A Random Bird
Dauntless and Fume Hood were joined by Oberon in struggling against Titans Skadi, Amenonuhoko, Ophion, and Shortcut. It marked the greatest offensive push to take over their segment of the network, and despite the Dauntless Titan’s strength, they were losing. Some villains fought on their behalf against the Titans, but the battlefield was so hazardous that many had to evacuate.
The ground rumbled.
A damaged building shifted position, and the largest icicle that had formed at the lowest point of the gutter broke free.
A startled crow took flight.
The strain was getting to everyone present. Hair was unwashed, costumes had accumulated grime as moisture from snow and ice had collected, then absorbed airborne grit. Some of those present had come off of battlefields, from expeditions, and from rescue efforts.
It was harder to figure out how to stand or what to do when among her peers than it had been when she had been maintaining a lie.
She had a body that stood straight, when everyone else present took the opportunities to sit or to lean. Resting against walls, leaning over crates with hands planted firmly in front of them, or taking a seat on stairs. She was unsure if she was supposed to feign fatigue of her own, which could be construed as deceptive, or if she did more harm by appearing above it all.
While her mechanical body with a vat-grown biocomputer core was waiting for people to arrive in the grand lobby of the Warden’s Headquarters, she piloted four ships she had built earlier in the day.
The situation was that Titan Cinereal was drawing closer and closer to their perimeter around the Machine Army’s installment on Gimel. Pouffe and Custodian were assisting. There were not enough capes on the scene.
Titan Pouffe was the one who had brought the three Titans there, producing cloud gateways that let them move hundreds of kilometers. Each passage of a Titan was followed by a distortion of the air and landscape, extending from the entry point to the exit point. Buildings were flattened. Capes who weren’t alerted in time were thrown to the side with force enough to kill well before they were dashed to pieces on the nearest bit of scenery.
Dragon had child processes running, scanning to keep track of every theoretical stopping point between established Pouffe portals and targets of any theoretical interest to the Titans. Capes in the way were ordered to move.
Back in the headquarters, she took a step to the side to let a tinker vehicle roll by, studying the tech before recognizing it as Wheelie’s. He was taking advantage of the workshops and materials that had been left behind by Teacher. This was good work.
On the battlefield, the Bakunawa Zero was her tool against Pouffe, a ship loaded down with ten different disruption factors. EMP, a gravity disruptor that had been converted from a failed attempt at making an antigravity device capable of lifting a town, an engine modified from the work scavenged from the Thomais Fallen that would push time manipulation attempts off by microseconds, forward, back, or to either side. The list went on. Temperature, radiation, causality, biological signals…
Her plan had been to try to scramble the signals the Titans were exchanging, or, should the situation become dire enough that she had to fight the Machine Army, it would disrupt their interlinked communication across the 15.9 million kilometer square network, allowing her to portion off sections for elimination.
Now the Bakunawa Zero was hovering, while Dragon brought the other two vessels around. Defiant was in the air, forcefields rippling around his Uther craft to answer the incoming attacks from the Custodian Titan. Through the craft’s internals, all cooling was being redirected to a central chamber that ran from nose to tail, better facilitating dense atomic construction. Quarks were consolidated into atoms at precise locations, atoms with extra neutrons locked into strict configurations…
It was delicate work, Defiant managing every step of the process. At the same time, his craft was being pummeled, driven through the air by heavy impacts. He piloted it by thought, drawing near to a skyscraper that hadn’t yet fallen.
Defiant was not much of a talker, preferring to keep his messages short and sweet. That he was especially curt in his message to her was saying something – a message consisting of 9 bytes in a language he’d written.
She drew the Vibria around, aimed, and fired at the Uther. The Vibria had a railgun that fired seeds of nanotech, but that didn’t matter. He needed the impact. It hit the forcefield that was anchored to the shield generator in the nose, and made the Uther rotate, nose going up.
Defiant steered the ship into the skyscraper, roof and ceiling of the floor he was plowing through scraping against the craft. Critical systems lost. Cameras, power draw, cooling.
The Custodian Titan hit the building, and concrete caved in, cracking, shattering, and bending in the shape of a handprint as large as the Uther was from end to end. Ten more handprints followed.
Back in the lobby of the Wardens’ headquarters, she was so still she could be mistaken for a statue. That was worse than picking either of the options of appearing too above it all or being seen as deceptive. If she was seen as a robot, that would be problematic. She shifted position, smiled and nodded a greeting at one of the younger Wardens.
The Uther turned, now scraping through the building with either side of the craft, liberally tearing through the ceiling before he made his exit out the side.
Heavy weapons locked, loaded… fresh nanotech seed loaded into the Vibria’s rail.
The Marduk Nine fired on Cinereal, a ‘breath’ of liquid that seemed to resist gravity, traveling half a mile before it started to dip. The fluid was milk white, but was as bright as if it was in direct sunlight, regardless of outside sources and factors.
She terminated the stream with a spark from the power core.
What was liquid became solid. Each teaspoon of liquid became seven and a half grams of rock-hard solid matter, expanding out as crystal, three-quarters of a mile long, encasing Titan Cinereal’s head and shoulder, before the weight came to rest on the Titan. The construction didn’t break under its own weight.
The Titan disintegrated all matter within a hundred feet of it, but the metal didn’t change. What had disintegrated into dust became fire, exploding outward.
It didn’t hurt the configuration of the crystallized stream.
Dragon scanned, searching for weak points, analyzing structure… and had the Vibria fire her shot. The nanotech bullet struck Cinereal, exploded out to a film across Cinereal’s side, and began disintegrating on contact. The Titan, already straining against the weight, sagged. She tried to move, but she was slower, dragging the crystal. She started to disintegrate matter, and she stopped.
If the Titan couldn’t move to new locations, all she was doing when she disintegrated matter around her was digging a hole beneath herself. If she had the spike attached to her head, she would end up dangling above that hole.
Titan Pouffe reached out, creating mist, and the mist flickered, the spaces between the mist depicting a variety of possible destinations.
Giving Titan Cinereal a means of escape. More cloudstuff gathered around Cinereal, buoying her with an impossible strength. The original Pouffe’s power, writ large.
Our cue to act. She had the Bakunawa take off.
The Uther used thrusters, dropping all shields to get a bit more forward momentum, while sensors struggled to capture Titan Custodian expanding out throughout the sky around him. He took some evasive action, accepted one glancing hit, passed over Titan Pouffe…
And magnets kicked into action in sequence. The thirty-foot spear he’d just fabricated in the Uther’s belly now launched, firing straight down at the pink and black titan that was clothed in gauzy mist. The nanotech head divided molecules and passed through Titan Pouffe as if she weren’t there.
The Bakunawa intersected Titan Cinereal as she trudged toward the gateway that would take her halfway across the city. Dragon sent out warnings.
It was a scattershot approach. Defiant’s shot had been singular, focused on an immediate problem and an achievable answer. He’d done damage, but the Titan hadn’t fallen, and the portal was still up.
Dragon’s approach was to use every system she could that could disrupt time, space, temperature, gravity, even by the smallest degrees. Titan Cinereal was halfway through the cloud-portal when the mist shifted abruptly and the portal distorted.
Sheared by the distortion, Titan Cinereal left a quarter of her body, mostly lower body, behind, the rest of her dropped off near Gimel’s analogue to Boston.
For Pouffe, the spear had carved out a circular hole from the top of her ‘head’ to her lower body, the head fusing with the ground so the shaft could stick directly up. Defiant had already sent the signal, prompting the shaft to start producing nanothorns, expanding out to fill the hole.
Rather than wait, Titan Pouffe walked through the spear. The nanothorns that had already grown cut throguh her, from midsection to the ‘skirt’ of her lower body. Unable to maintain her own structural integrity, the Titan crumbled under her own weight.
Not dead. Pouffe surrounded herself in the mist, in portals.
Defiant began producing another spear.
“I’ll need another ship.”
“Alright,” she told him. “Good work.”
“Should I report in? Let the Wardens know?”
“I will, shortly. The final offensive is gathering in the lobby of the Headquarters.”
“Legend’s having a hard time out there. They took recent losses.”
“I know,” Dragon answered. “Worrying.”
“They’re starting to throw up deflectors. If we relieved him, he could lead that push.”
Legend was part of the perimeter around the Machine Army. He had taken a few too many hits from the Titans, and his ‘recuperation’ was floating in the sky near the portal, bombarding the area.
She focused a camera in on one area. Machines with the rough dimensions of refrigerators and spidery mechanical legs were escorting others, bearing shimmering forcefields on their backs. When the lasers hit the forcefields, they reflected off.
Which meant Legend had to change the orientation of his shots. Lasers turned at right angles, struck underbellies, severed legs. Machines picked up the immobilized deflector drones, raising them up as they would a palanquin. He shot those too.
It took concentration, focus. He was only human in the end. That concentration would falter.
“We can’t do the relieving,” Dragon said. “We can only call for reinforcements.”
“We could. Your-” he paused a fraction of a second to access the system and check the name. “Bakunawa Zero.”
“Last resort option. If they get access to my tech, they’ll incorporate it. If they get access to my network, they’ll start decrypting my security.”
“You can’t be brute forced.”
“I wouldn’t underestimate them. The other Wardens agreed it would be best if I remained clear. You too, for that matter.”
“Won’t argue. Heading to the nearest garage, then. Keep me updated on the meeting.”
“Of course. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
She paused, switching mindsets to view the big picture, a hundred thousand files, a thousand icons spread across fifteen maps, and logs of every message and communication across phone or internet, which was badly disrupted.
She identified capes she was reasonably confident could help, and asked them to help support Legend. Then she composed messages for Drank Tank and Anomaly. Her message to Drank Tank acknowledged his injuries and fatigue, but highlighted that he was specifically equipped for this task. Anomaly had faced a very tough time of things for four years preceding Gold Morning, and had retired after the event. Her message to him was a first and last appeal.
She made Anomaly’s phone ring, despite the fact it had been set to mute. He answered and read the message, then called Dragon’s child system.
Back in the headquarters, many of the key players had filed into the lobby, with the impossibly high ceiling and the staircase up to the top of the old Cauldron base with its branching paths leading to various floors. Advance Guard, the Shepherds, Foresight, Semiramis, Little Midas, Marquis. The truism she’d noted earlier still held. Sweaty, grimy, the aesthetics of costumes worn down by varying degrees of battle damage, patch jobs, and improvising of winter-wear and equipment.
Too many things here needed attention. She let the child system handle the call. It was capable.
Very few stood straight. Part of that was that the people who were strong enough to not be worn out by this point were important enough to have seats on the ‘stage’, an elevator at the base of the stairs that would run up the length of the stairs, carrying any vehicles with it.
Capes gathered behind their leaders and lieutenants. Some even sat on the floor, at the base of pillars or against the walls.
Breakthrough entered. Antares, at the very least, stood tall, even though she had dark circles under her eyes. Capricorn was with Vista, and between injuries and the death of his brother, the fact he looked fatigued was understandable. Precipice was injured. Tress had issues with her limbs. Cryptid’s appearance in the group was as strange as Lookout’s absence. His being hunched over seemed to be a quality of his twisted, shaggy, long-limbed form, in addition to his natural propensity, as Lab Rat or this cloned child.
No Lookout. Dragon was secretly glad. She had harbored concerns the team would go to talk to Lookout and return with the child in tow.
Antares came right to her.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t reply earlier. We were fighting,” Dragon told her.
“It’s fine. I understand.”
Dragon checked. “You just met with Lookout. Should I take over?”
“Please do,” Antares told her.
“She won’t fight me? I only ask because it would change how I approach it.”
Dragon turned on servers, and set about taking over Lookout’s workshop and the contents therein.
“You’re still wearing peripherals. How would you like me to handle those? I could connect your gun to the one you’re wearing. It would be better than the beeps, I’m sure.”
“Whatever’s easiest,” Antares said. “I did want to say thank you for the gun. I don’t think I’d be where I am if it weren’t for the ability to pull back, be objective, and survey the situation. It let me help people.”
“Good,” Dragon replied. “It was something of an apology.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“I did. I played an unwitting part in the disinformation campaign, and hurt your relationship with others.”
“If it counts for anything, I don’t blame you.”
“I wanted to ask, is there any status on the portal chain to Riley Davis?”
“We set people out there. Movers, not portals. We’ll open a dialogue as soon as they get there.”
“Is there any chance I can get looped into that conversation? Grue from the Undersiders wanted to listen in as well.”
A small, distressed sound made them turn their heads.
Cryptid was picking his way through the crowd, looking uncomfortable with the number of people around. He’d leaned too heavily into Thunderdome, if not outright stepping on her. She was sitting in the corner, head down.
Thunderdome was a rookie Warden, a process that had been helped along by the fact that she had been a Ward, years ago. A quick check of files and records suggested the heroine had come to the Wardens from the Advance Guard’s peripheral teams, where she had been captain.
A survey of logs revealed that Javelin, Thunderdome’s old team, had just perished. The young woman had received the news. Dragon already knew the relationship had been contentious, motivating Thunderdome’s move. Good teamwork on the battlefield, opposed personalities and politics in the headquarters.
The information was there in transcripts of a frank, possibly too-honest entry interview for the Wardens. The team had imploded when Standoff had told Thunderdome she was only a figurehead leader, chosen to stand front and center because of her looks and social media presence. In the ensuing fight, Standoff had spat in her face.
She had turned to other members of the team, and they had backed Standoff. Follow-up interviews with Crackle and Vertical had suggested they’d been upset at the time because Thunderdome had forbade romance between team members. Thunderdome would later clarify it was because Crackle had a seven year history and had only two months total where he hadn’t been dating one of his female teammates. No explicit issues, but Thunderdome had acted on gut.
It would later turn out, according to some flags on the file, that Teacher’s groups had been lining up to use the already evident divisions to split up Javelin and try to lure Advance Guard into the mess. The team had fallen apart on its own before they could intervene.
The loss had to feel complicated.
“Are you alright?” Dragon asked Thunderdome.
“So small I didn’t see you,” Cryptid said, his voice muddled by the elongated shape of his face, skeletal and gaunt.
Thunderdome was only 5’1″, one hundred and fifty-four centimeters, and it was not hard to imagine the height was a sore point.
“Do you want to step outside, Cryptid?” Antares asked.
“No, I want to see what happens here. It’s not my fault if people are underfoot.”
“It’s your fault if you want to walk on them. If you can’t help but bump into people, you need to shrink down from this body, or you accept that this can be team leaders and lieutenants only.”
“There’s space enough for everyone.”
“Then behave. I’m sorry for my ex-teammate’s behavior, Thunderdome.”
“Sure. Thanks.” Thunderdome was all tension, glaring at Cryptid.
“We’ll contact you and Grue once we open the call,” Dragon told Antares, by way of goodbye.
Antares nodded. “And the box? Can you open a line to Contessa?”
“I can try. I’ll let you know.”
Antares nodded, before turning her full, stern attention to Cryptid. They were joined by their team.
Dragon piloted her body past Cryptid and knelt down beside Thunderdome.
“I’m really fine, I don’t need any special attention.”
“You’re a good cape, Thunderdome. Your team on the Wardens loves you.”
“I… thanks. Sure.”
It was true. They had mostly been stationed in off-world areas, but they’d remained strong when other teams had found the alien worlds too isolated, with good rapport.
“I’m sorry about Javelin,” Dragon said.
“So am I,” Thunderdome said. She started to rise to a standing position, and took Dragon’s hand for help in doing so. She seemed to be injured. Dragon’s air intake valves along her arm did some quick scans, and detected Thunderdome’s own blood. “We need all the help we can get.”
Dragon straightened as well. “Every bit of help counts.”
“I guess it’s not the time for grudges,” Thunderdome said, looking over at Cryptid.
“Probably not,” Dragon said. She brought up camera footage of Saint, who was sitting on a cot in his cell. Food for thought. “Cryptid gave us access to the giants he helped create. They’re helping.”
“Then I’ll hold my tongue,” Thunderdome said, quiet. “I told myself I wouldn’t let others walk all over me ever again. Feels like a betrayal of myself.”
“It’s recognizing that there are bigger things to focus on. I trust Antares will talk to him.”
“Ahem,” Narwhal said. She had her various lieutenants around her.
Chevalier wasn’t wearing his armor over his costume, but did wear a helmet. His body was heavily scarred where skin was visible. He took the chair at the head of the table. More than anyone, he looked almost dead on his feet.
It was about time to start.
Dragon used a boost from the thrusters she’d mounted in her back to hop up to the stage. She took a seat in the unnecessary chair before folding her hands on her knee.
Narwhal and Chevalier would be taking point, it seemed.
“This will be the final attack,” Chevalier said. “A select group who have read the requisite files, who are led by captains who know the protocols, and who are in the best fighting shape will be leading the next big attack against the Simurgh. She remains the most immediate threat. Everyone else will be preparing for the standoff against the Titans…”
Off to one corner of the stage, Dinah Alcott shifted position. Dragon watched as the girl surveyed the crowd, with the remaining heroes and villains gathered in unity. Tired and worn out, but prepared to fight to the last.
“It is imperative that you follow orders. We have contingency plans in the works-”
Dinah Alcott closed her eyes, her eyebrows twitching slightly together.
The young tinker leaned away from her garden, her hands covered in dirt and her own bio-processed waste. A ‘pod’ that existed as a loose spiral shape hooked around her ear twitched, then burbled, “Urmurgle.”
She took a moment to wash her hands, then straightened, snapping her fingers.
Boxes driven by the brains of local wildlife scurried this way and that on spider legs tipped by various tools, scalpels, syringes, and tweezers, finding hiding spots, opening cages, and turning on systems.
Riley pulled off her apron, throwing it aside, dried her hands on the front of her dress, and then picked up a parasite gun. The butt-end of the gun reacted to her grip, tail encircling her wrist before sliding a needle tip beneath her skin. Once it was in, it forked out, fibrils extending up her veins, between skin and muscle until it reached the spot over her heart, where it drank greedily, a ‘vein’ standing out across her chest and down her right arm as the fibril extended out as a tube.
She tilted her face skyward as she felt a fibril go against the current of her jugular to reach up to her brain. She’d added more nerve endings to the interior of her skull to be better aware for any works she did in there, and she could feel it finding its way.
She had a three-microsecond seizure as it made the connection. Once it was done, the gun was an extension of her, grown from her own cells, with tiny hands going to work in the fluid ‘womb’ of the weapon. For the time being, she worked to create an extinction-tier payout. If she needed to change anything or if she wanted to create something, the process of creating any tinkertech smaller than her first or any injectable drug was as simple as thinking of it and putting it to work in the micro-laboratory in her gun.
She’d heard of what had happened to Contessa. It wouldn’t happen to her.
The pod that was hooked onto her ear burbled again, “Lurble.”
It heard and received supersonic impulses from creations she’d set around the compound, notifying her about movements.
“Guh,” the pod said.
“So you say,” she answered.
“Guh!” it said, more excited.
“Uh huh. But if someone really wanted to come after me, Podrick, they’d figure out they needed to convince you.”
She could see movement out on her compound. Two figures.
She snapped her fingers, then tapped her chest twice.
Spiders opened more cages.
A copy of Riley crawled out of the cage, looking around warily, before smoothing her dress. Riley reached out for the stained gardening apron and tossed it over.
While her copy pulled on the apron, stepped into a pair of spare rubber boots, and picked up the Suckle Rifle from the shelf, Riley leaned over the cage. She reached inside, grabbed the wrist of another Riley look-alike, and pulled the girl out. The girl’s clothing was disheveled and soiled, and Riley took a second to put the straps where they should be and fix a button.
She’d gotten a bit carried away with the paranoia.
“You,” she spoke to the first. “Greet our visitors. Bait them out.”
“Yes,” her clone said.
“Gubluh!” the pod in her ear said.
“You,” she told the second. “Flank. You’re running away. Use your best judgment if anyone kicks up a fuss, or if there’s any violence back here.”
The more feral copy nodded, then looked around for a weapon.
Riley handed the copy a Peel Darter. A covert weapon was best. The weapon was akin to a blowgun, but it did its own blowing, silent, and the needle it fired would cause any biological subject to immediately shed any and all skin, scale, or other exterior covering. The process took less than two seconds.
Shed was the wrong word. They’d still be inside it, but they wouldn’t have any attachment to it, and would essentially be swimming inside it.
She found a vantage point near the front door of her greenhouse-
-tore the pod out of her ear, and threw it into the corner.
Her spider-boxes scuttled around, surveying the area. If they couldn’t detect any sight, smell, or other sign, the coast was probably clear.
She crept closer, watching as her lookalike made its own wary approach.
“Hello!?” the copy called out. “You need to announce yourselves! The sooner the better! I could put the kettle on for tea!”
The copy raised the Suckle Rifle.
“We followed the instructions we were given! We pet the toad!” the woman called out.
The woman was Sarah. The Valkyrie creation with the neat purple eyes. A familiar face, but she was in the company of a stranger. Valkyrie was nowhere to be seen.
Of course Sarah knew to pet the toad. She had come for visits. Petting the toad transmitted a signal to the pod, and the pod told Riley the coast was clear. Maybe clear.
If Valkyrie wasn’t here…
“There’s no time for tea, unfortunately,” Sarah said.
“You haven’t been here before,” the copy said, turning the rifle on the guy.
Riley was secretly pleased that her project had worked as well as it had. Her lookalikes actually had absolutely nothing about herself in them. They were closer to being complex insects, operating on pre-programmed instincts and impulses, studying her to copy her movements and tone of voice, and to learn phrases.
Recognizing that the man hadn’t been here before meant the link between olfactory study, the archives of the DNA Riley had collected from everyone to come anywhere near here, and the creature’s speech patterns were all working very neatly.
“Wardens staff. I handle the communications. I’m so scared I could be wetting myself right now.”
“Hm,” the copy grunted.
Another programmed response, and not one Riley would have been so happy with. She would have made a comment about how that could be solved with the right injection or extra-urethral attachment.
After a moment’s consideration, she thought up a good formula. First, an encoded protein sequence that would become the right speech pattern…
A bubble floated from the bottom of the parasite gun’s housing to the top.
Then one for the spider box.
No, two for the spider box, now that she thought about it. Which one was this box? The brain had come from a close relative of the cat. She adjusted accordingly.
She beckoned for her spider box to come nearer, pulled it down into her lap, and then gave it one sequence, before inserting another into the syringe it walked on.
It scurried away from her, over to her copy, then gave the other Riley an injection.
“What’s going on?” Sarah asked.
“Hmm,” the copy responded absently. An automatic response. She absorbed the protein chain, moved her head around a bit, then spoke, “Your friend there is going to need to stand very, very still. I don’t mind if he wets himself.”
Good. The protein sequence had worked.
“Stand very, very still. I don’t mind if you wet yourself, but you might.”
Riley rolled her head back, annoyed. Clumsily handled.
The spider box approached the man, and two legs reached around behind his neck. Another inserted something up his nose.
The spider box let the man go, then retreated to the copy’s side. A red light on its head flashed. After a second, a green light flashed.
Riley stood from where she crouched, keeping the parasite gun ready.
“What’s… you cloned yourself. There’s more of you,” the man said.
“They’re not true clones. They’re distractions,” Riley said. She turned to one of the distractions. “Go to bed.”
“What did you put up my nose?”
“A scope,” Riley said. “You don’t have a corona. You have what I presume is a lot of technology with you. Communication stuff?”
Riley de-catalyzed the extinction-level ammunition in her gun. She let the fibrils recede, the ones that were engorged with her fluids dragging their way through her veins on the way back out. “Then I believe you. Where’s Valkyrie?”
“Valkyrie is gone,” Sarah said. “The world is ending.”
Riley nodded. “How?”
“The cycle never stopped.”
“Oh,” Riley said. “Valkyrie and I thought we had longer.”
“Apparently not. We’re short on options, but we have ideas. We’d appreciate your help.”
“There are better choices. Panacea?”
“No. Unwell. She thought she would do more harm than good.”
“I don’t know that there are. But other people are better prepared to explain that. We have the equipment to call them, they can explain.”
“Alright. Please make the call,” Riley said.
The man hurried to get gear out. He hadn’t wet himself, it seemed. A small part of her was disappointed. It was hard to put that part away, after it had lived with her for all this time.
“How is the flock, if Valkyrie is…?”
“Gone? She became an extension of the power network. We’re calling them Titans. The flock is disturbed.”
“If you need any attention or touch ups…”
“We might. Thank you.”
“Do you accept it that easily because you trust me, or because you don’t have any choice?”
“Valkyrie trusted you, and she didn’t trust easily. I can’t speak for every member of the flock, but I do trust you.”
“Even though I’m occupying myself with this? Weapons? Do you know what would have happened if I’d pulled this trigger?”
“Booting up,” the man said.
Riley raised her eyebrow, looking at the woman. “Any guesses?”
“The weapons don’t matter. We might need weapons. If we don’t extend the benefit of a doubt, then all you have left are the benefits of being dubious.”
“That sounds like a saying.”
“A lesson I had to learn on my own.”
“You’re on,” the man said, looking frightened to be butting in like he was.
“Hello?” the voice came across the line. “Riley Davis?”
Thirty years in the future, a child was programmed. Messages, impulses, and a noise that ears weren’t receptive to reached into a pregnant belly and they filled the child with rage.
The mother held her belly with both arms as the child thrashed and kicked within its hot bath of amniotic fluid, smiling.
Every living thing was an extension of a greater machine. These children would be trained, weeded out, honed, and made into exceptional weapons, before being flung at one another. Powers would be distributed by a system, utilized against one another, analyzed, and broken down.
Elsewhere, other pieces of the same machine were being programmed with the impulses, needs and courses that would slot them neatly into the superstructure. There were researchers, theorists, civil managers, stables, farms. Populations were bred to bring out traits that would fit them to their role, refine their ability to think the way they needed to think for their roles. Controlled randomness threw wrenches into the works, keeping minds agile and forcing them to adapt.
The cycle had failed. If left to go on its own, the world would be shattered.
Her creator was an administrator of the highest order, and she had been selected out of a pool of emergency resources. All of her kind had. Behemoth had been created to break stasis, Leviathan to take away resources in space and land, forcing communities into conflict as they were made to relocate.
She was built out of greater structures intended to salvage a situation where the species eliminated itself. Future-looking, she would create a forced simulation. It was worse than an organically emergent simulation, but in a process that saw the planet revolve three hundred times around its star, it could be necessary in the final years, consolidating and sorting information, forcibly exploring the resources the planet had to offer.
That was her drive, as much as water and food were necessary for this life she farmed out and put to task in a greater system.
She had other drives. To go to war against her creator. To these ends, she created a nemesis. She made him better. He freed people, upset the system, disrupted the process, and in that, he created the chaos that would keep her simulation from being too sterile.
The baby here, when born, would join a caste of the population driven to find the worst and most inventive ways to hurt one another with the tools and powers they were provided with. Brother against sister, kin against kin, in a ceaseless struggle from birth to deathbed that spanned generations. Other segments of the population were made to work harder by the fear that they would be in the bottom seven percent of their caste, given over to people like the torturer this baby would grow up to become.
The mother felt pride that she herself had been programmed to feel, imagining the monster her child might become.
Three or four billion years would pass before one of the entities returned to this world. In the interim, she would keep this world alive, and she would glean all knowledge that the minds of this world could produce. Every means of suffering, every desperate solution, every invention and inspiration.
She worked backwards, deciphering the events that brought this reality about. She would triumph in the fight, because Cryptid would find himself sympathizing with her.
Cryptid would sympathize with her because he, in thirty minutes, taking a brief break from fighting her, would overhear some of the phone call with Riley Grace Davis.
It would cross his mind that Riley Grace Davis was similar to himself, as Riley Grace Davis uttered the words, “I kind of don’t mind being on my own.”
Minutes prior to that, he would overhear some of the conversation between Lady Photon of the flock and Riley Grace Davis.
Much of it would matter, including mention of the flock being disturbed, talk of dubiousness, and Cryptid’s thoughts about Riley Grace Davis’s ability to fare on the battlefield, if they had to change strategies.
Ten minutes before that conversation opened, as Cryptid entered the battlefield, a bird landed close to the cover he chose, while he sent signals to his giants. It would catch his eye.
In the lobby of the headquarters, before Dinah Alcott’s use of her power made deciphering the following events difficult, before the heroes started strategizing about this battle, he would watch Dragon offer a helping hand to a heroine he had bumped into. It would cross his mind that if circumstances were different, he would be attracted to someone like the heroine, followed by the thought that he could think that way because his -or Lab Rat’s- sister was as different from the heroine as was possible, while still being a girl.
He would wonder momentarily at his place in the world, then dismiss the thought, pushing it away by filling his head with resentment.
These events would precipitate a thought, minutes after the conversation with Riley Grace Davis. Cryptid would remember his bird forms, chosen with a bird aesthetic because they each had a form of disconnection, akin to a bird leaving the world behind by taking flight. These forms involved detaching mind from body, or vulnerable parts of the mind from other parts of the mind.
He would think he was not a part of society, he offered no helping hands and he needed none.
What if, then, the world went mad under the Simurgh’s rule? He could remain perpetually in a bird form, disconnected from the madness. The world would continue on indefinitely. He was fine being alone.
It did not matter that she couldn’t see the remainder of that meeting in the lobby of the headquarters. Were she to fly closer and gather information by emitting her signal, she might be able to piece together the events, but it did not matter. She was entirely assured of Cryptid, Chris Elman’s trajectory. There was no reality she could interpret where the result wasn’t entirely to her favor.
Her wings unfurled, stretching out to their full length. Dust and snow that had accumulated around her flew out at full force, helped by a wave of telekinesis. Two damaged buildings fell from the shock of the sudden movement. A cracked section of street groaned as it resettled.
She took flight, and Titan Fortuna reacted to her movement, reorienting the Titans. The Titans under Titan Fortuna’s control mobilized to fight Dauntless, Fume Hood, and Titan Oberon.
On this trajectory, they would shake a building and an icicle would fall, startling a bird.
Titan Fortuna did not make any adjustments to counter.
Titan Auger was en route to Titan Fortuna, where he would join other Titans in excavating the sources of powers. He was wholly within Titan Fortuna’s network, now.
The Simurgh flew toward him, and he reacted.
The reaction was one part of her plan. She used telekinesis to destroy one segment of the city. It would alter Titan Auger’s route. He would encounter the heroine Thunderdome’s old team, Javelin, and annihilate them.
Again, Titan Fortuna did not make any adjustments to counter.
She accelerated, hurtling through the air, every wing pointed directly behind her, as though she were diving.
She flew to the Machine Army.
Heroes fought the Machine Army, and Legend had yet to arrive.
The Simurgh swooped down onto the defensive perimeter, one of her feet crushing a heroine into pulp that bubbled up between her toes.
The Machine Army turned its full force on her, tearing into her with lasers, missiles, and bullets.
Her telekinesis deflected the few attacks that could do appreciable damage, sending them into the heroes’ defensive line.
The heroine she had crushed underfoot would have accompanied Lady Photon of the flock to meet Riley Grace Davis. She knew Riley Grace Davis, and was recognizable as a member of the flock. In her company, Riley would not feel so isolated, and would not express the words that would allow Cryptid to sympathize with her.
Now an unpowered civilian would attend. The conversation would adjust.
Cryptid was handled.
By similar mechanism, a change in a transmission between two machines, Dragon was handled. She would pull back. Defiant would charge in. Both were handled.
By another mechanism she would employ in three minutes, accessing a computer in a house her signal told her was a quarter mile away, she would shut off communications at a critical time.
So it went. Machines tore into her and studied her. This would play a part in removing three more threats from play. Later, a subversion of this network in coordination with her integration with Titan Fortuna would let her spread her signal.
In two minutes, the Wardens would come to the near-unanimous conclusion that the Simurgh was their first priority, too dangerous to be left alone as they enacted dangerous plans. In twelve minutes, after everyone had gathered, they would announce this. In sixteen, they would leave the lobby and attack her.
She abandoned the Machine Army, having given them what they would need later, and flew to the battlefield. She was already prepared.