Some of the capes in the midst of this briefing were as scared as they’d ever been. Considering that a majority of capes had been through Gold Morning, that said a lot. But they stood tall, they stuck near friends, they wore their costumes and those costumes, in many cases, afforded a kind of courage.
Legend was the best person to start the briefing. He was known to everyone, and he was known to everyone in a clear cut way. It was a small image problem the Wardens had, that capes like Chevalier and Valkyrie were in two of the top three spots in the organization, yet if the average person was asked what they did, powerwise or in daily responsibilities, there would be some headscratching and debate. It made them feel out of reach.
Legend was a strange, inverse case. The kind of people who understood Chevalier’s ability to combine multiple items and keep the best of each, or Valkyrie’s ability to tap the powers of those who had died near her… also understood that Legend had done some sketchy stuff in his tenure with the PRT. He’d left, and he’d left for good reasons.
Regardless of whether a person in the crowd was in that camp or not, Legend was reassuring. He knew his shit and nobody who could count without using their fingers would deny that. He’d been through more city and nation-shattering events than some capes had been in regular fights. If any of them knew about the clandestine conspiracies he had played his parts in, they had to accept that he knew deeper, more secret shit too, and that only meant he had more information when he laid out the facts.
Just the facts. No room for manipulation, no room for the skeptical to wonder if he was being deceptive. Filling everyone in. Even the scared and distracted were being pulled in, because this was all information we needed.
“Today’s situation started with a cape named Fume Hood, who some of you may remember from the community center attack, where hired mercenaries disrupted the inauguration of a new team, and Fume Hood was shot in the chaos. Today, she was one of a handful of capes asked to help keep the peace at the Earth-Cheit portal when a riot broke out. She put her life on the line to help a group of teenage heroes she was mentoring, second-triggered, and became a titan.”
He paused for effect. Because every cape present had to be wondering if they were at any risk. It gave the moment weight.
It already felt pretty fucking weighty. She’d been a friend, and I felt guilty for what she’d become. If I hadn’t said anything and let her retire, yeah, she might have ended up returning to minor villainy. But she’d be alive, probably, not… this.
“For the remainder of the titans who appeared, we think it was capes who were struggling or losing touch with themselves and who were proximate to the collapse of reality who became titans.”
I digested that.
“Fume Hood was a blaster who created compressed gas orbs that broke on impact. Her ability has increased several times over, with vast quantities of noxious gas filling the area around her. From our initial observations she can solidify it into objects, and those objects can move. Her original power allowed her to create flavors of gas ranging from irritants to choking gases, and even a concentrated, flesh-melting gas she declined to use until her final moments. Above all else, her durability and reach are what have increased, and these are common trends across all titans. Reach, durability.”
Another pause for effect.
“Some hero groups made initial attacks against her as they crossed her path, to little initial effect. She seems to be focusing on defense, and we’re marking her lower priority as a result. For now, at the suggestion of the team she was mentoring, we’re terming her Titan Eve.”
There were televisions mounted behind Legend, and though he had no prompter, he trusted staff to bring up the right images.
It was a still image of the titan that had once been Contessa. Head bowed. Luminous golden eyes lined a body that looked like it was made of overlapping arms and stretches of fur, all in black. There was a vaguely wolf-like head at either shoulder and one at her right breast, none with eyes in the appropriate place.
“I won’t delve into the history of every titan. The files we have will be available to anyone who requests them. That said, I want to provide context for this one. Contessa was known to some as the cape ‘bogeyman’, a figure behind the scenes for many decades, serving as a key figure in Cauldron, who originally built this structure we’re in now. She was the most powerful precognitive we know of, and as one of the rare few who can claim he knew her, though I would never call it a friendship-”
His eyes dropped for a moment. Acknowledging his complicity in the conspiracy.
“-I think she gave everything in an attempt to avert Gold Morning, doing a lot of harm in the process, and she had little left to give when this catastrophe claimed her. She was escorting Teacher to this base for questioning, and he escaped when she started to break down. A Warden strike team was able to recapture him and bring him here, where he is in secure custody, being questioned as we speak. For now, she appears to be dormant.”
Behind Legend, the screens showed a live video feed of the Titan. Only shreds of city remained around her, buildings barely standing with the damage they were on, or the stretches of city they were perched on reduced to ribbons and roadways that tilted slightly this way or that, or precarious cliffs.
The Simurgh was perched on her shoulder. The video feed fritzed momentarily, and I could see faces in the crowd flinch.
“She is presently, according to our best Thinkers, attempting to establish a network of connections and expand the damage further. She has formed a network that includes three other titans, and is hardest to reach as she stands in the midst of the worst of the damage. The Simurgh’s role in this is unknown, but it may be in alignment with the titan’s precognitive abilities. I’ll stress this: this network she is creating is explicitly our biggest concern and the biggest threat to humanity right now. Dr. Armstrong will get into the threat after I’ve finished outlining who and what we’re facing. It was my suggestion that we name this particular titan Titan Fortuna.”
Next image. A titanic figure, rippling with muscle, head bowed, antlers grown overlong, tall, and arching behind his back, which was itself arched, like he was poised to sprint or leap. Blurry, green-gold ripples lanced through the gaps between the individual sections of musculature.
“Titan Oberon. The villain Prancer was a drug and gun runner turned kingpin, retired after a failed venture and the death of his partner. We’re still looking for his close associate Moose Knuckle, in hopes he can shed light on his partner and the situation that led to this. We’re coming to believe he’s deceased. Prancer was a Breaker who augmented his agility and speed, losing his enhancements if he was hurt. The titan maintains that agility and speed.”
Next image. A woman in light gray, with hair like fire. Like the rest of the titans, she had no face, and the rest of her was given more character and detail. The buildings around her were dissolving.
“The Ashen Titan. Formerly Warden Cinereal. Her reach was already extensive, especially when she was in an area for any length of time. It has increased manifold. She converts inorganic matter within a certain radius to ash she can telekinetically control and shape. We sent an expedition out to reach out and try to open communication, she superheated her ash, and the heated air that resulted killed the capes at the cloudline. We can safely assume she is no longer on our side.”
No mention of what had driven her to this. She’d seemed confident and focused when I had talked to her, but then the Wardens seemed to have a hypothesis about Titans losing track of their own humanity or something? How did that connect? What didn’t I know?
Maybe not so straightforward and upfront after all, Legend?
Maybe that was unfair.
Another Titan appeared on the screens. Engaged in a fight as the picture was taken. It had a face like a blade with hinges for two separate jaws below, the metal folding back to encompass the head, with no eyeholes. The ‘flesh’ went from black to red to a kind of white-hot pink, like it had been heated, as it reached the flared edges, like she was made of living armor. Her hair was golden, long enough to drape on the ground. No legs, just a column. Her hands were weapons.
“Titan Skadi. Formerly Axehead, a member of Advance Guard’s lower-tier roster. She was not considered a strong cape by herself or others, and she is our most immediate concern. Axehead had the power to teleport, but only into danger. Titan Skadi has the same ability, but with no apparent limit on ranges, not even dimensional boundaries. She assesses the biggest threat to her with a danger sense, and teleports to it to immediately begin wreaking havoc. She’s the most aggressive titan, and it’s taking the concerted effort of twenty capes to occupy her so she won’t read us as her most immediate threat and appear in this venue.”
Another image. More feral than the other titans, bent over, with a crown of golden hair, a mane running down his back, and hairy arms, which were lengthened to rest on the ground, ending in claws. Its skin was like onyx, muscular and lanky.
“The Nemean Titan. Formerly Victor, a member of the Shepherds. A thinker-stranger with theft of competency, both ambient and focused. Anyone who passes within a certain range of the titan loses all faculties except their power use. This includes ability to walk or speak. We have reason to believe it becomes permanent if they aren’t able to evacuate in time. When his movements cause the air to ripple, the air carries the effect, and we can assume other things may spread it too.”
Victor. I’d run into him a few times as Glory Girl, but never in a direct confrontation. Twice when he’d been with a group of Empire Eighty-Eight’s people, too many to tackle, gone by the time I’d had a chance to get reinforcements. Once when he’d been alone, after a call had come in for police to check on the head of a digital startup who wasn’t returning calls or showing up to work. The police had called for some backup and I’d been on patrol, so I’d accepted. It had been Victor, breaking into a man’s home to steal his computer know-how, spending more than twenty four hours doing it, so as to leave the man with nothing. Victor had escaped out the back as the cops banged on the door, and on foot he’d been adroit enough to evade my chase from the air, with only a few stumbles when I’d used my fear.
The court case had been something I wasn’t involved in, outside of a short few questions and the usual defense’s suggestions of unreasonable force… which hadn’t really applied when I hadn’t even been able to catch Victor in the first place. After that, it had been something I heard about every couple of months, until it came out that the whole thing was an attempt by the startup guy to bail on his own project and claim the compensation and disability insurance, with Victor as his paid hire.
Victor had done other things. Taking all talent from a black violinist and leaving her with nothing. She’d never got it back. Taking away all restraint and subtlety from a gay twenty-something, in an effort to humiliate them, or get them to do something criminal. The victim’s friends had managed to restrain him and alert authorities, but they’d only noticed because he’d already self destructed whole parts of his life, outing himself and losing the funding from his parents that let him attend the University. I remembered the fundraiser from after. According to the gathered info that had been released about the Empire Eighty-Eight villains, he’d once tortured ABB gang members, taking away all pain tolerance and willpower, because those were skills we all learned over the course of our lives. He’d broken them, then taunted Lung with videos of him lording over the once-proud gang members that now acted like animals.
So much ugliness and degradation, and a chilling, quiet pride in how he’d done it.
And he’d gone hero… briefly, I supposed. He’d said the right words, did the right things, and we’d accepted it, because like Miss Militia had said, we gave heroes that benefit of a doubt if they were willing to take it.
It hadn’t stuck. I fully believed that what he was now was a consequence of his old monstrousness. Of doors he’d closed, weaknesses in his own character he’d ignored in the course of imagining and even forcing weakness onto perceived ‘others’.
Fuck him, and fuck, if the Nemean Titan had even a quarter of his old cruelty, it was going to be a malicious bastard of a thing.
The list kept on going. More titans. One that looked like it was made with thick black cords all tangled together, with silver needles glinting throughout, like thorns on a rose stem. Its face was like a cluster of flowers that overlapped and intermingled, forming a shape that was vaguely face-like.
“The Ophion Titan. Formerly a villain who went by ‘Mr. Bough’, one half of the human trafficking partnership Orchard, which mutated people in body and mind to customize them for their clients. He was incarcerated in a prison world, and was closest to the breach that created an overlap between our world and the prison dimension. Several who attempted to escape past him and into our world were struck with his needles, and have mutated dramatically. He attacks quickly and with great reach and accuracy, and even brief contact with the needles seems to induce physical changes. With one of his creations arrested and one dead, we haven’t seen them revert yet. We’re holding out hope.”
I looked over at Sveta. Mr. Bough had given her her new body, as part of a deal. For his help, he’d gotten parts of a prefab house delivered and connected, a wood stove, a pedal-operated generator, and a computer with a library of media. Wardens were to check in every few months to see what else he needed, contingent on him not setting up any ambushes or anything of the sort.
He’d gone from that to this. Was it that he was closest, and all prisoners in that world were on the brink of losing themselves? Or had the house somehow backfired? When others were digging deep into their inner reserves to better their immediate situations and survive, he’d had a place to rest and kick back… and to realize the reality of his new circumstance.
“The Titan Arachne. Formerly a teenager with uncontrolled powers, held in the Sussex powers facility. She went to the Red Queen for assistance and was still there when the damage to the city breached the portal and reached her vicinity.”
That’s an awfully convenient, condemnation free take on how my fucking sister handled that, I thought. I held my tongue.
“She produces razor wire within a quarter-mile of herself, scaling up over time, and seems to ignore the Manton limit. The second most aggressive titan we’re dealing with, but easily distracted.”
I could feel the mood of the room changing slightly as Legend went down the list. Each one posed its own set of problems. How did we get through a quarter-mile or more of razor wire to even begin fighting the Titan Arachne? Or through Titan Eve’s gas? Or face off against a foe who needed only one glancing blow to turn us into… whatever the Ophion Titan was making?
“The Strange Titan. No image, because we can’t turn cameras or any sets of eyes toward it, and any attempts to turn powers in its general direction fail. Our initial speculation about who it might have been were foiled when it evidenced other abilities. A team of three made a fighting retreat from the area, using powers to try to use the environment against the titan, and the titan disabled them one by one, with only the third escaping. Her teammates were inflicted with horrific hallucinations and don’t appear to have any awareness of external stimuli. We have thinkers and one cape with experience in delving into minds analyzing the victims now. We have no indication whether it’s one Titan or two within that area.”
He glanced to one side, before tapping a phone he had on the podium.
“A final titan, yet unnamed, as it just came to our attention. Auger, mercenary. He was on the front line against the Machine Army, and was caught out when the Red Queen’s line of assistance was interrupted. The Titan is apparently engaged with the Machine Army now. We’ll have more details soon. If anyone knows Auger, please reach out to us or talk to me over there.”
Legend managed to sound so quietly confident and unruffled as he laid it all out there. One thing after another and he conveyed the idea we could tackle this, without saying those explicit words.
Chevalier took a step forward, going from the line of Wardens to the center stage. Legend took a step back.
Chevalier had his own quality.
“As long as the Titan Skadi is a consideration, we’ll be splitting up our forces, with the group that can fend her off as her primary antagonist. Other groups will be addressing other titans. We start out with a fact-finding approach. If you engage, make sure you can disengage first. Test their limits and the limits of their abilities, see if you can harm them, and withdraw, making sure to pass on any knowledge…”
He went on, going into some details about the specific bases for each refugee camp, resources available, that the Patrol was there to provide anything we needed, and to liaison between us and the public.
Probably good to have a buffer.
“On that note,” he said, “The video of Fume Hood using her power on a crowd of anti-parahumans is being disseminated in certain circles. It’s available to watch on your accounts with the after-situation reports from the teams she was with. As I noted, power may be intermittent, phone lines and cell phones are far from robust or consistent, and most of the internet infrastructure was lost in the damage. Download what you want and need while you’re here.”
Armstrong leaned forward, tilting his head to get my attention, rather than touching me as many others would have done. I nodded.
He didn’t need to say it. We were about ready to go up.
“Survive, defend, keep your eyes open. Your instincts and your understandings of powers will be paramount here. Those of you who have been capes for some time have reached this point because you have those instincts and that understanding. Those of you without experience who have the courage to be here and the wisdom to be one of the good guys are in the right ballpark too.”
I looked to the only group of villains I knew for an idea of how they might’ve taken that line. I saw Imp with her mask pulled a bit out and away from her face, putting her finger down her throat.
Chevalier was wrapping up, it looked like. I’d seen videos of him at New Delhi and in other events. He had a stature and regal nature that always made me think he was going to say a lot more than he ever actually did.
Chevalier went on, “To better inform your understanding, Dr. Armstrong will outline more of what we know. If you’re not familiar with any terminology, take note. You can ask later. We’ll be sending messages to your phones as we finish up here, with notes on where you’re going, and we’ll open portals shortly after. Those going to Shin will need additional details about the giants, Lab Rat, and the Red Queen. Rest assured, our algorithm will put you together with people we know you’ve worked with in the past, balancing out power across deployments so more critical situations get more firepower.”
Dr. Armstrong walked across the stage, and I flew for a second or two to skip the short set of steps that led up to the ‘stage’, which was more of a platform for loading or lifting up the trucks that were going straight to the heart of the facility.
“That algorithm?” I murmured, as we walked to the podium. “Is that the same one that put Capricorn and Precipice with the Shepherds and Sveta with the Irregulars?”
“Likely,” he said.
“Tell me that’s not Dragon’s tech,” I answered him.
I frowned a bit, but I didn’t want to say anything now that we were close enough to the podium that the microphone might pick up my voice. Maybe I’d just been really lucky in dealing with more reliable tinkers. Kenzie, Kid Win, Armsmaster, Dragon…
Armstrong flipped the laptop open and swiped his card over the reader to log in. His notes came up automatically, along with mine, in a separate scroll. There were so many highlights it was kind of hard to read; I imagined it was second nature to Armstrong, with highlights for clarity, comments, and verification by thinkers, in yellow, orange, and blue, respectively. I had to work to look past it and find the flow of it.
Back straight, shoulders square, hands held behind my back. Convey the kind of image Legend and Chevalier do.
Armstrong addressed the gathered capes, “Ahem. What we know of the invader’s life cycle is that they attempt to access worlds, disseminate themselves and spread powers as a form of learning and cognition. Each segment of the invader is a consciousness unto itself, and when those segments connect to us, we refer to them as agents. Scion’s role in the process was to guide and shepherd the segments through the process and to coordinate them at the end. That process is ongoing and we are dealing with them as an independent series of individual segments with no coordination. The damage we are dealing with across multiple realities would normally be their final stage, when our civilization was exhausted of everything it had to offer in the way of knowledge and conflict.”
Everyone was watching. My mom. My teams. Teams I’d tried to join. Capes I’d fought.
He went on, “It is to our advantage, if it can be called that, that the Titans are not well coordinated. As of right now they are still finding their feet, coordination, and working out how to exert their full powers. When we view the dark areas where it seems all realities have been stripped away and only their realities are evident, our best cameras are able to see their attentions at intercommunication. This appears like brief flickers of lightning, often faint, and most often frustrated. When they succeed in communicating, they often tend to repeat the attempt and frequency.”
The screen on the laptop showed what was on the screens behind us. An overhead map, titans spaced out across that map, with two question marks in the Strange Titan’s vicinity, not all that far from Fume Hood-
From Titan Eve.
Lines connected titans. One between Dauntless and Eve. Then Titan Fortuna with lines of varying strength to the Ophion, Nemean, and Ashen Titans; to Bough, Victor, and Cinereal, respectively. Another line seemed to connect Titan Oberon to the unnamed new Titan, Auger.
“Our worst case scenario is that they form anything resembling a complete network,” Armstrong said. “At even partial completion, they may extend the damage and cause more titans, which allows for more of a network, and gives them something you could describe as a firm grip around our planet. From there, they attempt to reproduce and they scatter. They leave little behind. This is how they function.”
Spooky. I hoped it was clear to the crowd, even though Armstrong was trying to avoid outright saying the words.
If the cycle completes, we’re goners.
“If the damage starts spreading again, or if you get alerts, capes, especially capes who don’t feel confident or capable, should immediately retreat. Seek support in allies, but do everything you can to avoid succumbing. Reports from the scenes suggest it is doable. Be strong.”
That was improvised, nothing in the file he was reading off of.
He went on, “Everything Chevalier said about protecting and assisting the settlements of refugees is absolutely true. Deflect and distract the titans, gather that information. That is our reality as a primarily defensive fixture, at least until we know how to attack. I say this, but I know some of you will want to take the advantage or be the aggressors. Some of you will venture into the damaged areas, or into the darkness beneath the cracks.”
I took in a deep breath.
My notes were there, printed out in plain text, highlighted. Marked in shades of green for their analysis by thinkers. Tattletale might have been one, I imagined.
“This is Victoria Dallon. She and her team have some experience in that space.”
Don’t swallow, don’t clear your throat, don’t hesitate.
I spoke, addressing the microphone and the room, “I would not recommend doing what my team and I did. Last night we attempted to use technology to breach a weak point in that space and access it. What we’re dealing with up here exists down there, to varying degrees and strengths. Past those cracks in reality is their reality, or the source of our powers. I’d describe it as a bio-computer, written out as landscapes of crystal. Every jutting piece of crystal is its own subsystem with its own focus. More importantly, it’s defended by what are essentially more titans and you would be fighting them with-”
-There was an amendment to my notes, thanks to one of the thinkers. Not no, but-
“-reduced powers, should you enter through the cracks. Should you manage to defeat anything in there, you’ll be hurting the parahuman or parahumans it connects to. I do think there are answers and tools to be found in there, but take caution. We thought we were taking a look and we were drawn in en masse instead. Be careful.”
I paused, letting that land, hoping people remembered it. “If you do find yourself in that territory, by purpose or by a fall or the Titan’s purpose, recognize that it’s a multi-layered space. Trust the instincts derived from your connection to your agent, the source of your powers, if you can. Go with the flow. You can try to think of friends and follow the connections that appear, or pause to reinterpret the landscape. I can’t make you any guarantees about any of this, as we were technically within the system rather than on it, but the Wardens’ thinkers seem to think this is more or less right. This may be the final battlefield in our efforts to interrupt this whole mess from happening.”
I saw some heads nodding. I didn’t see as much confusion as I’d feared. I still saw a lot.
I stepped back.
Armstrong had more to say. Mostly my head was buzzing from the adrenaline of public speaking and the dull embarrassment that I was admitting to Breakthrough’s mistake. I kept still and composed, letting Armstrong take the spotlight.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I ignored it. Composure was more important.
I saw my family in the crowd. My mom smiled.
Felt like a fucking kid in the school choir, looking for mom in the crowd. Fuck.
The moment passed quickly, at least. I saw my team. My heroes. Sveta with her patchwork coat over her costume, Precipice in white and silver with veins of gold and his additional arms. Capricorn in red armor, helmet off, but the cloth mask and head-covering that kept the cold metal from contacting flesh still hiding his identity. Lookout, wearing her updated costume with the vaguely creepy mask I hadn’t had the time to steer her away from, her clothing matched more to the Heartbroken, with a lot of black cloth decorated with blue silver, all looking more like high fashion than anything utilitarian. Layered cloth, ruffles, lace, traps, and beaded fabric- not too much, but enough to draw the eye. Candy, Chastity, Darlene, Roman, Juliette.
“…are symptoms of increased instability and loss of self as the agent gains more ground. Monitor yourselves and your teammates, and when in doubt, report your concerns.”
Portals were beginning to open up. Kenzie’s portal-box tech, which was somewhere in the facility now, apparently.
“Thank you, Dr. Armstrong,” Chevalier said. “Those of you with questions, concerns, those of you wishing to back out, and those of you we’ve already talked to about managing the situation around Shin or the Machine Army, please remain behind. Everyone else, we will be in touch with powers or the communication lines that still work. Please proceed through to your destinations and do what you do so well.”
The screens set up behind the stage showed the portals and their labeling. People were already getting sorted, talking as they found other teams they knew.
“Thank you,” Armstrong said. “We’ll stay in touch.”
“Thank you,” I told him. I meant it. He’d been decent to me overall. “Good luck.”
“You too. Look after Sveta for me?”
I flew down to the floor.
It didn’t feel like enough, with no discussion of weak points, or even any clear answers of what their weak points might be. In reality, I didn’t think we had any idea.
It felt like an Endbringer fight, except we were being asked to split up, to gather in smaller numbers.
With people getting sorted and the crowd pulling away, it wasn’t too obstructed a path to my teams.
My family, I saw, had already left. My mom was waving, probably to get me to come over. I just didn’t really have it in me. It looked like Uncle Mike had already gone somewhere, as had Aunt Sarah. My dad had gone with Amy.
I was kind of glad to not have to dwell on them.
I approached the Major Malfunctions first.
“Are you guys okay?” I asked.
They nodded. They looked pretty devastated. Even Withdrawal, with his creepy-ish mask covering his expression, managed to convey something in his body language. Caryatid’s eyes were downcast.
I kind of wanted to hug them but I had no idea what their policy would be. They were kind of a huddle, too, Caryatid with her arm around Finale and a hand on Withdrawal’s leg. I couldn’t hug all three of them at once without smashing my breastplate into Caryatid’s mouth.
“I’m so sorry about Fume Hood,” I told them.
“She was one of the coolest adults I know,” Finale said. It was hard to meet her eyes, with the hurt clear in them. I was reminded of Kenzie, even though Finale was closer to Tristan’s age.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m glad you all made it out intact.”
“It got so ugly so fast,” Withdrawal said.
Caryatid looked over her shoulder at the portal, her mask covering her lower face, her eyes heavily decorate with gray and orange makeup and eyeliner, striking against her light brown skin. She briefly entered her breaker form, and the pages of her perpetually unfolding butterfly-wing face had streaks of orange along with hints of what the fresh makeup might have been hiding- puffy redness.
Then she was normal again.
“What do you guys think you’re going to be doing?” I asked.
“Going in,” Withdrawal said. “Our place got destroyed, our stuff’s in a van and we don’t know where the van is. We’ll go to the camp, set up there, and keep participation minimal, if that’s okay?”
I checked my phone. “H?”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve got to catch up with my team. We’ll talk later? When it’s quieter?”
“Please,” he said.
He just shook his head.
My team was gravitating toward one of the portals, hanging back only to let me catch up. I went to them, and rejoining the group felt like I could finally breathe after being underwater too long, except it wasn’t breath.
I hugged Sveta, first and foremost. Then I put my hand out in Kenzie’s direction, and she reached out and squeezed it.
“I was scared for you,” I told Sveta.
“I made it. Got through it okay.”
I squeezed her, finding myself surprised that it wasn’t a prosthetic I was holding. Then I broke the hug.
“How did you manage over here?” Rain asked.
“Not great. Went a little stir crazy, got in trouble a few times.”
He nodded, just taking it as that. “You see where we’re going?”
“H,” I said.
He pointed at the portal.
“Should we go?” I asked.
“Might as well,” he said.
We had company, I saw. The full assortment of the Undersiders. Deathchester. The Major Malfunctions followed behind.
My family was lingering close by.
This was either going to be really easy, where they put us as far out of the way as possible while still trying to make use of us, or it was going to be a situation where they were putting the hero team and the villains on the more troublesome task.
“How safe is it to talk?” Sveta asked.
“Safe,” Kenzie said.
“Doesn’t even matter,” I told them, stretching to relieve myself of some of the tension that had built up while on that stage. “We kind of got caught. I got lectured. They’re cracking down on Lookout, too.”
“Ugh,” Kenzie groaned.
“I’ve gotta lay down some rules and direction, Lookout,” I told her. “No spying, for one, you’ve gotta be clearer about what you’re building techwise, and what the scope of it is.”
“I don’t have a lot,” she said. “For tech, I mean.”
“It might be best if we have you get team members to sign off. Asking before you spy on someone, submitting a page of paperwork before you build something.”
“Uggggh,” she groaned. She paused. “That’s doable, I think.”
“My guidelines for the paperwork,” I said. “Project completion goals, intent, risks. I’ll draft something tonight in the way of a page with headings and questions you can fill out. Until then, talk to at least two of us before you do something.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Had to get that out of the way.”
“It’s okay,” she said. She didn’t smile, instead bobbing her head. I would have taken it for a nod, but it kept going. She looked over at the other kids, and a bunch of kids and teenagers in white masks looked over her way. Chicken, Syndicate, Decadent, Roman, Juliette, Chastity. Tattletale was doing the herding. Imp was talking to Deathchester. “I’m going to go to my other team, is that okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Lookout,” Tristan cut in. “Hold up.”
She was already moving, but she stopped in her tracks, the elaborate slim-fit dress she’d built into her costume swishing a bit at her thighs, which were covered in a pattern of interlocked gray eyes against a black background, black sequins at each pupil.
“Victoria’s guidelines, I’m making an amendment.”
“The ‘team’ you ask for permission, it can’t be Decadent, Chicken Little, or Syndicate.”
Fuck, that was a loophole, all right.
“Aww, what? But what if you guys aren’t around?”
“Call. You’re inventive,” he said. “You can try Tattletale. She’s a villain but her judgement should be sound on if you’ll bring trouble down on your own head.”
“That’s such a pain though!”
“It’s a good pain. Victoria’s going to have to explain the trouble you got in, but I think I get it, and we should avoid it.”
“Ugggggggh,” she groaned, hand clasped to her heart. “You’re killing me.”
“The Heartbroken are rubbing off on you,” Sveta observed.
“Yuh! They’re bad influences. That’s their thing.”
Then she was gone, running off, throwing her arms around Darlene and Candy’s shoulders, almost bowling them over. She’d still been moving forward with enough force her legs swung forward and then back before hitting the ground.
“I mean…” I said. “Is that where we go, okay, you can’t see them anymore?”
“They’re good for her in a lot of ways,” Tristan said. “She’s good for them. We’ll keep an eye on her.”
I clapped a hand on his armored shoulder.
The others were on the other side of the portal already. I didn’t realize where we were going until I was at the threshold.
Wooden cabins, placed haphazardly, with the road seeming to weave between them rather than them being placed by the road. There were short walls of stone for corralling animals, but the animals were gone. Only the repainted school buses that were being used by the Patrol were visible as a kind of anachronistic, anatopistic break in the place’s ‘feel’.
It felt creepy. Cars were jumbled up in how they were parked at one end, and off in the distance, there were fields that had the bright yellow of tents set up, with more going up as I watched, like distant flowers blooming before my eyes. It looked like a two-by-two organization, with heaters shared between tents in case one crapped out. There was the opportunity to rearrange the insulated walls to double layer or lay them against the ground for extra padding and comfort against the cold ground. Probably extended families or families who knew each other, to be that organized.
People who knew how to do it because they’d probably been in tents last Winter or Spring, and they’d only briefly had a home before having to evacuate again, if they’d gotten that far.
I could see evidence of battles in the not-too-distant past. Craters. Bullet holes in walls.
I met Rain’s eyes. He shrugged.
His home, from not too long ago. The Mathers compound. It might be that we were out in the boonies after all.
It might be that any place that wasn’t ‘in the boonies’ was caught up in the damage.
I stopped a few steps into the threshold, putting my hand out to stop Capricorn. “Cap.”
The others kept walking, surveying the area, looking around. Some stopped to look over in the horizon.
I looked too. I could see it. A plume of green smoke.
In the other direction, a crack had traveled directly skyward, like a lightning bolt had just… deleted what lay beneath it. A black scratch against the sky.
The others were being met by the patrol. I saw a couple of familiar faces, but not the most familiar. People I’d sparred with, talked to, eaten with. Many were bringing boxes out of the buses.
“What’s up?” Capricorn asked.
We were more or less alone.
“How are you?” I asked. “I heard about Reconciliation. Are you okay?”
He sighed, then shook his head.
Heartbreak. The hope of a meeting with someone important from the past. Then hope being shattered.
“Anything I can do?”
“Do what you’re doing. Pick up the slack, look after the others. I’m not at my best, and neither is Byron, for very different reasons. I’m fit, I’m fine physically. He’s… well, I’ll let him tell you but I think he’s feeling pretty good about life, I think. Even with Titans and everything else.”
A bit of a trick answer there. We’re not doing great, here’s how we’re doing great. Fill in the blanks.
“It was a good catch, Lookout’s loophole,” I told him. To find something more encouraging.
“You’re doing a good job, Tristan.”
“I know.” There was no brag in his voice. “But that’s not all there is, is there? You ever read the horror stories? Stuff on Parahumans Online, about what happens when you lose your secret identity? Or that line of threads titled Porch Light?”
“I read some of the secret identity stuff,” I said. “Wasn’t really relevant to me, though.”
He smiled behind the head-cover.
“Why?” I asked. “Do you need to sit this one out?”
“I think that’d be worse,” he said. “I’m… feeling like all the bridges are burned right now. I know they take time to rebuild, really. It’s only been a couple of years.”
“For what it’s worth, you relationship with Byron is so much better than it was when I met you.”
“He’s not here right now,” Tristan said. “He’s better, but he’s not well. When I’m out, he’s napping. When he’s out, I’m aware.”
“I burned every bridge I had, in one stupid, split second decision I couldn’t take back. Byron did a lot of the rebuilding, to make his way back to me. Rebuild that tie. But he’s not there now.”
“No, I guess not,” I said. “But it’s better. I do think he loves you. Hold onto that.”
“I guess what I’m saying about the bridges is uh… it sucks. I really liked that guy. Reconciliation. Felt lucky whenever I was with him. The way he put up with my situation and me. The way he probably feels-”
I gave him a hug, squeezing him in his armor.
“-He probably feels like shit every time he remembers what I did, how I lied by omission over and over for months. I hate that.”
“As you said, it’s been two years. Give it a bit of time. Let the team help where they can. Because we care about you too. There are bridges there.”
He heaved out a sigh, looking up at the sky above us. Overcast and dark as shit. Even this far away from the city, the dust cover was reaching us.
“Want company for the next bit?” I asked. “I can’t promise I won’t talk shop or ask to catch up, but we can talk about other stuff too.”
“Talking about the team and the plan sounds good, actually,” Tristan said. “But before that… was thinking it’d be nice to find a church or something. Never really took it all that serious, before, don’t ever tell my parents that. But it’d be nice.”
“I can’t imagine you’ll find any shortage in an old Fallen camp,” I told him.
He smiled. “I’m going to take a few minutes. Or an hour. Just sit.”
He shrugged, smiling. “I’ll be back. Look after our team, yeah?”
“So long as you’ll be back.”
“Lookout’s got an eye on me, I’m sure, new rules be damned. Trust me, not going anywhere. No way I want the world to end while I… like this.”
As low as I’d seen him. Heartbroken, I supposed. I just nodded.
“Thanks for asking how I’m doing,” he said.
I nodded, then gave him another abrupt hug, my breastplate clacking against his armor.
With that, he walked off.
I shot a concerned look at his back, watching him go. He didn’t carry the emotion in his posture- he was too strong for that, armor too heavy. Lifted up with enough force, set down with enough force. It made it hard to trudge, I had to imagine, and his current emotional state seemed like one for trudging.
Watching until he was out of sight, I finally resumed moving toward the group. I found them near the center of town. They’d pulled together some wooden debris that looked like it was from a fence, and Rain was lighting a fire.
Outdoor meeting, I supposed. Sitting on logs that had been dusted free of snow.
Deathchester had one corner, with Trophy Wife sitting next to Damsel, who sat next to Sidepiece. Disjoint sat on the ground between Sidepiece’s legs, a bottle in hand. Backwoods, Gibbet, Torso, Mockument and Hookline were there too.
Though her two ‘friends’ were with her, Damsel was talking with Imp.
“Aut viam inveniam aut faciam,” Imp said.
“Sounds like an incantation.”
“It’s Latin, you’ve got to know some Latin if you’re going to be a proper villain.”
“What she’s neglecting to mention,” Juliette feigned a cultured accent, “Is that us children had to point that out to her.”
“Hush, or you’re grounded. I’ll take away your… you don’t have video games. You don’t watch TV…”
“Can’t here anyway,” Roman muttered.
“You don’t read books… what do I take away from you? What do you even do in your spare time?”
“Nothing,” Roman said. “She acts cranky, gets bored, then makes fun of others. Being a pain in my ass.”
“Tormenting others,” Juliette said. “The idiot isn’t wrong. I pull the wings off of flies, see if the mercenaries have any captives that need torturing and pull out their teeth…”
“What.” Finale said. She looked around. “What?”
“She’s joking,” I said. “It’s fine.”
“Why would you even say that?”
The fire roared up a bit, finally taking hold. Kenzie, Chicken Little, Candy and Darlene cheered for Rain. Chastity gave him a little golf-clap, polite and small.
“What does it mean?” Damsel asked. “Repeat it?”
“Aut viam inveniam aut faciam,” Imp said, with no fluidity, each syllable punctuated with a nod.
“Aut viam, inveniam aut faciam,” Damsel said.
“Hey, that was actually good!”
“Of course it was,” Damsel said, looking too pleased with herself. Maybe it was only because I knew how Ashleys worked that I saw it.
“Holy fuck, it took me forever to learn these things.”
“This is the point you’ll tell me it’s something obscene. You’re the prankster type, I can tell.”
I saw Caryatid move to cover Finale’s ears.
“No, no, nothing obscene, um…”
“Need a hint?” Chastity asked.
“You don’t get villain cred for Latin if you forget the meaning,” Tattletale cut in.
“Stop talking! I’m trying to remember and you’re distracting me. I get some villain cred. Right, Damsel? You’re a villain and you said it sounded like an incantation.”
“It did. It counts for cred.”
“So there. It means something like ‘We’re gonna find a way or we’re going to force one.”
“Make one,” Chastity said.
“I like it,” Damsel said.
“Of course you like it,” Trophy Wife said, leaning forward. She’d set her rack down on the ground behind her. A little macabre. “It’s very you.”
I walked around the group, watching, being careful. I saw Cassie with Yips and Rachel with three more dogs walking without leashes. Yips raised his right leg to pee, then picked up his other right paw off the ground because it was in snow or something. He fell over, still peeing, making Rachel jump back and making one of the other dogs bounce around playfully.
Cassie just laughed.
Foil put her hand up as I passed by. I gave her a small high-five.
“You good?” she asked.
“Good enough,” I said. “You?”
She hugged Parian, huddling in with her for warmth, nodding.
“Just taking five,” Tattletale said, craning her head back to look at me upside-down. “We’ve been driving all over the place for the last while, in cars that stink of birds and dogs.”
“My birds don’t stink!”
“The dogs are fine!” Cassie protested, as she took her seat beside Chastity. Rachel, in the background, was silent, the dogs milling around her.
“Of course, the thing you want to do after driving all around the place is sit, right? Makes sense?” Tattletale asked.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “Most of the time I fly.”
“Boooo,” Candy jeered. “Privilege.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Two in our vicinity. We’re positioned to go help with one or the other, depending on what happens. They’re a few miles out and they aren’t coming our way,” Tattletale said. “Like I told the Wardens. They’re figuring their own shit out as much as we’re trying to figure them out.”
“Three other teams in our general area. One in the shattered little town to the south. One east, one west. We’ll have backup.”
“Alright, good to know, thanks.”
“S’what I do.”
I moved on. Past Chicken Little, who sat by Tattletale, then the girls. Kenzie at the end. I knelt down by her.
“Hi,” she said, hesitant. “Sorry about the sass earlier, the bad influence stuff. I don’t want you to think I was serious.”
I shook my head. “Nah, it’s fine. Just checking on everyone. You’re good?”
She nodded, then leaned hard into Candy, who leaned into her in turn, like each was trying to tip the other over or knock their friend off the log.
“Do me a favor?” I asked. “You have eyes on Tristan?”
I saw the hesitation on Kenzie’s face.
“You won’t get in trouble. So long as you’re following the new rules.”
One of the girls to her right coughed and whispered, “Entrapment.”
Candy, I guessed.
“Can you keep an eye on him? Permission granted to surveil. I’m worried.”
“He’s bummed,” she said, nodding.
Crestfallen was maybe a better word. Or despondent.
I just nodded.
“Eye on,” she said, winking.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Sit?” Sveta offered. “There’s not much room on this bench, but I could go all ribbon-y and drape myself over you.”
“Nah, maybe after. Gonna go check on stuff. Feeling restless,” I said. “I was sitting around while you were dealing with Shin.”
Rain, too, was feeling the lack of bench-space. There was some, but it was beside Mockument and Torso, who were just sitting there, being kinda weird, Torso rocking a bit in place, Mockument dressed up as a creepy jester, staring at the fire.
“Rain!” Chastity called out. “Sit! Squeeze in.”
He looked momentarily intimidated, until Chastity got up and grabbed his hand, pulling him down to the end of the bench. It honestly looked uncomfortable, like his butt was half on the log, but he seemed willing to endure it.
Okay, I could let my guard down a bit. Nobody killing anyone. Amy was mostly handled, with my dad finally doing something.
I walked away from it, my thoughts going over the Titans.
I looked at the patrol members, who seemed to be the dominant population here. Given the sheer quantity of people I saw who were talking to those people, especially with some possible family resemblance, I was willing to bet a share of the civilians who had also come here were relations. There just wasn’t a lot of space.
This was a waypoint, safe ground, kind of. Given the sheer number of supplies, it was possibly where the other Patrols were electing to have stuff stored. I could imagine the Fallen had had plenty of places to stow extra guns, ammo, and food.
I looked for someone who looked like they were in charge, walking around with a clipboard.
“The girl from the community center,” she said.
I thought at first about Fume Hood. Then I remembered my part in it.
I nodded. “Is Gilpatrick around?”
“Busy driving, but he’ll be back in an hour. Why?”
I was glad my guess was right. Epeios was a bit of a fuckhead from what I’d observed, but his algorithm had put me close to my old friend and boss from the Patrol.
“Just had questions. Wanted to ask about possible supplies, but it’s a bit of a reach. See how he was doing while I was at it.”
“Can’t tell you how he’s doing, but I could try reaching. What do you need?”
I told her. She asked for clarification. I clarified.
Then we parted ways. She went back toward what I took to be storehouses. I went up. Skyward.
No violence to my flight, no feather-light gentleness. Only simple up.
Until I could see over trees. Until I could see past the taller log buildings.
Off to our west, Fume Hood. Like a woman clad in a dark cloak, smoke billowing out the from and peeling off of the sides. The plumes of gas that surrounded her were taller than buildings in some places.
Titan Eve, I reminded myself. I was usually better with names.
She faced us, and for a few moments, I could imagine she was staring at me.
What was in that stare? Accusation? Sorrow? Fear? Anger?
I couldn’t imagine anything good from it.
I looked around to spot the other, and it wasn’t hard. Bigger than Titan Eve, Titan Oberon was a hulk of a figure, bent, muscular, and always poised. Off to our east or southeast, staring off over the water. He clenched the fist I could see, relaxed it. Moved his arm. Restless, he paced a bit.
We were caught between the two.
Others were fighting for their lives. Titan Skadi was in the midst of an attack this very moment, because that was what she did. Titan Fortuna was plotting, with the Simurgh gravitating toward her. Hunter, a girl I’d tried to help, was now Titan Arachne.
I wondered if my sister even felt bad about it, or if she’d convinced herself she wasn’t in the wrong.
It made me feel sad even to think about it, and that sadness reminded me of the fire, and how it hadn’t been sad. Uncomfortable in places, yes, but… not sad.
I’m going to have to kill you, I thought, looking between the Titans Pull out any and all stops.
I’d asked for guns. That was my requisition from the Patrol, my long-shot ask, that I wasn’t positive they’d be able to fulfill. Guns. Not handguns, not rifles, not assault rifles. The kind of guns that got mounted on trucks. That needed powers to be carried.
You hate guns, Victoria, I found myself thinking. You hate what they represent. Symbols of the breach in the compact between capes and civilians.
My breath fogged in the air.
Why did it feel like every step forward cost me something or forced me to compromise in some respect? Had my starting point been so awful, that I had to wade through this mire to get to better?
Or was it a sign we were on the wrong track? Because this wasn’t our way to victory, or because we weren’t supposed to win this time?
The ideas sat heavy with me as I dropped out of the sky, landing on frozen dirt, then made my way back to the fire, where I tried to make my peace with them.