The zombies jogged and marched all around them. Teams of zombies were deploying to set up heavy laser cannons, aimed at the walls of spiky black rock with amber veins running through them. Others were setting up other technology, including machinery mounted on tripods and one team of rather fit looking zombies who were gathered around what looked like a condom dispenser, only the display at the top showed fluid within, and there was a handprint-shaped indent in the lower half.
“Don’t,” Final Hour said, his voice deep as he laid an armored hand on a young woman’s shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. She was part of the laser cannon team, and she was petite, wide eyed and innocent looking, doubly innocent because Teacher had stolen her willpower. Short and probably less than a hundred pounds, with only tattoos on her scalp that her hair had grown over to suggest she was over eighteen, she was a stark contrast to Final Hour. The guy was big, had a bodybuilder physique, and his tinkertech was focused on one side of his body: both eyes, the left half of the face, one arm, and one leg. The tech was heaviest around his left hand, which was writ large by the gauntlet that encased it. A series of clocks and dials were set into the back of the gauntlet, a little satellite dish in the palm.
Secondhand couldn’t help but feel that having that much weight on one side of his body would fuck up his back into oblivion.
Final Hour explained, “You’re shooting the wall. Others tried it before you got here. He remakes it faster than we get through. It might be better if you shoot that.”
Final Hour used his unarmored, tech-free hand to point at the other wall. White tile, running perpendicular to the wall of black stone.
“As you wish,” cute zombie girl said.
“He can’t see it,” Final Hour explained. “He can only make the walls where he can see. If we knock down the wall his wall is leaning on, it might fall.”
“She doesn’t care,” Secondhand said. “She’s a zombie.”
“Don’t call them that,” Final Hour said.
“She is. Mind-zombie, but still a zombie. Hey!”
A few eyes turned his way.
“You,” he pointed at the woman Final Hour had been talking to. “Do you care if I call you a zombie?”
“Call me whatever is convenient,” she said. “I’ll return to the work Teacher assigned me, if that’s alright?”
Secondhand waved her off, before looking at Final Hour, shrugging.
Zombies were in single file, the buff ones lined up behind the faux condom dispenser. Others were relaying parts, handing them down the line to where tinkers used them to augment or stabilize the laser cannons. More were in rows and columns.
Secondhand zipped up his costume, with gloves to cover his arms, and placing tubes in his nose before zipping up what he had termed his ‘gimp mask’ with little affection. The air from the tubes was colder than room temperature, warmed from body heat only, where the tubes ran close to his neck and back. He shut it off.
The battery pack rested between his shoulder blades, oxygen at the small of his back, and tech was threaded through the rest of his suit, which was made of the same nano-circuit mesh as his mask. All lightweight, close to the skin, and aerodynamic. He donned the round-lens goggles, and the old fashioned flat cap that was his only true concession to style over efficiency.
“Want me to load you up with a charge?” Final Hour asked.
“We should do this clean,” Last Minute said, raising his voice to be heard as he walked down the hall. End of Days was with him.
The four squared up, each facing the others, a huddle without closeness. Secondhand was the smallest, the closest to being sleek, except he wasn’t that thin. Purely average. Last Minute was burly and barrel-shaped, muscular but not tall, loaded down with his throwable trinkets. Final Hour was muscular, of a similar frame to End of Days, who distinguished himself with the curling mustache, the lighter distribution of tinker gear, and his tinker gear. One of End of Days’s arms had a fresh tattoo on it, an old fashioned demon harlot, surrounded by a band of religious verse.
Their only aesthetic concession to counting themselves among the Fallen was a change to red lenses and glows for their tinkertech, and black cloth and leather.
“Hitting them hard is cleanest. We shouldn’t give them a chance to fight back,” Final Hour said. He adjusted something in his gauntlet.
“If your blast doesn’t take them out, Secondhand is dead in the water,” Last Minute said, thick arms folded across his chest. “We know the one in the goat armor is there, because he’s making the walls. Two of them can kill him before he can react. A third can come close. One is invincible. Best he could do would be to take the kid hostage, and we don’t know if she’s there. She might be camouflaged.”
End of Days nodded along with Last Minute.
“Hmph,” Final Hour grunted. “Okay.”
“Clean is using our powers as they’re supposed to work. Plan for this to be messy, keep our tricks up our sleeves for later.”
Both looked at Secondhand.
“I’ll scout. Don’t load me up. It makes it harder to get back into the zone. I might use tech if it looks like I can.”
He reached to his belt and pulled out a small explosive. Lightweight, like all of his tech.
“Camera?” Final Hour asked.
“I know you don’t like it, but…” Final Hour trailed off.
“If the kid is with them, a camera is a weak point,” Secondhand pointed out.
“Unplug it and go black if you have to. But it would help the soldiers and it would help us.”
Secondhand grumbled for a bit, debating mostly with himself.
“We’re ready, sirs!” a man by the nearest laser cannon called out.
Well, Secondhand had been called everything under the sun, recently. One more for the list.
Final Hour reached out with his ordinary, gauntlet-free hand. “We tough it out through today, we go home to obscene orgies, girls with zero morals, drugs, and luxury. This is what we’ve been working for all this time. Now we pay our dues once in a while, keep the plate spinning.”
“And if the plates all fall,” End of Days intoned, in a mellow voice that suggested he had taken his drugs recently, “we’re in the best position to rule over whatever things look like after.”
He decided he’d have fun, since he was doing the legwork here. He stood straighter, pointed, and ordered, “Fire.”
A zombie pulled on a lever. The laser cannon glowed, then fired its beam, two feet thick, into the wall. Tile shattered, the softer material beneath disintegrated, and metal melted. The laser was moved gradually, to tear through more wall.
Secondhand flicked a switch on the battery pack, then adjusted his goggles. Numerical readings mixed in with just-for-fun diabolic symbols and magical diagrams overlapped what he was seeing. He checked he had the camera software loaded, then switched modes to a thermal view, with patterns of air resistance marked out with lines and numbers in the air.
“Running too hot, we’re shutting it off!”
“That’s fine!” Last Minute called. He turned to Secondhand. “Isn’t it?”
The laser shut off. Secondhand used his power.
The world stopped, and the air became heavy, oppressive, like being at the bottom of the swimming pool.
Making sure his hat was firmly on, slipping his hands into his pockets, Secondhand walked down the hall, amid the zombies. It was like walking into mud, and running was worse than walking. He walked up to the girl with the tattoos hidden in her hair, and craned his head around, to try to look down her the front of her tunic.
Too flat. He couldn’t get a good angle. Bringing his head too close, he could feel the body heat radiating off of her as an unpleasant thing. Even with the suit protecting him against the worst of it, it felt like a sunburn that lasted only as long as he was close. He pulled away.
“If I asked Teacher for you, would he give you to me?” he asked, his face close to hers, the words muffled as though he had his face in the corner, speaking into a wall. “Would you enjoy the kind of fun we have at Thomais Manor? Would it be better if we didn’t give you your brain back?”
He studied every inch of her, trying to commit details to memory.
Growing bored, he turned away.
“Alright. Let’s do this.”
He walked into the pea soup, and from that pea soup, he walked into the storm that was the place the laser blast had penetrated. The wall was hot and the floor was hotter where the melted metal had dripped down, and that heat both radiated and stirred the air.
One hand on his hat, one hand on his pocket, he endured the storm. His suit absorbed ninety-five percent of it. His boots absorbed ninety percent of the heat beneath his feet. Technically the suit made him resistant to all of it, but some sensations got through, a feedback from his power and feedback from the suit, so he wouldn’t be oblivious or entirely unable to sense the world around him.
The air here was next to nonexistent, filled with chemicals. He switched on the oxygen he carried, the battery thrummed at his upper back as it helped pump that oxygen, and he could breathe.
The middle of the wall was the easiest and worst part at the same time, because the heat wasn’t a wind he had to walk into, but it was chaotic, roiling, and he was caught up in pea soup. It was, he imagined, like being caught in rapids, while burdened with concrete blocks. Trying to push against the wind was tough but there was always the feeling that he could give up, let himself be pushed, and retreat to safe ground.
Here, he felt like he could find himself in a situation where no matter how he moved, he would be pushed back to center, left to either disable his power and find himself wading in molten metal, or to wait until his oxygen ran out.
He relied on the dense lines and numbers his lenses fed him to position his body and weave through the pockets of air and air currents. He approached a tough spot where something was burning on the far wall, and he adjusted settings, drawing on his battery for a bit of extra power. The benefit was slight, as the heat reached him less and the air worked with him a little more, and the battery power raced from a hundred to sixty in those long, long picoseconds.
He switched off the battery as soon as he was through.
The rest of the hallway was clear, except for a spot along the wall where the laser had punched through and raked it.
Reaching up to his ear, he adjusted settings, bringing up a menu that overlapped what his lenses fed him. He put a book on. It was already on chapter two from the last listen, something End of Days had recommended, and he didn’t feel like going back to the start to find the title. If nothing else, it would help him walk the walk and talk the talk, not that it seemed to matter when they made a misstep, as far as Cheit or the Fallen they’d managed to round up were concerned.
He waded through the mud that was the air around him, his power converting every quarter-inch into a medium he could breathe, at a rate slower than he walked. Air further away offered more resistance.
Oh. He’d offered to take the pictures with the camera. Might as well. Maybe he could use the currency of a job well done with minimal dead zombies or spent tinkertech to get the cute girl.
He stopped, training his eyes on the walls and floor, the flash from his own lenses more for his benefit than anyone else’s, his lenses keeping track of what had been photographed by coloring it pink, as opposed to the omnipresent red of his red lenses.
Walk for a few minutes, pause to take pictures. Walk for a few minutes, more pictures.
He was on chapter four when he reached the intersection where the one hallway met three others. He took the pictures while he assessed where he was going.
He walked down one hallway, saw it was a dead end for the most part, and backtracked. He was on chapter six of his audiobook by the time he was back. His body felt battered and bruised from constantly pushing up against the wall of mud.
So it went. So it always fucking went. It was a chore, but it was a chore that was safe. Before Seattle it had been a once-a-week thing, but it got him nowhere. Then he’d signed on with others in Seattle, and they’d done okay. He’d had to scout like this daily, get in a fight a month, but he’d made enough to pay his share of rent. After Gold Morning, it had been much the same.
With Prancer, he had had to use his power multiple times a day. Different suit, less of a walk through mud, but more taxing on his body, to the point that skin had been bruised, blood vessels in eyes and skin had broken, and his teeth had been loose. He had pissed pink and shit black, and he’d picked up a cough that didn’t go away. It had nearly killed him, and only the improved costume had kept him going, putting him in a place that was denser, but safer, that required a more methodical approach. He’d endured with that improved costume and motivated himself with the hope that rep they were picking up and deals they were striking behind the scenes were building up to something. They’d talked to the Crowley Fallen, they’d partied with them, and once that became a regular thing, it had given him enough to look forward to that he’d been able to get through the weeks.
Amusing, because the time spent with those guys had meant they weren’t in Hollow Point when half the shit landed in the villain’s laps.
Now investments were paying off. This was probably the most he would have to use his power in the next few months. He would be free to use it however he wanted, to target enemies or to have fun.
He finished the book by the time he found the stairwell. Capricorn and Antares were there. The boy in goat armor mid-run, and the girl in black and gold, flying. Heading in the direction where they’d heard the blast. Orange motes swirled around Capricorn’s outstretched arm.
Mid-run was hard to work around. If they were standing still, he could have canceled his power, waited until it was ready to use again, covertly planted the charges, and used his power to escape.
Secondhand turned and walked away, around the corner, and then reached down to his belt. Drawing in a deep breath, he deactivated his power.
Noise assaulted him, heavy boots and heavy armor, voices.
“Which direction was it?”
He laid them out, five charges stuck to the wall in three seconds, head height to waist high, at the corner of the hallway. He would have placed more, but the running footsteps got close enough they were only a few feet away, just around the corner.
He used his power again, thumb flicking the activation for the battery to accelerate the process. If he didn’t, it took a minute or two before he could use his power again.
Walking back around, he put himself behind the pair, safely away, and leaned against the wall, hands in his pocket, detonator in one hand.
Undoing his power, noting his battery time remaining, he listened for two more footsteps, shielded the ear closest to the pair with one hand, then activated the detonator.
The explosions from these localized charges weren’t large by any means, but the crack they produced was sharp and satisfying. Every ounce of weight he carried while using his power was a burden that made every step forward harder. Something like a grenade was too heavy, too obvious.
Secondhand waited, one hand still at his ear.
“Capricorn!” the voice was hoarse, shaky. “Capricorn!”
He remained where he was. It was tempting to see the results, to figure out how to better approach things in the future, but poking his head out risked being seen, and he had to wait roughly a minute before his power was available, unless-
The fear aura washed over him, and his heartbeat skipped, his thoughts stumbling over one another. Every ache and pain he had from wading through the mud was exaggerated as he used his power instinctively, prematurely, because terror wasn’t something he was used to by any measure.
Rather than burn himself out and find himself slowed but unable to walk, he switched on the battery. It was at forty percent, and he burned it down to fifteen percent to get himself fully situated in the slowed time.
It didn’t help. The fear soaked into him, took the strength out of him, and made his fingers fumble at the buttons for the battery.
He grit his teeth, bearing it, stepping away from the wall.
Getting through that wall the cannon had blasted through would be miserable, doubly so because he was having to endure this, but he was confident enough. Maybe this emotion fuckery fucking shit would motivate him to push through.
Fuck, this sucked.
He started the trudge back. Out of cover, into the hallway, and toward the intersection. Antares and Capricorn had been on the right side of the hallway when the detonations had gone off, and they were on the left side now. Antares was on the ground, Capricorn on top of her. The right side of his helmet, his right arm, shoulder and side were mangled enough that the blood-slick metal and flesh weren’t distinguishable from one another. Roughly two liters of blood were already scattered around and immediately beneath Capricorn.
Not the goat-Capricorn, interestingly enough. The fish. They must have changed or been changing.
The fear made his tired legs tremble, and made his hands shake enough he didn’t trust them with his tech, to turn on the next audiobook or adjust visual settings.
In the midst of a silence where he heard only his own grunts, breathing, and muttered, gasping swears, he placed one foot in front of the other for what might have been thirty or forty-five minutes of time to anyone else. All through a mind numbing panic that radiated from the two heroes like light radiated from the sun.
Bitter, angry, his thoughts spiraling out as he endured it all, he told himself that at least she was more scared than he was. Or she would be, when time started again. If she and her friend weren’t done for already, they would be when his team got to them.
And the only thing better than a scared pretty girl with tears running down her face was a scared pretty girl with tears on her face that had pissed him the fuck off, completely at his mercy.
He trudged on.
Fuck, he thought. The Fallen were rubbing off on him. Not that he had been an angel before, but… he could only spend so much time with people who let him do anything he wanted, however he wanted, without getting a little fucked up. Fuck.
He endured the pressure of fear on top of the pressure of air. A weight of emotion grinding him down and throwing him off balance, a wall of air in front of him.
Fuck, he thought, with his next step. Fuck. The word punctuated each step.
Miranda watched from the high ground as the last shadows of the dead disappeared, slipping into side tunnels, with wary glances in her direction.
They left behind their dead, but they brought their injured with them.
It was their third foray. Weaker than the ones before. They attacked, tried to find a weakness or opening, and then retreated when they lost. Even if they got past, there wasn’t anything out there. The side hallways had been closed up, and the main hallway she stood in now led nowhere, only a platform that stuck out of the side of the building and led to nothing.
It was strangely satisfying, that she could hold her ground here. A thread of something that had been bothering her for years had finally been tied up. How long ago had it been, that she had been placed in an elevator, an oxygen mask on her lower face in the midst of a vacuum, and dropped into the Birdcage?
How strange it had been. Little her, barely even an adult in full then, picked up by heroes and escorted to PRT custody, questioned by people with powers that gave them insights into the real her. She had baffled half and scared the other half, somehow. Itty bitty her.
Itsy bitsy Miranda Webb had been told what to do and how to do it by Blood Diamond, who picked the one girl from her cell block that had disappointed her the most every week and punished them. Often it was the same girl, unless someone else did something to put themselves in Blood Diamond’s bad books. Heads shaved, forced to eat only the expired foods, beaten, cut, nailed to the table. The administrator of the ‘cage, it hadn’t been Dragon back then, they’d started slamming the doors shut and sucking oxygen out of the room, just for a few moments, to put a stop to the worst of it.
Then Blood Diamond had exhausted the use of her girl, broken her. Everyone knew and nobody said that she was looking for her next girl to set as an example. She had given Miranda a sideways look.
So Miranda had given a boy from the men’s side of the prison a different sort of look. The kind of look that was sly and inviting at the same time, that formed a hook in the curl of the eyelashes and tilt of the head, then set that hook with a wink.
Well… a wink and the handjob, and the blowjobs, and the butt stuff, and the lovemaking, her breath hot and her words sweet in his ear.
But she didn’t like to think about that part of it. Being the sweet sort of virginial was a state of mind, nothing else. Dwelling on lurid particulars made that harder.
Blood Diamond had had an accident. The only reasons she could find for her own nomination to Blood Diamond’s position managing the girliest end of the girl’s side of the prison were her sweet disposition and the fact nobody else wanted the job.
Well… Love Bite had wanted it, but Love Bite had her head torn from her shoulders. Teacup had wanted it, but Teacup had had her porcelain armor torn off, her head shaved, and her tongue torn out. No boys had even been involved in Teacup’s demise, whether the demise was marked at that point she lost her tongue and nearly died of blood loss or when she carried out a hunger strike and died of dehydration.
It was almost inconvenient, that people in little miss Webb’s way met unfortunate ends so often. It rushed her into power, and put her on a playing field with the likes of… well, Valkyrie.
The most powerful woman in all of the realities and, look at that, poor thing lost her powers right when she needed them. Connection cut, leaving her nothing more than a tall, athletic, ordinary woman on a battlefield defined by its monsters.
She got in Miranda’s way, and look at that. She was removed. Someone who had really scared her when they were locked up in that dismal prison with its dismal people and its poor selection of good men.
It was almost enough to make Miranda think there was something about little old ordinary-but-charming her, that Valkyrie was out and Ingenue was standing.
“Problem, Ingenue?” the Black Goat asked.
“No problem, except that I’m here and not taking care of Chevalier,” Miranda turned around. She stretched, aware the flared sixties style dress she wore was so short that stretching her arms fully overhead would lift it too high. She saw the Black Goat looking and hoping when she faced him. He was gentlemanly enough to look away after being caught, embarassed.
Christian boys were always the hungriest.
“Good,” he said. “Understandable. But I think Teacher wants us to keep level heads, keep us away from our rivals, enemies, and… I don’t even know what Chevalier is.”
“Tempting,” she said. She smiled.
Black Goat was surrounded by thralls who had bloody or ragged outfits, but no injuries themselves. Her personal collection of capes were the same. Fresh, handsome, whole, and wholesome. Three thralls stared off into space, bearing the entirety of the wounds her entire squadron had suffered. They were puppets, dolls that were anything but playful or adorable, so devoid of emotion and awareness they didn’t realize how hurt they were. Chunks missing and bandaged, burned, melted, one had parts of his belly turned to glass.
The Black Goat was looking after thralls, asking about injuries. He had been Scapegoat once, a hero with a mercenary streak. Gold Morning had helped him get over his illusions. He’d gone full mercenary. Now he stood there, shirtless, a tattoo across his back, a helmet miming a goat skull over his upper face. He wore an ornate belt with black cloth draping down.
He wasn’t quite her type. A bit of a slouch, too down on himself. But he was muscular, he took care of himself, that Fallen tattoo excepted. There was worse company to keep, like the Speedrunners. Creeps.
“Three dolls?” she asked.
She indicated the thralls with the injuries.
“Mm. I have one more body,” the Black Goat said, indicating an obese man sitting with his back to the wall. “I can transfer wounds to him, then we need to think about refreshing.”
“We’ll refresh sooner than later, while we have options,” she said. “Open the doors, get some people out, find more dolls.”
“I’d have to make them, and it’s best if I get Teacher’s counsel about that,” Scapegoat said.
“You make them by passing on the loss of willpower until someone has so much they can’t function, yes?”
“More or less.”
“Then take them from my boys here,” she said, walking backwards, and laying a hand on the arm of one of her superheroes. “Just don’t take their feelings for me.”
The Black Goat looked uneasy at that.
“What’s wrong?” Ingenue asked. She pouted a bit. “You don’t like my idea?”
“If they turn on us, that gets messy.”
“They won’t,” she said. “Trust me.”
“I’ll take some,” he said.
“Take all of it. Rip off that sticker. If you want your frog boiled, you might as well turn the heat up to full, instead of by fractions.”
“I don’t think I will,” he said. “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Hon,” she said. She stepped forward. The Black Goat stepped back. “I didn’t get to where I’ve been by being stupid.”
“The Birdcage?” he asked, and he scoffed a bit.
“No,” he said. “I’m not going to risk everything by loosening the one reliable leash we have on our thralls. I think that’s why Teacher sent me with you, to keep things sensible.”
She pouted, giving him her best puppy dog eyes.
“No,” he said.
“Okay. I won’t threaten you. But I’ll warn you that people who cross me tend to meet unfortunate ends.” She maintained the puppy dog eyes.
“Okay,” she said. “I won’t argue. I’m going to keep watch. I’m betting the sneaky regenerator who attacked the time before last is going to make another attempt after they’re done talking about plans.”
The Black Goat nodded, before turning his attention to the dolls that were holding all of the injuries.
She made her way to the ledge that looked down on the hallway below, a ladder by her feet leading the way down to the area that was littered with containers of fluid. As she passed her heroes, she touched one arm, her fingers running along body hair. She smiled up at the owner of that arm, Captain Claw. Pirate hero.
She let her shoulder brush the arm of the next. Leister. Handsome young man, bearing a trident.
She reached out to touch the shoulder of a third. Usher. She’d had to insist on a costume redesign, at the same time her boys were having their costumes remade in white, for clarity and camouflage.
And the fourth? Well… she was already at the ledge by the ladder by the time she thought to give him a warming touch or a look. She did have to keep her watch.
He was so restless, standing there. He took a half step forward, and by the shadows cast on the floor around her, she could see her other three boys had turned their heads to look. She kept her gaze straight.
It took him thirty seconds before he turned, starting to walk away.
“Hon?” she asked. She turned her head. Her fourth hero was tall, muscular, with hair cropped close to the head, and a broad chin. Veins stood out in his arms and neck, and a number of little features stood out as alien, like his eyes that were black from corner to corner- and there were more than two of those eyes. Patterns stood out on his skin and gave his muscles interesting artistic shapes. If he wasn’t so alien he would be grotesque, but his strange appearance lent him enough allure she could enjoy his companionship.
That, and Teacher had insisted she keep more muscle with her.
He’d stopped, and now he waited.
“I won’t tell you what to do or what not to do, because you’re loyal to Teacher and you’re loyal to me, and I trust that, but do be careful, because he can pass on injuries to you.”
He shrugged, so very blasé.
“You saying something?” the Black Goat called out.
“Talking to my boy,” she said.
“Okay. I thought it might be another attack.”
“Nothing so soon,” she said. “Take care of your dolls.”
“Thralls, or bodies. Not dolls.”
“It’s all dolls and boys, Goat,” she said. Then she winked at her fourth. In a quieter voice, she said, “My boy. You go do what you think you have to do, Spawner. I trust you.”
She resumed her watch, staring down at the hallway below.
Behind her, the Black Goat screamed. It was the kind of scream that someone made when their arm was broken, except that scream was one of surprise and agony, it rose, hit its crescendo, and then fell, so breath could be caught, and the next scream could begin.
The Black Goat reached the crescendo, then managed to squeak out another, shorter, more intense scream with that reserve of oxygen he kept in his lungs.
The third scream cut in before he could gasp in a breath, if it could even be called a scream. It was to screams what the dry heave was to vomit.
Ingenue looked down at her feet, noted a bit of dirt on the toe, and lifted her foot up, so her ankle crossed her thigh. She cleaned it up. A cruder person like Blood Diamond might have made their servants lick it off, but Miranda had no interest in degradation.
Little Goat managed to scream while dragging in a breath.
“Spawner,” she called out. “You have better eyes than I do, and you have more eyes than I do. Could you come here?”
The gigantic man did as asked.
“That dark corner over there. Do you see anyone?”
He shook his head.
“Okay. Would you keep watch? Just to be safe?”
She reached up to rub his upper arm as she turned and walked away. She approached the Goat, who was reduced to crawling, burbling his screams more than anything.
Her approach took her in the opposite direction that the procession line of lemon-sized bugs traveled. Bugs with snips of skin, chunks of meat…
She walked so her left foot was to her right and her right foot was to her left, weaving her way along the line to where the bloody goat crawled. She had to abandon her skipping game because a group of very enterprising bugs were dragging a length of intestine out.
Looking back, she could see the bugs climbing up Spawner’s legs and finding holes to nestle into. Holes in the thigh, in the very nice but alien buttocks, in sides, back… they brought the food in with them, to deposit it inside and feed their mother-father. The pieces helped accelerate the man’s regeneration, replacing missing skin and muscle.
The bloody goat crawled toward his one doll that had no injuries yet.
She stepped on his hand, boot heel on skinless fingers.
“Oh, sorry about that,” she said. She didn’t take her foot off of his hand. “How rude of me. I wanted to say, I really hope we didn’t get off on the wrong foot.”
She checked. One of his feet was still intact. The other was in the process of being dismantled, razor mandibles and multiple bugs working to pull apart the segments.
Really, it was marvelous that he was still somehow aware and conscious. A testament to character.
He bled from the mouth, eyes widening as a new reel of intestine was tugged out of his abdomen.
But he managed something resembling a nod.
“Let’s get you some help,” she said. She took her boot off his foot, then walked over to the unused doll. Bending down, she took him by the hand, then led him to the silly, bloody, one-footed goat.
By the time she got there, the goat wasn’t moving. She nudged his head with her foot, and saw him rouse. Then she saw the flickering begin. The transfer of wounds started, one by one.
She ran fingers through his hair, and gave him a bit of a boost, to help him along.
That done, she left them to it, returning to Spawner’s side.
Hands clasped in front of her, she focused her attention on Spawner. Touch was best, but Teacher had given her focus, no drawback, and she was learning to use it. To alter powers and their courses without the need for touch. Spawner’s bugs went still, momentarily, and his regeneration accelerated, to the point he healed fully in two seconds.
Another turn of certain keys, and the bugs resumed their process of feeding him what they’d collected, finding their nooks and their holes in the honeycomb portions of their father-mother.
With her power and with all of the focus in that power that Teacher had gifted her, she controlled the path of it. She chose the designs that would have been nearly random before, put her hands on controls, and painted him with her own brushes. To make him the beautiful sort of alien.
“Holy shit-fuck,” she heard.
“Is there a problem?” she asked, turning. Spawner turned with her, as did her other boys.
Scapegoat grabbed his helmet and pulled it back on. He was silent for long seconds. He was intact now. His doll wasn’t.
“You used up your last doll. We should open the doors, have the injured carried out, and see about getting you some more. In the meantime, you should give some volition to my boys and dull the senses of one of your other dolls, so we can use them in a pinch.”
The goat boy stared down at the ground, shaking. The helmet hid his face from her.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Good. What a gentleman, doing as the lady asks.”
“Open the doors,” he said, giving his instructions to the thralls.
“And keep them open.”
Standing with light behind her, illumination from the daylight that touched the platform outside the hallway, was one of the Breakthrough members. Dusty, scraped here and there, with a bandage at her side.
Swansong, wasn’t it?
All poise, back straight, hair short, a cute white dress, a band of black across the eyes, that smoked from the edges.
It made Ingenue think of the girl who had first stepped from that elevator and into the birdcage.
She saw the slight movement of the hand, perpetual. A nervous twitch that never stopped, thumb moving in a circular motion. The tongue that licked lips and didn’t give or find moisture. Dry mouth.
That reminded Ingenue of her eighteen year old self even more. They’d put her on drugs from the moment they brought her in, and when the balance was off… well, not those specific side effects. Swansong’s drugs weren’t her own. But enough girls in her cell block had been instructed to take their own medications, and she’d found it easiest if she kept track of who needed to take what and ensure they took it.
Not that she would threaten them or anything.
“Poor girl,” she said. “You look so tired. Could we call a truce?”
“Truce? That implies a kind of equality is possible, and you are too far beneath me for anything of the sort.”
“I like you,” Ingenue said. “Come on. Take five minutes to catch your breath and talk to me. I’ll be the reckless, horrible lieutenant who divulges far too much of her stuffy boss’s plan, as an enticement. Don’t you want to know what he’s doing? Why?”
Swansong didn’t move.
“Should I-” the Black Goat started. Ingenue gave him a hard look. “-shutting up.”
“You lose nothing, and if you wait, there’s a chance Valkyrie’s forces mount an attack. It would put us at a disadvantage, having to deal with you and them at the same time.”
Swansong remained where she was. Her hand didn’t stop moving, perpetually, unconsciously. It made Ingenue think of Black Kaze and her constant, unconscious reach for her katana.
Did you take your meds twice, in hopes of finding more balance? It doesn’t work that way. Or did you take medication for that injury at your side and unwittingly boost the other?
“Water?” Ingenue asked. She motioned to Leister. He reached for his pack and grabbed a water bottle, throwing it to her. She caught it with one hand. “Interested?”
“I’m not stupid,” Swansong said. “No.”
“What does it take?” Ingenue asked.
“You bend the knee, admit you’re lower than shit, swearing yourself to someone like Teacher and threatening the world like this.”
“I always did like your type of hero. I prefer the theatrical, majestic guy sort, but… a taste for the theatrical is so important. A bit of healthy arrogance. We lost that, somewhere along the way.”
“You’re not kneeling. You’re not only lower than shit, you’re stupid too.”
Ingenue turned to Leister. “I forbid you from lying. Tell her about Valkyrie’s forces and their attacks.”
“They’ve been attacking regularly,” Leister said. “We’re due for another attack soon.”
“Is it to her advantage or mine if we make idle chatter?”
“Hers, not ours,” Leister said.
“See?” Ingenue asked.
“It’s an obvious trap.”
“I’m bored,” Ingenue said. “And I’ve got brainless company, and the rest of my company has no personality because Teacher worked on them. Look… Spawner. I’m going to want you to throw yourself from this ledge, to the hallway below us. Make it a hard enough landing that it takes you a while to heal. Leister, Usher, Captain Claw, when I say so, I want you to go to that platform all the way down there. Hang off the edge.”
“Threats? Hostages?” Swansong asked.
“They won’t be in earshot. I’m getting them out of the way, so we can talk. Idle the time until Teacher loses.”
Swansong shook her head. “Now I know you’re baiting me.”
“I don’t have a very high estimation of the man, but he’s convenient, and Contessa is loose. This doesn’t end well for him. Again, let’s talk. You and little old me.”
“The use of the word ‘old’ is the only thing you just said that I believe,” Swansong said.
“Jump, Spawner. Go, Leister, Usher, Captain.”
Spawner jumped. He crunched as he hit the ground below. The three thralls jogged in Swansong’s general direction. She stepped clear out of their way, and let them pass by, wary.
The hand didn’t stop moving. Small movements of eyelids betrayed that Swansong’s eyes were moving constantly too. It had to be obnoxious.
“Honey,” Ingenue said. “You and me. I can tell you what Teacher has upstairs. I won’t get in your way when you want to go or if you want to go to Valkyrie. In exchange, you give me a pass.”
“A good word,” Ingenue said, squinting her eyes a bit. She smiled again. “Say I helped, I didn’t realize what Teacher was up to until I was in too deep. You can keep me out of trouble, if you think the information I provide is useful enough.”
“Playing both sides?”
“Don’t we all? Kind of?” Ingenue asked.
“Start talking then,” Swansong said. She approached at a careful walk. As she got closer, she brought her hands together. She seemed to concentrate for a moment, then manifested her power- a knot of darkness contained within her hands, a loose, swirling, noisy little sphere. It snarled and scraped in a way that made Ingenue think of chainsaws, knives on blackboards, and wolves, all together.
“And that?” Ingenue asked.
“If you use your power to try to affect mine-”
“Requires touch,” Ingenue lied.
“Maybe you have filaments of your own flesh extending along the floor, too thin to see.”
With the way your eyes are twitching, you couldn’t see if they weren’t too thin.
“It could be any number of things. I’d rather play it safe. Talk.”
“About which part? The upstairs? His plan? I’m an open book.”
The Black Goat looked spooked. Probably because any outcome was a bad outcome for him, the way this was going.
“Upstairs,” Swansong said.
“I’ve only had glimpses, but he has a mechanism for-”
Swansong brought her hands apart. Ingenue threw herself back as the contained power lunged out. It had almost hit her.
A twist of the hand directed the power, which flared out into a full, cone-shaped blast with its own snarling, chainsaw-on-blackboard noise.
Swansong kicked Ingenue in the stomach, so the backwards stumble became a fall. She stepped forward, looking down, power crackling at her hands-
A momentary hesitation.
Just long enough for Spawner’s tongue to lash up from twenty feet below, grabbing her wrist, and pulling it away as she used her power again. It missed Ingenue.
The tongue hauled down, bringing Swansong to her knees and nearly pulling her from the ledge. Ingenue took the opportunity to roll to one side and scramble back, eyes wide.
Swansong severed the tongue, and then looked at Ingenue. A blast of her power saw her lunge ten feet forward, as her other hand reached out.
The blast consumed Ingenue, head to toe.
It cleared away. Swansong stood there, head bent, a glare in her eyes.
Ingenue was untouched. She turned her head and saw Usher. Usher could grant an invulnerability to powers.
The heroine threw herself from the ledge, toward the intersection and the entrance to the hallway where Valkyrie and her team was holed in.
Ingenue straightened. Bitter, annoyed, she reached out, using the focus that Teacher had given her.
She normally reserved using her power for people she liked, because she felt a connection through that link. But she’d liked Swansong as a kind of modern representation of herself, a bit in aesthetic, a lot in attitude, so she gave herself a pass.
While Swansong was still in the air, reaching down to direct a blast that would break her fall, Ingenue reached out to take the control away from that blast. Adjust the slides and scales. More power, less control.
Swansong pushed to have her power come out, and it didn’t. The hand she wasn’t intending to use her power with sparked instead, throwing her off course and doing nothing to break her fall.
The ledge they’d stood on was twenty feet above the hallway below. The landing was a violent one.
“Get them,” Ingenue pointed in the direction of Leister, Captain Claw, and Usher. “So they can get her.”
Swansong tried to stand, and an involuntary use of her power knocked her to the ground again.
Valkyrie’s forces were coming. Ingenue wasn’t bothered.
She watched as Swansong, too far away to say anything, clearly in pain from the fall, reached for her belt. She had a syringe.
Ingenue was a little more bothered by that. Contessa is out, she reminded herself. That meant-
An involuntary use of Swansong’s power destroyed the syringe she held. From a distance, those white eyes outlined in black were wide.
“Go,” she said, to Spawner, who was on the floor below. She made sure he was healed. Leister had already caught up. Usher was a bit further behind, hand still extended as he granted her the perpetual, inconsistent power immunity. “Handle it.”
Secondhand adjusted his kit, then his goggles. Always fussy. He filled himself in on tech. Last Minute remained patient.
“Running too hot, we’re shutting it off!” the thralls called out.
Last Minute gauged the machine, but he had no fucking clue how good or bad that was. That was for Final Hour to decide.
“That’s fine!” Last Minute called. The hole should be big for our man to get enough. He turned to Secondhand. “Isn’t it?”
Secondhand was gone. There was a distant explosion. Last Minute turned to look.
“Yeah,” Secondhand said. He was back. “One of the Capricorns is down, Antares is a bit injured. They’re ours.”