It was quiet.
We’d fought every step of the way, practically, and the din of combat had been constant. No time to think, one crisis after another.
Now, for ten minutes, the only sound was the hum of voices and the occasional blub from one of the destroyed, partially submurged filtration tanks.
We had gathered in and near one of the side hallways extending out from the big room with the four building-size water filtration structures. It was high off the ground, giving those of us close to the hall’s entryway a view of the flooding in the room. The water wasn’t deep, but it was a stadium-size dome, and it added up to a lot of water. Every one of the structures had taken damage except for the one closest to us.
I stood near the entry to the hallway, the partially open door giving me some privacy, even though the room I was in was so vast. My breastplate was off, my costume top pulled off. The cape who was looking after me didn’t have any powers that helped, which… helped. I could endure that poking and prodding.
My recently flensed hand was bandaged, and my physical therapist was probably going to yell at me over the way I’d injured it, torn it open, patched it up, then torn it open again. I had bad bruising on my upper body from when I’d taken the bullet to the breastplate earlier, especially early in the sense that it had happened only midway between our entry and our fight here. I had barely registered it until I’d tried to sit down with the others and it hit me all at once.
Siren was the cape who was looking me over. The costume he wore was in the usual Advance Guard style, all angles, geometric shapes and future-tech in style, with his particular aesthetic touching on the reds and blues of his namesake sirens, as well as the sea monster thing. It almost reminded me of Byron’s outfit, run through an ‘Advance Guard’ filter. He stepped back, leaning against the catwalk railing that I really wouldn’t have been leaning against, while I leaned against the wall by the door. Without bending over, he reached down to the personal first aid kit he’d hung on the railing, got a thing of disinfectant spray, and rubbed his hands down.
His eyes didn’t leave my upper body.
It was enough to unnerve, but I could push myself deeper into that mindset I’d had to maintain in the hospital, letting nurses take care of me. Privacy just didn’t happen when you needed someone else to look after your health.
Still, it had its limits.
“Problem?” I asked.
“I don’t like the swelling on your right side.”
“It hurt more, I got to thinking why. I skimmed the ground while flying low. More of a right-side impact.”
“Probably,” I said. “Anything else?”
“You look worn out.”
“I feel like I’m fighting okay. I’m not leading my team or calling any shots I don’t have to. The worst that happens when I go on autopilot is that other people get hurt.”
“You’re getting hurt.”
“That’s attrition and I wouldn’t be much healthier if I was one hundred percent sharp. I’ve been at the cape thing for long enough I have okay instincts.”
“What about other people getting hurt?”
“I… don’t have as many years of experience at holding back.”
Vigilantes were the cape-scene term for the heroes who eschewed the game in favor of putting enemies down for the long term, if not permanently. Break too many of the unwritten rules, break the actual laws, and life got harder.
“Nevermind,” he said, taking advantage of my pause before answering. “You’re sharing details like you want my permission to go back into the field, but you don’t need it. I have five years as a E.M.P., I can give you my best spot diagnosis, but it’s your call. There’s no boss here I could tattle to, and I wouldn’t.”
“If you did have to give me a diagnosis?”
“Turn back. If you trust your team to make calls while you’re not on your A-game, trust them to handle shit without their flying brick. I’m betting they handled things before you joined.”
Depending on how you interpret ‘handled’.
“Do any of us capes really ‘handle’ stuff?” I asked. Then, when he paused, I did much the same thing he’d done to me, and answered, “Nevermind. Heavy question.”
“I’d say leave. Heck, I’d say you have one teammate with severe enough injuries they should leave too.”
“I’m not sure the way out is going to be any easier than the way forward,” I said. Fighting like we’d been fighting, through thralls and other obstructions, but with a pack of wounded? Doing it with morale at rock bottom because we were bailing?
“We’d need some relatively able-bodied people to handle it. I’d say if you’re capable of fighting but not on your A-game, then you can handle thralls without their full faculties, but not the kind of capes Balk and Stonewall were telling us are up ahead.”
“In my defense, I did help stop one or two tricks back there. They tried discharging an electrified power core into the water. Stopping that was fifty percent me, minimum.”
“Alright,” Siren said. “Can’t argue that.”
“If we need people to escort wounded out ASAP, then I have ideas for names. But I want to see this through.”
I didn’t mention that Imp’s idea of getting to the prisoners was part of our plan. If I left, then I’d want to replace myself to ensure they had the necessary help to get that done, but at the same time, spreading the plan around increased the chance Teacher got ahead of it.
“Besides,” I heard Swansong. “I’m not leaving. I’m pressing on.”
I turned my head to look. The door had a window at head level, and Swansong stood with her back to the door. I could see the back of her head, a bit of the angel pilot’s blood still on the edge of her ear and in her white hair.
“Your ribs?” I asked, suppressing a wince as I pulled my top back on.
“Skin pushed more or less where it should be, everything’s bandaged. Venarum said he won’t stop me. Not that he would dare.”
“I saw your injury,” Siren said. “I wouldn’t encourage fighting in that condition. The kind of drugs you would need to ignore the pain-”
“No drugs,” Swansong said. “Drugs mess with powers. I don’t need any surprise changes throwing me off.”
“As opposed to the hole in your side.”
“And the ribs that looked charred.”
“No cracks, no fractures. It won’t slow me down. Besides, if I took other drugs, I couldn’t safely take the drugs Shin gave us.”
The power altering drugs the Coalition government of Shin had given us. One to boost raw power, only to be used if we had absolute confidence in our control. One to boost range, at a loss of power, same stipulation about control. One to just scupper every aspect of a power and render it useless, if we could get it into someone’s bloodstream.
“You want that, huh?” I asked, as I got my breastplate on.
“More power? Of course.”
Her tone was cavalier, casual Ashley. No sign of the shocked, lost Ashley I’d seen before everyone had regrouped and gathered here. But of course there wouldn’t be. I’d made the mistake before of thinking there was a villainous Ashley behind the mask of the hero or a heroic Ashley behind the mask of the villain. There wasn’t. Morality was an aesthetic and that aesthetic came second to her drive to ascend. To look behind the mask meant to find the times that drive wasn’t front and center. Times she was with Kenzie. Times she was vulnerable, whether it was because she’d just accidentally killed a woman or because she’d cast off her hands in front of a crowd to make a point.
Siren didn’t help me with the breastplate, instead focusing his effort on getting his medical kit back in order. I finished around the same time he was clipping the kit to the side of his belt.
“Thank you for the checkup, and looking after my hand.”
“I’ll say this: if you keep abusing it, I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t lose that skin altogether, or even lose the hand.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I’m sure you said that before,” Siren said. “Then you made other things a priority. Yes?”
“Yeah, guess so.”
“Then do something about it. Don’t make it a consideration.”
“You’re a bit of a hardass, huh?”
“I’m backup medical and team doctor for a team of sixty full-cocked, aggressive capes with four tertiary teams, who love to get themselves hurt. I have to be. Put something over that hand.”
“We have someone who can do that,” I heard Sveta say, from the other side of the door.
Everyone’s eavesdropping, huh?
I stepped into the hallway, and found it wasn’t everyone, but Swansong and Tress.
“How are we doing?” I asked.
“The Heartbroken are drying off, Lookout is in regular contact since we patched into Saint’s mech, the boys were talking about the game plan.”
The mood in the hallway was subdued, all business, few smiles. We’d pulled a lot of people out of the water with injuries. We’d gone to rescue a few people and found corpses.
We passed Balk’s group, who were sitting, crouching, and standing on either side of the hallway, with just enough room between them that we had to pass single file. Balk was dead, and they were figuring out their new leadership structure. Sarah was with them, floating in a sitting position beside a guy who was honing his sword blade with a whetstone. Her injuries were bandaged, and she seemed to be okay. She watched me as I passed, with eyes that weren’t anything like my Aunt’s.
Stonewall’s group stuck close enough to Balk’s residuals that Stonewall could listen in and offer his occasional input. Venarum had shifted focus to look after some of their wounded, in conjunction with a cyborg tinker who was very literally patching people up with temporary stopgaps. I could see a few people who’d had bio-organic plates of armor set over their injuries. He was in the midst of a procedure, setting a golf-ball sized sphere into a hole in someone’s head, where their ear had been torn… not off, but out, to the point that the surrounding muscles had been torn too. He filled in the gap with what looked like biomechanical foam, dispensed out of a can. Little LEDs that were set throughout the foam like chips in chocolate chip cookies flashed red, red, green, and stayed green. Slowly, the metallic blob and the lights around the blob were rearranging into something that fit the lines of his head and face better.
I tested the movement of my fingers and thought about my injured hand. Sveta, seeming to read my mind, nudged me and shook her head.
I waited until we were far enough away to ask. “Why not?”
“Because they’re selfish about it,” she said. “They won’t give it to someone who isn’t a teammate. Part of that is because it’s messy, needs maintenance. Maintenance you wouldn’t get.”
“Fair,” I said. I couldn’t deny that a good, non-healer quick fix might have been appealing.
“Besides,” Sveta said. “Too many nanotech incidents came through the Asylum.”
“Yeah. Oh yeah.”
Rain and Capricorn were talking to Tristan’s old teammate, except her costume had changed. The faceplate with the ears that she’d been wearing had changed from cat to something that made me think ‘weasel’. Her costume was sleeker overall, with smaller ears. Claws had been changed up, and the gear she wore at her arms extended up to her shoulders, with a of linked metal segments stringing between the shoulder plates, a ‘tail’ of the same segments running from the center of the segment, straight down her back to the floor, forming a kind of ‘y’ shape.
That was neat, if her costume updated when she used her power. Either she was deciding on the aesthetic, which earned her some big points in my book, or her power was, which was interesting.
Rain was drawing on the floor in erasable marker. It looked like a very rough representation of the complex. There were some letters written around the end, arrows pointing from them.
I closed my one eye, and brought up Kenzie’s map- or I tried to. Instead I got a new image, abstract, with lots of abstract rectangle, diamond, snowflake, and other fractal shapes, of varying complexity and size, all connected in a webwork of horizontal and vertical lines. Some were yellow, some were white with black outlines, and some were multicolored between the two. Some notes by Lookout were on the side, as were some cryptic options.
“What’s this new data?” I asked Sveta. “Uh, between the map and the full chat.”
“Hack progress,” Sveta said. “I was watching while you were getting your hand wrapped up. Kenzie had questions and I had educated guesses.”
“Got it,” I said. I blinked through to the map. While I waited for it to update, Sveta stepped forward, bending down beside Rain, and took the offered marker.
“Antares needs a guard or encasement over her hand,” Sveta said. “You have tools?”
“Some,” Rain said. “What do you need done?”
I answered, “Something strapped to the forearm that extends forward over the hand. Leave my hand free underneath, so I can still grab things if I have to?”
“I might be able to do that. I saw a wall panel over there.”
He climbed to his feet, taking my offered hand, and jogged off.
“What about the east side?” Tristan asked his old teammate, tapping the drawing of the map. “Do you remember who went in through there?”
“No,” she answered.
“Victoria,” Tristan said. “With our group spread for the second wave, who went in through portals bringing them in from the west?”
“The benched members of the Shepherds, some sub-teams. Mortari’s… kids, I guess?”
“The Harbingers,” Swansong said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Things one through whatever. Never sure what to call them.”
“Thanks,” Tristan said. “It came up a couple of times already. When they sent us in, they didn’t send us in by the gates near where our acquaintances and teammates came in. Furcate was saying her sub-squad changed course after some tinker hijinks made walls and rooms move. We changed course a bit because of the obstructions we ran into. So that’s why we ran into each other, but that’s not what Cinereal wanted.”
I made a mental note of the name. Furcate. Had it changed with the costume, or had I gotten it wrong? Civilian name and cape name?
“Do you doubt Cinereal?” Swansong asked.
Tristan shook his head. “I- no. That’s not what I’m getting at. Cinereal probably thought it would be bad for morale if we made our second attempt at breaking into this place and found all of our old teammates or the first-string members of our teams dead. Add in how complicating it is if at the same time we’re running into people who should be dead but aren’t…”
“Which a good thing,” Furcate said. “Yay, being alive.”
“So good a thing,” Tristan said.
“There’s another side to it,” Sveta said. “If a team with one mindset tackles a problem, can’t do it, you don’t want to send people with the same mindset and approach to handle the same problem.”
“That could be part of it,” Tristan conceded.
Rain had returned with the hatch of a floor panel or something of the sort in his hand, textured to be non-slip. He also had Colt following behind him, Love Lost following behind Colt. Rain found a spot beside me, took the marker from Sveta, and had me hold up my arm while he traced the general dimensions onto the smooth side of the panel.
Tristan went on, “You get what I mean, though, Antares? Cinereal probably thought it was better to keep it simple.”
“I follow you, but I don’t see where you’re going with this,” I said.
“Where we don’t know all of the details of who was sent where, probably because the Wardens wanted to compartmentalize info, we can intuit who might be where by assuming they were placed as far from their first-wave analogues as possible. If Breakthrough had sent in some members through with the first wave, they’d have gone in from one of the west entryways, while we came in through the east. Except we’re not that big. But the other teams are.”
“Shepherds go in through the east in the first wave, so the second wave, second-string Shepherds are sent in west. To put them further from their team,” I said. “Advance Guard came in from the southeast with Balk and Stonewall, so the second wave are going in through the northwest.”
Tristan shrugged, “It’s not so cut and dry, given the placements of our access points, and how some teams were split up, like Advance Guard, but yeah.”
“My team went in through the south, and we were supposed to trace a path clockwise across the facility,” Furcate said. “We changed to split off east because we knew Advance Guard’s team was taking the gallery, and we really, really wanted to make sure we disrupted the system there. If there wasn’t resistance, we were to see what we could do to get comms running again, using infrastructure there. There was resistance.”
“No duh,” Colt said. A great contribution to the conversation.
“Okay,” Tristan said. “Then we can intuit that the other members of the Undersiders should be around there. Dog girl-”
“Bitch,” I said.
“It feels shitty, calling her that. But yeah. Foil, Parian. Tattletale’s bodyguard, Snuff.”
We knew who was going to be there, then. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad that it was easy to figure out, considering that we had compartmentalized information for a reason.
Rain had made the panel thinner by carefully carving it with a silver blade held in his hand, then banging it against his knee. He slashed it with another silver blade and banged it, only for Colt to stop him. She used her own power, going breaker and cutting with the black blade that jutted from her arm, and it made for a tidier cut.
Sveta and Tristan went over room preferences, but it didn’t seem to matter too much from a practicality standpoint. The area had been repurposed since the Irregulars had investigated it and passed through the building, and what had been administrative offices had been repurposed into something more closed off, according to Imp’s intel. Fridges, quarantine for sick thralls, and cells.
Rain bent the panels into shape and matched them to my arm. From there, it was a pretty fast process, riveting them together, figuring out a way to strap them on.
I saw Love Lost watching.
“When Love Lost was helping you with your arm, it was because she got tinker tokens last night?” I asked.
Rain looked up at Love Lost, then back down at the work. “Yeah.”
“I thought they were a corrupting force.”
He looked up at her. She didn’t budge, only staring him down.
“Not with the random ones, I’m pretty sure. Or that isn’t as serious. But she did take them from Cradle, too. The Wardens were wanting to make sure he didn’t have the capacity to fight back when they went through the portal to his campsite to talk to him about the potential raid. Reducing his capacity by having him hand over tokens. He didn’t want to give the tokens to me, but giving them to Love Lost meant Cradle couldn’t be clever.”
“He couldn’t be clever anyway,” Colt said. “Dick.”
Rain went on like Colt hadn’t butted in. “We figured she wasn’t leaving her cell so it didn’t do any harm, it helped us out, so it was more goodwill for her, kind of.”
“She wants a day off every year, so she can visit her daughter,” Colt said.
I saw Love Lost tense.
“I wasn’t going to bring that up,” Rain said.
Her daughter was dead. Would that be a visit every birthday, then? Or a visit on the anniversary of her daughter’s death?
“I did something similar,” I said. “I used to go back home to where my family was, pay a visit, leave flowers or pictures I’d seen. Matters.”
I looked back at ‘Sarah’. My aunt’s shadow. I looked back to Love Lost, and she was staring off into the distance, but her body language had relaxed a bit.
Rain continued explaining, “It’s why Love Lost was listening to me earlier. The deal was she would come, I’ll say my piece to the Wardens about convincing them not to punish her as much, but this whole thing has to be on safe terms. She’s under the influence of his tokens, but she’s not acting on that influence. She listens to Breakthrough and the Wardens.”
Love Lost abruptly walked away. I didn’t see any anger in it. Maybe irritation.
We watched her go, her claws clicking on the floor. Some capes gave her wary looks. Many of them would have been briefed on her when we were dealing with Cradle and his whole mess.
She walked to the hallway entrance, onto the catwalk that overlooked our recent battlefield.
Rain’s whole plan with this Love Lost collaboration sounded way more precarious than I’d thought it was.
“I trust her in this,” Rain had lowered his voice. He was still working. “I want this whole shitty thing to be better than it is. If that means trusting her and getting killed… fine. But I don’t think she will kill me. If she didn’t have Cradle’s influence, I think the chances of her coming after me would go up.”
“She wants to do it with a clear head,” Colt said.
Rain gave her a dubious look. “Did she say that?”
“No. Not recently. It was when things were hectic so you can’t really blame her.”
Rain gave her a more dubious look.
“Benefit of getting tokens in our quadrant is both Love Lost and I get the bonus,” Colt said. “My tinkering’s better, not that I had much time. I mostly had to grab what was confiscated when they brought me in, and finish my work.”
The chatter continued, moving into less interesting stuff. Rain began to work on a buckler to affix to the guard that was going over my hand and forearm.
I looked at the maps, and at the hacking progress. From the text on the side, I could see one side of Kenzie’s conversation with Swansong. Talking shop, talking team stuff. Ashley would write something down and hold it up for Kenzie to read through the eye camera. Kenzie would respond, printing text onto our view.
Kenzie was typing with lowercase ‘i’ instead of the capital one. She’d let more typos slip through. In another circumstance, I would have wholly chalked it up to her being busy with hacking, but it wasn’t that.
Hold out, Kenzie. Keep it together, do what you can, and we’ll get through this. We’ll stop Teacher, put this whole mess to rest, and then look after the city while Breakthrough gives you some support and encouragement. Movies and hot chocolate, talks, whatever you need.
I could only make that mental pledge because it was what I was telling myself.
Sarah had risen to her feet, I saw. With that, I realized she wasn’t alone. The guy who had been honing his sword was sheathing it, slipping the honing stone into a breast pocket of his costume. Others were getting ready.
I wanted to stop for two weeks, to have no crises, no Shin, no Cheit, no fucking Teacher.
I wanted to not have stopped at all. To still be moving forward, because this wasn’t easy.
But my team wasn’t in good shape.
“Try that,” Rain said.
He’d done up the buckler with a star on it to match the icon at my breastplate and hood. It was fixed to the armplate, and the armplate still needed straps, though it had holes for the straps to feed through. I put it over my arm, and with a moment of Wretch strength, pinched it to a tighter fit. I had spare bandage, and used that to serve as the straps.
“People are leaving,” Imp said, while I focused on the armor. “We should go too.”
With that, Withdrawal and Caryatid approached, along with Grapnel, Fume Hood, and the scattered members of our third team.
“It might be better if we keep the group small,” Imp said. “I’m sending Roman and Samuel with the Wardens.”
I looked over the others. Nevermind Mortari, the Malfunctions and Fume Hood were capes in my charge, who I’d inducted into the game, so to speak. Fume Hood had almost stopped being a hero after the community center attack, and it had been Crystalclear, Tempera and me who had convinced her to stick it out. The Malfunctions might never have broken into the big time with the path they’d been traveling.
“This is in no way a complaint about your performance,” I told the Malfunctions. “You stood side to side with Wardens and big-name capes and you held your own, you were strong.”
“You’re ditching us,” Withdrawal said. Caryatid seemed alarmed at that, like she was worried about offending us.
“I’m-” I started.
“I’m joking,” he said. “I get it.”
“Thank you for talking me through the scary stuff earlier, Antares,” Caryatid said. She clasped her hands together, and the puffy ends of her sleeves masked her hands as they smooshed together. “Be safe.”
“You too,” I said.
The heroes were filing out now. I watched Sarah go.
It was gratifying and heartwrenching at the same time, that she cast a look over her shoulder. Maybe it was because I was staring at her a lot. A good-sized part of me hoped it was because there was some lingering affection.
Fume Hood, the Malfunctions and Mortari capes joined the tail end. Roman walked backward while assessing our group, smirked at his sister, and then turned around, falling into step beside Caryatid. She was at least a year older than him, maybe two years older, but he was tall and lanky, and of a height with her. He said something, and she turned her face his way, lower part masked by her costume. Samuel just walked, hands in his pockets, trailing behind everyone else, happy to be a straggler.
Love Lost and Colt joined us.
“We could send them with others,” Tristan said.
“The deal was kind of that they’d stay where we could watch them,” Rain said. “But we could.”
“Their powers are useful,” I said. I put excess bandage at the back of my wrist, so my hand wouldn’t slap back against the metal that now extended over it, stunning me with the pain. “But trust your instincts.”
His instincts were to bring them along. Worked.
We still had too many to be a covert group, but it helped to reduce the numbers down some.
We headed the opposite direction the others were leaving by. They re-entered the domed area with the water filtration structures, and they would move on, chasing in the direction Saint had fled.
As for us? We ran, we flew.
We weren’t even out of the hallway when the sounds of battle reached us. It came from behind us, suggesting the group we had just left behind had run into trouble the moment they’d started to go after Saint.
We would have to hope Imp was right. The numbers arrayed against us were too great, Teacher too untouchable.
“Lookout says to wait. Imp should go ahead,” Swansong said.
We slowed, waiting.
I closed my eye, then opened it, looking for Kenzie’s message. I could see the map, and I could see the overlay with computer systems, servers, and connections. I could see Kenzie’s messages.
this is an area with bombs
they airgaped some of these security-sensitive systems but their computers are on and are connected to active cameras.
i can spoof commands and keystrokes if i do this right
“Lookout is bypassing security,” Swansong said. “Bombs. She says it’s airgapped, whatever that means.”
“You need to watch more spy movies,” Chastity said.
I saw Ashley rankle a bit at that.
Rain rubbed at his eye. “Airgapped means no wifi, no wires, nothing connecting it to the outside. A lot of these systems are.”
“Lookout can still do it,” Swansong said.
done. pretty sure. shouldn’t explode now
I led the way, Wretch up, and floated, surveying the area. The others followed once I gave my tentative thumbs up.
The room contained fixtures that looked like the consoles of a nuclear reactor, massive computers with sturdy construction all around them. Monitors showed water levels, flashing red alarms, and, with every passing second, Lookout’s mask took over more of them. With the lights off and all of the illumination coming from monitors, the room went from a red cast from the flashing red monitors to a dull white-green.
Then, just as swiftly, the scenes on monitors was replaced by images of Teacher. Color surveillance video showed the perspective of one of the mechs looking down. The big guy with a cross tattooed on his face could only be Saint. He had climbed out of his mech and stood facing it, smoking. He was engaged in what looked like an emotional conversation with another big guy, brown-skinned, with a thick black hipster beard and tattoos. In the moments Saint wasn’t venting, he looked abjectly miserable. The foot of a man I could make an educated guess was one of the Speedrunners was visible at another edge of the camera. Both Dragonslayers turned to look his direction as if he’d said something.
Next monitor. Teacher was visible at the very edge, some others gathered near him. I recognized Ingenue. Ms. Webb. There was a blur on the screen that wasn’t resolving, but I could guess who she was and why Lookout had set her to be automatically blurred out. She stood next to Valefor.
It meant she was Mama Mathers, and, worse, Valefor had a jaw again. He had eyes. He was talking to her.
All of them were fine. They weren’t fighting, and with the exception of Saint, they weren’t especially stressed out. They waited and watched through the same kinds of camera we were looking at them through.
Teacher was the only one who was really doing anything, accepting a single file line of people in white, shaking their hands, letting them walk on with a bit less hesitation in their step. Producing thralls by the second.
A lot of people with tattoos. Had he tapped a prisoner population somewhere?
“Kenzie tends to lose against Teacher’s collective effort,” Swansong observed. “In the past, the best she could do was to maintain a stalemate, without much of a counterstrike. She’s winning now if she’s risking pushing in this far.”
I looked again at the grid of Kenzie’s influence over the base. It wasn’t total domination, but it was a creeping victory. Here and there, something would get flipped back over to Teacher’s control, or it would go black, and cut off a whole branch of her control. Power and lines being cut, I imagined.
On another screen, I could see the outside of the facility through a camera mounted on an exterior wall. The wall of the facility seemed to disappear into the mountains in the horizon, the fog of clouds overhead obscuring the upper floors. Legend and about fifty other capes were gathered beneath a pyramid of forcefields that someone’s power had conjured up. They could fire out, while the forcefields prevented incoming fire. One or the other seemed to empower the forcefields, so that when they reached a certain point, they detonated, the blast exploding out in a line.
But there were a lot of capes in there, opposite Legend’s group. Those capes had powers.
A… lot of close to identical powersets, if not totally identical. Three different capes raised forcefields.
The camera shook, momentarily going dark as lights in the room flickered. A part of me imagined I could feel that shake for myself, even though we were nowhere close to that.
Words appeared in my field of view, and I had to look at a dark surface to better make the yellow letters out.
teacher wants to talk to me
I found a pad and pen, and I scribbled out a note to her.
There was no way that went well or made things better.
weren’t we supposed to distract him?
We were the ones getting distracted. There was no need for us to be here. I motioned for people to move, and I watched cameras as we passed, my hand scribbling out a message while the heel of that same hand pressed the paper against the buckler that was now part of my costume.
He’s distracting you, Lookout, I wrote. It might help him locate where you are, or cause you to lose headway as his thralls counter your efforts. Under no circumstance. Protocols
Her message appeared, again in a spot that was hard to read. Then, as I watched, the letters shifted, moving down, down, down, until they were superimposed against the space beneath my eye’s field of view. Written as if I could see through my cheekbone to see yellow letters against a pink-black background.
“And you’re vulnerable to Teacher, Lookout,” I murmured. “He could prey on your every weakness with so little difficulty.”
Ashley was walking down another aisle of the computers, and looked over at me like she’d heard. Her expression was stern.
“Can you imagine?” Chastity asked. “You have ungodly power, access to untold knowledge, you can cross between multiple worlds, access a half-dozen Earths worth of culture and knowledge, and you make bland. White floor, white ceiling, no art, no life, no love, no humanity at all.”
I could see monitors, and there was nothing human about what I was seeing there. Moord Nag was on Teacher’s side, wearing white. There were so many damn capes, and too many of them were on Teacher’s side.
A part of me had been hoping that things had settled down after Gold Morning because they’d gone home, or they’d retired. The big evil world-destroyer was gone, things were peaceful, maybe they’d just hung up the cape or cut back how much they were doing.
Maybe some had.
But enough had found their way to Teacher to make a difference here.
Enough that on one monitor, Chevalier lay on the ground, his sword dropped. For every cape on his side, each now unconscious and lying on the ground, there were three on the opposing side, standing over limp forms, or securing restraints. Narwhal was with him, wrapped in a sheet that had absorbed the blood from the floor, her forcefields down – no horn or scales.
On one monitor, I could see Valkyrie being carried by members of what might have been her flock. On the monitor next to it, I could see Undersiders. Bitch, Parian, Foil, working in concert with the Shepherds.
I could see Vista working with Golem and Cinereal. Cinereal was breaker, producing waves of dark gray ash that converted the parts of the building it touched into more ash. Vista made the expanses of ash wider. Golem made hands reach up out of it. A uniform environment for a power that was very environment dependent.
She hadn’t made nearly as much progress as I’d hoped, but from the bodies in that camera’s view, it looked like she’d had to wade through a hell of a lot of shit. She had said her power wasn’t very good on the offense. Too slow to apply.
It felt like being in a schoolyard game, the kids being picked one by one by the team captains. The teams had finished picking
“Imp,” Chastity said. “The screens.”
“We should go,” Byron said.
“Really, Imp, look at the screens,” Chastity insisted.
Imp’s face leaned into my peripheral vision, making me jump. She reached for a screen, and for a moment, I thought it was for the Undersiders.
But it was for the image of Valkyrie, and for the revived people that carried her. I had my suspicions as to why, but the hand blocked my view, and the group moved out of the camera’s frame, and when the monitor switched to another group, it wasn’t Valkyrie or the flock.
I looked at Imp.
“She has good taste in minions.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Some cute guys in there who look like they have dark senses of humor. Did you see the guy with the red costume and the wide smile? You have to love a guy who can smile in the shittiest circumstances.”
“I think that’s Roucouler the Liar. And I think the smile is built in.”
“I can work with that,” Imp said, making an amused sound.
Then she was moving forward again.
I looked over at Chastity, who hugged herself a bit. She said something to Juliette, who nodded. The disconnect suggested Imp wasn’t being straight with me, which made me suspicious.
Chastity saw me looking.
“Cassie’s not here, right?” Chastity asked, her tone brighter, her expression not so serious.
“Not that I saw,” I said.
“Good. I wouldn’t want this mess for her.”
Then she moved on, leaving me suspicious, still.
This group, Imp’s team, it was so hard to deal with. They never approached anything straight-on. Always an angle, roundabout, teasing, or ambushing.
There was another room of evacuated thralls off to the one side. All wore white, still, but the white was stained, dirty. They’d done indoor farming, animal care, shipping and loading, and the outfits were made more rugged for the purpose. Now they sat, hands on knees, backs straight, being tended to by caretakers and patrolling observers.
We didn’t have to go through that room. The map indicated a route.
From there, another set of stairs. A door- Lookout was kind enough to open it for us, with no alarms sounding.
And then the rows of cells. Most of the doors were empty.
Hairs tickled the back of my neck as I looked down the corridor.
Capricorn started forward. Sveta put out a hand.
“Don’t,” she said. “Remember the briefings.”
I felt the hair at one side of my face tickle me.
“We don’t make it to the end of the hallway without-”
A force slammed her into the wall. Her body dissolved into tendrils, blunting the impact, but part of it was her forehead striking metal, and her face couldn’t break up into tendrils.
Just a step behind me, Ashley slammed into the corner of a security door. She didn’t have the benefit of being able to dissolve.
I lunged forward, flying, and something hit me, so continuous it didn’t knock my forcefield out right away. I brought my arms and hands up to protect my face, changing my direction to fly into the doorway of an empty cell, my foot down to block the door from closing.
We had a strategy. Sveta had briefed us on the same things the Irregulars had needed to learn and plan for before attacking Cauldron.
Reduce the avenues of attack. Smaller confines made the Custodian smaller. Being in the doorway meant she could only really attack me from the front.
Using powers like my forcefield, Rain’s power, and Capricorn’s ability to see what worked-
Didn’t matter. She attacked the ceiling instead, pulling down electrical. The wires were live in a way I’d never seen before, like there was tinkertech to the place, or they’d made it to be dangerous if the walls were breached.
Sparks flew and the wire bucked as the wire touched the doorframe. Beside me, another wire did the same with the bedframe of the little cell.
Behind me, the pipe leading into the toilet ruptured. Water sprayed in onto and around me-
I threw up the Wretch before the spray reached the wire. For the time being, it blocked the water’s spray.
She tried to slam the door, but the cell was small enough my foot was close. I flew a foot forward and blocked the slam.
Instead, she hit my forcefield, knocking it out. I grabbed the mattress, and hauled it to one side, fabric serving to block most of it. Then I flew forward again. Back into the hallway, with doors to individual cells on each side.
This monster kept thousands of people prisoner. The cells didn’t need bars, only alarms. She was good enough to keep prisoners in line. She’d fight people with new powers and she’d win.
She’d broken more water lines, and she’d broken more parts of the ceiling, bringing the wire down.
Turning the length of hallway into an impossible hazard.
Without warning, Colt tried to fly through, aiming for a gap. The invisible force hit her, punting her into the corner of a doorframe. She landed in electrified water, and the nodes on her arms glowed as they struggled to absorb the energy, while her own body convulsed.
I tried to get to her, and it was too much. The occasional splash in my direction was as dangerous as the swing of a sword.
“Lookout says they’re sending more of their core team. Mathers and Valefor,” Swansong relayed. She stepped forward and blasted-
She was hit by the invisible force that was the Custodian as she used her power. The blast came precariously close to me.
“Don’t use powers! It was in the memo,” Sveta chided.
“I wanted to drain the water.”
“She’ll divert your aim or make us hit each other! She’s not that strong on her own!”
She was strong enough. The hallway was all wires, water, and I didn’t see a clear way forward.
“Go parallel!” I called out.
“Precipice, Swan!” Tristan and Byron clarified. “Force her to split!”
The second they were out jailer’s door, I slammed it behind me. It formed a seal that kept her from getting in or out.
Once I gauged I was safe, I flew out into the hallway again. I made my bid for the door, weaving through wires and spraying water with my forcefield up.
I tried my aura, fearing an imminent hit, and I got further than I had so far. A third of the way down the hall before she gathered composure enough to grab and hit me, driving me down toward the water.
I fought, Wretch lashing out and finding purchase in nearby wall, in floor.
I could hear Ashley using her power, hear the impact, the tearing as the power-use went wild, hitting things it shouldn’t.
Quiet, and the sound of a squeaking door.
Imp, at the end of the hallway, and a woman in black jeans and a white dress top, underweight and hair unbrushed.
“What do you need?” the woman asked.