The tech Kenzie had provided me wasn’t perfect. Cryptid flickered in and out of view as he passed within the view of the facility’s security cameras and then entered the blinfd spots.
The guards in the hallways ahead of us were the same. Major points were watched, but there were a few who retreated to places the cameras didn’t see and stayed there. If this were Gimel I might have guessed they were smoking, but I hadn’t seen or smelled a single cigarette yet.
The gaps meant I had to focus, devoting attention to tracking every single person who stepped out of sight, remembering that they were there, and accounting for the places they could be. I was reasonably confident in my ability to do that, I was good at memorization, I could wrap my head around who was where in a conflict and not be too surprised at any point.
Except the Cryptid factor required a whole other degree of my attention. His focus was us, by the looks of it, as he pushed forward and even pushed past guards to make his way to the shower area, then from there to the plaza. I could see glimpses of the scene through the mess, the blur of regular prisoners blocking him off. They even pressed him back, to the point he retreated a few steps.
That would be our distraction, a rowdy fight that drew in most of the prisoners. The distribution of prisoners was almost as dense as it was around meals, but these guys were riled up in a whole other way. Shin’s response to powers, parahumanity, and the strange was an instinctive, aggressive push back, whether government or prisoner. It added to the riling and aggressiveness. They’d been controlled once already and they wouldn’t do it again. A good share of the ones who would have accepted parahumans had been enlisted by us for our distraction.
Guards supported Cryptid, falling in step beside him, while he tried to nose his way forward toward the members of Breakthrough who were hidden in the crowd.
Rebuffed again, or hurt, or because he caught a whiff of something, he turned around, pushing back through the showers, looping back to Armstrong, Natalie, Crock o’Shit and Coalbelcher, presumably to communicate.
Then he was running down hallways, sprinting as fast as a large dog. A rat disappearing into the maze, flickering in and out of sight as he passed beneath the cameras. Coalbelcher jogged after, but he was only a third of the way down the hallway by the time Cryptid was at the end.
Though they were distant, I could see Cryptid stop, pausing at an intersection. He jerked his head to one side. A signal to Coalbelcher.
They were after us.
“They’re coming,” I said. “Cryptid and Coalbelcher. Cryptid has some running form.”
“Remind me who Coalbelcher is,” Vista said.
“Uh, was one of the fire-themed villains that tried to band together against Cinereal. Most of that group got trounced, he didn’t, he became a mid-level boss there. Careful, camera up ahead.”
We were running and we had to stop before we ran right into the camera’s field of view. I leaned closer to Vista and indicated with my hand.
The camera was set so people couldn’t walk beneath. But Vista expanded the gap that was there at my instruction, giving us room to move through.
“After Gold Morning he went to prison after breaking a guy’s jaw and back. Ended up being leader of the men’s side. Went with Cryptid and the Red Queen. Reasonable-ish. Combustible spit, and he spits a lot. Added strength but not a lot of added durability.”
Three guards up ahead. One disappeared from view as they left the camera’s radius. The other two responded to something -a call, a message by radio or intercom, I wasn’t sure what Shin had- and started running our way.
“Hiding spot,” I told Vista.
“I can make a pocket but it won’t be perfect.”
“Fast,” I said. I pointed down the hallway. Closer to the guys we were running from. The lights overhead had two bulbs per installation, but one of the two bulbs was dark in that section of hall, casting it into relative shadow.
Vista pushed the wall out so it bulged, and bid us to step inside. She pinched it shut, drawing the sides together and the top down, all close to the ground.
“Can’t see how good my work is,” Vista whispered.
“Shh,” I said.
Ten seconds passed. Guards appeared in my one eye, then disappeared.
I could hear the tromp of boots.
They carried on running toward the plaza, where things were riotous.
I nudged Vista, and she undid the effect, unpinching the gap so we could stoop through, then letting the wall revert back to normal.
“You’ve gotten better,” I said.
“I’ve been working my ass off. Doing everything the books say might help. Even fucking meditation. I hate meditation.”
“Why meditation?” Ashley asked.
“Because you need to change the way you think about your powers,” Vista said.
“Did it work?”
Vista made an ‘enh’ sound, unimpressed and unsure. “Some stuff did, somewhere along the line.”
“It’s like the hair,” Ashley said.
“Hair?” Vista asked.
“Putting it in your costume, to extend the Manton effect. Victoria’s idea. Lots of useful ideas.”
“Benefit of being a good guy. The crooks don’t have good power labs.”
Vista gave us a way beneath the next camera, adjusting the gap beneath without modifying anything in the camera’s field of view.
“Cryptid’s closing in,” I said. “Crock o’Shit’s keeping close to Armstrong and Nat. Coalbelcher’s… not really a runner. He’s covering ground Cryptid isn’t. I think he’s been here before, because he’s moving with purpose.”
“He’s not sticking with his team,” Ashley said.
“Cryptid?” I asked. I got a short nod in response. “He isn’t.”
“He doesn’t think in terms of teamwork. He thinks in terms of problem solving.”
“Sounds right,” I said. “We have to out-problem solve him.”
I could use the tech Kenzie had given me to track what was going on, and it told me we were getting into an area with more prison staff. I’d noted before we entered the prison that it was built like a castle set between two halves of a bisected high-rise. The hallway before us, divided halfway down with a gate or small portcullis, marked the distinction between the ‘castle’ and the high rise part. With the change came a stark contrast in, well, everything. The tile transitioned smoothly from slate gray and black to a glossy black and tiles with sunset hues like oil on a roadside puddle. Statues embedded into the wall broke up the stone on either side of us, allowing for the transition to the maroon and tinted glass of the high-rise.
I looked back. Cryptid was closing in, sniffing his way to us. Halfway there. Armstrong and Natalie were being taken to a side area, denser with prison staff, still in the custody of Crock o’Shit. The lie detector with the tattoos of scales and her namesake words on her cheeks.
“Options,” I said. “Our goal is alerting or rescuing Armstrong. We do it without outing ourselves if we can.”
“Where is he?” Ashley asked.
I pointed. “That corner of the facility. Lots of guards, and Crock o’Shit. Good few guards between us and him, too.”
“And Cryptid,” Ashley said.
“Yes. And Coalbelcher.” I pointed with my best guesses. Both were outside of any camera’s field of view. “We could go through. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s easy to be cornered with Cryptid coming after us.”
“I do worse with cornered,” Vista said.
“Other option is we go over. Through here, upstairs… and I remember the glass above the plaza had cracks in it. In the right situation, Vista could open that crack and I could fly us down.”
“We go outside or above and we signal him from there?” Vista asked. “How?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They might be keeping him in a windowless room.”
“Steal a walkie-talkie,” Ashley said. “Say it to every guard, if he’s in a room with them he’ll hear it.”
“If there’s reasonable doubt then we’re fine,” Ashley said.
“Is it though?” Vista asked. “Is it really fine?”
“I’d rather save him and then go from there. If there’s trouble it’ll be trouble with an exit.”
“And after that? Do we escape that trouble for more trouble with an exit? Ad infinitum?”
“Sometimes that’s all you get,” Ashley answered.
“Option three,” I said, interrupting the back and forth. “We push for the room where they stowed our stuff. We get a few of our things, including our phones, and we take it back to Kenzie. She calls Armstrong or Natalie.”
“Can we find the room?” Ashley asked.
“Pretty sure,” I said. I looked down the hallway.
Cryptid was still navigating his way to us. Coalbelcher took another hallway, walking with a steady pace. Coalbelcher was a good two hundred and fifty pounds minimum, which probably impacted his ability to run around.
“We do your plan,” Ashley said. “Mine as a backup.”
I looked at Vista.
“Your team, your tech, you seem to know, it’s your call,” Vista said. “But you’re asking us which option, and it seems like one’s better. Why?”
“Because this requires us to get to the room, get access, get back, let Lookout do her thing-”
Voices echoed down the hallway, chatter. Ashley, Vista and I stepped around the corner to be out of sight.
Vista started to create another pinched-off space. It turned out to be unnecessary. The people were staff in the high-rise section of the prison, and they weren’t entering the prison section. I saw their shadows mixing in with the shadows from light filtering through the portcullis gate, before they moved on to wherever it was they were going.
“You didn’t see those coming?” Ashley asked.
“Lookout’s camera only tells me what the cameras see.”
“Cryptid is getting close. Let’s figure out where we’re going. Can you pantomime for Darlene and Candy? They have no audio.”
Ashley gave me an unimpressed look, but she nodded. I stepped back so she was in my full field of view.
She mimed taking a photo, then mimed Kenzie’s height, before motioning like she was holding a phone to her ear.
The text appeared in the corner of my eye.
-Have to ask her.-
“They’re figuring it out,” I said. I didn’t love that we were at an intersection of three hallways, or that Cryptid was getting closer.
“Say we alert him,” Vista said. “What does that change? Can he escape on his own?”
“Or we alert Natalie,” I said. “It means he can find an escape route. If they want to frame us for his death then that probably means they want to be able to account for my whereabouts and have a plausible explanation for his whereabouts at the same time. Sending him to go talk to Sveta, maybe, and then intercepting him. Probably with Crock o’Shit.”
“That’s a hell of a name,” Vista said. “She’s strong enough to pretend to be you?”
Cryptid had reached the point where we’d gone through the wall.
The message appeared from Kenzie’s team.
-down hall with gate. basement of that part of complx-
“Yeah,” I said. “Open the way, get us through there?”
I indicated the portcullis.
“The building without enough cameras for us to know where everyone is?” Ashley asked.
“This part of the prison doesn’t have enough cameras for me to know a hundred percent. That building’s worse.”
“Great,” she said. There was a terseness and tension to her that I knew was because she was worried about Armstrong and insecure about our ability to help him.
It was easy to be cool and collected when you didn’t care about anyone or anything, but the guy had earned a place with her.
Vista parted the bars. While she did, I looked ahead, finding the cameras and focusing on them, watching the little circle lock onto each, before giving me a view of what the camera saw. There was a stairway to the basement but cameras had too tight a view from within the stairwell, of that stairwell.
“We go for what I’m pretty sure is a storage area. Stop at the end of the hall, check, then run for it on signal.”
Cryptid closed in.
“Crock,” Vista said. “She’s strong?”
“After,” I said. “I’ll fill you in when I’m sure we won’t be caught talking.”
Too many things to keep track of. We hurried through the gate and down the hall, stopping at the corner. I indicated our path with my finger, a zig-zag around the areas cameras could see. The ground floor had an eating area taking up a good fifth of it, another area that was sealed off and curtained, maybe a closed storefront, and then lobby and smaller rooms. There was a stairwell tucked into a nook, just to the left of the hallway we were in, my view through the camera telling me it led up and down.
But our focus was the smaller room.
I checked, then gave the signal. To the room by a trolley loaded with bottles and folded cloths.
Into the room, where more bottles and cloths were stored and shelved.
Using Wretch strength, a burst, I moved a shelf. Metal scraped against floor. We stood in silent tension, waiting and listening to see if there would be an issue or cry for alarm.
“I’m making a hole?” Ashley asked.
“Controlled destruction,” I said.
“I don’t do controlled. Not well.”
“Vista, expand the target area? I want it so that when things revert, the hole is small.”
“That works,” Ashley said.
“Crock. She was Fidelis, once. Ex-marine who left the service to be a Protectorate heroine. Louisiana PRT.”
“I don’t remember her,” Vista said, as she expanded the floor that had been beneath the shelf.
“Before your time,” I said. “Took on a position where she’d spend six months of the year with the Lousiana team, six months going from town to town in one of the dead zones without any nearby departments. Helping police with weird and tough cases. She’d work as a lie detector, then if there was trouble she’d mutate into an eerie, beautiful, ten foot tall woman.”
“I’ve seen hints of what she becomes and she isn’t beautiful and she’s barely-”
A crash marked Cryptid arriving at the portcullis gate. He slammed into it, loud, striking bars and straining metal.
“-Barely a woman,” Ashley said.
“That’s Cryptid,” I murmured. “We should go.”
Through the stairwell camera, I could see people hurrying to the scene to see. They saw and backed off.
Being big and ugly isn’t working for you here, I thought.
I kept my voice a hush. “Her lie detection’s a thinker power, technically, but in actual application it’s changer. She feels it in her gut because her gut morphs and mutates in response. About a year or two into the routine I was talking about, she gets dropped from official PRT stuff. Gets the same treatment as capes who are too vicious, ugly, or problematic to market. Essentially becomes nameless, the only reports of her are her turning into a ten foot tall woman that’s more unsettling than eerily beautiful.”
“Go,” Vista told Ashley. “You don’t need to go deep.”
Ashley cupped her hands together and channeled her power. A spark, with the cupping meant to restrain the sound. She pushed the spark of darkness into the floor, annihilating, twisting, and condensing the matter there. Once she verified how deep she needed to go, she used her power again. Each use was marked with a sound like a chainsaw being revved, blades scraping against a chalkboard.
It made a hole. The others slipped down through it, and it was narrow enough their shoulders grazed the edges.
I could hear Cryptid, guttural voice, a bang on the bars.
I slipped through, flying to hold my position as I dragged the shelves above me to block the hole. One smooth motion, a bang as it came to rest flush against the wall, and things fell to the floor.
I didn’t even touch the ground of the floor below when Cryptid came barreling in through the door.
We’d have to shake him.
I held my finger to my mouth. Instructions from Kenzie’s team had been replaced with a number, marking the distance to our destination. As we headed into the dim basement hallway, the number dropped.
Taking us to a storage room where boxes had been lined up. Each with a word in an unreadable script.
“When she detects lies she absorbs them, or some… some of the ugliness and intent, makes them part of the changer form she carries with her. She went from being a heroine who turned into a beautiful giantess to being nameless and disfigured. She got pretty into her investigation of something big that she’d uncovered, a conspiracy, taking down a crime ring. I don’t know because I don’t think she was communicating much with her bosses then, so the paperwork is a big question mark.”
“Sure,” Vista said. “I kind of know the type. A few of that type.”
I talked while frantically searching. Dipping into explanations and cape stuff helped keep my hands steady. There were a lot of boxes with things that I could immediately rule out as non-Breakthrough. The others searched as well. “She took a leave of absence and dove into her investigation, and she… never surfaced, I guess. What came out the other side was a dark version of her, mean, tattooed, filed teeth, and blood on her face because she’d torn into some crime lord’s neck and the blood was still there after the mutations receded.”
“That’s what I saw,” Ashley said. “It wasn’t very crocodile.”
“No,” I agreed, tilting a box so I could see what was within. Familiar stuff. “Found a box.”
“Good,” Ashley said. She reached my side while Vista appeared at the other side, and the two of them searched neighboring boxes.
I dug through mine, adding, “But she’s strong enough to do to Armstrong or Natalie what I did to my mom. All they need then is the plausible scenario.”
“Let’s not give them it,” Ashley said.
I had Kenzie’s phone. A little pencil-case like box that I popped open had photos of Breakthrough inset into the top. The bottom side had a series of tools, including screwdrivers and things I couldn’t really figure out. One might have been a pencil-thin blowtorch. Beneath the tools were more pictures. Chicken Little, Darlene, Candy and Kenzie, arms around each other’s shoulders. Another with a younger Kenzie and two adult men, the faces blurred out.
“Hoy!” the voice rang down the hallway. “Assholes!”
Cryptid, speaking in that distorted voice of his.
We didn’t have a good escape route, and our way up was hazardous, blasting a hole.
At a silent agreement, we emerged from the room.
He was wearing a shape that looked halfway between bird and hairless dog, with a back that arched unnaturally high near the front shoulders, and a frame that seemed too narrow for how tall it was. Talon-claws rested on the ground. It was earless, and its beak-muzzle was wide open, revealing Cryptid’s mostly normal face on the inside, filling the void that would have his head within.
He was clothed, but not in the sash he’d worn when he was on Breakthrough. A metal collar had a ring of metal-encased syringes primed to plunge into his own throat, and that collar had four broad lengths of cloth draping back from it. Shin’s textiles were top notch, which was probably why they wrapped everything from themselves to their guns in it, and he’d decked himself out in plenty of it, all crimson with gold tracery.
“Sneaky,” he said.
“You’re one to talk,” Ashley retorted.
“Am I? More than you? Any and all of you?” he asked.
One of the syringes in his neck plunged in like it had been fired from a gun, eliciting a gout of blood that dribbled to the floor.
“Think twice,” I told him. “If you change-”
“I’m reverting,” he said. The syringe plunged in again, for a repeated stabbing. “This is good for giving chase but not so good for anything else. I’m supposed to keep the peace and handle parahuman shit. Which means I handle you.”
“You can’t handle me, Cryptid,” Ashley said.
“I found you. Whatever you were doing, you’re not going to do it now. Remember Victoria saying she wanted to deny the bad guys what they wanted? Hey hypocrites, you’re the bad guys here, going against the local authority. If you want to sneak away I’m not letting you. I know how you think.”
“You went and made yourself big and ugly,” Ashley said. “You bullied a kid, trying to taunt Kenzie. You like to think you’re a smart guy, Cryptid. You know me. How does this go?”
He was reverting to human form, bones cracking, muscles shifting. The syringe plunged into his neck again, for a third strike, and the process of reverting accelerated almost immediately. Blood trailed down his arm from the wound beneath the collar to his fingertips. He stood there, distorted in shape, his hair a mop that was just slick enough with his prior form’s bodily fluids to stay where it was when he pushed his misshapen, still-partially clawed fingers through it and moved hair away from his eyes. The collar was now a hoop that rested atop his shoulders and against the back of his head, showing collarbone and part of his distorted chest, that was still absorbing the lower portion of the form’s jaw. The cloth that draped down from it covered everything from that point down, pooling on the floor.
His head more or less normal now, he cracked his neck and yawned his jaw open, before smiling. “I’m smart enough to know you can’t. Not me. It would destroy you.”
“I think I could get over it,” she said. “You’d… rot, I suppose. I think I come out ahead.”
He smiled. “See, this? This? I almost missed this. The you that used to be cool. The you that was mean and callous enough that I could almost believe you when you said stuff. But you’ve got no bite to your bark anymore, people laugh at you because you’re so toothless.”
“Are you seriously trying to convince her to hurt you?” Vista asked.
“She can’t. If she could have she would have already.”
“I’ve never had more respect for her,” I said. “And it’s not because she’s so-called ‘toothless’. It’s because-”
“Oh fuck off,” he cut me off. “Sanctimonious hypocrisy.”
“Big words from a two year old,” I told him.
“That’s better,” he said, and there was something resembling fervor in his eyes. “The bullshit you were spewing a few seconds ago was completely empty. This at least shows you’re thinking about things.”
“If you think I’m not, then you’re not nearly as clever as people were saying you were.”
“Her,” he said, pointing at Ashley. “Figure her out yet, or am I right, are you not thinking about it? Being willfully blind?”
“I’ve been thinking about her a lot. Working on figuring her out.”
“One word, sum her up, come on. I’ll even give you a hint. If it doesn’t piss her off to hear it sound out loud, you’re wrong.”
“Ascension,” I told him.
He made an abrasive buzzer noise, made more abrasive by his distorted, too-deep voice. Then, pleased with himself, he chuckled. “Try ‘facade’.”
A spark of something crackled at Ashley’s hand. I mimed for her to stand down, hand out.
“Nah,” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered.
“How would you even know what the right answer was, Cryptid?” I asked him. “The only times you were around, you had your head stuck so far up your own ass I’m surprised you could see anything.”
“Because I’m an expert in molding yourself into something. Putting on faces. The only difference is that instead of ‘fake it until you make it’, I take it until I make it. Glug glug. She was a scared little girl once and she found the closest thing she could to strong and untouchable and she wrapped herself up in the lie. The only difference now is that she’s wrapping herself up in another lie. Sad thing is, in the years since she was that scared little girl with her parent’s blood spattered all over her, she’s let the human shit atrophy. There’s nothing left except the fakery.”
“Big man, taking what was shared in private therapy and trying to use it to hurt me. Kenzie was right,” Ashley said. “You’re pretty pathetic.”
“They say eyes are windows to the soul, and your eyes are blank from corner to corner. Says it all.”
“Not right now,” I said.
“Kind of true,” Cryptid said. “Shit, I thought of that one a bit ago, was holding on to it.”
“And you call us pathetic,” Ashley said.
“I call Breakthrough fundamentally dishonest and hypocritical, my ‘pathetic’ is reserved for you and Kenzie. Unlike you guys, I don’t preach one idea and live another.”
“What are you doing?” I asked him. “Secret’s out, Lab Rat. No more reason to hide.”
“Is this supposed to be my monologue? I talk about everything? Pass.”
“The alternative is we’re doing something and you’re just floundering, pretending to have direction,” I said.
“I’ve been putting little things you said into context,” Ashley said, joining her voice to mine in pressuring him. “Wanting to get away, hating your own skin.”
“I’m away. Got a whole continent mostly to myself, now. I changed my skin. What I’ve got on right now by default isn’t really human or mine. I’ll change it up more later. I have direction, Victoria. It’s being my own person with control over my own existence, not being some hypocritical ping pong ball that’s bouncing around from crisis to crisis.”
“You enjoyed the crises.”
“I did. But getting there is a pain, having to drag you all kicking and screaming, seeing you all fight yourselves every step of the way. This is better. I’ve got projects in the works, and if the world ends up ending like Amy says it will, I think I can get enough people into space, away from it all. Build something, give ’em all bodies adapted to that environment.”
“Powers don’t work in space,” I told him. “We’re tethered to the agents and if you move far enough away the power doesn’t feed in. You wouldn’t get any tinker inspiration. When Sphere was trying to build the moon base, he had to build on Earth and send stuff up.”
“You think I don’t know that? Shin has better power labs and research than you do. I’m aware, and I’m confident. Don’t worry, but don’t expect a reserved seat either. Because you’re either going to be stuck right here, or you’re going to be the ones who ran, caused trouble, or otherwise left millions to go without supplies because your recklessness jeopardized a trade deal.”
I tensed. It was the kind of line that preceded aggressiveness. He remained where he was.
“How much of this did you plan?” Vista asked.
“This? It’s stupid politics and a bit of Teacher, a bit of one of the bigger precogs. I just showed up, enjoyed the show, and figured I’d fulfill my promise to Panacea while I did it.”
“You set me up to go to her.”
“Gave the doctor the miracle drug that would knock you out, pulled the strings, gave her the room number, let the meeting happen. One way or another, I figured I wouldn’t have to listen to her whine any more.”
I nodded, letting the hollow, empty feeling take up residence in my head, throat, and upper body. It was likely it was the very same emptiness he’d alleged Ashley had inside of her.
That I could’ve felt as scared and awful as I had back in that room with Amy, and that someone could have inflicted that on me so casually?
“Fucking why?” I asked.
“He wants us to hate him,” Ashley said. “It’s safer. It lets him stay isolated from the rest of the world, unaffected by others.”
“It’s worked, then. If he wants me to be his enemy then he’s got it,” I said, my voice low. I didn’t clench my fists because I was pretty sure that if I did, I wouldn’t unclench them until they were halfway through this sneering asshole’s skull.
“You know Teacher’s doing a whole thing, right? Manipulating information, setting friends against friends, enemies against enemies, to create enough distraction that nobody’s organized enough to work against him? He left stuff around for her to find,” Cryptid told us. “He doesn’t trust me after the years we spent jockeying for power in the Birdcage, I cured some of his thralls, fucked with him a few too many times. He wants to pretend he’s objective and rational but he can hold a grudge. He was fucking with your sis, Victoria, I knew he’d keep doing it until I took that card away from him.”
“By putting me in that room with a monster?”
“You’re more monstrous than she is,” he said. “And Coalbelcher? You’re really fucking slow.”
Coalbelcher was coming down the hallway. Heavy, with a roll of a chin covered in stubble, black smudges all over his face to create the illusion of a three-dimensional skull, drooling thick rivulets of black that disappeared into his top. He wore an outfit of nice Shin fashion that had been stained with black handprints and globs.
“Coalbelcher. We made a deal before,” I tried.
“You got me out of prison in exchange for my help. Or I got out of prison and it happened coincidentally. I’ve made more deals with him, more recently, and that counts for more. I like the current gig.”
“You have nothing,” Cryptid said.
“Guards should be thirty seconds behind me,” Coalbelcher said. “I think I hear ’em.”
I looked to the camera in the stairwell, let the tech in my eye lock on, and looked through it. Sure enough, they were coming down.
“Good. Let’s not give them an excuse to say they did half the work. Blast ’em.”
I saw Coalbelcher draw a breath, rearing back, while Cryptid hopped back, hauling a door open to use the room inside as cover. I flew forward, to act as cover.
Coalbelcher vomited a stream of black at us, a geyser spray.
I saw him clench his fist, punching it forward into the stream he’d just terminated.
It detonated, a rolling explosion that chased the geyser toward us. And with Vista’s space warping, it changed direction and all splashed along one wall, licking it with fire.
Already flying forward to intercept, I kept going. The only way to do this was to execute it quickly and efficiently.
And if need be, kill them and have Ashley annihilate the evidence.
But Coalbelcher’s power produced a spray, and that spray included flecks that had scattered to the floor, ceiling and walls just in front of him. He hadn’t detonated that. I saw it at the last second, threw hands and arms around my head, and felt the explosion throw me off course. A ring of fire, that left me spinning in the air for a second.
A meaty hand grabbed me, as he leaped up to me and seized hold, and as he came down, he threw me hard into the concrete floor. I put out my hands to stop myself from crashing down face first, and I felt staples in my hand pull free, tearing at skin.
He exhaled, and it wasn’t a liquid geyser this time, but a cloud, aimed over and past me.
Swansong, following up.
Vista’s power altered the cloud, shrinking it. But with the close confines being what they were, and the particles being just as effective if they were on a wall or on the ceiling, she was left to keep them suspended indefinitely in air.
Ashley threw a hand to one side, threw herself the opposite way. Without taking the time to get up, I came at him from another angle, staying low and sliding along the ground with my flight.
Vista moved the blob of gas. It detonated to Swansong’s right, and the detonation was localized, kept to one side of the hall while Swansong slipped past.
Chris, partially mutated, his head encased in what looked like a rat skull, his body and limbs long, reached out to grab her out of the air. He got his grip on her and then biological mechanisms in his limb turned his already long, red-furred arm into a piston, punching her through a door.
I still managed to hit Coalbelcher. A strike dead center to the stomach, hard enough it might have caused internal damage.
Guards yelled noise in a foreign language. I looked, and I didn’t see them.
I looked at Cryptid, and saw him smiling, his face barely visible as it dissolved into connective tissue that cobwebbed out to the interior of the skull that was his new head. No skin grew over that skull.
The lights went out.
-That was us– the message on my display read. –cuz guards-
I saw the silhouettes of Cryptid and Coalbelcher, and hit the latter, three times, with two of the hits in the same spot and the third hit aimed at his leg with Wretch strength added in, because a power with that much output had recoil and he couldn’t handle recoil without legs.
“Crypt,” Coalbelcher gurgled, around an audible outpouring of more combustible gunk.
I put myself between Coalbelcher and Ashley just in time for another explosion.
The explosion illuminated the hallway, illuminated Coalbelcher, who was now visibly on fire, nice clothes burning, especially where the blackness had leaked into it – handprints and all. The ‘skull’ where his face hadn’t been painted black was now the only part of his head that wasn’t on fire.
Guards in the background were cowering, shielding their eyes, and retreating.
Then Cryptid was there, lunging out of the doorway at the side of the hall, into the corridor and positioning himself over Coalbelcher, not caring about the flame. A skull was illuminated in orange, and limbs with forearms, biceps, calves and thighs as long as I was tall were bent and cocked, ready. The hoop he’d had around his shoulders before was now around his waist, cinched tighter to act as a belt. The fabric was like a loincloth.
The tail was the catch, prehensile, sneaky, stabbing along the edge where floor met wall. I planted my boot on it, crushing it to the point it broke. The part I’d separated from its owner flailed madly.
“You can see in the dark,” he remarked. “So can I.”
The hand snatched out, forearm consisting of multiple pieces that acted like crossbow and arrow, the arrow remaining attached to the rest of it. All to double the length of his arm. It made him faster at reaching than I was at flying. It seized me and then pulled me with it as it reeled in, slower than it’d reached out.
I wrapped my legs around it, gripped it with my good hand, and flew backward.
It pulled him off balance, pulled him closer to us.
That was what he was afraid of, after all. Getting close.
He braced himself, and I used Wretch strength. The Wretch hit and broke his arm in two places that I could see in his silhouette. It provided the strength to pull him forward onto his stomach, limbs out around him.
“Burn us!” Cryptid hissed.
“Do and he dies,” Ashley said, quiet.
Coalbelcher didn’t. I was betting he liked his gig more than he liked Cryptid.
“She’s bluffing,” Cryptid said, his voice like a hiss from the bottom of a well. “She can’t kill. She’d be giving them evidence and they’d cut off supplies to millions.”
“Reasonable doubt,” Ashley said, her voice barely above a whisper as she fumbled her way to stand beside me, her hand pointing in the direction his voice was coming from. “That’s all I need. I’ll blow a perfectly square hole in you.”
“New trick?” Cryptid asked.
“Nah. I can’t do perfectly square,” Ashley said. “But I can do messy, and Vista can make messy neat and square.”
“Yeah,” Vista said.
“She can’t work in the dark,” Cryptid growled.
“Tinker tech. Warden provided. You’re a tinker, you can recognize it when you see it.”
“Bluffs on top of bluffs,” Cryptid said. “You-”
He fired off an arm, reaching.
I kicked it, Wretch-strong, and booted it into the wall, shattering the mechanisms. Cryptid arched his back, suppressing a scream, then letting that suppressed scream become a chuckle instead.
“Bluff,” he hissed, through the chuckles.
“You say you don’t care,” I told him, my voice barely above a whisper. “You don’t give a shit. Fine. But if you fuck with us right now, if you push this hard on this and give them the chance to kill Natalie or Armstrong, then you’re proving you do care. You-”
“Oh fuck off,” he hissed.
“Fine,” I told him. “Your choice. Fuck with us and we find a way to destroy you that doesn’t look like anything Breakthrough could do to you. We destroy everything you’ve built, we expose everything you want to hide, and we make you suffer. Or you can fuck off.”
“Just fuck off. You’re so good at it,” Ashley said. “And it’s so much better than you deserve.”
“I’ll go limp that way with both of my arms shattered, one almost torn off, and I’ll say we didn’t find you. I’m sure they’ll believe me.”
“You can heal,” I told him.
I heard a syringe sink home. The silhouette imaging caught the blood spatter for the one or two seconds it was warm.
“Don’t be stupid,” I warned.
He let go of me.
“You’re lucky I don’t really care,” he said.
He pulled away and straightened. I went to Swansong and, in the pitch black, I helped her to her feet. I got Vista too, and led them down the hall, back to the spot below the storage room, perilously close to guards who stood in the dark, brandishing guns and waiting for the lights to come back on.
Once we were far enough away, safely in the room with the door closed, the lights returned.
Vista widened the hole again. It was barely big enough to drop a quarter through, but as she widened it, we had something us-sized. She went a step beyond and expanded the gap to let us get past the shelf without moving it.
I kept close to the door, my hand pressed over the part of my hand with the pulled staples, listening.
“Nothing,” Cryptid told the soldiers.
“Those weren’t nothing sounds.”
“Our friend here thought he saw something and he’d flush them out. It was an animal. Someone’s office pet. He burned me, we had words. There was nothing. You’re wasting my time.”
“Was us. Me. I make things, I make light switches. I see better in the dark than you do in the bright, and it slows down anyone running from us. Except it was a false alarm.”
The hole was big enough to crawl through. I went up first, and gave Swansong a hand. She’d been battered in being pushed through the door. Vista was last. While she climbed up, I peeked through a crack in the door.
We crossed the lobby just ten or so seconds before the guards got to the top of the stairs, a matter of feet away. We ran down the hallway, as quickly and quietly as we could, before they could walk over and look our way.
Back to the others, Kenzie’s phone and toolkit in our possession. Once she had it, she could alert Armstrong and Natalie. It was the best we could do, short of fighting our way through dozens of guards and trying to pass it off, or tearing through the building to get to them. If they needed that kind of help, we’d provide it, but it was the best we could do while staying covert.
Then it would be up to them.