“There’s so few of us, now, and still so many humans,” Jacob said. He walked to the rooftop’s edge, leaning over until it looked like he would teeter forward. Not that he would.
Blood ran down from his nose to his upper lip, flowing freely, and droplets broke free to sail toward the street below. A ghost town.
“You should stop the bleeding.”
“Should, would, could. Too many people try to tell you what to do or how.”
“I think I’m used to it,” Kurt said. He walked over to the edge of the rooftop, the corrugated metal banging with every footstep. There wasn’t a lip at the end, so it was a fairly steep drop.
He was used to it. He could watch the blood fall from the lip of a mouth stretched in a grin, and with his eyes wide, taking in the movement of clouds high above, the shift of clothes in the wind, mapping buildings and dust, he could calculate the trajectory. He could map out fluid mechanics, and see where the smaller droplets would fall. All before the blood was halfway to the ground.
“Even if you get powers, there’s always someone better, huh?” Jacob asked. There was an anger in his eyes as he looked at Kurt, and that anger could be measured out in changes in skin tone that suggested shifting blood volume, in creases measured in nanometers, around eyes and eyebrows.
“That’s something you have to make peace with,” Kurt told his friend.
Friend. This friendship with Jacob, technically the longest friendship Kurt had ever had, was like being friends with a rabid dog. Any periods of convalescence or calm were a prelude to a lashing out.
The blood still ran freely from Jacob’s nose.
He reached into a pocket, shook out a handkerchief, and held it out.
Jacob didn’t move. He’d rather keep bleeding by his own choice than be pushed to stop it. In more than one way, he stood on the edge, his eyes wild, madness inducing years of isolation mixed with pain having stripped away something essential.
Which was something Kurt understood well. The difference was that the pieces that had fallen away over the years were entirely different.
Between the two of them, they maybe added up to one person, together.
“Make peace?” Jacob asked.
Kurt reached forward, handkerchief in hand, his eyes tracking the welling blood, the imminent droplet. Surface tension, blood by volume-
His index finger pressed against the underside of his middle finger, like the movement of a snapped finger in reverse. He caught the blood droplet as it fell away, striking it with a fingertip. Destroying it.
Jacob was tense, more animal than person, as he prepared to react, pulling away or lashing out at the small outreach. He paused as he saw the hand movement, some of the blood touching his cheekbone.
“The day will come when we’re free of him,” Kurt said.
A fleck of blood from the destroyed droplet landed on Jacob’s ear.
Kurt timed the movement with a look toward the window that they’d used to access the rooftop.
“Eventually,” he added, his tone of voice measured, lip and mouth movements precise, to keep volume level and tone exactly where he wanted them.
The lie in that ‘eventually’ was shared entirely through the bond they’d formed between them. The ways they knew each other, the microexpressions Kurt saw, and Jacob’s instincts, which were often so good at figuring Kurt out. A very intentional fleck of blood touching the ear and a look toward the window was as good as a spoken sentence.
“I’m so frustrated, Harbinger,” Jacob said, holding the handkerchief to his nose. “I suppose I’ll have to take out my anger on the people out there.”
His gaze didn’t leave the window as he said it.
The door to their room opened, and Kurt reached out to turn Jacob’s head out toward the city, before turning away himself.
“You’re not pouting, are you, Jacob?”
The voice was deep.
Jacob turned, glaring with far too much bloodlust in his eyes. Kurt focused on keeping his expression still.
“People stronger than me are going to hit you,” King said. “Their reasons won’t be as good.”
“They’ll be doing it to survive,” Screamer purred, as she walked around King, her body conforming to the line of his, like she was a pole dancer and he was the pole. She laid her head along his chest. Her voice sounded like it was spoken from just past Kurt’s ear. His attempts to track the sound and its origins gave him that feeling that made him worry he would get a headache later. She opened her mouth again, “It’s a good reason.”
She heard everything nearby, in an area that reached much farther than the leash King had given them, and she was loyal to King. It was why a communication and the corresponding plan had to rely purely on flecks of blood on an ear and a fierce look.
The boys didn’t move as King emerged from the window, the corrugated metal groaning at the man’s weight. He was tall, and he worked out relentlessly.
“Look out there and what do you see?”
“The sun is set,” Kurt volunteered.
Kurt’s power started calculating the distance to the stars that were still visible, with the sun’s light still refracting across the atmosphere at one end of the sky.
“Civilization?” Jack asked.
Oh. Past in the other sense. Metaphor? Was that metaphor? He wasn’t so sure of things like language, people, or deeper meanings.
“What happens in the future? Think, Jacob, my boy.”
The threat was implicit. He expected an answer, and the way King worked, he wanted his answer.
“The powers are going to keep showing up, in greater numbers. Something critical is going to break, or a real monster will show up. Then it all collapses. It’s too fragile,” Jacob said, still holding the handkerchief to his nose, glaring, but with his back turned to King so King wouldn’t think he was being insolent.
“It’s too soon to tell if the powers will keep coming at a steady rate, or if things will plateau,” Kurt said.
“Everything plateaus,” Jacob said. “Everything declines. This ends with civilization in ruins, most of humanity dead, and the remainder bleeding and scared.”
“We’ll make an impact,” King said. “We’ll decide what plateaus and what declines.”
What Jacob had said was apparently the right answer.
King crossed the roof, and placed his great paw of a hand against the side of Jacob’s head. Jacob still stood at the roof’s edge, four floors of building stretching between him and the ground. He didn’t flinch, and he didn’t move a muscle, even as King caressed the side of his head, in what could have been something approaching gentleness from the meanest son of a bitch Kurt had ever known… or the prelude to a push.
Did I think too soon?
“The sun has set. People hide in their homes, listening to the news, and they wonder if we are myths or magicians. We will reveal the truth to them. That we are monsters. Get yourself cleaned up, or they will think we are the pathetic sort of monster.”
He gave Jacob the slightest of pushes, sideways not out, and put the boy off balance, arms windmilling until Kurt stepped out to catch a finger in one closed fist.
That indignity, more than the bloody nose, made Jacob fume. To be made afraid, just for a moment.
“Tonight,” King said, and he was talking to Screamer. “Twenty die. One will experience hell on Earth, with a fate so horrific and remarkable that the entire world will speak of it. If they wish to be spared, they must lop off a finger and place it at their doorsteps. One for every person in the home.”
“We’re announcing ourselves?” Kurt asked.
“We’ll give them clues. Glimpses. Already there are more appearing,” King said. “If we aren’t careful, we’ll be overshadowed.”
Kurt reached beneath the folds of his coat, and pulled out his mask. Snarling, bestial, with glowing red pinpoints for eyes. Jacob, meanwhile, was standing a bit straighter, his fingers combing his hair straight, one hand still holding the handkerchief to his lower face.
Jacob, little more than an animal when he was at his worst, driven by instincts that seemed to be as sharp as the knives he carried, was tidying himself up, like King liked him. Kurt, with his snarling mask, animal or demon, to hide the analytical, cold expression beneath.
“Hell on earth. Are you prepared, Nicholas?”
“Yes, sir,” Nicholas said. The boy was standing in the doorway. Monochrome, tidy, wearing a school uniform.
Nicholas had told King that he had been given his powers. Not by demons, not by angels, not by Scion. By humans. He’d told King that they knew King collected boys- he saw himself in children like Kurt and Jacob. They’d wanted Nicholas to infiltrate. It hadn’t worked- his mind was too affected by his own power, and he answered every question he was given, revealing where he’d come from.
There were others, standing by and waiting. Bradley, with his trilobite-like bugs that he kept, and Rafael, who could turn people into monsters, an illusion as fragile as glass… though that glass could cut.
He set the mask onto his face, and he could relax a bit, not worrying about his expression or gaze betraying something vital. He rolled his shoulders, releasing tension, and preparing for the exercise to come.
Jacob laid a hand on his shoulder as the two of them slipped through the window, into the house.
Jacob has his vision of the future. Bloody and ruined. Us as Kings.
I don’t know how to tell him I find his idea dull.
Kurt pulled a cloak around his shoulders, hood up, while Jacob went to the bathroom adjacent to the little bedroom, and began to wash his face. His nose was still bleeding.
The world is expanding, new things are happening. Nicholas made mention of people who know how to hand out powers and the others don’t seem to care. Not enough.
Things were happening, changing. He’d been drawn here and drawn to accept King’s offer in part because he wanted to be at the center of the change. Now he knew that the center lay somewhere else.
He felt his hood move, a sharp flick. He turned his head, peering through the narrow eyes of the mask, his world and the analysis of that world limited to a narrow slice of his reality.
Screamer’s voice began reciting the instructions King had provided, whispering the promise that twenty would die. Kurt tuned it out.
Jacob held what might have been a nail file. He’d extended the cutting edge of it, striking at the hood. The same kind of signal as the fleck of blood.
A reminder of that unspoken agreement.
Yes. Whatever happened next, King would have to die. They would have to figure out a way.
Adjustments to the landmass made his calculations slightly off. It annoyed him.
Five hopped up to a shard of broken cityscape, then walked across a billboard that had been folded like origami. The City of Angels had been made into a twisted labyrinth before it had been cracked like eggshell.
He had fought here, in this same battle. He scaled up one building that had partially toppled, then hopped down to a hand that stuck out of brickwork, badly worn by weather. He could map out the stress lines, calculate the strength of the material, and work out how many days of rainy weather it would take to bring the hand down. He was utterly unsurprised when it broke beneath his weight- that was another calculation. He remained upright, standing on one foot, that foot resting on the stump, while the rest of the hand crashed to ground.
The hands formed a kind of stairway, and he made his way down. Around a corner, down an alley with more of the hands stabbing out from the walls. There were four blurs of warped time, monochrome, the ground within three of the blurs intact and at the height they had been two years ago. The fourth blur was buried beneath mounds of yellow-white foam, spongy.
The shifting of the earth following one of Scion’s blasts had dragged one wall of the building into that fourth blur. If that continued, part of the building would collapse. As it stood, the mound of containment foam had a deceptive void fraction of ninety-one percent. For a person within, that meant it would be possible to breathe through, the risk of carbon dioxide buildup minimal.
Not that it mattered to its current occupant.
But light would shine through. If things were left as they were, then the building collapse would cover the foam. The occupant would lose the last attachment to the outside world. The dull glow of the sunlight through the foam, the darkness of night, or the sound of rain. Everything would be muffled.
Things would not be left as they were.
He undid the clasp that connected a metal canister to his hip. He gave it a bit of a shake. This particular canister had been a purchase from the black market on Gimel, for twenty-seven new dollars. This same canister, or the canister’s contents, at the very least, would have cost a minimum of one hundred-and-thirty-five thousand dollars before Gold Morning, often twice or thrice that amount. To let it slip from the armories that held it was to lose one’s job and career. When they were requisitioned and sent to the field, cameras watched to ensure they were being used appropriately and to the point of being emptied.
He began spraying. That foam with its void fraction of ninety-one percent began to melt away as if it were candy cotton. They’d put so much on that it was still a long process.
The foam was impractical for use in the field. The balances were hard to strike – the kind of individual with the ability to use it confidently often had other capabilities that were more effective, himself included. His ‘father’ included. The machines that dispensed the foam were large, heavy, and prone to leakage. One stray smack with a wooden bat or the puncture of a gunshot, a sharp tug of the hose, and fluid would begin to leak out, before ballooning into a viscous mass half as large as the person carrying the tank, often incapacitating them or gluing them to the ground. Any reinforcement of the tank or the hose added weight and bulk.
The PRT had struck its precise balances, weighing need with practicality, vulnerability with volume. It had decided for each potential target, was this something the containment foam qualified for? For minor threats, it was a question of expense- the chemical to melt the foam and bring the target into custody had to come from specific armories and depots. If it were too freely available as a fix, then they ran the risk that the true threats would acquire the countermeasure. For major threats, they had to ask if they could sanction sending one brave man with a PRT uniform and a fifty-pound tank on his back into the fight, knowing one wrong move or accident might trap that same individual in proximity to the monster they were supposed to stop.
The foam peeled away as the spray ran down the invisible wall of the warped timespace, and Five could see the man’s face.
Jacob, apparently. Jack Slash.
Five stared at the man, watching his head move, eyes blinking slowly, face contorting, before everything snapped back to its prior position. The light was bright, but it wasn’t the eyes that had to adjust. It was the mind, which would tick forward unimpeded toward a time when this landmass was underwater.
Except… there was nothing there.
Broken, cringing, inarticulate, the man struggled, wincing as an invisible blade dragged across his midsection. The blade was withdrawn, time passed, and the man, no longer Jacob or Jack or anything resembling either, was cut open again.
There were one or two moments where the roving gaze of the man fell on Five’s own eyes. Locked gaze.
I know you, he thought. If there was anything there, I would see it. A microscopic dilation of the pupils. Something. And if you don’t recognize me…
There’s no point. No words that can be exchanged.
Dissatisfied, Five turned away.
For an instant, he thought the voice was Jacob’s. Then calculations asserted themselves, and let him triangulate the fractional difference in the sounds each ear heard, identifying the source. The voice was too familiar.
Sveta was perched on one of the hands in the alleyway, three-hundred-and-sixty-seven centimeters above the ground.
“There’s no point,” he told her. “He’s not there anymore.”
“People visit graves, even if they don’t believe the person is there looking down on them.”
“Or up at them, I imagine,” he told her.
“I’m loving the snark,” she told him. “Now go give it a shot, Five. You wanted me to help you break out of your mold and see if we couldn’t get you to a better place. This is me doing that. Go. Vent your emotions. Go be angry. Or connect to the part of you who liked the part of him that was friendly or decent. If that was ever a thing.”
“This, standing at thirty-four point oh-seven-nine-six degrees north, one-hundred-and-eighteen point three-six-one-two degrees west, is a boy named Five who does not do emotional.”
“Give it a shot,” she told him. “You came all this way, and you said he won’t be here for that much longer.”
Five turned, and walked back over to the man.
“I don’t know if you heard,” he said. “They’re going to kill you.”
The man briefly met his eyes, still too lost in his own head to recognize anything, or respond to anything.
“Breaking time effects apparently creates a ninety-four point one percent chance that the person or people within trigger or second trigger the instant they’re out. We’re not seeing many more broken triggers, but they’re still wary, still making sure they can communicate with the person on the other side and prepare them.”
He shifted his weight a bit. The wind was blowing through the alley, and it felt nice. It was cool, with what would be the first hints of spring, but Earth Bet wasn’t really in a state for ‘spring’.
“They’re not inclined to let you out, Jacob. They intend to collapse the effect and kill you in the process. They’ve already started elsewhere. You’re second to last, and at the rate they’re going, accounting for travel time, it will be another seven weeks, and three days. In the meantime, you get your ruins. You get your blood. You get to be king of your own desolate little world.”
He looked back at Sveta.
She motioned for him to continue.
Sighing, he kept talking, “I’m not sure what to say, and I don’t like not being sure. For much of my life, including the glimmers of my father’s life that I sometimes remember, your Kurt, I knew exactly what I was doing and where I belonged. I had goals, I met those goals.”
The man within the time effect writhed, hands clutching at his opening stomach wound as if he could stop it from happening. He staggered, and hurled himself against the invisible wall, cracking his head open. It was quick and violent enough that Five was startled.
The time loop carried the man back to his prior iteration.
“I know what you might say, if you were still Jacob. But what about the golden man? What about Scion? We were supposed to stop him before this happened. We failed there. I think this is where we confess that we, and I’m speaking for my brothers, myself, and my father… we didn’t really care. Our goal was to understand the world, bring it into a kind of order, and see if we couldn’t counteract you. Deep down, I don’t think my father wanted to defeat you, or he might have tried. Good thing, too, because those instincts of yours… they’re something more, according to the after-action reports in the Wardens’ files. He would have died trying.”
The man flung himself into the wall again. Cracking his head open. Five didn’t jump, this time. He waited for the man to cycle back to awareness.
“The world ended and he had the opportunity to make it make sense again. There was always a gap between him and us. He knew you as Jack, and we remember you as Jacob. To him, you were a distant piece of his past and a variable in how he viewed the world. To us, you, Jacob, feel like you were our friend just a short while ago. We asked why he did what he did, setting up the economy, helping. He described it as satisfying, like pressure washing a deck or finishing a puzzle. The outcome is inevitable, it’s steady improvement of the world around you. He got to do it with someone he loved, someone amazing, beautiful, smart, and ambitious. Who made him a more effective person.”
The man raised his face skyward, staring up at the sky, where the near-midday sun was just peeking over the edge of the rooftop, past the overcast sky that had never quite healed from Scion’s attack.
“He died. Deck unfinished, puzzle still missing its pieces and waiting for someone to pick up where he left off. His story incomplete. My brothers are intent on following after him. I’m not, and I don’t know why.”
The man continued to stare at the sun, to the point he would be damaging his eyes if that was even possible.
“Do I have to keep doing this?” he asked, raising his voice.
“You seem to be getting a lot off your chest,” Sveta told him.
“I’m talking to you more than to him,” he said. He turned two hundred and sixty degrees, and looked up at the girl in her long coat that was dyed with what looked like watercolor blots, the arms that stuck out of the voluminous coat sleeves were formed of braided bands of flesh. Her hair had grown long, because it wasn’t a wig anymore, with a colorful thread braided into it.
“Do you really want to head back?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said, with some emphasis. “I apologize for making you come this far.”
“Don’t be so formal, Five,” she told him. She gripped one part of the brickwork hand and extended her arm to lower herself to the ground. “Try to find your own voice.”
“I’m sorry. You must be annoyed I dragged you halfway across the continent to stay for less than fifteen minutes.”
“A little bit,” she said, “but I do like traveling. And I’m glad you gave it a try. I think you’d regret it if you’d missed the opportunity to say something or see him.”
“I’m not sure I would.”
“You said you regretted a lot of things. In those moments, I don’t think you thought you would.”
He nodded at that, considering it.
They made their way up the damaged road, Sveta giving him a hand in crossing a pile of rubble he could have easily scaled. It still saved him time and energy.
Rain began to pattern down around them. Sveta flipped up her hood, and he pulled out his umbrella. The water wasn’t a problem- Sveta liked the water, and he wasn’t bothered by being wet. But in Earth Bet, there was lime and other chemicals in the water supply and atmosphere. The rain could leave marks like sunburns on skin, and even temporarily blind if it got in the eyes.
“You might need a style update,” she told him. “You’re a slightly relaxed version of your brothers, and your brothers dress like miniature British accountants.”
“I’m waiting to figure out what I should be, first, before I make any purchases. I’d rather have my money compounding than waste it.”
“Uh huh,” she said. “Wow.”
“You said you didn’t know who you were, or why you deviated from your brothers.”
Deviated. She’d picked that word on purpose.
He answered her, “I’ve thought it was because of the time spent with Jeanne that my brothers didn’t have. Less time in the field…”
“But you’re not sure.”
“No. I’ve measured and accounted for the time, I’ve worked out the moments, and I think that they have to have caught up with me when it comes to the time with Jeanne, or time away from stressors. But they haven’t come to find me, and they’re still together.”
“It might not be something quantifiable, Five.”
He was annoyed at that, but he didn’t say so.
“Can I ask… why me, specifically?”
He glanced at her. The sun was still peering through clouds, and the droplets on her colorful hood were catching the light.
“There were other things I disagreed with them about. But you elicited the strongest, most polarizing disagreement. They wanted you dead. I didn’t.”
“You’ve told me that. But why?”
He considered, trying to work it out in his head.
“Can I get back to you on that?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “It’s a long trip back. Plenty of time to consider.”
Anxiety, unfamiliar, clawed at his stomach. He was going to keep it quiet, but he made himself speak up, “I said it to Jacob. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. Kurt always knew where he was going. King, then Cauldron, then Jeanne.”
“Tell you what,” she told him. “You think of an answer to your question. Tell me why it was me. I’ll think about an answer to your question. A place you can go.”
“Okay,” he said. “I know it’s not easy.”
“It’s an interesting puzzle. It might depend on your answer, though.”
“I mean… what my predecessor did to you. That I have memories of associating with Jacob. With Jack Slash. I know you don’t trust me fully, yet.”
“I just traveled across a dangerous landscape with you, Five. Do you really think I don’t trust you?”
“In the last twenty minutes, you perched up high, out of my immediate reach. You used the word ‘deviate’.”
“Because I like high places, Five. Because I’m trying to find common ground, and I know you were born from a test tube, just like my body came from a vial. I’m… if you wanted to do something to me, you would have done it a long time ago.”
“I’ll tell you a secret. I already have an idea of where you might go. And I wouldn’t send you there if I didn’t trust you.”
He frowned. He didn’t like not knowing the answers.
“I’ll tell you whenever you want, but if it motivates you, you can try to come up with your answer for me first.”
“Why it was you that struck a chord in me.”
Sveta smiled. “The truck is just over the hill. But you know that. You knew the GPS coordinates.”
Counting the measure and degree of every step I take. As I’ve been doing for thirty-three years.
Now with no idea of where I’m going to end up.
He’d dozed off, and in the midst of his doze, his mind wandered, freely associating.
Sveta was driving, her hands steady at the wheel. She wasn’t very good, but it seemed to make her happy. The windows were open, and her hair flew this way and that. The radio was cranked up, and it was a genre he wasn’t familiar with. Every time he asked or tried to pin down the genres, she rattled off something new. A casualty of her ex-boyfriend’s taste in music, she’d said.
It was harmonic, borderline abrasive synth tones, with more emphasis on where the notes weren’t than anything. Sveta’s head bobbed with the staccato breaks in the music.
“You like this?” he asked. He indicated the music player.
“You’re awake! It’s interesting.”
“It’s not good.”
“But it’s new. It’s a change of pace.”
“You’re creative. I don’t understand that stuff.”
“You can learn it.”
He nodded. He turned his face toward the window, letting the wind blow at his hair. “It’s the furthest thing from my realm of experience, and you wear it easily. I don’t understand you.”
“Again, you can learn it.”
“I know,” he said. “Kurt left the Slaughterhouse Nine when King was killed, because he wanted to broaden his horizons. He wanted to understand the way the world worked and help it. I think that mindset was part of why I wanted to help you. Someone I don’t understand.”
“Is that your answer?”
“I think so. Part of it, for now.”
“Works?” he asked. “Can you tell me where I’m going to go, now?”
As the others ran forward, Five turned to give Sveta his best ‘are you serious?’ look.
“Heads up!” she called out, before hurling herself forward.
The Machine Army had deployed one massive box with mechanical spider legs, the cube three point seven by five point five by four point five meters in size. Segments of the cube shifted and rotated regularly. Many of them had segments of a gun attached, and brought them in line like the multiple lenses of an optometrist’s phoropter.
He calculated trajectory, shifted his weight, and took a quick step to the right. The laser beam was invisible, and raked a line across the street, carving out a furrow that had glowing orange edges to it.
He frowned a bit.
“Dude, Five!” Finale raised her voice. “You just dodged a laser!”
“Focus!” Withdrawal called out. “We need the firepower!”
“Pew, pew, pew, pew!”
The machine turned, tracking the tinker in the agility suit with the extended limbs.
The shot was in line to hit Withdrawal straight on.
“Finale,” Five called out.
“Aaaah!” Finale’s power erupted. The machine rocked, and the laser hit only the nearby buildings.
Five broke into a run.
Sveta was co-coaching the group, trading off weeks. He couldn’t be surprised, but… this really wasn’t what he’d had in mind.
“Thank you,” Caryatid said, as he ran past her. She was running, shucking off her breaker form to be able to move faster.
Finale, Caryatid, and Withdrawal all had matching costumes, now. Sveta had helped design them, drawing out the art and passing it to Victoria for review.
The Majors were an actual team now, official and sanctioned, with top clearance, which didn’t mean what many would have thought. The clearance simply meant they were trusted. They could go through the portals, visit the human settlements on the border worlds, and handle things like any incidental triggers or troublemakers. It only mattered for twenty percent of the settlements, with the rest being more flexible, but it had made them happy.
It had made Sveta and Victoria happy. Recognition that they were trying, that they’d been clean, that they’d fought hard. Because it sounded good.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a device, about as long as his finger, brass.
“What’s that?” Caryatid asked, just behind him.
“That’s great,” she said.
He aimed it and pressed the switch.
“It’s a laser pointer,” Caryatid noted.
“Finale! Shoot where I point! Hit him hard!”
“Bam, bam, bam!”
He moved the pointer to joints, eyeing the stresses.
“Bam! I can’t- I can’t do my thing…” she was out of breath, trying to run, shout, and communicate at the same time.
“I know,” he said. He closed the distance, running, his movements efficient and made with the wind in mind. Running up one bit of rubble, he leaped just in time to set his feet on one leg that was coming around to smack Sveta. He shouted back to her “Keep shooting where I point!”
“Oh! Bang, bang!”
He ran up the leg, drawing a knife out of his pocket and jamming into a joint. The knife screeched, threatening to break, but it was the mechanism at the joint that broke instead. That would matter later.
He didn’t need to save Sveta. She was swift enough, capable of adapting.
Withdrawal was spraying from his syringe. Green liquid streaked everything.
“Careful!” Withdrawal called out as Five ducked under the stream.
Five’s feet slid over the tinker chemical. It took a second for him to work out the function of it and the alien way it worked, a high-friction chemical, but his power did make sense of it. He leaped out of his boots as the chemical formed a perfect adhesion, then placed his feet on safe grounds in three quick steps in the span of a second.
He slid around to the face of the machine, and dropped down in front of the moving arrangement of lenses that controlled the laser. One by one, he shattered them with pinpoint impacts, or grabbed them as he fell, to jerk them out of orientation. The laser emitted, washing over him with zero focus.
He shattered the glass before it could adjust and fire again.
“It’ll be good to have a rookie on the team!” Withdrawal called out. His green gunk was doing its work, limiting the ability of the machine to rotate. Two of its legs were fixed to the ground, and one joint wasn’t working.
Caryatid was close enough to freeze in place, her arm blocking one leg from moving. It levered against her and began to break. Sveta roped her way down beside Caryatid, and pulled on the more fragile components.
“I’m more experienced than all of you put together.”
“I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Withdrawal said. “Sorry.”
“Ready!” Finale called out.
“Good to go!” Withdrawal called out.
The detonation rocked the machine, and blew joints apart, broke the housing, and opened it wide. Each detonation that followed was a follow-up to the last.
The chain of detonations finished with what she’d started doing before he’d pointed out the directions. He raised his eyebrows a bit.
Instinct against analysis. Her instincts were good.
As the machine pulled itself apart in the midst of the detonations, the gunk seeping into its internals, Caryatid was left standing in the wreckage. She pulled explosives from her belt and dropped them around herself, before going breaker once again.
He covered his ears as the explosives detonated.
“Woo!” Finale called out. “Please tell me it’s dead!”
“It’s dead,” Withdrawal said. His smile was visible behind the bright green mask he wore over his lower face.
“Wooooohooooo!” Finale cheered, as she ran up.
Five scanned the ground with his eyes, searching. The Machines had a design, and that design was to impregnate the ground with seeds that would erupt into full Machine Army installations if left unattended. The problem was that they were hard to make out, partially extradimensional. But if he found them soon enough…
“Wooo!” Finale continued cheering, running up to Withdrawal, hopping up to give a high-five to the ‘J’ shaped metal bar that extended from his machine frame. She hurled herself at Five, and he spun on the spot, evading and ducking away from her hold.
She put her hands on his shoulders, instead of hugging him. “Wooo! Be excited!”
“Woo! Come on! We did it!”
“Yeah. There’s-” he pointed.
Withdrawal was already on it, spraying down a section of ground where one seed lay.
“A seed there. You didn’t need my help.”
“Any help is appreciated,” Withdrawal said. “You saved me from a close call.”
“I was ordering Finale around, but… she knew where to place her shots.”
“You got me to keep shooting. I forget in the heat of the moment,” she explained.
Still, it wasn’t what he’d told himself to expect. He watched as Caryatid picked her way over the hot scrap.
The fight against the Machine Army was seemingly endless, but they were making fractions of a percent of progress. It was the same mentality that drove the cleaning up of the time bubbles and Grey Boy loops, taking pre-emptive action where possible. If someone let any of those people out, they would trigger or second trigger, and they weren’t mentally fit.
Every week, it seemed like there were new initiatives. New steps to get things under control.
“You don’t need to make the team perfect,” Sveta told him.
“Ha!” Finale laughed. “Hahahaha! Good luck trying!”
“I’m good at perfect.”
“Let them show you what they’re good at,” Sveta said.
“Ooh. We can start with giving a crap when we destroy a giant robot,” Finale said. “Be excited!”
“I’m glad everyone’s okay.”
“We’ll work on that,” Finale said.
“Help keep them safe. They’d return the favor, I think they’d show you what it means to carve out a place for yourself in the world,” Sveta said. “To make family.”
He drew in a breath, then sighed.
“You don’t have to,” Sveta said. “But if you wanted… there’s a spot for you on the team, for as long as you want it. We talked to the people who matter.”
She pulled a badly creased bit of paper out of one of her coat pockets, unfolding it.
Finale was talking a mile a minute, one arm around Caryatid, who was trying to brush off the dust and soot that the explosion had put on her costume, which wasn’t an easy process with Finale hugging her.
Withdrawal had his attention divided between the two girls and Five. He turned his head. “I should scout for any seeds it put down on the way.”
“Okay,” Sveta said, quiet.
Five took the paper, and he scanned it. There was pay, enough for him to get settled. Not that money was ever a problem. There were some contract terms, expectations for his moving forward as a hero.
It was signed by some of the Wardens, and by some of the local government here in Gimel. By Jeanne, with a little ‘1234’ intersecting the tail end of her signature. His power told him the ‘4’ had been a little more reluctant, later in its application, slower for the pen to drag across the paper.
“Did she say anything?”
“You’re welcome back anytime. They won’t try to keep you.”
“Any catches, stipulations? As Kurt, we were the devil in so many deals with the devil…”
“No. Just so long as you aren’t a devil anymore, Five. Come along on my next road trip, maybe. That’s all. I’d like help in finding my home this summer.”
He nodded. When he looked up, the Majors were looking at him, expectantly.
He penned his signature, securing his place, at least for a little while.