I tumbled through darkness, and this time there was no frame of reference, even a wrong one. The water was numbing, the darkness all-consuming, and the water around me was moving, more akin to being in an undertow in a fast-moving river than a pool.
Was that only foreshadowing for what was to come?
The thought was eerily calm, disconnected from the danger and the chaos around me.
Fear was contagious, and the fear of the dark was something I’d inherited. There was something about having a mom who often slept with the lights on that made a small child insist on her night-light. When a first sleepover fell to pieces because of the night-light issue, that little girl’s parents had provided explanations. They were superheroes, their powers used light. That was why.
It would be a few years before that little girl would start to feel she’d been told a lie. Not a realization, but a feeling.
Fear paralyzed like cold water did. It shackled, limiting action, like debris stirred up by water, computer components and bits of metal hooking on clothing.
Two ways to deal. One could bend to it, succumb. It wasn’t a bad option, despite what one might think. Because the alternative was to fight, to push through, and any movement that followed from shackles and paralysis was liable to be rushed, to get other people hurt. I’d learned both of those things from my mother. I’d seen her on her patrols, heading into dark alleys with only her weapon for lighting. I’d seen her bend to the fear to the point it was an integral part of how she lived.
If I acted now, if I used the Wretch in a confined space when I didn’t know where my team was, if I flew, I could do a horrendous degree of harm. I flew in one direction, found a flat surface, and pressed myself hard against it, until I was grounded enough to have a sense of gravity. The water roared, someone was trying to shout underwater, but the sound was lost, dulled and muffled beyond recognition.
Something touched my leg, then pressed out, pushed, and I felt the strength of it. Not a human hand or anything similar. A tendril.
No sooner did I recognize it than I felt it pull away. My leg was pulled after it by the force of the water moving in its violent wake.
Blue lights began to fill the space. Motes of light appeared, leaving trails and lines behind them. The illumination was murky, everything cast in one or two shades of blue and more pitch black. Objects were unrecognizable, the side and top of a table ten feet away looked much like a folder of papers floating within my arm’s reach. Both moved violently – I hadn’t expected just how turbulent this water would be, or how much.
This time around, I had my orientation, but I didn’t have the ability to do anything with it. I exhaled slowly, letting bubbles slip through my lips, a way of measuring my time limit.
I searched through the oppressive, near-opaque gloom, a world of sluggish and violent movements, of chaos, and I saw nothing.
The movement of the water wasn’t as intense as it had been in the first few seconds, but for every small amount that it slowed and calmed, I felt waves of stress and strain, my breath pushing against the inside of my chest, wanting out and wanting more.
Not hard edges. Look, Victoria! Look! Where are they!? Look for human shapes, for the lines of the human body!
Motion caught my attention, almost invisible in a swirl of computer chips and boards. I moved to intercept before I’d fully verified who it was. Rain, swimming through the water.
I flew to him, grabbing him, helping him along. I saw his head turn, his eyes wide.
I could fly, and flying was better than swimming. Holding him, I flew us both toward the door, toward the tunnel where someone would have to swim further than the length of a swimming pool to get to the hole we’d made. They would then have to get up through that hole.
Tristan drew outlines, and made dense material that fit within those outlines. Byron drew outlines, but the condensed material was something that uncondensed, expanding out to fill space, vastly disproportionate to the outlines made.
Rain slipped from my grip. He’d stopped abruptly. I turned myself around.
Hair, floating free in the water, and a form that wasn’t really trying to swim.
I nodded confirmation, and Rain kicked, propelling himself toward the door, the eddies and flows in the water flipping him belly-up. Leaving me to it, even as my pulse joined the dull roar of water in my ears, each beat a delivery of a swiftly dwindling oxygen reserve.
More blue lights surrounded Rain, surrounded us. It still felt like two shades of blue and black, but the blue was lighter, the black filling less space.
I grabbed him and gave him a tug to help him on his way, and I saw a glimpse of Byron at the door. He was drawing out motes. Behind him, Damsel was already heading through the tunnel, visible more by the froth behind her, the water and debris turbulent.
Bubbles slipped through my lips. How long had it been? Twenty seconds? Forty? A minute? Two minutes?
I was ready to get to a place I could breathe now, and I still had too much to do. I pushed urgency out of mind, with a growing feeling that if I did start to panic, I’d be less able to handle it because I’d put it off.
The hair, as I flew to intercept, was Monokeros’. She wasn’t really trying to swim.
I saw flashing, and for a moment, I thought it was the server somehow still alive. Then I saw the shape. The side of someone illuminated by the flash, a line with slight curves that could have been someone’s leg or back. A human kind of shape.
I flew past Monokeros to the other shape. The flashing continued- Lookout’s flash gun, aimed at the wall. A signal. It was a steady series of flashes, until the gun ceased to work. I saw her smack the gun a few times.
She didn’t even realize I was there until I put my hands on her shoulders. Her head turned, and multiple round red eyes appeared in the dark, focusing on me, some narrowing like an old camera’s shutter. She raised her hand in a small wave, and some of the lenses went dark.
Somewhere in the background, there was a detonation. I could feel it through the water, muted as any sound or vibration would be. It still shook my entire body.
I drew her close, pulling her tight to my side so we might be able to move faster through the water, with less drag. The return hug was bear-hug fierce, shocking after the casualness of the wave a moment ago.
I took flight, heading back the way I’d come. I was a little less gentle with Monokeros, gripping her wrist in passing, wrenching it as I went.
Even approaching the tunnel was a complete change. The debris had flowed in this direction, and with the movement of water from a larger room to a narrower corridor, the churn was worse. It threatened to tear Monokeros from my grip. Byron was still there, waiting.
I didn’t get that far before tendrils gripped me.
Two living people in my arms. I couldn’t use my forcefield or strength.
The tendrils pulled away.
It was always Tristan who had done the hand gestures or motions to accompany the uses of his power. This time, it was Byron moving his arm, touching a mote, and then moving his arm toward the hallway we were aiming to enter.
More water, I thought, as the power took hold, motes disappearing. The lines and dots of blue light winked out of existence, plunging us into a darkness where the two still-lit lenses on Lookout’s mask were dots against blackness, rather than anything illuminating. With that darkness came an impact, enough that it knocked the remaining gulp of air from my lungs.
It was cold, so fresh into our reality, and I had to fight the impulse to use the Wretch.
My focus was on the team. I controlled our pace by flying against the flow, tried to keep Lookout and Monokeros closer to the top of the tunnel.
I breached open air, and it was startling, because we weren’t anywhere close to the hole. Water was flowing out and away.
My hand hurt in ten different ways because of the burn and the fact that the water was soaking through the bandage and it was cold enough that it would have hurt on its own, much less making contact with a sensitive injury.
I saw the square hole we’d cut in the top of the tunnel, and I hauled the two up. In the moment I was about to take us up and out, Monokeros jerked her arm free of mine. Waking up, maybe, or- who knew?
Rain was still in the water, half-turned to absorb the flow. He was holding position and holding onto Byron, using his power to keep them both in place as rocks amid the overflow.
Tristan had walled off the tunnel, and up until just a short while ago, that wall had served as a dam, which was part of why the water had risen to the level it had.
Judging by the hole in the wall and the fact that the wall wasn’t intact anymore- Damsel had blown it up. Helping, kind of.
I carried Lookout out, then flew down for the others. Byron was next, heavy as he was soaking wet and wearing armor. Rain was easier.
“My tech,” I could hear Lookout’s lamentations.
“I thought it was waterproof,” Byron said.
“Water resistant, a lot of it,” I heard her.
I flew back into the hole. “Byron! Light!?”
The light was meager, but it caught the edges and foaming rises of water as it flowed over the dam, past debris that had been dragged from the room to here.
There was a hole in the wall. My first destination. Damsel was within. She’d blasted a hole that pointed back and away from the flow, forming an alcove she could stay within. Thane, Teacher’s tinker from the server room, was lying in the rubble and dirt at her feet.
“You okay to stay for a minute?” I asked.
“You okay with making a lady wait, when she can blast your head-” Damsel started. Her teeth chattered hard enough to interrupt her. “-clean from your shoulders?”
My own teeth chattered, partly because of a sympathy reaction. “Somewhere in there, there’s another lady who can do that. I’m really hoping she’s behind a closed door. I’ve got to help her.”
“If you must,” she said, before nodding in a way that didn’t match the words. “Save her.”
“Huddle for warmth for now,” I said.
She looked down at Thane and sneered. “I’d rather be cold. Huddling with me is a privilege.”
“Then see if Capricorn can make you a ladder.”
“Will try!” I heard Capricorn. Tristan now.
“Vic- Antares!” Lookout called to me.
I looked up.
She turned on a flashlight, then threw it down to me. A small one, bright.
“You’re awesome,” I said.
“Help my friends,” was the response. “I want us all together again.”
I wasted no more time. I plunged into the dark.
Sveta, Crystalclear, Ashley, Ratcatcher.
Kingdom Come, if he didn’t come part and parcel with Sveta.
The water had vented out enough that I could fly over it. I flew into the room with the server, and found it nearly empty of water, now. Debris at the door was damming it, and I destroyed that debris using the Wretch.
“Sveta? Kingdom Come?” I asked.
Tendrils whipped out of the water. They seized me. I activated the Wretch, then dismissed it a moment later.
Calm, I thought, as my heart hammered.
She hauled herself up. She was too coordinated to be Kingdom Come. Most of her was outside of her shell though. In a way, she wasn’t our Sveta.
Raising herself up to eye level, she brought her forehead forward, until it rested against mine.
“Rinsed him off?” I asked.
I felt the nod. “He’s over there in the corner, pulling himself together.”
“The B team is okay. Where’s the A team?”
Downstairs wasn’t good.
“He covered the ceiling so he was dripping down on top of us. I saw it at the last second,” Sveta said. “I took the bullet, and tried to put myself where I would at least get in their way. Thane had to work remotely.”
“You did good.”
“I don’t feel good.”
I wanted to reply to that, but I knew the feeling one hundred percent.
One hundred and ten percent.
“Bricklayer’s mantra,” I said.
I felt her nod, her forehead against mine. “I’ve got me. You go get Swansong and Crystal.”
“And Ratcatcher?” I asked, turning around in the doorway I was already flying through.
She shook her head. “Ran. Get the other two.”
The light from the flashlight wasn’t quite sufficient for this kind of oppressive darkness. A single beam of light weighed against corridor after corridor, room after room of only darkness. I found the stairwell, and beyond the first flight, everything was obscured by the receding water, the level steadily decreasing.
I could hear something below. The terrible noise I’d noted earlier, a roar or great grinding.
As good a cue as anything.
The debris and the degree of the churn at the top level of the water made entry by flight difficult, with an obstacle catching my shoulder on one entry and a lack of forward movement stalling the second.
Then I was beneath, and the already small beam of light from the flashlight halved in size, diffused into dark, grimy waters. My skin and clothing were soaked through and gripped with the cold water.
The roaring I’d heard earlier was louder here.
Louder still as I flew deeper through the water, through a maze of things that threatened to catch at my armor and clothing, scraping at my arms. It was a morass of debris, old construction material left in the tunnel, where it could sit forever, and I couldn’t use the Wretch because doing so threatened to make things harder to get through. I’d only end up tearing things down and compacting stuff into barriers. I’d run out of breath before I got through.
I exhaled a bit, letting bubbles rise to the surface. I’d always found that trying to hold two full lungfuls of breath ended up being counter-intuitive. A steady release helped.
The current of the water became stronger as I got closer to the bottom, and the amount of sediment increased.
I found the source of the roar. Ashley, her back against the edge of a doorframe, stood knee deep in water. Her power was directed at the hallway, a steady, continuous blast, that bucked, kicked, and forced her to retain her control.
I thought of fighting the shield as the Wretch tugged at it.
I floated in water as it was churned by Ashley’s power. Some of what her power did was annihilate, but it was random, and most of what she was doing was holding it at bay, steadily removing some of the water from existence.
I was still trying to figure out what to do to help when she stopped. The blast ceased, and water crashed into the room she and Crystalclear occupied, the both of them just barely visible in the froth of bubbles and sediment before they were pushed back.
I flew into the room, and the force of water rushing in forced me to stick my feet out, hitting the wall opposite the door. I reached out, found Ashley’s head, and from there, found her hand. One hand burned, holding Ashley despite the pain, feeling how cold her skin was, well beyond the norm of a human hand in cold water.
I did much the same with Crystalclear’s head and hand. I could feel the chunks of quartz-like crystal studding each. I held his hand with the same that held the flashlight, awkward, the fierceness of our mutual grip driving the metal into the meat of my hand.
I led them through the dark waters, into the maze of wooden slats and fence material.
There was no roar anymore, no distant explosions as Damsel of Distress tore down a wall. Even high above, it seemed like the fighting had stopped.
Crystalclear helped to navigate. We found our way up, and when the coast was clear, I pulled them up at my maximum speed, hauling them to where we could all breathe again.
Dripping, panting, we all caught our breath.
I started to head forward, and Swansong reached out with one hand. It didn’t move well, and I could see her wince, before pressing her forearms against one another in an ‘x’.
“Sveta,” she whispered. “She’s compromised. Kingdom Come got her.”
“Sveta should be okay now,” I said. “Rinsed off.”
“Did you confirm with a password?” Crystalclear asked.
“Sveta’s one of the very few people in this world who I don’t need to,” I said.
“There’s a lot of people out there who probably thought the same thing and they regretted it later,” he said.
I nodded. I would have explained, but I didn’t have the words.
“Ratcatcher ran?” I asked.
“She went up one of the ventilation ducts that isn’t supposed to hold a person,” Crystalclear said. “We thought she’d get help.”
“We haven’t seen hide, hair, nose or tail of her,” I said. “Goddess won, we think. And we destroyed the server.”
“You destroyed it,” Crystalclear said. “You do realize that could have just set everything off?”
“They were going to set it off,” I said. “Given a choice between a certainty and a possibility of making it, they chose the second option. I didn’t disagree.”
“They were really going to go that far?” Crystalclear asked.
“Because Goddess won,” Swansong said.
“Yeah,” I said. I wanted to be happy about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Too many close calls, too many questions. My sister was out there, and I couldn’t avoid this… third confrontation. The third in one night.
One fucking long night.
“I think the situation is as resolved as it’s going to get,” I said. “Teacher loses, he can’t blow the bombs, Goddess has her army. The heroes are up there. I think- if there’s anything left to contribute to the situation, we help her keep the peace.”
“We help them,” Crystalclear said. “We help the heroes. This protocol, I’m invoking it.”
As if we hadn’t fought enough uphill battles tonight.
But I nodded.
The others had caught their breath. Ashley was rubbing her forearms, moving her hands with a little bit more in the way of dexterity.
We entered the server room, and Sveta was there, a face and tendrils that were barely visible in the dark. She was hunched, for lack of a better word, over her ball. A case of bulletproof glass with staggered ventilation, so that a tendril couldn’t worm through. A circular lock required some careful manipulation and a clamp of Sveta’s teeth to properly open, if help wasn’t provided from the outside.
But it collapsed into a flat position, and try as she might, she couldn’t coordinate to un-collapse it.
“Can I approach?”
“You got them?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You shouldn’t approach.”
I stopped where I was, floating.
“I can’t coordinate well enough,” she said. “I practiced before, but never in the dark.”
“Give it here.”
The hunk of interconnected slats of bulletproof glass struck my breastplate in what was essentially a ‘soft’ pass from Sveta. The noise made my much-abused ears hurt.
I squeezed the orb, using my forearm instead of my right hand, and hard edges scraped against hard edges. It slid into its spherical shape, two pieces of plastic nipping off a bit of my arm as they came together.
I opened the lid, and Sveta reached inside, before pulling herself in. Tendrils had to be coiled together, piled atop one another, filling much of the space. With my hands full, I had only a glimpse of her expression.
I locked her in.
“Thank you, Tress,” Ashley said. “Doing that. I know we haven’t always been on the same page.”
“I’m still glad you’re okay.”
“It was noble, Tress,” Ashley said.
“It was stupid. For an instant, I forgot what I was. And I can’t do that,” Sveta said. “Other people can’t afford for me to forget. I positioned myself as best as I could, before he… seeped in.”
I felt some violent motion within the sphere, as if a torrent of physical activity could illustrate the feeling.
With a very different tone of voice, Sveta said, “I’ll need my armor.”
“I’ll get it,” I said. I started to hand off the sphere, then stopped myself. “If you’re okay with-”
I let Swansong hold her. A silent Crystalclear pointed the way to the armor, and I knelt by it, moving the debris that half-buried it. Most of that debris was paper.
“Can you-” Sveta said.
“I’m sorry but can we leave the tentacles? The ones Rain made? Say they were too heavy to bring. His intentions are good, but…”
“Got it,” I said. I moved the flashlight to my mouth before figuring out how the new arms connected as part of the greater suit.
“If it’s a problem, you should tell him,” Crystalclear said.
“I will. But the last twenty-four hours have been utter insanity. We need to make sure people are safe. It’s going to distract him. I know this is bad and it’s against every rule in the superhero magazines and Saturday morning cartoon shows, but…”
“Lie?” Swansong asked.
“Please. For now.”
“He worked hard on that,” I said.
“I know, but-” Sveta said, her voice muffled.
“Can we compromise? Bring them, but have them detached?”
“The material is good, even if the intent is overeager,” Ashley said.
I heard a ‘tuk’ sound. Sveta’s forehead striking the lid of the sphere.
“I should, shouldn’t I?”
“Your body, your call,” I said.
“That’s the issue at its heart, isn’t it?” I heard her. With the muffling effect of the sphere and how quiet she was, it was hard to catch all the words.
A forearm of pale flesh, a loose length of dense black netting that connected it to another forearm of pale flesh, all in sequence. Some metal framework within provided a loose skeletal system with levers and pullies. The locking mechanism involved getting some concentric rings lined up and sliding a bolt through them.
I hefted it over one shoulder, holding it there in a fireman carry. with my free hand, I combed fingernails through wet hair. Wet costume, armor, and Sveta’s body were all heavy. Crystalclear lifted the tentacles, wrapping them around his shoulders like a scarf.
We reached the hole. Tristan had made a ladder. The group was huddled. Thane and Monokeros stood off to one side.
We emerged, each of us in turn, with me steadying Ashley so she could ascend with her hands both full and not at their peak.
Lookout sprung to her feet, and Monokeros reached out for her- missing Lookout’s shoulder.
She bounded to Ashley, and stopped short of giving Ashley a hug. Ashley adjusted her grip on Sveta, and pulled Lookout into a one-armed hug, arm at Lookout’s head.
Interesting, to see how Damsel observed that, the fidgeting with claw-fingers, eye contact not leaving that scene. I wasn’t sure if it was a terrifying interesting or a positive one. Figuring that out required resources I didn’t have.
In a similar vein, I saw Rain look at the tentacles Crystalclear carried. He didn’t remark at anything, instead turning to survey the situation, almost the opposite of what Damsel was doing.
The prison was quiet. Not a shout, no movement. Many buildings had been pulled down, the staff buildings in particular.
“We lucked out with the bombs, it seems,” Ashley said.
“Not luck,” Tristan said. He indicated Thane, who sat slumped against a wall, a short distance from Monokeros.
“The situation in emergency controls went bad,” Thane said. He talked like he had a mouthful of tobacco, all mush and sloppy syllables. “I had to work remotely. Not nearly so fast as I would be. But I turned off the fucking bombs.”
“Even though Teacher wouldn’t want you to?” Rain asked.
“Of course even fucking though fucking teacher wouldn’t fucking want me to,” Thane said, and he put enough clarity and emotion into each ‘fucking’ that it didn’t make a mess of the sentence. “I’m wearing one of the damn things.”
He shook his ankle to demonstrate.
“He told Rain and Byron when we took him back to lash him to a light fixture,” Tristan said. “Not that this is the best outcome.”
This. The bombs were ineffective now. The prisoners were free. United under an effective leader.
“We need to save Cryptid,” Sveta said, within the sphere. “And Natalie.”
“Yes,” Lookout said. “Please.”
I could look across the group and I could see the people who had very little fight left in them. Me. Ashley. Sveta. Rain had taken a bit of a beating, but that was usual.
By contrast, Lookout and Capricorn looked fairly eager to go. I knew that they had their own issues. That Tristan was on edge from earlier in the night, still battling some demon I didn’t know the name of. Lookout’s demon was named Lookout, accompanied by a yin-yang extension of that struggle, currently in the form of Monokeros.
“The worst of it’s over. Let’s focus our energies on those two, do what we can to minimize the damage,” I said.
“It’s not over,” Crystalclear said. “Let me… assert my authority on that.”
“Is that your vision?” Lookout asked. “Is it something you see?”
That’s not the authority he means, I thought. He means the master-stranger protocols.
I had to mentally reorient my perspective. This isn’t over? It felt over.
“…if my phone wasn’t broken, I’d really really like to get a reading of how your crystals work and how you see through them, and-”
Rain nudged Lookout’s shoulder with one elbow.
“-and yeah,” she terminated early.
“It’s not something I see,” Crystalclear said. “It seems pretty obvious, but I don’t know how to handle this. It’s freaky to see.”
“It’s not something you see, it’s just that you see as freaky?” Lookout prompted him.
“Yes,” he said.
“That doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“I’m going to handwave it and say my crystal-vision breaks the rules when it comes to seeing stuff.”
“You’re leader if you need to be, Crystalclear,” I said. Then, for Monokeros’ benefit, to cloud the master-stranger protocols, I explained, “You’re with Foresight, they were first on the scene. I’m okay following orders. You make the calls. If you say we should back off and make contact with our team another way…”
“I’m not going to say that,” he said. “That might be the way to go, I don’t know. I’m working with limited information, with a really distorted view of my own, and I hate that. What I do know is that the situation is unsalvageable like this.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“We need one sane person to report to people in the know. That means we get people out. ”
“If you’re talking about going against Goddess, we might have a bit of a problem,” Monokeros said, and her voice was low.
“He isn’t,” Tristan said. “The situation’s a mess. The prison is totaled, and some complete scumbags are now going to be free. We need to talk to the key people so they can rein those guys in. The guys who aren’t going with Goddess.”
He sounded so natural saying it. Not one hint of a lie or falsehood.
All the same, there was a pause as Monokeros locked eyes with Tristan.
“Woah!” Crystalclear barked the word, loud enough to startle us. He threw himself between Tristan and Monokeros. “What was that? You used your power on him?”
I tensed. Monokeros awed people, like my awe power turned up to maximum. She gained protections against that target, as well as insights into their personality and mind. It was that last thing she had used against Tristan.
“I wanted to see if he was being genuine,” she said. “He’s loyal but not genuine. I’m not stupid, Capricorn. You know deep down inside that everyone is going with Goddess.”
“Shit,” Crystalclear said.
“Once the dust settles, she will come for you and any others who aren’t on her side. As soon as it’s not pointing her to any immediate threats, her danger sense will tell her if there’s any corner of the world where enemies lurk. She will find them and bring them in line, starting with the closest or the most severe.”
I saw Crystalclear draw in a breath. Fingers ran along a crystal near his elbow, nervous.
“Do what you need to do, tell us what you need, and I, at least, will trust you,” I told Crystalclear.
“I wish I had a big plan. Maybe I’ll come up with one-”
“You won’t,” Monokeros said. She took a step forward, limping. She’d hurt her leg earlier.
Crystalclear ignored her. “But for now, I think my number one priority is making acquiring me as hard as possible. I’ll see who I can round up, you do what you need to do with your team, and whoever gets to the authorities first tells them everything.”
There aren’t even any good authorities to go to. The Wardens are in shambles, the major teams are either here or dealing with their own disasters.
“It won’t work,” Monokeros said. “You won’t get away.”
“I’m going to try,” Crystalclear said.
“Cryptid said we should decentralize,” Sveta said. “I think it makes sense. We’ve got Ratcatcher out there, Cryptid’s doing his thing.”
“When in doubt, when law and right and wrong don’t factor in, reach out,” I murmured.
“Yeah,” Sveta said. “Let’s reach out. Let’s get our guys and Crystalclear, you get your guys. Someone has to be able to find a good solution.”
“Goddess has,” Monokeros said.
“Please,” Damsel said, from the periphery of our gathering, still sitting with her back to a ruined wall. “Shut the fuck up.”
Monokeros made a small giggling sound. My skin crawled.
“It’s fine,” she said, sounding very cavalier. The whites of her eyes showed very distinctly as she lowered her face to an angle. It was a model’s pose for a portrait shot, a little out of practice, the hinges and bolts a little too loose in how she held herself together. But still a model’s look, meant for the dramatic effect. “You should run far, far away, Crystalclear. And I’m going to leave too. To report to my Empress. The rest of you should do what you want. It’s done. I’ll tell her you did good work.”
“Thank you for that,” Ashley said, her voice laced with sarcasm.
“Come,” Monokeros said. “Lookout, with me.”
Lookout didn’t budge.
“She gave you to me as a gift. It’s a little bit like getting a book as a gift with the cover ripped in half, I have to grin and bear it-”
The entire team tensed. I might have put out a bit of aura, but I couldn’t be sure.
“What the fuck?” Rain asked. “You did not just say that about our teammate and friend.”
“It’s okay,” Lookout said, her voice light. She took a step forward, and Ashley reached out for her. Lookout shrugged free of Ashley’s hand, spinning around. “It’s okay, really. Please don’t grab me like that. It’s okay if she does it because she’s that kind of person, but I know you’re better than that, Ashley.”
Ashley let her hand fall to her side.
“I’ve got to do this,” Lookout said. “And I want you to trust me that I’m okay doing this.”
“Okay,” Ashley said.
“Not okay!” Sveta raised her voice.
The rest of us voiced our own protests.
“Come,” Monokeros said, like she was talking to a dog. Lookout went to her with a bit of a skip to her step.
Tristan was quickest to close the distance. Monokeros stumbled a little as she turned around, putting a hand out to her side, indicating Lookout.
“She’s using her power,” Crystalclear said.
Tristan stopped in his tracks.
“I’m using my power,” Monokeros said. She lowered her gaze again, so the glower of her eyes was barely visible beneath finely plucked eyebrows, the ‘horn’ of the triangle tattooed on her forehead pointed at Tristan. She moved her hand, revealing a shiv that she had been keeping in the sleeve. “Lookout.”
Lookout took the shiv.
“You don’t want to do this,” Ashley said. “I told you what would happen.”
“If they move a muscle to follow us, if they say a word, if they use a power, I want you to put that shiv in your neck as many times as you can before they make you stop. I’ll be really, really proud of you if you do.”
The group was frozen.
“If you can get it in there and give it a good twist, get it in there so it goes in one hole you’ve made and sticks out another, then cut out what’s in between, I’ll be extra proud.”
“It doesn’t really work that way, though,” Lookout said. Her voice was small. “I do more than I’m asked for homework and the teachers get annoyed. I work hard on my projects and my team gets upset because I’m overworking myself. Every minute I’m working hard, and it is hard, there’s this feeling in the back of my head, like I can imagine the warm fuzzy feeling when they’re amazed and happy. I’ve made them happy. That’s what pushes me to do it. But it never works out the way I hope, because I hope too much.”
“You want to impress me, don’t you?” Monokeros asked.
I found myself shaking my head slightly, as Lookout nodded.
“You can feel me, big in your head and your heart. Hold onto that feeling, and believe,” Monokeros said.
Tristan started forward. Ashley stopped him, grabbing him with both hands to haul him back, force him to land on his ass.
“Close,” Monokeros said. She said it to Lookout. “He almost took a step forward.”
“I want you to believe. If they step forward or give you any reason, and you do as I’ve told, then this will be the time that matters. Believe that.”
“I believe you.”
“Yeah,” Monokeros said, barely audible. “This one last time. Unless they let you and me walk away.”
The shiv fell from Lookout’s fingers.
Monokeros twisted around, but Lookout was backing off too. She drew her flash gun, pointing it at Monokeros.
Lookout fired the gun. A bright flash that seemed to illuminate the entire side of the prison complex the pistol was pointing at.
“Won’t work, I’m immune to my targets,” Monokeros said. But she backed away a step, then lunged forward another step. Bending down for the shiv.
I was already flying. I wasn’t alone in my charge.
Monokeros hit me with her power. It took all of the fight out of me, blinded me, and sent my thoughts spiraling into irrational tangents. Instinct and impulse recognized people hurling themselves toward her, and a bizarre, white-phosphorous bright impulse made me not want to share that space close to her with them. I turned.
Lookout fired again, and the feeling went away as quickly as it had come, just an instant before I could lash out at anyone nearby.
In the wake of it, I felt like a small part of me died, burned away. Not because of any lingering aspect of the power, but because I hadn’t ever wanted to be influenced like this again.
Blinded, Monokeros kept a hand out toward us. I saw others react as she hit them in turn, firing blind.
But she could only affect one person at a time.
I put my hand around her throat. She hit me with her power, that white-phosphor, all-consuming feeling of being overwhelmed in a good way.
Again, the feeling of death as it passed. Swansong was there. Saying something.
“…if Antares lets go of you, I will take your head clean off.”
“Then do it,” Monokeros said.
“No,” I said. “No, we aren’t killers.”
I didn’t use my powers to force her to move. Shoulder to shoulder, my hand at Monokeros’ neck, Swansong’s hand gripping her by the ear, we made her walk backward.
She started to speak, and I squeezed until the words stopped trying to get out. She’d talked enough.
Her feet reached the edge of the lip of the hole we’d made.
“I’ve got it,” Swansong said.
“Don’t just push her so she falls down to the hole and then falls through. That feels too barbaric.”
“I know,” Swansong said. Swansong held onto Monokeros’ ear, as the rest of Breakthrough formed a loose circle around the hole. Swansong had to crouch, one hand and both feet sliding on the slope as she got closer to the hole itself.
She let go. Monokeros fell through. Capricorn’s lights were already marking where he was closing off the tunnel.
If anything in this was salvageable, it had to be that we’d either tell people to watch out for Monokeros in the access tunnel, or that we’d just close the portal altogether, or leave it lensed.
Not a death sentence, but if we could put her in a world without people, without innocents, where there was only nature and subsisting on her own, I was okay with that.
“…my first genuine friend that doesn’t have my DNA, and you know that’s a high bar when it comes to quality.”
I turned to look at Swansong talking to Lookout. A small laugh from Lookout.
“…and if you want to know for sure when people are proud of you, when people think you’re amazing then you should know that this…”
I turned away, turning a deaf ear to the scene.
It was for them, not for me.
Sveta was in Rain’s hands. Tristan stood off to one side, keeping an eye on Thane. I turned my focus to Crystalclear. He was standing way off to the side, almost a hundred feet away, staring off into the distance.
“Shouldn’t you be going?” I asked him. “You wanted to get away.”
He shook his head. The crystals caught the meager light.
“Over there,” he said, pointing. “That building?”
Three hundred feet away. The building had been hit by something that had caved in one wall, wiping out the floors that separated the first floor from the second, so it was just a husk.
“What about it?” I asked.
“I got that far,” Crystalclear said. “And then… it was like something major had happened. A turning point in history, you know?”
“I kind of know,” I said. I had a whole mess of mixed feelings as I realized what he was saying. Trepidation was about fifty percent of that mess.
“It came from you guys, but it bounced, because I get a feeling it started somewhere else. I can see it with my power.”
“She aligned you.”
“That’s a good way of putting it,” Crystalclear said. “Oof.”
“Oof,” I said. I gave him a light punch in the shoulder. “Come on. Stick with us, then. I wouldn’t mind the backup.”
We didn’t hurry as much, now. If there were moves to be made, then they would be leisurely or opportunistic ones. There was no use running, not when we were all tired, not when I was carrying a prosthetic body and Rain had a pair of prosthetic tentacle arms.
Besides, I really wasn’t looking forward to seeing one inevitable individual in particular.
We made our way past the shattered entrance building of the prison. Past looted rooms and parahumans standing watch over scared staff.
I saw the assistant warden we’d reached out to earlier and approached him. Parahumans moved to block my path. They seemed to recognize me and then backed off a little.
“We’ll do our best to help you out,” I told him. “Do you need anything?”
The look in his eyes was haunted as he shook his head. An inmate at his own asylum, with the patients as the wardens. And maybe, just a little, there was a lifelong fear come to life. That the Parahumans were taking over and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Keep your chin up,” I said.
Out of the portal and into another world. An interim world. Here, people were camping or laying out tables and other things they’d taken from the prison. There were a few improvised medical areas, and my heartbeat quickened on seeing them. I had to double and triple check to confirm.
No Amy, for one thing. That was ninety percent of it.
No friends, either. No Ratcatcher with grievous injuries. No Natalie. Not in the medical area, at least.
It was a short hike to get to the other portal. We were offered a ride by someone that had taken a guard’s car, but we refused. The group needed to stay together. It was what Lookout wanted and needed right now.
The prison had been burned to the ground. The interim territory was a camp, a place to fall back to.
This- this was a front line. All of the prisoners were gathered, organizing themselves. The heroes we’d brought along had come around to working with Goddess. I could place them by the teams they belonged to.
Most of them.
I saw Goddess, and I saw that she was talking to heroes. They weren’t heroes that had accepted our invitation.
She’d reached out, using her new power battery.
I saw Lookout wave, and I saw Natalie, gathered with prison staff.
I spotted Ratcatcher on my own. She was standing on the back of a pickup truck, ropes binding her hands to the spoiler. I got Crystalclear’s attention, nudging him, and pointing. I saw him nod.
There were enough parahumans around us that we couldn’t talk. The noise was too much. He tried anyway, saying something about how she was too big a pain in the ass.
No Natalie. No Ratcatcher.
Was it just the Wardens now, fractured and distracted?
Just us, who had barely enough of a sense of protocols to doubt this reality? We could say no to Monokeros, but were the others convincing themselves in the same way I was, thinking of how bad she was for Goddess?
On that topic, of Goddess, I saw Cryptid in Goddess’ vicinity, talking to- to my sister. He wore a monstrous form, narrow but with a chest and spine so distended that it was almost like he was a dorsal fin or clown fish with four legs extending from the sides and planting on the ground, like stout arms mid push-up. His body was writ in mottled pink flesh, with a row of boils down the back. Only Cryptid could be that weird. If I’d had any doubt about his identity, he wore the sash he usually did, to protect his modesty and carry his stuff.
What was unusual was that for the first time since I’d known him, he was changing where people could see. From this to something else. I saw flesh sag and slough, and it wasn’t this fin-shaped plague-disgust thing.
Goddess finished talking to the team she had just recruited. Arms folded, she surveyed her soldiers, and her soldiers, even the roughest of them, seemed to look up at her in turn. She turned her head and looked over to the horizon. Earth Gimel’s Megalopolis glittered.
I watched with a heavy heart and a growing feeling of trepidation as Cryptid and Amy joined a small handful of others, forming something of a line. Amy at Goddess’ right hand. Cryptid a couple of spaces over, growing black feathers, his neck extending. He looked at us, and then he looked away.
Mute, yet capable of saying everything with a single look.
I looked back at Lookout, and I saw that she’d been happy to confirm the others were okay, and now she was geeking out with Rain and another cape I didn’t recognize. They were pointing at the prosthetic suit of Sveta’s I still carried.
Only Sveta was really paying attention like I was, watching Amy and watching our teammate. She had been traumatized on a level by what had happened with the Irregulars.
That story was repeating itself, at least on one small front. Betrayal, inexplicable.
Communicated in one look: he was with Goddess, as we were, but he was no longer one of us.