Gold letters, lines, times and symbols appeared in my right eye’s field of vision. Reinforcements were incoming, with capes stepping up, capes from the distant corners and back lines of the city were being pulled in, and Rain was awake, on his way to us. I couldn’t even nod my acknowledgement or comment on the subject, because I wasn’t sure it was good or right to be inviting capes into this.
This was bad.
My gun beeped to tell me the battery was low. Between the darkness, the brightness of the laser, and the golden images appearing across my field of vision, it was getting hard to parse what I was seeing. Phantom images, capes moving and doing weird things in darkness, and the natural vagueness of a dark, ruined city made it hard to get a clear sense of the battlefield and where things stood. The cracks were everywhere, now. Navigating the points closest to Titan Fortuna had to be like fighting in the middle of a briar patch. Worse, considering the areas one could fall through.
Navigating rooftops wreathed in barbed wire.
I wasn’t in that boat, but I still felt cornered and trapped. My thoughts were going in circles, and that meant they covered a surprising measure of mental territory, treading near thoughts I really didn’t want to have. Amy’s face in a memory I’d kept locked away.
One of the rare times that I might have found myself on the same page as my sister. Neither of us wanted to remember that, and our individual reasonings were very selfish – there was a degree of self preservation in Amy not wanting me to see her disregarding my wishes, and those two moments of ‘shushing’ me where she’d altered my mind in real time to cancel out my protests-
My skin crawled.
I wanted those memories gone because they got in the way of me thinking in a straight line, and they made the days where I didn’t think as much about this stuff fewer and far between.
But they were necessary. As a warning, as a general awareness of what I was up against. They were context that, for some reason, got me thinking about Contessa, who I was watching now, standing there and healing while the Titans in her network fought on her behalf. Chess pieces in the hands of a machine that had solved the game and knew every permutation.
And we didn’t have the pieces or the knowledge of how to play the game.
Two new titans had joined Ophion, the Nemean Titan, and Titan Fortuna. I narrowed my eyes and aimed, firing at the Titan that was still emerging and rising to its full height. It was more fragile as it emerged, but I was put in the situation of having to figure out how he grew and anticipate it, or else I was distributing my damage across multiple points. Slowly, he came together, sleek, long-limbed and tall, but incapable of standing straight, as his back arched in an ‘s’ shape.
The other Titan was already fully grown, and was moving slowly, finding her legs, so to speak. She was tall, narrow, and her head was a mostly faceless helmet with only a hole where the one eye should be. Long, sky blue hair draped down to pool on the ground at her ‘feet’, so to speak, and trail behind her. The weight of the hair and the way it pulled on her seemed to force her head down and to the side, where it periodically twitched and trembled.
Most notably, her arms were like a praying mantis’s limbs, with the final segments being rods, not points. More sky blue hair flowed down from different points, including the tail end of the weapon, her elbows, and her knees.
I couldn’t dwell on her. Heroes closer to the scene were dealing with her, doing as much damage as they could get away with while she figured out how her body moved.
My focus was on the new guy. Five minutes after the praying mantis woman, he’d cracked. Now I unloaded into him, fully aware that I was running out of battery.
But it stunted his growth, slowed him down, and served as the equivalent of postponing one impending threat so we could focus on the other four. Others, Aunt Sarah included, were helping.
In the background, Tristan was shoring up the area. Capes had managed to protect the area around all the bridges and safe ground we’d made, steering away the cracks. I wasn’t sure how they’d managed to do it, but I was really fucking curious. I was willing to bet there was a whole story there, power testers or enterprising problem solvers in the Wardens’ ranks figuring out an interaction. I wanted to be a part of that, if only to apply that problem solving going forward.
Maybe I could.
While holding the gun and paying close attention to where the blasts went, I reached into the pocket of my top between the breastplate and my stomach, and I pulled out my phone.
It felt very strange to be scrolling through my contact list at the same time I was firing a death laser.
I heard the phone ring. It was distorted, and the distortions matched up with the thrums I felt coming through my death laser gun.
“Hey! You called! What’s up?” The voice, similarly, was chopped up. “Rain’s on his way.”
“Hi Lookout. That’s fine, good, thank you,” I said, stumbling. I still wasn’t sure if it was good we were being reinforced. But I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do against something like this. “Backline figured out a way to preserve the island. Any chance you can figure out why and pass it to me?”
“Displacement powers,” Kenzie said.
“That was a fast response. Are we going by the power sourcing term, the power endstate term, or by PRT classification terminology?”
“I, uh, checking.”
I kept firing. Each Titan we’d seen so far had something about it that changed the entire dynamic of a fight. The longer I could keep him down, targeting one limb, then another, then a part along his back that seemed intent on growing, the longer it was until we had to deal with whatever he brought to the table.
“Vic!” the loud voice in my ear made me startle. I was still holding the phone there.
“Power endstate terminology. Whatever that means.”
“It means if powers, once everything’s said and done, move things from here to there, by way of teleportation or interdimensional shifting, they ward off the cracks. That’s good. Utterly useless for me, but it might help for Capricorn.”
“Capricorn constellations block cracks?”
“Possibly. If they’re that certain about using the term and clarifying the point. It might be only when it’s emerging.”
“I’ll pass it on.”
“If the Wardens aren’t already telling as many people as possible, try to convince them to, or get people to pass on the word.”
“Okay! Uh, bulletin, I’m getting overloaded with information, there’s so much to sift through and I don’t want to mess up your aim by dumping a whole report into your one eye, so I wasn’t sure if-”
“What’s the bulletin?” I asked. I hated to interrupt, but ‘bulletin’ meant a succinct news statement. A flustered Kenzie might have made it into an essay.
“We’ve got ID on the first new Titan. It’s Mystic Magic Impaler.”
A heroine, I thought. Fuck.
Whatever my feelings were about Super Magic Dream Parade and their vigilante-level ugliness dressed up in gaudy distraction, they’d been fighting for the side of good, they’d been cooperating, and they’d helped.
“They were part of Teacher’s campaign. They got targeted.”
“Yeah. Three times.”
“They were lined up for an ambush like the Navigators were and then slept through it, their reputation was attacked like yours was, and they were the capes sent after a villain team Teacher set up to look more dangerous than they were.”
They were heroes who killed. I wasn’t so different from them in that, I was sorry to admit, but I’d never enjoyed it or joked about it the way they seemed to.
“Why was he so interested in them?” I asked. “Because they were easy marks?”
“They think it’s because Magic Knight Crash knew two Teacher thralls, once. One escaped, the other was in Teacher’s employ.”
“Okay,” I said. I still wanted to think it was a consequence for sketchy behavior.
“She had spear extension and other stuff,” I said, keeping my aim on the new, unnamed Titan while watching the Titanified Mystic Magic Impaler enduring massive explosions, chunks being taken out of her.
“Um, yeah. Her weapon had weird rules for if she swung it, thrusted, or kept it still.”
“Got it,” I said. I noted those praying mantis limbs.
The Nemean Titan was trying to get closer to her, but physical barriers were being used to slow him down. He was close enough that capes couldn’t get behind her, and had to stick to the flanks and front of her. He seemed a lot more passive than before.
The Ophion Titan was mostly protecting Titan Fortuna, who had slowed down. Here and there, she deflected something incoming, or grabbed a master minion.
“They’ve been letting those acquainted with the people who crack name the Titans we end up with,” Kenzie reported. “Super Magic Dream Parade says they want to name her Titaness Amenonuhoko.”
I laughed despite myself, surprising a few people who were flying nearby, Aunt Sarah included. A short, surprised bit of amusement. Almost unhinged.
“Tell me there’s a short form for that.”
“Looking it up and… no.”
“What does it mean?” I asked. My gun beeped. Battery low.
“Jeweled spear of god or something.”
“Impaler Titan it is,” I said. “Sorry, as much as I want to respect the name her team offered… they have to make everything such a pain in the ass.”
“The application says they wanted to make her name special, so it stands out.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Right.”
“What’s that beeping?”
“My gun. I’m running out, the extra batteries are out in the middle of nowhere.”
“I’ll talk to people,” Kenzie said. “See about getting you a portal. We can have a team swap out the battery.”
“And fix the gun?” I asked. “It’s falling to pieces on me. If there are any tinkers on standby.”
The housing was torn and tearing even as I fired.
“That’ll take a bit, but there’s lots of tinkers standing around and wishing they could help.”
“Great,” I said, injecting false positivity into my tone.
A streak of blue marked a single laser fired by Legend. Unlike the raw barrage he’d fired earlier, this was a narrow, thin bolt that was bright enough to see from a mile away.
The Impaler Titan was already there, acting. One of its rod-like limbs, column-like, reached out, and space distorted beyond it.
Legend’s laser hit that distorted column, and flashed out. It lasted for a quarter second, but in that quarter-second, the laser raked across our defensive lines.
Her network was operating with the benefit of her power.
The Impaler Titan attacked. The sideways movement of her weapon saw her move as well, as if space was fixed at the centerpoint of the longest part of the limb, and she levered herself around it. She thrust it, and it extended, punching into forcefields.
She kept it still, and the weapon unfurled. The rod, like a drill bit, became a cone, like a… drill-drill. With the expansion, it intensified in force, plunging through forcefields and into bodies.
Now that she was moving, the Impaler Titan was doing a lot. She had two weaponized limbs and apparently three functions for each. One arm swung, moving her body, the other alternated between impossibly long thrusts and drilling attacks.
Legend was using smaller lasers now, a hail of short lasers that were each only about as long as he was tall. She blocked three of them with a reach of her hand, not even looking at what she was doing, and then changed that reaching limb to vault herself in the air. Her limb reached out and extended out to the horizon.
“That hit someone,” I heard Kenzie say, hushed. “Two of the heroes fighting the Ashen Titan. I don’t think there’s anyone to hold her off.”
“Tell the others,” I said.
The golden letters flashed on my field of vision. CINEREAL INCOMING.
I could see Sveta and Capricorn on the battlefield, turning their heads.
“No new notifications for a sec. I’m going to hang up. Then I’ll show up on the battlefield around when Rain does.”
“You will what?” I asked. “No!”
“I got permission, don’t worry.”
“You got- not from me, Lookout!”
I saw the Impaler Titan start to move, and stopped firing. I watched as she fended off more of Legend’s hail of lasers. By keeping her weapons still, she let it unfurl, and the expanded weapon served to block more.
I couldn’t risk that she’d intercept my laser and redirect it with that space warping drill bit of hers.
“It’s fine,” she said. “So sorry but I’m hanging up, bye, you’re great. See you in a short bit! Keep an eye out, there’ll be some people to grab your gun.”
My voice overlapped with hers. “Did you get that permission from Tattletale?”
The call disconnected.
“Everything okay?” my Aunt Sarah called out.
“Lookout is wanting to show up on the battlefield,” I said.
“We need everyone we can get,” she said, looking down at me with purple eyes.
I looked past her to Crystal. “Lookout is a backline combatant.”
“She’s a smart kid?” my Aunt Sarah asked. “Talented?”
“Yeah. I get what you’re saying, but-”
“If she fits on the backline and she insists on coming here, she might have ideas.”
“Yeah,” I said. Even though I didn’t like it. If Lookout hadn’t stolen the puppy earlier, I might have even kicked myself for not extending her the benefit of a doubt. As it stood, I was reserving the right to chuck Lookout back through the portal.
Someone hit the Impaler Titan with something, producing an explosion as big as the Titan’s head. She moved to retaliate, and I started firing again, targeting the Titan we were suppressing. He’d grown in just the time I’d stopped.
I focused on the most damaged areas, flying closer. The gun was beeping incessantly now.
The laser sputtered out.
Second of the new Titans is joining the fight.
Sleek, long-limbed, and uniform in color and shade, it stretched skyward, growing despite the continued assault against it from other blasters. Without the gun in the mix, we weren’t breaking even.
He dropped into the ground like it was water, producing a liquid ripple that shook buildings, street, and cracks in reality.
I heard the reactions, the shouts.
His upper body sticking out of a crack between realities, he reached out to sweep nine people and part of a fallen building off of a section of street and into the crack.
I flew after him.
I wasn’t even a quarter of the way to my destination when he dropped away, letting go of the ledge and falling.
I saw the ripples, the movement across the bridges and islands between cracks that made people lose their balance and made rubble fall.
He emerged, rising from the liquid street with chest thrust out. Capes were more ready for him this time. An Alexandria type flew in to meet him, her fist punching his fist and stopping it from reaching down to the unprotected back lines. I recognized her as Tritium, a bench cape from Advance Guard. Strong enough to punch through a building, ostensibly invincible, and unfortunately not much of an everyday cape because utilizing her invincibility, flight, and what she now termed her ‘nuke punches’ made her radioactive. Push harder, fight more, and it built up more. She was immune, but the people close to her hadn’t been. She’d lost her family, friends, dog, and coworkers and had hurt many bystanders before the issue had been discovered by accident. It hadn’t come up in the news.
I knew her in the same sense I knew who a big actress like Margery Funk was: I knew her face, general history, and general personality. Quiet, reserved, and totally ill-suited for the gung-ho Advance Guard. She spent much of the time benched, jumping in only for the big, important missions.
The attack came from the flanks. I saw the Impaler Titan’s movement in the corner of my eye, and on impulse, I pushed out with my aura, to grab attention and communicate faster than I could with a shout.
“Get-!” I started.
The limb extended, striking the Alexandria-type out of the air.
A second limb stabbed toward the group.
I flew, wind whistling as it whipped past my forcefield. Smoke, dust, and chill air parted as a face that wasn’t quite mine led the way.
Belated, I put my phone away. My focus was wholly on stopping that attack. I couldn’t stop it from making contact- I was too far away. But I could do other stuff. I winced as it stopped extending and collided with its target.
That wasn’t even the true danger of the attack. The longer they thrust forward, pinning the Alexandria cape against the wall, striking at their target, the stronger their offensive pressure grew.
Their target in this case was a blob of darkness. A shield that consumed and devoured the space-warped extension of the drill bit. Snuff. The Undersiders were in that crowd. Parian was.
The limbs were expanding out. The parts closest to her wrists expanded out first, the tips that were half a mile away from those wrists were last to expand. What had been a column became a cone, rotating violently, tearing at the air and whipping it into something resembling a whirlwind.
It got worse by the second, apparently with no upper limit.
I watched as whatever gave Tritium her invulnerability failed her. Or she’d turned it off because keeping it on would have made her lethal to everyone here. I saw as her body shifted from a dim silvery silhouette to a spiral of what looked like a red towel being whipped around in a spiral.
Snuff was expanding his blob of darkness, trying to ‘eat’ the incoming attack, but the drill grew just a bit faster than his blob did.
I closed the last bit of distance. My flight was jerked off course, because the spiraling ‘drill’ had suction, corrected, and slammed into the first solid bit of the Titan’s wrist.
It caved in. Blood gushed out, and poured down from the site of injury.
I still carried the gun- part of the reason my flight hadn’t been as fast as I needed. I twisted in the air, rising up and away, then plunged back down, using the gun’s barrel, javelin-throwing it down, stabbing the wound and punching through.
I threw my body and forcefield into the side of the gun, levering the barrel against the edge of the wrist. I saw the shell break, crack-
Felt her draw her wrist back.
A quick glance back showed me another bloody mess. Where there had been snow and mud, there was now a spiral of blood- several. Snuff had died, and the capes between him and the Titan had gone down with him.
She was drawing her wrist back toward her chest, aiming to smear me against it.
I kept pressing, aware of the closing distance.
The strip of wrist between the hole and open air snapped. Blood and shell sprayed out, and I used my arms in conjunction with flight to hurl myself down and in, grabbing the barrel and pulling the gun down so part of it and all of me occupied the hole in the wrist. I felt arm slam into chest, with a resounding collision that broke up my forcefield. The gun beeped, almost like it was protesting. More likely the jostle was reminding it we were out of battery.
I used my aura, because there was no reason not to, and shifted position, grabbing my gun and getting clear as she moved her wrist away from her chest.
I had to adjust, scrabbling in the air to find the handholds I expected had moved, as the domed exterior of the gun had buckled somewhat.
I was so focused on the task that I barely registered the shape that appeared next to me. The Flowing Titan, freshly emerged, swung his arm in a backhand, right for me.
I could protect me, but I couldn’t protect my gun.
Damn it, I thought, bracing to anticipate the blow.
An explosion nearby threw me off course. I spiraled through the air with the gun, and found my bearings, squaring off and facing the two most imminent threats. The Titan hadn’t managed to hit me.
From this angle, I could see most of the threats. Titan Cinereal joining the fight. I could see Titan Ophion and… one mess of a pile of meat, which was disgorging a whole other mess. With all the meat lying around, a lot of the cracks in that section of battlefield were packed full. Pale flesh, flensed flesh, scaled flesh, feathered flesh…
Turning around, I saw another figure, easily mistaken for a Titan. He was massive, brutish in features, with metal stuck to flesh that strained and bulged around it, distorting and stretching materials that were at least a foot thick.
A largely naked man, with bruised skin. I figured ‘largely’ naked because he was still wearing a loose band of metal around the waist, that did absolutely nothing for modesty, but did produce a kind of horribly uncomfortable looking cradle for his genitals. It looked like a car wreck with metal pinching and digging into skin, and it didn’t look like it should been able to contain the mass it did.
Seemingly uncaring, roaring in a guttural way, he picked up a chunk of building with two hands, dragged it through a bed of flames on the ground in the process of drawing it back, and then chucked it underhanded.
It detonated on impact, like the material of the building was an eggshell containing molten material. The Titan reared back, and the mostly naked Titan threw himself at the liqud Titan, grappling and wrestling with it to keep it from sinking into the ground.
The… gibber-whatsit knight. Chris’s Chevalier.
Except way, way bigger. Of a size to match Titans.
The Impaler Titan struck him with her one good arm, stabbing his side. He shoved the Flowing Titan at her, then dashed toward the two of them.
The voice was dim.
A second later, gold lines pointed to my target.
I saw Lookout. Her backpack was on, and every surface near her had been holographically altered to look like a terminal, with an emphasis on eye shapes rather than squares.
Rain was with her, Sveta and Tristan stood off to one side, distracted but with the team, and Chris stood off to the other side, more or less kid-size, wearing someone else’s jacket and the metal ring with syringes pointing inward around his neck. No braces, no headgear. All of his focus was on the Giant.
The Chevalier Giant picked up a concrete pole, and brushed it against a crack in reality as it passed it. The pole shifted, blurring, and became transparent, with a torn-up reality at the outer periphery.
He clubbed the two Titans, thrashing them like he was swinging a baseball bat, and as hard as he swung, the pole didn’t disintegrate.
I turned my focus back to the others. “You shouldn’t be on the battlefield, Lookout.”
“It’s okay, I’m not, exactly,” she said.
I reached out, to touch her head, and I felt metal, roughly where her head was, but not exactly.
A camera and a projected Kenzie.
“Good,” I said, genuinely relieved. “Cool. You got me.”
“I wasn’t trying to get you. Um, there’s a portal over there. You should…” she trailed off. “…You did awful things to that gun. Dragon gave you that!”
She stuck her hand out, and it clinked as she touched the gun’s housing.
“What’s this?” Chris asked, looking over.
“Perverse,” he said. “That’s pretty funny.”
“We’re on the same page,” Lookout said, with a note of amusement to her voice. “I said something similar, I even thought perverse, even though I’d never say it. We’re on the same wavelength!”
“How’d it go, Rain?” I asked.
“I could tell you, but Tristan wants to get everyone together for a debrief,” Rain said. He stood straight, his attention on the distant fighting. More on the fight between the… heap of flesh and the flesh-warping Titan Ophion.
Which was weird, now that I thought about it.
“The fuck?” I asked.
“That’s the Mother Giant,” Rain clarified, pointing.
The Mother Giant giving birth to stuff that definitely wasn’t pink, brown, or black flesh, but included all strains of animals and monstrousness. The Gibborim -that’s what it was called- Knight now many times the size, standing tall despite the fact the square cube law should have shattered his lower body.
“You’re doing this?” I asked Chris.
“Thanks for the save.”
“He did that on his own.”
Sure, Chris. You asshole. “Got it.”
I picked up my gun, and metal creaked. I saw both Kenzie and Chris wince visibly at that. A moment later, they started laughing. Chris stopped the second he realized Kenzie was laughing too.
“Glad I’ve given you two something to bond over,” I said.
“We’re laughing for entirely different reasons,” Chris said.
“Sure,” I said. “Whatever, Chris.”
I half expected him to say something. I could even imagine what he’d say.
I wanted to bring it up myself, now that he was standing so close to my team. If Kenzie had been here in person, I might have, just to bring everything to the surface and ensure she was safe.
Why did you sell me out to my sister, back at the prison?
Why did you arrange that? What did you gain? Why would you do that?
He could have brought it up, taunting. He’d done stuff like that in the past. He stood there, in a coat that didn’t fit, wearing a body that didn’t fit him, slouching, his hair a mess, and dark circles under his eyes. His teeth were already crooked again, without the external braces.
He looked so uncomfortable, out of place.
“Be good,” I said.
His expression didn’t change. Kenzie, at the same time, gave me a salute, hand going to the forehead of her wide-eyed helmet.
I followed Kenzie’s pointing finger, flying the gun toward the portal, which was situated in a nook created where a bit of the road had dropped down a few feet. The side of the road above it was wide open, a portal waiting. People were gathered inside, finding some shelter from the hostile battlefield. Some were recuperating, others were getting medical attention.
The tinkers spotted me before I noticed them. One was the same guy who’d had the shift in the workshop when Kenzie and Rain were done. Fishtank. I spotted the mech’s pilot standing off to the side, and noted Riveting, wearing a welding mask, heavy coat with a Shepherds badge on it, and stylized tinker overalls that were, uh, very supportive of her upper body. It felt a bit much to me.
“Don’t comment on it,” I said. “Every damn tinker I’ve seen has had something to say about the gun.”
“It’s… an interesting job,” Riveting said.
“We’ll handle it.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“We’ll call you. Give us your number?”
“Thanks again,” I said, quiet.
I stepped back through the portal. Back onto the battlefield.
I spotted the Shepherds. One of our reinforcing groups. Furcate was talking to Moonsong. I recognized Scribe, and met her eyes for a minute, before she scowled and looked away.
I followed her gaze and saw the Nemean Titan retreating from a group of capes. Mayday was bombarding it, pushing or pulling it back with a hail of his power’s artillery fire. Keeping the Nemean Titan away from people. It looked like a losing fight, where he had to anticipate every move, and one feint might see it avoid a few hits.
I found my team. Tristan was talking to Parian.
And Lookout- projected Lookout, was bouncing in place.
Legend was barely even visible now. He was aware of an omnipresent threat that the Impaler Titan could space-distort his lasers and send them to new targets. He flew to keep one Titan or another between himself and the Impaler.
“We ready?” Rain asked.
“As much as is possible,” I said. “I have to go back in a short while to get my gun. Until then, I’m diving in.”
“It’s kinda cool, having the team together again,” Kenzie said. “Except Natalie. I should really have a tiny floating camera with me that’s just for Natalie. How cool would that be?”
“Not cool in the slightest,” Chris said.
“What’s actually uncool is that Ashley isn’t here,” Kenzie said. “If she was, then we’d really be reunited.”
“I saw her,” Rain said.
“You- what?” Tristan was paying attention now. He’d been staring off into the distance.
“When I was in there. I… didn’t have time to think, only to act on instinct. I put my hand against crystal and I transmitted a message. The way they talk, the… I think the way Scion talked, they tap into every part of the overall system that’s capable of expressing an idea, every chunk of crystal and part of the greater landscape that has stored data that relates to the idea, each one given a different weight. And the message I chose, it woke her up, got her attention. She appeared for a moment. I’m… pretty sure she’s there, here, helping now.”
“Do you think I could talk to her with my camera?” Kenzie asked. “The one I used for Tristan and Byron, and for breaking into the dream room?”
“You have a better idea than I do,” Rain said. “But if you want all of Breakthrough back together… you got it.”
“I broke Skadi off from the rest of her group. She seemed most problematic to have in the network,” Rain said.
“Good,” Tristan said. “Good man.”
“And we figured some stuff out. The same principle that I used to communicate, it applies in reverse.”
“The… hitting every related note thing?” I asked.
Rain nodded. His breath fogged around the edges of his mask.
“The destruction. The point we destroyed,” Rain said. “Colt thinks it was on purpose.”
“Who did it on purpose?” I asked, tense. “Contessa?”
How? We’d targeted an area with the most communication flow.
She’d chosen to communicate across those lines, targeting those specific areas.
“Does Colt have any intuition why?” I asked.
“No, but it would be worth figuring out.”
“Every move we make is one she’s guided us to,” Tristan said. He sounded like he was going to say something else.
There was only the noise of ongoing fighting.
“We’re still getting new Titans,” he said, and it didn’t sound like that other thing. “We just got four more. Mystic Magic Impaler, Shortcut, Drillbit, and the Custodian.”
I looked at him in surprise.
Somehow I hadn’t thought she could be ‘gotten’ like that. Caught by the cracks.
Some of the others didn’t surprise me.
“There’s going to be more,” Tristan said, his voice quiet. “Soon. So I’ve got to ask. Are any of you vulnerable? Are any of you at risk of cracking? Because this is going to be a hard fight. It’s going to be ugly. I need you guys to self-assess, and to assess each other.”
If we’d had the grace of silence, I would have said that the silence was damning. Instead, there were percussive sounds, distant dull thuds that made clouds move and stirred up dust and snow half a mile away. The sky was lit up by lasers, artillery strikes, and slashes of gold and red. Some of those things made noises. There were the dull, wordless cries of giants, straining to fight against the Titans with a temporary strength. Vat grown and then blown up by multiples of their original size, with new added capabilities, if I was to judge by the Gibborim Knight’s scales.
I could have called out any member of this team, with Chris as the only possible exception.
Except they would have turned around and said the same about me.
It was much the same reason I didn’t ask Chris about what he’d done at the Prison, or his other skeevy behavior. On the flip side, it was why he wasn’t mentioning it to me, even though he couldn’t usually resist the urge to hit someone where it hurt and create more safe distance between himself and others.
No. He was scared because he was a child and however he dressed up his voice and his body, or whatever monstrous form he wore, that didn’t really change. He was scared and he wanted to deal with the source of that fear. He wanted to take on these monsters.
The only true surprise, I felt, was that Natalie didn’t say a thing. She wasn’t so complicit. She could have, should have, and would have said anything, and that would set off the storm of debate and denial we couldn’t afford.
I looked at Kenzie, and saw her jiggling her leg, burning off nervous, excited energy, despite the fact she wasn’t quite here. Happy to be around us, maybe. Or guilty of selectively editing this conversation.
Which… it didn’t feel fair or right. Natalie was a member of this team. And if we didn’t have that check on ourselves, then what did we have? We needed to get her voice in this.
I opened my mouth at the same time Tristan did. We stopped before talking.
So as to not assume the mantle of leadership, and out of consideration for the stresses he was under, I indicated him. “You go first.”
“It’s grim,” he said. “It’s ugly. But I have to ask. Let’s say we all consider ourselves good to move on, join this fight.”
“Which we are, aren’t we?” Chris asked, his voice given an ironic, sarcastic kind of edge. The only person who wanted to be a Titan. “We’re fine.”
“Sure,” Tristan said, “If any of us happen to be wrong, maybe we should agree to take a bullet before we can fully turn Titan. It has to be better, doesn’t it? I don’t think you can come back from that.”
Slowly, reluctantly, there were nods. From everyone but Chris.
“No sentimentality. Faster is better.”
More nods, again from everyone but Chris.
“What did you want to say, Victoria?” Tristan asked me.
I shook my head. “I think you covered that base.”
He pressed his lips together behind the lower portion of his helmet, where everything below the nose was visible. It made it hard to tell smiles from frowns, but I could see that resolution.
“You realize we’re all doing everything exactly to her plan, right?” Chris asked. He looked back at me, as if to reinforce the argument.
There were moments I could tolerate him, and even wanted to see him find a way to work with this group again. And there were times I could imagine myself taking his head off.
“Fuck off with the negativity, Chris,” Sveta said. She rubbed at her arm.
He’d betrayed me. He was holding onto that ammunition. And I didn’t want to be shot at. I didn’t want to hear it.
“I’m sorta confident,” Rain said. “Or… not unconfident.”
“You said you sent a message,” Sveta said.
He nodded. “One word with a million million facets to it.”
Rain pointed, the smaller arm he’d attached to his arm mimicking the gesture.
“And you think she listened?” Chris asked, almost derisive.
“I’m- everything might be counting on it.”