Radiation – 18.9

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Kenzie sat back in a chair too big for her, a faint sheen of sweat on her face, illuminated by a monitor that was on fire.  Screens to the left and right of her showed the ongoing fights with the Titans, a constant reminder that every minute of rest we had was a minute others were fighting and putting everything on the line.  She didn’t even seem to register it, most of her attention on a monitor where she outlined a three-dimensional shape for a component, and rotated through a few art styles and aesthetics, including hearts, stars, moons, and apples.

Tinkers had left behind their equipment as they finished their shifts, creating a haphazard sort of workshop.  Kenzie’s contribution was setting up a variety of monitors in addition to the screens that were already there.  The one monitor seemed to operate with flames silently pouring out the edges, with a heat I could feel from the back of the room, while another was a sphincter-like ring of red flesh quivering as it strained to yawn wide, a soap-bubble film stretching across the gap, the de-facto screen for displaying the video feed.  The material fabricator that hummed on a table nearby was someone else’s, posted with a very angry looking piece of paper, scrawled with all capital letters, many underlines, and exclamation marks, instructing people to follow specific rules when using the device.

A whole lot of juxtapositions.  Workbenches with tools that looked like they’d been dragged through the end of the world, paint peeling from handles and spots of rust on blades.  There were crosses and religious icons stuck in the piles, and then… tinker stuff, just laying there, often gleaming, bright, and free of dust and tarnish, for the most part.  Even the stuff that was damaged wasn’t damaged in the same worn down way.  Clean, almost alien holes pockmarking the surface of a segment of gauntlet, sharp cuts in metal, and scuff marks that made it look like metal had been dragged across an abrasive surface with a force even a moving car might not have accomplished.  Tech didn’t have a cohesive feel, and looked wrong when sitting next to other pieces.  It made me think of chaos.

She was off in her own complicated world, losing herself in her work.  I liked the notion that she was getting some support from others, even if it was just in the work the other tinkers were sharing.

She didn’t chatter, and didn’t engage.  Even when she had been doing homework in our old headquarters, she had been more vocal.

I sat at the back of the room, Natalie at the same table.  Both of us had computers open, but Natalie wasn’t looking at hers so much as she just stared at the back of Kenzie’s head.  There wasn’t enough in the way of bandwidth for internet, so the pages I had open updated every minute or so, with only images and notes.  My foot was propped up on a stool to reduce swelling, my boot pulled off.

Semiramis and Little Midas had resumed fighting.  Lab Rat was digging his heels in, using the giants my sister had helped create to protect Shin from Arachne.  Hunter.

Now the only Titan who hadn’t joined one of the networks.

The material fabricator finished its print, hissing audibly as Kenzie cracked it open, removed a circuitboard, and then dutifully cleaned the device.

“You compared our fight against the Titans to humanity dealing with the capes,” I said.

Natalie looked my way.  “Thinking on it some?”

“Capes are naturally tied into society.  We have secret identities, we need groceries, roads, power, internet.  Titans don’t have those limitations.”

“True,” Natalie said.  “I’m sure you could tear apart the idea.  I’m not invested enough to defend it.”

“I kind of want you to,” I told her.  “I’m… I want to figure this out.  I want to find a way forward, work out a plan.  The whole idea of gathering information about these things is to inspire new lines of thought, or constraints we have to think within.  This isn’t the result of Tattletale’s power or Kenzie’s scan, but… I want to explore it.”

“I’m not an explorer,” Natalie said.  “I memorize and theorize.  I can talk in terms of what’s established and what’s likely, and work from a pretty solid backbone if you want me to sling out some ‘maybe’s.  Most of what I memorized doesn’t even matter, now.”

“Keep me on track, then?” I suggested.  “Throw out whatever comes to mind, call me on my shit.”

“I’ve had a bad track record of keeping you guys on track or effectively calling you out.”

“Mmm,” I acknowledged.  “That’s on us more than it’s on you.  If you want to map it to the Titans, we can’t communicate effectively with them either.  They’re filtered out, they might as well be speaking a different language, to the point that even a game of charades wouldn’t get through.”

“If you want me to call you out… you at least had a choice.”

“Yes.  I think those choices largely made sense in the moment, but… paint a bleak picture when you look at the big picture in retrospect.”

“They’re making choices that make sense to them, I’m sure,” she said.

“Fume Hood attacked us to drive us away.  But there’s something of herself in there.  And I guess that’s the closest thing we have to a parallel to secret identities.  I’m just spitballing here, for the record.”

“Spitball away,” Natalie said.  She looked over at Kenzie, who had just finished cleaning the material fabricator and was sitting back down.

“There might be something more in there.  Swansong might exist, buried in that crystalline structure.  Kenzie says Moose and Prancer are completely gone, except for what the Titan structure needed in the way of tactics and instinct.  No personality.  Fume Hood isn’t completely gone, apparently.  There’s a kernel of something.”

“Apparently,” Natalie said.

“So… do we pursue communication?” I asked.  “I tried talking to her face.  That didn’t work.  Maybe we go to the source.”

“Through the cracks, into an environment where the Titans are supposedly full strength and your powers are reduced.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Depending on how we did it, we wouldn’t necessarily have the ability to dive into the crystals or access different facets of ourselves.  Either way, it’s immensely dangerous.”

“With no guarantee it works,” Natalie said.  “High risk, low odds.”

I nodded.

“And even if you do communicate… who’s to say you talk to these powerful things and they listen?  You could give them sound advice about the future and the big picture and they could choose to press on or ignore you.”

I raised my eyebrow as I looked over at her.  “They could.  Absolutely.”

“What they want in terms of society or the big picture isn’t necessarily what you want.”

“They barely see us, because they’re so caught up in their own agendas.  They are in conflict, though.  If we have an advantage, it’s that we’re more or less unified.”

“Some of us are more aggressive,” Natalie said.  “Others are focused on society and how society approaches them, or protecting the world from them.  I’m sure a few are trying to profit.”

“But we’re united in the fact we want them gone.  If that’s even possible.”

“People seemed to think we got close with Oberon,” she observed.  “I wouldn’t lose hope.  It’s a difference from your situation and ours.  There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, if you can get past the train.”

I frowned.

Mulling it over for a minute, watching Kenzie use tongs to hold a bit of metal to the flame that jetted out around the monitor, I ultimately decided to confess, “Tattletale doesn’t think there’s necessarily a light at the end of the tunnel.  Only more trains.  This is our reality now, unless we can change things at their core.”

Natalie took that in, surprised at first, forehead creasing in worry above the large, round frames of her glasses.  Then she nodded.  Taking it as fact.

“There might still be a solution,” she said.  “A magic bullet… and shooting every time one pops up.”

“Getting to the source of it all,” I said.  “If there is one.  The problem is it takes resources we don’t have.  We got… I don’t even know, seventy-five percent of the way with Oberon and Skadi, with our teams fresh, every hero alive and committed, and that last twenty five percent would have left us unable to answer the next titan.  Then you add in that we need to stall them and hold them at bay to keep them from connecting up and we potentially need to dive into the cracks, and we need to deal with our own shit.”

“I wish I had an answer to that,” Natalie said.  “Except maybe it’s not in Breakthrough’s capacity to do it.  I’m doing what I can, I’ll watch Kenzie and run any errands, pass on messages, be your sounding board, whatever I can do.  I’m trusting that people more capable than I am can tackle it.  If it’s not Breakthrough, and that’s very possible, maybe it’s Valkyrie, or Bonesaw, or someone else with power and the ability to change things on a major scale.”

My sister.

I frowned, looking away.

The fighting wasn’t going well.  Kenzie was coding, with lines connecting blocks of code across what looked like three dimensions and six different monitors.  The monitors on her far left and far right showed the encounter against Titan Ophion.  Mr. Bough.

I could follow on the monitor ringed by open flame.  The Titan was as tall as a twelve story building, but the monsters he had just made were taller than him.  They surged forward on limbs that were still mutating, one covered in brightly painted blisters, and the other narrower, leaner, and meaner.  The lean one didn’t seem to take any meaningful damage from any incoming attacks, while the blistered one had pockets of fluid or gas that popped every time something struck it, bogging down the battlefield.  The camera showed the bodies of the capes who had been caught by the first surprise blast of liquid.

For each and every one of them, their flesh was melting off at the arms and legs only, with bones showing.  Their mobility was limited, with only a few people able to use powers to try and get away.

The needles skewered them, appearing from the ground and carrying them up dozens of feet.

I felt like I could throw up.  Old sensations were boiling up, along with memories.

I saw Kenzie turn her head to look, staring at the scene.

“Kenz,” I called out, feeling weirdly protective, even though there was no way this could be as visceral to her as it was to me.

She turned to look at me.

“You don’t have to watch that.  You could turn off the extra monitors.”

“The monitor is hooked up to power.  If it’s burning it’s making everything work a bit faster,” she said.

“Can you change the channel?  It just seems like a lot of extra stress.”

“I can deal,” she said, glancing back at the monitor.  “I’m just going to focus on tinkering.  I only have thirty minutes.”

“Need anything?  Tinker-friendly snacks?  Drinks?”  I kind of wanted a distraction.

“No thank you.  I appreciate the thought.”

She hunkered down over her work, putting a device together.  Reaching up, she pulled the sphincter-screen down, popped the film with her finger, and cinched the sphincter tight to hold a tool where she needed it.

“Meaning leave me alone,” I interpreted, no longer raising my voice to be heard fifty feet away.

“Yeah,” Natalie agreed.

“I’m not good at leaving things alone,” I said.

“No you are not,” Natalie said.  “I’m too good at leaving things alone.  I think that was why your mother wanted me involved in your project.  If things had played out differently, she would have pushed me to do things to influence you.  You were right, in our first meeting.  I might not have called her out on it if you hadn’t made it absolutely clear from the start.”

“Even then, you had to see it,” I said.

Natalie nodded.  “Sorry.  I never really saw that in reality before.  Only in movies, and that was something else.”

Kenzie picked up a device with a pad that seemed to lock to the skin between her ear and hair, with a band that went a quarter of the way around her head.  A camera-eye like one of the ones that had once encased her hair-buns was mounted on it, roving around.

She wasn’t wearing her hair in buns anymore, I noted.  She hadn’t as much since joining the Tenders.  Her hair was in glossy kinks, parted at one side and used pins on both sides to help stay tucked behind her ears.  She had grown up a hell of a lot in just the two months she’d been with us, and I felt like that was a bit of a failure on my part.

She used the eye to watch more screens, finished putting together a second, and used that to watch the ongoing battle.

“Assuming you can communicate with them,” Natalie said.  “And assuming they don’t ignore you, what do you say?”

“Help.”

“Aren’t they?”

“Work with us.  We can do more if we’re coordinating and  not struggling to survive them too, while on the same battlefield as them.”

“If Fume Hood is in there somehow, is it possible she’s trying, but she doesn’t have the capacity?” Natalie asked.  “I talked to Carol once about parahumans, and how it’s hard for them to retire.  You can’t just turn it off.  What if they can’t hold back?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

“If she’s in there, it would have been done already if it were that easy,” Natalie said.

“At the very least, we need her to not try to connect to other Titans.  Oberon, Skadi.”

Fuck.  I could see on the screen, that the fight against Ophion was going worse, now.  Five monsters with a scale dwarfing most of the old Endbringers.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket, checking it had power.  Still the one half-bar of service.  The call might come to help manage that situation.  If not a call, then a knock on the door.

“Could be an imperative,” Natalie said.  “You’re driven toward conflict.  They’re driven to connect.”

“We can resist our imperatives,” I said.  “Or manage them.”

“She says, with a twisted muscle in her foot, a bullet wound in one arm, a burn on her hand…”

“Claw marks from an acid centipede in two places in the same arm I have the burn.  Part of my hand was flayed.  I… lost the fingernail on that hand this morning.”

Natalie shuddered.

“Chemical burn at my hairline,” I said, tracing the area on my scalp.  It was still tender.  “Noticeable?”

“Yeah, but it’ll heal, or you can comb your hair to cover it up,” Natalie said.  “I’m guessing.  Before I met you guys, the only times I had to get the first aid kit out was to tweeze out broken glass from my foot.  I don’t really know about recovery times or what something like that looks like a year from now.”

I sighed.

I heard creaks on the stairs behind me, and I twisted around to look at the closed door to the upper level.

Using my forcefield, I opened the door a crack- it opened so the flat of the door blocked my view, but I could see through the gap between door and frame.

The team.  Rain came up the stairs, costume on, mask pulled off.  Sveta and Tristan behind him.

“Hi!” Kenzie greeted them.  She was in the process of milking the stem of the sphincter thing, which was as narrow as a finger.  Fluid oozed at the aperture.

“What the hell is that?” Tristan asked.

“Screen,” Kenzie said, hooking fingers inside the thing, and prying it open.  The ooze at the aperture stretched to a thin flim, which flickered and then consolidated into a clear image.  “See?”

“Oh, I see,” Tristan said.  “Is this a new direction you’re going?”

“No, gosh, I wish I had the free time to dabble in organic cameras and screen technology, but I really don’t.”

“Thank God,” Tristan said, clapping gauntlets together in a praying gesture, raising his face to the ceiling.

“Sorry to make a commotion as we come in,” Rain said.  “Can I share your workshop?  I don’t need much space.”

“I don’t mind commotion, it’s not so lonely,” Kenzie said, spinning around in her chair to face us, wiping at her hand with a tissue.  “Just so long as it’s not constant distractions like you asking me questions, I’m rushing to get stuff done.  As for sharing, I only have the workshop for… six more minutes though.”

“I requested a fifteen minute block of time, and I have the next timeslot,” Rain said.  “You can stay and keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll just take up… half of one of these long tables.”

“Oh!  Crap, okay!” Kenzie said, turning around, hitting buttons and turning off machines.

“Wait, why are you-”

“Because I was shutting down, and rushing production, and getting ready to pack up,” she said.  “But if I can keep going, I don’t want to stop it now,” she said.

“Jesus in Hell, that flaming monitor thing is hot,” Rain observed.

Kenzie and Rain continued their back and forth, while Tristan pulled over a chair, and Sveta pulled her lower body apart, seating herself on the stool without requiring me to move my foot.  I could feel some touches here and there, but not as much contact as I might have expected to have with my foot stuck in my best friend’s midsection.

“Can you raise it?” I asked.

She scooted a bit closer to me without getting up from her seat, tendrils pressing against the ground to lift up her body and the stool.  Tendrils found my ankle and calf, becoming a sling that felt a bit abrasive around the edges.  Even those edges folded back and away.

“Thank you,” I said.

Tristan leaned over the table, heavy armor on a table that looked like it was made of a wooden door with legs tacked on.  It creaked precipitously.  “I’ve been thinking about how that went.”

“Badly?” Sveta asked.

We’re not talking about how Tristan’s doing, then?

Tristan went on, leaning over the table with bright eyes in the fairly gloomy workshop space, a serious expression, and a tone like he was ready to dive into this, “It reminded me of one fight that Byron and I got in… that I got in, really.  Against Paris.  I didn’t give Byron much of a chance to participate.  It went badly then too.  The kind of bad where you kick yourself after, because you know you could have done better.”

“Could we?” Sveta asked.  “I mean, I made small mistakes, but…”

“Big picture,” Tristan said.

“Big picture, we each did what we do best.  You made bridges and kept buildings from falling down, you supported things, Victoria and I kept our strongest capes in the fight and evacuated people.  Rain has limited powers after last night, but he’s a walking toolkit, and he helped keep people safe.”

“It feels like we went into it emotional, tired, and raw,” Tristan said.  “We lost sight of broader objectives.”

“I was just talking to Natalie about broader objectives for next time,” I told him.  “I don’t want to dwell on what happened last time, so much as I want to make sure we have a game plan for next time.”

“Some of the others were talking about their own plans,” Sveta said.  “Some power interactions, some tinker devices.  Someone mentioned a bomb.  There were bigger plans, but I think everyone’s thinking about things.”

“Okay, wait,” Tristan said.  “Before we brainstorm on that stuff, I want to say, I don’t want to let go of the Paris thing.”

“The last fight we had?” I asked.

“No.  Look, we fought him more than the once.  First time, we went in raw-”

“Phrasing,” Rain commented.  He was a few feet behind Tristan.

“Ha ha.  Seriously,” Tristan said, without much humor.  “We were- I was emotional, rushed, teamwork fell apart.  He got away and he went on to hurt others.  We didn’t get access to him again for a little while after that.  Second fight…”

He sighed.

“Tragedy,” Tristan said, dropping his eyes.  He looked at Natalie, “The day I tried to murder my brother.  Spur of the moment call I’ve regretted every hour of every day since.”

“Is that why you’re… entangled?” she asked.  “With your brother?”

“No.  I tried to murder him because we were entangled.  But also because all of that energy and rawness from the first time was exactly what we were lacking the second time around.  I was burned out.  I felt like I had no freedom, I didn’t have as much I was passionate about in life.  Family was distant, Byron had his own thing, and my boyfriend…”

A pause, a moment of reflection.

I glanced at Sveta, hoping for a hint as to what was discussed in the conversation I’d missed.  Nothing in her expression.

“…If I were a different person, what we had would have been perfect.  Now I’m a bit of that different person.  Part of what I took away from it was that fighting when you’re low and when you don’t feel you have as much to lose is… really fucking dangerous.  Not just for yourself.”

I could, through the ‘sling’ of tendrils that held my foot up, feel Sveta tense and adjust internally.

“Would it have been better to let Paris go?” I asked.

“Considering what I ended up doing?  Yeah,” Tristan said.

“He would have hurt others.  He’s a violent bigot.  He might have taken lives.”

“I know,” Tristan said.  “And people might have stopped him.”

“I was saying something similar to Victoria earlier,” Natalie said.  “The onus isn’t on this particular group to handle the crisis.  It’s okay to back down and let others be the heroes and heroines.”

“What if the only way forward is if everyone is striving to be the heroes and heroines?” I asked.  I wanted to lean forward like Tristan was doing, to punctuate my statement instead of leaning back in my seat, but Sveta had my foot.  “It’s like playing the lottery.  Buying one ticket is insanity, but buying a thousand tickets gives you a thousand chances.”

“Buying lottery tickets is still dumb,” Natalie said.

“That’s not my point.  My point is that each group that’s digging deep to try and find the resources, ideas, or possible solutions is one ticket.  I don’t feel like we can relax like that.”

“Not relax,” Natalie said.  “Just… instead of hurting yourself to buy the lottery tickets, spend what you can, trust that others will do the same.”

“You’re kind of missing the point here,” I told her.  “When everything depends on us finding a win, hurting ourselves should be the expectation.  I know that’s shitty, but the stakes are too damn high.”

“Can I let go of your leg here?” Sveta asked.  “Sorry, I can’t say this next bit while cradling your foot.”

We transferred my leg to the tabletop.  I moved my coat over to form a pad so the table’s edge wasn’t digging into my calf.

My personal anecdote is that I have spent every day of my life that I can remember, dream-memories excepted, dealing with the actions of people who acted on similar philosophies.”

“That’s not fair,” I said.

“It’s not.  But they felt we were all obligated to make the sacrifices necessary to save the world.  They made us make those sacrifices without telling us why, because our ignorance was better.  Khepri did something very similar.  She turned people into puppets and put them in Scion’s way.”

“I was one of those puppets.”

“So was I, Victoria.  So was Tristan.  So was Kenzie.  We weren’t put directly in the way, but… we were pulled into it.”

“The difference between Cauldron and me is that I’m volunteering.  I’m acknowledging the reality, I’m putting myself in the line of fire.  I’m not going to twist anyone’s arm to ask them to do it.  If any of you feel like you can’t do it, I won’t hold it against you.”

“You might,” Sveta said.  “I know you.  You’d make the judgment, but you wouldn’t act on it.”

I frowned.

“I would too,” she said.  “I know you’d make that call for yourself and yourself alone.  But… it’s not a huge leap to expecting others to.”

“It kind of is,” I said.

“Okay, fine, I’ll clarify.  It’s not a huge leap from feeling that way to subconsciously acting on it.  It’s the same kind of thinking to what motivated Cauldron, and it’s really disquieting to think my friend can get so close to being that kind of a…”

“Monster?” Natalie asked.

“I hate that word,” Sveta said.

“Sorry.”

“Not really the word I wanted,” Sveta said.  “I don’t think you’re Cauldron, Victoria.  I do think that Tristan’s right.  We’re tired, and we might get through this next fight intact.  We’re hurting, we’re burning out.  Last night with the dream was hard enough.  It wasn’t all that long ago that we stormed the Teacher base, and lost Ashley in the process.”

“When I talk about what happened in the second fight against Paris, I’m not making excuses,” Tristan said.  “I’m saying we do awful things if we lose focus at the wrong times.  I want that focus, moving forward.  I want a game plan, I want teamwork, and if we’re going to make necessary self-sacrifices to step onto this battlefield, then let’s make sure there’s a point to it.”

I could hear the conviction in his tone, and I could see the concern on Sveta’s face at that conviction.

But Sveta nodded.  “Agreed.”

“Best if we can do it without the sacrifice,” Natalie said.

“One of the old patrol leaders once accused me of being too close to the world of capes,” I told her.  “I worry you’re not close enough to see that might not be an option.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “But as someone who’s been watching this group from afar for a while, I’m worried that some members of your group would sacrifice themselves even when it wasn’t necessary.”

“I don’t know if you’re talking about me,” Rain said, “But I have an excuse.  I was raised by a really stupid doomsday cult.”

He held a fixed up mechanical arm, and that arm held up a dusty cross that had a stick figure with boobs carved into it.

“Wow,” Tristan said, leaning back in his seat, looking at the thing.  He reached back for it, and Rain moved the arm to place the cross in Tristan’s hand.  Tristan turned it around, revealing a snake made of dicks carved along the longer arm of the cross.

“I was talking to some of the Wardens,” Sveta said, taking advantage of the lull in the conversation.  “They’re handling some of the bigger plans.  Teacher is one resource.  He’s captive, and he’s telling us stuff they didn’t know.”

“Got that!” Kenzie called out.  “I’ll print it out downstairs.”

So she was listening.  More back to normal, now?

“Armstrong asked me to join a discussion about case fifty-threes, do some tests, get scanned, have some Thinkers look at us,” Sveta said.  “Kenzie got some scans of things, others have their own data.  We’re thinking maybe the case fifty-threes are closer to what Titans are than humans.  Maybe there are insights there.  It’s a bit of a reach, in my opinion.”

“When do you go?” I asked.

“Soon.  After this conversation.  They don’t think it’ll take long, and we wanted to avoid having me and some of the other Case Fifty-Threes in one place.  Some are pretty hostile, still, and they’re stressed out.”

Shit.  It sucked it was the case but I was glad my friend was going to be around tonight.  “Makes sense.”

Sveta went on, “On a similar note, Tattletale said the thinkers are analyzing Titan Fortuna and the Simurgh.  With those two you can never be sure, but it looks like they aren’t aligned.  The Simurgh is interfering with the information Fortuna is trying to transmit to her network.”

“To do what?” Rain asked, interest piqued by the mention of the Endbringer.

“No idea,” Sveta said.

“Could be a misdirect,” he said.

Sveta nodded.  “Could.  Absolutely.  But once you start thinking like that about a precog, there’s no coming back up for air.  It sucks you down.  With Contessa, we found a possible in, a weak Case Fifty-Three that Thinkers couldn’t see clearly, we helped him get stronger, mostly by giving him a chance to figure out how it worked, and then we moved fast.  We should move fast.”

“So we assume she’s being forthright and is getting in the Titan’s way,” I said.

“Dauntless is fighting off any of her Titans that try to get close to her, so they can’t connect or do whatever Moose and Prancer did.  Some of the Wardens are going to see what they can do to make him stronger.”

“That’s insane,” Rain said.

“It makes a dark kind of sense,” Natalie said, meeting my eyes.  “When you’re dealing with things this powerful, you make concessions, you guess who you can trust, and work with that.”

“And us?” Tristan asked.

“I was talking to Kenzie about it,” I said.  I saw Kenzie turn around in her seat.  “Rain enters the dream tonight.  I don’t know if we send some people in with him, trust them to handle it, fend off any guardians and get access to something meaningful, but… maybe we also send in a hit squad through the crevices, go down to an equivalent area, and attack Alice’s looking glass from the other side.”

“That’s a lot of investment,” Tristan said.  “Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of having backup plans and layering our defenses, but…”

Sveta picked up where Tristan had trailed off.  “But they want us active tonight.  We get a few hours of rest, and then they want us back on the battlefield.”

“Makes sense,” I said, quiet.  I looked over at Rain, “I don’t want to leave him hanging out to dry, though.”

“I don’t want you to either, but we were just talking about the sacrifices we have to make,” he said.

“I think you could make the pitch and they might listen,” Sveta said.  Especially if we let them make the call on who to send.  It’s hard to part with capes, but it’s also a chance to get in there and take another look at the system.”

I felt a little nervous about the idea.  I’d fixed something broken, diving into there.  Would a second contact ruin things?  Or worse?

“It’s something to think about,” Tristan said, nodding to himself.

There was more noise at the stairs.  Another arrival?

“Shoot, are we out of time already?” Kenzie asked.  “No.  Are they early?”

I opened the door again.

“You never did explain how you can do that now,” Tristan observed.  “Reaching ten feet away.  Full control?”

“Ever since last night.”

“Since you were burned to a crisp by the Titan-like thing with all the hands, or since you merged with the system for a second?” Tristan asked.

I shrugged.

Vista poked her head around the door.

“Everything okay?” Vista asked.

“It’s good,” Tristan said.  “Thanks for giving me a few extra minutes.  Tell Byron thanks, too.  I’ll see you guys tonight.  I’ll be thinking about the plans, tweaks and stuff.”

“We’ll be ready,” Rain said.  He put the shoulder of the mechanical arm up his sleeve, then let it connect.  He flexed the hand.  “As ready as is possible, anyway.”

Tristan phased out.  Byron lurched a bit, like he was going to fall out of his chair, then caught himself.  He took in a deep breath.

Vista reached over, and he reached up, taking her hand, giving it a squeeze before letting it go.  She pulled her headgear off, and fixed her hair.  She looked tired.

“Long day?” I asked.

“Narwhal expects everyone working for her to keep up with her,” Vista said.  “I was up most of last night, too.”

“You managing?” Byron asked.  “Do you want my chair?”

“I’m fine.  But I’m looking forward to taking a break with you, getting some food, talking by the fire.”

“That sounds so nice,” Byron said.

“Not to sound like I’m hurrying you guys along so Byron can hang out with me, but the guy downstairs was looking pretty impatient,” Vista said.

“I’m done, mostly,” Kenzie said.  Give me a minute.  I’ve got to clean up.”

“I’ll clean up if I can start right away,” a voice said at the door.

The voice came from a gangly looking dude with a cutout in his mask, just below his mouth, so a beard caked in gel could be shaped into a crescent.

“You’ll follow the instructions exactly?” Kenzie asked, hands on her hips now.  “Soup was very specific.  I don’t want to get on his bad side.”

“I will,” the guy said.

“I’m leaving some screens behind.  They aren’t really efficient to carry with.  And there’s a visualization socket, you can plug any data device in and it’ll visualize every bit of data you’ve got.  All pictures, all models-”

“Can I get to work?”

“Okay!” Kenzie said, smiling.  She winked.  “Check it out, though.”

“I will.”

He grabbed boxes from under the tables and began unpacking them before Kenzie was fully done.  She gave a box of tinker stuff to Rain to carry, then gave me another.

As a group, we filed out, down the creaky wooden stairs, past the lower level where tinkers with heavier gear that wouldn’t make it up wooden stairs were working, and into the cold evening.  Kenzie was still pulling on her winter jacket as she stepped outside, and I gave her a hand, tugging the collar behind her neck up into place.

“I missed your name,” I heard Vista.

“Natalie.  Team lawyer.”

“Natalie, yes.  I remember the team lawyer thing.  You were there when we consigned some prisoners to the prison world.”

“I was.”

“Thanks for backing these guys up.  They’re some of my favorite people.”

“I can’t do much,” Natalie said.  “Most of my expertise is legal.”

“You never know,” Vista said.  “I was talking to Golem, a teammate of mine.  He was there when Gold Morning kicked off.  It was a person without powers who stopped Jack.”

“I remember reading about that,” I said.

“Didn’t stop Gold Morning,” Rain said.

“No,” Vista said.  “But everyone has a role to fill.  Even just the fact that you’re here, and you’re clear-minded, and hopefully not freaking out too badly…?”

“Not too badly,” Natalie said, her voice dry.

“That matters,” Vista said.

“I hope so.  I just thought… I was going to lose my mind, sitting in a sea of white tents with other evacuees, listening to the hum of the heater, and waiting to see if the world ended,” Natalie said.  “If I’m here, maybe I’m useless, but… that’s not the worst thing in the world.  There’s space, I don’t eat a lot.”

“I was in one of those seas of white tents a couple of hours ago,” Vista said.  “I wouldn’t want to while away the hours in there either.”

We reached the crossroads just a bit down the path from the workshop.  We stopped.

“I’m going,” Sveta said.  “Taking a portal to the Warden’s headquarters, getting scanned.  I’ll be back.”

“I’ll be with Vista,” Byron said.  “But we’ll stay where you can find us.  Probably by the fire.”

I nodded.  “Is Tattletale around?”

“She’ll be with the Thinkers at the headquarters,” Sveta said.  “Brainstorming.  I was thinking, um, it wouldn’t be a bad move if Lookout got some sleep.”

“An early bedtime,” Kenzie said, in as displeased a tone as I’d ever heard from her, that wasn’t outright shouting.

“A nap, before what might be another long night,” Sveta told Kenzie.  She looked at me.  “Maybe you too.”

“I have stuff I can do.”

“You’re hurt, you’re healing, and a little bit of rest goes a long, long way.”

I frowned.

“Clear your mind,” Sveta told me.

“I kind of don’t want my mind to be clear.  All the clutter and avoidant thinking is really helping, to be honest.”

“That’s a really, really good sign you need to rest,” she said.

“Seconded,” Natalie said, quiet.

“Come on.  You can’t second that.”

“Because I’m not an official team member?”

“Because I don’t want to stop now.  There are people I can talk to, things I can arrange.”

“Like?” Sveta asked.

I spread my hands.  “I don’t know, the-”

“You don’t know,” Sveta cut me off.

“You didn’t let me finish.”

She paused, waiting.

And I apparently took a second too long to formulate my thought.  She tilted her head a bit, giving me a ‘mom’ look.  Except it wasn’t really my mom’s sort of look, at least not before her head injury.  None of the exasperated affection.  My mother was too… collected to be that exasperated.

“Where are we resting?” I asked.

“My house,” Rain said.  “This way.  White house, with a big white stable, in case you’re looking for it in better light.”

I thought of what I’d seen on the screen.  People are fighting tooth and nail right this very secondDying.  Homes are being destroyed.  World-ending threats are inching toward completion.

I followed them.

Uncomfortable dreams stirred me from my nap.  I looked at the clock.

I’d had my eyes closed for what felt like seconds, but I’d dreamed.

Sveta’s coat was hanging on the peg by the door.  Lights were on elsewhere, in a room I couldn’t see from where I slept, and I could hear the low murmur of conversation.  I slept on Rain’s old couch.  Across the room, Kenzie was curled up in a loveseat, blankets piled high over her, headphones on.  A phone screen glowed, but she didn’t look at it.

A projected figure sat by her.  A man with dark brown skin and no face, a book on his lap, like a ghost.  From the headphones she wore, I imagined it was a book on tape, reciting from whatever he was supposed to be holding.

We were all just trying to deal.

I felt the disorientation of going to sleep in the dark and waking up in the dark.  I could see a number on a radio or device above the television, reading 9:20, and for a moment I couldn’t figure out if it was evening or morning.

But there was other disorientation, other unease.  I put my hand out- a forcefield hand, and it felt, without tactile sensation but with an awareness that wasn’t human, like it was unsteady.  Uneasy.

Like if I could sleep, if I let my guard down, I’d lose it.

I focused for long minutes on steadying it, getting it even again, until I felt comfortable with how it would move if I asked it to move.

Then I exhaled.

In roughly an hour, Rain sleeps.

I could get up right now and the others would tell me if we were good to go.  Capes without powers in the dream world, functioning inside Alice’s looking glass, digging into the systems.  Spelunking into the crevice to access the crystal from the side closest to our world.  Or being told by the Wardens that we had to go fight a Titan, that we can’t spare the manpower.

In a way, I hated every answer.  There was a security in every answer.

Why was it so much easier to think clearly with a head on the pillow, when we were furthest from being able to handle those crises that came to mind?

I touched my hair where I’d been touched with a brush of gas.  A wisp of the more noxious stuff must have seeped in through the mouth of the forcefield, touching the top of my head.  It still stung.

I was in the midst of gathering up my energy, ready to throw off warm covers and face unpleasant reality, when my brain slipped a gear.  Natalie as a member of the team, a mental image of Natalie in the dream room.

I used flight to get free of the covers, wincing at the momentary pressure of heavy fabric on my foot.

I floated into the other room, so I wouldn’t make the floor creak.

Didn’t matter.  I had just reached the massive kitchen with its central stove when Kenzie appeared behind me.  I put my hand on her shoulder.

Byron had only come in recently from the cold, though his face wasn’t flushed he had a few stray snowflakes and water droplets.  Rain sat with Chastity, cards on the table in front of them.  Natalie was frying something on the stove, while Sveta sat on the counter, watching.  It smelled like hash browns.

“I have a suggestion,” I said.  “It might be too late.  It might cost me respect with… Sveta, at the very least.”

“What’s the suggestion?” Sveta asked.

“Is there anything saying we can’t bring non-capes into this?”

“Which part of this?” Byron asked.

“Every part of this.  Getting them into the dream room-”

“You need powers,” Kenzie said.  “To connect.”

“Is it powers?” I asked.  “Or is it having a corona?  The node in the brain that-”

“I know what it is,” she said.  “I mean, we can try.”

“Then the attack squad, getting people into the cracks, into that weird landscape.  If powers are turned off, like they are in the dream, or if they’re weak, like they are if you dive in there… it doesn’t really impact them, does it?  The unpowered?”

“You want to bring the Patrol into this?” Sveta asked, sounding doubtful.

“Yes, but others too.  Natalie and I were talking about the human-cape dynamic, and how it compares.  One advantage humans always had over capes is that they outnumber us.  They decide what society is like, and we nudge it and we fuck things up sometimes, but they decide.  Well… humans really outnumber the Titans.”

“That’s a lot to ask,” Rain said.  “Depending on how it goes, it could be…”

“Really fucking ugly,” I said.  “It could be a massacre.  It could also be a massacre if they stay home and do nothing.”

Sveta stared at me, her expression serious.

I could read her mind, really.  I was just talking about this, she thinks.

Asking others to make sacrifices.

“We gather an army.  From the tent cities, as necessary.  If Natalie wasn’t comfortable staying, maybe some other able bodied people are restless too.  Heroes play defense.  Maybe the Wardens thought of this but they didn’t have a great idea about where to send the civilians if they used ’em.  Maybe they’re defaulting to a mindset of wanting to protect the citizens and handle things themselves.”

“Maybe they don’t want to throw away lives against an enemy even capes can’t stop,” Sveta said.

“We have jobs we can give them.  We make an army and they dismantle, bomb, target, whatever, but they fill in that spot accompanying Rain into the dream, they spelunk into the crevices.  They interfere.  I’m sure we have the data to know where and how to attack,” I said.  “But we make it clear this is our world, and to a degree, at least, they have to adapt to us.  We use our numbers.”

The room was quiet, except for Kenzie clicking on her phone.

I looked at Sveta again.  “We’ll give them all the facts, let them volunteer.  We’re not choosing sacrifice for them.  We’re letting them make the choice.”

“There’s no time,” Byron said.

“Then we get moving now,” I said.  “And we arrive late.”

I looked at everyone.  I met Sveta’s eyes last.  Searching her face for an answer, for permission to take this idea to the Wardens.  Looking for-

A confirmation.  One small nod.

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18 thoughts on “Radiation – 18.9”

  1. I looked at Sveta again. “We’ll give them all the facts, let them volunteer. We’re not choosing Ward for them. We’re letting them make the choice.”

    “There’s no time,” Byron said.

    “Then we get moving now,” I said. “And we vote for Ward late.”

    I looked at everyone. I met Sveta’s eyes last. Searching her face for an answer, for permission to take this idea to the Wardens. Looking for-

    A confirmation. One small nod.

    http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=ward

  2. Victoria’s plan is freaking crazy but least she will tell everyone the whole truth and let them volunteer. Opposite to what Cauldron and Khepri did. Not forcing people to work together or mind controlling them but ASKING THEM NICELY. She’s the BENEVOLENT TYRANT, guys, the benevolent tyrant is her. Given that the world is screwed then I have to agree with this plan, can’t think at something better.
    THE POWER OF NON-CAPES WILL SAVE THE WORLD. Good.
    Natalie is brave and very smart, she’s an example that you don’t need cool powers to be a cool person. Love her.
    Tristan opened himself in front of people. This is a good start for him and one step behind from becoming a Titan.
    Simurgh must be pissed because she can’t make Fortuna her mommy :(.

  3. I looked at Sveta again. “We’ll give them all the facts, let them volunteer. We’re not choosing sacrifice for them. We’re letting them make the choice.”

    …y’know, Cauldron started off giving people as much as information as possible and asking for volunteers.
    On the other hand, that is a genuinely important distinction and it took them, like, at least a decade to give up on it, so probably they’ll be fine, Ward isn’t going to run that long. XD

  4. This is making me think of the new Godzilla flick, big G and the other kaiju considering humanity as a whole as another alpha kaiju.

  5. I want more than anything to see an Interlude from the perspective of total random non-cape characters accepting Victoria’s suggestion and hoping that they will not die a gruesome death while trying to save their world. That will be a very original and good interlude.

  6. So, is this how we’re going back to the matter of Presley? We haven’t heard from her since Kronos pierced the multiverse.

    I hope she can forgive Victoria for Swansong’s death.

  7. So: send random, terrified civilians into Shardspace in the hopes that they can…?
    (I mean, sure, some of them will probably have training – like the Patrol – but Victoria was talking about going to the tent cities and getting an army from the refugees there.)

    Why yes, that DOES sound like a plan that a wounded, desperate, stressed-out woman who’s losing herself to her powers would (literally) dream up.

    It’s going to go perfectly!

  8. So… every non-cape who has a corona… into shardspace with the very things trying to connect to each of them?

    I envisage them causing a lot of disruption, many getting killed but also… many waking up with powers.

    Suddenly you’ve got an army in the shardspace AND a fresh set of capes.

    Mind you, I still think answers lie in the cauldron and case 53 capes. None of them had emotional triggers and I’m not sure we’ve heard of them experiencing a second trigger (stories about cauldron setting up second triggers but not necessarily for vial triggers). Second trigger type circumstances or thoughts appear to be part of becoming a titan, it’s just easier to second trigger in the weakened areas and the ice is thin enough for the entire entity to break through when they do… but if you never naturally triggered but forced the agent to connect to you… maybe there’s something in that.

  9. It’s not sending terrified civilians into combat, it’s saying, “Hey, if you’re itching to have a whack at these things, we miiight have a risky opportunity for you.”

    Or as Shackleton’s apocryphal recruiting ad read for his expedition to the South Pole, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

  10. Ooooh this is brilliant!
    Great to see them discussing things and points that really need discussion.
    Those are some *weird* screens 😮

    “Not really the word I wanted,” Sveta said.
    How about… Tyrant?

  11. I’ve noticed Victoria doesn’t keep her guard up regarding possible abuses of that always-on persuasion_of_others power she has, does she?
    “Spitballing here, but maybe we all need to go ‘suicide bomber’ to solve our problems?”
    “Sounds like a good plan cult leader/friend/trusted companion.”
    Why haven’t we had a flashback from her of a time she pushed her powers to the limit to see what she could convince someone suggestionable to do? Is it some kind of a shenanigans whammy blind-spot? A failure of her upbringing? A quirk?

    Is Tattletale free of it?

  12. Collecting a bunch of unpowered people, giving them a choice, but weighting the odds so that people are inclined to say “yes”? She’s not Cauldron or Khepri, no. Instead, she’s Teacher.

  13. I am just catching up with this web story, fantastic world you’ve created. This one was posted on my birthday too!

  14. “You never did explain how you can do that now,” Tristan observed. “Reaching ten feet away. Full control?”
    “Ever since last night.”
    “Since you were burned to a crisp by the Titan-like thing with all the hands, or since you merged with the system for a second?” Tristan asked.

    Since intercourse with Anelace 🙂

  15. Ridiculously great arc so far. I’ve been pacing myself for the past 18 months and haven’t managed to catch up but my reading speed has escalated with these past few arcs and I think I’m going to be desperately waiting for the next update very soon..

    Traditionally Woolball’s protagonists self destruct as the stories approach the end. It’s good to see Victoria be encouraged to stop, rest, [consolidate], and not just press on through a night shift on zero sleep.

    Tristan and the other folks talking off-screen and specifically without Kenzie and Victoria. I’m wondering what they’re actually discussing, cause I doubt it’s just Tristan’s feelings.

    Intrigued to see how her idea of integrating non-powered humans goes, and how that goes down with the anti-parahuman sentiments.

    Cheers WB!

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