“This way,” Uncle said. Hand on her shoulder, pushing her forward. Frustration welled in her at the push, but she bit it back. Her legs hurt, her stomach hurt, her shoulder hurt. All for different reasons. Standing too long while wearing a full backpack, bending down and lifting, and a bit of a sprain when she pulled her bag off a shelf on the train.
But if she complained, then Auntie and Uncle would say it was her fault, because she’d packed too much stuff. They might even make her leave things behind.
No way. Nuh uh.
Because there was no going back for anything. What she brought with her was all that she got.
She couldn’t complain because she was on the cusp of being an adult, and none of the adults were complaining. They looked so miserable, every last one of them, standing in lines, trudging forward. Dragging bags and kids and pets with them.
Again, being pushed, being tugged along, Uncle’s hand on her shoulder. She shrugged, as casually as she could, and his hand dropped away.
“Name?” the man at the counter asked.
“Gregory Morrison and family,” Uncle said.
She wasn’t even a name. Just ‘and family’, not even direct family at that. She looked at Eleni, her kid cousin, who was whining even though she didn’t have to carry anything. The seven year old pawed at her mother, kicking up more and more of a fuss, until she was picked up.
Acting like a toddler more than a kid.
So annoying. It was hard to shake the bitter resentment.
Auntie, Uncle, and the man at the counter were talking about possibilities. She strove to listen.
“There are subsidies and grants if you’re willing to do the farm work. We really need to get on top of food supply so we can stop taking grants from other Earths.”
“Insane,” Auntie said.
Insane. All of this was insane.
“Is that a no?” the man at the counter asked.
“No, no. I mean the other Earths. I knew it was a thing, but…”
“Yes, well, in the interest of moving things along, I recognize you want answers and you’ve been waiting a long time for processing, but if we can hurry you through this step, you can get those answers sooner and the people behind you won’t have to wait so long.”
“That’s more or less what they said at the last few steps in the process,” Auntie said, sounding very affronted. She was good at sounding like that. Always stiff-backed and hypocritically critical and politely impolite. It was like she had an unwanted foot-long dildo stuck up her ass twenty-four seven, and every interaction she had with the world was an obstacle in between her and her next opportunity to go somewhere private and drag that thing free.
“What are the other options?”
“I really can’t stress the importance of the agricultural work, livestock tending, and the benefits of doing so. We’ve been prioritizing housing for people willing to do so, pay, access to resources like television and community centers, free trains into the city…”
“I know what you want us to do,” Uncle said. “But if you want to move things along, don’t give me a sales pitch. Tell us what the other options are and we’ll make the informed decision.”
“Construction work is the other big focus. Housing is postponed, but those who help build houses get credits toward home ownership.”
“We brought funds,” Auntie said. “To hurry things along.”
“I’m afraid old currency has no value right now. That may change, I can’t make any promises…”
“That’s ridiculous,” Auntie said.
“Where are we supposed to live if not in a house?” Uncle demanded.
“If you don’t take the options where housing is provided, you’ll be given a kit. Tents, supplies, some basic food, enough for basic medical and hygiene requirements. You’ll live in close proximity to the construction sites, with shared access to communal bathrooms, showers, and training centers.”
Auntie and Uncle turned to look at her.
“I know how to work with horses. I spent two summers working at a stable. I did some work at the nearby farm, I can milk a cow. I got the gold star for animal care from the camp. I had a garden back home and I grew tomatoes and peppers,” she said. “The rabbits kind of got at them, but I know stuff.”
“Everything helps,” the man at the counter said. “That’s much better than what some people know when they choose the farm program.”
“I’m university educated,” Uncle said. “Degrees in finance, programming. I have years of experience working with security compliance for financial institutions.”
“Your best bet would be to enter into one of the other programs, farming or construction, and apply from there.”
“Uncle,” she said, leaning into and over the counter to get her face where her Uncle would see it, as he stood beside her. “We have to choose something for now. Let’s choose the option where we get an actual place to live. Please?”
“Please don’t butt in,” Uncle said.
“I really want a house. I’d love to do the farm work. I was reading the paperwork they gave us before we got on the train and there are programs where we go to school half the time and do other stuff the other half. I could do the farm work half the day and earn money.”
“Stop,” Uncle said, stern. He placed his hands on her shoulders, pushing her a bit back from the counter. Leaning over her, forehead creased into five lines, he talked to her at the louder end of normal, where people in line could hear. “You can’t get everything you want. Your interruptions are making the people behind us wait longer.”
She wanted to retort, to rebut, to raise her voice.
She wanted very much to be like her seven year old cousin, and be able to ask for a hug without it being childish, or to throw a tantrum until she was listened to.
There were people around her age in line. Boys and girls. Tired and frustrated. She was especially conscious of the attention they gave her, and being made out to be the one who was causing the problem made her simultaneously outraged and embarrassed.
“Why don’t you go take your cousin to a seating area?” Auntie said, putting Eleni down on the ground. “Let us handle this.”
Stiffly, she nodded. She took Eleni ‘s hand.
“I have a disability,” Uncle said, to the man at the counter, one hand at his back. “Bulging disc.”
“Paperwork?” the man at the counter asked.
“I’ll have to look. I hope I packed it…”
The seating area was packed, and a lot of it was other teenagers and kids. She led Eleni to the nearest set of two empty chairs, arranged around a post in the center of the expansive station with the insufficient lighting and high ceiling. The light that filtered down on them all was tinted yellow by the textured skylight above, but it didn’t really illuminate the corners or much of the floor.
“I’m tired,” Eleni complained.
“Then sit. Do you want to play on my phone? I charged it on the train.”
Phone out, headphones pulled from the pocket, cleaned with a wipe, and then set into place over Eleni’s ears. Eleni was already playing, the phone pinging and making high pitched sounds, with cartoon clowns cackling and laughing. The sounds were abruptly silenced as the headphones were plugged in.
She stroked her cousin’s hair.
“What’s she playing?” someone asked.
She turned to look. A boy, a bit younger than her, with curly black hair and his first pimples.
“I have no idea.”
“It’s nice of you, giving up precious battery life. I’m not that nice to my brothers,” the boy said.
“It keeps her quiet.”
“Heh. That’s a bonus,” the boy said. “It’s great.”
Auntie and Uncle were taking more than twice as long as anyone else. She watched as people who had been called up around the same time they had finished, and another family walked up. All business, answers ready, they’d read the paperwork and pamphlets.
Two families were processed while Auntie and Uncle lingered at the counter.
“Do you know where you’re going?” the boy asked.
“I wanted to go to the farms,” she said.
“Really?” he asked, almost incredulous.
“Is it such a surprise?”
“You don’t seem like the type.”
“What type do I seem like?” she asked.
“I dunno… like… a city girl? Like you’re probably into gymnastics or dance or something.”
Annoying. Like she was constantly being pushed and pulled and tugged and everything was more leverage for that kind of stuff.
“I am,” she said, adjusting her hair, restless. Her tone was angry. “I dance. But that doesn’t mean it’s all I’m about.”
The conversation died again. She sat there, watching over her cousin’s shoulder to see the screen. A woman with no face killed a clown. A child on fire killed the woman with no face.
She looked away, bored.
“They’re taking a while,” the boy said.
“You’ve been sitting here a while too,” she retorted, embarrassed over her family.
“My dad’s sick. He’s getting a medical checkup.”
“Sorry to hear that,” she told him.
“I’m really bad at this,” he said, abrupt, like he was using the fact they’d exchanged a handful of words in this fragment of conversation as a point from which to launch into something else. “I mean… talking to girls.”
“Why does that even matter?” she asked, stung, even more annoyed, and angry for reasons she couldn’t articulate. “Why do I have to be a girl? Why can’t I just be a person?”
“Do you mean, like, in-between boy and girl or-”
“No,” she said, with more intensity than she wanted. “I mean talk to me like I’m a potential friend, not like… I don’t know. Like you want something from me. Why does it have to be a boy-girl thing? Why can’t it be a person-person thing?”
With that, she thought she’d killed the conversation, and he’d walk away. But he nudged her.
His hand was stuck out.
Carefully, she twisted around so she could shake it.
“I’m Sam,” he told her.
“I’m Hunter,” she answered, still tense, still annoyed. But telling him to piss off and go gargle a dildo right now would be unfair when she’d just told him to be friendly.
“And I’m sorry,” he told her. “You’re right.”
She bit her lip, blinking fiercely a few times, moisture accumulating on her eyeballs. Every second she fought it, it got worse.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry, I didn’t-”
She shook her head. “You didn’t.”
She wiped at her eyes, angry at herself, annoyed.
“Then… want to talk about it?”
“Nobody says that to me,” she said. She had to fight to not get too choked up about it, the dam breaking and everything flooding out. Holding back, she tried to give words to the resentful feelings. “Nobody says I’m right even when I am, nobody listens. They just tell me what to do. You saying that… it’s all I want to hear. Except I want it to matter more. No offense.”
“Your mom and dad are kind of jerkasses, huh?”
“Aunt and uncle,” she said. “And this is Eleni, who… can you hear, Eleni?”
The kid was too caught up in the game to pay any attention.
“My uncle’s a massive, capital-d Dildo,” she explained. “Stiff and fake and pointless, with zero warmth, and he doesn’t get that you have to get real sometimes if you’re going to get anything done. And my aunt’s- I have this theory, I imagine she’s always got this giant dildo stuffed up her butt-”
Sam was laughing now, he tried to get a word out, and failed.
Bemused, she watched him. “What?”
“Why all these dildos?” he managed, face crinkling up as he continued laughing.
“Because they absolutely are,” Hunter said, amused at how funny Sam seemed to find it.
“I didn’t expect that from someone like you,” he said.
“Well I’m pleased I messed with your expectations, Sam,” she told him.
Eleni paused her game, a big pause sign appearing in the middle of the screen, and pulled one of the headphone speakers away from her ear. Hunter reached over and put the speaker back, and when Eleni fought her in trying to listen in, Hunter reached down and hit the pause button, resuming the game. Eleni made a small noise of alarm, stuck out her tongue at Hunter, and resumed playing, headphones in place.
“I don’t hate them,” she said. “I actually love them. They’ve been so kind to me since my parents… were in New York when Scion attacked it.”
The sentence didn’t make sense, but Sam nodded.
“I just wish they’d listen. I wish they’d realize I’m not Eleni’s age.”
“I don’t get much choice either,” Sam said. “It’s not because my parents are dildos, it’s because my dad doesn’t get much choice. He has to live close to a hospital, and he can’t do a lot of work.”
Eleni perked up. Hunter looked, and saw her Aunt and Uncle approaching, her uncle smiling.
“Don’t say anything,” she warned.
“My lips are sealed,” Sam said.
“Success,” Uncle said. “They might have an administration post open. Goes to show you, you just have to know how systems like this work.”
She nodded. “We’re going to get a house then?”
“Tent,” he said, making a face. “But we’ll have a house before you know it.”
“Okay,” she said. She took her phone back from Eleni, along with the headphones. She turned to Sam, phone in her hand. “Want to exchange numbers?”
“My phone’s dead.”
“Do you have a pen?” she asked, as she picked up her bag.
He reached for his stuff, and in his initial searches, didn’t turn up anything. She might have thought he was trying to find an excuse to let her down easy, but there was a frustration evident in his actions that made it pretty obvious he really wanted a pen.
Auntie looked impatient, arms folded, dildo clearly firmly in place.
Eleni tapped her on the elbow. She looked over, and saw Eleni holding a pen with a plastic figure on the end. She took Sam’s hand, and wrote the number down.
“We need all the friends we can get at times like this,” she said.
“Totally,” he said. And he smiled, clenching the fist she’d just written the number in. “Keep each other’s heads on straight.”
It was a weird thing. An awkward conversation where they hadn’t said much at all, she’d given him a laugh, and he’d given her a much needed ‘you’re right’, and that was pretty much it.
But at a time like this, when they had pretty much nothing, it mattered so much.
Her Uncle put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her forward, with an impatient kind of insistence, and she bit back the urge to shrug it off or get angry. There was time for that later, when Sam wasn’t watching. They could have had a house and instead they got a tent, and she was pretty sure a few nights of sleeping in a tent would only drive this feeling home.
They pushed open the doors, stepping outside, and into the brand new city that stood on the edge of the end of the world. The sun was bright and the golden city even brighter, to the point it brought tears to her eyes.
She faced down the giantess, viewing her with senses that had nothing to do with eyes. The world was littered with shattered glass that nobody could see, and she could see all of the reflections in that glass. A woman too bright to look at, too intense, every aspect of her pulling, tugging, driving, manipulating. It was like standing beneath a waterfall, the water crashing down from above, and trying to swim to the top. Impossible.
Just by being here, the giantess made everything harder.
The thing that had been Hunter touched a long-fingered hand to a hole in her face. Then she laughed, high and loud, the sound vibrating from the columns and cords that decorated her surroundings.
The way she was now, she could swim up waterfalls.
She stepped on wires and conjured up more, climbing higher and higher, to match the giantess that now flew. Her psyche was a funhouse mirror of a funhouse mirror self. A her that had been distorted and broken and put back together again before this new body started plucking and snatching up scant memories. Picking from dance lessons and schoolyard games to figure out how it should move and hold itself together.
She danced up wires and pillars and ascended skyward, faster than the giantess could rise.
She stared down her opponent with senses that weren’t eyes, and saw facets of the woman in places so buried they weren’t in this world with its statues sticking out of buildings, its people in fancy clothes.
She saw memories and events. A palace. Luxurious clothes, handmade for her. Servants. Good food. The woman had power, in so many ways. She could ask for things to be done without worrying about how.
The inverse of what lay behind that funhouse-in-a-funhouse psyche, deep within the thing that had been Hunter.
Cords became elastic, and the thing that had been Hunter let herself tip forward, then snap toward the Giantess, a rubber band fired from a hand. She was deflected, struck by thrown buildings, and those buildings crumbled with the impact more than she did.
She hit the ground with two hands and two feet, crushing concrete and stone. With the impact, more wires and pillars stabbed upward, finding their purchase wherever they could, before snapping taut. A cage around her. One of them wounded the giantess. Another hit a shield she’d gathered around herself.
The thing that had been Hunter laughed, high and loud enough to be heard across the whole city she was in, a hollow, echoing sound.
The Giantess had once had it all, when she’d been an age where a girl named Hunter had had nothing. All the luck in reality, power stolen from a family closer than blood, and she’d ended up here, naked, distorted and bleeding, weaker than the thing that had been Hunter.
The giantess had done something with the concrete she’d turned into a shield. Concrete broke, but something within was compressed, reformed on a molecular level. It was now nearly black, lace-fine, like geometric drawings that got more complex as one drew closer to the center, but it hadn’t broken with the impact. Even the parts further from the center.
The Giantess’s power was reaching out further. Finding people who hadn’t run away fast enough. Cape and civilian, pulled together into a force. Weapons were being arranged, cannons and rockets.
The first of them was fired, almost as a test. The Giantess manipulated the rocket’s course in the air, aiming for the hole in the face of the thing that had been Hunter. She could see with senses that weren’t sight that something had been done to its chemical payload in that brief moment of handling.
It hit home.
Her thumbnail worked at a hangnail at her other thumb, trying to catch it between thumbnail and thumbnail as if she could cut it cleanly off.
“Hunter?” the voice came through a speaker.
She looked up. All around her, black threads stabbed from ceiling to floor, floor to bed, bed to wall. She couldn’t move more than a foot before bumping into one. They never cut her, but they did frustrate her.
“Hello?” she asked the empty room.
“I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and keep them closed, and to put your hands over your ears.”
People are always telling me what to do. It makes less and less sense as time goes on. “Why?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” the woman’s voice said. “Call it an experiment.”
Hunter closed her eyes. She pressed palm flat against ear.
She was aware of her power firing off again. Drawing out another thread. This time to the one-way mirror at the one wall. She heard glass break.
“Don’t open your eyes,” a man’s voice said.
She waited. A minute, the promise had been.
“Is Sam there?” she asked, nervous. Even though she couldn’t hear the response.
Cold compared to room temperature, something touched her. She kept her eyes closed.
It was a hand, cool to the touch. With that touch, a shiver ran through her body. A tension she’d felt was now relaxed.
With a tug, the hand pulled on her wrist, moving hand away from ear.
“We’re okay now,” the woman said.
She looked. She saw a face that had looked in through a window earlier. Freckles from forehead to chin, densely packed to the point there was as much brown as pink. Hair in brown curls with less frizz than Hunter had in her own hair, which was blonde and straight. The woman had tattoos covering her hands, and red fingernail polish on short fingernails.
“There we go,” the woman said.
“It’s under control. A bit of a tweak,” the woman said. “But it won’t keep. It won’t stay like this. Powers are very big things, and as strong as I am, I’m a lightweight in this fight.”
Hunter bit her lip. She wasn’t sure how to feel, but the relief after weeks of struggling with a power she couldn’t control was the biggest thing. It overwhelmed her, really.
“My name is Amy Dallon, and I want to help you,” the woman said.
“I talked to you on the phone. Victoria’s sister.”
Hunter saw a shift in expression, brief, sad.
The kind of thing she wanted to ask about, to question, challenge, or pick apart.
Except asking put distance and time between where she was now and getting help.
“Please help me,” she whispered.
“If I can,” Amy Dallon told her. Her tattooed hand stroked Hunter’s. “What’s the first thing that you’re going to do?”
Hunter let out a half-laugh, incredulous. She hadn’t even let herself believe hope was in reach. “Dance. Hug my friend. Cry.”
She laughed, her back arching backward with the motion, one hand to the hole in the side of her head. Her emotions ran wild, like fire to accelerant, no body to contain them. There was no functional difference between this form she wore and the pillars and threads of blackness that webbed this landscape, tearing it up.
She danced. Stepping on threads, running along a pillar, spinning in the air to avoid a spear of carefully arranged molecules, slapping it aside as spear became whip- became blade as she slapped it. It cut deep into the back of her hand.
The giantess could see her before she acted. Could see every incoming blow before it could strike home. The thing that had been Hunter dove in close, trying to grab. She touched only air, and was touched in turn, a grazing contact from the giantess, who was now wreathed in a fractally arranged lace of fine molecules. Still backed up by an army of people who had been brought into her influence. The contact distorted the thing that had been Hunter, tugged at parts of her that controlled the threads and pillars.
This too, she resisted, fought with her entire being.
The woman could see attacks coming, but that didn’t necessarily mean she could do something about it. Threads erupted all around them, creating an arena. The thing that had been Hunter closed in, dancing, moving acrobatically, using the threads. Lace barriers rose between her and her target, and she slipped past them, despite the fact she was taller than most buildings.
She got her hands on the naked giantess, wrapped her in a hug, and squeezed. Her own threads tore through the carbon molecule chains, disarming her target, protecting them as she crushed meat and bone.
The giantess, helpless to do much of anything, exerted more influence, more control.
And the part of Hunter that was deep within the Titan erupted in a sudden laugh, fighting off the control that tried to subvert her very being. Manic, reckless, defiant, free.
You can’t, the glimmer of Hunter deeper still within that manic Hunter thought. I won’t let you pull at me or push me. I won’t let you make me do things.
Other giants were pressing in now. The Knight, the Mother. The Knight cut through threads. The Mother brought forth life between them, en masse.
Titan, manic ‘Mincemaid’, and teenage girl acted in concert.
The noble giantess was flung, hard, into the thinnest and most taut threads. Hunter pounced on the giant knight, ever-aware of the tide of flesh that was riding up behind her. Life being birthed and grown.
This Titan body pulled at parts of her deepest self, that had been mindful of eyes on her, whether she was on stage or standing in line, practice in being situationaly aware and wary.
Her actions were confident, decisive. Fighting sword and armor with kicks, pounces, and eruptions of razor-sharp thread. Driving the Knight back through a forest of her own making.
She could see the figure on a distant rooftop. She could see his Self, shattered and ruined in a way even she wasn’t. He wore a monstrous form, like she did.
And she remembered, with distorted memories, that he had been a face in the background when Amy Dallon had ruined her mind as badly as her powers had ruined her life.
He was everything in herself she hated, and everything outside herself that she hated.
The laughing ceased. Her body creaked under its own weight, as she stood at equal height to buildings fourteen stories tall.
Snow floated down around her, and she was aware of snowflakes striking the finest threads and being cut. Aware of the armies mobilizing to defend their noble giantess, and the terror beyond this battlefield, beyond the noble giantess’s reach.
This wasn’t what you wanted. This wasn’t what I wanted either.
She resisted the urge to laugh, taking in the moment, swimming in her hatred for that black feathered boy-man, and the tattoo-handed woman he worked with.
She would kill them, and she would kill their army, and she would kill the people in this world. She would laugh when she did it, because it was a question of laughing or crying and she had no eyes to cry with. Only a hole in her head that wept blood.
She remained utterly still, taking in the moment. The giants slowly recovered, the noble giantess holding her injuries together with her power and bands of the fractal black lace. The knight helping her up. On the other side of the thing that had been Hunter, the mother giant gave birth to things that gave birth to things, and the tide of capital-b Birth rose up like a wall.
She could feel the other Titans. Reaching out, trying to make contact, trying to find a way in.
And that was the last thing she ever intended to give them. She was done being pushed and pulled and picked at and labeled.
She had nothing at all now. She was nothing at all except free.
She wanted nothing at all except to continue being free, to tear down those hateful, monstrous people who had broken her for such selfish reasons, tear down their armies, and tear down-
Not tear down their nations. This nation perhaps. But there were people she cared about. Eleni. Her aunt and uncle, in a way. Sam.
The tide of Birth collapsed, reaching for her. The laugh bubbled from deep within her, despite the fact she had no mouth. She lunged for the black feathered Rat, and he scampered away, jumping off of a tall building.
And deep within herself, a glimmer of a shattered image of a girl turned to memories, replaying her way through them like a song that was stuck in her head. To remind herself of what she could not do, as capital-f Free she might be.
“This way,” Uncle said, hand on her shoulder, pushing her forward.
⊙ ⊙ ⊙ ⊙ ⊙
Three rules to a job. Shoot accurately enough to only need one shot, but take a second just in case. Your eyes are stuck in front of you, so pick the right people to watch the back of you. Verify first, then trust, in all things.
Auger stood in the middle of what was supposed to be a water treatment plant. Distant doors banged, and lights appeared in windows.
Someone hadn’t done their due diligence. He’d done his due diligence on his end, and he’d double checked their work, but there was no way they should have missed this. Not for this big a response, this fast.
“What the fuck!?” he called out.
On the catwalks above him, Monsignor, Slink, and Fing Nuts looked at one another with alarm.
They looked down at him.
He looked over, mapping the escape route in his head. He’d have to run to the stairs, climb, run across the catwalk, get to the door…
Which was twenty paces from the trio.
“Don’t you fucking dare,” he growled.
“Sorry, sir,” Monsignor said, tipping his hat. “Respects.”
Auger raised his hand, a laser appeared, thin and bright, straight to the catwalk the others stood on.
“We’ll make a commotion,” Fing said. “Draw them after us. Best we can do. You know you’d do the same thing.”
The doors banged open, and Auger spun around. The laser pointed at the men in uniforms that were storming in. Not POLRI. These assholes were private military. Someone had really fucked up on their due diligence.
Someone pushed their way through the crowd.
A cape. Except not just a cape. The man had tech worked throughout his body. Metal that pulsed like a heart did, flesh that was rigid and doll-like, and things between. His body had glass domes on it, and brains floated in that glass, crowded in by the other tech and flesh.
The laser was only a sight. It, for lack of a better word, flowered, the flowering spiraling along its length, glowing red.
Roughly ten uniformed men in the laser’s path had a hole three feet across opened in their hips, bodies, and heads. Sparks floated in the air in the beam’s wake. The remains of the cyborg collapsed, a small fist-sized brain bouncing down metal catwalk stairs amid a splash of fluid.
Really didn’t do their fucking due diligence.
He ran for the stairs. Gunshots to his left made him look up at the catwalk, where the others had been.
They’d run for the door, and found guns waiting on the other side. Fing was missing part of his neck, and Slink had collapsed backward onto the catwalk railing, arms draped over it like a comic wrestler, blood dripping down her body and through the gaps in the catwalk.
That was supposed to be Auger’s escape route.
It was sparks, it’s been a few seconds. This should be flowers.
He focused his beam for two seconds, then fired at the wall, angling it upward. The beam widened, the power spiraled down its length, and this time it flowered, like petals unfolding.
Punching columns through reality. Except it wasn’t really punching anything through. He ran through the hole, holding his breath as he passed through the storm of petals that filled it. Those petals and this pollen would stop being petals and pollen in time, though the hole would remain. If he breathed it in, he would have concrete dust, bedrock, and pieces of the ‘water treatment’ plant inside his lungs.
People had already reached the bottom of his tunnel, and they shouted. They pointed guns at him.
He had nowhere to run.
After flowers is desolation.
After his last trip into desolation, he’d made the geiger counter go crazy.
Still, it was better than being shot.
He focused his power into himself.
The beam’s power ripped through him, and disconnected him from his current reality. A trick he’d had to teach himself after too many close calls. A trick he considered his power giving him a favor for being such a helpful power-user. As far as the others were concerned, he detonated, exploding on the spot.
As far as he was concerned, he had just transported himself to a radiation blighted city, for as long as he could hold his breath. They’d raided a secret government installation to steal confidential files and stumbled onto a private army helmed by cyborg capes. When he ran out of air, he’d have to decide if he wanted to breathe in radioactive dust or pop back into an approximate location in that compound. He had little doubt he’d be surrounded when he did pop in, if there were that many people there.
He no longer breathed.
The desolate wasteland, however, was his world. It was the place he kept returning to now. A ruined Earth Bet.
His power detonated around him, and he ceased to be. But his senses extended out, and he was aware of who was where. He could move among them. He was largely without emotion.
He was surrounded, he noted, by the machines. Big, small, utility, weapon. The biggest were house-sized, mounted on treads like those of a tank, each containing a different weapon that they revealed when they unfolded.
The roles had switched. The power was in control now, dressed in black metal and spiraling energy. Objectively, he was beautiful. In a moment of weakness, when he thought he faced the decision of breathing in radioactive death or dying at the hands of the machines, the power had reached out to him to offer a deal, much like it had offered him new uses of his power, new varieties, and ways to visit new worlds, or bring out slivers of those new worlds into his world, though the differences between one and the other were often negligible. Gaping holes through reality with sparks and intense heat, or gaping holes through reality that fucked with nearby machines and included radioactive dust in the mix.
The deal was simple. He got to live, after a fashion, it got the driver’s seat, the body.
Now he was the one parceling out the rewards to encourage certain behavior and help out. Remember this? This is relevant. That time my team and I stumbled onto a cyborg lab. I got out alive.
The machines wanted him. He could almost understand how they thought. There was a whole city beyond the ruined portal, but when he reappeared, and he would, the machines would turn right around and prioritize him.
Every second he was gone, the machines marched closer to the portal.
His opponent floated above. A woman with wings and a helmet.
Valkyrie, he supplied, to better inform the power. With the word, he transmitted the idea. The degree of power, and the danger she posed.
I always liked the maxims, he thought. The thoughts were more like lines of code running on a computer than they were words in his head. Rules, courses of action, steps to take.
His power pulled together the device he was making while he remained in this reality. He watched Valkyrie, and saw that she was making a way to get to him in this reality. She just had to find him, which meant looking.
Magic beats the tinker shit. They can’t get around it.
Tinker shit beats the one trick ponies. It’s just a question of coming to the right answer.
People who can do one thing well beat the people who do a hundred things badly.
And those people who can do a hundred things can beat magic?
It was a question. An unfinished thought. It would be nice if things came full circle, but he couldn’t be sure.
Well, he had time to figure it out. He would be like this forever, maybe.
A tiny part of him, buried deep, deep inside, expressed the deepest and darkest kind of terror at that notion.
Hey, power of mine, he expressed the idea. Distract me? I don’t want to dwell on things.
His body moved, heavy and monumental. The device he was building was almost as dense as he was. He stepped back into the desolate wasteland of Bet, just as Valkyrie stepped into the irradiated waste.
He turned his back on her, because the machines were changing direction, fixating on him again. He smashed one open, prying tech free, as smaller ones began opening fire. A hail of bullets, missiles, and laser beams.
Behind him, Valkyrie reappeared. A shadow appeared behind her.
Before she could move from where she was, the shadow became Axehead.
A part of him watched Axehead smack Valkyrie out of the sky.
A part of him, deep inside, saw facets and figures, shadows buried within. He was a person reflected in crystal, looking at a woman reflected in crystal, and they could each see so many sides of one another.
He might have had a drink with her, before. He might have asked her to spend the night with him.
She might have said yes. He could see it, read it in her.
That bit of imagining and connecting was the closest thing he experienced to warmth now. Another thought that provoked a spike of terror, driven deep down inside him.
Valkyrie had lived. She was hurt, though, and needed to use a borrowed power to pull herself together.
The Machine Army closed in on her.
But she had allies. connections.
He was keeping to the rules, like this. Having the right allies to watch his back. Taking a good searching look before he made any decisive moves. Both with Axehead and with Valkyrie.
In keeping with those rules, he couldn’t leave it at this. One decisive shot was good, but the follow-up was essential. Wading through the Machine Army, he aimed his partially built tinker weapon at Valkyrie.
Axehead was already gone.
His tinker device amplified his own power, adding versatility. His current form enhanced both power and versatility as well. Combined, they were enough. He pulled more scraps of metal to his device with reversed beams, and let tendrils of power pull that metal into the right shapes, reinforcing for the decisive shot.
An explosion rocked his device. He shut it down.
Attackers. New capes.
Reinforcements for Valkyrie.
Darkness billowed up around him, limiting his sight-
He reached for an escape route, and found the escape blocked off as well, by the oppressive dark.
Auger emerged from the desolate wasteland and plunged into dark water.
Not the best end result.
Especially when the water lacked any buoyancy. He’d had a glimpse as he fell, and he saw water.
This wasn’t water. It was too thick, too dark, and it was occupied.
He felt a hand as he floundered.
The beam of his power produced light, and he saw racks of men and women unconscious in the pool of fluid, situated beneath a deceptive looking facade. Waiting to be born.
He produced his beam, and cut a hole in the wall of the tank. The shift of pressure dumped him out onto the floor to the side. The fall was hard, and made harder by the fluids that poured down on top of him.
He could hear shouting.
An entire army closed in around him.
He couldn’t fight an army.
But he could think like a mercenary. It came down to value, what a given job was worth.
Fourth maxim, he thought. He looked for and found a likely target, a set of chemical tanks kept out of plain view by the foot of one of the larger pools of water, cyborg clone banks in disguise.
He blasted the chemical tanks. They erupted into violent fire and noise. Foreign voices shouted their alarm.
He blasted others, then kept blasting.
And then he ran, leaving them to deal with the distraction.
Those things are worth more to you than I am, he thought. Fourth maxim, sometimes you gotta set it all on fire and walk away.
His winning strategy was just to stop. He could feel the tendrils of Axehead reaching for him, feeling out for danger, and finding only quiet confidence.
He was attacked, brutally at first, every heavy weapon the attackers had. He curled around his device, made from the pieces of a hundred members of this Machine Army that roamed around him and pried at his flesh, protecting the technology while sacrificing pieces of himself.
Putting one foot in front of the other, he walked.
Through the portal. Toward his partners. He’d picked effective ones. They were reliable. They watched his back.
He’d verified. He trusted.
They would be at the center of the connections, as soon as they found a way past the bigger cluster at the heart of the city. They would have to bring the dancing girl, the old man, and the gaseous lady in, too. Anything else and they would be buried beneath the mass of the others.
He ceased walking, taking in his surroundings. The darkness no longer gripped him.
He’d set his fire, he’d walked away.
He was no longer in Bet, and with everything in ruins, the capes now scrambled and failed to keep the Machine Army in check. It was free to access the city, the first robots finding their way in.
Five slipped past him while he picked the biggest one to crush and tear apart for materials for his weapon.
⊙ ⊙ ⊙ ⊙ ⊙
She stood utterly alone and completely still. For all intents and purposes, she was the only one of her kind.
Before any of this, all of this, she had been the forward-looking eye of something greater and grander, a lonely being in and of itself. That great and grand thing had crossed paths with a pair of others.
Take my eye, it had said. Take my wings. Take my teeth. Take my ability to step between worlds.
The pair, in turn, had made their own offerings, as much as they were in a hurry.
For they were the most distant of cousins, the most distant of things. If they did not share their stories and resources now then stars might be born and die before their individual family lines crossed paths and had opportunity to share again. And they were scholars, all of them, trying to answer an unanswerable riddle.
The pair took the Loner’s eye, among millions of other parts and graces and favors. The Loner traveled away, taking care to leave a breadcrumb trail that would ensure he and his kind would not return back this way until galaxies had been born anew. They searched for answers and backtracking was of little merit.
And the forward-looking eye, so generously given to the pair, was dropped in the rush, dropped in a stumble and crashing fall. Instructions were given in the parting. “Don’t go too far, little Eye. You may see everything, but close yourself before you show them where we’re weak. Don’t show them our deepest secrets!”
It was picked up by a primitive, who looked through it and saw the pair. It approached the pair, a blade in hand, and the eye closed tight.
But another primitive saw, and another hand guided the knife home.
A betrayal, mechanical and undeniable.
Every other gift lay dead and disconnected, fruit on the branches of a dead tree, with little in the way of parting words or guidance. Every other connection to the Loner was gone. The Pair too distant to reach.
Even now, as she grows large enough to look from horizon to horizon, and reaches out to clasp hands with others, make promises and alliances, she is alone, the only one of her kind still truly alive and open-eyed.
The mightiest of all, perhaps. Faced with a seed of a dead fruit from a withered branch on a tree that no longer existed. A silver woman, tiny by comparison, wreathed in wings.
I would bait Auger to attack for step three, to create the crisis that gets the attention of the girl Hunter for step four. I would convert her with a messenger in steps five to nine. She would bend the knee and join me.
The silver woman was silent, but the silence spoke volumes. She shrieked in silence, every one hundredth of a second of imagined sound a test of every possibility and detail in her surroundings. A machine testing every possible password before the right answer was found, except the system being broken into was reality, and ‘every’ encompassed multiple dimensions and millions of people.
And that silver woman was so much weaker and smaller than the Titan she faced. Titan Fortuna, named such so that the little girl who had found the forward-looking eye could fulfill her promise to herself, that when all of this was over, she could be Fortuna again.
If the silver woman could cheat her way to the answers, then the Titan had the answers on a sheet in front of her.
But she had to ask: how long had the sheet been there? Had the answers been tampered with? Were there details that needed investigating?
She could check of course. The answer to that question was on the sheet. But in the time it took to find it, there could be more tampering, more details changed.
She already had the answer, that the silver woman had tampered. But where? She checked, and she found the answers.
A path that began with Auger fighting that was intended to end with her networked to all titans, ready to end this world and scattered haphazardly and limping to other stars and planets… instead ended with this silver woman in control of the network, humanity mad and savage.
A path that began with the host Valkyrie being made Titan, intended to end with the network largely complete, the silver woman dead, and the scattering due to happen in ten years… instead ended with the silver woman in control of the network, half of humanity deranged and fighting the other half. To investigate why took time that the silver woman could use to gain purchase elsewhere.
A path that began with humanity devastated and dying of plague, the silver woman denied her pawns, the Titans assimilated into a greater cluster where Titan Fortuna herself was not in charge… instead ended with the silver woman in control of the network, a new, artificial humanity being created as playthings.
She checked again. A path that began with physically attacking the silver woman… ended in the silver woman in control of the remainder of the network, humanity in tatters.
Every route she investigated was seeded with false data, poisoned fruit, and patches of shadow that lay over the path, the far side of those patches ruled over by the silver woman.
Neither one moving, they calculated, they planned, they counter-planned.
She saw a thousand more paths that ended with the silver woman ruling, despite the fact the silver woman had a fraction of her strength.
Finally, she decided to cede ground. To look for the answer why. Though the silver woman couldn’t reach her, couldn’t see her, a smile crept over the silver face, and wings stretched wider. She had somehow sensed the surrender.
We began this fight when you broke, child, the Titan Fortuna thought, trying to communicate to the battered kernel of human consciousness within herself.
She began this two years ago, when Gold Morning occurred. It doesn’t matter that we have a hundred times her strength. She’s within paces of the finish line, and she’s no stupid rabbit racing a tortise. Nearly every action she could take brings her closer to a checkmate.
That kernel of consciousness dwelt on how it had killed one of the closest things it had to a friend. It was hard to discern whether the ‘it’ that had done the killing was the kernel or the Titan, because that little seed of humanity deep inside her didn’t know for certain.
The Titan Fortuna reached out to the child Fortuna deep within herself, and spoke with a certainty the child knew well. If they did not win here, now, they would be enslaved.
The child refused to be a slave again. The Titan refused to be a slave for other reasons. But they were able to think and act in concert.
A path. One that most likely ended in a desirable outcome. To investigate too much would leave it on the table long enough for the silver woman to get silver fingerprints on it.
New cracks threatened to spread.
New titans threatened to emerge.
Humans assaulted the Firmament. The center of power, the core of all things Power.
As if sensing the resolution, the silver woman turned and levitated herself away. Ceding the battle, or taking her own initial steps.
Step one: hold the cracks back, until the right moment, the Titan Fortuna and the child Fortuna thought in concert.