We’d known we’d have to face the music at some point. I wished we’d had a chance to talk it over before said music, but… this wasn’t a shock.
Defiant wasn’t in his full armor, much as he hadn’t been when in the Warden’s new headquarters. But with the boots he wore and the augmentations to back, shoulder, and neck, he was tall enough that the back of his head could have rested against the doorframe behind him. He didn’t have nearly enough winter wear for how shitty the weather looked outside, but I could see the faint shimmer of heat radiating off of him.
Someone less serious than me might have made a remark or even allowed themselves to think about steam coming out of the man’s ears. I didn’t allow it to be anything more than a fleeting thought: he was liable to go ballistic if there was even a hint of good humor on my face.
I was still in that alien space, still experiencing the exhilaration of battle, and as I looked out the window into the darkness and the snow that the nearby lights illuminated, my vision warped, in much the way it would if I had been flying at high speed, focusing on the horizon, and came to a quick stop.
“Sorry,” Natalie said. “When you all passed out-”
“No,” I said. “No, it was right to go for help.”
“What wasn’t right,” Defiant raised his voice, “was this asinine idea of yours.”
“We can explain,” I said. “If-”
“No,” he said.
“We can’t explain?” Kenzie asked.
“Not yet,” Defiant said. “Stay still, be quiet, and be prepared to follow my instructions.”
Kenzie nodded, vigorously, “I’m all for following instructions, but just to be clear, when you say ‘stay still’, does that include-”
“Be still. Do nothing. Be silent.”
“Okay, can do,” Kenzie said. “But does nothing include-”
Candy covered Kenzie’s mouth. Kenzie managed to worm her way free of the hand, pulling down on her arm, then piped up with, “There are about three exception cases I don’t want to trip over, if you’d just let me go over them-”
Chicken Little joined Candy in working to subdue Kenzie.
“Sorry,” Chicken Little said. “When she gets going it’s hard to get her to be quiet.”
“Quiet,” Defiant growled, clearly on his last nerve, “is the operative word.”
Chicken Little gave the man a salute with his free arm, his other arm hooked around Kenzie’s upper body to pin her arms down. He dropped the saluting hand to the cone-shaped beak that stuck out of the lower half of his mask, covering it.
Defiant marched out to the center of the room, the center of our group. I floated to my feet so I could get out of his way if I had to.
By the looks I got from some members of the group, and the way Sveta pulled her arm apart into the flat, zipper-toothed tendrils for just one second, before restoring it to its prior shape, I wasn’t the only person unconsciously noting the fact that my power was still functional. There wasn’t anything new about it. A small worry assuaged, knowing the dream room hadn’t knit us all together powerwise.
“You,” he said, pointing at Kenzie. She jumped like she’d been caught doing something wrong. “Over there.”
He pointed to Chris’s old corner, paused, and motioned for Damsel to move away.
“They stay,” he indicated Candy and Chicken. “Ms. Matteson, as someone watching over her welfare, would you please do us all a favor and ensure Lookout is quiet?”
“I will,” Natalie said.
“Sveta Karelia, stand by the computers. Don’t touch them.”
Sveta stood and went to stand by the computers.
He got halfway through telling people to stand in specific places before giving me my position, standing in the hallway just past the front door we rarely used, near the small bathroom and shower. It dawned on me just why he was positioning us. Well, part of it.
Put Kenzie far away from her tech. Put the least tech-savvy people, Damsel and Sveta, closer to the computer terminals. Take the leaders, me and Tristan, and put Tristan in the corner where the whiteboard made him hard to see, put me in the hallway.
Separating the kids. He did put Aiden and Candy on either side of Rain, though. Not what I would’ve done, and he did put Darlene near the computers, probably to put her further from Tattletale, who was between Tristan and Kenzie, far from the consoles.
When everyone was separated, he began talking to Tristan. I couldn’t overhear.
From what I could see of the others, they were getting themselves sorted. They stretched, they looked around, and they looked more alert. Candy had messy hair from where she’d slept on it, and was combing it with her fingers. She stopped as Rain set about dabbing at the cut on her forehead with a handkerchief. The contact elicited a warning sound from Defiant, who relaxed once he investigated.
My mind was a storm of recent events, which did not feel like a dream, and the twenty-five different things I’d seen that could have each been things I sat down and thought about for an hour. The individual glimpses of triggers and their effects on these people I knew. The implications of the quirkier rooms or dream-version triggers, like Ashley being in Damsel’s.
And the implications and nuances of the different parts of the dream landscape. The scholar in me wanted to think on that, discuss with Tattletale, who might have insights, and even take notes.
And Dean. Who had lied to me. I could revisit old conversations I’d had with him. He’d told me once he’d had a trigger event, had closed up without saying exactly what it was, and I’d taken it as a betrayal. Leaving me reeling now as I remembered those feelings I’d had and how he’d let me think I’d been in the wrong for pushing too hard. And then he’d caved, he’d told me a story about a home invasion, which had actually happened, but he had lied to me, made it into a trigger event.
Him sharing that with me had made me feel close to him, and I’d tried to initiate a make-out session with him, only for him to pull away. He hadn’t wanted to do anything with me that night, and I’d respected it… but it had still played a part in me being willing and wanting to sleep with him, just a little while later.
It had played into the one fight, but now it made me wonder about the context of other ones. Break-ups and make-ups were part of any relationship, especially teenage ones where school and superheroics had a way of making the remainder of life very limited option-wise, so we’d done that, but now… it was tainted.
And I’d had only the one thing that wasn’t tainted, that I could go back to that was sexy, sweet, and lovely. Where I’d felt like I was loved and there weren’t ulterior motives. Where I’d been me and not some mangled, violated mess of stray animals and bugs bound up into a Victoria shape, doing physio every morning because of the accumulated injuries and ugliness.
I’d just wanted the one thing.
And somehow that paled in comparison to the visions. Jessica. My mom and Uncle Neil. Amy.
My skin crawled, and as it crawled, I became aware of my injuries again, of the notion it wasn’t my skin. I had no right to dictate thoughts, but the notion that she thought of me, that she’d touched herself and when I’d voiced aloud that I didn’t want to know, the crystal had answered my statement with an image of me…
In another situation, if she’d been in reach and I’d been confident in my ability to safely act on her, I might have mangled her hands until they weren’t recognizable as hands and those fucking tattoos would be unrecognizable forever.
Hurt her, tell her never to think of me again, and send her on her way.
Except I knew that was unfair, that it was barbaric when I didn’t want to be barbaric. She was… ill. I could hate her, but what she needed was to be removed from people she would hurt and treated with kindness.
And that would absolutely, no-way-in-the-fuck be me.
Fuck. There were still master-stranger protocols active, there. Wholly deserved, but I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to revisit that room in the prison.
I should’ve asked about what happened, hard as it was. Why I had a fingernail I’d distinctly remembered losing.
I couldn’t dwell on it without losing it, and I was aware I needed to wrestle this whole mess of thoughts off to one side so I could focus on Defiant. Which was a crisis unto itself.
Step one: calming down. Touch base with where I was. Locate yourself.
It was technically morning. Early enough that it wasn’t light out, but morning. We thought the city might break yesterday, and if it didn’t, it would break today. Tinkers and thinkers all in agreement.
It didn’t break yesterday.
Meaning that today is the day disaster strikes again, and we see how bad it is.
Rain had complained once that his dreams left him feeling like he hadn’t rested at all. I could simultaneously agree and disagree. Physically, I felt rested. Physically, I felt like my wounds had bound up, muscles tensing, creeping pains having crept all the way in, much as they did any time I slept. The skin on the back of my hand felt tight, but a lot of that was my body reacting and healing. The parts of me that weren’t wounded or wound-adjacent felt better. All like an ordinary night’s sleep.
Mentally, though, that was where I was in full agreement with the guy. Mentally, I felt like I’d been there, for every trigger, for the fight against a monster so big I couldn’t fathom its scale, for the mental gymnastics, sliding around, and facing down of other fantastical hyperdimensional monsters, horrible realities, and Teacher.
When I didn’t focus, my brain felt like a buzz of television static, and that wasn’t a monumental leap to the twilight state where I felt like I could go to sleep.
When I did focus, my mind went straight back to those twenty five, fifty, or a hundred things that I really wanted to break into and talk to the others about.
Floorboards creaked as Defiant ended his conversation with Tristan.
He paused in the center of the room, head down, looking at nothing in particular, and I was put in mind of Kenzie. Accessing menus and screens, looking things up.
He turned my way, and he approached me.
Probably with my file fresh in his mind, if he wasn’t looking at it at the same time he looked at me.
“Before we get going,” I said. “Can I just say a few things?”
He folded his arms.
“First of all, I’m sorry. I have more to say on that front, but I wanted it to be what I said to you first.”
“Alright,” he said, not flinching or relaxing in the slightest.
“Second of all… the kids. Lookout in particular. To start with, it’s best if you outright tell Syndicate not to connect with the others. Because if she’s connected to Lookout and she’s in arm’s reach of a computer-”
Defiant, filling the doorway, turned.
“Darlene Vasil, are you connected to anybody right now?”
“Tell the truth,” I called out.
Defiant gave me a look over his shoulder.
I didn’t hear Darlene’s response, but I imagined she was pointing.
“Break the connections,” Defiant ordered. “Keep them broken.”
“I don’t know why we’re in trouble,” Candy said, from near the door to the fire escape. “We were here for moral support, we got roped in by accident, that’s all.”
“Candice Vasil, I have heard stories about you and your siblings from my colleagues who worked in Brockton Bay. I’m trying to be fair here, and to put all prejudices aside. Help me do that. Follow my orders, sit and rest while I talk to each of you in turn.”
“‘Kay,” I heard Candy. She sounded more anxious than she normally did.
“Lookout too,” I said, before Defiant had walked all the way back to me. “Something you should address, while we’re making sure this goes as smoothly as possible.”
“What about her?”
“If she was that insistent on saying something, it was probably for a reason. Ask her.”
“Lookout,” Defiant called out, without taking his eyes off of me. “The potential exceptions you talked about.”
“Oh!” I could hear Kenzie. “Um, first of all, can I move my eyes?”
“Yes,” Defiant said.
I started to move my hand to indicate he should follow up, when he added, “Why would that be a concern?”
“Um, because I’ve got cameras embedded in my eyes, and there are tracking points that let me operate some of my systems remotely.”
“Have you been remotely operating your computer after I told you to do nothing?”
“Um. Yes? Just sending some messages and updating some things, and taking notes, and-”
“Stop,” he said. “Don’t touch your menus. Don’t operate any tinker technology you or anyone else owns. Don’t operate any non-tinker technology. What else?”
“Um. What about technology that operates itself? It’s just running in the background but I haven’t been nudging it back onto course and it’s gathering and using some data, and running some defensive routines, and a few offensive ones. And stuff.”
Defiant didn’t move, except to break eye contact, and to dip his head a bit.
The lights in the building flickered. I could see some lights of monitors and projected screens at the far end of the room momentarily flicker, glow, or change to a different interface.
With Defiant occupying most of the doorway with his partially-armored bulk, there was only one projected screen near the door that I could sort of see. I watched as it went black, then flashed, showing Defiant’s dragon-spear logo against a shimmering gold background.
That logo changed to a woman’s face. Dragon’s.
Dragon the A.I., I had to remind myself.
“I found exception number three,” Dragon said, her voice sounding like it came from Defiant’s right, with a bit of an echo to it. “Handled.”
“Thank you,” Defiant said, not sounding quite so angry. He turned his attention back to me. When he spoke, he sounded upset again. “Antares. Victoria. Anything else?”
“Not on that front. I just thought I’d warn you so you didn’t have cause to be upset after.”
“Dragon, I’m sorry we’re talking under these circumstances. Again, Defiant, I’m sorry we’re here. To give context to why, I hate feeling like I’m in the dark, other members of Breakthrough are similar. We had what felt like a great way to get a look at the bigger picture, you said no, then pieces fell into place when we crossed paths with Damsel of Distress and Tattletale. We got carried away, and that’s not me making excuses.”
“Antares,” Defiant said. “On the whole, I always had a positive impression of you. I remember hoping that you would join my Wards team, once. I even remember the moment, after I printed out your grades and I had them by my right hand, my left hand at the keyboard, where I was navigating an arrest report you made.”
I kept my mouth shut, nodding.
“I don’t have the most positive impression of you right this moment.”
“I don’t either?” I ventured. “I- I have to admit I’m still reeling from… that whole thing. I’m not thinking straight, as much as I’m trying. But I’m not happy with what we did. I’m not happy with myself. I think deep down inside, I expected it to fail, that we wouldn’t get in, or we’d get in but it would be limited, or something, and at least having people like Tattletale and Damsel here would give us some insights we could use… and we really need insights.”
“It didn’t fail.”
“No,” I agreed. “I thought we’d have Rain do what he has to do, which is visit that dream space, we could try looking around with the tech, have Tattletale interpret, Damsel knows some stuff, but… things went wrong.”
“And you didn’t reach out to us. You did reach out to Love Lost and her protege to warn them.”
“Some of that was that we were worried if we reached out and you guys mandated certain action, we’d be outright defying you on a bigger level, or we’d be sending Rain in to what would have definitely been his death.”
“I have a lie detector, Antares,” Defiant said.
I fell silent.
“That read as a partial truth. It’s not the majority or even half of your reasoning. The remainder?”
“We thought we could handle it, so we focused on handling it.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to come back in a few minutes for your full explanation and recap. Organize your thoughts, get to the point where you’re thinking straight. Be ready, but stay put.”
I drew in a deep breath. “Okay.”
“I should tell you. A lot of what you said read as ninety percent honest at best. I hope that when I come back to get your interpretation of the events, that’s improved.”
I absorbed that.
He walked away, back to the center of the room.
“My turn?” Tattletale asked, off to the side.
“I know you and your power well enough to know you’ll take a shortcut, Tattletale,” Defiant said. “I’ll talk to you once I’ve talked to everyone, to verify the smaller details.”
“That’s going to be a while,” Tattletale said.
“You have options, Tattletale,” Defiant said. “We could arrest you as a villain, keeping in mind the theft of the Black Dog IP, the intimidation of the University Road settlers, the Justice Bye case, or the raids on the white hill settlement.”
“I get what you’re doing. Mention three things I’m a possible suspect for, mention one thing I’m completely unrelated to, get me to say something stupid-”
“The raids on the white hill settlement came from New Brockton Bay, prior to the Dauntless incident. Either you were ignorant or you were complicit. Either way, we shouldn’t have trusted you to keep the peace there.”
“The raiders disappeared, didn’t they? A lion’s share of the funds went back to white hill.”
“But not all.”
“Sue me for not being able to catch up to them before they went on a spending spree. I did my duty, you can’t pin me on the other stuff-”
“I can try. I can bring you in, we can see what sticks, and it will be days, weeks, or years before you’re free again.”
“Or I can stay put. Got it.”
“And be quiet. Let me ask my questions. No hints or cues to the others.”
“Lookout has extensive cameras, and I have access,” Dragon said, her voice coming across speakers.
“No winks or nudges, got it,” Tattletale said.
Defiant went to Sveta.
Dragon’s voice came very close to my ear, though there was no apparent source. “If there is an underlying mistruth you’re holding to, it would be better to let it go.”
“Because of that thing were I’m only apparently telling ninety percent of the truth?” I asked.
“Yes. Well, a ceiling of ninety percent.”
“I don’t know what I could say that would be one hundred percent the truth,” I admitted. “I don’t get everything that’s going on, I don’t feel sure about what’s happened in the past. All I know in the present is that I should be worried. I could tell you my name, and I’m not sure it would read as one hundred percent confident.”
“Try it?” Dragon asked.
“I am Victoria Dallon,” I told her, and I tried to sound confident, which was my mistake, because I instinctively reached for a foundation for that confidence, and I groped blindly instead.
Uninvited images of a body of strays and bugs flashed through my mind. I thought of the master-stranger protocol that was technically still in place after the prison. I thought of the mosaic of identities that I’d analyzed and faced when fighting Lung, before deciding that Victoria Dallon, Glory Girl, and Antares needed to be one. That warrior monk, wretch, scholar, and everything else needed to fold into that. How those things had been eminently there when I’d phased into the crystal. Injured images of me, healed. Antares and Glory Girl.
“Again?” she asked.
“I am Victoria Dallon,” I told her, and this time I pushed those ideas out of mind. Tried to. It was like stuffing the mess of a dirty room into a closet and finding the door couldn’t shut.
“I think you’re right,” she said. “You can blame the dishonest readings on a lack of personal confidence. You’re shaken.”
“Not even reading a hundred percent confidence when I say my own name?” I asked.
“No,” Dragon said.
“Ninety percent?” I asked. I could hear that telling pause. “Eighty? Seventy?”
“It could be an outlier. Can you think of a statement you are more confident about?”
“I want to help the people of this city.”
“There we go,” Dragon said. “Point in your favor.”
“Yeah? One hundred percent?”
“Yes,” she told me. “Counts for something. More than you might realize, considering some of the ongoing concerns.”
I could hear Defiant’s conversation with Sveta.
Even knowing there’s going to be consequences, I thought, I’m glad we did it? To get out ahead of Teacher, to see what he was really doing, and to understand all of this?
I doubt there’s a single person out there who can fight on this playing field, who isn’t breaking some of the rules.
What do you say, if I say that out loud, Dragon?
One hundred percent confidence in my words?
Definitely not a point in my favor. Not in your books.
“You broke the crystal,” Defiant said, incredulous.
Some of the others had gathered, the ‘split everyone up so they can be interrogated separately’ thing breaking down as Defiant finished his rounds. I could see them in the center of the room, peeking around Defiant’s frame.
“I mentioned this before,” I said, trying not to sound like I was exasperated or defensive. “There’s a lot about navigating that space that’s… intuitive-adjacent.”
“Intuitive-adjacent?” Defiant asked, and I had the impression he was holding back from flying off the handle.
“Logic-adjacent, kind of, but you have to start from the heart, not the head, and general, abstracted feelings of being.”
“Logic-adjacent is being illogical,” Defiant stated. “Come the fuck on, Victoria.”
I didn’t want to back down, because I was fairly certain it would make me look far worse if I didn’t sound confident.
“Teacher’s not Teacher anymore. If he’s been Teacher for the last couple of years. The agent is running the show. I could see how the agent functioned, the structure of it, the way the patterns played out. I was sure that leaving him alone would be catastrophic. I was pretty sure breaking that key point to his power wouldn’t be catastrophic, specifically.”
“Because of intuition-adjacent, logic-adjacent understandings you picked up while exploring this space over half an hour?” Defiant asked.
“Yes,” I told him, with conviction, while willing that lie detector to register one hundred percent.
“Can I say something?” Rain said, behind Defiant.
Defiant turned, but didn’t say ‘yes’.
“She figured it out. How to navigate the space, how to interact with it. How to throw herself off a high cliff while leaping over a ravine, crash through the surface on the other side, and resurface while wearing… I think it was the costume she used to wear when she was Glory Girl.”
“Working with her agent, too,” Sveta volunteered. “Damsel knew how to handle the space, but she didn’t have that connection to her agent.”
“I could have if I tried,” Damsel chimed in, from a spot that was out of sight, off to the right, near the door to the fire escape, blocked from view by the walls that enclosed the bathroom.
“Enough. Please,” Defiant said. “Input appreciated, but I would like to continue this conversation with Victoria, one on one.”
Rain and Sveta obliged.
“Being good at that is not necessarily reassuring,” Defiant told me.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because that implies a stronger connection to your agent. And we know for a fact the agents are aggressive and conflict-driven. If it’s cooperating with you and you’re finding yourself in parallel to it, that’s concerning.”
Which tied back to what Dragon had said to me. ‘Counts for something. More than you might realize, considering some of the ongoing concerns.’
“I want to save the people of this city,” I said, repeating the statement that had elicited Dragon’s.
Defiant went silent.
I could imagine him conversing with Dragon. I glanced past him at Kenzie, who was standing beside Natalie, Natalie’s hand at her shoulder.
I could imagine Kenzie wanting this. Someone who was there to talk to when she wanted someone.
With Dean no longer in that reassuring spot in my heart, I kind of wanted it too.
It felt especially lonely to be standing here, being interrogated, so soon after a number of people had fallen in my esteem.
Defiant held up one finger for me to wait one second, while walking over to the desk with tech on it. “I’ll borrow one of your projectors, Lookout. If I may?”
“Go ahead! Have fun!”
“It’s not so fun,” Defiant said, but he didn’t say it to her.
He held the microwave-sized cube in both hands, showing his strength with the ease he handled the dense cube of technology.
Images were displayed on the walls, floor, and ceiling nearest me.
Men and women in white coveralls, unconscious, lying in cots, on beds, and on floors.
“Time of death, five fifteen in the morning,” Defiant said. “For each and every last one of them, with slight discrepancies depending on the doctor and the time the doctors reached them.”
I shook my head.
“He still had control over what we estimate to be roughly four thousand citizens of Earth Gimel and another thousand citizens of Earth Cheit. Some –many- were unwillingly under his power. He forced it on them, using parahuman tricks. Many were capes, some were heroes, retired or otherwise.”
My heartbeat hurt in my chest. I didn’t dare breathe. I didn’t take my eyes off of Defiant’s face.
“All brain dead, to the extent their brains ceased regulating breathing and heartbeat.”
“You’re fucking with me,” I said. “This is some test to verify my convictions.”
“You don’t sound confident.”
“There was a brief period between the time I broke it when I saw the aftermath. The thralls he had in the crystal space… they turned on him, they were angry.”
“That was there. Here, lives were lost.”
I shook my head again.
“Are you calling me a liar?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t kill those people. I’m not sure I believe they’re dead.”
Defiant turned his back to me, walking across the room to the tables, with the others backing out of his way. He set the cube down. He’d carried it like it was empty cardboard, but the folding table we’d had by Rain’s whiteboard creaked.
He didn’t elaborate, didn’t say anything. Just walked over to Tattletale.
She was his last stop, he’d said. For clarifying details.
He was keeping an eye on all of us, as was Dragon, so when I ventured into the room and he didn’t take my head off, I figured we were good enough.
“You broke the crystal?” Tristan asked.
“I broke Teacher’s crystal,” I said. I thought about those images of people lying prone, people standing around their limp bodies. “I think I broke Teacher.”
“It’s dawning on me,” Rain said. “I have to go back tonight. I don’t know if the walls will still be up. What if they’re permanently down, and each night it’s just those things attacking us, on their rotation?”
“Staying in our sectors seemed to work,” Sveta said.
“Right, but… what if each one has different rules, or different ways of acting? Love Lost’s is tomorrow. What if it has emotion control, that reaches through the walls? What if it’s angry, in a way Cradle’s wasn’t?”
Chicken Little coughed abruptly enough it made Defiant turn his head. Between coughs, he muttered, “Mr. Hugs.”
“I’m not going to call it that,” Rain said.
“Hecatoncheires,” I suggested.
“That’s way too cool for Cradle,” Rain said. He added, “I’m spooked.”
“I feel like if we can get through last night, we can get through a lot,” Tristan said.
Rain nodded, sitting up straighter. “Yeah. I’m glad you guys were there, if nothing else. I… haven’t had a lot of times in my life when people were there for the reasons I wished they were. Sometimes, like the raid at the Fallen fight, because I didn’t let them be.”
Kenzie was sitting on the floor by one of the chairs, with Candy sitting in the chair behind her. Candy’s knees were over Kenzie’s shoulders, legs helping hold her in place, while Candy’s hands covered Kenzie’s mouth. Kenzie wriggled a bit, protesting, like she wanted to say something.
“I appreciate the sentiment, Kenzie,” Rain said, responding somberly to Kenzie’s mumbles like she’d said something profound.
Kenzie seemed to relax her protestations at that.
“I won’t say I’m not spooked,” Tristan admitted. “I’ve got to get back to the hospital. Switch over to Byron. See how he’s doing. I’m… kind of terrified he might be worse. We messed with a pretty fragile balance, back there.”
“Do you really think those people are dead?” Sveta asked.
“No,” I said, but I would have been lying if I’d said I wasn’t a bit worried.
The conversation seemed to stall. Many of us weren’t even fully awake. Alarmed, alert, but not awake. Not fully put together.
I looked over the room, at the kids, where Darlene sat next to Aiden, her head on his shoulder as she did a bad job of pretending to be dozing off. Candy with Kenzie, semi-playfully ensuring Kenzie did nothing, as per Defiant’s instructions.
“How’s your power?” I asked Rain.
“I’m not about to pull out the silver blades or anything while Defiant’s here, but I’m pretty sure I got nothing.”
“Nothing as in-”
“As in my powers all suck like I got no tokens at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same for Love Lost and Colt.”
We had messed with the system. Messed with the thing that was doling out these shares of power.
We’d faced them, looked them in the eye.
I looked over at Damsel, who leaned against the door. Through the window right next to the door, I could see Snuff on the fire escape, smoking. No Sidepiece.
“Good showing,” I told Damsel. “Last few minutes? Might’ve made the difference.”
“In letting you murder thousands? Glad to help,” Damsel responded, dry.
I shook my head. “Stopping Teacher. Getting past thralls. All of it. All of you. That wasn’t easy.”
But it needed doing, I finished, silent.
“I feel like we need to have five hundred conversations about stuff we saw or experienced in there,” Tristan said. “And at the exact same time, I feel like we need to never talk about any of it.”
“Amen,” Sveta said, barely audible.
Again, the conversation died. But on the heels of the ‘never talk about any of it’, none of us picked it up again.
Defiant finished his conversation with Tattletale, stiff and looming while she looked eminently casual, thumbs hooked in her belt, leaning against Chris’s old desk.
He turned to face us. To face me.
The stare was accusing.
“I don’t believe they’re dead,” I said.
“Victoria, your comment, immediately upon waking up,” he said. “Joking about the world ending. You knew it was a consideration.”
“I was phase-shifted or facet-shifted to a version of me that was more Glory-Girl-like, I think. That’s what others saw. I was exhilarated, post-panic, I… said something dumb.”
He didn’t respond.
“I’m one hundred percent committed to preventing the world from ending, the city from breaking, whatever else. Completely and totally. Taking Teacher’s puppeteer-crystal out was in support of this. If we left him alone, we’d be counting down the minutes or hours before he initiated the end on his terms.”
Defiant nodded. A finger that looked flesh but had odd seams to it tapped heavily on a folding table. “One hundred percent. I believe you. I won’t say it was right.”
“But you’re not one hundred percent confident those thralls were alive. Eighty to ninety percent confident. But that’s not enough.”
“It wasn’t a decision made in isolation,” I told him. “And I didn’t have the benefit of minutes or hours to weigh its merits. Time was short, I had a sense of the risks and the danger if I didn’t take action. I acted.”
“I understand,” Defiant said. “But if you take that many lives into your moral calculus, then you open yourself up to being second guessed and challenged. We don’t want to live in a world where anyone and everyone can make that choice. Am I right?”
I nodded, before reluctantly venturing, “…Yes. Can I just say that it felt closer to one hundred percent certainty in the moment?”
“I’m sure it did,” Defiant told me.
“What did happen to the thralls?” Rain asked.
Released, I thought.
“Freed,” Defiant said. “Some of the beneficial side effects and powers are lingering, but they’re fading by the minute, according to reports, some faster than others. Teacher no longer has any sway over them.”
“That’s a mean joke,” Darlene said. “Saying they died.”
“I had to make sure Antares was convinced. And she wasn’t. Not quite enough, and that worries us. With this, with my concerns about Lookout’s approach to the situation and the lack of safeguards, the leaping to assumptions, with the fact I would expect someone with closer ties to the Wardens-”
He looked at Sveta.
“-to cooperate more with us, and everything else in aggregate, big and small… we will be giving you a choice, to be made before I leave to look after other things.”
“What choice?” Tristan asked.
“Either you allow us to impose consequences, you obey our instructions, endure confiscation of assets and further oversight… or you no longer have our help.”
“No longer have…”
“The Warden’s assistance. Our network, our information, our teams, the ability to call and get our help. Tattletale, Damsel, and the children can make their independent calls. If Lookout wanted to consider herself Breakthrough and Breakthrough decided to accept consequences, we would continue working with her. Same as if the children accepted consequences but Breakthrough did not.”
“You want her tech,” Tattletale guessed.
“We would lose Lookout’s help in managing the access cube and security system, as well as other projects she volunteered her help with, yes. But that’s not the concern. She’s young, vulnerable, and caught between two teams. We don’t want to force your hands. This is a genuine offer. Work with the Wardens, within the law, and accept consequences, or carry on doing what you’re doing, beyond the law, without our sanction or help.”
“I feel like there’s more to this,” Tristan said.
“Do you arrest us if we don’t cooperate?”
“No. But we might if we thought you’d do this again.”
This is a mess.
“You really expect me to believe you’ll work with me?” Damsel asked.
“I don’t expect you to agree to cooperate,” Defiant told her. “But if you say yes, that can be an inroad. We can talk, and arrangements can be made. Talking is better than the alternatives, when things are this fragile.”
Damsel shook her head.
“Can you give us a minute?” Tristan asked. “No listening ears, no observation?”
“I’ll step outside,” Defiant said. “Powering down all of Lookout’s systems.”
We waited until he was gone.
“Sorry again,” Natalie said, to my right.
“No. Really,” I told her. “You did the right thing.”
“Do you think you did the wrong thing, pursuing this, because…”
She trailed off as I shook my head.
“Stick with the Wardens?” Tristan asked.
I nodded. Communication and cooperation are too important.
“Warning for the kids. Lookout in particular,” Tattletale spoke up. She hadn’t budged from where she sat. “They’re going to take your stuff.”
“What?” Kenzie sat up, pulling free of Candy’s hands and legs. “What do you mean?”
“If both Breakthrough and the Tenders cooperate, they’re taking your things. All tech, including what you have at the institution and Victoria’s apartment. Confiscated until further notice.”
“No!” Kenzie gasped, looking horrified. A smile crossed her face. “This is a test, right? Like showing Victoria a bunch of dead people, to see if she was really sure what she did wouldn’t kill anyone?”
“Those aren’t equivalent,” Rain said.
“They kind of are!” Kenzie answered. “My stuff is everything I can do, it’s months of work, and scans, and it’s my contact with everyone, and it’s my everything! It could make the difference between us saving thousands or thousands dying, couldn’t it?”
“Theoretically,” I said.
“You can cheat your way around it,” Tattletale said. “Say the Tenders won’t cooperate. They act outside the law, life gets harder, but you can keep tech at your place.”
Kenzie nodded, looking at the others.
I almost said something to her, then stopped myself. Best to let Kenzie find her own way to the answer.
“But you shouldn’t,” Tattletale said.
Damn it, I thought. Tattletale liked to hold the kids’ hands. Giving them a fish instead of teaching them how to fish.
“We shouldn’t,” Chicken Little said.
Kenzie looked crestfallen.
“It doesn’t make sense to make enemies,” Darlene said, before walking over to give Kenzie a half-hug.
“I’m out,” Damsel said. She pulled on her coat, which was a process with the lengthy claw at the end of each finger. She pretty much had to lay the coat on the ground before picking up the edge with the back of each blade and finding the armholes, shrugging it on. When she’d lived with Swansong and I, we’d simply helped her.
“Not working with the Wardens?” I asked.
She sniffed. “What do they have to offer me?”
Then she turned to the door. A solid second or two passed.
This time, it was Kenzie who covered Candy’s mouth.
Not turning around or looking back at any of us, her eyes fixated on the doorknob, Damsel finally kicked the door three times in quick succession.
Defiant opened the door, and Damsel strode past him, into the winter snowstorm.
“Decided?” He asked.
“Yeah,” Tattletale answered. “We’re in. We’ll cooperate.”
He stepped back inside, and the heat of his systems steamed visibly as the cold air was superheated, or the moist air from systems made contact with the air from the cold pre-sunrise outdoors.
“Lookout, Precipice, your tinker technology will be confiscated for the time being. We will be asking you to vacate your headquarters and, until further judgment can be rendered, you are not to associate with one another. Each of you will be remanded to the care of an acceptable guardian, someone the Wardens trust…”
This was important.
This was worth it, even like this.
They didn’t take me back to my apartment. There was tinkertech there. I felt scuzzy in clothes I’d worn the day prior, my teeth fuzzy, my stomach empty and that emptiness… scoured, for lack of a better word, by the hunger that ate from the emptiness outward.
No powers was the rule. Good general rule while the city was in this fragile, cracked-ice state, but it was being imposed on us for other reasons. Judgment pending. The Warden leadership would meet and they’d assess what we’d done.
No powers meant no flight, so I used the elevator in the building for perhaps the third time.
Slow and painful, my bag heavy at my shoulder, my entire body restless because I hadn’t done my physio yet. My wounds felt tight and uncomfortable, perpetually reminding me they existed.
My skin prickled from the recent cold and the transition to warmth, and in that prickling, I remembered being burned, and my heart rate picked up, vague feelings of panic making their stealthy approach.
I got my breathing mostly level by the time the elevator stopped. I exited, walked down the hall, bag over my one shoulder, and knocked on the door.
Mom answered. Not yet prepped for the day, she’d just woken up maybe half an hour ago, and had a coffee. She held it out to the side with one hand, and reached out to hug me with the other. I started to pull back, but she grabbed me, hugging me fiercely, with a lot of strength.
It was surprising to see her without a suit or… well, a suit. Costume or business wear. Without hair done up and makeup on.
It had been a long time since I had seen my mother of the morning hours. Carol before the day began. More than four years.
I was struck by the mental image of her kissing Uncle Neil, vivid and visceral, deeply uncomfortable. I looked away, busying myself with finding a spot to put my bag down.
“Crystal’s on the phone. She was supposed to call when you arrived,” my mom said.
I nodded, stepping into my cousin’s apartment. My mom’s things were by the couch, but the couch was made up, sheets removed and folded. Boxes were everywhere, and the apartment looked about two-thirds of the way to being packed up.
“What do you need?” my mom asked. “Food?”
“Soon,” I said. “I should do my physio before I go crazy. If that’s ok?”
“Can I join you?” she asked. “It couldn’t hurt, I imagine.”
I was saved from having to answer by Crystal emerging from the hallway that led to her bedroom, pulling the phone down and away from her ear. Call done. She gave me a hug.
As I broke the hug, I saw my mother walking a little unsteadily to the couch, to sit on the armrest. Small steps, more like she was an old woman than a forty year old.
I was put in mind of dad after his head injury, but this- this was my fault. In large part.
“What on earth did you get up to?” Crystal asked me. “You’re on probation?”
“Benched, until they can decide how serious it was. They’ve broken up Breakthrough, but they may pull us back in later today, depending on how bad things get.”
“And this questionably serious thing was…?”
“Definitely serious, just a question of whether it was catastrophically serious or regular old serious. It was us diving into the guts of things. Deeper and faster than we thought we would. With more danger. Into the guts of powers.”
“Why?” Crystal asked.
“Because someone had to. Has to. The bad guys are already doing it. It’s like waging a war in the twenty-first century without considering computers as a factor.”
“And?” Crystal asked.
“And I’m tired. Numb. Freaked out,” I said. “I don’t think I could even begin to explain the scale of it. The Wardens are freaking out because of the scale of it, and I think at best they have blurry interdimensional camera images pulled from Kenzie’s tech.”
“But everyone’s safe?” my mom asked.
“Mostly,” I said.
“That’s good. It’s something you wanted to prioritize.”
“I’d like-” She stood straighter, but she wavered a bit. She reached out, and for a moment, I almost pulled away. Then I caught her, because I wasn’t such a horrible daughter that I’d let my injured mother fall.
The mother I’d injured.
I gripped her arm and I focused on that grip, looking down at my hand at her arm and my hand.
The apartment was still relatively dark, lit only by the hallway light and living room light. Through the kitchen, the big window showed the snowstorm outside, white snowflakes against black.
“Why are you pulling away?” my mother asked me.
“It’s stupid,” I told her.
“It doesn’t feel stupid.”
“Okay,” Crystal butted in. “What do you say we get some coffee in us? Bit of food?”
“Victoria said she wanted to do her physio routine before eating.”
“That’s an option,” Crystal said, artificially cheerful. “Auntie Carol, maybe you and I could put coffee on and prep some food, Victoria can do her thing?”
“I’d rather Victoria tell me what happened,” my mother said. “Because I thought we were mending bridges, and all of a sudden-”
She didn’t sound like my mother. No sternness, no strength, no fierceness.
She’d seemed better when we’d been at the prison, in the company of Amy and Mark.
“It’s dumb,” I said. “An hour and a half ago I was racing through the guts of the systems that drive our powers, powerless, escaping a bunch of things that looked like- the dauntless titan. Kronos. Apparatuses that extend from powers.”
I’d almost said they looked like Endbringers, but Endbringer was a heavy word when one Endbringer had killed Eric and…
Whoever Neil was to me.
“Scary,” Crystal said, her voice still a bit artificial, like she was trying to carry the weight of managing the tone of the three-person conversation.
“I saw things,” I said. “I saw things about my team, but that was at a different point, more the thing that can draw people together instead of driving them apart.”
“Some of it drove you apart?” Crystal asked.
“Not me and my team. Amy. Amy’s sickness, the depths of it. The fact she’s helping refugees. Hints about Teacher. Stuff about my therapist.”
“Amy is… a good reason to be touch-wary,” Crystal said, ever the diplomat.
My mom, though, the lawyer, the heroine who could patrol and spot trouble from blocks away in the gloom… her study of me was sharp.
“You didn’t shy away from Crystal,” my mom said.
“Can we drop it?” I asked.
My mom reached over. I didn’t pull away as she touched my upper arm, rubbing it.
“Apparently you can’t drop it,” she told me.
“What? I didn’t pull back.”
“But you tensed. You watched, wary, instead of making eye contact. You didn’t ease up as you normally might.”
“It’s been a while since I eased up when someone wanted to touch me,” I answered.
“You saw something about me?” she asked. “Hurting a villain more badly than necessary? Making a deal to give a scumbag a pass? What sort of things did these images or figures play-act for you? If you tell me, then at least I can defend myself.”
“Or, you know, we could respect that Victoria’s not ready to talk about it,” Crystal said.
“That seems like the cowardly way out,” my mother said.
“Cowardly?” I asked. I was ready to lash out, to say something, to retort. Not least because it felt it was my mom who was saying something she had been keeping inside for the last few years. Filters down, defenses down, the brain injury bringing things to the surface, without the poised, perfect, perfectly made-up Carol Dallon crafting every response.
Like she was calling the me that had struggled during and since the hospital a coward.
I shook my head, fierce, “Not getting into this. Sorry, Crystal.”
Crystal looked legitimately scared, seeing the feelings that were flaring up.
“There is too much going on these days,” my mother said. “We can’t have more more thing hanging over our heads. If this is about my actions as a heroine, I fully admit I haven’t been perfect.”
I shook my head.
“My civilian life?” she asked.
“Yeah. Can we just leave it at that?”
“My time as a lawyer? It would have to be,” she said. “Because, believe me, I’ve spent the last two years coming to terms with how badly I failed as a mother.”
“Victoria,” my mom said. “Every time I think of you, I feel pride. I love the woman you became, as brave as you are. I worry desperately for you, but that’s worry borne of love. If you want me to tell you that you’re right about your sister, I will. She was ill, and I contributed to that illness by treating her as I did, when she was vulnerable and lost. We went to Shin to help her and guide her and as much as I spend every hour of every day feeling pride for you, I’m afraid for her, because she won’t accept guidance.”
“Mom,” I said. One word, to break the flow, to interrupt the stream of consciousness.
“Would you stiffen if I hugged you now?” she asked. “Or if I reached out?”
I didn’t respond.
“Why?” she asked.
“If-” I started. And then I couldn’t stop. “If I asked you… sorry Crystal.”
“Sorry?” Crystal asked.
“If I asked if Neil Pelham might be my dad…?” I asked. I looked at my mom. Carol Dallon, lawyer, fierce veteran superheroine, Carol who had survived three Endbringer fights. Brandish.
Tears appeared in her eyes.
“What?” Crystal asked.
“Twenty-one years ago, they…”
“My parents were together back then,” Crystal said, sounding horrified. “And you were with Uncle Mark.”
“Sorry,” I said again.
Tears ran down my mothers cheeks, and she wiped them away, seemingly angry they’d appeared. I found myself hoping in the moment that the emotional outpouring was out of anger that I’d thought of something so unlikely or impossible.
“Not your father,” Carol said. “But I thought once that he might be.”
“He might be,” I echoed her.
“You had so much of him in you, and your power… for pretty much the entire year before your sister triggered, I was in dread. Neil was too. You-” she looked at Crystal, “-Understand, please, it was that I spent so long unable to trust anyone. It took me years to warm up to anyone. Years to get close to Mark. But we had our rough patches, and then there was Neil, and I could trust him more easily because Sarah trusted him-”
It hurt to listen to.
Hurt because it hurt Crystal too. If it had been any hour except ass o’clock in the morning, the pre-dawn hours between the crystal hellscape and this conversation, I wouldn’t have said anything.
But I knew my mom. Knew she’d read through me, that she wouldn’t let this go.
“You never told any of us?” I asked. “Did it impact how you treated Amy? Did you think-”
“For a brief while I thought. Early on, when she had powers. I pulled away. She gave me looks and I thought she knew something certain. But she didn’t. And over time I let myself forget. Something I would think about once in a while, with a lot of regret. Less as-”
She stopped herself. Wiped at her eyes again.
“So you think I’m Mark’s?”
“I can’t talk about this,” she said. “Not like this, not right now-”
“You can’t give me the one answer?” I pressed her. “The important one?”
“I can’t,” she said, tensing up. “I can’t.”
“Mom,” I said. “Carol. Don’t dodge this.”
The word seemed to sting her.
“Victoria,” Crystal’s voice was gentle, the false emotion no longer there. “She can’t.”
I looked at Crystal, saw the hurt and apology on her face.
“The head injury,” Crystal said. “She really might not be able to.”
That’s not fair, I thought.
“I’m going to step outside,” I said.
“Okay,” Crystal said.
“Sorry for… dropping this on you. For dredging this up.”
“Okay,” Crystal said.
“Mark’s your father,” my mother said, to my back. I paused, then headed through the kitchen.
I escaped to the balcony, opening the door. I hadn’t removed my coat or boots, so I was going to be warm enough, for the most part. Snow was almost knee deep, where it had piled against the sliding door. It formed little hills atop the balcony railing.
It was so cold my nostrils instantly froze, the moisture in my eyes threatening to do the same.
I could see the distant portals from this high ground. The weather patterns. The sliver of heat on the horizon, where the sun was starting to rise and battle its way past the cloud cover of the snowstorm.
Verifying one piece of data gave evidence to the rest, and too many of the rest made my skin crawl. My fingernails dug into my sleeves, but found the jacket and the bandages that were still there too impenetrable.
Fingernails. Fingernail. I pulled my hand back, and undid the bandage. I looked at the fingernail with the black of gathered blood beneath it.
I gripped the railing with the one hand that had been partially degloved. The hand with the fingernail that wasn’t supposed to be there, that marked a violation I had no clue about.
Digging my fingernails into the wood of the railing-top, I pressed down until pain stabbed its way across my hand, transformed in shape and intensity, redoubling, as I pressed down more and more, with the nail that wasn’t supposed to be there.
Until the nail cracked, broke, and tore at the bed. I continued pressing down until the last of the nail gave, and my first knuckle scraped against ice-crusted wood, raw nail bed scraping against the flat of the wood, singing with pain.
There wasn’t any exhilaration in it. No relief in the dopamine hit. It hurt in the fucking worst way, to the point tears came to my eyes.
But I didn’t have that sign, that mark, that wrongness.
My entire body trembled. Blood dripped from fingertip to white snow.
I floated up onto the railing, and I moved far enough away that all was clear.
Thank you for helping me back there, I thought. I activated the Wretch.
The snow blew around me, gathering on the Wretch’s surface. Tracing outlines, forming a shape.
I could hear my mom talking to Crystal with a raised voice inside, muffled by the intervening door.
The Wretch didn’t grasp, writhe, or swing blindly. The faces it wore weren’t contorted or angry.
I lifted my hand, and it moved nearby limbs. I turned my hand over, and it mimed me.
My hand trembled. The Wretch’s invisible hand was as steady as a rock.
Time to face the day, I thought. At least you’re with me.
It’s going to be a rough one.