Chris, Cryptid, Lab Rat, stood opposite the three of us, slouched forward, guarded, the glare on his monstrous, rat-like face a constant. With the lights partially off, likely because of damage to the facility, he was mostly lit from behind.
The source of that lighting was a dozen or so monitors, spread around a lab that twenty or so individuals might use. Eight of those twelve monitors were showing images of Riley Davis, Bonesaw, most from a head-on angle, most shot from cameras small enough that the images had a fishbowl effect. She leaned toward the cameras while trying to make out details, which put her eyes at a level where the fishbowl effect magnified them wildly in comparison to the rest of her face. The rest of the screens I could make out showed what I imagined were regular laboratory readouts. Graphs, tables, molecular chains.
I felt cold in this stark, dimly-lit space. My mind stumbled, trying to parse what he’d just said.
I was too tired, and so soon after the engagement with the Simurgh I simply didn’t trust my own judgment or senses. A part of me wanted to deny this reality, refocus, and move forward anyway. I needed medical care, so did Rain, and Sveta needed to get calm. Whatever happened, we’d be doing that, so… it made sense to turn, go to the first aid kit, and get started.
I couldn’t bring myself to budge. I stared at Chris, as emotions belatedly crept in. Instincts, or an awareness I would have called instincts before they’d turned out to be as faulty as they were proving to be now… they told me he was too guarded, too intense.
And the reality was, as logic joined my emotions in arriving late to this party… we didn’t have time to fuck around. We were about to hand Fortuna everything she needed to win.
“Cryptid,” I said, my voice low, my tone quiet. “Tell me that you haven’t made it yet. That you’re almost done.”
Cryptid shook his head slowly. His fur was gradually changing from brown to black.
“Riley,” I said. “You there?”
“I’m here,” the voice came through. “I didn’t hear his response, and the camera isn’t giving me a good view of him.”
“He just shook his head. Was there not time?”
“There was time, I talked him through the steps. It’s set, or it should be set. Why? What happened?”
“That’s exactly what I’m wanting to know,” I said. I met Chris’s eyes. The orbs remained unchanged and the narrow pupils focused on me even as the flesh around the eyes changed and rippled, becoming thicker, with more creases and lines. Flesh turned from light brown to stark white with dark mottling around the lines, folds, and creases, like the pigmentation had all leaked in there. It made the contrast of the dark fur – dark feathers more stark.
“Did you have another idea?” Rain asked.
“This isn’t the time to be cagey,” Sveta said.
“No cage or caginess,” Chris said. “You had the project idea. Riley Davis knew the steps to take and talked me through them. I decided to do something else instead.”
“What was that something?” I asked.
“For?” I asked, my voice tense, quiet. My collarbone was radiating pain with every heartbeat, and my heartbeat was so heavy I felt like it was rocking my entire body. For us? For Humanity?
“For me. You’re looking at it.”
The fur was becoming feathers. The way it changed color suggested it was more than normal hair or feathers. Alive from root to tip.
“Why the fuck why did you drop it?” I asked. “Did you not fathom what we’re trying to do?”
“I fathom,” he said. His tone of voice had changed a fraction with his ongoing transformation.
“I’m not sure I fathom the big plan,” Rain said. “But Victoria thinks it might work, the Warden leadership thinks it’s doable as a last ditch resort. I trust them. If you think it won’t work, I’d love to hear why. You’re pretty smart when it comes to stuff like this.”
“I think it might work,” Chris said.
“Then why?” I asked, with all the intensity I could muster with my collarbone as fucked up as it was.
“Because it might not,” Chris told me. “Because it requires you to have faith in everyone out there…”
He extended a knobby finger, tipped by a black nail.
“…And I don’t.”
“What do you think is going to happen, Cryptid?” I asked. “How is what you’re doing better?”
“What happened with the Simurgh?” he asked.
“Answer my questions first.”
“The scream tapered off. I don’t think she died. She left. From the state of you and your focus on this, you did enough damage to her that you’re fairly confident she’s not about to pull off her endgame.”
“Answer the questions, Chris,” Sveta said.
“I don’t trust the people out there. I do trust the Simurgh’s malice. That world she wants to create? Where everyone’s screaming? I can deal. I can keep my mind intact. A world with nobody to bother me, I can read books, comics, and catch up on old games for as long as I want.”
“Chris, there are so many things wrong with that that I don’t even know where to begin,” Sveta said. “That you think anyone could be happy or sane with zero human contact for that long…”
“Like the people you sent off to a prison world?” he asked. “No, I can manage, trust me. I know myself. And if I want company, I can pick someone and inoculate them.”
“The power dynamics would be so fucked up, doing that,” Sveta said.
“Not if I picked the right people. A tinker like Riley Davis here…”
“No,” Riley said, through the computers. “I don’t want it. Not the inoculation, not that life… not with you. If I could keep myself from coming after you for letting the world fall into the Endbringer’s clutches, I’d eventually lose it and come after you at some other points.”
Chris glanced back over his shoulder. He shrugged, slow, languid, and deliberately. “Keeps things interesting.”
“I wouldn’t make it interesting, Lab Rat,” Riley said, her tone light. “I’d make it final. No chance, no deliberation, no conversation or warning beforehand. I’ve spent too long trying to find the me in between the normal and the monsters.”
“Fine,” Chris said. For a second or two, his eyes weren’t looking at anything in particular, as if he was visualizing something, or reconciling something. “I really don’t care that much.”
“The Simurgh is hurt, Chris,” I said. “She doesn’t win this one.”
“She’s hurt and she’s not stupid.”
“Stupid is the wrong word,” I told him. “She’s a force of nature.”
“You forget, I have the memories of someone who spent years in the Birdcage. Talking to some of the biggest monsters out there, talking about big things. The closest person I had to a friend was an expert in big. I get how these things work, how they move, what pushes them. I got the Birdcage, more than anyone else. I got Dragon and what she was. I was ready to bargain with solutions and weapons against Endbringers the moment the people beyond the Birdcage hit their limit and realized they had to ask us for help. I used some of it against Scion. Infinite flesh, when combined with the right powers.”
“You got caught, you got out by luck, and then you died,” Sveta said. “Chris… you’re not that clever or good.”
“I made the Giants. Titan counterweapons that are still out there fighting. Not that it matters. What’s going to happen out there is all the capes that have been keeping the Machine Army and other Titans under control are going to go after the Simurgh. They’re going to hurt her. Whatever other measures you came up with, you’re going to try using them. You’re going to spend resources and you’re going to run out of time. She’ll recover, because she’s far stronger and far more powerful than we pretend she is.”
“She’s too hurt,” I said, shaking my head more than was necessary for a simple negation. “And we just sent the order for Dauntless and Fume Hood to link up with Fortuna. Past that point, Fortuna has to win.”
“You’ll rescind it. You’ll stall once you realize you don’t have a plan for Endgame. While you’re doing that, the Simurgh will come out on top.”
“You really believe that,” Rain said. “Cooped up in this lab, not even following. You didn’t see how we cut her in half.”
“I’ve put all my chips on it,” Chris said.
“She fucking got to you,” I said, my eyes widening.
“No, she didn’t. I knew I’d be doing this before we arrived at this facility. I’m the only one here who isn’t underestimating her, and I’ll be the only one here who can string together two coherent thoughts, in the end.”
“Chris,” Sveta said, quiet. “I should warn you that I’m not in complete control of my body right now. I don’t want to kill you, but you’re making it very hard to restrain this body’s natural impulses.”
“And you’ll murder someone you hate, again, just… what is it? Eight floors up and three hundred feet away from where you murdered the woman who made you what you are?”
“Fuck you, Chris,” she said.
“For what it’s worth,” he said. “I expected you to be upset. Part of what I did with my time was plan countermeasures. This is yours, Sveta.”
He picked up a syringe from a table, big and plastic, holding it in one talon-hand. Ninety percent of him was covered in feathers now.
She reached for it, and he reacted, fast, pulling his hand back. Sveta caught it on the second attempt, gripping it, while he did the same. Neither budged, and the syringe was held by both of them.
“Let me dash it to pieces against the wall.”
“It’s a fix,” Chris said. “You get a body. Ten fingers, ten toes, belly button, heartbeat, spleen. You’d lose the tattoo, that’d be purged, your skin would be like anyone’s skin.”
“I don’t fucking believe you, Chris.” She pulled her tendril back. Her arm writhed as a morass for long seconds before returning to something resembling an actual arm in shape.
“It’s not happily ever after,” he said. “You still lose your mind, whatever form that takes, though I have my suspicions on how she’ll tackle this. I don’t think it’ll be that bad at first. She’ll have to spend at least a decade repairing the damage, getting things lined up, coordinating everyone and everything. You’ll be a little cuckoo, she’ll be nudging you here and there to put you in a convenient little box where you’re doing what she needs you to do. Nobody will quite be able to bring themselves to put up a fight. She’ll close up the cracks-”
“Chris,” I interrupted. “Are you stalling?”
“No. I’m honestly not,” he said. He looked so at ease, when he’d just fucked us on every conceivable level.
I could go back, report to the Warden leadership, and tell them that it was all falling through.
But doing that… it meant conceding the issue. It meant doing just what he’d said, holding back the Titans, holding back from the end. It brought us back to square one against an enemy who was a hundred steps ahead. The Simurgh might actually win that way.
This whole plan, the idea was to give them exactly what they wanted. The Simurgh wanted a fight, wanted conflict, everyone on the planet pushing themselves to the limit, testing a system she’d set in motion.
Well, she’d got that. Contained to this one facility. With her as our primary enemy, more than each other.
Now Fortuna wanted to end the world. We needed to help her do that. If we balked, if we stopped… we lost. Hesitation when parrying an incoming strike was death. My early sparring with Manpower had taught me that much. It was especially true when your opponent was a hundred times stronger than you, if not stronger.
No, I couldn’t reach out to the Wardens. I had to hope that whoever was managing the cameras on Riley’s side wasn’t listening and making a phone call here.
I had to figure this out, figure out a way.
“It’s a trick. You don’t make permanent changes,” Sveta told him.
“Oh, it’s real,” he said. “I can make permanent changes. There were people who went to the same hospitals you did that had permanent alterations, left over after the big changes the original Lab Rat put them through.”
“I remember. As monstrous as anything I saw at the Asylum,” Sveta said. “Not them. What was done to them.”
“Not full changes, though,” I said.
“It was always possible. I just didn’t, because I hadn’t decided on one. I needed to decide on a new baseline body, and the original Lab Rat never could decide. In that, at least, I’m different from him. This is me now. Forever. Out of her reach.”
He was tall, crooked, his joints knobby, and his limbs and neck thin. He was covered in black feathers, all of those feathers long, curling at the ends, especially long at the back and the undersides of each arm, draping down.
“No, if it was that easy, you’d have decided long ago,” I said. “This is a bluff.”
“If you really think I’m bluffing, you’re giving yourself way too much credit. At this point, the only reasons you matter to me is that she’s eventually going to win and drive each of you insane, and I don’t want that insanity pointed at me. So Sveta can lose her powers, Rain can never sleep again, the two of you can at least be happy that you won’t be as good at murdering people as you would be with powers at full strength. As for you, Victoria… I don’t know. I don’t understand you.”
“Fucking likewise,” I said.
“So I decided the best recourse was to kill you, when and if you ever came after me. I give myself… ninety five percent odds. Even with the new forcefield tricks.”
I clenched my fists. The clench of my left fist made the skinned portion and the missing fingernail hurt. I could feel the wound from the bullet hole to the bicep, the damage to the collarbone, and the damage to my ribs. The pain helped to clarify my thinking.
My vision shook because my head shook, and my head shook because I was so rigid, so ready to do something, to take his head off. To freak out. Every breath came with pain.
I’d fought the Simurgh in part because I’d wanted to buy time. Time for Chris to build this fucking thing. And he hadn’t.
“Riley,” I said. “If I went and got another tinker, not necessarily a bio-tinker, do you think you could walk her through it?”
Chris scoffed, a hollow, eerie sound through a mouth that incorporated some beak.
“If she’s not a bio tinker, then no. We could try, but… I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Time’s short.”
“Could you do it? We could work out a way of reaching you.”
“And manage distribution at the same time?” Riley asked. “I don’t know. I could.”
“Can you start? And stay in touch?”
“Portals are down,” Chris said. “Little Kenzie’s portal box that she made with help from Dragon is offline. I checked a minute before you came in. Around that time, the Wardens started asking about capes who could manage mass-transportation. No replies, in part because communication is down on multiple fronts. You can check yourself.”
“I will,” Rain said. He looked at Chris. “No offense, but I don’t trust you right now.”
“Finally getting some sense. Never trust.”
Sveta’s voice was low, “Seriously, Chris. I will murder you. If that has uncomfortable parallels with Doctor Mother, then I’ll wrestle with those parallels another day.”
He shook his head. “You might have won this battle, but you lost this war. It’s the way it always is when it comes to her. When the fights go fast, we think she didn’t have time to get things moving in the right ways. When they go slow we convince ourselves we threw enough wrenches in her way to finally derail her plot. You say I have it wrong when I say she wants to keep me alive, but you’re the ones who are misunderstanding all of this.”
I saw Sveta’s arm lose its coherence, and my arm started, before I realized it was my bad arm, I was slow- and I needed to use my forcefield anyway.
It didn’t matter. She held herself back. Just barely. I could see it in her eyes.
“I don’t want to betray another so-called teammate,” Sveta said, quiet.
“Then why don’t you go?” I asked. “Can you reach out for help? Um, we need a biotinker-”
“You won’t find any,” Chris said.
“Or… fuck it. My sis-”
I paused, mid-sentence.
She’d been there in the fighting, hadn’t she? It felt like a fleeting thought, or something that could have been a false memory. Was that before or after the Mathers Giant thing resolved?
I couldn’t remember what had happened to her, and the fact I couldn’t remember came with a heaping of dissonance. It was like having a body that didn’t line up, my self-image as a pretty high schooler at stark odds with a wretched, sprawling mess of flesh and tangled limbs, enough to take up every bit of space on a couch, with some hanging over armrests and spilling out to rest awkwardly on the floor.
“You won’t find her. She won’t cooperate,” Chris said. “You don’t get it. This is the Simurgh winning.”
Horror swept over me, belated, a smooth transition from the dissonant horror that was so tied into those two years of memory.
“Victoria,” Sveta said. Bringing me back to reality, just a bit. She was at the doorway.
“Bio-tinker. Or my sister. Or the means of getting Riley and her project to the epicenter of everything.”
Sveta nodded once, then made her exit from the room, rushing. The door slid closed, banging on impact.
A momentary silence followed.
“It won’t be that bad,” Chris said. “Not for a few generations. That’ll be because she’s lulling us into a false sense of security, but eh. We’ll be dead after that.”
“I don’t think you have any conception of what it’s going to be like,” Rain said.
“Being mind controlled, in a fucked up society driven by even more fucked up systems? I’ve endured that ever since waking up on the eve of Gold Morning. Implanted instincts, until I reached the lab where I was forced to fill my head with the original Lab Rat’s memories and experiments. Two years, pretty much. All while this city pretended to be functional.”
“I can tell you that you’re way off because I’ve lived it my entire life, until a month ago,” Rain said. “Your two years is easy, compared to that.”
“No, it’s not easy at all,” Chris said. “But it’s better than oblivion, and that’s what Victoria’s plan amounts to. You chose living over oblivion when you decided to wake up and keep going, every day you lived with the Fallen. You made the same damn decision I’m making right now.”
“There was hope, then. There’s not hope in the Simurgh’s world.”
“I can recall the very therapy session when you said it felt hopeless, Rain,” Chris growled. “But you kept going. If I respected you for anything, it was for that. Survival first.”
I joined in, “Yeah, fuck that, Chris. Poor fucking you. If that’s the bar you’re setting, then there isn’t one member of Breakthrough, living or dead, who hasn’t had to deal with intrusive thoughts, identity issues, and living situations that amounted to a kind of hell.”
“You might not be related by blood, but you’re definitely related by something,” Chris said, his voice low. “You and your sister. You just can’t get over your own shit.”
“You’re actually a monster,” I said.
“I said it a long time ago, I’ll say it again. You’re more of a monster than I am, Victoria,” Chris said. “You and your sister deserve each other.”
It was fleeting, like the impulse I’d use to twitch a finger. A thought, but this thought was tied to triggers and levers.
Forcefield on, forcefield opened up. I didn’t move a muscle, but my hair stirred as the forcefield lunged forward, invisible, to cross the thirty feet between me and the end of the lab where Chris stood framed by monitors.
He moved, quicker than I would have expected. Taloned claws reached out as the forcefield bowled over tables, knocked syringes and papers to the floor, and closed the distance to Chris.
A taloned hand stabbed at the forcefield, catching it before it could catch him. Precise, strong, and sharp enough to pop it. Gone like a soap bubble. His long feathers blew in the resulting breeze that followed the sudden termination of those super-strength movements of forcefield hands through air.
He plans to wear this body indefinitely. He picked a strong one.
He can see you. I looked at those black eyes with flecks of red and gold in them. The pupils were like a goat’s, rectangular.
He lunged, so quickly after his flat-footed pre-emptive strike that I almost didn’t register it. I flew back to buy myself time, and my forcefield came back up a second before he reached me. She grabbed a table, tore it from the wall, and slung it his way.
He vaulted over it, one leg going out long to rake the forcefield and break her again, before he landed. Even landing was a twisting, multi-layered movement, as he turned, grabbing Rain as Rain produced a silver blade and swung it. Rain was thrown halfway across the room. Rain’s landing saw him put both hands out to catch himself. One of those hands was already broken. His reaction immediately after his fall made that clear enough. Almost incapacitated.
I used my aura, taking hold of desperate feelings, in the hopes of driving home the caring, the need. The fact that billions of lives were on the line. Chris didn’t even bat an eyelash.
“Decentralized everything. Detached everything,” Chris told me. “Do you want to try this again? I’m still confident I’ll win. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been here when you finished with the Simurgh.”
“What do you want, Chris? What can I offer you?”
“I refuse to believe that! If it’s about your faith in everyone else following through on this, give me a test. Let’s prove it can work on the small scale.”
“I’m not interested.”
I clenched my fist, and then I lunged for him again. This time, it was the Wretch and me together, pulling apart, attacking him from two different directions. The Wretch fragile but strong, me… broken but resilient.
“What are you-” he started. He stopped speaking for a moment while protecting himself. The Wretch avoided giving him any clear strikes, while taking up as much of his concentration as possible. Tables, chunks of the lab’s counter, and pieces of computer equipment were leveraged as weapons. I used every technique I’d learned sparring with my mother. Faster than me, more lethal- but there were always stumbles. He wore a body he wasn’t used to, and there had to be a weak spot.
He clawed at me, caught my breastplate, clawed at me again, caught hair and a bit of my cheek. His elbow hit me in the sternum in a deliberate, measured way, and the pain of broken and fractured bones connected to that point threatened to knock me out. I threw myself at him, all of my strength dedicated to keeping aware and keeping my senses together as I wrapped in a bear hug despite the breaks and fractures I was suffering from.
The result wasn’t what I’d pictured in my head. I’d thought it would be fierce. Instead, I slumped, leaning hard into him with one side of my body, relying on flight to press me into him, his back against a damaged counter.
The Fragile One held one of the syringes I’d had her knock to the floor in the first move. Sveta’s, the one that was supposed to give her a body, left deliberately behind.
Poised, ready to stab Chris, and to take away his new, Simurgh-immune body.
“You think I’m scared?” he asked. “Do you think I’m surprised?”
He reached out, grabbed the syringe, and pulled it toward himself. The needle punctured his body.
I thought it was a bluff. We were already playing a game of chicken, me putting off telling the Wardens what was happening and getting them to back off on sending the message to Dauntless and Fume Hood. Meanwhile, he was standing on the tracks, his own train incoming. The Simurgh pursuing him. We were both at this standoff-
-But he pressed the plunger.
The shedding of his monstrous form was as fast as the adoption of it had been. Feathers began to fall away. Pressed against him, I could feel him shrinking.
“I’ll get the immunity I need before she gets to me,” he said. “I’m not worried.”
“Do you know why I can do that?” I asked, quiet, a murmur in his ear. “The new tricks? The control?”
“I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“I came to terms with the power, and where it comes from. The connections. That I’m worth love, even now, even from myself.”
“That is some Saturday Morning cartoon bullshit,” he said.
“It’s reality, Chris. You’ve been struggling, you’ve been inconsistent, fighting yourself every step of the way. Fighting the past version of you, the you of now. When you’re acting young you hate it because you’re not young. Not really. When you’re acting older, you hate it because it makes you like him. But every time you have the chance to make a move or blame someone, or make some sense of it… you turn on others, blame them, and throw up walls.”
“And you don’t?” he asked.
“Boundaries are great, Chris. They’re essential. This world can be fucked up. So… yeah, use whatever defense mechanisms you’ve got at your disposal. Some are better than others, but anything’s better than having none…”
I paused. For a second, I wondered if I was going to pass out. How much blood had I lost today? The pain I was experiencing with every heartbeat and every breath was incredible.
He didn’t butt in, didn’t retort.
I told him, my words as intense as I could make them, “…Except, once you’ve thrown up those boundaries, built four walls, impenetrable, so high nobody can surmount them… you’ve still got to be okay with yourself. I don’t think you are. I think you’re the furthest thing from being okay with yourself.”
“Get off me.”
I got off him. Flying back. The shift of pressures against my ribs made the darkness creep in around the edges for a moment.
“I think this Simurgh driven future might not be so bad for the rest of us, but it’s going to be a kind of hell for you,” Rain said. “Worse than any fire and brimstone hell the Fallen preached at me about. Shitty thing is, even though you betrayed us twice now, I don’t want that for you. I’m having trouble letting go of you as a friend.”
“I let go of you as a friend a long time ago,” Chris said. “I’m walking out of this room. If you try to stop me, for any reason, I’ll make you regret it.”
“I won’t rescind the plan,” I told him. If we’re playing chicken, with an end of the world rushing at each of us… I’ll take oblivion over us losing our humanity.
“If you don’t, the Wardens will,” he said.
He started walking toward the door. I floated up, ready to follow, to press the argument, but the simple shift in orientation made my head swim, the darkness creeping in again, my consciousness slipping so very easily, followed by what felt like a desperate two-steps forward, one-step back uphill struggle to recover.
And I wasn’t sure what I’d even say. Chris, still shedding feathers, becoming a child again, walked past me.
The door slid closed.
He was gone.
“So that’s it?” Rain asked. “The Simurgh wins?”
“The Simurgh set all the pieces down. Everything went where she wanted it,” I said. “I don’t know if she wins, though. For that to happen, we need to tell Dauntless and Fume Hood to back off, tell Legend to leave her alone.”
My voice felt far away.
“We’re not going to do that?” Rain asked.
“Okay, good. I think.”
I would have nodded, but I wasn’t sure my consciousness could take that particular beating. Not with my collarbone being like it was.
The voice was Riley’s, from the back of the room.
“How’s the project coming?” I asked.
“Not very well,” Riley admitted. “I don’t have a lot of the things I’d like to have. It’s like… if I were explaining it to Mannequin, back with the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d describe it as trying to make an oxygen recycler out of a toilet and a microwave. I don’t have the pieces I need. Then I don’t have the means of getting the end product where it needs to be, and…”
“It’s not going very well,” I echoed her.
“No. But I’ll keep at it.”
“It was a good idea, I think. Maybe.”
“I-” I started, my words interrupted by the thought, she said it in the past tense. “Thanks. I think.”
“I have to say it, or they’d revoke my medical tinker license, but you need medical attention.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll get right on that.”
“Who or what do you need?” Rain asked.
“Sveta,” I said. “Let’s… let’s get out of this shitty lab. Maybe she found someone. We’ll meet her halfway, and if we can’t, we’ll find someone to patch me together.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he said.
“Can I lean on you?” I asked. “I might pass out, it’d be great if you could catch me. I shouldn’t fly more than necessary.”
“Got it,” he said.
“Gently,” I said. “Ribs- okay. Great.”
We made our way out of the labs, into the partially lit hallway. Lights flickered here and there.
From the hallway, we made our way to the stairs, moving relatively slowly.
People were running up and down the stairs. Civilians were out of hiding, the ones who hadn’t lost their minds, at least. Some had construction equipment, ladders, and toolboxes.
Good people. Good stuff.
I sure hoped that however the world ended, we wouldn’t be coming back to this fucking place ever again.
Please Sveta. Tell me you found someone. A tinker hiding where the Simurgh couldn’t see her. Even my sister… I’ll endure her for another conversation if it means that humanity gets to live and stay humanity.
I wobbled as we ascended the stairs, not because of any funny movement, but because of air pressure changes, or another bit of blood loss. I gave Rain’s shoulder a squeeze, stopped, then took a seat on the stairs with his help.
All out of gas.
“I’ll see if I can grab someone,” he said.
“Cool,” I replied.
Rain made his exit.
I watched the people come and go as they headed up and down. One woman stopped by me to give me a bandage to press to my shoulder, even though I already had the coagulant there. It would have been nice to see some familiar faces. Crystal in particular. Finale, Withdrawal and Caryatid. Even Tattletale, damn it.
I couldn’t bring myself to twist around to look up the stairs, but I leaned over to one side, using flight to stay steady, a grimace crossing my face as my ribs strained.
Sveta and Jessica came into view, sparing me the need to lean to one side to try and see them. I grunted for breath.
“Hey,” Sveta said.
“Um. So your sister’s injured. She’s not up to helping us.”
“Falling rubble?” I asked.
“Um. Yes, but not like you’re thinking,” Sveta told me. “There were eyewitnesses. They saw you looking down from above and staring, they knew the prior relationship- the rubble fell after you left.”
She said it with such sincerity. Like she knew exactly what conclusions I’d draw.
I wasn’t sure I believed her.
It didn’t matter.
“You’re pretty beaten up,” Jessica said. “Can I sit?”
“Please,” I said, fighting not to let too much emotion into my voice. “Chris is leaving the building, I think. I don’t suppose you have any insights to share? Any tricks? Any ways to unravel the riddle that is… him?”
I felt a little lightheaded, rambly.
“I think he’s less of a riddle than… just about every other member of your team,” Jessica said.
“Oh. No magic words to convince him to change his mind, help us out?”
“I can’t imagine there are.”
“But you thought he was a decent person?”
“I thought he had a great opportunity to be one. When the therapy group formed a hero team, I thought two or more of them would go down the wrong track. It’s a small miracle that it was only one.”
We were ignoring that another two had died.
“So it couldn’t be helped?” I asked.
“It could have. But you’re not a therapist, Victoria. And I… as unwilling as I was to admit it, I wasn’t prepared to be one either. Not in those circumstances, with those pressures. I should have pushed back harder against the team idea.”
“We did some good.”
“Absolutely. Some essential good, from what I hear. Battles won and mysteries solved that wouldn’t have been uncovered without your hard work. I’d never deny that.”
“Cool. Then what went wrong?”
“Battlefields make for terrible therapy couches,” Jessica said. “That’s all. That’s always been the case.”
“I’m going to keep looking for people,” Sveta said.
“Okay. Rain went upstairs,” I said. “Looking for you. And for doctors.”
“I’ll go up then.”
There was a silence after she made her exit. I didn’t know what to say, and Jessica didn’t volunteer anything.
I wanted to apologize to her so badly, and I suspected she wanted to do the same to me. We both left it unsaid.
“Are you still conscious?” she asked.
“Good,” she told me. “I- Hello.”
A cape was making his way up the stairs. A cape I’d seen with Gundeck, I forgot the name. He stopped when he saw me.
“Is it true?” he asked.
“Is what true?”
“Your contingency plan that you gave to the Wardens. Murder?”
“Oh,” I said. “That was a last-ditch thing. It fell through.”
“Good,” he said.
“Who did you hear that from?”
“Another cape. Your teammate told them.”
“Cryptid,” I said.
And that was that.
That was the card he had up his sleeve, the threat he’d held in reserve if we tried to stop him. Now he was using it to force the Wardens’ hand. People would react, the Wardens would reassure, people would take measures to get out ahead of it.
“Contingency plan?” Jessica asked.
“Kill all the capes,” I said. “Contagious, bio-altering sound, I think. It didn’t matter how, just that it got enough of us.”
“How- I don’t think that would work.”
“There are two things that the Entities have always been bad at handling, when it comes to us. Dreams… Rain’s thing drove that home, but capes like Miss Militia and Swansong, they had screwy retention and processing of data through their dreams.”
“Swansong remembering things that Damsel did after dreaming, and vice versa. I don’t know about Miss Militia’s.”
“She remembered her trigger every night when she dreamed. Doesn’t matter. Dreams, and death. We had enough come back from the dead. Mix the two… the idea was we’d put down every cape we could. Make the death slow, and riddled with heavy dreams. Pollute the system, so they can’t use the data. Let Fortuna get her end of the world… and find that there’s nothing to send out there. Force her to abort. Riley thought it would work. So did Cryptid.”
“That’s a heavy decision to make on behalf of tens of thousands.”
“It’s a heavy decision to make on behalf of billions, maybe trillions, to make the decision to not do it,” I replied while gently leaning my head and shoulder into the wall, despite the pain it produced, “as Chris and the Simurgh just managed.”