I wanted to say we’d kicked the hornet’s nest, with a whole mess of Titans abruptly shifting their behavior in a response to our behavior, but the reality was that we were the hornets, and they were the comparatively huge figures who we could only nip at and sting.
They were the ones with the tools to answer us, disarm us, to protect themselves.
Our sole advantage was that the Wardens had picked our battlefield well. We were distant from the other Titans, with only Titan Skadi as our immediate threat and signifier that we were doing something right. The camera in my eye was displaying some of the data about the incoming Titans. Ophion coming from the East. Nemean from the West.
The Stranger Titan from the Northeast, with a vague marker that showed the likely area and a guess at the distance.
By the connections we’d observed, all three appeared to be linked to Titan Fortuna. They were minutes away, distance and predicted time of arrival marked out in thin gold lines and golden, sans-serif digital font. The same program that Kenzie had used to track when Breakthrough members would arrive, in a different color.
There were other details marked out, but they were subtle. Trackers for my team members, faint unless I refocused my eyes to look for them. A digitized red slash stabbing skyward from the horizon, a beacon marked ‘Class SS’, with no instructions that we were supposed to go handle it.
With everything on the line right here, I wasn’t sure I wanted the distraction of knowing. I’d do what I could here, at least until the civilians were evacuated and safe.
I had little doubt that a label like that would be something I would be having to help with sooner than later.
There was an immense kind of pressure to that. Titan Skadi was terrifying in her relentlessness. Like being on the ground, no flight, and having a building start to collapse nearby, tipping in your direction. Huge, immensely lethal, no guarantees, countless lives on the line.
Over and over and fucking over again.
Every second, she was doing something.
For right now, she was engaging multiple capes. Weld was too small to play the brute, and Titan Skadi hit hard enough that a man made of solid metal wouldn’t necessarily survive what she did, so he’d ‘welded’ limb extensions on, metal arms and legs that he could use to move faster and scoop up anyone in danger. One of them had been badly bent.
Gibbet was using her power to create large metal cranes, while fliers flew the crane’s hooks into gaps in Skadi’s armor plating. Mostly, though, it seemed aimed at slowing down Skadi’s attacks, snagging at her arms and limiting her range of movement, caging her in. It was a coordinated assault that included some shaker powers, Tristan’s among them. Protecting the convoy that was making its way into the crack.
I floated, waiting, one eye on the numbers that showed incoming Titans, another eye on Titan Skadi and the capes around her. I floated this way and that, ensuring my view of her was clear of obstacles.
I saw the crimson in her fade out, and I hauled back on the trigger.
The beam speared out, the machinery of the gun shuddering violently enough it almost canceled my forcefield. The beam raked her from axe-hand to elbow. I was ready for her to appear beside me, but she carried through on her plan. The building didn’t fall on me this time.
She reappeared, close to the helicopters, but the impact from the shot I’d just fired had shifted her balance imperceptibly, shifted the position of the one hand perceptibly, so it didn’t come down with the speed or angle she’d intended.
One axe-hand punched into the back of a truck that was carrying people. The one I’d shot came down a second or two after, where Gibbet’s cranes were already growing and criss-crossing. Metal creaked, bent, broke, and toppled.
I’d bought a second or two, which let Gibbet buy another two. That was time enough for someone to get a forcefield up, for vehicles to veer away, one truck’s side scraping against another in its haste.
I’d been an Alexandria-Lite. Now I played the role of a faux Legend, counting my shots carefully, mindful of battery, taking in the whole battlefield and figuring out where I needed to deliver the heavy fire.
It required a different mindset. I couldn’t identify the biggest problem, charge in with ninety-five percent of a plan in mind, and figure out what I was doing as I got between my target and the thing they were trying to accomplish. I had to line up my shots, make sure nobody was in the way, either in front of my target or behind her, and make every shot count.
I shot again, not because of what Titan Skadi was doing, but because others were mobilizing, using powers, and I was betting that she was going to respond. I placed the beam in the hollow of her neck, and flew down as she leaned back, to ensure I had the angle to keep the beam focused on one spot and keep her as unbalanced as possible, as long as I had her unbalanced and off-guard.
Having multiple hands gripping the gun made it easier to keep it steady, but I was finding some sympathy with Crystal’s complaint that lasers were actually hard to aim. She’d given me a laser pointer at one point and asked me to keep it steady, and I’d thought I’d done okay then. I hadn’t had adrenaline churning through my body to the point I had tremors in my actual hands. I hadn’t been terrified then.
She started teleporting away as I did the damage. She reared back, pushed a bit by the beam, and was still rearing back as she appeared nearby. No attack on arrival this time. The axe that had plunged into the truck was abraded, and the abrasions collected blood and pieces of the people she’d guillotined.
I’d hoped for, wanted her to come after me. Lives had been lost or irrevocably changed by the attack earlier. This spot of anticipation had maybe saved others. But it wasn’t enough.
This was the pressure being applied. An unstoppable, inevitable threat, who would have been bad enough on her own, a handful more on the way I had zero idea how to deal with, and a red mark on the horizon with the ominous ‘Class SS’ label on it for later.
If it was just me and my skin on the line, I was pretty sure I could have dealt. As a kid with superhero parents, I had dealt with my Aunt Jess’s death -Fleur’s death- with some vivid fantasies about being a heroine and making a great sacrifice, often involving revenge in some capacity. Taking out Kaiser. Purity, who had done the flying artillery thing and had jousted with my family enough times to stick in my consciousness.
I’d moved past that, but with a perspective change in the wake of it. Not fantasizing about death, but… being okay with it. That hadn’t changed since: accepting that capes died and in an ideal world they died doing something just. I knew I’d rather go out in battle than end up in another hospital room for the rest of my life.
But these were civilians. People I’d brought into this fight with my words. These were people with lives, families, and actual live-into-old-age futures.
I was terrified for them. Enough that I didn’t feel brave, floating up here, fighting in a very different way than I was used to. The blood dripping down her axe-hand as capes tried to slow her down was more visceral to me than the bullet wound in my arm that ached even today, the gouges in my other arm, my sprained foot, and my missing fingernail.
It was all I could do to stop myself from pulling the trigger and keep pulling it until this thing overheated or broke down.
I waited, finger extended, watching, and trying to take in every detail I could.
Capes were pressing in now, using everything they had to get her while she was off balance. Skadi tore her way free of Gibbet’s creations, now reinforced with Capricorn’s stone. Lassos bound her while she was bent over, another crane slowly rose up to press against her neck, and capes clambered over her. Sveta was among them, not attacking so much as she supported others, helping them up.
We had capes from the corner worlds joining in, now. Semiramis’s faction. Little Midas.
Lung, apparently, was in Little Midas’s camp. He burned bright in the dark, but was only in the early stages of his transformation.
She moved, tearing free again, and I flinched, my finger touching the trigger without pulling it. Not the right moment.
I kept the gun trained on her, moving to find different points that might be weaker. Places where armor joined body, joints, places where she was thinner, and places she was already injured. As capes got in my way, I pulled my finger away from the trigger and focused on other areas that were more open, if less vulnerable.
Fliers and other Movers were facilitating, rather than doing the damage herself. Sticking close to a group of capes who were atop Titan Skadi’s back. I saw Sveta on the top of her, doing just that. Tristan was on the ground somewhere, adding stone to the walls and creations that hemmed in Skadi’s actions.
I wanted to think we were doing what Tristan had suggested, working together. Putting emotion aside. Being removed from things with a heavy weapon in my hands helped a bit in that regard.
I saw the colors change. Shadows shifting and disappearing- and I had to find them in the gloom. I fired a brief pulse of my laser at the side of her ‘stomach’, and the light of it provided enough of a clue to see where she was going. The bridge, where capes were helping people down through the cracks.
Where she’d disappeared, capes had already positioned themselves to land on Gibbet’s crane or other constructions below. Sveta joined fliers and other movers caught some of the ones who weren’t positioned so well, rescuing them from falls or getting them to perches or safe ground.
I fired a sustained shot directly into Titan Skadi’s face. It was bright enough in the gloom that shadows chased my eye movements.
Fuck, come on! Flinch! Come for me!
She wasn’t reacting enough, and the other capes who joined me in attacking her were slowing her down, but not enough to outright interrupt or stop her.
Being flying artillery wasn’t in my skillset. In a fight where I was using my forcefield and strength, I’d usually have ideas for options. I -Victoria Dallon, Glory Girl, Antares- didn’t often run into situations where I was in position but what I could do wasn’t enough. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, if I could get up close and if they couldn’t get away, I could do exactly as much damage as I wanted to.
I needed a plan, I had to reach for examples for battle plans. I wasn’t familiar enough with Legend to be inspired by him.
Crystal then. I could remember debates where my aunt and kid cousin had been annoyed at Crystal’s habit of dipping into the fight.
I dipped. I dove, letting my laser cannon fall more than I carried it.
Cold wind whipped past me as I closed the distance on Titan Skadi, who had her back to me. I started shooting as I got closer.
Getting closer had its advantages. My cousin Eric had had the range but his beams were weak. My Aunt Sarah had been middle of the road. Crystal had the strongest beams of the three, the strongest top speed and carrying ability to her flight. So why did she get in close?
It made it easier to aim. I aimed for weak points, damage done while capes had been swarming Titan Skadi.
It made it easier to use other powers. Crystal was more of a flier, and she could create forcefields in mid-air. Part of the reason she liked to get in close was that she created forcefields at mid-to-short range. It was easier to shoot someone when you could create a wall in their way, put them up against the wall, and blast them.
I didn’t have forcefields in that same sense. I saw a damaged section of her armor, blasted it, and continued blasting as I plummeted. In the last few seconds of my descent, I twisted in the air to get to where I could kick my laser cannon up and away, and carried on down without reorienting myself. I could only dive while shooting because the weapon had no appreciable recoil. No real Newton’s Law of Motion at play here. No bullet being fired forward, gun kicking back in response.
I crashed into the same site I’d been blasting, as fast as I could dive, forcefield hands drawn together into a point. Hot, cracked armor caved in, cracked further, and shifted position beneath me, like I’d driven a boat into the middle of a bridge. Immediately, she twisted around, swinging for me.
This? This was more familiar ground. I kicked off and away from the impact site, flying around the axe that was coming for me, and over her head, blasting with my aura while no capes were close enough to be collateral damage.
I’d hoped it would prompt her to come for me, seizing her attention. I’d really hoped it would hit that mental button that made her teleport, so I could exploit it. No such luck. It did seem to get her attention and provoke a follow-up swing, which forced me to evade and delayed me in my chase of my falling gun. I caught my weapon maybe twenty feet off the ground, grabbing a handhold with one actual hand, and flew hard, helping it rotate so it would be in the optimal position as I landed.
My forcefield came back up, and I landed with a force that cracked ice and made fluids gush around the cracks, multiple hands grabbing multiple handholds, the entire laser cannon’s body creaking and protesting at the force of its landing, distributed across my forcefield.
The forcefield popped, and I let the cannon drop to the frozen ground to my right with a violent crunch, metal creaking. Panting for breath, I crouched there, facing Titan Skadi, who was so tall I couldn’t really encompass her in the field of view that extended from the top of my bottom eyelid to the bottom of the other.
Couldn’t do that too many more times. The gun wouldn’t take that kind of strain from being caught from terminal falling speed.
But I’d got her attention again. She wasn’t focusing on the civilians or the bridge. The armor at her shoulder was damaged, and the armor beneath was visible, raw and fleshlike where it attached to yet another layer of armor beneath that. Meat and bone lattice that looked almost like lengths of spine that connected panel to panel.
What’s there beneath the surface, Berserker Titan? Is there a glimmer of a personality, like with Fume Hood? Or are you dead inside like Oberon?
Are you angry? Is there a part of you I can drill at, that will get you chasing me?
Fuck you, I hope so.
There was something about her I just found myself hating, as I saw her straighten, rolling the shoulder I’d just made a crater in. Dealing with her was like facing down someone who screamed in my face constantly, no relief, no room to reason with her. If she turned away from me, it was to inflict herself on others.
And it wasn’t screaming. She was silent, and she killed people.
Just an inevitable, constant horribleness. The worst parts of capes distilled.
She felt like the worst possible opponent to be facing right now, as the countdown showed the other Titans’ arrival was imminent. She wore us down, broke our backs, ground down our spirit, demanding constant vigilance, because one second of failing to account for details meant she could appear anywhere on the battlefield and lives would be lost.
And the others? Nemean? Ophion? The Stranger? They would capitalize on us lacking will, stamina, or focus. They would capitalize on us lacking vigilance.
She surged toward me, past Lung, who had grown a bit, using his fire.
Maybe because she’d seen me looking at Lung again, Kenzie passed on a message: LUNG IS POSSIBLE GAMEPLAN. THEY THINK HE MIGHT GET STRONG ENOUGH TO LOCK SKADI.
It made some sense. If Lung could get strong enough that he remained the largest threat to Titan Skadi, he would be her target every time she teleported. I wasn’t sure what his upper limit was, but I knew that when he’d had a good ten or fifteen minutes of growing time, he had been able to take on the entire Brockton Bay Protectorate, plus visitors and guests. He didn’t get tired, and his regeneration sped up as he escalated.
Maybe there was a special case where he could get locked in an endless fight against the one Titan.
The problem was that that took time. We had a minute before Nemean arrived. The others would come shortly after.
With my forcefield, I picked up the edge of the gun, then found the handholds. I hadn’t even lifted it fully off the ground before I fired, aiming for the worst damage at the side of her head. I floated, and I was slow to take to the air with my burden.
I wasn’t going to leave it behind, though.
I kept shooting, until I heard the beep, the double-beep, and the triple-beep that marked the weapon overheating. Capes erected barriers and weapons. Laser lassos, cranes, outcroppings of rock, forcefields. A few brutes got in the way.
Fuck you, I thought, staring her down. I spared a brief glance toward the people who were descending into the crack below. I’m not going to leave this weapon where you can smash it. If you want it, you’re going to have to make me drop it, and I’m going to fight you every step of the way.
It wasn’t enough to stop her. I braced for the impact.
The number of defenses going up between me and the Titan increased. More forcefields, more barriers, spikes. A few capes stepped in as she slowed down.
I kept firing, floating back while I did it.
“First thought, aww, baby cousin got a laser of her own!” I heard the voice.
Another laser joined mine, firing in the same general direction.
“Second thought: how the hell do you get a long ranged laser and put yourself in a position to collect more injuries?” Crystal called down to me. She grimaced as she made another crimson forcefield, which Skadi immediately shattered by lurching through it.
“I got the idea from you!”
Reinforcements. The Wardens were on top of things, and as the clock ticked down the last twenty seconds for the Nemean Titan to appear on the scene, our guys were already here, relocating and preparing us for the imminent attacks.
Good job, Wardens.
“You got so much shit for breaking formation and getting into the thick of it!” I called out.
“Lies!” she said again, sounding more amused than anything.
“It’s true,” my Aunt Sarah said, adding her beam to ours. Bright violet. Her forcefield was already in the way, placed more to brace some of the constructions and keep them from toppling than to stand in Skadi’s way on its own. Her voice had a haunting quality to it. “I remember it.”
“Well shit, what am I supposed to say to that?” Crystal asked. “I never got hurt!”
“I didn’t get hurt just now!” I retorted.
“Because we saved you!”
Stupid, to be distracted and doing this, but it was stupidity that made it easier to breathe, and get out from that pressure that was building up. Reinforcements were good.
Skadi disappeared, leaving shadow-first.
Aunt Sarah was maybe the third person among the assembled capes to respond accurately, locating the Titan and sending a bright violet beam straight to it. Damage-wise, it didn’t do a ton. But it did make for a very noticeable, clear pointer to where the threat was. When the Titan wasn’t illuminated by nearby spotlights, it was dark out, and the city was unlit, it was hard to tell she was there until she was there in full.
I aimed, firing, floating closer. My family members followed, flying alongside.
My vision in the one eye flashed.
Yeah, I thought. I’ve been watching the countdown.
MEASUREMENTS MAY NOT BE EXACT BUT THEY’LL BE PRETTY GOOD.
The Nemean Titan, and a series of circles drawn in the air around it. He slouched, arms long and hands wreathed in clouds of gold, with golden locks on his head that became crownlike at the top. Of all of the titans, he seemed to have the most of a face, with twists of golden hair forming gaps and patterns as they trailed across what would have been his face.
He moved on all fours, fast, and put buildings between himself and us.
We tripped an alarm, mobilizing like this.
He was cowardly, hard to track, lighter and leaner than many of the Titans. Ten stories tall, maybe, and he scaled a skyscraper near the coast without toppling it, though rubble fell. Still halfway up it, peering over the top, he moved behind it, so the bulk of the skyscraper blocked our view of him, then leaped to one side.
The building fell. He disappeared into the maze of fallen and half-fallen buildings. Kenzie’s tracker started only intermittently working, updating on his location, presumably as others got a glimpse of him.
I flew up, shooting Skadi while keeping part of my attention on the Lion.
He wasn’t flanking us or Skadi.
“Stop him!” I called out.
An exceedingly unnecessary alert appeared in the vision of my right eye, telling me what I’d already realized. Kenzie, presumably, was alerting the others and it had been faster to ‘send to all’ than to send to everyone but me.
The Nemean Titan had circled the battlefield and now charged for the back line of our civilian group. The trucks that hadn’t yet made it to the crack, the people waiting for helicopter transportation. Stragglers.
I shot him, and he stumbled. Others joined in.
He was tenacious if nothing else, and he was fast enough that even limping and beaten by attacks from five different directions, he got to them faster than they got away from him.
I watched as people fell like dominoes. Trucks that had been moving veered off the road or collided with one another.
And he stood taller, no longer moving on all fours. His body shifted composition.
I shot again. He hopped to one side, rolling on landing, and ended up with all four legs beneath him, clawed extremities set so far apart his belly almost grazed the ground.
I shot again, holding down the trigger, mindful of the civilians who were so hard to make out in the gloom, and he sprung to the one side, tore free of two glowing lassos that tried to shackle him, and got closer to the middle of our civilian group.
I watched as helicopters wobbled, then changed in orientation, drifting off to the side to find landing spots with a mechanical fluidity. People on the ground weren’t so lucky. No automated landings in cases of driver incapacitation.
He moved through them like something hungry. There was no fighting him, no getting close and delivering a telling blow. I could see how far the effect reached by the line where drivers remained where they were and where trucks were steering around, driving off the road to get elsewhere.
Fuck you, Victor, I thought. You hurt so many people for selfish, ignorant reasons, and you became this? Just doing more of the same.
I focused my laser on him. Crystal and Aunt Sarah did the same.
He didn’t like being shot. Nothing suggested he was more fragile than Skadi, but as a Titan, he seemed to have a wholly different personality. He backed off as the lasers focused him down, and darted around a building as a feint, reversing direction while we couldn’t clearly see him, before sprinting off in another direction.
Toward our ground-based reinforcements.
Capes shot him from the one flank, while we bombarded him from the other. Suppressing, buying time for people to shake off the stupor that came with being too close to the skill-stealing Nemean Titan and start driving or flying toward the crack in reality.
Off to the side, more reinforcements flowed into the crack in reality as Skadi teleported. Presumably down, aiming for the people below.
I flew to a vantage point where I could focus on the Nemean Titan while watching out for Skadi.
Aunt Sarah saw her before I did, peering past the gloom with eyes that saw light in a different way. The laser she fired down at Skadi marked the target I was aiming for.
The cannon shuddered as I fired, and I heard two chimes. Not the beeps that marked heat level.
Battery. I was half out.
It was too much to stay on top of. Two highly mobile enemies who barely flinched when we attacked them. I had a responsibility to stall them, slow them down, and stop them from getting to the civilians.
The best of humankind throwing themselves into this hot mess to try to make a difference.
I couldn’t descend to fight Skadi in the same way. If I went too deep into the cracks, I’d lose powers. I could stay near the opening, though, and rain hell down on her from below.
Unable to see as many details, I was left to shoot more, in hopes the shots would count.
The Wardens had kept tinker devices and master minions in reserve for fighting the Nemean Titan, and now those minions were wrapped up in a tooth and nail fight. Some floundered, losing all capacity, but some didn’t.
“Heads up,” I said, as I lined up more of a shot on Skadi. I couldn’t see as many flickers and flashes suggesting she was under attack. “This might bait her in.”
“Great,” Crystal said, sarcastic.
“Be ready,” Aunt Sarah added, all business, all focus.
In the gloom, I could see Crystal’s expression momentarily change. I could only imagine how complicated her feelings were.
I pulled the trigger. A golden beam pouring into the crack in reality, to the Titan far below, who was trudging toward our civilians. It struck home, gold light splashing on impact, and I had to cancel my shot before it went off course or went too far.
Aunt Sarah flipped around, throwing up a forcefield. Crystal did the same.
Titan Skadi, behind us. She cleaved through one forcefield, then lost momentum cutting through the next.
I kicked the axe-hand before she could move it, and manually reached into the handhold for the trigger while I fell, my forcefield gone. If she had eyes in her face, it would have blinded her, but it didn’t.
In an effort to slow my fall, Crystal threw up a crimson forcefield. I hit it, but the weight of the cannon shattered it a quarter-second later.
My forcefield returned, and I slowed the cannon’s fall. Again, metal strained audibly. It hadn’t liked the ‘catch’ after my diving attack.
Skadi disappeared. Appearing on the other side of us.
The reinforcements arrived once more. Out of the crack, flying and using mover powers, riding giant centipedes, or standing on the deck of a tinker plane with Advance Guard aesthetic and a battle platform on top.
With some careful flying, forcefields, and the help of the pressure from the more mobile reinforcement group, we were able to pull back. I warned my family, aimed and then shot once again for good measure. Skadi didn’t come for us.
I could hear Damsel’s blast as she closed the distance, chasing Titan Skadi. I saw others running through the dark.
We had allies, but a lot of them were ones I didn’t recognize. No Parian, no Foil. Sveta was there but busy, Rain was sleeping, and Kenzie was tracking the Rain situation.
I felt my heart sink as more alerts flashed in the corner of my eye, simultaneous.
The Nemean Titan’s friends.
The Ophion Titan looked like an artist had begun with a tumor, and sculpted the tumor to be as beautiful as was humanly possible to do, with gold highlights and black recesses, its folds like the folds of a brain or intestine. Black bands and panels formed a sort of jacket or vessel to bind the gigantic tumor’s shape to the rough form of an androgynous human, and black needles radiated out from its scalp, shoulders, and chest.
All wet, head to toe, with moist air wicking off of it in the form of clouds like frozen breath.
And the trio of creatures keeping it company were larger than any of the Titans we’d fought yet. Not so big as the Dauntless Titan, but… comparable to storms on a city’s bay before a weather event that shut down the city. Crafted flesh, towering skyward, reaching from ground to clouds.
He approached from the one direction. The Stranger approached from the other.
Or so I assumed. I couldn’t look in that direction. It wasn’t that I tried and failed… I couldn’t try.
We had more reinforcements, but it felt like so little.
“This is hell,” I said, dividing my attention between four titans now. Or three titans and one giant absence. The Nemean Titan kept moving around, flanking, chasing. It passed the Titan Skadi, who staggered, and the two scuffled momentarily before parting ways. The Nemean Titan was hungry, and Titan Skadi had enemies to target.
WARNING: Kenzie’s message appeared at the edge of my field of view. TITAN OBERON AND AUGER INCOMING.
I looked in the direction of the red slash. Auger had been over there. I could guess, now.
“This is actual hell,” I said.
“Yeah,” Crystal echoed me.
“You set a goal,” Aunt Sarah spoke, purple irises bright in the dark. “Get the civilians down there safe and sound, minimum of casualties.”
“There were casualties,” I said, frantically looking between the various targets. What the fuck do I even shoot, now? “There’s about to be a lot more.”
“There were always going to be casualties, Victoria,” my Aunt said. “We’ve done a good job of keeping them to a minimum.”
“No,” I said. “Any number above zero was always going to be a failure. Saying it’s anything but is shirking responsibility.”
“Set your goals, keep your goals realistic-”
“-and let yourself be happy when you meet them,” Crystal finished, speaking alongside the woman who was and simultaneously wasn’t her mother.
My laser cannon clacked and roared as I fired at Skadi. She was preoccupied though. The Wardens were taking the primary focus in this moment.
“My mom always said we needed to deny the other side their goals,” I said, quiet. “They want to crush us, slowly and steadily. They wipe out humanity, connect to one another, and discard our planet. They’re succeeding.”
“I remember discussing plans and policies with your mother, when the team was new,” Aunt Sarah said. “I never imagined we’d pass them on to our individual kids like this.”
“Thinking a lot about memories and remembering?” I asked, words less aimed at her and more at the darkness that pressed in all around us.
The Nemean Titan stopped running for a second, possibly because he had found a group to leech from. I shot him, spooking him and scaring him off from his target.
Each time he ‘ate’, he stood a little taller, moved more confidently.
Not that I could lock my attention to him. The Titan Skadi was still out there, still alternating between attacking our most aggressive capes and going after the civilians. I could trust the capes to handle themselves, though I’d help where I could, but the civilians demanded my attention and protection.
I fired at her a few times. She was wrapped up in a fight, Deathchester and a hero team mobbing her.
“Take cover!” a cape on the ground screamed.
We flew to take cover well before we knew what we were taking cover from.
I saw my Aunt Sarah, stripped of large portions of her old personality, place her hand to her mouth. Her purple eyes were fixed on the distance.
I looked, and I saw only darkness.
“What am I missing?” I asked.
“We’re losing capes,” she said.
She could see in the dark, as a part of her power. Just like bright lights didn’t disorient her.
“Crystal?” I asked. “Can you write on the wall? I need night vision, or something close to it.”
She began doing it, scratching letters into a building face.
I blinked twice to bring up the menu, selected ‘scan’, and ran my eye over the words. They were highlighted in gold, converted to plain text, and disappeared into the darkness at the edge of my field of view.
Maybe it wasn’t possible, but I wasn’t going to rule out that Kenzie might have had another blip in her common sense.
ON IT, the words appeared.
I saw a progress bar appear, moving forward intermittently.
BEST I CAN DO.
My vision shifted, the darks becoming darker, the brights becoming brighter. Outlines were highlighted.
A group of villains on a rooftop that were harassing the Nemean Titan abruptly stopped, and there was an explosion in their midst.
I watched as one jumped from the building’s top. He couldn’t fly. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a Brute.
“The Stranger,” I said.
A massive blob of area we couldn’t even look at, and he lurked somewhere within it. With a power that wasn’t the ‘don’t look’ ability, he was reaching out. There was no pulse in the air, no wave, no energy, light or shadow. No sign he was doing it that we could trace back to him. But our briefing had said he took people’s sanity from them. There was a chance it was permanent.
I hefted my gun, and shifted position to get to the corner of the building. From cover, I began shooting.
I could shoot at the edges of his effect, but the closer I got to the center, the more my hand the weapon’s barrel struggled to stay on target. Like I was metal and a magnet was repulsing me. I did what I could, firing, targeting ground I remembered was cracked.
“We need to fall back,” Aunt Sarah said. “Most of the civilians are below. We need a defensive line.”
I nodded, even as I kept up my shooting, kept trying to make sure no capes were in my line of fire, even though I struggled to see straight. The highlighting and tracking effect, at the very least, marked those that Kenzie could track. Diamonds with circles within them to frame who was where, and where the various groups were.
I might have been borrowing against the future to buy time in the present, but I aimed for areas of the city that were shaky. Breaking down road with shots from the laser cannon. Knocking down buildings.
Anything to put wreckage and inconvenience in the Stranger Titan’s way.
Crystal touched my arm, and I flew with her. Low to the ground, using buildings and even cars as cover so the Stranger Titan wouldn’t see us and do whatever it was he did to take our minds from us.
I was relieved to see Tristan. Relieved to see Sveta. But I couldn’t articulate that. I immediately went to my next bit of cover, shooting more.
Because if that thing got close enough to us, we were gone. Done.
I wasn’t the only one opening less discriminate fire on the Titan, aiming for the periphery of it in hopes the devastation would slow it down or distract it from its course. Others were bombarding, or sending in the master minions they’d intended to use against the Nemean Titan.
Crystal floated up to a section of building above me, her boots dripping wet onto my hood, but she added her lasers to my cannon fire.
“He moved!” someone on the rooftop called out.
My weapon beeped to tell me it was at twenty-five percent.
“Mobilizing!” Narwhal called out.
If Narwhal was here, then so was Vista. And Vista being here- I just had to look to spot the lip of one crack in reality being peeled upward, to form a kind of wall.
Naturally, we mobilized to get behind or around that wall.
Crystal pointed my attention to Titan Skadi, who had engaged with another group of villains, including Little Midas’ cronies. Lung wasn’t as big as he had been, which suggested he hadn’t been able to build up steam consistently enough before his opponent had disengaged from the fight. Couldn’t keep that fire burning.
I shot her until she moved out of view, then immediately switched to general fire toward the Stranger Titan, pacing out my shots to avoid overheating my weapon, ever mindful of the ammunition count.
I knew I was spending ammunition, but I did have something of an agenda. I couldn’t call it a plan, because it was selfish. Aunt Sarah was right, we had accomplished our initial goal. Being able to shoot Titans and potentially have that shot matter had been essential. But it wasn’t good enough now.
The weapon notified me when I was at 15%. Then again, at 7%.
Narwhal shouted. Capes hurried to the one side. Ophion’s creation was attacking. A tide of flesh.
I added my gunfire to the response, flying up for a vantage point that didn’t risk shooting some cape in the back of the head, then putting shots in the thing.
Until I pulled the trigger and nothing came out.
I dropped it, undid the clasps, and hauled out the power cell.
“Can someone fling this at one of the Titans?” I asked. “I don’t know if it’ll do anything, but it can’t hurt?”
“Let me tinker it,” someone said. “It’ll do something.”
I let them. “Find someone to do something with it after.”
“Got it,” the tinker said. “Shit, is this Dragon’s?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I wasn’t sure I was in a place where I could have uttered a ‘cool’. The Nemean Titan was prowling at the periphery, looking for an excuse to lunge into our midst, at which point there’d be nothing we could do. But even a few forcefields in his way were enough to discourage him.
Skadi was out there too, sometimes, and was currently scuffling with the tide of flesh that scraped buildings from foundations. It wasn’t durable, but there was so much of it there wasn’t a lot she could do, and she was far stronger than we were, on average.
The gun was lighter without the energy core. I flew around more, careful to stay out of the Stranger’s possible line of sight, making a general retreat with my gun as a shield of sorts.
The capes on foot jogged through the ruined city, leaped over cracks, and hurried toward our ‘wall’, the curled-up lip of one large crack.
I flew over the crack, looking down, and Kenzie’s ‘night vision’ didn’t do a good job of peering through the distortion and noise of it.
I went straight to the civilian line that hadn’t yet descended into the crack. For some of them, there was reason.
The truck that had delivered my gun had delivered the extra power cores. It was left unguarded, the Patrol officers busied elsewhere taking care of people who had been hurt in crashes or injured by other means. I loaded the power core into my gun.
I left it.
I’ll be back for you, gun, I thought.
But others take priority. I need to make sure they’re okay. And I can’t bring you.
I flew for the crack. Into that morass where powers were so much weaker.
To find the people who were supposed to destroy key parts of the infrastructure.
Men and women in winter clothes and Patrol outfits were hurrying along this landscape of red crystal, dusted with snow from high above. They were gathering at strategic points. Two of the points we’d wanted to hit were close to our starting point. Just had to get the necessary people down here. Tinker tanks flanked the group, trundling along, turrets sweeping around nervously, looking for a target to shoot. Automated.
My flying was getting sluggish, but I still moved closer to the surface.
Through the crystal, I could see movement. One was on the other side of the hard surface, a Titan-like thing moving across the landscape’s internals. An Agent of the powers.
It took me another minute before I found who I was looking for. Kenzie had mapped it out for me earlier. The starting point, when entering through Rain’s dream. I found Rain and the Patrol on the far side, saw him see me.
I pointed at the agent I’d spotted, and he made a hand motion that looked like a confirmation, still running. Purposeful, focused.
A detonation in the distance made me conclude the first bombs had gone off.
It wasn’t. The tanks were reacting to Skadi’s appearance. When so much of the environment was flat and sloping, she was a stark contrast, impossibly tall, to the point it felt like she distorted the distance between us and the surface. She attacked, and the tanks unloaded. People used guns. Those were the detonations I’d heard, echoing over the hard ground. There were powers used from the surface, exploding around her, altering the crystal, and periodically making her stumble.
It wasn’t nearly enough.
When she wasn’t on the surface, she was down here, doing this. I flew over, struggling to move through the air, to navigate. I had my forcefield and it felt thin, even though it was so thin as to be unnoticeable normally.
I wasn’t sure I trusted it against Skadi, but I’d asked people to fight here and I couldn’t stand back.
I used flight to bound forward and help guide my running more than I flew on my own. I tried to get some air, raised up my forcefield, and used my aura.
My forcefield has always been something that took one good hit and then took a bit to recharge. Here’s hoping it still takes one good hit, and the recharge is what suffers from my being down here.
She swatted me, not even with the blade, and sent me careening.
Flight helped kill the worst of my momentum, but the landing was still a hard one.
I looked back, and she was gone.
“How’s our progress?” I called out.
“We need to hurry it up!” I called out, my volume lower as I floated toward the center of the working group. If the group above buckles, she’s going to single out this group, and we don’t have the firepower to stop her.
I looked up, straining to see reality on the far side of the cracks. I only saw what might have been the Nemean Titan. Another omnipresent threat that was impossible to pin down. If he got down here, he wasn’t going to teleport back up to fight the next big threat. He’d be down here for good.
Pickaxes dug into the crystal surface. People with bombs stood by, ready to put them into the holes. Chunks ranging in size from my fist to a small dishwasher had been pulled out of the hole.
“Dig what you can,” I said, looking down at it. “I’m going to fly up and get my laser cannon. I’ll see if I can’t drill it a little deeper. Then you let me get clear and you bomb it.”
“Alright,” one man huffed.
“After that, we might have to evacuate you guys,” I told him. “What we’re doing got all of their attention.”
“We noticed. A couple hundred of us died up there,” a woman said.
The words were chilling. My nod stiff.
I flew away, to get my gun and to hurry this along. We didn’t have all night, or anything close to it.
My flight was more horizontal than vertical, as I struggled to pull up and away with my power dampened.
I saw Rain, carrying on to his destination. He saw me. People who were moving from landed helicopters to work sites looked between us, maybe finally realizing what I’d been struggling to convey in my speech, what Naphtha had struggled to convey about how this place worked.
There were people inside the ‘computer’, like Rain, and there was us, hacking at it from the outside.
But it was connected to all of us. Chunks of broken crystal littered the area, and those chunks showed reflections. Stuff I’d seen inside the computer. I could see that Rain saw them too. That the civilians were taking note, their attitudes shifting imperceptibly.
Images of me, wearing a Glory Girl costume, hurting a man in worker’s clothes, smacking him into a wall, hard.
Images of a young adolescent Rain hurling a molotov at an old house.
An image of me punting a dumpster into a man.
An image of Rain spitting in a scared girl’s face, before adjusting his mask.
A bystander, who looked shocked by the image’s appearance, was depicted in one blurry scene, kicking a dog that didn’t move out of his way fast enough.
The people on the ground looked between us and the images, silent, staring, and judging.
The images kept playing as I floated higher. Images of violence and ugliness. Parts of myself I was sure I didn’t want to face. Images of Rain. The periodic bystander who might have had a Corona Pollentia.
We had no other choice.
This was going to be one hell of a mess.