Cue the damage control. Theirs and ours.
Theirs was the Warden’s. A series of terse messages telling us to wait at a set location. I sent them messages and mentioned the texts from Shin, which got us a reply with only a repeated ‘Wait there’.
Ours was an eleven year old girl.
As much as I would have liked to have the backup and convenience of Kenzie arriving first, a part of me was secretly glad that the Wardens’ response time would be better than that of an eleven year old who needed to ask around for a ride. It took us five minutes to get to the building specified, a storefront that was available for lease, that was more than a little too close to the mess of the portals in the city’s heart to find anyone willing to invest. The key to get in was inside a mini-safe attached to the door, the Wardens supplied the four digit code. It got us out of the cold and it gave us some privacy.
Natalie arrived with the Wardens. A part of me wondered if they’d sent recognizable faces because Breakthrough had achieved the special status of needing specialized, practiced handling.
I felt okay with how that had gone, all considered, but okay was a far cry from perfect and I felt like we needed a lot of perfects to get things back on track. I was tense, even considering the positive emotions of seeing Vista, Golem, and Miss Militia.
The Wardens settled in a short distance away, while Natalie hustled across the divide to our side. I put my arm on her shoulder and murmured, “Thanks for coming.”
“They called, said it’d help,” Natalie said. She was wearing her puffy jacket, and her hair, which was normally cut in a pixie style and kept combed very close to her head, was even more close to her head with the moisture of the wet snow.
“Okay,” I said, my eye turning toward Miss Militia.
Vista had a heavy scarf draped over the parts of her costume which exposed skin, and wore what looked like a very thin jacket for the cold weather. The visor hid the details of her eyes but showed light and shadow, and the heavy eyeliner was still a thing, apparently.
Miss Militia wore her outfit in her red white and blue, form-fitting and color-swapped version of military fatigues, a flag scarf covering her lower face, and something between a hood and a scarf covering her head. When she pushed her hood back, snow fell to the plain, unadorned floor of the store.
Golem, I saw, had removed or hidden away the kind of silly looking fans or ‘fins’ that were part of his costume, a series of different common materials. Nice looking armor that was obsidian black with hands and arms etched in it in a way that only showed in the right light. Each panel was trimmed in silver. He wore a serious-looking mask.
Vista and Miss Militia wore armbands. Golem had the emblem marked out on one bicep.
“It’s good to see you, Victoria,” Miss Militia said. “Long time.”
“Long time,” I said. “Wish it was under better circumstances.”
“I’m glad you’re doing as well as you are,” she told me. She turned her head. “You too, Tress.”
The comment to Tress sounded like it had come from further away. Ever since my run-in with Engel had… I wasn’t even sure how to put it. I hadn’t been at rock bottom, only for something to reach up from below and drag me further down, but I’d been reminded what that something reaching up had felt like, and that had shaken things loose. I’d remembered small details that had previously been hidden away under the cloak of altered memories, and slivers and fragments of those memories kept coming up to the surface. Now one loomed, like a threatening person in my peripheral vision. I ignored it.
“Have you talked to the mayor?” Miss Militia asked.
“No,” I told her. “Should we?”
“We tried and her phone line is busy. We sent someone over to have a chat with her.”
She met my eyes. That vague shadow loomed closer, and I looked away.
“I have no idea if we did the right thing,” I said. “It didn’t feel right, defending her.”
“In terms of maintaining the peace overall, it may have been best,” Miss Militia said. “But people like her have a way of making others make those compromises on their behalf. Be careful.”
I couldn’t quite bring myself to meet her eyes again, which annoyed me. I wanted to sound confident and I wasn’t confident, but it was for completely different reasons than she was likely to expect.
It wasn’t like Sveta where she got stuff in dreams and then digested it over the course of the day. It was a more haunting, incoherent edge to thoughts, where I started thinking about negative things and got into vaguer territory where I couldn’t place faces or line up events, but where the negative emotion was ooze-thick.
Miss Militia had been there.
“Miss Militia was kind enough to explain things while we walked over,” Natalie said. “I’m not sure what my role in this is. It’s not criminal law, and criminal law has… kind of ceased to apply to supervillains, as far as I can tell.”
“It applies,” Golem said. “But it applies in a narrow window between the threats and chronic offenders we have to take severe action against, and the moderate to minor offenders who get off with slaps on the wrist because the courts don’t have the resources to process them.”
“But this isn’t that,” Natalie said. “You want me to be a secretary.”
“No, not a secretary. An ambassador,” Miss Militia answered. To the rest of us, she explained, “Earth Shin was mentioned, and if we are dealing with Earth Shin, then we’ve found it helps to have non-parahumans as intermediaries. This is the world that Goddess ruled for several years. She divided it into fiefs and gave control of those fiefs to people with powers. A good number abused the power they had.”
“Abused how?” Sveta asked.
“In just about any way you could imagine. They accepted the reintroduction of parahumans as a purely passive, hands-off involvement, with stipulations. The parahumans would keep to themselves, but they’d act to protect Shin in the event of any disasters or invasion. In exchange, they would be free to settle the Alleghenian Ridge.”
“I have no idea what that is,” Rain said.
“Landmass cutting diagonally through their Atlantic Ocean,” Sveta said. “It allowed earlier settling of their North America.”
“They’re spooked,” Miss Militia said. “They saw video of your debate with Mr. Nieves and they’re very agitated by what was mentioned about your sister.”
That horrible feeling pressed in.
“Is there a way you’d prefer me to refer to her? Her old cape name? Her old name, her name that she goes by when with her father?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “But thanks for the option.”
“Amelia Claire Lavere negotiated the peace but neglected to mention any problems or issues in controlling her power. She was presented as a healer in good standing who played a role in averting the end of all worlds. Now they’ve heard other stories, they’re asking questions. Your parents got in touch with you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “My dad did. He wants me to smooth things over, and he said there’s a good amount of evidence that this could blow up. Ties back to the job you assigned us, keeping tabs on the anti-parahumans.”
“You mentioned this, but text only conveys so much. It extends to Shin?”
“To Shin and back. I only got so much info myself, but it sounds like certain factions in Shin are pretty angry at capes- which is understandable. You don’t tend to feel warm and fuzzy about people who take over your world.”
“Understandable,” Miss Militia echoed.
“But they’re violent, and my dad thinks they’re getting information and other stuff from us, and our more dangerous anti-parahuman types are getting resources and manpower from them.”
“How bad is this?” Tristan asked.
Miss Militia answered, “With mutual control over the portal and cooperation with three of the five major governments in Shin, we don’t think there’s been too much damage, exchange of weapons, or manpower. There are strict rules about passage through. Vaccines, diet prior to passage through, allowed gifts, ID…”
“Diet prior?” Tristan asked.
“They don’t want seeds or other contaminants from foreign worlds getting crapped out, taking root, and becoming invasive,” Sveta said. “You go to the bathroom in a bag and bring the bag with you until you go home or they can dispose of it in a careful way.”
“Oh no,” Tristan said. “Please tell me this isn’t a thing.”
“Or you don’t eat for a certain number of hours prior and flush your system,” Miss Militia said.
“Uh,” Tristan said. He looked at me and I nodded.
“Best option is to keep your visits short,” Vista said.
“Thank you for saying the first sane thing. Short visits are doable,” Tristan said.
Miss Militia looked us over as she talked, “I talked it over with Warden leadership, and we’re looking to bring Breakthrough over for a short duration stay. Vista, Golem, and myself would be joining you. Natalie’s presence will help temper their fears.”
“To make apologies for my sister,” I said. “Like we were just talking about people forcing us to compromise on their behalf.”
“That’s true,” Miss Militia said.
“Right now, what I want are solutions. Not mitigating the damage, coping, making do, and just trying to get through today and reach tomorrow. I want lasting answers. We’ve got Teacher looking over our shoulders and I’m still holding out hope that we can find a way to deal with him, because the constant meetings that go nowhere are wearing on everyone’s sanity. But I also want to deal with the criminals, I want to deal with the other worlds. I want to get out ahead of what happened to Dauntless and to the broken triggers. Can you tell me that this is that?”
“A permanent or long-term solution?”
“My sister,” I said, “Nieves said she was still unbalanced. Cryptid kept secrets that have me pretty nervous about what he’s up to now. They’re surrounded by parahumans that they have some measure of control over. I want you to tell me that this situation isn’t a fragile one. That if there’s a fix today it won’t break tomorrow.”
“I can’t tell you that,” Miss Militia said.
She’d always been straight with us. I’d run into her a lot while patrolling, given our schedules. I’d run into her more when I was part of the Wards, for that brief span of time.
I could only nod, absorbing that.
“Are you saying it is fragile?” Sveta asked. “Or-”
“I don’t know,” Miss Militia said. “I don’t know how fragile or secure she is because I don’t know her. I don’t have a good read on Amelia Lavere. I’ve been over there interacting with their leadership for months, but that hasn’t extended to any interactions with Amelia.”
“What about Cryptid?” Rain asked.
“Some. Very brief.”
“I’m not saying I’ll say no, or that I’ll tell my team to say no,” I said, carefully. “But if our actions here aren’t going to fix things, is there a possibility we can look into other answers? Answers that don’t leave this as a fragile mess to handle tomorrow? More long-term answers to my sister or Cryptid or anything else?”
I shifted my footing. The signal I was thinking about Teacher. The operation to infiltrate his base of operations. I didn’t want Amy and the Shin situation hanging over our heads.
“You’re thinking of the prison.”
“I’m thinking of anything. If you trust me enough to have me, have us get involved, then I want to know you trust me enough to listen if I say that I know her and she’s too dangerous to be left alone.”
The door of the store opened. Ashley stepped away from our group to go greet Kenzie, as she pulled her helmet off. Kenzie hugged her friend as soon as her arms were free.
“The Wardens have been debating the subject ever since Goddess attacked the prison and Amelia Lavere went to Shin. We’ve been on the fence, and depending on how this goes, we may find ourselves unilaterally on one side or the other. If you have an opinion on the matter it will be taken under serious consideration.”
I nodded. “Then I’m fine with this if my team is.”
“I’m a little worried about you talking about permanent solutions for dealing with a sibling,” Tristan spoke up from behind me, prompting me to turn around.
“I’m not thinking of that kind of permanent,” I said. “And it’d be a group decision.”
“Still sounds uncomfortable.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m always up for new places,” Sveta said. “And anything that unites the different worlds. Exploring what was out there was the happiest I’ve ever been and I want that happiness for everyone. I think this makes a lot of sense to do, especially if we can find out more about what the anti-parahumans as a whole are doing.”
“And Chris. He feels like he’s our responsibility,” Rain said, bringing up the elephant in the room.
“He’s his own responsibility,” Ashley said.
“But we should check on him, right?” Kenzie asked, gripping Ashley’s sleeve.
“I agree we should get what info we can on the anti-parahumans,” Tristan said. “Deal with Victoria’s family stuff. Check on Cryptid. I’m just worried this is going to blow up.”
“Yeah,” was Byron’s contribution to things.
“Do you have other obligations?” Miss Militia asked.
“I’m done my obligations for the day,” Kenzie said. “Found the kidnapped kid, told the authorities, gave them all the info, camera feeds showing where the crooks were, and where the kid was. They let us in on the raid. Aiden didn’t get to do much, and Darlene just hung back, but Candy messed one guy up so bad. I don’t think the cops minded.”
“Concerning,” Byron said.
“No other obligations,” I told Miss Militia. I shifted my feet again. I saw her nod to herself.
“Have you all had your shots?” she asked.
“Shots?” Tristan asked.
“For going between worlds,” I said. “I got some while with the Patrol.”
“I got them when out with Weld, for all it mattered. I rarely got sick, before.”
“If you don’t have them, we have a single shot we can give you that will boost your immune system for a while,” Miss Militia said. “The doctors debate its effectiveness but it can’t hurt.”
“Can’t hurt,” Tristan said, chuckling a bit. “But that’s good to know. I can deal with one needle.”
I wondered if I should let him entertain his delusion. Instead, I decided to give him advance warning, just so he wouldn’t be upset or bothered. I told him, “The kids in the Patrol block would get told to get their shots, get their shots, you’re going to be expected to go to populated worlds with their own diseases. Gotta do it if you want to do this seriously. Then some wouldn’t, thinking getting one needle once in a while was better than getting ten over the course of a couple of months.”
“Isn’t it?” Tristan asked.
“It’s a huge needle, and it feels like getting kicked by a horse after.”
He chuckled. “Great. That’s hilarious. Poor kids. Poor us, not knowing we should prep for this kind of thing.”
I’d figure something out for Tristan. But that would happen at the portal.
We stepped outside, and Miss Militia locked up the store while Vista did her thing, lowering the roof of a derelict building toward the ground. I could hear the groan and pop of the construction material, and saw Kenzie and Natalie both looking anxious.
“I should fix my coat so my power doesn’t run into itself,” Vista said. “Sorry to disturb the illusion.”
Her jacket went from being thin and compact to expanding out, heavy and thick, covering just a bit more of her upper body, as a full-fledged coat. While small it would have the same effective insulating properties, I was pretty sure.
We stepped up onto the roof.
“What do we need to know about Shin?” I asked. “Ettiquette, rules, standards?”
Miss Militia explained, “Be nonthreatening. One hand behind your back while you shake hands, but keep it open, not clenched. Outside of that, I don’t think it’s too difficult. They either know our customs and speak our language, due to Goddess’s enforcement of English as a universal language, or they speak their own language and the translators know us and will adapt.”
“Universal language?” Sveta asked. “Ew.”
“It’s convenient, if nothing else. Divergence was ages ago but the world progressed along fairly similar tracks. They had a very war-torn past that leaves them conflict averse. Wars in their approximation of Europe saw multiple groups fleeing across what our side has termed the Alleghenian Ridge. To them it’s the Spine or the Bridge, in various dialects. Many groups fled, then either conflicted with or mingled with previous refugees and settlers at the end of the long journey. The coalition of nations that resulted is going to be who we’re spending the most time talking to, if we talk to any Shin governments.”
The roof was gradually returning to its normal height. Vista had trouble manipulating terrain that was occupied, so she was just leaving it to revert. She pulled out her phone, and punched in some things. I knew from experience that she was making sure air traffic controllers knew which areas were no-go. We were covering some ground.
“They like Miss Militia,” Golem said, while Vista fiddled and the building we were on returned to its normal height.
“They appreciate the ‘wields a big stick and walks softly’ approach,” Miss Militia said. “I wield a very, very big series of sticks and I try to be gentle, and that seems to be something they respond to.”
Vista began to distort space across the rooftops, closing the distance between us and our destination.
“Do we need to worry about Teacher here?” I asked.
“It’s a consideration, but it may always going to be a consideration,” Miss Militia said, and her voice took on a darker tone.
“I want to think we’ll find a way,” Rain said. “I’ve spent too many years under the thumb of people who wanted control.”
“That may be something to bring up in conversation. Try not to volunteer or force information. They’ll have questions about what came up. They may have questions about the Lady in Blue, too, but don’t bring her up. Be human.”
“The Wardens that have been dealing with them have been taking off their masks,” Golem said. “But we’re hearing about this sketchy underbelly of Shin where they have the rabid anti-parahumans and now those people are talking to people in our world. They might end up getting descriptions or photos there, then using them against us here.”
“It’s up to you,” Miss Militia said.
Vista was working to close the distance for us. With the way the sky was distorting and pinching together, the station was visible and looming closer. The world warped in a rough donut shape around the clear picture of the destination.
Fuck, a part of me had hoped that there’d be a long train ride or car trip, that I could get my head sorted out and come to grips with what we were doing. That I’d be seeing Cryptid, my mom and dad, my sister.
That I might be seeing Amy sick-
Again, that sliver of a memory. Not anything coherent, but a vivid and complex tapestry of feelings without anything to map to.
Like how Miss Militia staring into my eyes made me think of a scene where I was still in that abandoned house, partially covered with a sheet, while the Protectorate tried to figure out what to do. Feeling vulnerable, wounded, scared, and hearing Amy’s voice in the background.
Thinking of seeing Amy sick and lost in her own head felt like its own similar thing, but I didn’t want to dwell in that memory. At least the memory of Miss Militia could be excused away as her being compassionate in her own stoic way. Meeting my eyes when my own mother couldn’t.
I wasn’t ready for this and we were being thrust headlong into it.
I turned my thoughts elsewhere: got to deal with the anti-parahumans so we can act against Teacher without things burning down in the meantime. Or this is their busywork while they procrastinate. I don’t know.
We’ve got a looming mission and I don’t feel like we’re getting more ready for it.
“I built your thing, Capricorn.”
Some eyes turned to Kenzie.
“The camera that should show the hidden twin in real-time.”
“Just like that,” Byron said. “I thought it would be weeks or months.”
“It’s kind of been weeks, but I didn’t have the scans and stuff I needed to puzzle it out.”
“Yeah,” Byron said. He paused, then added, “Thank you. I don’t really have words.”
“You don’t need words. I’m happy if you’re happy. Maybe mess up my hair or punch me in the shoulder or give me a hug, I dunno. You know, after, if it works.”
“No,” Swansong said.
“No?” Kenzie asked. “Huh?”
“Only if you can say you didn’t work yourself to the bone and stay up nights.”
“I didn’t. I really didn’t.”
“I was working on other stuff.”
Ashley grabbed Kenzie’s ear, giving it a mock shake. Kenzie laughed, her head ducked down where I couldn’t see any smile or lack thereof. Ashley was smiling a bit, which told me it was probably fine.
“I’m not much of a hugger, or a hair-messer-upper, or an arm puncher,” Byron said.
“It’s okay, that’s-”
Byron reached out with one arm to pull Kenzie against his side, giving her a bit of a squeeze. Her head bonked against Byron’s armor.
“Thank you. Whether it works or not, I appreciate it.”
“Not much of a hugger, huh?” Vista asked.
“Special moments and people, I guess,” he said.
“That’s fair,” Vista said.
Kenzie bounced a bit with her excitement as Byron ended the hug. “It didn’t really take that much. It was something I did eighty percent of the work for a while ago, while I was trying to figure out how to do it. Then I got info when Cahoot’s power worked on the Capricorn brothers in a funny way, and I scanned the data from that. Not positive on the voice, but we’ll try it out, yeah?”
“Cahoot,” I said.
“Like saying you’re in cahoots with someone! It’s Darlene. It was Chicken Little’s idea.”
“You need to stop letting him name things.”
“I thought it was okay. And Darlene sorta likes it because Chicken Little came up with it.”
“It doesn’t suit her at all.”
“It really doesn’t,” Ashley added.
“Don’t do that to that poor girl,” Sveta said.
“Cahoot makes me think of a guy,” Golem said.
“That’s sexist,” Kenzie said.
“And someone wearing those masks that were really common in the late nineties, where there were smiley faces, or cyrano masks, or other wacky, leering faces for masks,” Golem said.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“The Crowley Fallen wore those masks even after they fell out of style,” Rain said.
“I could see it working,” Golem said, in a tone like he’d seen how upset Kenzie was and was trying to pacify. She responded positively to it.
But no. Not ‘cahoot’.
“You have pictures of her on your phone. Show him,” I told Kenzie.
“You keep track of what she has on her phone?” Golem asked.
“No. I’m betting she has pictures of everyone on her phone.”
“Not everyone,” Kenzie said, before pulling off a glove with her teeth so she could manipulate her phone. Her mouth obstructed, she muttered around the glove, “mof eepl.”
She showed Golem a picture of Darlene.
“Oh. No. Absolutely not.”
She turned to Vista, who was already shaking her head.
In vain, she turned to Miss Militia.
“A girl that pays that much attention to costume-”
“Those are everyday clothes. She likes the kind of fashion that’s expensive and timeless, like pretty dresses you could see a girl wearing today, or twenty, or thirty, or fifty years ago.”
“Don’t call her Cahoot,” Miss Militia said. “I can’t think of a name less fitting.”
“Other options were like, Hookup, right, that-”
“No,” Vista said.
“We already vetoed that.”
“But Candy liked it and-”
Kenzie saw the heads shaking, the looks of disapproval.
“I’m guessing that’s another Candy nickname,” Tristan said.
“Yeah. No go? Um. Syndicate? That came up.”
“A little overdone and a lot villain-sounding,” I said.
“I like that one,” Ashley said.
The landscape in front of us continued to pinch together, the ‘donut’ getting bigger, but the picture got bigger too.
Vista lowered us down through the ‘picture’ of the destination to the street level, stretching things out so the ramp-like extension of the rooftop didn’t get in the way of traffic. Cars still slowed, wary, and we hurried to cross so we wouldn’t be interfering with their routes.
Lookout pulled her helmet back on before we got too close to the people on the ground.
Putting us at the foot of the station. The station had American and other Gimel flags flying from poles along the left side. To the right were standards, flags that draped down, each with its own iconography, colors, and shape at the end, whether it was two triangular tails or something rounded off.
I’d actually seen some of the images on clothing, and I hadn’t mentally connected to them being anything like flags. I’d figured it was from a game.
Vista fixed her coat, compacting it and adjusting the fit while we filed indoors.
The interior was red and black checked floor, and elaborate wooden fixtures that looked much like a bank’s setup, with people behind terminals. The place was desolate, with ten staff members standing by and waiting for work while there was nobody in the terminal. They looked at us with interest and wariness. Everyone had a nametag, and the tags came in yellows and red.
We had paperwork to do, and Sveta and I were processed quickly, because we’d been regular travelers through the portals. For the others, there were forms to be filled out, white pen on red paper, and then they had to sit and wait for their shots. Those shots would boost their immune systems and help them endure any disease or communicable illnesses, but they’d also kick any allergies into overdrive. It was like a horse kicking you in the arm and giving you a light cold, at a minimum.
Still, it was better than dying.
“How do you want to do this?” Sveta asked. She hung out beside me, with Vista and Golem hanging nearby. Miss Militia was talking to people who looked like administrators.
“I have no fucking idea. A lot depends on how she is.”
“What about your parents?”
“My dad messaging me was the most I’ve really heard from them, and it was all business. I think they’re mad.”
“I have your back.”
“Thank you. But go easy. As nice as it would be, we don’t want to scare the locals. This is about making a positive impression and reassuring.”
“I’m worried about you,” Sveta said.
“I handled things when Nieves brought her up. I can hold it together while we’re there. She probably wants to play nice, maintain good relationships with Shin. If it gets ugly, I walk away.”
“Alright. Can we have a signal, in case I need to nudge you to walk away?”
“Touch your left ear?”
“My left ear. That’s the signal that you need to back off or check yourself?”
Costumes were awkward to put on and take off at the best of times, and getting the necessary shots meant pulling off the upper body of costumes. Byron had to unstrap his armor around his arm, get the shot, and then switch to Tristan. Kenzie and Rain had to unzip and pull an arm free of their sleeves. Ashley had to remove her coat, which wasn’t so bad.
I nudged Vista. “Do me a favor?”
“Shrink those huge needles down for my teammates?”
Vista smiled. “This is for Tristan, right?”
“I think everyone would appreciate it.”
“He got super talkative and chuckly when the subject of needles came up.”
“Go,” I said. I was sitting on a railing, and I twisted around, sticking the toe of my boot into her ass cheek to prod her forward.
“Looks like Precipice and Swansong are getting expedited,” Golem observed.
“I’m betting they got a bunch of booster shots before going to prison.”
“I wanted to ask,” Golem said. “Precipice was Fallen, before?”
“Yep. Open secret,” Sveta answered.
“You think he’d mind talking about that kind of stuff?”
I exchanged looks with Sveta.
“Can’t say for sure,” Sveta answered, “But I think he could use a friend who ‘gets it’.”
“That’s it, isn’t it? Getting it. Cuff’s the best, but I can talk about stuff and I feel more lonely than before I brought it up.”
“Tell her,” Sveta said. “Communicate that. Don’t freeze her out.”
“I’m not. That’s not it. She can be understanding if I’m really clear or even if I’m really blunt about, hey, this is a big deal to me, right? But it takes work and reminders that, y’know, this thing wholly outside of her experience is a thing that’s pretty profound to me. Sometimes you don’t want to constantly put in that work and you want to get straight to figuring it out.”
“Yeah,” Sveta said. She sighed heavily.
“They’re bringing out the stethoscope for Kenzie. Deep breaths,” I said.
“What does that mean?” Golem asked.
“I’m guessing all the Wardens who’ve been through this process were in pretty good shape.”
“Kinda gotta be.”
“They’re worried about allergens, allergic reactions, lung capacity, and other issues. Which means that if they’re not sure she can handle it, she gets filtered air.”
“Oh,” Golem said. “Someone did mention that.”
Sure enough, they brought out the little tank, with the plastic tube stretching up to the face. Kenzie would get the tubes up her nose, and she’d get the schpiel about how to breathe and what to watch out for.
“She’s going to die if she gets talking and can’t breathe through her mouth,” Sveta said.
“Being unkind isn’t like you, Sveta.”
“I’m not trying to be mean or bully her. It’s a real concern.”
Everyone wrapped up. Needles done, Kenzie got her air filter and nose tube, and with Swansong’s help, fixed the filter to her belt. She then fiddled with her phone, and the nose tubes were filtered away, hidden by the projection.
“Don’t suppose you could hide our identities?” Rain asked.
“I would if I could, but I didn’t bring complicated projection boxes or anything today. Shuttling things back and forth is such a pain.”
“It’s no big deal,” Rain told Kenzie.
“You know what’s a big deal? The air that comes through the filter is super cold,” Kenzie said, with a hint of nasality. “I’m getting brain freeze just by breathing.”
“It’s about to get colder,” Miss Militia said. “Ready?”
No I wasn’t.
I didn’t want to face anyone on that side of the portal.
But we went. I didn’t voice my protests.
The station was a nice one, with crenellated pillars and every wall having some kind of decoration or mural. Earth Shin had constructed it, and that should have been a prelude. We passed through, and we found ourselves in the other side of the station, and from there, walked past desks where we showed our paperwork, permits, and records of our shots.
They also had guards on their side. Men and women with guns draped in cloth, to the extent the weapons looked more decorative than functional. Each had what looked like a praying mantis limb folded up over one shoulder, steel and gleaming, and a narrow blade that attached to their right legs, like a rapier without a handle.
When we left, guards followed us- two of them for every one of us.
Into Shin. Once Goddess’s earth. Now Amy’s. The temperature was easily ten or twelve degrees lower than it had been in the Megalopolis, and the sky was filled with snowdrifts. It didn’t take away from what was a pretty amazing view.
Skyscrapers, but modified, augmented, and decorated. The Wardens’ old headquarters had included a giant statue as part of it, but it was the norm here. A skyscraper with a castle built into one face of it. A tower was crowned with statuary of what might have been a hawk. Red was a dominant color.
“How advanced are they?” Kenzie asked, her voice still nasal.
“They lunged ahead of our Earth a long time ago, but they also had two near-extinction events that slowed them down. That’s not counting Gold Morning. Let’s walk and get out of the cold. The meeting hall is this way.”
It was only a few minutes of walking to get there. Vista didn’t use her power.
Five standards hung over the entrance. When we entered, there were five groups. I saw the flicker of Miss Militia’s weapon, going from sword to nebulous blur to the sword again. A signal?
I hadn’t expected warmth. I didn’t get it, but I didn’t get it to such a surprising degree that it left me a bit off guard. Yes, these were people who had been conquered by parahumans once. But they were also people who had invited us. The atmosphere was cold.
Two of the five groups had styles that resembled our own back in the Megalopolis. Outfits that resembled suits, with simple braids instead of ties. Braids for belts, the ends left dangling. I liked it more than what we had back home. It was similar enough to home, though, that I had to wonder if Goddess had had any influence, or any culture had leaked through. This world had been her plaything.
The other three groups favored clothing that flowed more. I could see where a history rooted in some distant commonalities and practical sense had led to some things occurring over here that coincided with what we had back home. One of those three groups seemed to like clothes that made them look very boxy, with an almost straight line down from armpit to ankle for tunic and pants. The other two wore clothes that wrapped around them.
Miss Militia lowered her hood, which was the cue for those of us that had been wearing helmets and hoods in the blistering cold outside to remove our headgear, to expose faces.
I fixed my hood, draping the front portion around my shoulders, and checked over the others, making sure they were okay.
When I looked up, I saw my mother, intact, leaning on my dad. They were in the company of Marquis and one of Marquis’s underlings. Spruce, I was pretty sure.
Following behind, my sister was in the company of Chris, who had done his best to grow up early and hadn’t quite hit the mark. He was distorted, his torso stretched out, his arms stretched down, legs roughly the right proportions, but there was an uncanny issue in there, a rounding error in calculations, or the sum total not adding up to parts. His hair had grown in rather long considering it hadn’t been that long since he’d left, and he still slouched, despite being tall.
No transformation here. Just… riding the side effects of past transformations. He barely reacted as he saw us.
But my sister? Amy? Her reaction mirrored mine. Stopping in her tracks. Quiet horror or unease. Then resumed motion. She looked away before I did, but I did look away too.
The tension was palpable, and I wasn’t sure it had anything to do with us. If Gary Nieves could see how Chris and Amy were right now, or if he could see how my parents were, he’d be quickly disabused of any notion they were in charge. To look at them, they looked like they expected the guillotine. Chris seemed most at ease, but he was still tense, muscles on his lanky limbs taut.
“Something’s up,” Tristan said, quiet.
“Feels way more hostile than the last few times I came,” Vista added.
“They were three-two in favor of working with us and one of the three got replaced,” Miss Militia said.
“Why?” Tristan asked.
“I don’t know,” Miss Militia said, under her breath. “But be ready to use your powers, and tell the others to be ready for the same. Nonlethal if you can help it.”