“Okay,” Rain said. He was getting off the phone, and his statement came with enough finality that it made more than a few of us turn our heads.
“You got through?” I asked.
“Talked briefly with Colt and Love Lost. Couldn’t talk to Cradle, he’s off in the wilderness, and they’re really antsy about drop-ins to chat with tinkers, since tinkers are most likely to try something fancy.”
“Probably for the best,” I said. “Might tip them off that we’re trying something off the wall.”
“Yeah,” Rain said. “I just said it had stuff to do with dreams, which isn’t too weird since you asked for details on dreams earlier.”
Others resumed doing what they were doing, getting ready, with costumes on and low conversations. I had my own costume on, and Kenzie now wore her costume from the neck down, her helmet set to one side. It looked like she was trying something new, as a cross between her head-encasing helmet and the Heartbroken masks. She still wore the visor across her eyes as she tinkered away on the keyboard.
Above her, projected on the wall, was the short clip of the room’s denizen moving from the darkness into the space at the center of the room, then into what Rain had labeled as Cradle’s portion of the room.
“Precipice,” Kenzie said, without looking up. The tool she held looked like a screwdriver, but sparked when she touched it to a circuit board. “Walk me through the timeline again?”
“Any dates you can tie to the costumes changing? Or when what you had on you when you went into the room changed? Anything?”
“You’re trying to apply logic to dream, Lookout.”
“Yeah, uh, duh? Kind of! We don’t know what it’s going to be like in there, but the way you talked about the room, you don’t have powers in there?”
“Not really, no. And powers from outside don’t normally apply inside. I was haunted by Mama Mathers for a while, and she didn’t have any hold on me in there.”
“If this turns out that we’re more like your usual dream-self while we’re in there than like ourselves out there, all you’ll have is your stuff.”
“Yeah,” Rain said. “Which is the theory we’re going with. Drag everyone into the dream room and go from the room to the general shardspace.”
“But if we can figure out the rule that determines if you can bring stuff in, then you can bring in tinkering stuff, and we can figure out a battle plan. So let’s focus and go back over stuff, and see what maps out!”
She sounded so impatient, constantly frustrated.
“Don’t be rude,” Chicken Little said, quiet.
“I’m-” Kenzie looked momentarily frustrated. “Please? Can we try, Precipice?”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “No specific dates. It went back and forth a lot. It’s only recently that I stopped having the plastic demon mask with me when I appeared in the room.”
I wanted to ask Tattletale for her input, but she was wrapped up in a conversation with Sveta. I motioned to get her attention, and she glanced at me, nodding, without breaking stride in whatever she was telling Sveta.
Rain continued explaining, “Love Lost and Snag went to wearing costumes pretty quickly. No tinkertech, exactly, but the housings stayed intact.”
“Housings,” Kenzie said, motioning for Candy to take notes.
“Uh, Love Lost’s mask. Same general shape, but no tech. Snag had the arms, toward the end, but they weren’t tinker-managed and he left them behind when he approached the dais.”
“Colt?” I asked. “If she’s new, does she fluctuate more?”
“Her clothes change some, but it’s pretty minor.”
“Does it match to what she wore that day?”
Rain shook his head. “No idea. Probably not. She wears her own style of clothes even though she’s in the prison near the bunker, with prison-issue clothes.”
“That leaves me with two ideas, just going off of usual shard stuff,” I said. I had Kenzie’s full attention, the other kids arranged around her, helping. Rain was nearby too. Everyone else was getting ready, strapping in like they expected a fight, even though there was no guarantee we could put up any. “Idea one: it goes off of self image. Love Lost and Snag changed to wearing costumes because they quickly dove into the mercenary villain thing. Precipice keeps the Fallen mask because it takes him a while to let go of the guilt, self-image, how he was raised, whatever else. Did it go away when you fought Christine Mathers?”
“A bit before.”
“Okay,” I said. I looked down. “Well, that doesn’t disprove idea one. With this idea, Colt keeps her civilian clothes because her being in prison hasn’t fully sunk in. If this idea applies, it might be worth meditating before trying this. Solidify a self image in the mind. Works for Breakers and some Changers, where their form changes every time.”
“Okay,” Rain said.
Kenzie groaned a little. “I can’t do anything with that.”
“Idea two is that it’s the agent’s concept of us. This might sound a bit more woo-woo, but I think there’s some foundation to it. They build up their own picture of us, and costume factors in. Breakers who wear a mask will have the mask become part of their breaker form. Valkyrie’s flock seems to incorporate minor details into their physiology.”
“So my losing the mask is… what?” Rain asked.
“I don’t know, Precipice,” I said. “Maybe the agent was sitting latent inside you for a long time, it recorded a lot of impressions of your time with the Fallen, while the others had comparatively less time, so the time they spent in costume got more traction.”
“Maybe the agents like masks,” Darlene said. She’d been pretty subdued since the incident earlier and her car trip with Tattletale. Tattletale had kept her back for a little while as part of a continued time-out from her time with the Tenders, but Lookout had needed to scan her again, and Tattletale was too busy to call her away again.
I smiled, taking the effort to give Darlene one because it seemed like she was dejected enough to need one. She stopped fidgeting and clasped her hands together. I told her, “Could be. You definitely see that in Valkyrie’s flock of warriors. It’s never civilian clothes that got absorbed into their appearance. There are a lot of theories around how agents work with twins, similar or identical powers, uh, how to phrase it? They’re bad at telling one of us apart from the next, twins especially, so maybe masks make us easier to tell apart?”
She nodded pretty vigorously at that, looking over at Capricorn. He was on his phone, looking pretty wrapped up in his conversation.
“That’s sorta dumb,” Kenzie muttered. “Massive interdimensional, cosmic-tier power and they need masks to tell us apart. Right.”
“Take two grains of sand off a beach. How easily can you tell them apart? Does it help if you paint each one?” I asked.
“Well, I’d love to know how I can paint each of us the right colors,” Kenzie said. “With… not that long left.”
“Focus on what you can do,” I told her. “Don’t feel you have to cover every base.”
The time had passed quickly, my trip to get my costume and pick up Kenzie’s hadn’t been too lengthy, but the little things like last-minute research, changing, touching base and scheduling an email to let Crystal know what had happened if I wasn’t in a position to come back and cancel said email… they felt like things that should take a few minutes, ten or fifteen, and they took two or three times that in reality.
“Do you want to use our hands?” Darlene asked. “We could network, like we did when making the eye things.”
“No, that only works for mass production,” Kenzie said, looking away from the hardware to focus more on software. Behind her, Darlene deflated a bit. Kenzie seemed to notice, and turned, “But thank you for offering.”
“Anything I can do?” Darlene asked.
“There are some snacks under the table over there, can you get me some? An electrolyte juice box? And some snack I can eat with my hands, ummm, I want something salty but I don’t want to get salt on my hands.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Darlene said, happy to be useful. Chicken Little went with her to go raid for snacks.
“Grab me something!” Candy called out.
“Go,” Kenzie told her.
“I’m here to cheerlead for you,” Candy said, sitting on the edge of Kenzie’s desk, looking down with her eerie smiling mask. “Rah rah, go Kenzie, go Kenzie.”
“We could project a cheerleader outfit onto Chicken Little,” Candy said. “How’s that mental picture for you?”
“You’re distracting me!” Kenzie cried out, but she didn’t sound bothered. She worked more vigorously, tapping at a screen projected into the air.
Tattletale approached, but she approached Darlene and Chicken Little first. She didn’t break them up, simply checking on them as they brought back a bunch of stuff to Kenzie’s work area, jogging with enough vigor they nearly dropped stuff. Tattletale’s pace was more sedate.
Darlene tore open a bag, nudging Chicken Little. “Open, Lookout!”
Lookout opened her mouth. Candy threw a pretzel at her, missing the open mouth, and a bird caught it. The second throw was on target enough that Kenzie got the mini-pretzel in her mouth, the bird that was diving to intercept instead landing on her forehead. She wiggled with amusement as she bent over her work, chewing, the bird peering down with her.
“What do you need?” Tattletale asked.
“We’re wondering about masks, gear, what might translate. Any ideas?” I asked.
“No friggin’ clue,” she said. “Kids are being good enough?”
“Yep. We were brainstorming a bit with Precipice.”
“Mm,” Tattletale made a noise, looking at Rain. “Nervous? It’s your head on the chopping block.”
“Might have been nice to get advance warning that we’d be letting the beast out of its cage, there,” he said, looking at the wall. Kenzie looked up at him, and he conceded, “It’s probably a good thing we found out about it before we did this. I’d rather know in advance.”
“If you had to fight it, could you?” Tattletale asked.
Rain shook his head. “No powers in there, pretty sure.”
“That, right there, is the administrator of your weird dream room. Dreams are especially hinky as far as agents are concerned, and they might have been anxious when setting up the dynamic you have. Before Gold Morning, minds got wiped, you’d have the dream room thing and you’d forget everything, but that’s not there now. So instead they set up this role. Manager, distributer of your token things, and guard dog.”
“Giant lightning man guard dog,” Rain muttered, looking over at the projected screen.
“It’s not going to look like that when you’re in there,” Kenzie said. “Just FYI.”
“Great. Now I feel even less prepared,” Rain said.
Tattletale explained, “You’ve knocked down the dividers between sections, including the guard dog’s pen. It’s going to be pissed, but I don’t think it’s going to want to kill you, Cradle, Love Lost, or Colt. Maim, maybe, and I don’t know how that translates to you being awake, but you’ll get more deferential treatment than Snaggletooth did.”
“That’s… a bit reassuring, I guess?”
“Nah,” Tattletale said. “Don’t be reassured. Because the walls are down and that thing isn’t going to act by human standards. I’d say you have fifty-fifty odds that it comes after you, hard, to guard its corner, and it’ll come after you tomorrow night, and the next night, and the next…”
“Oh,” Rain said, and his voice was light, airy, “Oh great.”
“That’s if you and your clustermates are lucky.”
“What happens if they’re unlucky?” Chicken Little asked.
“Maybe don’t answer that,” Rain said.
“Something like Ash Beast,” Tattletale answered it anyway.
“I don’t know who or what that is,” Chicken Little said.
“The human essentially gone, the powers at full, reckless capacity, always on. You get the part where you’re repeatedly torn apart, but it’s more of a twenty-four seven, every second of every day thing than it is a once-a-night thing.”
I swallowed, looking at Rain.
“What do I do?” Rain asked, very clearly steeling himself.
“Couldn’t tell you,” Tattletale said, her voice level, almost bored. “Do what you were going to do, I guess. You white-hats go sit in your cube, get transported in there, try to get your hands on the controls of this fucked up system we’re all hooked up into. Do it before Teacher gets set up and starts tampering with the shardspace again. Do it before things start breaking down on the city-wide scale. Just, you know, dodge or distract that thing while you’re in there. Use the fact it probably doesn’t want you or your clustermates dead, shield your guests, give them the opportunity to go for the goal.”
“Knowing it might tear me to shreds, physically or mentally,” Rain said. “Snaggletooth ended up brain dead.”
“The alternative is that it’s just you and it might do that anyway,” Tattletale told him.
“With that alternative, at least I don’t put my team at risk.”
“You would be putting them at risk if you went the Ash Beast route,” Tattletale said.
I saw Rain clench all four fists, and not because he was ready to swing at Tattletale. Stress, strain.
I spoke up, “What’s your goal here, Tattletale? Because this feels a bit more like you’re rubbing it in than if you were giving it to us straight.”
“I’m here on pure goodwill,” she said. “And while I’m here, enjoying the chance to get a deeper look behind the veil. Bonus is, I’m guilt-free this time, and I get to be a bit smug that my kid didn’t make this mess.”
She motioned toward Kenzie and Chicken Little.
“Oh fuck off, Tattletale,” I said. “This isn’t a competition and we really don’t need to be dwelling on this stuff when there’s a deadline.”
“Not dwelling,” she said. “Briefly commenting.”
“Um,” Chicken Little said. He raised his hand like he was in class. All heads turned his way. “Didn’t you kind of mentor Skitter? Wasn’t she your ‘kid’, kind of like this?”
“No,” Tattletale said.
“She kind of was,” I folded my arms. “By just about every objective account we have.”
“Including stuff you’ve told me,” Chicken Little said, to Tattletale.
“No,” Tattletale said. “You’re way off base, bud. Skitter was her own woman.”
“But Imp said you taught Skitter about the cops and robbers game, and we all know how that went.”
“Alright,” Tattletale said. “I might have to put a new rule in place, where you’re grounded every time you bring her up.”
“Why? That’s not fair!” Chicken protested.
“It’s not fair,” Darlene echoed, in a tone reminiscent of the ‘don’t hurt the Chicken’ chant from earlier.
“It’s an opsec thing,” Tattletale said.
“I don’t even know what that means,” Chicken Little protested.
“If I ground you enough times, maybe you’ll learn, hm?” Tattletale asked, sounding way too pleased with herself over browbeating an eleven year old in an argument.
“I bet it’s ’cause you keep beating her in arguments whenever you do it, Chicken,” Candy said. “What are the unwritten rules again? You don’t attack innocents, we know Skitter did that, you don’t use guns, we know she did that. You don’t kill, well, we have to remember Alexandria…”
“Okay,” Tattletale said. “I think it’s time to head back to Aunt Rachel’s. I’m sure there are some stables to muck out, as punishment for the whole debacle earlier tonight. If Breakthrough wants the rest of my Tattletale insights, I’ll have to ask for my standard fee.”
The kids protested loudly, voices overlapping, with Kenzie adding her voice to the outcry without looking away from her work.
“You’re more of a child than any of the children in the room,” I told Tattletale, incredulous.
“I’m a mastermind supervillain with limited hours and mental resources. I’m being nice, offering my insights, but I am one hundred percent willing to take the cheap-shot shortcuts if it means conserving those resources or keeping my mentee safe.”
“Does that mean if we make it less mentally exhausting to stay and be helpful, you will?” Candy asked, innocently.
Darlene must have chosen that moment to connect their little squad, because Darlene, Candy, Chicken Little, Kenzie, and Chicken Little’s four small birds all looked at Tattletale in eerie, simultaneous sync.
“Do you really want to go to war?” Tattletale asked, sounding amused. “I know your dirty little secrets. Swimming hole, Chicken?”
Chicken flinched out of the synchronicity, looking down.
“Your frequent stints over at the greenhouse, Decadent?”
Candy didn’t flinch to the same degree that Chicken had, but she wasn’t in sync anymore either.
Darlene looked over at Candy, “Wait, was that what Chastity was teasing you about the other day, or-”
“Shh,” Candy muttered. “You’re playing into her hands.”
“Which of the gardeners is it?” Darlene asked.
“Shhhh,” Candy made the sound through clenched teeth.
Tattletale folded her arms, silently gloating. “Darlene? Where do I even start? The nightmares, or the twigs?”
Darlene might have broken the connection between the kids, because there was no sign of sync-up anymore. She slumped a bit. She’d already looked a bit dejected and crestfallen since the whole issue earlier in the night, but it was more pronounced now.
“I know about the nightmare, but twigs?” Candy asked, barely audible.
Darlene didn’t answer.
“You’re an actual child,” I said, to Tattletale.
“You try wrangling a whole family of Heartbroken.”
“Tattletale,” Rain said, and his tone was clear and stern enough that it got our collective attention.
“Any other information you could provide would mean a lot,” he said. He didn’t look at her, but at the ground between them, his fists still clenched. “I don’t have a lot of cash, but I will pay if I have to, and I’ll go into debt if you need me to, I’ll pay you later if I can’t pay your fee now.”
“We can chip in,” Chicken Little said, piping up. “Right?”
“Right,” Darlene said, sounding a little less confident or willing.
Tattletale sighed. “You don’t need to pay. Neither of you.”
“Thank you,” Chicken Little said, quiet.
“Even if you could fight it, you’re not going to kill it,” Tattletale said, indicating the monster on the screen. “It’s going to bounce back from just about anything you could do to it. Prepare for it to have a few tricks up its sleeve, because it’s an extension of a species that plays the long game and that knows we don’t have it in us to permanently stop it. So don’t underestimate it, don’t assume it’s shown you everything it can do.”
“It isn’t human, and it never was,” she went on. “Don’t expect it to have human rationales. Do expect it to have a program it follows, a set goal that may or may not be one hundred percent clear. It’s going to be somewhat predictable, but powerful enough that the predictability isn’t reassuring or an easy answer.”
“Does it have weaknesses?” Capricorn asked. He’d joined the conversation.
“Yep. I’m betting it can’t go much further than the room. If you can get through that gap-”
Tattletale walked over to the projected image, where two thirds of the room were cast into ‘shadow’, before indicating the far wall.
“It can’t follow?” Rain asked.
“I’m thinking… ninety percent odds it can’t,” Tattletale said. “But you’re going to find other stuff on the far side, a little less consistently solid, and from what Damsel said, it’s going to be a bit like everything’s gone breaker. They like structure and they like redundancy, so expect details pulled from host awareness, specific and collective. When you don’t have structure, you’ll have vast amounts of connective tissue.”
“Valleys that are simultaneously mountains?” I asked.
“You got it,” Tattletale said, sounding like she was having far too much fun. “That stuff on the far side? Doesn’t move far beyond its confines. Be ready to run. If your tricks to try to force waking up don’t work, you just need to live for long enough to time out.”
“Talking to Colt and Cradle, our best guess for how long we’re in the room is a little under forty minutes,” Rain said.
I couldn’t help but glance at the clock.
Eerie, that he said that, and the clock showed 35:12, 35:11, 35: 10… counting down.
I adjusted the buckler at my left arm.
“Dinner’s here,” Kenzie said.
It was Snuff, back from his errand, with bags bearing the unappetizing name of ‘Roadkill’.
I walked over to Tattletale, as she backed away from the defused situation with the Heartbroken. Chicken Little was unwrapping Kenzie’s dinner for her, holding her burger out, while Darlene tried far too hard to be okay with it.
In this moment, at least, with the stress of the clock hanging over her head, Kenzie seemed to be as happy as I’d seen her since Ashley had died.
“Tattletale,” I murmured.
“The way you described that thing in the room. Sounded familiar.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Fair warning: it’s all educated guessing at this point. Very educated, but no guarantees.”
“Sure,” I said. I looked at the constantly replaying image of the thing emerging from the shadows. “Is it an Endbringer?”
“Nah,” she said. “Smaller in stature, more limited in scope.”
I realized I was holding my breath, and I didn’t release it. I felt like there was a ‘but’ coming.
“It’s the same scaffolding. Same construction material. Similar principles,” Tattletale elaborated.
“Thanks,” I told her.
“You’re not taking your kid in with you, are you?”
I looked over at Lookout.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” I said.
“Say something happens to your team,” Tattletale said.
I held my finger to my lips. I turned my head toward one of the more obvious cameras.
She brought a hand up to her nose to scratch it but then left it there, cupped over her mouth. “Do you have any preferences? Messages to pass on? People you’d rather see looking after her?”
I didn’t see Kenzie acting strange. With Darlene crowding in to take over burger duty, Aiden holding out a napkin to catch drippings, and Candy laughing at something, the group of them were probably a sufficient distraction that Kenzie wasn’t monitoring my conversation with Tattletale.
I covered my own mouth as I talked, “If anything happens, contact the Wardens. Dragon and Defiant can handle the tech side of things, but you’ll probably need the heroes to get a handle on her.”
“I’ll waive my usual fees for handling contingencies if you’re quiet about Chicken Little and his loose lips.”
With that, Tattletale walked away.
We have to do this, I thought. Then I had to amend my statement, because we’d already let the guard dog out of its pen. We had to do this. We can’t be following behind every crisis.
The clock counted down to Rain’s bedtime. 31:32, 31:31, 31:30…
2:15, 2:14, 2:13, 2:12…
“Don’t try to control your breathing, ignore all of that usual stuff about deep breaths or breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose,” Sveta counseled. “Breathe naturally. Don’t get mad at yourself if you stop breathing naturally, just move on, move forward, return to what we’re focusing on.”
Sveta was the person to talk us through meditation, because she’d had to do it several times every day, as a part of managing her control.
“Our focus is on ourselves,” Sveta said. “Body image, the costume we wear, and what led to us getting the costumes we did. If your thoughts go outside of this area, bring them back in, but don’t get mad at yourself, or the emotion will become the focus. You don’t get anything from being mad at yourself. We are the clothes we wear.”
It was hard to bring myself to follow her general roadmap. So much of what I’d done I’d done because it hinted at or stood in stark contrast to things that were very fucking good at distracting me. I’d chosen a black costume because Amy’s was white. Gold because of Gold Morning. My icon at my shoulders with its spires was evocative of the Wretch’s hands, the symbol extending to be a circle with the dot within to emulate the armbands that so many wore.
And if I thought of Amy and the Wretch, and if those thoughts took hold, if this meditation worked, would the me of the dream room be the Wretch?
The thought chilled me and invaded my thoughts over and over, which only made it worse.
All were roads I could have spiraled down, so I turned to surrender instead. I didn’t fight, I didn’t struggle. If I thought of the current me, I tended to think of myself in costume. Antares in black and gold. The number of layers varied, sometimes a coat, sometimes a few bandages. But I was quietly confident in that background self image, mostly confident that it was the me as I visualized myself.
When I tried to let my mind drift with only nudges here and there, to explore the buckler and the armguard that was attached, to go back to the routine of suiting up and pulling on the individual costume components, it was loose, fragmented, easy, but always with dangerous thoughts lurking around the exterior.
I didn’t make myself meditate, and instead, focused on maintaining a good mental state, grounding myself in reality as I tended to do when I needed to bring myself out of the well of dark thoughts I tended to associate with the Wretch.
I was in a square with my team. We sat within the boundaries of Kenzie’s ‘cube’ that she’d used to let Tristan communicate while Byron was dominant. Wires streamed in from every direction to the ‘cube’s’ perimeter and the boxy keyboard that was the actual device.
I peeked, and saw Damsel fidgeting, bladed arms in her lap, the sharp inner sides of each blade turned upward. Each fidget was faintly audible as a metal-on-metal sound.
Tattletale, Kenzie, and Kenzie’s team were all on the far side of the room, giving us a wide, wide berth. Snuff and Sidepiece had left at our request, Snuff watching Sidepiece at Tattletale’s instruction. If we were going to be collectively unconscious, then we couldn’t have that unpredictable element out there. It was part of why we had Damsel in here with us. She knew the terrain, so to speak.
Buckler, I thought, idly. I imagined its dimensions, committed the weight of it to my mind. I thought of the zip of my top, the form-fitting nature of it, the feeling of boots being pulled on, uncomfortable and tight, then suddenly comfortable, as my feet found the perfect fit waiting for them. The bottom of my foot imprinted on the material as much by hard landings and downward kicks as by any great amount of walking.
I felt impatient. It didn’t help that I had to feel like I was ready to jump to action the moment we ticked over, while trying to stay calm and steady enough that my costume-complete self image held true. It felt like the clock should have hit zero by now, and I was ready to voice a comment, asking if it had worked, if Rain was still with us, but first I’d look at the clock.
I turned my head toward the display-
Voices cheered and jeered, and people bustled around me. Tinny noises and different music formed a cacophony of sound.
I took a step forward, and I realized I wasn’t in control. The motion happened on its own, which was a good thing, because if I had been in control, I might have stumbled or fallen. My legs were shorter.
The faces of girls running just in front of me, almost cutting me off, they were familiar, but this scene wasn’t.
I ran forward, reaching for a joystick, my hands going to buttons.
The joystick was the standard ball on top of a stick, common to any number of the arcade cabinets around me. But this ball, it was orange with black stripes dividing it. A basketball.
Even the motion of the hand on the joystick was familiar while the context was wrong. Down, down, down- selecting my team, three superheroes in basketball uniforms.
“Victoria,” my dad said.
I twisted around, but the game was starting. A girl shoved her way in beside me. On the far side of the cabinet, other girls were there. Two versus two.
“Just one game?” I asked, my attention divided.
He looked so tired, so disinterested, but he smiled. My mom, beside him, managed to feign interest, but didn’t smile. Amy sat off to the side, cheering loud enough to make up for both of them.
“I’m good at this,” I murmured. Emotions were unsteady, unsure, and small, as they found their places in my chest. “I’ve practiced.”
“Focus on the game,” the girl next to me said. She was my opponent, having butted her way in, choosing her own roster. She was bigger, square-chinned, naturally strong.
Naturally good at the game, I soon found.
I could have matched her, maybe. I had my own strengths, I’d studied, I’d put in the hours, and as my mom had said, it wasn’t enough to have natural talents, you had to put in the effort too. I wanted to think I had both.
I stole a glance, and I could see how they were barely holding on. Some people had approached them, talking to them because they were heroes, everyone knew about them, they were cool. Even as they fielded questions from the crowd of parents and friends off to the side, they forced smiles, feigned interest, kept watching. My mom pointed, indicating for me to focus on the game.
Down, down, down. The joystick mimicked the dribbling of the ball. I input the commands for a Legend-ary half-court shot, a score. I chanced a look back, and saw Amy there, cheering, pumping a fist. My dad mimicked her. My mom hadn’t even seen.
I had a flow going, a routine.
The girl beside me elbowed me. She was stronger, and in the moment, she got my hands off the controls. She took the ball. She scored.
I stole another glance. Of course it was a moment like this that both of my parents were looking.
It was my last game, they’d agreed to let me play it. Fail here, I could continue until I failed. For the other girl, it might have been the same, but it couldn’t have felt half as important. I wanted to show off, I wanted to show that even if I wasn’t on the same stage as my parents, I could use what I’d learned, be excellent in my own way.
Trailing a few points behind. I passed, passed. But there wasn’t any cooperation from the other player who was supposed to be on my side. The opportunities didn’t come. Didn’t come. The clock ticked down, 31, 30, 29…
I didn’t know the script, but I knew the tempo, the rhythm, the way this was supposed to go in the way I might know the beat of a song even if I didn’t know the specific words.
15, 14, 13, 12…
I got the ball. I got my shot, everything on the line, chance to be a hero.
And the girl casually shoved me. I fell, and on the dirty floor of the arcade, my arm skidded on grit from shoes and bits of food. A sandpaper scrape, a slam to my elbow that felt like a steel rod rammed up my elbow to my shoulder.
“Owww,” I mewled, cradling my arm, and belatedly, I realized that this particular stage had gone quiet, just in time for me to sound like a girl closer to four than to fourteen, my voice overly loud with the acoustics of the space.
The silence and the stares felt damning. As if this girl wasn’t the one in the wrong. I was. Because I was the daughter of superheroes. I was supposed to be better.
I didn’t want to look, this time, but I did. Amy had her eyes downcast, like she couldn’t even look at me. She would later tell me she knew how much this had mattered to me. My mom, though, she stared at me. It was a look of condemnation and disappointment, followed by a glance away. I could almost understand that.
My dad, though, arms folded, was talking to a man beside him, idly chatting. He glanced back over his shoulder at a man with a heavy beard and dense tattoos. Too disinterested to notice my efforts or failure when a hundred other people nearby had seen and heard every last bit of it.
What is this? I thought.
The game showed a countdown. I made myself get up.
Free shot, for a chance to continue. One shot wouldn’t win this, it was just a stupid fucking game. My arm hurt.
Fingers maneuvered the joystick, I hit the buttons.
I missed the shot, with everyone except for three people still watching. Their love was conditional.
The blare of the game over sound was loud, jarring, shattering my senses.
What is this?
Who is this?
The legs could have belonged to the same person, but the sensations and the subtleties were different. The body wasn’t as athletic, but it was lighter, skinnier.
A girl. Sveta? In a… house?
I felt a weird surge of hope and dread.
No. I felt a bit crestfallen. This had to be Ashley. Was this as different for her as it had been for me?
The body I was riding inside reached the top of a third-story stairwell, then started navigating hallways and rooms, padding around on white carpet.
The house was so large, so empty.
The room she went into had posters on every inch of every wall, with some tacked to the ceiling. It smelled like sweat, with a faint bathroom smell, making her wrinkle her nose.
“Gross,” she said.
I felt a stab of fear and concern, hearing that child’s voice.
She went straight to the bedside table, hauling it open, and poked her way past magazines of women wearing swimsuits. She found a digital music player with a cracked screen and the cover for the batteries missing, batteries exposed at the back. She had her headphones on, cord dangling, and she plugged it into the player. The music sounded muted, not as sharp as a modern digital player might be.
“Stop stealing my stuff, loser,” she said, clipping the music player to her pocket. She fished through more of the drawer’s contents, rolling her eyes as she turned the page of the swimsuit magazine, revealing it to be a cover stapled over a much more lewd kind of mag.
She backed away, continuing her search through the room, but the bathroom smell swelled, and she turned her head.
In the walk-in closet, gym stuff on the floor, more fancy clothes to the right and out-of-season winter clothes to the left, a teenage boy dangled from the central railing, toes touching the ground. Urine and shit ran down his legs to his nice white sneakers, and onto the floor below. Blond, but with face purple-blue, his features already distorted.
She made an incoherent sound, lunging forward to wrap her arms around him, to try to lift him up, as if she could. He was almost twice her size. The damp from his pants leg pressed through her shirt and to her stomach, and she flinched away, aware of how cold it was.
She turned to the side, and the movement of her head brought another involuntary sound past her throat and lips. Her eyes traced the path, the plan, the route of climbing up onto clothes, getting to the rope he hung from.
The clothes and the hangers weren’t strong enough to support her, and she only managed to tear clothes off the rod.
The actions were frantic, senseless, and each one seemed to punctuate the cold, grim reality. He didn’t move, he didn’t struggle. His skin was cold.
She hit him, scratched him, as if somehow that could rouse him, wordless, her throat choked, pain gripping every part of her chest and throat.
Her fists balled up, and a strange sensation at her fingertips made her startle. She looked down, then startled again, her eyes going from the underside of her fingernails to the gouges she’d left in his arm. Skin, balled up under her nails.
She almost tripped over his things, as she backed up, hand held out between them as if she could somehow back away from it, too. Vision and breathing were incoherent, and there was a dazed, lost sensation as she stepped out of his room into the hallway, and didn’t even seem to know where she was. The hurt was constant, pressure on her chest, her head pounding, the bathroom smell lingering because her efforts to grab him had gotten some on her.
I’m sorry, Tattletale.
The scene shifted, the path from her brother’s bedroom to the phone not even committed to memory. She reached the phone, and she held her hand over the list of numbers. Parents, names that might have been family friends, emergency services.
“I don’t know who to call, Rex,” she mumbled, and her voice was small, timid. “Ambulances are for people who are alive. Police are for investigating deaths, but it’s obvious who did it. I feel so stupid.”
Tears blurred her vision, and she blinked to clarify it, looking at the names: ‘June Livsey’. ‘Fred Livsey’.
She didn’t press the button. Quietly, she hung up the phone, and headed out the door, head hanging.
“If I’d been a bit sooner…”
Across the street, jarring in juxtaposition to the nice house and the nice houses on either side of it, was a shopping center. Lost, dazed, she started toward it, not even glancing either way to check for traffic.
If Tattletale is here, then…
The rocks and plants outside of the shopping center were exaggerated in size, and not because of the dream. They were exaggerated because this was a place that had been made before Gold Morning. As a larger group, they played on the rocks.
“Hurry, Michael, Dimitri! There’ll be time to practice jacking each other off later!”
The larger of the boys laughed, even while other kids jeered at him. The point of view dropped to the ground.
“No need, Nadia!” the large boy called out. “I’ve practiced, studied, and mastered that, all on my own! I bet I could teach your dad some things, so he could please your mom for once!”
The jeering continued. Nadia laughed.
There was a display board with swappable letters by the trees. Nadia began toying with it, putting vulgar words up there. Kids jeered and joked, topping each other, with comments about Dimitri’s uncle and inventive approaches to dog breeding. Dimitri joked back.
Motorcycles rumbled with a deepness that sank in, right to the belly, as bikes pulled in around the mall. Men with tattoos climbed off, heading inside. Some had masks, dressed up like demons.
The point of view didn’t join in, remaining quiet, face heated. Some other kids were scraping stones against the big rock in front of the mall, to make drawings as vulgar as the words Nadia was putting up. Hands scraped rock against rock, leaving pale markings behind, to draw swirls, birds, fish.
I know those swirls.
“You’re looking good, Nadia. Almost like you’re a real girl,” Michael teased.
Nadia curtseyed, pluckign at the corners of her dress. She smacked her lips to blow a kiss. “And here I thought your family only had eyes for dogs.”
“You’re the dog, Nadia!” one of the others jeered, almost drowned out by Michael’s laughter.
The efforts to draw the birds and fish renewed, more vigorous, more violent. There were tears, ready to spill forth, that were quickly blinked away, as a faint rain pattered down around them.
There were more rumbles. More motorcycles, joined by cars.
“Maybe we should go in,” someone said.
The hand scraped stone against stone, hurrying, a hand gripping a branch to maintain a position, to finish the picture-
Then the fall, and a stunned darkness. Faces peering down, the pain, a disoriented jumble that came with a disorienting, slightly askew scene.
I wanted nothing more than to hug my friend, but she was already slipping out of reach.
“I’m sorry,” the words were a faint croak, thick in the throat, before the scene faded.
Her entire body convulsed, as she emptied her stomach’s contents into the toilet bowl. The force of it was so violent she almost lost her grip on the toilet seat. Her hands were trembling, and her shoes didn’t have the traction needed to stay beneath her.
Sidepiece? She’s not anywhere near us.
“Are you okay?” a voice came from outside the toilet stall.
She heaved, but she didn’t have anything left to produce except for a dribble of fluid.
“Can I call anyone?”
Bodyless, only an observer, I could only feel a nebulous but profound moment of despair. The word was French. It wasn’t Sidepiece.
The voice was so young, hoarse from the recent vomiting.
“Are you sure? You don’t sound well.”
The hands that fished for toilet paper were so small, wiping around her mouth.
She wasn’t even tall enough to kneel by the toilet. That was why her shoes had slipped, had been necessary. She wiped at herself some more, then looked down, at a nice dress and hard shoes with buckles, more useful for being pretty than for any activity, let alone finding traction on bathroom floors.
She hiccuped, and the motion was so close to the recent vomiting that her entire upper body convulsed, hurting a bit. It at least seemed to disturb the hiccup enough that she didn’t hiccup again.
“I could call a doctor.”
“No!” the child cried out, and the word was outlined in fear. She hurried to reach up and find the door latch, opening it to find a concerned middle aged woman there. “Please. I’m okay.”
“You don’t sound okay, hon. Where’s your mom?”
“My papa is outside,” she said, in halting English. She went to the sink, standing on her toes to get water and wash her face, washing her mouth. “I didn’t want him coming into the girl’s bathroom.”
“Okay. Should I go find him?”
She shook her head. With damp hands, she wiped at her dress and then her hair. She half-walked, half-ran for the bathroom door, the fancy little shoes nearly slipping on the tile.
A group of men with tattoos got in her way almost immediately. She shied back, waiting for them to pass, then saw the woman behind her, and hurried forward. Into the food court.
A man, round-headed, round-bodied, bigger than any man she’d ever seen in real life, rose from the bench he sat on.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice gentle, the words French but understandable. “You ran so quickly for the bathroom.”
“I’m okay,” she said, clasping her hands in front of her. Every word French but translated.
“Do you want to go home? I can drive you now.”
She shook her head, fierce, emphatic.
“Okay, then,” he said. He put out his hand.
Looking back at the middle aged woman, the little girl reached out and up, putting her hand in the man’s.
“Do you want to try the arcade again?” he asked. He indicated the arcade at one corner of the food court. A crowd of parents and onlookers was gathered. “It looks busier than before, but that can be fun in its own way.”
She shook her head. “No thank you, Keith.”
“Whatever you want to do. I want you to have the best time,” he said. He gave her hand a squeeze.
“Thank you, Keith. Can we, um, can we sit?”
“Sit? Surely we can do something else.”
“I want to sit,” she said. She looked at his hand, and the squeeze she gave it seemed calculated, intended, the look up at the towering figure tremulous, unsure.
“Okay,” he said. “Here, I have an idea. Sit, wait there.”
She did, sitting at the table in a large food court, looking around her at the people, eyes lingering on families.
Her hands touched her stomach, which was tender. She saw someone glance at her, and dropped both hands into her lap, clasping them together against the stiff fabric of her dress. It wasn’t cold, but her hands shook.
She saw Keith return, navigating the crowd, smiling at a mother and her kids.
Her stomach flip-flopped when she saw what he held.
He placed the cup of ice cream in front of her, then did the same with an ice cream cone, which had a paper holder to keep it upright. “I wasn’t sure whether you’d want a cone or a cup, so I got both. If you want both, I won’t tell.”
He winked, and she smiled, tremulous, unsure. She reached for the plastic spoon, and her stomach did another flip.
“You don’t want it?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
Paralyzed, she sat there.
“Candice,” he said, and he hurried over, kneeling beside her to bring himself more to her level. It only made his presence feel more oppressive. “Do you want to go home?”
“No,” she said, her voice small. Her lips formed a word she didn’t utter: never.
Candy. I’m sorry you had to go through this.
“Candice, look at me.”
Obedient, she did.
“I am your ally. I know some men pay your father for access to his, um, girlfriends, wives? To have them keep them company?”
Candy shrugged. I could feel the movement, as deliberate as the hand squeeze, like the lie or manipulation was more obvious than anything in its intentionality.
“I don’t know if you remember, but I joked before about running away with you, when we first got into the car.”
“If you wished, Candice, we could get in the car now. We could drive away to a far away place and he would never find us. I would never hurt you or do anything like he thinks I would. Like you might think I would. No, every day would be a best day, like today.”
“My sister,” Candy murmured. “I can’t leave her.”
“I could pay for her to come join us, perhaps?”
A different kind of paralysis took hold.
“I have… many sisters. No. I can’t. Even if not, I have to do what daddy says.”
“He said to listen to me, didn’t he?”
She went stiff, nodded.
“Then I order you to listen to me. Tell me what you want.”
“I want to sit here.”
“Alright. We can sit. You can have your ice cream. I know it’s your favorite, your dad told me.”
She picked up the spoon, hesitating. Her stomach cramped.
“I know we’ve had three desserts already, and three big meals, but we’re allowed to enjoy ourselves on a best day like today, aren’t we?” he asked. He squinted his eyes together, like he was being mischievous.
She nodded, unsure.
“Mange, mange!” he urged her, chuckling a bit.
She lifted a spoonful to her mouth, closing her mouth down around the cold ice cream. She shied away as he got back up to his feet beside her, and drew herself in to be small as he settled on the bench to her right.
Her stomach hurting with every action, she lifted another spoonful to her mouth, while he sat beside her, chin on his hand, looking at her like a fucking lovestruck schoolchild looked at their crush, his hand on her back, rubbing.
A tear ran down her cheek, and she hurriedly wiped it away, looking to one side to avoid letting him see.
She saw a familiar face, and reached out.
That familiar face reached for her. Darlene. But there was too much distance for them to make contact.
“I’ll go get some more ice cream,” he said, almost giddy. “Some to take home. You can have some on the car ride back.”
Darlene’s hand dropped to her side.
She was tugged along, her head ducked low. The grip on her wrist was like iron.
“This way,” the mall’s staff member said, meek, deferential. She bowed slightly, then looked abashed to be bowing.
The door was pushed open, and they entered a back room. special event space, decorated with streamers and big paper letters that were all strung together. Kids were already assembled, half of the group gathered at one side table, expectant as the cake was cut. The other half were playing with presents that had been opened.
The streamers spelled out a name: Yasmin. Darlene’s eyes, our window into this scene, moved to a girl in specific.
People turned, people noticed. They reacted.
And then they didn’t react. Cries of fear and alarm were silenced without word or gesture. Each of the adults went still.
“Come,” the voice was French-accented, but it spoke English. Smooth, cold, calm. “I think you should sit at the head of the table, my Darlene. Any objections?”
There were none. Darlene’s eyes moved around, tracking adult, child. The chair was pulled out for her, and she sat. Every adult obeyed. The children, however, were indecisive, frozen in fear that was wholly natural.
“Take down the other girl’s name. You and you, you can watch the doors. Nobody leaves until my child has had her birthday party. Sit, everyone!”
Darlene watched as Yasmin’s name was ripped from the wall.
His voice was loud and smooth in her right ear. He was quiet, but nobody present made even the slightest noise, so everyone heard. “Now, who do you like? Who likes you, hm?”
She looked at a boy, blond, and saw his eyes widen in fear at the eye contact.
The boy smiled.
“Come, sit at the head of the table. You can be the prince for my princess. You will do whatever she asks of you.”
Darlene was stiff, frozen, staring down the length of the table. She shivered as she felt the boy next to her take her hand.
“Now pick one, Darlene. Who do you like least, in this room?” he said, his voice held the threat. “It is your birthday, this is your test, you will choose. Both your brother and your sister got their powers, and so will you. But you won’t leave me, as they did.”
Hands on her shoulders, a hand gripping her left, adults smiling all around her, she pointed at a boy at the end of the table.
“He- he spat at me once. S-s-said I smelled funky.”
“What shall we do with him?”
Darlene was silent.
“If you don’t choose, I will, and I’m far crueler than you are.”
“Extinguish him,” Darlene whispered.
The chair skidded, the boy thrashed, fighting despite the fact there was nothing there. He fell from his seat, while children all around the table shrieked and cried out.
Then he went still.
All around her, children looked shocked, stricken, horrified. They looked at her.
“Look at their faces, Darlene,” he murmured. “They never knew who you were, did they? Now they know the truth, and they will keep it with them forever. We will make decisions for each and every one of them today.”
Darlene nodded, eyes dropping.
“We are family, my Darlene,” he whispered. “That is all you will ever have or need, yes? Blood ties us together. Cosanguinuity.”
The detonation rocked the shopping center. People turned, looked, and saw the tattooed people standing on tables, standing on stairs to the upper level above the food court. Blue fire and shadows danced around them.
The figure we rode in was another small body, this time. A boy. Breaths huffed. He looked for help, support, and saw none. Alone, he was lost in a tide. People pushed him without even meaning to.
“Imp!” he called out. “Aisha! Charlotte! Forrest!”
There was no returning cry, or if there was, it was drowned out. The people around him increased by the second.
But they reached the end of the long hallway with the big exit sign above it, and they stopped there. They didn’t open the doors. People pressed in-
He stumbled, falling, and he saw the people running at him, so fast it was clear they wouldn’t stop.
A large figure put himself between the boy and the people. A man with a thick beard, old fashioned glasses, a piercing in his nose, and kind eyes.
He fell as well, blocking the tide of bodies with his own, gripping the side of a sign that was built into the wall, scratched plexiglass case and frame protecting the image beneath.
“I’ll do what I can to protect you,” the man spoke, and his voice was deep enough to be heard through the din. “I’ll try to keep the path clear.”
“I-” Aiden tried.
But Snag gripped him, then lifted him up to the top of the plexiglass case, away from the stampede of people. Pushed, shoved, Snag nearly lost his footing, but then managed to get Aiden to a secure spot, standing on the frame, the window above him.
But Aiden was too small to reach. He looked down, and he seemed to search for and find familiar faces, vertigo making his vision swim. Voices jeered, mixed in with panicked cries, and he shrank against the wall, feet slipping, finding footing again, slipping again- fear lurching in his chest.
“Help,” he whispered. “Anyone? Please?”
The perspective distorted, and the way down might as well have been five stories, not ten feet.
In the midst of the trample of bodies, Ashley twisted her head to one side as she was smacked across the head. Her vision swam. She tried to stand and she wobbled.
“Stop,” she said.
They tucked themselves into a space by the wall, but it wasn’t possible for everyone to occupy it. Her father loomed above her, struck out.
“Come on!” he shouted, voice loud, hoarse. “Make your decision!”
She winced, face turned away.
“Answer me! Don’t go mute on me like she does!”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“That’s not an answer, Ash,” he growled. People pushed past them. “Come on. If I have to get rid of one of you, is it going to be you, or is it going to be her?”
Ashley turned her head, and she stared past her longer hair at herself, small and short-haired. She cringed, fearing the next blow, and the other her stood a little taller.
“Come on!” he shouted, gripping them by the arm.
Kenzie reached out, trying to find a grip. The mass of bodies pressed in, and she was pushed back.
Her foster parents reached out for her. Two black men, one barrel-shaped, hair short, wearing a colorful shirt. Another man, skinnier, with a tidy dress shirt, a worried look on his narrow face.
She fought to hold on, as people pulled them apart, and her fingernails dug in, scratching, scrabbling, skin filling the space under her nails.
Until the desperate fight to maintain the grip made the reaching hand flinch in pain, pulling away.
She reached out, vainly, with every muscle in her body.
And there was hesitation on the other side. A fraction of a second. When they reached out, only fingertips touched. Then they were separated.
“Byron,” Tristan gasped. He was trapped under the press of bodies, his brother on top of him, Byron’s arm leaning against his throat. He couldn’t breathe, and the view through Tristan’s eyes darkened around the edges. “Listen to me, damn it! Wake up!”
But Byron was unconscious, eyes partially lidded. The pressure on Tristan’s throat was involuntary.
“Wake up! Please!”
Reaching, scrabbling, Tristan found a splinter of wood. He stabbed his brother, perhaps to try to get him to wake up or come to reality. It didn’t work.
So he stabbed again- and again.
The doors opened, and Rain was there, in the too-bright light, as people spilled forth. Darlene, Aiden, me, Tristan, Byron’s comatose body, Sveta, Candy, Kenzie, Ashley, Tattletale, Colt, Love Lost, and Cradle.
Rain greeted us all with a desperate, mocking laughter.
And then, as though a light switch had been flicked, the scene was gone, and we were in the room, divided into fifteen sections, each haphazardly connected to the last.
I had my costume and my buckler, but not my flight. I hurried over in Sveta’s direction, crawling at first, then staggering, and crossed the boundary.
And in the shadows furthest from me, the watchdog woke. It lumbered forth, reaching out to grab the concrete of Cradle’s area, a table in Rain’s, and to the shattered dais at the center of the room.
Too many limbs, all smooth planes like marble, with cables running in the gaps, each glowing with an intense heat. A twenty foot tall titan made of reaching arms that could have been tentacles, they were so many-jointed.
It was nothing like the beast of lightning we’d seen on the video.
That wasn’t a single watchdog administrating this room. It was one of four dogs.
“Cradle!” I called out, and I felt like the words were futile even as I uttered them. “It won’t hurt you! We need you to get in its way!”
All around us, the others were still reeling from reopened wounds. They were slow to move, and the many-handed beast was quick.
And Cradle did not get in its way.