What the fuck was I supposed to do? I wanted to rage, to tear in there and bring half the building down on them all. I would, too, but it would only make more of a mess of a messy situation, with people and pieces of people caught in the rubble along with dangerous capes and explosives. I wanted to take this egg he’d made to be uncrackable and take it apart, figure it out, unravel the riddle, but there was a small army in the way. I wanted to curl up into a ball like the one in front of me, like my mom could do. I wanted to think all of this through and I didn’t have the time to.
I couldn’t do any of those things.
I studied the scene and the egg. A light glowed within, and a dulled red glow made it through the places where flesh was thinnest, whether that flesh was covered in skin or not. Everything fit together and there didn’t seem to be any seams or keyholes. All was rigid, frozen and held up in space. I was put in mind of Clockblocker from back home. I thought about the fact that something like the broken whip, which I’d last seen in Rain’s possession, would’ve been needed for this. Was this a second version? Something not like a whip?
I’d networked as best as I could, and I’d done it with this kind of situation in the back of my mind. With situations like Sveta’s in the back of my mind.
My thoughts briefly settled on Chris. Lab Rat. They touched on other alternatives. How would a biology-altering power interact with this? No, not if it was effectively Clockblocked, for a lack of a better way of putting it.
What else, then? Tackling the army so we could get close and do something more effective? The glowing light shining between flesh made me think of my dad. Of my mom. It was uncomfortable to think of the glowing, widespread tangle of horror and associate it with my own time in the hospital. Which of course led me back to the non-solution that was my sister.
I didn’t want to get trapped in circular thinking, that panic-space like a nightmare that had persisted from my first nights out that hadn’t ended in wins. Trying to save someone who’d fallen from a high place. I’d fly after, grab their hand, only to find it so slick with blood that it slipped out like a wet bar of soap. Again and again, as they fell impossibly far. Or like the nightmares that had been the hospital room, where all I’d had had been my mind, and that mind hadn’t had enough stimulation. No place to go but in circles.
I turned my eyes away from the scene and turned my thoughts out and away from the circle. One deep breath. I focused on the tangible, instead. The chill air that was trapped inside the bubble that was the Wretch with me. The smell of oxygen, for lack of a better word, of earth and trees and the lack of the city smell. It had been the first things I’d trained in doing when I had panic attacks.
What as I supposed to do? Something. Anything. Non-action was the only thing that wasn’t allowed here. The wall I was running into was just that- a wall. An egg I couldn’t penetrate without hurting innocents or allies.
I hugged the roof, dodging the flashlight of the patrol that had settled at one corner, and flew to the opposite end of the building. Sveta.
“That you?” she asked.
“I could grab it. It’s huge but it’s hollow. Pretty sure I could do it,” Sveta murmured.
I considered that option.
“There are a lot of things about that option I’m not sure about,” she confessed.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What if I can’t?”
“Yeah. That’s an issue – if you can’t budge it and everything goes out the window. And even if you can, where do we take it? No exits big enough, so I have to tear a hole in the wall,” I said.
“And if you’re in a position to do that then we could be doing other things. Yeah. It was the best I could think of,” Sveta said. “Those poor people in there. Is that Moonsong’s group? Byron’s ex?”
“I think. At least some of them. Some of our group.”
“Ashley’s foot. Tristan’s middle.”
“Yeah,” I whispered.
“He’s buying time.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. I’m… pretty sure that when it’s close to time for him to wake up, he’ll have all of the mercenaries he hired come back. Any we didn’t disable, any he had elsewhere, anyone helping March, even.”
March- I thought of the situation at the city. The city unfolding.
“It’s what Paris said. We can’t take action without hurting people.”
“Probably. He might have decoys inside, or he might be inside, with people set up. He had to anticipate that we might be in this situation.”
And what happens next? He gets to this stalemate, then… he has plans to move to another Earth? He bails? It’s a lot of enemies to be making.
I had another suspicion, a worry about what Cradle was considering, but I didn’t let myself consider it.
“I’m going to talk to the others,” I said. “Can you keep watch here?”
“I can. Happy to be useful.”
“High five,” I said, putting my hand over the ledge.
She slapped it. More like a whip than a hand, but not too audible.
“Thank you,” she said, quiet.
As I’d flipped through faces like Chris and my parents, I found myself thinking of all of the various capes out there, living and dead. Of the ones who fit categories, from cloning to flesh molding. Blasto. Rattenfänger‘s music. Jerky-meat’s puppets. Jamestowner’s radioactive mutant cannibals. Non-options.
What did an answer to Sveta’s problem look like? What gave her Weld and gave me a best friend I could hug when she needed a hug?
“Be safe,” I said.
I waited, watching the flashlight beams moving around the area before choosing a time to take flight.
I hurt. My foot hurt. My hand hurt. I was cold, and the Wretch wasn’t as good as winter clothing. My arms felt like I’d had the workout of my life and then compounded the aches and pains by getting beat around the upper body with baseball bats.
I hurt on other levels. Dealing with all of this, seeing people hurt, it wasn’t easy. Nobody was doing well, except for the worst people.
At one point- at a thousand points, I’d wished I’d been able to participate in the full course of events that had plagued my hometown. I knew, objectively, that I hadn’t been emotionally mature enough to. That I’d had my limitations as a person, my regrets about how I’d acted. But that logic didn’t do anything to combat my other regrets, about the fact that I hadn’t been there.
Well… wish fucking granted, Victoria.
It wasn’t Brockton Bay. But it felt a damn lot like I was picking up where I’d left off. If I hadn’t been hit by that acid, taken out of action.
Dealing with villains who had scary-as-fuck tinker stuff going on. Unreasonable, unreasonably violent, inscrutable.
The eggs. Tricks and ploys that came from a place that just didn’t seem like they were human places, because they were so divorced from compassion or rationality. A plague that turned friends into strangers. The Dolltown surgeries.
I clenched the hand warmer in my grip as I dropped out of the sky, landing amid the others, my good foot down, the knee of the leg with the injured foot bent. My hair slapped down at my back.
We had a small army of our own, I reminded myself. Byron, Sveta, Ashley, Brandish, Flashbang, Rachel, Chastity, Foil, the Harbingers, and Moose.
“He made an egg,” I said.
“Good for fucking him,” Rachel said. “What the hell does that mean?”
“A shelter. A bubble made of parts he took from people, attached together or suspended in place. It looks like he’s inside. Or he chopped himself up and he’s part of it.”
“That’s insane,” Moose said.
“That’s what Paris meant?” Foil asked. “We’d want to shoot because he’s in there, but we can’t?”
I nodded. “They’re organized in the old Russian style from back in Earth Bet. Squads of soldiers with parahumans in charge. Even down to the armbands and badges. It makes the squads extensions of the parahumans, force multipliers because they know their parahuman and they work with them.”
“It’s not the worst idea,” Swansong said. “If you find people you can trust.”
“Or forcefully conscript into military service and force into a given squad,” my dad said.
“That too. I’d have to take over a world first. Probably better to settle on finding people I can trust. I think I can do that now.”
I gave Swansong a warning look. Stop needling your sister.
She simply smirked at me.
“We don’t know how long they’ve been working together like this,” Byron said. “They might not have the level of trust you’re thinking of.”
“Some are ID’s I recognize,” I said. “Eyethief, Mukade, Barfbat. So you’re probably right, Cap.”
“I knew a cape once who was from there,” my dad said. “Joined the New York Protectorate.”
“From Russia?” my mom asked.
“Your drinking buddy. He was cute.”
“What’s the relevance of this?” Damsel asked, hostile.
“We talked about what it was like over there,” my dad said. “Maybe it applies?”
I rubbed the hand-warmer between my hands as I thought. “Capes over there tended to break down into the ones who were conscripted, the ones who became fugitives of the state, the weird middle ground ones-”
“Almost always spies or state-supported capes,” my dad said. “According to Bunter.”
I nodded. “-and the villains who were fugitives of the state who managed to establish themselves. The whole dynamic was very anti-parahuman. Setting up capes so they rarely cooperated, each squad was primarily expected to deal with capes, whether they were home-grown or not.”
“They’re set up to deal with us,” I said.
“Did it work?” Moose asked.
“The setup? Yeah. For the specialized task. When they got hit by Endbringers they turned on the people who came to help, though. For later attacks, they didn’t have the help. They ended up trying to use airplanes, tanks… but we’re digressing.”
A digression that was at least helping me to get into a better headspace.
“Bunter was a squad leader,” my dad said. “There was a drawback to that setup. The squads end up subservient. Power imbalance. Every cape has their quirks. Preferences, eccentricities.”
“Some of us are the sad kind of insane,” Chastity said.
“That, yes,” my dad said. “When you surround yourself with people who don’t balance you out, you can spiral. The neuroses get worse, the bad habits get more problematic. Negative personality traits are magnified.”
“Which is fine if we’re dealing with them one-on-one, but this is a lot of people,” Byron pointed out.
“I counted ten squads of ten soldiers and one cape each, all inside,” I said. “Three more patrolling around the outside, one last group on the roof. Looks like they rotate. It’s a lot. Even if you remove all soldiers from consideration…”
“How?” Ashley asked.
“How did they afford it or arrange it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’d be nice to ask Precipice if he knows particulars.”
“He was researching his cluster before all this started, and he took notes,” Byron said. “From the time of their trigger, Love Lost and Snag moved into doing cape work for hire.”
“They have good reputations,” Moose said. “They do the work, they’re smart, they follow any extra orders and they adapt to changes in plans. Cradle was networking with tinkers. He developed some of his first devices to work with other tinkers before he developed for himself. Made special armpit-length gloves that were really easy to plug your own tech into. That sort of thing. Not many tinkers do that and a lot of them want it.”
“Especially in a time like this, post-apocalypse,” Foil said.
“Yeah,” Moose said, smiling. “No workshop, no stuff. They want to get caught up, get notes, get prep-”
The movement of a beam of light in our vicinity cut off all conversation.
We were far enough back. The light was a halogen bulb being turned on the field, aimed at one squad.
By mutual, unspoken agreement, we didn’t resume the discussion
“Sveta’s keeping an eye out. We discussed how to crack this, but… it’s a lot. The army we could deal with, but not while everything’s set up like it is in there. We could deal with the setup, but not without dealing with the army first.”
“Traps,” Rachel said. “Don’t forget the traps.”
“Yes,” I said.
I fielded some questions about the size of the orb, the composition, the mech that was set up beneath it. My dad had questions about the soldiers. The men wore enough winter clothing and the windows had been frosted toward the bottom, so I hadn’t had enough of a look to report on their background, but I was guessing it was mixed enough.
The costumes of the squad leaders? Masks over balaclavas and lots of modifications to their winter clothes, like added body armor, chains wrapped around one part or another, one guy wore a full hazmat outfit with a squad of people in gas masks, or there were the ones who wore a mask with jackets and pants in particular colors of camouflage. Was it possible that some weren’t flaunting that they were capes? Yes, of course, but by my estimation, seven out of ten of the groups inside had seemed to be sticking to their own. The other three groups had seemed to be interacting on a minimal level, but each with a cape as their nucleus. I hadn’t seen a group without a leader.
“Sometimes people switch costumes,” Rachel said. She had her arms folded, and leaned back hard into the side of her wolf. “Take the guy you like least and make him wear the costume instead. He’ll draw the attention.”
“You wouldn’t actually do that, would you?” Chastity asked.
“Nah. I’d tell them to get lost a long time before that. But these guys are dicks.”
We’re talking about this like we’re going to pick a fight, I thought. It’s inevitable? We go up against more than a hundred people with equipment and some degree of training, and a number of capes matching our own?
I didn’t want to. I didn’t want the risk, I didn’t want the casualties.
The others talked while I ruminated. I’d said what I had to say.
“Mukade was Bandsaw?” Moose asked. “But had to change his name?”
“Twice, apparently,” Damsel said. “I saw him at one of the villain hangouts, early on. He had the centipede thing.”
My mom ventured, “Do you know anything about him, contact, or…?”
Damsel ignored her.
“Not our wavelength,” Swansong explained, filling in Damsel’s silence. “Refugee turned villain. First thing I ever saw or heard of him was that he was wondering which group was best set up. No take on theme or fit, class, goals.”
“He wanted safety and security,” Moose said. “Fits what I know.”
I was put in mind of Crystal and how she’d joined the PRTCJ.
“He disappeared pretty early on,” Moose finished. “I figured he bit it. Thought it was sad.”
“He was young,” Swansong said. “I remember him putting three times too much sugar into his coffee. It made me think he was a teenager.”
“He was,” Moose said. “Is. But that’s getting into uncomfortable territory. We can smash their faces in, break them, but we shouldn’t hint too much at who’s behind the mask.”
“Fair,” I said, bemused.
“You mentioned Barfbat.”
“Yeah,” I confirmed.
Moose nodded, as if encouraged by that, or just by being able to contribute something. “He’s decent. Strong, polite. Gets the job done. He likes to hang and work with Chugalug. If he’s here I’d bet money Chug is too.”
“What names,” my mom said.
“Barfbat did mercenary work in another Earth,” Harbinger One said.
“Really,” Moose said.
“He pulled one hundred thousand dollars for one job,” the Harbinger said. “One weekend.”
“Really. Shit on me. Did I miss a newsletter for high-paid villains and mercenaries or something?”
“If you put yourself out there, people are paying,” Harbinger Two said.
I tuned out the discussion. Some tidbits on those capes, but beyond that, I just needed to think.
What works? What doesn’t?
I glanced at my mom.
Take away what the villains want, and at worst we score a draw. Except it wasn’t that easy, and what they wanted was… what? Big picture, they wanted revenge and they wanted to secure themselves. They were working with mercenaries tied to the hyper-religious Earth Cheit and it looked very possible that Cradle and Love Lost were going to run off to that Earth or some other corner world after all of this was done.
We’d stopped them from running. Okay. Revenge? That was predicated on them getting Rain.
March was a third piece to the puzzle, but March wasn’t here, and March was inscrutable. Hopefully we would be able to achieve something with Cradle or Love Lost that would help us scrute, or at least give us the tools to apply leverage.
I had a bad feeling that I knew what their long-term was. I might not have connected to it if I hadn’t seen Ashley and the Harbingers, or if thoughts of Bonesaw and some of the other sketchy bio-manipulators hadn’t been so close to the surface of my thoughts, with Sveta’s issue.
Put that aside. There was the issue of the short-term.
What did they want, in the here and now? They were asleep, so… nothing.
“I have an idea,” I said. It wasn’t necessarily an idea I felt good about, but I felt more confident because I had an idea, period.
“If we attack this it’s going to be too difficult,” I said. I could see Rachel, Foil, and Damsel weren’t so keen on that. How could I use them? They factored in for the here and now. Hopefully that worked. Hopefully this worked.
I wished I’d done more in the past to track who was even operating in the corner worlds. I’d collected info from Earth as it had been, preserving records, and I’d collected information about Earth as it was, following who was where, but I hadn’t focused enough on the other Earths.
“I want to try disruption. I want to try you. I’ll stress this is only if you’re willing. Because this is playing with fire.”
My finger pointed at Chastity.
“Against a hundred people with guns? Tell me how and I’ll do it,” Chastity said.
“What’s the logic?” My mom asked.
“The logic is doing without the hundred people with guns. Byron, Chastity, are you okay riding a dog? Rachel, can you give them a ride?”
“Can,” Rachel said.
“Why me?” Byron asked. “I’m a step behind you here.”
“Because you can tell her what Precipice said about the intruder into his dreamscape and what happened to them. Make sure she knows the stakes. That it’s dangerous. There’s not a super high chance this works, and if it doesn’t or if she’s not down, I think there are two routes we can go down. For now, we either need to make this work, we need to get lucky at the- whatever it’s called. Frontier-”
“Frontier Row,” Moose said.
“We need to get lucky there-”
Chastity said something in French. Jesus Prayer? Jay-vays-pier? I didn’t have the grounding to know.
“-or we need to get out of Earth N, which means using the remote Precipice and Cassie have. We disrupt them at the foundation and… I want to start with their current setup. I want to leverage the most subtle powers we have.”
The first sign that something had gone wrong was that the villains of the Row were gathered around the station. The second sign were the fires.
I flew down to signal to Rachel, Capricorn and Chastity that they should circle around. I returned to the air well above the city and watched the patchwork canine take its new route. Not so dissimilar from the route we’d already traveled.
I landed in the midst of the crowd, a few feet from Bluestocking. I was forced to dismiss the Wretch on my descent.
“What the fuck?” I asked.
“You had someone sneaking around,” Bitter Pill said.
“We had a vulnerable teammate and we were keeping them back and safe,” I told her.
“You didn’t tell us.”
Was this the dynamic? Was it Bluestocking handling things when they wanted to handle the inter-team diplomacy in a half-decent way, running the show, while Bitter Pill was the designated stubborn asshole, when they didn’t care to play nice?
“We had more pressing concerns. We still do. Where is my teammate? He was out of action. He had someone with him, and they had a dog.”
“They ran off,” Bluestocking said.
I could read her body language, see that she was spoiling for an argument. Worse than before. Was she that defensive? Did she have something to hide? Or was she upset about a potential spy because both were true, and she was doing something she really shouldn’t?
“I really don’t care what you’re up to. I want my teammate and I want to deal with the monsters.”
“Then go find ’em. If you ask, we can’t tell you much of anything.”
I shook my head a little, then took to the air.
“Antares,” came the call from below me.
It was Bluestocking.
“Paris brought Contender back.”
“And?” I asked, a little tense.
“He needs medical attention. Badly. You took his eyes.”
Almost gentler than I’d expected, but… it sat oddly. There were other avenues of attack or wounds that left some quality of life. But the eyes? That affected every moment of every day from here on out.
Was that worse than death to a Harbinger?
“They were going to tell Cradle’s group we were coming. We wanted to slow them down.”
“You locked us in?” Bluestocking asked. Asking to confirm what she already knew.
“Locked them in. You associated with them, you deal with the inconvenience they bring home. We’ll be done soon.”
Bitter Pill said, “We can’t extract the wirework from the mess that is his eyes and the bridge of his nose, not without damaging it more. He’s going to bleed out or suffer permanent damage if you take too long.”
“If we take too long, it’s because of their people, not ours.”
“Don’t test our patience,” Bluestocking said.
Which was my cue to go.
Rachel was already running ahead. She’d taken the long route, and instead of coming to the station, she’d just run on ahead. She was running through low brush and over frozen, fairly barren landscape that was dotted with the rare fire. One burning tree, low to the ground, one mess of detritus where a tree had fallen down in multiple pieces and decayed.
Etna, flying, and not flying that well. It clearly wasn’t a strength of hers. She created molten orbs in her hands and tossed them in the general direction of the fleeing dog and its two passengers.
Two options. I was confident in my ability to go toe to toe with her. I’d trained against the Legend-type flying blasters through my teenage years, and I’d sparred with Crystal. Fliers came in all types, and Etna looked like a strong contrast to Colt. Where Colt changed direction on the fly and went from zero to fifty in a second, Colt hadn’t been that fast. Etna was slow to pick up speed and maneuverable with that velocity, but I could see how Cassie was leading the dog in different directions, and Etna wasn’t doing so hot with that. When she turned, she maintained speed but her accuracy and reaction times seemed to go out the window. In a straightaway, it looked like she could build up speed and I was guessing her top speed was good. She was steaming as she flew, and her orbs were growing faster.
She’s a bomber, more than she’s artillery or an aerial combatant. Mark a target, get up to speed, drop or hurl a slew of molten glass orbs at them with each pass.
I was fairly sure, just by seeing her fly, that she had a bit of the same issue Crystal did. Middle ear wasn’t adapted to flying, so the sharp turns and anything else gave her one hell of the roller coaster feeling, if it didn’t make her nauseous or threaten to make her black out.
Option two, though, was to catch up to her when the constant turns had fucked with her most, tackle her, and use my flight and her disorientation to flip us both about ten times in three seconds, before arresting our movement and firmly depositing her in the nearest hillside. The crash landing on her part was more because of her disorientation than any exaggerated force on my end.
She bounced. It wasn’t a huge bounce, but her flight was still ‘on’ as she rebounded off the hillside and that made her buoyant.
I didn’t have time for these games. I watched a moment to make sure she was more or less fine. Then I flew away.
Just… far too many occasions where she’d gotten in our way. Where she’d ended up on the team with the shittiest, most frustrating people, where she’d been reckless. Now she was out attacking people without getting answers?
I was just done. If I discounted one because she’d helped with the Fallen attack, then this was her second strike, as far as I was concerned. I’d revise or amend my position if I could figure out if Bluestocking had sent her or if this was a reckless proving-herself thing.
I had no idea why I found it quite as irritating as I did. Chalk it up to diminished defenses.
Rachel whistled. She was catching up to Cassie, and the whistle was a cue to regroup, wolf and hound running side by side with a smaller mutant dog lagging behind. Yips was moving in straight lines while the others traced routes that were more like S-curves, which let him catch up. But those S-curves were for a reason, and Yips was running through every barely-iced-over creek and through very puddle, and a part of his shoulder was on fire because he’d blindly charged through a burning bush or tree.
“Capricorn!” I called out. “Fire!”
Capricorn twisted around, saw, and created blue lights.
Yips yelped as the blue lights became a splash of cold water.
“Stop,” I called out. I kept an eye on the spot where Etna had been deposited as the wolf and hound slowed, then came to a halt.
“They came after me,” Cassie said.
“It’s fine,” Rachel said. “The-”
The straggler crashed into the two dogs, nearly unseating everyone.
“Yips, you numbnuts!” Cassie shouted.
“Gentle! Settle!” Rachel ordered.
Yips, tail wagging, head lolling this way and that, did obey and dropped down to lie down on the ground.
“All the way,” Rachel ordered.
The mutant Yips flopped over onto his side, four legs sticking out to one side, tail slapping the ground.
“Did something happen?” Cassie asked.
“We wanted to try something,” Byron said. “We need the remote, I think? Or we’re doing something weird with Precipice’s situation.”
“The weird thing with Precipice first,” I said. I walked over to Rain, and I pulled off my glove so I could hold fingers to his pulse. “If everyone’s willing.”
The pulse was slow enough that I wouldn’t have imagined he’d been riding on that dog while it had been moving the way it had.
Chastity hadn’t responded.
“If you’re up for it, Chastity, I want you to knock Precipice out.”
“What?” Chastity asked, frowning.
“Turning him off and turning him on again,” Byron said, as it dawned on him.
“If he didn’t have that girl he was into, I’d be happy to turn him on any day,” Chastity said. Her friend pushed her shoulder. More serious, Chastity said, “Screwing with this situation he’s got going on hurt someone else, Capricorn told me while we rode.”
“There’s a chance it hurts him?” Chastity asked.
“I have no idea,” I said. “There’s a chance it wakes them all up, and that’s all that happens, and if that happens, we don’t have to wait until dawn to adapt and go after them. There’s a chance it wakes him up and only him, in which case we can use his input. There’s a really, really good chance he stays knocked out, and he was up with a sore cheek.”
“And there’s a chance that by waking him up, what happened to that other person happens to him,” Chastity said.
“That was actually going into the dream,” Byron told her.
“The person got chewed in going in. Do we chew him up pulling him out?” she asked.
“What I know is that he’s been looking for ways out of the dream for a while now,” Byron said, quiet. “I know it’s eating him alive. And he’s talked about options since that thing happened with the intruder Cradle brought in.”
“He wants this, huh?” I asked.
Byron shrugged. “Think so.”
Chastity nodded, then nodded more forcefully, like she was trying to amp herself up or get herself to the point of agreeing.
“If you don’t want to, we have other options,” I said.
“I told him I’d help him.”
“With his love life.”
“I’ll help him,” Chastity said, definitively now. “And not just to impress the guy in armor with the nice voice.”
“You’re incorrigible,” I told her, as Byron acted momentarily flustered.
“Just who I am,” she said, smiling a little.
Chastity began pulling off the wicked jewelry she had on her right hand. Studded rings and rings with ornate designs. She handed it to Cassie, then shifted position, sitting so her front was to Cassie’s back, Rain lying across Cassie’s lap.
I saw her take a deep breath.
“Move the mask?” she asked. “Just a bit. Let him have his privacy.”
Cassie did, sliding it aside to show only a bit of eye, nose, and mouth, cheek exposed.
The slap wasn’t even that hard. When Chastity pulled her hand back, a pinky fingernail was illuminated.
I checked his pulse.
Was it faster now?
“Okay,” I said. “That’s something of a good sign.”
Chastity worked for a second to get secure behind her friend. “Got me, hon?”
“We’ll work on that,” Chastity said, leaning forward to kiss Cassie on the cheek, before slapping her own cheek with the backs of her fingers.
She swayed, and Cassie caught her as she went limp, and then Rain stirred, with Cassie trying to catch him too. I took over the duties there.
Rain groaned. It wasn’t a fast wake-up.
“Got you,” I told him.
“Pass him here,” Byron said. “Bigger mount. If that’s okay?”
Rachel grunted in the affirmative.
“You’re close,” I noted, as I finished the hand-off of Rain to Byron, then helped secure the blankets around Chastity.
“Yeah,” Cassie said. “Snuggle buddies.”
“You’re-” I motioned between the two girls.
“Buddies. Only buddies. We’d be best friends if we weren’t so far away. But when we get together we can nap on the same couch and it’s the best nap ever. Or we stay up all night bundled up in blankets, trading off between watching her awful shows and watching my stuff while she insults the characters. I never thought I’d have someone like her.”
Rain was slowly coming to. He groaned like he was in pain, but as I floated in to check, he recognized me and waved me off.
“I had someone like that. A girlfriend. We could talk all night. My ex-girlfriend, now,” Byron said.
“We’re not girlfriends, though,” Cassie said, hurrying to protest. “I like boys and she really likes boys. I really want to clarify because I don’t want me being horrible with words to tank any chances she has with-”
“Stop,” Rachel said. “You’re rambling, and you get mad at yourself when you get carried away.”
“Stopping,” Cassie said.
Rain worked his way to a sitting position. The silence hung heavy.
“Good?” Byron asked.
“I’m goddamn sore, and even more tired than I’m sore. It’s dark out? What the hell day is it?”
“Same day. We woke you up early,” Byron said. “Once you’re fit to ride, we’ll see if we woke up the others, or screwed with them.”
“Okay,” Rain said. “Water?”
“I’ve got broth for nutrients and shit,” Rachel said.
“My suggestion,” Cassie said, happy.
“I’ve put my lips on the rim, I don’t know if you’re a pussy about that sort of thing.”
“You can’t say that,” Cassie said. “Pussy.”
Rachel sighed, heavy. “When I say pussy I mean the lame-as-shit, wimpy-ass, useless-for-anything joyless dead-behind-the-eyes cat, okay?”
“Good,” Cassie said.
“There’s probably backwash in here too,” Rachel said. “People are pussies about that too.”
“I’ll wait,” Rain said.
“My parents pack everything,” I told him. “They’ll have water.”
“We going?” Rachel asked.
“Go,” I said.
“Yips! Up! Get going!”
As soon as Yips was off the ground, the three dogs were running. I flew alongside, leaning on the Wretch. My hands were cold. Again, I felt the aches and pains.
“Depending on what follows, we might go back, see if we can find any capes who aren’t tied up with other things,” I said.
“What else were you thinking?” Byron asked.
“Power copiers to copy Precipice and get his emotion power, or see if there’s a Heartbroken or someone else with a power that’s subtle enough.”
“Amias,” Cassie said. “He’s young, though.”
“I don’t think we know any power copiers who work that flexibly,” Byron said.
“Any power that was subtle enough would work,” I said. “If they want to stay locked up, then let’s make the conditions as unpleasant as possible, and see if they crack.”
“Ahh,” Byron said.
“They’re locked up?”
“Essentially,” I said.
“My power helps,” Rain said. “You want to help them?”
“The way I see it, it helps when you’re doing something. Makes your mistakes more pointed, so you learn from them. But if you’re doing nothing at all, then-”
“Regret,” Rain said. “Doubt. Self-loathing.”
“I thought about what I want to do, and I want them to hurt. I want them to feel and recognize what they’ve done here. I want them to feel a thousand times the pain they’ve inflicted on others, and I don’t know if that’s possible, but maybe your power gets them there.”
“They might be asleep.”
“Emotion effects accrue, I think. There’s a physiological and mental component. We just… let that accumulate. A little trickle for a long time.”
“About that,” Rain said.
“I’m maxed out. I didn’t get my power, or any tokens, pretty sure… I’m-”
The silver blade he created was just that- a blade, a foot and a half long. He made a throwing motion, and it dissipated.
“That’s maxed out?” Cassie asked.
“My emotion power. It’s turned up.”
“Nothing else?” Byron asked.
“Zero on the tinker power. Zero on the mover.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I have no fucking idea. But if you want to boil them inside whatever room they’re holed up in, I think I can do that.”
Rain was on his feet again, a bottle of water in hand, talking to Moose, as Moose outlined some of the faces inside the building. Foil had slipped in between the patrols and used spikes to scale the wall, and she’d taken photos while at the window. At the factory-like building, the windows were up near the tall ceiling and the roof.
I heard the names Moose rattled off -mostly new ones for me- and I heard Moose talking about which ones were more compassionate, which were assholes. The ones who had killed.
Chastity had roused, looking a bit worse for wear but, at the very least, not unconscious. She was with Rachel, but most of her focus was on the Harbingers.
I turned to look. It was Cassie.
“You called my friend incorrigible.”
“I’m sorry. I was trying to play along. Byron hadn’t mentioned the ex he was talking about was the same girl that’s chopped up in that factory, I kind of wanted to distract her.”
“Oh… oh no.”
“It’s okay. I’m sorry I wasn’t as deft as I could’ve been. Tired.”
“It’s okay. It’s true that she’s incorrigible, but… it’s hard, you know? I want her to be happy. But she doesn’t want to be someone who goes out with someone and lies from the start. I think something bad happened once, while she still lived with her dad, when she went to school under an alias and had a boy who liked her. I think he ended up meeting her dad.”
I nodded, swallowing hard. I wondered if I heard a name, if I could dig in files and find a case report.
Cassie continued, “And if she’s honest about where she comes from, most guys, most good guys, they run screaming. So she plays the odds, I think. Any time she’s with a guy who might work, she takes her shots. A lot of the time those guys aren’t great people, y’know? I kind of got hopeful, seeing her around the good guys, this time around, and not the guy who pops pills or the fourteen year old who’s killed people. That’s why I acted weird and ranty.”
“It’s fine. Really truly. It came from a good place. No judgment.”
“Her dad used to throw away women when they were twenty two or twenty five or around that age. I think she kind of feels like she has a time limit, and after that no guy’s going to want her around?”
“Fuck,” I said.
“And I can show her Charlotte and Forrest or Nancy and Theo and point to them, and I tell her they’re happy together. But she doesn’t really see it and I don’t think she even totally gets why she feels like she has the time limit. She can know it’s logical and feel a complete other way.”
“I’m running into that an awful lot,” I said. “The feelings and rationale being in completely different places. She’s lucky to have a friend like you, you know?”
“Snuggle buddy. Best friend. Shitty thing about Nancy and Theo, you know? I was all, rah rah, look, they’re so cute together, they’re so happy. Role models, woo. Then they broke up. I actually think it messed her up a little. She was at the farm when it happened and the next day she went back to New Brockton with barely a goodbye. We never even talked to them, we ate at the same table sometimes, but…”
“Yeah. I see what you mean. Kind of connects.”
“You want good things for your best friend.”
“I want good things for a lot of the people here. I thought- I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this. Rachel doesn’t care, she says to be open, but it’s Chastity’s whole deal I’m talking about and now I’m feeling like I’m betraying her by talking to a near-stranger about it.”
“I won’t say a word,” I said.
“Thank you. I can’t really talk to Rachel about stuff like this. She’s great. She’s the very best. But not for talking. Tattletale used to be someone we could go to, but she got worn out, and it became a not-this-week thing, and then a not-this-month thing. I was going to ask Imp for help, but she’s hurt now, and she’s not here.”
“Help?” I asked.
“I dunno. You’re pretty and you’re confident, and Chastity seems to like you. If you ever… feels dumb to say out loud. But if you ever met someone who might like her…? And who’s strong enough or caring enough? And who’s, um, perfect? Because my best friend doesn’t deserve anything less than perfect.”
I could hear something in her tone of voice in that last sentence, serious and almost dangerous or gruff, that told me this girl had spent a lot of time with the very serious, very dangerous, and very gruff Rachel Lindt.
“Don’t nod and get my hopes up if you won’t try,” Cassie told me.
“My best friend needs help too,” I said. “She needs a body. I’ll keep an eye out for your friend if you keep an eye out for mine.”
Cassie nudged me. When I looked, she had a hand out.
I shook it.
“What’s this dealing about?” Chastity asked. She’d left the Harbingers behind.
“I should go see to the mission,” I said, stepping away from Cassie.
“Careful going out,” Chastity said. “They sent a patrol down the road and they had lights up at the windows during one route they took. Group back here had to scram, and Foil almost got caught.”
“Thank you,” I said. I put a hand on her shoulder as I passed her. “And thank you. For waking up Precipice. Taking the risk.”
Others were glancing my way. Briefings petered off. They were close to ready.
“What do you think?” Byron asked.
“I think we should get set up,” I said. “I’m thinking it’s me, Precipice… mom, are you okay being in ball form? If we hand you off to Sveta, we can have you for the pineapple.”
“Bowling seven-tens,” my dad said.
An old in-joke. We’d never been able to agree on what to call the maneuver.
My mom smiled a little. “That’s a good idea. If things go poorly?”
“Okay. I can be patient.”
“I’ll go too,” Foil said. “I can avoid the patrols. I can deal with problems.”
“Good,” I said. “Everyone else? Be ready. If there’s a bit of trouble, judgment call. Either make a bit of noise for a distraction and scram, or Capricorn seals it off once a few people are out the door. We can always get ourselves in later.”
“Or I act like a representative from the Row,” Moose said. “A quieter distraction.”
“Perfect,” I said. “Thank you.”
“If there’s a lot of trouble?” Ashley asked.
I looked at her. At Damsel. At my dad. At Moose. The Harbingers.
“Knock the building down,” I said. “Take out the ones who escape. Then we shift gears, get the people and the parts out.”
That got me some sober nods. A smile from Damsel.
I couldn’t see smiling at that end result, but… I supposed she needed to grandstand or act.
“Ready?” I asked Rain.
I put my shoulder at his armpit, my arm at his waist. He put his arm around my shoulders, and we tested lifting off.
My mom went ball-form, and she was wrapped in a dog blanket to mute the glow. I put her under my other arm.
We went high first, because people didn’t usually look a quarter-mile up in the air for intruders. We dropped down, eyes peeled for soldiers with and without flashlights. Chugalug was out with his squad, jellyfish mode, floating, but he was taking a route that ranged further afield.
“Your heart’s pounding,” I told Precipice. I could feel it through his chest. “Was too fast a drop?”
He shook his head. “Must be involuntary reaction to being so high up.”
He was breathing harder too, but I didn’t get the impression he was being cute or coy – he seemed surprised. Not a boy-girl thing. Mercifully.
A long night, really. All of us were on edge.
We lowered down to the side of the roof with Sveta. I motioned for Rain to hang back.
I handed over the cloth-wrapped ball, only glimmers peeking through. Tendrils wrapped around it, binding the cloth even tighter to the orb.
I explained what was up, what had happened, and what the strategy was.
“Perfect,” Sveta said.
I wasn’t sure it was, but it was the best we’d been able to come up with.
Foil was making her way across the darkest parts of the fields between our group and the building. I could see her because I knew where to look. I was nervous, but I had to trust. She was one of the good ones.
Rain and I, meanwhile, dropped down to the edge of the roof. The window was recessed enough to set a foot down, and Foil had left some pieces of rebar jutting out of the wall. Footholds.
We could look in through the window. We could see the soldiers.
Rain laid his hands against the glass. His breath, even with the mask in the way, was hard enough to leak around the edges and fog against the glass. I motioned for him to back off and keep that to a minimum.
“Low strength,” I whispered. “At least when targeting the soldiers. Keep it subtle.”
“The god-damned irony,” Rain said, under his breath.
“Full strength if you can keep it to the contents of the egg and the mech. Let’s make sure we target Cradle if he’s trying to be clever and hide inside that.”
“Yeah,” Rain said.
He began using his power.
You want to make yourself an egg, Cradle? Let’s see if we can hard-boil it. Keep the shell intact and cook what’s inside.