The red and blue lights from the police cars and the red lights from ambulances lit up the courtyard of the University, with multiple vehicles parked on the broad, normally pedestrian-only walkway. The lights were inconstant, ambulance and police cars flashing at a slightly different rate, so they desynchronized, creating a strobe pattern, then resynced.
No noise. Only darkness and the lights.
There were students gathering around the edges. Some of my mom and dad’s teammates were keeping the perimeter clear. I could see people in pyjama pants, wearing boots, hats and coats, and others with bags of fast food or supplies bought from on-campus stores who had forgotten about their now-cooling meals. They had to know it was bad. Superheroes covered in blood.
In another course of events, I might have been among them. And then- then what? Would I be stepping forward, volunteering help and expertise, touting my time with the Patrol block? In that timeline, would I have made headway against the nightmares and the loathing of my own skin? Had I made headway against the nightmares and the discomfort with skin that wasn’t human and hadn’t come from humans? I hadn’t vanquished my demons. I’d just… scared her away. She was some other Earth’s concern now.
Now there were more demons. Cradle. Love Lost. March.
No scaring them away. That wasn’t how this ended.
Alone, I wasn’t sure where I stood. A few things figured out. That I couldn’t be just the Warrior Monk, or just the Scholar. But I wasn’t alone, and that was maybe the biggest difference. Not necessarily all for the better, but still a big difference. I had backup, and I had distractions. People I could dwell on instead of myself. We were all fueled by different things, and I was fueled by dwelling on others.
Yeah, not all for the better. Lookout was seriously hurt for the second time in a matter of days, an ambulance picking her up. I’d started all of this because I’d wanted to help Ms. Yamada, and given that I’d been unable to reach her on my phone but I’d been successful in at least reaching her answering machine with a stranger’s, I was pretty sure she had blocked my number.
Capricorn emerged from the building, one hand on his helmet as he adjusted the fit. No cloth layer beneath like Tristan had switched to.
Rachel followed. Her dogs were small now. A chihuahua with bulging eyes and a spine malformation was in the lead, bouncing ahead, stopping as she whistled to rein it back. The other two were a jowly hunting hound, and a husky.
No, not a husky. Damn, that was spooky to see.
As they stepped outside, the dogs were made to sit. I saw the changes begin, with the chihuahua bouncing up excited as it started, Rachel making it sit again. With the intermittent darkness as the emergency lights flashed, it didn’t look like a gradual change, but one of fits and starts.
She more or less ignored Byron and I as she handled the dogs.
Probably for the best.
Rain emerged in the company of Chastity and Cassie, Rachel’s henchman. Rain was holding the destroyed whip segments, while Chastity held her arm out for him to poke at. She still wore the arm that Love Lost had made. Cassie observed from the side.
A mismatched set. Precipice was in costume, his mask and the mechanical right arm bearing the circuit board pattern in a glowing blue, his costume modified from a winter coat with a hood. Chastity was wearing nice clothes and a coat that looked like she’d had to go to Paris or New York to find a store upscale enough. Cassie in a bomber jacket with patches and badges on the sleeves, some looking like they were there to mend rips or tears. The hair that stuck out beneath the hat with earflaps was longer in the front than in the back, in a way that made me think her hair had gotten too long and she had just gathered it all up into a single ponytail and then cut it off.
It put Rachel’s comments to Candy about the long hair in another light. What was it like to even be Rachel’s henchperson?
But she got along with Chastity. Since they’d reunited, they had been together at every opportunity, breaking apart only because of the serious fighting and the differing modes of transportation.
The hound was tall enough that it could stick its nose into Cassie’s face without rising from its sitting position, licking her with a tongue that looked more like a braid of three tongues than a single one. Armor plating was already sprouting, and skin was splitting to show muscle that would potentially wrap up and around without much rhyme or reason, only maintaining the rough shape of a dog.
“Sveta?” Rain asked.
I pointed skyward. Rain turned on the spot, craning the circuit-board masked face up as he looked to the rooftop. Sveta’s face was just barely visible.
He extended a hand, and the face bobbed in a motion that was too fluid and extended to be called a nod. For me to emulate it, I would have had to use flight or have my head sink into my chest cavity.
I’d tried to fly up to Sveta on exiting, to talk about the route she could take that didn’t risk contact with any rubbernecking college students. She’d asked me to go. Her control was better after Rain’s ministrations, I had some protection, but she hadn’t wanted me near.
Mourning. Grieving her lost body.
Now Rain was using his power again.
“Please tell me that you can figure out something about their location from the broken pieces of the whip,” I told Rain. “Or the glyphs Tattletale drew, or- anything?”
“Love Lost was inspired by the body part severing whip when she designed her whip-claws,” Rain said. “The groundwork’s there, but not the implementation. Not the… energy source, for lack of a better term. The nucleus.”
“But she was going in that direction?”
“Yeah. Seems like.”
“Fuck her then,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rain responded, with some fierceness I didn’t tend to hear in him. Some of the others nodded. Chastity. Rachel. Byron.
“Any luck de-scrambling the signal?”
Rain shook his head. “Lookout’s looking, but I don’t think this is her specialty.”
“She’s busy with the doctors now,” I said, quiet. “I was hoping we’d have more to go on.”
“We have enough,” Rachel said. “They got enough blood on them that my dogs can follow.”
“Good,” I said.
“Almost grown,” she said, indicating her dogs. “We good to go?”
“In a sec,” I said. “We’re missing people.”
It took another minute for our missing people to show.
Ashley, limping on her peg leg, with one of Rain’s miniature arms wound around it, the hand touching the ground, not as a foot, because it couldn’t bear any weight, but as a way of getting some sensory input. She didn’t bring Lookout with her, which was probably for the best. Natalie would look after Lookout, Darlene, and Chicken. It would be Natalie’s call, based on how Lookout was doing, whether Lookout would be talking to us on comms.
My parents might’ve arrived before Ashley did, but they hung back a touch as Ashley caught up with us, my hand going to her shoulder to steady her, Rain immediately checking on the hand attachment. I glanced back at them. I saw Foil join them. The last of our group.
“How is Lookout?” Byron asked.
“Relatively?” Byron asked. “Putting the situation aside?”
“Very upset,” Ashley said. She looked at me. “My sister wants to know where we’re going. She’s with the two Citrine recommended. They’re traveling west from our place.”
“We’ll let her know as soon as we have an idea,” I said.
My parents approached. Foil went to stand by Rain.
“Hello again, Rachel,” my mother said.
“You’ve met,” Chastity said. “We’ve met.”
“Briefly, before I took a break from things,” my mom said.
“Are we going?” Rachel asked, gruff, impatient.
“We have a vehicle,” my dad said. No longer in ‘dad’ mode. Not in looking-after-hurt-kids mode, or his speak-softly-so-civilians-don’t-get-intimidated mode. Superhero mode. “Who’s in?”
Straight to business. We had a clock, and none of us were particularly interested in wasting time.
“We have the armored van, too,” Foil said. “Beat up, no airbag, villains unloaded from the back and passed into cape custody.”
“Good,” I said.
“Do you want to ride with me?” Cassie asked Chastity.
“Shouldn’t. As much as I want to, after the last crash, I’m not dressed for a ride.”
“Precipice?” Cassie asked. Very casual, pointed.
I’d caught a glimpse earlier, while Precipice worked with Sveta. Sitting at the end of the hallway, Chastity had traded off with Cassie so she could look after her sisters and ‘cousins’. Precipice had had his hood down and mask off while talking to the henchwoman.
“He shouldn’t,” Chastity said, before I could say anything. “He has tech to look after.”
“Or driving,” I said. “He handled the drive well earlier.”
“Another time,” Rain told Chastity.
The teams split up between vehicles. Rachel mounted the hound, while henchwoman Cassie found a seat on the wolf’s back.
The dogs were on the main road before the armored van and my dad’s truck were out of the parking lot. The two vehicles followed, and I watched to make sure that Sveta had caught up. She situated herself on top of the van.
I’d reclaimed my earbuds, and my phone was fully charged. I began dialing a group call. I was maybe the only person present in a position to address everyone.
“Speaker?” I asked, as my mother joined the conversation.
“You’re on speaker phone.”
“Dad?” I asked. He was in his truck with Foil and Chastity.
“Yeah. Don’t use this much, had to find the button.”
“Rachel, Cassie, you can hear me?”
I got a nod from Rachel. Cassie looked to be mostly dealing with staying mounted on the wolf, which was a tougher ride.
I saw Sveta nod her head.
“Okay. The members of this cluster pass out at a set time every night to rearrange their powers and the strength of those powers, dream, and communicate. This is our time window to do something. That’s the good. We have resources.”
“So do they,” I heard Rain.
“They have resources too, yeah. That’s the bad. They have mercenaries hired and contingencies planned, and they have our teammates’ body parts held hostage. We have to keep in mind that he knows we know about the time window. Anticipate that he’ll have guards, mercenaries, hirelings, traps, deceptions… Love Lost had some nasty traps at her hideout.”
“They’ll have eyes on the roads,” Foil said, through the phone.
“They will. Lookouts, people watching their rear and flanks while they get where they’re going,” I said for the benefit of Rachel and Cassie.
“I’ll get off the main road. I may come back to give ’em a sniff,” Rachel reported.
“Rachel’s going to try to stay more out of sight,” I said. “Can you roll down the window of the van, Foil, and make sure Sveta can hear? I’m going to stick with her right now.”
“I’d rather not roll it down,” I heard Sveta, distant.
But the window was rolled down.
Sveta was perched on top, and as she was, she was as in control of that body as I’d seen maybe three times ever.
“Do you want the windows rolled-”
I saw her shake her head.
Foil left the window open, and Sveta hung near the top of the van. Rachel was starting to peel away, her dogs running now in places where a lookout wouldn’t immediately spot them and identify a telltale sign of Undersider or Undersider-Breakthrough action.
Helps that there aren’t headlights on the dogs. We’d be spotted a mile away.
On reflection, it was patently insane that they were traveling as fast as they were with no headlights.
I followed Rachel and the dogs as they left the road, running through the fields to the side, where no streetlights shone. I kept the Wretch active while flying out of reach of them.
“They have hostages. We can’t charge in. We can’t make noise. Swansong, Damsel, and Rachel are our biggest, noisiest attackers. Capricorn, Flashbang and me are a step down. We have more ability to be quiet. This is a covert mission until we get a better sense of where the hostages are and what measures we’re up against.”
“I can be quiet,” Rachel said.
“Rachel says she can be quiet.”
Swansong chimed in, “I spent years on my own, every bite of food I ate and every piece of clothing I wore was a result of me being stealthy.”
“It’s-” I started. Damn it. “Yes. Absolutely. If our covert group needs a distraction, though, you’re best at making a lot of noise. Then you can use that stealth to slip away.”
“That got you a sigh and a nod from Swansong, for the record,” Byron relayed.
Rachel was silent, face hidden thoroughly by her winter wear. Unreadable. I couldn’t tell if she was listening and unhappy about it or if she wasn’t listening and was happy at the prospect of imminent trouble.
“So we’re all on the same page: the go-ahead to kill,” I said it into the phone.
I let those words hang. Weighty ones.
“Kill who?” I heard Swansong. “Specifically.”
“It wasn’t specific. Love Lost, Cradle, and March, for sure, but anyone who’s aiding and abetting. Obviously this doesn’t include people who don’t necessarily know. I think it was a surprise for Lord of Loss and Nursery. Mayor says yes, for all that counts. Lawyer-”
I had to remember my mom was present. How to relay the tacit permission without throwing a wrench into Natalie’s professional life?
“-Talked to me,” my mother said. “She won’t tell you yes, but today she isn’t telling you no, either. I think that’s as close as you’re going to get.”
Essentially my take on it.
“That’s where we stand,” I said. “They’re planning to delay, so be ready for any master-stranger stuff that might tie us up or obstruct us.”
“Protocols?” Byron asked.
“At the first excuse, yes. But only then. Otherwise it slows us down.”
“Can’t get a nose on the scent with the wind!” Rachel raised her voice. “Going to the road!”
I started flying in that direction, to stay in earshot and to signal my acknowledgement.
The dogs reached the road, running alongside. One ran with nose almost to the ground, a precarious kind of stampede forward, when it couldn’t look firmly in the direction it was running. The wolf and Cassie took up a position head, clearing the path.
I felt bad for the cars that were on the road tonight, seeing this sight. The dogs, even though they were on my side, were objectively things of nightmare.
I heard Rachel whistle. The dogs peeled off once again, away from the road, away from everything, so they ran through places where tent cities had stood and where trees had been cleared but only skeletons of buildings stood. A wilderness of the interrupted urban.
She was saying something.
“They headed North?” I asked.
“This way!” Cassie shouted, pointing.
“Turn north,” I told people on the phones, as I flew straight up to get a view of what was involved. I could see the headlights of cars that weren’t going anywhere. “It looks like one of the portals to Earth N! Be wary! Company parked up further ahead!”
Earth N. Lord of Loss’s Earth. It had been Marquis, before Marquis had vacated. Deader and Goner had controlled territory there too, off of one of the portals. An Earth of a dozen corners, where the settlements were spread out and hard to reach, so a bunch of the ‘corner worlds’ were on the same Earth. Which in reality made sense, when so much vetting had been necessary, to watch for invasive species, disease, and hazards.
We’d been once before, when looking for the culprits of the portal attacks. We’d found Earth Cheit’s people camped out there.
Now? Now it was a different kind of problem. It was where the villains had retreated to, for the most part, since Hollow Point and similar locations had failed.
And right now, the villains were pushing the limits, rebelling hard against the idea that heroes finally be asserting proper authority again. Rebelling somewhat more understandably at the idea that if people were a real problem, we might have to incarcerate them and not let anyone know where, lest we run into another fiasco like we did with the prison.
Bluestocking, Prancer, smaller villains, bigger villains…
None of the above. I was a dark form flying through the dark, and no lights touched me. Nobody looked up. I could scout their number, look for familiar faces, and get the lay of the land.
It was as though they’d sensed that we’d be coming at them angry and willing to cross lines. There were humans gathered around the parked cars, and cars situated so they blocked the access to the portal.
“Headlights off,” I said, through the phone. “Stop if you can see them parked ahead.”
I had a position to see the truck and van park. Nobody among the cars seemed to notice.
Rachel, Cassie and I joined the others, parked in the darkness, looking at eight cars with at least fifteen people gathered. Two of those eight cars blocked the entrance to the building where the access to Earth N was.
On the building itself, more people were gathered. People-mounted spotlights swept over the field and the road, but didn’t reach far enough to illuminate us. There were more than fifteen people in or on the building itself, and that was just the ones I could see in plain sight through windows and on the roof. They were armed. Rifles. Not a police, patrol, or station employee’s uniform in sight.
They’d taken the station and now they guarded it.
Everyone was climbing out or half-climbing out of the vehicles to get a view of what we were up against. I saw Sveta’s pale face in the woods off to the side.
“People we can deal with,” Ashley said.
“We have to deal with them without immediately sounding the alarms,” Byron pointed out. “Which is awkward, because that’s a lot, and they look organized.”
“Cell phones don’t tend to work across dimensional portals,” I said. “In a theoretical world where we could get in and block off anyone from getting through the portal to notify the other side, we could hit this place pretty hard and still remain covert.”
“Could flood it, turn it to stone before the flooding gets to the other side,” Byron said.
My mother was hanging back, staying quiet. My dad looked pensive.
“Thoughts?” I asked.
My mom answered me. “I think you know what the answer is. Time is short. Are you asking because you want to be fair and maintain the team equilibrium, or because you really do need the advice?”
Which had a faint tone like, if I needed the advice, I’d failed somehow.
“Because every bit of feedback is an opportunity to do what comes next better.”
“They got away. This is where they went. Every minute that passes, they’re either getting where they’re going or they’re already there and they’re laying traps, organizing their people, or getting ready. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
Just hearing that last line made my hackles raise. I hated that line, because it seemed to always be paired crosswise with ‘you can always do it better’.
My mom seemed to sense the raised hackles, because her expression softened. “You know the team and team dynamic better.”
I looked to my dad for backup. But my dad wasn’t my dad right now.
“Do you remember the engagement patterns we used to drill on?” Flashbang asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“It would be nice to get some use out of those again.”
“I’m noticing you’re saying engagement. You want to blitz,” I said. And mom’s implying I want to blitz. “Any objection to hitting them and wiping them out before anything else?”
Some shaken heads, some silence that wasn’t uncomfortable or damning by my best estimation.
“Chastity, Capricorn, with us. Stick by Flashbang. Precipice, Swansong, guard Cassie and the vehicles. If we run into a wall, you’re our backup. Swansong can punch through powers, minions, anything we can’t seem to stop, Precipice can punch through obstacles.”
Precipice turned to look at the situation. A long straight road with woods on one side and field on the other, cars sitting with engines running and headlights illuminating tracts of land.”I have to be there to hit stuff. If you’re in there and you run into trouble-”
“We’ll signal. You’re sticking by the truck for a reason. Cassie can get you in and Cassie can get you away.”
“Rachel? Hold the flanks. There might be people coming from down the road. Once we signal, bring everyone that’s not inside back in.”
I saw the frown on her face.
“We’ve got a team going right for the heart of this place. Number one thing, we stop them from reaching the people on the far side. Then we clean up from the inside out. You guys handle the outside in. Yes?”
“Mm,” she grunted.
Great. Great communication.
“Sveta, I know you don’t want to go inside while you’re unsuited, so just help from the flanks, follow our rear. I’ll try to stay in communication. When we get through, we’ll bring you across.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I heard her say. A voice like the one she’d used in the hospital. “I want to try this but I’m really afraid it’s not going to work. A lot of things didn’t.”
“Really truly, just knowing you have our back matters,” I said.
I saw her nod. I wasn’t sure she believed me.
“We don’t have long,” Rain said.
“Dominoes,” I told my parents. “Capricorn, Chastity, with us. Be ready to run. Rest of you, spread out. Capricorn? Give yourself a water gun further down there. We’ll need it to reload.”
“Small, small, empty,” my dad said, creating his energy orbs. Hard light around a swirl of energy. He tossed them to my mom.
She shifted into her hard, indestructible sphere form, and I snatched her out of the air with one arm before she could hit the ground.
“Run!” I gave the order. My dad ushered the two forward, Capricorn’s armor making metal on metal sounds in tune with heavy footsteps, Chastity far lighter.
I flew, Brandish tucked under one arm, a large sphere.
With a bit of Wretch strength, I hurled the sphere. It crashed into the two guys on guard duty, I landed, and I kicked it, channeling about seven years of active frustration with the maternal unit into the kick.
It lost a lot of momentum by the time it struck any of the people on duty. I remembered talking to Lord of Loss’s men about how his people were recruited. Were these among them?
The ‘ball’ that was my mother was an indestructible projectile. I kept it moving, a prelude to my own arrivals, as I plunged into each group in turn.
At the station housing the more discreet portal to Earth N, they’d noticed. People were running, some had guns and were getting to cover. Others were heading inside.
We only had seconds to get a grip on this. Which meant-
I kicked the ball hard, full Wretch strength. She flew through the air and collided with the lip of the roof, tearing into it.
In a flash, she was Brandish again. Her one arm swept out, hurling a sphere.
The detonation was small. Bright, with impact but no heat and no fire. There was a ‘whump’ and a shockwave that scattered snow and dust, with multiple people sent sprawling. A second toss, with much the same effect, but it included some of the people who were getting to their feet too quickly, and it sent them tumbling, with some frantic movements to avoid falling off the roof. Not that here was a great chance, given the short lip around the perimeter, dotted with cornices that hid the places where the prefab building had been put together.
The third toss landed in the midst of another group, who scrambled away. She lunged into and past the sphere that hit the ground, catching one guy.
I took my cue, going after the remainder. Two people close enough together that I could land beside them, driving my elbow down into one’s shoulder, grabbing the other by the back of the hood and, pausing as I delivered the elbow-strike, heaved them forward and face-down into the surface of the roof.
To the side, the ‘grenade’ burst into a sputter of bubbles. A fizzle.
Brandish was already twisting around, her weapon across his neck. They sank down, and the weapon followed them, the tip searing into and through the cornice beside the man.
“Radio,” she said. “Walkie talkie? Now!”
He reached for his coat. She beat him to it, reaching inside the open coat, and pulled out the walkie talkie.
“You will tell them it’s a trap. Tell them to freeze, and make them believe it! They are not to call anyone, they aren’t to pass through!”
She moved the sword, singing beard-hairs.
“Fuck!” He fumbled for the walkie-talkie. Again, she beat him to it. Making everything fast and fluid as he followed instructions. “Do not go through! Your lives depend on it! Find a safe place and remain where you are! The portals-”
I reached out, covering the mouthpiece. “The portals are unstable.”
“The shrinkage,” he said, through the walkie talkie. “They think it’s what happened before the other ones went bonkers. No passage, no signals through! Stay put or evac!”
Hopefully that would do.
I had to leave the cleanup to the others.
“Gun?” my mother asked.
“In my belt. At the back. I dropped my rifle,” the man said.
She reached around behind him, got his gun, and slid it into her belt.
“Reload,” she told me.
“Yeah. Go with the others. I’m diving in.”
She turned into a sphere. I grabbed it and hurled it toward my dad. Again, distance and air resistance ate into the forward momentum, even with the Wretch active. My dad, Byron and Chastity had paused by the constellation Byron had drawn out.
My dad caught my mom out of the air. Those days in the gym hadn’t been for nothing. When she changed back, she was in his arms, her face close to his.
Dorky, lame, embarrassing.
And I resented it, for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. Dorky, lame, embarrassing, and I couldn’t have gotten more of this? Or it couldn’t have extended into things that weren’t shock-and-aweing a bunch of desperate assholes who were willing to work for a villain for a chance at the good life?
I couldn’t stay to watch, as much as Dr. Darnall might have asked me to think it out. I pushed the guy I was holding with my aura, ratcheting up the panic. “Who do you work for?”
God I hated how I sounded like my mom had sounded in that instant.
“Lord of Loss. But we’re being hired out to someone else. Love Lost.”
“You know he’s a lunatic. You know she’s violent and she works with killers under her.”
I saw him shake his head, frantic, jarred by my aura.
Then the fleeting admission.
I grabbed him, bringing him closer to the edge. Was there an angle I could throw him and a place I could put him where he wouldn’t die on impact?
And a tendril grabbed him.
Seizing him, then depositing him firmly in a snowbank.
“Good one!” I shouted. No time or breath to waste. But that had saved me the time it would have taken to deposit him down there.
I flew around in a sideways arc, diving for a side window. That put me inside the building. Once the Wretch was active again, I plunged through the floor. There were people with guns, and I flew into each of them.
I knew the general layouts of the stations. I’d visited more than a few.
Punching through obstacles and walls put me in the center area between all the terminals, past the initial gates. Staff had already cleared out. I could hear the noise outside, powers being used. Chastity’s voice.
A voice crackled over the walkie-talkie. “Can we get a confirm? When are we good to proceed? Hello?”
Couldn’t let them proceed.
I left the rear group to handle the doors and the people we’d scattered. My goal- the portal itself. I flew down and through, knocking down metal gates that should have been open.
There were people making a break for it, and I dealt with them. I helped them down the stairs, in the most debilitating way possible.
I heard the slap of Sveta behind me. I heard the bang at the door. Ashley’s power. I spun in the air, caught only a glimse of a door with a silver line on it, Ashley with her good foot out, arms behind her. As part of that scene, I saw a massive collection of tendrils, with Sveta’s face at the center of them all, her expression focused, her face not as traced or marred by the tendrils reaching across it. Nothing at eyelids or nostril, nothing at the corner of her mouth, pulling because it acted instinctually.
The cape geek in me wanted to rattle through all of the ways that could have happened. The Sechen Ranges, or the fact she was pissed, that anxiety fed into itself and she was so distracted by reality that the cycle had been interrupted.
But she was with me. No suit, no middle ground. I had the Wretch and I felt the tentacles touch it, leveraging it.
How confident was she, to transition from ‘I don’t want anyone near me’ to ‘I can be this close to a variable scenario’?
“Can you grab the Brandish-ball?” I asked.
“Yes,” was the whisper.
Hearing the whisper, knowing my friend, I got it. Sveta turned away, head down low while tendrils reached up.
I felt a pang of sympathy, but I couldn’t afford to act on it.
And at the station platform itself, was the irregular shape of the portal, a three-dimensional hole in reality. A few dozen people were gathered. Stuff had been unloaded, including food and munitions. Intending a longer stay.
The deeper recesses of the station. They were talking, unaware of the commotion above. Trying to figure out what they were doing. They had a boss and that boss wasn’t on site. Love Lost had been brought in, and Cradle wouldn’t be here. Not so close to the deadline.
They’re just obstacles and an early warning system.
As I arrived, Sveta delivered the Brandish-Ball, whipping it down hard. Water flowed down from upstairs, as a distant offshoot of the water gun that had deposited Brandish here. The ball ricocheted off the ground, hit the ceiling, then, in the center of the room, expanded into Brandish, who was loaded with pre-prepared Flashbang grenades. While she was in her ball-state, she was in total stasis. The grenades had a timer, but the timer didn’t count down while she was frozen and not of this world. She scattered them, throwing them wide.
In a half-circle around her, grenades exploded with light and concussive force. Some of that force caught one or two people badly enough that there might be long-term injuries. For the rest, it took the fight out of them for the moment. Everyone who had been standing in or near the portal was laid low.
The dominoes engagement – named by Amy. Which sucked, because that ruined it a little. Me, Brandish and Flashbang all hitting like dominoes toppling. A series of devastating blows. Brandish wasn’t bothered by light, and in the midst of the chaos, knowing which she’d thrown were duds by experience, she could weave through while her targets were just trying to get out of the way.
The explosions cleared out half of a roomful of forty people, many of them armed. Sveta and I picked through the remainder. Women with guns. Men with masks covering their lower faces. Tossed aside. Sveta couldn’t really be shot, and the Wretch protected me from being shot, even though it was mostly pandemonium and people reeling.
And Sveta’s movements only continued to make sense to me again, now that I could parse why she was so reluctant and reserved. I’d known her at one point in time when this was all she had. She’d been hesitant to get to know me, but she’d settled in.
But she was a teenage girl. And for a brief time, she’d had a body. A covering she loved for a shape she hated.
Back then this body had been her in entirety. Now? After a body and paint to decorate that body, after clothes and clothes we’d shopped for? To lose her suit was to be stripped down, naked before the world. Vulnerable on multiple levels.
She wrestled with that even as I saw the visible triumph in how each extension of a tendril moved just a bit more accurately, just a bit less self defeating. And just a bit was a hell of a lot when there were so many tendrils.
“You’re doing great!” I cheered, because words were all I could offer and what I really wanted was to hug her and have her hug me back with those arms she’d built.
I wanted revenge, here, and I wasn’t ashamed to admit it. For her, for the others. For Kenzie who had lost her hands and who hadn’t been able to smile enough to compensate for the pain and sadness, whose cheeks had been wet with tears. For Ashley, for Darlene, for Tristan…
Infiltrating, finding our stride. Getting a sense of where strange teammates were, so I could identify the big guy who looked like he might take a little more effort to take down, someone I didn’t necessarily want to pulverize, and I could hit him so he stumbled in the direction of the group coming down the stairs.
Chastity caught him, and I saw the stunned surprise at the pretty girl before him.
She backhand-slapped him, and he hit the ground like a wet towel.
No smile, no triumph at the act. Even with Lord of Loss and Nursery’s people, there had been that.
Rachel’s dogs came down the stairs three astride, with Cassie on the hound’s back and Rachel following behind. Each dog had multiple people in their mouths. Two for the chihuahua, three for the wolf, and three and a half for the hound.
No- not a half. Someone’s jacket had come off.
They were deposited on the floor and the people writhed, unwilling to get up.
“Let’s get through and scramble. We have everyone?”
A quick head count confirmed we did.
Past a small army, a little bloody, a little too unkind, in a way that would be remembered, but we were as intact as when we’d arrived.
Blue lights appeared down the center of the room. Water appeared, and that water was like the inverse of the parting of the red sea. A crest of water appeared in the center of the long platform, and as it sloshed down, it swept the unconscious, injured, and dazed bodies on the platform to either side of the platform floor.
We fell into formation as we stepped across and through the portal, some of us limping or giving evidence to injuries minor and moderate. I chose to float rather than limp. Sveta slipped through, found a rack of books, and clung to it, hiding on the far side and peering over at us as we made our way into the platform, earth-N side. The dogs sniffed and snorted at the ground.
“They were here. And there’s blood,” Rachel said.
Rain twisted around. “The dogs told you-”
“On the ground,” she said, pointing.
Fuck indeed, I thought. Rain. There was no good place to stow Rain. No place that an assassin like Operator Red wouldn’t be able to find him or kill him.
Not that Operator Red was with us anymore. Juliette had taken credit, which was chilling to think about. More chilling that she and her brother competed over kills.
The blood was a good reminder that we were in enemy territory now. The settlement that extended from this station was a place where villains rented out places. From our past visit, I knew that there were distant cabins that were intentionally out of the way and hard to find. Without cooperating authority, finding the right place would be hard or impossible.
This was Lord of Loss’s turf. We’d arrested the authority. On principle, I was fairly sure, he wouldn’t tell us what he knew or guide us in the right direction.
“Scrambler,” Swansong said, holding up a device. It looked like a taser, but meaner. “And our key out of here.”
“Do we?” Byron asked.
The station on this side was empty. No people, no staff. Computers were on, as were the monitors for tracking the state of the portal. Unmonitored monitors.
I walked around the desk. Camera footage showed that the place was empty except for one girl in a staff uniform out back, smoking.
“Don’t hit that button just yet,” I said. “Could this be a trap?”
“I can scan,” Rain said. “Not well, but I can scan the area.”
“Be ready to run,” my mother said to my father. To all of us. The two of them were standing close together, his hand on the small of her back. Because they were dorks.
While Rain waved his thingy around, and the rest of the group settled so they could watch out windows and peek at the settlement beyond, I stayed by the computer. Periodically I hit the spacebar, to cycle through the surveillance images.
On a second go, I realized there was also television. Fed through from Earth Bet.
A distant, shaky camera shot of Brockton Bay. Mechanical suits were flying around, unleashing barrages.
And slowly, glacially slowly, the city unfolded, returning to its old, shaky, ruined configuration.
I shivered, seeing it. I saw Byron clench his fist, heard a ‘no’.
Rachel, supposedly Vista’s friend, only glowered.
I got my phone out. I flew to the portal. “Don’t seal it!”
Ashley raised her intact hand, thumb clearly nowhere near the button.
Through the portal. Back to a roomful of people who were still recovering from a soak and concussive shocks to the sensory faculties. My aura kept all but ten or so from getting back up, as they slumped over defeated or frustrated.
My phone call went through.
“What the hell just happened in Brockton Bay?” I asked.
The explanation took a minute to get through.
By the time it was done, my fingers were knotted around the headphone cord, which was so tight it threatened to cut off circulation.
“They want Foil. But even if they get her, they aren’t saying for sure they’re willing or guaranteeing they’re able to walk it back.”
And these guys want Rain, I thought.
Worse than we’d anticipated, in a lot of ways.
One bargain or the other might even be a consideration.