I walked, both because I was restless, and because I knew I was being watched. Kenzie’s filter made it appear like I wasn’t talking or holding my phone to my ear, and it got weird if I was standing in a dim, damaged hallway for an extended period, staring at a wall and doing nothing else. It would raise concerns.
So, for that matter, would talking to Tattletale.
“How does she think?” I asked.
“Contessa? She’s lava,” Tattletale replied.
“The only volcano references in my recent memory are an analogy to the well of the agent’s power with broken triggers and… someone I hucked into a hillside. Why lava?”
“Because I was going to say Molasses but there’s nothing sweet about her, she’s dangerous, and saying she thinks like molasses implies she’s slow. Which she is, but not like I want you to imagine.”
“Okay,” I said. I could get on board with this kind of thinking, at least.
“Lava can spurt, it can reach surprisingly far, when we’re talking about molten rock that breaches the surface. If you get too close to it, you can get burned. It can do a shocking amount of damage, start fires that rage for days, whatever. But mostly if you leave it alone, you get a steady stream that lands close to home and then pools out from there.”
“I’m on board with the line of thinking, but explain that last bit for me.”
“She starts every day with questions. Anticipating, countermeasures, how to secure herself, how to secure her immediate goals. Drop her into a new situation with just her power and no context, and before she’s formed a complete thought, she’ll guarantee she’s safe from the most immediate threats. You can’t touch her.”
“Like you can’t touch lava.”
“Then the lines of thought expand out from there. The pooling out. Finding the cracks and exerting herself along them.”
“How do blind spots factor in?”
“For my metaphor? Bodies of water? I don’t know. I’m ass-pulling, as Imp would put it. But the idea applies. The lava pools up and around, it builds… walls, peaks, accumulations. She sets up stuff in the periphery or vicinity that impact or constrain the blind spot in question. For Scion, it was case fifty-threes, it was specific teams of specific power levels in various Earths, stuff hidden out of sight and stuff in plain sight. The PRT. It was distractions, it was delays and it was encouragement for him. To get him where they needed him and when.”
I kept silent, digesting that, trying to imagine it in this context. There were people walking toward me in the hallway, and so I was forced to play nice and not say anything that would turn heads or get talked about in earshot of the others.
“Why do you ask?” Tattletale asked.
The coast was clear. “Sorry, there were people, had to wait before I replied.”
“I knew that, it’s why I waited to reply.”
Ah. Her power.
“I can see you on camera,” she clarified.
Oh. “My line of thinking is… if she is a problem, knowing the angle helps. If she isn’t, knowing the angle helps. If there’s a threat that slipped her notice, it’s possibly something that escapes her blind spots and it’s helpful to know how she sets things up and how something could slip by. If she set something up-”
“It helps to know how she sets things up. Right.”
“Right,” I said.
I didn’t know the exact way to where I was going, but I had some ideas. I’d come this way once before. This place was massive, and a lot of the time navigating it was like traveling across a city and marking the transition from suburb to commercial to high-end residences and then to industry. Once one knew the general feel of an area, it was a question of knowing whether to head north, south, east, west, up, or down.
Up. Out toward the exterior wall.
“What do we look for?” I asked. “Groups?”
“She pools out, remember? Finds the channels and cracks. Teacher catching her reset everything, put months of distance between her and her… pawns, for lack of a better way of putting it. So she deployed-”
“-And she started with herself, then reached out for tools closest to her. Worked out from there.”
“If it helps, I can’t imagine it was personal.”
I reached the top of the staircase, walked past some people who looked like refugees that were getting the low-down on the work being done, and through a gate. The area was an interior roadway primarily meant for moving cargo and materials.
Off to the right, there was a long corridor that led to the outside, with an extension that combined balcony, road, and helicopter landing pad, all running along the outside of the building.
To my left was a drop, blocked off by a short railing. Cargo containers were scattered around, some recognizable from Gimel, others a little odd, adhering to different standards.
There were scuffs of battle damage. Abrasions, claw marks. Stains.
“She said that if we took the route that would see Teacher captured, two members of my group would be dead or gone. Paraphrasing there, but…”
“Yes,” Tattletale said. “And you lost one.”
“Option A was that one member would suffer for so long it might as well be forever. I got the answer about that. Precipice, stuck in the doorway or something. The idea was that the city would lose its heroes in a hard fought battle.”
“Makes a kind of sense. Something like what we did last night, but more… obstructive than penetrative.”
I didn’t miss the ‘we did’, as opposed to the ‘you did’.
“Mm,” I made a sound. “Option B was that we let him win. Back off, let him finish his plan. Subvert control over his people, close the portals… I can sort of see how that might have played out, now.”
“I can too,” Tattletale said. “It would have been last night, except we wouldn’t have been in a rush. You at that same crystal near Teacher. No.”
“No, not you. Rain. One of the members of our group with a natural facility toward the crystals, instead of your brute mindset of ‘break it’!”
I rolled my eyes.
“You can not see that on surveillance camera,” I spoke into the phone.
“I can see enough for my power to fill in the blanks.”
“It would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives if we took option B,” I said, quiet. “Or so she said. She described it as being helpful in the long run, good somehow. Kind of like how she thought Teacher was close to being on the right track. She said so, when we confronted him at the very end.”
“A clue about how she thinks and what she prioritizes. She’s taking a tack very close to that. I don’t think she was lying when she said she was trying to find an outcome that would make our side happier overall. I do think she’s liable to expand out beyond that after a week of mulling things over and expanding her reach and considerations.”
I leaned heavily into the railing, the hard, narrow bar biting into my arm. I looked down at the loading deck below. At the gouges. Repaired parts where Swansong’s power had kissed the metal floor.
“So we’re useful and we get consideration after freeing her, we get to be the pawns but she appeals to our interests in a general sense… and then she moves on?”
“It’s all about the shortest path, Antares. Her power doesn’t say, walk for two days to get to this location, talk to that person, if it can say that she should talk to the person next to her. Her goal was self preservation, your group, Imp, and the Heartbroken were next to her, and making you happy ensured you didn’t hurt her or stop her. You just happened to be close enough to the lava to get burned, too.”
“So the goal was survival. Even reaching out to us, the A, B, C, thing, it was survival, or partially survival.”
“Partially revenge against Teacher, yeah.”
“What is it now?”
“Equilibrium. A manageable, balanced state where things don’t break down further. A foundation things can be built on. Probably, the reason she liked the ‘hundreds of thousands die’ eventuality is that a smaller population is easier to manage. Probably it has to do with reminding humanity why we’re needed. That there are scary monsters out there that only the capes can stop. And, you know, I don’t think she’s given up on her dream.”
“Her dream?” I asked. I imagined Cauldron’s control, influence, and power.
“Standing on a beach, her power turned off. Being free. It’s an uncharitable view, but with my power supplying next to nothing, I’ll build on what it’s told me in the past and say that she’s someone who let millions die, often in horrible ways, for the greater plan. I think it’s possible she tells herself it’s okay to let more than half of the population die so long as things are stable thereafter, things can be built up right, no overcrowding, no hunger, no resource dependencies on Cheit or Shin, a better balance of cape and non-cape… and she gets to stand on a beach with her powers turned off without being ambushed.”
Swansong died, and for what? We won that day, but…
I missed my friend.
There had been something fun about wine and crackers and old movies, about being challenged. I wouldn’t have been talking to Tattletale now if I held the views I had even two months ago, about heroes and villains. White hats and black hats. I wouldn’t have changed my views if it hadn’t been for Swansong. The kernel of caring for Kenzie at the background, and the willingness to reinvent herself in the foreground. Seeing that look in her eyes after she had killed Beast of Burden. The willingness to go to jail.
“I don’t think that’s Contessa,” I said. “I’m not basing this on anything I can really define over a phone conversation. Gut feeling. But… we talked to her and I saw the look in her eyes as she outlined it all. How far away she wanted to be from the decision, which Sveta eventually foisted on her.”
“Hmmmm,” I heard Tattletale.
Gut feeling, I thought.
“Wish I could tell you more, hon,” Tattletale said. “I don’t have enough data.”
“Hey, Kenzie?” I asked.
“Do me a favor, don’t listen in? Don’t look back at this past recording and dig this up to relisten? I want this bit to be me and Tattletale.”
A pause. I wondered if she was listening after all. Surely Tattletale would-
“There she goes,” Tattletale said. “Straight to the puppies.”
“There’s puppies?” I asked. “Damn. Almost wish I was there.”
“It’d be awkward. Like how awkward your kid is feeling right now. You and this current… project you have her handling, connecting you to your team, it’s her only connection to Breakthrough right now.”
“I know. Just… gotta get through today,” I said. I gripped the railing with my hand that had the bandage around the missing fingernail. Gripped the phone. “My power changed.”
“Yep,” Tattletale said. “Floating phone earlier kind of gave it away.”
“I’m worried I changed.”
“Wouldn’t rule it out. Is that a bad thing?”
“It’s a thing. Could be bad. It’s hard to separate it out. How much is me, how much is her?”
“And how much is the fact that you almost died last night? You were burned all over, you got a very concrete reminder of how mortal you are. You got a massive wake up call about just what exactly it is we’re dealing with. Powers, greater forces. It takes a while to wrap your brain around that, once you’re faced with the reality of it.”
“That feels like a cop out,” I said.
“Or is saying it’s your power doing the talking the cop out? Didn’t it work for Amy because it was a cop-out?”
I gripped the railing harder. “I’m really hoping that’s not what she takes away from it.”
“Or you’ll ask your dad to off her?”
“Okay,” I said. I closed my eyes. “This isn’t exactly what I was hoping to get out of this conversation.”
“You wanted mollycoddling. Sorry hon, Mollycoddle is a whole ‘nother cape out there somewhere. You get the Tattletelling. Annoying, hard to confront truths and possibilities. Last night you dove literally headfirst into powers and everything there was out there. You had a near death experience. You found out things you weren’t ready to learn.”
“So none of it’s the power?” I asked.
“Antares, honey, you’ve been in this business longer than I have. You lived it even before you triggered. You should know the answer to that question.”
“Last night, when Dragon questioned me, I didn’t even know my own name.”
“Isn’t that telling?” Tattletale asked.
There was something in her tone there that reminded me of who I was talking to. The villain who used information against people. I was baring my every vulnerability to her in this moment.
I almost, almost ended the conversation there. My thumb moved to the button to cancel the call and a twitch or accident could have seen it make contact.
“Just tell me,” I said.
“If you’re blaming the power to that extent, you’re probably wrong. Just like the people who don’t take it into consideration at all. It’s a worm, wriggling through our heads, too slippery to nail down with a neat, pat explanation. The only correct answers are ‘I’m not sure’, or the mathematician’s ‘yes’.”
“That doesn’t help narrow things down or figure out a way forward,” I said. “For me, for my fucking sister, for Contessa.”
“I think it does. Just so long as you don’t reduce. Focus on the totality.”
I stared down at the loading dock, as a bunch of teenagers in winter jackets clambered onto a big metal cargo thing and attached hooks to bars that were inset into the metal.
There were gouges on that, too, spray painted a bold yellow to warn people to look out.
Swansong had been as influenced as anyone I knew. The agent close to the surface because she was a clone, not so different from Valkyrie’s flock. From Dennis, from Christopher, from my aunt Sarah.
I thought of every single member of Breakthrough. Each of us had unique relationships to our passengers. Fighting it daily for control over her body, having to meditate to even find a semblance of functionality. Caged by it, portioning out life in turns. Caught up in manufactured dreams and chained to fanatical enemies. Pulled in deep, with tragic qualities and habits turned into tools that fed those same qualities, in maybe the deepest spiral I’d known a parahuman to have.
Wearing it, like a fragile piece of armor.
Could it be dismissed or swept up or brushed aside so easily? Each person considered a totality, rather than a person and a problem to either be embraced or defeated by?
“I don’t know,” I whispered.
“Now you’ve got it,” Tattletale said.
I thought of the situation room, which I was overdue to return to. Of the situation, of Contessa, of Teacher, and how Teacher had ended up.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid to step back from this. I’m being aggressive and acting on instinct, but if I stop, I might lose what I gained last night.”
“I guess you have to weigh whether the cost of being aggressive instinct girl is heavier than the cost of losing what you got.”
I clenched my fist. My skin pulled tight, and the missing fingernail throbbed.
I shook my head. “I can’t tell what instincts might actually be my agent telling me things. I know what you said, totality, not assuming anything, but…”
“Welcome to my life, hon. Every hour of every day for the last few years. For what it’s worth, I like your instincts.”
“That doesn’t make my decision easier,” I said. It was only as she’d said it that I realized I was imagining myself tilting more toward the ‘ignore the instincts’ option.
“That’s not my job. Hard, annoying truths.”
I’d come here hoping for a revelation, at the same time I’d wanted to touch base with Swansong, remember my friend by visiting the place she’d died.
But of course it wasn’t that simple.
None of this was.
“How long has she had her power?” I asked. “Con-”
“Contessa? Since she was Kenzie’s age.”
“In totality, what does that make her? As person and power together? You said she was defensive. Because she has the weight of the world on her shoulders? She can’t afford to show weakness.”
“Or disaster strikes. Any number of forces like Teacher would co-opt her.”
“Does she want to destroy those forces? To ensure she can walk on that beach without her power active?”
“She might now. I think she probably wouldn’t mind if the especially problematic forces were destroyed in the process of her doing what she thinks she needs to, here. It would even play into her goals with laying a solid foundation.”
“Do you qualify?” I asked.
“I might,” Tattletale said. “Why do you think I have the Undersiders and Heartbroken here?”
“No, I’m bullshitting,” Tattletale said, but it was a humorless statement, almost dark. “I wasn’t really dwelling on that. I kind of assumed I’ve kept enough of a distance from her to be a factor. It is possible.”
“Is Breakthrough?” I asked. “Two of us were supposed to leave the picture for the long term. Only one has.”
Tattletale didn’t immediately respond. I could hear Rachel raising her voice in the background.
Kids laughed. A girl was shrieking, ‘she peed on me!’
That would be one of the puppies. I really hoped. It was hard to tell with the Heartbroken.
“If you’re combat ready and your blue Capricorn guy is on his way back to fighting shape… I’d keep expecting that shoe to drop.”
I pulled my hand away from the railing. I’d left a faint hand-shaped imprint in it without meaning to.
“I feel like we don’t lose anything by clarifying the blind spots, clarifying how Contessa operates, or clarifying what her motivations might be,” I said.
“Two ways we could go about that,” Tattletale told me. “I’ve got stuff to handle, and I’m putting it off while I’m on the phone. I can handle the Contessa talk later, or you can handle it now.”
“I could use the cred. If it’s even that,” I said. “And I could use an excuse to go.”
“Go then. I’ll wrangle kids and puppies, deal with a crampy, cranky kid who’s feeling very worried and out of place right now, and get my team prepared.”
Meanwhile, my own team is scattered and on the front lines.
“Thanks for looking after her.”
But Tattletale was already gone.
I looked down at the loading dock and the signs of battle. Repaired, subtle, or glaring in how they’d been highlighted, so workers wouldn’t cut themselves on sharp edges.
“I feel like you’d know exactly what to do for that kid at a time like this,” I said, to the empty air.
I gave the part of the railing with the handprint a pat, then stepped away.
It took everything I had not to fly. Technically, the damage here wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in the heart of the city, but again, technicalities were a really bad argument when faced with a contingent of angry capes and staff.
I took the stairs back down two at a time, not touching the railing as I navigated by the people who descended more slowly. In the worst case scenario, flight or invincibility would break my fall. I didn’t end up needing either. I hit the landing at the base of the interminably long staircase and jogged from there.
What are you missing, Contessa? What lurks near your blind spots or what serves your purposes? Which is it?
What does Dinah fail to ask?
I couldn’t do anything about Dinah, not in this moment. But I could get details on Contessa.
This wouldn’t be easy. On so many levels.
I almost got lost, trying to find my way to the situation room. Only the fact it was as central to this particular floor as it was saved me.
Then the familiar hallway, where I’d talked to Jessica. Where heroes seemed to be perpetually stationed, waiting for orders or standing guard.
None were familiar.
If this isn’t the last time I enter this damn room…
A few heads turned at my entrance.
Eric saw me and rose to his feet. Before he reached me, however, I reached the end of the table. Holding up one finger, telling him to wait, I pulled up a chair.
I could see the irritation on his face. Good.
But I didn’t want enemies. I just… needed to focus on priorities. I made a hand gesture to him, hands pressed together as I mouthed a ‘sorry’.
A part of me anticipated him stopping me. I prepared a response, a debate, something to buy some time. But he simply stepped down. Waited.
Amy was back on the giants, I saw. The Machine Army had lost a bit of ground, but constructions riddled with hooks were capturing giants, teaming up with three machines to every one giant. Tearing the giants to pieces, harvesting the chunks and carrying them away in assembly lines.
The giants were appearing at a new rate that roughly replaced the lost ones.
I looked away. Refocused on the matter at hand.
Citrine still sat to my left, dressed in black with a yellow gemstone at her breast. She still wore her wedding ring, which looked like damascus, with layers of something golden in there, without having any gold to it at all.
I was sure there was a story as to why.
“Can we talk?” I asked her.
“I’m here to answer questions, offer help and resources,” she said. “I’m undecided if this qualifies as the captain at the helm when her ship sinks, or if I’d have to be in the city for that.”
“My questions may not be easy ones,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said, her tone and expression dispassionate. “You should have all of the easy answers already.”
I decided to fall back on my knowledge and training in dealing with loss. Just as doctors had to sometimes deliver bad news, I’d been taught to do the same.
“What’s your understanding of Contessa right now?”
I could see her expression change. A slight narrowing of the eyes, lips pressed together a bit, like she would refuse to talk to me.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I can’t shake the notion that this isn’t about Amy Dallon, it isn’t about Dauntless, it isn’t about the Machine Army, Pastor, Nilbog and the goblins, Sleeper, the Blasphemies, Teacher, or any of the other major threats we’ve been keeping an eye on.”
“Teacher’s been captured,” Eric volunteered. “They’re bringing him in.”
“Really good to know,” I replied. “I’m relieved.”
“Your suspicions turn to Contessa, then?” Citrine asked.
“No, not suspicion, exactly,” I hedged.
“You wouldn’t be the first. Another precog brought it up.”
“I’m curious what you know or think,” I told her.
She sat back in her seat. I wasn’t sure if it was the black outfit or weariness, but she looked older. More like a queen weary of her throne than the princess at a festivity.
“You know that she sent one of the boys to us. We were preparing. We are not- we were not frontline fighters. Kurt could manage quite well, but in a warzone? We preferred to wait, strike surgically and with great precision, to optimal effect.”
“I imagine if he had a thinker power, it would be too many inputs. Thinker headache?”
Citrine pressed her lips together again. Displeased. She almost seemed more bothered by the fact I’d mentioned any kind of weakness than the fact I’d brought up her husband’s de-facto killer.
Was he alive? A factor?
It was hard to imagine. She wore heartbreak in a way that I was familiar with. Maybe even more heavily than I was familiar with. I’d lost Dean and maybe Dean had been my soulmate, but… I could believe that the Number Man had been Citrine’s soulmate. Conveying that loss took more acting skill than I was willing to believe she had.
It was hard to imagine any confluence of circumstance where pretending her husband was dead would benefit her or her agenda, or even benefit the city.
Easier to believe she wanted to protect the Harbinger boys who had the same power and weakness.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Because of her message, we rushed where we normally wouldn’t, we trusted her, Kurt went to open the door for me and his body shielded me from the worst of the blast. The boys came and administered medical care. She killed him. Is that what you want to hear?”
“I want to hear the context, or… anything that fills in the gaps. Sheds light on how she thinks.”
“You could have just asked. We were acquainted.”
“I’ll ask in a moment, if that’s okay. I just… do you know why?”
“It’s impossible to know anything for certain when it comes to that woman. If she wants you to reach another conclusion, she’ll ensure it.”
“I’d like to take a shot at it,” I said.
“She apologized. She said she was hurrying to act against Teacher, and she didn’t double-check the outcome.”
“Her waking up from Teacher’s influence meant she had to reset, rebuild her infrastructure of checks and balances. Starting with herself. She extended out from there by using the tools in reach. My team. Heartbroken. Wardens.”
“But you weren’t in reach.”
“It’s not about reach, like you picture.”
“Everything’s easy for her. If she wanted you to die in this room at a specific time with a… I don’t know, a specific antique pen jabbed into your eye socket, she could do that easily. A few statements and actions taken at the right times and places.”
I was aware that I was broaching a delicate subject with Citrine, and that seemed to coincide with the sudden emergence of a violent hypothetical situation.
“What then? Time?”
“Time. The number of steps required. All easy, but why do in twelve steps what you could do in three? Sending someone we know with a specific message we’re inclined to trust may be easier than any number of distractions she had at her disposal, to corner Teacher. She didn’t have the time and she took the most expedient route. We accepted her apology. The children and I.”
“Just like that?” I asked.
“No, Antares,” Citrine said. Her demeanor remained queenly, but I could imagine she was the type, now, who would order beheadings. “Not ‘just’ like that. But we know what we keep company with.”
“And as a person? I said I’d ask.”
“As a person… stunted. Limited. Childlike. Composed, certainly. Graceful. Proud. Educated, even. But not fully formed. She may never be. Maybe that’s just.”
So much for forgiving her.
“A baby learns to trust. All she’s ever trusted is her power and the woman who ran Cauldron. That woman died. At your teammate’s hands, as a matter of fact.”
I kept my expression still.
“A child learns autonomy. She’s had her hand held every step of the way. Industry and work ethic, or how to pursue something? As we just discussed, everything is easy for her. How can you have work ethic without work?”
“Identity?” I asked.
“I imagine the style she wears provided the shortest number of steps to ensuring Doctor Mother was listened to in meetings, or to ensure she was given due consideration as a bodyguard.”
“Intimacy?” I asked. “Does she like anyone?”
“Doctor Mother, maybe? But then you have to wonder. If you take in a dog, virtually any dog, of any breed, any personality. If you feed it and treat it with kindness, won’t it love you?”
“She’s a dog?” I asked, my tone twisting despite my intent. I didn’t like dehumanizing.
“You have to ask similar questions. She depended on and was cared for by one person. Wouldn’t loving that person be inevitable?”
“Does she think she made a difference? Was it worth it, to do the kinds of things she did, for Doctor Mother?”
“I couldn’t tell you. I don’t think we would have won without Cauldron. But I’m biased.”
“Does she regret it?”
“To answer that question, I think you have to start by asking how much was really by her design, when Doctor Mother made the choices and her power dictated the how.”
I pressed, “Does that impact the decisions she makes? Call them into question?”
“She remains forward thinking. I think she’s been at it for so long her brain has adapted to it. She thinks of the future more than the present. Her decisions are sound. No, I don’t think it impacts anything of note.”
“Agendas? Motivations? Drives? You make her out to be a robot, like this.”
“None that I’m aware of. And I think she’s grown since she finished her mission, but I can’t know in what direction she grew. I could guess, but it would be just that: a guess. What I can tell you is that if you think she’s going to betray us all… she’s too young. Too stunted. She’ll be too busy finding her own way to decide ours.”
“She could make you think that,” I said.
“She could. She would do so perfectly.”
I fell mute. It was my turn to press my lips together.
If not an attack or scheme, was it a blind spot?
“Tell me what you’re after? Why this line of inquiry?”
She asked, and I could have answered. But even though Citrine’s Mortari group had set us up with funding, provided research, and cooperated… I hesitated.
I didn’t understand her. I didn’t like her. I felt like it was weird, having her at the table, saying so little, watching it all.
“I’m worried about some stuff that’s going to come to pass later, I think. I’m worried,” I said, telling her the truth. Then the lie, “I’m wondering if there’re ways to circumvent her, work around blindspots, or if blindspots are a consideration for what comes later.”
A story I imagined anyone aware and mentioned by Contessa’s power might have echoed. Contessa had been Cauldron and I had to imagine each member of that loathsome organization had faced that reality and asked a similar question before.
The only reason I didn’t was because I knew it was futile. I’d read literature on precogs. Determinism. Frankly terrifying.
I wanted to believe that the blind spots would accrue or change the result, but wanting to believe wasn’t actually believing.
It still made for a story to tell that was apparently believable and pitiable. Citrine’s expression softened for the first time.
“No, Antares. I don’t think there’s a way to change the course of events. If she said it, then you can hope she lied because the lie required less steps than the truth.”
I nodded, giving that nod extra emphasis, to sell the act.
“I don’t want to give you false hope,” she said. “Lies are very rarely less convoluted than truth. It’s not how she operates.”
I nodded, again with emphasis intended to betray an anxiety I didn’t feel. That was my excuse to backed out of my conversation with Citrine. My pretense for the conversation that didn’t betray too much
Which wasn’t right. I did feel anxiety, but it was about other things. About my team, about the imminent disaster. About god-damned Amy, and doing what it took to ensure she got help, as harrowing as the doing was.
I walked over to a new seat, not next to or especially near anybody. I got my phone out, laying it on the table. I leaned over the table without sitting, thinking about framing.
First steps first. I looked Eric’s way.
“I want to have a discussion,” he told me, before I could open my mouth.
“Disciplinary?” I asked.
“Yes. More or less.”
“I’ll listen to what I have to, do what you require. But can I please call my therapist first? If you haven’t arranged one?”
“We haven’t. And no you can’t.”
“Is this because you have a missile flying toward Amelia Dallon-Lavere? I wouldn’t agree with taking that approach before giving her a chance, but-”
“No missile,” he said. “For now, sit in this chair next to me. We’ll review things.”
“Just tell me the Wardens are doing something to follow up on the action earlier. My teammate almost died putting herself on the line, working with Tattletale to get across to someone very powerful and very ill. I have a trace of hope here. I need to know it’s justified.”
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” Eric said. “You’ve been uncooperative every step of the way. Why should I extend you any favors?”
I stared him down, taking mental note of the situation. Armstrong wasn’t present. Citrine wasn’t on my side. The only other people I could name were Megan and Ysmine, Goddess’s cluster, and Pearce, who I only knew as the person who tended to stick near the computers. She was there now, and she and her underlings were agitated. The only scene that matched that agitation was the ongoing fight against the Machine Army. Soldiers running this way and that, to move rubble and adjust the forward defense. Here and there, they used explosives to deal with larger robots. The flash on the screen drew Eric’s eye, as he broke eye contact first, and I looked too.
There was a machine that was as tall as a house, with spindle legs, and a kind of open coffin for a head. A person was in the coffin, machinery threaded into their eyes and mouth. They groped blindly at the air as the machine spider-walked its way forward. When the giant smashed the machine, it bled from the resulting cracks, lurched back to a standing position, and then began firing lasers from turrets at the side.
While Eric wasn’t looking, I slid my phone across the table. I took the seat next to him.
The machine was hit with a rocket. The person at the head was given a merciful end, but the general shape of him and the giblets were held more or less in place by the machinery that threaded into the mouth, out the other end, all along bones and around organs.
Eric looked away. He seemed surprised when he saw me sitting next to him.
I turned my palms upward, keeping my expression unimpressed.
“I sat. May I please call?” I asked. “This is in the Warden’s favor, the city’s favor, your favor, Shin’s, mine, and Amy’s. The only logical alternative to this is dealing with her for good.”
“We know,” Eric said. “Your stance on the matter. Your father called us after he talked to you. You asked your father to kill a foreign dignitary?”
Was that it, then? When the going gets tough, the tough get going? Or at least deflect responsibility, deflect everything, set up an escape route from responsibility and commitment?
I just wanted you to go to mom if you couldn’t hack it in Shin, or get Amy to therapy, or… ensure we didn’t have to worry about Amy ever again.
Damn it, dad.
I just felt a profound sadness.
“I told him to go see my mom, because she’s not at her best.”
“Earlier you said she was capable.”
“Earlier I was respecting her pride and dignity. She knows her limits. But she’s far from her best. I told my dad to go to her. If he couldn’t do that, he was supposed to focus on ensuring Amy gets to therapy. Again, win for everybody if that happens. She’s the scariest damn person in the world. It makes sense. Murder was a last resort, if it even comes to that. I wanted to drive home how important this was. How serious. I kind of want to do the same for you.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“No. I’m saying the world is about to end, and it’s going to be a very complicated end if we don’t have the Red Queen handled in some fashion. Let me make a phone call and give her someone to talk to. That’s all I want. I’ll do whatever else you require.”
“Your job, this entire time, Antares, Glory Girl, Victoria, whatever you want to call yourself, has been to sit down, be quiet, answer any questions if explicitly asked. Get the hint. Accept that you’re benched.”
He was a bit pissed now. A few heads around the room were looking.
“Will you make the phone call then?” I asked. I held out my phone in his direction. “Please. Doc-”
He took my phone out of my hand and slapped it down against the table, face down.
Incensed. Breathing hard. Glaring.
“Last night you told Defiant and Dragon that you wanted to submit to the authority of the Wardens. That you’d accept any decisions and punishments from our group in exchange for our continued resources.”
“Eric,” I said, meeting his eyes. “With all due respect, I’ve seen nothing to indicate you have any authority at all over me. I’m going to go make my phone call. I’ll stick around, I’ll offer advice, and if and when Chevalier or another member of Warden leadership shows up, I’ll accept their decision. If they decide my actions here warrant kicking Breakthrough out? Fine. This? This phone call you’re ignoring? It’s important. This imminent disaster? Important.”
I was so tempted to add something along the lines of ‘You? Not so much.’
I was pretty sure I conveyed it with the look I gave him.
I was so done with this.
I collected my phone, noting the crack on a screen that had remained intact through more than a dozen cape fights, and slipped it into my pocket, turning to head out to the hallway.
He grabbed me by the upper arm. The same arm that had the bullet wound that still hurt sometimes.
Down girl, I thought, before my power could do anything. We exist as a totality of me. I get a say.
I twisted, using my hand to disengage his hand and push it back toward him before stepping back.
It was something I’d learned very early on into having my powers. Everyone had known. I’d been able to show it off in class. Enhanced strength. Lifting the teacher’s desk with ease.
That it made people uneasy. That it scared them. Awed them at the same time.
I hadn’t used my aura, my flight, my forcefield. I hadn’t relied on any intuition. Only hand to hand training and assuredness that came with knowing I had the bigger stick when it came down to it.
And that was enough.
Galled, spooked, wounded, Eric glared at me. Others looked alarmed, like they thought a fight might break out. Pearce wasn’t even following the Machine Army fight in this moment.
“You’re supposed to listen to the unpowered,” Eric said. I was hard pressed to think of anything more impotent he could say.
“You’re supposed to earn it,” Citrine said, from the head of the table. “It used to be default, because you built society and we came to it. The rules changed when it was a city we had a big part in building, defending, and feeding.”
I didn’t want you on my side here, I thought.
“Not what I was going for, Citrine- Mayor Wynn,” I said. “I’m okay with following the rules, but it can’t be arbitrary. I’ll follow the law if it comes from a lawyer or judge. Not a random citizen. It’s their city.”
“It’s ours too. We keep bleeding and dying for it but we’re not supposed to claim any part of it.”
“Maybe, but it’s not the time or the place, madam Mayor,” I said.
“Probably not,” she said, to me. To the rest of the room, she said, “Ignore me. I’m grieving and saying silly things.”
I remained where I was, facing this claustrophobic room of tired people who had shucked off suit jackets and hung them on the backs of chairs. Who looked like every last one of them had no idea of where to stand. It had emptied by half and by the design of it, I felt like it could empty by half again and it would still feel like there was nowhere to stand that wasn’t uncomfortably proximate to someone else.
But the emotion was heavy in the air. Tension.
They were trapped in a cage with a lion and a panther, and both animals focused on them, rather than on one another.
And I was the dreaded lioness.
“I’m sorry for the disruption,” I said.
I was going to say more. But I was taking in the faces. I was aware Jeanne was leaving. That she’d played a part.
Was this that spurt of lava, reaching this far?
“Are we keeping tabs on the anti-parahumans?” I asked.
The words froze Jeanne at the door, as she was making her exit. Not a single person replied to me.
I reached for a laptop someone had left open and logged in, pulling it over to me. The motion saw Eric back away a step.
I brought up the screen. The list of objectives.
A possible concern that would fly under Dinah’s radar.
Something useful to Contessa? I wasn’t following that thread anymore. I could dismiss it. I trusted Citrine in that, at least.
But was something Contessa had made use of. Citrine had lost her husband when they’d rigged a bomb to her car.
The list showed them. Anti-parahuman groups and cells. All toward the bottom. The ones that were active threats and the ones that had already been suppressed. There were two dozen listed, but only fourteen remained ongoing problems.
Fourteen with fourteen minor teams or groupings of independent capes assigned to them. The most minor capes, sent to deal with the ordinary humans upset at losing their city, or the shit-stirrers from foreign worlds, or both.
I could discount the ones obviously outside of blind spots. Narrow it down.
Contessa had gone to Cheit to get Teacher. She’d had to bring a team with her because she couldn’t see clearly around his tech. The portal tech, anything close to that.
Cheit, who had sent the people who had blown up the portals.
The name of the team ‘Major Malfunctions’ caught my eye. They were on the list. Part of a group of eight keeping the peace at the Cheit-Gimel border. I checked, and sure enough, they were close to an area that was likely rigged with some of Teacher’s countermeasures.