“I’m back,” I told Darlene. “That wasn’t a minute, was it?”
She shook her head.
I had Juliette with me, her arm around my shoulder. She had a wedge missing from her side, and some horrific damage to her shoulder I couldn’t parse with the blood and the way her hair matted into the wound.
She pulled away as soon as there was a bookshelf in reach to lean on. Hand over hand, with one arm barely functional, she crawled along the wall to the nook by the door, where she slowly eased herself down. Still hand over hand.
“Do you want help?” I asked.
Juliette shook her head. She reached over to the light switch. Only half of the lights in the space were on, and with a flick of the lights, only the light from the back room where Lookout and Swansong were and the light from the stairwell we’d come from were there.
Nobody complained or commented.
She settled in against the wall, leaning sideways into it instead of sitting with her back to it.
I was wary as I watched. There was something about how quiet she was and how rigid Darlene was, that made me feel like Juliette was a powder keg about to go off. I had no point of reference, I didn’t know much of anything about her except that she and her brother didn’t get along, and the feeling persisted because- because there was no way she could be like that and not be bottling up emotion, ready to vent it at the next or nearest excuse.
She pulled out her phone from her pocket. The screen glowed in the dark. She fished in her pocket with the shaky arm that was attached to a shoulder with a gap in it that I could have put my hand through, and she pulled out the headphones that were threaded up and under her top.
I saw it coming as soon as I saw the glimpse of blue at her side, where it looked like a triangle had been taken out of her. The headphone cord had been severed.
Her hands shook as she held the severed cord.
“Do you- do you want mine?” I asked. “My earbuds?”
She nodded once, a single jerk of the head.
I pulled mine out. Rather than approach, I tossed them to her.
In taking them, she turned further away from me. As if she had to move away from giving a thank-you, refuse my existence further, because I’d supplied that help.
“Antares?” Darlene asked, a question in a small voice.
One eye on Juliette, I found my way to Darlene’s side, crouching down.
Juliette plugged the earbuds into both phone and ears. Her head leaned against the wall as she stared down at the screen, the blue light illuminating a pale face with drops of red at the side, spray.
Darlene, at least, seemed to relax as Juliette did. I touched her shoulder, and felt her start at the touch.
“I peeked in on Lookout and Swansong. Capricorn is helping them. If- I may have to go help him again.”
“Don’t leave,” she said, her voice small.
I slumped against the wall, going from a crouch to a hard sit. She reached out, trying to hug me, and I pulled her a bit closer, which provoked a head shake.
It took a second to find a position where she was comfortable. Not being too far from Aiden, her back pressed against his. Her head in my lap, even though I wasn’t a person she knew.
My heart was pounding like I was in the middle of a fight, my thoughts were chaotic, and I was just sitting, trying to figure out how to handle this, worried that I was somehow doing this wrong.
“Lookout,” I heard Byron. “Lookout, stop-”
Lookout came around the corner, hobbling on one leg, a hand at the wall, the other leg she was using terminating at the ankle. She set the stump down, reached out to the wall for support, and paused as she looked at Darlene, Chicken Little and I.
Byron came around the corner, checking. I signaled that it was okay, even though I wasn’t sure it was.
“Don’t touch him,” Darlene told Lookout, sitting partially up. There was a panicked note in her voice. “You can’t touch him.”
Silent, Lookout started forward again.
“Lookout,” I said.
There was a grim kind of determination as she made her way forward, more extreme than a limp. I started to rise, but hesitated when she went straight past Chicken Little. I had to catch her as she half-crouched, half-collapsed, landing between Darlene and I. I eased her the rest of the way down.
“Thank you,” she said, quiet.
Just past her, Darlene looked wary.
“You can’t run on that leg,” I said.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she said. There was a pause. “It hurts a lot. But putting weight on it doesn’t hurt. It’s frozen like it is.”
“This is doable,” Lookout said. “I’ve been hurt worse than this. Not that I want to say it’s minor, because it’s not, I want to sympathize and-”
She’d been hurt worse than this? With her parents? I found that really hard to imagine.
Or… not physical pain.
“Okay,” Darlene said, her voice tight.
Lookout was tense, fidgeting.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked. “Either of you?”
Darlene shook her head. She didn’t, I noticed, insist that I stay.
“My helm-” Lookout started. I caught the hitch in her voice. “My helmet. The, um, I was thinking about what I was going to say when people showed up, and- can you help with my helmet? I-”
She reached up with both hands. One hand had a thumb missing. The other had been cut at a diagonal. There was nothing except a triangle pointing to the corner nearest where the pinky would be.
I hadn’t seen, glimpsing into the room before letting Capricorn handle our teammates, turning my attention to Juliette. I felt guilty having left Kenzie, but I would have felt worse, making a promise to Darlene and not following through.
“I have it,” I said. I tried to find the clasps.
“I thought what I’d say, and it sounds weird, now that I’m here, but watertight bodysuits really suck so much when you’re sweating a lot. I feel like I’m swimming in here, and it’s full up all the way to the neck. Is that gross? I’m sorry if that’s gross. I don’t know why I fixated-”
Another hitch of the voice.
“It’s okay,” Darlene said.
I didn’t have words. I just focused on the helmet. I found the clasps and opened them.
She was sweating profusely, but I wasn’t sure that sweat was responsible for the moisture at her cheeks. Saying something or pointing out how out of sync that was with the smile on her face would have been betraying a trust, however.
My first concern was in mitigating the damage. Kenzie and Darlene, and then Chicken Little who was lying a short distance away. Was it making things worse, Kenzie being here? I didn’t have the best read of Darlene or Chicken Little. Kenzie sat beside me, her back to the wall. Darlene lay on her side, propped partially up because to do otherwise would mean her head was in Kenzie’s lap.
“When help comes, you might need to put that helmet back on. Darlene, your mask, too. I know it sounds like the dumbest thing ever when things are like this, but it could be a lot of people, and once your face is out there then your secret identity is kaput.”
That got me a solemn nod.
“Are you okay?” Kenzie asked.
“Not very,” was Darlene’s response.
“Capricorn warned me Chicken got hurt.”
“Apparently,” I said, quiet, because I wanted to make my voice heard now, before the conversation reached a point where it was too much of an intrusion.
“They hurt him. We couldn’t stop them. He can’t see or hear much now,” Darlene whispered.
Matching Darlene’s volume, Kenzie said, “Can you? I know it must hurt to be connected.”
“You and Chicken?” A tighter tone of voice, defensive.
“You and me, silly. I want to help him but…”
Lookout reached down, using the left hand that was only four fingers, no thumb. Index and ring finger went beneath Darlene’s arm, while middle and pinky went over.
“Go easy, Lookout,” I said.
Darlene resisted a bit as Kenzie lifted the arm, but didn’t fight as it was moved toward Aiden, instead.
“Help me help him?” Kenzie asked, pushing the hand of the dismembered arm toward Aiden.
Aiden stirred slightly, then touched the arm, pulling it closer to him. Both arms wrapped around the limb, pulling it against his chest.
Macabre, but I could see Darlene visibly relax at the gesture.
She wants to help too.
“Connect us,” Lookout said, insistent.
Her most injured hand reached down to Darlene’s intact one, touching wrists. Lookout twisted around to see me and spotted the helmet.
I followed the unspoken request, putting it in reach. Watched as Lookout moved her hand, Darlene moving hers in concert. Used Darlene’s fingers as her own to reach to the back of the helmet, with me rotating the helmet to help.
The ‘bun’ at the back was soon disconnected. A flick of a small switch made it open, two covers pulling back to reveal the camera ‘eye’. Another two small adjustments made that eye turn left and right, then up and down.
The distraction seemed to help both of them. No hitched breaths, no physical jolts of pain. The light from the stairwell caught a bead of sweat at Kenzie’s forehead, lights glittering on the moist surface of Darlene’s eyes.
The camera was removed from its oblong mounting, moved over toward Chicken Little-
He jumped at the physical contact, squeezed Darlene’s arm harder.
The pad touched his neck. The camera came to life, moving stiffly, the cover ‘lids’ opening and closing slightly, the ‘pupil’ narrowing and widening. Rain’s tech.
Kenzie leaned into Darlene hard, pressing their faces together as the camera focused in on them.
“Hi!” Kenzie said. “Hi there.”
“Hi,” Darlene said, to the camera-eye.
“Hi,” Chicken Little spoke for the first time. “I can’t hear you. I can’t see you clearly either. I don’t think it’s because it’s dark.”
“We can work on that, can’t we?” Kenzie asked.
I extricated myself, letting the two girls get to a more comfortable position, Kenzie communicating through Darlene’s power to get Darlene to act as her hands. Darlene didn’t need me to cling to, at least for right now.
“Sveta?” I asked.
“What can I do?” I asked. My voice carried into the dark.
“Leave. For your own safety.”
The words stung. A gulf separated us.
“I can use my forcefield to get close.”
“Don’t. Not when- not like this.”
She didn’t trust herself. It wasn’t just the gulf. She was several steps removed. On most days I’d seen her at the hospital, she’d been one or two steps removed from hurting me. One mistake to smash something into a forcefield, another mistake to do something to my body.
Here, to cover that distance, turn the corner, to smash my forcefield and then to hurt me, it required a sequence of mistakes.
And she saw that sequence as being too possible.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Me too. I’m just- why? Why couldn’t they take my word for it when I said I surrendered? Why did they have to wreck it? Why did they-”
There was a movement. A object hurtled in anger, startling, then I startled more as that object exploded.
Not fire and heat, but a violent release of pressure. Layered lemon-slices of plexiglass overlapping one another, each one curved and nestled into others to form a ball shape. On impact with the floor ten feet from me, the pieces had sprung apart. I could see where the damage had already been done, pieces sliced through, some pieces missing.
“Sorry,” I heard her voice.
“No,” I said. I leaned against the wall, staring up at the ceiling. “No need for any apologies. I get it.”
“Can you give me some space? I want to mourn.”
Byron was helping Ashley, and I knew they heard. Both looked at me.
“The body,” I said.
“I really liked it,” she said.
“So did I,” I said. I could have said there would be another one, if anyone in her immediate circle could help it. Even that Rain had the details on the internals that he’d been replicating as something writ large. Didn’t matter. There was something sentimental about this body, and it was no longer usable.
“I could have killed him. Them. I had a split second to decide, and I worried that if I instinctively grabbed at the whip, then the tendrils would be cut loose. They could hurt a lot of people if they weren’t attached to me.”
“You made the right call.”
“I think so,” she said. “But it’s not easy knowing I might’ve stopped some of this from happening.”
“We have options,” I said. “Trust me? Can you just… give me some faith, that I can figure something out?”
A long pause. Wrestling with herself, in more than one way.
“Yeah,” she said. “Just… some space? Until I trust myself?”
“I’ll be back to check on you soon,” I said. I knocked on the wall as I left.
I had to walk around bookcases to reach the table where Ashley and Byron sat. The table had been moved so that Ashley could watch Kenzie’s group.
About ten feet away, Flor was handcuffed to a desk – a professor’s desk, fit for the front of the classroom, with the internal shelves and drawers. her legs were stacked against the wall, and she hunched forward, hair hanging down as she tried to tear open the wrapper from a treat from the vending machine with her teeth. She’d been supplied with a lot of things, and for now that seemed to be keeping her content, much as Juliette’s phone was allowing her to tune out.
Treats and battery life were finite, though.
“Status?” I asked Byron.
“The rest of team blue is arriving soon. We got a status update from Vista, we were debating calling emergency services, or which teams were even available,” Byron said.
I could see the toll that this dark place was having on him. He sat closest to the glow from the back room where Swansong, Lookout, and Flor had been stowed. His brother was hurt and he had to be acutely aware of that.
“No emergency services just yet,” I said. “There’s not a lot they can do. Let’s wait for our reinforcements first, regroup, make sure we know exactly what we need. But people will have to show up to do cleanup. This much blood is a biohazard. The more injured people are going to need fluids and blood. We’ll have to arrange it so we can brief them on the scene before they walk in. Flor, Sveta… too many dangerous scenarios.”
Byron nodded. “Good. That sounds right.”
“Swansong?” I asked.
Possibly wary of a trap, Cradle had been less sure of the strikes he had delivered to Ashley. Marks cut into thigh but didn’t penetrate all the way. One mark cut into the prosthetic hand. Once one leg had been severed at the calf, he had stopped.
Tristan had supplied a peg leg, with the raw end of the stump set into a blunted spike of stone with a growth meant to reach around the calf. Strips of her dress bound it to the leg.
She sat in a way that had her leaning back, trying to look casual and failing utterly with the darkest of looks in her eye, as she surveyed everything around her, the various kids in particular.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Works.”
“Did you get painkiller?” I asked. Byron had found some in a kit.
“I don’t know if they’re okay to take with the meds I’m on,” she said.
“I can search it on my phone, if you want.”
She shrugged. When she turned her head to look at the kids, I could see how drawn her face was, the meager light highlighting the rise and fall of musculature beneath the skin of her face and neck.
“Vista reached out,” Byron said. “She couldn’t get ahold of you?”
“I put it in the other room. I didn’t want any sudden noises bothering Sveta while she’s unsure of herself, and I thought it would be a good idea to charge it in case Juliette’s runs out of power.”
He nodded. He could have called me an idiot for not being available. I wouldn’t have faulted him.
But he wasn’t the type to do that.
Byron tapped through to find an image. He slid the phone across the table in my direction.
Brockton Bay, not New Brockton, and it was thoroughly Vistafied, as Vistafied as anything I’d ever seen. I recognized the scar, a section of the city where Bakuda’s bombs had been detonated in a massive bombing run, chaotic and unpredictable, and then sealed inside an encasement of concrete taller than most of the buildings in that area.
That encasement had broken when Brockton Bay had been hit, but enough of it remained to be recognizable, with color leaking out of the gaps, like fireworks in slow, two-years-to-get-this-far motion. That section of the city was above the Boardwalk. Folded forward, walls folded in. Buildings meshed together like teeth of a zipper, many rooftops a matter of ten feet from the counterpart rooftop on the other side. There were gaps, but many of those gaps were filled by the sections of the city that stabbed in from the west half of the city.
The ‘bay’ of Brockton Bay and the ocean beyond it was reduced to a vein of water that ran along one edge of the almost-cube. Another wall was a distortion of things from pretty distant territory, if I could judge by the ‘rings’ where long distances of terrain had been compressed down: I was guessing Earth Bet’s Killington was among them.
A sign of how sparsely populated Earth Bet was, that she could pull that off. A city folded like origami, distant locations pulled in, so that all of the places they needed to protect were within a few minutes of one another, one upside-down, one leftside-right, one placed at the back, so a lattice of ruined buildings and trees protected it.
One open face, facing the rest of the world, with the terrain leading to that face being warped, altered into ripples, made as slow to traverse as possible.
Go you, Little V.
“I bet she’s happy with that,” I said.
“She is,” Byron said. He slid the phone to where Ashley could see it.
“Badass,” she said. There wasn’t a hint of the smile I might have expected accompanying that word.
“I didn’t tell her. I didn’t think she needed the extra worry,” Byron said, as he took his phone back.
“She’s scared,” Ashley said.
“Nervous, not scared,” Byron said, before I could say anything similar in Vista’s defense. “She wanted to stay on the phone, we had a confusing minute when she thought I was Tristan. Then we talked for longer than I should have. She’s waiting for the attack, seeing only hints of them, having to rely on heroes to cover her flanks because her focus is so tied up in what she’s doing.”
“She’s made herself the King on the chess board,” I said. “So long as she’s making that place that impenetrable, they have to get her to crack it and do what they want to do.”
“Something like that,” he said.
I thought about going. Leaving this oppressive atmosphere. Except that would be leaving Byron as the only able person on site, when there were too many volatile variables. Darlene and Kenzie were getting on for now, but would that change? What happened when Flor could no longer snack or Juliette had no phone?
When Sveta needed a friend, and I wasn’t around?
She was tough, but…
“Tell her,” Ashley said.
“Tell me what?”
“Valkyrie’s back. I immediately asked if she’d help, but they’re doing quarantine.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, well, if this goes on for a few hours-”
“Jessica,” Byron cut in. “They found Jessica. And some staff.”
“Bonesaw?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Apparently not.”
“I left a message. No response yet,” he said.
I folded my arms, feeling simultaneously relieved and anxious. I wasn’t sure I would have had it in me to make that call and leave that message. Not with the state of things.
“There aren’t many teams available. I’ve been going through everyone I could think of. They’re all tied up. The villains acting like shitheels and going all-out isn’t limited to Cradle, Love Lost, and March,” Byron said.
“Did anyone turn up?” I asked. “It doesn’t have to be to go after Cradle or anything. Just… people we can trust to watch the fort?”
Byron tapped on the phone, then turned it around for me to see.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Kids,” I said, over the phone. “I’ve talked to the Undersiders at this point, I’ve talked to Sveta. I know you’ve had a longstanding interest in keeping the gears turning and the greater machine working, and I fucking swear, if you screw us on this, if you pull the rug out from under us-”
“I’m not going to do that, Antares. But I can’t tell you exactly what you want to hear, either. You’re right that this isn’t okay. But it’s also uncomfortably close to taking a side in an internal dispute.”
“Then take a fucking side! We’ve put our asses on the line to protect this city. We’ve gone out of our way to cooperate with you, and people are getting torn to pieces! As far as I can tell, they’ve refined their mechanisms for tearing people to pieces! Narrower and fatter margins for where the invincibility-immortality effect extends from the wounds. You cannot be okay with this!”
“I’m-” I started. I stopped myself, lowered my volume, and calmed down, but not because she’d asked. Precipice, Rachel, Foil, and the Heartbroken girls had arrived. Natalie drove her bug, guiding them to the building. I was out in front, standing in the cold, pacing.
“Optics matter. If we take a side now it might hurt everyone later. I’m not okay with this. But as long as it’s a feud-”
“They went after the Navigators. How is that a feud?”
“So long as it looks like a feud… we’re reluctant to step in.”
“You’re useless,” I snarled the words. “Completely, utterly fucking useless.”
“In this? Maybe. Partially. We can make less overt moves.”
“Do,” I said, my voice hard.
“My husband says you threw a wrench into their finances.”
“And they’re doing a workaround, reaching for other accounts to pay the mercenaries they hired. He can interrupt that, he says. It will add to the pressure, at least until they can pay their hires some other way. It might mean you have less to deal with.”
I restrained myself from being too demanding. “That’s a step.”
“Provided,” the voice on the phone said. “You take credit. It’s an extension of what you started. It will add to your mystique. It casts reasonable doubt, when the reality would turn a dangerous amount of doubt toward economy and the man closest to it.”
The others had dismounted, or climbed out of their vehicles. Worried lines creased Natalie’s forehead. She hesitated, standing about twenty feet away from me.
“We’ve done you favors,” Citrine said, over the phone.
She said something else, but I was distracted by the sudden approach of team blue, who had dismounted and gotten sorted. Precipice, Rachel, Candy, Chastity, Aroa, Foil. I covered the mouth of the phone.
“It’s bad,” I said. “Hang back a second?”
“I can deal with bad,” Rachel said.
With that, she led the Heartbroken girls into the building. Precipice and Foil hung back, Precipice standing next to Natalie.
I uncovered the mouthpiece. “I lost you for a second there. Repeat yourself, Citrine?”
I saw Foil fold her arms.
“Ahem. Favors. We’ve done you some. Knowing what Cradle and the associated groups have done, I can promise you that we won’t extend any favors his way. The way forward will be hard for him, I think.”
“I don’t think he plans on sticking around long enough that he’d care,” I replied.
“Aleph aside, no universe is truly isolated anymore. Many worlds have neighbors. If they settle in Earth N, we can apply pressure. If they move to Shin-”
“-Pressure,” she said.
“We could use that husband of yours on the field, if the stories I hear are right,” I said. “He’s good enough that he could do it and not leave a trail that leads to you.”
“He is. Unfortunately, we’re being targeted. There are no valid moves on this board that don’t put us at risk of being picked off.”
I clenched my fist, angry.
“Is there anything else?” she asked.
“Permission,” I said.
“To do what’s necessary to deal with Cradle,” I said. “And Love Lost. Potentially others.”
“You don’t need permission for that, Antares,” Citrine’s voice was soft on the other end of the line.
“No. But I want it,” I said. “Tell me… if this somehow wraps up, and people ask questions, it won’t be your people who are putting the screws to us or making us out to be the bad guys. Because I know that’s happened. The lines always got pushed and tested, villains and even heroes would default to what was easiest, taking a bad guy out permanently, and then when the situation was tidied up, the authorities would crack down hard on them. Because getting back to a state of normal meant removing all of the murderers.”
“I’ll do what I can, but I’m not the court and the courts aren’t me. I won’t put you there, I’ll even do what I can to discourage it, but if you find yourself there through no fault of mine…”
My expression twisted and I had to fight to get it back to normal. She did not make herself an easy person to like or even tolerate.
“Thank you, Citrine. Some people just arrived. I should look after things here.”
She was the one to hang up first.
I met Natalie’s eyes.
“Upstairs,” I said. “Before you say anything, before you make any firm judgments…”
“This would be better if I was objective about it,” she stated. “I shouldn’t get involved to the point that it colors my judgment.”
“If you don’t want to get involved, I understand. It’s an ugly scene.”
“I want to get involved. I don’t want to be overly involved,” Natalie said. “I’m worried that that’s what I’m being led to. I’m worried I started on that road when I helped Lookout. Not that I regret doing that, but- you’re shaking your head.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I get it. I really, really do. You can be proud of the course of action -and you should, you really should- but still not like where you end up because of it. That’s okay. I get it.”
“But nothing. You earned your stripes. You get to… call in a favor, or have your turn holding up the ‘it’s complicated card’ and being unreasonable-”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” she said.
“I’m not saying…” I trailed off.
“You kind of are,” Precipice cut in.
I frowned. “If you don’t want to get involved, cool. I don’t fault you. I respect the shit out of you for backing Lookout up, going the extra mile many times. Dealing with Goddess and helping us there. I don’t hold it against you if you want to draw the line there.”
“Can you just- sorry. I don’t want to say I respect you and then interrupt a second later, but can you let me finish?”
“I’m tired, I’m not at my best, and I don’t want to frame this wrong. I’m saying if you want out, you can be out. If you want in? If you want to check out the scene, get all the facts, have your say? I would welcome any input. I think we all would. We’re shaken up.”
I had to clear my throat. It still hurt.
“If you don’t want to look at the scene, if you want to give your opinion without knowing the whole why? You’ve earned that. It’s unfair but you’ve earned the right to be a little unfair. If you want to give that input, then yeah. I’ll listen. We’ll listen- the rest of Breakthrough, I think. Just… don’t be unfair about it and call it fair. I don’t think I’d be comfortable going this extra mile in any premeditated way if either you or the mayor said no.”
“You want me to sign off on murder?”
Put so bluntly, it was a heavy thing.
“Just… go upstairs? Or settle in down in the lobby, wait for ambulances and cleanup?”
“Or go,” she said.
“If you want,” I said.
I saw her expression, put myself in her shoes for a second, and then I frowned, hand going to my face, pushing hair away, momentarily covering my eyes. “I’m just realizing the situation I’m putting you in. You can’t go, because that’s the same as giving permission, because you heard one end of the conversation with the mayor.”
Natalie hunched her shoulders, hands in her pockets. “I’ll go up. Don’t worry about it. It’s been a shitty night.”
She headed inside, turning to where the stairwell was.
The wind changed direction. There hadn’t been anything falling from the sky or stirred by the air, but with the change, snow was whisked from precarious positions, and flurries stirred up.
“I might have to opt out,” Foil said.
“Okay,” I said.
“I love the kids, many of them, I really do, but the horrific stuff isn’t getting easier with time. You’re supposed to become numb to it, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I’m not becoming numb,” Foil said. “Each time’s harder than the last. I’m going to stay down here. Keep watch.”
“Okay. It makes me feel better to know we have someone watching out. Just remember you’re being targeted too.”
“I’ll be careful,” Foil said.
Precipice followed me inside.
The door shut behind us, and he put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. His mask glowed blue, the circuit pattern glowing in the unlit lobby. Similar circuits traced his miniature arms.
“What’s our next step?” he asked.
“Vista may have this in hand. It’s looking more like we might have to go after Cradle.”
“What Love Lost said… she fully expects me to turn myself in. This is what she’s trying to do, right? Apply pressure?”
“I don’t think she’s in her right mind,” I said. “What she’s doing and saying don’t line up.”
“Maybe. You’re not answering my question.”
“Yeah. Yeah, she probably thinks you’ll give yourself up, to undo what was done to all the others. Or she thinks that if those guys are left like this for long enough, they or their loved ones will turn on you.”
“I don’t think it makes sense to do, Rain,” I said. “I think they’ve proven themselves unreliable and dangerous, well past the capacity for any kind of deals. If you turn yourself in, they’ll let the others suffer just to make you more miserable before they kill you.”
“I was wondering that,” he said, barely audible. “A lot of time spent stuck in a room with them. I can see it.”
“We’ll figure something out,” I said. “If we can’t figure out a workable plan of attack, we’ll go after March and-”
I stopped as we reached the top of the stairs. Natalie stood in the doorway.
Candy, Chastity, and Darlene were talking. Aroa was with Juliette, and the fact that Aroa had been in what was effectively a car accident when the armored van had rolled was nothing compared to Juliette’s condition. The pain was clear and the blood was everywhere. It didn’t help that the lights had been turned on.
Kenzie didn’t have her helmet on, despite my earlier urging. She sat with Chicken Little while Darlene’s family members clustered around her. She didn’t seem aware of it, but as seconds wore on, she hunched over more, tension taking over her body, her hands pressed tight between her knees.
I touched Natalie’s shoulder, to get her to move, or to get her out of my way so I could act. She reacted, turning, and Kenzie noticed.
Either because she was good at putting on a show or because having the right people around revitalized her, Kenzie almost immediately perked up, the signs of pain gone.
“Natalie! And Precipice!” she said, all smiles. “Precipice! I’ve been using your contact pads for Chicken Little. It’s so useful! Can you help me crack this? I think the signal’s not translating right.”
“One second,” Precipice told her.
She bobbed her head in a nod. Natalie entered the room, stepping around streaks and pools of blood, and Kenzie seemed happy as a clam to have Natalie around.
I studied the room, trying to see if I was missing anything. Any powder kegs set to go off, any tensions, any people in need…
There was one, really. Rain.
“We can’t discount the obvious,” he said.
“The obvious? You’re not turning yourself in. We already established that’s a bad idea.”
“The other obvious,” he said. “It’s… seven-something o’clock? Almost Eight? It was six when we left in the three teams, thirty to forty five minutes to get to the locations, move between them. Then this.”
“About right,” I said.
“It’s not all that long before I get knocked out by the dream room,” Rain said, quiet. “Erin says I’m almost dead, I’m so unresponsive.”
“You think it’s a time window to go after them?”
“One of ours and three of theirs get knocked out. It’s an edge.”
“And their mercenaries are possibly disrupted,” I murmured.
I put my hand on his shoulder as I left him behind. Byron was sitting in the chair next to Swansong, and even though I knew he hadn’t been touched by the whip, he’d presumably felt Tristan’s wounds, and it was clear from posture that he wasn’t bearing down well under the situation. Swansong had barely moved an inch, except for that dark look in her eye to intensify.
Situations like this could bring out the worst in us-
Rain joined Lookout, bending down to see how the camera had been set into place. Aiden raised a hand to bump fists with Rain, a relatively small hand meeting a smaller, mechanical hand.
Not just the worst in us.
Sine-squiggle. Guncheck. Greater-than symbol.
N. O. D. E. A. T. H. S.
I spelled out the letters, tracing them.
After a pause, a response.
Circle with a diagonal line through it. Square with wobbly side. Arrow. Trident. Less-than symbol. Circle with a vertical line through it. Equal-sign with line drawn through it. Parallel vertical lines.
There was no pattern I could discern. There was no point, either.
But I couldn’t bring myself to stop, either. So I traced out words. The response came back, garbled, encrypted. I wrote down the symbols as best as I could. When I called it quits, I could go to the others, pass it to Rain or to Kenzie, and see if they could work out how the scrambling happened, and if there was a way to counter it.
I doubted it was easy. I doubted it was possible. There was no point to this, no pattern, and no way I could bring myself to give up, because giving up meant going back out there and-
-And I’d hit a wall.
I hunched over the sink, avoiding looking at myself in the mirror. My notepad -actually a tall pad of sticky notes with lines on them- was balanced precariously on the sink, threatening to fall when and if I wasn’t careful to put the part I was writing on over the right inch and a half of sink.
Backwards two. Two overlapping circles. Backwards two.
The door to the bathroom opened. I tensed.
I didn’t untense when I looked in the mirror and saw who it was.
“Thank you for coming, mom,” I said, without turning around.
“Your dad’s here too. We brought the team. Victoria-”
“Mom,” I said, interrupting.
“Whatever you’re going to say, just… save it? Please? Whatever you want me to hear you out on, I will. E-even Amy. Her, you, family, obligations, anything. But-”
I hesitated as my voice wavered.
“-not tonight?” I asked.
I remained tense as I saw her approach. Inscrutable.
She gave me a hug from behind.
I stopped taking my notes, laying pen across the pad, my fingers pressing it down hard, as if to secure it there. Resting in the sink, one arm draping out, a portion of Tattletale’s upper body was animated, a finger tracing its arcane runes at the base of my wrist.
“…give this a try?” I asked.
The emergency services workers had arrived. Briefed by Foil on what to watch out for. That being told not to go down one hallway was really important. That one little girl in the bunch would ruin lives for fun and two more girls would hurt people or kill for a laugh. Or something.
My mom’s team was helping to guard the location. Protect Foil, protect us. A technology blaster was pacing the area, searching for bugs or anything the other side might be using. A thinker was talking to Lord of Loss and the mercenaries.
Even with the warnings, I felt it was best to occupy the hallway.
“Yes,” Sveta said.
“If you need to call it quits, say so,” I said. “It’s insidious.”
“It’s insidious all the time. If you’re right, then… maybe.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Rain stepped forward. He lifted a hand, then dropped it.
At the far end of the hall, under the influence of his power, Sveta endured.
My dad, having helped with the heavy lifting, returned to the second floor. The people who had camped out here weren’t intending to go to any hospital. That included Darlene and Lookout. Chastity was keeping Rain company while he worked, while Byron had his head down for what I imagined was the nap of the emotionally exhausted. Ashley was with Kenzie and so on and so on.
Solidarity, friendships, bonds. Support.
I watched from a distance as my dad approached one of the only people who happened to be alone. Candy, who sat with her knees to her chest, while the doctor looked over Darlene’s wounds, a handful of feet away.
I heard her respond to his question. “I don’t like when strange men get close. Sorry.”
I saw him back off, walking away, sitting against a distant wall.
He created a globe in his hand, and he rolled it across the floor, to Candy.
She stopped it, then rolled it back.
It was, of course, a grenade, but he caught it, reabsorbed it, then created another, rolling it.
So the back and forth went, a half-dozen times.
I floated over. The emergency personnel had cleaned, stitched and bandaged my foot and tended to some of my other wounds, but they couldn’t do much for my throat, except to hand me a pack of lozenges and tell me to stop by a hospital when I could. They’d even been gracious enough to re-wrap my burned hand.
My foot being bandaged made me more likely to fly than to walk, if only because the compression there was a reminder to not put my weight on it. Also because the amount of crud they’d flushed out when rinsing it had been alarming.
I settled down beside my dad, resting my head on his shoulder. Candy passed the ‘ball’ to me, and I stopped it with my foot, before using my toe to flick it a few feet over to where my dad could stop it.
“That’s not the kind that blows up, is it?”
“Nah,” he said. He let it stay there for another few seconds. It popped more like ten soap bubbles than anything explosive.
Juliette, recently looked after, unwilling to go to a hospital, settled herself down a short distance away. The ball was passed her way.
A game of not-even-catch that was more fit for infants than children or adults, but it seemed important, somehow.
A second ring.
The third- interrupted. A heavy click.
I put my phone down. Juliette’s was still plugged into the wall, recharging, and I picked it up.
A second ring.
The third- interrupted by a voice. “This is the work number for Ms. Jessica Yamada, counselor. I can’t come to the phone right now, but please feel free to leave a message. If you have an emergency-”
I hung up.
Without picking my phone up from the table, I dialed her again, using my own phone. I watched rather than listen to the ring, listen to the…
I saw it transition automatically from call sent to call terminated.
I knew that if I were in the right frame of mind, I could come up with a good reason. I also knew that in any frame of mind, right or wrong, there were easily five or ten really unpleasant answers.
I didn’t feel up to trying it.
I approached Rain, who sat on the floor, doing upkeep with a pocket toolkit on a far-from-pocket prosthetic body. It was like trying to fix a car crash. Chastity still kept him company, guarding him, even though she wasn’t in the best shape herself.
“How are we?” I asked, pitching my voice to be heard.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Sveta said.
“It worked?” I asked.
“Some,” she said. “I’m still going, even if I have to keep my distance from all of you.”
“Alright,” I said.
The table that Ashley sat at was close. She tilted her head as I looked at her, her expression still grim.
“My sister’s coming,” she said. “So am I.”
“Walk over here first,” I said. “No stumbles, no falls.”
She stood from her seat, her leg wobbling as she put weight on the peg that Capricorn had provided. Back ramrod straight, chin high, she made her way to us, her hand going out once to correct her balance. Not what I could call a stumble. Not quite.
I caught her as she reached us, and she leaned heavily on my shoulder.
“Okay,” I said.
We had the verdict from Natalie. We had the opportunity, we had the motive. The means- we would see if we had the means.