“To recap again,” Amy’s voice came through the screen. “On our side of the call, we have myself, Flashbang, Marquis, and two gentlemen from the local government, who I’m told you’ve met, Victoria. Luis and Gabin.”
Fuck you, I thought.
My mother answered, “On our end, to name people familiar to you, we have the family, Vista, Narwhal, and two more people from the Wardens.”
“Oh, I didn’t know Vista was there. I hope you’re doing well, Vista.”
Fuck you, I thought. This isn’t a social function.
“I’ll be happier when we’ve ensured everyone’s safe,” Vista said, a little more terse than she had been earlier.
“We can work on that,” Amy sounded encouraged, when I wouldn’t have told her to be, given Vista’s tone and pure focus on the business at hand. “The situation is that you’ve got the Machine Army on your doorstep and it’s been there for a while. Shin has serious concerns about Gimel’s problems becoming their problems, because you guys don’t have the best track record of keeping your messes contained.”
You don’t have the best track record of keeping your own shit contained, Amy. Who the fuck do you think you are, saying that?
“Having a giant with interdimensional powers stomping through the city and our quarantine hurts the containment of our mess,” Narwhal said, from ten feet away.
Narwhal’s response had been loud enough that the microphone apparently caught it, because Amy responded. “Essential traces of the person he was are still intact. Chevalier wanted to take care of people, protect, hold the line. So does the Gibborim Knight. That’s all he wants.”
“Is that because you brainwashed him?”
Multiple heads turned my way. I didn’t look at them, instead staring at the screen.
“I don’t brainwash people, Victoria. That implies there was a brain to wash. He was a blank slate. We brought out the traits and aspects that make him want to work with us.”
“My mistake,” I said. “You’re right.”
Fuck you. I had to resist mouthing the words.
The screen showed four giants of Amy’s creation. One giant from the past, Dauntless.
A marker showed Chevalier’s team on the map, making his own approach. I had no idea what even an elite team of Wardens could do, but they were apparently planning to get involved on some level. Or planning on being there to mitigate the damage.
“Borders are sovereign,” Narwhal said. “We’re in a state of emergency, and I know for a fact you know that, because you helped us arrange accommodations for more than a million refugees. You can’t move a massive power that you have untested control over through our city-”
“Evacuated city,” Amy said.
“Partially evacuated. And still sovereign, sensitive territory,” Narwhal retorted.
“The diplomats are talking,” my father said. “One moment?”
“Of course,” Narwhal told him.
Amy started to say something, but someone put them on mute, or took them off ‘talk’.
Nobody asked or signaled to put us on mute. We stood where we stood, all of us gathered around the one desk, sitting or standing by chairs, leaning against a wall in Narwhal’s case. My mom sat off to the left of the desk, partially in the aisle.
I looked up at the screen. The ‘Gibborim Knight’ was there, still fashioning its armor, still trudging forward. It had built boots to cover its feet, which had been sandals before, and was building cross-straps for its chest. The expression it wore was a focused, determined one, even as its face broke apart into three transparent versions.
“The snark isn’t helpful,” Narwhal told me, her voice low, too quiet for even the people at the desk to hear.
“Snark?” I asked, matching her in volume. I thought back. “No. Not at all. I wouldn’t play games.”
“I certainly hope not,” she said. “This is diplomacy.”
I kept my voice quiet, “Amy wants to hear that she’s right more than she cares about the accusation.”
“This isn’t about her. This is about the very real, present, and unknown danger to the city. Please.”
“It’s the same thing in my view.”
She stood straighter, which was imposing given her height, build, and the way she was covered in a ‘winter coat’ of forcefield crystals. Not in the sense of a jacket-type coat, but of an animal’s thicker fur. “And I would prefer to keep them as separate focuses. We compartmentalize, isolate the problem and fix it.”
“I understand wanting to do that, but I’m… pretty sure you won’t be able to. I was acting preemptively, I’ll avoid doing that. I’ll be quieter. But if my instincts are right, we’ll reach a point where things get messy. Signal me if you want me to try to curb the messy.”
“Can you?” she asked.
“She’s a damaged individual with a lot of power and one thing she wants that isn’t in line with what Shin-”
“We’re back,” Mark said.
“We’re here,” Narwhal said, turning away from her conversation with me, folding her arms.
“I would summarize their stance as a very pointed ‘Gimel established a precedent’, with our cape concerns and business trampling their sovereignty and security. I just got two signals of confirmation from them.”
“This is willful and dangerous. We’ve been on good terms in recent days, some minor incidents aside.”
“We’re interested in continuing the trend of recent days,” Amy said. “Shin’s desire has been to make things more fair from a power standpoint. You guys were happy to throw your weight around with powers and theoretical military might. You had the ability to send special forces out to handle crises elsewhere, in places that weren’t the city. Now we can do the same.”
“The diplomats are nodding their heads,” my dad said. “They’re in agreement.”
Narwhal asked, “For right now, can you stop it? All power use, all movement? The Dauntless Titan is mobilized, and we have no idea how threatening it is. It might be picking a fight, tapping your giant knight for power, or creating a confluence of power that disrupts everything.”
“Stopping it could be more dangerous. Let’s get him to his destination, and he can begin his work. We think he can cut back the Machine Army in a way you guys haven’t been able to. If the Dauntless Titan fights him, isn’t it better if it happens in the old Earth than in your city?”
“At the edges of a quarantine zone?” Narwhal asked. “No. Not at all.”
“If this fails, we have other options. I can use my power. A disease to infect the machines and sweep over our old Earth and the Machine Army.”
Narwhal approached the desk, leaning over it, and looked over at Carol. “That makes no sense.”
“A day ago, you probably would have said the Shin Defense Initiative made no sense,” Amy rebutted.
“If you recall, Red Queen, I’ve named at least three good reasons why your giants make no sense and are exceptionally dangerous in the current predicament.”
“The government on our side feels differently,” Amy said.
“You seem… very intent on charging forward with this. Is it to provide a proof of concept? A demonstration of strength? Assuming the giants were safe and totally out of control, pretending for the moment that the Dauntless Titan wasn’t on the approach, and assuming a hypothetical where the Machine Army was an immediate and present threat, an equal power relationship would involve discussion and compromise.”
“Not equal,” Amy said. “Fair.”
On her side of the call, no doubt harder to make out than Narwhal had been for them to make out, I could hear a male voice. I imagined Luis, the smartly-dressed black man with the umbrella who had been in Goddess’s company, who had kind of fucked us over with the Shin prison thing. Him or the other guy.
“Luis says ‘Just’,” Amy translated.
“Can you elaborate on your stance?” Narwhal asked.
“If you’ll give me a second, I’ll translate,” my father said.
I had a bad feeling. It was hard to put my finger on.
If I had to, if I was challenged to, I kind of felt like the way Amy had said ‘just‘ was the kind of way the old me would have said it. The old me who had faced down a human trafficker that had coerced and sold teenage girls into prostitution and knocked his literal teeth out.
‘Just’ was only a good word if the person leaning on them felt like they were making the concession. I want to see her die burning, but I have to grudgingly admit that would be wrong and barbaric. Ten years in prison and a course toward rehabilitation is ‘just’. Justice.
But if it came from the top, from a place of paramount power, from a place of satisfaction, then ‘just’ changed from ‘justice’ to ‘justification’. Justification for revenge. Justification for wrongs.
My dad explained, “Luis says he speaks for the rest of this world with this. The Wardens, Megalopolis, and Megalopolis government have had years now to demonstrate how to act when holding the reins of power. Now they intend to use this as a model. This is their justice. We have four giants, and any one of those giants could be a match for one of your teams. We have six more on the way right now, they’ll be done in a matter of four hours. By this time tomorrow we can have ten. By the end of the week, it will be fifteen.”
He sounded a little awed by what he was relaying. No doubt he had Amy beside him, looking confident.
Was it only now sinking in?
What are you doing, dad?
What are you thinking?
Narwhal strode over to another desk, leaning over to talk to a tech.
“Are you there?” Amy asked.
“Yes,” Narwhal’s voice came over our speakers, as she spoke through a microphone at the other desk.
On the screen above, the map of Shin changed, indicating more icons like the ones we’d used for the giants. Each had a timer above them.
“Give us a moment,” my mom told them.
“Of course,” my dad said.
I saw the ‘mute’ button appear on the monitor on the desk.
“Brandish,” Narwhal called out.
“Miss Militia’s notes say Shin places a high emphasis on family.”
“They do. I saw it when I was there.”
“If you can have a pleasant conversation with your husband, and if you’re comfortable being open in front of this many people-”
“It wouldn’t be out of place for a businessman to break from business to tend to a child, or to call a wife about an errand. It would even make them appear stronger. It’s part of the reason Flashbang is on the call.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Only do it if you can keep it pleasant and positive.”
The mute button disappeared.
“I’ve missed you, Mark. You’ve missed things.”
Was my mom thinking about last night’s conversation? Sins of decades past?
“I can imagine,” my dad said. “Packed up and moved for the evacuation?”
“Our things are packed. I’m staying at our niece’s apartment, we’re packing. We saw my sister this morning.”
“Valkyrie. We had a very emotional conversation, reuniting. Crystal was there. Victoria too, but she had other reunions too.”
“I-I have missed things. What do I even say to that?”
“Wow,” I heard Amy say. “I didn’t think she’d finish that project.”
Was it just me, that felt like that line was so alien, intrusive, and out of place?
Vista turned in her chair, giving me a brief weirded-out look.
Thank you, Vista. You’re a gem. I appreciate you being freaked out by that more than I can tell you.
“Well, she did,” Carol said. “I’m sorry you both missed the reunion.”
“Was Mike there?”
“No, they weren’t able to get in touch. I would love to have you and him there for a future meeting. You’re doing good work there, Mark.”
Amy’s voice cut through, “How was she? Aunt Sarah.”
“As well as could be expected,” my mom said. “Considering her death and rebirth.”
“I wish I could check on her. On all of you.”
Fuck you, I thought.
“There’s no need,” my mother said.
“There’s some need, mom. You’re still not better. You left abruptly to look after Victoria. Victoria?”
I wanted to jump in, deliver a biting line about Hunter, asking if she’d healed her yet. I wanted to attack Amy, to tear her down, get past all of those layers of defenses, with the benefit of the fact that she couldn’t reach me here, and that I didn’t have to look at her. Shout at her, scream at her, point out her flaws in logic, put her on the defensive, and put my metaphorical boot through that defense.
“I’m here. What is it?” I asked.
“Is mom walking without difficulty? Is the head injury healed?”
“That’s a bit personal,” I said.
“Please? We’re being personal already, talking about reunions and rebirth.”
“She’s strong. You wouldn’t know something’s wrong unless you knew what to look for.”
I saw my mom smile slightly.
“No, Victoria. You said you’d help me. That means being honest,” Amy said, her voice touched by the stress.
Narwhal was working on stuff at the other desk, phone at her ear. I could look up from the screen that was tracking the ongoing call, and I could see the map below the image of the Gibborim Knight. More teams were being deployed, in addition to Chevalier’s.
“There’s a ways to go,” I conceded.
“Exactly, see? I know you have your war wounds, Victoria. I could have healed them on your last visit, if the circumstances had been different. Dad has his head injury. Uncle Mark, Eric, and Sarah all died-”
“I’d rather not talk about them,” Crystal spoke up.
“But listen. What if we don’t have to do that anymore? What if Lab Rat and I brew up the means to tackle the real emergencies and disasters? Villain warlords? Machine Armies? Out of control powers? Rifts in reality? We create something like this. Incredibly strong, durable, and ultimately victimless.”
And we weren’t talking about family anymore. Amy had twisted the conversation back to her agenda.
An aggrieved looking Narwhal patched back into the conversation, “We have zero guarantee that this would be victimless. This has complicated our situation with Dauntless and lives may be lost from that alone. You’re assuming a degree of control over these things that hasn’t been tested or proven, and if you lost control it would clearly be catastrophic. Both for Shin and for the Megalopolis.”
“I’m in control.”
“Even if we assumed one hundred percent-”
“I’ve been working on it with Marquis, and I did pick up some things from associating with Glaistig Uaine and growing up with superheroes.”
“Even if we assumed one hundred percent control, there are other risks. That someone could control you and control them through you.”
“Don’t those risks apply to Dragon? She has her A.I.”
“Dragon has oversight. Her partner, other Wardens. We know her well enough that we could handle such a situation.”
“Do you? I was told it was a bit of a revelation that she was an A.I.”
“Not to the higher-ups,” Narwhal said.
“I have oversight too, don’t worry. Family, a colleague, protectors, a small army of loyal parahumans who’ve defected to our parahuman-only state, and the rest of Shin. I’m protected. I know I’m protected, because I know I’m inconvenient enough to your power base that you’d want to remove me.”
She sounded high. I felt agitated, deeply uncomfortable, with that dark and paralyzing cloud of panic creeping in. I didn’t think drugs were involved, but…
I approached Narwhal, but she was talking.
“That’s not how we operate.”
“They know what they’re working with when they’re working with me. Someone who doesn’t buy into the superhero stuff, who knows from personal, visceral experience what kind of things can happen.”
I indicated I wanted to speak to Narwhal, and she used a forcefield to lift a pad of paper my way. An employee handed me a pen.
“We’re running out of time to act,” Narwhal said. “Something visceral will happen if you keep stalling. Is that what you want?”
“I’m not stalling, even in the slightest. I’m laying out my points and you haven’t really answered any of them.”
Fuck you, I thought.
My hand was shaking too much to clearly put pen to paper. I hadn’t realized I was that affected.
Fuck you too, pen.
With a jagged letter ‘S’ to start, I wrote:
She’s high. Not drugs
Riding a rush of optimism, feeling powerful, feeling needed
hopeful, & above all she is at the center of family
You can knock down any argument & any individual feeling but she will fall back on the rest. You won’t stop it without knocking down all at once, but this will lead to poss breakdown.
I hesitated before handing it to Narwhal. I turned, then handed it to Darnall, because he was a step closer to me than Jessica.
He and Jessica read it, and he whispered something into her ear. She nodded.
I felt somehow more nervous about that than I would about handing the pad as it was to Narwhal.
He held out his hand for the pen, wrote something down, and then handed me pad and pen both.
He’d added a line to the bottom.
This isn’t working – WyD
I handed it to Narwhal, who was talking. “…question of control is something you have to prove to us, not something we have to prove you lack. Especially with something this grave.”
“What proof were the Wardens supplying to Shin?”
“On the core Wardens team alone, our chief members alone, we have more than two hundred years between us, of reliable public service, years of showing respect to law and order, restraint, courage, and virtue.”
“And you trusted me.”
“With supervision,” Narwhal said, finally reading the note.
“You trusted me to supervise.”
“With supervision of your own, Red Queen,” Narwhal said. “You don’t have those same decades of public service, and you do have some glaring marks on your record.”
“You guys let the world end! How can you get more glaring than that!?” Amy raised her voice.
“You were there as well, and you played a complicating role there too, and I’m sorry, I need to step away. Something’s happening with the greater situation. Do you want to stay on the line or should I call?”
Narwhal motioned. A tech put the call on mute.
“Greater situation?” Cinereal asked, from the sidelines.
“I’m not technically lying. It is happening-” Narwhal indicated the map. “-but we’re getting bogged down.”
“We’re no closer to resolving this,” Cinereal said. “Chevalier is close enough to observe, his squads are in position, but we’re holding off until other squads arrive.”
“Antares provided me a note, suggesting another track. I know we’re definitely on the wrong one. Who or what is WyD?”
“Me,” Darnall said. “I can’t confirm because I don’t know Amy, but I can say this reminds me of a video I watched of a Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy patient. What Antares described to me seems apt.”
“Is this Munchausen’s?” Crystal asked.
“No. But there are parts of it I recognize. Victoria describes this as a ‘high’, if I can explain?”
“Go ahead,” I said.
“A rush of optimism, validation, hope, delusion, and a need to feel needed. MSBP patients will lie about someone being sick so they can be the savior. Here, we have a situation misrepresented, and she’s put herself forward as a savior. It validates her feelings. Victoria says that you can’t knock down one side of her argument, because the remainder will hold her up.”
“And if you do knock down one wall, by the time you get to the second or third, that first wall is back up, arguments conveniently forgotten,” I said. “I welcome Vista, Crystal, my mother, and the therapists arguing me down, here.”
“She didn’t use to be like this,” Crystal said.
“She totally did, but the stakes weren’t as high,” I told her. “The thought processes were like that. She was… stubborn’s the wrong word. Fluid. No backbone.”
“Let’s stay focused on the matter at hand,” Narwhal said.
“Two ways forward,” I said. “Break her, or manipulate her. I know that sounds awful, but… we’ve kind of tried being nice. If we could get her into custody and get her treatment, that would be best. Or… prison world and remote therapy. That’s not doable when she’s secured herself as the source of Shin’s power base.”
“To say you’ll break someone sounds horrifying,” Crystal admitted. “Especially someone we once saw as family.”
“Can you?” Cinereal asked.
“I think I could, if I had to,” I replied. “I think I got close, in the Shin prison, when she cornered me, but there was a very real risk she would use her power on me, then.”
God, it felt so fucking weak, saying that when I didn’t have the context, with all of these people listening and watching. I could smash through walls, I was invincible, I had my aura, but there had been context there. My teammates’ lives on the line, the hostages.
I desperately wanted someone to chime in, to point those things out, like my mom had chimed in for Vista.
But no, it just hung out there.
“‘Breaking’ someone like Amy could be disastrous,” Narwhal said.
“It might not mean breaking her down one hundred percent,” I replied. “It could mean shaking Shin’s faith in her.”
“I can see the merits,” Cinereal said.
“I can’t,” Narwhal retorted. “The risks are higher, especially when you’re having to make them concerned enough that it outweighs their concern about us, and the cultural fears and concerns that stem from Goddess.”
“But the long-term benefit is Shin realizes this is a stupid idea.”
“What about manipulation?” Narwhal asked.
“She has so much of what she wants, but she wants me, her sister, maybe more than all the rest of it.”
I caught Jessica’s expression changing as I said it. I looked away, and looked at my mom, and… that didn’t make things better.
What the hell was I doing here? Was it possible to feel like I was the only person who could handle this, and simultaneously I was the last person who should be here?
I swallowed. “Just by being a part of this conversation with her, I’m sticking my neck out a bit. But if it takes her mind off her current goals… I can distract her.”
Saying those words gave me a feeling like a sinking feeling, but in every direction, a quiet, crawling horror, and then I didn’t feel connected to the body or the voice that was positing that idea. I could imagine it being like what Darlene did, remotely in a body, managing thoughts, but not owning those actions, thoughts, or that body.
Every second I experienced it, it was worse, colder, more quietly horrifying.
“I would prefer distraction,” Narwhal told me.
“Okay,” I said, still feeling like I was a very here kind of far away. “I can do that.”
“Our goal is to divert the titan.”
“Delay?” I asked.
“We would accept delay.”
“Okay. Feel free to start us up again. I’ll jump in. If I’m unsure about something, I’ll give you a note.”
“You stop if I signal. You listen to any instructions I give you.”
“Got it,” I said.
“I’ll be in contact with Chevalier,” Cinereal said.
The screen colors changed as the ‘mute’ indicators disappeared.
“We’re back,” Narwhal said. “Any issues on your end?”
“None,” Amy said. “What happened?”
“We have less than ten minutes before Dauntless meets your Gibborim Knight. This is a fight that seems bound to happen, unless you pull back-”
“We can’t do that in good conscience,” Amy said. “And I’ll remind you, you were the ones saying I was trying to delay or buy time, but you took a good few minutes just now to handle your issue. Don’t say there’s a time limit like it bothers us. We’re confident in what we’re doing. You’re the ones fretting.”
“Shin is concerned about the threat the Machine Army poses. We have a decision to make about what the venue will be for that intersection of two powers. A critically sensitive quarantine zone or a city where any power use could be what sets off a multi-world disaster. We should consider the city.”
“No. The quarantine zone. I know the knight’s capabilities.”
“Do you know Dauntless’s?”
“More than you would think,” Amy said.
“Then reassure me.”
“I’ve used my power to study people representing key pieces of infrastructure among powers. I can understand powers fundamentally, by touching people close enough to powers. That’s how I can do this. With Lab Rat’s help to precipitate things, I can create vessels that take the person out of the power, and leave us with incredibly powerful tools.”
“I believe you,” I said.
Narwhal stepped back, giving me a look of barely restrained patience. I could tell she just wanted to convince Amy, and she’d keep trying if given the chance.
“I hope you believe me,” Amy said, with a huff of a sound that might have been a short laugh.
“You’ve touched it, I’ve walked it,” I said.
“I went there. Last night. To the place the powers come from. One of them, apparently. Breakthrough, Damsel of Distress, Tattletale.”
“What the hell are you doing, associating with Tattletale?”
“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “Focus, Amy.”
“I’ve wondered where you get some weird ideas in your head about me, and now I find out you’ve been associating with the queen of head-screws? It kind of really does matter.”
“Amy,” I said. “Believe it or not, I’m giving you the one damn thing you’ve been asking for. I’m kind of on your side. As of last night, I’ve been there, I’ve seen what you’ve seen, I’m pretty sure. Stop fighting me for five seconds and accept that fact.”
There was a silence on the other end.
“Assuming you’re telling the truth,” Amy said, more subdued now. “You guys are desperate. Is Tattletale there?”
“No,” I said.
“We’re getting sidetracked,” Narwhal said.
I leaned forward, hand on the desk. “Point is, Amy, she gave us some insights. You knew Swansong. You sort of know Damsel by proxy. You know Swansong was being paid for her insights into the powers and the place they come from. Damsel was there.”
“And now you’re going to tell me that I’m wrong, I don’t get it, you think you know more than me after… what, a day there? Half a day? Hours?”
“Amy. Stop. You asked for my help, I’m giving it. I can’t believe I’m doing it, but here we fucking are, so stop.”
The silence was tense. Had I pushed it with the ‘fucking’? I could see it being too informal, when this was technically a diplomatic meeting.
“Listen to your sister.”
My mom’s voice. I looked over at her.
“…What do you want from me?” Amy finally spoke, more subdued.
“Let’s talk about this one workable bit of common ground. Remember how I was super into studying powers?”
“Of course I do.”
“Still am. I’ve got a bookshelf filled with my collection of power texts, case files, notes…”
Narwhal motioned for me to hurry up.
“…and I studied a lot while I was in the hospital. After…” I trailed off.
“I know, yeah,” Amy said.
“So you know your thing. I know my thing. Explain. Let’s talk about your Chevalier.”
“Okay. Cryptid stole a scan of his DNA during one of the back-and-forths with the Wardens. I used that scan to make something close enough the power could reach back, leaving the floodgates to power open, Chris forced the connection and gave it a body that could handle the power, like a lot of the broken triggers can’t.”
“But why him? Why is he the one you’re sending?”
“Because he exists in multiple states at once, and the Machine Army, I’m told, does the same thing. They compress seeds of their material into dense matter and when they have something big and dense enough, even a boulder, they use them to house interdimensional pockets. The biggest machines and installments have those same pockets. If you nuke the area, that pocket leaks out, and before you know it, you’ve got an infestation again. He can get past that and do enough damage.”
“They have other tech. Other countermeasures. Is your knowledge of the Machine Army limited to what Dot told you? Your goblin?”
“No,” Amy said.
“Hello, Dot,” I said, my voice tense. “Are you looking after Amy like I asked you to?”
“Uh huh. Kinda.”
“I was briefed on the Machine Army in some depth,” Amy said. “They wanted to see if I could do something that would clear them away. I had to make pathogens that would stay long enough to capture the leak, or be able to get through it.”
Narwhal wrote something on a note.
“They said no to that,” I read.
“Yes, but that was then.”
“Good to know. Is he going to punch his way through it? Overturn every stone? This is a replicating robot threat that infects, recycles, and adapts.”
“He can. At least in a swathe around the portal. He can cut them back.”
“And if they infect him? We know they can operate interdimensionally. They can plant those seeds.”
“He can chew them up. It’s his domain and focus. It’s like saying they have blowtorches, so they’re a threat to a burning continent.”
“They have blowtorches, and they got those blowtorches scarily fast. It’s like saying those people who learned to make blowtorches with amazing speed might learn and adapt to that burning continent, given enough time.”
“I don’t intend to give them time.”
“You said a swathe around the portal. A secure area?”
“Yes, but that’s for now. I wanted to reassure you this was going to be quick and painless. In a matter of hours we’ll have other strong powers. Other clones. We have tools.”
“Amy, you’re fighting me again. Are we collaborating on this or not?”
“I’m not fighting you.”
“Are we collaborating? Come on, time’s getting shorter. Is there a world where you’re with Shin, I’m here in the city, and we work together to find a solution that makes both sides happy?”
I kept my voice level, but the look in my eyes was a steady glare, the feeling in my stomach a stew-pot of indignation and disgust, and my body still didn’t feel like it was my own, in the eerieness of the moment. Like a tiny, healthy part of me had fled or pulled back so it wouldn’t have to hear her voice, or hear mine putting words together like ‘collaborating’.
“We already ruled out compromise,” Luis said.
“We didn’t exactly,” Amy said. “If it comes down to compromise or Shin backing down, we won’t-”
The call cut off. Muting.
I drew in a deep breath. My fingernail-less finger dug into the soft part of my thumb, like I could stab it.
I didn’t look at the others present, the entirety of my focus on this.
“Mark?” My mom asked. “Is this doable?”
There was only silence. Their side was still muted.
I looked up at the map. Four minutes until interception. Until Dauntless met Chevalier.
The Chevalier had paused at a stockpile of construction materials, gathering more things. A weapon, a shield, armor for the chest, armor for the face. The interception time didn’t change much as a consequence of his stalling. He was wholly focused on his mission.
I was wholly focused on mine.
“Mark,” my mom said. “Can our girls do this?”
Ah. That was why she’d spoken up. She’d wanted to get in that ‘our girls’ bit.
My skin felt uncomfortable against the meat of me beneath. I felt betrayed, even though I knew exactly why she was doing what she was doing.
“We can,” Amy’s voice came through. “Shin won’t back down on this. We won’t trust you to handle everyone’s crises, and the Machine Army is a big enough threat that it counts as everyone’s problem. We want our Chevalier out there.”
“Where is the collaboration in that?” I asked.
“Our forces standing next to your forces. I manage the Shin Defense Initiative, you handle your side. Ongoing relationship.”
“I don’t see the relationship there. That sounds like you doing what you want and expecting me to go along,” I said.
“You’d be free to do whatever you wanted. I’m not trying to control you.”
I saw Darnall move in the corner of my vision. He was staring at me.
I wracked my brain, thinking about options. The pieces in play.
“I preferred talking about powers,” I said.
“You would,” Amy said, like she was familiar with me, and we were having a casual conversation.
“Nah,” I said, and it was really hard not to inject a terminal amount of venom into the negation. “This is about you. You were never that into the boots-on-the-ground cape stuff. You never imagined yourself as team leader of a cape team.”
“No, I never did. But I kind of stumbled into something way bigger,” she said.
“But you don’t enjoy it, you don’t go straight to the capes and how you can use them. You’re more introspective.”
“Sure,” she answered. “Yeah. So? It’s not possible, we can’t possibly lead our individual sides?”
Her voice got more bitter toward the tail end.
“I don’t think it’s possible, for a lot of reasons,” I told her. “But I think there are other possibilities.”
Knock down a wall… erect another.
Narwhal was looking impatient.
“What possibility?” Amy asked.
“Problem solving. Inventing solutions. Putting our heads together.”
The silence was always telling. Like Amy was digesting, processing, and testing a possibility against every damn possible contradiction she could come up with. Did it challenge anything essential? Did it threaten a fragile worldview she was holding up? Was it a trap?
“…Sure. What are you thinking?”
I looked up at the screens.
The ‘Gibborim Knight’. The Nursery-Agent. The Dauntless. Two more. Many more pending.
Two of those were immediate concerns.
And the timer was ticking down. Interception imminent.
“Don’t send the Gibborim Knight.”
“Victoria, that’s not-”
“Fucking listen to me, you miserable, deluded little monster!” I snarled, with the venom I’d been suppressing. A hostility that seemed to surprise more than a few people present. “Fucking listen for five seconds before you reject an idea, or I swear-”
Narwhal put a hand to my shoulder, holding me back.
My volume dropped, the venom scaling back. “The stakes are too high. You either stop, slow down, and listen, or that’s it. Last effort you’ll ever get from me. I’m offering you a solution.”
“Ultimatums are manipulative,” Marquis’s voice came through.
I could have killed him, if he were actually present.
“Fucking right they are. If anyone but you speaks, Amy, or if you give me a refusal instead of a hearing out, that’s it. I’m walking out of this room, and I’ll drop something massive on you from a place so high up you can’t even see me before I even run allow myself the chance of reaching out to you again. Decide.”
I had probably alienated so many people with the outburst. Hurt my standing with good capes.
I had tears in my eyes and I hated it. I gave so much of myself to reach out, for the sake of others, and even for her, to extend her small graces and benefits of doubt, and she didn’t even give me a spare thought. It wasn’t that she didn’t reach back. It was that she didn’t even think to.
“Okay,” she said.
“The Nursery creation. It produces lifeforms?”
“Out of imperfect meat? Like most power-created life?”
“…It does. Yes.”
“It spawns things that produce the aura, area-altering effect?”
She hesitated before each statement. Being careful, holding herself back.
“Can it produce life that doesn’t have that interdimensional effect?”
“The spawn it makes can.”
“Then can you have it send a stream of its minions to the quarantine site? Have them file in, dig things up, push things around, and fight the machines. It should be single file, past the danger area where an ongoing fight would disrupt quarantine.”
“But that’s not me being unwilling. It’s the control over the lesser minions I’m worried about. I-”
I glared at the screen.
“-I could go. I’ll give individual instructions to each spawned giant we’re sending to the quarantine zone, until we have enough there or we find another option.”
“Does that postpone the creation of the other SDI soldiers?” I could hear a Shin-accented voice. Luis’s colleague.
“Probably, but we’re ahead of schedule,” Amy said.
I looked at Narwhal. She didn’t look happy, but she was nodding a bit.
Delays, at least, were a bit of sugar, making an imperfect compromise a bit easier to swallow.
“…The other problem is that they’re strong, but they’ll lose eventually,” Amy said. “How is this any better?”
“Power produced materials don’t make good building materials or supplies. It was part of what slowed down the city rebuild. Why we couldn’t feed the masses with power-generated flesh. If the Machine Army tries to make or fuel anything with the meat, then that will degrade or suffer for it. It poisons their well. Keep your Gibborim Knight and Nursery away. If Dauntless is pursuing them, pull them back, bait him out of the city. You get your presence at the quarantine zone, Shin gets to be needed, we get both of the immediate threats resolved.”
“No,” Luis cut in.
I turned away from the screen. Ready to leave. The only reason I didn’t was that I met Jessica’s eyes.
“Yes!” Amy called out. “Yes. Pulling back the Gibborim Knight now. I’ll send the Mother of Mothers’ minions in shortly.”
I could hear the exchange of words. Luis was pissed.
“We’ll work it out,” Mark said. The call cut off. I could believe he was the one to do it, seizing the moment.
Maybe he’d pay for it. For shutting off the call, making things harder, not playing along like a little kind-of prisoner of Shin.
Nobody really commented, except for an exchange of words murmured between Cinereal and Narwhal. People focused on their work. Only Crystal, Vista, and my mom glanced at me. My mom was the only one who held that eye contact for more than a second or two.
The timer sat at two minutes, twelve seconds, and it began to increase. Not increasing as fast as it ticked down, but the time stretched out. Someone input something, and the clock updated. Seven more minutes remaining.
The Chevalier cloned agent was retreating.
“We have to direct it,” Narwhal said. “Send it out of the city and away from any refugee settlements. Get in touch with Shin ASAP.”
“Was that okay?” I asked, quiet, not taking my eyes off the screen. “I know it’s not how you would’ve wanted to do it, but-”
“It was,” Narwhal said. “We weren’t getting through. You did. We’ll take that for what it is.”
“You could really use my team on this,” I said, still quiet, subdued, like I was a lesser person in the aftermath of it all, despite my best efforts. “Holding them back doesn’t make sense. Lookout can keep an eye on Shin, and we really need one. Precipice has gotten past Mathers twice and he was the one who got her. Mathers is, I’m guessing, why the precogs aren’t on this.”
“Her and the Goddess clone. We can talk about that shortly. It may be best to stick to the schedule for the review by Warden Leadership. It’s slow but less complicated, and we could do with less complicated,” Narwhal said.
She turned back to the screen, but the hand she’d laid on my shoulder earlier was still there, shifting to a resting one as she turned in a quarter-circle, more reassuring.
It remained there for a few seconds, before someone needed her to take a tablet with some team information on it.
“Excuse me,” I said, feeling hollowed out. “I need a breath of fresh air.”
My mom wasn’t fast enough out of her seat, and I motioned for her to stay down. Crystal didn’t follow. Vista had her duties.
Darnall and Jessica intercepted me, like the Dauntless Titan and accompanying Simurgh seemed intent on intercepting the Chevalier.
A matter of seconds, for them to intercept me. A matter of seven minutes, for the titan to meet the giant.
They met me out in the hall. All of us were dead silent, as we walked past Golem and Cuff. Past two members of the flock.
“I probably just validated every fear you’ve had about the Victoria from Teacher’s doctored diary,” I said.
Jessica didn’t answer.
“Do you need anything?” Darnall asked.
I shook my head.
“Can I call someone?”
“Half the people you could call are in that room and saw that. The other half I’m not allowed to talk to,” I said, bitter. And I could understand why I wasn’t allowed to talk to them, but fuck.
And I didn’t like Darnall. I respected him, but I didn’t like him.
And I couldn’t look at Jessica without imagining her strangling her patient.
“How are you?” Darnall asked. “Would you rather Jessica step away, we can have a chat?”
I shook my head.
I wanted the opposite, despite those intrusive thoughts about the strangling.
“I don’t know what else I could have or should have done,” I said. “I’m legitimately scared, because I gave her implicit permission to approach, to get closer to me. I feel gross and hollow and shitty, and I can’t- can’t take the feelings and tie strings to them and connect them to the origins. Except I know I hate her. So much. I hate that she makes me feel like this. I hate that she won’t go away. I hate that I want to get far away from being the Victoria who took satisfaction and relief from beating up Nazis and at the same time all I want right now is to fly away, ignore the restrictions on power use, and do what I said earlier about dropping something on Amy, while she’s processing those giants for the quarantine zone. I hate it. I hate that I’m walking away feeling like this might not have been worth it, because I can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t the thing that breaks the city and sets everything off.”
“I should step away,” Jessica said. “This is more for Darnall than for me.”
“I’m okay with sharing it with you.”
“I know, but I’m not your therapist, and I can’t be a support in this moment.”
“Because of Riley Davis?” I asked, angry. “Bonesaw?”
I saw the emotions, like so many of the ones I’d just tried to explain in a ramble. No hate, no anger, but sadness and shame. Feelings so weighty and consuming that she could have ego-crushing feelings about those feelings.
It was a horrible moment, my own stomach wrenching with a regret that I’d said it like that, for those reasons. Time seemed to crawl.
And in the midst of that slow, horrible moment, people started moving. Like a starter pistol had gone off, but no pistol. Voices getting louder, people running. Doors opening fast enough they banged against the wall.
I pulled away, heading back to the others. To a point in the hallway that I could see through the situation room door, as people rushed out and squeezed in.
The timer was still ticking down. Four minutes on the clock.
But Dauntless was attacking, striking out with his lance from miles away, to carve out chunks of the Chevalier, sending him crashing into a building. The Chevalier got to his feet and continued to retreat.