear the noise of Goddess arriving, with a rush of air, a rustling of the phone.

“Breakthrough.”

“We were raided by Teacher when we checked on one of his pawns.  She’s the prison pharmacist, and she has laced drugs or something like it.  She made it back to the prison.”

“Disappointing.  What happened?”

“It was what you described.  A whole army.  Not exactly marksmen, and not quite as coordinated as you described, but… it was a lot, very suddenly, and we had rookies to protect.  We did come away with some stuff we can use and a lot of thoughts.”

In the background, Natalie stepped back inside.

“There weren’t marksmen or coordinated strikes because his focus was and is on me.  Even now, those assholes move against us.  I’ve tapped other resources.  What thoughts or things that we can use do you have?”

“Antares thinks we should lock off the prison,” Kenzie volunteered.

Why?”

“Pre-emptively,” I answered Goddess.  “If we do it, then teacher can’t, and the people running the prison might not try to do it themselves.  Why try to seal the door shut if it’s already sealed?”

“And we could still get you in,” Kenzie said, all cheer and enthusiasm.

“This is good.”

I glanced back at Natalie.  She had a very serious look on her face.

“It goes a step further,” I said.  “Teacher’s a tricky guy because of his criminal history.  He went from being a near complete unknown to being a top-tier player to getting arrested.  It means that his records and the records I had in my files went from barren to high-tier confidential.”

“You looked at his files?”

“After he first came up in relation to Earth Cheit.  There wasn’t much.  But,” I stressed the word ‘but’.  “There was some stuff on his thralls.  Based on what we’re seeing and what the PRT noted about them just in case they had to worry about infiltration in their own ranks, I think we can come up with strategies.”

“This is good.  Explain for me.”

“His degree of control comes from his subjects having less volition.  Less ability to make their own decisions, react quickly, problem solve.  I was reminded when I saw some of them outside the pharmacist’s house.  They were practically zombies…”

Within the prison, a red-haired correctional officer with a receding hairline sat with his share of monitors in view.  The monitors showed several camera feeds each.

“Sending low-risk inmates to dinner in fifteen,” a man at the center of the room said.  “Kitchens will have meals going out to high-risk buildings in twenty-five, once the cafeteria doors are shut.  Start-shift ready?”

“Lagging in change.”

“Tell them to get a move on.  I want more bodies on the ground.  Exit-shift?”

“They’re at posts.”

“Meds?”

“Coming out of the pharmacy.  Betty and her escort.  They’ll make it to the caf and back with time to spare.”

“Red, remind us of any incidents today.”

“Johnny in building C, room four ate his own hands for bio-material.  He’s locked up and in quarantine.  Supposed low-risk inmate Screwdriver attacked her roommate this morning.  Screwdriver is off-site and staying that way for the day, her roommate Gosling is recovering from surgery.  Damsel One and Damsel Two are being quiet- mostly keeping to the internet.  No sign of agitation, but we’re watching closely after a Damsel Three allegedly appeared on television twenty-four hours ago.”

“If only we got television here,” one correctional officer said.

“If you did, you wouldn’t watch the screens,” the superior said.  “Stay the course, people.  I want tonight to be quiet.”

As the superior walked around the room, checking on things, including screens with low-res images of various icons moving across a map, the officer with the receding hairline saw words on his screen.

Radio silence from here on out.  Avoid phones.
Phones and computers are monitored.
-Teacher

He looked around, making sure the coast was clear.

Communicate all points to others.  Nod if understood.

The officer looked over his shoulder at the camera.  He nodded.

Bomb anklets must be deactivated ASAP.
Prisoner population must be preserved.

He glanced back, then nodded slightly once again.

The screen went clear.

My heart pounded in my chest as I watched him lean over to the correctional officer next to him, whispering in her ear.

Goddess had said that her danger sense wasn’t flaring from this, and it was apparently nuanced enough to tell her if this was a horribly bad idea.  We were good to go, at least in the initial stages of this juncture.

“…gotta run to the washroom,” the officer said.

Now?” the supervisor asked.  “Thirteen minutes until we serve them their third square.”

“I won’t be long.”

“Aaron, take the console from Nick.”

Someone else took over.  Our officer strode from the room, using his keycard to get through the door and to the hallway.

Teacher’s influence turned them more and more into zombies as he asserted more control, but there was no fine mind control.  They weren’t puppets, and they had to be told what to do.

The lack of volition and the weaker problem solving meant they were more gullible.

“Should I message someone else?” Kenzie asked.

“Let’s not test our luck,” I murmured.

The guard headed straight to a guard who was at one T-shaped intersection of hallways.  He leaned close to say something.  On Kenzie’s projected image, lines traced his lips and mouth movements.  A line of gibberish appeared, then was deleted.

“Couldn’t read his lips.  The program might work after a few tries with the right camera angles,” Kenzie said.

“Three factions have the power to win, lose, or decide the course of this game,” I said, to Sveta.  “Us, Teacher, and the prison.  There are others- the prisoners notably among them.”

“They can’t win or lose.  They’re just-”

“Part of this.  Except for a select few, like Precipice, Swansong, Monokeros, and Crystalclear.”

“Crystalclear is onboard,” Byron said.  he was at his laptop, hunched over it.  “Foresight just emailed me.  They’re ready when we are.”

“And the teams we put on people related to the prison and around the prison are on standby,” I said.  Kenzie’s arm pointed up and waved around, less focused on the specific target than it was indicating a series of overlapping maps.  The teams were represented by icons.  All of the ones who’d been planted in nearby areas of the Megalopolis were now stationed within a few blocks of the first of the two portals.

We’d identified our correctional officer because he knew the pharmacist well enough to be one of the first people she’d communicated with once through the portal.  Now, through him and the course he traveled, with information backed up from our series of ‘dominoes’, people we’d already noted as likely Teacher-compromised, because of their contact with those confirmed as compromised, we were able to confirm our suspicions on most counts.  Each person was marked with a ‘T’ in a silvery-blue circle over their heads.

“Phones?” I asked.

“Still blocked.  Only a few people have noticed but they’re treating it like it’s an ordinary thing,” Kenzie said.  “None of them are our targets.”

Byron fidgeted.  Natalie was beside him, and she looked even more nervous.

I was nervous, and I couldn’t even imagine how they felt.

Unspoken in this equation was Goddess.  We were working on the Teacher issue, and we were all on the same page with it.  When Goddess stepped in…

I wasn’t even sure.

“Things are going to get messy soon,” Kenzie said.

My head turned.

On the screen, it was Ashley on one side, and Rain on the other.  She was telling them, so they could be ready.

“We’ll do what little we can to keep the peace,” Rain said.

“Or if it comes to it, we take out the people who insist on taking advantage of any lack of peace,” Ashley said.

The officer was walking briskly toward a stairwell, taking them two at a time on his way up to the top floor of the admin building.

“Is Foresight ready?”

“I think so,” Byron said.

The prison had administration like any business did, though the ranks sounded like military ones, they were closer to being a business in reality.  The warden was like the C.E.O., the deputy warden like the vice president, and in this case, the assistant warden was their equivalent to their chief financial officer, with some added responsibilities.

Our red-haired correctional officer with the receding hairline and the worry lines across his forehead walked past the assistant warden’s office, where the man within was doing paperwork, glancing up for only a moment.  He went straight to the deputy warden’s office, knocking on her open door.

Stop there, come on.  Come on.

He held a finger to his mouth, then indicated the office next door.  Not the office of the assistant warden, but of the warden himself.

My heart sank a bit at that.  It couldn’t be easy.

The heavyset deputy and officer both headed into the warden’s office.

The officer said something we couldn’t make out, his face not at an angle where the camera could see his lips.

“That makes no sense at all,” the warden said.  “You left your post for this?”

“I’m doing as instructed.”

“Are you sure you saw this?  Your eyes or imagination weren’t playing tricks on you?”

“No.”

I’m letting Foresight know now,” Byron whispered, so as not to hamper our eavesdropping too much.  I gave him a nod of confirmation.

“What did it say, explicitly?”

“To not trust phones, to make sure the bombs were disabled.”

“We could abort,” the deputy murmured the words to the warden.  The camera did catch her lips, providing sharp text to clarify the muddy ‘could’ and ‘abort’, which the crummy microphone on the security camera didn’t pick up.

“The anklets?”

“Hold off,” the warden said.

Okay, not the biggest surprise in the world.  Both warden and deputy warden were Teacher’s.  Being Teacher’s, they were invested in what he was invested in.  And Teacher, as far as we could figure, had every interest in using Cheit, his thralls, and his manipulation of the prison to capture Goddess and turn the entire prison into a barrel of fish he could then repeatedly shoot.  A large number of high-priority targets with powers, with nobody able to interrupt or gainsay him.

There were situations where the ankle bombs factored in, ones where they eliminated target individuals or tried to get control of a failing situation with threats, but it made next to no sense for them to simply wipe prisoners out en masse, even now that things were sliding into chaos.  I’d observed that there were three critical teams here.  Two of them didn’t want to see prisoners blow up – Teacher’s and ours.

As for the third, on another camera, the assistant warden was picking up his phone.  Foresight was on the other end, and they would be explaining their situation.  They had two people in the prison.  If our alliance with them counted, they had four total.  Hopefully they would be convincing, because as the third person in the hierarchy of the prison, the assistant warden was number three- a man with a nice suit and tie, tousled hair, and eyelashes and eyebrows so thin that it looked like he had none at all.

Foresight would be outlining the situation and explaining priorities to him.

And Breakthrough would be dealing with the leaders of the thralls.

“This isn’t right,” the head warden said.  He turned to his computer, circling the desk to get to it.

Kenzie hit a key.

Nothing happened.

She smashed the keyboard with her fist.

Again, nothing happened.

“Umm.”

The lights went out in the building.  After a moment’s delay, red lights in the ceiling came on.

“Time delay,” Kenzie said.  “He didn’t make it past the login screen.  We’re clear.”

In his office, the assistant warden was on the phone.  Going by the script, Foresight should be telling him to pretend like the phone wasn’t working.  In the tension of the moment, he took it a step too far, banging the phone against his desk.  Everyone in the room winced.

On the cameras, a world of prison administration under stark red emergency lighting, we could see the deputy, head warden, and the correctional officer all leaving.  The officer broke from the group to check on the assistant warden, who was in his office, phone on his desk.

A shake of the head and of the phone confirmed suspicions.

“Stay, Toby,” the head warden instructed, leaning past the officer.  “Watch the office and be ready if we get power again.”

Toby the assistant warden hesitated.  Was he weighing his trust for Foresight against his trust for coworkers?

He stayed.  The moment his two seniors were gone with the officer, he had the phone to his ear, listening.

“If they get near a computer, black them out,” I said.  Needlessly, we’d already established the plan.  It made me feel better to spell it out.

“On it.”

It was a situation defined by chaos, and we had some modicum of control.  Teacher had an army at his disposal, it seemed, but that army had been paid for with his power, and that power had its price.

He would make his play, but we had our own.  It was a question of keeping an eye out and timing everything right.  I’d thought of Teacher like a tinker, his human resources simply parts of a broader system he’d designed.  Tinkers were most dangerous when they could anticipate their threats, and they were least dangerous when surprised.

We would strive to surprise.

“Assistant warden’s cleared by Foresight.  We can tell him everything?” Byron asked.

I nodded.

“So far so good,” Sveta whispered.

I didn’t want to jinx it by agreeing, but the two of us were on shaky ground.

“Yeah,” I responded.  “Except-”

“Except?” Byron asked.

Goddess.  She hadn’t made her move.  There was a point she was supposed to enter the prison and take her prisoners.  It was a big reason for why Byron, Natalie and I were so tense.

The moment that happened, everything else was up in the air.

My hope was that by having Goddess there, we could seal her in and scramble the signal.  We had people on the inside we could reach out to, but my real hope was that her power would be of the wide-reaching sort that didn’t reach through dimensions.  If we could cut off the flow and close the doors… maybe this alleged influence would slip away.  Breakthrough would be free.

Dinner was being canceled relatively quietly.  Relatively because the prisoners were complaining, balking.  They wanted their grub.  But Foresight had the assistant warden in their corner, and he’d made the calls necessary.

“Computer screens at one end of the prison are flickering,” Kenzie reported.  She hit buttons.  The super-low-res copies of the security screens in question were blown up large on one wall.  They showed what had to be at least third-hand video feeds.  Computer screens caught on one security camera above them, viewed through another daisy chain of security apparatuses, and then displayed on our wall.

Sure enough, one computer monitor blacked out, fritzed, and then went normal.  A moment later, an entire row flickered, one by one, left to right.

“He’s sending his army in.  They know something’s wrong,” Kenzie remarked.

“We don’t have eyes on them?”

She shook her head.  “I think… they’re out on the outskirts of the prison.”

“Alright,” I said.

We didn’t have Goddess in our net.  As wrong as that felt…

I glanced over at Byron.  He met my eyes.

“Shut the door,” I said.  “He’s got just enough of an army in there to lose all plausible deniability.”

“Shutting the door,  blue-green tint.  We’ll see how fast his hornet’s nest of underlings figure out what we did.”

Door shut.  Ankle-bombs disabled for now and with nobody really in a position to want to use them, provided things stayed peaceful.  Teacher’s forces were caught with their pants down and no communication or way back to their leadership.  Hero teams were on the periphery, with eyes on the suspicious, primed to join in if they needed to quell riots.

This didn’t feel over.

The door opened, and my first thought was Cryptid.  Our messenger.

It wasn’t him.  Everyone in the room stood up a little straighter.  Natalie backed up a step.

Goddess was as dry as a bone as she stepped into our headquarters.  Amy was a step behind her, looking less confident than I’d seen her yet, before or after everything.

“I’ve been told it’s done.  Everything’s ready for my arrival?”

“Yeah,” Byron said.  “I guess it is.”

“You’ll all come to the prison, then,” she said.  “You.  You have no powers?”

“N-no,” Natalie stuttered.

“You’ll come as well.  Witness.

“But-”

“It’s not a fucking request.  Don’t try my patience.”

“Okay,” Natalie said, not sounding happy about it.

“Why are we going?” I asked.  I met Amy’s eyes.  She looked away.

“Because I was told most of you were there to talk to me, and most isn’t good enough.  You’ll all stay with me until I’m sure I don’t need to be concerned about any of you.”

“I don’t think you need to worry anymore,” Byron said.  He sighed.

He switched to Tristan, without a second thought.

I could see Tristan’s expression change as he realized he was free.  It started somewhere in the neighborhood of anger, and it became something closer to fury.

It froze and became momentary confusion as Goddess set her hand on his shoulder.  Coming back to reality.

“Save that anger for our enemies,” she said.  “We have plenty of them waiting for us.”

There was no argument.

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