I fast-walked down the alleyway, hands in my coat pockets, head down, making my footsteps heard. My breath fogged in the air, slow and measured, and freezing rain pattered down around me, soaking the top of my hood and the shoulders of my coat.
“Hey!” a man shouted. “You have no business back here!”
Four men, all gathered around a hatchback car, one of the shittier ones that had been made after Gold-Morning. All men wore the typical garage-worker, loading-dock style coveralls, along with heavy coats and hats. They glittered with light where the big lights that illuminated the loading bay caught the droplets of frozen rain on their gear.
The set of alleyways was shaped like a question mark, with the entry into the alleys being somewhere around the dot or tail end, a few parking spots at the top end, and these guys located at the part that was furthest in. Loading bay doors were partially closed beside them.
The rain stopped hitting my shoulders and hood as I saw them.
Their part of the alley was narrower, and as I entered the space, the walls were close enough that the Wretch could reach out and touch both, carving furrows both narrow and broad into brickwork.
“Shit!” one of them shouted. He bolted for the car. There was a flash of silver as he pulled on the door, and the back of the car came free, landing in his lap, smacking him in the face.
The other three men ran to the car. I could see what they were after. Tools or-
No. Tinker guns.
A flash of white instead of silver, above. I pushed out with my aura, being careful with the range, only catching two of the men with it as a consequence.
Didn’t matter. Swansong dropped down from above, white costume a swirl around her, and landed on the back end of the car that had come away. She made a threatening motion toward the guy closest to her, and he almost fell in his haste to get away.
“Guns in the car,” I called out.
A blast of her power made the other two men back off, but that meant they moved closer to me, and deeper into my aura, which was more intense as they drew closer to me. Caught in the middle, they stopped, paralyzed. Swansong turned to look at the contents of the car, one hand still out.
The sliding loading bay door rose, and there were two men and two women on the other side, all with what looked like riot shields in front of them, truncheons in their hands. The shields and truncheons all visibly crackled with electricity.
Precipice leaped from the rooftop, tilting as he fell so his head was closer to the ground than his feet were, silver blades already made but held firm in each hand. He stopped in mid-air, twelve or fifteen feet above the alley floor, and hurled silver blades, produced more, and threw them as well.
Ashley picked up the tinker gun, and aimed it at the group, nozzle glowing bright green.
One of them, maybe the squad leader, pointed the truncheon at her. The gun went black. She threw the gun aside, and produced a blast of her power instead- a gout about ten or fifteen feet long, not long enough to reach those at the loading bay door, but enough to give them pause.
Speaking of. I addressed the three workers. “Stand down. Kneel. I’ll tie your wrists, we’ll put you somewhere safe and warm.”
They looked at one another, then charged me instead.
The first one took a swing for my face. I brought my forcefield up again, just for a second, while moving my head in the direction of the incoming swing.
Blood spray painted the Wretch, and I had a glimpse from the inside of a face, mouth open, teeth bared. It had let him punch teeth, and brought teeth together. Far more damage than I’d wanted.
It was enough that the other two backed off.
“Swan!” Precipice called out.
She threw the gun aside, strode forward, and put a hand out. Precipice resumed falling, and Swansong had a hand out to catch his upper body, averting the faceplant.
I saw the blur and the shifting of lights above. Our alleyway had its own little constellation above us, and that constellation became rock, then became water. Mostly became water.
A single stone spike was propelled by the geyser behind it. It didn’t fly true, but it didn’t need to. It hit the mess of silver lines Rain had produced along the raised metal shutter and the top edge of the loading bay door, and the silver lines all flared. Things came down in pieces. Triangles of metal and chunks of concrete.
Shields were raised, and electricity crackled and arced out, the rocks and metal bouncing off, repelled by powerful electromagnetic forces.
Another constellation, another geyser of water, this time aimed downward and at an angle. The water went low while shields were raised high. Three of the four were bowled over, electric weapons and shields making contact with water.
They didn’t seem bothered. Protective gear, potentially. That was… disappointing.
The one who had remained standing and weathered the falling debris looked down, and she saw more silver lines on the ground a few feet down from the lip of the loading bay entrance. A few had already ‘popped’ as debris hit them, and cracks ran deep and straight. As some faded, Precipice threw more blades down. Hopping down would be potentially disastrous.
“Going!” the woman called out, as she turned around and ran for it, shield slung around to her back to protect her as she retreated.
“Guard her retreat!” one of the guys on the ground shouted, using his shield to help himself stand.
Swansong fired her power, a continuous blast that provided the recoil that let her sail over their heads. Her feet tapped the wall twice before she finally dropped down, rolling in the shallow water and rising to her feet with another short blast for the propulsion.
Sveta followed a similar route, grabbing the wrecked shutter and lip of the loading bay door and hurling herself in. Her landing was rougher, but that was mitigated by the fact that her body became a mass of tendrils coiled like springs as the parts made contact, then reformed after. Then she grabbed something on the wall to slingshot herself forward again.
I didn’t watch further. I had three guys to deal with, and there were three more at the doorway. Two more- one was running after Sveta and Swansong.
“Stand down,” I told the three.
The look on the doughy, bearded man’s face was blank, hollow, almost uncomprehending. He looked like the epitome of unhealthy, and between that and the blank stare… he was one hundred percent a thrall.
“Fuckin’ hurts,” the other guy whimpered. He was on his knees, cradling his hand. Another thrall… but I didn’t miss that his buddy looked at him with fear and sympathy.
Thralled, but not without humanity and care for his friends.
“Stand down,” I told them.
The big guy came after me. His buddy joined him, a guy muscular enough that it showed despite the coveralls and jacket. All neck and bicep.
Precipice grabbed a tinker gun, aiming it- and it too went dim. He jumped forward, swinging it like a club instead.
Hardly mattered. The big guy charged at me like he wanted to tackle me to the ground. Mid-run, he stopped and collapsed hard onto his stomach.
A second later, his buddy did the same. As he toppled, I brought my knee into his chin. The impact jarred me, brought me a little bit further into reality, while taking him all of the way out of it. Out cold.
The third had learned his lesson. Cradling his hand, he moved carefully, not running or charging. Shuffling, hand up, he drew closer. Precipice hung back, while I squared my shoulders to his.
“Sorry,” I told him.
Then he froze as the others had.
Precipice cracked the big guy on the back of the head with the butt-end of the rifle, because falling over wasn’t being knocked out.
I pulled restraints out of my pocket and caught the frozen guy, forcing him to kneel, at which point he resumed moving normally, struggling against me.
While I took care of his restraints, I looked through the windows that lined the alley until I found her. Juliette. ‘Catena’. Her mask was metal, and had spikes radiating out and back from the edges, following her hairline. It reminded me of my old tiara, but hers was intended to look more wicked than ‘rays of the sun meets Statue of Liberty’. Sharper, longer, sleeker. Her costume was black clothing, but for a few pieces of metal – one sleeve of armor studded with spikes all the way down, ending in a gauntlet with clawed fingertips. She turned away, the gray of metal replaced by the black of the back of her head and her costume, effectively disappearing into the darkness within the building.
Above, at the rooftop’s edge, Capricorn was making his way down the fire escape, metal boots on metal. He drew out constellations. The remaining two guards were panting for breath, their breath fogging, and one of them dropped her truncheon because her hand was so numb. She was groping for it when another blast of water caught them, sending the weapon spinning out of reach, so she dropped to hands and knees instead, bringing her shield between herself and the water.
Restraints handled, bandages set in place to stop the bleeding…
The water became stone, trapping the two guards. There was water beading them and soaking their clothing, and that became something of a crust. The Manton effect kept the clothes in their entirety from being captured by the transition. The shallow water they stood and knelt in gripped shoelaces and bits of clothing that were far enough away from the body.
Capricorn Blue was noisy as he climbed down the fire escape. He called out, “Surrender!”
I saw the same blank, stubborn looks as I’d seen earlier. They couldn’t even comprehend the idea.
“They can’t,” I told him.
A constellation of motes appeared on one side of the two guards. They shifed their shields around, and another constellation appeared on the opposite side.
Their efforts to block the water weren’t sufficient. They were drenched in freezing water, while winter cold blew in from the open door.
I flew past them as they collapsed, heading down the hall to collect the others.
One guard already dispatched, lying limp at one side of the hallway with shield and weapon lying beside her, no longer crackling. The other had a weapon pointed at Swansong while his shield barred Sveta. Sveta reached out, hand becoming ribbons, and ribbons becoming tooth-edged tendrils, reaching below the shield to snag his feet.
The man fell, and Swansong leaped like she was going to land on his back. Hands over head, she blasted skyward, driving herself down for a power-augmented kick. The blast raked ceiling without penetrating the full breadth of it, and white dust rained down around her, while lights flickered.
I threw some restraints to Sveta. “Keep an eye out? We’ll be with you soon.”
By the time I got to the lip of the entrance, things were settled. Roman was climbing out of a window, while Imp stood by with Juliette, Samuel, and Chastity.
The delivery men and the guards were bound.
“Building’s clear,” Capricorn reported.
“Thralls?” I asked.
“Couldn’t tell, so we killed them. Even the suspicious looking kids and old people,” Juliette was monotone as she said it.
“You can’t see while my mask is on, but I’m rolling my eyes so effectively it would break our Catena’s heart. She’s joking,” Imp said. “Yes on the thrall question, no on the killing part.”
“You can’t break what doesn’t exist,” Juliette said. She laid a clawed gauntlet over her heart. “Heartless and proud to be.”
“Brainless too,” Roman said. He wore a venetian mask in gunmetal gray, with crimson-highlighted blades and decoration at the edges. Cracks ran through it and each crack was traced in red. His costume setup was similar to mine, with a breastplate and mostly decorative pieces of armor elsewhere.
“We established a long, long time ago that I’m smarter than you,” Juliette told him. “Don’t try to bring me down. You’re making yourself look worse.”
Imp stepped forward, putting herself between the two, hands clasped behind her back, looking skyward. “Remember the deal. Play or go home.”
The stragglers of Imp’s group were gathered around the window, having climbed through. Citrine’s capes. High quality, boring costumes from the neck down, and very strange masks that extended from forehead to chin, but as a relatively narrow band that expanded out to the sides to showcase decorative elements like lenses or frames around the eye, horns at each corner of the forehead, altered noses or altered mouths. Ear protection like earmuffs covered each ear, similarly decorated.
Number one indicator of a new cape was how they reacted to the costume. They made little adjustments, constantly touched the details of the costume, touched masks, adjusted fits. None of it really mattered if the costume was designed well.
I stepped away, walking over to Capricorn and Rain.
“I’m getting flashbacks,” Byron said, indicating the brother-sister pair.
“Where’s our third squad?” I asked.
Rain, who was picking at a tinker rifle, pointed with one of the smaller mechanical hands that glowed with the cracks that ran along it. “Around the corner, getting ready.”
“Good,” I said. My heart was racing, and the fighting had stopped a couple of minutes ago.
Samuel and Chastity were at the loading bay door. Now that I had time to look, the hallway was white tile and white fixtures, with a stripe painted along the floor. The tunnel that Sveta and Ashley had gone down was longer than the building with the loading bay was. Sure enough, it was a portal, a hidden entryway into Teacher’s facility.
“Let’s get ’em moving and let’s go,” I said.
“The facility we’ll be raiding is large,” Cinereal addressed the group that had gathered in the Bunker. “It will be best if you think of it as us attacking a city, not a building. There are what you could call neighborhoods or sections, each with specific focuses. In talks with the other top Wardens, we divided these into residential sections, sections designed for Teacher’s work, and sections that support the facility itself.”
“And unknown sections,” Jeanne observed.
A few stragglers were still making their way in, and were directed to the back, where I presumed there were notes or something.
Cinereal folded her arms. “More than a few unknown sections. But through Engel and Egg, some descriptions from Tress, and feedback we got from Mapwright’s power after she entered the facility and reported back, we have a good sense of the building. When we made our initial move, it was because our danger sensers and precogs gave us the impression that five of the seven entrances we discovered were safe to breach. We split up and approached from multiple angles. Every time we’ve encountered Teacher, that’s been the ideal approach.”
“Why?” a woman asked. I was pretty sure it was Foxtrot.
“Teacher organizes and controls large numbers of low level thinkers and tinkers, but he remains the vulnerable linchpin. When he’s involved, we can bombard him with information, force him to coordinate multiple units at once.”
“How’s that done for you so far? As far as I can tell, he’s winning.”
I craned my head around, like most people were doing. Tattletale was up at the front, lurking and watching the crowd, as she tended to be, but Imp and the thirteen-and-older Heartbroken were at the back of the room. Imp was the one challenging Cinereal.
“The precogs say this gives us our best odds,” Cinereal said. “And they’ve consistently said that. There’s no sign that he’s manipulated them or their results.”
“He’s tough,” Effervescent said. One of the remaining core members of Foresight.
“Yes, he’s tough,” Cinereal said. “Right now the best reads our thinkers are giving us are for three of these entry points that weren’t in our original attack. Two were heavily guarded, we think those guards were moved or reduced in number to cover other points. A third was discovered and reported by one of our original teams, before the comms blackout. We’ll be entering from three separate directions with three teams at each entrance, for nine teams in total.”
She hit a button, bringing up a map of the complex. “Combat is a problem solving exercise, and our problem is that we don’t know what happened to the other teams. In transit and low-risk areas, such as this area with cubicles, you’ll need to breach and clear with three teams simultaneously, because the area is too wide. Fail to do so and you may be flanked or attacked. By the early reports from our team, this is an ongoing risk.”
She tapped an area highlighted in red. “In high-risk areas, you’ll want to lead with the strongest team, switching out as injuries or weariness take hold…”
A part of me still felt shaky, like I hadn’t left the room in Earth Shin behind. I’d listened to that part when I’d trusted Sveta to save Armstrong. I would have held back regardless, because of what was on the line, but the distinction was that there had been a reason I’d been okay with hanging back, and that reason was that I was scared.
Have to get right back on the horse. Aunt Sarah had loved horses, had escaped into them as a healing post-trigger, taking care of them at a family friend’s until she was well enough to ride. Mom hadn’t liked it, but Aunt Sarah had been the one to do tutoring for the owner of a stable just for a chance to ride a couple of times a month. It even flavored the language she’d used. She’d had a term she’d used in our training that she’d called ‘horsing’. The idea was that horses tended to go where you looked, and flying capes had to focus on seeing distant things on the ground, and we’d unconsciously drift out of formation to get closer to those things. If we drifted in the directions we were looking then she’d call out the term and get us back into formation.
Every time the word was uttered, it had driven young Crystal insane with irritation. But it had broken us of the habit.
When I thought of the term ‘getting back on the horse’, it was in Aunt Sarah’s voice.
“…Faster-moving or durable capes are ideal for this rear guard.” Cinereal stated.
“Bring it back?” Scribe asked. ‘Rune’. Our kid Nazi from Brockton Bay, not so redeemed.
“If you can.”
The image on the screen behind Cinereal had text listing what she was saying, transcribed as fast as she said the words. One team to lead, one team to flank, one team to hold the rear and decide in a crisis if they needed to support the other two teams or run for it and take what information they had back to the Bunker.
“Let’s say we can. What then?” she asked. Fuck, I’d always kind of hated her, just the tone of voice and the way she always looked like she’d smelled a fart, like she was disgusted with everything. The costume was cute, but it really didn’t work with her overall… everything else. “Are you staying here?”
“I’m going, leading a primary team. I remained behind because my power is better at defense than offense. If we fail here, I don’t know what we do. The returning capes should do what they can to disseminate word that things have reached a critical state, while remaining safe in the bunker. You could attempt to get into remote contact with other teams, fence-sitters, and villains to mount a third operation.”
“Third time’s a charm,” Scribe said, drawing an icon in the air that fizzled out of existence. “Maybe something different.”
“Those who bring messages back can decide what’s best, based on what they found.”
I turned to my right, looking over at the Malfunctions. Finale wasn’t with- she didn’t like the big stuff. Withdrawal and Caryatid were sitting with Fume Hood. I’d pointed them her way or vice versa, or grouped them at one point.
I didn’t want anything bad to befall them. They’d been people I’d brought in or tried to convince to get back into things.
“Objectives,” Cinereal said. “We’re recommending paths for each team. You’re moving through a three-dimensional structure, and it’s best to plot your route with the type and nature of the room in mind. We’re intentionally putting you on paths that should lead you into other teams from the first wave attack.”
And into what stopped them.
Everyone knew it, nobody said it. There were things we could gripe about, like team distribution or Foxtrot asking why we weren’t going in together, Imp questioning the working strategies against Teacher, or Scribe asking what happened later.
And there were things we couldn’t do shit about. There weren’t good options. Ignoring this whole thing wasn’t something we could do in good conscience.
Teacher would take the world.
“We never established anything like that,” Roman said, audibly heated.
“I learned to read first, I learned math first, I got straight A’s.”
“Do you want to go that far back? Little miss heartless sat on the swings crying because she couldn’t figure out how to make friends. How smart were you, really?”
“Stop,” Imp said, “Mission comes first. Remember the deal.”
“I do remember. I’ve been getting ahead while this scraping from the bottom of the genetic barrel is getting distracted with his crush on you.”
“What?” Roman asked, looking alarmed, even with a mask on. “No, how am I-”
“Doesn’t matter,” Imp said, sounding exasperated. “Focus. What’s the score?”
“Five,” Juliette said.
“Three,” Roman said.
“What’s this deal you have with these two?” I asked, looking back. Imp had intervened, literally putting herself between the pair. “Do I need to know?”
“Whoever gets the most takedowns. Only way to keep these two on track if they’re within five miles of each other is to make them compete. Nonlethal takedowns only.”
Juliette nodded. “Anything else would let me get too far ahead, and we can’t go breaking his spirit. Yet.”
“You just try,” Roman said, trying to look around Imp. “The only reason you’re all ‘tee hee, murder is funny’ and talking about breaking people is because you’re dead and broken inside and you want to bring others down to your level so you have some company.”
“That’s-” Juliette started, stopped.
“No retort? I thought you were the smart one?”
“Enough. Please,” Imp said. “If you want to fight, do it by scoring points. Or turn around and go home.”
The two fell silent.
Precipice held up a hand. Two hands. We slowed, then stopped.
Twisting, he put one hand to where the ‘mouth’ would be on his face, behind his mask.
He walked over to the wall, pointing up at the corner where the wall met ceiling. the wall was smooth and white, the ceiling a kind of drop tile with lights inset into each tile. Running along the wall and ceiling was cable.
He held up three fingers, then pointed back. Two fingers drew back into his hand, so it was one.
“Splits,” he said, quiet.
“What does it matter?” Swansong asked.
“I was noticing before, splits before intersections and areas with multiple rooms.”
I looked down at the floor, then closed my eyes for a few seconds. In bold, crisp yellow, words and symbols appeared across the pink-black of my closed eye.
I selected ‘map’.
I saw the map of the complex, and it moved somewhat unintuitively, as my eye motions panned around the complex, shifting my focus as if looking at something distant to look at lower floors, shifting it to look at something closer to me to look at the upper floors, which were mostly grayed out rooms with question marks.
“The rest of this place is so neat and tidy,” Rain said. “But external wiring? Even though it’s white and camouflaged?”
“Rebuilt section,” Sveta said. “This part must have collapsed when Scion came through. Let me-”
“Does it help us to know that?” I asked.
“They might not have the same purpose they used to. A lot of this was Engel getting a tour of the lower level and making guesses, what I remembered from when we interrogated some people who had been in here, and what Weld, Egg and I all saw when we passed through during the attack. No guarantees.”
“Even less guarantees if this was torn down and rebuilt,” Capricorn said. “This area might not be low risk.”
When I opened my eyes, the map faded to a simple outline, there if I looked for it, a faint imprint on my vision otherwise. I looked at Rain, and saw one of his eyes was glowing more brightly. Sveta had an eye that was a brilliant cyan blue, like the sky or ocean water. Capricorn had an intense blue light coming through one slot of his helmet’s visor. Ashley had the usual eyes that were completely white, smoking at the edges.
And my own eye was a golden yellow.
I blinked twice to dismiss the effect, looking back. The leader of our vanguard had drawn close enough to listen and take in the information.
Love Lost, wearing a mask she’d modified slightly. Colt was in the background as well. Fume Hood, the Major Malfunctions, and a couple of Citrine’s new capes made up our vanguard.
We turned around. Imp was by the set of double doors that terminated this section of hallway.
“There’s a lot. I could dispatch them one by one, but that would take forever,” Imp said. She had a baton, a black stick topped with a horned silver crown. She made it crackle with electricity. Not one of the guards’, it was her own. It slapped against her palm. “Right room has a cape in it. My team takes that one, I can take the guy out to start us off.”
“Good,” Capricorn said. He was Tristan now, a red light within his visor. “This is our first go at a three-way sweep…”
“Come on, come on,” Kenzie said, excited.
“You go ahead,” I told her.
I could see how little she didn’t want us to split up. She almost danced on the spot, before Candy pushed her toward the door. Then she ran. Tristan and Swansong went with. Rain and Sveta lingered with me.
There were others who had questions for Cinereal. Plans, organizing the two other squads that would be acting in concert with her attack.
“Have you figured out your teams?” she asked.
“More or less,” I said. “Our vanguard is feeling thin. Are you committed to Vista?”
“She and I work well together,” Cinereal said.
“Got it,” I said. So do she and I. But it made sense.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“I’ll have to get back to you. Just wanted to ask to get a sense of power and options.”
“Alright. Don’t forget to strip down your gear. Winterized costumes will be a burden while running around a room temperature facility.”
Damn. Sucked that my friend wasn’t going to be with.
I turned to Rain. “Thoughts? Temporary release?”
“It makes the most sense, doesn’t it?” he asked.
“They tried to kill you. None of them are very stable.”
He folded all four arms.
“Not Cradle,” he said. “I want to talk to Love Lost and Colt first.”
“‘Talk‘ to Love Lost,” Tristan emphasized the ‘talk’.
“I want to try. See what my gut says. Come with?”
“I’m going to check on Kenzie first. I’ll fly over.”
He nodded. Sveta nudged him, walking with him as they pushed through the door and turned in the direction of the prison, taking the path.
I followed them out, but went the opposite direction. I flew up and around until I sighted the squad, then dropped in on them.
Kenzie and her team had entered one of Dragon’s craft. She had a terminal open by a shelf that looked like a baby’s changing table.
“Uhhh, I need a long metal pole-” she told the terminal. It showed a lead pipe. “Narrow, narrower than a pencil, made of… aluminum works, about- shorter. Narrower. It needs to have holes at either end and- holes going sideways through the pipe, all in parallel…”
Candy approached Kenzie from behind, fussing with her hair while Kenzie gave what seemed like an endless list of ever-more-specific instructions. I’d noted before that the Heartbroken kids had differing priorities when it came to chasing adulthood, and for Darlene it was makeup. For Candy it seemed to be hair- hers was braided on one side and arranged a complex, beautifully taken care of mane that flipped over to the other side.
She gave that same care to Kenzie’s hair, which had suffered for her being in the prison for two days. Kenzie seemed oblivious.
The bench spat out a single tube. Kenzie picked it up and held it out, turning it over in her hand. “I cannot tell you how cool this is.”
“The pipe?” Chicken Little asked.
“That I can get materials custom made that fast!”
“That was fast?”
“Uuggggh. Yes! Now give me… three more, computer.”
The computer paused, then spat out three more.
“And I need a number six thirteen micro-screw, and load Lookout save file- show me Lookout save file sixty-six?”
The computer showed a part.
“Sixty-seven? Yes. I need- ugh, I learned multiplication three years ago, why am I stumbling on this?”
“It’s kind of funny,” Candy said. “Build a high tech camera whatever and you-”
“Thirty-seven, I need thirty-seven, computer. And two six thirteen screws for every sixty-seven antenna.”
The computer spat out an angular, hook-shaped piece of metal, then another, then another…
“Lookout,” I said. “We’re leaving soon.”
“I’ll be done soon,” she said. “You liked the eye thing?”
“I’ll give one to each member of the team.”
“You’re making one for every member of the team? Lookout-”
“Trust me!” She turned around, ducking her head down because Candy was still mid-braid. Candy held her hair up. “Can you put my hair on pause?”
“I’ll clip it for now,” Candy said, undoing clips from the mane of her own hair.
Kenzie gave her a quick hug, then pulled back, hands on Candy’s shoulders. “Want to tinker?”
She used her hold on Candy’s shoulders to reposition her, moving Candy to the bench. She scooted over, then did the same for Aiden, then Darlene, and then moved to the end of the bench, everyone spaced out.
“Ah,” Candy said. “This works?”
I was about to say something, but Kenzie was on a roll.
“It absolutely doesn’t work,” Kenzie said. “You can do everything almost exactly perfectly the way I’m doing it and it won’t tinker-ize, the tech won’t work. Some of that is really subtle junk that would take an hour to explain, like screw orientation relative to housing being a channel for certain wavelengths-”
“What?” Aiden asked.
“You don’t have the power on the far side doing the interdimensional work,” I explained. “And very little things matter when it comes to precise tinkertech.”
“That. Six thirteen screwdrivers, computer.” Kenzie said, excited. She reached for one of the poles. The others did the same as the computer spat out screwdrivers.
“Why are we doing this if it won’t work?” Candy asked.
“Because it’ll almost work. It’s easier for me to build one and tweak three more to get them working than it is for me to build four. What do you think?”
“Whatever helps.” Aiden said.
Kenzie moved, and the others moved in a rough sync, with variations only when they had to find a specific piece like a screw. They held things at the same angles, started and finished screwing at roughly the same times.
“I’m not saying this is a good thing, or a thing to chase,” I said, as I watched them. “But if you stay networked long enough your power might start working through them. I think of cases where a tinker wore a bio-suit for long enough, or had a minion they were linked to that they could use a blaster secondary power through.”
“Awesome,” Kenzie said.
“It might be too much,” I told her. “That’d be a lot of time spent linked, and it would probably come with side effects.”
“Bleed,” Ashley said.
“Yeah. Bleed-through. Let’s not overdo it,” I addressed the kids, as they put together the eye-things.
“Whether we’re linked a lot or not, I really hope we’re together for a really long time,” Kenzie said.
“Yeah,” Darlene told her. “Me too.”
Rain used blades to mark out the wall, and Ashley used her power, launching herself into the wall and through. I heard another power use, and peeked through. Ashley stood on a table in what looked like a security office. Terminals lined the wall, showing hallways and corridors.
The team still filed into the space, scouting it out, checking corners and hiding places.
I remained in the hallway. Again, just a bit of that not-yet-on-the-horse trepidation. I trusted them to handle this.
Opposite us, Fume Hood’s squad was equipped with masks, for the most part. She released an orb from her hand, and it flew out. A swipe of her hand to the left, and it changed direction mid-air, flying through a doorway. It exploded into gas sufficient to fill the room.
She ran forward, and the fan built into her jacket stirred the gas around her, creating a volatile image while blurring her general silhouette. It might have made her harder to spot if close enough to see through the cloud of gas and whatever it did to your eyes, but it may also have had the issue of creating a general cloud of ‘she’s somewhere in this area’ disruption for those looking from further away or outside the cloud.
Something to mention.
Withdrawal slid into the room. Caryatid was full breaker, her face constantly unfolding in a neverending series of layers, her movements a mover slide across the floor in very straight lines.
Colt, fully breaker, flew through, and she didn’t seem bothered by the smoke. Where it had been a yellow-green before, it now glowed from within with a deep silver-traced purple.
Love Lost was last in, along with the two Mortari capes. Love Lost wore tinted goggles that were shaped like cat’s eyes, her modified mask over her lower face.
The Mortari capes had the masks with the mouthpieces. A girl with a single Oni horn at the corner of her forehead, wires tracing from the band at the nose to the corner of the eye, and covering the eye so that it appeared to be entirely red.
A guy with opaque lenses over the eyes, multiple holes in each lens, and a mouthpiece nearly lost in his thick beard, with two tusks built in that stuck out of the corners of his mouth.
I couldn’t see how they were doing, but they didn’t seem to be doing badly.
“Heads up!” Imp shouted.
Her group had gone straight ahead to the next room. There was already a cape on the floor, and two more people unconscious next to Imp. The Heartbroken were tearing through the other guards. The gear they had was all decorated with what looked like broken black-tinted glass that glowed from within.
More of Mortari’s new capes were fighting, but they seemed content to hold back, maintaining control over the situation. Two guys turned on Chastity, who was already preoccupied, and one of the Mortari capes shot one with what looked like a series of six harpoons. The other Mortari cape hit another.
Larger numbers than we’d had at the loading dock, and men with masks were charging into the corridor to the right, then right-turning again to duck the fog of gas where Fume Hood’s group was fighting.
The one in the lead wheeled around, and backhanded one of his fellow guards in his effort to reverse course and push forward.
Roman laughed, made a sound like a wordless taunt, almost a ‘Nyeh’, and then charged forward.
Bigger, fully armored, and wielding a mace of broken glowing glass, the guard lasted about two seconds.
I crashed into the guards that had almost been bowled over by the other guy, including the one who had been backhanded. I wasn’t gentle, but I wasn’t cruel either, and I managed to avoid any more surprise bites.
“Fume! Love Lost.”
“We’re fine. Almost done,” I heard.
So was Imp’s crew. The only holdout was Samuel. The blond heartbroken. He wasn’t anywhere near as confident a fighter as Roman, nor as tricky as Juliette, and when he hit his opponent, they didn’t stay down like they did for Chastity. She was cuffing people and slapping them to wake them up.
Samuel fought like someone without powers. Shaky, nervous, hesitant, barely dodging, though his reflexes were good. His costume was similar, not nearly as bold or ornate, a black decorative fitting around the eyes and nose. A slim-fitting jacket that made me think a bit of March, if somewhat more classy and outright ‘villain’. Stylized epaulets like the decorations on the mask, a sash across the chest, black jacket with silver decoration, and white gloves.
He kept going after the same places. A kick or punch to the lower stomach, a kick to the leg.
Roman ran, lunged, and leaped, tackling the guy to the ground. A sharp strike knocked the guy out.
“You gotta let me do my thing,” Samuel said.
“You gotta not take forever,” Roman told him.
“You were taking a while,” Chastity said. “I knocked out and tied up three people and you didn’t even get to first base with that guy.”
“Don’t use that metaphor,” Samuel protested. He looked to Imp.
“Crying to mommy?” Juliette asked.
“I’m not your mom. Thank God for that,” Imp said. “Leave him alone.”
“It’d be nice if I could use my power,” Samuel said.
“Yeah. It’d be nice. Try to be quicker about it,” she told him.
Geez. Show a hint of weakness, and these guys just didn’t let up. It looked so stressful.
But it was their dynamic. I wasn’t going to correct it. For one thing, I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t all turn on me.
Love Lost and Fume Hood emerged from the other room, wisps of gas still clinging to them and taking a while to dissipate.
We were done. All three rooms cleared, two of them had been guarded. This area wasn’t residential, and it was a rec room, training hall, and briefing room for guards. There would be more of the same nearby, if it held to the assumed pattern.
“Victoria,” Capricorn said. “Big room off to the side.”
He shook his head, at the same time as Sveta nodded behind him.
After clearing the room, and checking the terminals they’d gone to the door. The terminals now showed images of Lookout’s mask. As for the door, Rain was there, crouching. He’d taken out an eye thing and pushed it through the door before plugging his phone in. He showed me what was on the other side, using the phone as a screen.
It was supposed to be our route. Our plotted path had numerous points which were suggested as low-threat and high-supply. Places we were supposed to establish as base camps if we got far enough in, as we besieged this city-sized complex.
Except low-threat hadn’t been low-threat. The area had been renovated and repurposed in the renovations, because of different needs or because Teacher was a different person.
And this wasn’t storage of the kind we could fall back on and use. Not food, not water, nothing medical.
Imp pushed closer, and I turned to check. The other squads were behind us, all ready.
“They’re not there,” Samuel said.
“What?” I asked.
He pointed into the room. “Nothing there, emotion-wise.”
“You have friends,” Roman told Juliette.
“I mean… I don’t think there’s anything there, even outside of emotions.”
“Yeah. I’m not getting a buzz telling me my power is working,” Imp said, which startled me a bit. She was standing in the open doorway.
Then, not using her power, she walked out into the space where hundreds of people sat on benches and on, for lack of a better word, shelves. Ambulatory people walked between them, stiff and joyless, and gave each water, then food. One was collecting people, taking them away in groups.
None were aware enough to see us.
Hundreds of people, in an area as long as a soccer field.
Hostages for Teacher, or people he could potentially wake up to send after us. We couldn’t move forward with this behind us.
Love Lost’s claws clicked as she walked on the floor. Fume Hood followed a few steps behind, as we fanned out a bit, staying within arm’s reach of one another.
There were kids, dressed in white, staring off into space, opening their mouths as someone spooned food in or offered water.
“What the fuck are we supposed to do with all of this?” Fume Hood asked, voicing my thoughts exactly.