I’d spent a lot of time being conscious of power, in the sense of being commanding. My mom, who was on the rooftop now, holding two squadron leaders hostage, had tried to make me conscious of it from an early age. When I’d made a good showing in gym class and earned an offer to join the basketball team, the same conversation where I’d brought it up with my parents had included the question of whether I’d end up team captain. Was that something I wanted? Where would it get me? Before I’d had a uniform or even owned a basketball of my own, the idea was on the table. Not that it had mattered.
I complained about a frustrating experience doing group work in school? She’d ask if I’d taken charge. If not, then she had made suggestions on delegation, told me that even if I wasn’t confident, leading a group with a mediocre plan of action in mind was better than a group with no leadership at all.
Which was a really jarring thought, when I connected it to our plan from earlier- no, I wasn’t going to dwell on it. Not when army-supported capes, screaming bloody tinkers and lives were on the line. A thought for another day or time.
I had a vision of what leadership was, and Cradle was so far from it that it made the scene I was looking at utterly surreal. The man-though he wasn’t so much a man as someone straddling the line between teenager and adult- staggered more than he walked, clearly hurting, even though there weren’t any obvious wounds. He’d screamed, raw and loud, and I didn’t see anyone talking or commenting in the wake of it. He was utterly self-involved and focused on what he was dealing with, and the one hundred plus individuals in the prefab factory building weren’t even a consideration.
I watched Cradle struggle on his own, and I saw him answer something a soldier nearby said. Someone wet a towel with water from a bottle, and then threw it at Cradle. A slice of light appeared, as tall as Cradle was, and the towel struck it. Cut clean in two. Cradle caught one half of the towel in each hand. One dangled limp at his side, dripping, while he rubbed at his face with the other.
Towel still held over face, his hand visibly trembled, clenching into a fist. Wet fabric was squeezed out, clean water running down his arms to his elbows, gathering blood as it went, until congealed globs dripped off of the elbow.
He rubbed his face again, then ran towel against scalp to wipe the worst of the blood off. His straight blond hair was slicked back as much as with any gel, colored with the clotting gore. He lowered his head as he set his mask into place, then stood a little straighter as he raised his head, a little less shaky.
I could get that, at least. The benefit of a costume.
The bloody towel wiped the worst of the mess from his arms and sleeves, cleaning them up to the elbow until the blood was streaking more than it was being wiped away. He turned to using the clean towel, draping the dirty one around his neck.
His head turned, swift enough that I wondered if someone had called out to him. But his focus was on his mech.
He took a deep breath, reaching out with a hand- and he distorted. Teleportation wasn’t the right word. It made me think of Vista closing the space between herself and something else, to get where she wanted to be faster, but it was instant, a snap, and Cradle was perched on the side of his mech, crouching with no regard for gravity, one hand at a panel window.
He didn’t need a deep breath for the movements that followed. There was a tall toolbox resting against the wall, and he was there.
Okay, it was kind of like teleportation, but not like I’d dealt with. A surgical removal of everything between point A and B, including reorientation. It made me think of someone walking through a hall of mirrors, some mirrors angled or set up to portray things at right angles. He was getting more fluid with it by the second, snatching up a dangling wire while upside-down, and bringing it with him to a point where he was standing perpendicular to the ground, to the vent he pried open with the tool from the toolbox. The mechanisms at the interior of the vent illuminated him.
Cradle wasn’t shaking anymore, but Rain was right next to me, and Rain was trembling.
“Easy,” I whispered.
“We have to fight that,” he said.
“We have to deal with it, not necessarily fight,” I said. “Remember what you were doing.”
“Yeah,” he responded.
I wanted to have something to recommend or to say. To be able to point out a chink in the armor or a particular individual. It had been part of why I was studying Cradle’s ‘leadership’, or the lack therein. Even now, he was indicating with the tool, which looked more like a taser than anything, directing people, while he made some adjustments to his mech.
Some people started toward the stairs. I tensed, ready to head up and warn Sveta, Foil, and Brandish, and Rain touched my arm, stopping me.
Cradle made the people near the stairwell stop. The leader leaned against the wall, arms folded.
Not sending the next patrol up here? Why?
Adherence to schedule? The last patrol hadn’t been that long. Was it a question of control?
“Was that you?” I asked.
Rain shook his head.
“What the hell is he doing?”
“What I’m doing is adding pressure,” Rain said.
The one with folded arms by the wall stood up, stepping away from the wall. He said something.
Cradle responded, still tinkering.
A pause, the soldier practically tapping their foot as they stood there.
“Make it feel bad to sit and wait…” Rain murmured.
The soldier said something again. Red called out to him, and his head turned…
“Feels bad to listen…”
“That’s some fine control you’re-”
“Shh,” Rain said.
I pressed my lips together. Fair play.
All of the emotion I could see in Rain was in his hands, mechanical and real. The face beneath the hood was masked, and that mask was calibrated to be entirely black. The hands pressed against glass, fingers bowed by the pressure.
The impatient soldier said something again, and this time, Red stood up. Everyone present was on edge. Another machinery disaster in the works?
It was Cradle who said something to Red and got her to stand down, before I could figure out how to get Rain to do something similar.
“Fuck,” Rain said. “I could do something here, but I’m pretty sure it would get someone killed.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’ve got other options, but if they don’t work, we should consider…”
He didn’t finish the sentence.
We should consider doing it on purpose this time? Baiting soldiers to kill one another and throw things into disarray?
It was a cape directly below the window who stood up, walking a few feet over, so he had a better view of Red and the other one. His soldiers had been playing cards among themselves, and now they stood too.
“Come on, come on,” Rain whispered.
The cape pointed at the impatient soldier.
“Fuck,” Rain said.
“What’s- you wanted them to challenge Red.”
“Yeah. They defused more than they fused. Which means-”
Cradle’s mech moved, Cradle using his reposition power to put himself on an extended thumb-tip. By position and placement alone, all eyes on him, he should have commanded authority. Instead, he was silent, his head hung for a long moment, one hand clutching at one shoulder. All vulnerability, raw.
I thought again of leadership and power.
I could remember feeling bad about revealing my weakness, the Wretch, to the team. It had ended up helping connect, I was pretty sure. It had been necessary.
Was it something that could hold one up indefinitely, though? I couldn’t imagine there was.
But I found a bad feeling settling in me as I watched it, saw Cradle standing above his assembled army. I’d bitten my tongue once, on an occasion that Dean had come by my place after school. He’d talked with my mom and dad in the kitchen about how he’d be in charge of the Wards for a while, and what he hoped to do. I’d felt at the time that he’d been on the wrong track.
Except now, reflecting, I wasn’t sure what the right track was. There was something in there where I’d worried at the time that Dean wasn’t helping himself by trying to be a therapist or mediator and… that was what I had ended up being, myself. Cradle was the very antithesis of leadership, as I might have defined it, and he was managing better than could be expected.
What the hell was I doing and what the hell was I supposed to do?
His balance was perfect even as the mech changed modes, the thumb-tip his feet rested on rotating to keep him in place. Telescoping wrists extended slightly, the mech beneath him was settling into a more active or mobile configuration, while the ‘cup’ of body parts remained suspended in the air above. Two larger hands were set in front, having adjusted to nestle extraneous hands within the wrists and palms, and their fingertips rested on the ground, but for the thumb Cradle stood on, which was raised high. The wrists and lengths of arm extended from the same central point. Smaller hands and shorter wrists formed the back legs, hands planted in the same way, only reversed.
Like a four or forty-legged spider or akin to a bulldog in tilt and frame, but it was just the limbs, no head, no body.
It was hard to tell when Cradle was talking. He wasn’t loud, and his mask covered his mouth, a gas-mask like construction that was slightly different from his old mask, like two hands pressed to his face, fingers parted so the circular lenses peered through the gaps. The forehead was flat, but had finger-length fingerprints etched to be shiny against the otherwise dull, painted material.
“That’s Subside,” Rain said. “Moose mentioned him. He-”
Rain didn’t get a chance to answer or point out who his emotion power had picked out as the one Cradle had been addressing. The mech moved, sudden and violent, every person in the room scrambling to feet or backing away.
From the two prime middle fingers, cables extended, lashing out. They curved and curled in the air as they extended out, the dark steel shifting to an almost negative image, where shadows and recesses were bright and the exposed parts dark, before they were all white, crackling with a nimbus of electricity. In the last instant before they struck the ceiling, the cables disappeared, and there was only the nimbus, too angular and dramatic to be true electricity.
The cables ripped through and into the ceiling and roof, parting it.
I flew, leaving Rain behind. My hand traced the wall, gripping the lip of the roof to help adjust my flight. My armored shin slid against the roof’s surface, which was now angled, as I tried to get to the others.
I met resistance. A wash of heat rushing upward. I saw sparks, motes of light, and I felt the barrier to going down.
My mom was in ball form, floating down, while Foil did much the same. The hostage soldiers fell with them. They were floating targets, drifting down like they were sinking through water, while Cradle and the soldiers on the ground were looking up.
Looking up and taking action.
Most ‘action’ was to scramble out of the way of the chunks of roof that were breaking away from the split. Some stood their ground. Red was one, her machinery rising up in a barrier. A giant pincer seized my mother.
Mukade was another. Beyond deflecting and ‘catching’ the falling chunks of roof, his target was Foil. From the sides of his body and legs, the ‘centipedes’ ripped out. Minions, they were each a half-foot wide, two inches tall down the center, and tapered down to razor edges at the sides, each edge serrated with the angular ‘legs’ or saw-teeth. The heads of each centipede were more like goblets or open mouths with ill-fitting lids or muzzles, the mouths designed to spew acid and the covers to channel that acid down the length of centipede that followed after. The fluids were luminescent in the light and black in the dark.
Foil kicked at a piece of rubble to change the direction of her fall. Two centipedes lanced past her, tearing into armor panels and the remaining decorations of mine that she’d tucked into the side of her belt. She stabbed one, and jerked violently as it carried her up and back.
Down was met with resistance, slowed, made floaty. There was something with heat or temperature manipulation in there too, but I wasn’t dwelling on it. Up and away was faster, normal speed.
I flew to her, and my way was barred by a loop of centipede.
They fed into and through Mukade, their initial emergence or their passage through him giving them a speed that had to be in the order of a hundred miles an hour, at the very least, but the moment they weren’t being fed through, they became slower, just fifty or a hundred feet of razor edges and acid.
They were slower still while trying to return to their master to be fed through again. Foil using the centipede carried her out of the line of fire, past the rooftop and away from the initial shots from those who’d been quick enough to bring guns to hand and open fire while the centipedes lunged.
But now she was a good hundred feet in the air, the centipede not strong enough to hold her up on its own, so she sagged with every passing second. I tried to fly past, the Wretch active, and found the centipede before me was quick to react, to form S-bends that caught me and caught the Wretch. Like flying into a net or web. They wrapped around, caught, and flooded the surface of the Wretch with acid-
My aura did nothing, as I pushed out full strength. I had to dismiss the Wretch, instead, to slip through a gap, escaping. Acid splashed my boot and sent a shock of black horror through me.
Foil hung from the length of one centipede, head turned away as acid ran down the grey-black slats and angular legs of the centipede itself, down its length to her glove and arm.
I hesitated, and I hated myself for hesitating, so I threw myself forward the moment the hate registered.
Thoughts of Crawler and my bath in acid vomit were dark in my mind, as I raced through skies that were just as dark. Moisture in the air pelted me, each droplet a fresh shock of dark terror, because there were centipedes looming above me and there was no knowing if the moisture was precipitation or if it was something that would melt my flesh and scar me forever.
Because as bad as the scarring might end up being, as dire the situation, there was simply no fathomable reality where a parahuman would ever heal me.
Moisture in my boot made me worry the acid had seeped through the material, that I might feel the burning start. Once it did, there was a chance it might never.
I flew past and I went without the Wretch, because that adjustment made me a hair faster, a bit more precise in my maneuvering, and the Wretch was too big when I needed to dive through a small space. Razor edges sliced at my arm in two places, cut at my belt in another without parting flesh, and my leg in a fourth spot.
No healing if I lost an arm, or suffered crippling pain. No healing if I lost a leg.
I twisted in the air, to let my breastplate take the brunt of the one centipede that was falling toward me, razor edges first, as much as they were doing anything. The impact was heavy, and the length of centipede circled beneath me, head swooping around as it tried to wind around my upper body. I flipped, heel over head, to be belly-side-down and put it beneath me, then flew forward, to where Foil dangled. A blade jutted from the toe of her shoe, and she was using it to cut one centipede’s head off.
I caught her, carrying us away from the centipede’s reach before turning to assess the situation.
“Your mom,” she said.
I looked, I saw. Sveta had reached down- and was hauling the glowing sphere up and out of the rooftop, which had a whole chunk carved out of it.
Cradle’s line appeared, lancing up and out. I couldn’t see enough of Sveta to make out if she’d been cut, but I saw the orb intersect the light. It sliced through the orb, and broke the effect, leaving my mom tumbling through the air.
Sveta caught her with tendrils.
I couldn’t stop and stare. He’d known we were up there, somehow. It was why he’d told the group not to go to the roof, so he could mount a surprise attack. Cradle had a sensor or a power.
“Rain,” I said.
“Yeah,” was Foil’s response. She adjusted her grip on me.
I dove. There was no using the Wretch to cut the force or chill of the wind while I carried Foil.
Sveta’s face was barely visible above the roof as she lashed out. Multiple tendrils stabbed down and into the space. Her entire body shifted as points she was using to anchor shifted around her.
I saw what she was pulling way. An attempt at grabbing Cradle. Failed- he repositioned. At two capes. She threw them into the air, then let them fall. The bed of orange motes and the associated floating effect kept it from being terminal.
And Tattletale, plucked from Cradle’s craft. Head, shoulder, and a bit of chest, hair pale and costume in disarray.
Her other focus seemed to be on trying to do something about the craft, to try to mess with its aim, but she may not have been strong enough. I saw a bit of it moving through the gap, then through the upper windows. It was twisting around, rotating, the fingers out, and lashes swinging through the exterior wall of the building.
Aiming for Rain.
“Jump!” I shouted.
I wasn’t sure he could hear. But he threw himself back and away from the wall.
The now-invisible cable sliced through wall, cleaving a line through the surface, and by the course it painted, it seemed oriented perfectly to intersect the falling Rain.
He stopped himself in the air, freezing in place. His costume rustled with the force of the cable moving through the space beneath him.
One second, two-
He dropped again.
“Help,” I said, as I flew Foil and I into Rain.
I got a bad grip on the costume at his midsection. Foil, even with the awkward way I held her, managed a firm grip on his wrist.
We descended, my flying angle too steep for a stop or swift turn-around.
Metallic crunching and grinding marked the new complication of Red’s power. She used it even though she couldn’t see what she was using it on. Splashes of piston, gear, and belts rose up and out of the ground, bright with the white hot machinery and molten iron that was thrown out and around it, each splash larger than the last, one, two-
Three was a circular saw, big enough it could have risen up beneath an eighteen wheeler and cleaved the truck in two. The spinning saw kicked up a violent mess of molten particles.
Seeing the saw, Rain drew out a silver blade, now more of a silver shortsword, no longer something he could throw. It wasn’t something that was going to help.
Foil’s blade swatted several particles out of the air as they sailed our way, accurate even when I abruptly changed direction, so the blindly-aimed sawblade wouldn’t catch us if it bobbed any higher.
The rollercoaster feeling of flying became hard impact and gritty, cold, muddy reality as we hit ground. I couldn’t fly with two people, and because the direction and orientation of my flight didn’t really give me a chance to pull up or fly the direction we needed to go. It was a rougher landing than I would have liked, one that saw us tumble to land on our backs or fronts, but not one that risked breaking anything.
“Everyone okay?” I asked.
“Yes,” Foil said. “Thank you.”
“I’m in one piece,” Rain said, as he climbed to his feet. “What the hell happened? Who fucked up?”
“He got wind of us,” I said. I started to stand, then fell hard as pain jumped up my leg. In the gloom, I started to reach for my leggings, and pain ran up my arm.
I moved more gingerly, one eye on the building and the army I knew was in there. A deeper cut in my leg, that was starting to burn. A cut at my upper arm, shallow but long, from elbow to shoulder. Another deeper cut at my forearm, short but grave enough that I could have buried a pinky along its length. No burning there.
My boot had been bleached where the acid had struck, but it didn’t look like the material had been eaten through. The damage was seemingly worse with my breastplate, with corrosion clearly evident, the metal cracking into what looked like scales, flecking off.
The front doors of the building weren’t on a face that faced us, but were to our left, opening out in the direction of the road and where our group was. They swung open, an aperture I remembered was large enough to drive a truck through, and immediately, our reinforcements acted. I saw the orbs as fleeting images, shot at high speed, grown large and sailing in twos and threes to detonate on impact.
They were shooting out of the treeline.
Red’s splashes appeared. I was too far away to do anything about them. One appeared a few dozen feet from the building, small but bright. Then the second was two-thirds of the way to the treeline.
The third erupted, felling five or six trees all at once, tearing up the earth around them, in a threshing of lawnmower-like blades writ large.
It was pretty clearly telegraphed, but I wasn’t sure if they knew enough to read into that telegraphing.
My dad, at least, was okay. The glowing orbs returned, a fresh surge of fire that peppered the one face of the building.
Our opportunity to get clear.
I saw my mom get flung, much like the grenades were being flung in one direction, my mom was sent in the other.
Sveta didn’t follow though. She was still at the building, still looming over the hole in the roof. I felt nervous, seeing that. I heard the gunfire, automatic weapons firing in bursts, and I didn’t see her getting out of the way.
A part of me had been afraid that this was going to happen. It was always a danger, for anyone who struggled like I’d struggled, like Sveta struggled every day. Escapism was common, and there was a seductive, ever-present desire to escape for good, in both senses of the word ‘good’. To go out with glory. One of the boys at the group therapy sessions at the hospital had talked about it a lot.
I didn’t get the impression Sveta was doing that. Not consciously.
“Go,” I told Rain and Foil. “Get to safety.”
“You can’t,” Foil said. “She shouldn’t, she can’t, but- too many guns.”
Had to like I’d had to risk arm and leg, might still lose arm and leg, depending on how this acid worked, to save Foil. Had to like Sveta was probably telling herself she had to do this.
It wasn’t a bullet I had to worry about. I was flying, thinking I was safe, when lines began to appear. Silvery, but crisp, like slices in reality, reaching well over the building.
Not meant for me, but dangerous all the same. I flew past one, and the Wretch had a limb extended. I felt the Wretch get sliced, felt the dim sensation that was the Wretch’s extended being part. The forcefield didn’t collapse. It cut.
A gaping hole in my forcefield, now, where there had been a bit of torso and shoulder.
I saw Sveta flinch in pain as one tendril passed through a line. Her head recoiled back, and the rest of her reacted. Her head flicked up, nervous, reactionary, an she saw me.
Tendrils snapped out, cracking almost like whips in their efforts to reach me.
Calm down. Let me near.
She didn’t calm down, but she did shift her attention away from me. Again, she bobbed her head, waved, and stabbed into the building with tendrils. They hit the floating space that was afire with the orange sparks, and it was like she’d hit cement, the tendrils corkscrewing as they hit a hard resistance. She forced them through, reaching.
“Get away from here!”
“Not without you, you numbskull! What are you trying to do!?”
“I’m trying to save them!”
“All of them!”
A severed tendril, noticeable for its endpoint because it didn’t taper down from pencil thin to hair-thin, stabbed in the direction of the hand-mech and the still half-formed, now double-layered orb of interlocked body parts.
The mech was moving now, hands gripping a surface. Cradle was elbow deep in the guts of the machine, even while it moved, not jarring or jostling as the thing moved, reaching up to grab the damaged section of roof, pulling it down.
Another volley of shots shot across the open field, striking the front face of the building. Something groaned, then fell, striking with a thud.
I saw Cradle turn his head sharply to the one side. A hand let go of the roof, instead moving to form a shield. The next volley passed through the opening in the building, striking different points inside. Two grenades hit the flat of the giant mech hand, raised as a shield.
He turned and he looked up at me.
Sveta tried again. Again, she hit the invisible momentum-cutting barrier. Like punching a wall of mud. More silvery lines criss-crossed, filling the space, silvery stitches, closing off the gap of the roof itself.
Two capes had somehow closed the distance to the treeline. I could hear Ashley and Damsel’s blasts, each audibly distinct because of what they were, and I could see more trees toppling.
Mukade’s centipedes flowed back to him, sliding into the hole in his side.
“Back! Now!” I shouted.
She didn’t budge, her attention on the progress of her tendrils.
No options left, I threw myself into her range with the full knowledge that she’d nearly grabbed me before, and any control she’d picked up from Rain’s power was probably long gone.
She hadn’t shied away from gunfire or having her tendrils sliced, but she shied away from letting me into her range. Slow and awkward, her entire head lurching because she tried to use a tendril she didn’t have anymore to anchor herself.
I closed in, tendrils grazing me, and pressed her face to my shoulder as I flew the two of us back and away. Mukade’s centipedes stabbed through the air behind us in a double helix, then closed up, the openings in the helix scissoring closed, razor-sharp serrated edges making a shrieking sound as they ran against one another, acid spraying and splashing below them.
Sveta pulled away, and I threw up the Wretch. Hoping it wouldn’t grab her, just as she no doubt hoped she wouldn’t grab me.
Red’s power provided the elevator to raise a group of four capes and ten soldiers to the broken rooftop. She stepped away from the group, and had the splashes going constantly now, all in close proximity to herself. One two three, clockwise, while another set marked the same pattern and distance, counter-clockwise, timed so there was something emerging from the rooftop every two seconds or so, always in arm’s reach.
Pieces of metal to be shields, an outcropping of pipes, that she could use to grab and wrench a weapon free, Curved blades that scraped the roof, as if testing the footing.
Soldiers dropped low, raising their guns-
The one closest to the trees seemed to throw himself at the guy beside him. Glass shards clattered down around him, and his head lolled back. Individual lengths of wire stabbed into eyes, eye socket, eyelid, scalp and cheek, sometimes prying and pulling skin or ocular material away, because those wires were still trying to spring back to a rigid, straight length. The guy beside him had one wire stabbing through an eye.
More of the soldiers were reacting now – I’d thought they’d dropped low or bent over because the guys at the far left of their group were leaning so heavily into them, from the force of the impact. But the other shot had gone low much as the first had gone high, both striking simultaneously. Short lengths of wire riddled the hands that had been holding the guns aloft.
Curled up wire distilled in glass spheres?
“Go to the others!” I told Sveta.
“They need you!”
Not the level-headed ideal command I’d pictured before.
But Sveta listened.
I threw myself at the upper edge of the building. The structure was damaged, cracks running through it from the damage to the roof and the way the damaged section hung, and a heavy impact from myself and the Wretch drove the damage home. A crack became something bigger and a section fell loose further across the roof. The people who had been setting up their vantage point to open fire on me, Sveta, or the people on the trees were now left uncertain if the roof would hold them. One guy hopped up onto the lip of the roof, a foot or two above my reaching hand.
He was quick to fire. Accurate enough to hit my forcefield. I grabbed his foot and wrenched him from the roof, swinging him down, letting him drop halfway while I followed him and held onto him, before kicking him in the face, to send him on his way. The Wretch snatched the gun he held, holding it by the barrel.
I rose up and twisted more sharply in the air before dismissing the forcefield. The upward momentum served to toss the gun up, and I caught it in my hands.
I didn’t like the feel of it. Didn’t like what it represented, that we were at this point.
I still held onto it.
Red was using her power to raise up a shield against the projectiles, but her power didn’t just make the eruption happen where she wanted it. There were the two steps that telegraphed it, and as people retreated to get away from the hail of maiming slingshots, they walked right into the prelude splashes. One fell from the roof, another tumbled, a soldier tripping over him to land perilously close to the hole in the roof.
I flew up and over, saw the group that standing tallest, and Red was the backbone of it. Gun in hand, held shoulder-height and held sideways in front of me, I flew at them, aiming to bowl them over. My arm was in agony for every step of the maneuver.
All for nothing. A buzzsaw erupted just at the roof’s edge, barring my way. I was forced to stop, stuck where I was while multiple people in her contingent got their bearings and aimed at me.
Grip shifting, flying with the circular saw as a kind of cover, I brought the gun around and pulled back on the trigger.
The vibration shook my body and reminded me that I had two massive gashes in my arm. Someone could have dug their fingers into the gashes and cuts and it probably wouldn’t have hurt so much.
But I’d used guns before as part of the Patrol. This time, however, I aimed at legs and lower bodies instead of paper cutouts. Their disorganization was compounded by the fact they’d been under fire, some being mangled or blinded, and they were maneuvering around a damaged rooftop. It put more people into a smaller area.
When I mowed into them with a single burst of gunfire, they collapsed into one another, if they didn’t collapse forward.
Except Red had been shielded by the people between her and I, and I still had to deal with her. I saw the telltale splashes, and I got out of there.
I thought I got out of there. I went low, closer to the base of the building, hugging the wall to minimize the chance that someone would be able to catch me off guard.
I had the Wretch active, and that likely saved my life. Red’s industrial tool this time was a crane mount, spearing sky high and bringing cable and wrecking ball with it. That wrecking ball slammed into me and the wall I was hugging. The wall below them, that was holding their section of the roof up.
Putting me through concrete and brick, partially indoors. I narrowly avoided having the cabling of the wrecking ball catch me and pull me into the ground as the whole apparatus sank back into the earth, just as fluidly as it had emerged.
Red, it seemed, had hopped over onto a piston she was using as an elevator back toward the ground. More industrial tools were appearing to push broken concrete and dirt up against the walls, shoring them up as the building came to pieces.
I didn’t press the fight. It wasn’t a priority. Our goal was stopping Cradle, and Cradle wasn’t even here anymore.
The siege was ongoing now. The grenade shots shook the building and people were hurrying outside. The momentum barrier was a one-way screen for them to open fire.
I flew high, because low was hazardous as hell. Capricorn had used a water blast, and when that water hit the momentum barrier and stopped, he’d turned it to stone. Turning the enemy’s one-way fortification into something two-way. My dad peppered the outer edges of the stone ‘splash’ with grenades, still somehow firing them like he was using a railgun, and the chunks that flew up and over were raining down on the mercenaries.
But- there were fifteen of us, minus any injured I wasn’t aware of.
There were more than a hundred of them.
Just from the look of it, the grenade shots were coming from further back. Our team was steadily retreating.
An audible wet sound was my only clue that I was under attack. In any other place, I might have dismissed the sound, but I was too high up for something to sound so sharp and near. I changed direction, using the Wretch.
A geyser of vomit from the airborne Barfbat. Chugalug floated below, gas-filled trash bags buoying him. He was downwind and further down, which spared me the worst of the smell.
Barfbat spewed another geyser. Liquid and far too sustained for something from a human-sized package.
When I flew out of the way, avoiding his attempts to steer the spray my way, weaving below and then back, so gravity kept it from reaching me, he shifted modes. The ring of fluid-filled sacs around his neck contracted, then swelled, chunky.
A loogie, shot like a bullet.
I had too much experience with aerial warfare to allow something like that to hit me.
I monitored them, keeping a distance, while moving in the general direction of my team. I didn’t want to lead him to them, and I definitely didn’t want to put myself in a position where I had to choose between getting splashed, even if it was the Wretch getting splashed, or letting my people on the ground suffer.
They stayed on me, keeping me marked, no doubt ready to capitalize if I left them to it. If they reached a point where they could bombard the others-
Barfbat settled on Chugalug, and the weight of him seemed to sink Chugalug, driving him incrementally down, down, down.
Bending over, Barfbat shifted glands again, then emptied a seemingly endless stream of bile and vomit into Chugalug’s upturned face and open mouth.
Trashbags mutliplied and swelled. A caterpillar-like tail extended out behind and below. Other debris like a halo of chicken bones and stringy matter expanded out around and behind Chugalug.
I aimed the rifle the Wretch had claimed from one soldier, and I fired, gunning through the trash bags.
My first series of shots popped the ones to either side and below him. He began to drop, not as steeply as if he had nothing. No doubt some gas buoyed him.
And Barfbat was still there, still in place, still ready to supply raw material. The bags I’d shot were replaced, and the abominable dirigible that was Chugalug found its buoyancy again.
I shot again, aware I had only so many bullets. This time, I aimed for bags on the one side. He listed, then he tilted, forcing Barfbat to adjust position to get the vomit where it needed to be.
With sustained effort in forcing the tilt, I put Chugalug nearly upside-down and sinking fast.
Barfbat paused in his supply of the fluid, made a face, then spat at me. Not a loogie the size of my head, but something more like a piece of bone. I avoided it.
“Stand down, or I will shoot you.”
He lunged, instead. Chugalug extended a portion of his body to provide a helping hand in moving forward, and Barfbat moved his wings, a flap, then an almost horizontal dive or pounce, straight for me.
I shot, one bullet, and that was enough to keep Barfbat from tackling me and getting in close- whatever it was he planned on doing if he managed it. His wings spread, and he flapped, while Chugalug slowly sank below him.
The bullet had made a surprisingly big hole, but that hole was steadily closing, filling up with fluid-filled pustules. What was left as it finished closing was a small patch of what could’ve been the black death.
Bat-masked face was ringed with long black hair and a wreath of fluid-filled sacs. He flapped, eyeing me, before diving for Chugalug.
I was really glad I didn’t have to get into hand-to-hand combat with either of them. Fucking gross.
The others were running for it. Down the road. I could see Cradle’s group, and I could see that it was disorganized. There were stragglers, the impatient soldier from before among them, there were wounded, there were the reluctant, who didn’t seem eager to go charging in after trouble, and there were the ones who were giving chase. Cradle was with the reluctant, still slightly hunched over, far from being a model of courage or conviction.
There were just so fucking many of them.
I turned my back, flying after the others.
They were nipping at our heels, and as our group traced its way down a bend of road, they were at the prior bend, just far enough away that they probably couldn’t be confident of their shooting, but still in a position to theoretically gun one of our people down.
I could see where and when Rain was using his power. Where people in the lead stopped in their tracks, or the loose mass of mercenaries started to spread out and then had second thoughts.
Capricorn’s power turned dirt road into mud. Mud became stone, trapping more than a few people. At the next bend, again, dirt road became a slosh of thin mud, the road itself made treacherous or slower going.
This time, however, he didn’t follow up by turning it to stone.
I flew after them, catching up.
They were on guard and tense enough that my landing seemed to spook even the more serious ones. Swansong and Foil were among them.
“You’re hurt,” my dad observed.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Come here,” he said. “I can multitask. No stitches in this light, but I can wrap it.”
“I can hold things,” Moose offered, walking beside my dad.
I submitted to the medical care. I tracked the others. Harbingers One and Two were out to the flanks, not seeming to care about the possibility of traps in the ditches. Foil and Capricorn had the rear, Foil sporting a borrowed slingshot. My mom and Sveta were on opposite corners of the group. Rachel had the lead, where she rode her wolf alongside the hound that had an injured Chastity and Cassie seated on it.
Ow- and most pressing, most distracting, my arm and leg fucking hurt. Fuck and ow.
“Distract me,” I said.
“We got two of their capes,” Swansong said.
“I got two,” Damsel retorted.
“I did,” Damsel said. “Final blow’s all that matters.”
Swansong didn’t rebut.
“He caught on,” Rain said. “Spotted us.”
“No idea what his emotion power is?” I asked.
Rain shook his head. “I don’t think he’s been using. He’s still focused on his machine. Upgrading it on the fly.”
I drew in air through my teeth.
“He’s hanging back,” Rain said. “Letting others do the dirty work. The asshole.”
“He might think he’s putting us in a pinch,” my dad said. “Depending on how things stood with the people in the Row, the supervillain town just outside the station, he would be right. There, that’ll hold.”
I checked the injuries at my arm. “Leg?”
I floated up, until my leg was at a comfortable level for him.
“Ow,” Moose said.
“Less commentary. I’m trying not to think about it.”
“Worse than any injury I’ve ever had,” he said.
My mind went to the gouges at one corner of his face. A mistake in using the Wretch. Any different, and I might have dislocated his jaw.
“Less commentary,” I said, my voice firm. “That was you, working with my dad?”
He made a flicking motion with his finger. The shockwave followed, focused and narrow.
“You okay, Svet’?” I asked, pitching my voice to be heard. “You got cut.”
“I wanted to get the whip,” Sveta said, so far away she was barely in earshot. Her movements were… not a limp, but not so fluid that it looked like her face was floating. Here and there, it would sharply bob or move.
“That’s what you were after?”
“He had devices with him. I thought if I couldn’t get him, I could get his things. Give it to Rain to undo it or decipher it.”
“Not sure I could if you did,” Rain said. “Because I don’t accomplish anything ever.”
There was a bitterness in the voice that seemed to surprise a few of us.
“Doesn’t sound like you,” Byron said.
“Me being a loser?” Rain asked. “I could’ve cracked them and I didn’t. I got cold feet when it counted.”
“You did fine,” I said.
“Don’t fucking patronize me,” he said.
“I flew over, they’re spread out. People you were working on aren’t budging. That’s easily twenty or thirty people we’re not having to deal with.”
“Because we beat their capes up, I’m betting,” Rain said. “They don’t have anyone to follow.”
“Because you worked on them,” I said, insistent. “They’re disorganized, and I don’t think Cradle’s good at rallying them. It’s slowing him down, shaking him up. He’s still all the way back there.”
“Yeah? Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what we want?” Rain asked.
“We want to not deal with them all at once. We got that. It wasn’t pretty, but we got it. We have options.”
“I feel like no matter how this ended up, you’d be giving me the weak pep talk.”
“Well fuck you,” I said.
“Victoria,” my mom said. “Be a leader.”
“Fuck you too,” I said. “No. Fucking hell, fuck that. You haven’t been helpful or a leader. I got gashed a few times and I’m sore, I’m tired. I’m not going to play nice and stoic team leader here, being everyone’s rock or punching bag.”
“I can take over if you’re not up to it,” Damsel said.
“Stop,” I said, pointing a finger at her. “Stop. Precipice? Fuck off if you’re not going to listen to what I’m saying because you’re so frustrated, okay? Seriously. I’m not going to lie to the people here about where things stand to spare your ego. Not when it could make a difference in tactics or us coming out of this in as many pieces possible. I respect you more than you probably think I do, but I’m not that fond of you.”
“Right,” he said, his voice tight.
“Swansong, stop needling your sister. Damsel, stop being needled. Focus on kicking ass. I know you two have it in you.”
“Two of us took out three capes. I’m content,” Swansong said.
“One and six sevenths of you,” one of the Harbingers said.
“Not funny,” Swansong said.
I pointed. “Harbingers, stop blinding and permanently disfiguring randoms. That’s an order.”
“No disfigurements or maiming that lasts ninety-nine percent of a lifetime either,” Swansong said.
“Mmm. Is that an order?” Harbinger Two asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Nothing that takes more than a month to heal,” Swansong clarified.
“What she said,” I said.
My dad patted my leg, at a spot where it wasn’t injured. I checked, then floated down at more of a level with the rest, mouthing a ‘thank you’ to him. I got a nod.
“That will be an interesting line to find, since there’s a flier after us,” Harbinger One said, pointing.
“Can we?” he asked. “We’ll bring him down gently.”
I shut my eyes a second. “Don’t be gentle.”
He tilted his head to one side.
“He regenerates. Healed a bullet wound in five seconds. It’ll take more to stop him.”
The Harbinger pair ducked away, heading across the ditch to a hill where presumably they’d do their shooting.
My voice was low. “Brandish? Stop sniping, stop throwing barbs, stop getting jealous, whatever it is that’s motivating you.”
“I’m volunteering my services and I get lectured?” she asked, voice arch.
“Fuck off,” I said, with emphasis. I glared at her, and she looked away. I turned my attention the other direction, to the front flank of the group. “Sveta?”
“Time to yell at me?”
“If I say to get clear, listen. I don’t want to have to kamikaze rush you to get you to get out of terminal danger.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Good control earlier, good job getting people clear. You got Tattletale?”
“I have her,” Rachel said, loud and brusque at the same time Sveta meekly said, “I did.”
“How is she?”
“Hurt,” was Tattletale’s faint voice.
“Hurt,” Rachel said.
“Okay,” I said. The settlement was in sight now. I checked back. No Barfbat, and Harbingers were returning to our group. Cradle’s group lagged behind- I could see the light of flashlights through the trees, but no followers. Byron’s lights loomed well behind us, ready to spray them and the road if they tried to take the easy road. “Capricorn? You stopped switching.”
“My brother asked me not to, unless it was an emergency. Pain’s getting to be too much to focus, and he’s worried he’ll pass out.”
“Got it,” I said.
Too many little things. There were probably other things I needed to hammer out. Probably things that others needed to shout at me.
“Speaking of focus, I’m worried about Precipice,” Byron said.
“He’s not acting like himself.”
“You’re using more emotion power than ever. Is there a feedback loop? A backlash for overuse? I don’t know how these things work.”
“No,” was the reedy answer. Tattletale.
I flew through the group to the head of the pack.
“No?” I asked.
“I need more information to give you a better answer, but not a backlash. That would taper off after using the power, even a little. This is… longer lasting.”
I glanced back at Rain. There was something wrong?
“Because we woke him up early?”
“From?” Tattletale asked.
“A dream space,” Rain said. “Where we face each other, they exchange tokens, they don’t usually share with me. Except this time, Cradle offered me some, his tinker power, and I was suspicious. Too many weird things going on. I thought maybe it was a trap.”
“T’was,” Tattletale said, the contraction a result of her being so strained in her speaking. “Not like you think.”
“I think it might’ve been that tinkers get distracted or caught up in what they’re wanting to build, they don’t see reality. The asshole wanted to give me a lot at once, when I’m not used to it.”
“Then what?” Rain asked, clearly annoyed.
“You took something else.”
“I was- I think I might’ve been given some without knowing. by Love Lost.”
“You were. It was a signal. A warning.”
“Bleed-through. It comes with the tokens. Cradle wanted to give you his.”
As impatient and vocal as he had been, Rain went quiet, thinking.
“This is my head,” Chasity said, and I couldn’t see the motion she was making because of how she sat in front of Cassie. “And this is the fifty things going a mile above it.”
“He’s scared now,” Tattletale said. “Shaken, because… you gave him tokens?”
“No,” Rain said.
“You got to him.”
“Hitting him with a shame and regret cloud while he was sleeping,” Rain said.
“You got to him. He’s scared, he knows that tomorrow night, you can just give him your things. You can do it every night. He has to stop you. You have the upper hand. He has more people, but you’re winning.”
I folded my arms. “Then we have a game plan. We go to into the town. They’re cooperating with us to some degree. If they’re on our side, then Cradle probably can’t attack like he wants to, we find an angle. Maybe keep using Precipice’s power, push buttons, make it so their group can’t stay together.”
I looked at Rain.
I saw him nod. Delayed, like he’d had to think first, or he was lost in thought.
“And if we absolutely have to, if the town isn’t willing to let us use them to scare Cradle off, we go through, and we lock the door. Stop March, intervene, do what we have to.”
“Lock it?” Foil asked.
I shrugged, then winced at the pain in my upper arm.
It wouldn’t be pretty, but it was an option.
“Doable,” Capricorn said.
Psychologically, even if I didn’t trust Tattletale one hundred percent, hearing that Cradle was spooked was a psychological edge. It shifted things, how I felt like we could approach them.
We still needed to get him into a position where we could question him. Away from his people.
Except he had a mover power now that let him get out of any situation we put him in. Gravity and intervening obstacles didn’t seem to matter.
Getting him into a position where we could exploit him seemed next to impossible.
“Glory Hole,” Tattletale muttered.
There wasn’t any ongoing conversation, and the only noise was the distant slosh of Capricorn’s water swamping the road and trees. The words hung in the air, and I was tempted to leave them there.
“Wanted to say-” she started.
“What?” I asked.
“This sucks. This hurts. Fair’s fair. If you want to lord it over me, you can.”
Lord it over her? That she was hurt?
I couldn’t even connect to what she meant until I remembered past jabs at my time in the hospital.
I shook my head. “Focus on the mission. The kids are hurt, our teammates.”
She went silent. Rachel, meanwhile, turned my way and glared at me.
Tattletale hadn’t known? How, with that power of hers?
I looked away.
It was a careful, uneasy approach to the ‘Rows’. A settlement without real streets, sprawling out at the base of a station that was far better put together than any dwelling. We had some people hang back to watch our rear while others ventured further in. The wounded stayed three-quarters of the way back, somewhat hidden. A show of strength was somewhat important.
The villains of note were all gathered around the station exit, about a city block ahead of us. Etna, I noted, was absent.
They looked agitated.
We were agitated. The mercenaries were there, following from enough of a distance that we couldn’t shoot or use slingshots.
“You can lock the doors, you said?” Tattletale asked.
I turned back to face her.
“What do you mean?” I asked Tattletale.
“You can lock the doors. You have a dimension switch.”
“Whatever it’s called. Yeah.”
“You let the villains know that?”
“Yeah. Scared them into compliance a bit. Conscience brought us the rest of the way.”
Cassie pulled the switch out, keeping it partially under the blanket. I saw her expression change.
I flew over, while she turned the thing around to show me. Swansong and Capricorn drew near to see as well.
“They might not be so compliant then,” Tattletale said, behind us.
The screen was outlined in yellow, and the readout only said ‘Error’.
I looked back at the villains at the station. Bluestocking’s group. They didn’t just look agitated. They looked energized. Invigorated.
The person who’d just come out of the station, that had gone to whisper something in Bluestocking’s ear? That had very possibly, even probably been to let Bluestocking know the portal was clear. The way out was back.
Because of Cradle.
“How?” Capricorn asked.
“Scans the airwaves to see if you have walkie talkies, comms, phones, any means of communication,” Tattletale said. “And finds that. Your key. Hacks it.”
That was part of what he’d been up to. Opening the door, taking away our leverage. Leaving us caught between him and villains that weren’t dependent on us for a way out.
“Fucking tinkers,” Tattletale added.