Last – 20.2

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No portals meant we had to take the long way back.  This, I had to imagine,  was part of the Simurgh’s plan.  Draw us out, tie us down, and then go after the biggest target.

It felt bad.  I was aware of the running clock.  The countdown Dragon had provided had shut off when she’d gone dark, but that was for Simurgh exposure.  We had another countdown- the time before she merged with Titan Fortuna and enacted her plan.

The back of the Uther was smaller than I’d imagined it being, equivalent to my old bedroom in Brockton Bay, or Crystal’s living room, and there were a lot of us left to find our seats or places to stand.  Defiant was up front, piloting a flight of Dragon’s ships to land near other groups, to carry other people who had fought the Simurgh.

As we’d climbed in, there had been a few weird voids that formed, spaces people had been reluctant to fill.  Benches had been quickly claimed, then ceded to the injured.  The center aisle down the back of the craft was harder to fill, but Defiant deployed drop-down handholds from the ceiling.  There had still been a void, however, around Defiant.  Like nobody wanted to bother him or seem too familiar.

I braved it, stepping into those five feet or so of empty space.  There was a passenger seat, and I stood with my back to it and to Defiant.  Sveta found a position just to my left.

Byron sat down hard on the seat, metal against metal, and put his head back, eyes closed.

Couldn’t be easy, even with the general help Chris had provided.  And there was no Vista backing him up here.  She had her own people and team to look after.  Presumably in the Dragon ship with a single curved horn that I could see outside.

“ETA: ten minutes,” Defiant said.  “Whatever she’s doing back at the Wardens’ headquarters, it’s her final move before she goes after Titan Fortuna.”

The hatch at the back closed.  The last few people crowded in.  Chris took a seat with his back to the hatch, which most avoided leaning against or standing near.  As if it might open mid-flight and see them tip out.  I could imagine Chris growing emergency wings or a means of surviving the landing if he had to.

“Waiting for the other ships to board,” Defiant announced, without glancing back at us.  His spear telescoped and he placed it in a socket in the wall.  “I know you want to get there as soon as possible, but I’ll be flying every ship we have myself, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a ship I can’t see in the event of an ambush, especially with signal latency and reliability right now.”

“Did we make the wrong call, engaging her here?” I asked Defiant.

“There are no right calls when dealing with her,” Defiant said.  “Have a look for yourself.”

A projected map of the city appeared between the two seats.  I turned and looked.

The buildings were drawn out in grey-blue, with whole stretches of the city flattened or eaten up by the cracks.  The good guys were icons in green, floating over scattered dots.  Titans stood out in bold red, with slight color variation for Fortuna’s cluster, crimson, against Dauntless’s, pink.  Arachne and the other independents were orange.

“Draw a circle with your finger to pick up.”

I experimented.  Damsel of Distress was in the back of the craft, and moved closer.  Withdrawal also drew closer, looking.

Keep everyone close to the Wardens’ headquarters.

“How do I play it out?”

“Hm.  You’ll need something for that.  Didn’t cross my mind,” he said, voice low, attention on his screens, which had nothing to do with the simulation.

“You’re that far gone, Defiant?” Clockblocker called out, from the far end of the other bench.  “Forgot about us mere mortals needing keyboards and mice and voice commands to operate tech?”

Defiant grunted, in what might have been annoyance, assent, or negation.

“I remember liking the interfacing he made for tech he helped me with,” Kid Win said.  Was it Kid Win?

“Give me a moment,” Defiant said.

“Hey, Kid Win,” I said, addressing him from the opposite corner of the Uther’s rear bay.  “Did you end up changing your name?  You went by your civilian name when we crossed paths.”

“I had ideas.  Clockblocker is trying to convince me of Winman.”

“No,” I said.

“It works,” Clockblocker’s humor was audible in his tone.  “Like a wingman, but without the ‘g’.”

“That makes no sense,” Damsel of Distress told him.

“We’re part of the cursed generation,” Clockblocker said, his bench leaning forward from the weight of two other members of the Flock and some of Deathchester sitting on it.  He lifted a bandaged ankle up to his knee.  “A lot of the good names were taken, we were young and inexperienced as things started ramping up… most of the people my age were totally unprepared for the world ending.  We only got ‘lucky’ because our city went to shit.”

“Lucky,” Christopher said, almost inaudible.

“I like my name,” Finale said.  “Finale.  It really works.”

I was ninety-five percent sure it was taken.  I decided not to break her heart by saying so.  Caryatid too, for that matter.

The chatter continued.  Defiant’s voice was deep and distinctive enough to cut through it.

“Antares.  Slash your hand through it to execute.  Same movement in reverse to stop.”

“Good word, execute,” Damsel observed, leaning into the top of his seat.  One of her hands hung limp at her side, claws dragging across the floor.

I executed, karate-chopping the simulation.  Everyone close to the Wardens’ base, assuming the Simurgh would arrive there.

She didn’t.  She moved to the largest encampment of refugees.  I adjusted, moving some people around.

“Taking off!” Defiant raised his voice.  “Take your seats or grab a handhold!”

I used a grip on the passenger seat to keep myself upright until I had a sense of where the craft was going, then used flight to help keep up.  I adjusted the response teams for the crisis, then karate-chopped the projection again.

Red dots began to surround the Simurgh.  Civilians, I assumed, who were being weaponized and turned into threats.  Heroes mobilized, used portals…

And the Machine Army escaped its perimeter.

I stopped, sent forces over, drawing a circle around a group of teams, then directing them to the Machine Army.

Something wiped out half of the forces on the heroes’ side.

“What?” I asked.

“You can go back,” Defiant said.  “The simulations assume some worst case scenarios.  Bombs, betrayals, all-out losses, outside intervention, groups you’ve split off being turned into her pawns.”

“I don’t think I want to play this game,” I said.  I adjusted my flight as Defiant turned the Uther a bit.

“I am always playing this game,” Defiant said.  “I play through it on fast forward, adjusting on the fly, working out who is where, what the enemy is doing.  On the battlefield, I simulate what my opponents will do.”

“Almost like a precog.”

“No,” he said.  “I am very good at assessing battlefields.  That’s all it is.  Right now, we’re in a state where we have next moves we can make.  Stay focused, don’t lose heart.”

And prepare for that bomb, all-out loss, intervention, or whole groups being taken as her pawns, I thought.

“Can I?” Withdrawal asked.

“Go right ahead,” I told him.

He was in an awkward position, his limb-extension frame making him too tall for the Uther, but he found a crouching position, had his frame grab a handhold above, and detached from it so he could reach forward and experiment with the simulation.

“Damsel,” Rain said.

“That’s Damsel of Distress to you.  Use my full name, you cretin.”

Behave,” Defiant called out.

“Your arm,” Rain said, indicating the arm that hung limp at her side.

“There are things about a lady you don’t remark on if you care about your well being.  Age, weight, and war wounds.”

“Words to live by,” Sidepiece said, reclining back on the bench, so her ripped-up stomach stretched, strings of flesh snapping where they extended too far from upper to lower body.  There were little sparks and puffs of smoke where the spatter hit the floor and Caryatid’s dress.

Rain leaned forward, pulling off his mask, squinting.  “That doesn’t look like battle damage.  Your muscles further up your arm are twitching, which reads to me like a connection issue.”

“There are four things about a lady you don’t remark on, you drooling malcontent.”

“Do you want me to fix it?  I’m not at my best today, but that’s easy stuff.”

“The arm works, I’m choosing not to use it.”

“Because it hurts when you do.  Let me fix it.”

“Who are you to tell me what to do?”

“Oh my god,” Sveta whispered.

“Damsel of Distress,” I said.  She snapped her head around to glare at me.  “It means you’re more focused, and you can annihilate more chunks of Endbringers and Titans.  I saw you out there.  We all want you out there as long as possible.”

“You want me weak,” she told us.  “So your dear Swansong can sneak in, blur the boundaries between me and her, take over, and then you’ll have her back.”

I shook my head.  “If that’s really a thing that happens, you being in constant pain is going to make you weaker than deigning to have a tinker service your arm.”

“I know what you do, Antares,” she told me.  “I know how you brainwashed Swansong.  You pick your words.  ‘Deign’.  ‘Service me’.”

I folded my arms.  “So?  That’s the game, Damsel of Distress.  The back and forth.  Villain preys on civilian, hero fights villain, civilian supports hero, or they’re supposed to.  The hero-villain interplay continues until something so big and bad happens that we get stuck on the same battlefields.  When that happens, we put aside the old rivalries and snark at each other, picking words carefully, cutting each other down with words while cooperating in general.”

“Or you could not cut each other down,” Finale said.

“Can’t help it,” Damsel said.  “I have blades for fingers.  I could pat you on the cheek, child, but I might slash your throat.”

“I’m eighteen.”

Chris snorted.  “Weren’t you sixteen two years ago, Ash?  You were brought out of the cloning vats at the same age you were when you were at your peak, back in Boston.  You’re the same age as that ‘child’.”

“Look how conveniently positioned you are.  I could obliterate you and the mess would get sucked straight out the back of this ship.”

“You could not obliterate him!” Defiant raised his voice.  “You are a guest on my ship, we are operating under a truce!”

“Killjoy,” Sidepiece snorted.

“Let’s not bait the A-tier cape,” Disjoint murmured to her.

“Wait, when’s your birthday?” Chris asked, baiting both Damsel and the A-tier cape.  “I’m curious if you’re younger.”

Chris,” Sveta said, beating me to it by a hair, her voice sharp.

Rain started to get up, hesitated, and then navigated his way through the people in his way, mainly Caryatid, a flock member, and Withdrawal’s frame.  Damsel of Distress looked like she was going to say something, but he dropped to his knees.

“Give me your arm?” he asked.  He put a hand out, reaching into a pocket of his costume for tools.

“I have more tools if you need them, Precipice,” Defiant said.

“Great,” Rain said.  “I don’t think I will, this should take a minute or two.  If she’s willing.”

Damsel made a head movement that might have been her rolling her eyes, except she didn’t have irises or pupils, so the effect was somewhat lost.  She laid her hand in his, blades facing up and resting along his side.  He sliced open her wrist, accessing the mechanical parts of the hands that the blade-fingers were mounted on.

“Anyone else need first aid?” Clockblocker asked.  “I remember stuff.”

“Ooh, could you patch me up?” Sidepiece asked.  “My stomach has a small hole in it.”

“Urgh,” Finale said.

“I don’t think I could manage that,” Clockblocker said.

“Too bad.  I could use the extra ammo.”

“Uhh, what about you?” Clockblocker asked Trophy Wife.  “Your arm?”

She had some fingers that were pretty badly mangled, bending the wrong ways, broken in multiple places.  One of her ears was missing.

“I don’t need anything.  I regenerate slowly.”  She indicated the trophy rack that was mounted on her back, there were bits of meat, gristle, one eyeball that wasn’t human, and two fingers attached to it.  She touched a dead, dried, tailless lizard.  “It’s not much, but I’m granting some benefits to everyone in this craft.”

“Wait, those things are real?” Finale asked.  “Even those fingers?”

“A neurosurgeon’s fingers.”

“Urgggh, no, that’s so wrong, and gross, and creepy.”

“Those are fresh,” Christopher said.  “You actually chopped off a neurosurgeon’s fingers in the last twenty-four hours?”

“He supplied me other fingers before.”

Finale put her hands over her ears.

“That’ll be enough, please,” Caryatid said.

“What’s going on with that guy?” Sidepiece asked.

“A drug addiction he picked up writing his own scrip before Gold Morning and a terrible debt he got after.  I asked him if he wanted to give me a pinky finger or a hundred thousand New Dollars.  He gave me the pinky.  When people were packing up their things and evacuating the city, he knocked on my door.  He wanted to ensure he didn’t go without, offered me everything he owned.  I took two more fingers instead.”

“Barbaric,” I noted.

“He’s contributing more to stop the end of the world than the rest of them,” Trophy Wife said.  “Quicker fingers and better hand-eye coordination for me and everyone around me.”

“A good share of them are down in the crystal landscape, preparing to bomb it again,” I told her.  “I wouldn’t be so sure they’re not making an impact.”

The woman shrugged, fur collar rising and falling.

“This is depressing,” Withdrawal said, before abandoning the projected simulation.  He retreated back to where Finale was.

Christopher approached, but he didn’t engage with the simulation.  I watched his metallic eyes surveying the technology around him.

“It’s good to have you on board, Win,” Defiant said.  Less authoritarian and stern than I’d heard him since we’d gotten on board.

“It’s not a complete me, but… sure.  I feel like I’ve been away for a very long time, I returned to my hometown, and everything’s changed.  Me included.”

“I have tools if you want to while away the remaining minutes.”

“Nah,” Christopher said.  “Unless you’re trying to get rid of me.”

“No.”

The projection disappeared, and appeared in the passenger seat.  Arms crossed, I looked over the headrest as it started shifting, showing movements.  It looked like the Simurgh was at the Wardens’ new Headquarters for this exercise.  The image divided, zooming into the headquarters to show the people within as dots.  A lot of dots.

“Planning?” I asked.

“No,” Defiant said.

I watched as dots began to turn yellow and orange around the Simurgh.  In the other half of the simulation, watching the city as a whole, there were violet dots spreading out from one of the portals.  The main perimeter of the Machine Army.

Damsel was craning her head to one side to watch, while Rain worked on her wrist.

This wasn’t a plan.  It was what was happening right this moment.

Kenzie, the Heartbroken, Tattletale.

My sister.

All in the hands of the Simurgh, as she exerted her influence.  Her last big play before taking over Fortuna.

I saw Christopher’s mouth press into a line as he eyed the simulation.  A few were turning red already.  It might have been my imagination, but I felt like the red dots were moving in a different way.  Against the current, or with more energy.

“Is Dragon okay?” I asked Defiant, trying to take my mind off of the Simurgh and the sea of dots.  I looked out the front window of the Uther instead, which was cracked from an earlier battle.  Some buildings glowed, powered by generators, but it was mostly dark and empty.

“She’s doing diagnostics.  The Machine Army making contact with her is a nightmare scenario.  She wants to be careful.”

“How dangerous is it?” Christopher asked.  “What if they got my tech?”

Defiant answered, “Then they would study it and incorporate it.  People fighting them weeks from now would have a harder time.”

“It seemed like they were pulling out new tricks a lot faster than that in the last fight,” I told Defiant.

“I know.  The Simurgh may have planned that.  It may be a psychological ploy to unnerve us.  At least for now, it might be better to think of ways to deal with her and put the Machine Army out of mind.  Other capes are working to try and slow the perimeter breach .”

Working to try, I thought, noting the wording.  Not succeeding.  Not stopping the breach.

“Okay.  Dealing with the Simurgh.  Cryptid,” I said, turning back.  I was interrupting ongoing conversations.  “Is the Mathers Giant in the facility?”

“It is.”

“Can she help?  Does that work as a countermeasure against the Simurgh?”

“That’s the idea,” he said.  No more hard ‘t’ sound to his voice.  He was mostly old Chris now.

I looked over to Defiant, “Does that factor into the calculations?  Does it change the end result?”

He turned to look at me, gaze moving between me and the dark, snow-dusted ruins of the city that was visible beyond the front window.  “If the answer was one you didn’t like, would you want me to tell you, or would you want your mind unfettered by distractions?”

“That’s a really ominous question to be asking right now, Defiant,” Sveta said, beside me.

Defiant was silent.

I was aware that conversations in the back had died down some.  Withdrawal was still engaging with Finale.

“Honesty is probably better,” I said.

“I already took it into account,” he said.  He reached out to touch a terminal, where he had been operating the craft without hands on controls earlier.

In the corner of my eye, I saw the projection change.

Our ships at the facility.  The Simurgh still there.

And there wasn’t a single person there who didn’t have some light exposure.  The facility was flooded yellow, with fifteen to twenty red dots and a mess of orange.  Light exposure, moderate exposure, and long-term dangers.

“We land in three minutes,” he told us.  “The phone call with Riley Davis, formerly known as Bonesaw, will be around the time of landing, given the expedition team’s current trajectory.  Who’s handling it?”

“I will,” I said.  “And the call to Contessa?”

“We’ll see when Dragon is back in touch.  For now, everything on that front is stalled.  If you happened to be out of contact, we could wait for you, but-”

“But you know what we need to ask her.  Just get back to me with the info?”

“Of course.”

I adjusted my flight as the crafts dipped, falling into a single-file line.  A part of me wanted to be out there, flying alongside, instead of cooped up in here with a bunch of villains and scared kids.

“I’m sorry, by the way,” I told Defiant.  “About disregarding your instructions, using the technology to access Precipice’s dream space.”

“I know.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that.  I tried, “I’ll assume you had simulations for that course of action.”

“No.  Not how it works.  I need data to draw on.  That was… far afield.  It could be that we needed that kind of thinking for this, but my feelings around that are still complicated.  It could have precipitated the end of the world, but we ended up needing it.”

“Complicated feelings are human,” I told him.

“Not limited to humans, I’m sure Dragon will tell you,” he replied.  “Going into this particular battlefield, we’ll need to keep a handle on our feelings.”

The Simurgh.  Mass madness.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I really hope we don’t need to use your plan,” he told me.  “But I accept that we need a contingency for the worst case scenario.”

“Amen,” Christopher murmured, under his breath.  He turned metallic eyes toward me.

I nodded.

It was my plan, but I couldn’t disagree.

“And with that said, as much as I welcome the conversation while my usual conversation partner is out of contact, I should focus on the next part of the flight.”

“Of course,” I said.

Christopher, ‘Kid Win’, flock member, just left without another word or comment.  Defiant seemed not to mind.

The flight that Defiant wanted to focus on was taking us through a portal between worlds.  The reason for his needing to focus became apparent when I saw how narrow the aperture was.  Most of the portals were centered around stations, or had been opened up to a particular size.  This portal was open around a station, the facility set up to serve as a gate for vehicles to pass through, forming a loose triangle shape.  Defiant piloted us toward the peak of the triangle high above the ground.

I could only eyeball it and remember the ship’s general shape, and I was pretty sure the sides would be scraping the portal’s edges and the belly would be scraping the uppermost part of the gate.

Beside me, Sveta touched Byron’s shoulder, gently shaking him awake.  His eyes opened.

I could see his expression change as he took in his surroundings, then reality caught back up with him.  From a faintly annoyed seventeen year old to a very confused teenager… the slight hint of pain or tension as he moved and felt injuries or soreness from overexertion.

Then a leap to an expression better suited to a world-weary twenty-seven year old than a teenager, trying to be stoic despite the accumulated anxieties, pain, and stresses of decades.

We passed through the portal, and the turbulence was violent.  The ship shuddered, and something broke outside.

“Um,” Caryatid said.

I wondered if being on a moving vehicle made it hard for her breaker state invulnerability to count.

“That was inconsequential battle damage from fighting Titans,” Defiant announced for everyone present.  “I chose the Uther because I’m most comfortable flying it, don’t worry.”

He was not very good at being reassuring.

Less reassuring was the sight of the old Cauldron facility.  The exterior of it was illuminated, and it was a white tombstone the size of a mountain, with details that only stood out if I looked for them.  Balconies, roads running from one balcony to the next.  There were humps further down, encasing pumps, filters, disposal.

Sveta sighed.  “Hate this place.”

“You’re about to hate it more,” Clockblocker said.  He held onto one of the hanging loops of metal that served as handholds.  “Simurgh’s in there?”

“She is,” Defiant answered.

“You good to fight?” Clockblocker asked Byron.

“Sure,” Byron said, a bit wary.

“Vista’s boyfriend,” Clockblocker said.  He looked over at his teammate.  “I feel like I should be stepping in or saying something, because I still imagine her as twelve.”

“A bit,” Christopher said.

“She’s said a lot about you two,” Byron said.  “The city you were heroes in, ups and downs.”

“You should share them sometime,” Clockblocker said.  “Winman and I, we’ve got gaps.”

“Sure,” Byron said.

“Please don’t use Winman,” I told Christopher.

Clockblocker just snorted.  He turned his attention back to Byron.  “You’ve gotta live for Vista, you know.  You can’t go breaking her heart.”

“I know.”

“Winman and I, we already failed her there.”

“I don’t know if it helps or it matters, but that’s not one of the things she mentions when she’s talking about you,” Byron said.

“She wouldn’t.  She didn’t when it was Aegis,” Clockblocker said, meeting my eyes.  “Or Gallant.”

“I don’t think you can look at it that way,” Byron said.  “It’s not failure.”

“It’s not exactly a success,” Christopher answered.

“Guys,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Capricorn lost his brother earlier tonight.  Let’s not debate it.”

If the two boys were going to say anything in response to that, and it looked like Christopher might from the frown that crossed his face, and his hand swept over his altered, golden hair, they didn’t, because the ship violently changed orientation as we came down for a landing.  People pulled hard on the handholds and gripped the bars by the benches.

The landing was rougher than the sudden post-dive pitch.  I could feel the grind as the landing gear scraped against our makeshift runway.

The Uther came to a complete stop.  The back hatch hissed before hydraulics eased it down.  Chris vaulted over before it was even halfway open.

Clockblocker gave Byron a helping hand in standing from the bench.  Everyone filed out, Deathchester at the rear.  Onto the ramp that extended around the base of the building’s first, second, and third floors, lit by lights inset in the wall and ramp’s edge, everything else around us dark.  Though it was white snow on white material, I could see footprints where the indents allowed for shadow.

Other ships had landed.  People were getting out.  Only a few of the Undersiders were in another ship – Rachel and Foil.  Tattletale and Imp were inside the facility.  Yellow dots turning orange or red as we got our bearings here.

There were the Shepherds, Advance Guard, Foresight.  I saw Crystalclear in Foresight’s midst.  Vista, rather than stand by Narwhal, joined Byron, taking his hand in hers.

Narwhal joined Defiant out in front of the half-circle of capes.

“Mission briefing, heads up!” Narwhal called out.  “No chatter!”

If there was any chatter, I hadn’t heard or seen it happening.  It seemed to stop, because she went straight to the rundown.

“We don’t have long, she’s projected to attack Fortuna in twenty minutes!  Our job is to do as much damage as possible to her, hem her in, and slow her down.  If you can’t do that or if you can’t get to her, then focus on targeting anyone that’s been compromised, so the greater population of capes and powers can engage with her or resume their ordinary duties.  I’ve already talked to sub-teams with their missions, which will involve limiting her access to the facility-wide communications and letting certain tinkertech out of the box.”

“Do not get bogged down,” Defiant told us.  “Do not get too deep into the facility.  If you have questions or need directions, make a phone call, I will be on the other end, provided distortion isn’t too heavy.”

“That’s it!  No time for anything prettier or more detailed!  If you’re here it’s because we trust you!” Narwhal shouted.  “The doors are there.  Go!”

Ships were taking off behind us, and the force of their takeoff produced wind and pulses of gravity from behind us.  Like a push to get us going.

My team got moving.  I flew behind them, wishing doors were taller so I could fly over people’s heads.

Defiant met my eyes, and brought his hand to the side of his head in the universal signal for phone.

Riley.  Or Contessa, but I wasn’t holding my breath for that call just yet.

I’d definitely be holding my breath for the call in general, though.  A word from Dragon.

“I’ll catch up,” I told my team.

“Good luck,” Precipice told me.

I nodded.

We need it.

Chris hung back as well.  He was transforming.  Everyone else was disappearing into the facility.

“Are you coming?” Byron called back.  “Cryptid?”

“I’ll catch up,” Cryptid said.

Phone at my ear, I listened.  There was a lot of rustling.  Voices.

“How is the flock, if Valkyrie is…?” Riley’s voice.

I heard my Aunt Sarah, “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?”

Worrying, if Riley is armed, I thought.

“Booting up,” a man said, before an under-his-breath, “I hope.  Get this working.”

“Any guesses?” Riley asked.

Aunt Sarah said, “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,” Riley told her.

“A lesson I had to learn on my own,” Aunt Sarah said.

Benefits of a doubt, dubiousness.  I wondered if she blamed herself for what Amy had become.

“You’re on,” another man said.

I resisted the urge to clear my throat, and got straight to business.  “Hello?  Riley Davis?”

“I’m here.”

I saw Chris’s newly grown fur-tufted ear twitch.  He was listening in.  Maybe he’d have insights.

“Good.  Thank you for taking the call.  Things are pretty dire here.”

“So I figured,” I heard her say.  “I got a basic rundown.  I was just gardening here, and the world’s ending all the way over there.”

“I’m…” I started.  I thought of what I’d seen of Jessica and Riley.  The strangling.  “I’m sorry it came to that.  Self-exile.”

“Nah,” she answered.  “I kind of don’t mind being on my own.  Spent my life with Jack and the rest.  It’s good for me.”

I wasn’t sure it was, but an argument threatened to use precious time.

“You should tell me what you want from me,” she said.  “Your sister is incapacitated, you need a good biology manipulator.  If we’re talking about serious work, it might take some serious tinkering.”

“It might,” I told her.

“Meaning I should get started now if it’s going to matter in… how long?”

Twenty minutes until the Simurgh made her play for Fortuna.

But Riley wasn’t required for that.  There was nothing she could theoretically do.

But after?

“No more than an hour, but it might be less than that,” I told her.  “Could be half that.”

“It would need to be deployed.  I’d have to get it from here to there,” she said.  “What is it?”

“It’s… genocide,” I answered her.

Chris was staring into my eyes.

“Oh.  Of?”

Us.”  No use dressing it up.

It wasn’t even easy to say.

“That’s a big ask.”

“I know, but we have resources-”

“For me, I mean.  As a person.  I don’t do that kind of thing.  I’m… I find outlets like squeaky toads and earpods, clones that aren’t clones.  I experiment with lifeforms that could seed other planets with life, and think about bio-rockets that might be able to get them there.  I make real life versions of cartoon characters and movie characters I used to like.  I don’t want to hurt people.”

“Even if it means saving everyone else?” I asked.

“I think I get why your sister wasn’t up to the task, now,” Riley said.  “Give me the details.”

I did, outlining the parameters, the distinctions, the scale we were talking.

“How long does it take for me to get from where I am to where you are?” Riley asked.

I heard Aunt Sarah’s response, even if I couldn’t make out every word.

“That’s too long, then.”

“I can do it.”

I looked over at Chris, who was twenty feet away.  Taking on a bestial form.  He was going for his old namesake, it seemed.  Black furred, rodent-like, lanky, with an arched back.  He’d just spoken despite a mouthful of crooked teeth.

“Can you give instructions to my old teammate?” I asked.  “He’ll access a lab to work, I’m assuming, put it together.”

“It would have to be a tinker,” Riley told me.  “Specialty in anything relating to biology, blood, cloning, genetics, parasites, or anything like that.”

“He is.”

“Then that works.  Good!  Perfect!  Cool.”

“We’ll be in touch,” I told her.

There was no time for niceties or farewells.

Chris and I ran through the doors, hurrying to catch up with the team.

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30 thoughts on “Last – 20.2”

  1. Well, that was a hell of a bomb for Antares to drop–or I hadn’t grasped it before now.

    Winman isn’t an *awful* name, but man, it isn’t a good one either. I guess anything that would fit with Kid Win, like *Victor* is already taken. He used to idolize Hero but that..might be in bad taste as a name.

    Also, good to see best boy Defiant again. He’s trying so very, very hard, and he deserves appreciation.

  2. Good! Perfect! Cool.

    Funny how doom looks so inoccuous: “but an argument threatened to use precious time” such a minor decision, it appears.

    “Withdrawal also drew closer, looking.”
    Years of writing just to set up that pun.

    There was no time for niceties or farewells.

    Chris and I ran through the doors, hurrying to vote for Ward. topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=ward

  3. -“I remember liking the interfacing he made for tech he helped me with,” Kid Win said. Was it Kid Win? ”

    Even a revived Tinker that is somehow different in terms of personality than he was before he died, is still a Tinker at his core and can’t help but admiring the work of other tinkers. Awesome. But I still hate his new codename, Winman. Hope he will not decide to keep it.

    -My God, Trophy Wife! I agree with everyone. Poor desperate surgeon :(.

    -“Nah,” she answered. “I kind of don’t mind being on my own”

    EXACTLY what Simurgh predicted that she will say for Chris’ ears. This isn’t good at all.

    -Riley and Chris working together to save the world. So much yessss.

  4. God, I so hope that”genocide”isn’t exactly literal and is more like “killing” all powers, destroy the Corona than actually kill parahumans. I don’t want all my favorite parahumans to die, just like that. Even for a noble purpose.

    1. Yeah, I initially thought Genocide of all humans, then, listening I thought “Us” sounded more like capes, or people with Corona Polentias… Then I was HOPING that it might be a target for ONLY the Corona Polentias, leaving them all alive.

      But that doesn’t seem so much like a plan for Defiant to be more reluctant about.

      Maybe there’s some imagination around everyone’s mind being in the shardspace and somehow able to influence things… Or maybe she regards genocide as Titanising everyone and joining the Dauntless network to outweigh and counter Fortuna.

  5. Thank god Victoria doesn’t have a lisp these days. Imagine if she’d said “genoscythe” instead…

  6. “it was a white tombstone” Cauldron killed one entity there and planed the death of the other one, it’s like a cosmic indigenous American burial ground, very eerie Lovecraftian hauntology even if you ignore all the human experimentation.

  7. I know we’re going for the “barely explained plan garuntee” here… but for serious, Big V, “Us” is gonna cover a whole range of possible options dear. You gotta be more specific.

    Also, good god, Chris is getting instructions for worlds number one extinction tinker, and is currently a simurigh weapon, this is going to go just great.

    Come ONNnnnn Dinah.

  8. oof… yeah, we’re relying a lot on the detachment of Chris’ bird form that this brings up being enough to prevent Simurgh’s corruption of him from working out. There’s still a chance of it tho, considering how it worked out against both Mathers and Goddess…

  9. @Jkyoulost

    The bird form comes about because of this convo.

    “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.”

    Hopefully the bird form will actually keep him from being used as Simurgh’s tool…

  10. Typo Thread:

    back, there > back; there
    breach .” (extra space)
    red dots and a mess of orange. Light exposure, moderate exposure (just checking, red is less severe than orange?)
    phone call, I > phone call. I

    Ah. There’s been speculation from the beginning that we’d see the end of all capes at the end of Ward, but this is not how I was expecting it to occur.

  11. Thank goodness Victoria gave an offscreen outline of her plan. Offscreen plans usually stay on the rails a bit better, but “genocide” is the kind of plan you need to get really specific if you want to use it for anything more precise than holding a reich together.

  12. @Grinvader. (Since the reply function still won’t work for me.)

    It took me a little while to figure out which of Victoria’s Comments you were refering to and then after looking it, realised that “it’s a big ask” was one of Riley’s.

  13. Random shower thoughts:

    You know what? When they went to Amy, and Amy was all like “Nope, I’m not getting involved. Just gonna chill”, I was thinking “COMMmmmmee ONnnnn Amy. Do something useful”


    Now, having heard Victoria’s actual plan…
    You know what, good for Amy. This Plan is fucking horrible. It might be “Correct”, but seriously…um… yeah, it is entirely reasonable for Amy to look at it and go “Nope. Nope. Fuck right off. I ain’t touching that shit.”

    Also, no wonder Yamada was skeptical.
    What the fuck Victoria.

    Seriously, doesn’t it seem surprising that NO ONE has any better alternatives to suggest?

  14. It might actually be Amy of all people that pulls everyone else out of the hole her sister digs,
    since Victoria is teetering on doing something irrevocable and unforgivable.

    Also, Foil with Rachel, I’m hoping it means she’s heading back to Parian fr what could be the end. Hope they can make it, In both senses of the word.

  15. > At least for now, it might be better to think of ways to deal with her and put the Machine Army out of mind.

    That’s what they think during whole “Ward” and looks how it turns out!
    Never underestimate self-replicating machines!.. 🙂

  16. Ziz has trouble working near precognition. I know defiant doesn’t think of himself as a precog, but if it counts for power purposes then his being around when Chris hear fateful words and makes fateful choices might be enough to upset the best laid plains of flying one winged angel endbringers.

  17. I seem to recall that if the Simurgh was in the vicinity of a Tinker (and maybe Thinker) cape, it could utilise their power for itself. That was how it built the portal which brought the Travellers from memory.

    And Antares said that the Thinkers and Tinkers were back at base… Including Dinah Alcot… Together with a whole load of Cauldron/Teacher tech for the Simurgh to utilise.

    An interesting thought… If the plan is to kill/destroy all Corona Polentia’s or capes themselves, have they accounted for Dragon herself? I guess she’s just revert to a pre-trigger backup or erase herself.

  18. Winman sounds too close to women. I’d suggest Wincoming, but that might lead to false alarms. Probably ought to just go with Gold Medal.

  19. Clockblocker and Vista are Time Lords! Between them they warp time and space, one of them regnerated and the other is called “Missy!”

    Simurgh is screwed!

  20. Winman?
    Deadwin
    Windead
    Ghost Winner
    Ghost of Winning Past
    Shade of Win
    Win Zombie
    And my favorite:
    Neverlost

    Victoria wants to kill off all the Corona in arc 20 of 2020. This probably means something, but I haven’t the foggiest idea as to what. I only hope something causes Amy to leave the mental ward…err I mean therapy session. If there is one Endbringer to bring the end I’m personally satisfied it was Simurgh.

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