Gleaming – 9.12

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“Antares,” Goddess said.

I felt a little bit of fear and awe as I stopped re-wrapping my bandage and turned to face her.

“Good work,” she said.  “You’re mercurial, but you can be pretty fucking useful.  If you wanted it, I could bring you to my world, and give you a lesser country.”

“A country, wow,” Rain said, beside me.

“I don’t think I’m mercurial,” I said, frowning a bit.  “And I’m grateful for the offer but… I’m a city girl.  I’d rather help the Megalopolis, and if it comes down to it, make sure people here support you too.”

“It wouldn’t work that way.  Something’s bothering me.  So far you and your team have been on top of things.  Tell me something about the current attack.”

“We didn’t get all of them.  There are two more to deal with.  Blindside- you can’t look at them.  Can’t aim at them.”

“They would be the reason my danger sense is limited.”

“Probably.  Stymied?”

“Interfered with.  I can’t extend it past a certain range.  It’s worse since I’ve moved in this direction.” A motion of her arm indicated the direction traveled.

“That’s the access tunnels, isn’t it?” Byron asked.

Our teammates.  Teacher had sent Blindside straight there.

“We need to go,” I said.

“Stay,” Goddess said, her voice firm.

My jaw clenched.  I nodded.  “Sorry.”

“Tell me about the other,” she said.  “Two of Teacher’s powered got through?”

“At least.  The other was Kingdom Come.  He detonates himself into a shower of blood and meat.  Anyone who comes into contact with it is his puppet.  He reforms after.”

“I think I’ve met him, or one of his bloodstained puppets.  They wouldn’t align to my purposes.  One of Teacher’s many counters to me.”

“He’s a mercenary.  It’s possible that he might accept your offer of a country.”

“He sounds religious,” Rain said.  “Name like that.”

“Could be,” I said.  “We should go.  If Blindside is in the access tunnels-”

“You’ll stay for a few minutes.  I may need you for something else,” Goddess told us.

“The access tunnels are the communication outlet to the outside world.  They may also be the override to the bomb anklets.  This is important.”

“My danger sense, blind as it is, tells me we have other priorities.  If your teammates were in danger, I think I would feel it.  Stay.

We had done more than our share of the work when it came to taking down Lung and the Pharmacist, and we were, putting it lightly, exhausted.  I didn’t like staying, but I didn’t mind the chance to recuperate.  I felt like I’d been wrung out, then baked too long over an open fire.  I hadn’t even properly used my muscles, and I felt completely and utterly drained.

Goddess walked over to discuss things with Lung, and others were organizing into battle lines and squads, breaking away to go wrangle remaining guards and staff.  I saw Natalie among the wrangled.

I hesitated a moment, wondering if I’d do more harm than good, then broke away from Rain and Byron.  If I was close enough for Goddess to find, then that had to be good enough.  But I couldn’t leave Natalie.

“I’ll be right back.  Get my attention if there’s trouble.”

“Sure,” Byron said.

A reality with parahumans was that most who triggered were young – people as young as twelve could trigger, with the upper range being thirty.  There was a possibility for a few years of leeway, trending more toward the rare parahuman being younger than a parahuman being older.

The guys in this particular prison clique were young.  It was shocking to see people Rain and Chris’ ages.

“Don’t hurt or bother them,” I told the prisoners, my eye stopping on Natalie for a meaningful moment, trying to communicate something to her.  That I was on her side.  That if she had anything to say, now was the time to say it.

She said nothing.  Maybe to avoid drawing attention to herself.

And the prisoners, for their part, were equally silent.  I felt put on the spot, and I felt so drained physically, mentally, and emotionally that I could have been bowled over by hard words.  Tension kept me upright.

I hadn’t gotten a response, so I elaborated.  “Goddess may need them as bargaining chips, or to get access to parts of the prison.  If you screw that up, touch them, or scare them and get them panicking instead of thinking rationally, then it screws us all up.”

Believe me, I put my heart into the mental command.  Buy this, even though I don’t sound nearly as authoritative as I might want.  Don’t make me use my aura in this volatile a place.

“I don’t see why you get to tell us what to do,” a boy said.  He had the sharp chin, widow’s peak with a curl of hair at the forehead, and natural bad-boy glare of a classic kid’s show villain, but he had to be my age.

He also, judging by the group’s dynamic, had a few people under his wing.  Underlings.  He was the leader of this sub-clique.

“Do you really want to test me and find out?” I asked.  I sounded more steely now.  A bit more of my old self.

He stared me down, then dropped his eyes to my arm.  I wasn’t sure if he was seeing an injury, a clue that I wasn’t invincible, until he gestured.

“That symbol on your arm.”

Worked into the metal at my shoulder was a golden circle inside another circle, centered at about the midpoint between bicep and shoulder.  The five parallel spikes stabbed up from it.

“Gold Morning,” I said.

“Then you were there.  That’s the thing people put on their sleeves, if they were there or if they played a part.”

“Some don’t put anything on their sleeves, but they were there.  Lung, Goddess,” I said.  “Why?”

“You put it there for a reason, right?”

“Everyone has their reasons for wearing the armbands,” I said.  I worried I sounded defensive.  Again, I asked, “Why?”

“I’m not going to test you or test her,” he said.  “Out of respect for that.”

There were a few nods around his group.  One or two looked unsure, like the stupider, less ‘together’ members of the group weren’t sure if it was for real.

I wasn’t sure I believed it was for real.

“Good man,” I said, deciding there was no way to hammer it out.  I met Natalie’s eyes momentarily before turning away.

Nothing from her in the way of signals.  Damn it.

I went back to Rain and Byron, walking past a group that was preparing for the possibility of a frontal assault by Teacher.  Others were preparing to deal with the maximum security individuals who had apparently been given the Pharmacist’s drugs.  An attack from within, an attack from the outside, and then there was Teacher, who had the ability to hit us from oblique angles.

I wanted to ask Kenzie for a status report, but that meant approaching Monokeros.  I wanted to ask the boys, but they were talking to Coalbelcher.

I checked my phone three times in the course of a single minute, even though I knew that all communications were jammed.  It was a force of habit, a creeping anxiety as we went longer and longer without any input from the other half of Breakthrough.

I had a lot of anxieties in this moment.  The small-scale victory with Lung and the Pharmacist only went so far.

Byron and Rain exchanged a few muttered words as they walked over from where Coalbelcher was.

“You apparently made an impression,” Byron said.

I frowned.  “With Coalbelcher?”

“He said you said you’d get him out.  I thought we had a problem when he called us over, but he’s changed his tune.  Us being right about the danger of the cafeteria helped,” Rain said.

“I didn’t say I’d get him out.  But I let him believe it.  It could have backfired, come down on your head, if he didn’t think I at least tried, if this whole thing wrapped up, and then he ended up frustrated, with only you as a target.”

“It worked out,” Rain said, almost like he was assuring me.  Then, quieter, he said, “One of the few things that has.”

I followed their line of sight as they both turned back to look at someone.  Seir in his civilian clothes, mask off.  The man was of a similar type to Coalbelcher, but without the long stubble on his face sticking in every direction.  His hair was longer with some gray already in it, the circles under his eyes were black for reasons other than the coal-spit facepaint.  The tattoos gave him away.

“Seir,” I observed.

“He’s not a fan of us,” Byron said.  “We’re all on the same side, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to get back at us.”

“At me,” Rain said.  “I don’t think it’s an immediate problem, but if we have any choice in where we go, we should go wherever he isn’t.”

“Agreed,” I said, as I looked over at Lookout and Monokeros.  They were with another group, Lookout hanging a half-step back while Monokeros talked with some scary-looking women.  Monokeros was currently listening, as another woman did all of the talking.  The talker was pretty where her skin was intact, but had what looked scars from a bad burn extending all the way down her neck.  Another woman stood beside her, top already removed, torn up into shreds, and the shreds plaited into a cord.  The cord was being knotted into a hangman’s noose.

The other two had noticed I was looking.

“What about her?” I asked.  “Why did you not want me to approach Lookout?”

“Lookout came on a little strong with the Lady in Blue,” Rain said.  “It made her suspicious.  She’s suspicious of you too, you know, but she knows she can beat you.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Monokeros though?”

“If you’ve got a canary you’re worried about and a cat that’s restless, and you’re really good at managing your animals, which we know she is, maybe you give the canary a cat babysitter,” Rain suggested.

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” I said.

“It doesn’t make us feel that much better,” Rain said.  “But we can trust that the Lady in Blue knows what she’s doing, we know from what Swansong says that Monokeros is really messed up and touchy, and we don’t disturb that scene while it’s peaceful.”

I frowned.  Monokeros was smiling now.  I was creeped out by something in how she presented herself, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of something ugly in her peeking out, the contrast in her charmer attitude with the tattoos like the triangle at her forehead, making me think of- of certain individuals, or if it was because I knew that she’d gone full ritual killer, killing heroes, kids.  Hopeful young Vistas, Shielders, and Finales.  Kids who had faced the worst days of their lives and came out the other end wanting to help people.

“She was corporate, like Tristan and me,” Byron said.  “Goldenrod.”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged.

Byron went on.  “Started her own team, talked it up, but it never seemed to get off the ground.  Too many kids went missing, but they still didn’t zero in on her.  The masks, the secret identities, they make it so the kids cover up her tracks for her, making it harder to draw the connection.”

“Families too,” Rain said.  “Uhm, Jessica said something about this to me at one point.  That people with powers tend to have worse relationships with their family.”

“If they had good support systems, they’d be less likely to trigger,” I said.

“Yeah,” Byron said.  “Exactly.  They didn’t catch her until the second kid who left a message with people letting them know she was interviewing with a team.  They brought a different thinker for the interview with her, second time around.  The first one was an inquisitor type, sensed wrongs, guilt, saw memories that haunted people, used them or summoned them.”

“Summoned,” I said.  “And she had nothing to summon.”

“Ah, you know the story then.  I was wondering if it was just the talk shared between the corporate teams,” Byron said.

“No.  It was the talk in general.  Among capes, at least.”

A horror story among capes.

Byron nodded.

Monokeros smiled.  It was the kind of smile that was practiced, then reused so many times it looked natural.  A model’s smile.  The smile of a hero who lived off of their brand, like the corporate and sponsored heroes, and maybe the small family teams with an up-and-coming generation of youths.

“She reminds me of- of someone,” Byron said.  “Not all the time, but there-”

A crash interrupted him, and with that crash, a dozen powers nearby flared into effect.  I was already in the air, flying up to where I could activate the Wretch without annihilating two of my teammates.

It was Goddess.  With her power, she was tearing a building to the ground.

Once people realized it was her, they relaxed.  I took their cue, floating back down to the ground and my two teammates.

“What’s she doing?” Byron murmured.

With the disorientation of the fight and the change in the landscape around us, it took me a second to place where we were, and what that building might’ve been.  It was one of the prison buildings, but not an apartment, and given the proximity to the yard, equal access from both sides…

“The cafeteria.  With all of the anti-Goddess meds in it,” Rain said.  “That’s a bit of a relief.  Simplifies things.”

I nodded, silent.

Better.

Goddess turned her head around until she found our group.  She beckoned.

As glad as I was to stay put, I was glad to be moving.  We had an objective.

While Rain and Byron walked, me floating just ahead of the pair, Goddess turned, beckoning to others.  To Lookout and Monokeros.  Then to Damsel, to Ashley’s ‘sister’.

I looked back for Natalie, and saw her in the company of the other staff that had been taken into custody.  It was a dangerous atmosphere, with the guard-prisoner relationship reversed, and a lot of dangerous prisoners around.  Monokeros was of a certain kind of evil, but she wasn’t the only evil person around here.  If one of those people decided to hurt Natalie, would anyone stop them?

“Breakthrough,” Goddess said.  She looked at Damsel, who was approaching.  “In a sense.”

“Most of us,” Lookout said.  Then she leaned over to greet Byron, Rain and me with a, “Hi.”

“You can have a luxury vehicle, and you can get your luxury vehicle with all of the extras,” Damsel said, raising her chin a little, claws moving at her side.  “Both are good.”

“I don’t care,” Goddess said, annoyed.  “My danger sense is telling me something’s coming, and it’s not the kind of danger I have a lot of experience with.  Destroying the drugs didn’t help.  I think Teacher is doing something, and you have the most information about him and what he’s doing.  Solve it.”

“We need more information than that,” I said.  “What is your danger sense telling you?  How does it function?”

“My power is a feeling,” she said.  “It can come from a direction.  It tastes of intent.  It has flavors depending on the kind of danger.  This tastes hollow, and it feels big.  There’s no direction to it.  The opposite, the lack of direction is the danger.”

“Have you felt anything like this before?” I asked.

“I felt something roughly this big once.  It was when the world was ending.  The golden man.”

I drew in a deep breath, looking at the others.  They seemed about as alarmed by that as I was.

“You said it’s big.  World ending… but this is a small world.  One penal colony,” Rain suggested.

“When I was pulled into a battlefield, that world was small too, Precipice.  The scale is similar.”

“Broken trigger?” Byron suggested.

“The powers that have gone wild?” Goddess asked.  “It could be.  But even that would feel it has direction.  An enemy, or a power source.”

“We’ve heard of incidents where one person became a very large-scale effect.  The kind that would cover this whole colony, and then some,” I said.  “I think the catch is that most precogs and danger sensers can’t see triggers coming, even broken ones.”

Goddess shook her head, but she didn’t offer anything specific that would clarify matters.  I felt my heartbeat accelerate some, just from seeing her this concerned.

“I’ve felt this directionless threat before,” she said.  “It was after I came into my power, before I’d exercised it and learned its limits.  Someone came for me.  A monster, but the bitch looked human.  She sent me to Shin.  To give this feeling a name… it’s inevitability.  A doom through a nearly complete and total lack of options.”

“Inevitable doom, affecting this whole world?” Rain asked.  “Hollow?”

“Hollow, with a bloody aftertaste.  I’ve never felt a hollow doom before,” Goddess said.  “Maybe one of you has.  Figure this out, now.”

“I’m an expert in worlds ending, traps, and being doomed.  Been hearing about it for years, sometimes my whole life,” Rain said.  “Has it been inching closer all night?”

“I stopped looking when the purple fire blinded me, there was nothing before then.  I started looking after, and it was there.  Are there more questions?  If you can’t give me an answer, I’ll ask others.”

There was a pause.  We shook our heads.

Goddess used her telekinesis to lift herself off the ground, flying past the mud to another group that was at the admin building.

“No reports on Teacher?” I asked Lookout.

“No, but I’ve been distracted.  Our guys on the far side are just about out of gas.  He’s got guys massed but he’s waiting instead of sending them in.”

“Backup for the big gun?” I asked.

“Except not a gun,” Damsel said.  She moved her hand, one blade extended, the tips of the other folding loosely around it.  She winked at me.  “Guns can be dealt with by bigger guns.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said.

“Could it be an Endbringer?” Rain asked.

“Jesus,” Byron said.  “Don’t even joke.  They’ve been dormant.”

“They can’t be predicted easily with danger sense either,” I said.

“I’m trying to think of things big enough.  It’d be embarrassing to be the kid who grew up in an Endbringer cult who doesn’t think of Endbringers when we’re debating possible apocalypse scenarios.  Seven plagues?  The four horsemen?”

“I like Death,” Damsel said.  “He has style.”

“Back when I was a hometown hero, my- we joked about the Undersiders being the four horsemen.  Guy in black with the skull, girl with the locusts, girl with the howling hellhounds and spiked collar, and the guy who controlled people.”

“You lost me with that last one,” Byron said.  “And I’ve actually read the bible.”

“Depending on interpretations, the guy in white is seen as either Conquest or Famine,” Rain said.

“Oh, like Conquest from the Toronto segment from the Maggie Holt series!” Lookout said, all excitement now that she was back in the conversation.  She took a step forward, and Monokeros reached out, seizing her by the shoulder.

Everyone present reacted in some way to that.  Even Damsel.

“You stay with me, camera girl.  Goddess’ orders,” Monokeros said.  She didn’t look the slightest bit worried that the rest of us were poised like we might use powers or throw a punch, given an excuse.

“Okay,” Lookout said, to Monokeros.  Then she said, “I liked that book, even though a lot of people didn’t.”

“I listened to the audiobook,” Damsel said.

“Yes!  Yes!  That’s great, you’re great, and of course, I’m stating the obvious by saying that-”

“Of course.  Glad to see someone with a brain.”

“We need our brains focused on figuring out what Teacher’s disaster scenario is, not in, uh, asserting the obvious,” I said.

“Two people with brains.  I’m starting to see why she likes you all.”

I kept talking, “I’m glad you guys are developing a friendship, but let’s think.  The sooner we work it out, the sooner we can help our teammates.  That includes Swansong and Tress.”

“It might be famine,” Rain said.

“Famine?” I asked.

“She said it was hollow, and it was something Goddess never experienced or knew.  Inevitable, if he sets it up right.  And it destroys her.  She was probably going after the feeling when she destroyed the food stock… but if we get desperate enough, people are going to dig out the food, contaminated, they’ll ingest the drug, and…”

“And Teacher gets everything he wants,” I said.

“It’s a siege.  Not catapults and walls siege, but a starve the other guy out siege,” Rain said.  “People back at the compound were always taking measures to plan for scenarios like this.”

“There’s nothing but wilderness around us,” Byron said.

“To feed an entire prison?  Indefinitely?  Knowing that you can’t roam too far when the bombs could reactivate at any time?  Maybe, but I don’t think it’s that easy.  I can totally see Teacher picking off people who go hunting with portals and hit squads.”

Okay, I could buy that.  It made sense.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Lookout said.  “I have the keys.  He might have broken down the front door, but so long as I’m lensing the space-map, it’s my door.  Any doors he puts down are going to end up fizzling.”

“It might be your door, but there’s nothing stopping him from dropping a mountain on top of it and then taking his time working out a solution later,” Byron said.

“Like you did with Lung,” Damsel said.  “Clever.”

“That was my brother, actually, but- yes.  Kind of.”

“We need Goddess,” I said.  “And we need to deal with this without getting tied up with the max-sec guys, Kingdom Come, Blindside… I’ll get her.”

How do you defeat someone with world-spanning powers?  You make sure she never gets a chance to fight.

I flew over to where Goddess was talking to Seir.  I saw his expression change as he recognized me.  I ignored it, focusing on Goddess instead.

“We have a guess about what he’s doing,” I said.  “If he keeps us from leaving, there’s no food that isn’t contaminated.  Everyone here starves… or we eat, and we might ingest the drugs that the pharmacist planted.”

I saw something in her eyes.  Alarm.  Bewilderment.

She took over an Earth.  She… did whatever she’d done to take over her cluster, and that can’t have been easy.  Then there was Gold Morning, but… the entire reason she was here and not in her world was because she had been pulled into the fight.  I could one hundred percent understand how she might not have made many calls then.  It could seem like a strange, bad dream, realer than existence in the years before and after, but so hard to parse that the mind turned away from it.

But this might well have been the first time she’d ever come head to head with the fact that she was well and truly outmatched, while she was well and truly in control of her actions, past present and upcoming.

“How does he do it?”

“We don’t know, but you said it yourself, it felt like-”

“No way out.  We evacuate.”

“He has a small army ready on the other side of the door, we, the non-Goddess good guys, have multiple teams there trying to stall Teacher.  The max-sec guys are probably under orders to attack us from the rear, if we try to run for it, and the access tunnel-”

Stop,” she told me.  “Fucking enough.”

“The access tunnel leads to a means to communicate with the outside, and links the prison resources to outside resources.  It gives him a way to tap into the ankle bombs your army is wearing.  My teammates, Goddess!”

“I don’t care!” she retorted.  Her voice was less of a shout as she spoke again, more of a hiss, “We evacuate.  Figure this out.  Yes?”

I was still, my thoughts stuck as I tried to figure out a way to reconcile it.  So many of the options available meant throwing away lives.

Her stare was cold.

She found world leaders and went after them one by one.  She sank ships.  She killed hundreds, even thousands.

The eyes of someone that had killed thousands.

All around me, killers, terrorists, kidnappers and worse were staring at Goddess and me.

“Figure it out,” she said, with more emphasis.

She stared into my eyes.

I was stuck, my thoughts tied in a knot, as I processed the options available to me.  Follow the law.  When the law isn’t available, do what’s right.  When what’s right isn’t clear, ask for help.

The team?  I could manage the team, we’d figure something out.  But that did nothing about the people who were still in various forms of trouble.  We still hadn’t heard from the A-team, down in the access tunnels.  Natalie was still in the custody of Goddess’ squad.  Lookout was still in Monokeros’ grasp.

This was the trap.  All of the puzzle pieces from Teacher’s riddle were coming together in this.  The nonlethal weapons.  The anti-air weapon he’d employed against me, they could well prevent Goddess from taking flight and making a break for it.

And the attacks she’d described- multiple fronts, multiple angles, multiple levels.  We couldn’t ignore the access tunnels and the control of the bombs they promised.  We couldn’t ignore the front door, or our rear, or the issue of basic needs, like needing to eat.

“Give me an answer, Antares,” Goddess said.  “Can you figure this out, or are you going to get in my way?”

“I’ll work on figuring something out,” I said.

She nodded slowly, still staring into my eyes.

“Sorry to be so intense,” I said.

“Good,” she said.  “Which buildings are the maximum security buildings?”

“The short, squat ones at the far north of the complex,” I said.

“He fed his drugs to the people there?”

“They get their food delivered, and the guards make sure they take their pills,” Seir said, behind Goddess.  “I’m borderline.  Max sec if I’ve been anything but good.  So I know.”

Seir was staring at me.  He seemed to be amused that I was facing down Goddess like this and I wasn’t coming out ahead.  That, or he was just enjoying himself, and he looked like an asshole as a separate, distinct thing.

Asshole.

Goddess, for her part, seemed to be focusing on the horizon, where the shape of buildings was only barely visible against the backdrop of sky and distant trees.  Many of the buildings didn’t have lights on.

I could feel her telekinesis like a harsh blast of wind right after a vehicle passed by.  The force in the air was even more pronounced along the course of the blast, lines and fractal images briefly visible as air compressed, moisture condensed, and light bent.

In the distance, one of the buildings toppled.

“That’ll get them moving,” she said.  “Seir, gather everyone you know.  Deal with them, knock down buildings and render this place uninhabitable as you come back from doing that.  We burn our bridges behind us.”

I saw the smile on Seir’s face.  I looked away.

I took off, heading straight up to where I could hopefully get my bearings, and where I wouldn’t have to see a Fallen who reveled in being Fallen being happy with the status quo.  It made it easier to think straight and set my mind to the task at hand.

Below me, Goddess was joined by some of the prison’s heavier hitters.  Not any of the heavy hitters I needed.  Lung was at her left shoulder, his eye glowing a dull red as he glanced up at me.  The scales had mostly receded.

I could remember Dean, in the hospital after Leviathan.  I zig-zagged through the crowd, trying to see people in gloom and slanted lighting.  I was looking for a specific body type, hair type, and face, but the prison coveralls masked physical shapes.

Master-stranger protocols felt so hollow in the now.  The team was compromised, the medicated food was buried under a fallen building, and that food came from Teacher.  I wasn’t sure I trusted it or the master-stranger protocols more than I trusted Goddess.

My zig-zagging journey continued, haunted by the memory of what had laid at the end of my last such journey.  Then, I’d been searching for the one face who might be able to help, and I’d been crushed on so many levels by the failure to find.

In this, I wasn’t even sure the face was an answer.

I spotted the others.  I landed, and in my current state of mind, I forgot how much the heat, the aerial acrobatics, and the earlier fight with the teacher hit squad and the Major Malfunctions had drained me.  I nearly dropped to my knees.  Nothing like my fancy landings of days past.

“What are we doing?” Byron asked.

“She wants to go out the front door, unless she gets another, better answer before she gives the order.  Teacher’s going to be waiting for her.  Byron, you remember the tools her people had.  For dealing with fliers.  Nonlethal weapons, that could capture the fallen.”

“And let Teacher get them under his thumb,” Byron said.  “Shit.  You’re right.”

“We need to get Goddess out unscathed somehow.  From her tone, I think she’s willing to make any sacrifices necessary to save herself.”

“Makes sense,” Damsel said.  “I’d be willing to do the same if I was in her position.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said.  “Not sure about that.”

“So how do we save her skin, ideally without sacrificing ourselves?” Damsel asked.

“You guys need to get to the others,” I said.  “If they haven’t come back yet, there’s a reason.  I’ll catch up.  We get the team together, make sure we’re all on the same page, and then we make our effort to escape.  We lean on-”

I almost said protocols.  It struck me that Monokeros, as dangerous and deluded as she was, could very well know the protocols, know what I meant, despite my efforts to be subtle.

“-We lean on each other,” I said.  “We know who we can trust.”

“Myself and myself,” Damsel said.  She paused.  “And maybe the little one.”

“Woo!”

“Lookout,” Rain said.  “If we un-lens or whatever, is it possible that we could use one of Teacher’s doors to make our exit?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “But just from what my phone says, I’m pretty sure he closed all the doors.”

I saw Rain grimace.

“Talk while you run, but time is short.  Go,” I said.

“And what are you doing?” Byron asked.

“Looking for Coalbelcher,” I said.

Coalbelcher?

“I think we can use him,” I said.  “Do you-”

The ground illuminated as though a spotlight was being directed at it, but the light was neon, the edges of things highlighted and then multiplied.

I looked around, and I saw the source.

The first of the max sec prisoners.  The dangerous ones that needed to be kept away from gen pop.  The ones who Teacher had reached out to personally.

“Go!  Avoid those guys, avoid eerie glowing ground!”

“He went that way!” Rain raised his voice and pointed, as the ground began screaming.  I took to the air, and I could see how the distorted lights were whisking and whirring against one another, like worms in a tangle.  There were shapes like people inside, writ large.

I thought about going after the guy with the shaker effect.  I decided it was too dangerous.  Too easy for me to get bogged down.

Hit like Glory Girl, hold nothing back as the Wretch, judge like the Warrior Monk, problem solve as the Scholar, and don’t lose sight of who you fucking are, because that’s a metric shitton to keep track of, Victoria Dallon.

Rain had given me a direction.

I was being so unfair.  Monstrous, even.  I could remember times when I had been scared, even terrified.  Gold Morning.  Day after day in the hospital.  After Crawler.  The day Amy had triggered, when I’d been the one hurt.

I didn’t have a chance to finish the line of thought.  I found Coalbelcher.

The head of the guy’s side of the prison had his soldiers with him, and they were gathering at the flanks, near the side of the entry building.  Some staff would still be inside, probably behind the shutters, protected by thick walls.

Up until Seir came back, razing the place to the ground so the bridges would be burned and Goddess’ army of prisoners would have no way to go but forward.

I could count them.  Seventy or so parahumans.  The prisoner coveralls designated the security level and the building they belonged to.

It took a moment of hovering before I saw Coalbelcher.  His face-paint was striking enough to make him obvious even in the gloom.

I landed, and he didn’t flinch as I appeared in front of him.  I saw him smirk.

“You’re out of your cell, but you’re only partway out,” I told him.

“I’m just happy to be stretching my legs,” he said, in his godfather-high voice.  “You come to talk to me for a reason?”

“To deal,” I said.  I indicated a direction.  “Not much time.  Hear me out?”

We walked a few paces away.  With the chaos and the max sec prisoners facing down Seir, there was enough volume that people wouldn’t be overhearing without sensitive ears.

Still, I’d have to keep those ears in mind.  I knew Lung was out there, and he was Goddess’ left hand man at the moment.

“What’s the deal?” Coalbelcher asked.

“I did you a favor.  I need something.”

“Something isn’t free.”

“I did you a favor,” I said, my voice tense.

“And that’s only good manners for a newcomer to my block.  I like you, girl.  Don’t make me change my mind.  If you want something-”

The neon images the shaker had created before erupted skyward, a giant of flesh with a sea of snakes at his waist formed from dirt outlined in neon.  Endbringer-sized.

“-You gotta give something.  I’m being pretty generous as is, hearing you out, and in my assuming it’s not coincidence that other people got the Wardens and the bombs all stopped blinking.”

“My teammate.  Our collective effort.”

“Great.  I still want something.  Convince me,” he smiled at me as he said it, meeting my irritation with sickly, black-spittle-between-the-teeth kindness.

“There’s a civilian with the Wardens.  A pretty guy with a forehead curl here-” I gestured to indicate, “-was with them the last I saw.  He led a group of late-teens, early-twenties guys.”

“Flense.”

“Fucking great, that’s not ominous at all.  Flense, then.  Her name is Natalie, she has a lot of inside information and connections.  I need you to do for her what I did for you, in my roundabout way.”

“And?”

“And… you didn’t murder anyone, did you?”

“I had an unpaid ticket,” he said, sarcastic.

“I was going to offer you an exit-”

“We’re all getting an exit, girl.  There’s no more prison, see?”

“With a bit more leeway and a helping hand in staying clear of Teacher’s control.  Because that’s- that’s being brain dead and building ray guns or something for twenty hours a day, until he decides he needs your power.”

“You’re going to help me get free and clear, girl?”

“I was.  But not if you’re a murderer.  Not if you’re a rapist.”

“I wouldn’t be a boss if I was.  I had a rival.  They decided I didn’t get my second chance, came after me hard.  I came after them harder.  They played it up in court, said I went-”

A squealing interrupted him.  The giant with a dress of worms was tearing chicken wire fence out of the ground.  Metal scraped against metal.

“They said I went too hard,” he said.  “Broke the guy’s jaw, which is true, it needed to be wired shut.  I hurt his back, lifetime of pain, bullshit.  I didn’t touch his back.  His arm?  No.  Lung damage?  Nah.”

I didn’t really have any time to spare.  I knew he was probably playing it down.  But if it wasn’t murder, was I really okay excusing that kind of violence?

It wasn’t lawful, right, or good to be the person who decided he got away for this crime.  But if I didn’t do anything, everyone would get away, or everyone would be under Teacher’s control, which was worse than prison.  It was having the mind shackled.

“I’ll check up on things after,” I said.  “If you’re lying, I come after you.”

“I look after this Natalie as long as you look after me,” he said.  “She knows how to get in touch with you?”

“Yeah.  When the phones are back online.”

A monstrous thing to do, I thought, a continuation of my thought from earlier.

I could remember how scared I’d once been.  When things had been worse than I’d ever experienced, when I’d been alone, more or less, or powerless.

Natalie was in that boat.  I was going to lengths to give her the chance to do something, because she was one of only three people I could count on, with the protocols.

Monstrous, to put that on her shoulders, to demand something of her.  But she was a teammate and the only other people we could lean on were a guy who didn’t know the protocols, talented as he was, and a girl who talked to mice.

Monstrous.

“Cryptid’s at the gate,” Lookout said, as I caught up with the group.  The boys were already in the tunnel.

“At the gate?  Near Teacher’s group?”

Lookout nodded.  “Um.  He brought company.”

“My sister,” I said, my voice tight.

“Oh, yeah, her,” Lookout said.  “And Goddess’ missing person.”

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