Tattletale adjusted the disc. The screen buzzed, flickered, showed the blue silhouettes of Antares’s group frozen mid-run, and then stuttered. A blue line made a circuit around the perimeter of the disc a few times, accelerating as it went, before the entire thing winked out.
The words that popped up in blue weren’t pointed in a direction that Darlene could see.
“Signal lost,” Tattletale said. “I guess Parian’s group found Love Lost.”
“Foil sounded confident that she could deal with her,” Capricorn said, his voice muffled by his helmet.
“She is very good at what she does,” Tattletale said, fiddling to tune the disc to another setting. It looked mostly like static. “She said she can do it, and I believe her.”
Darlene wasn’t sure why Tattletale had to do that. It sounded so insincere, but it was the backhanded kind of insincere where she could use an eye roll or a simple denial to shrug it off if ever called on it. Back when Darlene had turned five, Papa had been in a black mood for a while. From what Samuel had said, Papa had wanted to collect Sidney Saile, the girl from Vancouver, and he failed. That had been when Cherie had left and with Darlene’s mom being gone, she had no immediate family except Papa.
And Papa had had the black mood. More casually cruel than he’d ever been. Tempestuous. She only dimly remembered those days, like a bad dream, but she remembered some. She’d spent a long time having to worry about getting unlucky and having her dad single her out, out of twenty or so people, and a handful of people being kind of shitty. After the black mood, it had changed to the point that it wasn’t about getting unlucky and being that one person in twenty. It had been about being one of the ones who got out of the way and escaped his attention. Everyone had been scared and shitty.
Her sister and some older ‘cousins’ had gone to school. Cherie had. It had seemed like a fairy tale. The girls on television and in movies had gone to school and dreamed of being princesses and singers, even Sidney Saile had. Darlene had just dreamed of going to school. So she’d begged. She’d fought and even went on a hunger strike, until her dad made her eat until she was sick.
The compromise had been a homeschooling network and the homeschooling network had been Darlene’s introduction to the backhanded statements, the fake smiles, the two-facedness. Mostly it was the dads and moms, but some of the other boys and girls had learned it too.
She felt now like she’d felt then. There were dangerous people out there who wanted to hurt her and people she cared about, a black mood spread out among a few people, and even in her happier place people were shitting in the drinking water.
Tattletale briefly met Darlene’s eyes, her fingers still busy tapping and clicking at the disc, to go through channels and adjust settings.
Darlene felt the swell of Aiden’s chest as he puffed up a fraction, the little lean forward and up, like he had to push himself and stand a little taller to speak, and her full attention was on him before he even got the first word out. She felt his expression like she felt his own, even though his mask was blank, a circular disc with a conical beak, two beady eyes, and the cock’s comb. Eyebrows drawn together and up. Her own moved to match.
“Are they okay?” he asked.
“No signal. We won’t know until they’re clear of whatever it is that’s jamming it.”
“Can I take a look? I’m more familiar with Lookout’s tech.” Capricorn asked.
“Be my guest,” Tattletale said. She unstrapped the shield-like disc from her forearm. She passed it to Capricorn, who strapped it to his own arm.
Capricorn was pretty cool, but in a bit of a Chevalier way. He’d been a hero for a while, relatively speaking, and he was still around. She couldn’t see or feel his face because the only one she was connected to right now was Aiden, so he had a cool mystique, with an emphasis on the ‘cool’. His personality felt like it would be painted with shades of Samuel and Juliette.
Tress probably wasn’t taking the disc because her arms were artificial. Her body was encased in armor, and that armor had connections at the shoulders and back that had two large arms, half of a neck and half of a face extending from them. It was like she had a giant robot version of her, but it was only a quarter of the way there, and she was living like someone who had been chopped into pieces, moving forward by crawling with the overlarge arms. Darlene could see Tress’s face, but it was harder to get a sense of her than it was with the helmeted Capricorn.
In this moment, though, Tress was easier to read. Worried.
“Should we check on them?” Tress asked.
“Define ‘we’,” Tattletale said. “These kids are in my care.”
“I’d go,” Juliette said. “I’m old enough.”
Juliette stood off to one side, wearing a Velo-brand coat and turtleneck sweater that matched the texture and color of the wool cap she wore, her hands in her pockets. Her hair was straight, her eye shadow blue, and her expression deadpan cold. Amias was sitting on her shoulders, leaning forward in a way that pushed the hat slightly askew. The only thing keeping Amias perched where he was was Amias, because Juliette wasn’t putting in much effort.
Tattletale shrugged. “Sure. We do need to have a conversation sometime about how you want rides places, you want clothes bought for you, which is kid treatment, but you want to be considered ‘old enough’.”
“It’s the benefit of being a teenager,” Juliette said, deadpan.
“Benefit of being the not-your-mom adult in the room? I can say no.”
“Does being really good at helping out with the cape stuff help?” Juliette asked. “I can kill someone if you need someone dead.”
“I want to see less people dead, not more,” Tattletale replied.
“I can promise to try to kill less people if I can keep getting the best of both worlds. Rides, clothes, and missions.”
“You’re supposed to be Imp’s headache, not mine. Let’s just get through tonight.” Tattletale said. Weary, she said, “We’ll talk to Imp about it, another time.”
“We shouldn’t split up any more than we already have,” Capricorn said, his voice quiet. “Not when they’d be happy to catch some of us alone.”
He was clicking through the channels. It was only static and blank images.
“Mm hmm,” Tattletale made a noise.
Darlene clasped her hands together, staring down at them. Her focus, though, was on Aiden.
“I could say I’m going no matter what,” Aiden said.
“We could,” Darlene added.
Aiden put out his hand. It took her a second to realize she was supposed to give him a fist bump. She did, glancing his way, then turned her eyes back to Tattletale as the hands made contact. She could feel his hand, feel her own hand, and as he continued to move his hand, moved hers to mirror. Fist bump to high-five to finger-wiggles to backwards-high five. Their hands flipped around to a brief hand hold, her idea, then pulled away, tips of their middle fingers brushing against palm, then middle finger, bent just enough that they caught at the tips. A small songbird was already flying down, perching on the outstretched fingers. It peeped, wings spreading as it flapped dramatically without taking off.
Ninety-five percent of it without looking at each other. Darlene broke into the silliest smile, and there was nothing anyone could say to make it budge.
Tattletale folded her arms. “I have to admit, that was cool.”
Aiden was smiling behind his mask. He puffed up like he did, chest out and forward, trying to stand straighter. The bird on their fingers took off.
“How many tries did that take to pull off?”
“That was the first try,” Aiden said. Darlene wanted to bounce on the spot, but that would have bugged Aiden, so she just clasped her hands together and let the nervous energy jitter through one leg, toe of her boot on the ground, heel bobbing rapidly up and down.
“It’s cool, don’t get me wrong-”
“Very,” Tress said.
Darlene’s hands, still clasped together, thumped against her upper chest, pressing against her collarbone, arms hugged against her body.
“It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hurt if you get into a fight,” Tattletale said.
“If someone’s going to get hurt, and my friends are there, I have to be there,” Aiden said. “I have to.”
“Do you know if it’s a danger?” Capricorn asked, quiet. He dropped his left arm, the disc strapped to it, dark, and held a phone to his ear instead. He turned to Tattletale. “What does your power say?”
“Nothing clear,” Tattletale said. “And I’m not taking a leadership position. I’m taking a looking-after-the-junior-members position. My power isn’t at your beck and call.”
Capricorn raised his hands, surrendering. His phone was in one hand. “Sveta? Thoughts?”
“We need to help them if there’s a possibility of trouble.”
“I’m not sure. Some radio silence is normal. With tinkerings especially. Except there’s nothing on the phone either.”
“Phones being down sometimes is normal too,” Aiden said. “In most places.”
“True,” Capricorn said. “But you can see where I’m worried.”
“I’m worried too,” Aiden said. “That’s Candy, Roman, and Lookout out there. They’re some of my favorite people.”
“Tch,” Juliette made a small sound, because Aiden had mentioned Roman.
Capricorn blurred. His entire body and the blue armor he wore became just a little bit bigger, and where his eyes were, she could see a glow. The glow faded last, as the blurring went away.
He cleared his throat, a little louder in that than he’d just been, talking quietly.
“There’s another option. They’re out there, thirty to forty-five minutes away, something like that.”
“Less,” Tattletale said.
“But still a trip. We have to get there. So think, which of them are getting into trouble where our arrival decides things? Are they running, and we show up in the nick of time? Or are they better off with us moving forward, possibly winning, and creating a negotiating position.”
“Hostages?” Darlene asked.
“Hostages only work if Love Lost or March even care about what we’re doing here,” Capricorn said. “I’m thinking that they want answers or people or something else. We can get that here and change things there.”
“I vote for that,” Juliette said.
“Mmmm. You were just talking about killing people,” Capricorn pointed out. His finger tapped against his forearm, where his arms were folded. He looked at Tattletale, “Is she trustworthy?”
“There’s no way for me to answer that question without causing problems or having more headaches later.”
“That’s kind of an answer on its own, isn’t it?” Tress asked.
“Is she trustworthy?” Capricorn asked Aiden. “Not just for this vote. If we’re doing anything, my team needs to know.”
“Juliette’s good at cape stuff,” Aiden said. “She says she likes watching people die. I’d say listen to her unless people might die.”
“Qué chingados…” Capricorn muttered, looking at Tattletale for confirmation, which she didn’t give. “Can’t be simple.”
Can’t be simple with Tattletale either, Darlene thought. Tattletale had wanted to separate her and Aiden like she was separating Aiden and Lookout, until Darlene had made her argument in the car. Her power made Aiden safer. If Candy was the only one with Aiden then that would be bad in its own way, because Candy egged him on. If none of the young Heartbroken were with Aiden, then the older Heartbroken would be, and very few of them were good role models… and Aiden would be worse off in the future, because there wasn’t going to be a time anytime soon where he wasn’t surrounded by the Vasils.
Tattletale had agreed, points for that. But she’d wanted to separate them and Darlene would remember that for a while.
“The benefit of this is it’s simpler,” Tress said. “Mobilizing is hard, and what happens if we go all the way there, communications are dead, and we can’t find them?”
“Good point. What about you? Your votes?” Capricorn asked. He turned toward the group.
“Mine? Ours?” Aiden asked.
Darlene felt Aiden blink. Felt him make those small actions that prepared him to speak like an adult to adults.
“My birds are here. This looks like the kind of place where I can use them. I don’t know if it’ll work wherever we end up.”
Darlene looked around. The university was a lot of large, spacious buildings, with sloped concrete overhangs covering walkways, outdoor ampitheaters with stone stairs instead of seats that were now covered in snow, and second-, third-, and fourth-floor aboveground tunnels that extended between buildings. Right now, they were among the dorms. Cradle was said to be active on the other end.
She could see how the birds would be useful.
“Let’s stay,” Darlene said.
Capricorn nodded. “Let’s move to a better position then.”
Tattletale was looking around, taking in information. Tress walked forward on her hands, her ‘body’ barely touching the ground, Capricorn beside her.
It was nice that they’d asked instead of telling, and it was the best thing ever that the handshake had been a thing and that everyone thought it was cool.
She felt Aiden shift how he was walking, drawing closer. She half-turned, realizing what he was doing, and met his three-quarters of a hug with one of her own, the two of them still walking, just now with one arm around each other and their heads close together. Her forehead touched his hard mask, and the physical contact was more of a squish than anything, because they were wearing extra layers for the cold weather. She was connected to him and she could feel him there, the extra squeeze of the hug he attempted, even though she didn’t feel one hundred percent of it on her end.
She took in a deep breath, happy, and she could smell the shampoo he wore and the birds he spent so much time around. There had been a time a year ago when she hadn’t talked to him much, and she was still, as Imp put it, ‘understandably fucked in the head about certain things’. Her best ideas of how to go forward with the feelings she already had about Aiden were from raw instinct, because Cherie was a bad big sister to look up to for that stuff, and Papa and ‘the women’ were a worse adult examples.
During that time a year ago, in her ‘fucked in the head’ phase, raw instinct had been to quietly hold her breath and only breathe in if he was close, anytime she was in his company. Smelling him had mingled with the rush of having oxygen again and the dizzying feelings that swam through her. He hadn’t noticed, because as much as her education in things had been a flood of too much, his had been too little. Tattletale didn’t like anyone, Imp was discreet, Bitch was too far away, and his parents had died when he was little, so he could barely remember them or their relationship. He didn’t even like any of the shows that would teach him the little things.
Maybe that fucked up phase had been a good thing, as tragically lame as it had been, and as much as her cousins had teased her once they realized she was doing it, with Aroa and Juliette getting in her way and Candy playing on the other team, trying to get Aiden closer. If she hadn’t needed to push herself to get closer so she could breathe and not pass out or die, she might never have started talking to him.
And then she wouldn’t be warm, her face this close to him.
“Good job on the handshake,” Aiden whispered in her ear.
“I was just thinking I was so happy with how that worked.”
“I need to focus on my birds. But you’re awesome.”
Darlene nodded, smiling.
Aiden broke away, leaving her with only the warmth on the one side, leeching away in the cold. He put his arm out, and a trio of birds landed on it, each with the camera collars. With his other hand, he had his phone out, and he thumbed his way through until his phone was displaying the view through the camera.
The birds took off. The image on the phone screen became a whole lot of darkness with occasional flecks of white. As the birds changed course, buildings came into view.
He turned her way. His mask was expressionless, but she felt him smile. She smiled back.
Tattletale walked at a certain distance away from the group, her phone out. She pressed it to her ear.
“Which building was it that had the high power draw that made you think tinker?” Capricorn asked, quiet. He’d changed back to his blue self.
Tattletale pressed a finger to her lips, shushing him. She pointed, and Aiden sent out his birds in that direction. The camera showed the view, and each tap of the screen rotated to another camera. The images were too jarring at the outset, but settled as each bird found its perch on a different building. One to the north, one to the west, and one to the south, focused on a building with black tiles all across the exterior, and the yellow-tinted solar windows that didn’t have much color to them in the gloom.
“I need more,” Tattletale said, still on the phone. “Details?”
There was a pause.
“Details I can use,” Tattletale said. Her voice was tense now, which got everyone’s attention. “That’s not the point.”
“What happened?” Tress asked.
Tattletale pressed her finger to her lips again, clearly annoyed. “If you don’t feel comfortable going after them alone, come here. I’ll send you the address, keep your phone handy.”
Capricorn folded his arms. The metal made noise as it brushed against more metal, and Tattletale inarticulately waved her arm in that direction, trying to gesture for him to be still and stop.
“We’re twenty-three minutes away.”
There was a pause.
“It doesn’t work that way. Twenty-three minutes is twenty-three minutes. You can’t say ‘I’ll be there in fifteen’ and make it happen.” Tattletale waited, shifting her weight from foot to foot, her breath fogging as she sighed, her eyes rolling. “Then I’ll expect you to turn up in twenty-three minutes, irritable because you weren’t here in fifteen.”
“Aunt Rachel,” Chicken Little said.
“She turned up at the meeting place. The team got taken down. Love Lost was where March was supposed to be. No sign of March. Because she’s here.”
“She overheard? Saw something? How do you know that?” Capricorn asked.
“I know. The good thing is that March isn’t where Foil and Parian are. The bad is that someone else is, and the people we’re up against are confident in their abilities.”
“Yeah,” Tattletale said “Right now, we’re surrounded. Nine to ten parahumans and three unpowered are here, already in position. One to three more are on their way here as reinforcements.”
“Aunt Rachel’s on her way here too, right?”
“Yeah,” Tattletale said. “Battle mode.”
“We’re choosing fight over flight?” Capricorn asked.
“They won’t let us fly,” Tattletale said. “Battle mode, I am not joking.”
Blue lights began to appear around Capricorn. Tress shifted position, dropping to all fours and bracing against the ground while the long arms with the slender hands moved. One provided some light cover to Aiden, Darlene, Juliette and Amias.
Darlene reached into her coat, pulling out a mask. Imp had supplied them, and they were all built around a theme. Darlene didn’t even remember Jean Paul, but apparently that was the style that they were matching to.
It made Imp happy, at least. Darlene looked at her mask, which had silver forming a kind of tiara shape, extending up the nose across the forehead, and down the temples, where they curled around to the cheekbones. The lips on the mask were silver, the eyes of the mask black. She fixed her hair around it.
“We should get inside,” Tattletale said. “Can you, Tress?”
“Yeah. I can’t do narrow hallways, but if it’s an emergency, I can ditch these arms.”
“Can you ditch them now?” Tattletale asked.
“Let’s wait until they get in the way or slow us down,” Tress answered.
Inside. The building at this area of the university was a concrete fixture that had a lot of stuff underground, based on the way it almost immediately had a four-times-normal -width set of stairs that went down, with stairs on the far left and right that went up to a higher level. Artwork was mounted on the walls, people that Darlene was pretty sure she was supposed to recognize – a male scholar and a female scholar. There were people inside, standing or sitting on stairs, and they reacted with alarm as they saw the gathered group, with Tattletale, Chicken Little, Tress, and Capricorn all in costume.
She supposed she, Juliette and Amias had masks, but Darlene had a hard time calling it costumes. They weren’t costumes any more than normal clothes were costumes. She had her nice coat, her velvet dress with the extra layers underneath, padding out the skirt portion, and black tights with silver-leaf pattern printed onto them. Her shoes were another thing Imp had provided her.
Juliette’s mask had four eyes, two smaller ones beneath the main ones, and spikes that could reach straight back from the masks’s edges. The spikes were on hinges, and didn’t actually reach directly back because the shape of her head didn’t let them, but it formed a distinct look. Amias had been lowered to the ground, he had slipped his mask on, black with gold flecks and veins at the edges, blending in with black hair and the black toque.
“You should network,” Aiden whispered.
“I can connect us,” Darlene said, loud enough for the others to hear. “Who wants in? It lets us coordinate. You saw the handshake.”
“Me,” Juliette said.
Darlene reached out, connected to Juliette, and felt the sensations bubble into existence- it wasn’t quite immediate, because background noise didn’t fill in, so it was only the parts that Juliette intentionally moved and the things that received new, less usual sensations that registered the sensations. The feeling of the cold metal railing as Juliette slid her gloved hand down the length.
It was that ‘had to be prompted’ thing that kept Darlene from feeling things like Aiden’s private areas. If and when a sensation stirred into her awareness, she politely ignored it.
Juliette knew the routine, and she moved and flexed everything in order, clenching hands, then feet, then forearms, calves, thighs, stretching- Darlene locked in the sensations.
“It’s that easy to connect?” Capricorn asked. “What’s the upside?”
“Coordination,” Darlene said. “We know exactly where each other are and what and how we’re doing.”
“It’s weird at first,” Aiden replied, quiet. “But if you’re going to ask me the same thing you asked about Juliette, I trust Darlene. I’d trust her with my life. I trust her with this.”
Darlene’s hands drew together, clasping, then broke apart a moment later. She didn’t know what to do with herself, hearing that. The emotions inside her were a mess, everything a jumble. She imagined that if he’d said something a little more, then she could have teared up or felt as warm as she ever had, depending on what it was he said.
But that was all he said, leaving her… flummoxed. That was the word.
“So easy for you to say, huh?” Capricorn asked.
“Trust is earned,” Aiden said, and though he didn’t move his head, Darlene could feel the eyeballs slide against eyelid, turning Tattletale’s direction. “Darlene earned it.”
“Dumb,” Juliette said.
Darlene wheeled on her cousin. Juliette’s face was hidden by her mask, but even without the mask, even with Darlene able to feel every inch of Juliette’s face, forcing the sensations into being, she couldn’t feel the slightest of twitches or movements.
They reached the bottom of the stairs. The base level of the building had the aroma of sweat, like gyms and pools did, and past them, rows and columns of lockers. The group stayed together as much as they were able, as they filtered between the columns.
“Fire alarm,” Capricorn said, as they reached a central area, with hallways extending in every direction. “Assuming they know where we are or that they’ll find out as soon as someone friendly to them passes on word, it gets the civilians clear.”
“They know where we are, don’t worry about that. Pulling the alarm lets them know we know.”
“It gets civilians clear,” Capricorn said. “Yes?”
“That has to be worth it.”
“If you say so.”
He started forward, hesitating like he expected her to tell him not to, then with more confidence, he strode toward the little red plate on the wall. He hauled down on the switch.
The ear-splitting noise was immediate, worse because she heard it with three sets of ears and each was positioned in a slightly different place in the group, because the building was all poured concrete, and the sound bounced around violently.
The group hurried forward. Deeper into the building’s underbelly.
“We’re getting further from my birds.”
“It’s the best way right now,” Tattletale said. “It makes us harder to track with tinkertech, and there aren’t security cameras down here. Only employees with instructions to watch out and radio if there’s trouble.”
Tress spoke up. She was making her way down the stairs, her hands out to the sides, sliding down the railings. “If you don’t think it’s going to be a problem, and if it doesn’t affect my movements or yours, you could try connecting to me. Don’t be-”
Darlene connected, missing outright on her first attempt, then aiming for the face and finding the connection there.
The others had been gradual, a handful of sensations at a time, as each body part made contact with something. Tress felt like a hundred sensations at once. Limbs as thin as pencils and as strong as small caliber gunshots were fumbling, reaching, thumping against her shell, and groping blindly for rings and switches, hauling back on cords, gripping those cords, tracing the seams of the hollow metal shell, and straining against bondage where metal bands cinched them together into groups, leaving them to rustle faintly against each other. The longest groupings were extended out to and through the metal arms, where they strained and worked, providing a lot of the mechanical movement for the added limbs.
She felt Tress’s lips part, the words barely audible over the screech of the alarm. “Oh wow.”
“You okay?” Capricorn asked.
Tress nodded. “It’s… nostalgic. The sensations of a normal body.”
“Connect me?” Capricorn asked.
Darlene threw out a hand in his direction.
Her head twisted to one side, as she tried to take in the sensations. She’d expected a two-dimensional image and she got a three-dimensional one.
She’d felt a boy’s body, with her brothers and Aiden. Capricorn felt like a man’s body, in a way that even Samuel didn’t, and Samuel was close to the same age. Strong, burdened by armor, breath hot inside his helmet. That was the Capricorn who was walking down the stairs.
Another Capricorn was overlapping that, frozen like a robot with the power switch thrown off, suspended and moving along with the Capricorn she saw. Frozen as it was, she could feel the heat of the brain against the skull.
Here and there, feet and legs were moved instead of moving on their own. Always maintaining a workable footing.
“Oh. Shit,” Capricorn said. “So that’s a thing.”
He sensed it too. Part of the network.
“And Sveta’s… wow.”
“Don’t get lost in the network,” Aiden said, quiet. “As neat as this always is, it’s supposed to help, not distract.”
“Good advice,” Tattletale chimed in.
“This is weird,” Capricorn said. “Even putting the fact that my brother’s there, and Sveta’s- I’m getting new insights into Sveta.”
“Yeah,” Tress said.
“If you want to stop-” Darlene offered.
“No. It’s just weird. Even if I ignore that stuff… weird for other reasons.”
“You shouldn’t feel anything too weird,” Darlene said, defensive.
“You get used to it,” Chicken Little said. He was probably happy to get to be the expert for a while. “I grew up around powers, so I’m good at adapting to the little things.”
“Grew up,” Juliette said. “You barely started.”
Aiden huffed. Juliette laughed without making a sound, body shaking. Darlene glared at her.
“Cretan and Lionwing are standing guard that way, probably with someone else. Nursery, Lord of Loss, Blindside, any other prominent merc,” Tattletale said, indicating off to the left. “We’re going that way.”
Opposite direction. They picked up the pace. The danger felt more real now, in a way that the fire alarms hadn’t driven home.
They made it about thirty feet before Tattletale stopped in her tracks.
Tattletale held up a hand for silence, which seemed insane, because the fire alarm was loud. Hearing anything that wasn’t from someone a few feet away was impossible.
Tattletale turned at a right angle, a course that would have carried them even further from the entrance and the stairs that had led them down.
She didn’t actually walk forward.
“Cretan and Lionwing,” she said, pointing left. She pointed forward. “Case fifty-three, case fifty-three, and Contender.”
“Vulturehawk and Thud,” Tress said. “Weld’s sources say they’re not from our Earth. There’s a language barrier.”
“They’re here, in the building?”
“Yeah,” Tattletale said. She pointed right. “Cradle, Operator Red, two of March’s underlings. We don’t know what those underlings do, either.”
“What if we go the way we came?”
“The rest of March’s group,” Tattletale said.
“You picked a shitty way to go,” Tress told her.
“I picked a good way. We pick and choose which group we want to bust through as we make a run for it. How strong are Thud and Vulturehawk?”
“Strong,” Sveta said.
“And Contender’s in that group. If he catches us, then there’s nothing we can do, unless we’re willing to abandon one of our own.”
“As the person most likely to be abandoned, I vote no,” Juliette said.
“Let’s avoid the guy with the assumed chop-people-up tech,” Tattletale said. “Let’s avoid March. We’ll throw ourselves at the trained, efficient killers.”
“We can make them less trained and less efficient,” Juliette said.
Tattletale hung back. She looked at Capricorn and Tress.
The two nodded.
“You good with this?” Capricorn asked, his head turned toward the other half of the group.
“Yeah. Good,” Chicken Little said.
Darlene nodded her agreement.
The group broke apart as they ran past more rows of lockers, each seated in sloped concrete pads, then reunited on the far side. The lights of the underground space were both too bright when looked at and insufficient to light the whole area.
The fire alarm shut off. The ringing in Darlene’s ears continued, the only sound other than huffed breaths and running footsteps on hard floor.
Lionwing and Cretan were there. White and black armor, hers modeled with a griffon aesthetic, his modified with a bull, but no clear or obvious horns.
Always amazing to see when Tattletale is accurate, Darlene thought.
Cradle was there too, wearing a tinker’s outfit with a jacket. The entrance was blocked with Cradle’s mech. A tall man in a flowing costume stood with a flickering line held between his fingers, like a dart or card made of black energy, visible from only the edge.
“Paris,” Capricorn said, under his breath.
Cradle audibly snarled on seeing them. “There they are. The job.”
“Not without being paid,” Lionwing said, not budging.
“You’re aware Tattletale is a mastermind? Why would we pull your pay in the middle of the job? Do the task and you will get paid.”
Paris nodded, stepping forward. The others hung back.
“Go,” Capricorn said. “Go!”
They turned and ran.
A dart flew past them. It cut into the base of one row of lockers. Where it hit, it disintegrated. The end of the row began to tip to one side, and as it fell, it brought the rest down. The group was forced to shift direction, to avoid putting themselves in the way of lockers toppling like dominoes. With Capricorn leading the way, they ran on the partially collapsed shelf, which was now more horizontal where it had been vertical.
“What the hell happened?” Tress asked. “Tattletale!”
“Someone fucked with my reading. Two someones. Your brilliant leader called the bank or something and the mercenaries aren’t getting paid. Good is they’re pissed and we have less to deal with, bad is it fucked with my reading.”
“She did what we wanted to do,” Capricorn said. “Each team tries to do their job, do what they can from their end to support the other teams. You can’t blame her.”
“I’m not blaming. I’m stating facts. I can’t give accurate information if certain things aren’t communicated to me.”
“Phones and discs are down,” Capricorn said.
“I know!” Tattletale shouted. “Can-”
Something detonated off to the side. Darlene shrieked, hands going to her ears. Her eyes went wide as she saw the shelving unit beside them starting to fall.
Tress caught it. Except Paris was coming right up behind. He threw one dart, and it penetrated Tress’ arm. Where the dart hit, the arm began dissolving, spraying off pellets that dinged and pocked the lockers where it hit.
She twisted around, aiming the spray toward Paris, who ducked low and pulled his hood down over his head. Disappearing around a corner.
“Sidepiece is coming,” Tattletale said.
“Whoever said that is lying!” Sidepiece called out. “I was faking it! Do you want to see the real thing? Let me show you!”
Capricorn was drawing out blue motes. As he heard that, he shifted position, until his body was almost touching the motes.
They turned to sprays of water, and that water banked off of his armor, spraying hard up and out.
Tress’s one intact arm caught him, keeping him from being bowled over by the force of the spray.
There was another explosion, way off to the side. It took a second for Darlene to realize what had happened. The spray had caught whatever was being thrown at them.
Tattletale reached back, grabbing Amias’s hand to help him run. They passed the initial row of lockers, moving to the center of the crossroads- routes lined with lockers, benches, and places to study extended in all four directions.
Darlene felt Juliette spin around, then go stock still, trembling.
“Tress, Capricorn!” she tried to shout and it came out almost as a screech, pointing. “Hit him!”
Paris, emerging from a row of lockers, was now frozen mid-step.
Capricorn started forward, jogging in Paris’s direction, unaware.
“He can’t move while Juliette doesn’t!”
Capricorn picked up speed.
With a gauntlet, he slammed his fist into Paris’s ribs. Paris didn’t budge, except to sway.
Another hit to the same spot.
Then, realizing he didn’t need to be efficient, that it was about doing damage to an opponent that couldn’t defend themselves, an uppercut to the jaw, with a gauntlet around his hand.
“Pull down the lockers!” Darlene cried out.
Capricorn touched the lockers. Then he looked at Paris, and he hesitated.
“Tress!” Darlene tried. “Juliette can’t run until he’s dealt with! If she starts moving now then he’ll be right back after us!”
“No,” Capricorn said.
If he was going to say anything else, he was interrupted before he could.
Another detonation. This one came with a flare of orange light that didn’t seem to make the area brighter, because the smoke that came with it obscured as much light as the fire created.
“They’re closing in,” Tattletale said.
Aiden reached into his jacket, retrieving two birds. “I hope you two are warm enough. You’re all I’ve got for now.”
The birds took off, circling around the group.
There were more coming.
“Cretan and Lionwing struck a deal,” Tattletale said.
“Can you say anything that isn’t about how this is getting worse?”
“We can go that way or that way,” Tattletale pointed. “Any way that isn’t to Cradle or March. The lines will be thinner.”
Fire barred one of the available ways.
Toward Operator Red, then?
“There’ll be only one or two at these exits, probably,” Tattletale said.
Sidepiece, darting in and out of cover, hurled something.
A lump of something meaty that splashed on impact, the stuff that splashed igniting a second after settling.
She hopped up to a metal bench above the flame, fingers tearing at her middle, and then turned-
Again, Darlene felt Juliette freeze.
She bolted forward.
The birds flew with her. She had to pick where she stepped carefully, because the ground was on fire, which made this a game of ‘the floor is lava’. There were bags left behind by students fleeing on hearing the fire alarm, which was ironically not making noise while there was actual fire.
‘Sidepiece’, now that Darlene could see, was a woman built like an apple that had been eaten to the core. Her hair was styled and her mask scary. She looked like a zombie, except she was supposedly explosive.
She was also frozen, standing on a bench above a sea of fire.
Some people were immune to powers. Most of the Heartbroken had some resistances to being controlled or having their emotions messed with. Darlene was hoping that Sidepiece wasn’t immune to her own fire.
Hopping up onto bench surrounding a pillar, she had to jump onto a melting plastic cart, then onto the bench that was part of the row that Sidepiece was balanced on.
One arm around her face, to keep from breathing in the smoke, she shoved Sidepiece, and Sidepiece toppled. The woman landed at the edge of the fire, her feet in the flames.
Veins and tendons stood out, her body rigid now, while Juliette continued to refuse to let her move.
She hopped down onto Sidepiece, one more stepping stone in this game of ‘lava’.
“Come on!” she shouted, her voice high. “This way!”
The others followed. Capricorn lagged behind, creating water. Paris was dodging the water until-
Juliette turned around, freezing him. Which released Sidepiece, who shrieked like she was being burned alive.
Darlene stared down at the woman, watched her thrash. Seeing her get on hands and knees, trying to rise, Darlene kicked, heel toward head.
Sidepiece ducked her head low, the heel hitting the back of her head, but not seeming to do much. She’d hoped it would put Sidepiece back in the fire.
“You’re so fucked. I’m going to fuck you up, you little fucking fucker!” Sidepiece shouted, her voice raw. She was trying to pat out the flame.
The birds harassed her, pecking and swooping. One got her ear, tearing at it.
And in the background, the others weren’t catching up.
No, because Lionwing and Cretan were catching up. And the Case Fifty-Threes. The group had tried to go one way and they’d stopped. They started to come her way, and Cretan used his power.
It was a wave, a pulse that rippled over everything. Where it passed, things were bent. Rows of lockers now turned at right angles, ground bent up, requiring climbing up a two-and-a-half-foot ledge, and off to Darlene’s left, a hole in the wall showed a tunnel, with a tiny version of Cretan upside down on the far side.
That tiny Cretan turned toward her, then began charging down the tunnel, swiftly growing larger.
No no no…
Water gushed, aimed down the complete wrong direction, and yet somehow it passed into the tunnel, gushing in spirals and throwing the bull-costume mercenary around inside the confined space. Some water sloshed out on Darlene’s side.
“-clidean space,” Tattletale was saying.
“Come!” Darlene shouted.
In the tunnel, there was a splash, as Cretan brought his fist down on the ceiling of the tunnel.
Another pulse. Another ripple.
This time, there were walls and bends that obscured Darlene’s view of her team. She could feel them, though. They felt a normal distance away, even if her last glimpse of them seemed to put them in weird places.
Leaving her alone. Separating her from them. From Sidepiece, thankfully. From the birds. She could only hear the shouts and the chaos.
She turned around.
A man in red, with a white handprint on his mask. He held a knife.
She wished she wasn’t wearing her own mask. Maybe if she wasn’t, she could say or do something, pretend to be innocent.
The man threw a pair of handcuffs her way. They slid on the floor, traveling in a straight line until they hit a weird bend, then slid left a short distance.
She bent down to pick them up.
“Cuff yourself to that bench. If you use a power, I cut you where it hurts,” the man in red said.
She opened the cuff, looking at the serrated metal edge that allowed for the handcuff’s adjustments.
“I can’t stand being tied up,” she said. “It makes me want to barf.”
“It has to be better than being hurt or dead.”
She shook her head.
“Don’t make me be an asshole,” he said.
“I just want to go back to my friends,” she told him, her voice small. She could feel Capricorn being kicked hard. Felt Aiden’s back slide against a surface as he tried to make himself small. “They need me.”
“That’s exactly why I can’t let you do it,” the man said.
“Life has really, really sucked for a long time,” she told him. “I finally have good things. I have a boy I like.”
“Cuff yourself, then.”
She shook her head. She had to swallow gorge to keep from coughing or vomiting into her mouth. Just the idea of it brought her to that point, made her breathing uneasy. “I’d lose my mind.”
Aiden noticed, turned her way, touching the wall.
Not that it helped.
She broke the connection. The absence was palpable.
The man approached, knife held out, until it touched her throat. She breathed hard, her eyes wide.
Was there even help coming? Someone coming through the wall? Aiden’s Aunt Rachel?
No. Not this soon. Even if she came in fifteen minutes like she’d said.
She created a connection to Operator. Connecting her body to his.
The knife moved, touching where her jaw met her neck, and pressing in enough to split the skin. It stung, and she saw him jump at the feeling.
She pushed the knife hand away, cut the power and punched for the balls- and he blocked her hand. He wrenched her arm to one side, so she bent over-
And she reactivated the connection. Let him feel that pain of arm being twisted backward.
Her foot had always had a quirk, where if she curled it in a crescent shape as hard as she could, it cramped hard. She did that.
There was an element to things where it was sympathetic, and while it was sympathetic, he felt compelled to adjust his balance, move his own foot, to do something about the cramp.
She shifted her weight, shoving into him with all her weight. He stumbled, still holding her arm above her, shoulder socket twisted nearly as far as it would go. She forced the twist, reasserted the connection so he could feel it just as much as she did.
He released her, catching her by the neck instead. He had the knife-
And she had her hands free. She grabbed her finger with the hand that still had the cuffs, and she bent it backward until something gave.
The knife didn’t reach her throat. It clattered to the floor and she was able to push and pull free of the hand that had her neck, the injured finger flaring with a pain that lanced to her funny bone and up to her shoulder, close to her throat, where the pain magnified the barfy feeling that had accumualted there.
She threw herself at the knife, curling around it.
He kicked her, more to get her off the knife than to hurt.
“I was going to go easy on you because you’re a little kid, but-”
She bit her tongue, hard.
It shut him up, startled him. An opportunity for her to take the knife she’d grabbed and swing it madly in his direction.
Except he knew what he was doing. On her second swing, he slapped at her wrist, and her hand went numb. The knife clattered from it.
A blow to the temple, and her vision went fuzzy in one eye, the other seeing double, like all the vision in one eye had been shoved into the other.
“I can do things other than hurt you,” he said, growling.
She brought the handcuffs down with her other hand, relying on her sense of him. She was too slow to disable her power, so she felt the initial connection, where the blunt point and serrated edge caught him in the wrist, gouging. She fell as much as she pulled down, and the thing was hauled in deeper. A fishhook set.
With a hand with one broken or badly hurt finger, she hung onto the cuffs, the rest of her reaching own, groping for the blade.
He kicked her, along the lower half of her body, and the pain was immense, jolting through her. He’d hit her in the back, near the spine. She knew he felt it, just as much as she felt the injury at the wrist for as long as her power was active.
Her fingers found the knife, touched it, made it spin instead of grabbing it.
She kicked up, toward the balls. He blocked it again, but took the momentum out of the kick more than he stopped it entirely. It made him bend over slightly, and that gave her the chance to pick up the knife.
Still hanging down, pulling on the cuffs where they were embedded in flesh, because relaxing it would mean he could pull the cuffs out, she swung wildly with the knife, aiming at the only flesh in reach- the back of the arm she was pulling down on. Four wild strokes, and she’d turned flesh there into thick ribbons, blood pouring down to the ground.
She bit her tongue again, hard. Every part of her was tense, rigid, trembling, straining, and her face mid-bite was no different.
He hurled his mass and her mass around in a quarter-circle, screaming as he did it, because he was pulling on the cuffs and making the damage worse, but in the doing, he created an opening where he could grab her hand and peel it away from the chain of the cuffs.
She reasserted the connection as she picked herself up.
She knew exactly what he was doing as he did it. Her movements weren’t as eerily efficient as his, but they were informed. On the occasions where it did look like he’d catch her, she used her power, so he felt it too.
She took an opportunity to cut him, and that was the point he stepped back, panting, bleeding, and drew two more knives.
She still couldn’t see in the one eye, one ear was ringing, the other eye was seeing double, and her back hurt, where he’d somehow hit her and made the organs hurt. Not just one, but multiple ones, the pain radiating through.
He lunged, and she dodged. He swung downward, and she reached up, both of her hands gripping the handle of her one knife, to provide the strength that, combined with the rush of danger, almost let her match the strength of a grown man using one arm. Her knees bent as she tried to keep the knife from coming down, she felt him get ready to stab with the other knife, and let her hand slip.
The hand came away from the handle and found wrist. She dug fingers into the wound, making him drop the knife, then brought her blade away from where it had been holding him at guard, matching his swing with hers. The knife ran along knuckles.
She’d aimed for fingers, hoped to chop them off, but the knife wasn’t an extension of her or her power. Had she used her fingernails, she knew she could have gotten them exactly where she wanted them, respective to her opponent.
This wasn’t the only time her mood had turned this black.
“Nobody’s taking them from me. I have a family, a job, and things I want to do.”
She bit her tongue. She tasted blood.
“-mrg,” he said. “Stop that.”
She lunged for him, scrambled to get away from one swung, lunged point-first for another. On attack, her power was off. On defense, it was on, ensuring that she knew his every move, she could deflect, absorb, reduce the impact, and when she felt anything, he did too.
She didn’t stop. Her assault was on his legs and his footing. Cutting his thighs. Swiping for his groin.
A glancing blow, a knife sinking into her upper arm. The sympathetic feeling of the pain weakened his grip on the weapon. She twisted back, pulling it out of his reach. When he reached again, she kept twisting. Always keeping that horrible pain away from the fingertips she could feel just as much as she could feel her own.
He took a step back, and she felt the thigh muscle flare with pain and fail to provide the strength in the same moment he did. She closed the distance, driving the knife into his belly.
Her face against his collarbone, she withdrew the knife and stabbed again and again, then dropped to her knees, just to get the knife handle to a place where he couldn’t grip it and pull it from her arm. His fingertips touched the handle, but didn’t come close to gripping it.
He struck her across the face, instead. This time, she was rendered entirely blind, her head full of noise and pain.
The Operator slumped to the ground, and she felt everything, felt the blood welling out, sticky between fabric and skin. She knew he felt the pain and noise in the head that she experienced, and she felt it was fair. Fair that he had to experience the kind of thing he’d done to others.
She wished she had a good quip. The others were better at it.
“I’m Heartbreaker’s kid,” she said. “I’m not as powerful, but I’m better, because he was horrible. You shouldn’t have fought me. That was stupid.”
He wore a mask, and she could feel him gasping and gawping, a fish on dry land, his hands at the portion of his stomach where he had multiple stab wounds.
She reached for his mask, to pull it off. He shook his head, refusing.
She stabbed him a few more times, trying to hurry him along his way. It didn’t really work.
She turned away, instead.
The others- she pushed out with her power, trying to get it through the wall.
Sidepiece. Sitting with her back to a wall. She banished the power as soon as she realized who it was. Another direction.
She felt Aiden’s alarm and agitation as he realized she was hurt. He touched his arm.
She cut off the connection and looked down at the knife at the spot he’d indicated.
Darlene had spent enough time around Roman to know the particulars about stabbing people. Pulling things from stab wounds made it worse, not better. Though she wasn’t sure it really was better, here. There wasn’t much there at her upper arm, with it being as skinny as it was, and the knife kind of bobbed and dangled where she moved wrong.
“Darlene’s hurt!” Aiden called out.
She pushed out. She found Capricorn, crawling across the floor.
Everyone was separated from everyone else.
“I’m sending birds! I’m going to try to reach you!” Aiden called out.
She looked, groping for openings. The floor had turned up at a right angle and nearly met the ceiling now. She set to climbing up, as best as she could with two feet and one arm. A bench had turned up at a right angle too. Her starting point.
She reached over the top, where there was a foot of gap, and a bird touched her fingers.
“Take me to him,” she said, before she started squeezing herself through. The English phrase ‘stick out like a sore thumb’ kind of applied, since she had a knife sticking out of her, and a narrow space to fit through. She did her best, her arm draped across her front, right hand by her left hip, wriggling through, groping for handholds on the far side.
A labyrinth. She felt out with her power. Found the Cretan. The Minotaur that was making this maze. He moved so quickly through it that it seemed impossible, though it was possible he was undoing the effect as necessary. His head turned her way.
The power that let her find people also let them find her. She had to be careful.
Into the L-shaped space that Capricorn was in. She dropped down, and her legs were so shaky she landed on her rear end.
“Creating handholds,” Capricorn said.
She nodded, tense.
“So are you,” she said.
He was in two pieces. The legs were twitching. The upper body, lying on its back, was creating orange lights.
He didn’t respond, didn’t elaborate. Didn’t say he was okay or not okay.
She felt out with her power, establishing a connection. She felt his body, in two pieces. The other side of him was intact, waiting.
“That’ll have to be good enough. I’m not-” he groaned, a strangled sound.
He blurred, trying to change back. It was a torturous thing, the blur reaching out, groping, trying to connect, to meet the two halves.
She reached for him, grabbing the lower half, and dragged it closer by inches.
Unnecessary. It just took time.
Capricorn with the blue armor, now. Intact. With her power, she felt the two separated parts, floating superimposed around him.
“Climb. I’ll follow. I may have to lose my armor so this doesn’t break under my weight.”
She climbed. She could follow orders when important.
“You kids are scary,” he said.
“Yes,” she murmured. “We have to be.”
She climbed, one hand and two feet, the other hand more a guide to remind herself where she was.
On higher ground, she had a vantage point of more of the battlefield, below raised walls, around bends. The tunnels that seemed to magnify and shrink.
The Cretan crashed down near Sveta. She struck at him with a gauntlet.
She saw Tattletale backing up until she was out of sight and hurried forward. Aiden was rarely far from Tattletale.
“I’m not a part of this. I’m keeping half of an eye on the kids,” Tattletale was saying. “You don’t want to go this far.”
Though unable to see Tattletale, Darlene could see Cradle, holding a glowing red whip.
“I have to,” was the response.
She heard the impact, a sound like the whole universe was gasping for breath.
Again, she heard the sound. This time, it struck a wall, carved it away like it was butter.
The wall fell away, and Cradle advanced, head low, passing between the four segments of Tattletale,
“Cradle- the most intact part of Tattletale said. “You have a mole. Someone who tipped you off.”
“Learn your own lessons. Mercenaries follow the highest bidder,” Cradle said.
Darlene pushed out, connecting herself to Tattletale- to someone who had been carved into quarters and felt it. Then to Cradle. To stop him, to stall.
But that was all she could do. She watched as he found his bearings, straightened, and ended further discussion with a stomp of his boot vicious enough to mute out Darlene’s connection to Tattletale.
The whip flared as he cracked it, turning toward her.