Vista’s dorm room was on the way. Every person we walked by looked stressed, busy, or were trying to get out of the way of people who were. We were the busy ones.
Reaching her room, Vista stepped inside, handing me her coat and bidding me to come in. I remained in the doorway, my back to her, my hands going out and back to hold stuff or hand stuff to her as she got changed into her costume.
I took note of the Gallant poster again. No ‘Vista’-specific stuff on the walls, but there was an image of the Brockton Bay wards, and an image of the old Protectorate and the Wards, each image no bigger than a sheet of paper from a printer. A postcard of the Brockton Bay’s namesake bay, including the floating base. A postcard of an artist’s rendition of Glory Girl in a minimalist style. Stuff like that.
By the bed, she had a music player with headphones perched on it, and a grid of art slips from CDs and Vinyls, stuck to the surface with tack. I recognized a few as ones Weld had recommended, which were amusingly ones I’d gotten because Weld had recommended them to Sveta, back in the day, and she’d recommended them to me. Artists so minor that I doubted they had much traction. Or if they did have traction, Weld might have been one of the driving forces.
Vista gave me her visor, having me hold it, while she rearranged stuff. I kept my back turned.
“Gonna be just one second.”
“Not a problem.”
Spare folded laundry on the top of the shelf by the door included a visible ‘Vista’ logo. Dean had had the exact same thing. Was that a thing the Wards did, ironically or unironically wearing the themed merch for local teams, normally reserved for kids and superfans?
She came up to my left and leaned over her desk as she fished for stuff. A comb ran through her hair, drawing some relaxer or counter-agent for the stuff she’d put into it before, to make it wavier, fuller, and shaggier in body. She plucked the visor from my hand, plugged in an earbud that dangled from it, before pulling on ear protection over it, with an attached visor and headband for hair that was now straight and parted.
“My go-bag is under the desk,” Vista told me. “Can you grab that?”
I did, moving the chair aside. It was a heavy gym bag with a strap.
“Wish I could use my power,” she complained, as she took the bag from me and unzipped it. “I hate being in a room, feeling like I’m holed up while the problems are mounting outside. It always leaves me feeling like the walls are closing in.”
“Understandable. I could exit, giving you some more space.”
“I’d rather have your hands, if that’s okay. And we should talk. Not to strategize, that sounds weird, but I’d really rather not get on Narwhal’s bad side.”
“My hands are available,” I said, as she draped her ‘cape’ coat over my hand. Meant for Vista, not Missy, matched to her costume’s colors and style. It had armor and bulk that would get condensed down to something more manageable, but for now it was expanded. “This gets tricky if Capricorn did lie, and I’m supposed to figure out what he said.”
“We should check,” Vista said, absently. She put the helmet and then her ‘cape’ winter coat into the go-bag. As she worked, she glanced back. “Laptop: let me in.”
The laptop illuminated at the voice command. Text appeared.
“Oh god,” I said. “You’ve got the PRT-style login. I hated those.”
“What does it say?” Vista asked, as she fought to get her coat in the bag. I motioned like I was going to help, but she brushed me off. I wouldn’t have been contributing much.
The screen “Correct. Mom or dad?”
“Correct. Childhood, classroom on the left?”
“Dumped water on her head.”
“Open the browser for me? Dial into messages?”
The browser had one of those customized, multi-panel homepages, with different panels having different information, the kind that adapted to the user. In my search for the search box, I saw the ‘recent’ pictures as a panel so predominant I couldn’t help but browse past it. Topless boy, upper body viewed from the side, light brown skin beaded in moisture and textured in goosebumps, muscular but not cut with muscle. There were some specks of blood and small scratches here and there, and the head was cut off by the framing of the shot. Scale mail laid across a lap or surface at the bottom half of the screen, similarly beaded in moisture, with the red of specks of blood contrasting with the dark blue tint of the image. The Reach logo was visible in the top left corner, the faint silver ‘Capricorn’ design worked into the armor at the bottom right. The ‘click to view in full’ box at the right of the panel blocked off the accompanying text or ad.
A ‘selfless’ shot. Someone had been looking someone up. That was- it was healthy, right? People looked up pictures of the boys they liked? The blood and battle damage was weird but I could almost, sort-of, kind-of understand that working in a way that made the image more visceral?
I didn’t pry, I didn’t go looking for more images, and I didn’t comment. I found the search box, dialing into messages. “Messages, yep.”
“Yeah. Dial into Vista, recent?”
I did. Each ‘dial’ reduced and sorted the messages. “Some catch-up, briefing style stuff on the Amy situation. Nothing else”
“No messages from Capricorn?”
“Shit. Hoped he gave us some pointers.”
“We could call.”
“Better not, if they catch us asking it looks bad,” Vista said. “Okay. Grab this and let’s go?”
I took the go-bag for her. She set to adjusting straps and settings on her armor as we left her dorm room behind.
“I don’t want to hurt your career,” I told Vista, adjusting the heavy bag’s strap, where I’d slung it over my shoulder. “I know Narwhal’s tough-”
“Narwhal is tough in the same way Rachel Lindt is gruff. You’re understating things.”
“And Breakthrough’s… very much not Narwhal’s style, I think.”
“Agreed,” Vista said.
“If I had to guess Tristan’s intentions, he wanted to protect you, figuring it’d be better to hurt Breakthrough’s standing than to hurt yours.”
“Yeah, well, that’s just him.”
“…And I think if I quizzed the rest of Breakthrough and asked them about the situation, they’d agree. Sveta and Kenzie would agree we need our friends happy and healthy and successful more than we need Breakthrough to sail smoothly. If Tristan lied, I could see why.”
“Which doesn’t help us,” Vista said.
“No,” I agreed.
“I’ll-” Vista started.
We’d rounded a corner, stepping into a new hallway. My mom and Crystal were there, in earshot. No Aunt Sarah.
Vista didn’t finish her thought.
“I don’t know where the situation room is,” Crystal told us. “We were called.”
“Me too,” I said.
I saw my mother press her lips together. Inhaling, bracing.
I’m with you there, mom.
“This way, I’ll show you,” Vista said. “And I’ll take my bag. Thanks for carrying it.”
I handed it off to her, my injuries twinging with the extension of my arm, the weird angle, and the weight.
The stairway up to the command center stabbed upwards at a diagonal through the complex, set up so it could be locked off, forcing a circuitous navigation.
For sieges. And to keep prisoners like Cauldron’s old victims trapped within for longer, should an escape attempt happen.
Solid, fortified, all built to last through the end of the world, to sustain itself against an alien stronger than many gods we’d conceived of. There were entire sections, Sveta had said, which were secured by columns of solid matter, poised to drop down like giant mallets, or by water, which would pour down in seemingly endless quantities.
My mom had always felt similar. Prepared, fortified, unassailable, endlessly stubborn and dangerous. If she broke, the impression I’d always had was that she would be right as rain soon after, because she didn’t brook weakness.
My mom needed a hand from me to get started on the stairs, and once she had it, she kept relying on it, leaning heavily on my arm.
“How did your visit go?” I asked.
“It was nice,” Crystal said. “Not perfect. There are some parts of it that felt really alien or weird. It was hard to meet her eyes.”
“Yeah,” I commiserated.
“Did you ever have a conversation with someone who works too much, or leads a really one dimensional life?” Crystal asked. “I’m thinking specifically of a professor who tutored me in the year I took off from school, and Donatella’s mom-”
“Donatella?” Vista asked.
“My childhood best friend. Homemaker. No hobbies, no work, nothing except her daily routine and having a lot of kids. You know when you meet someone like that, and you try to have a conversation and they drag every conversation back to this really small, comfortable territory for them? My tutor did that with history, my best friend’s mom did it with her kids. There was a boy in my high school who might have been autistic, who did it with Earth Aleph nerdery and video games. But my best friend’s mom was the one that always stuck with me. Whenever I thought about quitting a club or extra class I was taking, I’d think about her and keep going.”
“I’ve had conversations with people like that,” my mother said. “It’s not uncommon.”
“I might be that type,” Vista muttered.
“No, hon,” Crystal said, “Really, you’re fine. I’ve never had a conversation with you that felt that way.”
“Nor I,” I added.
“Because you’re both easy to talk to,” Vista said.
“I don’t think that’s precisely it,” my mom said. “The kind of behavior Crystal describes stems from a place of insecurity, or deep anxiety. While I’m sure you have your worries and anxieties, Vista I think you’re stronger than that. Every time I’ve talked to someone who knew you and your name came up, whether it was Dean talking about paired patrols while having dinner at our house, running into Miss Militia on patrol and catching up with her, or even the staff at the Heroes for Healing charity drive, they came away with a strong impression of you, not a timid or defensive one.”
“Uh, thanks,” Vista said. “I’m a bit surprised by that.”
“By all accounts, and I’ll stress that I’ve seen people champing at the bit for chances to give their accounting, you’re a capable young woman, Vista. Don’t devalue yourself or reduce yourself down.”
“That kind of means a lot. Thank you. I kind of wish my parents picked up on that sort of thing.”
“Your parents are asshats,” Carol Dallon said.
“Wha?” Vista made a sound, like she wasn’t sure how to respond.
“They’re your family. Love them unconditionally, stay by them through thick and thin. But I think you should listen to the people who sing your praises, not the people with their heads halfway up their asses, when it comes to valuing yourself. Any parent with a lick of sense would be proud.”
I looked over at Crystal, who had gone quiet, a little introspective or caught up in her thoughts.
My mother was maybe a little less filtered, with the head injury. It was hard to say. Not in the sense she was drunk or impulsive, though that image of her crying last night might stay in my mind’s eye until the day I died… but that the things that made her her were less obstructed by things like deeper considerations or context. We’d launched into this from a conversation about Crystal feeling abandoned by her mom and my mom had found her way to coaching Vista and being a bit of the mom Vista had maybe needed but never had.
“You were saying? About one dimensional personalities?” I asked Crystal.
Crystal came back to the present reality and time, stirred from those deep thoughts. She met my eyes. “My mom- that woman. I have no idea what to call her. She felt that way. I didn’t want to spend most of the time talking about war stories, but we ended up talking about war stories. She didn’t used to be like that.”
“I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, it seems like they can get back to who they were. It’s just going to take time.”
Crystal nodded, smiling a sad smile at me. Her fingers adjusted her hair over her bad eye.
“We missed you being there, Victoria,” my mother said.
“Orders are orders,” Crystal said, more tense and defensive about my departure than I’d expected. “Can we ask, Victoria?”
“Valkyrie brought Clockblocker and Kid Win back too. She wanted me to get Vista and take her to see them.”
“How are they? Was it a good reunion?”
“It was nice,” Vista said. “Weird, a bit one-dimensional, and that dimension wasn’t the one I would have said seemed ‘Clockblocker’. But I got to say some stuff I’d been holding onto. So it felt cathartic.”
Crystal smiled. “I agree. I feel like a hole inside of me is a little less big. Cathartic is a good word. Even though I didn’t really vent.”
My mom was leaning on me more heavily as we ascended the stairs. It didn’t help that there were so many.
“Kid Win and I talked,” I said. “I remember hearing he died and wishing I’d talked to him more. I got to talk to him today, and it was interesting. If he wanted to hang out and chat in quieter times, I think I’d welcome it.”
“What do you two even have in common?” my mom asked.
“We connected on some of the childhood stuff, pre-cape. Kids being sent to visit the PRT. I asked some stuff, about what they remember, what they don’t. What might be recoverable. Intuitive understandings of powers, how things connect. What’s hazy for him and what isn’t.”
Crystal looked intrigued. “That sounds an awful lot like all the questions I wanted to ask my mom. I could have shaken her, begged her for answers to those same questions. But it felt like I shouldn’t. It would have disturbed the good parts of the moment, and I thought of Donatella’s mom. If you took her kids away, or put her in a situation where she couldn’t talk about her kids, would there even be a person there? If I pressured this version of my mom, would she collapse like a Christmas tree ornament?”
My mom answered, “Angelou Marus, Donatella’s mother, was in our book club.”
“Really?” Crystal asked.
“She approached the books with a hunger. I personally loved it. People surprise you, Crystal, especially when it comes to matters of enduring.”
“Alright. I guess that gives me some hope. Can I ask what Kid Win told you?”
“You can. He described it as a haze-”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Vista said. “But we’re here.”
‘Here’ was a branch off the side of the staircase. The Warden’s choice of location for situation room wasn’t Teacher’s old one.
‘Then I’ll tell you after,” I promised Crystal. “And I’ll get more answers, and we’ll compare notes.”
“Thank you. That sounds good.”
We took the detour, and without the need to climb the stairs and more carefully place her feet, my mom didn’t have to lean on me. As we drew closer, I could see more capes that were second or third string Wardens. Capes like Naphtha and Golem.
Vista opened the door, and we stepped into the situation room.
I couldn’t help but feel like movies and television shows failed to capture the situation room atmosphere. Even at the PRT Headquarters, when the Wards and I had been getting briefed on the likelihood that the Slaughterhouse Nine were in the city, there had been something missing, and that something was distilled a hundred times over here.
The situation room was often the hardest room to get to in the building, if it wasn’t in a seemingly unintuitive spot, like the Wards’ meeting spot being in the PRT basement. It was the room in the center of the building, with no windows, thick walls, and a resulting claustrophobia. Take that claustrophobia, add people, in a quantity where there aren’t enough chairs and some have to stand, but where it’s not crowded, exactly. Just awkward in that sense where that too-small space couldn’t ever be comfortable, no movement could be made without some consideration for who might be in your space.
Those people would include people you’ve never seen before, because things are intense enough that there need to be intern level clerks and secretaries to run to grab something from a printer, filing cabinet or office, and people to take notes, and others with specialized knowledge. Making the awkward the awkwardness of the unfamiliar, of class and power.
Take those people, then, and account for the fact that some don’t know where to stand in this space that doesn’t feel like it gets enough air for the number of people within. Police officers or scientists who have never been here, but aren’t high enough status or enough a part of the meeting to get a chair. Interns who’ve never been in a situation like this. For the people who do have chairs, who do have places to be, take them out of their seats, because they’ve been here long enough they can’t sit anymore, they’re stressed, they’re pacing or standing behind their chairs. People in suits have pulled off their suit jackets. People in masks who’ve decided they’re in trusted company have removed those things.
All gathered in a space that feels like it’s smaller than the concrete and steel insulating and protecting said space from the threats outside. Like dolls in a shoebox diorama, surrounded by a foot of concrete on every side.
That was the atmosphere here, that the televisions and movies hadn’t ever captured for me.
One long table, like a conference table, with chairs all around, except at the end, because they needed to be able to see the screens at the front of the room. There were four desks split between the two sides of the table’s length, each with that Teacher-base, Cauldron aesthetic of being set in concrete, each with too many people crowded around.
Narwhal was there, standing with arms folded. I saw Armstrong, sitting at the long table, papers in front of him. Off by one desk, there were two of Goddess’s clustermates. Golem’s girlfriend, her name escaped me in the moment. Dinah Alcott stood by one of the other desks, a man in black beside her that could have been Wardens security or her security.
I saw Jessica Yamada and Darnall, off in the one corner, talking to other Warden employees.
I saw, on the big screens at the far end of the room, a giant of a man with gray skin and brutish features, holding the torn-off top of a car in one hand. It looked less like a distinct image, and more like the faces one might see reflected in a window at night. Shadows and glimpses, overlapping.
He’d already armored himself in part. He walked, holding car roof and construction materials, and the two overlapped, pressing in together, steel girders becoming fiberglass, then car roof becoming an arrangement of girders. He stopped, bent down, and twisted the girders so they fit to the curvature of his leg.
Then, touching more armor, he blended existing armor to new armor, translating and combining aesthetics, making it uniform. Pelvis, butt and crotch, three-quarters of his legs had already been covered, and arrangements sat under his feet and between his toes like sandals. With the new addition, he was armored from the waist down, pretty much. Boots to be filled out, the rest encased.
He turned, head roving as he checked his direction. Heads, plural, as he refracted, each head looking in a different direction. The refracting carried down to the armor he wore, showing off different aesthetics.
Everything distilled to a different form as he began marching in a direction, bending down to pick up a dumpster, holding it in one hand.
On the next screen, a giant of a woman was wreathed in a draping of flesh so thin it looked almost translucent, with veins webbing through that flesh, the webbing of veins more than any flesh itself protecting her modesty. In a radius around her, naked figures crouched and stood, all human and human-proportioned, but only half way between her height and an ordinary human, which put them at about ten or twelve feet in height. I saw a man crouching, fists pressed into the ground like forelegs. A man stood, askew, head resting against the side of the building, like standing up straight was too much effort.
There were enough of them that I couldn’t see much around the woman. But the camera moved slightly, and I could see the front of the crowd, where an obese, naked, ten-foot tall woman sat on an obese, naked man. The ground around them was flesh, and hands were tearing that flesh bloody from the far side, groping, pressing their way up and out. As the flesh tore enough, I could see below, see the glistening face, and the muscular contractions of an extradimensional space thrusting the woman up and out.
One of the men helped her crawl free. The aperture squeezed shut, like a sphincter closing, the closing pressing juices up and out, until they washed over and obscured the view. As fluids found holes to drain back into, another space opened, a sphincter covered by glistening skin thinner than paper, a foot sticking up and out against it.
The giant woman who had just emerged, I saw, was pregnant. Most or all of the women were. All of them, it was hard to tell at first because many were moist from having emerged in the recent past, or they were crusted in frost because the moisture had frozen, were glistening from inner thigh to heel. The men were violently erect. Like, stab one of those things with a pin, and I imagined the resulting blood spray could cut you in half.
They were still, unmoving, except for the occasional figure shifting its weight or getting comfortable.
A third screen showed Dauntless. Kronos. The titan. The Simurgh wasn’t on his shoulder, but flapped lazy circles, flying in a way that didn’t feel intuitive with the flaps.
Dauntless was moving. A screen below that image showed the plotted paths and positions.
Four marks on the screen, black circles with red crowns, were placed on maps. Two in Shin. Two in our city, one of those two with a dotted line marking its course.
One mark, Dauntless’s old symbol, a helmet framed by a ring of lightning bolts, and its own dotted line. Moving to intercept.
We took it in, watching, seeing what was on the screens, how the people there reacted.
Swears felt out of place in this formal setting. Conversation was hard to initiate. The more I paid attention to the little details, the people who were standing alone or sitting alone, like Armstrong, the more I felt like this wasn’t so comparable to the situation room meeting about the Slaughterhouse Nine back in Brockton Bay.
At least there, there had been a sense that things would be horrible, but we could get through it.
Narwhal spotted us.
She talked to my mom and Crystal first, “It’s unfortunate that you arrived with Victoria.”
“Why?” my mom asked.
“Because Victoria is a security concern on three fronts at the moment, and by associating with her you’re a concern too. We’re in communication with Flashbang, who is acting as mediator, and we’d be happy to have you step in to talk to him. Now we can’t.”
“Three security concerns?” my mom asked.
“Her activities last night, for one, against Warden counsel. We can’t enforce hard laws and the warning was brief and not elaborated on, but discussion on the subject of Breakthrough and their actions is pending.”
“With distractions, it seems,” my mom said.
“In addition to the concern about reckless action, we can’t know for sure how that experience affected her. Defiant debriefed them and Dragon reviewed limited video footage of the event. Post-traumatic stress is the least of our concerns on that front.”
“Is that the second issue?” my mother asked.
“It’s still the first. Issue two, overlapping with the other issues, is that Victoria came into contact with Amelia Lavere and cannot account for some of that time spent. She suggested master stranger protocols on herself. Those protocols were never resolved. Now we’re dealing with Ms. Lavere in a confrontational respect.”
“These are her?” Crystal asked, aghast.
“Individuals curated by Amelia Lavere to pattern match to specific individuals, injected with drugs by the villain Cryptid also known as Lab Rat, bringing out the full capacity of those powers. They are now under the joint control of Amelia Lavere and the Shin government.”
“Her name is Amy Dallon,” my mother said.
I wanted to snap at her, to say something. Then I saw her expression. Stricken, shocked.
Was I the only one who wasn’t? I didn’t feel shocked so much as I felt impending doom, despair, disappointment.
Under master-stranger protocols, yet the only person in the room who got it?
“If I call her Panacea, will that work? It’s-”
My mother shook her head.
“The Red Queen. It’s the name she’s using most, now.”
My mom looked like she wanted to argue, to debate or lawyer her way to getting what she wanted, for the woman who had made those things to be Amy Dallon again.
But she couldn’t argue against the name Amy had taken for herself.
“Vista said the danger was this evening,” I said, to refocus the discussion.
“It was. It may be sooner. One of the creations is moving. It has our full attention, and the attention of the Dauntless Titan. We’re moving to intercept. For now, please sate my curiosity. Victoria Dallon, you were remanded to the custody of Crystal Pelham, pending Warden investigation.”
“Valkyrie told you to fetch Vista and take her to a meeting with two former teammates. Vista would take over custody of you. You were expected to go straight to Vista, with no detours or distractions.”
“I did,” I said.
“Capricorn, when quizzed about his whereabouts, indicated he had gone outside for an extended breath of fresh air. We checked cameras. He had not. Instead, a passerby says you and he talked, despite being told not to associate until we had finished investigating Breakthrough.”
My mom was giving me a curious look.
“We talked only briefly,” I said. “It wasn’t about anything too serious. Nothing about current goings-on, I think we only briefly touched on what happened last night, and even then, only to say we were a bit shaken and reeling, not to strategize or associate. Mostly it was about acquaintances and seeing if his brother was okay. The fact he is somewhat mobile and alert is… great.”
“It is,” Narwhal said, without a hint of a smile or trace of good humor.
“It was a chance meeting.”
“Then Capricorn did lie to me.”
“I don’t know. Defiant threw me a curve ball last night by lying to me and saying our activities killed people, to double check something or test me. I don’t know. I don’t know if you’re doing the same, or if this is part of your extended master-stranger procedure, but I’m telling you the truth.”
“I don’t play games, Victoria.
“Understood,” I said.
“What was the context of this accidental meeting?” Narwhal asked.
“Narhwal,” Vista said. It looked like it took her some active work to summon the courage to speak up. She hesitated as she noticed Jessica and Darnall making their approach, and then pushed forward, “I was the context of the meeting.”
Narwhal’s crystal-studded eyebrows went up. “That makes me more concerned, not less. He still lied, which leaves me suspicious about him, while casting your behavior into a questionable light.”
Jessica’s own reaction was one of mild surprise as she caught that last part of the conversation.
Vista clenched her fists. “I was, um, with Capricorn Blue. If his brother lied, it was to keep confidence.”
If there was any doubt she was telling the truth, then the doubter would have to explain the pink ear-tips and flush. Vista wasn’t that good an actor.
“That neatly explains a lot about this,” Narwhal said, but her tone didn’t soft. “I remember you were distracted by your association with Capricorn at the raid on the Mathers Fallen compound.”
“Yes,” Vista said.
I spoke up, “Distracted is the wrong word. It didn’t interfere with her performance.”
“Hold on,” Narwhal said.
I held on, tense.
“One thing at a time. We’ll unravel the individual issues, which releases those involved to join the handling of the greater crisis. Vista’s actions and distraction at the time concerned me, and I filed it as such. Let’s leave it at that. For now, Vista can leave with just a parting comment from me, I believe Cinereal is on the line at terminal two. Have you briefed yourself on all the materials we sent out twenty minutes ago?”
“Not yet,” Vista said.
“I see,” Narwhal said. She gave Vista a sad look. “You have so much promise, Vista. You’re almost eighteen. The Wardens have been talking about elevating you to a higher position, with a team to lead of your own. This is something you want?”
“Yes, ma’am. Absolutely.”
“We don’t do that for most capes your age because we can’t trust most capes your age to be level headed, or to handle the responsibility of three to ten other lives. Teenagers act like teenagers, and I had really hoped you would be the exception to that.”
“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“You knew the Red Queen?”
“Only in passing,” Vista said.
“See what Cinereal needs, and if she doesn’t require anything else, you can join us for the ongoing conversation with the Red Queen and Shin, or you can wait outside with the others on standby. Your decision. We’ll revisit this when we discuss team leadership after you turn eighteen.”
I wanted to say something, but with Breakthrough’s current standing, I wasn’t sure I could get away with it, I felt like I’d hesitate to say anything with both of my therapists looking on, and the only things that came to mind were actively hostile. Because how fucking dare Narwhal dress down Vista in a public setting-
“Vista,” my mom said, as Vista escaped.
“Hm?” Vista turned. “Yes?”
“You just came back from patrol?”
“Not ‘just’, but recently.”
“These are the hours you’d be recuperating, showering, sleeping?”
“I don’t think anyone is sleeping or recuperating at a time like this,” Vista said, glancing at the screens. “Um. I was sleeping. Just… with him. Actually asleep. Nothing happened.”
“He’s recuperating? Better but not at his best?”
“I’m not interested in debate, Mrs. Dallon,” Narwhal said.
“I’m not interested in debate either,” my mother said. “Just asking and commenting.”
“And delaying us from getting to the matter at hand,” Narwhal said.
“I’ll be brief. You were with him, you were woken up, went to see Clockblocker and Kid Win at Valkyrie’s request, and then came straight here?”
“Yes,” Vista said.
“Did Byron go with you?”
“No. He’s still healing,” Vista said. She looked nervous, if only because it looked increasingly like she was stuck between Narwhal and my mom.
“An injured cape and a young woman fresh off her patrol taking the opportunity to sleep seems very sensible and healthy, and if you can look after each other in the process, then that’s even better,” my mom said. “I like Capricorn as a match for you. He’s an excellent cape with a great record as a hero, he had a fanbase, and Team Reach was very good about taking the money he earned them and reinvesting that money into his training as a cape. If you gave me the opportunity, I don’t think there are many I could suggest as a better match for you.”
“Yes ma’am,” Vista said, looking dangerously pleased with what my mom was saying, considering Narwhal was standing right there.
Vista ducked out, escaping the conversation. Narwhal gave my mom a look.
“I said I’d be brief,” my mom said, to effectively shut down the conversation.
Narwhal studied us, before pulling out her phone. She checked something. “Jessica, Mr…”
“The Wardens will feel most comfortable working with Victoria Dallon if we can address the standing issues, the master-stranger effect and the pending review. We’d be comfortable letting her be involved in the current crisis if we can strike one of those things off the record. Do you think you could have a conversation with her?”
“We could,” Jessica said.
“Yes,” Wayne Darnall said.
The lingering memory of Jessica strangling Bonesaw made me feel like a whole other set of master-stranger protocols were needed.
Narwhal continued checking something on her phone, but her demeanor suggested she was still here with us, just doing something complimentary. She didn’t look up as she asked, “Victoria Dallon hasn’t discussed the Red Queen with you in any meaningful capacity?”
“No. We… don’t talk about her, when we can help it,” my mom said.
“You received healing from the Red Queen.”
“Crystal Dallon? Have you been healed in recent memory?”
“Not by Amy.”
“Any concerns of memory manipulation, emotional manipulation, self-reports of unusual behavior?”
“Good. Then are you comfortable corroborating and challenging your mother’s- sorry, your aunt’s accounts and advice on the topic?”
“Of Amy? Yes. I can work with her.”
“Then would you go to console two? Talk to the team, let us know how Mark Dallon is, verify if we can trust him, tell us what you can about the Red Queen?”
“Gladly, if it helps,” my mother said.
“Thank you,” Narwhal told her.
“Will Victoria be joining us?”
“As soon as she’s cleared,” Narwhal said.
“You good?” Crystal asked, touching my arm.
“I think so,” I said, even though I felt adrift in all of this.
Crystal gave my arm a squeeze. She and my mom left.
“We had three concerns about you,” Narwhal told me. Her eyes were piercing, unflinching. “Now we have two. If your therapists, past and present, can testify to your well-being, we’ll have no objection to your supervised involvement in this conflict.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
“I’m sorry about this,” Narwhal said, not really relaxing as she said it. “I’d rather do things strictly by the book in situations like this, than do otherwise and regret it.”
“Totally understandable,” I said. I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to say it like I did if my mom hadn’t spoken up on Vista’s behalf.
“As soon as she’s done, she can join the current situation,” Narwhal told my therapists. “Do you need anything?”
“No,” Jessica said.
“Alright. Thank you for coming. I appreciate it.”
Narwhal stepped away, because two people had drawn close in the last minute, hovering and waiting for her to be free. She had barely finished talking when she was turning away, addressing the next thing.
And I could kind of breathe.
This fucking shoebox in concrete space. Fuck. I was just glad Vista had come out of it okay. By all reports, Narwhal was pretty cool in downtime, but in crisis mode, she was as unyielding as her forcefields. That didn’t mean she was unfair. She’d dress down Vista in public, and she’d remember something like this for weeks or months, like she’d remembered casual chatter with Capricorn back at the Fallen raid, but I didn’t think she was the type to hear something like what my mom had said and not take it into account, out of spite or anything.
I looked over at the monsters.
The minions of the Nursery-like monster were spreading out a bit. Not aggressively, but finding spots to sit or stand. Around each, in a loose circular radius, there was a faint haze with a dusky rose tint, and the surrounding environment transformed. Where multiple gathered, the transformation was sufficient that things moved beneath that ground. Large masses, like a tongue licking at the inside of a cheek.
“What are the other key monsters?” I asked. “The monitors show two, plus Dauntless. But there’s four markers on the map. Two in Shin.”
Only Jessica and Darnall were close enough to me to answer. People had backed off, and people from the nearest desk were at the table.
We had something approximating privacy, if not four walls surrounding me so onlookers couldn’t glance my way.
Jessica answered me, “One of them is derivative of Bianca. The woman in blue. Her power works through media and enthralls capes. There’s a separate room of strictly non-capes who are monitoring her.”
“And the fourth?”
“We think it’s Christine Mathers. When the creatures appeared, tens of thousands in Cheit reported seeing a tall, thin woman with silver hair and pale skin. These images of the woman aren’t doing anything except standing on the horizon, unmoving.”
“How the hell did she get to Cheit?”
“Teacher. Apparently Christine Mathers visited Earth Cheit as a guest of Teacher for massive festivals and parades. His co-conspirators in government had no idea what they were dealing with. The Wardens are considering discontinuing the sedation of the real Christine Mathers, but as you can imagine, that’s not an easy decision to make.”
“So that’s… Chevalier. Nursery. Goddess. Mathers.”
“All of them people Cryptid was able to sample.”
“Makes sense,” I said, quiet. “He’d pick powers and capes that insulate him against surveillance.”
“He would,” Jessica agreed.
“How… do you feel about that?” I asked.
“I wish I’d done better, not that I’d done nothing at all,” Jessica said.
And what about Bonesaw? What did you do to her?
I looked over at the screens, folding my arms.
“I’d like to let Dr. Darnall take point in our review, Victoria. Had I not already been here, I wouldn’t have agreed to come test you. I don’t think I’m in a position to, and I’ve given Dr. Darnall the outline to follow in reviewing master-stranger influence.”
“Unfortunately, it works best when there’s a longstanding relationship between therapist and the supposed target of the influence,” Dr. Darnall said.
“My irregular attendance at appointments comes back to bite me in the ass, huh?”
“I wouldn’t phrase it that way. You prioritized other things, and that’s fine,” he told me. “How are you?”
“I’m about as good as can be expected, honestly. In some ways I’m better. Hard to explain.”
“Hopefully I can help you with that explanation,” he said.
“How are you?” I asked. “Your first time here?”
“It is. It’s… daunting. Interesting. Can you tell me about the ‘better’?”
I drew in a deep breath, and I glanced at Jessica.
“Before I do-” I started.
I was aware of the noise from elsewhere, and broke off to look. Babble and back and forth, but I couldn’t pick out the how or what of it, and nothing seemed to have really changed on the screens.
I looked back at the pair. At Jessica.
I thought of what I’d seen last night.
“Before you do?” he prompted.
“Full disclosure,” I said, not taking my eyes off Jessica. I swallowed. I second guessed myself, changing my mind about what I was going to say. “I’ve reviewed the protocols and questionnaires. I read about how this goes, the kinds of questions you ask. I don’t want my answers to seem fake or crafted, because I know what’s coming and I am unconsciously crafting them.”
“I can adapt,” Darnall said. “Thank you for letting me know.
That was the part about making the patient comfortable.
“I visited the agents last night,” I told them. “Went to one of the places powers stem from. I think I figured some stuff out. I’m… tired. A little shaken from a near death experience in the middle of it. Flutters of panic. But, uh, my power’s been broken for a little while now. As part of what happened to put me in the hospital. And now it’s not. Or it’s a lot better. People mention my sister, and I don’t feel like my heart is going to stop beating, or like my brain has slammed on the brakes and pulled the steering wheel hard left into dangerous roads.”
“That’s a pretty extreme change,” Darnall said.
“It absolutely is. Don’t get me wrong, I still hate her. I still feel like… if she died in the next five seconds, I would feel relieved first and bad second. She said once that hate is the emotion closest to love… but I don’t feel any love at all.”
“These changes started when she used her power on you?” Darnall asked.
“Can you elaborate on the scenario and timeline?” Jessica added.
“I went to Shin. To negotiate, to help. We were imprisoned as a political play. I was hurt. The doctor then drugged me, knocking me out. I came to, and I was-”
There it was. That feeling like my heart could stop, the feelings crowding in my chest, until it felt like there wasn’t room to expand in my lungs. I’d spent the last week trying not to think about that scene, that room, and how very helpless I’d been in there.
My arms were already folded, so I squeezed them against my body, hard. “-Captive.”
“That must have been terrifying,” Darnall said.
“We had a conversation,” I said, controlling the tone of my voice. I shrugged, and I couldn’t relax my shoulders enough to unshrug, so I leaned against the wall instead, like I was finding a different posture. “They say, um, the unknown is the root of all fear. Maybe the conversation helped, because it made a lot of things known. What she’s willing and able to do. She used her power on me.”
“To do what?” Jessica asked.
“I don’t know.”
“But you know she used her power.”
I thought of my conversation with Defiant. The lie detector. “I don’t know anything. But I’m ninety percent sure. I was missing a fingernail after the attack that put me in the doctor’s control, just before… captivity,” I said. I looked away, devoting a lot of my secondary attention and processing to the study of a manufacturer’s sticker on the side of one of the chairs. “I had a fingernail after. Shin’s medicine isn’t that good.”
“Is it possible that was the extent of it?” Darnall asked.
“No,” I said, studying that sticker. Where had it come from? what language was that?
“You sound sure.”
“Ninety percent sure. I know her. Or… I knew her. I have a sense of her. I have a sense of what she does, like, I wasn’t surprised at all that… this. The monsters. The violation of the people who those monsters came from. Even fucking Mama Mathers didn’t deserve to be made into something like that. Even a tyrant like Goddess.”
“You think she did something more?”
“I’m ninety percent sure she did something more. I was entirely at her mercy, and she wouldn’t hold back. I think she would touch me. I think she would alter me according to whatever twisted fantasies she has in the moment, then put me back to normal. I think she’d, um…”
I couldn’t bring myself to inhale, but I’d run out of breath to talk with, so my words kind of faded out into a breathy strain of a whisper.
They didn’t interrupt.
I found my breath again, a intake of air with a shudder to it, my skin crawling. I blinked rapidly a few times, looking back to that sticker.
“I don’t know,” I summed it up. “Worst case scenario, she cloned me. It’s apparently something that was on her mind, if she was making another Goddess and a Mathers.”
“Okay,” Darnall said.
He wasn’t following the script at all. Barely touching the questions.
“I think it was bad,” I elaborated. “It’s an awful lot of unknown.”
“But you feel better?” he asked, gently.
“In ways,” I said, feeling at risk of letting my voice fade out into a strained whisper again. “It’s easier to hate her, and that makes it easier. I think I understand her motives and mind more than I did. I can see how the person I knew became the Red Queen, now. Before, it was a big, scary question mark, and that kind of question mark just appears and the questions appear in front of it… is she going to appear around the corner here? Surprise me? Is she targeting me? Is she sorry? Is she going to do something to make amends? When-”
And I lost the words again.
Elsewhere in the room, people bustled this way and that.
It would have been nice to have a private space, but at the same time, I could understand if there wasn’t anything conveniently close, and I didn’t want to move away, in case I could just have this fucking conversation over with and jump straight back into stuff I wanted and needed to be doing.
“She’s an exclamation point now, not a question mark. And it’s kind of really fucking viscerally satisfying that those exclamation points are appearing over people’s heads now, when I was fucking trying to warn them.”
I couldn’t help but glance at Jessica, glance away.
“Do you think she affected your mind, emotions, or memories?” Darnall asked.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I haven’t noticed anything.”
“Did feeling ‘better’, as you put it, start with that captivity?”
“No. I got a taste of control during the Teacher raid, but it was… a teammate died. Swansong.”
I looked at Jessica. Guilt seized me, but she was impenetrable, too hard to understand. She didn’t give me accusation any more than she’d given me any signs of guilt earlier.
I went on, “I was closer to Teacher’s gate. I found the wavelength with my agent. Later, I’d chase that wavelength and find it to hold onto it.”
“I welcome Jessica stepping in to clarify matters of powers, but is it possible it started you on the road?”
“Days passed. No. I know my power, I know my control and… no. I’ve experienced the transition, or the way one switch flips when she uses her power, and the dominoes start following, thought patterns and the familiar changing to the different, the unfamiliar. This doesn’t feel like that. It feels subtler, different focus, different playing fields.”
“You don’t think she could have learned subtlety? Based on what I know of Cryptid, he’s a great believer in secrecy and secrets.”
“It’s too long term, too… soft. Amelia Lavere dwells in the moment. She’ll dwell in the past if you give her cause or if she gives herself cause, but she doesn’t look to the future. Hell, she won’t look to the future enough to keep her arguments straight over a single conversation. She used to be annoying about it but she’s gotten worse.”
“You don’t think she has that capacity.”
“She has every capacity. But she doesn’t have that intent, that planning. The danger Cryptid poses is that he’ll give her the slippery slope with long term ramifications and she’ll take the moment to leap off that slippery slope. People will get hurt in the end.”
“You sound sure.”
“Ninety five percent. She didn’t alter my power to have some creeping effect or long term change. She didn’t affect my emotions that way either. Not that subtly, when she’s a sledgehammer.”
“But you’re still concerned,” he said. “You said it’s possible.”
“Trigger phrases, in case I cross her and she decides she has no other way to have me? She’d put something like that in. A tweak to memories? I’ve gone over stuff, nothing jars, and I remember the PRT worksheets and guides on resisting Master influence. Nothing stands out there. But it’s possible. By the timeline, I don’t think she had me long enough to do something comprehensive or take her time with me and then erase memories after. But… possible.”
I felt like I was ranting, rambling, trying to keep my forebrain fixated on stickers and environmental details, and away from mental pictures or imagining the full ramifications of a given statement, while the rear half of my brain was the driving force, pushing the cart from behind.
My fingernails dug through plush sweater into my arms. Five on the one side, four on the other. The empty nailbed was a source of raw, pointed pain, throbbing with my every heartbeat, which was racing like it would if I was engaged in a hard run to my very limits.
I looked up at Darnall, and the man seemed to be at a bit of a loss.
I was describing a monster who could do anything and I had my proof on the far side of the screen. The poor guy might have felt like he was in over his head. Unfamiliar space, unfamiliar dynamics.
“Do you want to take fifteen minutes, return to this?” he asked.
“No. I want to get this over with so I can go over there and fucking help. So just, you know, ask the questions from the list, or rule me out, or whatever.”
“I have been asking the questions, in a roundabout way,” he said.
Had he? Maybe, if each question was a bullet point on a list, if he was going from the grounding, degrees of conviction, coherency of timeline and memory, giving cause to make contradicting statements…
I shook my head, feeling tense. I hadn’t ever relaxed my shoulders from that shrug. My arms were still folded, my fucking missing fingernail still fucking hurt like fuck.
“Victoria,” Jessica said, her voice soft. “If the Victoria of three months ago met the Victoria of now, would she be concerned?”
Straight from the list of questions.
I drew in a deep breath. “Probably. But I’d be concerned about her.”
Follow up question, right from the list.
“Because I would barely be recognizable to her. Because she’s, to the me of right now, paralyzed, trapped, secretly terrified of every dark corner and going back to that terrifies me.”
“Would the Victoria of five years ago be concerned?”
I relaxed my shoulders. “I think we’d both be a bit disappointed in each other.”
“Because I see her as a brute. A barbarian. Someone who hurt others because she thought of it as justice.”
“Why would she be concerned about you?” Jessica asked.
I thought of Vista’s room. Of Vista underwear and Gallant posters, of her having a boyfriend. Her music album art on the dorm room wall. The lines were super blurry, and I related to those blurry lines. The old me would have related. The me of now didn’t, really.
“Maybe because I’m only living half a life, and she fought too long and hard to maintain that half I’m ignoring despite everything about how we were raised making it so much harder to maintain,” I said.
“Is that getting better or worse, since that meeting last week?”
Still close to the script. Black text on white paper, from years ago. Reassuring.
Out of order, though. It was supposed to be a follow-up to another question, but I could see it working as a prompt here.
“Worse. Way worse. Vista commented on it, in the midst of a conversation. It spooked her, maybe. I think Valkyrie even noticed it, the way she was talking.”
“Do you think you’re ignoring something vital?”
“You’d hate it,” I said, my face twisting. I met her eyes, and I remembered seeing her strangle Bonesaw. I couldn’t push that image from my mind. I looked away. “Ignoring the civilian side. I tried going the other way before Breakthrough. Now I’m embracing the power. Getting deep, really deep into the powers, trying to understand the world. Getting glimpses of secrets, details about people I really didn’t want to know, but… things make more sense. At least I have control now.”
“Is there a way back to Victoria?” Jessica asked. “A way back to being Victoria, no costume, no powers, for the occasional day. A day you don’t plan where you just happen to not use powers or not get in fights? Where you’re you, and you pursue your own interests, romance, friendships, family?”
“I was never, ever that Victoria,” I said. “Even before I had powers, they were a part of my life. If that’s your line where things are okay, then you’re going to be so horribly disappointed in me.”
“I’m not disappointed,” she said.
“Does that have anything to do with this… this?” I asked. “Do you think I’m showing signs of being compromised?”
Jessica parted her lips, but didn’t speak.
“I’ll rephrase,” I said. “Do you think Amy compromised me in a way that interferes with my ability to jump in here and give advice and direction?”
She glanced at Darnall.
“I don’t get that impression,” Darnall said. “But I’m worried for other reasons.”
“So am I,” I said.
“There’s a thinker we can ask, who looks at biology,” Jessica said. “It’s possible he can vet you.”
My head shook a little with the nod I gave her. “That’d be… pretty huge. A relief. Big.”
“Okay,” she said. “I agree. I don’t think Amy is that kind of planner or subversive element.”
“Supervise me?” I asked. Then I remembered the strangling, imagined how she didn’t want to be a part of any of this, but she probably thought she had to. “Or Darnall, or…?”
“Of course,” Darnall said. “But I want to see you more regularly. Tonight, to start with. And I think you want to see me.”
I started toward the front of the room, my foot not quite touching the ground as I hesitated, waiting for the go-ahead. Darnall followed, and that served as the all-clear.
Approaching the front of the room. Terminal two.
Vista was already there. So were my mom and Crystal.
Narwhal off to the side, hands resting on the back of a chair, peering past white hair with faint crystalline hues.
My dad on the speaker phone.
Amy’s voice in the background.
I couldn’t approach my family or friend because there were too many people.
So I approached Narwhal.
“What’s the situation?”
“The Machine Army,” Narwhal said.
No questions about my mental well being or the vetting. I was here so she assumed all was well.
I looked up at the map.
The dotted line put the giant Chevalier on a course to the portal to Earth Bet. Home.
“He’s going there?”
“And the Kronos titan is moving to intercept,” Narwhal said. “Shin is concerned that if the Machine Army attacks the city, there’s nothing to stop it from rapidly disseminating itself across the city and reaching Shin.”
“Is there anything?” I asked.
“Not enough,” Narwhal said. “But they want to address the crisis now. Which means we now have that same crisis in our lap, because it involves our territory, our border, our safeguard that they’re about to trample through.”
The question came over the speaker phone.
“Yes,” I said, loud enough that she should hear me.
“You’re there,” my dad said, through the same phone.
“Yes,” I said, again.
There was a pause. I looked at my mom, at Crystal, and at Vista. People who got this.
“Will you help?” Amy asked. “Negotiating? Handling this? I feel like you might listen to me when others don’t.”
I stared at the screen, nine fingernails digging into my sweater.