The tunnel was a concrete tube, stabbing in the direction of the front gate of the prison, bright lights arranged on the sides at roughly eye level, each pair of lights spaced out from the ones before and the ones to come, all contained within protective cages, many of which illuminated the spiderwebs that covered them and the moths that had found their way down. The matching pairs of lights made Rain and Byron cast two half-intact shadows, where they stood a little ways down the tunnel. In the ring of lights that surrounded the short ladder down, I cast a half-dozen. That half-dozen shadows narrowed to two as I approached the boys.
A heavy impact elsewhere in the prison complex shook the ground, and the concrete walls absorbed it. The effect was muted, diffused through the tunnel.
Lookout followed me down, hopping down from the short ladder with a ‘hup’ sound. She was small in the shadows of Monokeros and Damsel, who were right behind her.
“I hope you’re not claustrophobic,” Rain murmured.
I glanced at the walls of the tunnel. It was narrow enough that the lights on the left side were only six feet or so from one another. Because it was a tube, the path was only two feet wide or so, before it became a curved slope that couldn’t really be walked on.
No room to fly or to maneuver if it became a fight. No real ability to throw ourselves to the side if there was trouble. Dropping to a position where we were flat against the floor meant we’d be lying in a row, because the sloped floor would just see us rolling down toward the path at the center. No cover to be had.
If anything, the open space extending both front and back was more… concerning than the unyielding concrete and dense earth to either side, above, and below us.
There was another impact. Bugs fled cracks in the walls, tracing crazy paths in their search for hiding places that weren’t anywhere to be found.
“How are we doing this?” Byron asked.
“I have some experience in leadership, if you guys need some direction,” Damsel said, from the back.
“I-” I started, pausing to double-check myself. “I know the team better. I’ll give some direction, if that’s okay? I have ideas.”
I saw her shrug. Her gaze was cool, but her mannerisms nervous as she shifted her weight to her other foot, claw hands twitching.
“Byron,” I said, even as my thoughts were trying to judge that nervousness in Damsel. “If it’s okay, we could use Tristan right about now.”
“Sure. Why?” Byron asked.
“He can give us cover, and I know Blindside carries a gun.”
Byron nodded. He blurred.
“I could lead if you wanted,” Tristan said. “I led Reach for a while.”
“If it’s okay… given what we talked about just outside the headquarters, I’ll take point.”
“Because I said I didn’t trust myself.”
“Sure,” I said. I hadn’t wanted to just volunteer that, with so many listening in.
“Do you trust yourself?” he asked.
I hesitated. Then I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Ahem,” Damsel cleared her throat. She raised a hand, the claw-tips scraping the concrete wall. “I trust myself.”
“Uh,” I said. As Glory Girl and as a member of the Patrol, I’d occasionally run into situations like this, when dealing with people who were wholly unreasonable or hampered in their reasoning. They never got any easier to deal with. “…I’m mostly trying to aim for a happy middle ground between self-trust, being durable enough to be close to the front where we can see what’s going on, and knowing the members of the team. Even if we accept you’re confident, you can’t take a bullet.”
“Mmm. I suppose.”
“Tristan, can you make us shields? One for each of us? More like the shields SWAT teams and Patrol teams have than anything else.”
“It’ll be heavy.”
“Worst case scenario, it breaks in my hands.”
I nodded, thinking. “Damsel- is it okay if I call you that?”
“If there’s trouble, can we count on you to give us a side area to duck into? If you put a hole in the wall, will it be okay? Do you know if it’ll make it more likely to cave in, doing what it does, swirling things around, or will it be less likely?”
“No idea. We don’t lose much by trying,” Damsel said. “Dirtying my prison-issue shoes?”
“Except a possible cave-in of the whole tunnel,” Rain said.
“Give me some credit,” Damsel said, her nose rising a fraction. “If the whole tunnel collapses, it’ll be because I wanted it to.”
“Great,” Rain said.
“And Lookout,” I said. “Any camera feeds down here? Drones you can deploy? The more we know about what’s going on-”
She was already shaking her head.
“No cameras down here.”
Lookout shook her head again. “Connecting down-here to everything would defeat the purpose. It’s a closed, secondary situation and a secret escape route for prison staff in case of emergencies.”
“Not a very good secret,” I observed.
“No. Um! Um, I don’t have any ongoing camera footage down here, but I can find the old footage from when they headed this way. Some of it’s dead and it might not have any fancy extra perks like thermal vision, seeing backward in time or physical representations of social relationships-”
“You can get your cameras to track social relationships?” Rain asked.
“She said she can take pictures of the past and you’re focusing on that?” Monokeros asked, dry.
“Uh, yeah,” Rain said. The rest of us nodded.
Monokeros seemed deeply bothered by that. If there was a question to be asked or something to be made of it, it was drowned out by Lookout talking, her voice insistent.
“I’m saying stuff like that. When it’s cameras I make a lot of the time I can get them to pick up other noise and waves and junk, and later if I want to toy with the feed or go enhance, enhance, enhance, then maybe I can.”
“Okay,” I said, interrupting before Lookout could get carried away. “Footage of these guys, as they make the approach. Maybe they brought something.”
“Oh, right, on it!”
“Victoria,” Tristan said.
I turned to look, and the orange motes he was drawing manifested into a shape. It was a little more triangular than rectangular, the point scraping the ground, but it had a bar across the middle and it had a hole in the front to peer through, if I kept my head at the right angle. Black stone, run through with veins of what looked like copper, gold, or a mix therein. It tipped toward me, and I caught it with my burned hand and my shoulder, before catching it with my other hand.
“Stand back,” I said. I glanced back to make sure the coast was clear, and then I activated the Wretch.
Stone creaked and strained as the Wretch grabbed it, and it bucked this way and that as hands gripping the top and then the side pulled at the edges. Part of the bar broke almost immediately.
Tristan did something cruder with his shield, drawing it small. He drew out more motes near where I was, and as I advanced, he advanced into the motes, putting his shield out so the stone would manifest and bond to it.
Once I knew he was doing that, I picked up the pace.
“Rain,” I said the word instead of calling it out, because the acoustics of the tunnel meant that sound would travel. “If Tristan and I go down, use your ranged power to stall and distract, don’t hurt anyone, get Lookout and Damsel clear.”
“Yep,” he said, like it hadn’t even needed to be said, didn’t even warrant a full ‘yes’.
“And me?” Monokeros asked.
“Your orders are the same ones Goddess gave you. Keep an eye on Lookout. Make sure she gets out safe and sound.”
“I meant he should rescue me too.”
She didn’t even get it, did she? That she was that ignorant, that fucking unable to see the wrong in what she did, that she might even say she’d do it all over again. A complete and utter monster, behind me, her footsteps running. She could use her power on me at any moment-
“He could,” Tristan said, behind me. He was the only one besides me who wasn’t a little winded by the running. Rain seemed to be doing okay too.
Hearing that voice, the firm shutdown of the monster, it helped.
Too easy to get pulled- sucked down a rabbit hole.
“Guys,” Lookout said. “My mask is fritzing out.”
“Your mask?” Damsel asked.
“I’m all wired up. I’ve got cameras for eyes, and they aren’t working,” Lookout said.
I floated in the middle of the tunnel, doing my best to orient myself in the air in such a way that if the Wretch started pulling the shield around to my left, I could rotate it back the right way. I looked back and saw Lookout scrabbling at her mask, pulling the reflective insert that ran down the middle of her face back. Her eyes, nose, and mouth were visible.
“Any special vision modes?” I asked.
“Not really. Picking up some of the visual noise as a supplementary thing. It’s wired so I can plug other stuff in or see through a video feed like I’m there.”
“But you could parse it if you took that recording back to your workshop and scanned it,” I said. A statement, not a question.
“Uh huh,” she said.
“Blindside,” I said. Far enough down the corridor that we couldn’t see them yet.
Lookout held up her camera, her expression serious. I didn’t have long to see before she lowered it for Tristan, then turned around to show the others.
It had been a video loop. Most of the cameras that were able to move had turned away. The ones that couldn’t, I presumed, had gone black. The images we had were of people at the very edge of the camera.
“What’s the takeaway?” I asked.
“Two people at the edge of the camera. Kingdom Come and someone else. A guy prisoner.”
Teacher had someone on the inside.
“No footage of the guy?”
“No. He was walking right behind Blindside, and whatever mussed up the cameras meant he wasn’t very visible either. He’s skinny.”
The Wretch jerked the shield to one side. I flew around, my arm extending to its full length, my fingers gripping the view-hole in the shield. Not wanting to fight it any further, I shifted position, ready to move on. “We push on. Save Sveta, get Ashley, get Natalie, make sure we have control over the bombs if we need it.”
“Go for it. I’m right behind you,” Tristan said.
“If you have to fight Blindside, swing something that won’t stop when your arm does. A flail, whatever. Or strike from an oblique angle. Switching elements might really work here.”
“Maybe. They could also risk drowning us or washing us away,” Tristan said.
“Yeah,” I said. The Wretch crushed a part of the shield, and I winced. “Yeah.”
I flew forward.
Blindside, Kingdom Come, and one unknown. Somewhere down this tunnel was a computer, console, or other network that allowed for communication with the other Earth.
The shield blocked my view, but that didn’t change that Blindside still blocked aim. I was flying on a course, and I couldn’t pitch that course to go cleanly over Blindside. I hit an invisible wall, my flight course altering against my will. I brought my legs up, feet planting on the wall, and then flew, strongarming my shield in Blindside’s general direction.
I hit the invisible wall and canceled out the Wretch. The shield carried on, slamming into the concrete wall and scraping a light clean away from its housing.
“Oh, it’s you,” Blindside said. They didn’t sound like they were so close they’d almost been hit by the shield. Had they scooted back?
Blindside moved, feet tapping against the tunnel floor, and I was forced to look away, turning toward the wall. I could gauge from the edges of my vision and judge distance using the angle I’d been moved at.
“Reminder: if your head turns too fast the wrong way, you might snap your neck. That’s not me trying to do it. I don’t want to do it. Believe me, it’s a problem, driver flies by, head turns too far to the left, car goes flying… if you go flying, actually flying, the same thing happens. I don’t want the blame for that shit.”
“What are you doing, Blindside? You work for Tattletale and Lord of Loss, got a heroine shot, and now you’re here, working for Teacher? I can’t picture those two working together. You can’t possibly think Teacher’s going to fix your problems and not enslave you.”
“Get this through your skull, Patrol girl. I don’t work for them. I don’t like either of them. I work for money. Cash. Dollars and dineros. Trading dollars and New Dollars, if you want to be modern. I’ll even take some nice horses for barter if I gotta. They tell me to guard the tunnel while they do what they do, I’ll do it.”
“Take it from someone who was a crime boss in an earlier life,” Damsel said. “Sometimes it’s easier to leave the help behind than to fork over the cash to pay ’em. You’re going to get left behind.”
“You weren’t that kind of person, right?” Lookout asked.
“I never did it, no. But power makes people callous. I might have.”
Blindside cut in. “You’re talking about Teacher? That man doesn’t want to be on my bad side. Half of what he does is make thinkers. The other half is making tinkers, some of which are still pretty darn affected by my power.”
“Power makes people stupid too,” Damsel observed. “We have exceptions, like Goddess and yours truly, but…”
“Someone like Teacher?” I finished the thought.
“He seems like the kind of person who’s so smart they do stupid things,” Damsel said.
“Maybe,” Blindside said. “But he’s at least smart enough to know that if he crosses me he’s going to have to watch his back. You know why he’s going to have to watch his back? Because I’ll be there, walking up to his front, grabbing his dick and balls, and cutting ’em off.”
“Ew,” Lookout said. “Why do that? That sounds gross and awkward to actually do. You’d have to get his pants off. Stab him in the chest if you have to do something.”
“Or be creative,” Damsel said.
“Or be creative, yeah!”
“Or don’t cut and stab people,” I said.
“The whole merry gang,” Blindside said, pacing while talking. “Should I be happy you’re distracting me from the boredom or annoyed?”
“Annoyed,” Tristan said. “Come on. You’re outnumbered, we just fought Lung, plus the Pharmacist, the woman who sets powers on fire. We won.”
“Yeah,” Blindside said. “Here’s the reality. I’ve had my power for a while. I know a lot of the tricks. I’m armed and all of you can’t hide behind one shield. You could win. But you might not. Turn around, leave, I won’t stop you. When we get what we want and we leave, we’ll bring your guys with. Happiest outcome.”
“I can’t lock on,” Monokeros said, from the very back of the group. “You guys are on your own.”
I saw orange motes start to appear in the corner of my eye. My head flicked around as Blindside ran beneath me, toward the group.
“Incoming!” I called out.
I heard Tristan’s, “Fuck!”
Blindside had slipped past the wall Tristan had been making before it had been confirmed. He dismissed the motes, audibly grunting as something crackled.
Voices overlapped. “That itty bitty thing isn’t going to-” “That’s a tas-”
From what I could gather, Blindside had realized their stun gun didn’t work on Capricorn and applied it to Rain instead.
Damsel’s power crackled, then flared out, the noise deafening in the close confines of the tunnel. Blindside shrank against one side of the tunnel, which meant I could turn my head to see three-quarters of the scene. Damsel had backed off a bit, and now held her claws out. The distortion of her warped space was being held within the confines of her claws, a roughly spherical shape of what looked like slices of space seen through very tinted glass, Vista’s warped space, slices and curls of total blackness, and crackles of black lightning.
I heard a gun cock.
“Shoot me, and this stuff I’m holding fills the tunnel,” Damsel intoned the words.
“And your team?” Blindside asked.
“They’re not mine. They’re a means to an end. Meanwhile, you’re an obstacle, which means you’re going to end,” Damsel said. She couldn’t look straight at Blindside, so she turned her chin up, arms out, holding the contained storm of shadows and blurs.
“If you think I won’t put a bullet in any of them-”
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t care? Haha, what?” Lookout asked. “You said I was cool! We bonded over a book! So much for you being cool!”
The gun cocked again. “I’m aiming at the kid now. Don’t think I won’t put bullets in her legs. I had to deal with the Tweens Between in New York, and that helps anyone get over the hurting kids thing.”
“What? Am I in upside-down world, all of a sudden? Damsel being hilariously uncool and people saying the T.B.T. aren’t the best?” Lookout said.
“Lookout,” Capricorn said. “You wanted to be on the front lines. You need to keep your head on the task at hand. Can’t get upset at Damsel and excited about some overrated hero group.”
“Okay,” Lookout said. There was a pause, then she muttered, “They weren’t overrated.”
“Put the power away. The noise is hurting my ears,” Blindside said. “I will shoot the kid if you don’t. In four, three, two-”
The power fizzled out. Damsel had to shake one claw to get one flicker of power to disappear, and in the midst of the shaking, her claw tip scratched concrete.
“Turn around. Go the other direction,” Blindside said.
At the front of the group, still holding his shield, Capricorn looked up at me, eye barely visible in the shadows behind the goat-styled helm. At one hand, his finger indicated the end of the hall.
Me? Going on alone?
I hesitated, glancing in that direction. I’d be dealing with Kingdom Come and a strange cape alone.
“Don’t even think about it,” Blindside said. “If you leave, Patrol girl, I’ll start shooting.”
We couldn’t fight them in close confines without hitting allies. Couldn’t use something like Tristan or Damsel’s power without affecting allies.
I did believe that they’d shoot someone.
“Alright,” I said.
“Two options,” Blindside told us. “You fuck off, or you stay until K.C. finishes what he’s doing and comes back. Which might be a while, because he’s taking his time. When K.C. turns up, you’re going to run because you don’t want him using his power on you. That’s a fast ticket to Teacher getting his hands on you.”
“Which means we might as well just fuck off,” I said.
“Good girl,” Blindside said. “You finally get it.”
“Our team,” Rain said.
“They’re in good hands.”
“Go,” I told the group. “Back the way we came. We head for the entrance, do what we can.”
“But Tress, and Swansong,” Lookout said.
Capricorn looked up at me. Then he switched. Tristan to Byron.
Was he thinking or hoping that Byron had a clever idea? If he was, he was inside Byron now, very disappointed that his brother didn’t have any more ideas than he did. Byron let the large shield drop, then headed back through the group, helping Rain and putting a hand on Lookout’s shoulder.
“I think dealing with Teacher is the kind of situation where nobody wins,” I told Blindside, flying above so that the limits of my field of vision kept track of where they were.
“That’s my problem to deal with.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“If you’re thinking about having the guy in the fish armor flood the tunnel, think again. I wouldn’t be letting you go if I thought that was going to work.”
I nodded, and then I flew after the others. My hand caught the ladder as I reached the wall, my arm catching some of my forward momentum. I grazed Monokeros on my way up past the ladder.
“We’re really abandoning them?” Tristan asked. He was already aboveground.
I looked down the hole. Monokeros glared up at me.
“We’re not going down through there,” I said. “Come on. We’re heading to the front gate.”
“I don’t like leaving them,” Lookout said.
“We won’t. Sveta’s my best friend and Swansong gave me an apartment with no strings attached. We won’t leave them, I promise you.”
Lookout nodded. “I want everyone together again. We get Tress and Swansong, and then we get Cryptid, and we’ll have Damsel of Distress with us as a bonus. Um, sorry. I’m getting distracted again. Usually Cryptid tells me to shut it.”
Cryptid. It was a disorienting thought, because there was so little about Chris that let me orient my thoughts where he was concerned. He was out there with my sister- and that last element was something that I actively didn’t want to think about. Disorientation and aversion both. Revulsion. Hate. Disappointment.
“Do you have an actual plan, or should someone else step up?” Damsel asked.
“I have a fucking plan, Damsel,” I said. “Ease up.”
Talking about leadership in the first place had been a mistake. I had to take a second, clearing my thoughts. There was a way to do this.
“Lookout,” I said. “We saw the tunnel. We saw where it goes. I know there’s no footage there, but is there any way you can map it out and help us figure out where the tunnel is, beneath us?”
“We’re going in from above,” Rain said.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think we could,” Lookout said. “Um. When I was lensing the space map, I wasn’t even thinking of underground tunnels, so I double checked before and-”
“Speed it up,” Byron said.
Lookout talked double-speed as she finished, “I have a strong guess and I can refine it. With what we saw down there.”
“Do it,” I said.
“Yes! Projector disc, Capricorn?”
He handed it over.
There was an outright war going on near the front door of the prison. I could hear the succession of noises, of distant detonation, pause, detonation, pause, rumble of something collapsing. The pauses were becoming fewer and shorter, and there were more noises that overlapped. Here and there, gunshots could be heard.
“We get to the terminal for the bombs, and we end this,” I said, keeping my voice low. “We sound off an alert for every ankle bracelet, and they’ll notice. Neither Goddess nor Teacher want to lose the prisoners. We can put an end to this fighting and make the prisoners stay put.”
“Some of the prisoners,” Monokeros said. “Some are leaving with Goddess. No negotiation.”
“Sure,” I said. I met Monokeros’ cold eyes, and I felt my skin crawl.
“I missed out on the Tweens Between,” Monokeros said, wistfully. “I liked them, from what little I saw of them. They had moxie.”
“Oh hey! Another fan! Moxie is a great way of-” Lookout said. She stopped working for a second, looking up. “No, wait, hey. That’s awful, haha! No!”
“Work,” Rain said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Tress and Swansong are counting on you.”
She was a kid, in the end. She was, as much as any of us, trying to wrestle with conflicting feelings, with tension.
I wrestled with my own feelings, trying to anticipate what came next, without letting my thoughts get muddled by the blood-and-bodily-fluid streaked elephant that was occupying one large segment of my thoughts.
For a moment, it was all I could do to just keep my equilibrium, stay calm, and try not to think.
One hundred and ten percent. It’s not about being the Warrior Monk. It’s about being all of it, getting to where every part of me functions and functions well.
“Got it,” Lookout said. She held up the disc, and lines sprung out, painting a fuzzy rectangle on dirt and grass.
Something struck with a sound like cymbals as large as a building, loud enough that every single one of us bent over, hands at or near our ears, wincing in pain.
“That’s Advance Guard,” Kenzie said, barely audible as my ears rang.
The heroes at the portal. If they were coming in, that was because the people they were trying to stall had gotten through, and the heroes were following after.
If the heroes were following after… Then Goddess had yet another massive advantage. Teacher might be losing this, and if he thought he was losing while he had control of the ankle bombs…
“Damsel, Rain, can you use your powers? Get us through the ground.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Rain said. “But I sever, I don’t really dig.”
“Whatever you can do,” I said. I looked over at Damsel.
“Only because you were good to my sister,” Damsel said. “What’s a little dirt on an outfit this hideous?”
“I’ll buy you something,” I said. The noise of her power tearing into the earth seemed like it drowned out the end of my statement. I raised my voice a bit, “I think I know someone who knows the kind of clothes you like!”
I saw a smile on her face before she started swiping out, tearing into the ground and creating a ditch in a matter of a single blast. People backed away as she widened it into a hole.
She did have control. It wasn’t just holding the blast as a localized storm of energy.
The power geek in me wanted to spend hours thinking about what that meant, drawing an analogy between Swansong and Damsel, and me and… something else. Was that something I could chase? Something I should chase?
“Hold up!” Tristan called out. Byron had switched out when I hadn’t been looking or focusing. “Give me a second. I’m going to shore this up.”
Damsel was panting for breath, animated, seemingly excited to be alive in a way that I hadn’t seen in Swansong or in Ashley. Sweat streaked the dirt on her face, and she was illuminated by the orange lights that spiraled around her.
Rain dropped to a crouching position, pulling Lookout down as people ran by. Women in red prison uniforms.
Pure luck that Damsel hadn’t been making noise as they came by. I held out a hand, indicating for the others to wait.
For Breakthrough to be at its one hundred and ten percent, we needed to get Tress, Swansong, and Cryptid. We’d help Crystalclear and Ratcatcher, we’d get to the console or terminal, and we’d get control of this situation.
I gave the go-ahead to start again, my eyes scanning the area for any prisoners running around.
“Another ten feet,” Lookout said, looking at the disc and the phone she was holding.
“Get us close,” Rain told Damsel. “I’ll get us through the last bit. Cleaner and quieter.”
Orange lights swirled, reinforcing the walls of the hole that was being dug, while Damsel stood at the lowest portion. She swiped out with her power, with no staggering or apparent pain, glanced up at Lookout, got a motion to go again, and repeated the process.
“Good,” Lookout murmured, peering over the edge. “One foot of dirt and one foot of concrete left.”
Damsel put a claw against the wall of stone, claw-tips reaching for purchase and finding none. She lifted a foot so covered in mud that the footwear was impossible to see, placing it on a spike, and then used a blast of her power to ascend to the top of the hole.
More control there too.
Capricorn leaned forward, catching at one claw with a gauntlet before Damsel could tip backward and fall the way she’d come. Damsel said something I couldn’t hear, walking away from the edge so the way was clear.
Rain threw his scythes, drawing a square. I looked over at Tristan, who nodded.
“You block Blindside. I cover the other end of the tunnel,” I murmured.
“We’ve got this,” he said.
I flew down, Wretch out, aiming for the center of the square.
It broke clean, concrete shattering only when it struck the floor. I followed it all the way to the ground, landing with one foot, both hands, and one knee pressing into the dirt atop the shattered pad of concrete. I had my orientation, which meant I was clear to go. I flew in the direction of Tress and Swansong, Tristan landing behind me the moment I was out of the way.
Into the underground bunker. Past a room with ten bunk beds, past a kitchen, and into the larger room.
Into the situation.
A man in a prisoner uniform sat in a modified computer chair, the chair’s back to the wall. He had the kind of brow that meant a perpetually furrowed glare, a mullet, and a thick beard. There were computers in the corner, and he’d opened the cases, strewing components around him. Many had been worked into the chair itself, turning it into something more like a throne.
He was their access to the console… just as Lookout was intended to be ours. Inconsequential.
Of far more consequence was Tress, who was partially out of her armor. Tendrils flailed around her, grabbing everything in reach, pushing some away, pulling others closer, flinging the rare one.
When the tendrils moved, it was with a speed the eye could barely follow. Something was whipped in our direction, and before I could see what it was, a crackle of electricity destroyed it, LEDs and boards across the tinker’s chair lighting up. I saw the tension ease in the tinker’s shoulders, only to return there as he saw me.
In another situation, I might have wondered if he was an opportunist who found their way down here. With the information from Lookout, I knew he wasn’t.
“Stop what you’re doing,” I ordered him.
Sveta’s head turned my way, by a rotation and flexibility that a normal neck didn’t have. Her face was streaked in blood, her eyes were wide, and she was lost in herself in a way that broke my heart to see.
That heartbreak stopped when I saw a grouping of tendrils move, but it wasn’t a good stopping. It was sudden, numbing shock that stopped all other feelings, thoughts and processes. The grouping of tendrils all grasped the same thing- a lump of a shape in black fabric. Blood streaked the smooth ground where the fabric touched it.
“What are you doing out of costume, Sveta?” I asked. I sounded so normal.
There was no response.
“Where’s Swansong?” I asked. Still normal.
She dropped her eyes to the ground. Tentacles flailed madly.
“Crystalclear?” I asked.
More tentacles bunched around the fabric.
I stepped forward. I felt the buzz of ambient electricity in the air. I moved my hand and felt it intensify by multiple factors. Something told me that if I reached the threshold where this invisible electric fence divided the room, the electricity would converge on a single point, aiming to repel me.
Tristan, Lookout, Rain and the others caught up. They stopped a few paces behind me, looking over and under my shoulder at the scene.
“Where’s Ratcatcher?” I asked.
Tendrils twisted at the black fabric. Something crunched inside.
She flicked it at me, limb snapping out like a whip. I activated the Wretch by raw instinct, and the Wretch intersected the electric field. An invisible hand caught the cloth, and the nimbus of electricity briefly drew an outline around the Wretch.
Better at dealing with sustained onslaughts.
Something crashed behind me. I turned to look, still tense as the Wretch held out against electricity and held the black cloth. Rain had kicked the tinker’s tech-upgraded chair.
Another kick, and the electricity went away. Rain and Capricorn both hauled the guy out of his chair, back and away.
I let the Wretch drop away. The fabric hit the ground, and immediately, tendrils began reaching for it. Unrecognizable bits of flesh rolled out.
“You did that on purpose,” I said.
She looked at me, and I saw nothing of Sveta in that face.
“Kingdom Come,” I said.
The black cloth- none of the others had been wearing black. They’d been wearing prison uniforms. The cloth was Kingdom Come’s own costume.
“He’s controlling her?” Lookout asked.
“He’s trying,” I said, my voice shaky with the relief. “But the thing about Tress is that she’s worked ridiculously hard to get to where she is. It takes a kind of strength, and that asshole doesn’t have it.”
Kingdom Come opened Sveta’s mouth, worked her jaw. No words came out.
She doesn’t have full lungs, Kingdom Come, I thought. For her first year or so, she couldn’t talk or explain herself, not that she even knew the language.
“Let my friend go. Reconstitute, end the breaker state,” I told him. “And show me where Swansong, Ratcatcher, and Crystalclear are.”
“They’re in the back,” Lookout said. She brought her hand forward, holding the disc. The compass had lines extending out toward a door. We’d have to get past Kingdom Come to get there.
Going for the exit at the far side of the tunnel? Is there one?
Kingdom Come reached out with tendrils, groping at the ground and at piles of things. He worked to drag her prosthetic body across the floor, putting himself between us and what looked like a large computer server with cables running into the ceiling above it. Loops of metal bound tendrils together, and more cables and loops bound the tendrils to the body. Only a portion were free.
“Let her fucking go,” I said. I floated closer. A tendril slapped into the ground between us, slicing through the air with a sound like a sword might make.
“Thane,” a crackle of a voice could be heard, from the mess of technology to my left. “Stop what you’re doing, pull us out. Tell Kingdom Come and Blindside.”
Kingdom Come crawled closer to the console, blocking it off.
Rain, scrambling to rummage through the tech, found the device. He pulled it free and hit a switch. He hesitated for a second.”Clarify.”
I mouthed the name.
Tentacles slapped against the ground.
“We give her nothing. Find your way back.”
Kingdom Come dragged himself closer to the server.
What’s he doing? I floated closer, and tendrils struck out, forcing me to retreat.
How did this happen? Sveta in the center of the room.
I could deal with her grabbing. I’d dealt with it as the Wretch, but she’d been careful to hold, not to strike out. It had been the product of years of work.
Orange motes began to circle her. I didn’t move a muscle, watching. Tendrils reached. Stone trapped them. I saw ‘her’ react, pulling away, pulling tendrils out and through the gaps provided. Others squeezed at stone, straining to crush it. More tendrils reached, even using the stone as a point to grapple and pull herself forward. More stone trapped them.
Others reached out for the server. On the wall, there was a plexiglass case mounted, with wires hooked into the server.
It wasn’t a fire alarm behind that case.
“Shit,” I said, realizing just how they intended to leave Goddess with nothing. I looked back at Damsel and Rain. I saw Rain look down at the bomb that was still at his ankle. The shackle that kept him in prison, currently quiet and black, but so easily it could become death or maiming.
Tendrils snaked in. I flew closer, and tendrils almost immediately shattered the Wretch. Orange lights danced around the tendrils at the case, but it was too late. The light solidified into a hunk of stone, encasing those tendrils, while more lights solidified into chunks of stone that kept Kingdom Come locked into position, unable to crawl away or mount an effective attack.
Still too late. Within that case on the wall, which contained an emergency button that might easily set off every single ankle bomb, I could hear the plexiglass shatter, crushed.
Beside me, Tristan took a deep breath. I met his eyes.
No time for words, no time for communicating a message, that message being received, the understanding.
Only the understanding.
Tristan became Byron. All of the rock he’d placed throughout the room, on the server switches and on Sveta became a rush of water, swirling and flooding the underground space. Her prosthetic body was shoved, twisted around, and the tendrils pulled away from the button.
Given the choice between every single one of the prisoners being executed and every single one of the prisoners living and being free, we’d made a call, because some of those prisoners were important to us. The server flooded with frigid water that quickly extended from floor to ceiling, and blinking lights went black. As connections were disrupted, lights all around us went out, leaving the space as dark and cold as death.