This is going to be a juggling act.
At Shin Station, Capricorn, Sveta, and Rain were part of a greater assembly of heroes, forming the group at the station entrance and the loose perimeter around the Mother Giant.
The Shepherds who’d been stationed at the entrance had backed off, as a crowd of capes emerged. Half-and-half. Half had clothing in the Shin style, with masks and draping cloth. Capes, like more old fashioned capes had worn on Bet, but with more emphasis. Layered with one cape atop another with a slightly different cut, so the edge of the one beneath framed the one above. Stylized drapings of cloth made to evoke images, or made so overwhelming that the cape was ninety percent of the costume. There were patterns recurring across the costumes that looked like Shin’s equivalent of tartan, argyle, or houndstooth, but more complex.
The other half were ours. Our most problematic. Coalbelcher, Gambol, Crock o’ Shit, La Llorona. More.
Coronzon, Seir, Ahrima, Bamet. Fallen, arrested during the raid of their compound. Taken to the prison. Broken out by Lab Rat and the Red Queen. A couple of the capes in their periphery looked like they might have been at the Fallen raid. Allies of the Crowleys, bikers and drug dealers, roped in, arrested.
Amy joined the group from Shin. Giants walked with her, kneeling on either side of the group. She stood with one hand on a giant, doing her work, as others gathered off to the side.
In a way it was good that I’d tied her hands. Good that we’d pit her against a threat that essentially never stopped coming, and forced her into supplying a constant stream of soldiers to wage war against it. It limited what else she could do.
Coronzon approached Amy, bending down to say something in her ear.
“It looks like she cured his cancer.” Rain murmured.
Coronzon would be the senior member of the Fallen group when Mathers was captured. From what little I’d seen of him earlier, he’d been someone who was very like Mama Mathers in how he’d moved. She had been so thin and malnourished that she’d looked like she would creak when she moved, a wisp of a person who came across as old when she definitely wasn’t. Coronzon, as Rain had suggested, had had cancer, and had been ill enough he’d hobbled.
He didn’t hobble now. He moved like a young man. He wore a shawl of animal hides that had been bleached as white as hides could get, over white robes that had stains around the ankles. A hood covered his head, and a thin black mass bubbled and twisted in the expanse beneath that hood, casting his face in permanent but inconsistent shadow that made it look like his skin was boiling. It didn’t follow his face perfectly, and at times he moved his head or glanced over at the heroes, I saw someone with sharp features and a sharper glare.
CAN’T LISTEN IN. SORRY
“It’s okay, Kenz,” Sveta murmured.
“Do we have a problem?” Moonsong called out to the Shin capes.
Coronzon kept talking, his voice low and impossible to make out. Amy listened, not responding.
“What are you even doing, Amy?” Sveta called out. “What is Shin doing? They’re playing games with you, and you’re playing games with everything.”
“Can you give a message to Sveta for me?” I asked.
“Depends on the message,” Eric said, without looking up from his screen.
“Tell her to tone it down? If Amy listens, she’s going to be on the defensive.”
“Is this a continuation of your plan to manipulate your sister?”
“It’s a continuation of my plan to not have the Red Queen flip out and hurt people.”
“Amy!” Sveta’s voice had that digital edge to it, filtered through long distance and a microphone, with no benefit from Kenzie’s attention because Kenzie wasn’t good at sound. “Victoria’s going to be disappointed.”
“Victoria’s always disappointed!” Amy snapped back, turning. “I’m a deluded little monster, according to her. According to half of you, apparently.”
“More than half,” Sveta said. “Speaking as someone who spent far too long being an actual monster-?”
I could see Egg shift position, where he stood a little distance away from Sveta.
“-It doesn’t have to be the single thing that defines you.”
“It apparently does, but I’m not doing the defining!” Amy replied. “She is. They are.”
“Let me talk to Sveta,” I said, again. “Or take my message, pass it on to her. Just tell Sveta ‘Victoria says to relax’. That’s all.”
I typed: Tell Sveta to relax?
“Amy-” Sveta started. She stopped.
A pause. Sveta took in a deep breath.
“I could tell you to call me the Red Queen. I don’t think it would be unfair to ask, either,” Amy said. “Especially when people can’t stop saying my name with such negative emotion tied to it.”
“Amy,” Sveta said, less negative. “Why would Shin trust you and Cryptid with something this big? Objectively, would you trust yourself?”
I saw the momentary hesitation on Amy’s part. She answered, “If I had to. If you have no other options, sometimes you have to force yourself to trust. I don’t think Shin thinks they have many options.”
Chilling fucking words from someone who had one primary goal -me-, and who felt backed into a corner by her own actions.
“It doesn’t feel like they explored a lot of the alternative options,” Moonsong said. “Cooperation, treaties, deals. We were doing well before, and we jumped straight to this.”
“We could debate that forever,” Amy said. She brought a hand with a fingerless glove on to her hair, pushing it out of her face. “They think all parahumans are fucked up, rotten, dangerous. I don’t think they’re completely wrong to think it. If you have a few thousand rotten eggs scattered around, I think the adage about putting all of your eggs into one basket deserves to change. At least then you can hope to manage it, instead about worrying about every step you take.”
That’s a great fucking metaphor, Amy, I thought. If you have a few thousand rotten eggs, the only basket anyone rational is going to put them in is the waste basket. You’re calling yourself a trash can. Not to mention the ‘basket case’ interpretation.
Coronzon leaned in close to say something in Amy’s ear again. Amy turned to Coalbelcher, said something, and the heavyset man with sandpaper stubble on his chin, black smears on his face serving to create a skull mask, and greasy black hair turned to go back.
“I’ve got to go.”
“Red Queen,” Moonsong called out. She had a good, projected voice. “We have more to discuss.”
“I’ll be back,” Amy said, letting go of the giant she’d been working on and walking away. “Be good. If they do anything, my soldiers have permission to defend Shin.”
Moonsong was silent, but I could see her fuming. She’d been ignored, and she was an experienced enough heroine to know that posturing and position were critical for capes. It was something my mom had hammered in many times. Posturing, position, and power. None of those things could exist in isolation of the others.
Continuing to speak into a void or shout after Amy would hurt her reputation because it would have meant begging for a response. Fucking stupid, when it was Amy being the bitch, here.
Call yourself Queen enough and you’ll start to act like one. Keeping in mind that enough queens in history had been sufficiently monstrous or problematic to get the guillotine.
Amy’s absence had cut off the procession line. Leaving a small army of capes she was supposed to be keeping under control behind.
The heroes frozen by the implied threat of a fight, because Amy had left orders to protect Shin, and any action could be taken as aggression.
Fucking fuck, Amy. What are you doing?
“Every time you get in touch with me, my life gets a hundred times more complicated.”
The voice in my ear was Tattletale’s.
Tense, not happy with how the situation had been left, with the Shin capes and the heroes in a standoff that was complicated by the continued production of giants. I rotated through the individual video feeds on the laptop. No Tattletale feed, but the kids were in the same building.
I went to my notes, typing up details on the Fallen, and in the midst of it, typed and deleted a message for Tattletale, hoping Kenzie or her system would catch it.
Coronzon, retreats into a portal, stews, emerges as a monster. White hides and cowl, boiling black blur for mask.
Ahrima, grants danger sense and hyperawareness to others. If she’s protecting Amy, can’t drop something on Amy from a great height. Single eyeball mask, wing motif.
Seir, blasts out shadowy duplicates. Can exchange location with any of them. Horse head, hides, robes.
Bamet, gives humans animal features and vice versa. Permanent. Not touch based as originally assumed. Three-faced mask, animal, human, and hybrid.
Hey Tattletale. Considering what the Undersiders pulled in Brockton Bay Original, that sounds just. Karma coming around.
“If it weren’t for us, the city would have been condemned.”
And controlling businesses, influencing the local heroes, and managing all organized crime in the city are your reward for that hard work.
“Yep,” Tattletale said.
Apparently a cosmic power that gave her incredible insights didn’t help her grasp my sarcasm. Or she was just acting like it didn’t to annoy me. Probably the second.
She said, “Your tinker is about to start making her thing to jab in my eye. Until then I’m at my computer in the kichen, watching the same feeds you are, making coffee.”
Shin capes at the Station?
I don’t know how far this goes. How far until she breaks or something goes tits up.
“Wish I could tell you. I’m working with limited information here. Going to pull my team together, situate your kid to get all the information possible, and I’ll use that information to put together a better picture. Good?”
I don’t know if it’s good. I’m worried this isn’t it. That this latest Panacea fuckup is going to distract us from whatever the real problem is. Kenzie said you felt the same way.
“Yeah,” Tattletale said. I could hear her sigh. She fell silent. I could see from Candy’s point of view that Darlene had passed through the kitchen, where Tattletale stood by the counter, laptop perched there, her attention on the coffee machine.
Not wanting to talk if she could get caught talking to me. I could appreciate that she had a good sense about that stuff.
“Let me get the eye thing, and we’ll see what we can do as a collaborative thing,” Tattletale said.
Armstrong had risen from his seat. Another guy had joined Larue and Eric, leaning over the table.
The tone of the room had changed. I’d been so sucked into that video feed in front of me and the space around and behind me where people might be looking over my shoulders that I hadn’t noticed.
Citrine. Mayor Jeanne Wynn, with two people in her company, presumably Wardens.
I watched through Kenzie’s feed as she passed through the kitchen again, carting stuff this way and that. Checking a box.
Tattletale spoke, “Your kid says Citrine just showed.”
Kenzie was altering the video and sound feeds. What I was seeing of her milling around was what others were seeing. But she was telling Tattletale stuff and getting her up to speed, presumably.
I’d have been a bit spooked if it wasn’t so useful.
Citrine took the seat at the end of the table that faced the screens.
“Do you need anything?” Armstrong asked.
“No,” Jeanne told him. She was pale enough to look really washed out, all dressed in black. Her hair was styled and perfect, her makeup done up nicely. It made me think of my mom’s efforts, in a way. But where my mom kept her hair short for strictly utilitarian reasons, Jeanne had hers long. My mom was a blade that she kept sharpened. Jeanne was… elegant. Regal, even in mourning. “I want to make sure my city’s okay, Kamil.”
I wondered if she actually cared. It was hard to picture, when she was as emotionally reserved as she was.
“Hey, your kid has a tummyache, F.Y.I. You know why, right?”
The sudden comment from Tattletale made my head spin for a second. Too much of a change from where we were.
I know. She and I talked about it this morning.
“Just making sure. You have to warn people. Case in point, check your feed. Look at what your kid is doing.”
I’d been keeping an eye on the situation. Rain was giving a rundown on the Fallen to the local capes, talking quiet while the standoff persisted between the two groups. Three groups, almost. The Shin capes didn’t mingle with the prison capes and Amy.
I switched, getting an uncomfortably close view of Chicken Little’s face. He leaned back and she leaned in. She was talking, “-and get your bird cameras going, for more targeted strikes. And there’s the topological stuff, in case the topology topples, and this city thing happens-”
I typed out a message to her as she went on. She didn’t seem to get it.
I looked up and over at Eric. “Can I call Kenzie? Strictly non-cape stuff.”
“You’d need to outline what you want from us.”
“Stopping a fight from breaking out between kids. Possibly a serious one.”
“Again, tell us what you want to communicate, and we’ll review it quickly.”
I clenched my fist. “I-”
“Red light, Lookout,” Tattletale barked, on the microphone. It was something that would be picked up by anyone watching any of the kids. I was safe to stop and listen.
“Huh?” Kenzie twisted around.
“Means freeze. Stop. Freeze.”
“Oh.” Kenzie stopped. Chicken Little backed off, and from the view of the other kids, I could see Kenzie deflate a bit. “Why?”
“Proxemics,” Tattletale said. “Personal space.”
“Tattletale’s got it,” I muttered.
“Good,” Eric said, sounding happy.
“I know what proxemics are. Is,” Kenzie replied, sounding as annoyed as I’d heard her.
“You’re bad at it. For right now, don’t get in so close to your buddies. Don’t get any closer than you’d need to to reach out and put your hand on their shoulder.”
“Was I making you uncomfortable?” Kenzie asked, looking at Chicken.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Kenzie said.
The scene put her in the middle of the room, Chicken having retreated about three paces toward his room with all the now-empty birdcages. Darlene was near her room, and Candy sat on the back of a chair, feet on the seat, back to the wall, leaning forward. It was almost like Kenzie was surrounded.
I wouldn’t have wanted to handle it that way. Making such a point of it.
Especially not after the whole thing last night, when the Heartbroken had turned on her. She looked visibly anxious.
“You do that sometimes,” Chicken Little said.
“I’m not mad or upset,” Chicken Little said, insistent, like he was already expecting or seeing resistance that didn’t come across on the camera. Maybe it was how fast the apology had come after his statement. I could almost relate, thinking to my dealings with Amy.
I really didn’t want to connect Kenzie and Amy in my head.
“Sorry,” Kenzie said, still a bit defensive.
Difference is that Amy doesn’t say sorry. I’m not even convinced she feels sorry.
They’re both really bad at listening or noticing cues when it’s stuff they don’t want to hear, though.
“I’m just trying to explain so we can be better friends in the future,” Chicken Little went on. “You get into whatever you’re talking about and the conversation becomes one-sided, and it gets really hard to get a word in, especially if I’m trying to say step back a bit or stuff.”
I typed out more words. Take five. Or ask for a short break.
Kenzie didn’t react.
“Can I call in?” I asked. “Talk to her?”
“If you tell us in advance what you’re going to-”
I interrupted, “I want to reassure her, distract her, refocus her. She’s a kid who had a surprise bad night after a bad evening and I want to ensure today goes more smoothly. I want her to take a break.”
“Can you fill us in on what happened yesterday? I don’t think that’s in the notes.”
“Do I need to submit a damn form? What, in triplicate?” I asked. “I want to help a kid by calling for a short conversation. Nothing to do with Warden concerns.”
“Everything’s to do with Warden concerns.”
Armstrong looked concerned as he walked back over to where his chair and laptop were. Citrine was unmoving at the head of the table, elbows on the white surface, hands clasped together and pressed to her mouth. Or around it. I wouldn’t be mushing up my hands to my mouth if I’d paid as much attention to lipstick as Citrine had.
No fucking allies. Fucking idiots, all of them.
That stab of loneliness. The frustration.
“Eric, seriously, is this a power trip? Because I think you’re assuming responsibilities and guardianship that, as far as I can tell, weren’t officially passed on or handed down.”
“I am assuming those responsibilities. But I have to,” Eric said. “It’s either that or you leave this room.”
“Believe it or not, Victoria, the world doesn’t revolve around you. The Wardens are busy. They took the time to review your situation, they made their call. I got what you got, and that’s all we get until they have a spare few minutes to give us more. The difference between us is I have Cinereal’s trust. I’ve worked with her for a little while now, she likes me because when I make assumptions I make the right ones. I know how she thinks. I’m making a judgment call that these continued restrictions are what she would want, and that she’d want to vet any statements you make, with all necessary context, before letting you unduly influence your team.”
I looked over at Armstrong. “This doesn’t feel right.”
“Maybe not,” the man replied. “Chevalier will report in by phone in about fifteen minutes. Some of the others will be calling in too, including Miss Militia, who you know. Can you hold on until then? If you want to appeal, you can do it then. I’ll pull strings to ensure you get the chance.”
“I’m worried this ends up an actual bloodbath before then.”
“It’s kids,” Eric said.
I pressed my fist against my forehead, face turning up toward the ceiling, taking in a deep breath. “Lookout is powerful, yes? It’s in the records, she’s proven herself to be capable. But you don’t get kid capes without trigger events and trauma. She’s been through a lot, and so have those other kids. They’re parahuman kids. Some are Heartbreaker’s.”
“The older ones or the young ones?” Citrine asked.
I turned, feeling a glimmer of hope. “Young, but not the youngest.”
“They’re little nightmares.”
“They’re great, except when situations like this come in, and someone needs to step in and steer them.”
“Yes,” Eric said. “You trusted her to Tattletale’s company, so… trust Tattletale to be that someone. Stay put, no call. Those are my instructions.”
“And I’m following these instructions on your say so?” I asked, bristling.
“Pretty much!” Eric retorted. “You aren’t winning me over here with this attitude.”
“Is that possible?” I sat up straight, hands on the desk. “To win you over?”
“I mean, it helps to try.”
“Helps what?” I asked him.
“If I have to make situational calls, and you’re being unreasonable or emotional, I might make different calls. Listen, if you happen to be right, you can make your case to Cinereal and the other Wardens, and I’ll get hell for it.”
“I don’t care about your hell, or your status in the Wardens, or anything like that. I want the world to end up okay, I want my team to end up okay. Last night, the Heartbroken- two of those kids there are Heartbreaker’s, as you probably know-”
“-They mobbed Lookout and she only barely got out okay. Now there’s another mob, and Lookout is tired, off-balance, and spooked. They’re-”
“-on camera,” Kenzie’s voice had an edge to it. Enough of an edge that it interrupted me.
Chicken Little had been doing most of the talking in the background, and now he fell silent. The conversation had been heated, with underlying emotion, and probably a few things left unsaid.
Which seemed to be an ongoing problem, because this wasn’t the first time Chicken Little had tried to air his grievances or curb Kenzie’s problematic tendencies. But each time this stuff did come up, the context of the situation meant it couldn’t be a debate.
That wasn’t even the biggest concern. Bloodbath. Darlene was conspicuously still and quiet through all of this, and it was her defense of Chicken Little and her very obvious attachment to him that spurred on her worst behavior. No jabs, no comments, no tear-downs, no ‘don’t hurt the chicken’ lines. She did nothing and that made me worry.
“I think you’ve said what you need to say, Chicken,” Tattletale said. “She’s right. This isn’t the time or place.”
“We’re on candid camera,” Kenzie said. She smiled. “Eye thing, remember? I told you it’d be on and stay on.”
Chicken Little touched his chicken mask.
“It’s easy to forget,” Candy said, from the sidelines.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to gripe with people watching,” Chicken Little said.
He was a calm little guy. I could imagine myself being a lot more frustrated at the circumstance.
“No,” Kenzie smiled back. “We’re ok, right?”
“We’re okay. We’re teammates. Nothing changes that,” Chicken Little said.
“Good, let’s refocus for now,” Tattletale said. “Lookout, go to your workshop, get what you need, build what you need. Everyone else, pack. I’m going to make something to eat, depending on what’s in the fridge.”
“I’ve got ten different kinds of egg, probably,” Chicken Little said.
“Throw those out so they don’t go bad, in case we come back here. Or store them to bring them with us if you really think you can eat them,” Tattletale told him. “But pack. No procrastinating.”
Chicken Little groaned.
“Speaking of procrastinating, there’s a blanket in the medical room,” Candy said. “Cold hands are awful to tinker with. Let’s bundle you up.”
“The heat should kick in soon,” Tattletale said. “I’ll remind you lot, the operative part of the word refocus is focus.”
“‘Soon’ isn’t now. I’ll get the blanket anyway.”
“Thank you,” Kenzie said. “I’m going to go get some water, then I’ll get to work.”
“It’s like herding cats,” Tattletale said, as the two kids ran off.
I had to switch to Darlene’s point of view to keep my eye on Tattletale, with a brief cycle through points of view to make sure Rain and the others were okay.
Standoff was in progress. A bit of adjustment, because the size of the mob of giants had increased, forcing the heroes to move off to the side. Some other stuff, some ongoing conversations, but it looked quiet, tense. I was more concerned on ensuring Kenzie was handled.
Tattletale was talking, as I cycled back to her. “-very hard?”
“I’m trying to be good,” Darlene said, quiet. “Sitting on my hands, keeping my mouth shut.”
“It’s working. In another circumstance, I could see you getting heated.”
Darlene fidgeted. “She’s in a weird mood. Lookout.”
“You’re not wrong, kiddo. Do me a favor, you know where the medical boxes are. Spare me having to use my power to find them and dig up some ibuprofen, then help me make… grilled cheese and tomato soup? Hot chocolate and cookies a bit after?”
Darlene nodded, smiling. She got up out of her chair. “You used your power to work out what’s in our pantry.”
“Mm hmm. Come on. Extra cookie for you, for not stabbing Lookout with a pen. And you’re not grounded anymore.”
“Knife,” Darlene said. “I try to always keep a knife now.”
“I would have shot you if it came to that.”
“You would have tried.”
Tattletale put her hand on the back of Darlene’s head or her shoulder, guiding her.
I looked across the table at Eric. He hadn’t reacted in the slightest, which made me think he wasn’t watching the video feed of Darlene’s perspective.
Tattletale guided the kid into the tiny kitchen that was in one corner of the hideout.
Darlene’s point of view was the best view I had of Tattletale. Snuff re-entered the building, leaning into the doorway. Candy stopped in her tracks.
“Tats! It’s Snuff!” Candy said.
“Undersiders are coming,” Snuff said. “Tell her. I’ll leave you alone.”
“I heard!” Tattletale called out. “Thanks Snuff.”
Snuff went back outside. I watched through Darlene’s viewpoint as Candy, hugging a folded blanket to her chest, found her equilibrium, taking a few seconds before resuming movement, throwing the blanket over top of Kenzie, who was in her computer chair.
“Who’s coming? Imp?” Darlene asked.
“Yep. Aunt Rachel. Foil, Parian. Remember to use their cape names, since the cameras are on.”
Darlene nodded, the ‘camera’ bobbing.
Tattletale pressed her phone to her ear. “Ibuprofen. You know where it is?”
“I know where to look.”
Darlene went to the same room Candy was collecting blankets from.
Tattletale’s voice came through the mic, presumably for me alone. “Hot chocolate, extra cookies, and whatever treats Imp brings for your kid? It won’t make her unbearable or messy?”
She’d be holding the phone to her ear while talking to me, so it wouldn’t be too suspicious.
I typed: The messiness comes from social stuff, not really sugar. She’d appreciate the extra care.
“Alright. Anything to watch for? I’m conserving some strength for what’s to come.”
I typed my reply: She hit a life milestone and she’s probably missing the fact she doesn’t have a mom or dad to give her that extra bit of care. When Undersiders arrive, she’ll be the odd one out.
Fuck, this was hard. Juggling, remembering who was aware of what. Of Course Kenzie was seeing my interactions with Tattletale.
I typed: We’re all coming at this from a place of caring. Tats wants to help.
I MEAN C.LITTLE TELLING ME I DO ALL THESE THINGS
I DIDN’T KNOW!!!
I STAND TOO CLOSE AND I LOSE MY BREATH AND I THOUGHT EVERYTHING WAS GOING SUPER WELL AND IT ISN’T!
IT NEVER IS HAHA
AND EVERYONE WATCHING. I SEE THE FACES ON WEBCAMS AND SECURITY CAMS AND AUDIENCE FEEDBACK SYSTEMS TELL ME HOW MANY ARE VIEWING AND ITS A LOTTTTT
UG! HAHA XD
I replied: I’m sorry. Your team wants to take care of you so let them, ok? Candy’s bringing a blanket and Tats is getting treats for after lunch. I’ll be here as much as I can.
Take twenty seconds, take stock. What do you need? Breath of fresh air? To sink into your work? A friend? If you don’t want to type to me, you can talk to Candy, I think.
MAKING SURE THE OTHERS ARE SAFE
With that, with renewed focus and motivation, Kenzie got to work.
I typed: The fucking bureaucracy of this place. I want to chase leads and look into other possibilities, but it’s a mess.
“Prioritize my eye thing, Kenz?” Tattletale called out.
Tattletale added, in a quieter voice, “Because what I really need for this headache is information overload.”
She took the pills from Darlene, cracking open the bottle.
A good minute or two passed, as people got settled. I switched back to the heroes and Shin parahumans. Amy was back, her hand on a giant, and so was a monster.
My first take was that it was another empowered giant like the Chevalier or Nursery, but I could see the collar it wore. The same as what Chris had worn when pursuing us in our little prison escape. It was Lab Rat fresh from his lab, and he now loomed in the gate’s entrance. He wasn’t as tall as the giants, but there was more mass to him. He was rotund, belly expanded to the point his legs weren’t visible above the knee, his arms past the elbow. Smaller arms lined his sides, stumpy like a maggot’s limbs. Hairless, with dulled features. A porcine lump of a nose that seemed to extend from the brow rather than any bridge of the nose. Wide eye sockets rimmed with ridges of red and black, like the orbs had been set into wounds carved in loops and circles until there was enough of an indent for the eyes to rest in. A hole for a mouth that seemed unable to completely close.
All of him was covered in what looked like papercuts or other lacerations. Some were fine, pink against the ghoulish white flesh. Others were crimson, jagged, like someone had hacked at him with a chainsaw. Black masses that could have been branches or wire stuck out of the wounds. In places, the branching wires were stuffed into the wounds and pried those wounds wide in their efforts to straighten back out. When he shifted his weight, his mass shifted, wobbling like a waterbed, and the sheer mass of black wires poking and prying at his insides and around the gashes became evident. Of all of them, only one at his side poked through, causing skin to break, then split from the pull of the flesh around it. Wires were visible in the fresh and bloodless wound, thicker than elsewhere.
One of his hands held a syringe gun. A smaller one held a clipboard. He was naked in the cold, not that anything was visible, and didn’t seem to mind.
Eerie, to see something like that speaking with a misshapen mouth, with the cadence and apparent ability of any ordinary person.
Heads around the room turned as Larue put the image of Chris up on one of the main screens.
“Mr. Armstrong? Should we send notice of his appearance to the Wardens?”
“I don’t think so, this is normal for him,” Armstrong replied. “Have you seen this one, Antares?”
“No,” I said. “No idea who he could have gotten it from, either. He scans parahumans to get data he can utilize in his forms.”
My eye roved over the crowd of Shin parahumans. Two stood out to me.
A man with what looked like a blue moth mask, wearing multiple layers of blue and white capes that wrapped around him, almost encasing his body. He didn’t seem to have access to his arms or even the full range of motion of his legs. His hair was nearly white, he was tall, and his lower face, visible beneath the mask, had a constant, slight smile to it.
Another was a woman, who slouched badly with her arms hanging at her sides as if there was an anchor tied to each hand. She was missing one eye, the socket surrounded by a burn, and one of her breasts was gone. She was beautiful in a scary sort of way, and the scars didn’t take away from that. Her posture did.
She was paying more attention to Chris than anyone else, and Chris tended to get a lot of attention already. Obsessive level of attention, then.
I’d heard that Goddess had access to a parahuman who could alter people’s appearances. That she’d used this parahuman to make her parahumans beautiful and healthy. It was in the Warden’s records, because there had been notices to watch out for Shin agents, after the issue at the prison a week ago. To warn teams about taking on new and attractive members.
Those two felt like the ones to watch. It was another intuitive thing, another thing for me to keep track of. Another thing for me to juggle.
Another train of thought to go down, as I mulled over my newfound connection to my agent, to my Wretch. I could remember papers, remember areas being explored. This time, I was thinking less about what contributed to those connections, and more about what happened when the connection manifested.
Added control over powers. Added nuance in power, sometimes in the form of new techniques and moves. More power, obviously. More range. Those were the basics. Powers that had drawbacks could find those drawbacks relaxed if the user regularly practiced with their power, meditated, put their powers to use in the field, which might be conflated with being in the midst of more conflict.
God, what had it been? I wracked my brain to remember one file. A passing remark by a cape with control over sound, who had pumped sound into a Tinker’s engine. They’d evidenced a good sense of what sounds would be most effective- it had been a city-wide whining sound that was supposed to target people with criminal intentions only, and the sound-manipulator had known what sound was best. They had noted in their paperwork that they didn’t think they’d have been able to do that the year prior.
Blessed paperwork, the little details that emerged.
That was awareness. It might suggest a grasp of the subject matters adjacent to the powers. A fire manipulator getting a sense of flames and how they burned, because that was the sort of thing their agent paid a lot of attention to.
And… of course, courtesy of a bit of paperwork from Golem, who stood next to Rain, while Cuff talked to Rain about Girls… there was another dimension of parahuman-agent growth related to that. Because another thing adjacent to all powers was… powers.
Was my intuition augmented by my closer connection to the Wretch, that radiant, fragile, multi-limbed spectre I’d glimpsed last night? Did it give me a greater sense of parahumans, threats, and where threats lay?
If it did, how was I supposed to distinguish between my actual gut and my power-provided gut?
I typed: Tattletale?
“Bad time to start talking. I’m going to have to put the phone down soon so a little kid can jab something metal into my eyeball.”
I typed more: Blue bug person and the hunched-over woman with the scars that she hasn’t had Amy heal yet. Why are they grabbing my attention like they are?
“Hold on, kid.”
I heard Kenzie make a complainy-sound. Surprisingly whiny for Kenzie. “I have stuff to do!”
Through Kenzie’s perspective, I watched Tatteltale look over to her laptop, switching the feed, and making the video fullscreen again.
“Did your power tell you something?” Kenzie asked.
“Yeah. My power,” Tattletale’s tone was almost sardonic. “The one in blue is the cocoon trump. Makes people beautiful, stronger, healthy. Gives them protections, keeps them a certain age.”
I typed: The one with the slouch is paying attention to Lab Rat.
“We want you gone,” Amy announced.
How ironic, I mused, with no humor.
“Not an option,” Moonsong replied.
Capes behind Moonsong had shifted position in the last ten or so minutes. The standoff hadn’t broken, and it was apparently a question of power and position. Amy could move, because the procession of giants she was treating and giving innate instructions to hadn’t ceased, but the Shin group was doing a better job of keeping still and staring down our side than the inverse.
Moonsong, I noted, hadn’t budged. Breakthrough was doing pretty well. Rain had only moved to square off against the Fallen, facing them. The Shepherds and the Shepherd’s sub-teams. They had a core team of about sixteen members, and another thirty lesser members who handled the ground game, focusing on neighborhoods and sub-communities within the city. The Huntsmen were there, I noted.
Breakthrough was there too, but only half of the group.
Opposed by a stubborn Amy who had found her next cause to be stupid over. She was backed by Chris, Fallen, Shin capes that had apparently been tortured, and prisoners.
The sides looked to be about even. Not counting the ‘Mother Giant’, nor the army she had gathered in rings around her. Shuddering fonts of fertility, flesh, and afterbirth.
The offal-eating, squirrel-sized goblin was the most normal person in her immediate circle right now.
“You have forces massing on our border. Shin insists,” Amy said.
“I thought you wanted cooperation with Antares.”
“I want cooperation with Shin, too. I gave you what you want, I need you to listen to them too. This is non-negotiable.”
“They can’t attack,” I said, out loud. “Ahrima will protect the key players, like the Red Queen and Lab Rat.”
“If they leave, we don’t regain the ground we’ve ceded,” Armstrong told me.
“I don’t think they win. I think you have some exceptionally talented capes there, but I think the bad guys- Shin, they come out ahead.”
“They’d say we’re the bad guys,” Eric said. “Can we get ahold of Chevalier? You said he’d be available. We need a judgment call.”
Armstrong motioned at a nearby terminal where the Wardens’ staff were gathered at one of the bigger computers.
“No, sir. He’s still walking to the portal. Weather’s slowing him down.”
“Can we send a helicopter? Is one free?”
“No. The three closest helicopters are transporting Foresight, clearing a jam on one of the main roads so the people can keep evacuating, and coming back from the Cheit border situation. That last one won’t reach Chevalier before he reaches us.”
“Can’t use powers,” Armstrong said.
“I’m in,” Tattletale murmured, her voice a buzz in my ear. “I can see.”
How to even handle this?
“Ahem. Listening?” Tattletale asked.
People around the table reacted.
“Listening,” Eric said. “Senior Wardens are tied up elsewhere. You have two ex-directors here. Armstrong and Pearce. Have you been following?”
“One of the capes there is a problem. Woman with the slouch and the burned eye. She’s aggressive If anyone makes the first move, it’s going to be her. She’s the source of the black shit Lab Rat has inside his body. She inspired the power he’s built his body around, like a trial run of the giants.”
“Thank you, Tattletale,” Armstrong said, leaning forward. He looked back at a woman who was at the terminal. “We’ll pass it on.”
“Passing it on,” the woman said. Pearce, I assumed. “Informing team leaders.”
The escalating hostilities continued. No longer a standoff. The Shin capes were finding positions that were less standing in their individual groups and more finding the spots they wanted to fight from. Spacing out. Some capes advanced, so they wouldn’t have as far to travel to start hitting shit. The slouching woman with the missing eye was among them.
Others moved closer to cover, like the pillars by either end of the station, or even using the kneeling giants that Amy had yet to tend to shield themselves from possible fire.
The ones to watch were the ones who didn’t move at all. Bamet. Seir. The cocoon cape.
A quick check of the kids showed Chicken Little with Darlene at his desk. Kenzie was in her computer chair in her workshop, bundled up in a blanket with a steaming mug of what might have been soup off to one side. Candy leaned in behind her, hugging her around the shoulders while looking at the screen. Candy’s mug sat off to the side.
No murder happening there.
Juggling, juggling, I thought. I felt so out of place, out of my element.
Especially when the prick sitting across the table from me wasn’t letting me have any input.
“You realize,” Seir called out. “If a fight breaks out, I break you in half, Rain boy?”
Rain didn’t respond.
“No extreme violence,” Amy said. “I gave you rules and biological imperatives. Follow them.”
“I am,” Seir said. “Shin set their own rules and imperatives, remember? You struck your deal with them, you gave us the rules they dictated. We can do whatever’s necessary to protect Shin. Including if we think a mass murdering little shit like him might pull something.”
“Dangerous, horrible little shit like him,” Ahrima said, her voice young.
Rain was stone still.
Amy was silent.
She didn’t have nearly as much control over her rotten eggs as she liked to pretend.
Chris turned his back to the scene, lumbering back inside.
“Bamet’s got a trick up his sleeve,” Tattletale said. “People near him need to back up.”
Armstrong signaled. Pearce accepted the signal, passing on the message.
Moonsong gestured to teammates. They backed up, and Moonsong took a few steps back as well. Bamet moved to get closer to some capes at the front line, and Moonsong had them back up as well.
Bamet could give people the features of animals, and vice-versa. It took surgery to fix, unless he cooperated. He hadn’t cooperated, apparently, for the entire time he’d been in the prison. He’d said it was a matter of principle, belief, and making unbelievers appear on the outside as they no doubt appeared on the inside.
I hadn’t heard anything about Amy doing anything to make him come to Gimel and fix people, either.
“Good. You’re going to need to pass on my tips far faster than that in about twenty seconds,” Tattletale said.
“Yeah,” Armstrong said. “Giving you a direct line to Pearce.”
“Was that a literal twenty seconds?” Pearce asked.
“Brace!” Pearce ordered, leaning into the microphone.
The slouching woman moved, falling to her knees, her hands hitting the ground like dropped weights.
A line of black wire-branches ripped up out of the earth, tearing up road, each one larger than the last. With Moonsong in front, Moonsong was the first in the line of fire. Between the touch of the ground and the imminent impact, there was only about a second.
But the heroine didn’t run or try to get out of the way. Instead, she raised a hand.
The branches were uprooted, flung skyward. So was the offending cape. With the break in her contact with the ground, the branches ceased appearing.
“No!” Moonsong called out. “Years of good relationship, and you’re throwing it all away!”
The suddenness of the counterattack seemed to give the villains pause.
Amy perhaps most of all. She’d never been a fighter. She’d hated the idea of appearing on the battlefield.
I opened my mouth to tell Eric, and immediately gave up.
I typed: bait Amy. She’s scared. She wants a way out.
“I need you to pass on a message from me to the Red Queen,” Tattletale said. “Do not tell her it’s from me.”
I typed: My outburst earlier. It’s eating at her. Tell her…
I kept on typing.
Tattletale recited. Passing it on. Building on it, with her power.
“Amy!” Sveta called out.
“I don’t want to talk to you.” Amy was so good at the position thing, so good at placing herself in areas we couldn’t touch her, where she had rank or respect. She had power.
But posture. She had a way of looking weak even when she was on top of a world, so to speak.
They were going to eat her alive. It was inevitable. I could see it in the Fallen.
“Earlier, Amy, you said when there are no other options, you end up extending trust to the wrong people and places.”
“That’s not what I said. ”
“What options are you leaving Victoria?” Sveta asked. She raised her voice. My words. Typed, translated, built on and passed on.
Seir lashed out. A bolt of darkness, and a bunch of duplicates. Rain slashed out with a silver blade, maybe anticipating that one would become real. It didn’t.
Which, in turn, saw Scribe attack. A chunk of building tore away from the wall, flying toward the Shin group. Already marked with her sign, gripped with her telekinesis, probably well in advance. One of Scribe’s companions leaped up with a jet of flame, touching the rubble. It started crackling with electricity.
Someone in Shin’s faction blasted it, tearing it to small chunks. But small chunks of wall were enough to gash, to concuss, to hurt others. One caught Amy in the head. And for a long three or four seconds, she was out of view.
I could entertain the idea of her dying and feel nothing except suspension. Not even hope.
“Remember her outburst? When she snapped at you? Called you a deluded little monster? Threatened you?”
Sveta’s voice sounded so minor, in the midst of other sounds, but I had zero doubt Amy heard it.
Amy straightened. The hurt on her face wasn’t, I was pretty sure, from the head injury.
“Last chance,” Amy called out. Her voice had taken on a different tone. “You guys don’t get to dictate borders or rules. If Shin says to back off, back off.”
“Listen!” Sveta called out. “She said that because she was backed into a corner. If you keep on this course of action, you’re only making that worse!”
Capes were backing away from the Mother Giant now. Sveta was one of the ones who didn’t back off as much, because backing off would mean she was out of Amy’s earshot.
The imperatives might have been in evidence, here. So long as our side was retreating, their side wasn’t attacking.
But retreat meant giving ground to Shin we might never retake. Not like this.
“Your dad had his head injury. So did your mom. Your sister had her stay in the hospital. Shitty as it sounds, your entire family has its issues with control and labels and identity. Believe me, the time I spent with Victoria, I know!” Sveta called out. “You are a member of that family, for better or for worse. The only thing keeping you from being a part of that family is the decision you’re making right now! You will lose Carol, you will lose Mark! You’ll lose the chance to meet Victoria over iced tea twenty years from now, to talk and catch up!”
Amy shook her head.
My heart sank.
Seir stalked forward, Bamet at his side, his eyes glowing yellow.
Amy reached out, holding out her hand. Her other hand went to her heart, pressing down over her crimson coat.
“People have been telling me to get real and to get a clue for a while now. It’s about time I listen, right?”
“No,” Sveta said. “Listen to what I’m saying right now. Relax, get your guys to back down. You have a way forward.”
“I don’t want a way forward,” Amy said. Barely audible. “I don’t even like me. At all. Why would I inflict myself on my family?”
“There’s a thread,” Tattletale’s voice came through. “Trailing into the ground. She took meat from the giants and put it beneath you guys. The chest thing- that’s symbolic. Run!”
Breakthrough started running and telling others to run before Pearce had even finished communicating it. Courtesy of the Kenzietech.
Seir hopped backward, pulling Bamet out of the way, as Amy exerted her connection through what was apparently an imperceptible vein of flesh that reached down her body and into a pool of biomass underground. She must have been setting it up from early on, anticipating attack or already thinking about defense.
It erupted. A triangular jutting of flesh, stabbing up from the ground, barring Seir’s path.
Amy turned her head, reaching to her belt. She held what looked like a vial of chemicals.
“Lab Rat’s,” Tattletale reported.
“Going to lift her up, break the thread!” Moonsong called.
“Don’t!” Tattletale called.
Sveta lunged forward. At the same time, another growth of flesh speared up out of the earth. I couldn’t see the side that faced her, but I saw it yawn open, like it had a mouth.
To take in the vial.
Sveta grabbed the outgrowth, and her arm unspooled to form tendrils.
She snatched it out of the closing mouth, a few tendrils getting caught in the process, severed. Black blood flowed. Sveta tumbled to the ground.
Amy backed up, and more growths stabbed skyward. Building sized. Skyscraper growths.
She’d tapped into the Nursery. I could only imagine what she would have been able to do if this growth of a thing had drank Lab Rat’s chemical and mutated.
It took the entire hero team to defend themselves. Rain’s silver blades. Moonsong pressed growths flat. Golem created giant hands that reached up and gripped them.
But they were like fingers, claws, tentacles. Reaching skyward, preparing to come down.
“Moon!” Tristan called out. “Rising star!”
He was already creating his orange motes. Moonsong had only a second to decide. She decided to cooperate.
She used her power, reversed gravity on the motes, sending them skyward, dropping a few. Tristan created a few more motes at more distant locations.
A finger came down toward their group. The orange motes solidified into rock, a spike. The finger was impaled.
The spike turned to a piercing stream of water. The water gushed into the internals of the finger and toward the base of the mass. It ripped at the metaphorical seams. Exploded.
Others came for Sveta, separating her from Amy. Defensive. A building blocked her exit on one side. Limbs came down on two more sides. Leaving her only forward- and soon that was blocked off.
She wasn’t as agile with her new body, all considered. Not that she’d been adroit in her prosthetic one. I felt so fucking helpless, watching as the fingers closed in, shrank the space available to her. Amy, at the same time, backed up. My sister cornering my best friend, leaving her nowhere to go, while a spike-tipped claw loomed above, ready to drop like a scorpion’s tail.
It plunged. Broke right past an outcropping of Capricorn’s rock. I had Sveta’s view as she was trying to get to her feet, still trying and still looking skyward as the spike came down.
A blur of black. Darkness.
I paged through to other views, to confirm what I didn’t want to see.
I saw Sveta, lying on the ground. Her face buried against Slician’s shoulder. The mover in the tight black costume who could slide through tight spaces.
“Go!” Amy called out. “Leave! Shin wants you gone!”
“I want to pass on the message!” Sveta called back. “Get it through that thick skull of yours!”
“Because Victoria said she sees something in you! Her words! Not that you’re a good person, not that you’re a saint or a healer or a possible tool! You’re a person, to her. Flaws and good sides included. Those are her words! She kind of hates you and I think you know that’s for good reason! But she’s willing to extend you a chance. I have no fucking idea why!”
I said that before you tried to stab Sveta, I thought.
One by one, the limbs receded, pulling into the ground, leaving ruined road and buildings in their wake. The front of the station had broken away due to one power use.
She hadn’t even used her army. She’d made them back off.
This wasn’t the Amy I’d known. This was the Amy who had spent years with Marquis.
“I can’t even talk to her without her getting upset,” Amy said.
“Obviously not,” Sveta said.
The first thing she’d said that wasn’t in the script.
“What’s the point, then?” Amy asked.
I typed. Kenzie gave Sveta the words.
“The point is you realize nothing you’re doing is making things better or happier. You realize you’ve been hearing people say you need to talk to a therapist or reach out and you have a gut reaction not to. Maybe you stop listening to that gut reaction. Victoria’s willing to concede the idea it might be your power. Your agent, nudging you. Let’s take that concession, let’s fight past it.”
“Did she ever think that maybe, just maybe, my being around someone who has an aura that makes you think she’s the best thing ever or the scariest thing ever might mess with someone like me? Like maybe it’s like an abusive relationship, yanking me this way and that, and that’s why I’m so screwed up?” Amy asked.
The statement felt heavy. Like it took something for her to voice it.
How long? How long had Amy been holding onto that?
Sveta said my words. “You never went out into the field, Amy. You hated caping. She used her power around her mom and her dad, around Crystal, around Shielder, and even her boyfriend more than she used it around you. At higher and lower intensities. If it had that effect, it wouldn’t have been you.”
It was Amy’s time to freeze, to consider.
“I’m vulnerable. Weak. Pliable. I was alone. They were actual family, and Gallant was emotion resistant.”
“Family doesn’t mean anything to the agents, Amy. Second triggers don’t follow family lines. They go by association. Who’s closest and who’s most convenient. Do you think Crystal and Eric weren’t vulnerable in the years around their triggers? They triggered too. They were second triggers like you. They had their bad moments. They felt alienated, capes among regular citizens. They had trouble making real friendships. Mark- you know Mark had his own struggles, weaknesses.”
I watched Amy’s expression through Sveta’s eye.
I watched her turn.
Had she been blaming me? For how long?
“Talk to someone,” Sveta called out. “Victoria knows someone. She can set you up with an appointment. Tonight. Ignore that little voice that says no or wants to resist. Because it might not be your voice.”
Amy didn’t respond, instead pointing at Seir, at other capes. Directing them back to the station. They obeyed.
Sveta took a few steps to get closer.
“Amy!” Sveta called out.
You almost killed Sveta, I thought. My heart was pounding. I could have spit bile. I swear, if you walk away now, I will kill you.
“Okay,” Amy conceded. Barely audible.
The anger and hatred subsided, and it left me feeling utterly empty. Drained. It had taken everything I had, and if I had to look at Eric’s face, if he gave me that look like ‘we didn’t need you after all’,or if he suspected I had acted, I was going to flip that fucking eighteen foot long table, damn the consequences.
I held my finger to the power button on the computer, like I was crushing out its life. I watched the screen go black, video feed frozen by the shutdown process, and closed the laptop.
I didnt know what to do with myself, and I didn’t trust that what I ended up doing wouldn’t be flipping that table, or punching down a wall until I’d burned out the last of my energy.
But I was aware I was part of a partnership. And I’d be damned if I entertained even the notion that Amy was overcoming her own partner’s pressures, while succumbing to my own.
Nudges, intuitions, feelings.
Influences. I was aware I was acting different, since the connection had come back up. That I had hints, I had benefits. A kind of security. A new kind of vulnerability.
For now, I just had to ensure I remained better than her. That meant saving the world, staying on course, maintaining my own balance.
Thank you, fragile one, I thought to myself. For the hints and the nudges. I’ll pretend they’re from you, because I can’t keep fighting and hating you. I’m spent.
Short break, and then we have more to do.