Gleaming – Interlude 9

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The tower extended from the floor of the valley to the stratosphere, a gleaming testimony to the power of patience, persistence, and inhuman nature.

Most would have expected the structure to be sealed, or for the layers of overlapping metal along its exterior to be welded to one another.  It wasn’t the case here.  The entire facility was channeling heat, air, and atmosphere up, while it channeled the lack of those things down, and the design of the facility caught the air in the same way the curvatures of an airplane’s wings did. The edges of the tower seemed to glow, even, because of the air that ran concurrent with the fanned-out plates that stabbed upward, concentrating atmosphere and heat around the tower exterior, as well as its interior.

High above, where the sky was transitioning from the light blue of day to the near-black of night, the peak of the tower was topped with a diffuse, flower-like bloom of the lighter blue.  The exhaust or output.  The peak was so high as to be invisible, but the venting wasn’t.

As though it had stabbed through the perimeter between sky and space, and the wound bled a light blue.

It roared, because the vacuum it gathered in its squat base drew in atmosphere and air.  It screamed, because the very design of the facility defied physics, and the alien metals that formed the panels that caught the air or channeled ambient heat upwards were still bound by some laws of physics.

Bound and tortured for their disobedience, she thought.

“I don’t think that’s going to help you.”

She turned toward the voice, arching one eyebrow.

“Sorry to break the spell.  I meant your helmet,” the guy said.  He had a costume, more sleek than most.  The mask around the eyes was hard, but the back was flexible, tied in a knot at the back of the head, the two lengths of fabric loose and billowing in the strong influx of wind the tower generated.  The costume was a similar mix of hard segments flowing naturally into loose, flowing fabric, all red with gold trim.  She couldn’t help but see double when she looked at him, and his double was badly wounded, his costume torn.

She decided she would call him the wounded man.

She was holding her helmet in both hands.  It was crafted of another alien metal, different from the tower’s sweeping, overlapping panels, and had elaborate wings at the sides, sleek and pointed back.  She couldn’t remember when she’d taken it off.

In reverence, as someone would when approaching a holy place?  No.  She wasn’t reverent.  Her god was dead.

She had wanted a better look at the monster that loomed before her, a beast that screamed, roared, and made the sky bleed.

Glines, the Switch-Thrower, she thought.

The shadow manifested to her left, as if it was stepping in from another room, its feet still planted firmly on the ground.  Young.  He folded his arms, and in the shroud of his indistinct form, the lines between costume and flesh were blurry.  He could have been a reptile, covered in thick layers, with sleek, broad bands.

“Hi,” the wounded man said.

Glines gave him a small nod of acknowledgement, before turning his full focus to the tower.

Valkyrie could have asked the shadow a question, but she didn’t.  She let him study the distant tower, and she turned her attention to the hero who had noted her helmet.  One finger tapped the metal, producing a sharp sound.  “These things are more important than you would think.”

The wounded man smiled.  “No offense, Valkyrie, but I don’t think that, whatever it is, is going to bop you on the head.  If it does, that bit of metal won’t change the outcome.”

The man in costume was nervous, she realized.  He’d been here for at least a day- she looked back in the direction of the camp, where tarps and tents were erected, positioned where they could watch the tower, still far enough away that it would take twenty or thirty minutes of driving a conventional vehicle to get close.  At least a day that he’d endured the roaring, the screaming, and watched as the Earth’s oxygen was slowly and steadily pumped away into oblivion, to no seeming point or goal.

“I don’t think it’s about to strike me across the head,” she said.  And this is still important, for other reasons.

“You know what it is, then?”

She shook her head slowly, turning her attention briefly to Glines, who was still studying the thing.

“No,” she admitted.

“Uh huh.  That’s reassuring,” the wounded man said.

The helmet was heavy in her hands, and it felt even heavier as she shifted it to one hand, so her other hand was free to adjust her hair, pushing it out of her face.

It was possible that events could have unfolded in such a way that the masks and helmets weren’t necessary.  But some of the first capes, including Vikare, who had worn a costume very similar to her own, had wanted to protect their identities.

Somewhere along the line, the masks and helmets had become synonymous with identity.

With her hair sufficiently adjusted and pushed out of the way, she set the helmet down on her own head.  Anchor-heavy.

“You look so calm,” the wounded man said.  “You’re not freaked?”

She raised a hand, holding it flat.  The only tremor or movement was because of the wind, as air flooded in the direction of the vacuum-driven vortex the vacuum at the tower’s base.  She was calm.

“No,” she said.  She unfurled her decorative wings, then wrapped them around herself for warmth.  She stood straighter, chin raised.  Her heartbeat was much as it always was.  If her breathing was any different from usual, it was because the tower was stealing the air.  “I’m not especially worried.”

“Some of the guys called it a space elevator.  Which, you know, super cool, except it’s clearly not helping us, and it has defenses to keep us out.”

“No,” Glines said.  “Not a space elevator.”

“Jesus, they talk?” the wounded man asked.

“What is it?” Valkyrie asked her shadow.

“A gun.  That’s the barrel,” Glines said.  He extended his arm to indicate the length of the tower.

“What the son of all fucks would they need a gun that big for?” the wounded man asked.

“Dunno,” Glines said.  “But I don’t think the target was important.  If I were making a gun that big to deal with a specific enemy, I would have paid attention to targeting.  Any attention at all.”

“The target could be so large that targeting doesn’t matter,” Valkyrie said.  “If it filled half of the sky as it made its approach?”

“Uhhh,” the wounded man said.  “That’s a thing?”

Glines, though, was nodding.  “No need to worry about aim if you’re aiming at the broad side of a barn?  Dunno.  Maybe.  But if you were building a gun to shoot the side of a barn, wouldn’t you want enough firepower to hurt the barn?”

“You would.”

“Uhh, please tell me this sky-filling enemy is hypothetical.”

Valkyrie shook her head.  “It’s real.  But it’s not an enemy we need to worry about again.  When they came the last time, they left markers, to ensure none of their kind wasted effort coming to the same places.  To go against that procedure and habit would run contrary to their entire being.  It won’t happen.”

“You said these guys are building a giant gun to shoot at things on that scale, and this is the gun.”

“No,” Glines said.  “I don’t blame you for getting caught up in the attention-grabbing details, but we didn’t say for sure that this is meant to shoot at anything.  The ammo they’re using isn’t sufficient to hurt anything that big.  The ammo is the point.”

“What’s the ammo?” the wounded man asked.

“Explain,” Valkyrie said.

“The air.”

“Someone built a fucking thirty-one mile long airgun?”

“Technically, I guess,” Glines said.  “Less technically, it shoots all of the air.  Each shot is one earth’s worth of atmosphere, gathered up into a ball and superheated.”

The wounded man was silent, his eyes wide.

“One shot, and Earth whatever this is is emptied in about two seconds, everything dies well before it can suffocate, with the sudden atmospheric and pressure shift.    The next shot empties the adjacent earth, probably.”

“Earth Bet,” Valkyrie said.

“Sure.  Home, huh?” the shadow asked.

Valkyrie nodded.

“Then the next closest earth, or a share of all the connected earths.  Enough to do widespread damage.”

The wounded man sat down heavily on the grass-less hillside.

“You said the ammunition was the point.”

“The best analogy I can think of is the idea we had of putting all garbage on a rocket and shooting it into space, so we don’t have to have landfills.  This guy is shooting in the same way.”

“Disposing of atmospheres,” Valkyrie said the thought aloud.  “That helps.  Thank you.”

“No prob.  That’s really all I’ve got.  Oh, and if you’re going up, you want to go up through the tower, not outside of it.  Most defense is aimed at protecting against external attack.”

“Thank you.”  She dismissed the shadow with a thought.

Do you need anything? she thought, pushing the thought into the space where the shadows lived.

No, came the distant reply.

I’ll get to you soon.

I don’t mind.  I was never very good at asking authorities for help.  I got patient.

Why?” the wounded man asked.

“I intend to find out.  Will you walk with me?”

The wounded man nodded, falling into step beside her.  Behind them, the tower continued to bleed out atmosphere, screaming the cry of a hundred thousand metal panels straining to their limits, roaring with the rush of wind and internal tinker technology.

He was the first to say anything, “We’ve got sixteen parahumans and twenty non-parahuman staff at the camp here.  Nerves are shot, morale is nil.  Nine of them got seriously injured trying to investigate.  I need to know what to tell them.  Telling them that a team of tinkers or whoever are aiming to shoot all of the earths’ air into space isn’t going to fly.”

“Tell them nothing except that their job is done.  My team will handle it.  If I can’t resolve this, there won’t be anything your coalition can do.  Eat the good food you were rationing out, drink.  The more you consume, the less you need to take back.”

The wounded man nodded, but he looked worried.  He hurried forward to get to the gate and hold it open for her.

The main tent was a gathering place and a dining hall both.  People were gathered out front and at tables within.  Out front was fine, with only a few oddities, like a handful of people in costume standing up as she approached.

Within the mess tent was a different story.  The tension in the room was palpable.  The capes on duty took up three quarters of the tent, sitting at their tables or standing nearby.  Cards and some of the food from the were scattered across the surfaces.  There wasn’t a buzz of conversation, and there was a noticeable gap between the people at the three tables and the denizens of the last table, furthest from the tent’s opening.

Silent stares accompanied her on her way to the far table, aimed at her from both sides.

The people at the far table were hers.  Not hostile, but not necessarily talkers, either.  They wore uniforms with a fair degree of cohesiveness running through them, but they were more united by the masks they wore.

A woman with striking tattoos around the eyes, in black, red, and yellow, the colors too solid and bright for an actual tattoo.  She had been one of the heroes that had come after Valkyrie, back when Valkyrie had been Glaistig Uaine.  Glaistig Uaine had broken the woman until she was only barely on the cusp of life, and then pulled the woman’s soul from her body.

A skinny man with no hair on his skeletally gaunt head.  She remembered him having hair when she had watched him die.  A goon in the Birdcage who had made a mutinous bid for power and lost.  He had been turned away by each cell block leader in turn before venturing into the depths of the Birdcage, where prisoners too dangerous for a cell block had been put.  He hadn’t survived his first run-in.

A handsome black man had a mark on his face, akin to vitiligo, but not quite the albino white that came with vitiligo.  A loose representation of a skull, drawn on his face in a lighter brown.

There were others.  Some had more extreme touches than others.  A consequence of how information was stored.  Longer-term storage reduced things down more, put information such as what people wore on their skin into the same categories as the skin itself.

And there was no storage longer-term than death.

“Cleo, Naja Haje.  Voltrage, Third Execution.  Edgeless, Forward Facing.”

The capes in question stood.  Cleo’s eyes glistened with opaque teal-green moisture, the fluids leaking out and weeping regularly, the brilliant color a striking contrast against her olive brown skin.  Where she dabbed with the corner of her sleeve and napkins, the fabric was bleached or eaten away entirely.  She wore extra layers, including a scarf to keep her hair out of her face, a shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket, possibly just to have the extra fabric, and possibly because she had other physiological issues.

The sad fact was that they weren’t Valkyrie’s.  She didn’t know them, beyond what she’d seen the last time she’d had them.  She couldn’t know their needs.

Voltrage was a recent piece of work, pale, with paler, drier hair than he’d had in his first life, a perpetually angry expression marked with arched brows and a pointed beard.  He was skinny, his shoulders especially bony, collarbone sticking out a bit more than was natural.  He’d ripped the sleeves off of the sweatshirt he’d been given, but had later donned a white long-sleeved shirt.

Edgeless was older, unfortunately bearing more of a mask than a face, a consequence of a lack of personality in life- which was why she’d made him one of the first she experimented with.  Dull in many senses of the word, he was big, bearing a combination of muscle and fat, and he obeyed orders.

“What about the rest of us?” Milk asked.  She was the heroine with the too-bright-to-be-tattoos marks on her face.

“Stay.  Do you need anything?  You’ve been fed?  You’re entertained?”

“We’re telling each other stories for entertainment,” Milk said.

Valkyrie looked at the other tables.  There were cards there.  Not at this table.

To ask or demand would be a power play.  She wasn’t interested in that.

Waggish, Twelfth of the Fabricators.

The shadow appeared, short, with dirty, blemish-covered skin everywhere but his face, where he’d once worn a mask.  The face was frozen in a serene smile, blemish-free.

Waggish had to hop up onto the bench to reach the things on the table.  He snatched up a piece of trash, then reached for another.  Some people nearby began sliding him things.

With two hands that were disproportionately large for his small frame, Waggish pressed the collected debris in between his hands.  There was an acrid, burning smell as it reconsolidated.  She could see the power work in the movements in the air.

Waggish set two decks of cards down on the table, holding one up for her to see.  Custom card faces, the upper left and bottom right of each card featuring a minimalist illustration of someone from around the table.

“If we don’t return in three hours, assume we’re dead or trapped.  Use thinkers if you can, verify our status, then mount a rescue or leave, as you see fit.”

“Understood,” Milk said.  She had already picked up one of the two decks, fanning it out so people could see.  She plucked one free and held it out.  Milk’s own.  “Thank you for the cards, Valkyrie.  And can you tell whatshisname thank you for not going the cliche route and making me a hearts card?”

“He heard,” Valkyrie said.  She glanced at the three she had picked out, then started toward the door.  They fell in step behind her.

Nobody else in the mess tent spoke.  Except for the idle chatter from the table she had just supplied with the cards, discussing rules and bets, the only noises were the buzz of the lighting that had been rigged up at the top of the tent, the flap of the wind against the taunt tent fabric, and the distant screeching and roaring of the colossal gun barrel.

“Cleo, stay safe.  Voltrage, Edgeless, clear the way once we’re inside.  There are traps.”

“Tinker?” Voltrage asked.

“Tinker, at the very least.”

Her phone buzzed at the side of her utility belt, where pouches and pockets were hidden by the armor that covered her upper body.

Dialback.

The specter appeared.

“My phone,” she said.

“The Wardens,” Dialback said.  “They said their thinkers read the situation here as critical, and want to know if there is any news.”

“What they want is good news.  Let them know I’m busy, and that we’ll contact them shortly with that good news.”

“They’ve complained in the past about my use of my power to communicate.  It reads as slightly corrupted, and trips flags.”

“Then ignore them,” she said.  She waited for the rebuttal, then dismissed the shadow.

Mushroom, Leadletter, Esclavage, Knallen.

The four shadows appeared in a half circle behind her.  Cleo, trailing behind, found herself right between Leadletter and Esclavage.

The burly Mushroom exhaled a dot of light, which flew forward.  It traveled the quarter-mile to the base of the tower, hit the closest thing the base of the tower had to a door, and blew it wide open.  Valkyrie could feel the rush of the wind from the blast.  Leadletter opened fire, drawing her guns and shooting at the fragments of door and frame that still hung on, to exaggerated effect.

Esclavage couldn’t act until they were closer.  The leather-bound villainess produced bands of metal from her wrists, each studded with spikes.  She wrapped the bands around pieces of rubble, and then flung them to one side.

Turrets began to spring out of the side of the tower, while drones began to emerge from the hole in the front.  Some of the drones set to repairing, while yet others advanced, weapons leveled at the group.  There was laser fire.

She had a functional team working in concert.  Voltrage’s electromagnetics caught the incoming fire, redistributing energy and stopping bullets.  Edgeless simply tanked the shots, while providing some loose cover for Valkyrie and Cleo with his power.

“What am I doing?” Cleo asked.  She tensed as weapon fire struck the dirt a foot and a half to her right.

“You’re here if I need you.”

There was a rolling explosion, as Knallen used her own power.  Waves of the defensive and repair drones were obliterated, hot scrap metal scattered at the corner where the edge of the tower met flat ground, and along the interior floor, where they’d been sent flying back through the open door.

Inside, there was vacuum, which the group had to fight past, using handholds and powers.  They reached the stairs and climbed up a floor before air was available again.

The interior was hollow, with complete floors at set, clearly planned intervals.  A staircase ran up the side of the tower, while a vortex of airless void plunged down the middle, as if the lack of air was a force unto itself, filling the bottom floor as air was forced out.

The waves of defensive drones were apparently endless, minimal in their design, with only two or four legs and a basic weapon each, sometimes with their ‘brain’ circuitry or batteries exposed, and often with some of the alien metal used in the tower’s construction as extra armor.

What was the distance they’d said?  Thirty-one miles?  Then this was an ascent that could require them to travel for thirty one miles up.

With drones every step of the way.  Ten or twenty on every flight of stairs, and the firepower she’d brought to bear with Knallen and Mushroom threatened to destroy stairs, making the climb more dangerous.

She dismissed them.  Two others.  Thirty-Eight and Gobsmack.  Thirty-Eight almost immediately matched up with Leadletter, the pair of them shooting in concert, trading off drone executions.

An uphill battle, in a sense.  Edgeless took the lead, not out of any specific intent, but because he was the only one who didn’t need to slow down, as he pounded the villains with soft, doughy hands that could batter but which could easily struggle to finish even a lowly drone off.

Voltrage, however, could collect debris and absorb incoming fire, letting his electromagnetic shield charge up, and then release it all in a burst that wiped out a whole flight or two of drones.

One flight clear.  Four hundred and thirty more.

She dismissed Esclavage the Rack, and called up Goose Down.  A supportive ex-heroine who could buoy the team.  She would climb four hundred stories on her own, if she had to, but the shattered remnants of drones threatened to sprain ankles or cause people to fall.

With the lift Goose Down provided, they moved faster.  With a bit of time, they got better at dispatching the drones.  The things were fragile and stupid, prone to repeating the same behavior without learning from the destroyed drones.  The feint and kick combination that worked against one worked against another.

Beyond the stairwell, she could see daylight and the rush of the heated, condensed air along the tower exterior, being swept up and channeled by the design of the tower.

Zappatore the Underminer.

The shadows she’d already called out felt the appearance of the fifth of their kind.  They would feel a fraction weaker and slower.  The net loss was much greater, but she did have Cleo, Voltrage, and Edgeless.

“Bombs?” she asked.  “Traps?  I don’t want the tower to self-destruct when we’re at the top.”

Guarderò

Grazie,” she replied, in her accented Italian.

The drones were numerous enough that they could come down the walls, now, or fall between stairs and land on stairs below, with just enough surviving the fall to be a problem as they attacked from the rear.  Cleo threw a knife at one, knocking it over.  Three more appeared at that same step a moment later.

It was bad enough that Voltrage wasn’t able to release his shield, because the incoming fire was too incessant.  The group would be riddled with holes in the one second it took him to regroup and bring his shield back into place.  As it was, the lightning barrier rippled to the point it was hard to see past it.

Niente qui.  Vai su?” Zappatore asked.

“Up,” she replied.  “Be ready, Voltrage.  The moment we stop.”

Away with Thirty-Eight the Eye.  She called on Yonder, the Gatherer.

Yonder needed to gather power.  When they did, it was to gather everyone in a bubble of air.  Beyond that bubble, the electromagnetic shield kept most of the enemies at bay.

The bubble lifted the group, with a suddenness that made the stomach lurch.  They flew up ten stories, and then they stopped.  The bubble caught them again, as Yonder prepared to move them again – a good thing, given the mile-long drop beneath them.

Here, undisturbed, the walls were so covered in the blinking lights of drones that a human couldn’t put a hand flat against the wall without touching one of those lights.  At least one light to each drone, no drone any larger than a medium sized dog, many as small as a gourd.

Voltrage released his power.  Electricity and the stored accumulation of bullets and other weaponry was flung out in every direction.  It crackled against railings and against the machinery inlaid in the interior walls.

“Sideways,” she instructed.

The air bubble floated over to the wall, and the assembled group was deposited on the stairs against that wall.

Already, there were more drones making their way down to fill the void.  It was getting hard to breathe, because the burned electronics smell, the ozone, and the burned air from the laser fire the drones output was so noxious.

“Oh my god,” Cleo whispered.

Zappatore shook his head.

“Take us up further,” Valkyrie ordered.  “Or this will take forever.”

Forever.  Even with shortcuts taken, it took half an hour for them to reach the point in the tower where an attack had been made by heroes looking to halt construction.  The tower, barrel, space elevator had nearly collapsed, but enough infrastructure had been at the top to hold it up until repairs could be made.  She could see the scars, and the effect it had on the air running along the exterior.

Up another hundred stories.  Her people were getting tired, so she tapped other resources.  Diaspora served to turn drones against one another, while masking the group’s presence.  Mudstreaked slowed the drones down, turning nearby surfaces into goop the finer or less nuanced legs couldn’t work with.

But there was no substitute for good violence, at least sometimes.  In the absence of the gunners and mass-destruction capes, the drones soon pressed in, until they were up against the electromagnetic field again.  Voltrage was getting tired.

“This is worse than the fucking world ending!” Voltrage screamed the words, amid pants for breath.  Where his hair had stood on end before, sweat now slicked it close to his scalp.

“No it isn’t,” Valkyrie answered him, her voice nearly lost in the chaos.

“What can I do!?” Cleo shouted.

Valkyrie wasn’t able to answer, because the noise rose.  Yonder was signaling that he was ready for another air bubble.

Up another hundred stories.  Zappatore signaled for the group to go back down another ten stories, because he had identified the collection channels, which captured particulate matter and carbon from the air, for the purposes of making materials.  Centrifuges were sorting that material by atomic weight.

Voltrage seemed happy to destroy something that wasn’t replaced a moment later.  The debris flew into the airless vortex right down the middle of the tower, and was cast straight down.

The air was getting thinner as they ascended.  Yonder’s air manipulation turned toward ensuring the group had enough to breathe.

The final twelve floors.  Machinery tore free of the walls- robots, loaded to bear with higher-end weapons, and covered from head to toe in the hardest armor this structure seemed able to provide.  Cleo’s thrown knife and slip of paper seemed to glance off.  Voltrage’s power rocked the military robots, but it didn’t damage them.

Edgeless threw himself into the fray, pummeling.  Alone, the muscle-bound brute was able to keep two of the robots from turning their weapons on the group, though he couldn’t stop them.

Valkyrie added her own strength to the affair, unfurling the living wings that one of her creations had attached to her costume, then drawing her weapon.

Her blade plunged into the first robot’s head, and as she pulled it free, she used the force of the blade coming free to sink it into the neck of another robot.

Relentless, dangerous, but ultimately lacking in imagination.

She had an idea of what she was up against by the time her squadron reached the workshop floor.  Drones were adding layers to the wall, gathering hot metal in beads, that they laid into gaps as the workshop floor rotated above.  With the continual rotation, gaps were exposed, and the platform steadily ascended.

She pushed the door open.

Not a conclave of mad tinkers.  No lesser Endbringer.

The man was small and broken.  Tinker technology riddled his body, not as a cyborg might do, but as an invasive organization would.  As a tree shifted its branches to work around an unmoving object like a fence or hydrant, the man’s body had worked around the technology.

His belly faced the sky, and he was almost naked, but for the catheters and other tubes that festooned his nethers, much as they did nose, ears, and heart.  He was moved as a quadruped moved, arms extending back as far as they would go, following the limping gait of the greater construct.

There were shackles that were clearly bolted to bone, the flesh angry around where the bolts had gone in, and some of those shackles served as places for tech to hang off of, including clusters of miniature arms and manipulating devices.

He or it was gathered around what looked like a motherboard, one arm hooked into a complex array of wires that stretched taut or ran between walls and from ceiling to floor.  The small arms and tools handled the finest details, like soldering spots on a computer board, the rigging of wires helped make the larger movements almost instantaneous, and the tinkertech festooned hands covered the remainder.

A human eye watched them as the body worked.  He called for no drones, drew no weapons.  Still, Valkyrie knew she had to be careful.

The entire body tensed.  The man’s body arched, belly reaching toward the ceiling, and then he gagged.  With choking coughs and a smell of burned flesh, he deposited white hot metal onto the floor of his lab.  Mechanical hands slid it across the floor.

The Scholar, Valkyrie thought, before she even properly looked.  Scion had been the warrior, but he hadn’t been alone.

The Scholar was long gone, but the fragments that had made her her were still out there.  There were some with a more malicious design, intent on breaking their hosts.  Specific, dangerous hosts.

It was hard to divorce her line of thinking from the way she’d used to think, faced with one of the dangerous ones.

She wasn’t worried, she wasn’t afraid, and she hadn’t been for the entirety of the climb.  Stressed, yes, but only that.

Now… pity.  The man’s back was arching again.  Valves in the tangle of catheters and other tubes were switching.  It wasn’t urine that was vented out, but something colorless and cloudy.  Long after it had finished venting, the man spasmed and twitched as much as he was able.  His legs and arms were moved without his permission, dragging him here and there so the other limbs and parts could work.

Turned into his own workshop, his resource supply, and apparently provided all the care the agent could provide that would keep him alive.

A tinkertech tower, thirty-one miles tall, created by one monster of the most inhuman nature.  Past a certain point, he would have created things like the resource collection vats, that distilled carbon from air.  He would have automated the creation of drones.

“Cleo.”

Cleo stepped forward.  “This is why you wanted me?”

“Whoever or whatever it was, if they were angry enough to aimlessly destroy worlds, they needed to be put down.”

Cleo nodded.  She drew a knife from beneath one layer of clothing, tested its weight in one hand, then spat on the blade.  She threw it at the man, the blade sinking in where neck met shoulder.

Flesh almost immediately began to die, turning black.  The tinkertech set to work, gathering resources, kits of regenerative bio-agent, making injections, and excising damaged flesh, all at the same time.

The poison was faster.

Valkyrie waited, listening and watching.

There.

The broken man.  She could identify him now, see the power he was given.

When she created him as a shade, he was a man again, without the technology hanging off of him.  He did stand with a hunched back, knees close together while feet were planted further apart, knobby-kneed.  Even like this, existence seemed to be painful for him.  Lingering psychic effects.

“How long were you working on this?”

“Ah,” he made a noise.

“You don’t have to answer, idle curiosity only.”

“Three years of preparation.  Two years of work,” the broken man answered.

“Were there failsafes or traps built in?”

He nodded.

“Show my people,” she said.  She called up the Mad Bomber and The Man Who Stands Atop.  “Explain to them.  Disable it.”

The broken man nodded again.

“Broken trigger?” Cleo asked, dabbing at one eye.  She had cuts on the side of her face, but they were small and shallow.

“No.  Nothing broken.”

The group was left to recuperate, the tinkers working on disabling the tower before anything untoward could happen.

As she waited, standing silent, her helmet removed and resting on the edge of a desk beside her, she reached out to Dialback, where he had a position deep inside her.

Phone?

The Wardens need help with things, and they’re worried about your silence.

Tell them I’m fine.  What do they need help with?

The Simurgh, was the reply.

Almost instinctively, another spirit deep inside her shifted, agitated.  Eidolon.  David.  The man’s battery was nearly spent, and the cost of replenishing it was high.

Stirred to life by the mere mention of his long-time opponent.

“That,” she said the words aloud, feeling the weight of them, “Would be the opening act of a tragedy.”

Heads in the area turned her way, curious at how she’d suddenly started speaking to nobody.  She waved them off.

They agree, came the response.  The Wardens don’t want you engaging with the Simurgh.  But they need help covering other crises and targets while they focus on her.  They know you’re tired, but-

I’ll go, she answered.

The effect fluctuated, barely visible in how it distorted the air.  When looking at any person or thing closely enough, the light distorted around the very outline of that person, shining brighter or appearing darker than it was.  This was like that outline, wrapped around a wide area.

People in very drab clothing were gathered as a mass nearby, wary enough that they huddled together, parents gripping their children to keep them from approaching or getting too inquisitive.

Two people had gone inside the effect, fallen, and couldn’t get up.  Attempts to rescue with tools had failed.

Shadows bubbled forth, emerging just enough to use powers or prod at the edges of the effect.

This Earth had diverged a hundred years ago.  It was very lightly settled, and even there, it was largely by accident.  Disease had hit just a touch harder during some critical years, and the population had floundered.

Now she appeared before these people as something akin to an angel.

“Time,” came the answer, from a member of her greater entourage.  “Slowed time.  It’s easier to enter the field than to exit.  The fit barely notice, but the sick and elderly can’t push out.”

She had a wide collection of shadows at her beck and call, and a strong squadron of other capes supporting her otherwise.

It was a question of finding the right ones.  At least here, there shouldn’t be any wounds to tend, nothing to delay her.

This was better than a mercy kill, tinkertech left unattended, a power run rampant.

She had other work to do.  There was a source to this effect.

She walked away from the scene, listening and watching.  Two of her servants followed as bodyguards.  Milk was one.  Cleo was another.

“Ma’am,” someone called over.

She motioned for her bodyguards to stay where they were.  She approached the woman, an elderly matriarch.

“Yes?”

“What can you say?” the woman asked.

“A small fragment of a… very mighty creature, that died two years ago.  It touched this place,” Valkyrie said.  “Did you see golden light in this world, two years ago?  Followed by devastation.”

“We heard it struck on the far side of the ocean here.”

Valkyrie nodded.  “That was him.  A piece of him fell.  Like a drop of blood, but he was complex and intricate enough that a single drop of blood could be a living, wanting thing on its own.  That droplet could be divided even further, and each division would be a life unto itself.”

“Like gods of myth.”

“A very small piece touched here, and it found root.  The effect is slowing time.  It grows with every passing day, little by little.”

“Is there anything that can be done?”

“Yes.  You can come if you want.  I can’t promise it will be pretty or easy.”

“I should, shouldn’t I?  I’m in charge here.”

Valkyrie walked through the quiet town, one metaphorical ear to the ground.  The woman walked beside her, and the two bodyguards walked a distance behind them, talking to one another.

The old woman looked back.  “Uncanny in appearance.”

The words were accompanied by a visible shiver.

“Touched by specks of blood, which found root in them.”

“As I heard it, the Wardens that we broke bread and cracked drink with were the same.”

“They did a good job of explaining things, then.”

They weren’t so uncanny, Ma’am,” the old lady said.

“These ones…” Valkyrie started, searching for the words.  “They died, and I brought them back, with some help.  In exchange for this life, they’ve agreed to provide me with assistance.  Some strangeness is to be expected.”

In another circumstance, they might have been the worst or most alarming words to say.

Here, the old woman seemed to take it as matter-of-fact.  What was a resurrection, when an active attack from an apparent god and visitors from another world were only two years fresh in one’s memory?

“Here,” Valkyrie said.  “I feel them over here.”

The path was a circuitous one around a house, knocking and getting permission to enter, and finding nobody else within.

It was only when Valkyrie and the now-impatient old woman stepped out onto the porch that Valkyrie had reason to pause.

Machinavelli.

The specter took form.

“No traps,” she instructed.  Then she pointed at the porch.  “We’ll want to put it back the way we found it, or better.”

Machinavelli nodded, mechanical mask switching between modes each time the head stopped moving.

Nails were pulled free and boards were uprooted.   In a matter of seconds, the porch was in its constituent pieces.

Beneath it all, matted and wet, was a large dog, breathing hard.  She could view it with a kind of double vision, and she saw the rush of images, the flickering, and a collection of impossibly tall people with the faces scrubbed away.

“I’m sorry, girl,” she murmured.

“The dog?” the old woman asked.

“Things aren’t as they should be.  Power fit for beings of myth are falling here and there like litter.  Sometimes it dissipates.  Other times it swells.”

“And other times it finds it’s root?” the old woman asked.

“This beast is the cause of your mysterious deaths and incidents.  It couldn’t know what it was doing.”

“The massacres?”

“I would guess it trapped prey by accident, and driven to the edge by hunger, it ate pieces of the accidental victims.”

“I see.”

Valkyrie had to pick her way through the foundations of the porch, with concrete settings for pillars- the pieces that couldn’t be uprooted.  She knelt by the dog.

She could tell almost immediately.  “Too far gone.  Even if it wasn’t, it’s incapable of using the power it has.  More would die.”

Settling down, sitting in the mud, she coaxed the dog closer.  Stroking it, she spoke to it in a soft voice, keeping her awareness tuned for any power use or flickering from the animal.

“If I could conscience it, I would bring you with me, brave girl.  How scared you must have been.”

The tone was more important than the words.  She lapsed into her native tongue, and the dog seemed to like the sound of those words better.

With her awareness of powers, she studied the dog as thoroughly as she could manage.

The dog was fast asleep when Valkyrie snapped its neck.  She could feel a tension release over the entire area, as the ravelings of time came undone.

The ones that had been slain by this accident of nature wouldn’t be coming back, either way.

The mess was tidied up, a means of communication established, and farewells said.

She actually used her phone this time, rather than relying on an intermediary.

“Chevalier.”

“It’s Valkyrie.  I found the culprit.”

“They’re not blaming us?  We’re their new neighbors, they have reason to be squirrely.”

“No blame.  They thanked us and invited us back.”

“That’s a relief.  Thank you, Valkyrie.”

“Chevalier.  It was a dog.”

“Pardon?”

“A dog with powers.  I tried to feel around it, see why or how.  I looked at the moment of the trigger.  The poor beast had a refrain of human words running through its head at a critical time, and the agent was damaged enough to try meshing with the animal, sick and diseased as it was.”

“How much do we need to worry about this?”

“One in a million chance.  But it’s a chance, and that chance may grow.”

“I see.”

“It’s handled.  I killed it.”

“Damn,” Chevalier said.  The disappointment was so palpable she could have laughed, if it weren’t over a dead animal.

“Take my word for it, Chevalier.  Whatever fun you might imagine a dog with powers to be, it would be the opposite in reality.”

“You think I’d imagine it to be fun, Valkyrie?”

“I think you have the traits of the best of little boys and the greatest of men, Chevalier, with courage to spare besides.  I can imagine the thought crossing your mind.”

There was an amused sound on the phone.  Then, more somber, he said, “It’s shit to have to put a dog down.  I’m sorry, Valkyrie.”

“It’s our mission.”

“Staying sane and on the level is part of that mission, so we don’t betray what we stand for.  That means acknowledging the shittiness of it.  You hear me?”

“I hear and understand,” she said.

“It also means taking a break.  Return to the city.  Rest, unwind.  You’ve fought an army of ghosts, staved off a potential world-ender with the atmosphere gun, hunted down and dealt with an exponential class-S threat that had gone exponential, you had a week off where you were supposed to be resting, but you decided to hunt down the breaker assassin instead, and you went straight from that to this, a dog with powers.”

“This was easy,” she said.  “A touch sad, but easy.  You were dealing with the Simurgh.”

“She was restless but we can’t figure out what she was actually doing.  It was scary but it was easy, as you put it.  You can’t keep going like this.  Why don’t you go back to the city and relax?  Sit around in your comfortable clothes and watch movies.  Go hang out with friends- I know you have a standing invitation from an old friend of mine.”

I’ve never watched movies, that I can remember.

I’ve never ‘hung out’ with friends.

And the city…

“I’ll think about relaxing,” she said.  “But I’m fairly certain I’ll come to the same conclusion I have before.  That I need to do this.”

“Valkyrie,” he said, voice stern.

“I’m fairly sure I’m older than you, Chevalier.  Don’t talk down to me.  I need to do this.  To help, to make up for past acts, and to gather the resources and contacts to attend to my flock.”

“Your flock.  I thought you had to stop.”

She looked back in the direction of Milk, who was talking to Edgeless.

“I did.  I want to find a way forward, regardless.”  She seized on the word like it had a deeper meaning, a power to it she could draw on.  “Regardless!  If I were to put my needs aside, I believe the rest of the world needs me to do this.  Too many of these incidents are ones only I have the ability to handle.”

“I could refuse to give you any information.”

“You could.  You won’t.  You and Legend work through injury and sickness, exhaustion and mild insanity.  You’ll let me do the same, because you recognize the need.”

He was silent on the other end of the phone.

“Is there something you need for me to handle, Chevalier?”

“There was a prison breakout in the city.  Frankly, we could use some eyes on that situation until things settle down for sure.  Shin is… stuff’s happening, Valkyrie.”

“I halfway suspect that you’re telling me that out of connivance, Chevalier.  Has the job corrupted you so quickly?”

“I am many things, but I’m not conniving.”

“To get me into the city, for a task where there is nothing meaningful to do, leaving me nothing to do but rest?”

“I have a very hard time imagining that there would be nothing to do there.”

“Something else, Chevalier.  Send me somewhere else.”

“They’re going to forget what you look like.  I think they’re already talking about you like you’re a myth or a memory.”

Something else.  Please.”

“The battlefront, then.  The Tyrant Kings.”

Africa, Bet.

“I’ll go.  Cote D’Ivoire for headquarters?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll contact you when I’m there.”

“Good luck.  I may see you and your ‘flock’ there.”

He hung up.  She put the phone away.

Her ‘flock’ was waiting for instructions.

“Everyone on duty is on rest mode.  Head back home, relax.  Everyone at rest is with me.  Prepare for war.”

Clouds of silvery poison gas rolled across black sand.  Soldiers in gas masks ran up a hill and slid down the other side, to where rocks provided some cover.

Valkyrie walked through the poison gas, protected by shadows that had granted her boons before fading away.  Her eyes teared up slightly, but that might have been the silicate dust rather than the chemical weapons.

Her flock was in step behind her, their feet scuffing in the fine sand.  Her shadows were likewise in step, but they made no sound, left no tracks.  They had their own boons, but some had decided to wear the gas masks regardless.  They wore no uniforms, but there was a commonality that tied them together, because their clothes had all come from the same stores at the same stops, or because they’d all come so close to the foot of the mountain that was her power and then they’d come back.

Subdued, but not submissive.  Quieter, not quieted.

Each and all of them remembered dying.  Many remembered dying at her hands.  It was a select few of those that she had brought into her flock.

Nineteen individuals, favoring the young and disciplined, the powerful, and the needy.

Then she’d been forced to stop.  The umber horse Disaster had reared her ugly head and made her imminent presence known.

The soldiers that had gone down the slope were none the wiser.  Valkyrie approached within fifteen paces of them, then raised her rifle.

It was only right that she kill, when expecting it of her soldiers.  She knew which of her flock would kill and which might aim just off to the side, so they could claim loyalty and let their consciences rest easy.

She had brought the killers and capturers.

The skirmish that followed was quick and brutal.  They were matched in numbers, but Valkyrie’s number included ten parahumans, eight being members of her flock, and six shadows, the power shared out among them to allow for greater number, intimidation and distraction, at the cost of less raw ability.

The opposing group was twelve or so Europeans who had hired themselves out as mercenaries.  Scum who enjoyed hurting people, pillaging, and looting to the extent that they were staying on Bet for it.  Staying despite dwindling food and climate, health risks and diminishing numbers.

Scum with powers.  She scanned her eyes over the glimmers.  Images of violence and pain.  For five individuals in the group, the images were closely mirrored.

One of the groups that had figured out how to create triggers.

She identified the powers as best as she could, by looking at the glimmers and identifying the agents by name and title.

The Solemn Child.  A tall, broad shouldered man with a red sash.  She aimed to take fire, and someone on the enemy side raised a wall.

“Shoot the one in red first!” she ordered.

The man could undo powers.  Given a moment’s opportunity, he could undo hers, and her power wouldn’t be the same again.

There was a small measure of satisfaction as she watched the man die, the top of his head removed as it poked over cover.  She avoided collecting him, leaving his power where it lay.

As others died, one by one, her own side holding firm while the enemy dwindled, she inhaled and exhaled steadily.  Calm in the storm, in the endless thunder of more than thirty weapons going off.  Then twenty weapons.

Her hand was steady, her aim true.

She had her rifle in one hand and a shield in the other, and she held her ground, shield out in front.  When there was a pause, she brought her rifle around, firing off a series of shots.  A bullet came close enough to touch her costume, though it left her untouched.

One of her shadows was being cheeky, letting them get that close.  She felt no fear.  Her flock protected her, and her shadows warded off the harm.

One power remained on the enemy’s side.  She saw the glimmer, and she drew out her power, bringing her shadows closer, raising them into the air as floating images, fully clear.

If he aimed at me and shot me in the heart, if the shadows I’ve instructed to protect me move too slowly, I could die right here.

The glimmer proved to be truth when the man raised himself up, surrounded by a storm of black sand.  Painfully bright slices of light lunged out of the ground and closed around him, with more sprouting out of the ground to make approaching him difficult.

Of the sixteen powered individuals with her, none seemed able to break or disrupt the shell.  The prism slowly rotated, its pointed tip aimed at the horizon.  As it moved to the side, the ground under it was made jagged with razor slices of light.

If he got away with this message, it could mean the local warlord was alerted about what he was up against.  Not disaster, but it could mean that the captives in the warlord’s possession could become hostages or negotiation fodder.  Better that he didn’t know what was taking out his forces and forcing him to keep his armies closer and closer to home.

He can’t get away.

I want to fly, she thought.  A shadow lurking within her responded, and it lifted her up.

The crystal jolted into motion, going from zero to two hundred miles an hour in an instant.  She only barely intercepted it, her fingers grazing the surface, bending painfully and burning at the brush with the light.

But she made contact with something.  She held onto that something with her power.

He flew away, and a part of him stayed behind.  He made it a few hundred feet before the power quit on him.

His body tumbled into the sand, the gas mask coming loose.  He didn’t reach for it, scramble, or gasp in pain at the poison he was inhaling.

For all intents and purposes, he was in her grip.  She’d taken his life the moment she’d made contact.

She let that glimmer of life and the simulacrum of power and personality settle into being.  A shadow.

“I need you to tell me where the captives from the raids in Rome are being kept,” she said.

The shadow shook its head.

“Tell me what you know about the people who can create the triggering moments.”

She saw and felt the surprise.  He knew something.

Again, a head shake.

“You’ll realize your position soon,” she said.  She looked to the parahuman that had come with her group.  “Any others?”

The woman shook her head.

As they prepared to leave the area, walking through the sand and checking the bodies for any identification, Valkyrie plotted a course that took them past the body of her shadow.  She made sure that he saw the corpse and the face.

This is what you have wrought, she thought.  But we will return to Gimel, that land of second chances, and you may, given time, have yours, as I had mine.

There were other squads, roving a village that had been evacuated in advance.  Motley groups, they used chemical weapons to make fighting back in response impossible, then roved through the vulnerable areas, where the only ones alive were gasping for breath.

Three more squads.  There were more parahumans among them, but it was closer to conventional, with the normal soldiers outnumbering the parahuman auxiliary.  She didn’t collect the fallen.

Valkyrie’s group had two captives, bound and firmly sealed with powers, and those captives took the bulk of the preparation time as they prepared to leave, figuring out how to carry them out.  Once the job was done, the group organized, powers were gifted and shared out, and they flew as a squadron, so close to the water that their toes could trail on the surface and the spray of mist both drenched and concealed them.

She breathed air with no traces of poison in it, and she felt faint anxiety.

She drew nearer to the Warden’s base in Cote D’Ivoire and that distant anxiety drew nearer by equal measure.

On the horizon, a fan of blue-white lasers rained down on a territory.  It was Legend who had arrived, not Chevalier.

The portal to Gimel loomed as the centerpiece of their destination, well before they were able to set their feet down on solid ground again.  People scattered, with places to go, showers to take to get poison off, and minor wounds to tend to.

The city needed help, but she couldn’t do anything to help it.  She could do this, ensuring that no one person would amass the power or the army necessary to seize a portal, this portal, and come through to raid the one lucrative settlement on Gimel.  They would have to bring boats through, but there were boats here.

There were too many human rights abuses, too many cities worth of people being prevented from leaving.  There were pockets like this all over, and as winter approached, things looked grimmer and grimmer.

“Did it go okay?” one of the capes on duty asked.  A PRTCJ uniform.

“It went fine,” Valkyrie answered.  “No casualties.  Some captives.  We’ll get information on the powers they’ve been using.  I have the spirit of one, and I think he’ll tell me what he knows soon.”

“Wow.  That’s pretty crazy creepy,” the PRTCJ officer said.

“Perhaps,” Valkyrie replied.  “Excuse me.  I need to rinse off the poison before the adaptations fade.”

As she walked away, she could hear a whispered exchange between the PRTCJ officers.

“You can’t just call them creepy when they’re Valkyrie, Crystal.”

“Oh, just stole a soul, gonna interrogate it, nothing wrong about that.”

Valkyrie paused.

“Oh, shit,” the not-Crystal PRTCJ officer replied, before ducking away.

“Don’t just run and… hi again, Valkyrie,” PRTCJ officer Crystal said.

“You don’t like it?  You’ve been on the front lines here, in the northwestern American states, and in Russia.  You’ve seen what we’re up against.  We need information.”

“I don’t like it,” Crystal said.

“It will be more lives saved in the long run.”

“It’s capturing someone’s very essence.  It’s deeply, deeply uncomfortable.  If you’re capturing guys on our side with permission and bringing them back like I’ve seen, I’m okay with that.  Otherwise, I’m not cool with it.  I’m not going to shoot you or fight you or anything, but… not cool.”

“I’ve had at least one of these conversations every day for the past few months,” Valkyrie said.  “Different points, different particulars.  I have people telling me to take time off, but this– this is what wearies me.”

“Am I wrong?  What am I missing?”

“You might be right.  I just find that having the question constantly put before me is… it’s hard.  If I hadn’t taken his life and automatically drawn him into me, he would have notified key people, and we would have lost the element of surprise.  Many more would have suffered and died.”

“I don’t believe in the ends justifying the means, sorry.  I think once you start thinking that way, you stop looking for those hard-to-spot answers.  But I’m a flying blaster girl.  Pew pew.  It’s shitty of me to judge you when I got the easy, awesome power, and you got the power with the built-in moral dilemmas.”

Valkyrie smiled.  “I’ll think carefully before I press him.  Can I ask, before we part ways?  A fiddly question.”

“Surrre,” Crystal responded, drawing out the sound in a hesitant way.

“Why ‘Crystal’?  Your power doesn’t match, as far as I can see.”

“I… I could be a flying shoot-crystals girl, for all you know,” Crystal said, almost defiant now.

“But you aren’t.  If it’s an issue, I can leave you alone.”

“No.  It’s not an issue.  It’s just weird you know.  Crystal is my name, Valkyrie.  My birth name.  It’s not a secret.”

“Of course.  Of course.  I feel stupid now.”

“Nah,” Crystal said, smiling a bit.

There was a small sort of rescue as Legend dropped out of the sky, spotted Valkyrie, and then flew over.

“Suddenly very intimidated,” Crystal said.  “Wow.  Hi.  I’m going to… walk away.”

“You’ve been doing good work, Laserdream,” Legend said.  “Take care of yourself.”

Mute, Crystal nodded, before flying off.

Legend sighed.

“I have one captive.  My team has two more,” Valkyrie said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Legend said.

“What doesn’t?”

“The warlord of this area is surrendering.  We still need to see how the politics fall down, but they think the army will return to its prior state, and they’ll serve the state, not the challenging party.  There’ll be some tidying up to be done, but they will protect the portal.”

“We’re done?” she asked.

There was that faint anxious feeling again.  The fear.

“The Wardens?  No, the Wardens aren’t done.  But we are.  They don’t need people who can level armies or subdue errant nation-states.  They need attention, resources, time, and a careful eye.  We can keep things tidy here with a skeleton crew,” he answered.

“And turn our attention to other things.”

“For this specific moment, Valkyrie?” Legend asked, “There’s nothing.  The monsters are quiet or dealt with, the armies are hunkering down for the cold weather, the unrestrained power effects seem to be restrained and quarantined for now.  There is only the city, which is seeing its first snow, just days after freezing rain.  They’re trying to find their equilibrium, and they’re counting on our help.”

She pressed her lips together.

“I know you don’t want to take a break, Chev told me, but I assure you… there’s a lot of work to be done there.  It won’t be a break.”

“I think…” she started.  She saw his eyebrows go up.  “If things are quiet everywhere else, I may take that vacation I’ve been told about.”

His eyes searched her face, looking for the lie or the catch.  “Hard to imagine.  It would be healthy if you did.”

I have errands to run, she thought.  If there are no monsters to slay, warlords to oust or towers to topple, there are still things that need attention.

“I’ll leave my flock with you,” she said.

A week.

A weeks of searching, of flying through worlds with only her shadows for company and assistance.  Of finding the meat and vegetables for her own meals, including tubers and edible roots found in nature that were dim substitutes for things found on supermarket shelves.  Her shadows prepared and cooked the meals while she rested.

A week.  A week, a day, and four hours, and she found the first settlement.  Shattered buildings had been repurposed.  Graves were laid out at the far side of a field.  Water, food, and shelter seemed to be secured.

There were cheers and cries of excitement as they saw her.  An eerie feeling, given that they were people from the city.  The Megalopolis.

And the questions.  They came one after another.  They wanted to know what had happened.  The portals had expanded and then things had connected.  People had been cast through, but they wanted to know why.  They wanted to know about the city, and if the city was okay.

She felt as impatient as she ever had and she forced herself to answer in as patient and measured a way as she could.

It might have taken ten or fifteen minutes before there was a break in the conversation long enough for her to ask her own question.

“The Wardens?  Did their headquarters come through here?”

“Yes, actually,” came the response, from a younger member of the group.

But that answer was less of an answer than the exchange of glances, the silence from the people who had been so talkative a short while ago.

A finger pointed the way, and Valkyrie flew in that direction, buoyed by shadows.

Had the two sites switched, the remnants of the Warden’s headquarters serving the hundreds who had come through on the other site, the remnants of the one or two apartment buildings lying on their side for the patch of people situated here, it might have seemed more fitting.

She released the shadow that was allowing her to fly, and stepped to the edge of the Wardens’ site.

Riley was here.  So was Rinke.

There was a thinker who had been kept in isolation, because he found stimuli to be too much, and there were five members of the Warden’s office.

Again, she was pulled into conversation, when she only wanted to ask.  Questions about the state of things, and that sing-song rhythm that Rinke and Riley could pull her into, where they played off of one another and seemed so natural, in a world that felt so hollow, shadowy and unnatural.  A siren call.

Because they were Rinke and Riley, it took even longer for the gap in the conversation to happen.  After twenty minutes, Valkyrie couldn’t effectively interrupt.  Rinke wasn’t making goblins, he was making homonculi, and he felt that was an important distinction, because they didn’t have personalities and they existed purely for labor.  Riley had questions and answers and she’d been experimenting to figure out options.  Rinke had things to say about being king or not being king.

But Jessica appeared, knees and hands grimy from gardening or farming on the small scale, and Valkyrie abandoned the conversation, quite likely offending the king-who-wasn’t.

“Ciara,” Jessica greeted her, smiling wide.  “You found us.”

Ciara nodded.  Emotions welled up, but she managed to keep them from overflowing.

“I’ve only had the chance to seriously look for a week,” Ciara admitted.

“A week you’ve been away from the city?”

Ciara nodded.

“Still keeping your distance, I see.  Venturing this far away from home when you could be there?”

It was meant to be joking, light, observation, not admonishment.  But Ciara wasn’t used to showing weakness.

The tower and the atmosphere gun.  The Simurgh.  The power effects betraying convention.  Broken triggers.  Ghosts.  Tinker devices left unattended.  Chemical weapons.  Mutants.  War.  Being hated or treated as alien or creepy everywhere she went.  Being judged for tending to her flock.  Being judged for failing her flock.

She could deal with that.  She could stand tall and she could face it down.  They were comfortable unknowns and question marks.

“The city.  We’ve talked about it.  Why I’m… staying comfortably away,” Ciara said.

“The biggest threat,” Jessica said.

“The biggest threat.  Yeah.  I’m terrified, Jessica.”

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