Syringes emerged from the floor like a cresting wave, growing larger and more numerous as they got further from the source. I watched as Withdrawal tried to escape the tide, and an extension of the needles cut him off. Tinker stilts and the repelling shield he’d stolen off of a guard caused the needles to break, spilling dirty yellow-black fluid onto the floor.
Pumps, thick pipes, and white tile defined this corner of the complex’s second floor. We’d fanned out, our groups moving through the various rooms with the intent of clearing each room in turn and ensuring we wouldn’t be flanked, using powers to ensure we wouldn’t be followed. Anything else ensured a constant fight from all corners.
Except we’d hit a snare. The idea had been that if we had any fights, any victories would mean we could fold in on and flank the enemies to either side of us. And as far as I could tell, none of our teams were winning their fights or moving on to the step two.
Needles grew out in clumps, clusters, and bouquets, and then more needles and clumps grew out of the clumps.
“Don’t get pricked!” some kid shouted. One of our Mortari capes. “My analysis says they’re drugged and diseased!”
Withdrawal yelped as he avoided a sudden emergence of syringes. I crashed into the needles with the Wretch, shielding my face with my arms. Withdrawal already had his mask, so he didn’t need to worry about the spray.
“Help,” Caryatid said, voice quiet. The needles had cut her off while she wasn’t moving, and now grew in thicker, until they came at her from every direction, all stopping millimeters away from her face, neck, arms, chest, belly, and thighs. She had gone human to talk, her back straight, arms at her sides, wearing the long, slim black dress with the yellow-orange poofs at the wrists and feet. She resumed her breaker form, the poofs and her head becoming something more fractal.
For the time being, I couldn’t do a lot. The broken glass and shattered plastic of syringes pressed in even though I’d broken them, edges reaching for me. I backed off, hemmed in.
The geography of this particular stretch of hallways was a H turned ninety degrees, and I was in the lower intersection, Caryatid to my right. Withdrawal was up ahead and around the corner to the left, periodically visible through the thicker pipes.
“Terminal, incurable, long term diseases,” our unhelpful helper volunteered. “Addictive substances!”
“Got it! Go help someone else, or get somewhere safe!”
It’s scaring our Major Malfunctions, I thought. They’re kids who did nothing for years, then jumped into the deep end of the pool. And that’s partially my fault for bringing them onboard like I did.
Withdrawal, skinny, wearing a skintight suit, a mask, and the limb-extending agility frame, had only the shields he’d kept for defense, the syringe he carried for offense. But the shields required energy and the syringe made a shitty club, especially when needles erupted from the wall to hem in how much he could swing the syringe at the stuff in his way.
I could bust up the syringes, but I couldn’t bust up the syringes and then tackle the areas with more syringes. Our attacker was staying out of sight now, but I’d glimpsed her a minute ago. Tall, possibly breaker class, a slim, ghostly silhouette similar to Caryatid’s, with red eyes, a surgical mask over the lower face, a white covering from the neck down, so tight at the legs that it looked like she couldn’t walk, and feet impaled by the bristling syringes, points sticking out and through bare flesh. When she’d moved, it had been on that moving ‘cushion’, syringes appearing and disappearing to stab her feet and back repeatedly while buoying her away at a runner’s speed, her body twisting and arching with each set of impacts.
Breaker class, but shaker in practice. With a sweep of her arm, she caused syringes to spring out from the ground, walls, and ceiling like a crashing wave. All loaded to bear, apparently, with stuff that would guarantee we died a few months or years from now.
She moved away like she considered us dealt with, and in reality, I wasn’t positive we weren’t. Crashing through the syringes with the Wretch would disable the Wretch and impale the Victoria. Caryatid couldn’t move without losing her invulnerability. Withdrawal had a great deal of movement and a lot of gaps in his defenses, which were a bad combination in this environment, where moving in the wrong way would get us pricked.
I’d thrown myself into this side of the fight to help the C-team and now I was in over my head. I hit a cluster of syringes, clearing some of the way, putting myself in the midst of them while waiting for the Wretch to return. Then I let it do its thing. Reaching out, clawing, destroying. A swathe of destruction around me.
Putting the Wretch aside for a moment, I grabbed a fire extinguisher that was mounted on a wall, and I swung it full-bodied in Caryatid’s direction. It arced through the air, and it crashed through the syringes, giving her some ability to move. When she did move, it was in sharp, careful movements that cleared more of her way.
Even with the cacophony of noise nearby, I didn’t miss the small, frantic sound from her while she was human and not in her breaker form, reaching down for the fire extinguisher, then using it as a bludgeon.
“Cary!” Withdrawal called out. “Stay calm! It can’t hurt you unless you let it!”
The Wretch swiped, tore, and crushed the syringes in my way. The ground was a carpet of broken glass, broken plastic, needles, and fluids in noxious colors.
“I can’t do this,” she said. “I can’t stand this. I have bad dreams that aren’t as bad as this.”
“Stay calm!” Withdrawal grunted out the words, between swings of his tinker weapon. It wasn’t meant for the task, and it was taking a beating. Big as it was, not every swing broke everything it hit.
Breakers triggered from disassociation. From mental illness, from deprivation of sleep or food, from a mind-body disconnect, or from the divide between normal trigger circumstance and reality, the paradoxical events. Brutes tended to trigger from being hurt, as I had. A breaker with brute sub-powers tended to trigger from wanting self-harm, or from harm that was all in one’s head. Attacks from imagined enemies could make a breaker with the subclass of striker or blaster. For a stranger, who tended to trigger from unwanted attention, the case in the textbooks had been an exhibitionist who had been caught, experiencing the mingled sexual thrill coinciding with the fear of imminent arrest, imminent loss of family, and imminent loss of career.
Breakers also came about from medicine or drugs that altered the mind-body state. Caryatid.
“It’s a tailor-made fight for us!” I called out. “Caryatid, this is a counterattack from a guy with thinkers at his disposal! People who know us! People who’ve used powers to study us and figure out what works best against us!”
“It’s working!” she said.
“Get through this second by second! If you can get through the stuff that’s this personal, you can get through anything!”
“What if I can’t? What if I can’t do this?”
“You’re doing it as we speak!”
She was about to say something, but another tide of syringes came our way from around the corner, in Withdrawal’s general direction. A second later, a shape hurtled in that same direction. Hurtled and stopped.
Precipice, now suspended in the air above a carpet of needles, using his power.
“Uh,” he said.
“Caryatid! The extinguisher!” I reached out my arms.
She went breaker and used the short lunge of her movement to toss the extinguisher at me. It took me both arms to catch.
“Incoming!” Precipice called out. He created a blade.
I used my strength to hurl the extinguisher, changing what I was aiming for in the last moment before release. It crashed through the thicket of needles between me and Precipice, hit the ground, and crashed through stuff there, not directly beneath him.
But it gave Withdrawal a spot to jump forward to, landing in a bare patch with just a bit of skid on the fluids and broken material that now carpeted the ground there. He caught Precipice, then sprung back the way he’d come.
A hulking form lunged into view, coming within a handspan of getting a grip on Precipice. Copper mask, partial armor, and a loincloth, and a body covered in oozing sores, blisters, and scabs. Copper chains wound around his arms, and swollen, infected hands gripped the hooks at the end of those chains.
He was big and fast enough that he didn’t stop by his own power. Instead, he hit enough of the outcroppings of needles that he was impaled sufficient times that they made him stop.
I saw them react like they were spring-loaded, plungers depressing, filling his exposed flesh on legs, lower pelvis, and arm with enough noxious fluids that the skin visibly darkened and swelled, excess fluid foaming and bubbling out around the injection sites.
He threw one hook out in the direction the pair had gone. Glass broke as he hauled it back in. An apparent miss. Fume Hood pelted him with orbs, and he didn’t seem to care, except for the way it limited his vision.
He hurled the hook blindly my way, and it embedded into the wall ten feet behind me. He hauled on it, hard, and the wall panel came away, syringes included. My forcefield served to knock the worst of it away, but the remainder it still came at me, now festooned with broken glass and a spray of fluid. I had to perform some frantic acrobatics to avoid it. Needle tips scraped against the fabric of my costume to the extent they vibrated against the individual fibers.
He was backed up by a bunch of thralls. Men and women in what looked like padded hazmat suits, heads covered by domes, all carrying what might have been laser cannons. Needles receded as the entered the area across from me.
Emerging from the smoke, he reached out the hand that no longer held his hook. Whatever he did, there was no dodging it, no avoiding it. My head, nose, and throat exploded in pain, fluids simultaneously choking and suffocating me, flowing out of my nose and down the back of my throat. Ear pressure went wonky, momentarily deafening me, and the stirrings of a bad headache momentarily stole my ability to think. My stomach did a flip-flop, and my injured hand roared in fresh, hot pain.
I was dimly aware of him rearing back to hurl his hook.
A silver blade struck the Brute. He turned his attention to Withdrawal and Precipice. The way he threw his hook was power-augmented, making it fly straight, and it used enough of his physiology that the silver line at his shoulder and chest split.
Pus and suppurated, swollen, infected flesh overflowed from the wound.
Two of the thralls fired their cannons in the direction Precipice and Withdrawal had gone. The big guy threw himself in that same direction.
Another two fixated on me, raising their guns.
I flew hard at the corner, where needles bristled from pipes and ductwork. The Wretch hit the needles and damaged one of the pipes, causing it to start bubbling something that smelled like a sharper rubbing alcohol from the seam near the ceiling.
They were beam weapons, but the beams were thin, filled with faint blue specks of light, and didn’t burn anything. I saw as needles were pulled out of the wall, the damage segments around the part the hook had caught joining them. As they were pulled, they collected more specks on them, until they were covered. The more they collected, the less effect the pull had on them.
I began working my way to Caryatid, mindful of the Wretch’s reach.
“Frontload it!” one thrall called out.
“Flip the Z.”
“There’s another notch on the lever for hard Z.”
Behind me, the beam grew more intense, the faint blue became a dark blue, and the needles and debris were pushed closer to the wall.
They moved the beam, moved the stuff trapped in the beam with it, and then flicked it my way, shutting it off to release the material. Needles and debris were sent flying our way.
The Wretch was broken by the speed at which some of it was hurled. The back of my hood blocked a lot, but I still felt pricks at my shoulder. I reached back and pinched at the wounds, to squeeze whatever it was free.
It was wall material that had penetrated fabric, not needles.
I worked to get closer to Caryatid.
They were making their way down the hall to the intersection I’d been stuck at. One was slower than the other, using the beam to pick up more fluids, needles, and debris from the ground and wall. The other peeked around the corner.
That was important, I knew, but I didn’t have time to consider it.
Caryatid made her way to me- I reached out with a hand that had blood on it from touching my wounded shoulder, supporting her as she hopped over a pile of needles. As the next flick-throw of the beam’s contents came our way, she put herself between me and the hail, going breaker.
Which was a temporary solution at best. The one at the corner took aim and fired. Dragging Caryatid. As she was pulled, she was no longer still enough to be invincible.
“Pull back on the Z!”
The pull increased in speed. Dragging her toward needles a few inches a second.
Flying after her, I had to fly around the beam, because being stuck in it slowed me down. I caught her and pulled her out of the beam, she stumbled, and he tried to catch us again. I was more evasive, so he went right back to getting Caryatid.
The partner did another collect, flick, grab, in the span of a second or two. It was only a dozen or so needles, flying like bullets, but the movement of the beam told me the angle. Aimed at me, not Caryatid.
I drew myself together, and flew hard into a safe spot of ground, forcefield strong. Fist and one knee hit hard enough to crack the floor and send fragments up in a radius around me. More than I might have in the old days.
Reaching out for two of the larger fragments, I managed to catch one. A fistful of concrete with some tile attached.
The moment I felt like the forcefield was back, while the tractor beam guy was collecting more debris, I threw the chunk, hitting the guy who was dragging Caryatid.
A harder throw than I might have done normally, but the situation was bad.
Caryatid put herself between me and the second guy, blocking the hail of syringes.
He began dragging her, and I flew around and over.
I could have shoved him into the needles right beside him. I didn’t. I did cave in his knee, grab the weapon, and throw him hard to the ground.
They’d had different tactics. They’d been talking about how to use the gear, like they didn’t know. There had been inventive tactics. They weren’t thralls like the ones downstairs had been.
These ones had been knowingly cooperating.
I saw needles recede close to where he’d fallen, as he lay on the ground, cradling his leg. Grabbing him by the collar, I hauled him up and forward, holding him out as best I could without using the Wretch. More needles pulled away as I brought him closer to the needle breaker’s powerstuff.
No room to be gentle. He was my means to clear a path. I hurried forward, flying, and got to where I could see the brute with the sores and blisters. Rain had cut him several times, but it seemed to remain tissue damage, and it might have been regenerating.
Down the other hallway, the needle breaker was fighting Love Lost, Chastity, Roman, and Colt. Fume Hood had apparently gone off to do something else.
Love Lost pounced, driving clawed fingertips and toe-tips into her chest, the breaker tried to retaliate by bringing syringe-fingers toward Love Lost’s middle. Love Lost sprung back, landing on hands and feet. Colt was hacking at the syringes around them, cutting at them with her black blade, while deftly dodging whatever came near.
But they were maneuverability, not durability. Same issue as Withdrawal. As the syringe breaker got more into it, there was less room to maneuver.
She was hurt at least.
She backed away, pulling to one side-
And Imp stuck her with the scepter she held.
The woman dropped, falling backward.
Ten feet from me, in the thickest outcropping of syringes, I saw her emerge, pushing through. Skin and skintight dress were impaled in a hundred places by the glass and syringes, pulling hard enough against it that needle points were bent to nearly right angles, bands of flesh pulled away from arm, face, neck, and sides because the flesh had been penetrated enough times to be looser and the needles were trying to pull straight again. Some points raked her.
The damage healed, except where she remained impaled. She hung off the wall, suspended. Body weight pulled her free as much as anything else. A cushion of needles waited beneath her feet, as she prepared to drop down to it.
The others couldn’t get to her, but she was close enough for me to deal with. I took flight, still dragging the guy with the broken leg behind me-
Something caught my arm. The hook from the big guy. It slid down my arm until it found my wrist, the curve of the hook large enough to accommodate my arm but not my hand. He hauled me back toward him, away from his partner.
I twisted in the air, trying to find an orientation that would pull my hand free, and there was too much pull for me to do it.
Bringing knees to my chest, I planted feet on the tractor beam thrall’s chest, and I kicked out, activating the Wretch and the strength that went with it.
He went flying, skidding along the floor, straight into the breaker’s waiting cushion. Within a foot of him, syringes went back to whatever extradimensional space they had emerged from, and the breaker dropped down onto flat, ordinary flooring. She crumpled to the ground there. When she looked up, her eyes weren’t red, her hands weren’t tipped with weird syringe fingers, and her dress had blood dotting it, no longer sterile.
The Wretch broke the chain, freeing me. I thought I might go after the breaker, but I saw as Chastity flicked out her bullwhip, catching the thrall I’d thrown around the neck. She called out to the others, and they hauled back, pulling the guy into the thicket of needles, which receded as he was pulled into it. He did something as he slid, activating a device or deactivating it, and their last tug pulled him into needles for real.
Choosing to get stabbed by a hundred needles to help his side win.
I flew after the big guy, who braced himself for me. Rain threw his projectiles at the guy’s legs while his back was turned, and Withdrawal followed it up with a tackle, jumping up to kick the guy from behind.
The blades flared, the legs buckled, and the guy wasn’t braced or anything for the hit I delivered him. The impact felt like smashing a soggy bag of trash with a car. Ninety percent of him went everywhere.
Colt slashed through the thicket keeping the other group from accessing the breaker. Love Lost jumped through the first gap that was visible, and tackled the breaker, who was only now getting shakily to her feet.
Claws impaled the woman by the shoulders. Love Lost brought her masked face close, then swiped her arms out to the sides. The claws didn’t break contact with the woman’s arms, as Love Lost raked her bone-deep from each shoulder to the respective hand.
A kick with clawed toes to the chest separated the two, knocking the breaker to the ground.
“What the fuck, Love Lost?” I asked.
She tilted her head, then pointed a bloody claw past me.
I turned to see the brute I’d hit was getting to his feet. His mass was lopsided, and what remained was decay and pus in a vaguely human silhouette, with a single arm, part of a chest, and the legs that had belonged to a six hundred pound pile of muscle and ugliness. The two thralls had been disarmed, one slumped against the wall, another cradling her arm.
“I know he’s alive,” I said.
The woman who had been a breaker lay on the ground, arms at her side, bloody smears beside her like she’d been trying to make a snow angel, her back arching as she struggled to move in a way that didn’t elicit agony.
The strength went out of her pretty fast, all considered. I looked away.
“Finish him off. He’s too dangerous,” I heard Gong. I saw him step into view, bedraggled.
Closer to me, Love Lost was pulling off her mask, head hanging down. She wiped gobbets of snot and what might have been vomit away from her nose and mouth.
“The thralls called him the Leper. He killed four of ours,” Gong said. “We can’t let him heal, we can’t bring him with, and we need to move. It would be best if you ended this now. Getting to you and getting back would take too long. We need to help other groups. All of us are struggling.”
Sure enough, the Leper was recovering. A hole yawned in the center of the vaguely head shaped mass of congealed human sickness, the beginnings of a mouth. I could see nuggets that might have been congealed pus or nascent teeth.
“Please,” Gong said. “In the interest of getting this done.”
“I’d like to hear a voice I know and trust say to do it,” I said. “Sorry Gong, I don’t know you.”
“Do I count?” Rain asked.
“Yeah. But do you really want to make that call? Because I really don’t.”
“I don’t either. But I think it’s necessary. This guy won’t stop unless he stops for good.”
I stared down the brute, who was trying to find his balance, mashing his meaty full-size hand against the needles that hadn’t gone away when the breaker bled out. No eyes, no ears, just a mouth and flailing limbs.
I might not be able to do it if he had a face or the capacity to look me in the eye.
I flew at him, and I put my foot out, because a hand might have felt too personal, too close.
I kicked him, and I didn’t hold back. Foot drove head into wall, and I felt the shock of soft bone and pulpy flesh crumpling beneath my boot.
Headless, he dropped like a puppet with the strings cut.
“I hope there isn’t too much more like this,” I said, as I watched to make sure he didn’t get back up.
“These aren’t even his handpicked ones,” Gong said. He turned, raising his voice. “Breakthrough and other second wave attackers, get analyzed, make sure you aren’t sick, hold this spot, watch for more trouble! My group, this way, we’re flanking help other teams!”
When it came to the body, there was no ‘thank you’, perhaps because there was nothing to be happy or glad about. There was was no ‘good’ either, or anything of the sort, maybe because it wasn’t good.
Just… back to business. Putting cold blooded murder in the heat of battle immediately behind him and us. My foot stuck to the floor when I set it down, and for an instant I could imagine that it and the entirety of me were impossibly heavy.
His group left, and with their absence, I could see the bodies left behind. Some thralls. One of Teacher’s capes. I’d seen glimpses before I’d heard Caryatid shout.
Chasmal sat against the corner. His veins had been blown open, to the extent his body looked like a husk and the blood was on the floor around him. Someone had shoved a thrall’s body up beside him, which served to wall in the spreading pool of blood, leaving only streaks behind.
Another cape was missing her face. Rotted away.
For the third, it looked like both things had happened to them, but it wasn’t the face that was missing. Everything from crotch to bellybutton had been turned into bloody necrosis. I couldn’t tell with the mask they wore, but it looked like they’d stumbled a few steps before dying.
Fume Hood, Samuel, Juliette, and other members of Breakthrough caught up, being careful of jutting syringes and the fact the floor was more broken glass, needles, and gore than it was white tile.
He’d told our group to wait and get analyzed. That meant getting scanned by the new cape from Mortari. His name was printed on the sleeve of his fairly ordinary bodysuit, but in a really annoying script, that cut chunks out of a line that was running from shoulder to elbow to make the vague, blocky letter shapes. Venarum.
“How invasive is this?” Fume Hood asked.
“I’m thorough. It just takes a few seconds.”
“But how invasive a look are you getting of me?”
“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
She seemed to shrug. She saw me looking curiously at her, and said, “I bet there are piercings he probably hasn’t seen before.”
“I haven’t. But I don’t care about piercings,” Venarum said. “Or anything else. You’re fine, by the way.”
Sveta approached, putting a hand near nose and mouth at the smell. Ashley and Capricorn were with her. I saw a sad look cross her face as she looked at the dead.
I think every hero and heroine hoped that when they went into the big fight, that it would be casualty-free, that their involvement would mark a turnaround and there wouldn’t be any more unjust death after that.
But we were fighting against a tide.
Withdrawal was sticking with Caryatid, and they were so wrapped up in themselves and their stresses that they seemed to forget Precipice was in an awkward spot with no way to slip by without pushing past. Too many needles, and Withdrawal took up some room with limbs extended, as he now curled over and around Caryatid, talking to her in a low voice.
“You got purged?” Venarum asked.
“What?” I asked him.
“The big guy. My analysis suggests he used his power on you.”
“He used it on them too,” he said, pointing at the three dead. “It triggers every latent disease in your system for a few seconds of effect. They got pricked, scraped, or injected by needles before he used his power.”
“Hey, kid,” Tristan said. The cape he was talking to wasn’t a kid any more than Tristan was, but he was a rookie. “Don’t talk about the dead like that. Like it was their failure.”
“There’s no need to be defensive, I’m explaining for those who don’t know.”
“You’re doing the thinker thing,” Tristan said. “Where you get too stuck in what your power is telling you and trying to tell everyone else, and you stop being a decent human.”
I saw Venarum stiffen.
“Wind it back a little, Tristan,” Sveta said.
“Okay. But I’m not wrong.”
“No. No you’re not. But you’re upset at how this is going and that’s changing how you approach it. Let it be.”
Tristan looked like he might be spoiling for an argument there, but he turned aside.
“My analysis says you’re okay,” Venarum told me. “Mostly. You’ll want a full spectrum of antibiotics when all of this is done. The purging clears all disease from your system after it happens, but you got that scratch on your back after, I’m guessing.”
I nodded, uncomfortable.
I halfway expected him to criticize me, to talk about my injuries and scars, the accumulation of damage.
Amy would have. This felt a lot like talking to Amy, in some ways.
Rain had slipped past the pair of Malfunctions. Venarum cape turned his focus on him.
“I need to fix my arm,” Rain said. “I missed having it that fight. It got shredded earlier, when we got clipped by the hallway warper.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I don’t suppose, uh, Love Lost?” he asked.
Love Lost twisted around, glaring at him. She was cleaning her claws with what looked like a silk cloth, but I wasn’t positive it was silk.
“You got the tinker power last night. And Cradle’s share.”
She continued to glare at him. He took it, facing her square-on.
“I could help,” Colt said.
“If you could, that would be great.”
Love Lost beckoned, her expression and the tension in face, neck, and shoulders no less hard.
When he took a step forward, she held a hand up, flat, and pointed.
He disconnected his broken arm, then tossed it at her.
Imp’s group was talking among themselves. Again, there was that omnipresent, light tone, tonally off. I’d just killed someone, three good capes had died, and it seemed to be like water off a ducks’ back. Roman was poking fun at Samuel. Together, they walked down the hall toward the intersection I’d been fighting.
I heard noises, and flew to the intersection to look back at what was happening. My feet skidded on the ground.
It was the Heartbroken and the one remaining Thrall. The one I’d taken down with a thrown bit of concrete.
Roman was holding the man up. Samuel was slapping the thrall, kicking.
They spun around, alarmed.
“What the hell?”
“You scared me,” Samuel said. “I’m using my power, since my family is so busy trying to score points that they keep taking the chance away from me.”
“It’s fine,” Imp said.
“You’re beating up a man who can’t defend himself.”
“You killed a man who couldn’t defend himself,” Roman said.
Samuel stopped the assault. The thrall hung his head, and started sobbing.
“That was necessary,” I said, wishing I believed it. “And this is worse.”
“This is for the best,” Imp said. “Samuel can break people. Hitting them in the right places, right times. Goes through their mental defenses like butter. We can extract information.”
“Torture doesn’t work,” I said.
“It doesn’t,” Swansong said, off to the side, quiet and ominous.
“Mine does,” Samuel said. “It’s better if it’s a fair fight, though.”
“If this doesn’t get us something undeniably worth it, you can throw me or Sammy here into jail when we’re done this mission,” Imp said.
Chin stiff, I stared her down. She didn’t flinch.
Samuel turned, then struck the thrall across the side of the face. The man kicked out ineffectually, and Samuel stepped back out of the way.
“Is this really what we want to be?” I asked.
“It’s what I am,” Samuel said. “And it’s why I’m here.”
“I don’t care what we are, so long as we make it through this,” Imp said.
I didn’t have a response for that. I watched as Samuel continued to beat the thrall. A man I’d rationalized I could hurt in the midst of battle because he wasn’t fully thrall. He wasn’t an innocent being put through his paces. He’d had volition, and by our understanding of Teacher, that suggested he’d had a choice. For privileges or good behavior, he’d earned more slack.
Samuel punched the guy in the side of the stomach twice. He motioned for Roman to let go of him. The man dropped to hands and knees, head bowed.
“There,” Samuel said. “What’s coming? What capes does he have?”
“Team Green-Black has an agent that can make the visible invisible. She’s to place explosives in a series of set locations, we detonate part of the facility if the next two waves fail, we clean up, then we rebuild. We did it already with one of the attackers. Took their powers so they couldn’t hold off.”
The voice from the thrall was almost robotic, hollow. Haunting.
“How does it work?” Samuel asked. “What are the steps in this plan?”
“You’re to be distracted, you have certain capes who can see or handle the explosives, one team is already working on them. Team copper-white is to slow down or take out your fastest and most elusive.”
“Keep talking,” Samuel said. He kicked the man in the side.
I started forward, purely on instinct, at seeing a villain kick a man on the ground. I stopped myself, and a half-second later, Sveta reached me, hand at my shoulder. She looked down the hall at the Heartbroken.
This was getting to me. More than I wanted to admit.
When I was dropping Lookout off at one point, Darlene had remarked that Samuel was one of the nice ones. Educated, older, smart, and the one to keep the more dangerous kids like Flor in line.
There was nothing nice about this scene.
Withdrawal and Caryatid were close by. I wanted to distract myself, so I turned their way, running fingers through my hair.
“You did well,” I told them.
Withdrawal nodded. Caraytid didn’t.
“You included, Caryatid. I hate that I brought you into this, but I really think, going forward, you should be able to look back on this with pride. You saved me when I needed it, back there.”
“It was instinct.”
“It was good,” I said, dropping my eyes to the floor. “It was teamwork.”
“I was barely even thinking. I was scared. I just thought if you got hurt then there was no way I’d be okay.”
“Sometimes that’s all it is. Even for capes like Legend, probably. You were brave enough to move when you needed to move.”
“That’s what I was saying,” Withdrawal said.
The conversation was interrupted by another meaty sound. Samuel delivering a kick to the face.
The man on the ground bawled, speaking between sobs. A constant flow of words.
“Vic,” Precipice said.
I realized I was clenching my fist. I couldn’t quite bring myself to unclench it.
“While I’m working on my hand, I think we could temporarily load something of Lookout’s into a computer line over there. She’d appreciate the update.”
“Trying to get rid of me?” I asked.
“I thought a distraction might help.”
I nodded, holding out my hand.
“You’re clear, Precipice,” Venarum said.
The terminal was akin to a breaker box, painted-over in white, a pipe running straight up and straight down from it. Within was a touchscreen.
Kenzie’s thing was like an old phone. I set it into place, ran the cable along the side until I saw a green light, then hit the first button.
The dead body was so close.
What life had he lived? What led him here, to be some kind of plague-driven giant who murdered, capitalized, and worked with a syringe woman, in some alien hallways in an alien world?
The syringe woman lay dead, arms stretched out to her sides, multiple gouges running down each arm. Her expression bothered me.
Red light at the first button. I hit the second.
An image of Kenzie’s helmet appeared.
“Checking in,” I said. “Can you hear?”
“I can hear. How is everyone?”
“Tough fight, but we’re intact. We met with members of the first wave attack. We’re up to the second floor now.”
“Good,” she said.
Quiet, not nearly as wordy as she usually was. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the moment contact was established after any time apart, she could be counted on to try to make up for lost time with a flood of words.
Was she upset?
“Sorry we’re leaving you out of this,” I said. “If you were here I think you’d want to have been left out.”
“Maybe. Probably,” she said.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Are you safe?”
“What’s the first password?”
“HSP-See-Out-Gawking-Hawk. Is there a time soon I can take a break?”
“A break? Have you been postponing your bathroom break so you won’t miss us if you’re needed?”
“Yes, but that’s not super important. I meant go for a walk, get outside? I’ll bring a bodyguard if you’re worried, maybe.”
“What’s going on, Lookout?”
“Nothing. Can you let me know when there’s time? If you take the current device with you can use it again. I’m patching it now so it won’t get backtraced.”
“Go take your bathroom break now. For the other break… we’ll let you know when we stop to rest and refresh. Can you put Tattletale on while you’re gone? Just in case?”
“Okay. I’ll be back in three hundred and forty two seconds.”
“Thralls sighted!” Fume Hood called out. “They passed by and left!”
“Hold the position, don’t get baited out,” Capricorn said, barely audible because he was distant and around the corner.
“Keep me updated!” I called. I got a noise of assent.
Tattletale’s logo, a capital T intersecting a lowercase T, with an eye embedded in the capital T, replaced Kenzie’s mask on the screen.
“What’s up?” Tattletale asked. “Headphones on, hands at the controls. How are my Undersiders and Heartbroken?”
“Beating up someone defenseless.”
“Then they’re fine. Samuel’s a good bet here. Give him a few tries before giving up on him. But that’s not why you’re wanting to talk to me.”
“No. Lookout’s acting strange.”
“She always acts strange. What do you want me to do about it?”
“Her system. If you’re on her computer, find out what she was doing?”
“How invasive. Well, I’m good with passwords. Give me a minute.”
“You have about three. She’s running off to pee, wash her hands, and coming back.”
“Literally running. Right. Well, that makes it easier. Looking now. No password. Weird.”
“She has weird views on privacy. I think her default headspace is that all information should be available.”
A few long seconds passed. I was aware of the time limit.
Tattletale broke the silence. “The last time you connected to Teacher’s systems, you were close to the gallery. She got a look at files and what they were keeping track of.”
“Files like the ones you and I were investigating? Falsified, meant to mess with us?”
“No. The stuff they were using to build those. All good, untainted data. Poor fucking kid.”
“She spent the last twenty minutes reading through pages and pages of data about herself, her new team, her old team. Records of how annoyed people were about her, how concerned, how thin tolerances were getting…”
“Okay,” I said. I had a sinking feeling.
I’d been on the sidelines, with only hints, and the hints had been a lot.
“Two weeks ago, Chicken Little asked Candy and Darlene if they ever thought about kicking Lookout from the team and what would happen if they did. Nine days ago, he brought up some things with me, asked me if it was why I was always saying stuff about Lookout. I remember that conversation.”
This wasn’t what Kenzie needed right now.
“Three days ago, four different times five days ago, I could go back further… mean jokes and comments from her team. Mean might be understating it. Gutting.”
I nodded, though I was unsure if Tattletale could see. Probably. Kenzie stuck cameras on a lot of her stuff even when there wasn’t an explicit need for it.
“They’re kids, you know,” Tattletale said. “They love her and she… she’s so head over heels for them she doesn’t know where her head or heels are. I’m not going to pretend my kids are saints or their coping mechanisms are all great. Darlene’s a mess romantically. Candy’s a ticking time bomb. But that’s beside the point. They’re kids. When they get uncomfortable and they don’t know how to process it, they push back, they band together, they can act a little shitty, poke fun, say things that would devastate someone if they heard it out loud. It’s part of the process of figuring things out. Even for good kids like Chicken and messed up kids like Darlene and Candy.”
“I don’t think Kenzie’s the type to be especially mean to anyone behind their backs.”
“Maybe not. Maybe it’s because Imp and I have our shittier sides and we rub off on them.”
“Or Heartbreaker. Or trauma. I don’t know. I meant that she wouldn’t understand it like you describe it.”
There was a pause.
“She’s going to be back any second-”
“I see her at the stairs.”
“Can you look after her? We can’t handle this just this minute. She was wanting to go for a walk to get away-”
“Her team’s here, she’s trying to put on a brave face, and she’s doing a damn good job of it. She wants to get away to freak out where nobody can see, I think.”
“Can you give her a chance, or relieve her of her duties for a bit, or… I don’t know?”
“Give her a hug and say it’s from us?”
“She’s here. I’ll see if there’s someone better equipped for that job than I am. Headphones unplugged, Lookout plugging in.”
“Hi,” Lookout said. She sounded out of breath.
“Hi, Lookout. I’m hearing a commotion. I should probably go.”
“I hear the commotion too. Okay. Thank you for checking in. It means a lot.”
“I’m sorry you’re not feeling great. It’s been a shitty few days. We stick it out, get through this, Swansong and I will have you over for hot chocolate and animated films. How’s that?”
No use pretending I wasn’t concerned. Odds were she had logs, or she could figure things out one way or the other.
“Lookout?” I tried, when there wasn’t an immediate response.
“Yes please,” she said. “Be safe. All of you.”
“Will damn well try. Disconnecting now.”
“Bye!” the attempt at getting the last word was successful, but the last syllable was cut short by me unplugging.
I looked away from the terminal, and found myself confronted again by the headless corpse. By the body of the syringe woman.
The others were talking to a new cape. Someone from Balk’s support team. Imp and her gang caught up with me as I passed the intersection of hallways.
“We’re being summoned,” Capricorn said.
“Can we trust that cape? Master-stranger?” I asked.
“My analysis says there isn’t any weird head stuff,” Venarum said. “Not biologically.”
“You gotta stop saying that,” Capricorn said. “My analysis says, my analysis… It wastes words and time when we need fast answers.”
“Capricorn. Chill,” Sveta said.
“The other teams need you,” the Advance Guard cape said. Distill, according to the name printed under his badge. “Now.”
We opted to trust him.
A zig-zag through hallways. There were bodies in one of the halls from one of the first wave attackers.
I saw Whorl. The good looking preppy cape who had interviewed me when I’d applied for the Attendant.
Spell, from Auzure. He’d been helping the farms in his off hours.
“We got something,” Imp said. “Samuel did.”
“What something?” Capricorn asked.
“A new objective. We handle this, then we press on to a different objective.”
“We’re supposed to rendezvous with the teams, back them up. Save them,” Sveta said.
“This is more important.”
“More important how?”
“Dude’s cousin is also a thrall. She does cleaning, but she has trouble, so he helps her. He knows this area. There are cells. Cells with people Teacher doesn’t want us to get at.”
“He doesn’t want us to get to the other teams and get them out of trouble, either.”
“He wants this less. Trust me. I’ll make you that promise again now. If I’m bullshitting you, you can throw me in jail.”
“Keep saying that and we’ll think you want to go to jail. For the female company?” Juliette asked.
“Gross and no. My odds are better out here. I’m trying to convey I’m serious and I’m bad at it, so I’m putting shit on the line.”
“I believe her,” Swansong said.
“We get to those cells, we win,” Imp said. “One hundred percent.”
“I believe her less now.”
We passed more bodies. More first-wave teams that had fallen. These guys were people from the city core, in the ‘New York’ area of Gimel. Smaller teams, ones that had been benched, working in coordination with the other squads.
I was having trouble getting past that.
Especially when we ran another thirty feet, turned a corner, and there were more bodies. Cold. The area was unlit because a power had shut things off.
And then, mercifully, an arching doorway. Another large room, which might have been chemical or water processing. Huge tanks loomed in the center, surrounded by catwalks. The ceiling was high, and tiny windows high above were open to the sky, showing sunset hues. Multiple teams were gathered on the ground level.
Atop the tanks, looking down on us, were three modified Dragon-craft, weapons armed. Each was supported by teams of thralls and a handful of capes.
Modified to be something other than Dragons.
“Those are her old suits that she wasn’t able to find after G.M.!” Balk called out. “She said to watch out for them!”
Mechanical angels now. One with a glowing halo, one with extensive wings that made me think of the Simurgh, another with metal plates connecting into one another in what could have been flowing robes, carrying a glowing sword.
And us with our tinker not in her best state.
“Saint,” Imp said. “You asssshole.”