I woke up, my arm sliding across a file folder I’d left on my bed, with a stinging sensation I was sure was a six inch long papercut.
I made myself sit up and swing my legs to the floor without using flight, and I sat where I was, feeling the muggy, lethargic, slow sensation of being sick. I unwrapped bandages, and with some gentle prodding, I checked my arm and hand, where stitches still connected the flesh that had been flensed from finger and hand. It wasn’t puffy, and it wasn’t an inflamed red. The red line that had been tracing its way from the wound up my arm was gone.
After everything, after winter cold, damp prison hallways, skipped meals, injury, several periods of unconsciousness, about seven minor injuries and two bad ones, my immune system had thrown in the towel.
Five days. I’d decided I was okay with being sick for a set period of time, I’d scale down what I asked of myself by doing only one necessary thing a day, recuperate, find my equilibrium. Then I’d ease back into things or I’d go to the hospital. Not that hospitals were an easy thing to wrangle right now.
I was annoyed I’d moved the papers, so a stack of papers in one file folder had fanned out to smear into another file folder, to the point I had to figure out which belonged where. The folder to the right was Professor Haywire. Multiple personalities, with each personality living in one Earth. He’d gone full mad scientist and opened the first portal we’d known about. We’d later found out there was one in Europe and, apparently, the one in Cauldron.
The file folder to the left was more recent. It was from the infodump Dragon had given me, detailing everything we knew about agents and how they were structured.
The door we’d glimpsed bothered me. I wanted to wrap my head around it.
I stood, and I pulled on something more decent to wear- the long top with the black hood and the Brockton Bay skyline across the front that I’d worn to first meet Jessica’s therapy circle. I fiddled with my hair, braided for overnight, tucking loose strands behind my ears as I made my way to the kitchen.
Kenzie was sleeping on the couch, drowning in an excess of heavy blankets and comforters, with only the top of her head and the buns of her hair sticking out of the top end of the blanket burrito. The coffee table was littered with tinkering stuff, a few plates, and a couple of glasses, and the television had been left on. In the sunless hours of the winter morning, they were running some kid’s show with a crew of a spaceship. I thought the protagonist looked a bit disturbing, but whatever.
From the fact the television was on and that she hadn’t done her usual routine for her hair, wrapping it up to protect it, I guessed she had gone straight from tinker stuff to turning out the lights, pulling blankets down on top of herself from where they’d been set up at the back of the couch.
Routine was important for kids in grief, and this wasn’t routine. I picked up two ends from ice cream cones that had been half-eaten, putting them on a plate. Two ice cream cones definitely wasn’t normal, nevermind that Kenzie liked to eat the top part of the cone, lick out the ice cream that had been packed in all the way, but didn’t enjoy the cones enough on their own to finish them. Didn’t matter on the cone type. Just your standard eleven year old type weirdness.
I found another two-inch long bit of uneaten cone between two glasses.
I was indulging her. Letting her do her thing and find her own routine. If she wanted something, I let her have it, within reason.
I was careful not to make any noise as I collected dishes, avoiding moving any tinkering work.
“Breakfast?” she asked. She didn’t poke her head out.
“Did I wake you? Sorry.”
“I set an alarm to wake me up if you got up,” the Kenzie burrito said. “You look healthier than you did yesterday.”
“I feel better. Eight out of ten.”
“Good. Do you want breakfast? I can make stuff. My foster dads used to teach me.”
She wiggled and struggled until her head was out of the burrito, and craned her head around to look up at me. She gave me a half-smile, only one side of her mouth turning upward.
“Nah. I’ll make something. What do you want?”
“You have that yellow egg bread stuff, right?”
“Challah. Yes. I’m not sure how good it is.”
“It’s good. Can you make french toast with it?” The smile had dropped away, and her eyes were big.
“If you agree to something with vitamin C.”
“Alright,” I said.
I made my way into the kitchen to drop off the dishes. In the background, I heard her say, “Yes! I love this show. I’m never awake to see it.”
Kenzie had been my day one thing. I’d tackled one priority in each of my five days of dealing with the infection in my arm and whatever I’d had that was between flu and cold. I’d asked her what she wanted and needed and she’d said she wanted to stay over. I’d warned her I was sick, that I couldn’t give her my full attention, and she’d said that was fine.
She’d stuck as close to me as I let her, as I did my best not to pass on whatever I’d picked up. During the day, she either accompanied me on my errands, or she went off with other teammates. Her team had asked for help with a job, and she’d gone to do that yesterday. She had stayed for three hours, just long enough to handle the job and come back.
I knew her team was worried. That they didn’t know what to do about her, and she didn’t know what to do about them.
Kenzie thumped to the ground, prompting me to look away from the bread I was cutting up. She’d rolled out of her burrito and onto the floor, and was in the process of kicking and punching her way free. She bolted once she was out of it, straight down the hallway.
“Ad break gonna pee real quick back soon.”
The bathroom door banged shut.
It had been Candy who had given me the data stick. I’d plugged it into my phone while waiting for Kenzie to get her things together.
I had no idea how Candy had even got it, but it was surveillance footage from the Warden’s HQ. Kenzie stricken. Kenzie pushing things off of the desk she’d set up at. A faltering attempt at smiling had given way to tears, sobbing. She’d started shouting and pushing more things to the ground when her teammates had tried to reassure her. In the end, it had been Tattletale who had caught her in a hug, pinning her arms at her sides, and held her there. Tattletale who, despite the video not having audio, had apparently told Chicken Little, Darlene, and Candy to go.
When Kenzie had been released from the hug, she’d gone back to her computer. To keep updating us.
After everything had wrapped up, we had spent a few hours together recapping, but Tristan had wanted to get Byron looked after, Kenzie’s ride had come to pick her up, and the rest of us had needed medical attention. I’d gone back to the apartment, cried some, and crashed hard. I woke up sick and Kenzie had been the first thing on my mind. She’d come over that evening and she had stayed every night since. She had opted to sleep on the couch rather than disturb Ashley’s room.
She ran down the hallway and up the stairs to the living room, banging into the table in her hurry to get situated in front of the television again. I peeked, and saw her bundling up in her blankets.
No sign of any agitation. Her eyes weren’t red, she wasn’t smiling incessantly, she wasn’t crying.
I made the french toast, quickly fried up some hash browns with sweet potato, and got the O.J. out. I turned the kitchen T.V. onto the channel with the spaceship show.
The process of putting it all together was nice, even if I had less than zero appetite, still feeling groggy from the illness.
She came without protest or hesitation, but I did see her perk up when she saw that the show she was so into was on in the kitchen as well. Ashley’s thing had been to have a lot of televisions and radios.
Kenzie leaned over her plate to reach out and touch the screen. She dragged the image aside, beyond the confines of the screen itself, and onto the wall. She did it a few more times, bringing up email and a news channel that was currently showing the weather.
“I didn’t know you tinkered the T.V.,” I commented, as I sat down with my own plate.
“I did it to keep myself busy the other night, while you napped.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“No, it’s fine. We did something before, and we watched that movie after, that was nice. And this is really nice, thank you so much.”
It was. I had no appetite, and my senses were dulled, and it was still surprisingly good. I liked challah and I liked french toast, and I’d never thought to put them together.
“I feel guilty, not being able to give you my full attention.”
“You’re sick. It’s okay. I’m just really happy you’re keeping me company,” she said, speaking between bites. “I would have gone crazy if I was at the facility.”
The place for the orphans and foster kids in transition. Chris’s old place.
“Are you feeling like you need more routine, or get back to where you have your stuff?”
She shook her head, shrugging. At the same time, she started trying to cut the crust of the bread. Her top had only the two narrow straps at the shoulders, leaving the arms and the rest of the shoulders bare, and I could see tension there. It would have been easy to chalk it up to the effort of cutting through the thicker crust of the bread, but… Kenzie was very good at hiding what she was feeling.
“Talk to me. I can’t help if you don’t tell me what you’re feeling.”
“I don’t want to go back just yet. I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know what’s happening with my team or our team or the city or anything. This is nice, I-”
She turned her head to look at one of the screens that was floating around the television, tilting her head slightly.
I ducked my head down, until my chin was nearly touching my hands, which were flat on the table, trying to get a better look at her face.
She met my eyes.
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t want to be a problem, I don’t want to scare you away or bother you. It’s really obvious to me now that I can think everything’s fine and then it’s really not. I thought I was better and I’m not.”
“But I want to stay. Just for a little while longer.”
“When I dropped you off that night, at the end of the day everything happened with Teacher, the staff said they were concerned, because you made those images, and they said it looked like a projection of Ashley with something that looked like-”
“Don’t-” Kenzie interrupted, her mouth partially full. She swallowed. “Don’t say it was A.I. It wasn’t A.I. it was just a picture and a few minor triggers. I still get flack for some stuff I did at the end of Summer that wasn’t A.I. I got questions from Parahumans Online about it after, and then from the team, and I told Jessica, and Jessica had to double check it wasn’t A.I. because that’s the kind of thing that makes the heroes crack down on you and they checked and they agreed it wasn’t so no. No. Not A.I., no intelligence. If you say it was, I will actually get mad.”
“Not A.I.,” I said.
She huffed a bit and nodded. She took another bite, and chewed it more than necessary.
I had no fucking clue how I should read the things like Kenzie crying and sobbing instead of smiling, or her getting angry in a way that showed, like here or with Chris. Was that growth, genuine and healthy displays of emotion? Or was it worrying because she was getting upset and ranting a bit, that she was grieving, or that her emotions were running this high?
“I miss her,” I said. “Enough it hurts, and that it surprises me a little.”
Kenzie looked up from her food, chewing.
“She was really good company. Maybe the best kind of roommate to have. We had a good sense of each other’s rhythm and boundaries. I feel like she forced me to grow up a lot about some stuff. About the faces we put on and the roles we play, and… it sucks so much.”
“Sucks,” Kenzie muttered. She smiled, eyes downcast. “You know it sucks for me. You saw that video Candy gave you.”
“I-” I shouldn’t be surprised she knows. She didn’t even seem to mind, but that was just how Kenzie worked. “-Yeah. I worry about you. About the projects you’d put together or what you’d get up to when I’m not looking. Because I care about you too, and I know I’d do some crazy stuff if I had your power and I’d just lost someone I cared about.”
“I won’t do anything,” she said. “I only made the Ashley projection with some basic expressions because I was lonely and I didn’t know what to do. It made me feel worse because it wasn’t quite right. So don’t worry, I’ll be good, I’ll stick to old projects.”
Because it wasn’t quite right. It made me think of Amy, about the process that had led to the Wretch coming to be. It made me worry about Kenzie more.
“Okay. That’s reassuring. We need you to talk to someone, I think. And we need to talk to your team. Chicken Little, Syndicate, Decadent.”
“Whatever you want me to do. So don’t make me go back? At least for a little while?” Her eyes were puppy dog big, her smile small and unsure.
“That’s not- it doesn’t have anything to do with anything, okay? You can stay tonight unless they say you have to go back.”
She nodded. She glanced at the screens beside her.
“No cheating the system, sending false messages, or sabotaging things so they don’t want you to come back or, I don’t know, because you set up a hologram that makes them think you’re there.”
“I thought about that but I wouldn’t do it,” she confessed.
I didn’t press. We ate, Kenzie chugged the last half-glass of her O.J., then she hurried over to the sink to begin washing.
I would have protested she didn’t have to help out, but instead, I just joined her, doing my share of it, and putting away the stuff on the rack.
Ashley’s obsidian mug, still on the drying rack from a week ago.
“What are you up to today?” I asked.
“I don’t know, what are you doing?”
“Everything,” I said. “Catching up, Byron, seeing where we fit into things with the whole…”
I indicated the television screen where the weather update had dropped away and the tail end of a news segment showed. There were cars on the road bumper to bumper, red taillights and white snow. The scene changed to people moving down the sidewalk, all carrying things.
“I know some of the rest of the team is helping, and Chicken, Deca, and Syn are helping too, in their own ways.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Can I come with you? I wanted to see Byron too.”
I thought about it for a second, then nodded.
“Costume or no costume?” she asked.
It was a good question.
“No costume for today. While we work on bouncing back. If we wear something costumey we’ll feel compelled to do something costumey.”
“Good plan,” she said.
I looked back at the television, where they showed rows and rows of fresh new tents. Then protests, riots, and anti-parahumans gathered together in something that looked like it was going from protest to riot.
Calling for a ride and getting through all of that?
“Want to fly there?” I asked.
Mass evacuation. The ice was cracking, we’d been given a deadline suggesting disaster would strike within a week or two. All it would take was a precipitating act, the ice would crack, and, well, we’d seen the data lifted from Teacher’s computer.
With full knowledge that it was winter and we were putting lives at risk, our side was working with local government to force people to vacate. Some resisted, and some of that resistance was gathered at the front of the Warden HQ. A line of police was all that was keeping them from storming the place. One of them was being disarmed of something they’d lit on fire, with police taking advantage of the fact that people had backed away from the protester to gang up on him three against one.
I landed on the roof, easing Kenzie down so she could stand beside me, and then adjusted the heavy bag full of her tinker stuff and my supplies.
“So angry,” Kenzie said, peering over the ledge.
I wore a medical mask, out of consideration for the people around us and the people we were bound to run into. I didn’t want to get any heroes sick. It made talking annoying, with the way it rubbed against my nose. “They’re losing their homes. Just like we’re probably going to have to say goodbye to the apartment.”
“Can we get stuff out? I have workshop stuff I’d miss. And furniture? Books? Ashley had so many things she was so fond of. I want to keep some.”
“We’ll do something,” I said. I struggled with keys, my left hand not fully cooperating, the gloves I wore not exactly helping. “But not everyone can do something, that’s why they’re upset.”
“Yeah. But if they spent less time protesting and more time preparing, they could bring more with them.”
“Maybe,” I said, as I unlocked the door. “Some of them don’t care about things, they want to keep other things. Security. Not having to worry they’ll keep facing tough winters. Not feeling like there’ll be one world ending threat every few years. Endbringers, then Scion, now this, which we’re being vague about, and which we haven’t made any major arrests on.”
We let ourselves into the top floor of the Warden’s HQ, not that this was much more than a cardboard cutout building propped up in front of the real HQ.
“Because we’re saying it was the portals and the long term danger is worse than we thought, and the portals were done by the religious nuts at Cheit, who we can’t do anything about because diplomacy.”
“We can’t attack them without losing diplomatic support. We’re the big guys in terms of the weapons we hold and the little guys in everything else. And honestly, it would be really nice to have clearance to go into Cheit right now.”
We made our way down the stairwell to the passworded hallway. Kenzie could do the hallway with her eyes closed, so I let her do the steps to take us to the bunker.
The road to the bunker was framed by two new buildings, and the bunker had a neighboring structure. The number of guards had tripled, many gathered on the rises on either side of the path, looking down at us with weapons at the ready.
But they knew my face. I raised a hand in a wave, and they waved me through.
We didn’t stop in at the bunker itself. We continued down the path, took a hard left, and passed beneath more guards on our way to our destination.
Into Teacher’s facility.
“My first time here,” Kenzie said.
“You haven’t visited Byron?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I was planning to.”
As there had been armed guards guarding the way between bunker and facility, there were capes waiting for us on the other side. One of them handed me an info sheet. They hesitated before handing Kenzie one, and after a quick glance, I motioned for them to hand it to her.
Earth Cheit, Church Capitol West
Teacher – Benjamin Terrell
Overseer/Custodian – A76
Moord Nag – Lou Joubert
Greater City Area
Ingenue – Miranda Webb
Leister – Jamar Lafranca
Usher – Ray C. Rudolph
Captain Claw – Charles Ali
Black Goat/Scapegoat – William Giles
9 Soldiers, Mixed Squads
Unknown (Last seen Earth N)
Squad Leader (Green-Black)
6 Green-Black Soldiers
Squad Leader (Orange-Red)
Squad Leader (Gray-Gray)
12 Soldiers, Mixed Squads
“Thanks,” I said. It was always good to get an update. The list had been twice as long on my last visit, two days ago.
“You’ve been here before? Do you need a guide?”
“No, but she might if she wants to go do something.”
“This sheet has some basic information and a number to call if you want a guide or escort, and another number to call if you see something concerning. We’ve painted or taped areas that are high risk.”
“Thank you,” Kenzie said. “I wanted to use some tinker gear, but Victoria said I’d need to get it checked out.”
“We can page people and see who’s available. Go on ahead, and we’ll have them find you. Where are you off to next?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. Take the elevator.”
“Thank you,” Kenzie said.
The place they had picked for the portal to exit was a hallway that could be defended if need be, that opened up into a larger area of the complex, a central room with stairs, hallways and, at the far end, a series of elevators. There were people mopping and cleaning, because the tromp of boots was depositing a lot of muck on the white tile, and there was a lot of muck, with some areas having been reduced to debris.
We’d moved in, more or less. Thralls all relocated and quarantined, until such a time that Teacher no longer had a serious hold on them. Some people from the city were being brought here, to select and specific areas that could be cut off from the areas we were using to conduct business.
There was food here, there were beds, there were storage areas, shower facilities, plumbing, power, and backup power.
The elevators weren’t like the usual. The doors were open, the elevators waiting, each large enough to drive a car into. We got inside, hit the button, and the door whisked closed, before carrying us two floors up. The doors opened, and Defiant stepped inside, wearing a reduced-down version of his power suit. The effect was similar to a fireman shucking off coat, belt, gloves, and headgear while still wearing the rest, but Defiant’s stuff was green and gold armor so heavy it needed tech to move with.
He found a spot to stand next to Kenzie. She only came up to his waist, with the way his gear and boots extended his height.
“Heya. How are you guys?”
“We’re staying on top of things. Victoria, always good to see someone from home.”
“Likewise,” I said.
From home. We still weren’t thinking of this city as home.
We hadn’t even fucking named it, and now we were abandoning it.
Or had we not named it because we’d known on some fundamental level that we might have to abandon it, that it was temporary and fragile?
“What you did over last week was a big help. Figuring out Teacher’s info-attack vector, Shin, and the raid.” He extended a hand for me to shake.
“I’m sick,” I told him. “Sorry, I would otherwise.”
“I don’t mind,” he responded. “I don’t think I can get sick.”
I shook his hand. He wasn’t wearing gauntlets, but his hand was still large as it folded around mine. I could see seams and patches where it wasn’t skin, with too smooth a texture.
“The tech?” he asked. “I’d stay to talk, take as much time to talk shop and catch you up, but there’s too much to do.”
I lowered the bag to the ground so Kenzie could fish out the tech. It was akin to a double-thick keyboard with no buttons, and a depression along one side. It looked heavier, and she needed two hands to lift it up to Defiant, who held it in one.
“Not a cube, huh?” I asked.
“It is,” she said.
“She’s right, it is a cube,” Defiant said, while investigating the thing that wasn’t a cube. “Should you tell me what this is, or would you prefer I figure it out?”
“You can figure. Twenty-five percent of the reason I’m asking is I don’t want to step on toes. Seventy-five percent is because there’s that slight, teeny-tiny chance that this isn’t what we want to do in any place with a chance of fracturing.”
“I see what you mean,” he said, as he opened up the casing, looking at the internals. Lenses were arranged in arrays, to the point it was more glass than anything, and the tech that was there looked like the arrays that extended back from the ocular cameras she’d had us place in our eyes.
The elevator came to a stop. We stepped out into the hallway, remaining where we were, while he produced a laser from his gauntlet, shining it through some of the lenses.
“Careful of polarities, please,” Kenzie said, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “I know you know your stuff, but…”
“Understood. I didn’t change any numbers. Looking at this, you should be fine. You’re not outputting anything, you’re clarifying things that are operating within the sector-space.”
“Yeah. Yep. But sometimes when you point a camera at someone, they look into the camera.”
“They don’t reach through to hit you or break your camera, either.”
“Um, uh… I’m not smart enough to keep the analogy going. But they’re multidimensional space monsters. They could. Um, sometimes you don’t want to agitate someone on the other side of the glass if that glass is close to breaking.”
“I think you’re safe,” he said, handing Kenzie the keyboard thing. “And about what you just said, I do think you’re smart. More importantly, you put in the effort, and I put a lot of stock in that. If we were still in the PRT, I would want you on my team.”
“No you wouldn’t. Nobody who’s seen my record would.”
“I’ve seen your record, and I would.”
“I’m a fuckup, though. I leave a trail of messed up relationships and regrets behind me, wherever I go. I’m doing it right now.”
“With me? No.”
I bit my lip. I wanted to comment, but- this was between them.
“No,” Kenzie agreed. “My new team.”
“I’m very much the same, Lookout. I made… almost no friends, over the years. Chevalier, Myrddin, Miss Militia. I’m not even sure most would look at those relationships and think of them as friendships.”
“Dragon?” Kenzie asked.
“I was getting around to that. Dragon was my first real friendship. I had immense respect, trust, and fondness for her. It did require some leaps of faith, challenges.”
“Because she’s an A.I.”
“Yes. And because we’re different people. We figured it out, because it was worth it for both of us. That laid a foundation for a relationship that was more.”
“I’ve talked about those sorts of foundations with people before. It’s not that easy. It sounds easy on paper, but…”
“I know. Believe me.”
She wiggled a bit, “But if you want more friends, I’m always down. You’ve seen my record so it’s okay if you say no. But if you say yes, then you’re saying yes while knowing I’m a bit of a nuclear-powered screwer-upper of relationships.”
“I would be happy to be your friend, Lookout. And if I’m welcome, I’d like to see the tech in use. I have a guess about what you’re doing.”
She nodded, enthusiastic, then looked at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, though we’re not the only people involved. If they say no…”
“Of course,” Defiant said.
We got moving. Though he’d just handed us the keyboard thing, Defiant ended up carrying it and carrying the bag, which I was secretly grateful for. I didn’t feel like I was at a hundred percent, and fatigue set in easy.
Even though it was against my personal policy, I ended up flying rather than walking as we made our way through the hospital wing.
“Is Dragon okay?” I asked.
“What’s she up to?”
“Infrastructure development at Carroll Hill and Aadams, two as, two of the new tent cities and hopefully one of the places we can settle for good.”
I suppressed a comment at that.
“Your teammate fought Saint, did he mention her?”
“No, I was just asking because she was absent.”
“As was I, for the latter part. Dragon is immensely powerful, but she, like any tinker, is dependent on her pre-established work to function at optimal capacity. The Dragonslayers knew this and used it against her in the past. Teacher used it against her here. With no satellites to use for remote access except the ones she deployed after passing through the portal, she was limited in what she could do. If she dies without redundant systems and infrastructure behind her, she dies for good, just as any of us would.”
Kenzie’s eyes dropped to the floor. At the same time, I made a bit of a face. I wasn’t sure he’d seen with the medical mask covering my mouth.
He’d seen. “…And there I go, proving my earlier point. I’m not always good at conversation, even or especially casual conversation. I heard about your teammate. I didn’t mean to prod a wound.”
That was casual?
Talking about death, dying, and the cape stuff?
Either way, I nodded.
“It’s okay,” Kenzie said. “I’ll forgive you your foibles if you forgive me mine.”
“We’ll work on them,” he said. To me, he said, “I don’t suffer from that same general need. I don’t often lose my technology. But I suffer for a lack of allies and friends. I could have gone ahead and cut my way through an army of people who only committed the crime of getting brainwashed, but I thought it better to support my team, my wife, and force him to keep committing forces.”
“It wasn’t easy,” I said.
He shook his head. “No, and neither is the aftermath. Teacher is free and untouchable for the time being, Ingenue is on the loose, and other thralls are operating elsewhere. Gary Nieves is wanting to make a meeting, bringing Dinah Alcott with him, of all people, and he has a great deal of political clout because of the ongoing riots and protests. We’re trying to secure the city and ensure the evacuation goes smoothly, and the only asset we have in the process of that is that Contessa is working with Citrine to manage it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “My feelings exactly.”
Byron’s room was at the end of the hall. Rain was there, as was Vista, who wore the cloth part of her costume, but not her armor. She was curled up in a chair near Byron. Rain sat on the opposite side, shoes kicked off, sock-covered feet up on the side of the bed.
They were watching a movie, to the tune of regular beeps.
Byron lay on the bed, bandages on one arm, shoulder, and at his side. The bandages were clean, but there were hints of seepage, too thin to be straight blood, but with telltale crimson. He wore a t-shirt with parts cut out to accommodate the bandaging, and pyjama bottoms. He hadn’t woken as we’d entered.
His eyes were half-lidded. I’d seen him awake and I’d seen him unconscious. He had slept through eighty percent of my visits. Seeing Byron had been my thing on day three of being sick, with me keeping my distance because of the illness.
“Oh hey,” Vista said, her voice pitched to be quiet, so she wouldn’t disturb Byron. “Hi boss.”
“Hi, Vista,” Defiant said, matching her tone.
“Hanging out?” I asked.
“I was up all night with patrols, I came by and stayed for the movie,” she said. True enough, she did have circles under her eyes that had nothing to do with the thick black eyeliner she’d applied.
Kenzie hurried into the room, getting the keyboard.
“We’re trying it?” Rain asked.
“Yeah,” Kenzie said, double checking with Defiant.
She was doing a lot of double checking.
She set the keyboard on the foot of the bed, reconsidered, and had Rain stand up, before placing it on his chair, scooting the chair over.
“You’re not using your power, right?” she asked Vista.
“Because even if Defiant says there isn’t, I’m worried there’s a teeny, tiny chance this could blow up everything.”
I stopped flying. Rain backed away a step.
She placed her phone over top of the buttonless keyboard, then used it as her console, to activate parts. She slid it over, hit more buttons, slid it over, and hit more.
It came to life, light shining from the seams.
And orange-red motes began to move through the air, diffuse and smaller than what Tristan normally created.
They settled into a general silhouette, and then that silhouette clarified, until we had an ethereal image of Tristan, just a bit fuzzy around the finer details like individual strands of hair, eyelashes, and a thread or two on his clothes.
He overlapped Byron at first, but as he tested his movement, he slipped off to one side and stood away.
He attempted to cross the room, and he hit an invisible wall. He reached out to touch it.
When he spoke, though, his words came out as audio garbage, all the right sounds if those sounds had been into a blender and mixed in with static. He tried again and seemed a bit put out.
“Fine tuning to be done,” Kenzie said. She shut down the box. The motes began to scatter, peeling away and dissolving. “Can we wake up Tristan, see what it’s like for him?”
Rain reached down and jostled Byron’s shoulder, trying to wake him. It didn’t work. He sounded discouraged more than upset as he said, “I’ll get a nurse.”
Had he sounded very upset, I might have panicked. As it was, I was anxious and uncomfortable with so much about this. Kenzie literally wrung her hands.
Rain stepped out of the room.
“It’s cool that it worked that well,” Kenzie said. “He could move around. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to let him do that. They can make micro-adjustments to have a slightly different pose or posture when they swap in.”
“Is that why you had the perpendicular set of high-distortion prisms?” Defiant asked.
“I thought it might grease the track if he wanted to move down it.”
“It’s a good idea. You do sacrifice some clarity.”
“I made so many mistakes early on, trying to get perfect clarity or better-than-perfect clarity. No, it’s not what we need. We need to be able to communicate with him.”
The nurse came back in. She had a syringe. She addressed us all, not looking the least bit intimidated about being surrounded by capes, let alone Defiant’s massive frame. “He scheduled a wake up this morning, but are you sure you want to do this?”
“We are,” Rain said.
She removed the tubes from his nose, the covers from over top of him, and the heartbeat monitor from his finger. It produced the tonal beep of a flatline as she disconnected it, a sound that made ten kinds of bad emotion jump all over the place in my chest and stomach.
She gave Byron the syringe in the shoulder, depressing it.
His eyes fluttered, opened, and he stirred.
“Change,” Rain said. “Swap out.”
Byron hesitated, then blurred.
A moment later, he was Tristan. He sat up, hopped down.
“Couldn’t talk,” he said.
“We know,” Kenzie said. “I can work on that. Next time.”
“It would be a lifesaver,” Tristan said. “It would mean a lot.”
Kenzie bounced a little with excitement.
“Can we look for Byron?” Tristan asked.
Kenzie nodded. “Sit on the bed? Pull your legs up. You have to stay within bounds.”
She activated the machine again.
The blue motes appeared, and they coalesced into Byron’s form, partially curled up, lying just behind Tristan.
He looked to be unconscious.
Byron had sustained light brain trauma and more severe trauma to his body. The pair was trapped in a tricky dynamic now, because Byron went in and out of consciousness, something the nurses said was a consequence of the kind of healing he needed to do.
But he didn’t heal while Tristan was out and about. He had to be phased in, lying there, with people checking on him, for best results.
Tristan had been giving up extra time just to give his brother a shot at a faster recovery. And he was recovering, but it was slow.
And, apparently, while Byron was in that twilight state of recovery, Tristan was aware. There was no sleeping in sync like they normally did. Not for most of it.
“That makes this the first time in years he’s not looking over my shoulder,” Tristan said, sounding awed, or stunned, or horrified, if not all three.
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Vista said.
“Maybe,” Tristan said. “We’d have to do more tests. Do this a few more times.”
“I’m down!” Kenzie said, sounding excited. “Yes, absolutely, but I have to go home and tinker and then I can bring it back, and in between phases, I need to visit Rain while he’s asleep.”
“Because I think the principles we’re using here could help give a sense of what’s going on there, in your head, when you’re in your dream room. And if we can do that-”
“The door,” Rain said.
“If we can move static things or grease the way, maybe we can get it so you can go through.”
Holy shit. Do what Teacher was doing? Going into the Shard’s space and affecting things there?
Everyone assembled turned to look at the speaker. Defiant.
“No, I’m sorry. I could talk to other members of the Wardens about it, but… I don’t think we could conscience it.”
“If we don’t, Teacher will,” Kenzie said. “He’ll figure out how to get in there and how to mess with powers or do whatever else he was doing.”
“Maybe. He doesn’t have his tinkers or tech. That slows him down. We’re maneuvering to deal with him.”
“This is a possible answer. What do you think the danger is, if we’re basically doing what Teacher is?”
“I don’t think there’s any particular difference in the degree of danger you face, compared to him,” Defiant said. “I think it’s very possible what you’re talking about could work and would work in the same way.”
“Then why not?”
“Because you’re eleven, and he’s a criminal with the remainder of his punishment pending, and that’s… frankly, if it is what we think it is, it’s a horrific amount of power.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“I’m not sure I would trust Dragon with it, and I trust her more than I trust anyone. This is something we could reserve for emergencies, we could pull multiple tinkers in, and spread out the load, maybe, but… my instinct is no. It’s too much, and it’s too dangerous.”
“I’m sorry if this spoils our…”
“Friendship?” Kenzie asked. She shook her head. “No. You’re still cool.”
“I’m glad. I should go and look after things. This, in its current form? Very interesting work. Keep me up to date on the progress?” he asked.
He gave a nod to Vista, then turned to go.
The conversation resumed, Tristan getting his stuff together, Vista talking to him about a movie they’d watched, apparently Tristan’s pick, except she or Rain had picked up a similar movie to one on Tristan’s list, same name, same director, same year, wrong Earth of origin.
Kenzie was quiet, staring down at her work. Her hand ran along the flat surface.
Then she looked up at Rain, who was already watching her.
Her eyes found me.
As she’d done earlier, checking with me, checking with Defiant, checking with Rain.
Asking for permission. Permission to delve into stuff despite the warning from the top.
I didn’t say no.