We’re coming back. I read the message on the phone screen. Kenzie’s. Tattletale’s trying to convince them it’s safe to open a portal. Powers are safe to use again.
I nodded, trying to keep my focus on the screen. Tensions in the situation room had transformed. For people like Eric, something they had maybe thought wasn’t going to happen had happened, and they were dealing with loss and horror. For me, who had known and already felt some of that loss and horror, it was frustration and loss. That was a bad combination that would lead to me yelling at him, in the same unproductive, obstructive way.
By the cameras, everyone was on their way back. Pulling away from the city, gathering the troops. There weren’t many wounded, but that was because the problems we were dealing with now were threats who tended to simply kill the ones they were in a position to hurt. The map with the teams marked out with bubbles took center stage on the situation room monitors, now with added labeling. Many had been made transparent, flashing, with timers slowly counting up above them.
Not responding to any attempts at contact for ten minutes now.
From the way they were seeming to confirm those various teams or cross them off, there seemed to be a thinker or long-range communicator attached to the problem, reaching out into that devastated section of the city and either getting a response or finding out the capes hadn’t managed to escape the collapse or the Titan in that area.
Eric stood from the table, closing his laptop. Warily, I watched as he got his things, pulling on his suit jacket. He said something to Armstrong I couldn’t hear, then took his leave, walking past me with an extended look that went head-to-toe and back again. Like he was searching for something.
“Victoria, can I borrow you for a minute?” Armstrong asked.
I nodded, approaching him. He indicated an unused laptop, and I grabbed it.
“To go over your notes. I highlighted parts.”
Getting into the parahuman science stuff. My self-report from the dream excursion, and the situation notes that I’d put in the share folder.
A welcome distraction. Notes and files. Clarification of intended meanings, answering short questions, verifying if I was being sarcastic or literal. It let me refocus my brain to a task without feeling like I was tuning the world out.
Question one: I’d used ‘gut feeling’ twice. What did I mean by that?
I’d convinced Fume Hood to get back into the game. She’d planned to retire and I’d played a big role in convincing her to stick it out and keep trying to help, after she got shot. Now… what? Did she think? Did a titan maintain any trace of its old psychology? Was she trapped in there, or was she gone, good as dead?
Something told me this wasn’t in any way reversible. Gut feeling.
I refocused on the screen. The line of thought didn’t really connect, and it was only by chance that I’d circled back.
Like doing something I’ve practiced to death. Holding a gun and knowing I could pick it up and hit the target, there’s a certainty and underlying confidence. Take away the practicing from the equation, and that’s how I felt about things like smashing Teacher’s crystal.
I was calling on my time with the Patrol for that one. I’d already done the gun safety and practice at my parent’s behest, once upon a time. All of us kids had. But I’d elected to do it again. Back then, it had been about getting through the days.
Question two: You frame this ‘gut feeling’ as agent-derived. On a scale of one to ten, to what degree could you separate your own biases, hopes, instincts, preconceptions, or own mentality from this impression the agent provides?
What do you think, Fragile one?
Hard to draw a firm line.
Seven. Seventy percent.
There were more highlighted sections with just short instructions. Clarify:Earth. Clarify:Date. Did I mean Gimel or Bet? Did I mean today or yesterday?
Clarify:Event. Did I mean the Fallen Raid or the Prison? My note on Seir.
Clarify:Team Composition. Who was with me? Which members of Breakthrough?
When someone had a panic attack, it was important to touch base, ground them. Where are you, what do you see, what can you touch? What do you hear?
I wasn’t in the midst of a panic attack, but I appreciated the chance to ground myself. Place was a heck of a question when worlds had already been tangled with the layering of what was more or less another dimension over the third. Depending on whether portals were in the way, walking in a straight line in one part of the city could carry you to a point in Gimel or a place in Earth N.
Time was even more of a mind-screw. It hadn’t actually been that long between the time Jessica had introduced me to the group that would become Breakthrough and today.
It was a horrible, horrible feeling to wrestle with the fact Breakthrough had lost two members. Chris might have been inevitable, but Ashley hadn’t been.
Well, no. Ashley had been inevitable, but losing her hadn’t been right or okay.
There was another in the possible line of fire, and I hoped it was me. Not because I wanted to die, not when I had so fucking much left to do, to see, experience, and live… but because I felt a kind of responsibility.
A spiral of thinking for a short answer: Victoria, Swansong, Lookout.
I edited my documents with my clarifications, and added my notes to his document with my answers.
I could remember my cousin Eric joking he’d join the Wards in the lamest rebellion against his parents ever, if it weren’t for the paperwork. I could remember a younger me feeling something weirdly and positively defiant, like the paperwork wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, because it created something that was codified, more sure. So much of what a hero did was unsure, struggling against evil, cruelty, and ruin and then going home, wondering if that brutal struggle had really made a difference.
I’d ruminated a lot on who I’d once been, the brutality of Glory Girl’s actions against the villains. How much of that had been motivated by a desire to make an impact, or to go home and feel like I’d made an appreciable difference? Find the unequivocal bad guys, and hurt them badly enough they wouldn’t be doing bad things again anytime soon. Like when I’d heard from some classmates that there were gangsters strongarming them into joining the ABB. Break the gangsters.
Having just thought of my cousins, I looked for and found Crystal’s regiment on the map. She was okay.
While I was at it, I checked for the others. Breakthrough. Kenzie and the Tenders. Everyone still on their way.
Other hero teams were hanging back, because one area of the city was on fire after some collapses, and there was another area that was being managed because some industrial buildings had collapsed, with a chemical gas spreading from the site. I could hear Pearce at the comms, trying to get specific heroes to the site.
I looked over. Miss Militia stood in the doorway.
“Do you mind, Armstrong, sir?”
He glanced over his own version of my notes with my additions. “This is good. Thank you, Victoria.”
“I’ll be back for the briefing part of it, if you need me.”
“It won’t be here. Too many people. Go to the downstairs hall when you’re done. I won’t be the one in charge then, but we’ll coordinate if you’re needed for the briefing.”
I nodded, grabbing my coat, standing and crossing the room. A shame. Armstrong hadn’t ever been the kind of director who rallied the troops, went to war, or used his teams to surgically take out the most problematic villains. Another person in his role might have been harsher with me, but he’d been largely passive, sitting back and ensuring he had all of the facts.
I appreciated that.
The hallway outside was emptier than it had been in a while. Most people had places to go, and with the next big situation-room type meeting being downstairs, people who would be going back and forth were mostly just going forth.
Which meant it wasn’t all that hard to find a place to chat. In the end, I stopped at the railing near where I’d talked to Jessica and Darnall.
“It’s good to see you,” I said. “I hope your team wasn’t hit by this catastrophe.”
“It wasn’t,” she said, pulling her scarf down. “But we did lose a good portion of the city. It might be years before we’re back where we were, especially with the relationships to Shin and Cheit being as strained as they are. No advance preparation, some of the thinkers that helped put us on the right track are gone now. We have far too many people out in the cold right now.”
“Is this doable?” I asked.
“If the titans were dealt with immediately, and we got to work, everyone coordinating to work together? I think so.”
She’d become a bit more of a politician in the time since I’d known her. That was a very positive message to convey a negative sentiment, with several points left vague. How immediate was immediate? Today? In the next hour? Who was ‘everyone’, heroes or heroes and villains? How coordinated did she mean?
All for a ‘I think so’. Not even a confident ‘yes’.
“There’ll be time for that at the briefing,” Miss Militia said. She pulled out a handkerchief and rubbed at the corners of her eyes. “Sorry. There was a lot of smoke. The other Wardens and I exchanged a few messages and decided it was best if I was the one to talk to you. I’ve talked to you more than anyone else.”
I thought about that, then nodded. It felt like a lifetime ago.
“If it weren’t for that, it would have been Defiant, but we were all pretty sure he would have spent the bulk of the time yelling at you.”
“Oh,” I said. I thought for a second. “This is that kind of conversation.”
“I’m afraid so. If it helps, I don’t have long,” Miss Militia said. “I’ve seen some the notes on the situation, thanks to Dragon and Director Armstrong.”
“Is he a director now?” I asked. “Or is he-”
“He isn’t. Not officially,” she said, cutting me off.
“Sorry. He had me going over notes, clarifying terms and wording. I might be a bit in that mode.”
“It could be that it’s a more comfortable mode than the one that has to face what’s happening on Gimel and its neighboring worlds,” she said, a bit more sympathetic.
“Are you doing okay?” I asked. “It’s a lot.”
“I’ll manage. I’ve always managed. We’re worried you’re the one who isn’t managing, Victoria. There are patterns of problem behavior.”
She didn’t specify what the behavior was, even with the time constraint. I knew, but that she wasn’t outlining it changed this from the kind of conversation a teacher might have with a student to the kind of conversation a cop had with a potential suspect. A teacher wanted to outline the right path. A police officer wanted to see if the suspect talked their way into trouble.
“First thing this morning, Defiant interviewed us. I told him I was under the impression that this would happen, potentially with Teacher at the helm. Things got out of control then, but my intention was to be as equipped as possible to handle this… titan thing.”
“You knew it would be titans?”
“No. No… but I knew it had to be something. My team lost Swansong, and having precogs tell you your friend is going to die, then seeing them die? Seeing a little girl lose her favorite person? Kind of forces you to confront that hey, this is all for fucking real.”
She didn’t respond, just staring at me with bottle-glass green eyes.
I continued, “And I wasn’t exactly wearing kid gloves or operating under any happy-go-lucky delusions about how serious things were when I went to Shin as a favor to the Wardens, or brought my team into the fight to take this compound and stop Teacher. And we lost Swansong because of it.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“Fume Hood was a friend and she’s one of the titans now, apparently. I keep seeing people fall by the wayside.”
“I can sympathize,” Miss Militia said. “Cinereal is also a titan, now. Whatever that means in the long run. She was hard to work with but she and I found common ground. Losing her is hard.”
“We put everything on the line for what we do, Miss Militia. This has been my life, from the start to now. I was serious before this kicked off, I’m more serious now.”
Miss Militia nodded, leaning over the railing that looked down over lower floors. “I don’t get the impression you’re drunk with power. I’ve seen parahumans who lost the kernel of their self after a shift in their power, learning a new technique, or after an injury to mind or body. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re there…”
I nodded, a bit concerned at this line of discussion. “But?”
“But you’ve flouted rules. Dragon knows about Lookout’s activities earlier.”
I glanced at her, raising an eyebrow, saying nothing.
Miss Militia smiled a bit. “How do I say this? Lookout is very good at what she does. In nearly any situation, she might have gotten away with helping you and communicating with you. To all appearances, you and she both were being good and focusing on your own work. You had a few periods of quiet introspection, but that’s pretty understandable, everything considered. Except Lookout ‘being good’ and focusing on her own work and socializing with her friends is outside her norm.”
“Is it really? She works hard, she’s very fond of them.”
“And in the past week, there hasn’t been a waking hour where she wasn’t idly penetrating systems, gathering data, watching someone through a camera she’d gained access to, or figuring out how to sort the data she did collect. This morning there was a two hour span where she did none of that… as far as cameras and general surveillance of her activity could tell.”
“She’s in trouble because she didn’t spy and gather data?”
“She did, but she did too good a job of covering it up, Victoria. Dragon noticed the discrepancy and did a more intensive investigation. She found out what you two were really doing.”
I frowned, eyes dropping to the ground. “Every hour? Really? I would have thought it was a few times a day. Half a dozen at most.”
“Dragon’s notes say it was what you say, a week ago. This week…”
I nodded. “Why tell me that? You could have kept it in the back pocket and kept more of an eye on her and us.”
“Because we don’t intend to make the same mistake again, nor to extend the same benefit of a doubt.”
I set my jaw.
She went on, “First thing this morning, Defiant made you an offer. You could work with the Wardens and accept our rules, or you could go your own way and we wouldn’t be supporting you in the same ways. Should we revisit the question? You don’t seem willing to accept our requests.”
I sighed. “Felt and feels like the rules were explicitly to deny us the support the Wardens are supposedly offering.”
“Your teammate’s life was saved earlier by a Warden. Slician saved Sveta.”
“Would Sveta have been there, in that specific circumstance, dealing with Fallen who hate her on principle in front of her, and ex-Irregular Case Fifty-threes behind her, if she wasn’t helping you?”
“You mean would she be keeping an eye on the Red Queen, Victoria? If you’d taken the other path first thing this morning, parting ways with the Wardens, and word got around that Amy Dallon was making giant clones with the limiters taken off their powers, I think Sveta would be joining you in investigating or taking some other related action. She would be there because you would almost certainly have been involved.”
“Maybe I could have saved her in Slician’s place, then.”
“Maybe. But we’re so far down the road of maybes I don’t think it’s productive. We are providing you with support. Medical care and support for Byron, assistance for your team, communication with other teams, shelter, and networks. I know you visited Anelace, Clockblocker, Kid Win, and Vista, earlier.”
Anelace. Damn. I felt the skin of my face and ears heat up a fraction.
“Okay,” I said. “Point conceded. I still think a lot of what the Wardens were doing in the situation room with Eric in charge was counter-productive and outright dangerous. Benching me, okay, I can see it. Denying me the ability to call my team, throwing road blocks in the way? Cinereal’s point man in the situation room didn’t say it right out, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to pass on even critical messages. They gave me the excuse of paperwork, qualifiers, all things that would tie me up until the situation was over.”
“He made choices I wouldn’t have, but I don’t think it matters.”
“Doesn’t it? When those choices are that against what we’re trying to do?”
“For organizations like ours to work, sometimes we have to accept that we’ll get orders we don’t agree with, and then we follow those orders. God knows I did that enough times when I worked for the P.R.T..”
“I’m okay with following orders, provided there’s some indication the person knows what they’re doing.”
Miss Militia raised her eyebrows. I saw her take in a deep breath, like she was figuring out how to even begin with her massive rebuttal.
“The mishap with the dream camera excepted. Defiant himself said that tapping on the glass or investigating was safe. We took a look into pretty unexplored territory one of our team members had spent a lot of time in, that unexplored territory ended being bigger and more dangerous than we anticipated. That was a fuck-up.”
“He said no and you went and did it anyway. I think his feelings were hurt.”
“I-” I started, stopped. Defiant was a massive cyborg, dressed up in green and gold dragon aesthetic. Before that, he’d been as much a grizzled and live-for-the-job a cape as any I knew. I really had no idea how to process the idea that I might have hurt him in any way, feelings included.
“Victoria, as I said, time is short. I’ll be blunt here. Eric did more harm than good. Sometimes that’s the way it is in times of crisis. He just lost his mentor, he’ll be starting from square one working under me. It’s possible he’ll rise in the ranks quickly, if Cinereal’s assessment of him is correct. She always had a great eye for nascent talent.”
I don’t envy you, Miss Militia.
“As for you, you’ve broken many of the rules we set. You’ve been using your power in small ways, reportedly in one blatant, dangerous manner-”
“Touching Eric?” I asked.
“Flinch reflex. Automatic.”
“The same kind that gave your mother massive cerebral hemmorhaging?”
I winced. “No. I have control, now. He reached out to touch me all of a sudden, I was jumpy, it was a soft touch. He did it again later and I used my hand to push his away.”
“Alright. I’ll look into that. Let me continue, I do want to wrap this up. You reached out to command your team in an egregious breach of our rules, we did look at the contents of those messages, and they were more or less in line with what we would have found acceptable. Telling Sveta Karelia to stand down, de-escalating situations, and providing some guidance when the Red Queen went berserk. That was a massive de-escalation, when we had reason to believe Shin wanted a fight.”
“I still need to ensure she has a therapist to talk to.”
“After. We’ll work something out. The Wardens will help you.”
“Because when I tried, a member of the Wardens broke my phone and got aggressive.”
“I’m aware. We will handle that separately. Trust me, Victoria. Please.”
I’m finding trust hard to come by, I thought. My mom with Uncle Neil. My sister. Swansong going and getting herself killed. My dad sticking by Amy without doing anything concrete. Jessica letting me down.
“I’m running out,” I said. “Of trust.”
She gave me a sad smile. Her tone changed, less authoritarian as she wistfully said, “What I wouldn’t give to have had you on my Wards team for that one year, and to see you graduate to the Protectorate alongside Gallant. The past few years have been so unjust.”
I shrugged, swallowing hard. I didn’t want to get into how I’d fantasized about such while in the hospital. “I needed to get knocked down a peg, to course correct. I just… got knocked down all the way, I guess.”
She nodded, then checked her phone for the time. “I’d like to catch up sometime, talk about that sort of thing if you’re open to it. For now… to put it succinctly, I’m worried, the Wardens are worried, but our need for heroes is outweighed by the immediate concerns. There will be repercussions, the Wardens may say no when it comes to access to certain resources or features in coming days. Until you regain our trust. Some of it will sting, but for the time being, we need to deal with the Titans and the city and we’re willing to postpone that sting.”
“We will be looking in more. To keep track, and to ensure you don’t carry on down a worrying road. Not just you, either. Lookout will be sanctioned in other ways. There’s too much concerning activity there.”
I frowned, but I nodded. “As food for thought, though, if you have a thinker that’s clairvoyant and capable of seeing everything within a hundred miles around them, no off switch, you adapt, don’t you? PRT or Warden? You just accept them?”
“Yes. But Lookout makes the decisions to do what she does. There is an off switch.”
“She’s a kid with some struggles who just lost her favorite person less than a week ago. The off switch is really hard for her to flip. You’ve probably seen her file, so you know the history there. Can you let me try to address this?”
“You do that, try to address it, but we’ll have to do something too. We’ll go easy on her, especially if you’re taking a better course of action, but…”
“But you have to do something.”
“We can’t let that kind of invasive, dangerous behavior go entirely unanswered. In the same way we can’t look past your team’s activities last night and your ignoring rules earlier today, whatever the circumstance.”
I nodded. I didn’t have it in me for a fight, and a fight would have put things at risk, with Wardens deciding not to let me go out. And that wasn’t an option.
“Before I go… I came to talk to you armed with an argument I was ready to use if you weren’t cooperating. I didn’t find I had to use it… but I think I’d like to bring it up, just as food for thought.”
“Okay,” I said, wary.
“The Fallen were convinced they were in the right. They operated based on beliefs they said to be truths, and through some combination of luck or efforts behind the scenes, they had a lot of successes. They did reckless things in contravention to the unwritten rules. When disaster struck, they believed they were in the right because they’d seen it coming, when you could pick three random citizens off the street, ask them if they thought the world might end, and get four agreements. This encouraged them, and they ultimately pushed things too far and collapsed. In their wake, they inspired others to go down the same course, the new Thomais branch, and those others also pushed things too far, made the wrong alliances, and died.”
“I’m not the Fallen. That’s not fair.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things, with my handling of Brockton Bay and its treatment of the villain population, but unfair is not one of them,” Miss Militia said.
“If I’d been more laid back, planning, laying a groundwork, you’d be comparing me to Teacher instead.”
“Maybe,” she said. “It’s not meant as an indictment.”
“It sure fucking feels like one.”
“A warning. You and I know you’re not Fallen. You’re a hero, and being a hero counts for something. It gets you benefits of a doubt no other cape enjoys. Defiant knows and has lived it. Shadow Stalker in our old Wards program knew it and benefited from it. Skitter got it when she joined the Wards. Lookout, Capricorn, Rain, and Swansong all got some benefit out of it. We’re desperate enough for more people on the side of good that we let things go…”
“That’s not encouraging, if you say I’m not Fallen and then imply the line between me and them is I picked the right side.”
“You picked the side of right. There’s a distinction, and what you’re saying is not what I’m trying to suggest. You work hard and I think however you ended up, you would always have been working hard for the benefit of the world. That’s undeniably good, but it does provide camouflage of a sort, and it does require you hold yourself to a higher standard as a result of that. Be aware of where you are, what it looks like, why you’re getting the flexibility we’re offering, and how this same kind of thing can end up.”
I wanted to argue the point, but again, I didn’t want to burn bridges for the sake of defending myself.
I settled for a nod.
“Thirty minutes until the briefing begins.”
“Can I fly home and change? I think it’s at the edge of the damage. I’d come in five minutes late at most. My teammate can keep me in the loop.”
“I think that’s doable,” she said. “I’ll see you there.”
She walked away. I took a second, stopping to think.
My head turned, and I looked at the nearest security camera. “We talk later, Lookout. Catch up with you guys in a minute.”
The perpetual little blue light in the corner went off for a second, then back on.
I took flight, feet leaving the ground, and I flew down the hallway, back grazing the ceiling so I wouldn’t bump into any bystanders. I flew with all of the pent-up fervor and frustration I’d been holding in as I’d sat back and watched Gimel suffer its mortal blow.
It didn’t take long to reach the entrance hall. I landed with impact, letting my feet and legs absorb the force of some of my momentum, instead of coming to a stop first.
And then I was outside. Coat on, black sweater, hands in my pockets. It looked more like night than day, with the smoke heavy in the air, and the city keened. Wind shrieking along the devastated sections I had only seen on video so far.
When I flew out into this cold, now-broken world, I took to the air with a violence I hadn’t been willing to use indoors, tearing through the sky in the same way a fighter might punch at a wall to vent his fears or sorrows. No slowing before turns, I just took the brunt of it against my side, and felt the cold and the wind punch through the softer outer layers I wore. No gentleness to the plunges or the skyward soars, no consideration for the g-forces. It was a strain and I needed that strain to leech certain feelings out of me before they overflowed and I said or did something regrettable.
But the air, in a way, fed those negative emotions by the same measures with which they absorbed them. Because as I rose higher to go over clusters of buildings it was too annoying to fly around or through, I could see the city, and I could see the damage. A gaping black yawning through the heart of the city, where it wasn’t stretched thin along the coast in the direction of Boston, and where the buildings weren’t all temporary, one story tall structures, sprawling out and waiting to be replaced when the resources were there. In the heart of the city, the buildings had been tall. Now there was a hole extending far deeper than the buildings had extended up.
No succor in pummeling the sky with my body, here. Not when it answered me with sights like these.
The forcefield protected me from the whipping cold. There was, at least, succor in its companionship.
Soon we see what we can do together.
Dive hard. Extend my arms out, and experience the wind through those fingers, feel the air resistance… my actual hands still in my pockets. I folded them in close, hugging them in tight and close to my body, and felt the resistance decrease. An umbrella open in rushing wind versus one that was shut, spearing forward.
Fly harder, between buildings this time, because air flow tended to go over buildings, curling before continuing forward, and with the forcefield out I was vulnerable to the vagaries of wind, even with everything tucked in closer.
“No,” I breathed.
The apartment building was at the edges of the cracking, but the blurred, broken separations in reality had speared it. Some fundamental support had given, and it had slumped over to one side. The apartment I’d shared with Ashley. Technically the first place I’d lived ‘on my own’, with no parents supervising or managing me, even though Ashley or Kenzie had been there at various points.
Toppled. My things, my files, my clothes, my stuffed lion that I’d salvaged past the end of the world. Ashley’s things.
I landed with enough force it made my knees and hips hurt. I navigated around the slices in reality, putting out one of my forcefield hands that I could afford to lose.
The distinction between one place and another was clear. The air lensed, like I was looking through prisms, magnifying glasses, or water droplets. But when it was air meeting air, there was little distinction. Perhaps temperature.
I walked across a landscape that looked like a stained glass window, with some ‘panels’ filled with snowy urban area and others with soil. Drawn in every hard-edged shape that wasn’t a square, some extending up or down.
The forcefield died. I had to experiment to see why. Certain pockets of air close to the cracks were dangerous, slicing any passing limb by sending different portions to different realities. Like thickets of nigh-invisible, ultra-sharp brambles.
I’d spent so motherfucking long trying to build a life for myself. Collecting my files, rebuilding a wardrobe. Gone.
I seized the roof and lifted it with more ease than I’d ever lifted anything as Glory Girl. It wasn’t that I was stronger- I wasn’t. But having eight extremities to balance out the distribution of weight meant it didn’t crumble to anywhere near the same degree when I held it up.
I threw it aside with more violence than was necessary.
Digging my way to the living room, using pieces of art and a general sense of what should be where to find my way to where it should be.
Some of the furniture had been shattered by the fall. Ashley had tended to buy nice things when she bought stuff, so it was sturdy… but that made the ones that were unsalvageable that much worse.
I dug and destroyed until I found my way to what I needed. My bed, my costume laid out on the foot of it. I made sure I had everything.
Once I did, I bundled it up securely, and I raised my head, staring across the expanse of black. There wasn’t much light, but when there was, it revealed hints of red crystal in the depths of that abyss, edges and points.
But mostly, looking out with nothing stabbing up or out of that chasm, the view was unobstructed. A lake of black, so far across I couldn’t see the other side. The only buildings on the other side were so obscured with snowfall they looked like mirages. White snowfall pouring into a void, making no appreciable difference in the texture beneath.
I lifted up sections of wall, forming a rough pyramid around myself. Cover while I changed into my costume. Even while I did it, I was aware of every little detail and item, recognizing where it had come from. Trinkets, decorations, drawer handles.
We’re all cast out into the cold. It’s only fair.
When I was dressed, I thrust the walls away, sending some sliding out into the void, others flipping across the street.
Briefing. Then we get to work.
No violence to my flying now, except where I experimentally opened the mouths in my forcefield and felt the air rush in through the apertures, pulling at my hood.
No, best to conserve my strength.
‘Work’ would be a war against creatures that, reportedly, no team had been able to deal with yet.
Some of whom had been our friends and allies.
My landing was feather-light as I reached the outside of the entrance to the Cauldron facility. I made my way to the entrance hall, with stairs reaching to upper floors on either side of a hallway so wide four buses could have driven along it.
The crowd was so thick I had to fly to get past it. There were fliers in my way too.
I landed next to Armstrong, at the far left edge of the line of people who were facing the crowd, a kind of middle ground between that line and the crowd. Legend was talking about the timeline and events.
Armstrong leaned in, murmuring, “We’ll have a laptop in front of us. We can trade off as necessary. You’ll address them with a summary of what the crystal landscape is like.”
I nodded, feeling a bit intimidated. “Sounds good.”
Tattletale, I noticed, was at the far other end of the line. In a similar, almost mirror position to my own.
Not quite part of the lineup, but adjunct. The Undersiders weren’t far from her. Rachel’s dogs were dog-sized. I could see the Heartbroken peering out past people.
Tattletale tilted her head to one side, her eyes moving. I followed her gaze.
My team. Everyone together, healthy. The Malfunctions were clustered near Rain.
My family wasn’t far from them,
My mom. Crystal. My dad was there, but he was working his way around the edges of the crowd, toward a side hallway. Marquis was with him, and where Marquis was…
Sure enough. Amy. Being escorted out and away. I saw my dad look back at me, then back toward my mom.
I did too. I saw Aunt Sarah there. Beside her, a face I’d seen in photographs for the bulk of my life. Uncle Mike. Lightstar. Looking less than happy for what I could guess were about ten different reasons.
That was where we were at, then.
Villains joined the crowd, capes were out of retirement. The major teams of Advance Guard, Foresight, and the Shepherds were here, plus or minus a handful of core members, but plus the reserve troops, their B-teams and reserve lines, the capes they’d been using to manage whole tracts of territory with one underlying ethos.
We’d had all of this, we’d had more, really, and we couldn’t stop this from happening.
Now we were in a worse place. Out in the cold, driven by desperation.
And we had to do better.