“Fortuna. I’m… I’m hoping it’s the person that hears me. Not the Titan.”
“Is there a response?”
“I don’t know. No.”
The voice cut in, female, weary, rough at the edges. “If you have any fight left, I need it now. I need you. You can tell your agent we’ll give them Fume Hood and Dauntless. They’ll know we’re telling the truth.”
“Did she clear that with Chevalier?”
“No. But I don’t think he’d say no.”
“We’re running out of cards to play.”
“Our friends-” he started. He stopped as Antares began talking again.
“I need your help, and the help of the Titans you’re linked to. Pouffe, Valkyrie. One person to one place. You should be able to defeat the Simurgh, and all the pieces fall into place just as they want them.”
“So that’s her plan.”
“It’s a reach. Do we have any indication the person Fortuna can wrestle control from the Titan?”
“Arachne, Axehead, Fume Hood, and Dauntless seem to have some slivers of their old selves still intact.”
“And we’re asking them to give up what they have, using them as currency.”
“Please. Thank you,” Antares said, her voice bearing the telltale distortion as a recording of an ongoing transmission.
“Defiant.” The word sounded firm, authoritative, but it was followed by silence.
“You and Dauntless didn’t get along,” Dragon noted.
“The kindest way of putting it. I was an ass.”
“Do you think he would agree? To give up his very being to contribute?“
Defiant steered a careful course around the cluster of Titans, mindful of the Simurgh’s plotted course, as she tried to stay away from Dauntless and the attacks the Titan made with the spear of light. He watched Dauntless, studying the Titan, trying to gauge. He thought of the recording he’d seen of the Titan turning to look at the boy. What had his name been? Addison?
There had been humanity in that moment.
Defiant was plugged into the Marduk. Its sensors were his eyes, its air intake his lungs, its considerable power source his heart. Sensors tracked the movement of air along the Marduk’s exterior, and he felt it much as he would feel the wind over his own skin, where his present body still had conventional skin.
It came to him in data, each block of data represented by a three-dimensional arrangement of numbers and letters. A part of his brain that he had modified with Dragon’s help read that data, processed it.
While he was plugged in, he was the Marduk. It had been his go-to ship in the months immediately following Gold Morning, and it was his backup ship now, while the Uther was replaced by several of Dragon’s A.I.. The landscapes of then and now were not so different.
Dark, laid bare to the worst vagaries of weather, buildings ruined. In the weeks after Gold Morning it had been abrupt temperature shifts, the heavy amounts of dust in the atmosphere bringing surprising darkness and periods of cold, before summer came through with an intensity that suggested it was trying to make up for the days it had missed.
Now that wasteland was occupied by monsters. Some of them were monsters he’d helped bring to this battlefield. A handful more were friends, or… as close to friends as he ever got.
Sleeper’s storm was creeping forward. Dragon was, it seemed, splitting her attention between a conversation with Saint and a conversation with him.
The Titans had gathered and stood as a defensive line, spaced apart like each one’s position mattered on some fundamental level. Four of the Titans had powers that drilled, dug, or carved. Titan Amenonuhoko, Titan Auger, Titan Drillbit, Titan Ghast. All four Titans were tearing up the crystal landscape below them, aiming for specific paths and locations.
If there was a point to it that wasn’t making it hard for parahumans to get close, he couldn’t fathom it.
Both he and Dragon were keeping an eye on ongoing events, in part because the Simurgh had shut down most communication networks. Stonewall was back at the Wardens’ base. He was recovering from a hit he’d taken from a parahuman ability during the raid on Teacher’s base, and he had enough authority to be the person making calls- both in the sense he was using the phone and he was having to make decisions.
They’d reached out to people overseas. The European settlement had seen the first cracks cross their territory, extending across the ocean to where they were. They were offering their assistance, but they lacked the ability. Too many of their capes had died in Gold Morning. Too many others were spread out across other Earths. Getting them from there to here would require hours.
They had minutes.
“Are you getting lost in thought, Defiant?”
“I’m- no. Yes. What was the question?”
“Do you think we can rely on him?”
“I can remember seeing his son during events. He was there when Tattletale’s group raided a fundraiser my team was hosting. He was invited to attend, but I sent Dauntless out on patrol that same night. When he heard his first thought was whether his son was alright. His second thought was about keeping the Undersiders from getting away.”
“I think so, but I’m really hoping it doesn’t come to that.”
“Defiant, sweetie. It’s coming to that.”
“There are options.”
“You’re tunnel-visioning in, Defiant. We’re not doing well. Look for yourself.”
It took effort to remind himself he had a body, that he was more than a heavily armed vehicle flying through hostile airspace.
He turned his focus to the other calls. To Stonewall’s computer, where Stonewall was reaching out to more groups, trying to find the combination of moving pieces and powers that would bring much-needed reinforcements to this battlefield in the timeframe they needed.
He watched through cameras as Antares had a conversation with her team. Little Lookout was at the computer, and was using the computer to manage a line of communication he didn’t have the resources to tap fully into. They were still waiting for a proper reply.
Sleeper was at the horizon, south of the Simurgh and Titan Fortuna’s small army of Titans. Thirty-five titans now, and the number was growing, the accumulation speeding up, not slowing down.
The Machine Army was loose. They hadn’t breached the perimeter because there was no perimeter anymore. Dragon was running a program using some of the Marduk’s resources, among a wealth of other resources, simply trying to use the data they had to find every place a tinker had been, using months-old data to try and work out where there might be workshops, damaged or discarded tinkertech.
Every single piece the Machine Army could scrounge up was something that would pass through the entire network. In minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months, the Machine Army would take what it gleaned from one broken piece of technology and every single drone, installation, and tool across the network would see upgrades.
They were a threat on an existential level and they weren’t even in the top two most immediate threats.
Saint was on that task. Petty and stupid as the man was, Saint had nonetheless dedicated years of his life to studying and arming himself against artificial intelligence. He knew names, he knew methods. Dragon was providing the man access to his home computer, and he was looking up articles on electromagnetic pulses, distortion tech, and other means of disrupting signals.
Years ago, Saint had preyed on Dragon, shutting off her ability to connect to her satellite network, using several of these same mechanisms to slow down and hamper whatever mech or device she was inhabiting. He would kill her, block any final uploads, and leave her to self-revive from an hours-old backup with no knowledge of what he’d done or how he’d beat her.
Then he would dismantle the mech she had been using, repurpose it, and outfit his team in power armor rooted in the same technology.
Now he worked to do something similar to the Machine Army, which was effectively in service to the wounded Simurgh.
As that thought crossed Defiant’s mind, he saw the Simurgh change direction.
In service to the wounded Simurgh… because she spent long enough in their proximity.
He hated that he noticed her, because it felt like manipulation, like she was leading him to his next natural thought: she had spent far too long roosting on Dauntless.
Dauntless fought the Simurgh, striking out, over and over again, every time she pulled out of cover. The Titan was relentless, and stopped only when Fortuna’s group made its move.
She was already healing. Missing wings were growing back, and her lower body existed as a series of feathers, touching end to end, or end to middle. Like she was the thinnest of lace, formed of feathers harder than steel. It gave her legs, and suggested she was hollow, where Behemoth had had a skeleton and a core.
“I guess that’s it,” Antares’ voice was more distorted. Range concerns, and a tinker with Stonewall was using more of their Haywire Band to try and get messages through. She was done her back-and-forth with her team. “I just need a sign, a signal.”
The feed crackled, the response garbled, a flood of code he didn’t have the equipment to interpret.
“What was that?” he asked.
“A yes,” Dragon said.
He set his jaw.
He didn’t like it. He didn’t trust Antares to be the one doing it. They had given her some slack and she’d abused it. She’d used her power against a civilian Warden staffer. She wasn’t level headed.
Now they were putting thousands of lives on the line.
The Machine Army lurched out of chasms. They’d traveled across the crystal landscape, and now they rose up, flooding out onto the ruined cityscape around them. As they got their footing, they oriented, then opened fire. His Marduk’s sensors tracked the lasers, even though they were invisible to the naked eye. His naked eye, singular, could see the damage each of those lasers was doing.
The Simurgh used the opportunity to soar, rising up above the buildings she had been perched behind.
Defiant brought the Marduk around, aimed, and switched the channels on the power core. For this weapon, he could only hover while the weapon primed. There was a countdown.
Dragon moved in sync with him. Her crafts protected him, there were forcefields erected to keep him from being knocked off course.
The Marduk wasn’t as effective as the Uther when it came to conflict, especially conflicts where he had to adapt to new threats, or where those threats could adapt to him. It was a very simple, straightforward weapon.
In a way, it was why he liked it. The irony of his power was that it gave him control over details, nuance, the little aspects of a piece of technology that could work alongside another piece of technology. At the same time, he was someone who liked things to be straightforward, even going so far as to discard anything his instincts considered extraneous.
“What do you think?” Dragon’s tone was almost conversational.
“I think you’re experiencing a rare moment of insecurity, Mrs. Wallis. Which is entirely allowed, considering the circumstances.” He kept his sights trained on the Simurgh. The countdown hit the tens. Ten seconds, nine, eight-
“I hate it,” he said.
As if to punctuate the statement, the Marduk was hit from the side. An attack that bypassed the forcefields. It knocked his shot off course- brought his nose around toward Dragon’s craft.
He steered hard, compensating. He’d anticipated this.
The benefit of using this weapon was that it didn’t require exceptionally good aim.
An area of the city a fifth of a mile wide and a mile long was pulverized. Buildings were driven into ground, and broke into chunks no larger than a human head. The wavelength of the beam let those chunks lift up for a fraction of a second before the next wave of the beam thrust them down again with the same force as before.
The Simurgh was almost, almost out of the path of the beam. He clipped her, and she reoriented, pulling out of the way even as she was hurled back and down.
Much of the lower body she had been building broke away from the force of the impact. A wing shattered. The remainder was lost in the plume of smoke that rose from the tract of land he had blasted.
Dauntless, too, was in the path of the beam. He had his shield, and he was rooted into the ground in a way that resisted being thrust away with the kind of power that could push a moon out of orbit, but the grazing hit still demolished one of his arms, tore out a chunk of the Titan’s side.
For long moments, Dauntless didn’t move. Defiant fought to reorient, switching systems around so he wasn’t so vulnerable, and so Dragon could do what he needed.
Was that what she put in your head? Defiant thought. When the Simurgh roosted on you, was she thinking of this moment, reminding you of the times I exerted authority to take away your time with your son?
Are you aware enough to realize I didn’t mean to do that to you? Or is resentment building? Are you reaching a point where you serve her instead?
Defiant’s thoughts were interrupted as he was struck again. The Machine Army this time. The first blow had come from Fortuna’s group. There was no logic with these opponents they were fighting. Each acted according to self-interests. The Machine Army had decided it wanted what he had, half of the machines that had reached this particular battlefield scuttling over to the tract of devastated land, pausing as if staring at it.
G-driver charging. 1:59:03
Borrowed tech. Dragon had taken it and revived the project. He had integrated it into this model of the Marduk. He’d fired it five times today alone, primarily in waging war against Titans. Then Titan Fortuna had started countering him, had used opportunities to absorb Oberon into her network.
What are you doing? What’s your move?
He wasn’t even sure who ‘you’ was. He was buying time, fighting the most imminent threat so they could dive headlong into the embrace of the next threat.
The Machine Army was entering the trench, scurrying into the trench, into the dust, where his sensors struggled to read things with the ten kinds of background radiation and-
And strange signals not unlike those he had picked up from Chevalier, when Chevalier had waded into battle.
“They’re going after the pieces of the Simurgh! She gave them pieces of herself!”
Dragon changed tasks, shifting to a full-on offensive, unloading every weapon she had into the dust cloud.
This was the danger, the fact the Simurgh could use to manipulate them. That they were forced again and again to make sacrifices today, to save tomorrow.
He’d worked so hard, training, sacrificing opportunities to meet people, make friends, meet women he could date. He’d given his all to fight crime in Brockton Bay, sometimes for selfish or ambitious reasons, but he’d tried. He’d tried to train his team to brave what was inevitably a losing battle against greater numbers and enemies who didn’t play by the rules.
And in the end, tomorrow came and tomorrow stood on the brink of ruin, paying no mind to their efforts. He’d lost his team well before he’d received the paperwork telling him he was being moved to a new city. Then, as if to drive the point home, sheer chance and out of control situations had killed his Wards, taken Battery’s life, killed Velocity. He’d faced the last end of the world lonely and scared out of his mind because he’d finally found something to hold onto, after a lifetime of avoiding any such thing.
He wasn’t as scared now, and the changes he’d made to his body might have accounted for some of that. But he felt lonelier.
All of this, the decision he was being asked to face, if they could even manage the Simurgh, it felt like a referendum on himself as a person.
“I hate it,” he spoke aloud, repeating his earlier statement. “I know I’m supposed to be better, more open to others’ ideas. I’m supposed to trust, and this is an exercise in trust more than anything. But I don’t want to die. I don’t want you to die. That’s what it takes, isn’t it?”
“I think of the children who we got to know in Dracheheim. The boy brave enough to wave at you whenever he saw you. We do this for them.”
“I haven’t had enough time with you. I’m supposed to be a better man, but in this… I feel greed, hunger, a… need for more time.”
“I love you, Colin.”
She didn’t refute him, she didn’t argue or disagree.
“I love you too,” he said.
He took evasive action as more of the Machine Army’s lasers sought to cut him to pieces. Where he could, he flew back, kept his distance, even though it made his effective responses worse. When he fired his own energy weapons, the sheer distance between himself and the robots added a time lag. The lasers didn’t really face the same lag.
But he had to stay out of the Simurgh’s range. She was weakened, he was relatively clear of her scream, and that weakened her predictive power. It meant his shots landed, and she was forced to choose between destruction and a grazing hit, instead of destruction and a miss.
He was watching the dust cloud, and he was ready when the Simurgh emerged. Lasers raked him, and systems failed, but he was ready and able to open fire.
Dragon focused on keeping the machines from collecting the Simurgh’s parts. He focused on the Simurgh, watching the countdown.
Simple math told him that the numbers didn’t add up. The Simurgh was making her move. Seeking Fortuna. He could do the math. It took her thirty seconds to get to Fortuna. He needed forty to shoot again.
One of the monitors on his console flickered, then showed a pair of hearts, a curved line between and below them, a smiley face.
He smashed his hand into the top of the console, shattering the glass of the monitor, the crack running through one of the heart-eyes. “No!”
He kicked every thruster into action. Spearing down toward Fortuna.
His trajectory carried him past Dauntless. Dauntless, who had endured the Simurgh’s company for as long as just about any person who hadn’t lived in Lausanne, the unwitting audience for her very first appearance.
Dauntless, who had every reason to hate and resent him.
He could only trust. That Dauntless was a better man. Trust that the Dauntless who they’d discovered had spent years trapped in time with only his own thoughts could somehow hold out against the Simurgh’s influence. She had two vectors of attack, with one being prediction, the other being the ways she could grind down a man’s sanity.
The prediction would be weak right now. As for the other part… Defiant trusted that his old teammate had held onto that sanity.
No choice but to trust.
“Defiant!” Lookout’s voice came through the console.
“Not the time!”
“It has to be! Dauntless-”
“I know!” he roared.
“Tell him we have plans-”
He hit the console again. He disconnected the breaker. He didn’t need to be told. He’d followed that conversation, read the transcript as they discussed. A part of his brain had recorded it without him needing to. That part had come directly from Dragon.
The Marduk roared, the velocity causing hull to peel away, where the lasers had caught it. He swept past Dauntless, bracing himself for a shield to come between himself and his destination, or a spear to strike the side of his Marduk.
The impact to the side of his Marduk drove him off course.
It was telekinesis. A chunk of building.
He descended, placing himself between the two most dangerous things in existence, at least as far as humanity was concerned. A ship a little larger than a house placed between an Endbringer and the queen of the Titans.
The Simurgh crashed into him. Damaged parts of her body were like the teeth of a saw, her feathers sheared through parts of the Marduk like blades longer than he was tall, passing into the very chamber he sat within.
He turned his eyes to his left, where he should have been able to see terminals. There was only a wall of electrical ruin, blinding a cyborg eye that was supposed to be able to see in any combat scenario.
I didn’t deserve this, he thought.
If the entire situation was a referendum on where he had come as a person, then this moment would be a test of his past actions.
The damning thing about it all was that the past dogged at everyone’s heels. There was no escaping it, and as much as they had heralded second chances, they were defined by what had come before, weighed down by it, destroyed by it.
The electrical ruin to the left of the Pendragon was Dauntless’s shield, raised between the Marduk and the Simurgh. But for that shield, the Simurgh would have crashed right through him on her course to Titan Fortuna.
Dauntless had saved him, and it felt like the man shouldn’t have.
The Marduk couldn’t fly. Defiant did what he could to disengage from his chair, and ran up a sloped deck that was partially obstructed by feathers. He grabbed a spear and an old halberd he’d kept for posterity.
Fire, he thought. He couldn’t see the countdown, but he knew it should be time.
The signal was distorted. He could hear the scream, and in that three dimensional sprawl of data, that part of his brain that he’d replaced with technology was parsing the data as corrupted. Out of his reach.
He reversed course, his feet shifting, the treads in his boots relaxing, letting him slide down the sloped deck toward the console. His combat program helped his movements to coordinate.
“Dauntless!” he called out, at the top of his lungs.
He reached the space next to his chair, the wall of that crackling shield illuminating everything, until his surroundings looked like ninety-nine percent white, one percent almost-white. The trajectory and his program-coordinated movement saw his hand meet the button.
G-driver, second shot.
He could see it in his readouts from the console. Disruption in the power supply. The signal wasn’t getting through from button to weapon.
He checked. Reading transcripts.
“They’re saying they’ll help you!” he bellowed. “After! But we need you to do like we discussed before!”
Dauntless moved, the spear sweeping to one side, striking the Simurgh.
Defiant, at the very front of his ship, nose pointed almost at the ground, almost everything illuminated by brilliant white light, could see the Simurgh’s upper body, and part of her face.
“Connect to Fortuna!” Defiant called out. “She knows what to do!”
The Titan Dauntless moved again, the spear sweeping up.
The data readouts warped. The electricity was its own distortion, its own interruption.
Defiant hit the button for the manual instruction to fire, but the timing was wrong.
Titan Skadi was there too, her blade-hand at the Simurgh’s back. Digital readouts read that the Custodian Titan was active in the area.
All dogpiling the Simurgh, who struggled to make contact with Titan Fortuna.
Dauntless’s spear moved again, and this time, Defiant simply held the button down. When the spear’s disruption overrode the Simurgh’s signal, the signal got through.
Simurgh, Titan Skadi, Custodian, and Dauntless were all flung back. The Marduk ripped in half from the strain of firing-
And Defiant leaped, ninety feet between himself and the rubble below.
It was his old halberd that he used to catch himself. His old halberd that fired out a grappling hook, catching Titan Fortuna by the side.
Skadi had been there.
He lowered himself to the ground by stages. When he landed, dust was kicked up by his boots scuffing the ground.
The Simurgh lay prone within the storm that was the Sleeper. Unmoving. That hadn’t been him. That had been Dauntless, acting with the benefit of Titan Fortuna’s sight, guiding the direction of the blast.
The storm crackled, boiled, popped, the colors taking on a rainbow sheen that somehow felt it shouldn’t make sense with the way the colors unfolded.
That would be enough to take her out of the picture.
The Titans had gone absolutely still.
He could see Titan Eve. Titan Kronos. Titan Skadi. Titan Arachne.
The titans who had been drilling had stopped. Whoever or whatever they’d been digging at, they were done.
The cracks in reality that separated their world from this one began to glow, the near-black red crystal taking on a deep red light. There was no light in the sky above. The only illumination came from below.
He saw Titan Pouffe. The Titan who transported people and Titans en-masse, across vast distances. She was here, not where Antares had wanted her to be.
He counted heads, backing away by what felt like milimeters, given the scale of what was happening. It was as though he were an ant, taking a single step in a world at human scale.
A vehicle landed. It was the Uther. It was damaged, wrecked, half the weapons non-operational, the hull strained to the point it looked like it could crack apart if it made too sharp a turn.
His boots met the deck, metal on metal. It normally felt satisfying. Now it felt like a knell. A door closing. An executioner’s axe.
What have we done?
“They sent Titan Valkyrie?” he asked.
“They did,” Dragon said.
He looked up. Dragon was there, in his ship, waiting for him.
She wrapped her arms around him. Metal on metal, in a way that felt more satisfying than anything. She held him as she told the bay doors to close, as she told the ship to rise up.
“You spooked me,” she told him.
“You’ve done that to me often enough. Where do we stand?”
She broke the hug, and she turned, the head of the body they’d designed and put together together looking out the front of the Uther.
The landscape was being overtaken by red. At the edges, where the light was brightest, the earth became crystal.
He fixed his eyes on the silhouette of Dauntless, now utterly still. On Titan Eve, who he hadn’t known. He had fought so damn hard to keep his place on his team. He had wronged Dauntless.
Dauntless had made the decision, knowing what was at stake.
“Where do we stand with who?” Dragon asked. “There’s a lot.”
“With the Machine Army?”
“Up to Saint, now.”
“Alternative measures? Plans that aren’t…”
“Antares sent out a message to the European and offworld capes.”
“And they’re deploying. Valkyrie is using powers to bring them here.”
“Will they be able to stop this, or are we bringing them here to die?”
If Dragon’s silence didn’t already speak volumes, the red light that swelled below and around the Uther was answer enough.
The area was filled with noise, clamor.
She hadn’t had to send that message out to the offworld capes.
In a way, it had made things so much harder. It gave people hope, and that was the worst possible thing when hope wasn’t deserved, when it was too late. This was the last in a line of plans.
People were upset. They were arguing. Some felt the Simurgh winning would be better.
Defiant had fought the Endbringer too many times to agree.
Their arrival in the lobby drew attention. Chevalier was there too, but he was wounded from his fight with the Simurgh, and people were upset, anxious.
People got out of Defiant’s way as he approached. His sensors could track things, could hear.
Antares hummed. It was faint, like a tuning fork. Her teammates did the same.
Chevalier had balked. Maybe that was why people had hesitated, why they still thought there were other ways.
He used his size and presence to make a path, trusting people to get out of his way. He extended a hand.
Antares hesitated, seeing him reach out.
“I know,” he said.
“I’ve been trying to explain, there’s more to it.”
“No,” he said. “This is it.”
She looked him in the eye.
She took him by the hand.
With one gauntlet, he moved her arm up to a part of his forearm where skin was still skin. He felt the hum shiver through flesh, making subtle changes.
A death sentence, like the one she and her team already carried.
He turned to Dragon, just to his right. She bent down, kissing the spot on his arm. It was purely ceremonial. She began to shut down systems, making preparations. Facilities across Earth Gimel and Earth Bet prepared to wipe everything clean.
The protests had died down, with this. Defiant offered his hand to Chevalier.
Chevalier pulled off his gauntlet, and clasped Defiant’s wrist, while Defiant clasped his. Defiant could feel and his sensors could hear the signal thrum through Chevalier’s body.
Chevalier’s voice was low, quiet, and heard by everyone present, “Here we go, old friend. To think this isn’t even the hard part.”