The problem with betrayals was that they were a poison that touched everything.
His heart ached in his chest, seeing faces familiar and foreign. There were some who came today who hadn’t, two years ago. He had to suppress the hard feelings that, ironically, had zero ability to be hard as they bubbled through him.
“Hey, Egg. You grew up some.”
Egg turned. Whippersnap. One of the ones who hadn’t come. Whippersnap touched fist to heart, or the closest approximation to where his heart would be. If regular humans were rottweilers, then Whippersnap was a greyhound. Thin enough he looked like he could be snapped as easily as a pencil, with easy, fluid movements that made his joints look less angular than they were. His eyes didn’t really fit in his head, and the lack of real estate around them made his expressions hard to read.
It would have been really nice to read those emotions, for things to be clearer. Was it nervousness? Aggressiveness, with the fist-bump being an implicit threat?
“Brother,” Egg said.
They used to have a system. Even now, they made use of that system. As new people turned up, they signaled each other to indicate their preference for handshake, high five, fist-bump or the closest approximate to a fist bump, or hug. The lowest-contact form won out.
There were two options that were even lower contact than the handshake. A greeting, predetermined, and a bow for those who didn’t even have the option of a greeting. ‘Brother’ or its equivalents was code that there would or could be no handshake, high-five, fist-bump, nor hug.
“Brother,” Whippersnap echoed, his smile reaching around both sides of his head, like the corners of his mouth could meet at the back of his head. “You remember Chantilly.”
Egg remembered Chantilly, yeah. Chantilly was lace, layers of skin that hung around her like a dress, riddled with cut-out sections. Millions of holes that were flower shaped, fleur-de-lises, spades, hearts, diamonds, and everything else, a veil instead of hair. She wore regular lace with the costume, a coat of layered lace textures that was almost indistinguishable from her skin, the tail of it trailing in the snow and ice behind her. Where a few holes lined up, raw red flesh was visible. Her eyes were black, with cut-outs in the surface that were only visible if the edges caught the light from the right angles. The holes in her right ear had jewelry hanging from them, a series of twelve earrings of varying lengths, eye-catching.
She had been the first case fifty-three to make Egg think he would be open to dating a case fifty-three. Doing other stuff with a case fifty-three. And she was nice, sweet, brave, and she had actually attended a regular school for a while, enduring bullying and stuff. She hadn’t stayed, a lot of case fifty-threes who tried didn’t, like himself, but he admired her for trying. Empathized, sympathized, swam in a lot of complicated emotions.
Chiefly, embarrassingly among them, deep and painful memories of his attempts at finding some… emotional relief jumped to his mind. Trying to do what the vast majority of teenage boys did alone in their rooms, only to end up with his dick inevitably shattered; yellow yolk and clear vitreous shamefully everywhere. He’d thought about her so often when trying and that link was hard to shake, now.
Those feelings of shame and deep frustration shook him and made him feel guilty, like he’d dirtied her with the depth and darkness of those emotions and moments.
She had adjusted the lace at the side of her head. The signal that she was open to a hug.
He wanted to hug her so badly. He knew he could even say something like, ‘gently’, or that she knew to be gentle. That she was soft, impossibly, mind-breakingly soft. So much of that lace was like skin to her, and she’d described it as sensitive to the touch, and-
And he couldn’t risk breakage, soiling her with yellow mess that would be so hard to clean up.
“Sister,” he greeted her. The word killed him a little.
“It’s good to see you, Egg.”
“Same,” he said, smiling, feeling his face crack. “You’re not cold?”
They were gathered outside a building, snow falling around them. Cars and buses were pulling up. There were two buses that had handicap facilities, beeping in the background as they slowly lowered ramps.
“A bit. I have lots of surface area,” she said, smiling, her fingers brushing across the layers of lace at her stomach. His heart leaped.
“That’s what I was wondering about,” he said.
“It’s not bad. I feel the chill, but there’s not much of me that hurts because of it. I’m comfortable. You?”
“I- the fluids are thicker in the cold. Makes it easier in a lot of ways, but makes me more tired.”
“Hopefully the testing won’t require too much stamina,” she said. “Some of us were going to join the fighting. We don’t want to be tired when it counts.”
“No,” Whippersnap said.
Egg looked over at his old friend. There were so many less Case Fifty-Threes than many people assumed, even with the addition of some that had come from other worlds after Gold Morning. Egg and Whippersnap were of a similar age.
Their little community had endured a few reshuffles, a lot of losses. In the midst of one, Egg had stopped talking to Whippersnap. More of those hard emotions, thinking back to those pivotal, crucial moments. Egg and Whippersnap had been too young to fight, but there had been a distinction; Whippersnap had actively wanted to avoid the fighting. Had tried to convince people not to help deal with Cauldron. Had maybe convinced a few. Had maybe slowed down some with new doubts or hesitations, when any doubt or hesitation could get someone killed.
Egg dwelt a lot on those days. Replaying conversations in his head, over and over again. If he could return to those moments, would he be able to use what he knew now to change minds? To convince others to let him participate? To get Whippersnap to help? Steer the outcome?
They’d had one shot. One. And they’d gotten the worst possible result. Everyone dead. Doctor Mother dead, no secrets or answers divulged, and the monstrous bitch hadn’t even suffered a ten thousandth of the pain she had caused. It had, according to the person who did it, been quick.
And with her went most or all of their hope for a fix. A cure.
Whippersnap saw Egg looking, and raised one eyebrow.
“Are we okay?” Egg asked.
“That’s up to you,” Whippersnap said.
“Okay,” Egg said, feeling tense, wrestling with emotions that were suspended inside his fluid center, always feeling like they might shatter him from within, but never doing so. “We’re okay.”
“Good to hear. Are these guys trustworthy?”
“Good question,” Egg said.
“If they aren’t, they’d better be strong enough to deal with us,” Chantilly said, shaking out a handkerchief-like stretch of lace from her sleeve, before flicking it out to become a rigid fan.
“I think it’s fine,” Egg said. “With everything going to hell, they can’t afford to mess around.”
“That’s what they thought with Teacher,” Whippersnap said. “The more things go to shit, the better the assholes get at using the situations to their advantage.
Others were arriving. Matryoshka, Gregor, and Newter. Engel was already talking to Shamrock, off to one side.
Egg had strange feelings when it came to Shamrock. She wore the tattoo and at first he’d thought she was a monster groupie, doing it out of solidarity. He would have been okay with that. Finding out she had her memories, she was intact, but she actually claimed to be one of them? More uncomfortable.
Blackforest came running up, and almost bounced on the spot in her eagerness as she stopped by Chantilly, hand going to the wicker and barbed wire that crowned her head in a very unsubtle approach to their collective ‘irregular’ hand signals and forms.
Still asking permission, which was better than some. And she was a kid. At one point she’d thought she was the same age as Chantilly, but that had changed. Blackforest hadn’t really grown up as fast, emotionally or physically, and she’d struggled with online courses. Eventually it came down to conceding that she wasn’t fifteen. Thirteen or fourteen at best.
Chantilly wrapped her friend in a tight hug, lifting her up off the ground. Blackforest was a scarecrow-like head, arms, legs, and very little in the way of a torso, with costuming and external additions providing that central core. Wood and barbed wire bound together into vaguely muscle-like and vein-like shapes. Much of her was wrapped in a robe.
Blackforest’s friend was slower to approach. Hexie was a disembodied head and arms, her body a swirl of power contained in a tube of metal sheeting, that acted like a dress. The power vented out at shoulders and elbows, purple fire. She wore a witch hat, which she adjusted as she approached.
Chantilly hugged her too.
“Don’t burn yourself,” Blackforest warned. To Hexie, she said, “Don’t burn her.”
Chantilly put her down, and dusted her arms off to check for fire. “I’m fine.”
“Good,” Blackforest said, so enthused she lost track. She turned to Whippersnap, hand out. He shook it. “Took a metal file to the barbed wire in case anyone wanted high fives or anything. Can’t fist bump. Let me know if I’m poking you or scratching.”
“Got it,” Whippersnap said.
Blackforest turned toward Egg. “Um, hi, You’re Egg?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Obviously,” Whippersnap said.
Egg gave the guy a look, eyes rolling a bit. It was hard not to snap, with old feelings still sitting ajar. A betrayal.
“It’s not always obvious,” Chantilly said. “There are a couple of body thieves and shapeshifters among Case Fifty-Threes.”
“Truth,” Whippersnap said.
“But who would want to be this?” Egg asked, indicating himself.
“Hard to agree without sounding like a jerk, but… also truth,” Whippersnap said.
Blackforest was waiting, champing at the bit, almost, waiting for Egg’s attention to return to her. “We talked online. I kept you up late a few nights being kinda lame. I wanted to say thank you.”
“I didn’t mind. I’ve kept enough people up griping at them in chats or PHO, I’m glad to pay it forward.”
“That’s so mature, gosh, yeah. I’m glad I finally get to say hi,” she said, still a bit out of breath from sheer excitement. “Um, I don’t want to be a bad friend. This is Hexie, one of our new Gold Morning case fifty-threes. She and I are kinda, sorta, um…”
“Together?” Egg asked.
“No!” Blackforest said, very loud, shocked.
“It’s fine if you are.”
“No, nope. I mean, sure, but no, I’m not. Ugh, I’m dorking it up so bad right now,” Blackforest said, eyes wide and horrified. One eye was framed with a line of thin, rusty barbed wire that had been filed to be thinner, the other with what looked like the edge of a strip of bark, painted black.
“You’re fine,” Egg said, bewildered.
“I like boys very much,” she said. “I meant to say, uh, we’re together, I mean, not-”
“They’re villains,” Whippersnap butted in.
“You don’t have to jump in and say it like that!” Blackforest’s tone was horrified.
“You weren’t going to,” Chantilly said.
“I was! I was just trying to figure out a nice way of putting it.”
“I’m sure if we stood here for another hour you would have eventually gotten there,” Whippersnap said.
“You’re so mean. Ugh. I had all these ideas of how I would greet you guys and stuff, and I was getting ready even while in the car, Hexie can verify…”
Hexie nodded, head and witch hat bobbing.
“..and I flubbed it,” Blackforest said. “I hope you don’t think less of me because of the villain stuff.”
“We do what we have to,” Egg said.
“Yes!” Blackforest said, and again, it was like the relief was connected to the volume knob, and it was a lot of relief. “Yes, absolutely, that’s such a good way of looking at it.”
“I don’t remember you being this excitable,” Whippersnap said.
“I’m nervous. This is my first time doing something like this. The big meetups, then this… analysis?”
“Yeah,” Egg said. “You’re right. But we’ll be with you.”
Blackforest nodded, and brought her hand up to her head, nervously adjusting the thinnest of the jagged twigs, thorny vines, and barbed wire that formed her hair. She locked eyes with Egg, then immediately dropped her hand. “I wasn’t signaling for a hug, I know you can’t- I mean-”
She was exhausting to be around.
He put out his hand for a handshake. She shook it, her hand rough and heavy, though gentle against his.
“No sweat,” he said.
She held his hand for a second longer than necessary, drinking in that ‘no sweat’ in a way that he found painfully familiar. He drank in Engel that way.
And, he realized, unlike how he thought of Engel, Blackforest might like him.
Which was weird and hard to picture. How would that work? What did she visualize? He was gross. He’d told her at one point he was incapable, and how insane with frustration he was. Stupid things that he regretted divulging, but it had been something like nine conversations over two weeks, some of them hours long, most of them extending past midnight. Talking her off of a ledge, so to speak. Being scared for the person on the other side of the internet connection, who he only knew as a friend of Chantilly’s, not knowing how to talk to someone in as dark a place as she was, except to share his own darkness.
Being here, seeing people, it was dark in its own way. If he tried to count off the individual betrayals on his fingers, he would run out of fingers. Whippersnap had bailed when they needed soldiers and allies. Chantilly had gotten mad at him for getting mad, and stopped talking to him. The Palanquin guys didn’t answer the call for attacking Cauldron. Too many PRT Case Fifty-Threes had refused to leave the organization, even after the Eidolon revelations. Grackle had driven a major divide in their ranks by pushing the happier and friendlier Case Fifty-Three crap, only for his subgroup to end up more bitter and vicious than any of them, calling other Case Fifty-Threes traitors unless they followed the specific Grackle way.
Chantilly and Whippersnap were talking, pointing to people for Hexie’s benefit. Maybe doing their part for what they thought was Blackforest’s benefit, distracting her friend, while she stood by Egg.
“You cold?” he asked Blackforest, quiet.
“No. I don’t really get cold. Stiff.”
“Can you stay near me, Egg?” the girl asked, voice soft.
“I can, but why? Nervous?”
“I feel like I can count on you. No offense to Tilly and Hexie, but I’ve had a lot of trouble finding people I can count on.”
“Me too,” he said.
“You have Engel, right?”
“She’s not someone you count on, unless you’re counting on her to be there. You hitch yourself to her and she brings you along while going this way or that.”
“That’s not the worst thing,” Blackforest said.
“You’re free, though, aren’t you?” he asked. He saw the hesitation. “You choose what to do and when?”
“Yeah. But we decide by committee.”
“How often do you get what you want?” he asked.
“Not as often as I like,” she said, looking nervous. “But isn’t that just compromising? Everyone ends up a bit unhappy.”
“And the sleeping situation? Home? You have a room? No foster parents?”
“Hexie and I share a room. No foster parents, but we have a den mother. A bunch of us teen villains, and they’re accepting of Hexie and me. The den mother looks after our headquarters and us, arranges food, sets a few rules, and keeps us pointed in the right direction.”
“What does she get?”
“A cut of whatever we earn or take.”
“Is she fair?”
“Probably not,” Blackforest said. “But we get enough we don’t feel desperate, and we could leave any time. Except, y’know…”
“Hard to find something that works,” he said, quiet.
So you’re not that free, and you can’t really leave any time?
“You should tell some of us where you are,” he said. “And arrange check-ins. If we don’t hear from you, we come to see you’re okay.”
“You seem happier,” he remarked.
“I am. I’m happy, it’s good to be here,” she said, momentarily enthused, emotions and personality entirely mismatched to her body. “I’m glad I came. I owe you so much for talking me through the darkest time of my life. I feel so bad that we lost contact.”
“Everyone lost contact with everyone for a while,” he told her. He didn’t mention he had felt a bit of resentment over being abandoned. Yes, everyone had lost contact with everyone after Gold Morning, but there had been a few weeks where he’d sent messages to Chantilly and Blackforest and got nothing back. He’d been attached to the Irregulars, and the Irregulars hadn’t come back. The attack had left him utterly alone and with no resources, a monster and a cape in a time when capes were being viewed warily.
It was sheer luck he’d found Engel, in those first few months when there weren’t really phones and internet. He’d been so lonely in the aftermath that he would have latched onto anyone. Weeks and months without talking to anyone. Weld and Sveta had reached out, but accepting their offer for help and companionship would have been saying that what they did was okay.
Engel, Newter, Matryoshka, Gregor, and Bijou arrived from the roadside, where the adults had been talking. Engel was radiance, skin with fine fractal patterns etched onto it, like frost on a car that could only be seen from certain angles, her hair strands glowing in rainbow shimmers.
Seeing Engel on the approach soothed, and unwound some of the more intense frustrations and darker thoughts. She was, just by being near, a warm bath on a cold day, a delicious meal when he felt starved, a hug when he couldn’t remember ever having a good hug.
Newter was, by contrast, garishness. Orange skin, bubblegum pink hair, and a bright green winter coat, prowling forward on all fours, because the counterbalance of his long, prehensile tail made standing up straight and walking a pain.
Gregor was more up Egg’s alley, as far as styles and personalities went. The kind of guy he wanted to be. Stern, quiet, unflinching. Untouchable. Gregor wore a dress shirt made of clear plastic under a heavy coat, his skin, the snail shells that studded his skin, and the shadows of organs visible through it. His pants were held up by a belt with a stone fossil for a belt buckle, that had to weigh at least five pounds.
Matryoshka and Bijou were talking. Matryoshka had severe bangs, and was striped, strictly in horizontal stripes that changed her skin color as they extended down her face and emerged from her sleeves. Bijou, by contrast, looked utterly normal, if a bit nerdy. Brown-skinned, with glasses worn over a simple full-face mask, collar done up with a ribbon, hair in an old fashioned style.
“What a pair,” Whippersnap snarked, indicating Engel and Newter.
“We’ve teamed up before,” Newter said. “Synergy in powers, no synergy in anything else.”
“Your boss is a pain in my ass,” Engel said. “Also, we should go inside. They are waving us in.”
Egg turned to look.
The staff members were inside, waiting. A tinker stood further down the hallway.
“I used to have nightmares,” Matryoshka said, as the group started moving toward the doors. She had a heavy accent that sounded Russian. “I saw movies where aliens were caught and experimented on. I imagined being one of them. Strapped to a table, autopsied.”
“You’ll scare the children,” Engel said, quiet.
“I’m fine” Egg said, rankling a bit.
“You’re a kid,” Engel said. She touched the side of his head, fingers against smooth skin.
He closed his eyes, feeling the senses bleed out from the touch. He spoke, “We’re not really kids. Kids have childhoods. We’ve seen stuff, lived through stuff.”
“Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” she said.
He felt frustrated, because it was really hard to retort like he wanted to retort, and he was so on the spot. Anything he said would be petulant.
He’d gone from feeling like someone on his way to being a grown-up when talking to Blackforest to feeling like a toddler around Engel, who he depended on too much to really reject or fight.
He set his jaw. “I’m fine. I can deal.”
“I’m not scared either,” Blackforest said, even though she’d said she was nervous earlier.
“A lot of us report dreams or vague flashbacks about being experimented on, pursued, captured,” Shamrock said, as she found a spot walking beside Gregor, his heavy arm around her. “I can speak from experience, there were things done to us.”
Egg wanted to say something to that, to challenge her, but he bit his tongue. Gregor was here and Blackforest was counting on him, and that made him want to be more adult.
Instead, he spat. A glob of yellow and blood on the side of the walkway.
“I’ve seen too many of those autopsy tables to count, and I still get spooked,” Bijou said.
“Too many of us for them to do anything,” Whippersnap said. “Stick together. Watch each other’s backs.”
They passed through the doors. Egg held it open for Hexie, Chantilly, and Blackforest, until Gregor took it over.
The area they were entering was a gymnasium, the kind of area that could be used as a basketball court, volleyball field, or anything else. Now it was a makeshift lab. People stood on the one side, tinker and scientist, representatives and doctors.
Egg could see the fear on their faces. Like they hadn’t expected this many. That they had an inkling of how dangerous some of the case fifty-threes were.
Many of us break out of the nice, tidy box that other Parahumans are kept in. It’s part of why Cauldron wanted us. The power they stuffed in us sits ajar, and that sometimes means the cupboards don’t close all the way.
There were multiple stations, each one with a purpose, but there were more case fifty-threes than stations. One by one, they filed in. Sitting on tables, in chairs, or in front of whirring machines that had tinkers standing by.
One of the stations was being cleaned, Egg saw. It caught his eye because he was used to being cleaned up after. He couldn’t go to a restaurant without some goop getting on a table or chair. He tried to clean it, but he always felt a stab of guilt when he saw a concerned looking employee trying to wipe up after him anyway, or going to talk to the manager about biohazards and clean up protocols.
A man approached, and he looked nervous. His attention went to a woman standing off to the side, who looked less afraid than some of the others. She was pretty and professional looking, with light brown skin, her hair in an afro that had been pressed back by a hairband. She wore a suit dress.
“I don’t know- which am I handing out?” he asked the woman.
“Form A and form B. They’re in separate packets,” she said.
“For those who are waiting,” the guy said, looking between them and seeming to have trouble figuring out where his eyes should land. “We have forms for you to fill out.”
“Are these committing us to anything?” Engel asked.
“Uh,” he said, looking at the woman. “No.”
“Are we signing away rights? Trapping ourselves? Are we saying it is okay if you hurt us?”
“Uhh-” the guy said. He looked at the woman.
“Why are you looking at her?”
“Excuse me,” the woman said. “Here, I’ll take over. This didn’t work.”
She took the clipboard and papers, and then walked over to the table where stuff was piled up.
“Fucking with us already?” Egg asked.
“No,” she said, looking bewildered. “No. I’m Abella Pines, I’m a parahuman studies student at Nilles. We’re dealing with an influx, and I wanted to see if we could divide up the labor. I was just watching Paul, but I think we dropped a bit too much on him too fast.”
“Don’t lie,” Blackforest said. “Even polite lies are worse than the truth.”
There was a solidarity in numbers. Being, for once, a member of the group that outnumbered the humans, that decided the rules.
“What are you getting from there?” Whippersnap asked.
“A pen,” she said. “Disposable pens irritate me.”
She retrieved and held up a pen, demonstrating, before adjusting the pile.
“She still lied,” Blackforest said.
The woman was a bit nervous now. She’d be stupid not to be. And with that nervousness, the furtiveness, it made everyone else more anxious.
Again, Egg felt protective of Blackforest, as she drew further back into the crowd of their people. He put himself between her and the vague threat that the woman presented.
“Explain,” Gregor said, his voice low. “I have faith your intentions were good, but you look worse with each second you do not give us answers. It is rare that being straightforward will hurt you.”
“I was told…” she hesitated. “I should lose the lab coat, and someone else should take charge. Because of similarities.”
Similarities to the woman who had played the biggest role in making them this way. Black skin, lab coat. Yeah.
“Good advice,” Shamrock said.
“The person who gave you that advice missed a detail,” Engel said. “We are not the type to judge people on appearances alone.”
“Some of us are,” Shamrock said. “When those people leave you with nightmares.”
“Would it be best if I left? Your comfort is paramount, I know you’ve had it rough.”
“Not everyone will be comfortable with you there with your clipboard,” Shamrock said. “I’m sorry.”
“Perhaps,” Engel said, pushing her way back into the conversation, “You do some, your friend watches, and hopefully he feels more confident for later parts?”
“If that’s okay?” Abella asked the group.
There was agreement.
They sorted out the handing out of the paperwork, and Bijou was the most confident one when it came to the initial checkup and the photo-taking. Everyone got a file and each file had a picture and label attached.
Even that was worrying, stressful. They’d had files at Cauldron, according to their sources. Some people remembered glimmers of that.
But the world was ending, the Titans were attacking, and they did want to help.
“Is there anything I can do to make this more comfortable?” Abella asked.
“I’m fine. I’m tough,” Bijou said.
“Drink? Food? We have the option for buddies or staff as helpers who can talk you through everything.”
“Why wear a mask if you’re…?” the man who had been asking the questions earlier asked.
“I’m working for the Wardens, was working,” Bijou said. “Undercover. Can’t give away my face.”
“What should we do for the photo?” the man asked.
Bijou reached up to her mask and divided it in two. Holding the halves in place on each side of her face, she split down the middle, forehead to collarbone. Doll-like hands reached out to find grips and help push, while her regular hands helped to widen the divide. When she was done, her head, throat, and upped chest were splayed open.
Appendages and doll’s hands reached out to lash the mask into place on each side of the face, using wire, ribbon, and threads. Occupying the now-empty brain cavity was a blood-slick doll’s head, with a stream of appendages, strips of cloth and doll limbs connected end to end, disappearing down her throat, which had been widened.
Matryoshka stepped in to wipe the doll-head clean.
“Thank you,” the doll head spoke.
“Who did that body belong to?” Chantilly asked.
“That would be giving away too much,” Bijou said. “But the Wardens thought it was important, and she was as good as dead. I was able to stitch her up from within.”
The woman who had used the clipboard took the photo.
“With the Titans destroying everything, it might not even matter,” Bijou said. “My handler was telling me I didn’t need to worry about holding onto this body, and the person I was going after is probably dead… but I don’t have much.”
None of us do, Egg thought.
“I’d like to hold onto the possibility I get back this life I sacrificed and worked to build.”
“Name?” Abella asked.
“We’re still making adjustments to make the process as simple and easy as possible,” Abella said, as she worked with the label maker. “I can walk you through the steps. Part of the reason for the survey is so our more reluctant volunteers can voice their concerns…”
The surveys still smelled like they were fresh from the printer. The concerns, the statements… Egg looked back to the workstation that was being wiped down, then over at Abella.
He leaned over to Blackforest, “I’m going to go for a walk. You okay here, or-”
She was already tensing up.
“-or want to come?”
Hand at her shoulder, careful to avoid the dozens of barbs, thorns, and jagged outcroppings of wood there, he guided her through the crowd, into the hallway by the gymnasium. Despite his efforts, her body still penetrated the shell of his fingers. Yellow yolk and blood glooped out.
“She’s like me, except the opposite,” Blackforest said.
“Yeah. I’ve got a little kernel of me, deep inside, a little baby me that sleeps all the time and never grows up. The rest of me grows around her. We’re kind of similar like that, aren’t we?”
“I dunno,” he said. Mostly he was conscious of the fluids he’d leaked onto her. “My godbird and the others aren’t… me.”
“Godbird, wow. That sounds so amazing.”
“I thought so,” he said. “Have to intimidate the people who read the notes on me.”
Once they were clear of the crowd, he pulled out a packet of tissues. He hated this, hated the look she gave him.
“Let me. I got some yolk on you.”
“I don’t mind.”
“It’s protein. It stains. If I don’t get it all here-”
“Really, it’s fine.”
She was trying to be nice about it and it was having the opposite of the intended effect.
“If I don’t get it all here, use cold water.”
“Let me daub at it.”
She did, and he had to slow a bit to be sure. They moved on, heading to the side door of the building.
He felt so bad, that he had so little in the way of interest for this girl that he was pretty sure liked him. Her body was the least compatible for his own, and he wasn’t sure their personalities would mesh over time.
He wasn’t sure he could let go of the fact that she had stopped contacting him online after he had stopped being useful to her. Maybe that was shitty, being that unforgiving, but… the world was unforgiving. Why did he have to deal with the people closest to him being like that too?
“Excuse me,” he said. He hadn’t wanted to show Blackforest, but in a small way, he wasn’t sure he minded if he scared her off.
His fingers punched into the side of his head, penetrating the eggshell skin. Clear vitreous, yellow yolk, and blood flowed out in globs and chunks, running down his arm. Raking his finger from temple to shoulder, he opened up a divide at the same time he pushed.
Pink, featherless bird flesh pressed out against the aperture, cracking it further. Beakless, but with a pointed face and long neck, the bird-thing he’d named Rhea lurched and lunged out, at almost ten times his mass. She flapped a featherless wing aimlessly, craning her head around.
“Can you sniff out anyone familiar?” he spoke with half a mouth and a partial tongue.
Rhea turned her head to look back at the building.
“Out here. Walking away.”
Rhea swelled, organs shifting, her body reconfiguring in subtle ways.
She turned toward the parking lot.
There she was.
Sveta Karelia, Weld, Slician, Faultline, and a kid. They had come before everyone else, and now they were in the staff parking lot, around the corner from the regular parking lot, surrounded by the wild, dense trees that had been here for hundreds of years, left standing as this corner of the city had been built around them.
Rhea began to hunker down, wiggling to find space in the fragile extradimensional portal that was Egg’s body. Yolk spilled out, and he used his hand to scoop up and cast aside the worst of it.
“Bye birdie,” Blackforest said. “Nice to meet you.”
He could see, out of the corner of his eye, that Rhea had opened her eyes and fixed her gaze on the girl of wood and wire.
Rhea crawled in, contorting herself in tight, and the shell regenerated around her.
Somewhere in the midst of that, Rhea found her place in that state of being purely potentially there, part of the ‘yolk’ and distinct from it.
“Do you ever let her all the way out?” Blackforest asked.
“Rarely,” Egg said.
Egg approached, Blackforest trailing behind him.
They didn’t yell at him or tell him to go away.
“Comparing notes,” Weld said, simply.
“On?” Egg asked.
“Contessa. It might be relevant to Titan Fortuna,” Weld said.
“How are things going in there?” Sveta asked.
“Just starting. You guys told the woman she looked too much like Doctor Mother to parade around in a lab coat, huh?”
“She doesn’t really,” Weld said. “Not at all.”
“Still,” Egg said.
“Yeah. I suggested she back off a bit. In case it triggered something,” Sveta said.
“The guy they put in charge fucked it up,” Egg said. “We ended up making her explain. Didn’t work.”
“Oh,” Sveta said. “Shit.”
“It’s not that bad,” Egg said. “Engel thought it was a good idea. But she’d change her mind if she knew where that idea came from.”
“I see,” Sveta said. She looked down and away.
“A lot of them would be pissed, seeing you out here, conspiring. Knowing you set things up in there.”
“I’m doing what I’ve always done,” Sveta said. “Making sure people are looked after, that people ask the right questions.”
“The questionnaire was you too?”
Sveta shrugged. “Yeah.”
Egg looked at her neck, her hands.
The new body. Yet she still wore the tattoo, plain on her face.
Insane jealousy bubbled inside him, in that fluid where Rhea dwelt. When everything about him was fragile or fluid, the emotions took on a substance they shouldn’t have. Rhea could drink those emotions in, reacted to them, and began to struggle.
Cracks formed along him that he wasn’t making with his movements. He was careful to stay still and concentrate to let them knit together again. The back of his thumb wicked away the traces of yolk.
“All of us here were interacting with her on some level,” Faultline said.
“Contessa,” Egg said.
“Yep. Weld and Sveta were part of the raid.”
“Sensitive topic,” Sveta said, her voice soft.
“But you fought her. Sent people after her.”
“We worked around her,” Weld said. “I don’t think there’s a way to fight her and win. You throw up roadblocks and hope that the path she’s on goes places far from you.”
“He had a name,” Egg said. “Mantellum.”
“Yeah,” Weld said. He looked very tired, for someone who didn’t get tired.
“Did you want something?” Faultline asked.
I want a lot of things, but I don’t get them, Egg thought. I want to be here, and you want me gone, because I’m interrupting.
“What’s she bringing to the table?” he asked, indicating Slician.
“CYA,” Weld said. “Big meeting of people the staff isn’t familiar with, orchestrated in part by us. Slician is a known quantity, she tells them everything was aboveboard, they’ll listen.”
“It’s kind of fucked up you have to do that,” Egg said.
“I don’t know that we have to, but they’ve got enough things to worry about,” Weld said.
“Everyone does,” Faultline said.
“On the topic of Mantellum,” Weld said, his arms folded, producing a creaking metal sound as they flexed. “I know you were putting out feelers earlier, but there’s no guarantee that another Mantellum would even work, now that she’s a Titan. The built-in limitations are off.”
“Which still leaves options,” Faultline said. She glanced at Egg but she wasn’t going to push for him to leave if the others weren’t.
And Weld and Sveta couldn’t. Not after what they’d done.
The conversation continued. Egg had a hard time listening, as emotions stirred.
They were traitors. All of them. Faultline had stolen good capes away at the end of the world, working on infrastructure and backend, gambling they’d be ahead if everyone made it through Gold Morning. She had only been part of the final fight because she’d been forced to be. Gregor and Newter and those others had been the same, because she called the shots.
He didn’t blame them so much as he blamed her. She called the shots, she owned the shots. A team only worked if everyone was on the same wavelength, willing to follow the leader. Sveta and Weld had fucked things up by refusing to do that, by actively misleading, refusing to be on the same wavelength, and handing their entire community, now a third of what it had once been, the worst possible result.
No answer, no fix, no revenge.
The rule of thumb for what was right was to ask the question: ‘what if everyone did that?’
What if everyone decided to sit out on the important battles instead of agreeing to fight?
What if everyone fixated so much on what they wanted that they forced the results nobody wanted?
His body cracked, hip to shoulder. Then from the midpoint of that crack around his ribs to his spine.
Rhea slithered against Gobbles, who slithered against Hurk, warring for space in a sea of yolk that dwarfed the shell that contained it. If he split, probably only one would get out. Rhea was the smallest. The others were the size of a house. He tended to prioritize Rhea, because she was most cooperative, and liked to stay close to home.
If they were all traitors, then… Egg looked at the boy at the edge of the group.
Sveta caught him looking.
“…bringing us back to the notion that if we can’t find any weaknesses, we make some,” Faultline reiterated, as part of the ongoing conversation.
“I don’t think that’s how Titans work,” Weld said. “Slician and Sveta can back me up on this.”
Egg stared at the boy with parted hair, and ordinary clothes. Nothing that gave anything away.
The boy turned his way, eyebrows knit into a slight smile, the rest of his expression betraying nothing.
Blackforest shuffled her feet. Egg forced himself to relax, looking back.
What would Gregor do, here? What would Engel do?
How was Egg supposed to lean on people as role models in a situation this fucked, surrounded by people that were at times outright toxic, when the role models had disappointed him as those guys had?
He felt so lonely, standing on the sidelines of this.
He had nothing, nobody. Just Rhea, just Gobbles, just Hurk.
“There were none of Mantellum’s vials left,” the boy said.
Egg felt the closest thing his body could experience to a chill. To hear those words said so clearly.
“He’s on our side,” Sveta explained. “He left them during the attack on Teacher’s base. He went off on his own. They’ve tried to track him down a few times. He gave up a lot to be here.”
Egg stared at the Harbinger.
“What makes you different?” Egg asked. “Why did you leave when they didn’t?”
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” the Harbinger said. “I’m number five of my surviving brothers. I was always the last one to leave, when we filed out. I’d look back and see Jeanne… the closest thing we ever had to a mother. Our ‘number zero’s wife. That could have opened a crack the rest of the sentimentality flowed into. It could have been randomness. No numbers are truly random, but… I got less jobs in the last year than my brothers. More time to think, less brutality. I got handed different quote-unquote, ‘random’ memories. Maybe that created a wedge.”
“He’s telling the truth,” Blackforest said.
Egg nodded, taking that in.
Blackforest ‘ate’ babies, drawing them into her center and building around them. The branches and the rest of her were actually like antennae, that reached out to connect to others, and turn emotional connections physical. Through the tentative connections, she could read information.
“I want to help you and the others,” the Harbinger said.
“Guilt,” the Harbinger said. “I won’t pretend it’s natural or primary. But a variable got flipped inside of me, and I don’t think it’s going to un-flip. I can’t get at the root of it, so I’ll handle the permutations.”
“The cracks and wedges,” Egg said. His finger traced a still-healing crack at the side of his face.
“Everything is cracks and wedges right now,” Five said. “We’re trying to find Fortuna’s.”
“Portals,” Egg said. “It came up in planning. The big-headed case fifty-three that joined after the Eidolon revelations.”
“Witness,” Weld said.
“She said there were slight delays when she used portals.”
“We talked about that,” Weld said. And his tone shifted, became the adult that was trying to be supportive of the kid.
Everything I know, you know in more detail?
“The problem with using portals is it tends to put too many tools in her hands, or close to her,” Faultline said.
“It won’t work,” Five added. “We’ve considered other weaknesses. She lost her composure when people triggered near her, but we can’t induce triggers There were parahumans she couldn’t go near. Blind spots. A few capes who had executions better than perfect that she couldn’t beat, who she could find ways around.”
“I’m a portal,” Egg said. “A lot of powers are portals.”
“Technically, you’re not wrong,” Weld said. “Problem is, it’s not that simple in reality.”
“Powers come from somewhere,” Faultline said, “They originate from within our bodies through, essentially, portals. To get to that origination point… you gotta dig. Or cut.”
Egg dug fingers into the side of his neck, by way of demonstration.
He stopped there, yolk dripping down his arm, as he finished the thought he’d been about to express.
Is this the point I stop being the kid and become a shitty adult? Make my first horrible decision, that betrays the others just by saying it out loud?
He looked back at Blackforest.
He could go back. Into that room where he had an extended family, but nobody he was close to. If he wanted he could have a relationship with Blackforest, maybe. He’d be treated like a child by Engel and he’d pretend to be an adult. He’d be comfortable, insofar as it was possible to be comfortable when his body broke at the slightest pressure, leaking fluids everywhere.
His feelings bottled up, boxed up, locked in a vault, and sunk to the bottom of an ocean of yellow yolk, where they could fester and poison the fluids around them.
“You have to dig less if you’re digging into case fifty-threes,” he said. “Everything’s closer to the surface. Bigger. It has more real estate.”
“We’re not going to do that,” Sveta said. “No way, no how.”
“You might have to,” Egg said. “You can get them on board if you give them what they really want.”
Sveta shook her head.
“What do they want?” Slician asked.
“A fix,” Weld said, metal eyes locked with Egg’s eggshell orbs, that leaked beads of yellow where eyelid merged into the orb’s surface and broke by small fractions.
“We can’t guarantee a fix,” Faultline said.
“It’d be unfair to even suggest there might be one,” Sveta added.
“You took the potential fix from us when you killed Doctor Mother. Worse than that,” Egg said, and his voice was hard, “You took hope from us. That we might get her to say something or do something that gives us that fix.”
“There was never going to be a fix,” Weld said. “That’s not the way this works.”
“We need hope,” Egg said. “You took it from us, you could give it back to us if you really wanted.”
“How?” Sveta asked.
“Lie. Give us something. Give us anything. We have to fight Titans, we’re going through this testing. Maybe we end up making sacrifices. If a nucleus of yolk inside me gets popped and my brain goes with it, I could donate my body to science, to be used as a tool, but you have to fucking give me something to get that from me.”
“I don’t think we could do that,” Weld said.
“Then fuck you, then,” Egg snarled.
He looked back at Blackforest, worried for a second, but she looked a bit angry too.
If he pushed for a lie, would she back it up, saying it was the truth? If it was a necessary lie that would help keep all of these scared case fifty-threes afloat?
“These two were talking about hacking the system from the inside. From the dream,” Faultline said. “Maybe that’s a fix.”
“That’s a possibility,” Egg said, energized now. “Yes.”
“No,” Weld said. “Believe me, if it were that easy, we would have already.”
“I don’t think it works like that,” Sveta said. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you saying that because you’re okay, now?” Egg asked, angry now. “You assholes are getting what you want, beautiful girls and bodies and… you’re leaving us all behind. You don’t get to do that!”
“I don’t think we could leave you behind if we wanted to,” Sveta said.
“Why not? You did it two years ago,” Egg said, staring at her. “I talked to you. I told you to talk to Weld about how he was ignoring what people really wanted. Then you two left us all behind to go… I don’t know. Be heroes? Be PRT heroes, forgetting they were propped up by the same people we were trying to defeat?”
He saw Weld look over at Sveta.
Weld had a good poker face, but it wasn’t that good.
“Did you ever talk to him?” Egg asked.
The silence was tense.
“I did try,” Sveta said. “I could have tried harder.”
“I don’t remember that,” Weld said, quiet.
“You were gung ho. A part of it was that you were only hearing what you wanted to hear. A part of it was… I only wanted to tell you what you wanted to hear.”
There it was.
Egg felt something of a sense of closure.
“Okay,” Weld said, and there was emotion in his voice. His hand went to his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” Sveta said.
“I-” Weld started. He put a hand out to Sveta’s shoulder. For a second, it looked like he might push her away, might not.
Weld’s hand dropped away, his head still slightly bent.
“I should go,” Sveta said.
The way things had played out made more sense, now.
“We’ll compare notes more when Tattletale has gone over stuff,” Faultline said.
“Yeah,” Sveta said, her voice small.
She backed off, and the Harbinger went with her.
“Be safe,” Weld said, in a tone like he was restraining himself from saying other things.
And then she was gone.
“If I talk to the others, I can tell them,” Egg said. “Bring you in.”
Weld shook his head.
“No?” Egg asked.
“Maybe. It would be good to talk to them. But I don’t want you guys to go down this route of digging into yourselves to find portals that might not exist. There are other opportunities. Teamwork, cooperation, maybe routes that we discover through tonight’s analysis.”
“If you need hope, maybe that suffices,” Weld said. “But I don’t want to… we absolutely can’t tear ourselves apart to try to find answers or tap into wellsprings of power. I don’t think it would work and it would be… sadder than words can convey, because I know the types who would jump on that opportunity.”
Egg dismissed the thought.
“Anything works,” Egg said. “You might have to explain how you’re working under Legend, technically.”
“I can do that,” Weld said. “That’s easier than some questions. It’s pretty obvious he isn’t around as much as he was when he was in the PRT. He’s not doing the same jobs.”
“Almost a Figurehead?” Slician suggested.
“Almost,” Weld said. “We’ve been on guard for Cauldron-like behavior since the Wardens were founded. It makes us weaker, slower, but… I think I can explain that.”
He probably could.
He wasn’t a traitor, probably, and he was a leader.
Leaving Faultline at her truck, smoking, they started walking back to the building. Egg looked back to the corner of a parking lot, where Sveta Karelia stood with the Harbinger. A portal opened near her.
Which said a lot. That she was with old members of Cauldron, using portals.
How fucked was it that she was the one who had worked with people to make the gesture system they’d all used to gather together? It was the poison of treachery, that it leeched into everything, it made those gestures feel worse to use. It cast a shadow over so many interactions.
He felt brighter and better now.
That things made more sense. That the treachery was smaller than he’d thought, with simpler answers. That it wasn’t as awful and widespread as he’d taken it to be.
He entered the gymnasium, where tinker scans were flickering and people were being scanned with regular devices. He left Weld and Blackforest in the hallway.
He went to familiar faces first. People who’d been peripherally involved. Fishy, Engel, Gregor.
If not to ensure they wouldn’t attack on sight, to ensure they could help handle things if things went sour.
After twenty minutes of talking, people went to the hallway to meet Weld.
The world didn’t feel so lonely, now. They weren’t an isolated, abandoned people, cut off from everything. If Weld was okay, maybe they had options.
Egg stopped, looking back at Blackforest.
“Weld lied. Sveta told him before. Just now, in the hallway, he said if I played along, we could smooth things over, give people a different kind of hope, that didn’t require… how did he put it? Grisly sacrifice?”
Egg looked over at Weld, who was in the hallway, talking seriously to the other leaders of the individual case fifty-three groups.
“When he touched her shoulder, he passed on a message, or he printed something on the metal there. He wanted me to keep it a secret, for everyone’s benefit, he said.”
“I don’t want this existence to be pointless,” he said.
Some of the capes were leaving their stations, gravitating their way. There were over a hundred case fifty-threes present, now.
“You saved my life, those years ago,” she said, quiet. “Anything and everything you want, I’ll back you up.”
“You won’t betray me?”
He nodded, feeling those feelings hardening inside him. Less negative than confident, cold. “Same, then. Thank you. Do you think you could find others?”
“Others we can trust, no matter what.”
“I think I would be scarily good at that,” Blackforest said. “Bijou would be on board. Hexie. Some of the non-Bet cases. I can think of others, put out feelers.”
The last time the world had ended, Sveta and Weld had taken the choice away from the case fifty-threes.
Now they were trying to do it again. A different way, but the same course. They fought so hard to keep case fifty-threes from becoming monsters, that they de-fanged them, would sooner put them down than let them do anything that mattered.
They fought it so hard they were barely distinguishable from Cauldron. Cheating, infiltrating, pushing their ideals.
“We don’t do what they did,” he said. “We don’t divide the group. Just keep quiet about what Weld is doing, we keep flipping people, quietly, and when the time is right, we ask the group the question.”
They had options. Digging for the roots of the powers, maybe. But better than that, more important…
The Titans fell. With them, the capes fell.
Egg cracked. Yolk spilled out with blood. As his body struggled to knit together, it did it wrong. Overlapped too much, leaving zig-zagging seams behind.
Sveta, nearby, wasn’t doing much better. She’d fallen to pieces.
Blackforest, hiding under rubble, was breathing hard. Her tiny core was straining to breathe as the body temporarily became a cage around it, instead of a vehicle.
He went to her. Helping by prying at the flesh, feeling his fingers break as he exerted too much pressure. He reached for Rhea and found Gobbles instead. He had to reach past something that wasn’t Rhea, wasn’t Gobbles, and wasn’t Hurk, before he found his familiar companion, almost buried beneath the others. Rhea extended pink wingtips through the shell of his body, leveraging insane strength that dwarfed his own, dwarfed most people’s.
“Thank you,” Blackforest whispered. “That helps.”
“It’s getting better. Powers are coming back,” he murmured. Yolk dribbled from the corner of his mouth and he spat.
She only nodded.
“Any word?” he asked.
Blackforest looked down at the ground, as if she could look through rubble and ice and concrete to what lay below.
“Our body snatchers are in. We’re in.”
Past the cracks, the other world, the guts of the system. The ‘dream room’, as Faultline and Weld had explained. In the guts of the system.
Just in time for the fight against Contessa.
When powers were as close to the surface as they were for case fifty-threes, that meant possibilities. It meant hope.