Hey, young me, I thought. In my mind’s eye, I held onto the image of myself in the living room of Aunt Sarah’s house, sitting on the loveseat. Getting the talk. You dreamed about being a hero for what seemed like every moment of every day.
It never crossed your mind how cold and bitter it could be.
I was at a height above the tallest buildings, suspended in the air. Snow and wind whipped around me and my forcefield, and I positioned the gun I held to block the worst of it. Futile, when it seemed to change directions every three seconds.
Land was cracked, and from this height only darkness was visible in the cracks.
The sky was fractured. Other worlds visible through those fractures.
The people… if there were any down there, they were scattered, few, and desperate.
I didn’t imagine the fear.
The Simurgh was there in the distance, taking roost in the middle of a clearing, ringed by a crown-like circle of ruined and toppled buildings. It had been a park, once, but there was no grass, no water, there were no trees.
The tech in my eye changed settings without my requesting it. Tweaks to the night-vision, then a zoom-in, which combined with the wind to create a sensation closer to helplessly falling than anything I’d experienced to date, and that included having my flight or my ability to control my flight taken from me while I was a hundred feet above the ground. Mostly because the Simurgh was what I felt like I was plummeting toward.
A wing was folded around her upper body, but golden lines appeared and outlined shapes behind the wing.
The golden outlines turned red. Labels were traced out in print so small I shouldn’t have been able to read them.
Tinkertech. Machine Army.
She brought some with her.
Others were arriving, filtering in through portals.
I’d seen recreations of past Simurgh attacks. Lausanne, Paris, Canberra. Some were drawn from witness accounts, but the Paris one had been done by a member of the Suits. Until they were collectively taken down and dissemination was made illegal. Too much worry.
From seeing those recreations, though I’d never participated in a fight against the Simurgh, I knew she liked this kind of moment.
Except that was dangerous thinking. Applying human thought, personifying her. She didn’t ‘like’ anything. She didn’t get angry. She didn’t have hopes, dreams. Only cold intent.
Rewording: She had a tendency to position herself like this. Waiting for people to come to her, while she remained still.
Portals opened. Our ground troops arrived. Legend was in the air, healed from a recent injury, his face all closed up now, but for a single line of light blue. While mending he had tried to hold back the Machine Army after the Simurgh’s most recent visit.
“Dragon’s saying she has tinkertech in the folds of her wings!” I called out. My voice felt so cold and empty.
Legend looked at me, then tapped one of his ears.
Earpiece? He knew?
More notifications came up. Some straight, diagonal lines that pointed down to the crowd, each with a sharp bend and horizontal bit at the upper end, with labels above them. Names of my teammates. Other people I knew.
Dragon’s use of the eye tech felt much more forceful than Lookout’s. The transmissions were ‘pay attention to this’, ‘you’ll want to know this’. Lookout had been a softer touch, rooted more in knowing us, communication, a back and forth.
Another notification, forceful. I was reminded of certain websites and app mascots, popping up and offering me assistance. Except… all of this was stuff I wanted to know. I had to fight past my kneejerk reaction of dismissing, moving on. Dragon told me that the call with Riley was imminent. A matter of minutes.
I flew down closer to my team. Chris was at the edges, in a bulldog of a form that I only recognized as him because of the wreath of cloth he wore around his waist, and the ringed collar of syringes. He was last to arrive, two of his giants emerging from the portal on hands and knees.
He took cover as soon as he was able. A crow was perched there, and for whatever reason, it didn’t take off when Chris collapsed to a sitting position four feet from it. He glanced at it, then shooed it away.
“Those things are terrifying,” Rain called out.
“You need terrifying sometimes,” Chris spoke, his voice deep and the ‘T’ sounds especially hard.
“Be terrifying, first and foremost,” Damsel said from the next group over. “Then recruit it.”
“I am wearing a form that could literally eat your face. One bite,” Chris told her, before opening a fanged maw.
“You could try. On a separate note, try harder.”
Chris looked as at ease as I’d seen him since his return from Shin, having the back and forth. Damsel… I had to wonder if she’d have joined, if we’d managed to figure Chris out and keep him on board. Would he have offered what she needed to see?
He was a monster, I would never ever forget his role in the prison fiasco. But I had the feeling he understood monsters, and to use the phrasing he liked so much.
The Simurgh moved her wings, wing-tips drawing together in a point above her head, one knee raised.
She swept her wings to one side, as someone fired a big gun, and it was probably Chevalier. She flew to the side, and the shot struck the ground. Dodging the incoming cannon shot.
I could see the red outlines for the tinkertech. Pulled behind her back as part of the maneuver, so nobody in that crowd could see it.
I took flight, circling around. The wind whistled past my forcefield, which I kept close to my body, except for an extension of multiple arms to hold my gun. I pointed the barrels backward, so the domed, half-a-pear shape of the housing of the weapon was at its most aerodynamic.
The wind whipped past the gun, too.
The voice out of nowhere almost made me change course.
Just a pop of the metal as I shifted my grip on the gun, followed by an eerie whistle of wind.
I had the shivers.
Chevalier’s shot had marked the opening of the fight. Capes moved in, opening fire, filling the battlefield with moving pieces, like pillars, statues, giant concrete hands, forcefields, lasers.
A mess, but this was part of the strategy.
The expendable and the invincible were next in. Tinkertech, minions, and a brave few capes.
Dragon had a craft in there, vaguely turtle-like, with a glowing orb mounted in its back, its legs ending in thrusters it used to move in an ungainly way through the sky.
The Simurgh played a defensive game.
This too, was a… I changed my mind from saying habit. It was a tendency. Better to think of her like a natural disaster. The water receded before tsunami. The calm in the midst of a hurricane indicated you were in the midst of it, and that more was to come.
I took aim, flipping the gun around so the barrel pointed forward, and a crosshair appeared at my target. The tinkertech.
The golden laser flashed through the air, illuminating streets and buildings below me. Her wing, at the same time, came out, a shield to block the machinery she carried with her. The laser cut into the exterior, leaving her silver wings with a shaky scar that glowed a molten gold at the edges.
She ignored me, putting a large wing in the way as I continued to try to find an angle where I could tear into that tinkertech.
I could hear it now. The scream.
In red-edged letters, a countdown began rolling down in the corner of my vision. Exposure.
Another alert, in gold text. Instructions to avoid shooting one area, marked out. People were within, difficult to see from the distance I was shooting from. Couldn’t slip up, now, with how finnicky laser beams were to keep on target.
We’d had reports from Legend that the Machine Army had used deflectors. I had to keep that in mind, too. If she pulled the wing back and the deflector caught my laser at the right angle, which it would, then the beam could hit someone vital.
The gun whined, the whine joining the sound in my head.
“Sorry,” the wind said.
I couldn’t let my focus slack by even a fraction. Not even to read an alert that didn’t even require my eye to move for me to bring it into clear focus. It was gold text, at the very least. Not-
The text changed. Outlined in red, not gold, now.
I stopped shooting, sparing a look.
The Machine Army broke containment.
I pulled the trigger again, going after the tinkertech again. At the corner of my vision, golden alerts and labels popped up, notifying me that teams were deploying to the site, to try and corral the escaped machines.
I’m sorry, younger me, I thought. More than anything else, you thought we’d be confident. You envisioned yourself standing with glowing swords or grenades in hand, unflinching and confident.
Two threats to overcome, and I had a maybe idea for the second.
The first had just ruined any hope we had at reclaiming Gimel, and she was in her warm-up phase.
“This will be the final attack,” Chevalier announced, and his voice was deep, assured. “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 and protecting the perimeter when it comes to the Machine Army.”
Narwhal spoke next, all business, serious, her back ramrod straight, her body in a double-thick layer of forcefield crystals, her hair a white-purple, down to the small of her back. “The Titan Network is now down to Arachne, standalone, Skadi, standalone, then the trio of Titan Kronos, Titan Eve, and Titan Oberon. The remainder of the Titans are in the Fortuna cluster. Fortuna, Valkyrie, Ophion, the Blind Titan, Amenonuhuko, Morgana, Yakshini, Titan Shortcut, Auger, the Liminal Titan or Custodian Titan…”
Images helped notify everyone about the Titans, with icons for broad classifications, notes on powers. My phone buzzed at my hip as it updated with information. Not that I could imagine that I’d be pulling my phone out much.
“…The Nemean, Ashoka, Pouffe, and Ashen Titans are out of action, sequestered away or injured and healing.”
Let’s just ignore that I couldn’t recite that list of Fortuna’s titans back to you. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
Sveta had her arms folded, fingers hooked into the gaps in her forearms. Rain was nodding to himself. Byron stood away from the rest of the group, closer to the stage and to Vista. Closer to Moonsong, who was at one corner of the stage, representing the Shepherds. Seeing him like that made me think that Breakthrough might cease to be when this was over.
I wasn’t sure that bothered me.
“Above all,” Chevalier addressed the room. “Whether you’re facing Fortuna or not, the key here is to avoid panicking. Don’t lose heart. We can do this.”
When he said it, I kind of believed him.
“I know this because I see too many faces I’ve been through too many all-or-nothing battles with. For years we fought Endbringers with the knowledge that one more loss might be what broke us. We fought Scion. Tonight, we fight one more Endbringer, we face down the Fortuna cluster, and we’ll put plans into motion.”
I had the sense that a lot of people believed him. He wasn’t leader of the Wardens for nothing. People in the crowd looked energized, enthused. Scared as shit, but a scared they could push past.
To my left, something clicked and hissed. I turned my head, hand going to my hood to pull it away from my peripheral vision.
Chris had just taken one of his injections by way of the heavy metal collar with the ring of syringes mounted on it. His expression was unimpressed, dark. He looked back at Thunderdome, one of Advance Guard’s capes, someone he’d had a momentary bit of friction with, and I wondered if he was sorry, but unable to phrase it.
Then he marched off. Walking away from all of this.
Legend, approaching from the side, flew to the stage. When he looked over the crowd, a slice of his face shimmered in rainbow hues, with smokey waves rolling off the top and back of his head. An eye like a perfectly round white disk ringed by darker colors sat where his eye was supposed to be.
“The Simurgh! Pay attention, even if you won’t be fighting her. You can’t know what will happen!” Legend announced, and he was confident, assured. If the head injury had impaired his faculties any, it didn’t show. “Our analysis of the Simurgh comes from years of experience! I can tell you, don’t let your guard down. She will surprise us. She will throw curveballs at us. In all the times we’ve engaged with her, she has had new tricks. Stay the course!
Images of the Simurgh appeared on the screens.
“Her precognition gets better at assessing targets and threats the longer they are in range of her scream. The initial attack is key. She will not dodge everything we throw at her. You may feel the attacks don’t matter. They do! Our initial approach will emphasize chaos and disturbance. This delays the point in time where she has the ability to see everything! We will rotate people in and out, minimizing exposure. Past a certain ‘code yellow’ point you’re an increasing danger to others. Past a ‘code red’, you become her weapon to use against humanity. Play it safe, taper off, be prepared to back out, or know who you can go to to get a ride or evacuation. We will have resources as we split apart the teams.”
Narwhal added, “There will be further instructions for sub-teams and groups. Noncombat capes are being held in reserve at key locations. Team leaders will be notified about these preparations. Finally, civilians are deployed and are waiting to target specific sites in the crystal landscape. Be prepared.”
Chevalier addressed us. “I can’t say much more than that. I don’t give long speeches-”
There were a few chuckles. There was a rare smile from Narwhal.
“-Don’t panic, believe. I trust you.”
There was light applause, some whoops. Dinah Alcott rose from her seat and approached Legend and Chevalier. Giving them input.
As much as it was a speech staple for Chevalier to talk about giving short speeches. I couldn’t help but feel like they were rushing things because we didn’t have time. I could feel the touch of panic already.
The scream filled my head, impossibly high and drawn out, cold and changing just often enough that I couldn’t anticipate it or get used to it.
My teeth were clenched so hard that the sides of my face hurt.
The early part of the fight was supposed to be the crucial part, where we did as much damage as possible. I could liken it to how Contessa got fatigued and needed to devote more resources to staying on task, but again, always, this Endbringer that wasn’t brutish and noisy, not feral and animal-like, but graceful. There were times she moved like a dance with wings would move. Not so much spinning and leaping, but moving in measured ways, with a full awareness of her body and an audience in mind.
The early phase of the fight was passing. In my vision, people and the powers they were using were being marked out in a dim yellow. We weren’t doing a lot of damage.
Yeah, panicking a little.
She swept her wings out, and across this stage she’d created inside the ring of broken buildings, snow and dust picked up, with a gravely sound as it pulled free from ground, debris that hadn’t been picked up clattering back down to earth.
“Ick.” the background noise said, sounding very much like someone with stiff enunciation was whispering in my ear. “Sick.”
A building, leaning against another building, creaked. Again, the sound threatened to become a sound, and my brain reached to interpret it as a human utterance, even though I knew it wasn’t.
The tracker Dragon was providing me with fritzed, going dark, showing a vague Simurgh silhouette in the cloud, then another, a hundred feet away.
After that second guess, there was nothing. Only the cloud of cover she’d made, labels and indicators for where people were being tracked by the phones or other devices they carried, and alerts for distant battlefields.
The battlefield went still, quiet. A few powers flickered and flared, but the dust hung in the air.
The screaming I’d come to take as steady background noise ceased. My brain felt like my body did in the stillness after a hard workout, blood pulsing through it, shaky, and a bit vulnerable.
I flew down to be closer to my team. Just in case.
Dragon’s spherical craft was crackling, sending out spherical waves that rippled over the crowd, over parts of the battlefield. A whole section of the dust cleared away, stripped of the Simurgh’s telekinetic hold.
She chose that moment to emerge, while our eyes were searching the gap for any sign. She wasn’t even that far from me. From Breakthrough.
The scream tore through my senses, everyone’s senses, delaying our response. The countdown timer in the corner of my vision whirred, a speedometer flying by, costing me tens of seconds with every moment.
Byron had motes ready to go. Dark blue motes consolidated into something like coral, between stone, organic, and ice, with a faint spiral to it. A spear, thrust at the Endbringer, who took the blow to one shoulder. A scar to join a dozen others. Light blue motes hung in the air, fat blue fireflies with trails left behind them.
She leaned back away from it, changed direction, plunging into another group. Villains from Semiramis’ faction.
We had others nearby. I could hear Finale’s voice, distant, setting up her attack. Withdrawal was perched nearby, Sveta beside him.
Gibbet was creating a barrier, a cluster of metal barricades and fencing that emerged in different sizes and angles.
The Dragon craft drew nearer. The Bakunawa Zero, with its pulses that disrupted powers and power effects. I knew the idea was to throw as much chaos as possible at the Simurgh, to disrupt her reads, to scramble her signal and her information gathering as she screamed.
She used the chunk of Machine Army tech she’d brought with her. Flung it out with telekinesis, so fast I thought it would be dashed to pieces. The size of a washing machine, it flew straight at one of the pieces of antigravity tech, was pushed away, and between the velocity and the pushback, came to a stop, a foot or two from the glowing panel.
It latched on.
I aimed, leveraging my forcefield to bring the gun around, ready to shoot the thing off of her. She was already taking evasive action, trying to shake it off, the pulses rippling out with more violence than before.
Couldn’t take the shot without risking I’d do more damage. If she was backing off like this… she had to trust it.
The information that was coming through the tech at my eye went dark. No outlines, no labels.
The world was dark, cold, and filled with an endless scream.
The Simurgh was wading through everything and everyone, her wings acting as shields, her telekinesis deflecting incoming projectiles. Caryatid blocked one. I could hear Damsel using her power.
Chevalier, nowhere nearby, fired his cannon again. The Simurgh flew back, her shoulder torn open, the interior revealed to be hollow, the edges of the wound frayed and lace-like.
I’d seen injuries like that in the re-enactments and recreations too.
It slowed her down, and bought our side time. Chris had the giants he hadn’t sent to deal with Titans in reserve, and two of those giants joined the fight now. The Goddess giant and the Mother giant. A tide of flesh, narrowly missing our back line here, forming into a loose hand shape as it reached for the Simurgh, and gripped telekinetically frozen air instead.
The Simurgh lifted a length of metal that might have been part of a crane, once. A second later, it was slapped down to the ground. The Goddess Giant, countering her.
We had time to regroup, to figure out what we were doing. Two giants fought the Simurgh, who remained where she was, wings in a loose ball-shape around her, air telekinetically held where it was to serve as a shield just past where the wings were, and a crowd of capes retreated, finding steadier ground that wasn’t in the literal shadow of the Simurgh and her wings.
I offered a hand to Byron. Sveta helped Rain. Cryptid moved closer to his giants, wearing a form wreathed in folds of too-thick skin, brutish and broad-shouldered, with a kilt-like wreath of cloth around his hips. He shouted out incoherent orders, hand indicating directions.
Damsel of Distress was launched into the air by someone’s power, and descended onto the bubble of hardened air, blasting through it with her blasts of twisted darkness, plunging at the Simurgh herself.
This is too easy. What’s the catch?
She’d just used one piece of the Machine Army. The Simurgh had been holding two earlier. There was no outline, no indicator, even as I could see labels and markings elsewhere.
“Shit!” I swore, as I flew up, back, taking in the cloud of mist, trying to remain peripherally aware of . There were labels marking the people who’d been caught in the midst of the cloud of disturbed earth. I kept track of them, mapped her approximate location, reached into a handhold to turn a dial, to make the laser fatter.
The beam cut through suspended ice and dust, burned it, and cleared something of a path. I tried to trace the Simurgh’s path back to where she had been.
I found and hit a drone, and fried it beneath the laser. Metal turned to orange-white slag. Orange-white slag turned black, then became dust, caught by the stiff winds that didn’t budge this snow and grit.
Every time we grab her arm, reach inside her sleeve, and find the card she’s holding, it turns out there’s more waiting.
I was feeling the pressure. The scream, the fact was needed to win here, and the path to a win was beating her. There was a saying that people sometimes brought up when the Simurgh was mentioned. Win the battle, lose the war.
In part, I had been bracing myself for a hard-fought battle that we could ultimately win. We could subdue her or scare her away, disrupt every possible variable available with precogs and tech, and focus on the next leg of the plan, getting ahead of Fortuna. The Wardens had a plan and I had my doubts it would work, and I had a plan, with my doubts it would work. But between the two, leaning on that assumption about the Simurgh losing the battle but scoring a win later, I’d been able to see a way forward.
We weren’t winning this battle.
I killed another drone.
She’d brought two. One had latched onto Dragon’s ship. One had melted beneath the laser.
I shot another two glowing blue lights I could see in the smoke. Two more machines broken. I didn’t have the time to completely annihilate them, because I could see other lights and movements as the laser burned away more of the cloud.
Something clicked to my right. I twisted, flipping the gun over, using six different hands to roll it. A metal disc surrounded by claws had dug into the metal, and the disc was attached to a thin cable.
There was a pull.
Creating a face out of forcefield, I bit into the line, severing it.
There were more. Grappling-claws latching on, reaching out.
I faced an ongoing attack from foes I couldn’t clearly see, and behind me, the Simurgh fought her way free of the giants. Sections of damaged land were lifted up, and people evacuated, leaping to cover or forming ground to jump onto- Byron’s conch glacier, Gibbet’s fences, a solid-gold bit of ruined building.
My retreat was a fighting one, as I scrambled to tear away the grappling claws. Machines that had latched on were reeling in, emerging from the smoke and floating debris.
Fucking fuckity fuck fuck fuck.
A white cube rose up out of the smoke, about fifteen feet across on each face, with six black spider legs and three green lights on the front ‘face’.
The lights flared, and a laser beam drilled into the child-flesh of the Mother Giant, parting that wave.
I pulled away more of the grappling lines and rose up higher. Once I’d achieved enough height to not be constantly bound down, I shot the big cube, aiming at the glowing lenses until the power cell behind them detonated.
Ten different drones rose up out of the mist. C-shaped, with rigid propellers on mounts. They were followed by five more.
I’d read the files on Eagleton, Tennessee. I knew the basics about the Machine Army. A tinker experiment gone awry, the original master gone or forgotten. They were slow, inexorable.
This wasn’t slow.
At the quarantine site, Protectorate capes and the rare Ward who couldn’t be put in front of the public would be given the busywork of keeping tabs on the site. Capes who had problematic powers that would hurt the PRT’s place in the world. Capes who had broken too many rules or succumbed to their problems. Machines would plant seeds for future machine growth in any solid surface, set up traps, and refine resources.
Maybe once every year or two, they pulled out a new trick, a new piece of research. The big cannon-drone was one such trick, serious destructive power that the people on the perimeter would have to be wary of. There were slave-drones, that captured people, and tried to borrow their powers. There were meat lockers, named by one of the perimeter officers, that ran computers that were organic, not technology, and acted with fervor and unpredictability.
There were protocols for if they developed flying. People to call, tinkertech that was held in reserve, to bring a hellish lightning storm down on Eagleton. There were protocols for shielding and intelligence and whatever else.
They were pulling out new cards, new deployments, and they were doing it fast, like they had been storing it up in the background and they were releasing it all now.
“Byron!” I called out.
Byron was working with Vista and Clockblocker. Trying to create fixtures that latched onto the Simurgh and limited her movements. Shaping them, then freezing them. He turned to look.
“Cover this! They want it!”
“Give it here!”
‘Here’ was a clearing he marked with light blue motes.
I half-placed, half-threw the tech, letting it skid to the middle of the designated area.
Capes were diving into the Machine Army situation, here. I waited to make sure the gun was secure. Byron let the light blue motes become mist, and where the mist touched, they left layers of ice.
He buried it in ice, while still drawing out the other shape.
I threw myself into the mist.
Spin, I thought. Forcefield whirling around me, extra limbs extended. To move the dust away.
Drones were revealed, not even twenty feet from where my team was.
My hand found a handhold in the rim around the lens that served as its eye, then the forcefield of that hand expanded out, more hands reaching out from that point, to find every bit of leverage.
The drone was torn in half. I used the one half to smash the second drone, then the other half fanned at the mist, with force that only enhanced strength could provide.
The onslaught was constant. Flying drones above- I flew up, reached for them, wincing as laser cutters raked along the side of my forcefield, straining it. I was able to destroy them before the forcefield gave out.
A grappling hook snapped out, clinging to my breastplate.
I flew straight to the source, kicking it before my forcefield was even back up.
Forcefield teeth severed the wire. Forcefield hands pulled drones apart.
Finally, I found the source.
Surrounded by eight other lesser drones, there was a drone that was low and flat to the ground, with long legs that extended more out than up and down. The low, flat portion was bowl-shaped, and held a blur of dark gray with too-sharp edges demarcating its edges.
That blur distorted, becoming square, as a drone materialized, climbing through it.
We got a report about them getting access to portal technology.
She brought a portal with her. The army emerged from the portal.
Grappling hooks fired out, striking at my forcefield, destroying it, then caught onto the metal of my costume.
I flew forward, wincing with every impact, forceful enough when they hit my breastplate to make me stop midway through exhaling or inhaling. The impacts at my wrist or shin made pain jolt from the end of the limb to the other, my fingers or feet briefly going numb.
The forcefield came back, and I tore my way free.
But in shaking ten of the grappling hooks free, flying twenty feet forward, I found myself facing another twenty latching claws.
The portal drone waddled away, as I faced more and more resistance.
“Sveta!” I called.
Machines echoed me, repeating the sounds and sound fragments in a digital, radio-static squeal.
“Already here!” I heard.
I shook my way free of the grappling claws. More came- and this time Sveta grabbed them out of the air.
The portal drone was producing other drones. It was constant, one new drone every few seconds, but the drones it had just created…
Two more portal drones.
That explains it.
The mist was dropping, snow and suspended dust falling away. It made the view clearer. I could see a hundred feet out, maybe.
There were a good ten portals near us already, each producing a new machine every few seconds. Many of those were new portal drones.
I flew into the three closest to us. My forcefield tore them up in the half-second before I landed in a crouch.
Rain flew at a speed I couldn’t rival, straight for another set of portal drones. He stopped himself mid-air, then slashed out with a sword, delivering a kick to sever the silver lines.
Sveta grabbed onto me to help hurl herself forward, grabbed Rain, and threw him again.
The grappling claws were getting more intense. Sveta was helping, but- we were wading through an army that compounded itself every minute.
One grapple-claw latched onto me. The rectangular box that was attacking me opened up, revealing the meat that coated the inside of the box’s walls, and the creature within, half-melted, burned, with empty sockets for eyes, human in silhouette, reached for us with a club-like hand.
The grapple claw that had a grip on me was attached to a cable too thick to cut through with my forcefield teeth.
I reached for the grapple claw, and gripped it with forcefield hands.
Crushing it between multiple hands, I freed myself, then went on the offensive, smashing the bot into the craggy ground right behind it.
As the dust and snow fell away, I could see the various colored lights across this clearing. eyes, cameras, and sensors. In a way, the ring of buildings around the park served to give us more of a perimeter. A hundred of the meat lockers, a dozen giant laser cubes. Two hundred smaller boxes. Thirty portals.
All by design.
Dozens and dozens of the machines were tossed into the air, like a wave. I looked, and saw the Goddess Giant flying toward us. She destroyed every one that was within her range. Lasers focused on her, and she avoided the beams.
“What would you do without me?” Chris asked, still with the hard ‘t’.
“Thank you, Chris,” Precipice said.
The Goddess Giant attack was a momentary respite. A chance to breathe, and to wipe away blood where claws had dug into my flesh as part of getting their grip.
I looked back in the direction we’d come.
The Simurgh was gone. Heroes had mobilized, pushing in against the Machine Army. Because we had to get them before they took root.
“Where did she go?” I asked. I would have checked the device in my eye, but it was dark, no better than my eye without the device.
“Wardens’ headquarters,” Chris said.
It wasn’t a surprise.
The Simurgh didn’t have habits, didn’t have personality, didn’t have wants or needs. She acted. She went after big, vulnerable targets, and the Wardens Headquarters was packed full of refugees and noncombat capes. Kid capes.
Dinah. The Heartbroken. Tinkers. Thinkers.
Their powers weren’t so useful for the battlefield, but they might be critical here.
I’m sorry, younger me. I feel like you would have wanted to take a stand, here. This isn’t noble, putting them in the line of fire, but it may be necessary.
“Portals up?” I asked.
“If Dragon isn’t in contact, probably not,” Sveta said.
“Phones are active, at least,” Chris said. “I can try calling, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Please,” I said, nodding.
If phones are active, we still have some hope. We need Bonesaw. We need Contessa. We need a lot of things to make anything happen. We have a plan for Fortuna, but that’s just for Fortuna.
It felt like we were playing from behind, and it was getting worse. She’d dropped a fucking army on us, and I wasn’t sure we weren’t going to be paying for that later.
If there was a later.
I floated up a bit to check the battlefield. Drones were hiding under terrain, portal-drones hidden in a shallow cave.
Swooping down, I picked up rocks the size of my head, and hurled them simultaneously in a loose shotgun spray. The portal winked out.
“On to the next stage of the plan,” I said, trying to emulate Chevalier a bit. To sound confident, calm. We’d anticipated this. We’d play into it. I saw Sveta and Rain nod, and I felt encouraged by the fact that they seemed encouraged.
“The next stage of our plan or the Simurgh’s?” Chris asked, because he couldn’t let us have that.
I gave him a stern look, in part because I didn’t have a good answer.