The mood was somber. We stood in the midst of a warzone, with holes in the ceiling, holes in the building exterior, and wind whistling through those holes and down hallways. Rubble was strewn everywhere, bloodstains marked where people had bled more than twenty percent of their blood volume and likely died, and there were pieces of broken or dismantled tinkertech lying around that were cordoned off with more seriousness than the cracks in the ceiling that still shed chunks of concrete, or the holes in the floor large enough to drop a truck through.
The only fighting was in words, and those words weren’t shouts, not really. A few loud people, but many more people were remaining quiet out of respect for the dead, though the deaths hadn’t happened yet. Depending on where they stood on buying into this plan, those dead could be us, a majority of us who wore costumes and masks, or a minority share of those same capes, if the person arguing was an optimist. Among those who didn’t believe the plan would work at all, the relative hush and the subdued, respectful tones were for the trillions who would die. For humanity.
The Simurgh was out of action. Sleeper had her. She had wanted to enslave humanity, bringing us all into her siren call. From there, we, ninety-nine point nine percent of us if Chris was to be believed, would have been stuck in roles she had prescribed for us.
I’d already felt the impact of that, just in the span of the raid on this facility. That had been one decision, and we’d ultimately opted out of it. She’d chosen her option, and two members of Breakthrough were gone.
I couldn’t imagine that being every decision. Everything decided according to the whims of a monster that had killed millions and done untold damage on other fronts.
We were free, out from beneath that thumb. Maybe we were under the Titan Fortuna’s thumb now, because of it. I couldn’t rule out that the agent had influenced things in that direction before she took power.
I looked back down the stairs, at the scene we were retreating from. The crowd had gathered at the edge of one of our earlier battlefields. Capes who we’d just been trying to communicate with were gathered around Defiant, Dragon, and Chevalier. The Dragon and two knights. The simple act of Defiant offering me his hand and the fact Chevalier had been on board… it was helping people turn the corner.
I was okay with that. It was a role capes played. A handsome costume, a pretty mask, and a person with presence and personal power… it helped cut through the bullshit sometimes. A double-edged sword, obviously, when people like Scribe had used it for the wrong cause or interests. But it had also let Legend and Stonewall nudge things further along, faster.
The optimist in me hoped that we shut down the ugliest side of that, like we’d stomped out the worst of the Fallen, like how Empire Eighty-Eight’s back had broken. Meanwhile, the better causes had forked and thrived.
I really hoped that what we were doing today would have its positive forks, but my thoughts lingered on the worst possibilities. Fortuna, and what Fortuna was doing.
Our plan now was to get in between the point Fortuna completed her plan, and the point everything blew up. Valkyrie had brought us Riley, Riley had brought the formula. Now it was a question of getting people to take it. To fill that space with dreams and death.
“Where do we even begin?” Rain asked.
We were up near the third floor. I could see the marks left behind where powers had been used, where lasers had gouged walls, or fixtures had broken, a camouflaged cabinet for a stark white fire extinguisher hanging halfway out of the wall.
“A part of me hoped people would line up,” I admitted. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
“I’m reminded of an article I read about new parents,” Sveta said. “The mom gets pregnant, doesn’t realize for a bit, gets the test, tells her best friend, then tells her partner. He reacts badly, or is in shock. You have to remember, he hasn’t had the benefit of quietly getting used to it, getting counsel, whatever. Same when the baby hits. For the mom, she’s been living with the baby for nine months. For the dad, he starts living with the baby at birth.”
I made a bit of a face. “Not sure I like that. Gives too much of a pass.”
“But we’re living with it, we already wrapped our heads around it,” Sveta said. “They’re still coming to terms with the idea.”
I held out my arm. I could feel it on my skin, in my muscle, and in my bones. A thrum, like the point something vibrated to the touch but no longer made a sound or moved with that vibration.
Semiramis had wound back the clock for parts of my body. It was localized, incomplete, but it kept me going enough to see this through. I hoped. The pain in my collarbone and ribs wasn’t as severe. Fractures instead of breaks. Bruising around the bones instead of fractures. If it weren’t for that, I worried that vibration would have been unbearable, or it would have shaken me to pieces, like an earthquake and a derelict house.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Rain echoed me. “We don’t have much opportunity to convince people to get on board.”
“I don’t know if it’s our job. Unless we’re talking about specific people,” I said. “The Wardens are on it, I think.”
We reached the fourth floor. I saw Crystalclear partway down a side hallway and raised my hand in greeting.
“Victoria,” he called out.
I flew closer to him, because flying was better than walking, and even though I was better, walking hurt.
He was with two capes. I recognized them as Typhlosis, who had been at the broken trigger event before I’d joined Breakthrough, and Ratcatcher.
Crystalclear extended a hand my way.
“I can’t exactly return a handshake right now. Not without giving you the lowdown.”
“Word’s gotten around,” he said. Only his mouth betrayed any expression, as crystals jutted from his eye sockets, forehead, and upper face, forming a craggy look atop his head where hair would be. Some of the crystals were bloody.
“You got the full rundown?” I asked him. “I don’t want you to go into this… blind.”
Dumb line, when two of the people present didn’t have proper eyes. Crystalclear had his crystals, and Typhlosis had eyes with concentric rings of glowing irises, each rotating in different directions, periodically, flipping around on some axle or another. There were no pupils, only small holes through which I could see the inside of her head, illuminated by the soft glow. Her blindfold hung around her neck.
Typhlosis snorted a bit, at least. Her reaction might have been different if I hadn’t winced at my own wording.
“We got the rundown. Last in, first out. Spread out. That there’s no guarantee this works, on multiple levels.”
“It won’t work,” Ratcatcher said. “Thorry.”
“We don’t have time to dwell too much on every single person,” Rain said.
“Just… the Norfair thing was a turning point for me,” I told Rain, before I turned to Crystalclear. “I respected what you guys were doing.”
“I’m confident this will work out,” Crystalclear said. He’d dropped his hand, raised it a bit when I looked at him to look into his, er, crystals, while he spoke.
“People thuck thometimeth,” Ratcatcher said. “You’ll have to fight to get them to lithten.”
“Will you do this with us?” I asked her.
“Bad dreamth, and then I die.”
“Complicated dreams,” I told her. “Not always bad. We’re polluting the well, so that maybe we pollute what their idea of ‘bad’ is. Maximizing connections between us, digging into old relationships, capes we’ve known who passed, so we can pollute them as well. If nothing else about this works, maybe we change things for the next civilization these aliens run into.”
“How many of the dreamth will be bad? Thome? A lot? Perthenth?”
“More than fifty percent,” I told Ratcatcher. “Beyond that… I imagine it’ll be like any ordinary dreams you have.”
“Tho… ninety-nine perthent bad.”
Typhlosis blinked, and one of her irises was mid-flip when she did it, so her eyelid bulged around the protrusion. Her expression was sad.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I told Ratcatcher.
“I’m allowed to thay no?”
“Yeah,” I said, and I felt sad saying it.
“There’th nobody to look after my ratth if I go,” she said.
“We have contacts, staff,” Crystalclear said. “We could send someone around to your place.”
“They’ll wonder where I went,” she said, hugging her arms to her chest. She was wearing a dusty sweatshirt, carrying equipment. I wondered if she’d been doing search and rescue.
“The plan is that we each… go,” Crystalclear said. “We spread out, to get better coverage. We sleep for a bit, and then, um-”
“We croak,” Ratcatcher said.
Crystalclear looked uncomfortable at that. “Point is, I’m going to go out to the Norfair area. A bit north of there, it’s where I stayed after arriving in Gimel. I’ve got family out there in the old tent city. I don’t know if smells or familiar voices will get through… but… yeah. We could take you to wherever you’ve got your pets.”
“No familiar voiceth for me,” Ratcatcher said. “I have no friendth. Jutht my rathth.”
“I consider you a friend,” Crystalclear said.
I saw her draw in a deep breath and sigh.
Rain’s arm scraped against the wall as he shifted posture. Crystalclear half-turned his head.
“You don’t have to stay, Antares. Just, uh, give me what you have to give me.”
Crystalclear extended his hand, his face not turned quite my direction. I looked at it. It didn’t waver.
“Unless you aren’t comfortable,” he told me.
“I have to be. I’m the one who pushed for this,” I said.
I reached out and gave his hand a squeeze.
“I can thee it,” Ratcatcher said. “Tiny movementh of tinier hairth, all over your hand, your fathe.”
“Come,” Ratcatcher said. “You can give a girl a kith on the cheek, or hold her hand if you’re thicken.”
She pushed her mask a bit aside. There was scar tissue on her cheek and chin. Her hand reached out, and her pet mouse poked its nose out of the sleeve.
“I should warn you, last in, first out, it means… the further down the chain, the faster it takes effect.”
“I know,” Ratcatcher said. “I’ll thicken out or do thomthing thupid if I don’t hurry it up.”
Crystalclear took her hand in his, leaned over, and gave her a kiss where the mask had previously covered the side of her face.
“Fucking heavy,” Ratcatcher said. Her hand tremored as she withdrew it. She turned her rat mask with the crooked nose to look down the length of the hallway behind her, as if she expected to see someone or something there. An answer or a distraction from this present moment.
Typhlosis reached out with a hand. Toward Crystalclear.
“I could, if you wanted more time to get where you’re going,” I told her.
She shook her head. Crystalclear extended a hand toward her, and she laid her hand in his, momentarily. She withdrew it with as much or more care than she’d set it down.
“Typh is helping keep track of who we’ve gotten to,” Crystalclear said. “Wardens have resources, the big teams are organizing, Foresight’s got a whole roster of people we’re hoping to get to in the next thirty to sixty minutes.”
“And we’ve got to get where we’re going,” Typhlosis said. “And make arrangements. For stuff like Ratcatcher’s pet rats.”
“You want to get moving then,” I said.
“We’d better,” Crystalclear said. “Is a goodbye appropriate? Too much?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But thanks for making this easier.”
“Whatever happens, if this works or doesn’t work, I’m glad I crossed paths with you, Antares.”
The parting of ways wasn’t as graceful as I might have hoped it to be. We were going in the same direction. We headed back toward the stairs in two barely separate groups, me joining Rain and Sveta, Crystalclear with Racatcher and Typhlosis. When we reached the stairwell, and they turned to go down, Crystalclear gave me a little wave, like the wave I’d given him earlier.
That was now three more people.
I couldn’t bring myself to move forward, as I processed it all.
Sveta touched my arm, and I flinched at the contact.
I met her eyes. “Anywhere you need to go? Anyone you want to see?”
“In a way, I’m glad Weld and I agreed for me to be the scapegoat with the Irregulars. He’s handling them.”
“I don’t necessarily mean for the plan,” I told her. “If or when we get everyone, or get mostly everyone… where do you want to be? Is there anyone you want to be with?”
“I want to find a nice rocky spot down by the water,” she said.
“Do you want company?”
“No,” she said.
“Is this because of the bite? Because I was on edge, my power was weird, it-”
“No,” Sveta said.
I felt so tense, and the refusal and rejection didn’t help.
“No,” Sveta said, again, “If there was more time, or if I knew I’d wake up and have a chance to move somewhere else, to have another place, I’d have a sit on my own, and I’d spend some time with you. But I have to choose one, and I think, unless you really want my company, I’d like to have a moment of quiet.”
“I can understand that,” Rain said.
I wasn’t sure I could.
Sveta seemed to read my mind. She met my eyes. “I spent so long fighting me. Then I got a body, the prosthetic one, it felt like a crutch. The one Bough gave me felt like a cheat, or an illusion. The Simurgh scared me, but… I feel like I can make peace with this. I’d like to sit with that peace for a bit.”
“And you like the water,” I told her.
“I do. Thanks to my time with Breakthrough, I know why, now.”
“You are my best friend, you know. You’re family. I don’t want to end this distant.”
“And you’re my best friend,” Sveta said. “Really. As infuriating as you can be.”
I wanted to say something more, but the words escaped me.
“What about you, Rain?” Sveta asked. “Erin?”
“Erin’s with Lachlan,” Rain said. “I haven’t really been in touch with her.”
“Chastity?” I asked.
“That… feels weird,” he admitted.
“You like her, don’t you?”
“I think. She’s funny, she’s nice. A little intense, even if that’s the pot calling the kettle black. But hanging out together and holding each other before everything goes dark seems… like a lot for a first date.”
“I’m not being weird, right?” he asked, sounding worried. “It’s…”
He trailed off. Two normal arms and one mechanical arm raised up a bit, then flopped to his side.
“I don’t know if it matters,” I said.
“I’ll think about it,” he told us.
“Come on. There’s people to check on,” I said.
The room was filled with monitors, and the monitors glowed red, mapping out the spreading cracks, the glow of the land beneath the cracks. Different clocks showed different countdowns.
“Heyyyy,” Kenzie said, sounding very lighthearted. She swiveled in her chair, and her face was hidden by her mask.
“Hey,” I told her, quiet.
“You got dosed?” she asked.
“I… that takes a lot more discussion, first,” I told her.
“Okay. Um, I’m keeping tabs on things. We’ve got a whole bunch of capes trying to make sure we cover all the bases, contact everyone we need to talk to.”
“Where are we at?” I asked.
“Thirty percent. Thirty percent of capes, as far as we can tell.”
“The Wardens decided they had to force a few.”
I snapped to attention at that. “What? Who?”
“Capes in prison. The most dangerous ones. Monokeros was one of them. They had a dialogue about it, and they decided there was too much danger.”
“That the heroes all die and the villains stay?”
Kenzie nodded with vigor.
“Okay,” I said. “Just the most dangerous ones, then? You mean monsters, not villains.”
“Yep. Um, Rain? Love Lost and Colt joined up.”
“Makes sense,” Rain said. “Good.”
“Is there a list of names?” I asked. I approached the desk, while being careful to stay out of Kenzie’s arm’s reach. There was an organization of names, floating in three-dimensional space, connected by diagrams that looked almost like Capricorn’s constellations.
I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“It’s organized by points in space, so…” Kenzie said.
“Oh! I got video footage!”
“I don’t need to see-”
But she was already pulling it up. Already projecting it onto the wall.
I watched, tense, as my mother and father stood on one end of the room. Marquis and Panacea stood on the other.
“No audio, sorry,” Kenzie told me.
I didn’t need audio. I could fill in the words very easily.
The protest, the little head shake.
Doubt. Worry. It made sense she wouldn’t want to do this, wouldn’t want to make that point of contact.
It was Darnall who entered the room. He remained at the door, and the camera didn’t show a good view of his face. But it was clear he was talking.
I could see it. The shift in stance, the break in protests. It didn’t take that many words, possibly because he and she had exchanged so many words over the past twenty-four hours. I hadn’t had nearly enough sessions with the man, but I could imagine his tone, though the exact recipe of words to break through Amy’s stubbornness eluded me.
Unfortunately, Marquis could see the shift in posture and expression as well as any of us could.
I watched the recording as Amy took a step forward, and was blocked by an eruption of a fence of bone.
She touched it, and the wall broke. Marquis dropped to his knees.
She walked unimpeded to my parents. It was my dad who brushed hair away from her face, touching her forehead. I saw Amy’s posture change.
There was an exchange of words, and I was glad I couldn’t hear it. Then she crossed the room to walk over to Darnall.
The image froze as she disappeared from view.
I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
My parents had the effect. They’d passed it to her. That was that. She couldn’t use her power on herself, unless something dramatic had changed when we’d cracked the crystal.
“Crystal?” I asked.
“Doing outreach,” Lookout said.
“Protecting Riley Davis.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. And Chris?”
“They’re going to hunt him down.”
“Yeah. He was spreading half-truths and they asked Jessica, who asked Riley, who said he was a problem. They’ll imprison him and take away his stuff if they can. Jessica said to, I think, as a compromise.”
“Okay,” I said.
She swiveled in my direction, and I quickly took a half-step, half-fly back.
“Right at the beginning, the promise was that you wouldn’t leave me out. All my life, I’ve been left behind, or ignored, or…”
“Bringing you with isn’t a good thing if we’re taking you to a bad place or an ending,” I said.
“Leaving me behind isn’t a good thing either,” she said.
In so many ways, she was precocious. She was smart for her age, she had a work ethic that a squadron of thirty-five year olds wouldn’t have. She was, unfortunately, advanced for her age when it came to relationships, and the kinds of things or dynamics she might get entangled in.
In other ways, she was a child. Not yet a teenager. There wasn’t a rational argument I could make that she would accept. There wasn’t an emotional argument I could make that would budge that heart of hers.
“No,” I told her. “Sorry.”
“Sorry,” Sveta echoed me.
“Okay!” she said, brightly. She swiveled, turning to the computer. “I’ve got important stuff to do anyway.”
“I don’t know if you want to have a conversation-”
“Make preparations…?” Rain asked.
“I’m preparing now. Doing stuff.”
“What if we asked you to step away from the tech? Disengage? This is all pretty… it’s a lot.”
Kenzie turned back my way. The eyes etched into her round mask stared at me.
“I don’t want you to regret not talking with us now, years from now,” I told her. “Because part of the reason we’re doing this is to give you those years. And people like you, and people without powers.”
She turned back to her work. “No, it’s fine. I’m busy.”
“You can’t avert this, there’s no fix, there’s no tweak, it’s not…”
“I know. That’s fine. I’m busy,” Kenzie said, firm, her hands at the keyboard.
“You don’t want-”
“I don’t,” she said, with more emotion, her skinny arms tense.
Kenzie stared at the screen, hands at the keyboard, silent.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “You had a freakout earlier, then you seemed to rally. Being away from your tech seemed to help.”
“Talking with Grue helped some,” she said. “But…”
She trailed off.
“But what?” Sveta asked.
“Victoria, do you remember one time, you were complaining you never get the benefit of a doubt, Victoria? From your parents? From people when you were trying to warn them about Amy? With the diary thing and Teacher’s propaganda?”
“I’ve said something like that. But not to you, I don’t think.”
“I picked it up somewhere. My point is… I’d really like that benefit of a doubt right now. I know a lot of what I do is my fault, but… a lot of what I deal with is also because when I tell people stuff, they assume I’m… I dunno. That I’ve been coached. That I had intentions. Or they think about themselves first.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s always been a juggling act, trying to give you the ability to make decisions and… keep you safe.”
“I’m safe, sitting at my computer. I need to be sitting at my computer, because the portal tech is still a thing people might need one day and I need it to not blow up, and stuff I can’t tell you, and I’m not going to freak out. I promise. If I was going to, it would be because Juliette froze Roman so Chicken Little, Candy, and Darlene could touch him and get the effect. Well, technically, it was Chicken Little doing it, then Darlene did it because he did, and Candy joined in after…”
“Fuck,” I said. “Does Tattletale know?”
“Nope!” Kenzie said, brightly. “She’s going to shit herself, she’ll be so mad. But I’m calm, see? I’m okay. Because it’s Breakthrough’s plan and I trust it’s the best option. So I’m going to do my thing, then I’m going to see how things go, with as clear a view of it all as anyone could possibly get.”
“Do you want anyone around?” I asked. “I could get you over there.”
“Nope. Imp called Charlotte and Forrest. They’re going to come here to help look after the gang while they sleep. They can keep me company. Really, you don’t need to worry about me.”
She’d tapped her screen. I walked over to look.
Imp, Grue, Parian, and Foil were all in the room. Imp had an arm around Juliette’s throat, while sitting on a table behind the girl, as a kind of improvised headlock. Grue had a hand on Roman’s shoulder. Off to the side, talking, were Parian and Foil.
They were together, in these tense moments, where skin hummed with the promise of what was to come, and where monitors glowed red, showing the creeping cracks, the landscape turning to crystal at the edges of the cracks.
“I’m going to wrap up here, shut everything down, maybe, so it’s safe no matter what happens. Then I’ll just watch.”
“I’ll give you guys calls on your cellphone. Between the time the people on the second rung and the people on the first rung start passing out. Promise.”
“I worry,” I said. “You’re going to turn around and go to Chicken Little.”
“If I was going to do that I would have done it already. If I was planning to do it later, I’d use projections and tech and do you really want to spend the time you have remaining chasing me?”
“That’s pretty damning,” Rain said. “That you’re already thinking that way.”
“I’m always thinking this way. But if you really want to make me feel better about all of this… I’d like to look after Breakthrough.”
“Look after how?” I asked.
“Ashley’s freaking out. Byron’s sitting on the roof and hasn’t been dosed. Um, and Natalie’s driving and it’s a little shaky with the state of the roads, I’m keeping tabs on her car’s dashboard.”
“Damsel is freaking?” I asked.
“They’re having a hard time dealing with her. Here. Take this.”
I gave the screen one last look before I hurried off. 32%.
“You’re afraid!” her voice rang through the large hallway.
Wardens stood in a loose formation at either end of the hallway.
“I’m the most terrifying thing in the world to you, and it’s all your own doing!”
“Ashley,” I called out.
Damsel spun on her heels. She almost lost her balance.
Her bladed hands were extended out in either direction, facing the two groups that had her surrounded. Holding her arms outstretched seemed to be a task, and she was breathing hard, the hands faltering, raising up again. When she took a step, it was with a bit of a limp.
“Oh, Antares. You petty, stupid little thing,” she said.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m on my way up, rest assured. It’s so convenient when all of your enemies decide to die. What more could a lady ask for, hm?” She raised her chin. “And in the aftermath… who’s left to stop me from ruling?”
“Conveying the presence you need to rule is like being cool in high school,” I said. “If you talk too much about how cool you are, you’re going to convince people of the opposite.”
“And what would you know about poise or presence?” she asked. “Look at you. Haggard, bloody.”
“I’m doing a lot better than I was. Funny thing, if you make the right contacts, meet the right people, you get healing, you get help. How’s that foot of yours?”
“Oh, it’s sore. A small battlefield injury. But in a matter of days, you’ll be dead after pissing yourself in a nightmare filled sleep,” she told me. “And I’ll mend, waited on hand and foot, dressed in the finest clothes available.”
“Fucking city in ruins, not much available,” one of the Wardens said.
“I’ll manage. I’ve always managed.”
“And do what?” I asked her. “Your team? Deathchester? Are they sticking around?”
“They’ll come around. We did well enough while I led. They’ll come back.”
Four members of Deathchester had agreed to make contact. The rest had left, frustrated with Damsel’s ranting. I hadn’t asked that question without knowing the answer. A good rule of thumb for a lawyer, taught to me by a lawyer parent.
“Back!” she barked out the word. Her power lashed out, and she made a quick circle with her claws, shaping it as it rolled out. it became a circular whorl, spinning about twenty feet down the other end of the hallway before losing momentum and dissipating. The edges of it had raked floor, ceiling, and walls, damaging a door.
“But what comes next?” I asked. “After you rule the ruins? A bit of petty looting? Running from the heroes and authorities? All it takes is one bullet.”
“I’ve been shot before, I’ll live.”
“There’s an alternative. Tea. Chats.” The voice that spoke wasn’t mine.
“Fuck you, child. There’s a reason you’re so unloved.”
“Hanging out, using tech to work out the coolest costume stuff. Glowing, smoking eyes, I could do stuff with your claws, giving them cool effects…”
“I’ll keep my response succinct, have they taught you that word in school yet, brat?”
Damsel used her power. A lash. I pulled back, dragging one of the more heavily armored capes back and away. Kenzie remained in the line of fire.
The power licked her, grazed her.
She flickered, and remained where she was.
Kenzie continued, “There’d be no running, not much danger. Same deal I offered Swansong.”
Damsel used her power again, lunging forward. A beam from one of the capes clipped her, knocking her off course, but her forward momentum was a lot.
I sent the Fragile One forward. Low and close to the corner. Invisible. Beneath the Fragile One’s fingernails, I had my own blood. It should transmit the effect, but…
She blasted the projection of Kenzie, and everything near Kenzie.
It did nothing.
“Ashley, come on!” Kenzie said, sounding mildly put out at worst. “This is not a hard decision!”
Damsel raised a claw, poised like she was going to slash Kenzie.
She stopped. She looked down at Kenzie. Kenzie’s projection looked up at her. For a moment, it looked like an impossible decision, a paralyzing one.
“I miss you more than almost anything,” Kenzie said.
Ashley dropped her hand, the claw clacking against the floor.
“The worst thing about the world ending is I might not get to see more of you,” Kenzie said.
The tone had shifted. Capes adjusted their footing. Armor creaked. I hated every little sound, because I worried it might set things off again, disturbing the moment.
Ashley looked off to one side. “You shouldn’t admit to weakness. It’s unbecoming.”
“Right,” Kenzie said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Ashley looked down the hall at me, then back down to Kenzie.
“The harder we try to be strong, the weaker we are.”
“I know. It’s sort of the same here,” Kenzie replied, nodding.
“It’s kind of at the heart of the plan,” I said, from a distance. “Accepting that sometimes we have to be weak, step down, let the current take us.”
“I’m still getting used to that,” Kenzie admitted.
“Are they taking care of you?” Ashley asked.
“They’re a little preoccupied. But mostly.”
“So I’ve heard. Did you… join them?”
Ashley was tense as she asked it.
“No. That’s part of where I feel left out.”
“Perhaps I should offer them some assistance? Lighten the load, provide one less distraction?”
“You’d better act fast,” she said, turning to look at the heroes nearest her. “Before I slip.”
“I’ve got you,” I told her. The Fragile One reached out and touched her, pressing blood to bare shoulder.
She shivered, full-body. “You’d better restrain me, so you don’t have any further Damsel problems.”
Some heroes hurried to the task.
Kenzie sighed, heavy. She looked at me. “I’ve got to get back to work. Side projects, recording things so people know what they need to know.”
“Don’t go touching Chicken Little,” I told her.
She stared at me for a little too long. Her projection didn’t have the helmet on.
“On the roof,” I said. “I know.”
I arrived on the rooftop, feeling very much like a third wheel, even as other capes arrived. The sky around us distorted, distant places lunging to be in close. Portals a short distance away had been distorted to be large, providing huge windows for Vista’s space distortions.
“Need anything?” I asked.
“No,” Byron said.
“You’re content?” I asked.
He sat on a shielded ventilation duct with Vista beside him.
“Mostly,” he said.
Vista elbowed him, hard. Her elbow protector clacked hard against his armor.
“Not anything to do with you,” he told her. He pointed.
The distance was laced with red, ominous and spreading. I could see the silhouettes of the largest Titans.
“Yeah,” I said. “The first people have passed out. Started dreaming. Lookout’s got some data suggesting it’s filtering through okay.”
“I know,” Vista said. “We had some people come by, they had to be carried. But we got them where they wanted to go.”
“Where do you want to go?” Byron asked.
I had five different places I wanted to go, that were all important to me, but I really had only one destination.
“Old headquarters,” I told them. “Near Hollow Point. It’s okay if you ballpark it. I can fly.”
The sky began to warp.
“Have you two been dosed?” I asked.
“Not yet. We’re worried we’ll conk out when it matters. The more points of contact there are, the shorter the amount of time.”
“Riley had a logic to it,” I said. “We thought we’d need to be able to quickly operate on the most far-flung people, and the people quickest to agree needed to be active for longer, convincing others.”
“So you’ll be one of the last?” Byron asked.
I nodded. I offered a hand.
He pulled off his gauntlet, and touched my hand. Then he reached over to Vista, and pressed his hand to hers.
“What’s your plan?” I asked them.
“My folks’,” Byron said. “Vista’s still deciding. I’ve told her she’s welcome to come with.”
“It’s a little much,” Vista said. “I don’t want to go home, though.”
I nodded. “Rain’s on a similar wavelength. It’s not an easy thing to decide.”
“Well, you decided. Old headquarters… is that right? Did I get the location right?”
“That’s it,” Byron told her.
“Then there’s your door,” Vista said. “No rush.”
“There it is,” I said, not quite ready to leave the roof.
It was impulse that drove me. Hesitation. As if somehow this was what made it final.
Flight through a frozen sky, over a city that seemed frozen and utterly still. If there were any lights, I’d be more suspicious they were more to do with the Machine Army than any trace of humanity.
Past the Earth N portal, near Kenzie’s place.
Down to the Stratford area, going by landmarks that Vista’s power squished into odd shapes that made them nearly unrecognizable.
I landed on the fire escape.
I let myself in, no key needed. A space heater thrummed uselessly. The building was damaged, and cold leeched into the area. Whiteboards had fallen. Plans and dreams now fallen by the wayside.
Red from that same crack that had brought down one corner of the building leeched in through walls, floor, and hastily-erected tarp.
Not that I could discount that connections I’d made months ago were helping us get the people on board now.
Natalie was huddled by the space heater, wearing her puffy jacket.
“So,” she said.
“Any issues?” she asked.
“A few. A couple of people surprised me. The people who can’t see how this would work. The ones who can. Divided by one question: people.”
“Mmm,” she said. “I don’t think I could take a side if I tried. If I could, maybe I’d be less nervous.”
“Are you okay doing this?”
She seemed for a moment like she might say no. Her forehead creased.
No words passed between us for a minute.
“It’s like secret identities, you know?” I asked.
“I don’t really- no. No idea what you’re talking about.”
“Why do we keep them? It’s… we need a fallback. Capes need some aspect of our lives that we can turn to when it all goes to shit. So we keep one sliver or one half of our lives intact, and when worst comes to worst, there’s a place we can go for a friendly word, a hug, normalcy.”
“Okay. You didn’t have that, though.”
“I did, kind of. Not… not an escape. But there was love and support at the core of it. Just took a little figuring out to realize it was there. And at the end of the day… here in Gimel, I think we kind of forgot we need that sort of thing. That ability to reach out, fall back.”
I reached out.
Natalie extended her hand. Below mine.
I dropped a fob into her hand.
She stared down at it, nodding for a moment, then asked, “Do you want me to leave the space heater on? It’s battery operated.”
“I can get it, sure. I’ll stick around.”
The floor creaked as she walked over to the door, and the fire escape banged with her boots. I could hear her making her way down to her car through the holes in the wall and floor.
I looked out over the water, tinted red, and at the sky, which I imagined glowed redder by the minute. Sveta was somewhere out there, on another shoreline.
My duty in this was done. Just a question of waiting.
It was up to them, now.