I waited, impatient. I’d taken twenty minutes to get my costume together, made use of the tools that were still in Rain’s old room to file off the most abraded parts of my armor, and broke off one tine of the decorative arrangement at my left shoulder while trying to straighten it. Hair brushed and fixed up, costume brushed with an animal grooming brush to get the grit out.
The phone remained silent.
Rain sat in the living room, off to the side of the front hall, curled up in a chair, his head bent. With his mask, it wasn’t possible to read his expression, but I was assuming his eyes were closed.
Meditating, to try to improve his focus and fine-tune his self image, so he might be better equipped while dreaming.
Kenzie was in the kitchen, tinkering at the dinner table. Sveta, Byron, Chastity and I stood in the hall. Tense.
“Will you accept it if they say no?” Sveta asked me.
“I’ll have to,” I said. “It has a lot of problems. It requires a lot. It’s… people are going to die. And I think I could make peace with being pissed at the Wardens for not accepting my plan, while being relieved those deaths won’t be on my head.”
“Might be easier said than done,” Byron said. He sat on the stairs, wearing scuffed chainmail, helmet off.
“Easier said than done, agreed.”
“Time is running out,” Natalie observed. “I’m not sure what I’m hoping for at this point.”
“Me either,” I admitted.
“Sveta!” Kenzie called out. She jogged over from the kitchen. “Here. If it’s lame, you can turn it off. There’s a few settings, but if you wear it over your heart, it’ll read your heart rate and adjust accordingly.”
Sveta took the pin, which looked like something between a conch shell, a tree, and a fish, a spiral with branches coming off of it, the ‘tail’ extended.
She fixed it to the breast of her costume, then activated it. Kenzie was already handing Byron one.
Sveta wore pieces of her prosthetic suit, armor that featured decorative curls and waves, and she’d put it on over her coat, mostly because she didn’t have another coat that really fit with the costume. I’d offered her some of mine, but just about everything I and Crystal had clashed.
With the pin’s activation, her coat took on a new texture, the patchwork pattern fading away, replaced with a mosaic of images that matched with the curl of her armor and the colors of the coat. They drifted, shifted, and moved, with watercolor blurs. The lines between coat and armor disappeared.
Byron had one too. It stuck to his chest with a magnet, and Kenzie pointed out where to put a clip so it would attach to a bit of plating as well, so it wouldn’t fall off. A similar, shifting texture, but it looked like the play of light off of rippling water, reflected on the brighter parts of his costume, while the rest was left cast into shadow.
“Cool,” he said.
“Isn’t it? I tried to use what I studied about your phase shifting with Tristan, if you’ll change?”
Byron blurred. Tristan emerged. The pin was preserved.
No visual effect, though.
“Crap,” Kenzie said.
“You do realize that preserving details across this change is the real accomplishment?” Tristan asked.
“But it’s not- oh! There we go.”
The red parts of the armor took on a bit of an ember glow.
“If you can make stuff stay when we change, we could really use that,” Tristan said. “That’s what’s really impressing me here.”
“It was an experiment, and it worked, so awesome,” Kenzie said, excited. “And I like the visual effect.”
“I do too, thank you, but-”
She was already leaving the hallway, running over to Rain. He broke from his meditation to take the token.
“-but I guess I’ll bug you about it later,” Tristan said, to the spot she’d just occupied.
Rain’s thing worked. It didn’t exaggerate the silver cracks that spread along the dark metal portions of his costume and tinkerings, but did make the white fabric portions of his hood and general costume brighter in the dark.
She bounced twice on the spot before turning, excited, to me.
“Thank you,” I said, as I took the device. It matched the spiked crest at the top of my armor.
“I always get anxious when my appearance isn’t perfect before I go out. I’m working on it, but you know. Natalie knows.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. Kenzie wasn’t the kind of kid who could throw on any clothes off the floor of her room and go out for a quick breakfast. Shower, clothes crisp, not a hair out of place, and then the projection, which removed anything she’d missed and provided a second layer of ‘defense’.
I’d coaxed her into not stressing about it a few times when she’d stayed overnight this past week, but it was hard. Especially because I did a very similar thing with my wardrobe choices. I didn’t insist on having my shirts ironed or fuss about a single stray thread, but I did go to darker places than Kenzie did when I got too self conscious.
My device gave the gold parts of my costume an intermittent glow, like sunlight from an out-of-sight source was falling on it. There were a few parts where the armor was damaged, like the broken tine at the shoulder, that the light bled out, but that almost made it better.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You already said that.”
“Did you make one for yourself?” Sveta asked.
“I did, but I need a backpack for it to work. And I made a few others. This is mostly stuff I already had. The rest of my tech is done enough. I could work on it more, but that’s like, it’s one step back, two steps forward, I gotta take it apart, I might break stuff in the short term, and what if we get that call that needs us now? I don’t want it broken. So I worked on stuff that didn’t matter much.”
“It’s cool,” I said.
“I made one for Swansong,” she said. Her mask hid her face behind a smiling facade, as she looked down at the swooping white and black bird pin in her hand. “I wasn’t thinking, because I was rushing to do them.”
“I’m sorry, Kenz,” I said, reaching for her shoulder to give it a rub. It was hard when I couldn’t hug her.
“Do you think Damsel would want it?” she asked.
“I think…” I glanced at the others, and saw Byron grimace momentarily. “She would love it. Black smoke?”
“I think she would love it, but she’s scared right now, scared of anything relating her to Swansong especially, so she wouldn’t accept it. She’d probably be mean about it, but I don’t think she’d mean it.”
“Give it to Natalie?” I suggested.
“No. I made one for Natalie already,” Kenzie said. “I know you don’t have a costume, but I thought you might want something in case you’re ever in trouble.”
She gave Natalie an owl pin.
“I wasn’t sure if you liked owls, but I tried a book and it’s hard to make a book look like I wasn’t super lazy about it.”
“I like owls,” Natalie said. “Thank you. What does it do?”
“Blurs your outline some, with the one setting. With the other, it burns out the battery for a really bright, really long flash. It works like my flash gun, so having your eyes closed isn’t enough, cover your eyes with your arm if you don’t want your eyeballs to go splat and dribble down your cheeks.”
Natalie held the device really carefully, staring down at it. “How do I activate it?”
“Double tap it, then swipe left for the blur, and swipe right for the flash.”
“Thank you,” Natalie said, still looking like she was afraid to do anything with the pin. “I think I’ll have to keep it somewhere safe, so I don’t accidentally tap it.”
“Okay,” Kenzie said. “It’s okay if you don’t like it.”
“I like it, really. I’m getting quite a collection.”
“Kenzie,” I said. “Did you actually nap?”
“She gotcha,” Sveta said.
“I couldn’t nap. I was too nervous. So I sorta listened to a book, and I tinkered to take my mind off stuff. It really doesn’t help that my emotions are really wonky today. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have done that thing with the puppy. Probably.”
“It’s been a wonky day,” Rain said, from the living room. He’d stood up, and now stood in the gloom.
“But, like, a bit more wonky for me. I won’t go into any detail.”
“Ah, okay,” he said. “I always get uneasy when the anniversary of my parents leaving me behind comes up. I can sympathize.”
Chastity leaned into the wall by the archway that separated her and Rain. “Not meditating?”
“Did you contact Love Lost and Colt?”
The phone, sitting on the hallway table, buzzed. Every set of eyes present went to it.
“Yeah,” Rain said, voice soft. “They’re as ready as they can be. I told them about the meditating.”
I pressed the button.
“Victoria Dallon speaking. My team is here.”
It was a man’s voice, but not Defiant’s. Legend? “You can make your pitch. We’ll record it and disseminate it if there isn’t anything problematic or deceptive.”
Kenzie reached over, tapping on the belly portion of my breastplate. I covered up the mouthpiece.
“Video?” she asked.
“Can it be video?” I asked.
“Yes. Do you have a camera nearby? It’s my experience that no video is better than a low resolution laptop video.”
“We have a camera tinker.”
“Ah,” he said. A pause, a moment longer than necessary. I had no idea if he was checking records or smacking himself in the face. “Can she plug into the phone? It should receive the video signal.”
“Call us if you run into any difficulty. We’ll await your notification. The message will go to all radio, some cell phones, televisions in the camps have them. We’ll notify Patrol groups on downtime that they should watch, but we won’t force them to attend. If there are enough volunteers at a given camp, we’ll use the portals to bring them where we need them. Have them gather together and use three green flares in an open area if they’re willing.”
With that, he hung up.
Kenzie ran off to get a camera.
I frowned, my arms folded. People are going to die.
“Do you remember what you’re going to say?” Tristan asked, sitting on the stairs.
“I think so. We could go over it again, but every minute counts.”
“Pen and paper,” Sveta said. “In case we need to communicate anything.”
“Let’s do this outside,” I said. Kenzie had just returned with the camera. “For the background. Cabins and fires make a better backdrop than something that might make it seem like we’re cozy in our homes when most of Gimel is living in tents.”
We moved outside. I looked back over the camp, walked over to where the backdrop was better and brighter, with a line of fires and various people gathered, some crates the Patrol had brought now stacked beneath the eaves of Rain’s family’s barn.
“Ready?” Kenzie asked. Her camera produced a light, illuminating me a bit. She adjusted it.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One.”
The light on the side of the camera went green.
“Citizens of Gimel,” I spoke to the camera, grateful for the moment at my upbringing, at the lessons in poise and presentation. Now I just had to get the words right.
Start simple, expand into the details as you go. Assume they know nothing.
“Some of you have seen the video, where a cape was cornered and had a second trigger event. Unfortunately, this event was what we’ve taken to calling a ‘broken trigger’, stealing away her humanity and setting off a cascading series of events. Now nearly a dozen monsters stand over our city. We’re calling them Titans. This is why you were evacuated.
“I’m reaching out to you with the permission and help of the Wardens, from one of the defensive camps at the edge of the disaster site. We’ve been fighting in shifts for half the day, and my group is about to rejoin the fight. We’re taking the fight to the heart of the Titans, while others fight to keep them pinned down. For this we’re requesting your help. Able and ready volunteers who can follow instructions, handle themselves in a crisis, especially those who have experience in combat. If you heard that and you thought you could be one of those volunteers, we need you.”
Pause for effect, but don’t let your vision waver.
“We have not been able to permanently stop any of them yet, but we have gathered information, and we now intend to use that information to take the fight to the place where they get their power. If we cut them off at the source of powers, a source that was revealed when they emerged, we might be able to leave them powerless or weak. They are few, and we, cape and human, are many.”
Deep breath. This next part needed gravity, it deserved respect.
“The plan is that capes fight the titans to keep them pinned down while other capes escort the volunteer army into the cracks in reality. You would be using tools and explosives to damage their infrastructure. I won’t lie to you about this, capes are dying in every single encounter we have with them. Volunteers will die in this effort. But if we do nothing, if nobody volunteers, and if this works, then more people from Gimel are likely to die, including those too young and infirm to fight. We need numbers to do enough damage, and we need those numbers to be able, determined and focused for the task.”
Less of a pause now, but making sure I wasn’t rushing. Pacing mattered.
“Emergency kits at each evacuated settlement have flares in multiple colors. If you’re willing, hug the people you care about, leave now, gather with other nearby volunteers, use three green flares to signal us. We’ll bring you to us. Dress to be warm in this weather and to be mobile. Thank you to those who choose to fight alongside us. To the rest of you, be safe and wish us luck.”
The green light at the side of the camera went out. Kenzie lowered it.
We were too far away from the main camp to hear the buzz of conversation or their activities. There was only a whistle of wind, and a snowfall of hard pellets no bigger than a poppyseed.
Quiet, dark, and still.
“Good,” Tristan said.
It was so fucking dark at night, without the illumination of the city. My heart pounded from the adrenaline of the speech.
I very nearly jumped out of my skin when the portal appeared, with a shrieking rip of a sound, and a flare of illumination around the edges, where darkness hit an edge of reality and produced a slice of bright light.
“Hey Lookout,” Chastity said. “That pin you meant for Swansong?”
“You want it? I have pins for the Heartbroken that would fit you guys, they’re on the kitchen table.”
“Give it to me, I’ll make sure Damsel takes it. I’ll take mine too.”
Kenzie handed over the pin.
I approached Rain, took his hand in a handshake, hand on his shoulder. “Good luck in there.”
“I think… I’d rather you had the luck,” he told me. “Given what’s on the line.”
I gave his hand a squeeze, then let him go, flying over to where my gun had been parked near the house. The Patrol guys were at the stable, guarding it, and stood from their seats as I flew in closer.
“You’re going?” Jester asked.
I floated over to the gun and lifted it, finding the handholds, making sure my forcefield was cooperating before lifting it up. “It’s time.”
“Gilpatrick just got called. He’s going with Precipice, along with a bunch of other ex-PRT guys.”
“That’s good,” I said, trying to hide my general alarm. Gilpatrick was a good person. He’d shortchanged me a few times, but only because the job had required him to. The kids came first. The girl with complicated family and powers had to come second.
“He’s getting some gear together.”
“Gear doesn’t go through, unless it’s a part of his self-conception.”
“Oh,” Jester said.
“Maybe it is,” Camisola said.
I nodded, though I wasn’t sure I thought it was likely.
“I thought it was shitty of you to hide who you really were,” Camisola said. “I was angry at you for a while. But… you’re doing good, I guess.”
“High praise,” Jester said, smirking.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” I told them. “Be safe.”
“You already told us that on the broadcast,” Jester said. “You should stop repeating yourself and go. Take your five thousand pounds of gun, you ridiculous person.”
The weapon I held creaked as I hefted it, then flew to navigate it through the barn door. I flew to the portal.
The others were splitting up. Natalie was staying behind with Kenzie and Rain. Chastity- I’d expected her to stay, but she was geared up, ready to go.
Kenzie had me bend down. She gave me the eye camera, sliding it smoothly into my skull. I could see from the trace glow that illuminated her gloves and face that it was giving my eye the characteristic golden glow, now. To match the effect on my armor.
“I’ll be with you guys,” she said.
I maneuvered my gun through the portal, and Chastity, Sveta, and Tristan followed me through.
The de-facto meeting place. The lobby of Teacher’s headquarters, tracked with mud and muck from the recent passage of many people coming in from the winter, though it was largely empty now. A space that a four story building could have fit in, large front doors opposite an unnecessarily wide set of stairs. The stories above us looked down at the lobby, and there were already capes and civilians gathered there. At the base of the stairs, something that might have been a truck lift to carry a truck up the stairs had been elevated to serve as a stage.
A few of the Wardens were there on the stage. I saw Naphtha, and I recognized Canary’s face and uncannily yellow hair, though she wore power armor. Roughly thirty capes with a minimum of armor and weapons were by the front doors, forming a loose line.
We were instructed to come, and we went. I took the back corner of the stage, holding my gun so it pointed at the wall above the front doors, because any other direction was problematic and threatened to put others in the line of fire.
My team gathered on the stairs just beside me. Chastity came with us, and approached the Wardens.
“Any reports yet?” I asked the Warden nearest me. “Are they responding?”
“No idea. We sent Patrol members who were willing to help out to the likely gathering places. They’ll agree, and hopefully others will follow them.”
I was spooked. Scared, not because of what was happening- that was terrifying in its own right, but scared because I’d asked for people’s trust and I wasn’t sure they’d extend it.
If I didn’t have powers and my life had followed a similar enough course that I was still roughly the same person, I wasn’t positive that I would have extended that trust.
Portals began opening. The capes that had formed a line now gathered so there was space to file past them. Chastity skipped down the stairs to join that line.
The first people to appear were more capes. There were other Heartbroken, and Chastity called out to them. Others to form a defensive perimeter, guards and guides for those coming through. Some of the capes who filed through were directed to the sides. Different role?
“What are they up to?” I asked the Warden.
“The group by the portals is checking those coming through. Making sure they’re not too angry or reckless, and that Cheit isn’t sending any double agents to us. There were some in the evacuation camps already.”
“Fuck,” I said under my breath.
“That group is the one that’s going to help us get down there with this many people,” he said, indicating the group to the side.
The Patrol, as suggested by the Warden, followed after capes. Leading the way, so the civilians in those camps didn’t have to be the people making the first steps.
And then the civilians. With ten portals open, each wide enough for people to pass through in pairs at a time, there were easily dozens. I could ballpark it. Twelve, twenty-four, thirty-five or thirty-six. A classroom but not an army. Fifty?
A cape near the portals reached out to grab someone by the arm. Another cape joined them, and they steered the person away from the main group.
The small disturbance didn’t seem to stem the flow of newcomers. A hundred?
Some more patrol groups. More people, in steadier numbers this time. People that looked scared. People that looked agitated. Some who looked awed by this place we were now in, and how far that staircase in front of them seemed to extend up. If they only knew the building’s true scale.
It was weird and complicated to see people I might have said were too young. Teenagers. Strange and uneasy to see people who wore shirts beneath unzipped coats that had capes and cape logos depicted on them. There were people who looked like they were despairing before we’d even fought this battle, a far cry from Natalie and the Patrol who seemed so collected in the face of this, and there were those who looked too hopeful, too proud to be here. Like they hadn’t realized the risk, or they’d heard people would die and couldn’t believe those people might include them.
You’re heroes, I thought, looking at the group.
I might have fit something like that into my speech, but it felt self-congratulatory. I hadn’t wanted to ruffle feathers.
How many was this? Two, three thousand? People were only trickling in now.
The portals closed. Others opened. Half the number. More Patrol emerged. They were followed by more civilians.
Would this be four thousand? Maybe five?
It felt like not enough, considering the population of the city, it felt like a lot, considering what we were up against. I’d asked them to put their lives on the line with no notice.
I pulled my much-abused phone out from the pocket beneath my armor. That fucking crack from Eric smashing it into the table. I typed one-handed, phone at my side.
I want to remember their faces. Can you save them? These people are stepping up and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
I didn’t even send the message, and Kenzie’s eye camera let me see the response. Gold text that appeared outside my normal field of vision.
I made sure I scanned the crowd, searching every face there.
A screen descended behind the stage. Naphtha stepped forward.
The babble of nervous conversation went quiet. A few people acted with alarm as the portals closed behind them.
Roughly five thousand, I thought.
“Entry point,” Naphtha declared, his voice amplified by the microphone. The screen showed one particular section of crack. “Short descent, into what looks like a plain of red crystal. This crystal is a computer system, and what it computes is powers. In a matter of minutes, we’re going to have people inside the system, mostly ex-PRT officers and Patrol team leaders, doing what they can to interfere with the code, the software. You may even see them if you peer through the crystal. You must not harm them or harm the crystal if they are visible on the other side. Your job is to attack the hardware, in specific areas…”
The briefing went on. Portals opened, but not because the speech was over. People were handing out equipment. Pickaxes. A team with capes and Warden staff was handing out parcels as well. Explosive charges not unlike the one Imp had gathered, presumably going to people who were able and ready to handle them.
The message from Kenzie flashed across my vision.
What felt like five minutes but was probably closer to thirty seconds passed.
We should be backing him up.
“…Thank you,” Naphtha said. “When the portals open, we’re going to need you to move swiftly. The Titans won’t be close, but they may be aware and they’ll be swift to arrive. Some of the ones I noted in particular. Titan Oberon’s cell is swift-moving in particular.”
Placing us at a location far from the titans, but close to one of the presumed focal points. The screen perpetually had a corner with a map of the paths the energy had traveled.
“We’ll be right at your side,” Naphtha stated.
I hefted the gun, lifting it from the floor. The portals appeared, wider this time.
This many people took time to make their way through. More portals appeared on either side of the stage. Cold air blasted through, along with a bit of the snowfall.
Sveta and Tristan walked through. I followed them.
Into the darkness. Into the cold. Facing a hole in reality that branched across three spatial dimensions, with folds and cracks at the edges that caught snow and sliced at the wind.
There were no city lights here, but some capes used powers to produce light. Capes on two rises above one mass of civilian volunteers.
I took to the air, hefting my gun. Below me, Tristan was creating his little orange motes. The motes that hit the edge of the crack died, but there were enough and more appearing every second, that he was able to create a kind of bridge over the edge. Once it was there and secure enough to not fall into the darkness below, he began reinforcing it. Metal struck rock as he walked up onto the bridge, looking down, and began to create a set of stairs or slide.
Helicopters were taking off with people inside. Others were preparing. A cape granted flight to a whole crowd of civilians. They weren’t flying in, thank god. That might have been a disaster if they’d tried, the way powers got weaker down there. They grabbed hold of ropes, and they slid down, using flight to help control their descents. As before, the Patrol went first. Sveta joined the first group of non-Patrol civilians.
Come on, I thought.
Let this work.
The golden text appeared across my vision.
TITAN SKADI IS ATTACKING ONE OF THE OTHER ENTRY TEAMS.
The entry squads had been split up into three broader units. Those units were supposed to fan out.
Already, we were under attack. Already, lives were probably being lost.
Tense, slow with my weapon in my grip, I floated up and away from the group.
“Lookout,” I said, trying to keep my voice level and clear. “If you can hear me, mark a good target for me.”
The crosshairs that appeared in my field of vision seemed to be fixed to one point of the crystal landscape, so far below me it looked like pitch black.
I brought the cannon around, aiming for the spot. More notifications popped up, telling me I was off target.
I adjusted appropriately, centering on the spot.
Already dark, the sky seemed to darken a shade. I felt a shift in air pressure, like it was all a bit harder to fly in, or I was being pushed down.
I twisted around, putting the gun below me, and I dropped my weapon.
Titan Skadi, visible only by the glowing metal at the edge of each major panel of armor, was above me.
I met her, flying to her, crashing into her with forcefield and everything else. I felt armor crack beneath the impact, transmitted by an awareness of physicality that wasn’t touch.
Then she was gone.
Below me, swinging.
I flew down, diving, letting my forcefield come back as I seized the gun by barrel first, to pull it out of the way of a swinging axe arm.
She hit my forcefield instead. I didn’t have the handholds necessary for my weapon.
Already hard to make out in the gloom, Skadi was drowned in darkness.
That darkness became fire, illuminating everything from water to nearby buildings, fallen ones that had tipped over when the crack in reality had spread, and ones that had managed to stay standing.
Napththa repeated the assault. Skadi became a silhouette in yellow fire.
Hands found handholds, and I twisted, still diving, but this time with my gun ready.
I put a shot into her, the entire gun shuddering like it was trying to tear itself apart as it spat out a golden ray, carving a furrow into Titan Skadi, like a gouge that might be dug into white hot armor with the right tool.
There were other capes on the battlefield. Ones who hadn’t been there for the briefing, but who were helping us out. They capitalized on the shot, pressing the advantage while she was off balance, and while a part of her was damaged enough they could maybe pry it off or dig in.
She disappeared, and I immediately searched for her location. Behind me? Above? No.
She was in the midst of that crystal landscape, where I could not fly without giving up my weapon. But I had anticipated that.
From high above, I aimed at her and placed another shot. Getting her attention, bringing her close. This time I threw my weapon, insofar as that was possible, and met the onslaught. Keeping her occupied.
I let her hit me, and used the momentum from that to meet my gun where it was still falling through the air. I found the handholds and stopped it from falling.
Gold text began to appear, when I really needed to focus. I kept track of my forcefield, gauged what I could get away with, and kept my gun out of her way. Every second I could do this was a second people were getting down there. Spreading out, looking for certain markers and target points.
Other capes joined in with my fight against Titan Skadi, and I took the moment to breathe, and to read the text.
NEMEAN AND OPHION INCOMING.
The Nemean Titan. Victor. I wasn’t even sure what to do about that. If I had one titan dogging me like this and another who could knock me out and steal my capabilities if he got close enough, it wouldn’t be possible to mount a defense. Except they weren’t allied.
We had to keep them separated.
And then Ophion? Mr. Bough. The bio-manipulator.
With thousands of people at his mercy.
“We’ll manage,” I huffed, watching the capes keep Skadi occupied. “Because we’ve left ourselves no choice to the contrary.”
BELAY THAT, Kenzie communicated. TITAN STUFF IS GETTING CRAZY. MULTIPLE TITANS MOBILIZED. STRANGER TITAN IS CLOSEST TO YOU.