The number of people we were heading back with had necessitated a second vehicle. Tattletale took one car, and because Syndicate was being punished, Syndicate rode with Tattletale in that car while Chicken Little rode in the other.
I wasn’t positive that this was the time to be dropping the hammer, going for the obvious sore spot, driving in any wedges, or making the kid’s mood worse, but I wasn’t positive about anything, and if something went wrong here, I could at least have the satisfaction of blaming Tattletale.
Still, it made for a much quieter car ride. Tattletale was free to give Darlene a talking-to in the other car, while five of us were crammed into Natalie’s car, which wasn’t the most spacious on its own.
Kenzie was in the corner opposite mine, knees up against her chest, head turned away, her eyes out the window. Candy sat sideways, and fussed with Kenzie’s hair as best as she was able. Natalie and I had combs, but they weren’t suited for Kenzie’s hair type, and Candy was using fingernails instead.
Chicken Little, quiet and aromatic in a slightly bird, slightly dog way, sat just behind my seat.
“I was secretly hoping we could make up, and you could show me around. Ever since you all told me about Rachel’s place, I’ve wanted to see the swimming hole-”
“It’s too cold to swim,” Chicken said.
“I know! I know, but I wanted to see it. I wanted to see the puppy pit, and the horseback riding, and the den where you have big sleepovers. You guys don’t have video footage or cameras around your place and the internet doesn’t reach there, so I couldn’t really find footage to fill out my mental pictures.”
Combing with fingernails, Candy murmured, “That’s how you reach across the gaps, hm?”
“There are some kids who live in the area who join in for some swimming and den sleepovers,” Chicken Little said. “You can’t tell them to go away because if you’re bad or rude you don’t get to participate and you’ll get kicked out, but they’re kind of outsiders and it’s really awkward.”
“You’re more an outsider than they are,” Candy said.
“You know what I mean, don’t you? They don’t know about all the cape stuff, or they’re really snotty. Some are okay, like Mason and Kathy, but a lot of the others are such a pain.”
“They live there. They have more right to the swimming hole and den than any of us. Some of them have horses of their own, and they work and do chores with the animals for the whole year to get special privileges,” Candy said.
“But- the Heartbroken always complain about them.” Aiden protested.
“The Heartbroken, in case you missed it, can be the absolute worst, Chicken. Man, I’m so mad at them right now.”
“Ow,” Kenzie said, as Candy tugged too hard.
“Am- am I the annoying snooty outsider that’s butting my head into things at Aunt Rachel’s?” Chicken Little asked.
“Yes,” Candy said, at the same time Kenzie said, “Maybe.”
“Woah,” Chicken Little said. “I don’t know if I can even process that. My head is exploding right now.”
He moved his arms to demonstrate, while making a little explosion sound with his mouth.
Kenzie giggled a bit.
“Mannn,” Chicken Little groaned.
A beep of the other vehicle’s horn made me twist around. I looked back and I could see Tattletale and her driver in the armored black land rover, above the glare of their headlights in the heavy snowfall.
“Oh, whoops, sorry Tattletale,” Aiden said. “Shit.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“When I did the explosion sound,” he mimed the sound he’d just made, while moving his hands. “I also made the birds react.”
“Short, silly freak-out from all of the birds.”
The birds that weren’t capable of flying along were packed up in the other car.
The other car honked again.
“I stopped!” Aiden said. He twisted around and looked back, calling out, “I stopped!”
I twisted around myself, to try to get a clearer view of Tattletale, Snuff, and the land rover. It didn’t look like they were honking to warn us about anything.
“She’s going to be mad,” Candy said, sing-song. “We’re going to arrive at Kenzie’s old headquarters and Tattletale’s going to bend you over her knee and give you a spanking in front of everyone.”
“Again with the spanking? Don’t be weird.”
“I’m not being weird. I’m taking an idea I know bugs you and drilling it in there. We’re gonna drive for another hour or more and you’ll sit there with the idea… Rain would see.”
“It’s annoying and uncomfortable.”
“I’m trying to annoy, so good.”
“Guys!” I interrupted. “Please. Candy, we’ve had way too much uncomfortable for one night. Let’s be as nice to each other as we can.”
“Okay,” Candy said. “Sorry, Chicken.”
The car trundled along. As we got deeper into the city, the snow on the roads got less bad. We were at the point where the road was cleanly delineated, when some of the areas outside the city or closer to the ruins of Gimel’s Brockton Bay had barely had an indent in the snow to mark where the sidewalk dipped down to the road.
“I’m sorry,” Kenzie said. “I don’t want to stir anything up, but I do want to say it. I’m really sorry I hurt you guys. I know I can be a blockhead sometimes but I think I’m really sorry enough that it’s going to carve something into that block.”
“Shh,” Candy said. Her fingers continued to comb through Kenzie’s hair, long after the point she’d combed out the buns and had the hair just long, kinky, and parted to one side. Kenzie had refused hugs, but accepted this.
We pulled onto a road where there was a long line of cars sitting bumper to bumper, many with things attached to the tops or backs of the cars. All of the cars were on their way out, while the road in was mostly clear, and half of the cars that were on it were ones that were trying to pull ahead or were pulling into the incoming lane to get a view of how bad things were further down the jam.
“You were in Brockton Bay, right?” Chicken asked.
“Did you know Armsmaster?”
“Only a bit. I knew him more as Defiant. Saw him earlier today, even.”
“Cool. I can barely remember the times before my parents died, but I had some Armsmaster stuff. I had one of the video games, but I never got past the first level. I read about the bad guys in the manual and I was too scared to go fight them. I mostly just ran around as Armsmaster.”
I smiled. “Which one?”
“Seasoned Heroes Northeast.”
One of the games that was re-released every ‘season’, with slightly different content each time, with variations for every major region. I had never understood the appeal of a game like that, when they could have run it all online and patched it instead. Money and lots of kids willing to pay, I supposed.
“Do you still play?” I asked.
“Nope! I’m doing it for real,” he said. “I’m not scared any more, and there’s no manuals for these villains.”
“Too true,” I said.
“Did you know Dauntless?”
“I ran into him on patrol here and there. We had a jurisdiction we were supposed to stick to, and it was close to his, south end of downtown and the Towers. We’d meet and compare notes.”
“Was he nice?”
“Yep. It’s… kind of one of those things where I wish I’d done something different. Back then I just wanted to patrol more, so if my dad stopped and had a twenty minute talk with Dauntless, I’d be so eager to get going again I wouldn’t be listening. Now I kind of wish I paid more attention when the more legitimate heroes were talking.”
Especially with how things turned out for him.
“And Miss Militia?”
“Super cool. Very serious. She’s been a hero for a good long while now, actually. When I was trying out for the Wards she was in charge, so I saw her more than most of them.”
“And… aunt Rachel?”
I drew in a breath, then held it, before sighing.
“I kind of like her now, and my friends like her too.”
“But how was she back then?”
“I don’t want to say stuff that gets me in trouble with the Undersiders. I don’t like the villainy that they’re involved in, but I think we need to work together at least in the short term, so we can handle the bigger issues.”
“I won’t tell,” he said. “If I don’t ask in a moment like right now, I don’t think anyone’s ever going to tell me.”
I looked at Natalie, then at Candy and Kenzie- Candy’s hands moving through Kenzie’s hair in a repetitive motion while Kenzie might have been asleep.
No, I could see her eyes in the window. They reflected strangely. She was using the time to tinker or program or something.
“What do you think?” I asked Natalie.
“I think tell him. If he swears to secrecy. If everyone in the back seat does.”
The kids uttered their oaths and swears, overlapping.
“Back then… angrier, I guess. Violent. Vicious. I saw her hurt people. When you looked her up online, there were warnings about her that there weren’t for most villains. Then there was a time she got worse.”
“Oh. Huh. That bums me out,” Chicken Little said.
“It is what it is. Dwell on who she is now.”
“Tattletale?” he asked.
“Tattletale is… scarily similar. She’s one of the people who hasn’t changed much, except maybe some of the sharper edges have rounded off. Maybe.”
“Sometimes I try to talk to her or convince her of stuff, and I have these points I’m pretty sure are good ones, but she won’t budge at all. You’d think someone with her power would be better at seeing other people’s points of view.”
“No comment,” I said. “I don’t want to make enemies.”
“Okay,” he said. “Imp?”
“Imp… I forget.”
“Jar!” Candy piped up.
“Jar. Dumb Imp joke jar. You have to put in a fiver.”
“Yep. It’s a rule.”
“It is,” Chicken Little echoed.
“There’s no jar here.”
“Give it to me, and I’ll put it in the jar,” Candy said, her face solemn.
“This feels like a scam.”
“No,” Candy said.
“It’s a real rule,” Kenzie said.
“I don’t have a five dollar bill. And what currency-”
“Doesn’t matter, you gotta,” Candy said.
The kids were rebelling, and the tranquility of the drive was disturbed. Which seemed perfectly in line with the chaos that came with Imp entering the picture in any context.
“I’ll lend you five,” Natalie said. “Give it to Candy, and you pay me back.”
“This seems overly complicated,” I said. But she pointed out where her wallet was, and I took the five, handing it to the back seat.
Tranquility restored. Paid for, but restored.
“Skitter,” Chicken Little said. “Did you know her?”
“I… some. A few run-ins. I’m afraid I can’t tell you much that Tattletale couldn’t.”
“Tattletale says some stuff, but she’s biased. I barely remember her. I spent more time around Grue than I spent around Skitter, and-”
Chicken Little stopped abruptly. I peeked into the mirrors, side view and rear view, and saw the utterly silent exchange between Chicken Little and Candy.
Confirming what had been a lingering suspicion. A link they didn’t want us to know about.
Between Chicken Little and Skitter, who had become Khepri, who had become public enemy number one and a legitimate class-S threat when she had taken over the minds of thousands of parahumans in the final confrontation against Scion.
“Do you miss her?” I asked. The silent conversation was becoming one of hushed whispers, intense enough it threatened to become something I heard. I felt like it would be complicated if I did. Asking my question served to interrupt that escalation.
“I didn’t know her, so no,” Aiden said. “That feels bad to say. She did help me and a bunch of the others.”
“It’s fair, though.”
“Tattletale says that when you kill yourself, or you act so recklessly you die so you essentially killed yourself, then it kind of means people won’t care about you.”
“Is that what she did?” I asked. Heavy topic for a car full of eleven and twelve year olds.
“Yeah. Tattletale says the people who love and appreciate you will be hurt or angry and that hurt and anger makes it so they won’t be able to hold onto the memories in the same way. And your enemies will forget you and move on and grow, while you just fade away.”
“She makes sense sometimes,” I said.
“I think about her once in a while. Skitter, I mean. Weaver. Taylor. I go a month without thinking about her at all and then I’ll get really curious because-”
Candy cleared her throat.
“-she was there not long after my parents died. But I think about her less and less. You can only ask the same questions so many times, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think that happens with any loss, eventually.”
“But with losses like we’re talking about, when someone basically kills themselves, it happens more.”
“Except for the hurt and pain, which will stick around for those that cared, yeah. They fade.”
“I think Tattletale probably isn’t the same person she used to be. She’s carrying a lot of that with her.”
“Hey!” Natalie said, injecting fake cheer into her voice. “Long drive ahead, let’s talk about something happy.”
“Chicken,” Candy said. “Is Scurvybeard in the car with Tattletale?”
“Can you talk through him to say something to her? What’s the funniest thing we could say or do?”
“Whisper, really quietly, ‘underpants’, and leave everyone in the car wondering who said it,” Chicken Little said.
“Whisper ‘murder’ and keep saying it louder and louder until Tattletale flips out and makes Snuff honk the horn again,” Candy added.
“Okay, wow, not sure that’s better,” Natalie cut in.
“I could probably get into her car dashboard if I tried,” Kenzie said, perking up, before Candy pushed her back into the more relaxed position she’d been in. “Barnaclebeak could tell a long joke or story that never has a point or punchline. I think that would bother Tattletale more than anything, while Darlene would just be happy because Chicken’s there.”
“Don’t actually do any of this or I’m the one she’s going to come after,” I commented. “Also, did the name change?”
“It’s okay,” Kenzie said. “It’s a game we play sometimes. We imagine Chicken has a pirate parrot who he can talk through, when he can’t talk through any birds, and we think of what we’d do. Coming up with stupid names is part of the game.”
“Also, just so you know, I could totally put a microphone on a bird. It’s not my specialty but it’s so close to being a regular thing someone could do I could do it.”
“Got it, Kenzie.”
Chicken piped up, “In my class, there’s a boy and girl who sit in the row in front of me. Let’s call them, uh, Atticus and Scout. My seatmate leaned forward and said, ‘Hey Scout, Atticus likes you’ and Atticus got real flustered. We could have Polly Roger do something like that with Snuff and Tattletale.”
“That won’t work, I guarantee you,” Candy said.
They continued. I snuck a peek here and there, and saw Kenzie remained where she was, curled up in one corner of the back seat, knees to her chest, apparently looking out the window, but the expression on her face was the jaded, partially-lidded one, and the light in her eyes was from images dancing on the surface, as she navigated menus and code, one ear on the conversation, periodically joining in.
But even when Candy stopped fussing with her hair, she wasn’t left entirely alone. Candy situated herself in the middle of the back seat, feet in Kenzie’s lap, head near Chicken’s leg, chattering away. Physical contact maintained.
And with that, at least, I at least didn’t see Kenzie’s sad smile. This was contentment, mixed with nervousness.
The car doors slammed as the kids fished around for the things they needed, Snuff taking in the boxes of Kenzie’s stuff. Chicken Little, Decadent, and Syndicate donned their costumes, while Lookout stood by, bundled up in winter clothing, looking a little left out.
For my part, I flew up to a vantage point where I could blow my nose, wipe my face with a wet wipe, and fix my hair, before flying back down.
“Want to put on your face, Kenz?” I asked.
“Just about everyone’s seen my face already.”
I winced. “That’s not a good thing. Also, we don’t know exactly who came-”
“Because cameras. Right. Do me a favor and put on a fake face?”
“Can’t. Disassembled my hairpin.”
“Didn’t bring it with me.”
I fished around for my mask, which was more for formal occasion than anything. I handed it to her, and she rolled her eyes before pressing it into place at her eyes. A visor without eyeholes.
“I don’t really see the point,” she said. “But if it makes you happy.”
“Come on,” I said. I went up the fire escape first, kicking snow off the stairs to clear the way. Tattletale and Snuff had already gone up, as had others, but the snow was wet and the wet was freezing over, so it was a bit precarious.
Into our old headquarters. At the cusp of Hollow Point, which was dark, evacuated.
The car had been warm-ish, but getting inside the headquarters was the first time since heading through the new Warden’s headquarters in the old Cauldron base that I’d truly warmed up. Space heaters thrummed, as did some servers, and enough people were gathered that body heat was probably a consideration as well.
Tattletale and Snuff took a spot relatively close to where Chris had once situated himself. Swansong and Sidepiece were present, sitting and exchanging words with Tattletale, no doubt about the villain collaborative.
I could see Darlene turn and stare at the Deathchester duo, before Candy tugged on her arm. She resisted, but Chicken Little seized her other arm and she went along.
Sidepiece being here meant Disjoint probably had eyes on the scene, based on my understanding of his power. That meant the rest of Deathchester would be close, to jump in if something happened. Something to watch out for.
Tristan was back. He’d gone back to the hospital room to let Byron rest while I’d taken Kenzie. I could see that things were wearing on him, and heavy armor and helmet weren’t enough to mask the weariness that seemed to be taking hold of him.
He put out his hand for Kenzie to high-five as she ran over to her console, her group following her to the point in the room furthest from Tattletale and Deathchester. She checked something on her computer, bringing up a sketched-out blueprint, and then fell to her knees by the box of stuff Snuff had brought in.
“Lookout,” Rain said. “Stop. Pause for fifteen seconds.”
She turned around, hands still on the box.
“Have you removed your tech?”
“I’ve got a project, it’s a big one, and we have a timetable,” Kenzie said.
“What was it you showed me a few weeks ago? The phase map? When we were seeing if I could phase arms I built into the body?”
“Can you bring it up?”
“I could, but that’s going to take, like, minutes, and I have tinker ideas right now.”
“Kenzie,” I said. “Faster you listen, the faster you can get to those ideas. Rain’s got the right idea, I think.”
“Ugh!” she groaned.
Rain leaned against the table with his own stuff strewn across it. The whiteboard had fresh notes, including a sketch of the room, color coded. Out of all of us, he might have looked the most whole, the most there. Four arms were folded, some of those arms needed more work or had been taken apart for parts, and he’d done something with his mask to have more around his mouth, which looked more like function than style, but… he was intact. If he had stuff going on with Erin and family, he was toughing it out.
Kenzie brought up a projection. An image of herself, standing a few feet to her right. Like she had a slide projector going through slides, she brought up an alternate her, where her body was a silhouette. Her eyes slightly glowed, and the two antennae stabbed into those eyes and out through the back of her head, each one bent in what I could describe as spider legs as long as my forearms, if the hairs on a spider’s legs were their own circuits, transistors, and smaller antennae, thick and dense. Points along those legs glowed white, and the structures gave off their own wave of heat, which was visible in the air and more visible in the shadow the projection cast. As Kenzie turned her head, so did the projection.
Spooky, to see her with tools stabbing out the back of her head, but-
She brought up another. The antennae were shorter, sticking more out the top of her head. The points that glowed were different.
Another set. Antennae as long as my arms, but curled to stab back into the head.
And another, four antennae on this ‘slide’.
Then the final image. All ‘slides’ together, the silhouette crowned with ten antennae emerging from its head. Heat radiated off of it with waves that distorted the air, more intense than above any barbecue, and the individual lights blinked on and off along their mass. Blinking being the operative words for those particular orbs. The faint glow at her eyes overlapped to become an intense white that didn’t all line up perfectly, so it bled out, while casting its own heat shimmer.
And a few feet away, regular Kenzie, a slight smile on her face, still wearing her periwinkle blue duffel coat and winter hat, hair down as it had been arranged by Candy, a bit behind one ear, in the exact same stance. She wore the mask I’d given her. Eyeless, while the other figure had eight overlapping eyes, each pale and ghostly.
“I’ve got a project to get back to,” Kenzie said, in maybe the first instance of her being self conscious that I could readily recall. She turned and the silhouette turned as well.
“No,” Rain said. “I think you need to cut back. Let’s go down to… half the number, to start.”
“It’s a good idea,” Sveta said.
Sveta was wearing a top she’d bought while shopping with me. With her new body, it fit differently. Her arms were exposed, and those arms had holes in them, like very geometric jigsaw pieces, the muscle showing beneath. She had drawn on her arms, covering them with sketched out artwork in pen that didn’t hold up with smudges here and there. The cauldron mark stood out on her cheek, no makeup covering it, and she looked exceptionally tired, in a way that was as different as it could be from Tristan’s exhaustion while still sharing the same word for the condition.
“Sweetie,” Sveta said. “That looks like too much. We have one tinker here who can give us an objective opinion, and he’s saying no.”
Sidepiece piped up, “I’m sitting here on the sidelines and I’d say no, if it wasn’t so gnarly.”
“I don’t care what you think,” Kenzie said.
“It’s pretty badass,” Damsel added.
Kenzie took that in, then looked at Sveta, one hand extended toward Damsel, as if that verdict was evidence in her favor.
“No, honey,” Sveta said. “Those are the opposite of objective opinions.”
“But this is serious,” Kenzie said, one hand extended toward the screen. “What we’re doing is big. Isn’t it better if I do it with all the tools at my disposal?”
“Heating,” Rain held out a hand, grabbing his thumb. “You once said that phases at a rate of ninety-nine percent or something. If that includes heat inside your eyes and skull-”
“You’re misinterpreting me! It’s ninety nine point nine to seven decimal places. That’s way different from ninety nine percent.”
“Still. I’m terrible at math, but I suspect you’re running the equivalent of a constant fever.”
“If I was, it would be a very small fever.”
“Point two? If the slightest thing happens dimensionally, a weird power interaction, Vista using her power, the portal at the station nearby cracks open by ten percent, there’s got to be a chance that this very delicate house of cards flops over.”
“Okay, but-” Kenzie said, holding up her hands. “Counterpoint. That’s a very small chance. There’s a big chance that what my eyes and systems are giving me are going to be important.”
“Third,” he said, grabbing a third finger.
“If you do it like this it’s going to be forever before I can sit down and pull this together,” she said, plaintive.
“Infection, laceration. Super small percentage of it is anchored in reality, but it’s still in there. One is doing damage. But that’s not just one.”
“Counterpoint? If my eyes did pop or something, I could make really cool bionic eyes.”
She looked to one side.
“Yeah,” Rain said. He followed her gaze, much as the rest of us did. To Ashley’s whiteboard, which hadn’t been touched or modified, except for a small drawing by Kenzie in one corner. There was a note about black bread, for some damn reason, and something about hair, all done in small script that was just meant as a reminder for her. “I remember her talking about the eye thing too.”
“Let me help you, let me be useful tonight, and I’ll take it out after. I’ll go however long you want without using it again. But I don’t want to do something this big and do it half-blind, only for something to happen to you guys!”
Fuck. There was a chance certain members of our team had rubbed off on her.
“You’ve got me,” Darlene said. “You’ve got Tattletale watching.”
“But I haven’t even scanned you, and Tattletale doesn’t get this like I do!”
“Lookout,” I said. “Listen to Rain.”
“Rain probably knows what he’s talking about,” Chicken Little said.
“Don’t,” Kenzie said, and she somehow sounded hurt in a way she hadn’t when facing off against the Heartbroken.
“I’m just saying,” Chicken Little said, apologetic.
“Just take ’em out, rest your eyes? If we can just see you didn’t hurt yourself already…” Rain said.
“What if I say no?” Kenzie asked. “What if I refuse? I wasn’t brought onto this team as the team baby. The rule was I wouldn’t be left behind or given a stupid, silly job while you guys did the real heroics. I was brought on as an equal.”
“I think we’ve more or less lived up to that,” I said.
“Kind of! Sure, but you’re not living up to it now.”
“We call each other on our crap,” Tristan said. “Keep each other in line.”
“That’s even less of a kind-of than the last one!”
“You go, kid,” Sidepiece chimed in.
“Shut up,” Kenzie said, wheeling around. She sounded angry. “I don’t like you and you’re not funny. This isn’t your business.”
I turned. “Deathchester, Undersiders, do you mind stepping out? You can go into the hallway or step out onto the fire escape if you want a smoke or something.”
Sidepiece smirked, looked like she was going to say something, but then Damsel straightened, walking in front of her.
Sidepiece and Damsel went out to the fire escape. Tattletale remained put, but sent Snuff out to the hallway.
“Staying?” I asked.
“I’m keeping an eye on things.”
“I’ve got that covered, thank you,” Lookout said. “Just like I’d have this project covered if people would let me.”
“Why are you fighting us, Lookout?” Sveta asked.
“Because you’re fighting me! This is what I do! This is what I’m good at! This-”
Candy had tried to reach for Kenzie’s hand, but Kenzie pulled away.
“-this is why I’m here!”
I felt a pang at that. A stab of… not guilt, but sympathy.
I’d been going easy on her, letting her coast and stick to known habits, because I’d had something of a guess that this was in the works. That she wanted to be needed.
And the shitty thing was, I agreed with her. That the tech probably made more sense to keep than to discard, given what it enabled her to do. I would have been okay with her keeping it on until she was done, and that wasn’t because I valued this project that highly. It was because she was an eleven year old kid who had just lost her most important person for maybe the fifth time in her life, and she needed her security blanket, even if that security blanket was eye-penetrating alien hardware.
I flew over, and the flight aspect of that seemed to give her pause. I put my hand on her forehead.
Warm, but not quite fever-warm.
She kept going, “Listen, I want to do this! I want to do it with all my eyes open. I want to help, I want to make a difference.”
“Count down from a hundred,” I said.
“That’s-” Kenzie started. She stopped. “Not fair.”
I kept my hand where it was.
She counted, under her breath. She was at fifty or so when Candy reached for her hand. This time, she didn’t pull away. Darlene stood behind her, a hand on each of her shoulders.
She reached zero.
“Array one,” Rain said. “Talk me through it.”
“Array one connects to systems and mainframes in the area. Cameras, mostly. Refracts within camera architecture, hijacks signals. Some hosting architecture too, so I can see a feed and think about it some without it taking up all of my attention or keeping me from looking at other stuff.”
“Do you really need that for this project?”
“It lets me keep an eye on Sidepiece in case she tries to hurt any of you, even when my back is turned. I can watch outside, and watch the horizons with the cameras I mounted outside. It means I can work without worrying.”
“Array two, then?”
“That’s mostly a mainframe with a lot of hosting. Alternate vision modes, zoom, analysis, scanning. One hundred percent essential for the work I’m doing. It lets me see inside tech and work on it without taking it apart.”
“Hookup to my main database, offsite hosting, onsite hosting.”
“With hosting being the thing where you’re using it to think and watch stuff?”
“Yeah. Thanks to scans of Chicken Little.”
“That was what was making you overheat?”
“Miscellaneous tools. Managing projections, eyes as cursors, drone management, not that I have a lot of drones. Onboard computing. I can keep tabs on all of you while you’re wearing my projection stuff. Monitor vitals, cause, y’know, I’m doing that.” She’d trailed off to a mumble by the time she was done with that.
“Onboard computing? Using your brain?” Rain quizzed her.
“No, that’s array three. This is just, y’know, like having a laptop with me, except it’s way easier to jam it in my eyeball instead of carrying it around.”
“Can we get rid of array one and array three, do you think?” Rain asked.
“But… I want to keep an eye on everything.”
“Can you trust us?” Tristan asked. “We have your back. You don’t need to watch all of our backs for us.”
“We have your back,” Candy said. “Both of your teams.”
“Put on some music,” I said. “Tune out, focus on your stuff. If you still want to do it.”
“I do. I have to.”
I drew in a breath, ready to say the hard truth.
“We have to,” she said.
“They’re going to bust a hole in the city,” Kenzie said. “Teacher’s going to try to control it. We need to get there first. Head him off, see what he’s doing. We have to see if we can’t slow down the damage.”
“We can’t do all of that tonight,” Rain said. “Set expectations lower. This is exploratory. Figuring out the tools we have at our disposal.”
I waited, tense, ready to tell Kenzie this whole thing was off. Embarrassing, with Tattletale and Deathchester here, but I could deal with a little embarrassment, if our heads weren’t on relatively straight.
Kenzie sighed, then nodded. “Exploratory. We see if we can get Rain in there.”
“Put on some music?” Candy asked. “Can I show you what I’ve been listening to, while you work?”
Kenzie looked at me, then at the rest of the group. Sveta. Tristan. Rain. Natalie stood off to the side.
I snuck a glance at Tatteltale, and saw a small nod.
“Saw that,” Kenzie muttered, giving me a look. “You had to check.”
“A bit, yeah.”
“Good to go?” she asked.
“If you remove one and three,” Rain cut in.
“Can I keep three?” Kenzie asked. “I have my notes and stuff in there, some processes running math that I’d have to start over from scratch…”
“Yeah. Keep two, three, and four, then.”
Things settled from there. Kenzie extracted the lengthy antennae from her eyes using a tool to find the right frequency and dig into the orbs for a grip, then laid them out by her computer. Then she set to work.
Damsel came back in, while Sidepiece remained outside, smoking up a storm. Snuff checked in, then left to run an errand.
I stepped into the bathroom for a break, because I hadn’t had the chance during the road trips, then decided to run the shower. There was a chance I wouldn’t get the opportunity, and I needed my head as fresh as I could get it.
And it gave me a chance to breathe, without looking weak or anything in front of the team. Clear the sinuses, clear the mind.
I wanted to help Kenzie and I had no idea what to do, except to give her support.
Once I was done with the shower, I toweled off and pulled on the same clothes as before. Clammy.
“It’s a plain of red crystal,” Damsel said. She’d apparently been prodded to give an explanation. “Except the crystal is alive. The cracks are veins and the shifts in the landscape that look like tricks of the eye aren’t. If the mountain suddenly looks like a valley, it is one.”
“How often do you see it?” I asked.
“In the first year after Gold Morning? Twice. Your Swansong saw it three times. More lately. It’s picked up. I saw it five times in the last week.”
“I’m feeling a bit intimidated,” Rain said.
“You should. What we have here in this world is the tip of the iceberg. What they have there is the rest of your iceberg,” Damsel told him.
Kenzie was scanning Darlene and Chicken Little with a drone the size of a football, while the pair held hands. She aimed the drone at a cube the size of a microwave and blipped data to it like she was shooting a bullet from a gun. The cube changed color.
“Where to?” Rain asked.
Kenzie looked, and a projected dotted line marked the boundaries for the cube.
“Got it,” he said.
“We can try bringing others in,” Kenzie said, looking over the red cube with the scanned data from Syndicate. “I think I can lasso people with this, transmit sensation and awareness. It probably knocks us out.”
“I’d be careful,” Rain said. “Remember what I said about Snaggletooth? Cradle hired someone to invade the dreamspace and try to screw with the rotation. They got mauled.”
Chicken Little stopped spinning around in Kenzie’s computer chair, birds moving from his shoulders to various perches nearby. “Mauled as in…?”
“Mauled. Taken to pieces, uh, the details are graphic.”
“I hang with Imp. I can handle graphic,” Chicken Little said.
“Chunky bits were still dripping and settling into puddles a good five or ten minutes after it left,” Rain said. “It’s big, scary, and it apparently beat Snaggletooth in something she specializes in. I think I need to go in alone. At least for the test run.”
“Aw,” Kenzie said.
“Yeah, no, seriously. Though I won’t be completely alone. I talked to Cradle, Love Lost, and Colt. They know what we’re trying, they’ll be on their guard. They say they’ll cooperate.”
“You don’t sound confident,” Tattletale said. “No, correction. You sound confident. But you aren’t.”
“Never one hundred percent with that group,” he said.
“Not dumb,” Tattletale told him.
“Do you want me to say something to Love Lost?” Damsel asked. “She liked me.”
“No. And it would take a while to get there. Have to get to the Warden’s base, get permission, then get access to the prison. Slower because they’re busy and things are shuffling around.”
“Too bad. I was hoping for a peek.”
“There’s that too, consideration-wise,” he told her.
“I’ve got frequencies for the cube,” Kenzie said. “Once you outlined the room boundaries, I was able to look for something that fits those metrics, in the mess of data. If I map it out…”
The cube lit up. A projection of the room appeared in the center of our hideout, sprawling across the floor in what I had to assume was actual size, all in silvery, shimmering lines.
The image resolution clarified moment by moment, as numbers flew, jagged lines and angles resolving into shapes, then into small details. Everything writ in silver.
A five-sided room with what looked like a crooked sundial in the middle. Two parts of the room were cast into deep shadow.
“There it is,” Rain said.
“Not what I saw in the dream,” Ashley reported. “Except-”
She extended one bladed finger toward a forked line. It could have been a more organic vein, a bolt of lightning frozen in time, or a crack.
“The cracks like veins. Right,” I said.
“I figured that was an image resolution error,” Rain murmured.
“Your brain paves over the gaps and cracks, but they’re there. I’m not sure you can do much about them, but… yeah,” Kenzie commented, working on her keyboard not-cube. “So if I transplant the alter-space that I set up for the Capricorn twins, can you move this cube to the center?”
“That’s not a cube,” Tristan said.
“It’s a cube, trust me,” Kenzie said. “Over there? I’d have to unplug from everything to walk it over.”
Tristan picked it up, moving the not-cube over. Kenzie remained plugged in, with headphones jacked into her computer, wires looped over the backs of her hands. She worked with a set of menus.
The keyboard illuminated, projecting a rough cube shape in roughly the center of the room. The projected sundial toppled, and things throughout the room shifted.
“Wait,” Rain said. “That’s the actual room, not just a sketch?”
“It’s the actual room,” Kenzie said.
The light from the projection flared, so bright it was hard to look at.
A figure, taller than any shelf or piece of furniture in the rooms, stepped out of the darkness and into the light, into an area riddled with concrete slabs. It was drawn out in the same silvery outlines, and its body didn’t seem to hold a consistent shape. Like mountains flipping to become valleys with a perspective shift, but it moved across the room in that manner.
“What the hell is that?” Rain asked.
“Tip of the iceberg, meet the rest of the iceberg,” Damsel said, her voice dry.
“I bet it’s been there every night,” Kenzie said, way too cheerful for the occasion. “In the shadows on the other side of the glass.”
The thing touched a wall, and the bright distortion of it seemed to extend to the surface. The camera struggled to hold integrity, then went black.
Leaving the room we were in feeling darker than it had been before the demonstration.
“Walls are down,” Tattletale said. “And our buddy there is on high alert. He’ll be waiting for you all on your next visit in…”
“Two hours,” Rain said.
“We can do it,” Kenzie said, too cheerful and bright. “But let’s reconsider you going in alone?”