He felt important. Critical.
Five. The commander of squad Yellow-Black had five good soldiers. Four of them had the wasp tattoo on their necks, signifying their affiliation to the squad, the fifth had been planning to get it in two days. For many of the people in Teacher’s employ, all of this was temporary. But for the Wasp Commander and his squad, they liked working together like this. They intended to do it for as long as they were able.
Five men to lead, five men to direct. Each had a callsign, each had been given special attention from Teacher. Not just the regular attention, but gifts given by Teacher when Teacher was empowered by Ingenue, the drawbacks removed by the Black Goat.
His eyes were wide, taking in every detail. With Teacher’s ‘consultation’, he had been gifted strategic awareness and focus. He had studied maps of the complex, his team’s numbers like sprinting speed, endurance, and accuracy at the range, and he had studied the enemy.
It felt good. He’d joined Teacher without reservations when the mentions of the deal had started being spread around. Nilles U was too full, so he’d accepted a job pitched by a guy in white. Others had balked, backed off, or been lazy. Maybe a fifth of those others had been convinced to work for Teacher by other means. Means that the Wasp Commander had glimpsed but never divulged.
He was okay with it.
He was okay with it because he got this. Being important, being excellent at something. Getting power, and powerful people following him.
Cathound snapped his fingers twice in rapid succession. He held up three fingers, pointed down the hall, then he tapped his ear.
Enhanced senses. Normally teacher granted something like enhanced hearing or enhanced vision. Cathound had the whole suite; night vision, super hearing, tactile sense, smell, and balance. His shooting numbers were in the ninety-second percentile among everyone who had been tested. For squad Yellow-Black, that was poor.
Every member of the squad looked to the Wasp Commander for instructions. Hand signals relayed those instructions more neatly than words could. Three took up positions in the hallway, aiming down the length of it. Cathound was one of those three. Dripfeed disappeared into the rooms at one side of the hall. Their martial arts expert with further expertise granted by Teacher. Horn carried a heavy shield and a pneumatic punch for knocking holes in walls. He hid in the room at the other side of the hall.
The Wasp Commander snapped his fingers once, then drew a circle with thumb and finger, bringing it to his eye. He pointed.
Let’s see who they are. I’ve studied the files.
Shutter tossed a camera down the stairwell at the end of the hall. All five men in the squad looked to the displays mounted at the backs of their guns. The displays tracked ammunition, while giving a detailed view of what the cameras mounted on the gun barrels were seeing. Despite intervening concrete, the displays showed the silhouettes of two running women, a young man trailing behind.
The Wasp Commander pointed his gun, attaching his phone to the back of the weapon and using it as a sight. He saw them ascend the stairs, and opened fire at the same time his squad did.
They hit air. The displays, however, showed the two women standing at the top of the stairs.
He aimed and shot again. No reaction, no blood spray from hitting an invisible target.
“Cathound! Locate them! Cameras are compromised!”
Cathound pulled off his ear protection, donned whenever there was gunfire. He craned his head around, then snapped around to face one direction, gun raised.
The room Horn had entered.
Dripfeed had apparently seen as well. Their melee specialist darted from the room to the left of the hallway, crossed the hall, and into Horn’s room. Others shifted position to provide fire as necessary, and the Wasp Commander joined their line, gun raised.
Dripfeed was fighting a young woman who was dissolving into bands of flesh. The bands cut the soldier.
But he fought back. He slipped past reaching bands, ducking low, then stepped in close. Fingers stabbed at flesh, targeting specific areas. Where the flesh wasn’t yet dissolved with her power, Dripfeed’s death touch did its work. Each hit used a thinker power to figure out ways to convince the body to produce its own poisons or work counter to its own interests.
She coughed loudly, then expelled a mouthful of vomit with a third cough.
One hit could be enough, without medical care to reverse its effects. Heart arrhythmia that cascaded into heart failure. Carbon Dioxide bubbles manifesting in the bloodstream as the result of very specific wavelengths. Clots were forced to form by impacted sites of damage, that would immediately float free and lead to stroke. Dripfeed could be sadistic, too, leaving people brain damaged and drooling, or paralyzed and aware.
All at once, her entire body shrank into itself, then unfurled, becoming a mess of tendrils larger than a bear, with only the face visible. She threw Dripfeed aside with explosive strength.
“Fire!” the Wasp Commander ordered.
It was Tricks who shot. Tricks was in their ninety-ninth percentile for accuracy. Part of that was Teacher’s gift of coordination. He didn’t miss.
One shot, clean through the forehead. The grasping, flailing tendrils drooped, then collapsed, flat on the floor. She went from being a bear in stature to being a piece of clothing dropped on the floor.
“Cathound! Find the others!” The Wasp Commander called out. There were similarities between this one and two other capes he had seen in research he’d done. Tress and Strung Out. But there were no exact matches.
Tress was very similar to this, however. A mask, tendrils. But she didn’t have a human form. The tendrils were closer to being piano wire than these flat strips.
The Wasp Commander looked for details, and saw the organs he was looking for. Same as in Tress’s notes. Unidentifiable, pulsing, struggling for life-
She was alive.
“Tricks! The organs!” he shouted, as he aimed his own weapon.
Tress reached across the room and pulled away. Tricks’s shot landed, catching the tail end of the organs that dragged along the floor.
There was noise behind and below. A sound like nails on a chalkboard.
This was Breakthrough. Two female members, one male.
“That’s Swansong! Distance is paramount! Scatter!”
Swansong blasted out the walls and floor below them, but the concrete was reinforced here, the Wasp Commander knew. They were safe, so long as they retreated.
Tricks shot again. The Commander looked and saw a trio of tendrils severed by the singular bullet, writhing on the floor.
The floor opened up as Swansong’s power tore into it. Members of the group fired into the rippling void, and the power ate the bullets. Tricks kept his rifle trained on the rippling power that kept on firing, without shooting.
“There’s a third combatant, we need details on him, Cathound. Is he flanking?”
The Wasp Commander would have flanked.
“No, he’s at the bottom of the stairs, he-”
Tricks had drawn a pistol from his belt, and shot behind him with scarcely a glance backward, interrupting Cathound. Aiming at Tress again, keeping her at bay.
But the shot was followed by a response. A single shot that ricocheted killed Cathound and injured Tricks. Tricks fell into the hole Swansong was making, and the power she was using to make the hole.
The boy ascended the stairs, adjusting his glasses.
A Harbinger. The Wasp Commander and the others turned guns on him, and bands of flesh reached out to grab those guns. He felt a stab of fear. Harbingers were not to be fucked with, given the records.
The Wasp Commander reduced his grip down to one hand and reached down to detach the magazine from the rifle as he abandoned it to the tendrils. No use giving her something to shoot him with. He fired the one round that was already loaded, then let go, kicking the weapon away and drawing his pistol, wheeling around.
It didn’t matter. The boy fired his own pistol, placing a bullet directly down the barrel of the Wasp Commander’s weapon. His gun detonated from the internal pressures and stresses.
Swansong used her power to leap up, taking advantage of the chaos. The Wasp Commander gave an instruction to Dripfeed, who closed into melee with the parahuman.
She used her power, which threw off his aim, but he kicked her in the ribs, and it seemed to do a number on her, dropping her to one knee. She used her power again, aiming at the floor beneath his raised foot, and propelled herself backward, into the hole she’d come up from. Dripfeed checked for permission. The Wasp Commander gave it. Dripfeed chased.
The boy was the real concern. The remaining three guns turned his way. Without the pressure on Tress, however, the tendrils reached across to seize them by wrists and hands. Shutter gripped one of the bands of flesh in one hand and shredded his palm and fingers.
While they were held, the boy walked up, striking each one of them once.
The Wasp Commander last of all.
“Why did you come?” Tress asked, as the boy advanced. “Wait, don’t-”
The boy stepped forward, two weird stuttering steps like he was dancing or feinting, before he lunged forward, closing the distance, and struck the Wasp Commander.
The world spun as the Wasp Commander stepped back, found no footing, and fell into the hole.
His head cracked hard against concrete, and he felt his special knowledge flee him, his regular thoughts scattering into darkness and brightness, stillness, and noise. He tried to lift his arms and legs and found them too heavy.
The boy smiled, looking down at him.
“Why did you come?” Tress asked.
The Wasp Commander struggled to listen. If it came down to him needing to justify the use of extensive medical skills and resources and needing to justify keeping his position, it would help to have information on the enemy to barter with.
“Are you coming with us?”
“With you, yes.”
The Commander heard footsteps, and with his head unable to move without stunning pain, he had to guess who it was. Dripfeed.
It was Swansong.
“All okay?” Tress asked.
“I took his leg. The other fell into my blast,” the heroine said, head turning, white eyes showing nothing and staring into nothing. A concerned look crossed her face. “Do you have water?”
“No, I drank the last Capricorn gave me. Why?”
“It’s not important.”
“Didn’t he give you a bottle? I saw you drink just five minutes ago.”
“Yes,” Swansong said. She made a face.
“She might have blood in her mouth,” the Harbinger reported.
The Wasp Commander saw it wasn’t that. A wistful look crossed Swansong’s face, that the others couldn’t see, because they weren’t looking.
“No thanks to your recklessness,” Swansong said, a note of anger in her voice, her expression hardening. “There are more elegant ways to do things, little brother.”
None of this suited anything. Why had he lost, with his elite soldiers? Why a fucking Harbinger? One of the worst potential threats in the list of enemies he’d been briefed on.
“We’ll find some on the way. We’re splitting up soon, right?”
“Your forehead,” Swansong said. Tress had approached close enough for the women to see one another.
“My brain isn’t behind my forehead. It’s cosmetic. It’s really shitty, awful cosmetic and I have no idea if it will heal.”
“It should. And we have Lookout for the little things,” Swansong said. She flicked one corner of her eye, causing the smoke there to flare.
The Wasp Commander closed his eyes, and found it to be a Herculean effort to get them open again. He considered that he might have blacked out for a second in the process of relaxing his focus.
He was dying, he realized. His focus slipped and overall, he wasn’t recouping what he lost. His brain was just… drifting away, sinking into numb darkness threaded through with jolts of pain that made him want to jump or writhe, though he could barely move.
“I’ll go with Tress,” the Harbinger said. “I know ways through.”
“Why, though?” Tress asked. “Why me? You have no reason to care about me, and I definitely don’t like you or what you represent. Sorry if that’s a bitch thing to say, but-”
“I’m Cauldron. I support Cauldron. I’d do my part to do it all over again.”
“Yeah. You’re not even ashamed?”
The Harbinger shook his head. To the Wasp Commander, the movement looked blurry, with severe afterimages and spots in his vision.
“Okay,” Sveta said. She took in a deep breath, then said, “I’m going to keep my organs nonfunctional until I’m far from here and I can get help. It felt like something internal broke. If something happens-”
“I’ll let people know, so you don’t choke your organs for too long. The Harbinger will do the same, if I can’t,” Swansong said. Still more concern in her eyes. For Tress, now.
“We got the Thrall Commander, right?” Tress asked.
“This one, probably,” Harbinger said, pointing. Not at the Wasp Commander, but, based on direction, Tricks.
“Yeah,” Tress said. “Okay. Not happy about it, but…”
A silence lingered, sentence unfinished.
“How far is it to outside?” Tress asked.
“Not far,” the Harbinger said. “I’ll show you the way.”
Tress and the Harbinger hopped down, landing on either side of the Wasp Commander, their eyes on the hallway, their destination.
“What are you doing?” Swansong asked.
She was asking the Harbinger, and the Harbinger answered, “Tidying up. Taking care of one of a few things to make the irregular regular.”
“You’re so weird,” Swansong said. “You do a disservice to all of us.”
Bitter with the ignobility of it all, the Wasp Commander struggled to organize thoughts that were falling into disarray. He resigned himself to trying to find peace in the-
The Harbinger put a bullet in his head as he walked by. One of his acts to ‘tidy up’.
“We get through this nightmare,” Mischa said. The echo of his own voice through his headset was distorted. He checked instrument panels, and reached past the gulf that was his own brain and into the realm of another kind of thinking. A realm of thoughts that weren’t his own. If left brain and right brain were two rooms of a house with no clear demarcation to separate them, then this was across the street.
It wasn’t that way for the rest of them. Not for Saint. It was perhaps because he never trusted it. Or because he had learned to program at the same time he had learned to read, and his mind handled these things in a different way.
He handled everything in a different way. He felt more at home with joysticks in each hand, pedals under each foot, and barely a foot between his face and the screen in front of him as he cut through reality and air, zig-zagging through access tunnels and the gaps between sections of the great white edifice. He could feel the systems and the ill-health of his craft in the same way a person who had driven the same car every day of his life might understand a specific shudder of their vehicle.
Not that he’d piloted this angel for long. It simply came naturally, easily, like stepping into a new house and finding it fit you exactly. Everything where it should be. There was no second-guessing, no reaching for a switch and missing.
The static and distortions were because there were so many powers at use in the area. Mischa flipped switches and swiped a gloved finger across a screen to change to another display, tracking the stress levels that Teacher had told them to keep an eye on. Ninety-one percent.
A small number in the corner of the screen showed a ‘98.854%’ in bold red numbers. That was alarming, even looking at it hours later. That was how close they’d come. When they’d been that close, alarms had gone off, orders given out, and entire squadrons of soldiers on the front line stood down, letting themselves be shot, swept up by powers, defeated.
That was the ‘high score’, so to speak. A reminder of how high the stress had ever been. 1.146% higher, and there would be no coming back from it. That had been scary, and Mischa did not scare so easy.
Another wary eye watched another number in the display, right beside the red one. White, innocuous. ‘64.2%’. Scary in another way. A scary that went hand in hand with Dragon, the City, the Machine Army, Sleeper, the Simurgh, or the Titan. If the Simurgh and the Titan could even be counted as distinct forces. It was the fear that came from knowing there was something indomitable and too big or sprawling to defeat, dangerous, malevolent, and soulless.
He was aware that Saint had not replied to him. He looked ahead through the display screen, because there was no window in this sarcophagus he had been buried in, only cameras and screens, ventilated air that still had an acrid flavor to it from the gas, earlier. Saint struggled with turbulence as he flew through an aperture. Not paying attention.
Mischa flipped more switches, diverting power, eyeing the battery load, and imagining that he was playing one small part in that 91% becoming a 91.2% as he relied more on the strange technology.
The ‘64.2%’ in innocuous, innocent white had become 64.22% when he hadn’t been looking.
His craft thrummed around him, like holding a power tool so powerful it numbed the hands, except it was his whole body that buzzed with it. But the thrum was normal, the turbulence barely touching it.
The turbulence was because they were outside. Out of the facility, into wind and a different air pressure. The landscape that stretched out around them was broken and torn, strip-mined for every material available, left as shattered piles of rock, gravel, and dirt that still had traces of the chemicals that had been used to facilitate the strip mining and separation of materials. The shattered land had weeds and grass growing over it, but the land hadn’t smoothed out.
Mist below, clouds above, and either vertical walls or sloped roof. There were next to no windows. Only a few ways out. A small handful of platforms.
“We get through this,” Mischa repeated himself. Maybe being outside of the complex would help Saint. The crackling was worse, and the vast majority of the interference came from one direction. He reoriented his craft, putting the bulk of the craft and its mass between the source of the interference and the communications array in the lower end. “We get through this and tomorrow is another day.”
“Mags died,” Saint’s voice was almost inaudible.
“That makes today-” Saint’s voice crackled into oblivion, “-stays with us. We don’t ever leave it behind.”
“It was always going to be a day that stays with us,” Mischa said, but his own voice crackled so much he doubted Saint could hear. That was okay. He was okay if he was the only person who heard it.
Saint would endure.
The intense crackling came from a fight on one platform, higher up. The Yangban capes had been folded into an attack squad, and that squad was confronting Legend. A forcefield pyramid surrounded Legend, and the squad surrounded the pyramid.
That’s where the dog is buried, Mischa thought. His father’s saying. They’d found the source of the distortions, not that they had been looking.
“Can you fight?” Mischa asked, though he knew the answer.
And Saint punctuated his statement by unfurling his wings. He struck the pyramid with a projection. Each attack that failed to penetrate the pyramid -and at present that seemed to be all of them- still slid down the sheer surface, raking across the platform, threatening to saw it off and let the people fall down to ground so far below them that clouds up high and mist further below made it impossible to see the jagged terrain.
Mischa swept in, and saw the pyramid distort with the effects of the C-level flight systems rippling through the interdimensional space. There was a single parahuman behind the barrier, it seemed. Mischa focused the camera in on the man’s face. Strained.
Good. He tapped on his screen, adjusting the halo’s auto-targeting. Map to stress, draw up a three-dimensional map of wavelengths and patterns, adjust, adjust-
The screen showed what was a heat-map of the forcefield. Red where it was strongest, blue where it was ‘cold’, weak. He never liked that, because he liked to think of cold as proof of strength. Cold drink, cold weather.
He used all five fingertips to drag the targeting grid over to the map, then set the targeting paradigm. Aim for the blue.
As soon as he was close enough, the halo began firing arc-beams. The weapons screen to the left of Mischa’s head was a constant in his peripheral vision, lighting up with new icons as a new arc was mounted and released by the halo. His hand remained at the switch for targeting.
All targeting the cooler, weaker spots of the forcefield, that rippled so violently when the antigravity engines were so close.
The zoomed-in view of the parahuman’s face on the other side of the pyramid remained on the one screen. Their head hung, arms up, and the forcefield rippled even more aggressively than before, holes appearing here and there where it pulled apart.
He began working out an addendum to his targeting paradigm. Aiming for the people visible through the holes. He-
The craft shuddered, lights going out, monitors switching to red, heat levels rising, system damage, system failure- he flipped the switch and got to work, figuring out what had happened. He reset the display and saw- lasers everywhere. Saint’s ‘Victory I’ had its wings extended, shielding Mischa and the Yangban-supported squad from the worst of it.
Mischa had known he was risking an all-out attack from Legend while his targeting was diverted, but he had assumed it was a risk he could see coming. The forcefield pyramid would go down, Legend would fire, Mischa would throw the switch, and the halo would counter the incoming fire.
Except the pyramid was up, and the lasers were omnipresent. All silver beams with light blue nimbuses around them. Mischa zoomed in.
The pyramid was just that- a shape that extended up and over, in a pyramid shape that was breaking down a little under the Isaiah’s assault. Legend stood surrounded by teammates, hand extended down. A hole burned down through the platform- and the lasers projected down, turned at sharp angles, and struck at the attackers, Mischa’s Isaiah, and Saint’s Victory I.
Teacher’s soldiers glowed white where hit, as if they were metal and not flesh. That would be one of the powers, then. The ones at the front reached out to slap the lasers aside, creating distortions in the air that forced the rays back toward the bubble, or up into the atmosphere.
But that didn’t do anything for Mischa, and the lasers were reaching around the wing to rake the Isaiah. Damage to some cameras, damage to movement trackers, making the halo defense five percent less accurate against moving targets. Damage to armor plating and overall structural integrity. One piece of ‘arm’ on the Isaiah hung free and tore slowly at everything it hung off of.
Mischa smashed one hand into controls to his right. Antigrav canceled, jet turbines canceled, only generalized hovering remained in use. He fell, encased in a sarcophagus, which was in turn encased in tons of metal. The platform was high above. The hovering system ensured he didn’t fall in a straight line, drifting in a curve instead.
It put him closer to the point the lasers were all diverging from, but it took him out of Legend’s sight. The man couldn’t aim at what he couldn’t-
A series of beams all firing in a line struck the Isaiah.
It had to be a guess, helped by a listening ear.
Legend couldn’t aim at what he couldn’t see. Mischa took an evasive course of action, one eye glancing at the screen with the damage report. Thermal control, mostly. Some articulation, but the Isaiah didn’t need much. It wasn’t what he would have fired at, had he been aiming that shot.
No more chance shots came, as he regained control, booted up antigrav, and started up the jet turbines.
As had become habit, he glanced at the screen.
89.361% stress. If that hit the ceiling of 100%, there was no recovery. They would switch to evacuating and they would pray.
The floor? 64.5%. It crept up, little by little, innocuous, innocent. It would go down as they put distance between themselves and this battleground, but every power used on any Earth would contribute. Once raised, the floor never seemed to go down.
The lasers sputtered out, then resumed. The Isaiah’s defenses tracked and countered the lasers, meeting each with a ray of its own, only for as long as was necessary to keep the Isaiah from being hit. The ones that didn’t hit him were cutting through the Victory I’s projected wings and slicing into the exterior wall of the facility like knives into butter. Sharp.
Mischa typed out a new targeting command, oriented the Isaiah, and steered it almost directly below the hole. Amusing, that Legend was firing straight down, but because each laser bent in the air to strike at the opposition, they didn’t reach him.
Tracking wavelengths, adjusting the frequency, he mapped it out so he saw the lasers in a bold red against a black and white depiction of the environment. He zeroed in.
Mischa had always liked a game of darts when at the bars. He aimed for the bullseye.
The lasers sputtered out. Legend was preparing his next attack, a shift in the type of lasers he was using.
Mischa shot, firing through that same hole in the platform, a singular, powerful laser blast.
He rose back up, and Legend was there to shoot at him, far more lasers radiating out from the lone hero than the Isaiah could handle. More damage, mostly to tertiary systems. The ‘bait’, vulnerable looking panels, windows, head, arms. The Isaiah didn’t need any of those things. Only flight systems, cockpit, the power cell and the halo itself.
A quick tabulation showed him the damage. The blast from below had caught a few people who had been near Legend, knocked out the pyramid, and knocked out the cape that had been making it. Teacher’s soldiers had attacked, adding to the casualties.
Nine down. Forty-two more capes were gathered on the platform, using their powers to defend themselves and one another. Brutes at the front, others with cover fire. Crates that were lashed to the jutting platform were cover for the soldiers against the attack force, which now fought desperately.
Teacher’s face appeared on one screen.
“Saint,” Teacher’s voice came through more clearly than Saint’s communications had. The message wasn’t aimed at Mischa.
“What is it?” Saint asked.
“I see you joined the fight against Legend.”
“We were finding a spot outside your projected danger zone to stop for repairs, and we came across the fight. Is it a problem?”
“I need you to leave. You’re going to win if you keep this up.”
“And I’d rather have Legend in a stalemate.”
“It’s not like you to ask why, Saint.”
Mischa adjusted the laser’s defenses, focusing on letting the lasers through in places the Isaiah could afford to take damage. It let him block damage to other areas.
Saint spoke, voice crackling out of sync with the onslaught of lasers and the powers being used by the Yangban supported squad and Legend’s remaining forty capes. “You gave me free will, all necessary knowledge to fly these things and use the AI’s tech without the drawbacks, so I could ask these questions. Why?”
“Because I want him. Legend, when frustrated, bides his time and seeks dialogue. I would like a chance to have that dialogue and bring him onto my team.”
Mischa judged he was safe to look away from the laser defense screen, hit the button, and leaned in to speak into the microphone, “I think that is a very small chance. He is not the man he was.”
“Very small, agreed,” Teacher said, unruffled. “But according to our precognitives, the Legend who thinks his side has lost on all fronts is going to lay siege to the facility, tearing it down with his power.”
“We could defeat him,” Mischa said. “Shoot him down before he can.”
“You could not. He is much harder to take out of action than many think.”
“We’ll go,” Saint said. “I believe you. What do we do when we’ve repaired?”
“Make your way to the C-quadrant where Custodian collapsed the facility. Patrol it. When they want to make their exit they’ll be tempted to go through there.”
“Alright. We’re in endgame?” Saint asked.
“Close,” Teacher reported. “I’m trying to find balance, when there are too many distractions. I’d think it was her, but it’s not. She’s unconscious or powerless. Possibly or probably on purpose. It forces me to keep a constant eye out for her. I’ve updated the butterfly’s radius in you systems.”
Mischa looked. Information between sections of the building was cut off, and as fast as she was, the bogeyman could only move so far. The question was, how fast could her actions ripple out? Who could she affect, that could reach them? It would have to be someone fast.
“We’ll repair now,” Saint said.
“Fake being in disrepair as you exit, for Legend’s benefit. Make some smoke if you can.”
Not so hard, when the lasers kept coming. The Victory I had extensive damage to one wing and was using projected forcefields to keep it together. It rose up into the air, swayed off course, and then detonated, a rolling explosion pouring out of an already damaged lower section. Tertiary power core explosion.
“Was that on purpose?” Mischa asked.
“Yes. Rash of me,” Saint said. “That did more damage than I anticipated.”
Saint wasn’t usually one to admit weakness or fault. Mags’ death was getting to the man, Mischa was sure. Being reckless, misjudging, and then regretting it so openly after?
Mischa still wanted to say something.
“Can you fly without problem?” Mischa asked.
“I can fly.”
Mischa adjusted the systems for hovering and antigrav. Break up the array, desync, put each on a different grid, then assign seventy percent to one grid, fifty percent to another.
Flying at seventy percent with his left side, fifty percent with the other. It made the Isaiah list. That would be his pretend retreat act for Legend.
He blocked two incoming projectiles and one blast from Legend, and escorted the Victory I up and away from the fight, into an area where clouds traced the exterior walls of the facility. The platform had a garden at the end, railings around the edges.
He checked reference materials, and the map of the facility. This upper floor had been where the original staff of Cauldron had entertained people of importance, and it had been a place reserved for people like Doctor Mother to retreat to, in an eventuality where they couldn’t travel elsewhere due to external threats. She had apparently come here quite often in the early days.
The craft settled down, avoiding too much damage to trees, hedges, and flowers.
Perhaps, Mischa thought, as he flipped switches and depressurized his sarcophagus, donning a mask because the air was thinner up here, he could get through today and mourn Mags in his own way, and retreat to a place like this.
He looked at the numbers. 88.11% current stress. It was dropping. Dropping because people were dying, getting injured, or stopping to rest.
The floor rested at 64.6%.
The Isaiah opened up, the sarcophagus raising up as the upper body folded away from the lower body. The tiny cockpit that had encased him now formed a kind of platform that sat above the rest. Monitors ringed him, each showing diagnostics on different systems.
Saint was doing the same.
“How was your ventilation?” Saint asked. His face and arms were heavily tattooed with crosses, glossy with sweat.
“It’s fine. No problems since we cleared the vents. I need to patch up heating, quick-weld some armor, I want to load in a power core at one hundred percent, and transfer power between the two cores I have at thirty-something percent, get one up to sixty.”
Let’s talk shop, my brother, Mischa thought. Save the feelings for tomorrow.
“Do you need anything from me?” Saint asked.
“Victory I’s hand, to hold things. Conversation.”
“You’re not usually one to talk much,” Saint said.
“For your sake, not mine.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Saint said.
Then, a moment later, Saint punched something. Metal sang. “This fucking paint on my fucking primary camera!”
Mischa was impassive, unflinching.
“Fuck!” Saint punched the terminal again. His knuckles were bloodied. “They had to kill fucking Mags!? I promised her everything would be okay!”
“Aren’t you upset!?” Saint asked, his voice a roar. Then, at normal speaking volume, unsure, he asked, “You liked her, didn’t you?”
“I did. She was a friend and ally. Good company. A good person with a lot of talent and more heart.”
“But you’re not upset?” Saint asked, sounding offended now. Zig-zagging across the emotional spectrum.
Mischa was unsure what to say. They’d taken so many lives today, the lives of well-intentioned but misguided people, and he’d felt… anxious. It was a bad word for something that important, but he did believe in souls and he did believe that no soul could extinguish a life without being intrinsically injured.
They’d taken so many lives today.
Yet… he couldn’t tell Saint that Mags dying was a relief. A balancing of the scales.
“I’ll be upset tomorrow,” he said.
There was something calming about caring for the machines. Problems that could be identified and fixed. Other things, like the death of Mags, or the looming shadow that was Teacher… less easy. Not calming at all.
“The last cable I need for power transfer between batteries got shredded. Can I get your spare?” Mischa asked.
Saint roused, as if from deep thought. He nodded, slid down a ladder, and opened an internal hatch. The cable was threaded neatly.
He tossed it from the seat at the top of the Victory I down to Mischa. Mischa caught it.
It took a minute to hook up. When Mischa turned around, he found Saint staring off into space again.
“She would have liked this garden,” Mischa said.
Saint turned to look.
There was a sound like a wet towel being dropped on hard floor. Mischa and Saint both turned to look.
Bands of flesh reached up and out, gripping Saint. His hands and upper face were lacerated by hidden blades, as he fought to get back and get free. Other tendrils searched him.
“Saint!” Mischa cried out. But words were of no use here.
There was another. A boy running across the hundred-foot-long balcony garden, slingshot in hand.
Mischa slapped the switch to turn on the halo. The slingshot released its stone, and the stone was disintegrated by a counterattack.
Mischa activated the rest of the systems. Dangerous to do, when Saint wasn’t in his cockpit. He kicked systems into action, another full-handed strike to one control panel, just to push as many buttons as possible and kick-start things. The hatch began to close up, the sarcophagus sinking into the angel’s chest as the angel rose up into the air, turbines uncharacteristically loud.
He saw the flare of the beam, then heard the impact of the slingshot’s stone striking something overhead. There was no ricochet he could see, no damage-
Except that the open sarcophagus failed to close, the two doors jamming together.
The Harbinger had still managed something.
That made a lot of things a lot harder. Without a pressured cockpit, he couldn’t use his machine’s full capabilities.
Them arriving at an isolated location where they were doing repairs? This had to be Contessa, and the answer to Contessa was distance. Escape. Running the fuck away. That apparently extended to pawns of the woman.
At the same time, however, he could see Saint struggling, fighting someone he couldn’t punch or kick. The man bled from a dozen wounds.
Mischa adjusted settings. He had to reserve some of the halo’s power for any of those slingshot stones. That limited his offense, potentially, he had to exclude Saint himself, control the power so he wouldn’t fry the Victory I’s cockpit, which was ironically more difficult and required more power for the control systems than the full-strength laser would alone…
He typed madly, aware his longtime friend was losing the fight.
Saint fell, or he threw himself back and away from the open cockpit, landing on the platform twenty feet below. It did not look like an easy landing, even with the grass and soil of the garden beneath him.
Mischa rose up out of his seat in his own cockpit, then kicked out violently, kicking the doors open. A part of him worried another slingshot stone would hit him, but the Harbinger only stood there.
The doors shut properly on the second try. He was able to tear off his mask and adjust everything to full power, drawing in closer to the open and dormant Victory I.
No, not dormant. She’d found a way in, without the password. Override?
It was closing up, engines firing, everything kicking into motion.
He had to adjust the targeting again. Too many times in a short span of time, but at least his muscle memory remembered some of the number sequences.
To burn her out of the cockpit.
One by one, screens glitched out, and were replaced with a nauseating moire in light blue and magenta. Without any external views, he was flying blind, barely any control or ability to adjust.
He closed his eyes, and the optical illusion patterns on the screens were only part of the why. He focused on his sense of balance and did his best to adjust orientation. It wouldn’t do to lose track of up and down.
The blue and magenta light pressing against his eyelids went dark, except for a point of light. A word on a single screen.
“Hello,” he growled. This intrusion had to be- how? Everything was supposed to be segregated, airgapped, secured.
Had they infiltrated Mags’s Michael III? If they had-
He pulled out his phone, searching, praying it wouldn’t change colors too.
He saw the map of the network, the degree of intrusion.
A backdoor. Dragon had left it in these ships. She must have used that for this intrusion. Except this wasn’t Dragon.
This was worse. It was either a tinker subordinate to the AI, which was bad, or it was a subordinate AI, which would mean she was breeding.
He had a countermeasure. He pulled the catch on the drink holder. Beneath was a button. He hit it.
At the same time, a skewed dizzy feeling suggesting he wasn’t entirely upright anymore, but it was hard to identify ‘up’.
i’m sorry about your friend from the Michael III.
i’m losing two friends today. pretty sure.
i think i know how it feels
i hope we don’t kill you.
you made some really pretty robots
One by one, monitors went blank, or they restored function. The big red button shut off all systems, forcing nearly everything to be done manually. It forced a complete reset to default for the mandatory computer systems, and made them impossible to change.
Here and there, a screen flickered as the intruder attempted to seize hold.
The damnable display was the last thing to revive. He corrected orientation, then tracked what was happening.
The Victory lifted into the air. Hijacked. It wouldn’t cooperate without fingerprints, seat weight, or the right passwords, though the override did a lot.
The override would also have given the tinker access to the comms and systems of this craft. It would be why the hacker had suddenly lunged into a complete takeover. It would be giving her access to Teacher’s systems as well.
He watched as the Victory I scraped its way along the platform, through a section of garden, and over the edge.
There was no way she could fly it, but-
But Saint threw himself over the edge, onto the back of the craft. Mischa gave chase.
He chased, as Saint struggled hand over hand to reach the hatch, the ship periodically whipping around as a wing caught the air. The falling trajectory of the Victory put it in line to crash into the exterior wall of the facility.
Below, Legend was in the air, assaulting the Yangban-assisted squadron. The shots he used were either too minor to penetrate their protection, that made them glow like metal instead of being burned or cut, or they were too big, and too risky, as the squad slapped those shots aside or redirected them into the platform. The group was cut off, and too much damage to the platform would send all of them to their doom. It forced him to play defensive.
The Victory I crashed into the wall. It tumbled through the air, Saint parting ways from it as he started to freefall.
And Mischa was given a choice. His friend, who was doing his best to remain horizontal to the ground, to create more drag, or the damaged wing that broke free, careening toward the platform.
He went after his friend, disabling his halo so he wouldn’t shoot Saint out of the air, closed in, and took a heavy blast from Legend.
Again, he tried. Again, Legend shot him.
To make sure the hero knew the danger, he focused the halo’s lasers on the section of wing that still flew on trajectory to strike the platform, demolishing it.
Legend shot the wing, breaking it in half. He shot the next half, only to hit the projected forcefield. Too casual a shot.
Mischa caught Saint, as gently as he was able, and held Saint to his chest. He watched as the section of wing plunged, striking the platform without breaking it. It crashed into the squadron of Yangban, and those it didn’t kill outright were bowled over, sent over the ledge.
Which freed what remained of Legend’s squad to go on the offensive, to catch, disable, or kill the stragglers who hadn’t been hit.
And Mischa- he had to pilot to avoid Legend’s assault, as Legend focused beams on targeted areas. The Halo protected against some, but there was nothing to distract Legend now. Controls, weapons, the halo itself, flight systems, oxygen- all were surgically burned away.
It was all he could do to use the systems to pilot himself toward the place where the platform met the exterior wall. To force a rough landing, using a list of systems that dwindled by the second. The impact was hard for him, and he was in a cushioned seat with a harness. Saint was in the broken arms of the Isaiah.
There was no use hiding, now. He opened the cockpit. He wanted to check on Saint, as well.
Legend waited for him, hovering above.
“I surrender,” Mischa said.
Sveta pulled herself together, with gaps and patches where damaged bands of flesh didn’t come together, as though someone had failed to paint in those spots, leaving only dark gaps with red muscle visible beneath. In one or two places, even the muscle had gaps.
She stood on the platform. She’d escaped the cockpit before it had closed up, leaving the systems to run on their own. One minute in there had been enough to tell her she had no chance in hell of piloting it.
Her head hung. Her organs hurt from being choked into inactivity.
“Tell me what you’re thinking.”
The voice came from behind her.
There was only one other person left on the platform with her. She remained still, frozen, standing in a ruined garden.
“Why does it matter?” she asked.
“It matters. Everything in order, things have to be tallied up.”
“I don’t believe in order, or tallies,” she said, staring out over the edge, into oblivion. “I like art, creativity, ideas. Kindness. I know I’m not rational, but rational gave birth to this.”
She extended a hand and unconsciously dissolved it to indicate the edifice they were beside with bands of flesh. Even dropping her hand to her side, she pointed at the platform, and at sections of building that bulged out from the exterior wall.
“Rational gave birth to everything good too. Irrationality gave birth to every problem we’re dealing with now.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said.
“How far are you going? What are you really doing here?” she ventured, still not turning around. If there was a gun, there would be no chance. If she dropped and there was something to hold on to, she could-
-probably not live. The boy was Number Man, writ small.
“The plan is to take you out of the equation,” the boy said. “The plans always succeed.”
“Can you give me a chance to… say something? I don’t know why I’d even try, when it hasn’t worked in the past. Nothing I say gets through.”
Legend was coming. She could see him rise. The Harbinger couldn’t.
A bit of hope.
“Turn around?” the boy asked.
The hope tremored, like a candle flame that might go out.
No gun. No slingshot.
“No,” the boy agreed. “But something else did get through. It’s their plan, not mine. They want to kill you, and I’d like to help you.”
Legend loomed behind her. Cauldron-made, veteran hero.
More an ally to the Harbinger than to her.
“Thank you. I don’t know how much of that was on purpose,” Legend said. “But-”
“It was on purpose. It happened as it was supposed to happen,” she said, a little bitter. “As Contessa willed it.”
“Ah,” Legend said. He looked so tired, so harrowed. Smoke stuck to sweat, which made his skin, hair, and costume darker, his eyes comparatively brighter, because they were untouched. “Will you come down and help us with the next phase of the attack? I can carry you both.”
Sveta shook her head. “I have somewhere to be.”
“Any instructions for me?” Legend asked.
She shook her head.
“Thank the powers that be,” the hero said, in a voice that sounded older than he was. “You good?”
“I can come help you, Tress,” the Harbinger said. “If you’re willing.”
She started to answer, then stopped.
No guidance from Contessa on this.
She agreed with Legend. Thank the powers that be. As terrifying as it was.
“Yes,” she said. “Let’s rendezvous with the others.”