Man and woman, old and young, dressed in clothes meant more for simplicity and comfort than any personal expression. The entire scene was garish in the flourescent lights, the orderlies that handled food, water, and what looked to be bathroom breaks moving stiffly. A lot of the people were pale in a way that suggested they hadn’t seen sunlight recently. But not all.
“He collects people,” Imp said. “People aren’t an easy thing to collect, and you don’t collect this many and then stick ’em somewhere. So why?”
“Imp’s talking from experience,” Samuel said.
“Yeah, totes. I keep an eye out for any guy who’s at least a thirteen by my metrics.”
“Thirteen what?” Caryatid asked, from the rear. She was staying close to the door. She’d dropped her breaker form to talk.
“Inches,” Chastity said. About twenty feet away, Roman cracked up.
“Gotta rate ’em one to ten on the sexy scale. Slim and wearing clothes that fit are better than muscle. Then you rate ’em one to ten on the dark, sarcastic humor scale. Add ’em together. Guys’ gotta be a thirteen to count. I’ll take a girl, but I’m pickier, she’s got to be a sixteen by my system. I stow ’em in my personal headquarters, but I feed ’em, I water ’em. So I know what I’m talking about.”
“I’m… eighty percent sure she’s joking,” Caryatid said. “But that twenty percent-”
“She’s joking,” Samuel told her. “And missing my point. I wasn’t poking at her and trying to make her look bad. She does collect people. Us. Heartbroken.”
“I didn’t go looking for you. I went after Heartbreaker and then when I’m making sure he’s well and truly dead, there’s these kids around like, ‘Dad’s dead? Okay, I’m going to go watch cartoons.'”
Roman replied, “Because fuck him, we looked forward to Saturday mornings all week, negotiated for what we’d watch. He didn’t deserve to matter more than that.”
“The women screamed over the cartoons,” Samuel added.
Imp sighed heavily. “Yeah. I could dodge those poor women and use my power until they ran out of energy or ran off. Thing is, they weren’t looking after you, and it wasn’t like I could leave you all. Not an option.”
“Could’ve. Maybe should’ve,” Chastity said. “Life would’ve been simpler.”
“Maybe,” Imp said.
“Could have devoted more time to tracking down men who rate on your scale,” Chastity added.
The chatter continued. I walked down the side of the room, looking, and found myself staring at a young woman, roughly my age. Her expression had caught my eye, angry, but it was her natural resting face. She reminded me of a girl from my patrol group, Camisola. I moved closer, studying her.
“I see we found someone Glory Girl rates at least a thirteen,” Imp commented.
“Her hair,” I said.
“What about it?” Imp asked.
“It was cut recently. A lot of these others, they have shaggier hair, or you can tell where they had haircuts before but the hair grew in.”
“I noticed something similar with clothes,” Chastity said. “Some of them have had their clothes for a while, or the clothes are one of their regular outfits. Why does it matter?”
“Because. ” It was Capricorn who had answered. Tristan. “It suggests they haven’t been sitting her for a while.”
“Clothes are even more telling,” I said. “Show me?”
I flew over to Chastity. She pointed the blunt end of her whip handle at one of the thralls.
Sure enough, the clothes were worn in a way that suggested they’d become comfortable. There were no bulges around the shoulder or middle to suggest that someone else had worn the shirt, but there was wear. That required movement, activity.
“This is good,” I said.
Imp chimed in, “I mean, it’s terrible. Looks like a nurse’s scrubs from the hospital, and white stains so easily.”
“They came here recently, and it’s a change in pattern, they haven’t been… shelved… for long. What if these are Teacher’s evacuated grunts? Facility workers, noncombatant thralls? Facility gets attacked, he sends everyone here, locks ’em up, keeps ’em brain dead to make them easier to wrangle.”
“Doesn’t make sense. Look at the map. Annotated version,” Capricorn said.
I did, bringing it up.
Annotated version. It had suggested area labels, and with the area we’d just left and this storage space all being mis-labeled, I was skeptical of other guesses. There were attack plans, expected distribution of forces from high-security areas, and there were notes on where certain teams might have set up camps to fall back to or areas to stage fights in as they worked their way into the facility.
“What am I looking for?”
“The flow of it. Evacuating like this would mean sending the evacuees against the flow of incoming attackers to get here.”
“He sent them here recently. That can mean three things,” I told Tristan. “Either he knew we were coming and evacuated early…”
“And by doing so, tipped off his hand by having the early evacuees in a place where attackers might see them,” Tristan said. “No.”
“Or he finished whatever project he was working on, and these workers became redundant within a day or two of the first wave attack…”
“A little coincidental, that he’d do it right before we attacked,” Tristan said.
Tristan could take on this tone, very much his ‘butting heads’ mode, where he got argumentative and stubborn. I knew Tristan had issues with it, and Ashley had seen it as more of a point against Tristan when pushing to be team leader. I’d have been lying if I said I hadn’t run into it as a frustration more than a few times.
Here? Now? I didn’t mind. It forced me to make sense of things.
“Or, last option, they were evacuated between the first wave attack and the second wave attack, but there was still a reason for the evacuation.”
“It’s option one,” Imp said.
Okay, not a Tristan rebuttal.
“The evacuation?” Precipice asked.
“Those two got so close to right, but you’re all missing the obvious. Teacher’s an asshole.”
“And evacuation into an incoming enemy force is the point. Yes, he risks losing assets, but think of how much it slows our side down to have a constant filing of innocent personnel coming through every hallway, every room, potentially mixed in with armed security forces and people with powers.”
I could imagine it.
Getting a sense of how that initial attack had gone.
“What’s the chance, you think?” I asked Imp. “Tattletale said you’ve fought him before. You know him.”
“I’m touched. One hundred percent, this is what he did.”
I winced inwardly at the ‘one hundred percent’. Tattletale had never been one to give any guarantees, and hearing one from Imp made me suspicious.
But I went with it. “They’re still evacuated. He didn’t pull them back to resume normal operations. Either he was anticipating the second attack, or the first wave is still mounting their attack elsewhere. We should move on, see if we can’t catch up to the other group.”
“I can seal off this section,” Capricorn said. “Does mean we’re cutting off our retreat.”
“We have ways of getting through barriers. Precipice, Swansong, Caryatid,” I said, motioning for others to come.
He began drawing motes around the door. The squads began gathering. People who had hung back moved forward, like Caryatid and our newbie Mortari capes. Withdrawal was perched on his stilt-like limbs, syringe-gun at his back filled with a neon yellow liquid. Heartbroken who had scattered drew closer to Imp, and I could overhear her asking Roman and Juliette about the count. Roman was ahead by two, apparently. Breakthrough gathered closer to me.
“It could be a trap,” Swansong said, once she was close enough. “On a lot of levels.”
“Yeah. There aren’t any great ways to handle that, though. We have a lot of powers, we watch our backs and stay aware of any greater machinations,” I told her. “We cross our fingers that we have the powers to problem solve our way through whatever he slings at us.”
“Samuel!” Imp raised her voice. “Regroup!”
Samuel, the blond, older Heartbroken kid, was wandering off. No rush, no real apparent purpose.
Any weirdness was cause for alarm. I floated up, until my toes were just above the head of the tallest member of my group. Sveta followed my cue, heading off to the left, gripping a ‘shelf’ that housed a row of people to haul herself across the floor, dropping to one knee to skid along the surface using the low friction of her multicolored armor.
Love Lost and Withdrawal followed, metal claws and metal, curved stilt-limbs clicking on the floor as they moved into position. The harpoon dude followed them, hands going to the back of his head as the harpoons fired out of six points across chest and stomach. He hauled himself forward in much the same way that Sveta tended to move, but staggered the pulls.
Samuel slowed down as he walked, and we surrounded him.
Then he lunged, reaching out for someone sitting on a bench. A guy in white scrubs with a five o’clock shadow, glasses, and hair made tall with grease and mess. The guy fell backward off the bench to avoid the reaching hand, scrambled to his feet, and ran, while Samuel failed to catch up.
But Sveta was already in position to cut him off. He turned to the side, and saw Withdrawal, a skinny, tall silhouette with a face covered by a tinker mask, burdened by a syringe that made the limbs threaten to buckle under him.
Love Lost behind him, wearing her modified mask, a dress with a slit up one leg, and her claws.
And me above, surveying the situation and ready to fill any gaps that appeared.
“Felt something from him,” Samuel said. “Emotions, muted.”
“You can’t seal off the exits,” the man said. “We need access to facilities. People would die.”
“Who are you?”
“On-site doctor for ground level southwest. I can monitor vitals, I help anyone here who has health issues. Heart attacks, sores, choking.”
“What is this?” Sveta asked. Her voice held that touch of suppressed outrage and indignation that tended to appear whenever Cauldron or Cauldron-related stuff came up. This qualified.
That outrage and indignation were entirely fair, really. But it was a thing and it was a thing I’d keep track of, just in case.
The guy didn’t respond, lips pressed together. When Love Lost drew closer, he didn’t flinch or look scared. Reduced emotional capacity.
“How many more areas like this are there?” I asked.
He looked up until he saw me. He didn’t answer, though.
“This guy’s useless. Seal the area.”
“No,” he said. “Food and water are carted in from other sections when they run out. Airflow wouldn’t be sufficient with only duct. We need-” he seemed to concentrate for a second. “-circulation from other sections, driven by pressure differences.”
“It won’t be for long,” Sveta said.
“If someone gets sick and I can’t help them here, I need to be able to get them to medical facilities.”
“That’s a small risk,” Sveta said.
“There were two incidents in the last ninety minutes. One pulmonary embolism and one joint dislocation from a food operations tech.”
Imp spoke up, “I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want to go charging into whatever stopped the Wardens dead in their tracks and have to worry about retreating past these guys.”
“Convince us,” I said. “Give us information. Enough that we feel safe enough to leave you behind. How does this work?”
I drew closer to him, using my aura. “Who are all these people?”
Close-mouthed. A staunch refusal to speak.
“What happened to the first wave of attackers?”
“I’m not in a position to know. That’s not my purpose.”
“Where is Teacher?”
“I’m not in a position to know.”
“Have any injured come through from elsewhere?”
I stopped floating down, now at a height where I could stare into his eyes, while he did everything he could to avoid looking into mine. I kept my aura tight enough that it only affected him. And the people on the nearby bench, I supposed.
Oddly enough, it was the signs of their agitation that got to our doctor here.
“Some. Don’t disturb them or hurt them.”
He pointed at the end of the hangar-sized space that was furthest from the door we’d come through.
I softened my tone, while keeping my aura on ‘high’. “Convince me we can leave you behind us without worrying.”
I could see the pull, gentler words after harsh, scary ones. Like he wanted to oblige.
“If we shut off that end of this room, what happens?” I asked, indicating the door we’d come through.
“No medical facilities, limited water.”
“And that door?” I asked, indicating the one we’d be using.
“No food, no showers.”
“People can go two weeks without food. You don’t need showers,” I told him. “I can’t imagine a situation where people on the other side can’t get through a stone wall if my side loses.”
“We’re healthier with access to food and showers.”
I addressed Capricorn. “We’ll seal that door after we’re through. Minimizes hazards, keeps them from coming behind us.”
He nodded, switching, and the barrier he’d been working on became water, which immediately spread out into a thin layer across the floor.
“I can’t allow it,” the doctor said. “These people are my responsibility.”
“You can’t stop us,” Swansong said. “It’s the best compromise. Accept it.”
I saw the doctor’s expression change, concern, almost mortal alarm.
“Don’t,” Samuel said.
The doctor twisted around, drawing in a breath.
He didn’t get any further. Whatever command he was about to shout, whatever cry for help he was about to make, it was drowned out by Love Lost screaming.
The scream had collateral damage. Other people on the bench. People across the hangar. They stirred awake, emotions taking over, and rose to their feet, their emotions and their energy level swiftly accelerating from zero to one hundred. Raw anger.
“Don’t hurt them!” Sveta called out. “Not too badly!”
One of the guys on the bench reached out to the person next to him. Hand touched skin and the seam between the two disappeared, as he ‘drank’ the other person into his own mass, doubling in size with only a faint ripple marking the transition’s aftermath.
Shit. Some of the shelved people had powers.
I focused on others, flying down to a strategic point where three of the enraged bench-sitters were facing down our squad. Sveta and Withdrawal. I landed where their backs were turned my way, then gave each a push, sending them sprawling off balance, toward allies. Sveta caught one woman around the ankle with tendrils and began to swing her around in a quarter-circle. She might have intended a full circle, but more tendrils snapped out to seize more of the leg, one cutting through fabric, and she released early, backing away. The woman was sent sliding about ten feet.
Withdrawal leveled a syringe at one of the others who had fallen, to which Fume Hood shouted, “Conserve it!”
And meanwhile, the big guy touched another person, swallowing them into sheer bodymass, a hundred and fifty pounds that turned into a blob of flesh around the hand, then hand and arm, then spread out evenly across the rest of the body. The big guy’s features were dulled now, nose and brow less pronounced, eyes spaced further apart.
I wouldn’t hit him with the wretch or touch him, nor would Sveta or any of our other close combat specialists, but our ranged combatants needed to set up, were too severe, or both. Precipice was out, Swansong was out on all counts, Capricorn did what he could to get ready, drawing blue dots in the air. Fume Hood launched a trio of orbs, all fired in a straight line. They hit the guy in the face, causing his head to disappear into smoke.
Chastity whipped the hand that blindly reached for yet another person to ‘drink up’.
The big guy charged out of the cloud, and went straight for Love Lost, making contact with one of three former bench-sitters that stood between himself and her. Another person gone, another one hundred and sixty pounds of body mass added to his own, a foot of height, a lot of muscle and a little bit of fat, features made even more crude and brutish, eyes spaced so far apart that they looked more out at either side of his head than they looked forward.
And two more people in arm’s reach. He reached for one and missed, still blinking gas out of his eyes. Imp was there, beside him, and jabbed him with her stick. It cracked audibly, with no apparent effect, and he twisted, ready to backhand-
The half-twist became a skid and stop, twisted around, and charged Roman instead. A clearer path, with nobody on it. Roman evaded, ducking out of the way, matador with a bull.
“Juliette!” I called out.
“I can’t stop him,” she said. “My power doesn’t work on him. I’m related to him.”
“What?” Imp asked.
“Sorry,” Juliette said. “If I could, I’d make him stand still and let that big guy eat him, and the world would be a less brutish place.”
“Fuck you, Juliette!”
“Take this seriously!” Imp said.
“Rest assured, I’m deadly serious.”
Sveta and I changed our focus to keeping people out of the way of the big guy, dragging them away while Fume Hood bombarded him, orbs curving in the air to strike home over and over again, the clouds of gas lingering, until our big guy was stumbling out of one cloud of gas into another, partially dissipated one. Withdrawal hung a bit further back from the danger, swooping up any people who looked as though they might stumble into the scene. Drones, moving this way and that, oblivious to the immediate danger.
Harpoon dude set out some harpoons, firing them in lazy arcs that looped around wrists. He stumbled with the initial tugs from the big guy, then found his footing, throwing himself beneath a bench to use the fact the benches were bolted down as anchor points. More harpoons speared out from his chest, disconnecting the former lines and nailing the existing ones into the ground.
The big guy broke free with an almost elastic reaction, stumbling into one of the people with a food cart. Sveta dragged the person out of the way just in time, but the food cart was loaded with food, and I saw that food get swallowed up as the people had.
“Roman!” Byron called out. “Draw him closer to Love Lost!”
Roman snarled in response.
“My brother is too far gone,” Juliette said, deadpan. “We’ll have to put him down.”
“Fuck you, Juliette!” Roman growled. He did move toward Love Lost, veins standing out at the sides of his head.
And the big guy, still being pelted with spheres that exploded into gas clouds, did turn to charge Roman.
A gout of water from Capricorn caught him in the face, in open mouth and nose. Pulling his head back while his five hundred plus pound body continued forward, he fell, coughing and sputtering.
Another gas bomb exploded in his face, while he was gasping for air.
Unable to breathe, not in a position to get to his feet, he flopped, arms and legs kicking and scrabbling for traction on wet ground. And then he popped, becoming a pile of naked people and shredded chicken dinners.
Love Lost had the doctor in a headlock, and the man seemed to be winding down.
“Maybe, uh, watch your aim?” Precipice asked. “That was messy.”
Love Lost gave him a death glare. Extricating herself from the two-armed headlock to maintain a one-armed headlock instead, she pointed a claw at the rows of people on the ‘shelves’ at the one wall. She seemed to be counting, pointing once a second as she moved her arm.
The doctor struggled, and she resumed the two-arm headlock.
“She did actually,” Samuel said.
“When this guy shouted out the first word, about… twenty-five or thirty people suddenly started paying attention,” Samuel said, indicating the assembled people. “This one guy on the bench included.”
“Waking up the warrior drones,” Precipice said.
“Yeah,” Samuel said. “How many of those guys do you think are capes?”
“All of ’em,” Imp said. She stuck her stick into the doctor, made a hand-motion for Love Lost to let him go, and then turned it on.
“Was good, then,” Rain said, looking at Love Lost. “Thank you.”
She gave him another dark glare.
“Okay. Shutting up.”
We sorted ourselves out. I didn’t miss Love Lost putting a clawed hand on Samuel’s shoulder as she walked by him. I heard him say something, the word ‘butcher’ in the midst of it.
I wanted to see more going on in her eyes. More reaction, hurt or regret. She made me exceedingly uncomfortable as things currently stood.
“My point,” Roman said, to Juliette.
“You didn’t finish him.”
“I vote it’s his point,” Precipice said. “He helped. You didn’t.”
“Doesn’t matter, that’s not the game.”
“Precipice thinks it counts and Precipice is cool.”
“Doesn’t matter, stop trying to cheat,” Juliette said.
“It matters,” Imp said. “You’re outnumbered, Catena. Contribute next time, or hold back on the snark.”
The doctor was unconscious and would wake up soon. There were thralls who were standing by, dragging the people who had been assimilated into the big guy to where they could be dressed in clean white linen.
Chastity climbed up to the shelves with Sveta’s help. One by one, she backhanded the people that Samuel and Love Lost indicated, knocking them out cold.
With some consideration, as I flew by, Withdrawal hanging off of the outside of the shelving, we slapped a few more for good measure. I took note of one guy because his knuckles were raw and misshapen like he’d thrown too many punches recently. Withdrawal pointed out a kid that looked too athletic and muscular for his age. A woman had a tan on her face like she’d worn huge aviator sunglasses or a cape mask.
Knocked out. Even when the doctor woke up, they wouldn’t. If he activated thralls with a command and sent them after us, it would be more like two to five than twenty to thirty.
That task done, we marched through and past the enmeshment of orange lines and circles that were covering the wall.
The lines solidified behind us. Wall and a series of bars that allowed the air through while restricting people.
“This place is intimidating,” Caryatid said. She’d dropped her breaker form and walked now. “How do you build something like this?”
“With powers. They had a woman who lost her body to power working for them,” Sveta said. “I’m not sure what she’s doing now, but she can be multiple places at once, build fast. When they kept thousands of prisoners, before Gold Morning, she kept them here.”
“There was a note about her in the briefing packet,” Caryatid said.
“It didn’t say enough,” Sveta said. “Those thousands of prisoners- over the years, not all at once, they were mostly people with powers. She kept them in line.”
“They love things like that,” Imp said. “Loved? Should I use past tense? It’s different now.”
“Is it?” Ashley asked.
“Instead of a middle aged doctor woman who you could sort of respect for trying to do things right, we have a terminally ingrown taint-hair in an ugly sweater.”
“You’re being too kind to Doctor Mother,” Sveta said. “She was a monster.”
“I’m not going to say you’re wrong,” Imp replied, “But-”
Lights went out further down the hall, and the way they went out got our attention immediately. Lights went out one by one, and if the ceiling-tile-inset light right in front of us was numbered one and the number furthest from us was numbered one hundred, it was counting down by twenty a second. As each new light went out, another light behind it came back on.
“Heads up!” Capricorn shouted.
I saw it too, the distortion. Wall, wall, ceiling, floor, all rippled, as if a wave was traveling down it.
The Custodian? Something else.
I flew over the ripple, grabbing the nearest people. Capricorn, Rain.
My grab of Rain’s arm hadn’t been perfect. He’d swung in my grip as I pulled, and one arm grazed the ripple. Metal and tech was torn up like it had been thrust into a wood chipper.
The ripple was only a foot high, one or two feet long. Ashley used her power to blast it. Others had jumped. If it was hard to clear the jump, it was only because many were starting from a standing position, having stopped when the lights started going out.
“Sorry,” I told Precipice
I closed my eye to bring up the map, while keeping the other open to check that everyone was okay.
“It’s coming again!”
The corridor we were in was twelve hundred meters long. There was a security office at the eight hundred meter mark. Past the corridor was one part of what Cinereal had called ‘the gallery’. The massive area where they’d staged the character assassination work from.
“Cameras. Can we get any view on the attacker or tech that’s doing this?” I asked.
-No-. The word appeared in the midst of the map that obscured my vision.
We split up. I flew forward. Withdrawal and Sveta followed, with the harpoon guy and Love Lost chasing after. Ashley remained.
I twisted in the air to watch the ripple. I could see more of Kenzie’s message appearing in my vision. My focus was on the others, though. Ashley blasted the ripple as it raced to her, like a car speeding down the highway. Caryatid took it head-on, breaker form active. A spike of it slipped through, but it didn’t look like anyone got clipped.
Kenzie’s message was a restatement of what I already knew. She couldn’t get into Teacher’s security system unless she had help. Any of our phones or any of the devices she’d given Precipice would let her into a system, and maybe with enough she would gain reach. Beyond that, they were too isolated, and too fast when it came to counteracting her and cutting her off. Hack one system, and the remainder adapted.
Another ripple, but this one was a pillar that ran down the center of the corridor. Where it touched floor and ceiling tiles, it pushed them into disarray, and then placed them neatly back where they belonged.
Sveta, Love Lost, and I moved to the left of the hallway, as Withdrawal and the harpoon guy fired out a harpoon and reeled himself into the air to the right.
Mixing it up. Attacking from afar with a shaker effect. Another ring now. The danger wasn’t that it was so hard to avoid, but that it took effort and energy to avoid. A leap, an expenditure of power and attention. Mistakes would happen. Legs would get tired.
I flew, and trusted the others to keep up. Sveta didn’t have a lot of great handholds, except for me, and I didn’t begrudge her. A little added wind resistance aside, it didn’t impact how hard I could fly.
The others kept up okay. Harpoon managed with some struggle. Withdrawal and Love Lost had tech augmenting how fast they could run.
I really needed a better name for Harpoon. The fact he had six harpoons that came out of chest, lower ribcage and belly made me think of a dog’s nipples, which made it harder for me to ignore the fact that two of those harpoons pretty much emerged from his actual man-nipples, or somewhere very close to them.
Good thing he was in hock to Citrine, because any career with a real hero team would have a hard time selling that image.
Couldn’t get distracted.
I could see them. A group of people running away from us. The connecting corridor we were in was long and straight, and even though they were distant, I could count out six or seven.
Love Lost jumped up, pushing me to one side, and then screamed.
The scream travelled far enough to catch two of the guys with guns. They stopped, shifted position, agitated. One held their chunky gun over their head with both hands, like they intended to use it as a club. The other took aim, then seemed to remember he needed to reload.
I flew over them. Sveta pulled the gun away from one, while Withdrawal pounced on another, smashing him into the floor.
I tried to make up for time lost when I’d been pushed.
The one at the rear put his hand back.
More ripples. Easy to fly past. Easy for Sveta, Withdrawal, Love Lost and the Harpoon guy to manage.
I closed the distance, my little mover squad close behind.
His buddies had guns, though. I saw the red-orange-white glow of tinker gun barrels, and adjusted, flying to evade two shots of what looked like hot magma, putting myself in the way of a third, to block any danger to Sveta or Withdrawal. It clung to the Wretch, which I hadn’t expected, forcing me to drop my forcefield and move away so I didn’t fly face first into the glob that was now falling to ground.
Which cost me time, cost me progress. Which put a big blob of molten liquid on the floor for the others to have to avoid.
I imagined that was the strategy. To slow us down, set us up to either get shot or get steamrolled by this shaker power that was too effective in corridors like this one.
I could see the shaker preparing the power in his hands, getting ready to throw again. The closer I was, the less time I had to react.
He threw out the power, and it webbed out to every nearby surface before lunging forward. Before, it had been rings, a pillar. Always with a way through.
This time, a wall, impassable.
I veered hard right, put my foot out, kicking the actual wall, just to stop my forward momentum, then reversed course to get away and get back. My forcefield was up as part of the kick into the wall, and I felt the wall make contact with an extremity.
I felt the forcefield tear. It didn’t die, but it remained in tatters, a body torn two, with limbs scattered.
I didn’t want to drop the field, not when I needed it, not when it had eben damaged before and taken a minute to come back up, after being hit with Rain’s silver blade. When Cradle had hit it and knocked it out for a bit of time. I threw myself into the ceiling tiles, into lighting and wiring, carving a furrow.
The others must have seen an opportunity, because they went for it. Into the ceiling, then down, to appear on the far side.
Emboldened, I changed course, driving myself further up into the ceiling until the field finally died. The shaker’s wall passed beneath me.
He’d baited us in close with an effect that was apparently easy to dodge, only to drop the full effect when I was so close I shouldn’t have been able to escape. Maybe there was a buildup, or he’d been conservative and tricky because he didn’t know what powers we had. Fast-moving capes weren’t likely to be capes with the ability to handle a death wall coming at them like a train down a tunnel.
I caught up to the others, and found them amid the downed group. Love Lost had blood dripping from the claws of one hand, while Withdrawal crouched like a frog ready to leap on another injured molten gunner.
The shaker had one arm out in front of him, a harpoon impaling his forearm, a meaty cord trailing to Harpoon’s abdomen. In his other hand, he managed his power.
Sveta didn’t have to bend down to grab one of the chunky magma guns, tendrils in her leg dissolving to grab it, lift it up, and pass it to her hand.
The shaker, like most of our group, panted for breath.
Love Lost moved first. Ready to scream. The shaker responded, using his power. Not at us, but sending the power rippling down the hallway as another pillar, behind him. Opposite direction.
Didn’t matter. Love Lost screamed at the same time Sveta whipped the gun at the guy. Stricken with the scream’s effect, he didn’t have the ability to dodge. The gun clocked him.
That was this squad. Still small, still tinkers with low-grade equipment, but now they were supporting the occasional cape.
I was too nervous about why this guy would throw his power the other way, when he could’ve at least maimed one of us with a good toss here. Too hard for all of us to dodge that was fast moving and shakery at point blank range.
He’d had other priorities.
“You’ve got this?”
“Yeah,” Sveta said. “I hope the others are okay.”
“Me too. I’m going to fly ahead.”
‘Ahead’ was another four hundred meters, which was like flying across four and a half city blocks, except the tunnel had nothing to differentiate it except an intersection here, a sealed door there. The tunnel, though it was ten feet by teen feet across, was claustrophobic, and gave me a feeling like being suspended in air.
Then barricades, chunks of concrete piled up, scarred where they’d been hit by the shaker’s power. Past the barricades, I was in the gallery. A massive open space with a pillar skewering it through the middle.
The gallery had been named as one of the key grounds to hold, a defensible position and a place to turn into a base camp. I’d remembered because this was where the character assassinations had come from. I could see the groupings of desks, consoles, and concrete platforms with eight, ten, or twelve sides; I wasn’t about to count while there were other things going on.
The attack he’d flung back had been in hopes of catching someone else off guard. They’d been defending a position or mounting an attack. Trying to retake this space.
And they were in the midst of it. An ongoing battle that our side was losing. Tinkers in white came in as phalanxes, tinker guns fired, and I could see Stonewall enduring a pummeling as he fought to get close enough to a squad to start breaking some people, stone armor and shield chipping away, glowing, or facing an ever-increasing burden of what could have been acidic or radioactive slime, silver in color. There were four tinkers in front of him, backing away step by step while they coordinated their fire. Ten tinkers were behind him, battered and knocked down, their guns sent sprawling.
There were other capes, though precious few I recognized. Teacher’s predominantly wore white, had similar gear. I could see at least a half dozen thralls with powers, a few monsters that might have been master minions or thralls with drugs in their system, and a constant influx of more, rushing in to take up cover, fire over that cover, and apply a constant and unending pressure.
I’d have to trust the others to handle catching up and getting here. For now, people needed help.
The high ceiling made flying possible, but the sheer amount of tinker guns made flying a risk, too. I focused my efforts around the pillar, flying close to it so it would shield me, and corkscrewing around clockwise, then counterclockwise, before shifting direction.
Someone shot me. No lightning, no plasma, just a specialized slug and a gun that roared like a chainsaw. Wretch down. I adjusted course.
The follow-up shot caught my armor, right where my heart was. The impact sent me spiraling through the air.
I realized what was happening, and dive-bombed, straight for the nearest cover.
Teacher granted powers, and this included accuracy.
I landed in the midst of one of the concrete ‘hedrons, in a cubicle with a fucking filing cabinet and post its. I hunkered down by the door to the space, grabbed a black file folder, and stuck it past the gap.
The bullet hit, striking the rounded-off metal frame my hand was close to. Another shot hit, then a third a second later. I could see the vague indent where it deformed the metal. Each shot landed at the same spot, aimed not at the file folder, but at the palm of the hand that was holding the file folder up.
Hitting the exact same spot in the metal until they could punch through. I dropped my hand, and I heard more gunshots landing. Aimed at a different part.
Filing cabinet, then. With Wretch-strength, I dragged it back.
With Wretch-strength, I heaved it, lobbing it into the air. A guess.
From the air, a flier hit it with something, changing its course radically. I looked up, expecting a threat, and I saw Balk. One of Stonewall’s squad in the Wardens. He had other fliers with him.
“Up!” he called out to me.
I flew up to him. I looked down, and saw the filing cabinet had struck home. There was more blood visible around the filing cabinet than I could see gunman.
“That’s my fault, not yours.”
I didn’t have any response to that. Instead, I asked, “How long have you been here?”
“Hours. We were the defensive base camp, our offensive team went ahead. All communication died, our thinkers are struggling, and a remote trump-class keeps turning our powers off.”
“Strategic blackouts. Anyone does too well, they lose their powers.”
Balk held up his hand. A sphere of metal returned to his hand with a violent impact, faster than the eye could see. He wore the bodysuit with armor, a little heavier than I tended to appreciate, but the armor was stylized to use negative space well. Circles and spike studs, red costume, silver armor. Nice hair.
“Antares. Do you know PRTCJ formations?” he asked. “The ones for flying?”
“Some, and only the flying ones, but I’m not practiced,” I told him. Crystal had actually helped with those.
“Help us? Two of ours are injured.”
“I can help for now,” I told him. “My team’s coming, I’ll have to direct them some.”
There was another gunshot. A slower-moving projectile. One of the fliers with us swatted it aside with a flash of forcefield. She was a woman with a purple and black costume, her eyes altered so the whites were black and the irises and pupils bright purple and white respectively.
“Ace angel,” the forcefield cape said.
Balk played the part of the ace. Our job was to support him. I flew a distance away, slightly out of formation, close enough to shield him in the hairier patches, not so close the Wretch might hit him. On the other side, the woman with forcefields shielded his other side. Above all three of us, a woman lobbed glowing projectiles. The projectiles seemed inaccurate. If they weren’t, she might have been the ace herself.
“Dipping out!” I called.
I saw Balk’s hand move in assent. A stretched-out forcefield replaced my position in the flight, as the group slowed.
A dive, striking where I was needed, hitting the side of a pillar with computer towers to send monitors and heavy computers cascading down on the people hunkered below, with a few sparks marking live wires, even. Then a rise again, to return to formation.
Balk hurled his ball with enhanced strength, and it demolished cover. The ensuing fire from allied parahumans forced the Teacher thralls into retreat. A mutant hulk filled that gap, and Balk flew down to meet it. We flew down in unison, to support him and protect him from flanks.
He was a more methodical fighter than I was. Each punch and kick was intended to count. He didn’t utilize in-flight rotations to boost his power, instead dropping to the ground when he wanted to sling hits, but he did tumble and fall more often, using flight to rise to his feet. The hits were punctuated by throws and the surprise returns of the metal ball.
I kicked a piece of concrete on the ground, sending chunks flying at violent speeds. They hit some people who were facing another direction, and with damage and distraction, stopped those people from laying down suppressive fire.
Our artillery-lobber hurled something their way. The lob, though inaccurate, imploded, drawing every one of those people into a jumble. One of the projectiles they’d been in the midst of firing was also drawn in. The result was messy, a small explosive round going off in the midst of five bodies.
Yeah. Balk was one of the guys who’d been at the warfront. His squad and his team were more about getting shit done than playing nice. Which might have been what we needed right now, but it wasn’t my rhythm.
“Three is clear, breaching,” I told the forcefield cape. This side is safe, I’m going in.
I joined Balk in fighting the hulking mutant, going after the hindquarters with Wretch all-out, smashing lower spine. It counted for more than half of what Balk had done so far, and crippling the thing’s entire back half and taking away its ability to use its praying mantis forelimbs for anything except crawling.
It roared, mouth yawning open for a bite, and Balk hurled the metal ball into the mouth. It came out the beast’s rear, stopped, then returned to Balk, splatting on impact with his hand.
My team was arriving, but in the heat of the moment, in the fray and maintaining a formation, I couldn’t quite break away. The artillery cape with us was distraction and devastation in equal measure, forcing people to scramble, to abandon cover, or punishing them if they didn’t- sometimes. Balk just wanted support to do what he needed to do, and to his credit, he used it. With us, he didn’t have to worry about his flanks and communication was reduced down to key formations and phrases like ‘breach’ and ‘draw’, speeding up how fast we could operate.
Balk did his thing, the artillery cape had her own focus. As defensive flanks, it was the forcefield cape and I working together in a weird synchronicity. Working together with a minimum of distracting communication, relying on practiced PRTCJ formation that I hadn’t practiced because I’d never been a part of the PRTCJ. At best I’d gone over it once with Crystal. I was a good student but I wasn’t that good.
But it worked, and that it worked situated me in a kind of weird mental state. It felt like the horrible fatigue of Shin and that room with Amy was catching up to me and I was almost dreaming, and yet I felt hyperfocused, not tired at all. The only dream was the surreal cast to this whole thing.
I would have almost called out master-stranger, except it wasn’t. My hand hurt where it had been flayed, my chest hurt in a way that made it hard to breathe because the breastplate had taken a heavy impact. Not a broken rib, only a bruised everything from the diffuse impact.
The situation was real.
My team and the subordinate teams needed help.
I fought almost back to back with the forcefield cape, or we would have been back to back if we didn’t have Balk between us. I called out, “Moving three!”
“Heard!” the forcefield cape replied.
“And Balk, I need to go. My teams are here!”
“Heard,” he replied. He didn’t sound happy. “What’s the sitrep?”
“Getting a weird vibe, can’t share too much-”
“Then go to your fucking team, help, explain after!”
I opened my mouth to respond, stopped. Hours of this? Of holding positions, attacked from all sides?
Maybe I’d be cranky too.
“Section,” the forcefield cape called out. “Balk.”
“Section,” he agreed. He hurled his ball. “Now or never!”
We opted for now. Section was ‘Group up. All together.’
They flew me back, escorting me home, for lack of a better way of putting it. Still in the formation flanking Balk. He threw his ball at capes who were working on Stonewall, while Stonewall beat a fighting retreat toward our squads, shield raised.
There was an explosion, off to forcefield cape’s side. Her forcefield came up too slow, a glittering wall cutting through a mid-air detonation. It threw us out of formation.
We assembled, found a new formation, ready to retaliate if this attack would be repeated. It wasn’t. Stray fire from one of Teacher’s.
But again, that eerie sensation, like something didn’t add up, or that it added up too neatly.
I looked over the scene, saw more of our capes retreating to a part of the open room we could collectively defend. And I saw Teacher’s thralls. We’d demolished Teacher’s goons, knocked out cover emplacements, forced retreats.
And they reinforced, they came in through other doors, and they whittled us down.
“There was a cape back when I was recruiting for teams,” I said.
“Less chat, go to your team.”
“They were Fallen. They teleported people in. In a way that made it hard to realize they were bolstering numbers.”
“We’ll keep it in mind,” Balk said. Zero patience, zero tolerance.
It made sense to me, crystallized some of that eerie feeling that we could win every battle and lose the war. It’d be something Teacher had in reserve, that he might pull out here.
And it did absolutely nothing to quell that uneasy, uncanny feeling that gripped me.
I flew down to my team. Balk and his little team found its own formation, staying close to the right side of the room, so the forcefield cape could throw up her glittering walls, return fire, and there was no need to defend the right side because there was only wall there. Balk continued his angry, aggressive me-first fighting and did just well enough I couldn’t condemn him for it.
I released a breath I hadn’t been holding.
“Everyone okay?” I asked, not taking my eyes off of things.
“More or less,” Capricorn said.
“What’s wrong?” Sveta asked.
I shook my head, still watching. Seeing how they flew. The formation.
Nostalgic. In a fight as messy as this, the air choked with dust and the smell of ozone, I felt a weird, happy nostalgia.
My eyes settled on the culprit. The forcefield cape. The feeling crystallized as I caught her looking back at me with those eerie eyes.