Lights flickered, dancing from the feet of agent to person, person to person, and off to the distance, neurons in a larger system striking like lightning. But in this too-bright corner of a dark, living landscape, these lightning strikes could only travel so far.
This world was like a broken window, the landscape cracked, and the fact the light didn’t travel to where it needed to go served as a suggestion of just how broken it was.
The others approached, and I motioned for them to duck their heads down as they peered over the cliff’s edge at the group on the other side of the ravine. Three agents and fifty people dressed in Teacher’s pristine white garage-worker coveralls.
The workers were just numerous enough that in an ordinary situation I wasn’t sure one wouldn’t look in our general direction and make out the masks, helmets, and heads of hair that stood out against the consistently dark background and landscape. But these weren’t regular workers, they were thralls, and they were wholly wrapped up in what they were doing.
The agents were the really scary thing, and as much as they seemed fixated on picking at and adjusting the edges of the portal, the notion that they might turn and give us their full attention was a hell of a lot scarier.
We didn’t make a sound, aside from the occasional scratch of armor on crystal or harder than normal exhalation.
Off to the side, Tattletale motioned, indicating something to Sveta. I saw her hold up five fingers. Then six.
I could count the flashes and where those flashes were traveling. Six flashes moving from the group to a specific point in the distance. Our flashes had a consistency too, messages transferred along these neurons, dancing along the hard edges of the crystal, always to the same destination.
But these guys… they didn’t have powers. By all rights, they shouldn’t have had a common source. Except for Teacher.
Except we couldn’t get over there. A canyon separated our section from theirs, and the failures of lights to find any means of connecting suggested we were on an island.
Scenes of the city in winter painted many of the crystals, growing fainter for those scenes appearing on crystals further from the tear in reality. I watched as they worked, and I saw as they reached out to touch crystals as certain images came up, which seemed to highlight related images on other crystals. Through a relay, they selected certain things, bringing up selections a few feet away, which the next person chose from, until they were affecting what was being managed on crystal faces well away from the aperture.
Others were setting up tech, with monitors showing data that was way too far away to make out. But those monitors were plugged into crystals around the edges.
I watched as crystals rearranged near the portal, and cracks widened.
A chasm separated us from them. Ability and capacity to understand and work in this system separated us further. If we wanted to change anything from the inside, we’d need a system at least as good at that.
We had no powers and we were up against fifty thralls in very much the same boat. If knowing how to function in this world offered us any advantage, then it offered their side a hundred times the same advantage, because it was pretty clear Teacher had granted them some natural ability and awareness.
Frustration seized me, and it came with a panicky feeling that I was not expecting. Not like that, not like this. I was used to danger, used to that fight or flight drive. I could fly, and I was pretty good at using it to deliver the fight part of things.
But this- it didn’t come from facing down a cape with an unknown power. It didn’t come from memories of Crawler and acid, or the idea of Amy coming when I didn’t expect her. Those were people, they were things I could stand against.
The panicky feeling delivered a sensation of being paralyzed, of not just being unable to breathe, but being unwilling to.
Paralysis wasn’t a stranger to me. I had to remind myself of that. Suffocating, too. Had to find my way to the right line of thinking. Thinking of flying so high that the air was thinner. Tricking my brain to think of coming down from that high place. Easier if I thought of this blackness as the night sky.
I resumed breathing, resumed moving, turning my head away from that situation while I processed. Why? Another power? Were they doing something?
I hadn’t seen a flash from them. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Rain’s power and it wasn’t Darlene, who was the most active of all of us.
Just me. Wholly internal. The light flickered beneath me and darted off to the distance, in a near-continuous stream. We were fortunate that the group over there wasn’t in a position to see, as the lip of the canyon rose up and blocked their view.
Being burned, being that hurt, it had left its traces behind. I hadn’t forgotten it, and remembering it was very easy when tied into the deep feeling of frustration.
Sveta touched my arm, jarring me back to reality. Had I been making a noise or acting strange? No. Staring off into space, thinking hard? Yes.
She motioned to Tristan, who repeated a gesture he’d no doubt made earlier. I nodded.
Retreat. We gained nothing by watching too much longer.
We pulled back from the canyon’s lip, sliding down the hill and finding a recess to gather in. Breakthrough at one side, kids further down, Love Lost, Damsel, and Tattletale sitting around the periphery, on higher ground.
I was breathing harder than necessary, even a minute later, and controlling my breath took focus. I didn’t want this latest bit of trauma to be yet another thing that sneak-attacked me when I didn’t expect it, another arrangement of mines in the minefield that I had to navigate.
The idea frankly terrified me, and the anger and bitterness that gripped me as I bit the inside of my cheek was bad enough I didn’t want to be the first one to speak, in case it colored my tone.
“Ideas?” Tristan asked.
I didn’t answer.
I handled my shit. I made my peace in that moment. What’s a little pain? I’ve been hurt before.
“I can take a stab at this,” Tattletale said.
Please distract me.
“Caveat,” she went on. “This isn’t me using my power. This is just me using my head, a bit of educated guessing from earlier uses of my power, and the fact I was one of the first handful of people to really cotton on to… this.”
She indicated the valley around us.
“Anything you can give us.” I tried to keep my voice normal.
She gave me a funny look. Normal voice failed, I supposed.
“Syndicate is firing zaps back the way we came. That nexus or… landing between slopes that we passed through, people, relationships, wants? The faces of people you’d all lost? I think some combination of that and the cluster are serving as our current hub, connecting us.”
“That was the principle of it,” Kenzie said. “I think. I don’t really have access to the mental blueprints while I’m in here. Which is weird.”
Tattletale continued like Kenzie hadn’t spoken, “Syndicate hubs us up, and it’s why our little territory here is bigger than some of the others nearby. The big golden asshole died, individual areas with individual focuses all got broken apart. Or… when he was around there was something more active, bridging things here on a permission basis. Dunno.”
“I thought of them as islands,” I remarked.
“Sure, if you want to be pedantic, go ahead.”
“So it might be possible to make connections,” I said. “To connect one of the islands to another one.”
Tattletale shook her head. “The connections we know about were set up outside of this space. To create a bridge over there like we have here, we would probably need Darlene to wake up, find Teacher, and use her power on him.”
“Other ideas, then,” Tristan said. “There has to be a way.”
“Can we hack it?” Rain asked. “Form a connection from within? If we can use crystals to access functions, isn’t it possible to get one of these areas or things to form a bridge?”
“Could,” Tattletale said. “Or it could be a safety measure that says sections can’t be bridged without the big golden guy handling it.”
“Put a pin in that. Other options,” Tristan said. “You motioned toward the lights. Teacher?”
“If it’s about connections, and finding a bridge, we need to figure out a place to cross over that’s reaching out outwardly,” I said. Focusing on the abstract theorizing helped. “My power has an aura. I could see that radiating out and connecting to others.”
“But it’s not on, and they aren’t nearby,” Tattletale said. “Love Lost, Colt, and Rain are out, we’ve been to their… I dunno, their centers of power, the key processing units that handle their powers, as those powers have currently manifested? Yes?”
“Yes,” Rain said, looking back.
“Yeah,” Colt said.
“Capricorn twins are structural, no reaching out there. Sveta reaches out but not in the sense we want, with continuous, lasting connections to other parahumans and their power sources. Chicken Little… same idea, I don’t think it bridges any gap between him and another parahuman. Lookout would bridge to her tech. Darlene we’ve seen. Damsel’s focused on destruction. From a pure, shard-focused perspective, that leaves… me?”
“Does it though?” I asked. “I know you’ve given up some details, but I don’t know specifically what you do.”
“I get information, I pick up extra info, abstractly related. I can aim it, both at people and at certain topics I want to fill in. It’s constant and ongoing, which is what we want.”
“I’m worried that isn’t a strong enough connection. I’d rather pick Decadent,” I said, indicating Candy. “You’ve used your power on capes? You oversaturate them with happiness and hallucinated sensory inputs, but there’s a lasting suppression effect, right?”
“Yeah. I’ve used it on family, non-family,” Candy answered. She clasped her hands together, looking less secure than I’d seen her in a long while. “Bunch of people. Bunch of capes.”
“Has your power hit them… in the powers? Taken away their joy of-”
“Of being artificially beautiful, yeah. Of running, for one super fast guy. Um-”
“You hit that Gammarod dork,” Darlene said. “Who got hard-ons while irradiating people and giving them probable cancer.”
“What.” Chicken Little said.
“-And that other one Papa worked with sometimes,” Darlene went on.
“I barely remember that one,” Candy said.
“He slid between people’s skin and muscles and took over their bodies. He always had to have an eye appear in a hidden spot, like, so he could see, because he didn’t control the eyes.”
“He was going to take over me. I was so scared Papa hit me with calming emotions and it didn’t even make me stop freaking out. Some of that was calming emotion, but-”
“Yeah,” Candy said. “I remember. We weren’t that old.”
“You stopped him and it was the first time I remember you being a real sister to me. And it was only a week after I pushed your plate of spaghetti into your lap because we were fighting.”
Candy nodded. “We don’t know if they’re all alive.”
“Gammadoc is,” Tattletale said. “But that particular incident happened in Brockton Bay and I’ve kept tabs on our old enemies. Unless he bit it in the last week or so, there’s an active link to the guy. And, last I checked, the guy was pulled out of retirement to work for Teacher in the facility. That’s the good.”
“The good?” I asked.
“If we go over there to Candy’s thing,” Tattletale said, pointing back in the general the way we came, maybe a bit to the right. “There’s probably a good bridge, or a few of them. Can’t say how intact it’ll be, but it’s a good bet.”
“What’s the bad?” Byron asked.
“The bad is Candy’s area is way back over there… and Teacher’s is way over there.”
Tattletale pointed in two different directions.
“Travel’s deceptively fast here,” I noted. “It’s our best bet. We go over there, we circle around, we go for Teacher.”
“Other option,” Tattletale said. “My territory, count on links seeking information to form bridges.”
“Even while you’re here?” I asked.
“Even while I’m here.”
“We don’t have time to argue,” Tristan said. “I vote Tattletale’s.”
“Antares’s,” Byron said. Tristan looked annoyed.
“Tattletale’s,” Chicken Little said. “I’m mad at her but I know she knows some of this stuff.”
“With her power,” Darlene said.
“Ok, then I vote Tattletale,” Darlene added.
“Tattletale,” Sveta said. “Sorry. I get the reasoning, but-”
“No, no need to apologize,” I said.
“-We need to do this fast. We don’t have long.”
In this bizarro world with a pitch black sky and a floor of something alive, something we were technically inside, as we dwelt within the crystal’s interior as simulations, I was advocating for the conservative, sure route. Tattletale preached the direct, unreliable route.
“Antares,” Rain said.
“Antares,” Kenzie joined her voice to his.
“Tattletale,” Candy said.
“I assume we’re going to be working together, if we get out of this in one piece,” Damsel told Tattletale. “I’ll make my token effort to build something by giving you a small, miniscule amount of my faith.”
“That’s a bad basis for-”
“It’s more than I give others, Tattletale. Don’t be greedy.”
“Sure,” Tattletale said, sighing.
Everyone else made their quick vote, Love Lost pointing a claw at Tattletale to make hers.
Byron, Rain, and Kenzie were the only ones in favor of my path.
We started off.
Have to find a way over, have to see if we can’t work something out with these panels and getting into the guts of this system. Have to see if we can’t slow Teacher down or at least figure out what he’s doing here.
Easy enough, right?
The panicked, frustrated feeling hadn’t quite been extinguished, and the tension of the moment sat uneasily within me.
I didn’t like that this was the second time we’d voted, and that I had to reconcile that I’d hated that I’d gone along with the decision to split up when I’d known deep down inside that it wasn’t the way to go… and now I was accepting another lost vote.
Did I believe this to be wrong?
Not exactly. I could think of supporting arguments.
But I didn’t trust Tattletale. I’d seen a glimpse of who she really was, and I’d seen how very real that glimpse of her still was, when the first sign of anyone sympathizing or trying to connect with her over it had seen her go straight for the jugular.
Blaming me for what Amy had done to me.
Shitty, but understandable. And only minimally to do with my lack of trust for her.
Take this ‘Livsey’ kid out of the equation, and all that was left was the power and the identity the power had helped build up.
And we were rushing toward it.
There had to be other options, and I focused on sorting them out.
“Damsel,” I said, a little out of breath. We couldn’t slide downhill in the direction we wanted to go.
“When you do the transition, from injured to healed, you did your own, right?”
“So… how do you control it?”
“Be less incompetent.”
“Damsel,” I said, my voice hard, serious. “Don’t fuck around. You’re the expert, somehow. Strut your fucking stuff.”
“You’re all of the choices, already. Find the face you want, move toward it, let it move toward you. Pass each other.”
“Instinct,” she said. “When we die, we all end up in a place like this. Images in crystal, flickering memories. But it wasn’t this broken up before. The next death will be worse. Shallower, more intense. Lonelier.”
“Swansong’s death is worse than it was before?” Kenzie asked.
“Who cares?” Damsel asked.
“Me, duh,” Kenzie said. “All of us. You.”
Damsel shook her head, only visible from behind, and picked up the pace in a way that was sure to tire her legs out.
It didn’t help that we were getting into thickets of crystal. Spikes that soon appeared often enough that we’d take two steps, find a crystal in front of us, have to circle around it to get past, and find another crystal in our way, if the way wasn’t blocked. With a black sky and crystal faces that were black if they didn’t have any light coming from directly behind them, it was easy to not see them until they were in arm’s reach.
It was Sveta and Love Lost who had the most luck navigating, and they became our guides, the rest of us taking the paths they chose, as the crystals grew taller and came to rest at diagonals and horizontals, forcing us to duck and crawl.
The images that popped up, at least, were vague, with no coherency. Closer to watching a television show with someone who was endlessly channel surfing, but the scenes were from our lives. Sitting in a car. Getting up from our seats in class. Opening the fridge to find the contents. Lacing up a bit of armor.
Tattletale’s next flicker gave us further guidance, then picked up in intermittency.
We emerged from the worst of the thicket to a spot where a tear across the landscape had felled most of the crystals and sent them somewhere else. And to our left, head the size of a house, was the thin, tall woman, with spikes radiating from her head to infinity in each direction, empty eye sockets staring us down.
One of the kids shrieked on seeing her. One of the guys said something to the tune of ‘hofuc’ in a short exhalation.
Shit. We did absolutely not see her coming. Is she that fast? Something else?
We scrambled back, as she reached out and over the chasm. Ducking into the thicket of crystals slowed us down.
“Hello there, you shitty bitch,” Tattletale said, her voice low, angry.
I looked over, and I could see that past the tear in the landscape, Tattletale’s agent was an extension of the landscape, built almost like a cone poised on another cone, except it was a person’s body in a toga-cut dress, twisting and rotating in jerks, like every movement snapped its own spine.
It had an abstract, eyeless, mouthless head bearing a full head of thick cords that could have been wires, that trailed down to the crystal below her. Each jerky rotation suggested a different number of arms, as she interacted with the forest around her, bringing up images just by facing each crystal. Each image that was brought up sparked off transmissions for elsewhere.
And, I could see now that we were closer, there were more, small, almost imperceptible sparks traveling from each spike to elsewhere. It was barely visible, but with a thousand spikes all together…
Sharp fingertips scraped the already damaged section of crystal. It got Tattletale’s agent to pay attention, upper body and main head craning over in the direction of the spike-headed woman.
Lowering her face to be almost on the same level as the spike-headed woman’s.
They began communicating, clumsy and at range, bringing up disparate images.
We used the distraction.
Into the forest, that was alive with the arms.
A crystal lit up to my left. Slaughterhouse Nine.
Like a punch to the gut.
Mama Mathers, throwing herself in Rain’s direction, like an animal at the zoo hurling itself against the glass. Then, when I passed that same crystal, it was Crawler, puking.
Kenzie, a few steps behind me, saw a black woman with a serious expression. Not her mother. Hand reached out- bandage pulled away.
I looked back because looking forward was to wade into a storm.
Into Leviathan. Into the hospital room.
Many-sided crystals where every side was a different image and every image was the hospital.
And then not the hospital, but flesh. My flesh, my features, my belly with gaps on either side so it was still my torso and my silhouette, but the armpits webbed out to more torso and to arms and to legs, and the slope of belly meant to connect to pelvis bridged out to another torso instead, like the queen of spades in a deck of cards, joined to her other half at the ribcage.
Sad eyes, without hope.
It got my guard down, made my heart sink. More images around me flared to life, so visceral and visual they seemed to have sounds to them. Violence, being drenched with acid. Violence, having my arm shredded. Over and over again, injuries, my body being torn apart with battle wounds, until I felt like I might look down and find myself in tatters.
That paralyzed, frustrating feeling was building up, and with it came the terror that if I couldn’t push through, if I lost strength now, then that feeling would be with me forever.
And at the same time, if I pushed forward, then it would mean risking doing something reckless and stupid.
The violent images shifted, as Kenzie became the closest person to that cluster of crystals. Kenzie, viewed from across a dinner table, as her face was smashed into a plate.
I’d seen that, captured in still image, on the projector box in her workshop.
Candy took her hand, and Kenzie looked over, gratitude clear on her face, even though she didn’t smile. But the image changed, to an Asian woman holding a dark-haired girl down, fingers hooked into the child’s ear, twisting. The child wasn’t even of an age to attend kindergarten, but the woman’s face was contorted as she shrieked and wrenched the child’s ear enough it bled.
It was Love Lost who jumped to the rescue, before I could backtrack. Love Lost’s arrival coincided with a shift to images filling the area as if viewed by a dozen different sets of eyes. Every angle, every detail. Mother holding daughter in the midst of a stampede that threatened to tear her child from her arms. The little girl leaned heavily on a bunch of tables that were folded up and resting on their sides, flush to the wall. One slipped from its position, and with it, she went down like she’d been pulled or thrown down. Her face collided with the edge of the next table.
Love Lost faltered, then wrapped her arms around the two girls’ heads, claw-less hands covering their eyes.
Rain helped Darlene, who might have slipped or fallen behind when we’d dodged the reaching hand. The images became a jumble of ramshackle accommodations, a little boy being thrashed. Corporal punishment in ten different forms. A small Darlene fighting a boy she had to be related to, like her life depended on it, scratching, biting. Legs of adults were visible, standing around unmoving, more like the fenceposts of an arena than anything human.
“Your idea fucking sucks, Tattletale!” Tristan bellowed.
“Shut up! It’ll hear you!”
“It can see us!” Sveta called out. “Everything’s lighting up around us while we run!”
I heard Tattletale mutter, “Shit.”
We were closer to Tattletale’s agent now. Precarious, teetering, ever-examining. As we got closer, though, the functionality seemed to change, much as the many-handed ‘Mr. Hugs’ had seemed to multiply the number of hands and the amount of tinkertech it could produce.
Building false crystals that looked like smoke but held a crystal-like shape, propping them up. Moving crystals. All while facing down the other creature, which I could track because it was close enough its spikes seemed to extend out as far as the eye could see to sky, to either horizon, and downward at angles, raking the landscape.
The way it sets up crystals and moves them. That’s how it builds bridges.
“Get to the edge!” I called out. “Don’t get spotted by spike-head!”
The images around me changed. A woman in white, standing dangerously close to the portal. One of Teacher’s flunkies. Two more flunkies were standing nearby. Nobody I recognized.
I let Love Lost and the kids pass me.
“Teacher,” I said.
The images changed. I took one step to the side to see better, as I realized which ones were responding. Flickering, vague images showed a doorway, thralls standing at the ready. Then a scene before that, Teacher stepping through the door.
“Amelia Lavere,” I said.
My sister, talking to two members of the Shin council, emphatic, while Chris wore a monstrous form and prowled behind her. It was pretty clear that what she was talking about was important.
“Mark Dallon. Is he okay?”
My dad facing down Amy, both of them in civilian clothes. He looked so much like he had when I’d stayed with him. He asked a question, and Amy’s face turned to fear, her mouth moving as she shook her head.
My dad looked as disappointed as Amy looked scared.
I had a good sense of what he’d asked, and my disappointment was for entirely different reasons. I knew he still had depression. Amy had never fixed it. It was a kind of hell, especially when he was so capable, but…
He shouldn’t have asked her to do anything to his brain. Not if he knew and understood everything about the situation.
“Amy Dallon,” I tried again.
Amy, wearing Earth Shin nightclothes, lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, her hand flat on her stomach. It traveled southward, to the waistband, passing beneath.
I looked away, but not before I saw a sudden movement from her. She lay on her side now, hand trapped and unmoving between her thighs, expression angry.
“Yeah, I know who you were fantasizing about,” I muttered, disgusted.
The image changed. Me, sitting on the cot in the little cell in Earth Shin. Amy sitting across from me.
I didn’t- I’d known, but I hadn’t wanted to know.
This wasn’t some crystal ball I could rub, ask my question, and get a happy answer. Not with the names and questions I wanted to bring up.
I prepared to walk away.
“We can’t get down!” Tristan called out. “Look for another way!”
The images changed. Dancing from scene to scene, showing this place.
With no way down, only the sheer drops if one were to jump across the narrowest parts of the gap. Hundred foot falls. I had an idea as to how to handle that, but…
“Panacea,” I tried, again.
Dot, clambering up her arm, excited, cheerful. Amy pulling her hand away from a young girl, a blonde, who was chattering madly, as excited as Dot.
Amy looked at the boy who stood on the far side of the room, flinching every time Hunter gestured too wildly.
That was there. Here, spike-headed woman was still out there, struggling to reach across the chasm. Barring our way. In the background, I could hear another scrape, the raking claws of the giant woman with spikes that extended to infinity.
And here, beneath my feet, the lights flickered.
“The Red Queen,” I said.
It was Amy, in full battle dress, such as it was. Marquis stood beside her, and Dot perched on her shoulder.
A long, long line of Earth Bet and Earth Gimel cars were making their way in through the portal, bumper to bumper, the snow nearby red from all of the brake lights.
Refugees. I knew what she’d been arguing for, now.
And she would save so many lives by having won that argument, by having made the promises she’d made.
I hated that I couldn’t hate her for it.
“Carol Dallon,” the words left my lips.
My mom, startling in how she was younger than I was now, less tight and precise in her movements than I’d ever known her to be. Even with the brain injury, she moved with more control and less abandon.
Her hand reached up, fingers running through beard. And my dad had never had a beard. An Uncle Neil that was Tristan’s age pushed young Carol up against the wall, kissing her.
“It’s lies you know,” Tattletale said. “Inconsistent information, jumping to conclusions, filling in blanks wrong. Start from a faulty premise. In this case, I think I thought of all of you heroes in suits with way too much white in the design as being oversexed and deranged. I was right on one count.”
The image became Amy again, wearing her Panacea costume for warmth, working furtively in a room too dark to even see what she was doing, arms wet with blood up to the elbows. She wiped her hand over the gore and there was only pink skin streaked with blood after the hand moved away.
A hand, my hand, gripped hers.
That frustrated, panicked feeling felt like it was swelling, reaching out to grab all of the other emotions that had gotten tangled up, too dangerous to even think about, like the sun was too bright to stare directly into.
At least, I thought, and the words were meant to be humor, a way of shrugging off this bad feeling. At least I don’t have to see my mom and uncle Neil fucking.
It didn’t work as humor, didn’t put a smile on my face or ease the weight that felt like it had settled directly onto my heart, suppressing each beat.
“It’s lies,” Tattletale said, standing between me and the biggest crystal.
Off to the side, claws longer than I was raked crystal with a nails-on-blackboard sound.
“Aren’t the guesses those crystals made of smoke?” I asked, indicating the nearest one.
Tattletale sighed, but she didn’t correct me or convince me otherwise.
My mom and Uncle Neil. Twenty-one years ago, if I had to guess.
It was all so shitty. The number of people I could count on-
I looked down at the ground. The flashing light was almost continuous, on for nine tenths of the time, flickering out for that last one-tenth.
“Crystal,” I said.
Crystal and my mom in Crystal’s kitchen, a surprising number of things boxed up and stored off to the side. Clutter reduced by… maybe twenty percent. Crystal was washing something in the sink. My mom was at the cutting board. I’d seen her cook before, and this wasn’t her usual self. Moving with deliberation, care, and still not getting carrots to coins of equal thickness.
She said something, and backed away from the cutting board.
Crystal used lasers, and finished the job in a jiff, before returning to the washing. I could see her expression, sad, and my mom, lost in thought as she hung back, no longer helping to make dinner.
Not so bad.
No deep betrayals. No horrifying weaknesses. Crystal was good.
“Did you ever figure out what Contessa’s failure states were, specifically?” I asked. “What was option A? One member of Breakthrough, suffering eternally?”
The scenes changed.
“If you ask here-” Tattletale said.
It was the room where the Wardens had confronted Teacher.
Rain pulling away from our group to stride into the door, silver blades in hand, and driving those blades into the door’s edges.
Second by second, Rain was overtaken by the portal energy, consumed by the silver blades that could set anything up to be sliced through.
“I think if you ask and find out specific answers, you’ll screw up Contessa’s odds and spoil things. Don’t ask for…” Tattletale trailed off.
For the particulars about the option we took?
Dinah was unreliable, Contessa was… if she was on the up and up she was playing with big moving pieces in a way that was awfully scary and hard to extend any trust to.
My family was a mess. Physically, mentally, emotionally.
We faced the end of the world, and… I wasn’t sure I trusted we.
I thought of the different names I could invoke.
Tristan and Byron? I had seen Tristan’s mad stabbing, in the trigger analogue.
Kenzie? I already knew she’d done some sketchy things before she knew better, and that the well of loneliness inside her was profound. She had never been dishonest about who or what she was.
Rain? I’d already seen that ugliness he would’ve wanted to hide. The maniacal laugh, as we’d reached the final stage of the dream. That made it so easy to understand how Love Lost could hate him, even now.
Sveta? I’d had glimpses, and I had ideas. Where she came from had always been important to her. I had seen her hometown, the black rocks. The place her art came from. Her original self, in a way, through the trigger analogues, run through a translation program from the original footage to ‘mall’.
She’d told me that her body felt like it was hers for the first time ever, after Orchard had finished with her. That she could breathe for the first time ever. I could see why. She’d want to bring it up once she’d digested it. I wouldn’t push her and I wouldn’t pry.
No, I wouldn’t raise her name.
“Chris Elman,” I said.
The scene had the same impact as the aggressive visions. Chris in a bestial form, as big as car, quadrupedal, with a human face that over-enunciated, by the way it seemed to move as it uttered words. It faced down Amy, pressuring her, barking words at her.
She backed away one step. The beast that was Chris Elmann, that was Lab Rat, advanced five steps, traveling a quarter circle around her, ending with his face inside Amy’s personal space, scowling.
She hung her head.
“It always gives the worst details,” Tattletale told me. “Stuff that cuts right to what’s most important, what’s most visceral. Hard details, weaknesses, the key elements that make us us, that would be hardest to uncover otherwise. Stuff you’d never want to admit or let out of the box.”
I had a chance to get answers, as ugly as those answers were, to face down those people who were most incomprehensible and get that key insight.
“You could ask it a million questions and understand everything, I bet. There are less filters while we’re in here, probably,” Tattletale told me.
“I always thought of myself as an answer-seeker,” I said.
“Yeah, sure. Absolutely,” Tattletale said, quiet. “Here’s the deal, though. By the time you’re done asking a million questions, I guarantee you that you’re going to hate everyone and everything. You’ll abhor them, despise them, be afraid of them.”
I looked away from the crystals, which had gone dim. Tattletale’s expression was sad.
“Sometimes you gotta just pick a few promising runts out of the litter, and just plug in that one big assumption,” she told me. “Start with the assumption they’re good people and build on that belief. Sometimes they step it up and live up to what you think of them.”
“What if I did that, and they disappointed me, and I need to know why?”
For every fucking name I’d brought up so far.
Tattletale shot me an apologetic look. “Kiddo, you could go down that rabbit hole forever. Do you want to go there, or do you want to do what you came here to do? Help us find a way down.”
“I have an idea,” I said. “Lead the way to the safest part of the ledge?”
The crystals around us shifted, showing a few example sites. Tattletale took a second to absorb it and track it, then took off.
I started to follow, then hesitated by a small fraction.
“Jessica,” I murmured.
I’d thought the scene with Chris had been high impact. This- a whirl of intensity, Jessica reaching out with a bleeding arm, grabbing a thin wrist, slamming it down into rocky ground until the attacker dropped the blade. Frantic, even though it meant losing traction, Jessica reached out and swiped the knife, sending it flying ten or fifteen feet.
The hands that grabbed her arms were small. Fingernails dug into forearm, and came away with fine white lines caught beneath small fingernails that had been painted pink.
Jessica knelt on the offending hand, pinning it down, and strangled-
The pressure in my chest felt like it squashed my heart flat. No beat, only hurt.
I turned away from the scene. I chased Tattletale, following her route.
The white light beneath my feet was solid now, ten units of time out of ten. A hundred out of a hundred. Zero out of zero.
I reached the cliff’s edge. Rain, Kenzie, Love Lost and Colt were at crystals, fiddling. Trying to decipher the system.
I doubted they’d be making any bridges appear, but it was good they were doing that. The other kids were staying safe, Chicken Little holding Darlene’s hand, talking constantly, like he couldn’t stop.
The others were huddled. Hiding. The spike-headed woman was approaching, navigating cracks that forked off from the rest.
I looked down, and saw a darkness with no bottom. A bottomless canyon. The other side of the chasm was fifty feet down and twenty feet away.
“How long do you think you’d fall before something terrible happened to you?” I asked.
“A good while,” Tattletale said. She looked up at me. “I’m just guessing. My word isn’t gospel.”
“It’s never gospel,” Chicken Little piped up.
“How long do you think we have?” I asked.
“Minutes,” Tattletale said.
“So you figure… maybe a two minute fall?” I guessed. I sounded like a far away person.
“It could be ten seconds and it could be ten thousand years,” Tattletale said.
“That’s even better,” I said.
“What are you doing?” Sveta asked.
“She’s acting unhinged because she got to see some family stuff she probably shouldn’t have,” Tattletale said.
“What stuff?” Sveta asked. She touched my arm. I looked at her, and saw her looking down at the bolt of lightning that was firing off to one side. “Hey.”
“Mom stuff. A lot of Amy stuff. I knew I shouldn’t have looked,” I said.
Bonesaw never came back. Jessica quit being a therapist.
“I told her she shouldn’t have looked,” Tattletale said.
“Talk us through this?” Sveta said. “Why even talk about falling?”
“Because… we need to get down there,” I said. “If we go by the median, five thousand years is a pretty good bet, isn’t it?”
I pulled away from her hand, walking away from the chasm.
“You’re insane,” Byron said. “You can’t-”
The spike-headed woman was getting too close. Past this point, the window of opportunity threatened to close.
I used the steps I’d walked away from the ledge to get a running start. Sveta tried to grab me, and if she’d still had her powers, she might have succeeded.
Arms out in front of me, legs behind, flying without flying.
Over a chasm that might have been bottomless.
If I didn’t clear the chasm, then the odds were in my favor, probably. I’d fall into the darkness below, and I was betting the chances were pretty good I’d still be falling in a few minutes, when we woke up from the dream.
I cleared the chasm.
Meaning only hard crystal lay below me.
I twisted, angling my body, saw my reflection-
And I slammed hard into the crystal, terminal velocity. I felt bones break.
I brushed past her, she brushed past me.
I slipped away into oblivion. She knelt with one knee on hard crystal, hand balled into a fist, fist flat against the surface.
She was me and I was her. Switching places. Thankfully with no momentum conserved between the two selves.
I looked back in time to see Damsel jumping. I smiled.
The spike-headed titan gave chase, and I ran. To lead it away from Damsel, and to have any chance of getting where I needed to be in time.
The titan was like a cyclone behind me, tearing everything up, but it was the spikes that radiated down, the claws that extended into crystal, and she didn’t whirl. She only charged my way, picking up speed as she went.
I saw her claws bite deep, her body reflected across the path in front of me, and I followed that reflection, looking up again, to see she stood in my way.
Operating by different rules. Spikes and claws of infinite length and that seemed to extend to weird rules about reflections and placement.
I barely slowed, only heading left, because Damsel had landed, emerged in a tattered black dress and gnarled black mask across the eyes, and she was running to the right.
Because she was competitive enough she wouldn’t let me succeed while she stood back.
I had that competitive streak too. I’d had it as a basketball player. The drive to prove myself.
The spike woman extended hands to either side. Spikes plunged down, directly for me. I twisted mid-stride, knowing I’d fall, but her accuracy was good, and a claw as wide across as my hand was plunged into that hand. Bones shattered, and flesh became a ring of meat no wider across at any point than a pencil was, fingers barely hanging off of the wreckage of it.
Pinned to the crystal floor.
Why was Teacher afraid to let me in here? Why had he backed down, at the end of the raid on his base?
Because I’d been in tune with the Wretch.
Come, I thought.
I twisted my thinking and my every sense of where my hand was, which was strangely easy to do when my hand was in about five different places at once, in mutilated tatters.
I pushed my hand into, through, and pulled it out in another interpretation. Another side of the same die, another facet of the same me. Buckler attached.
The spike woman reared for another attack, turning her head so the spike that stuck down at an angle would sweep my way. A pillar so wide across I couldn’t have wrapped my arms around it tore its way toward me with surprising swiftness.
And a figure of what could only be described as glass, gold, and glory crashed into her. Golden lights and outlines, a fragile shell with nothing within, all radiating out like light through a prism or a lens flare, except what radiated out had some substance to it.
She broke like a christmas ornament might when hit with a sledgehammer, when the spike woman hit her.
And then she was back, moments later.
I picked myself up, and I ran.
Damsel, off to the side, ran too.
They’d noticed us, or the spike woman had tipped them off. Some of the same fifty were in our way.
And behind them was Teacher. Teacher… broken. Teacher if Teacher had been caught in a lawnmower and the substance of him wrapped around the blades. But the blades were a figure, and the figure was many-spoked. Black and radiating dark lines that stabbed into the ground at an angle, and traced webworks between crystals and thralls.
The figure moved thralls around it like puppets, using the spokes, the threads, the lines.
How long has this agent been in control? I wondered. Because what you’ve been doing makes a kind of sense if I imagine it wasn’t you, but it.
The thralls weren’t fighters, but they didn’t need to be. They just needed to buy a minute or two. Maybe less than a minute.
The edge of my buckler smashed into one nose, the flat of the shield struck someone in the ear.
Behind us, the Wretch was losing its fight against the spike woman. She advanced, and she swiped out.
I threw myself to the side, shield up. It helped with the debris of shattered crystal, but not the general impact of it.
But she’d stopped short of hurting Teacher’s thralls. She turned her focus to Ashley, who was attacking the ground. Clawing at the lines, maybe. Scratching the crystal? I doubted she could get deep enough, but they seemed to care.
I turned, looking the other way, while I still had a distraction.
To take it in. This pillar of a being, this controller.
To see the lines, the systems by which it operated.
The tech that had been carted in and arranged around it.
I broke into a sprint, staggering because my right leg was more hurt than I’d thought, and didn’t like having my full weight on it.
But in a minute, that wouldn’t matter.
Thralls grabbed me, struck at me, tried to tackle me. The shield helped, but only a little.
Anger helped a lot. Anger at Teacher, at Amy, at my dad, at my mom.
I punched the shield into wires, and I felt the electricity run up my arms like snakes writhing through my tissues.
And tech all around us went dark.
The woman with spikes stopped what she was doing. Thralls turned to face her. Some began climbing up to Teacher, to help extricate him, when he looked much like my hand had a minute ago. The more they pulled, the more human his shape became.
It’s the agent. They’re organizing, and Teacher’s a prime organizer, I thought.
At least I broke his hold over his pet. What had that been, a generator? Tech to carry his power outside the bounds of the portal?
Whatever it was, it was a distraction. Only ten thralls were focusing on me now, because there was something way more threatening in play.
She reached out for me- I’d freed her from control but I was still the enemy, but I could put Teacher’s apparatus and agent between myself and her. She scratched at the ground and severed more wires.
I stumbled, my leg still hurting, and walked a half-circle around the apparatus, keeping a healthy distance from everything.
Watching the lines of power and control that didn’t require any tech, because they were operating from here to here.
I decided on a crystal that seemed to be doing a lot of heavy lifting.
Damsel was climbing Teacher’s apparatus, clawing her way up as thralls fought to get in her way. She reached a band of flesh that was Teacher, and stuck her claws into it.
But as his head was pulled free by thralls, Teacher looked my way, not toward the wound.
“No!” he hollered.
I was in the midst of charging toward the crystal, buckler raised high.
Was that a no, the world will end?
He was someone who wanted the world to end, because he wasn’t a man anymore. He might not have been for a while. He’d gone down the same path as Khepri.
Was it a no, my plans, then?
My whole life was fucked and had been fucked from the beginning. My mom was… not even disappointing. I was angry at her, but most of all I pitied her, and that was so much worse than just about any other feeling.
But she’d taught me from the start that I should take away what the bad guys wanted most.
I smashed the buckler’s edge into a crack in the crystal.
Then I took a few steps back, and used the twenty seconds or so that were left to watch the fallout.
I stirred, and phantom pains danced around my body before mercifully fading.
“Everyone okay?” I asked.
I looked, quickly checking. Nobody was brain-dead, by the looks of it.
Candy had a cut on her forehead, but it was apparently from falling from where she’d been sitting on the desk.
A thousand horrible images danced in my mind in the span of a second. The dreams, the horrible insights. The agents, and the magnitude of what we were attached to.
Because the agents were only one small part of a much bigger system, the crimson landscape had been the real system, and the smaller agents had been capable of reaching to what I could well believe was close to infinity.
It was dizzying to consider the implications.
“World didn’t end because of us?” I asked.
“No,” was the deep, vaguely digitized growl from the door behind me, as angry as if the world had ended. I looked, and I saw Defiant standing next to a very alarmed looking Natalie.
“That’s good,” I said, quiet, with a calm I didn’t feel.