Infrared – 19.4

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Our destination was a spot where one of the Titans had made his first appearance.  It hadn’t been pretty, and it made the cracking especially bad.  Chasms too wide to jump across, and two cracks that extended skyward, one forking about two hundred feet up.  They weren’t easy to see on their own, black sky against a dark gray backdrop, but the wind and moisture in the air did funny things around the edges, or snow got caught.  It gave them a faint gray outline.

Capes were gathered in loose groups, with case fifty-threes being the largest cohesive group.  What we were getting did not feel like enough.

Seventy capes, give or take five or so.  It was hard to track them in the gloom.

Buildings had fallen, and in some places, those fallen buildings formed bridges over the cracks.  Gregor the Snail was already out there, shirtless, cementing them together into something more stable.  Tristan was below me, focusing on areas where the cracks were five or more feet across, but weren’t canyons and chasms.   Red lights drifted around the cracks, then manifested with crunching, stone-on-stone sounds, erupting violently and then crumbling in a series of stages.  When he did it right, the rubble wedged against itself, covering the gaps.

It was a massive problem, that the cracks spread around us like they did.  It made me think of fighting on rooftops more than anything.  The area of each ‘island’ was often akin to the footprint of a building.  Getting around necessitated leaping from one pile of rubble to a ‘rooftop’ five feet down and five feet away.

Fuck up, fall into the gap?  It was a terminal distance down to the ground.  Same principle as a fight on city rooftops.  Unreliable footing, all wind and slipperiness factors increased fivefold?  Same as on rooftops.

Just as precarious, in another way entirely, was the existence of Titan Arachne, somewhere behind us.  Chris was supposedly keeping her busy, but saying I didn’t trust Chris was like saying I had a lot of dark feelings about my sister.  Belaboring the fucking obvious.

I really didn’t want to think about her, as much as that half-formed mental connection between her and Contessa nagged at me.  I put my gun down, then began ferrying people around, reaching down to take hands in my own, lifting them over gaps and to people and places they needed to be.

Sveta, unsteady at first, not fully trusting her body, did much the same.  She didn’t touch hands as much as she wrapped her limbs around waists and the trunks of people’s bodies and lifted them over.

Preparing our battlefield, as the Titans approached.

Dark thoughts chased me as I was waved down by a cape who was big enough and heavily armored enough to require more lift than my two arms could provide.

“Need a lift?” I asked.

“Over there,” he said, gruff.  His mouth was obscured behind the gap in the helmet, with a thick braided beard.

One eye on the horizon, I used my forcefield to pick him up.

“Woah!” he exclaimed, as I lifted him.  An armored fist crashed into my forcefield.

Broke my forcefield.  He dropped about ten feet, perilously close to a crack in reality.  Broken pavement crumbled and I flew in to try to catch him before he tipped over.

A square of forcefield appeared behind him.

“Got you,” Crystal called down.

The guy turned, looking over his shoulder and back at the chasm.  He turned toward me, angry, “What the fuck was that?”

‘That’.  Did he see you?  A power?

“It was me trying to give you a lift.”

“It felt a lot like you throwing me into the air.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I should have warned you.”

“You could have killed me.  Fuck.  I think I pulled something with that landing.”

“And she had me backing her up,” Crystal said.  “Safety net ready.  Do you want a bridge?”

The guy stormed off, stomping his way around the crack, instead of taking her offer.

“That’s not the first time you’ve had my back today.”  I was quiet.

“You’re welcome.”

“I was going to say thank you,” I said.  “Are you babysitting me?”

“A bit,” she said.  “Are you going to tell me I shouldn’t?”

I shook my head.

“You look after others, and not yourself.  So… I’ll look after you.”

“Who looks after you, Crystal?” I asked, floating, kind of happy to be flying without carrying the equivalent of an empty cement truck around with me.

“My-” she started, then looked off to the side.  “Lady Photon has my back.”

“She’s not ‘mom’?” I asked, using my fingers for quotes.

“On and off,” Crystal said.  “I’m kind of figuring it out, if you include me muttering ‘what the fuck’ to myself a third of the time, ignoring reality a third of the time, and feeling very complicated wanna-cry feelings the last third.”

“Sounds about right,” I said.  The image of Amy flashed into my head.  “She’s not mom right now?”

“Right now she’s the battlefield commander.  The mom who was out for two hours every night, minimum, right after dinner or my bedtime, depending on if Eric or me needed help with homework.  Sometimes all nighters, napping, then waking up to see us off to school before sleeping again.”

Aunt Sarah had been more ‘into it’ than my mom, in that regard.

“Can I do anything?” I asked.  “I don’t know if she’s upset you’re distant, or…”

“She’s not really noticing.  Which is fine.  It’s good, because that’s what we need, right?  We need to be good capes on this battlefield and we get through this, and after, I’ll spend time with her and bits of my mom will come back, until I don’t feel like I’m insulting my mom by comparing her to this Flock member who looks just like her.”

I nodded.

“You just keep your head on straight, baby cousin.  Communicate.  Weren’t you saying that was important, when you were bringing everyone together for the Hollow Point thing?  You can’t go staring off into the distance while doing superpowered heavy lifting.”

“Right,” I said.  “Engel stirred up some thoughts, sorry.”

“Me too, Vic.  Especially in the aftermath of the powers going crazy.”

I nodded.  “Is your forcefield strong enough to be a bridge now?”

“No idea.  But it feels different.  Harder to stretch into a ball.”

She demonstrated.  Sure enough, it wasn’t really working that way.

“And your laser?”

She fired into the forcefield.  Rather than a thin beam, it fluctuated more around a central line, and took on a magenta hue where the fluctuation stretched it thin.

“Stronger, I think.  But less cut, more heat, and I’m not sure if it’s as accurate as it was.  To get the most out of it, I might have to be in the thick of it.”

“Then don’t get the most out of it,” I told her, seriously.

“Yeah,” she said, sounding disappointed.

Capes were shouting out orders and trying to communicate, but it was a bit of a jumble.  I surveyed things, looked over to make sure the change in volume wasn’t because a Titan was appearing, and then made sure nobody was in dire need of a lift.

“It’s a good thing our targets are so big,” she said.  “Just sorta sucks.  But that’s enough about me.  That thing I was saying about you taking care of your teammates?  Tristan’s yelling.”

I turned to look.  Sure enough, his voice was among the jumble.

I flew down, one-footed landing, being gentle with the one I’d sprained.

“Please don’t,” Tristan called out, while stomping forward on the steadiest ground he had available, which wasn’t a lot.  He sounded like he was out of patience.

“You’re talking to me,” a cape said.  A woman with a costume where I couldn’t tell how much of it was winter wear and how much was decoration.  It looked like grunge with a parka, messy hair and sunglasses that reflected light as a mix of electric blue and sky blue, but scratched up.  I had no idea how she could see through the things.  Liquid dripped from her hands and formed clusters of icicle spikes as it hit the ground.  The ‘ground’ in this case was the edge of one of Tristan’s messy rubble bridges, all the rubble crushed in together to jam the crack up.

Yeah.  Please don’t fuck with it,” he said.  Each ‘please’ came with a tone that sounded more like he was saying ‘fucking’.

“That won’t hold,” she said, indicating the rubble.  “If it doesn’t hold while a cape is on top of it-”

“I know it won’t hold,” Tristan said.  “But you’re making ice.  Ice expands, especially, it seems, that ice.  Ice melts, given an excuse.  Your ice expanding and then melting is going to mess up my work.  Ice is slippery, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want people slipping while a matter of feet from a hole in reality.”

“I’m just helping, dude.  Seriously.”

“That’s not help.  Please.  I appreciate the effort but my brother used to be an ice manipulator, I’m speaking from experience.”

“Whatever, dude.”

The woman walked off.

Crystal and I floated down the rest of the way.  He saw us and huffed, still clearly annoyed.  “She was ignoring me.”

“Happens,” Crystal said.

“I could read her mind too.  Stubborn, ‘I’m going to continue, show you I can do a good job, and you’ll stop griping at me’.”

“Could be,” I said.  I thought about asking him how he was, and I wasn’t even sure how to frame it.  “Progress?”

“Some,” he said.  “I miss my old power.  Just about… any of the power variants I’ve had would be better for this situation than what I’m using now, insect legs excepted.”

“Insect legs?” Crystal asked.  “Ugh.”

“Yeahh.  I’m not even sure what to call ’em.  Turned up for a while after I killed my brother.  So, y’know, I’ve adapted.  But I like elbow room while I’m adapting, and- mi madre, why?”

He stopped with that, stopping short of saying or doing something, and stuck his arm out.

Shamrock was hopping along the bits of rubble, and as she set her weight down, the rubble shifted, scraped against other rubble, and even groaned.

“Shamrock!” I called out.

She stopped, looking over.

“Can you go get Gregor?  Cement this together?”

“It’ll hold like this,” she said.  “With a little luck.”

She winked.

I glanced over at Tristan, and by the look he gave me, we were on exactly the same page, despite the fact we’d come at it from different directions.  He had been through it with at least one other person, and I- really wasn’t in the mood for fucking winks.

“Capricorn’s going to be doing more stuff,” I told her.  “We’d rather not chance it.  Gregor would be a huge help, though.”

“Alright,” she said, hopping down and landing on ice without slipping.  Sveta was on her way back to us.  “Hi Sveta.”

“Hi,” Sveta said, wary.

“How’s your body?  A lot of us are a bit messed up,” Shamrock said.

“I’m dealing,” Sveta said.  Still curt, without much warmth.  “Are you okay?”

“A little shaky,” Shamrock said, laying a hand over her heart.  “Gregor’s okay too.”

“Can I ask?” I piped up.  “The symptoms, or… however you’d term it?”

“He says his skin feels heavier.  I have no idea what that means,” Shamrock said.  “As for me… ticking a little…”

She made a hand gesture.

“Heavier?” I guessed.

“Something like that,” she said, before adjusting her hat.  She pointed, “Going to get Gregor.  You can pick our brains when we come back.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Giving us a bit of respite.

“You were asking me earlier,” Crystal said.  “About the changes to my powers.”

I nodded.

“Yours got smaller, I’m a little hotter, less sharp-”

Tristan snorted.  Crystal flew over, driving her elbow into the armor at his shoulder, playfully.

“Tristan got some ramming power.  Sveta… I don’t know.”  I looked over at Sveta.  “Restless?”

“Restless, stronger.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

I stewed on that, my arms folded.

Capricorn set to making the next bridge.

“Would I be stepping on your toes if I created a forcefield underneath?” Crystal asked.  “Brace it when it appears?”

“That would help,” Tristan said.  “You’d be stepping on my toes if you did it without asking.”

“Got it,” Crystal said.  “Glad to help.”

“Anything I can do?” I asked.  “I could go get stuff, materials.  Maybe a central core to the build?”

“I don’t think it would survive the emerging buildingstuff,” Tristan said.  “We could try it.  And if you wanted to get me an extra… hm, maybe half a ton or a ton of patience?”

“Patience?” I asked.  Patients?

“Yeah, y’know, ability to wait, tolerance for people walking all over what I’m trying to build, sticking ice in the cracks, ignoring me when I say not to…”

“You alright, Tristan?” I asked.

“I’m all out,” he said.  “Of patience, I mean.  It’s been a long day, and it doesn’t feel like it’s ending soon.”

“I hear you.  But we’re all there.”

“I know,” he said.  “I’m worried about Rain.  He’s down there, like we were last night, he’s in the middle of… what we were up against last night.  Without powers.  And we’re running out of time.”

I checked my phone for the time.  “Thirteen minutes.  Then he’s awake.”

“What were you thinking, a minute ago?” Sveta asked.  “Sorry, I’m just wanting to focus, I was considering what you meant.”

“Oh,” I said.  I looked over to the horizon.  The data Kenzie was providing suggested the titans were ten minutes out.  The timer beyond the edge of my vision told me Rain had thirteen minutes before he woke up.  “Just trying to figure out if there’s any consistency to the power changes.”

“You jumped to a conclusion with Shamrock,” Sveta said.

“Helped by her hand motion.  Yeah.  I’m not sure, yet.   I’m going to go get a telephone pole or something.”

“I’ll come,” Sveta said.

Leaving Crystal with Capricorn, talking.

He seemed to ease up just a bit, with the regular conversation.

Telephone pole.  I found one, and smashed the end of it rather than try to disentangle the lines.  I picked it up, with Sveta giving me a hand with the tail end of it.

“What happened earlier?” I asked.  “When you guys had the private discussion with him.  I know it was private, but…”

“He was having dark thoughts,” Sveta said.  She climbed onto the telephone pole, sitting by where my forcefield grabbed it.  She reached down with an arm unfolding to detach some wire that I hadn’t seen.  “General life situation.  Asking us, what’s the point?  What’s the point?  He’s on the outs with family, he lost all of his old friends.  He got into the hero stuff initially for the fame and the money… for good reasons too, but those other reasons are still reasons.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I could sympathize with the wish for fame, myself.

“The way he phrased it, he had a moment where he just stopped, took stock, and felt like he was drowning.”

She left it at that.  I could draw the conclusion.

“Reality hit?” I asked, reaching out with a forcefield hand to grab another bit of wire.  I had to pull it hard enough to snap it to get free.

“I think it’s been hitting him for a long while now,” she told me.  “He wanted to be team leader, you know.”

I looked up at her.

“I don’t think it was a major factor, or even a top ten issue for him, but he mentioned being frustrated with it and that’s part of why we backed off.”

“Gotcha.”

“He thinks you’re doing fine, just so you know.  Just…”

“Wishes it were different?”

“Yeah.”

“And how are you?” I asked.  “Final check before the Titans arrive.”

“I wish I had a good answer.  I could really do with my body not fucking up on me… I only get one and I don’t think healing fixes me the way it does anyone else.”

“Me either,” I said.  “Though that’s a… very strong preference, more than anything.  I really hope your body doesn’t fuck up, too.”

“I know,” she said.  She smiled.  “You helped me get it. ”

“What about the other cases?” I asked.  “Shamrock?  Weld?”

“You mean Weld throwing me under the bus?” Sveta asked.

I nodded.

“I don’t think we were going to get the case fifty-threes on board without doing something to mend rifts, and if Weld can’t fudge the truth and pretend to be mad…”

“Weld’s a boy scout, Sveta.  He’s probably in my bottom ten people to go to if I want deception and acting ability.”

“I meant that his metal body resists being read by most powers that are organic-only or inorganics-only.”

“My point stands, though.”

“I know,” Sveta said.  “Really.  I’m okay being the bad guy if it gets more of the case fifty-threes on board.  If it just gets them here and helping, maybe that’s what makes the difference.”

“You’re okay with it like Tristan is okay not being leader?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Sveta said, then shook her head.  “No, It’s different.  In group, Tristan and I, we got to talking about Weld, right off the bat.  Then talking about being on the outs with a community and team.  But I’ve always been a person who existed in the moment.  If I’m comfortable, with good people who love me around me, I’m okay.  And before that it was… if nobody’s hurt, if no damage is being done, and you’re there, while we’re in the hospital, I’m okay.”

I nodded.

“And before that, it was about getting through things moment by moment.  The only other time I ever really had something to look forward to was my trip across worlds with Weld, and that was terrifying.  For too many important years of my life, the future only meant more bad.  That’s a big place where he and I are different.”

“How?  He has that stuff to look forward to?”

Sveta shook her head.  “He needs stuff to look forward to.  He needs hope.  He describes parties and making friends as his hope, though I didn’t really understand that.  Validating it, I think he said?”

“Sure,” I said.  Testing the work he’s been doing, that things are secure, by relaxing his guard.  “That makes sense to me.”

“Then you’ve got a better grip on it than I do,” Sveta said.  “He works hard to bring other people hope too.  He wants to make the future brighter for his brother and parents and all the rest of us.  I think that’s a big place where he’s struggling.”

“I don’t know what to say or do that fixes that,” I said, quiet.  My gaze again went to the horizon.  The timer.  The Titans imminent.  “What we’re up against is bigger and darker than any kind of hope I could offer.  Do I give up leadership?”

“I don’t think he’s in a place to lead.  Crystal’s the kind of person he gets along with.  I think that helps,” Sveta said.

“And again, I feel like we’re kind of skirting you,” I said.

“I survive, Victoria,” Sveta said.  “I endure the bad and I enjoy the good moments.  I just… really hope the future doesn’t mean more bad stuff for my body.”

I swallowed and nodded.

“Tristan’s probably waiting, and he’s all out of patience,” Sveta said.

“Yeah,” I said.  There was more to disentangle from the pole, but I was in position to just haul on it, using strength to break and snap what we hadn’t cleared away.

I flew over, Sveta still sitting on the log.  She hopped off as I approached the chasm, and used the tangle of her body to soften the landing.

The pole crossed the gap, surrounded by red motes and lines.

I wished I could help.  Wished I could do more.  But I didn’t have the tools.

I wanted to figure out the power thing, and if there was a way to wrap my head around how our powers had changed.  I had a general sense of it, but with no specifics.

Capricorn finalized his constellation.  The lines became the edges of buildings, the points the corners.  The result was a structure lying on its side, heaving and shifting as matter swelled from the center, breaking the exterior, then repeated the process yet again.

Crystal’s forcefield kept the broken bits from falling into the abyss.

We’d had some reinforcements arrive, but it wasn’t many.  Ten people.  Legend now floated in the air above the scene, looking over the horizon.  Aunt Sarah was up there too, not flying as high, but surveying things.  A forcefield stretched across one of the bigger chasms, and people periodically ran along it.  There wasn’t much need, it seemed, for escorts or help getting people over ledges.

I could feel the chill sinking into me.  It didn’t help that I’d sweat as much as I had after my initial skirmish with the Nemean Titan or Skadi, and my entire coat was clammy with me-moisture penetrating from the interior and melted snow penetrating from the exterior.

Gregor turned up.  Slime gushed from his hands as he poured gunk over Tristan’s rubble.  It hardened almost immediately.

“Thank you,” Tristan said.

“I could do more, if it does not take too long.  I was watching from a distance while helping others.”

“Ah,” Tristan said.  “I was going to take a minute to let my brother free.”

“You are a case seventy,” Gregor observed.

“I’m surprised you know that.”

“I studied a great deal while trying to figure things out.  It is up to you whether you want bridges or a chance to let your brother out.”

“Bridges,” Tristan said.  “Thank you.  I’ll get right on that.”

Shamrock approached, leaning into Gregor.  She had something translucent folded over one arm.  I cocked my head to get a better look at it.  A shirt that looked like it was made of clear plastic.  Gregor’s?

You rock your weird, Gregor, I thought.  I kind of resented that he was one of my hometown capes who hadn’t showed up to Leviathan, but… whatever.  It wasn’t worth holding onto the hard feelings.

“Sveta,” Gregor said, in his heavily accented voice.  “I heard you traveled worlds, looking for your birthplace.”

“I did,” Sveta said.  “We didn’t have any luck.  But I still found it.  Found my old self.  In dreams at first, then in… through those cracks down there.  Garbled and filled with static, but it was old me.”

“Are you happier for it?” he asked.

“I… no, not really.  I haven’t exactly had time to digest.”

“That is fair.”

“But I know myself better now.  I have a better sense of what parts of me are nature and what parts of me are… forgotten nurture, I guess?”

“That is good.  I am glad.”

“We’ve been rooting for you, Sveta,” Shamrock said.  “Since the whole thing with the Irregulars.  We’re sorry you got the short end of the stick.”

I wanted to fly out and find a telephone pole again, but I didn’t want to abandon Sveta at this juncture.  I stood by her, placing one hand at her shoulder, and sensed the tension, felt the movement of her body shuffling.

“Titans!”

Titans plural?

The call came from above us.  From Legend.

The countdown was still ticking.

“Get into position!”

Crystal took to the air, flying up closer to her mom.

Tristan looked over at his work, then reached out, clenching his fist.  It solidified.  A roiling mass of building material.

Gregor slimed it while it was still emerging.  Cementing one part to another and minimizing the rubble that was thrown off.

Between that and some of the other stuff around us, there was an area maybe two hundred feet across that was good to walk on.  The areas beyond had some bridges, but it wasn’t a lot.

It felt like so little.

Our numbers felt so small.  Seventy or eighty, total?

I was willing to bet that the bulk of our guys were over near the entrance to Bet.  Dealing with the machine army.  A mistake from yesteryear, carried over to the present.  We wouldn’t have been told because Tristan wasn’t the only one of us who needed a glimmer of hope.

And this was feeling increasingly hopeless.

I could see silhouettes now.  They were moving fairly quick, particularly the Nemean Titan.  But Ophion was there too.  Recuperated and ready, with a creation on either side of him.

And behind them, I saw her.  Like a thin mountain, moving at an unhurried pace, not because she was slow, but because she had no need to rush.

“Wishing you luck,” Shamrock said, giving Sveta a wave.

“You too,” Sveta said.

The two jogged off, to reunite with Palanquin and the other case fifty-threes.

“You guys couldn’t have said that, like, any time before now?” Sveta asked, quiet enough I was probably the only one who heard it.  “Or talked to them?  or done anything productive?”

I gave her shoulder a squeeze.

“I know, focus,” she said.  “I’m being dumb.”

“No,” I told her.  “That’s not what I was trying to do there.  You’re not being dumb.”

That slim mountain in the background had eyes now.  Slivers and ovals of gold.  I could make out the wolf heads.

“Fuck you, Contessa.”

Titan Fortuna was moving slower than the other two.  By the original timetable, she was due to arrive.  It just looked like the other ones were going to hit us first.

Legend opened fire.  One beam at first, then five, maybe, then twenty, and then a hundred, producing so many that there was nothing forward-facing that could emit a beam, so he sent them backwards, turning at sharp angles in the air until they were aimed at the right target.

I’d wondered what happened when Fortuna was confronted with something she couldn’t dodge.  I got to see it here.  She simply took the damage head-on.

“I should go get my gun,” I told the others.  Told Sveta.

“I saw some tinkers climbing all over it,” Tristan said.  “Couldn’t look away from my work long enough to yell at them, sorry.  Have to be careful with my current setup, or I’ll send debris all over the place and brain someone.”

“Fuck,” I said, already far enough away I could barely hear him.

I wasted no time flying over to get my gun and found two tinkers picking over it like vultures.  One was a teenager, one a guy who was closer to my dad’s age.

“Did you mess with it?” I asked.

“Fixed the housing some,” the teenager said.  “Had to run sample testing a few times to figure out the emitter dynamics for the shell.”

“Sealed the metal close to the laser thingy,” the man said, gruff.

I gave him a look, eyebrow raised.

“I’m not going to give you mumbo-jumbo,” he said.  “We’re about to get stomped by those Titans, I’m old, and anything I say that approximates what I understand about this garbage isn’t going to mean shit to you anyway.”

“So… yes?” I asked.  “You messed with it.”

“Is it Dragon’s?” the teenager asked, bright-eyed.  “It feels like it’s Dragon’s.”

I used my forcefield to pick it up, checking my strength.  Was I stronger?  If I was, even a bit, then it might help me connect my thought about the changes to our powers.

The hands clawed into metal for a grip.  I saw the teenager and older guy cringing.

“It’s not going to blow up, is it?” I asked.

“No, probably not,” the teenager said.  “But if Dragon gave me something like that, I wouldn’t even be here.  I’d run off to some lost corner of the world and run my face up and down the housing.  I’d open it up in a hermetic environment and stare lovingly at the layout.”

“Tell me he’s being ridiculous,” I told the older guy, pinching tears closed with my one free forcefield hand, that couldn’t quite reach a handhold.

“He’s being ridiculous,” the guy said.  “But it’s nice.”

“Cool,” I said, floating up.

“I wouldn’t be tearing holes in it and dropping it!” the teenager raised his voice.

Then I was mercifully out of earshot.

I watched as the Undersiders made their late arrival by way of portals.   Tattletale stepped out of the portal, saying something to the older Heartbroken.  Then she took a long look at the situation, reversed direction, and left.  The portal closed behind her.

Okay.

Below, Tristan had swapped out for Byron.  He made a few experimental uses of his power.  I stared at the constellations, now closer to Sveta’s camera-eye in color than truly ‘blue’.

I watched as they came manifest.  A glittering cloud that expanded out from the point it manifested.  It seemed to freeze everything it touched, before consolidating into an abstract shape, the deepest portions of the smoke turned to a swirling ice sculpture.

He created another, and then swapped out.

The cloud of freezing gas didn’t go away.  Instead, something lurched out of the gas, a pillar of what looked like damaged concrete.  It hit a nearby wall and broke.

In the distance, the Nemean Titan was getting closer.  Victor.  Several capes who weren’t quite as long ranged as Legend were now starting to shoot at him.

I looked again.  Tristan had made his construction, which was still manifesting when he swapped to Byron.  It became a plume of the gas, reckless and all over the place, coming perilously close to some people further away before he changed again.  The block of concrete that formed in it weighed down the cloud enough that it didn’t touch the people.  It hit the wooden bridge below it before crumbling, some of the pieces so weak the end result looked more like sand, with broken glass and bits of metal in the mix.

Okay.

Tristan was nodding to himself.  He said something, and it might have been meant for Byron’s benefit.  I wasn’t sure that Byron was even awake in there, though.

Okay.

Fuck, this gun was heavy.  I was strong, but it bogged me down so much, and the Nemean Titan was fast.  Ophion was overwhelming, with one of his pets swelling in size like the wall of flesh had, except this one was all tentacles and a center mass that looked like a brain.

And Titan Fortuna was… too much.  Overwhelming.  Very possibly impossible to defeat.

I studied her, watching every movement, and I was aware from my readings about the Simurgh that even that was a vector for problems when dealing with a sufficiently strong precog.

Her weakness, if it could be called that, had always been that she had always been an ordinary, athletic person at her core.  Now she was strong enough that lasers capable of leveling city for miles around weren’t slowing her down.

Her weakness, thinking back to the raid on the Teacher base, was that she was limited in reach to those things that, for lack of a better way of putting it, fell in her earshot, her arm’s reach, or her shadow.  She could set off dominoes, but she had to touch the dominoes first.

Now her reach was vast, her shadow terribly long.  There wasn’t a domino for miles around that didn’t tremble as she shook the city with her movements, her lower body one solid block, cutting through the city.

I watched, using the limited night vision Kenzie had provided to track the fighting, and saw as the Nemean Lion pounced.

Saw as something resembling a giant featherless bird, moist and bright with the lights around it, the size of a small apartment building, with teeth and a rotted-off nose instead of a beak, met the Titan in the air.

The bird had friends.  One bloated and resembling something between a lizard and a toad, three times the bird’s size, when the bird was already massive compared to everything but the Titans themselves.  A third one, roughly the same size, built blocky like a cow’s body was, with a stump for a head, and two praying mantis arms with skin stretched over them.  It clawed at buildings frantically, hauling itself forward, and its rear half was seemingly endless.  Naked pink flesh stretched over entrails that, as it made forward progress, turned out to be longer than any of the Titans were tall.

Fast and, as I watched, mass surged along that tail of endlessly unspooling lower body, reached the upper body with violent force, and almost seemed to give it motive force, hurling it forward.

The Nemean Titan was working on them, slowing them down, but their ‘brainless’ state was a frenzied one that didn’t turn off completely.  They kept fighting, blind, aimless and stupid now, and they were big enough and blunt enough as weapons to give him pause.

Contessa continued forward.

Ophion cast out needles.  Legend blasted each needle out of the air before it could reach one of the giant flesh-beasts.

How do we get past that and communicate with her?  Or hurt her?

“What are you waiting for?”

The deep voice cut through the gloom.  I traced it to a nearby building.  A figure in the gloom.

“If I shot this thing at her, I’d be out of battery at a time it really counted, later.  They heal.”

“And it would be entirely to her plan,” he said.  “Just like you doing nothing now is entirely to her plan.”

I grit my teeth.

I looked down at him, giving it a second so the night vision could trace his misshapen outline.

HI CHRIS!

“Kenzie says hi,” I said.

He didn’t respond.

“She’s been quiet,” I remarked.

“Tinker inspirations got reshuffled.  Makes it hard to work on old projects.  She’s probably doing damage control.”

“Or she’s stressed.”

“Damage control,” he snarled the words, annoyed.

“It’s okay to be stressed.”

“Fuck off,” he said, and for a moment, I thought that would be it, and he’d go down the building the same way he’d come up.

A surge in the fighting seemed to thoroughly distract him.  He decided to stay and endure me to keep watching it.

“Where are your giants?” I asked.

“On their way.  Minus one, to keep your little friend Hunter busy.”

Sveta climbed up the side of the building.  I was guessing Kenzie had let the others know.  It was harder for Tristan to reach us, though.

“You couldn’t have done anything to help her?”

“Nah,” he said, and that was all he said.

I grit my teeth.

The fighting continued, Legend going all out.  Titan Fortuna was taking damage, and she didn’t seem to care.

“The cracks spread soon,” Chris said.

“We’re kind of hoping,” I said.

“No you’re not,” he said.

I could have thrown him off that building if I hadn’t had the gun as an anchor to weigh me down and make my flight more burdensome.  He probably would have survived.

“Rain’s in position, we’re ready, I’m shooting if they need something shot, but otherwise I’m prepared to help evac.”

“You’re in position and you’re making your plans, but she’s been positioned to win since the moment she moved,” Chris said.  “If the cracks spread, it’s to her design.”

“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine?” Sveta asked.

“It’s going to get some of us,” he said, looking out at the ongoing skirmish.  Titan Fortuna still in the background, advancing, letting Ophion open the next stage of the fighting.

“Possibly,” I said.

“It’ll get everyone she wants it to get,” Chris said.  “The damage you did?  Her design, I’m betting.”

Maybe,” Sveta said.  “We don’t know if she has blind spots around this stuff.”

“It’ll get everyone she wants it to get,” Chris said, repeating himself.  “The damage you did was her intent.  It might help you now but it doesn’t change the outcome she decided on.”

“Are you here to do anything except spout doom and gloom?” I asked, angry now.  “Are you going to help?”

He gestured back toward the end of the neighborhood closest to the water, close to the Shin portal, where the giants had gathered.  Goddess giant absent.  They started trudging forward.  “My giants will participate.  I’ll do some stuff.  I don’t think we can win.  Not against that.”

“Why are you even here if you don’t think we can win?” Sveta asked.

“The irony of this whole situation is that I could probably give every case fifty-three down there a body.  Better than the one you got,” Chris said.

“You could what?” Sveta asked.

“Ow.  These ears I gave myself are sensitive.  You’re shrill.”

“This whole time?”

“Probably with regular injections, but doable.  It would have been like painting a house that’s going to burn down tomorrow.  I don’t see the point.  In the big picture… we were only ever going to get a couple of years before the next world-ending crisis.  Machine Army, Simurgh, broken triggers, something.  I don’t see the point.”

“You’re a selfish asshole,” Sveta said.

“I am.  Absolutely.  And the irony is that as much as you want normal pink and brown human bodies I want as far the fuck away from humanity as is possible.  I have since the beginning, when I realized just how sick we all are.  Put me on a space shuttle, let me be a snake that literally eats its own tail forever, let me be a spider with fifty brains.  I don’t care.  Just…”

He extended one black-furred paw out toward the city.

“…Ugh,” he said.

“Ugh,” I echoed him, though I was referring to something very different, my gaze locked on him.  “You want to be a Titan.”

“If it had to be one of us, wouldn’t you want it to be me?” he asked.

I had a response to that, and it wasn’t ‘yes’.

I kept my mouth shut, my focus on the scene ahead of us.

“You’re such an asshole,” Sveta said, under her breath.  “You could have fixed us?”

“Better to say I could fix you, present tense,” he said, staring off in the same direction I was.  “New data, new info, the giants are a trove of info.”

“Oh,” Sveta said, mollified.

The three attached flesh-monsters were dying in the fight to Nemean.  Which saw another one lunge into existence.  A very phallic looking snake, with a circumference matching many of the buildings around us.

“Was that actually you being nice?” I asked.  “You could have let her hate you.”

He looked annoyed at that.  “If I was, and I wasn’t, it’s still putting paint on a house that’s going to burn down.”

“So you say, but you’re lonely and scared, so you came to old acquaintances for company,” I said.

“Fuck that,” he said.

“It’s a scary situation,” I observed.

“You think you’re getting one over on me, you get these quips-”

“They’re very satisfying, like when Kenzie tells you off and you don’t have a reply,” Sveta said.  “You get this look on your face, like the mask skips.  And then, unfortunately, you put it back on.  Jessica had faith in you, you know.”

“You all think it means more than it does.”

“It means something,” I said.

“She stopped moving,” he answered, pointing.

I turned my full attention to the Titan Fortuna.  It was hard to tell with distance factored in and the fact she didn’t have legs that moved.

“It means cracks in five, four-” he started, shifting his mass.

“What?” Sveta asked, alarmed.

“-Three, two-”

I hefted my gun.

He leaped from the building, and the light from my gun’s housing briefly illuminated him.  Something between a jackrabbit, a kangaroo, and a humanoid in form, with a fur ruff around his neck, all black, with jagged incisors filling a wide, leering grin.

“-one,” his voice sounded small, as he dropped away from earshot.

I decided to take his word for it, grabbing Sveta’s hand to help give her a headstart, and then flying, gun aimed in case there was a moment of weakness or a critical point that needed shooting at.

I hoped he was lying, distracting us so he could get away without us slowing him down any further.

I hoped he was fucking with us, trying to put an expression on our faces like Sveta had remarked about seeing on his.

I hoped we were ready.

The first crack in reality spread, lancing up Titan Fortuna’s body, and tracing the specific lines of damage that the lasers had done to her, before forking up and into the air.  The lights of powers close to her died.

The rest of the cracks followed immediately after.

Hopes extinguished.

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17 thoughts on “Infrared – 19.4”

  1. And the second wave of titans emerges? As if the current titans weren’t bad enough.

    Gah just like with Worm this is a situation I can’t imagine humanity overcoming. Even more so with the seemingly endless nature of titan emergence. I have faith we won’t get a “bad” ending per say but I can only imagine things getting worse and worse in the foreseeable future.

    I don’t think any story/series has gripped me like this as much as Parahumans.

  2. hmm, infrared does let you see an extinguished flame

    Typo Thread:

    formed brides > formed bridges
    me, angry, > me, angry.
    ticking a little (is this right?)
    She pointed, > She pointed.
    thirteen minutes (earlier was eight. intentional?)
    organic-only or inorganics-only (maybe inorganic so it’s consistent)
    on the log (is this correct?)
    or done anything > Or done anything
    had always been that she had always been (repetition)
    Nemean Lion (should this be Titan)
    control,” he > control.” He (or he snarled, annoyed)
    “-one,” his > “-one.” His

    Titan capitalisation:

    The Titans imminent (was lowercase earlier)
    by those Titans

  3. -Crystal being like a good sister for everyone as usual.

    -Chris being an absolute asshole as usual.

    -Gregor and Shamrock being sweethearts as usual.

    -Titan Fortuna being a hope destroyer as usual.

    -Egg being a FREAKING POWERHOUSE with his big as houses birds.

    -Dragon being a Goddess for tinkers.

    -Everything is fucked. As usual.

  4. >“If it had to be one of us, wouldn’t you want it to be me?” he asked.

    >I had a response to that, and it wasn’t ‘yes’.

    We all know who you’d like to see going titan, Vicky. I’m sure it will happen, once Waste-chan gets over your special relationship with Gun-sama.

    1. Gun may decide to leave Antares for anonymous teenage tinker boy, if she doesn’t treat Gun more gently.

  5. I really enjoyed the interactions here; especially the one at the end giving more insight into Chris.
    But the one with Sveta was pretty good to, especially how she compared herself to Tristain

  6. You thought it was a chapter about the beginning of an unwinnable battle, but it was actually all about dem feels!

    Really loved the counterweight Shamrock and Gregor provided to the Sveta-hate from the C53 community (even if it feels hollow given how the Irregulars see Shamrock as a fake).

    (Also, Crystal still best cousin/maybe-sister ever)

  7. – Always good to see a bit of downtime. Usually the characters in Parahumans have to have their character development and heart-to-hearts in the middle of battles, which is…odd, to say the least.

    – Interested in Byron’s power. The metaphorical interaction of him and his brother’s abilities has always been great. So now it’s objects that move of their own accord and shatter on impact?

    – Oh, Chris. He wants to be a monster but can’t escape being human. It’s cute that the thing that seems to piss him off most is just other members of Breakthrough being kind to him. I don’t watch anime, but this is pretty classic Tsundere, right?
    – After the wretched pit of denial and self-delusion that is Amy Dallon, it’s also nice to see someone who OWNS their assholishness. Ironically it’s that acceptance that makes him (relatively) well-adjusted and happy, compared to her.

  8. Chris is the King of tsunderes. There is no bigger tsundere than him. He makes Karkat from Homestuck seem like a noob.

  9. I hate being up to date because that means waiting!! This story is so good (:( love all my beans

  10. 1. From “He needs stuff to look forward to” up to “He wants to make the future brighter for his brother” it is not clear that Sveta talks about Tristan, looks like she is about Weld, because right before was “my trip across worlds with Weld”

    2. “General life situation. Asking us, what’s the point? What’s the point? He’s on the outs with family, he lost all of his old friends.”
    So that’s where “crumbling building” power came from…

    3. “Stronger, I think. But less cut, more heat, and I’m not sure if it’s as accurate as it was.”
    Looks like Crystal will have to buy scissors 🙂

    1. 3) As if. She’ll just trade her toaster for a dry ice extinguisher, and grab thicker whole-grain bread instead of the cheap stuff. It’s healthier anyway.

  11. “I watched as the Undersiders made their late arrival by way of portals. Tattletale stepped out of the portal, saying something to the older Heartbroken. Then she took a long look at the situation, reversed direction, and left. The portal closed behind her.”

    Nope! Got my dose of Nopeamine, and I’m Nopeing out of here.

    1. Considering staying around means having to dodge cracks or turn Titan… I’m glad she’s left the scene.

      Also incoming: Imp vs Stranger Titan. What ? Where ? How ? All irrelevant.
      The true heir to this shtick shall be decided.

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