Infrared – 19.e

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The Titan Skadi loomed before them.

All around them, the civilians were scrambling, and any and all attempts to communicate, tell them to stay put, or man the weapons they’d brought down were lost in the chaos.  Humans fleeing across a landscape of red crystal, the periodic image flickering beneath them.

The Titan wasn’t even doing anything except standing there, not fighting for the first time that Moonsong had seen or heard about, and everything they were trying to accomplish down here was falling to pieces.

“Get through the portal!” Moonsong hollered, at a volume that hurt to produce.  “Or stay put, we can shield you!”

It didn’t matter.  Because at the end of the day, she had a strong gravity-warping power, but she didn’t have anything that made her more physically able than the people who were screaming in fear or shouting to family members, friends, and strangers.  Her voice wasn’t any different from their voices.

The unpowered scattered, leaving the work only half done.

The Titan remained where it was, standing in a sea of flickering and shifting images.  Slowly and surely, those images got more and more bloody.  Like a portent of what was about to happen.

Tribute stood to her left.  Capricorn stood to her right.  Riveting had her bag out, and was sealing pieces of tech together.  Furcate, as usual, was operating under the assumption she’d be more free to act the further she was from the rest of her team, steadily away from the group, her attention on the Titan.

“Don’t stray too far from the portal!” Moonsong called out to Furcate.  The portal near the center of the work site was their lifeline, feeding them their powers, in this place where powers were dampened or gone.

There was no indication she was being heard.  Furcate continued moving away.

Scribe and Armiger were helping the wounded, even though it would have been better for Scribe to be using her power.

“Scribe!  Arm yourself!” Moonsong called out.

“Scribe!” Tristan called out, his voice louder, because he’d always been loud.

Scribe looked at him.

Tristan pointed at the largest chunk of crystal the unpowered people’s excavation had managed to turn up.  Scribe ran over.

Skadi would be the worst opponent for us to face, she thought.  We’re a set-em-up, knock-em-down team.  Heavy hitting shakers, flankers, and support for the shakers and flankers.

Having control over the battlefield didn’t matter a bit when the enemy could just teleport across it.

Sveta called out, “Antares told us that the Nemean Titan was distracted by the images!  I think Skadi is too!”

As if to answer, the Titan disappeared.

Appearing right above them.

Armiger created his shield.  The two strikes collided with it, once, twice.

Three, four times.

The shield warped, glowing brighter.

Tristan stood beside her, staring up at the Titan, red lights tracing trails in the air.  Past the helmet, his expression was grim.

The Harbinger kid with glasses was pointing, talking to Riveting.  Moonsong wanted to believe that was a chance to hope, that they’d figure out a way to do a critical blow.

But they didn’t look confident.  If they had, she might even have thought less of them.

Her dad was in the crowd, and as she looked back, her hand moving to give him a wordless instruction, he stopped running, grabbing the sleeves of two others, before saying something she couldn’t hear.

It would be nice, she thought, her inner voice speaking with a calm she didn’t feel, if at least one of us made it through this, so mom doesn’t end up alone.

“Song!”  Tristan called out.  “Can you juggle me!?”

“No!” she was almost drowned out as trucks that had been used to bring equipment here, loaded up with people clinging to the sides, roared to life.

He looked at her, “What!?”

She slashed her hand down at a diagonal, in a firm negation, shaking her head, before turning away.

He squared his jaw, renewing his focus on the red lights.

The Titan slammed its axe-hand down, and the shield exploded into a wave of emotion.  She could only guess what it was by the emotions that leaped into her chest and took over her body, and her guess was that it was a backwash of fear.

The Titan didn’t flinch in the wave of emotion, and there was no forcefield between it and them, now.

Tribute was waiting for her when she caught up with the rest of the group, putting her phone away.  The call had been made, and they had permission, with a couple of caveats.

“Portal incoming in a few minutes!” she called out.  The one caveat.

Furcate waved a hand, acknowledging her.

They were gathered, her core team of Shepherds she worked well with and more or less trusted to a situation like this, Sveta, Tristan, the boy from Mortari.  All recuperating from the fight with the Nemean Titan, drinking water, talking.  Finding their centers.

Her focus wasn’t on them, but on her teammate.

Losing Victor had been a scare.  The idea that they’d almost lost Tribute earlier in the day was far scarier.

Tribute was wearing a costume that had been through three big design phases now, much like hers had.  Reach’s striking style with bold colors that stopped short of being garish, contrasted with blacks or deep darks.  Then they’d joined the Attendant, with a cleaner cut look, the contrasts less intimidating, a few style choices like cuffs and collars that echoed regular clothing, while still staying costume.  Hers had involved a folded collar on her dress, pleating on the skirt, cuffs at the end of her sleeves and tops of her boots.  Tribute had the head-to-toe bodysuit with the stylized helmet, and most of the focus had been on the shape of the armor panels he strapped onto key areas, and the shape of his cape, which had still flowed over one shoulder.  For anyone bringing a costume with them as they joined the Attendant, body armor had been cut down, pouches reduced, and if they needed stuff, they went to the vehicles that took them to wherever they were working.  All with the intent of looking more like cops than a tactical strike team.

With their final move to the Shepherds, the cuffs and collars were dropped, colors made to fit a gentler aesthetic, more emphasis on emblems, and more flowing cloth and straps.  Darker costumes, brighter emblems.  For her, it had meant a longer skirt, which she didn’t mind, and because the weather had been getting so cold so quickly, a jacket with a crescent moon mounted across the shoulder blades.  For Tribute, as he stood before her, the cloth of the cape that extended over one shoulder had been extended forward, into a toga-like cut over his armor.  It could have looked dumb, but it didn’t.

But right now, she could see the blood that had settled into the folds.  Probably not what the Shepherds had intended.  She could see how his head hung, like he was fatigued.  He didn’t move or react like he’d seen her.

Lost in your own head again, Tribute?

She waved a hand, trying to get his attention, but he wore a full-face helmet with visors for the eyes.  Either his eyes were closed, or the helmet impacted his field of view enough that he didn’t see the motion.

She used a gravity well, her dress picking up just a bit more than the rest of her did as she flew in close, stopping as her knee stuck forward to bump lightly against his chest.  Her hand settled on Tribute’s shoulder, where the cape didn’t cover him.  It took concentration to hold the effect while floating forward, but she was gentle.

All to bring herself to her teammate’s eye level.

“Huh?” he asked.

“Do I send you home?”

“I contributed.”

“Absolutely,” Moonsong told him.  “But you had a scare earlier.”

“I’m okay.  Good to go forward.”

Her hand gripped the back of his neck.  “You’re sure?”

“When we lost Victor, I came close to going down that same road, but I think that was because I was giving too many other people things I needed.”

She gripped him tighter, giving her arm a short shake.  “Be careful.”

“Yeah,” he said.

She wanted to say more, but she wasn’t sure what.

The Attendant had been all about holding onto what was important, and here she was, wanting to say five different things to Tribute, but all five were made complicated.  She wanted to tell him he was one of those things from the past that were important to her, but the gender difference between them complicated that, and made it sound like a romantic overture.  Not that there had ever been a glimmer of anything there, but that lack of a glimmer had been because they were both conscious of that awkward territory and were careful to avoid it.

She wanted to say she knew what he was dealing with, but that risked making him more depressed, pulling him deeper into that space where he might be susceptible to the cracking that had taken Victor.

“The team being together like this, it makes me feel like we’re the only two left,” she said.

“Depending on how you look at it,” Tribute said.

We’re still here, no matter how you look at it.  They’re…”

“Different?” Tribute asked.

“They went far away,” she said.

“I think we did too, Brianna.  The cities and towns we protected are on another world entirely, dark, cold, and empty.”

“Is that what you were dwelling on just now?” she asked.

“Some.”

“We might be far from home, but we’re still us.  Back there, you saw my dad is still him, my mom… I don’t think we changed,” she said.  She saw him move his head, anticipated the protest, and added, “We grew up a bit, that’s all.”

“Yeah.”

“How are you getting along with Capricorn?”

“How do you think?” Tribute asked.   He shrugged.  “I said some dumb petty shit to him.  Calmed down when I was out of range and started getting back my ability to hold back.  Still needed a breather.”

“Speaking of,” Moonsong said.  “Back when Capricorn turned up again, I did this thing I do sometimes, got petty.”

“Oh?” Tribute asked, a bit sarcastic, “You never do that.”

“Ha ha,” she said, without mirth.  More seriously, quieter, she continued,  “Really, I threw out some stuff to bait him, hurt him, see if I couldn’t put him off balance.  The kind of petty shit you say in a private chat that would hurt me if it went public.  I don’t want to do that, especially now that I’m field leader.  I’m trying to be better… especially as I’m field leader now.”

“I remember that conversation.  I don’t think most people would care.”

“Just… stop me before I get there?  Or I’ll probably do it again.”

“You want my power?” Tribute asked.

“Nah.  Having you act up is just as much of a problem.  Just… be a friend?”

“Yep.  No problem,” Tribute said.  “I don’t think we could stop anyone from being their worst self to him if he wanted to be shitty.”

“We’ll try our best, and we’ll hope he doesn’t go full Tristan.”  She clapped her hand on his armor, then pushed herself away, canceling her gravity spike at the same time.  She dropped to the ground, switching mental gears to thinking about the broader strategy and situation.

Tribute, it seemed, wasn’t switching those gears.  “I wish it wasn’t them.”

She turned, looking at him.

“If a genie had come up to me and said I could have two of my old teammates back… Furcate and Tristan wouldn’t have been my choices.  Furcate’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but…”

“I know,” Moonsong told him.

“Even Steamwheel, and that girl did not have a lick of sense when it came to being a cape, Moon.”

She smiled.  “She had a good head for the business and marketing side of it, and she made armor that little kids could ooh and aww over.”

“But she never scored a win.  Assists, maybe.  She’d be utterly useless here, and I’d still rather have her than either of them.  Of course, if I had a choice, it’d be-”

“Coif and Figurehead,” she said, her voice overlapping with his as he said, “Figurehead and Coif.”

“Yeah,” he said, after a moment.  “Missing them.”

“Let’s do them proud.  Come on.”

She walked.  Tribute walked alongside.  The group was gathered at a ledge, overlooking the hole in reality.

Before they were in earshot, Moonsong told Tribute, “I’m probably going to kick myself for saying this if I end up doing something regrettable, but I’m glad it’s them.”

“Cap and Furcate?”

“Tristan and Furcate, yeah.  Not my favorite people, but… I think that’s why it’s important.  I don’t feel like a proper leader right now.  It’s why I turned down the official leadership and I’m just in charge when we’re on the battlefield.  I feel like I have to get past this.”

“I don’t think it’s a mark against you if you say Furcate is offputting in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on there.  Being distant, does the ‘walk my own path’ thing, not so into teamwork, that rubbed everyone the wrong way, as nice as some tried to be.  And it’s definitely not a mark against you if you’re not okay with a guy trying to murder his brother, after months of acting like he shits rainbows and knows what’s best for the team.”

“His battle sense is solid, he knew P.R., he knows how to market himself and how to make others look good.  It’s part of why he got away with what he did for as long as he did.”

“Moon,” Tribute said, putting a hand on her shoulder.  They stopped walking, still out of earshot.  “You don’t have to pretend their weirdness or the fratricide thing are your hurdle to get over.  It’s not about you, it’s about them, it’s not crossing a line to say that.”

She was in the midst of formulating a response when she saw Capricorn amble over.  When he had been on Reach, his armor had been painted properly, with a wash of darker red to get in the crevices and make the decorative elements of his armor pop, the highlights painted in red.  Now, it looked like he’d given up the effort of keeping the paint intact, and had stripped most of the color off.  Pressure washer or sandblaster.  The color he’d applied was more universal, paler, a red tint instead of a coating, and he hadn’t had the benefit of a team of people that could buff out the scrapes, scuffs, and gouges, which stood out in unpainted steel or, especially toward his feet, had accumulated dirt and grime, turning into dark slashes and pockmarks.

“What’s the word?” Capricorn asked.

She’d asked for Tribute’s help before, because she didn’t trust herself to keep from being a petty bitch, using anything to hurt him.  She didn’t feel safe doing that here.

Here, using all of her recent practice, she put the feelings aside.

Stay professional, stay calm.

“We’ll be deploying into the crack, playing defense as the civilians mobilize and prepare for another blast.  We could expect Titan Skadi, if the last case is anything to go by.  The Wardens are conserving the battery for the portal system.”

“Ah, yeah.  It’ll scare the living daylights out of us when it pops up, to warn you,” he said, smiling behind his helmet.

“Maybe,” Moonsong said.

The silence hung in the air.

“I’ll leave you guys be,” Tristan said.  “Sorry.”

Tristan’s power produced a tower of building material, rising up to meet the axe-hand that was coming down.  The blade sheared through concrete and wood and some metal.  Chunks went flying.  With how many people were still in the area, Moonsong worried a few people had been clipped or brained.

The second lunge of Tristan’s power followed from the first.

Juggling, Moonsong thought.  She’d refused Tristan’s offer for the strategy.  An old trick they’d practiced while in Reach, during training when they’d been invited to come up with just-in-case plans against Endbringers.  Before Byron had ‘died’.

It made sense he’d want to use it here.  It made sense that Tristan would think of something that obscure.  She hadn’t been lying when she’d told Tribute that Tristan had some of the hallmarks of a capable field leader.

Now she tried her best to utilize it.  A short spike of gravity, as debris fell.  So the chunks of shattered building would hit the spike and fly upward.  A well set above the Titan’s head, so the chunks would be sent flying down.

Trying to capture the bulk of it, so she’d have a constantly rebounding cascade of debris.

She lost most of it, lost more as her focus slipped, the Titan sliding forward, arm raised- and she took a step back, losing concentration.  The gravity wells came apart, spike deflated.

Scribe stepped in to fill the gap.  A chunk of red crystal struck the Titan and stuck there, metal bolts extending to attach forearm to upper arm, trapping it in a bent position.

Slowly, surely, the Titan began to pull its arm apart, the armor tearing, flesh being ripped away by her own efforts and strength.

Moonsong raised her hands, creating as many spikes of reverse gravity as she could in the area.  Picking up every chunk of debris, every bit of crystal, and even smaller pieces of the Titan that had broken away.

They dug gouges into the Titan’s flesh, bounced off- forcing her to ‘catch’ them with more gravity wells.

Tristan produced another burst of his new power, the shattered building lunging into existence- and it only hit the red crystal with the attachment ‘rivets’ sticking out like the spines from a sea urchin.  The Titan was gone.

Where!?

She wheeled around, and saw it.  Attacking civilians.  Furcate was over there, directing people, pointing the way to the portal.  Sveta swooped in to scoop people up, saving them from the plunging attack of the Titan.

Who disappeared again.

Appearing closer to their other flank.  Another Furcate was helping people.  The boy from Mortari was there as well, acting like all was normal as he reached out and shoved a young man, before stepping back.  The axe bit into crystal between him and the man.  She swept her axe-hand sideways, scraping it against the crystal, and the boy scampered up the side of it, before finding a grip on her wrist.

The Titan disappeared- still trying to find a weakness, making it as hard as possible for them to pin her down or make anything stick.  A mad dog, biting at anything and everything that she could.

This reappearance didn’t target them, though.  It didn’t target the vital mining or explosives equipment, and it didn’t target the civilians.

The portal.  Their lifeline.  The Titan appeared beside it, and Scribe rammed it with a spike of crystal.  Tristan improvised a rushed attack, which only glanced off the Titan.

The portal was in the Titan’s arm’s reach.  Through it, she could see the silhouettes and shadows of their reinforcements.

Even beyond that… without that portal, they didn’t have enough access to their powers.  Not down here, in this alien landscape.

She made a decision in the spur of the moment.  A massive well of low gravity high above them.

And then a series of lesser spikes of anti-gravity.  Aimed at civilian clusters, at her teammates.  At Sveta and the boy from Mortari.  At Tristan.

To fling them -the forty or so people she’d been able to reach- up.  Into a waiting cushion of low gravity, closer to the clouds than to the ground.

The crack in reality was far below them, surrounded by toppled buildings coated in snow.

People screamed.  Moonsong didn’t.  The entirety of her focus was on the Titan below them, making sure she was keeping people aloft, and keeping her focus.

Because her focus was the only thing that kept them from plummeting to their deaths.

She did what she could to equalize them, so they were all roughly level with one another as they ‘fell’, dropping an inch a second, the wind whipping around them.

The fissure was beneath them, the hole in reality.  So long as they were up here, they had powers.  But there were vulnerable people down there, and the moment her concentration broke-

“Tribute!” Riveting called out.

“What do you need!?” he called back.

“Mental speed!  I have an idea!”

“Do it!” Moonsong called out.

Snow whipped all around them, and the white of snow turned dark as a shadow fell over them.

“Tribute!  Rivet!  Harbinger!” Moonsong called out, barely pausing between the names, as she saw who the Titan was poised to strike, falling in the low gravity, twisting to bring the axe around.  Moonsong considered using her power to drop them, to create a pocket of higher gravity, to fling them down, or fling them up, but she didn’t trust her concentration.  Not when forty lives hung in the balance.

Furcate’s clones reached for one another, the soles of one Furcate’s feet pressing against the soles of another.  They both kicked, separating violently from one another.  One aimed right for the cluster of three individuals.  Sveta, too, reached out, but without something to anchor herself in the air, she couldn’t really pull, so much as she and the two people she was pulling -Riveting and the Harbinger- were brought to a middle point between them.

Armiger’s shield appeared between the Titan and the group.  The Titan hooked one axe-hand over the top edge of it, and swung her entire mass over.

Scribe, of all of them, was the most able to do something.  Her staff flew out, and it caught the three people, driving them back and away.

“Fuck!” Tristan called out.  His red lights were already drawn out.  “Pull them back!”

Scribe tried, but pulling was another maneuver entirely from pushing, and she lacked grace, especially after the recent alteration to powers.

It wasn’t enough.

Moonsong could see how and where that constellation was drawn.  With her teammates in the way.

“Tell By to change!”  Tristan shouted.

Tristan released his power.  The building manifested in the air.  Tristan blurred.

“Change back!” Moonsong screamed, Sveta’s voice joining hers.

Byron looked at her, bewildered.

The head injury.  Slower reflexes, slower on the uptake.  The building had become mist, and the mist billowed out by the second.  The mist expanded out to touch Tribute’s arm, and a touch was all it needed.  His arm froze, when he was already twisting, trying to quickly maneuver in the air, gripping Scribe’s staff.

The frozen arm broke off at the shoulder, collarbone and lung exposed.  Blood sprayed.

She howled.  Tribute was silent, wide-eyed.

She saw the look in Byron’s eyes, haunted, as he realized what he’d been supposed to do.  Byron retreated, becoming Tristan again, the look not leaving his face until he was no longer Byron.

The Titan swiped at Riveting, who the Harbinger maneuvered out of the way, in a similar way to how Furcate had hurled herself through the gravity-less cloud.  The strike severed Sveta’s tendrils.

The follow-up strike backhanded Riveting with the same hand, catching Furcate.  Both died.

It was the kind of sight that would provoke a scream or howl, or a cry of rage, had she had the ability, but she was already screaming.

Instead, the sound froze in her throat.

With Tristan’s appearance, the mist had become a fresh outcropping of building, and Moonsong could see what Capricorn had been trying to do.  A faster change would have created a thin jet of mist that bypassed the group.

As it was, it created the solid mass of building that hung in the air, for as long as it worked at emerging.  Had it formed before, it would have been a shield.

Tribute died.

Capricorn looked up at her, lost and bewildered.  The same as he’d appeared in the moments before he had released Byron from pseudo-death.

“I’ll leave you guys be,” Tristan said.  “Sorry.”

“No,” Moonsong said.  “I think we were done?”

She made it a question, and Tribute answered the question with a nod.

She’d wanted to reply to Tribute, answering what he’d said about Furcate and Tristan, but that train of thought had been dashed to pieces.

“Impatient?” Tribute asked.  He was more alert, his tone of voice more guarded than before.

“Wrong word.  Restless, is all.  I want to do something.”

“That’s…”  Moonsong fished for a civil answer, and in that fishing, stumbled over memories and scenes that made emotions kick up.  Holding Byron as he screamed, the sense of betrayal, the horrible sense of victory when she’d finally beat him, uncovering his lies.  That last one a feeling she never wanted to experience again.  “That’s… very you, Tristan.”

Tristan snorted air through his nose.  “You’re not wrong.  Listen, I wanted to say thanks for being cool.”

“By said he forgave you, and I- but you were privy to that conversation.”

“Yeah.”

Again, that awkward pause.

Sveta and Furcate were chatting.  A kid she recognized as one of Citrine’s hanger-ons was sitting on a bit of debris nearby, talking to Scribe.

Furcate, Moonsong noticed, had reduced back down to the one body.  It was one of the ones from the rooftop, that had been set up as suicide bombers, that Sveta had rescued.  The girl wore a decorated chainmail coif over a silk hood with two pointed ‘ears’ reinforced by wire from the coif, her mask that of a cat, mouth open, pushed back to the top of her head, so her face was exposed, light brown skin a touch red from the cold.  Her costume didn’t really hold dirt or show much wear and tear, but the dark color scheme helped there.  She looked too untouched by all of this, which made it harder to relate to her.

“…like how it’s two steps forward, one step back,” Sveta said, holding out one arm.  It was broken down into strips, and the strips were trying to form braids and other complex arrangements, instead of lying flat.  “I had a body like I wanted at the same time the rest of my life was falling apart.  But it was one great, nearly perfect thing and now it’s not perfect anymore.”

“I was a ten-ten-ten once,” Furcate said.  “The only way to stay that way would be to not use my power.  Same idea.”

“I don’t know exactly what ten-ten-ten means,” Sveta said.  “I can sort of guess.”

“Ask Capricorn later,” Furcate said.

“You don’t mind?” Tristan asked, his voice too loud because he was speaking across the gathered group to the pair at the far end, and he wasn’t willing to walk closer for some reason.

“It’s who I am.  It’s my power, me.”

“I just figured… maybe you’d get as close to ten-ten-ten as possible, then consider it done, leave the old, less perfect you behind, along with the stress and pain.”

“I’m not perfect when I’m ten-ten-ten, Capricorn,” Furcate said, smiling.  “I wouldn’t ever leave the journey behind.  It’s part of who I am.”

“I…” Tristan started speaking, stopped, and hesitated.  “…don’t get it.  I guess I like my personal demons slain and done with, as much as that’s not possible sometimes.  I thought maybe it was possible for you, and you wouldn’t have that unhappiness… poisoning you, I guess?”

He looked at Moonsong as he said that last bit.

“For what it’s worth,” Sveta said.  “I didn’t stop considering myself a case fifty-three when I had a body the way I wanted it.  I didn’t ditch the tattoo.”

Tristan nodded.

“Getting it a bit?” Furcate asked.

“A bit, yeah,” he said.

Moonsong pulled out her phone, checking the time.  They’d told her three to five minutes.  It had been nine.

She really hoped nothing had happened.  The command center was vulnerable to threats like Skadi, and the latest reports were that the Titan Fortuna was getting more focused, after a spell of stillness.  If she was anything like the Simurgh, then anyone or anything could become a guided missile, capable of striking right at the heart at the command center.

“What about you?” Riveting asked Scribe.

“Hm?  Nothing about me,” Scribe said.

“Your prior affiliations?  Identity?”

“Let’s not push,” Moonsong said.

“Shouldn’t we?” Riveting asked.

Scribe grabbed her staff and pointed it at Riveting.  “She’s doing her brain thing again.”

“Brain thing?” Sveta asked.

“My power makes it hard to let go of ideas when they take hold,” Riveting said.  “It’s not that.”

“Feels like it,” Scribe said.  “Let it be.”

“Let it be,” Moonsong said.

Moonsong was aware of the stares from other members of the group.  Furcate, Sveta, Capricorn… a very different set of eyes and expectations.  Like she shouldn’t let it be.

“If you refuse to face it or own up to it, then people are going to fill in the blanks,” Riveting said.

Riveting,” Moonsong said.  She’d never felt less sure when taking charge like this.  Defending someone who wouldn’t admit to being wrong, while Capricorn of all people looked on.  “Stop.”

“Stopping,” Riveting said, “…and I’m going to distract myself with some tinkering.  Delay or destroy, do you think?”

“Delay,” Moonsong said.  “Destroy doesn’t work.”

“Got it,” Riveting said.  “Attacher grenade it is.”

The silence was awkward, after.  To Moonsong, it felt like a condemnation and a failure, and a bit of a relief.

We can fix this after, she told herself.  Put it off.  Get through today and we can work on Scribe.

“Furcate,” Sveta said, “I wanted to pick your brain about something.”

Furcate tilted her head, looking over.

“My teammate Swansong died, before, and she came back… nine times, I think, in total.  Each version of herself that survived remembered, and I was wondering if you-”

“No,” Furcate interrupted.

“No…”

“I’m going for a walk,” Furcate said.

“Stay in earshot,” Moonsong called out.

Furcate raised a gauntleted hand, claws glinting in the dim light.

“Touchy subject, I guess,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Sorry.”

“She’s always like that,” Tribute said.  “Don’t worry.”

“I worry,” Sveta said.

Again, that telling pause.

Moonsong could see how impatient Tristan was, as he stared at the ground.

She looked over to Armiger, who was napping, arm thrown over his face, at the retreating Furcate, and then the crack in reality.

“I’m going to make a phone call.  Watch things, Tribute?”

“Yeah.”

She walked away, pulling out her phone.  She hit the icon to contact the Wardens, and waited as it tried to parcel together a connection through the shattered city infrastructure and satellite signals.

“Wardens here, Moonsong, what do you need?”

“ETA on that portal?”

“We had some demands.  Tinkers are connecting other power sources.  Hopefully the portal will provide some supply to your powers in the crevice, so you can defend the group down there.”

“ETA, please,” Moonsong repeated.

“Two minutes, according to the queue.”

“Thank you, that’s all I needed.  Good luck.”

Two minutes.

She sighed, her breath fogging in the air.

“Moonsong.”

She turned around.

Capricorn, with battle-scarred armor, and eyes that scared her.

“Going to get on my case for protecting the ex-Nazi?” she asked.

“No.”

She didn’t venture another guess.

Distant, Tribute had twisted around on the seat he’d taken, watching from a distance, as if she needed protection, or a possible boost.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever said I’m sorry,” Tristan said.

“If you don’t know, does that mean you didn’t care when you said it?” she asked.

“I-” he started.  He stopped.

“You said sorry when the PRT Tribunal was convened, on the attempted murder charge.”

“But I’ve never looked you in the eye and said I was sorry.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry, Moonsong.  I’m sorry you had to go through losing Byron.  I’m sorry I fucked up our team.  I’m sorry you had to go through fighting one of your own.  Me.  I’m sorry you and Byron aren’t together anymore.”

She drew in a deep breath.

For this, at least, she didn’t want to put her feelings aside.  She looked aside, and saw Scribe.  She could imagine that conversation being a prompt for Tristan now.

Did it have to be now?

“It’s on me,” he said.  “That’s obvious, but I need to say it.”

She brought her hands to her mouth, and she saw Tristan jump a little.

Like he’d expected her to reach out and use her power on him, or something.

Instead, she blew on her hands, warming them.

“I don’t have a lot going on,” he said.  “Byron’s living his life-”

“Girlfriend,” she cut in.  “I know.”

“…Yeah.  He’s got family, he had plans before all this went to shit.  He’s made friends.  I have the team and the hero stuff.”

“Victor was similar,” she said.  “I think it played a part in what happened to him.”

“Oh,” Tristan said.

That look in his eyes was worse.

“Do you need an out, Tristan?” she asked.

“What?”

“If you’re there, if you want permission from someone in charge, I can give it.  I won’t hold it against you.”

“No, that’s- shit.  No, now I feel like I’m using the Victor thing for points, I’m really not.  I’m not trying to bail either.”

“Okay.”

He clenched his fist, and his gauntlet squeaked.  “An apology is supposed to come in a few parts.  Admitting what you did wrong, pledging to avoid it in the future- I hope you believe me when I say I wouldn’t do that to Byron again.  I actually like him now.  I’m supportive of him and…”

She made a face, as jealousy and bitterness boiled up.  Lucky Vista.

Tristan trailed off, nodding.

“I don’t know what you want from me,” she said.  “If you want me to say it’s okay, I’m not sure I can.  If you want to leave, ok.”

“Part of apologizing is taking actions to make it up to someone.  Right now, I’m not sure what I’m good for, except the cape stuff.  So just… if you’ll have me, I’ll help wherever I can.”

She nodded.

There was a tension between them, and as the portal roared to life, close to the main group, the two of them jumped.

Tristan snorted.

She remained still, looking back at the portal.

“Was that a yeah, just now?” he asked.

“Okay,” she said.  “If you won’t turn Titan.”

“I’m… I can’t, so long as I owe people.”

The bitterness from the earlier comment was still like a taste in the back of her mouth.  In a world where this man didn’t exist, she’d have been so much happier.

“Good, any help is appreciated,” she said.  “Help me protect my dad, keep my team alive.”

“For sure,” he said.

Furcate was jogging over.  The rest of them were standing, with Armiger rising from his rest.

“Come on,” she said.

His boots were heavy in the snow as he followed.

Her emotions were a storm, and she had to put it aside.

“I want my demons slain too,” she said.

“Hmm?” he asked.

“What you were saying earlier.  I agree.  Sveta and Furcate can embrace theirs or make them a part of them, but… I’m on your side on that.  It’d be nice to live in a world where we can get over stuff and forget it ever happened.”

It was what she’d wanted to tell Tribute.

That she was glad it was Tristan and Kay that were back, precisely because they were challenging.  Because it felt like she hadn’t grown up all the way, and she couldn’t be a true leader, on the field or otherwise, until she had done that growing up.

Until she’d conquered her judgmental nature, that petty bitchiness that she defaulted to when most challenged, ever since private school.  Her demon to kill, and put behind her as an embarrassing artifact of who she’d been.

She looked back at Tristan, hoping to see some glimmer of something there.  Instead, he looked distant, one hand on the ram’s horn that swept back from his helmet.

The wind whipped through the portal.

There were a hundred thousand things she and Tristan could say to one another.

After.

They stepped through the portal.  Almost, she walked through and over the edge of a cliff.

The crack extended before them, and far below, she could see the crowd of people getting prepared with the excavation.

She used her power, a well of reduced gravity.

Leaping over the edge, she dropped slowly through the well.  Her team leaped after her.

They fell, capes, dresses, hair and hoods flapping behind them.

They fell, bloodied and battered, fewer than they’d been.

Sveta and Scribe dropped to either sides of the crack beneath them.  They set to collecting the falling people.

Capes far below had emerged from a fresh portal, and were battling Skadi.

Scribe provided her floating staff to Moonsong, dragging her to one side of the chasm.  Moonsong watched as Sveta caught Tribute out of the air, then caught Capricorn.

She wanted to say something, to be a leader, and she didn’t have it in her.

Tribute was gone.

She could hear the dull cracking in the distance.

“Send me over,” Moonsong said.

“Saving people,” Scribe said.  She was sending her staff this way and that, catching people who were floating down through the massive well of reduced gravity.  She caught Furcate, who grabbed someone else’s hand to speed things along.

Moonsong wanted to ask Scribe to send her over anyway.  But she couldn’t say not to catch people out of the air.  If they kept falling straight down, they’d land in the crater.  The wind wasn’t enough to push them off course.

She watched as Sveta talked to Tristan.  A back and forth.

The dull cracking became sharper, louder.

The gap was fifty feet across.  She couldn’t initiate a good gravity well while airborne and moving.  Not since the civilian squads had detonated the crystal and screwed up the powers.  It was why she hadn’t been able to juggle Tristan’s rocks.  Her wells were stronger, but slower to manifest, less flexible if she was moving around.

She backed up, created her well, and then she took the leap, over the chasm, the fighting going on below.

Civilians had died.  Her father had been through the portal, but he was also the kind of person to come back through and try to usher people through.

The wind whipped past her hair and her jacket.  In the moment, she could only wince at the air resistance that her jacket and knee-length dress were providing.

All she could do was remain focused on the maintenance of the well.  Going too high up would be just as disastrous as not high enough, and she wasn’t experienced with this new power and its metrics.

The arc of her jump started to carry her down, and she wasn’t halfway.

“Sveta!”

Sveta looked away from her conversation with Tristan, as Tristan looked down at the wounded civilians and ongoing fighting.

The cracking roared through the air, and she saw it slice through the sky.

Sveta reached out, and Moonsong gripped the tendril.

She was hauled to the far side of the chasm.  She landed on hands and knees, huffing.

Looking up, the first thing she saw was that Tribute was dead.

The second thing, was Tristan.

“I’m a demon after all,” he said.

“What?” she asked.

“You called me a demon,” he said.  He huffed out a laugh.  “Fuck.  I murdered Tribute.”

The words brought the reality home for her.  She looked down at Tribute’s body.

“Not you,” she said.

“Nah,” he said, “It’s me.  That’s on me.”

“Tristan,” Sveta said.  “Refocus.  Use your power.  Because that cracking-”

Tristan backed away from the ledge.

Cracks that were forming in the air turned, homing in toward him.

“Use your power!” Sveta called out.  “Like the research Victoria mentioned!”

He did, creating red lights.

“I didn’t call you a demon,” Moonsong said.

“You implied- you said you wanted your demons dead and behind you, and- fuck, you might actually get that.  Fuck.”

As the cracks drew close, Tristan used his power.  A manifestation of buildings and concrete, thrown up there like he thought it would be a wall against the cracking.

It seemed to work, surprising her.

“I didn’t mean that,” she said.  “I was talking about something else.  My shittiness.”

“Nah,” he said.

“This is not the time to be stubborn!” she raised her voice.

“Listen to her,” Sveta said.  “Tristan.  Listen.

“I thought I had at least one thing going for me, I was a good cape.  Did okay against Goddess, I’ve stood toe to toe with monsters.  But then I go and fucking kill the people I’m trying to make fucking restitution to?”

“Keep making constellations, Tristan,” Sveta said.  “Moonsong, if there’s anything-”

“I don’t-” Moonsong started.  “I don’t blame you, Tristan.  Believe me, if I had the slightest excuse, I would.  I have no reason to be nice.”

“You don’t want me to turn into one of those monsters.  That’s all.”

Tristan,” Moonsong said.  “Byron was the one who made the mistake.  He was too slow.”

“I should have kept track of that.  I shouldn’t have put that on him.  He doesn’t need that on his shoulders.  Fuck…” Tristan looked around.  He created another constellation, to ward off another crack.  A second drew close, and he backed away.  “What happens to him if this gets me?  I don’t want to be responsible for him becoming one of those things.”

“Tristan,” Sveta said.  “You have me.  We’re buddies.  You have Rain.  You have Kenzie.  How she going to react?”

More and more, it looked like there were no spaces for him to retreat through.

“Tristan,” Moonsong said.  “In what world would I openly blame Byron and not you?  Think, you stubborn asshole!”

He backed off from the cracks.  More constellations were drawn up around himself in every direction, to ward off six different fractures.

He spoke, and the sound of the cracking drowned him out.  He looked at Sveta.

“If you want forgiveness, for what you put me and Reach through,” Moonsong said.  “You’ve got it.  If you want forgiveness for Tribute, you don’t need it, you’re not responsible.  That was a bad situation.  I forgive you.

She watched as Tristan seemed to relax.

But the cracking didn’t stop.

He said something and was drowned out.

She saw the constellation around him change.

She could follow the direction of it.

“Tristan!”

He met her eyes, standing taller than she’d seen him stand all day.

The constellation came to life.  Ruin and destruction, filling the mess of cracks, disrupting them.  His body was thrown aside by the violent crash of concrete on concrete.

The cracking around them stopped.

“Sveta,” Byron groaned.

Moonsong ran over, joining Sveta.

“I can’t switch to Tristan,” he said.

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34 thoughts on “Infrared – 19.e”

  1. “That she was glad it was Tribute and Kay that were back, precisely because they were challenging.”

    Should be Tristan and Kay?

  2. Typo Thread:

    “No!” she > “No!” She
    her, “What!?” > her. “What!?”
    giving her arm (shouldn’t this be his)
    continued, Really (missing quotation)
    stubborn!” she > stubborn!” She
    How she > How is she

    oof

  3. -RIP Tribute, you’re a cool hero even if you didn’t liked Furcate.

    -Moonsong can have dozens of interludes, not just two. She is a freaking amazing badass with a heart of gold. She quickly became one of my fav heroes.

    -Tristan either turned Titan or died. Poor Tristan and poor Byron. I think that is not easy for Byron to hold back a freaking Titan if Tristan is indeed a Titan now.

    -Furcate is one of the best girls and I’ll fight with everyone saying otherwise

    1. Why assume Tristan died? The active twin is in control of changing, so it’s probable that Byron’s injury is affecting his ability to change.

  4. I’m not quite clear on what happened at the end there to make sure Tristan died and Byron lived, but it smells to me like Tristan just cockblocked the Titany fate Contessa may or may not have predicted for him.

    He may not have defeated his demons in the end, but he sure as heck denied them their victory all the same.

    Poor Byron.

  5. So, Tristan just killed himself to avoid being Titanized? Maybe this’ll be the lucky break to get the brothers permanently separated, since his mind is now uploaded onto the shardspace computer systems alongside Swansong.

    They just need to figure out some way to download it into the physical world.

  6. The strike severed Sveta’s tendrils.

    The follow-up strike backhanded the woman with the same hand, catching Furcate. Both died.

    Well that was a long, long time when I wasn’t sure if Sveta was dead from sheer vaugeness.

  7. Let’s hope that Tristan died. Better than becoming Titan. Besides, his death (if he is dead) would be pure heroic. He sacrificed himself to protect everyone from the monster that he could have become. Tristan dying like a hero is a truly beautiful way to die. Just like Ashley.

  8. I can’t tell who died here:

    “The Titan swiped at Riveting, who the Harbinger maneuvered out of the way, in a similar way to how Furcate had hurled herself through the gravity-less cloud. The strike severed Sveta’s tendrils.

    The follow-up strike backhanded the woman with the same hand, catching Furcate. Both died.”

    It seems to me as if Riveting and Furcate died but Riveting but isn’t mentioned at later and Furcate is later helping Scribe:

    “She caught Furcate, who grabbed someone else’s hand to speed things along.”

    1. Furcate’s power is to split into 3 slightly different copies and keep one of them permanently. Only one of her copies died together with Riveting.

  9. @starshadowx2
    >It seems to me as if Riveting and Furcate died but Riveting but isn’t mentioned at later and Furcate is later helping Scribe

    Remember that Furcate’s jam is that there are multiple Furcate’s (three). Hence one of them can get killed and another can survive.

    As for Tristan…. I’m really not sure how he could safely and knowingly engineer a situation where he dies AND switches. That seems… weird.

    Poor Tribute. Poor By.
    Poor Riveting.

    Not sure I have super much sympathy for Tristan here personally- it feels like he already convinced himself to do this *ages* ago, and nothing that Moon or anyone else could say would change that. Like… it wasn’t *about* Tribute. Tribute’s death was the trigger, but the decision was already in Tristan’s head, and entirely to do with his own self image? Interpreting events in a way that rationalized the decision he had already made, and then doing something desperate that kind of fucks things up for other people. Kind of thinking pattern to it to locking up By and then convincing himself there was no other way… just paying the price himself this time.
    Probably a bit harsh, but like… I got more sympathy for Tribute and Riveting who didn’t get a choice in this.

    … but that’s okay! Everyone likes different characters, and gets different reads on them, and the story *is* beautifully complex here.

    Also, I love the slight beat of Moon and Tribute being like “Furcate is weird and quiet and its a pain in the ass for teamwork” followed by Furcate wandering off…. followed by Furcate protecting civilians from Skadi, and it actually being a good plan. A lovely illustration of Moon having a legit disagreement there… but also that disagreement not being “Right”, but just one possible way of running a team.

  10. That ‘after’ from Moon was SUCH a death flag, it made me grimace in apprehension… and perhaps Tristan and Byron’s entanglement is enough to stop Titanness since it’s exactly the sort of unseverable connection that would obstruct the ‘we’re all so very small, in the end’ Titan mindset, and maybe give hints as to how to deal with Titans (or male peace with them, since they’re actively working to build connections now… I’m not much of an analyst)? Could be that Byron is now the key to finding the best possible answer, but I have no idea.

  11. Quite the powerful, emotional chapter. Reminds me a lot of the tension and emotional impact of the Endbringer chapters.

    Moonsong is a character I’ve grown to respect, much like I came to like most of the characters perspectives along the way. These perspective chapters really show the emotional growth of the characters, and the continued phenomenal writing.

  12. If they are in shardspace could Byron scan the crystals to see if he can find a not mortally wounded version of Tristan’s body to upload him into it? The shard considers them one person with two different bodies right?

    If not.

    It SUCKS!
    Tristan dead. Byron now has to face that plus death of Tribute. At least Furcate isn’t doubledead.

    In case Tristan is Dead. Good Night Sweet Prince. You were never the Demon you were sure you were.

  13. @ ninegardens: I’m inclined to agree. Tristan had been planning that sacrifice for a while. I think it ties into the way he couldn’t understand how Byron forgave him for his attempted murder and hired vicious mercenaries to ensure that neither he nor Byron could do it again.
    Tristan never really knew how to back down or admit fault; forgiveness was just something of an alien concept to him.

    (And naturally the desperate situation coupled with being around the other members of Reach probably helped push him.)

    Not that I mean to belittle his sacrifice; dying rather than becoming a titan is still a very noble thing to do. The old Tristan would have just gone titan while blaming someone else.
    ‘I had to, before Byron did it to meeeeee!’
    (screams the hypothetical Tristan-Titan constantly as it murders civilians)

  14. Also, I’ll bet you right now there’ll be an epilogue in which Kinzie makes a machine to bring back Tristan in some form. A Kinzie ex Machina if you will, or a Deus ex Kinzie.

    Hell, she’s made steps in that direction already.

  15. “I can’t switch to Tristan”

    Wow, what a callback to Tristan’s pseudo-murder. That just drives in the gut punch.

  16. Or a Tristian Est Machina, if she basically uses some kind of AI camera to make a copy of him ;p

  17. “My teammate Swansong died, before, and she came back… nine times, I think, in total. Each version of herself that survived remembered, and I was wondering if you-”
    “No,” Furcate interrupted.
    “No…”

    Any ideas what Sveta has going to ask Furcate? About remembering – but what?
    Furcate is not Case 53, she should not have lost pre-trigger memories.

  18. Well, this was definitely an intense chapter; I really loved the discussions Moonsong had with Tribute and Tristain, it really helps build up a more complete image of her.

    Looking back, after some of the comments so far, I can see how this is something Tristain had in his mind on some level before… but at the same time it’s also a risk that he might take Byron with him so I wonder if there might have been some element of epiphany here

  19. Wow. Shit. Crap. That knot in my throat :(:(:(

    Seems to me Moonsong forgiving Tristan incited him even more to sacrifice himself. Because that means now his demons are slained.

  20. > As for Tristan…. I’m really not sure how he could safely and knowingly engineer a situation where he dies AND switches. That seems… weird.

    I’m pretty sure that switching-on-death is an automatic feature of their powers. Otherwise the shard would have been stuck to a useless body for a very long time, unable to grow and serve its purpose in the cycle. A shard might not be able to protect itself from having that sort of fate inflicted on it by another shard, but it’s absolutely going to put some effort into not inflicting that fate on itself (it’s basically the same logic behind Manton limits). Since this one already had the infrastructure to swap bodies in place, adding a trigger to force a swap when the active twin dies would have been a trivial and obvious precaution.

    I don’t know if Tristan actually expected that, but his decision makes sense either way. Better for Byron to be trapped and Tristan dead than for Byron to be trapped and Tristan be a titan.

  21. We didn’t hear Tristan’s last words because they were drowned out by the sound of cracking. But Kenzie heard them…

  22. Now that Tristan isn’t owning all of what was kind of his thing, maybe Byron transforms into a more broadly developed individual. Maybe he even takes inspiration from Tristan in his parting to finally make some concessions to how Tristan would have had him act. Tristan’s death could be a catalyst for personal growth. Maybe Capricorn’s agent will now influence Byron towards some of the Tristan virtues in which he was lacking? Some of those things Moonsong mentioned could develop Byron into the type of leader who remains thoughtful and sensitive, but can engage further ahead in events as they develop – improvise, strategize, invent, trust instinctive impulses…

    Assuming he can survive…

  23. I came here to make this comment. Ward has been a dark, dark ride—even more so than Worm—but it’s writing like this that keeps me here.

  24. > The cracking around them stopped.
    This means that cracking is attracted by near titanization. While titanization is not direct result of cracking.

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