Dying – 15.z

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The first thing he looked at when he could see the light again was the computer screen with the numbers.  It took a moment for his eyes to focus.

In red, a 96.1%.  If and when it hit one hundred percent, this would no longer be a war, a raid, nor a petty rebellion.  It would be cataclysm, with his facility at the epicenter.  As he watched, the number changed, to 96.15%, then 96.12%.

In white, the number below displayed 66.8%.  The floor.  What reality as they understood it was willing and able to handle.  Every use of power was a small fraction of damage, and that damage would not heal.  At best, it could be spaced out, controlled, or targeted toward specific problems.

He couldn’t meander.  Remaining in the threshold served nothing and no one.

Teacher stepped out of the back room, accepting the wet towel that his soldier handed him.  Pulling off his square-lensed glasses with one hand, handing them to the soldier, he wiped his scalp, face, neck, and wet his beard, before slicking his beard down.  The soldier handed him a bottle of water, letting him drink while pulling his shirt off, stopping at the armpit.  The soldier took the water back, finished removing his shirt for him, returned the glasses, and went to get another.

He approached a computer screen, tapping keys.  A map of the complex showed a series of blobs, suggesting Contessa’s range of influence, assuming a distance that she could certainly travel, assuming she were capable of walking and running, a distance she could probably travel if she could access the right resources, and a distance for how far her influence reached.  Could she communicate with someone in a location?  That location would be highlighted in yellow.

Saint had noted something on the system, suggesting that one of the parahuman’s hackers had used Saint’s Michael III as a relay.  That was enough to compromise everything, his entire facility and the surrounding region were yellow.  If Contessa had her powers, she had a knife to his throat.

He would manage.  For now, her powers were still gone.  It tied him down, because he had to watch for the moment they returned, and consider the damage she could do, much as he considered the damage she had already done.

But he would manage.  He had been anticipating her for a long time.

Other feeds showed the state of several battlefields, but finding what he needed was laborious and tiresome.  For every glimpse he was given of something he cared about, he saw twelve more screens of white hallways with blood spatters, ruin, and broken structures with bodies.

His soldier returned with a shirt.  He took it and put it on himself, aware that he had lost weight.

“What do I need to know?”

“An event you flagged as priority blue has occurred,” another soldier reported.  In his command center, eight thralls were either at computers or waiting at the ready.  None of his lieutenants were present.

“What event?” he asked.  He raised his glasses and rubbed at his eyes.

“Citrine and her husband were at work, they received a phone call, departed immediately to leave, skipping their usual procedures in their hurry, and were blown up by a car bomb.  One injured, one dead.  It was anti-parahumans.”

“Alcott?  She’s been in the anti-parahuman orbit.”

“We looked in on her.  She’s upset.  She’s meeting Gary Nieves shortly.”

“When it rains it pours,” Teacher said.  How annoying.  He’d been keeping his eye on that for some time, and his plan had been to intervene when things fell down in a particular way.  Stepping in here, putting his thralls in the right places, and calling some mercenaries he had in reserve would give him the city in the same way he had Cheit, and it would put him three moves away from checkmating Shin, who were complicated, and made more complicated by how vigilant they were against another power play.

Now he had to choose.  He could have that but lose this, or vice versa.

For something to be this conveniently inconvenient or inconveniently convenient suggested Contessa.

He turned, and he looked at the door he had come through.  It had been a brief visit, but it had taxed him all the same.  He considered himself brave, and more than that, he considered himself confident, but some things were too dangerous to handle directly.

Let’s assume she’s got me, he thought.  We’ll assume Contessa has that knife at my throat.  Will she use it?  Will I walk blindly into the blade?

“I’ll use your power, Melody.”

Melody was a young Asian woman with the side of her head shaved.  She had some tattoos, but she had more flesh that had been cut out with a scalpel and left to heal as scars, raised lines, bumps, and swirls on flesh.  Some had been self harm, some had been body modification.  She had her demons, and those demons had chased her into his company.  She had been one of the first he had recruited after Gold Morning, when he had become big enough to require managers.

She approached him, hands clasped behind her back.  She met his eyes, and opened them wide, then wider still, until two eyes became one, the one eye became something larger than her face, occluding the rest of her, the room, and them him, in that order.  He could feel it overlap and intersect his lower face, the bridge of his nose, and his own eyes, so they became one singular portal as well.

“Who?” she asked, a voice from nowhere to nowhere.

“Let’s begin with their leadership.  Chevalier.  I sent Christine to deal with him.”

Two spots opened, each a window, showing another viewpoint.  The two were slightly different, a left eye and a right eye, and as they filled his new perspective, they widened and overlapped until they were his eyes that he looked through.  He felt a heartbeat, felt shoes tapping their steady beat as the wearer walked.

He felt lips part and greet him with a, “Hello…”

“…I’m so glad you could join us, Teacher.”

Heads turned, thralls and hostages alike.  She smiled.  Teacher was only here for her.

It wasn’t often that others were looking through her eyes.  It required that she let them.

The room was large, with a fan in the one side and the associated turbine loomed house-large in the space.  Scaffolding surrounded the turbine and more machines fed air into ventilation that reached the rest of the facility.  Much of that was closed off to prevent certain powers from being used against them.

All around them, sheet metal and machinery from broken turbines, broken tile, and broken sections of wall littered the ground.  Bodies and hostages were scattered all around them.

For every person who was down, there were two thralls.  For every hostage who was alert and able, there were two thralls and one of her Fallen guarding them, keeping them in line.  She had no shortage, since Teacher had rescued them from prison and collected them from the city.

More than that, Teacher had given her a world of faithful, and for that, she was willing to let him share her eyes, share her awareness.

Christine clasped her hands together and pressed them against her chest.  She could feel her connection to more than two hundred and ninety thousand souls in the heart of Cheit.  To each of those souls, she granted a small grace.  A part of her watched each one with a separate eye and its own ability to judge and track their actions.  Enough of them were believers that she could give them small blessings.  She made the beautiful more beautiful, the holy more holy.  Crosses on walls throbbed and glowed.  Sacred hearts bled.  Images of martyrs turned their heads to smile down at their blessed with love.

Here and there, she tested, and she judged.  She could nudge, by giving grace to some and giving others a reason to doubt.  Some of these denominations?  No.  For now, she punished those who preached too much peace, with glimpses of the holy that fled or walked away.  She punished those who spoke of God but not of Jesus, or worshiped the Koran and not the Bible, by making certain books, icons and objects rot and twist like snakes, and by making shadows deeper.  She gave them glimpses of hell.

They had only glimpsed her, so she could only touch their eyes.  There would be more opportunities later.  Over time, she would make what she knew replace their mere beliefs, and she would make their most zealous twice as earnest in that zealousness.  She would make brown and black bend the knee to white, once they had served her purpose.  But all of that would come later.  For now she was content to work by increments, to use who she could.

Thralls milled around her, seeing to individual tasks.  She had heard one of Chevalier’s men saying the word, and she’d liked it enough to keep it.  They applied restraints to people who were one step away from being corpses.

All around her, Thralls paid her their worship, and they invoked her.  She allowed fragments of herself to manifest, to look around, and she could see everything.

But with her own eyes she saw Chevalier.  She approached him, and she raised a foot, planting it on his shoulder, while he knelt with hands and knees on the ground.  His armor was too heavy for him to lift.  Teacher had stolen his power.

That touch of foot against shoulder reverberated through the man.

She took that reverberation and she made it into touches.  An embrace that crawled across his skin.

He’d looked at her earlier, and now she filled his eyes.

But more than anything, he had sensed her with something else, something beyond sight.  He had seen her aura, and now she invaded that seeing, took hold of it.  He could look at those blessed with power and know them on a profound level, see memories, history, feelings, and the nuances of power, often in abstract.

So she gave him that.  She gave him herself.  Memories of herself as a pregnant teenager, praying, praying for recourse.  Her parents had tortured her, her school had abandoned her.  She hadn’t even known what pregnancy really was, let alone the labor, and each new aspect of it was a horrible surprise.  The only grace, if it could be called that, was that the state had said it was her right to care for her child.  They did not force her to give up her Elijah to her parents, as her parents had demanded.  Her parents had forced her to choose between home and the child of her womb, and she had chosen the child.

It had not been easy.  It had been the stark opposite of easy.

Particularly when her child, still suckling at her breast, had looked up at her with eyes that flashed, and had asserted his will over hers.  Blessed child.  Cursed child.  One in a million, among those who were one in thirty-thousand.

She had been saved by people who had worked at this facility before.  They had given her power and then by faith or by fortune her power had outstripped their ability to deal with her.  They had asked her for favors and she had done only some of those favors, as she pleased.  They had, after all, enabled her to hold her Elijah without being his slave.

With this and more, she assaulted Chevalier’s eyes with more deep truths that the eyes normally couldn’t see.  With visual representations of feelings he would know to be her fact.  What it felt to be worshiped, what it felt to give all of oneself up to faith.  The security of giving oneself over.

He endured it all.  He knew all of the tricks, the techniques, the things that members of the PRT, Protectorate, and Wards had studied.  He had sweat at his brow and a distant look in his eyes.

She had been told of these things from a Ward named Sunflower, who had gone to meet a boy she had met online, and found that boy was named Elijah.  He had brought her to Christine, and Christine had thanked her by arranging her a husband.  A shame, that Sunflower had been stolen away by the heroes.

As of now, she had two with her who had been brought into the fold much as Sunflower should have been.  Ala and Chort.  They watched over her while she swam in memory, almost floated almost three hundred thousand connections, to eyes, ears, skin, and to other senses.

She felt lighter than air, transcendant, while Chevalier crawled amid broken tiles before her, his friends and allies in the process of being bound by chains, even though many were too injured to move, and the remainder were unwilling to act because thralls and Fallen had the injured hostage.  Chevalier was powerless and she was more powerful than she had ever been.

She ran fingers through Chevalier’s hair, then did it again without touching him with her hands, using her power only.

“Tell me, do you have a means of listening to others?  Do you know if my Elijah lived?”

Chevalier was silent.  He likely knew she could get a small foothold in the mind by being talked to.  It was a benefit of small fractions for her, but he refused to grant it.

“Come, look up at me,” she told Chevalier.  She put a hand at his chin, and Chort helped her, forcing Chevalier’s head up until it couldn’t move any further.  Chort wore a wolf pelt with goat horns over head and shoulders, and despite being only sixteen, was strong on a level that surpassed even heroes like Alexandria.  When he moved, he did so with care.  To him, Chevalier was like eggshell.

She reached for Chevalier’s mouth, and her fingers slipped past lips, fingertips growing wet with saliva.

“Taste me,” she said.  She would have every sense he could give her.

She would have him, eventually.

He twisted, in a movement that might have taken every last bit of strength he had in him, perhaps a scrap of power that Teacher hadn’t managed to cut him off from.  He raised himself up, found a small freedom of movement, and parted his teeth, catching her fingers in them.

With the weight of his armor and the fierceness of Chort’s grip, the collapse back to his former position made his teeth come together with a force that could have cracked them, had her fingers not been absorbing the worst of it.  Her knees buckled, her back arching, and her arm going stiff as she felt flesh part, teeth scraping bone and finding joint.

She smiled.

Every second was glorious agony, as she felt the taste of her blood well in his mouth.  She made it as ambrosia, little by little, and then she twisted the taste and the feeling, took the pain they shared and made it into a new pain just for him, until her blood was as acid, and as far as he was concerned, his every sense was telling him the acid had dissolved the bottom of his mouth, his tongue, throat, teeth, and jaw.

He released her, and for an instant, she saw the horror in his eyes, as he tried to comprehend that his lower face had dissolved.

Then… that inkling of resolve.

“You’re going to join me,” she told him.  “You’ll be by my side, wearing armor crafted from the flesh of the Endbringers you so stupidly challenged.”

Her head turned as she felt a power reach for her and find her.  Close by, someone searched for her feelings.  Christine looked at a wall, and her eyes tracked the source of the power through that wall.

She reached back, faster than they could find her, and impressed her feelings onto them.  She looked at them, and she found the emotional equivalent of frozen-over wasteland.  She tested that wasteland, with a feeling of tranquility, and found little traction.  She gave them hope, and there was something there, something that lingered, that stuck to the walls of the heart.  She gave them a feeling of being loved, and found more ground.

Hope and love.  She twisted at feelings and tried different variations.  Romantic love.  Not so important to this particular heart.  Love for a job.  More important, but not the most important thing.  Familial love?  There.

The woman slowed as the emotions swelled in her breast.

Christine Mathers watched and waited, cradling her injured hand.  A thrall approached to tend to it.  No healing powers -oh, how she had wished to get a healer under her wing- but only medical expertise.

It took only a few more adjustments before she found the right kind of familial love, and then found the exact feeling that struck closest to this wasteland heart.

The love of a mother for the daughter she had lost, and the certainty that she was loved back.  Christine had felt it when Elijah had been days old, before his eyes had flashed as they had.

The woman had stopped.  She might have been crying now.

“Ala,” she murmured.

“Mama?”

Christine touched Ala’s face, put a hand on Ala’s shoulder, then got closer, until her front pressed against Ala’s back.  She lifted Ala’s arm, her own in line with it, and she pointed Ala’s finger.

Clouds began to form, loose and dark, in a vague line that reached out across the room they were in.

The beam of darkness that speared through the middle of those clouds would punch through ten walls of this facility.  It only needed to punch through one to snipe their target.

The floor trembled.  Christine reached out for Ala’s shoulder for balance.

Things gave way.  An attack from below, cutting the floor out from beneath them.  A furrow, cutting into the center of the room, ten feet wide.

Ala fired, but the tremor in the ground distorted her aim.  Christine could feel the target was alive and well, still reeling with emotion.

One of Chevalier’s capes, though handcuffed, used a power to produce a circular pulse around them, extending out a hundred feet.  Her Fallen were alternately pushed and pulled closer to the furrow, the hostages further away.  Chort caught Christine and Ala with one arm, his fingers digging into the ground.

Another pulse from the same cape.  It threw injured and hostages across the gap, Fallen into it, or onto the other side.  Only a few were secure enough or as heavy as Chevalier, and didn’t move as a consequence.

She could hear it, now.  The sound like a blade being drawn from a sheath, but constant.  She could heard the rumble as machinery shifted.

The attack continued, tearing out more floor.

Virtually everyone present had seen her.  There were enough she had touched, that she could give them physical sensation as well.  With that, she gave them waking nightmares, to assault their senses.  Whether their eyes were open or closed, she made them see their friends die in the worst ways, with hallucinated shots from Ala’s cloud stripping away faces, sawing off legs, and inflicting horrific burns.  She saw them scream, struggle, some lashing out or charging.

She made them see floor where there wasn’t any, and a lack of floor where there was.

“It’s not real!” Chevalier bellowed, as the first few fell.  She filled his mouth with the taste of bile, and the feeling of a hand reaching up his throat to grab his tongue.  Still, he managed, eyes shut, his words somehow both a mumble and a shout.  “Don’t move!  Don’t move!  That’s an order!”

“Are you watching, Teacher?” she murmured.  “Send us more soldiers.  Ala, shoot them.  Chort, guard us.  Everyone else-!”

The order she had been planning to give fled her mind as she saw a figure scrambling up a section of floor.

He found his footing, backed up, until he was nearer the hostages.  He turned his full focus to her, glowing eyes peering at her, and there was no connection, aside from a vague buzz of technology that her power reached into.  She had no way into his eyes.

He was supposed to be one of hers.  He had been one of the ones to get away, as Sunflower had, but his escape had been late.

The one who was slicing up the supporting walls  ground rumbled, the floor twisted, the house-sized turbine in the center of the room lost some of its foundation, and the fans it managed that drew in air from the outside and pumped it into ventilation shifted in kind.

The fans still turned, but the turns were torturous, metal against metal.  A continuous screech.

“Rain,” she called out, her voice high and ethereal, disappearing into and emerging from the screech.

He clenched his hands.

But as much as she called his name and invited a response, Rain wasn’t her focus.  When she looked at him, she imagined one of her Fallen.  The Fallen he should have and could have been.

She projected that image into the eyes of Chevalier’s capes, injured, cuffed, and free.  She brought Sunflower into the scene, put this image of Rain there, his hand at her throat, her legs kicking and failing to scrape the ground and find footing.  She made his fingertips so tight at her throat that they dug in and drew blood, the small mechanical arm that extended from his elbow with clawed fingertips having raked the flesh of the phantom Sunflower’s arm.

She watched with satisfaction as the first cape turned against the Fallen Rain to save the teenage heroine.  A punch into the air, that produced a phantom fist that traveled until it struck Rain from behind.

You walk up to them as if you think they’re your allies, that you have their back and they have yours.  But you’re alone, child.  You will always be alone, unless you’re with me.

The second cape lashed out.  A pulse from the cape who had separated hostage from hostage taker, hers from theirs.  Rain was cast aside.

The ground rumbled again.  A section of the room at the end furthest from Christine collapsed.

“Give me my reinforcements, Teacher,” Christine said.  “Now.”

Teacher blinked.

“Five squadrons should converge on Christine’s position at Turbine Four.”

“I’ll arrange it,” his soldier said.

He looked at the numbers.

97.7% in red.  The number steadily climbed, dropped, then climbed again.

67.0% in white.  The number climbed with a glacial slowness.

13% of his facility’s systems were compromised, and that number, at least, was going down.

Dangerous, but not so close that he had to change his plan.

His children crawled out of him and across the floor, scurrying to where a bloodstain had been left behind in the earlier fighting.

He liked moving, enjoyed the languid grace of even the simple action of walking.  His head didn’t rise and fall with his footsteps, and his footsteps were feather-soft on the floor, despite the fact he weighed nearly three hundred pounds.  All muscle.

“Hello there, little brother,” Swansong said.

Don’t call me little.  Agitation sang through every part of his body, mercury-filled hydraulic channels within his body narrowing, muscles tightening.  The children that lived within every cavity in his body stirred, ready to act.

She huffed for breath, crouching on the ground, one hand on the floor and the other on a storage container.  She used the storage container to help find a standing position, then moved a bit further.  Five seconds of effort, pain, and leaning on an object for help, just to cross a short stretch of ordinary floor.

He dropped to all fours and crossed a similar distance with a single step, before climbing up onto a larger storage container, to show her that he could, and to see what she would do.

“A Crawler wanted my sister to use my power on them.  Bonesaw said no, that the evolution it provoked could kill her or hurt others.  Too much.  I thought you might be interested.”

He couldn’t remember much about her.  Someone -he didn’t remember who, and the memory was vague because it wasn’t his own- had commented on Damsel, to say that the more she talked, the weaker she was, the more insecure she felt.

“Want me to annihilate you, little brother?  It will give you room to evolve.”

He stared her down.

“Or are you scared?”  She held her chin higher.

He didn’t move from his perch on the storage container, instead relaxing sphincters all across his body, to make openings large enough that his children could drop out.  They hit the ground, bouncing where ridged backs hit floor, settled on their flat bases, and began scurrying in unpredictable zig-zags.

Twenty, from cavities along his arms, one hundred from cavities at his back.  Thirty from points along his legs.  One from his urethra, two from glands at either side of his mouth.  Almost forty were crammed into his digestive system, and they wormed their way out through gaps and folds, making their way to openings in the stomach.

His entire body reformed and restructured, more gap than physical mass.  Webbings of skin stretched to cover gaps here and there, but they were so thin the light could shine through them.

Swansong used her power as the first of his fist-sized children drew near.  It was slow to initiate, slow to cut off, and a moment after stopping, barked out another brief blast that sent her off balance.

When she went to use her power again, it didn’t activate.

“You have to send your swarm after me because you’re too scared.  You’re smaller and more pathetic than these bugs of yours, Nedley.”

Fluids within his chest and stomach churned.  He could feel protein chains and calcium forming the basic infrastructure that would become full fledged children.  They were stronger now.  He had fed on the flesh from the Black Goat and from two of Valkyrie’s flock.  By feeding he evolved, and by evolving, he improved his children.

She couldn’t catch all of them.  Even if she had access to her full power, she might not have managed it.  They crawled up the storage containers in the hallway of the loading dock, then leaped.  She blasted those.  They snuck low, zig-zagging across the ground.  She caught those too.

But one scurried close to a storage container, masked by a lip of metal above it.  It got close enough to reach out with pincers, snipping the back of Swansong’s heel, like wire cutters through butter.

She blasted it, right hand outstretched but shifted her weight to compensate for the recoil, and in the doing, she put her weight on the injured foot.  Blood spurted, and she lost her balance, the ongoing use of her power throwing her back as she fell.

With sharp eyes, he could see how the lower half of her heel had slid left, the upper half sliding right, until they slid past one another.

She fell, and with pain and disorientation, she didn’t seem to immediately grasp which direction his children were coming from.

Capes from Valkyrie’s contingent joined the fray.  One with needle spines he could fling, to spear ten of Spawner’s children with ten needles.

“You’re pathetic, Spawner,” Swansong taunted him.  “I’ve talked to someone like you.  Someone small, trying to pretend they are something more than they are, and doing a bad job of pretending.  The harder they’d try, the more pathetic they would look.  You’re embarrassing yourself and worse, you’re embarrassing me, because I consider myself related to you.”

“Related?” one of Valkyrie’s capes asked.

“Sure,” Swansong said.  “Close enough to being related.  Same person brought us into this world.  Nedley?  You need to be something more, if you’re not going to make the rest of us look bad.”

He rankled, but he didn’t act on it.  He was Ned and he was Bradley.  There was overlap between the two and he lived in that overlap, drew memories from it, and pieced himself together.  Half of the time, when he reached for memories, he stumbled onto the memories from that overlap between the two characters, seeing them like double vision.  Cockroaches scurrying across a kitchen.  Staring down at bloody hands.  People with twisted expressions shouting at him, so much larger they had to be parents or authority figures.

More cockroaches, scurrying across the kitchen.

Ned would have been driven by those taunts, pushed to attack despite the apparent trap.  Bradley would hang back, trusting his creations to do the work.

But it was a bitter feeling, for those two parts of himself to find their way to shared common ground.  A resentment of himself.

Valkyrie’s heroes scurried before him.  Swansong moved like a roach with legs pulled off.

Ten of his children stirred in his belly.  Acid churned and fed them.  Chemicals dumped into stomach from chest cavity, generating reactions that created more complex components, along with a bioelectric jolt that gave them life.

The ten became twenty, and twenty became forty.  Forty became eighty, and his upper body swelled with them.

When they left his body this time, they were faster, larger, with more durable shells.  He’d colored them to blend in with the poured concrete floor of the loading area.

A cape grabbed Swansong’s arm to help her get back from the spreading tide, and she flinched, her power sparking, her empty white eyes and eyebrows suggesting fear.  Fear that she might destroy the person saving her, or fear because she was as vulnerable as she had been since Bonesaw had lopped off her hands?

Spawner hadn’t been told that.  Ned and Bradley hadn’t been told it.  Still, he had picked it up at one point, and it was considered one of his memories now.

Her composure slipped further, as she tore her arm away, telling the cape to get away from her.  Her attention moved between his children and the capes who were gathering behind her.  She searched.

For his part, he turned to look up at the lovely Ingenue.

Ingenue pointed at Swansong, then formed that same hand into a fist.

A command for him, or-?

Swansong used her power to blast the nearest bugs.  She pulled away as though she had touched a hot stove.

He didn’t look away from Ingenue, trusting smaller eyes at the side of his neck to see the essential details of this ongoing conflict.  Two of Swansong’s fingers crumbled, falling to pieces.

“She gave me my control back,” Swansong said.  “To think I had some respect for her.  She’s an idiot.”

She gave you that control back at the cost of your immunity to your power, Spawner thought.  He was already pumping out more of his children.  The member of Valkyrie’s flock that threw needles missed one that leaped up to the small of his back.  Before he could twist around to pull it free, it was severing his spine.  He dropped to his knees, toppled, and landed in the midst of six more children, who went for the more complex structures of brainstem, eyes, and internal organs.

His collective of children advanced in neat rows and columns, weaving their way through, onto, and beneath anything in their way, from forklifts to storage containers, barrels to chunks of concrete.

She used her power, and the power licked up her arm to eat the flesh there, disintegrating more of her hand.  A one-handed propulsion, that sent her more horizontal than vertical.  His children leaped for her and three were eaten by the blast, a fourth landing on her arm.  Two snips in rapid succession, to carve out a chunk there.

She aimed to fling herself at him.

He flung himself back.

He could heal rapidly, and his creations could use material to piece him back together, but he had been maintaining a Bradley mindset to avoid being provoked, and Bradley was one to run first when he was unsure.

She moved the hand around to her front, bringing her knees close to her chest as she reversed course with her power, hurling herself back toward capes.  She was losing blood from damage to her forearm, damage to her upper arm where the chunk had been cut free, and the sliced ankle.

But she looked at him, and her lips moved.

He could smell it in the air.

A cape caught her, leaping to intercept her in the air.  They landed, and she was deposited on the ground.  She said something to the cape who had saved her.

Captain Claw, Usher, and Leister had descended.  Swansong had Valkyrie’s capes, but Spawner had Ingenue and her bodyguards.

And he had the desire to prove himself.

Time to not be Bradley anymore.  He would be strategic about this, lunge for the more vulnerable targets.

When he moved, he moved with a body engineered by a thousand refinements, a thousand chunks of meat and body parts marinated in the fear and adrenaline of his meals.  He couldn’t eat with the mouth he had now, but he could be fed.

He was swift, and his leaps were as long as Swansong’s were with her blasts.  Skin stretched between elbow and waist, giving him a foot or two of glide.

The cape he chose to go after first was a heavyset man with a torch in each hand.  Spawner hit him like a truck, and grabbed the man by the arms.  Others approached at a run, while Spawner simply held his victim.

Held him, and let his children crawl free and crawl into the man.

He hurled the body at the people charging his way.  Most dodged, but a woman who dodged was ambushed by a bug that leaped from the torchbearer to the side of her neck.

Another overlap between Ned and Bradley is that we are survivors.

He lunged for another, and she threw a piece of paper.  Paper expanded out into a wall, spearing floor and ceiling.  His claws fought to impale the material, but he was able to cling to it.

A fresh batch of his children crawled out, climbing on the paper, racing toward the edges.  Each was programmed with an image of the person they were hunting.

Others used powers, they killed his children, and they tried to stall things.

But the paper wall broke down, dissolving into a million sheets that filled the air.  He had a glimpse of the woman who had created it, being taken to pieces to an extent where she already looked like a vaguely person-shaped stack of beef cubes with bones here and there.

Darkness boiled out of the tunnel that Valkyrie was residing within.  It leaked out as a heavy fog.

The sound of Swansong using her power caught his attention, as the fog swelled from ankle height to knee height, even with the wide surface area.

It blocked their view of his children, but it blocked his children from seeing too.

He saw them leap, hopping up until they were out of the cloud of dark, then leap again once they hit solid ground, for whatever they’d seen.  Most got out of the way.

Swansong was using her power despite the damage it did to her, and she was doing it for no apparent reason, except to hold a bit of her darkness in her hand.

Spawner narrowed a half-dozen eyes.

“Darkness is my ally,” she said.

No, Bradley thought, irrationally annoyed.  That isn’t a good line!

Be more afraid, Ned thought.

He leaped.  She used her power, hopping up onto a storage crate as he’d done earlier, landing on her shins rather than use her injured foot to bear her weight.

He approached, running through the waist-deep darkness, and he saw her surreptitiously place something on the container.  Before he could close the gap and reach her, she threw herself sideways, into the darkness ten feet below the top of the storage container.  Her power went silent as she was submerged.

He tossed one of his children onto the top of the storage container she had occupied, with a simple instinctive command programmed into it.  To seize whatever was there, to jostle, disturb.  If he gave a command, it was to bring the thing to him.  Otherwise, it was to carry it away.

It found nothing.

Leister pole-vaulted himself into the air and extended his trident, making it long and wide, before raking it across the floor.  When he pulled it up out of the pitch black fog, it was alongside body parts and Spawner’s children.  The body parts belonged to someone who had been devoured earlier.

He visited the same spot she’d occupied, in part to get her scent.  He watched as she emerged, approaching Captain Claw, as if he wasn’t a consideration.  Her back was to him, and she didn’t even glance his way.  Claw fought with his hands in his pockets, a phantom image of something large and bestial looming over his upper body and head, clawing and snapping at Swansong and destroying the area around her whenever it missed.  When her power destroyed a part of it, it was quick to be replaced.

Ned lunged, hurling himself after her.  He huffed a breath as he passed Usher.

Someone struck him with lightning, and he felt it burn into his side.  His stored children crawled to fill that void, some to be resources, others to dismantle, others to build something to replace.  It was faster than healing on his own.

Captain Claw looked at him as he charged, giving the attack away.  He used a swipe of his claw to help maneuver himself out of the way as Spawner leaped in.

She twisted, leaning against the wall with one hand, one foot on the ground, reaching out with one hand and using her power.

The power washed over Spawner, and it did only superficial damage.  At the same time, her hand broke in two, a metal pipe jutting from where the armbones would be corroding visibly under the power’s influence.  Flesh blackened and cracked.

Her other hand- she wasn’t using it, he saw.

She slammed the metal spike into his throat, and it penetrated.  Black blood oozed out.  She used her power, and Usher’s protection ensured it did nothing to him, while at the same time destroying more of her arm.  The pipe broke off, and blood weeped from the socket.

“So weak you can’t take me one on one,” she said.  She smiled.  “You embarrass all of us.”

He punched his claw into her abdomen.  One of his children crawled from his arm to his hand, into the open wound.

He preferred his rebuttal.

She used her power, aiming it at him, but she didn’t do it to hurt him.  It was to propel herself backwards, arms spread, into the darkness just below their little platform.

He leaped down, striking out, and he hit nothing.

He’d have to find the source of this nuisance.  She had one of his children inside her stomach, and it would devour her as twenty of his children had taken the Black Lamb to pieces.

He would find the darkness creator, and then he would pick off the rest.

Another common ground of Ned and Bradley was that they hadn’t been good with women.  Ingenue was a spark, a stirring for the soul.  She evoked the worst parts of him, then embraced those parts, and that was an intoxicating feeling.

He wanted to impress, like a schoolboy on the schoolyard wanted to win over the pretty girls.  He wanted to be his best self.

Leister was dispatching two.  Usher hung back, tinker gun in hand, and picked off someone from the very back lines of the enemy group.  Claw was already engaged in a one-against-three skirmish.  Two of those three were injured.

This was Valkyrie’s last stand, and Valkyrie wasn’t even here.

He waited until he had fully regenerated the damage to his throat, and then he roared.

The roar was undercut by a sharp whistle from above.

“The ladder,” Ingenue said, her voice audible only because he had advanced hearing.

He turned, and he saw Swansong there.  She climbed the ladder with only one working hand clenched into a fist, both legs dangling limp, blood covering bare legs to the point someone might think it was leggings she was wearing.  Her arm was a stump that she used to embrace one rung before reaching another rung up.

Still she didn’t look at him.

Was this Bonesaw’s work?  He had never been injured enough to activate any berserker protocol or some innate programming that had been implanted with memories.

But her forward progress was single-minded, laborious, and marked with wheezing breaths.

She went after Ingenue.

He hopped down and waded into darkness, trusting it to make him even more silent in his movements.  He watched for every and any tell.  There was no Captain Claw to give him away, now.

He leaped, pouncing.

She twisted, one arm wrapped around the ladder, one leg dropping from a dangling position to rest on the rung and anchor her further.  The stump,  pointed his way, and the blast that erupted was wider and blunter.  It consumed ninety-five percent of him.

“Leister!  Claw!  Usher!” the Black Goat called out.  “We’re going!”

They abandoned him.  He was their heavy hitter, their unstoppable force.  Bitterness seized him, percolating through what was left of his brain and saturating everything that brain housed.

He got a glimpse of Swansong as she walked past him.  Of a belly with the wound in the side opened wider, a ring of black around it to suggest she’d used her power within the cavity to destroy his child.  Ribs with bandages lying tattered, bones scorched and flesh raw around the edges.  Her arm was a stump.

Her eyes- only one was white from corner to corner, the edges smoking black.  The other was ordinary.

Was that somehow how she had seen him?

She made it roughly seven steps before collapsing.

He watched as the darkness dissipated.  The surviving members of the flock gathered, two going to her side.

“Yellow costume,”

“You asked before.  We got her.  She’s over there.  Right now we need to get you help.”

“Can’t see her.  A little fuzzy.  Give her these.”

She handed the scant remains of one broken syringe and another intact one.

“We need to give you medical attention.”

“Take it from someone who died-”

“We’ve all died once,” the boy in black leather said.  “Most of us.  Not her.”

“I don’t have long.  I’d rather do things.  Make arrangements.  This way.  Over here.”

Every utterance was a little more strenuous than the last.

But the two members of Valkyrie’s flock helped her, almost carrying her to the destination.  The storage container from before.  The one in black went to the one in yellow, who lingered in the background, nursing an injury of hers.

Swansong reached up, and fumbled for a spot on the storage container.

Invisible, almost flush with the container.  Something that resembled a cross between a wire Christmas tree and an antennae.

“I’d give you mine, but-”

There was a lull.  One of the capes who was propping her up gave her a slight shake.

She rallied, with more vigor than before.  “-a friend of mine would be hurt if I gave you mine.  Take it.  It’s like a syringe… maybe it counts.  Flick this, insert the eye.  Supposed to go to yellow.”

“The one in yellow.”

Swansong nodded.

“We could get help.  Go after Black Lamb.”

“No.  No.  Death doesn’t scare me.  I’ve beat it enough times before.  No, don’t let her have me. Val…”

“Is that why you said not to wake her up earlier?”

There was a pause.  Spawner couldn’t see enough to know if there was body language.

“I thought I’d go out screaming and ranting, sick and hating myself for it.  I did… every other time except the first…”

“You said you had a friend?”

She nodded.  “Glad it was me.  Means there’s less chance it’s her.  I can handle this.  Been here enough times.”

“You think you’d learn,” the boy in white said.

She scoffed, a light, soft sound.

There was no more conversation.  More of the flock emerged from the tunnel.  The wounded were gathered and tended to, and they had their own conversations.

The two boys remained near Swansong for a few more minutes, and then they walked away.

“Kid,” the one in white said.  “Can you make heads or tails of this?”

“Looks like a camera with some broadcast tech.”

“Why would she give it to us?”

The conversation overlapped with another, similar one.  The girl in yellow had the syringe, and another cape held the broken traces of the other one.

“What do I do with it?”

“I think you use it, Canary.”

“And the broken one?  I don’t know how I’d get that little fluid in, but I don’t like the ideas, not when it’s mixed with broken glass, or whatever that is.”

“It seemed important.”

There was a pause.  The two groups converged.

The one in yellow injected herself with the intact syringe.  There was a long pause, and then she nodded.

Then she stabbed her upper arm with the broken end of the other syringe.

Spawner saw the group patrolling to look for his children, killing them wherever they were found.  They drew steadily nearer to him.

One locked eyes with the fragment of his head that rested on a forklift seat.

That was enough.  He was dead and done for.  He closed his eyes and waited for the killing blow.

Capricorn and Antares used their powers in alternation.  Stone wall, then forcefield.  Wall, then forcefield.  The attack was relentless, not helped by the fact the Speedrunners were spearheading the attack.

Antares tore apart a section of protective sheeting that covered a sensitive area of wires, and used that as added protection.  Laser beams and bullets tore into anything they tried to put between themselves and the enemy.

“Lookout’s sending us messages.”

“A way out of this?” Tristan asked, through grit teeth.

“No,” Antares said.

“I don’t know how you can read and fight at the same time.”

“I shouldn’t have,” she said, and her voice was dark.

They’d managed to beat a fighting retreat to the next major intersection.  Rounding the corner bought them a bit of reprieve from incoming fire, which let them erect a more confident defense.  Ceiling was torn down and rock wall was drawn out, thick and solid.

“It’s bad news,” Tristan said, quiet.

“We don’t know anything for sure yet,” Antares said, setting her jaw.

There was a heavy bang as an explosive detonated against the wall.  They backed up a few steps and Tristan created a second later.

While he worked, he commented, “Except Lookout’s upset because she knows, isn’t she?”

“We don’t know,” Antares said.

“Alright.  I don’t want to know, so that’s perfect for me.  I’m sick enough over Byron, he was at the very edge of passing out when he swapped to me, what if I switch to him and that’s it?  But I can’t- I can’t not.”

“It’s okay,” Antares said.

“It’s really not.”

“I’ll rephrase.  Yes, it scares the daylights out of me, I can’t imagine how you feel, but it’s a problem for later.  Yes?”

Tristan clenched a fist, then nodded.

“I don’t mean to be a bitch, but-”

“No.  It’s right.  Makes sense.  Plan?”

Antares went on, “We have options.  But I can’t do this.  This right here.  We can’t do this.  We’re pinned down, and I’m supposed to go after Teacher.  We should make a break for it.”

“I’m supposed to hold the chokepoint.”

“You held it.”

He shook his head, and then turned to face the wall.

“Now’s not the time to be stubborn.  You don’t sacrifice yourself because your brother might not be okay.”

“Giving up the chokepoint means they come right after us.  That’s sacrificing all of us.”

The speakers crackled, and then music began to play, an aria, with light instrumentals.

“Master-stranger,” Tristan said.  “That’s getting to me.  I think.  It might be-”

“It’s a power,” Victoria said.  “Working full strength through tech.”

The intensity of the assault on the far side of the wall had died down.  There was a buzz of communication.

“I think it’s from our side.  Swansong’s cape with the yellow costume… there aren’t a lot of them.  Most would be Advance Guard, but they’d be together, not with Valkyrie.  I think that’s Canary.”

“The celebrity?”

“She’s a Warden now.  Under Valkyrie’s wing.  They knew each other in the Birdcage.  She normally only has a minor effect in actual recordings or speakers.  It was Swansong.”

Tristan sighed.

The song continued, tranquil, more hum with percussion at this stage than the aria that had opened things.

“Knock knock!” was the voice on the far side of the wall.  Obnoxious and loud.

“That’s Imp,” Tristan said.

“Back up!” Antares called out.

Then she smashed the wall.

Heartbroken, dogs, Rachel, and Imp were gathered on the far side.  They had attacked from the rear.  From the blood on her knife, Imp had done her share.

“Undersiders scare me,” Tristan said.

“Good,” Rachel said.

There was a look on their faces.  Hurt, hollow.

Tristan counted the Heartbroken.  One was absent- and on the back of one dog, wrapped in a blanket-

“Samuel?” he asked.

Rachel nodded, looking away, angry.  Chastity had her arms folded.  Roman and Juliet looked like they were in a very similar space, weirdly sullen.

“The littler kids are going to be hell to manage,” Imp said.  Her voice wasn’t as lively as it normally was.  “You?”

The question was so casual.

“We’ll see,” Antares said.  “They’re coming.”

Tristan shook his head, switching over to look at the displays.  He could see the markers of each other member of the group, excepting one.  They didn’t have labels.

He could see the messages Lookout had sent and was sending, and the replies.

There was no reason to stay and hold the chokepoint, with the Undersiders having done their share.

They rendezvoused with Sveta.  Wounded, with holes in her arms and shoulder, Sveta hugged Antares.

Every appearance was simultaneously relief and horror.

Then they saw Rain, with Love Lost and Colt.  Colt was covered in dust.  Chevalier and his team followed behind.

They ran into thralls, and found those thralls didn’t have much fight in them.  As the music sounded throughout the facility, cutting in and out as Lookout managed to get her grips on a system, then was blocked or shut down, the thralls gave up their efforts.

“Is this A or is it C?” Imp asked.

“C,” Tristan said, trying not to think about what that meant.  Two members of Breakthrough were supposed to die.

Victoria picked up speed, moving away and ahead of the group, as they hurried to their destination.  She and Ashley had been roommates, or housemates.  Two sides of a peculiar coin, in some ways.

Victoria only flew like she was flying now when she was using the Wretch, keeping a distance, making sure not to get within ten feet of anyone, like a bubble surrounded her.  Except in this case, it did.

They found the tail end of another group.  Legend’s troops who moved on foot, who were disarming a group of thralls that had surrendered.

Antares held up a hand, and Tristan took up a position, getting people to give her a wide berth.  She picked up one of the tinker guns.  She held it in one hand, checked the ammo, and then picked up another.

She picked up another gun, and then another.

She picked up another gun, and then yet another.

Others went on ahead, as Breakthrough remained where they were, diverting the flow of foot traffic, watching, waiting for the remainder of their team.

“Tristan, is Byron-” Rain started.

“He’ll live,” Tristan said.  He wasn’t sure, but… there was no other option.  Even if it meant convincing Antares to let them go to her sister.

Antares carried the guns without touching one of them.  Her hood hid her eyes, and her feet didn’t touch the ground.

She didn’t elaborate on the new trick, and Tristan didn’t ask.  In some ways, he associated new tricks to the way his power had changed when he had murdered Byron.  It made a degree of sense to him.

They reached Teacher’s command center, spacious enough for the leadership of most of the Wardens and a few other team leaders.  Few members of the second wave assault had made it this far in.

The thralls were arrested, and Teacher was there.  He stood in the threshold of a doorway.

Through that door was a special kind of oblivion, with images that swirled in darkness like images on the back of closed eyes with fingers pressed down on them, but image and background were all pitch black.

“I’ve seen that doorway before,” Rain said, his voice a hush.

“Where?”

“Every night,” Rain said.

“It feels like the will that pushes my body to act when I’m not in control,” Sveta said.

“Ashley talked about it,” Antares said.  “Seeing a landscape in her dreams.”

“He found a way into the spaces between worlds,” Legend said.  “Where the things in our heads really reside.”

Contessa stood beside Legend, unmoving.

And Teacher needed only to take a half-step backward or to fall back to enter that realm.

He pointed at the computer.  A number in red showed 95%.

“What does that mean?”

“It means I need only to give the world a little push, and everything crumbles,” Teacher said.  “And I hold the reins of what’s there when our world crumbles away.”

“Why?  What does that serve?” Chevalier asked.

“She didn’t tell you?” Teacher asked, indicating Contessa.  “It gives us the best outcome.  Humanity, mankind.  The clock is ticking, the process of the agents coming together and uniting before shattering our world and trying to reach others never quite stopped.  It simply… lost the pilot.  Lost all direction.”

Legend looked at Contessa.

Teacher went on, “I didn’t have a perfect precog judge what I was doing, so do tell me if I got it wrong.  I’ll accept any and all punishment.”

“You’ll do that anyway, you mangy foreskin,” Imp said.

“No,” Contessa said.  “You’re right.”

Teacher smiled.  “This is the best option.  You’re on my side.”

“Objectively, it’s so close to the best option it’s almost indistinguishable.  But it’s not one of the options I gave them.”

Teacher’s face fell a fraction.  “What-”

“I gave them the options they would be happiest with.  I picked one.  I’m done with the objective best, with the ugliest path to getting there.”

Swansong fucking died and my brother might be joining her, and this isn’t the ugliest path?

Tristan felt bitter, and he looked to his teammates to see they felt the same way.  He saw glares and anger, but no expressions perfectly reflected his bitterness or resentment.

Teacher swayed, like he was going to step back into that darkness.

“You don’t want to do that,” Contessa said.

He hesitated, staring.

Contessa turned her head a fraction, and Teacher followed that fraction, his eyes falling on Breakthrough.  Studying them.  Antares floated above the computer terminals, still holding the guns.  Rain sat in the chair.  Sveta had her arms folded.  Tristan clenched a fist, while studying the man.

Teacher took a step forward.  It put the door behind him.  Like he had abandoned the notion of stepping through it.

What had he seen or figured out?

Teacher addressed the room.  “Within a very short time, the city will break down.  Nothing to do with the recent car bombing of its parahuman mayor.  You’ll wish you’d sided with me.  If you kill me, you’ll regret that I can’t help you find sanity in the madness, when our world becomes theirs.  If you imprison me, you’ll be coming to my cell to beg for help.  Let me go free, and I’ll have things in place.”

“We’re not going to let you go free,” Chevalier said.  “We can talk about whether execution or prison are more appropriate.”

“It’s all going to go to pieces,” Teacher said.

“And you’re going to go into custody,” Legend said.  “Are you done?  You’ve said your piece.  There aren’t too many who are willing to listen when you’ve killed or hurt our friends and subordinates.”

Teacher held out his hands.  The other thralls in the room did much the same.

It was Chevalier who slapped on the cuffs, dragging Teacher toward the door.  The crowd parted.

With nearly every back turned, only a few were looking the other way.  Rain was among them, and the way he startled made Tristan turn.

The doorway to the shard realm flickered, and then it went out.

It was a trick of layers.  While eyes were turned toward the door, someone stepped out of the crowd.  One of the younger capes from the Wards.  They put an arm out, grabbing Teacher, and it was Legend who was fast enough to grab the two of them.

Teacher, Legend, and the junior cape all disappeared in a wisp of blue dust.

Amid the commotion, one by one, the guns Antares had picked up dropped to the floor, some with mangled handles.  After the first, Sveta caught them.

And on the terminal closest to the door that had disappeared, numbers adjusted.  A red number declined to 87%, 85%…  A white number ticked up.  Nearly at 70%.  A third looked eerily similar to Kenzie’s map of her control over the complex.  Steadily and swiftly, she took full and total control of Teacher’s resources, and he had no idea what to feel about that, given what she must be feeling.

He got away and that confirms it’s option C, Tristan thought.  The confirmation drove the point home, and emotions bottled up over days surged to the point he momentarily felt out of his mind.

That it was option C meant Swansong’s death was real, and another death was imminent or connected to all of this.  Possibly fucking Byron.

“Legend will be fine,” Chevalier said, and he almost sounded convincing.  “Let’s get to work.  We’ll assume this is real, and that means there’s a hell of a lot to do.”

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Dying – 15.y

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The zombies jogged and marched all around them.  Teams of zombies were deploying to set up heavy laser cannons, aimed at the walls of spiky black rock with amber veins running through them.  Others were setting up other technology, including machinery mounted on tripods and one team of rather fit looking zombies who were gathered around what looked like a condom dispenser, only the display at the top showed fluid within, and there was a handprint-shaped indent in the lower half.

“Don’t,” Final Hour said, his voice deep as he laid an armored hand on a young woman’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.  She was part of the laser cannon team, and she was petite, wide eyed and innocent looking, doubly innocent because Teacher had stolen her willpower.  Short and probably less than a hundred pounds, with only tattoos on her scalp that her hair had grown over to suggest she was over eighteen, she was a stark contrast to Final Hour.  The guy was big, had a bodybuilder physique, and his tinkertech was focused on one side of his body: both eyes, the left half of the face, one arm, and one leg.  The tech was heaviest around his left hand, which was writ large by the gauntlet that encased it.  A series of clocks and dials were set into the back of the gauntlet, a little satellite dish in the palm.

Secondhand couldn’t help but feel that having that much weight on one side of his body would fuck up his back into oblivion.

Final Hour explained, “You’re shooting the wall.  Others tried it before you got here.  He remakes it faster than we get through.  It might be better if you shoot that.”

Final Hour used his unarmored, tech-free hand to point at the other wall.  White tile, running perpendicular to the wall of black stone.

“As you wish,” cute zombie girl said.

“He can’t see it,” Final Hour explained.  “He can only make the walls where he can see.  If we knock down the wall his wall is leaning on, it might fall.”

“She doesn’t care,” Secondhand said.  “She’s a zombie.”

“Don’t call them that,” Final Hour said.

“She is.  Mind-zombie, but still a zombie.  Hey!”

A few eyes turned his way.

“You,” he pointed at the woman Final Hour had been talking to.  “Do you care if I call you a zombie?”

“Call me whatever is convenient,” she said.  “I’ll return to the work Teacher assigned me, if that’s alright?”

Secondhand waved her off, before looking at Final Hour, shrugging.

Zombies were in single file, the buff ones lined up behind the faux condom dispenser.  Others were relaying parts, handing them down the line to where tinkers used them to augment or stabilize the laser cannons.  More were in rows and columns.

Secondhand zipped up his costume, with gloves to cover his arms, and placing tubes in his nose before zipping up what he had termed his ‘gimp mask’ with little affection.  The air from the tubes was colder than room temperature, warmed from body heat only, where the tubes ran close to his neck and back.  He shut it off.

The battery pack rested between his shoulder blades, oxygen at the small of his back, and tech was threaded through the rest of his suit, which was made of the same nano-circuit mesh as his mask.  All lightweight, close to the skin, and aerodynamic.  He donned the round-lens goggles, and the old fashioned flat cap that was his only true concession to style over efficiency.

“Want me to load you up with a charge?” Final Hour asked.

“We should do this clean,” Last Minute said, raising his voice to be heard as he walked down the hall.  End of Days was with him.

The four squared up, each facing the others, a huddle without closeness.  Secondhand was the smallest, the closest to being sleek, except he wasn’t that thin.  Purely average.  Last Minute was burly and barrel-shaped, muscular but not tall, loaded down with his throwable trinkets.  Final Hour was muscular, of a similar frame to End of Days, who distinguished himself with the curling mustache, the lighter distribution of tinker gear, and his tinker gear.  One of End of Days’s arms had a fresh tattoo on it, an old fashioned demon harlot, surrounded by a band of religious verse.

Their only aesthetic concession to counting themselves among the Fallen was a change to red lenses and glows for their tinkertech, and black cloth and leather.

“Hitting them hard is cleanest.  We shouldn’t give them a chance to fight back,” Final Hour said.  He adjusted something in his gauntlet.

“If your blast doesn’t take them out, Secondhand is dead in the water,” Last Minute said, thick arms folded across his chest.  “We know the one in the goat armor is there, because he’s making the walls.  Two of them can kill him before he can react.  A third can come close.  One is invincible.  Best he could do would be to take the kid hostage, and we don’t know if she’s there.  She might be camouflaged.”

End of Days nodded along with Last Minute.

“Hmph,” Final Hour grunted.  “Okay.”

“Clean is using our powers as they’re supposed to work.  Plan for this to be messy, keep our tricks up our sleeves for later.”

Both looked at Secondhand.

“I’ll scout.  Don’t load me up.  It makes it harder to get back into the zone.  I might use tech if it looks like I can.”

He reached to his belt and pulled out a small explosive.  Lightweight, like all of his tech.

“Camera?” Final Hour asked.

Secondhand considered.

“I know you don’t like it, but…” Final Hour trailed off.

“If the kid is with them, a camera is a weak point,” Secondhand pointed out.

“Unplug it and go black if you have to.  But it would help the soldiers and it would help us.”

Secondhand grumbled for a bit, debating mostly with himself.

“We’re ready, sirs!” a man by the nearest laser cannon called out.

Sirs?

Well, Secondhand had been called everything under the sun, recently.  One more for the list.

Final Hour reached out with his ordinary, gauntlet-free hand.  “We tough it out through today, we go home to obscene orgies, girls with zero morals, drugs, and luxury.  This is what we’ve been working for all this time.  Now we pay our dues once in a while, keep the plate spinning.”

“And if the plates all fall,” End of Days intoned, in a mellow voice that suggested he had taken his drugs recently, “we’re in the best position to rule over whatever things look like after.”

Secondhand nodded.

He decided he’d have fun, since he was doing the legwork here.  He stood straighter, pointed, and ordered, “Fire.”

A zombie pulled on a lever.  The laser cannon glowed, then fired its beam, two feet thick, into the wall.  Tile shattered, the softer material beneath disintegrated, and metal melted.  The laser was moved gradually, to tear through more wall.

Secondhand flicked a switch on the battery pack, then adjusted his goggles.  Numerical readings mixed in with just-for-fun diabolic symbols and magical diagrams overlapped what he was seeing.  He checked he had the camera software loaded, then switched modes to a thermal view, with patterns of air resistance marked out with lines and numbers in the air.

“Running too hot, we’re shutting it off!”

“That’s fine!” Last Minute called.  He turned to Secondhand.  “Isn’t it?”

The laser shut off.  Secondhand used his power.

The world stopped, and the air became heavy, oppressive, like being at the bottom of the swimming pool.

Making sure his hat was firmly on, slipping his hands into his pockets, Secondhand walked down the hall, amid the zombies.  It was like walking into mud, and running was worse than walking.  He walked up to the girl with the tattoos hidden in her hair, and craned his head around, to try to look down her the front of her tunic.

Too flat.  He couldn’t get a good angle.  Bringing his head too close, he could feel the body heat radiating off of her as an unpleasant thing.  Even with the suit protecting him against the worst of it, it felt like a sunburn that lasted only as long as he was close.  He pulled away.

“If I asked Teacher for you, would he give you to me?” he asked, his face close to hers, the words muffled as though he had his face in the corner, speaking into a wall.  “Would you enjoy the kind of fun we have at Thomais Manor?  Would it be better if we didn’t give you your brain back?”

He studied every inch of her, trying to commit details to memory.

Growing bored, he turned away.

“Alright.  Let’s do this.”

He walked into the pea soup, and from that pea soup, he walked into the storm that was the place the laser blast had penetrated.  The wall was hot and the floor was hotter where the melted metal had dripped down, and that heat both radiated and stirred the air.

One hand on his hat, one hand on his pocket, he endured the storm.  His suit absorbed ninety-five percent of it.  His boots absorbed ninety percent of the heat beneath his feet.  Technically the suit made him resistant to all of it, but some sensations got through, a feedback from his power and feedback from the suit, so he wouldn’t be oblivious or entirely unable to sense the world around him.

The air here was next to nonexistent, filled with chemicals.  He switched on the oxygen he carried, the battery thrummed at his upper back as it helped pump that oxygen, and he could breathe.

The middle of the wall was the easiest and worst part at the same time, because the heat wasn’t a wind he had to walk into, but it was chaotic, roiling, and he was caught up in pea soup.  It was, he imagined, like being caught in rapids, while burdened with concrete blocks.  Trying to push against the wind was tough but there was always the feeling that he could give up, let himself be pushed, and retreat to safe ground.

Here, he felt like he could find himself in a situation where no matter how he moved, he would be pushed back to center, left to either disable his power and find himself wading in molten metal, or to wait until his oxygen ran out.

He relied on the dense lines and numbers his lenses fed him to position his body and weave through the pockets of air and air currents.  He approached a tough spot where something was burning on the far wall, and he adjusted settings, drawing on his battery for a bit of extra power.  The benefit was slight, as the heat reached him less and the air worked with him a little more, and the battery power raced from a hundred to sixty in those long, long picoseconds.

He switched off the battery as soon as he was through.

The rest of the hallway was clear, except for a spot along the wall where the laser had punched through and raked it.

Reaching up to his ear, he adjusted settings, bringing up a menu that overlapped what his lenses fed him.  He put a book on.  It was already on chapter two from the last listen, something End of Days had recommended, and he didn’t feel like going back to the start to find the title.  If nothing else, it would help him walk the walk and talk the talk, not that it seemed to matter when they made a misstep, as far as Cheit or the Fallen they’d managed to round up were concerned.

He waded through the mud that was the air around him, his power converting every quarter-inch into a medium he could breathe, at a rate slower than he walked.  Air further away offered more resistance.

Oh.  He’d offered to take the pictures with the camera.  Might as well.  Maybe he could use the currency of a job well done with minimal dead zombies or spent tinkertech to get the cute girl.

He stopped, training his eyes on the walls and floor, the flash from his own lenses more for his benefit than anyone else’s, his lenses keeping track of what had been photographed by coloring it pink, as opposed to the omnipresent red of his red lenses.

Walk for a few minutes, pause to take pictures.  Walk for a few minutes, more pictures.

He was on chapter four when he reached the intersection where the one hallway met three others.  He took the pictures while he assessed where he was going.

He walked down one hallway, saw it was a dead end for the most part, and backtracked.  He was on chapter six of his audiobook by the time he was back.  His body felt battered and bruised from constantly pushing up against the wall of mud.

So it went.  So it always fucking went.  It was a chore, but it was a chore that was safe.  Before Seattle it had been a once-a-week thing, but it got him nowhere.  Then he’d signed on with others in Seattle, and they’d done okay.  He’d had to scout like this daily, get in a fight a month, but he’d made enough to pay his share of rent.  After Gold Morning, it had been much the same.

With Prancer, he had had to use his power multiple times a day.  Different suit, less of a walk through mud, but more taxing on his body, to the point that skin had been bruised, blood vessels in eyes and skin had broken, and his teeth had been loose.  He had pissed pink and shit black, and he’d picked up a cough that didn’t go away.  It had nearly killed him, and only the improved costume had kept him going, putting him in a place that was denser, but safer, that required a more methodical approach.  He’d endured with that improved costume and motivated himself with the hope that rep they were picking up and deals they were striking behind the scenes were building up to something.  They’d talked to the Crowley Fallen, they’d partied with them, and once that became a regular thing, it had given him enough to look forward to that he’d been able to get through the weeks.

Amusing, because the time spent with those guys had meant they weren’t in Hollow Point when half the shit landed in the villain’s laps.

Now investments were paying off.  This was probably the most he would have to use his power in the next few months.  He would be free to use it however he wanted, to target enemies or to have fun.

He finished the book by the time he found the stairwell.  Capricorn and Antares were there.  The boy in goat armor mid-run, and the girl in black and gold, flying.  Heading in the direction where they’d heard the blast.  Orange motes swirled around Capricorn’s outstretched arm.

Mid-run was hard to work around.  If they were standing still, he could have canceled his power, waited until it was ready to use again, covertly planted the charges, and used his power to escape.

Secondhand turned and walked away, around the corner, and then reached down to his belt.  Drawing in a deep breath, he deactivated his power.

Noise assaulted him, heavy boots and heavy armor, voices.

“-coordinated attack!”

“Which direction was it?”

He laid them out, five charges stuck to the wall in three seconds, head height to waist high, at the corner of the hallway.  He would have placed more, but the running footsteps got close enough they were only a few feet away, just around the corner.

He used his power again, thumb flicking the activation for the battery to accelerate the process.  If he didn’t, it took a minute or two before he could use his power again.

Walking back around, he put himself behind the pair, safely away, and leaned against the wall, hands in his pocket, detonator in one hand.

Undoing his power, noting his battery time remaining, he listened for two more footsteps, shielded the ear closest to the pair with one hand, then activated the detonator.

The explosions from these localized charges weren’t large by any means, but the crack they produced was sharp and satisfying.  Every ounce of weight he carried while using his power was a burden that made every step forward harder.  Something like a grenade was too heavy, too obvious.

Secondhand waited, one hand still at his ear.

“Capricorn!” the voice was hoarse, shaky.  “Capricorn!”

He remained where he was.  It was tempting to see the results, to figure out how to better approach things in the future, but poking his head out risked being seen, and he had to wait roughly a minute before his power was available, unless-

The fear aura washed over him, and his heartbeat skipped, his thoughts stumbling over one another.  Every ache and pain he had from wading through the mud was exaggerated as he used his power instinctively, prematurely, because terror wasn’t something he was used to by any measure.

Rather than burn himself out and find himself slowed but unable to walk, he switched on the battery.  It was at forty percent, and he burned it down to fifteen percent to get himself fully situated in the slowed time.

It didn’t help.  The fear soaked into him, took the strength out of him, and made his fingers fumble at the buttons for the battery.

He grit his teeth, bearing it, stepping away from the wall.

Getting through that wall the cannon had blasted through would be miserable, doubly so because he was having to endure this, but he was confident enough.  Maybe this emotion fuckery fucking shit would motivate him to push through.

Fuck, this sucked.

He started the trudge back.  Out of cover, into the hallway, and toward the intersection.  Antares and Capricorn had been on the right side of the hallway when the detonations had gone off, and they were on the left side now.  Antares was on the ground, Capricorn on top of her.  The right side of his helmet, his right arm, shoulder and side were mangled enough that the blood-slick metal and flesh weren’t distinguishable from one another.  Roughly two liters of blood were already scattered around and immediately beneath Capricorn.

Not the goat-Capricorn, interestingly enough.  The fish.  They must have changed or been changing.

The fear made his tired legs tremble, and made his hands shake enough he didn’t trust them with his tech, to turn on the next audiobook or adjust visual settings.

In the midst of a silence where he heard only his own grunts, breathing, and muttered, gasping swears, he placed one foot in front of the other for what might have been thirty or forty-five minutes of time to anyone else.  All through a mind numbing panic that radiated from the two heroes like light radiated from the sun.

Bitter, angry, his thoughts spiraling out as he endured it all, he told himself that at least she was more scared than he was.  Or she would be, when time started again.  If she and her friend weren’t done for already, they would be when his team got to them.

And the only thing better than a scared pretty girl with tears running down her face was a scared pretty girl with tears on her face that had pissed him the fuck off, completely at his mercy.

He trudged on.

Fuck, he thought.  The Fallen were rubbing off on him.  Not that he had been an angel before, but… he could only spend so much time with people who let him do anything he wanted, however he wanted, without getting a little fucked up.  Fuck.

He endured the pressure of fear on top of the pressure of air.  A weight of emotion grinding him down and throwing him off balance, a wall of air in front of him.

Fuck, he thought, with his next step.  Fuck.  The word punctuated each step.

Miranda watched from the high ground as the last shadows of the dead disappeared, slipping into side tunnels, with wary glances in her direction.

They left behind their dead, but they brought their injured with them.

It was their third foray.  Weaker than the ones before.  They attacked, tried to find a weakness or opening, and then retreated when they lost.  Even if they got past, there wasn’t anything out there.  The side hallways had been closed up, and the main hallway she stood in now led nowhere, only a platform that stuck out of the side of the building and led to nothing.

It was strangely satisfying, that she could hold her ground here.  A thread of something that had been bothering her for years had finally been tied up.  How long ago had it been, that she had been placed in an elevator, an oxygen mask on her lower face in the midst of a vacuum, and dropped into the Birdcage?

How strange it had been.  Little her, barely even an adult in full then, picked up by heroes and escorted to PRT custody, questioned by people with powers that gave them insights into the real her.  She had baffled half and scared the other half, somehow.  Itty bitty her.

Itsy bitsy Miranda Webb had been told what to do and how to do it by Blood Diamond, who picked the one girl from her cell block that had disappointed her the most every week and punished them.  Often it was the same girl, unless someone else did something to put themselves in Blood Diamond’s bad books.  Heads shaved, forced to eat only the expired foods, beaten, cut, nailed to the table.  The administrator of the ‘cage, it hadn’t been Dragon back then, they’d started slamming the doors shut and sucking oxygen out of the room, just for a few moments, to put a stop to the worst of it.

Then Blood Diamond had exhausted the use of her girl, broken her.  Everyone knew and nobody said that she was looking for her next girl to set as an example.  She had given Miranda a sideways look.

So Miranda had given a boy from the men’s side of the prison a different sort of look.  The kind of look that was sly and inviting at the same time, that formed a hook in the curl of the eyelashes and tilt of the head, then set that hook with a wink.

Well… a wink and the handjob, and the blowjobs, and the butt stuff, and the lovemaking, her breath hot and her words sweet in his ear.

But she didn’t like to think about that part of it.  Being the sweet sort of virginial was a state of mind, nothing else.  Dwelling on lurid particulars made that harder.

Blood Diamond had had an accident.  The only reasons she could find for her own nomination to Blood Diamond’s position managing the girliest end of the girl’s side of the prison were her sweet disposition and the fact nobody else wanted the job.

Well… Love Bite had wanted it, but Love Bite had her head torn from her shoulders.  Teacup had wanted it, but Teacup had had her porcelain armor torn off, her head shaved, and her tongue torn out.  No boys had even been involved in Teacup’s demise, whether the demise was marked at that point she lost her tongue and nearly died of blood loss or when she carried out a hunger strike and died of dehydration.

It was almost inconvenient, that people in little miss Webb’s way met unfortunate ends so often.  It rushed her into power, and put her on a playing field with the likes of… well, Valkyrie.

The most powerful woman in all of the realities and, look at that, poor thing lost her powers right when she needed them.  Connection cut, leaving her nothing more than a tall, athletic, ordinary woman on a battlefield defined by its monsters.

She got in Miranda’s way, and look at that.  She was removed.  Someone who had really scared her when they were locked up in that dismal prison with its dismal people and its poor selection of good men.

It was almost enough to make Miranda think there was something about little old ordinary-but-charming her, that Valkyrie was out and Ingenue was standing.

“Problem, Ingenue?” the Black Goat asked.

“No problem, except that I’m here and not taking care of Chevalier,” Miranda turned around.  She stretched, aware the flared sixties style dress she wore was so short that stretching her arms fully overhead would lift it too high.  She saw the Black Goat looking and hoping when she faced him.  He was gentlemanly enough to look away after being caught, embarassed.

Christian boys were always the hungriest.

“Good,” he said.  “Understandable.  But I think Teacher wants us to keep level heads, keep us away from our rivals, enemies, and… I don’t even know what Chevalier is.”

“Tempting,” she said.  She smiled.

“Uh, sure.”

Black Goat was surrounded by thralls who had bloody or ragged outfits, but no injuries themselves.  Her personal collection of capes were the same.  Fresh, handsome, whole, and wholesome.  Three thralls stared off into space, bearing the entirety of the wounds her entire squadron had suffered.  They were puppets, dolls that were anything but playful or adorable, so devoid of emotion and awareness they didn’t realize how hurt they were.  Chunks missing and bandaged, burned, melted, one had parts of his belly turned to glass.

The Black Goat was looking after thralls, asking about injuries.  He had been Scapegoat once, a hero with a mercenary streak.  Gold Morning had helped him get over his illusions.  He’d gone full mercenary.  Now he stood there, shirtless, a tattoo across his back, a helmet miming a goat skull over his upper face.  He wore an ornate belt with black cloth draping down.

He wasn’t quite her type.  A bit of a slouch, too down on himself.  But he was muscular, he took care of himself, that Fallen tattoo excepted.  There was worse company to keep, like the Speedrunners.  Creeps.

“Three dolls?” she asked.

“Dolls?”

She indicated the thralls with the injuries.

“Mm.  I have one more body,” the Black Goat said, indicating an obese man sitting with his back to the wall.  “I can transfer wounds to him, then we need to think about refreshing.”

“We’ll refresh sooner than later, while we have options,” she said.  “Open the doors, get some people out, find more dolls.”

“I’d have to make them, and it’s best if I get Teacher’s counsel about that,” Scapegoat said.

“You make them by passing on the loss of willpower until someone has so much they can’t function, yes?”

“More or less.”

“Then take them from my boys here,” she said, walking backwards, and laying a hand on the arm of one of her superheroes.  “Just don’t take their feelings for me.”

The Black Goat looked uneasy at that.

“What’s wrong?” Ingenue asked.  She pouted a bit.  “You don’t like my idea?”

“If they turn on us, that gets messy.”

“They won’t,” she said.  “Trust me.”

“I’ll take some,” he said.

“Take all of it.  Rip off that sticker.  If you want your frog boiled, you might as well turn the heat up to full, instead of by fractions.”

“I don’t think I will,” he said.  “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense.”

“Hon,” she said.  She stepped forward.  The Black Goat stepped back.  “I didn’t get to where I’ve been by being stupid.”

“The Birdcage?” he asked, and he scoffed a bit.

She smiled.

“No,” he said.  “I’m not going to risk everything by loosening the one reliable leash we have on our thralls.  I think that’s why Teacher sent me with you, to keep things sensible.”

She pouted, giving him her best puppy dog eyes.

“No,” he said.

“Okay.  I won’t threaten you.  But I’ll warn you that people who cross me tend to meet unfortunate ends.”  She maintained the puppy dog eyes.

“No.”

“Okay,” she said.  “I won’t argue.  I’m going to keep watch.  I’m betting the sneaky regenerator who attacked the time before last is going to make another attempt after they’re done talking about plans.”

The Black Goat nodded, before turning his attention to the dolls that were holding all of the injuries.

She made her way to the ledge that looked down on the hallway below, a ladder by her feet leading the way down to the area that was littered with containers of fluid.  As she passed her heroes, she touched one arm, her fingers running along body hair.  She smiled up at the owner of that arm, Captain Claw.  Pirate hero.

She let her shoulder brush the arm of the next.  Leister.  Handsome young man, bearing a trident.

She reached out to touch the shoulder of a third.  Usher.  She’d had to insist on a costume redesign, at the same time her boys were having their costumes remade in white, for clarity and camouflage.

And the fourth?  Well… she was already at the ledge by the ladder by the time she thought to give him a warming touch or a look.  She did have to keep her watch.

He was so restless, standing there.  He took a half step forward, and by the shadows cast on the floor around her, she could see her other three boys had turned their heads to look.  She kept her gaze straight.

It took him thirty seconds before he turned, starting to walk away.

“Hon?” she asked.  She turned her head.  Her fourth hero was tall, muscular, with hair cropped close to the head, and a broad chin.  Veins stood out in his arms and neck, and a number of little features stood out as alien, like his eyes that were black from corner to corner- and there were more than two of those eyes.  Patterns stood out on his skin and gave his muscles interesting artistic shapes.  If he wasn’t so alien he would be grotesque, but his strange appearance lent him enough allure she could enjoy his companionship.

That, and Teacher had insisted she keep more muscle with her.

He’d stopped, and now he waited.

“I won’t tell you what to do or what not to do, because you’re loyal to Teacher and you’re loyal to me, and I trust that, but do be careful, because he can pass on injuries to you.”

He shrugged, so very blasé.

“You saying something?” the Black Goat called out.

“Talking to my boy,” she said.

“Okay.  I thought it might be another attack.”

“Nothing so soon,” she said.  “Take care of your dolls.”

“Thralls, or bodies.  Not dolls.”

“It’s all dolls and boys, Goat,” she said.  Then she winked at her fourth.  In a quieter voice, she said, “My boy.  You go do what you think you have to do, Spawner.  I trust you.”

She resumed her watch, staring down at the hallway below.

Behind her, the Black Goat screamed.  It was the kind of scream that someone made when their arm was broken, except that scream was one of surprise and agony, it rose, hit its crescendo, and then fell, so breath could be caught, and the next scream could begin.

The Black Goat reached the crescendo, then managed to squeak out another, shorter, more intense scream with that reserve of oxygen he kept in his lungs.

The third scream cut in before he could gasp in a breath, if it could even be called a scream.  It was to screams what the dry heave was to vomit.

Ingenue looked down at her feet, noted a bit of dirt on the toe, and lifted her foot up, so her ankle crossed her thigh.  She cleaned it up.  A cruder person like Blood Diamond might have made their servants lick it off, but Miranda had no interest in degradation.

Little Goat managed to scream while dragging in a breath.

“Spawner,” she called out.  “You have better eyes than I do, and you have more eyes than I do.  Could you come here?”

The gigantic man did as asked.

“That dark corner over there.  Do you see anyone?”

He shook his head.

“Okay.  Would you keep watch?  Just to be safe?”

He nodded.

She reached up to rub his upper arm as she turned and walked away.  She approached the Goat, who was reduced to crawling, burbling his screams more than anything.

Her approach took her in the opposite direction that the procession line of lemon-sized bugs traveled.  Bugs with snips of skin, chunks of meat…

She walked so her left foot was to her right and her right foot was to her left, weaving her way along the line to where the bloody goat crawled.  She had to abandon her skipping game because a group of very enterprising bugs were dragging a length of intestine out.

Looking back, she could see the bugs climbing up Spawner’s legs and finding holes to nestle into.  Holes in the thigh, in the very nice but alien buttocks, in sides, back… they brought the food in with them, to deposit it inside and feed their mother-father.  The pieces helped accelerate the man’s regeneration, replacing missing skin and muscle.

The bloody goat crawled toward his one doll that had no injuries yet.

She stepped on his hand, boot heel on skinless fingers.

“Oh, sorry about that,” she said.  She didn’t take her foot off of his hand.  “How rude of me.  I wanted to say, I really hope we didn’t get off on the wrong foot.”

She checked.  One of his feet was still intact.  The other was in the process of being dismantled, razor mandibles and multiple bugs working to pull apart the segments.

Really, it was marvelous that he was still somehow aware and conscious.  A testament to character.

He bled from the mouth, eyes widening as a new reel of intestine was tugged out of his abdomen.

But he managed something resembling a nod.

“Let’s get you some help,” she said.  She took her boot off his foot, then walked over to the unused doll.  Bending down, she took him by the hand, then led him to the silly, bloody, one-footed goat.

By the time she got there, the goat wasn’t moving.  She nudged his head with her foot, and saw him rouse.  Then she saw the flickering begin.  The transfer of wounds started, one by one.

She ran fingers through his hair, and gave him a bit of a boost, to help him along.

That done, she left them to it, returning to Spawner’s side.

Hands clasped in front of her, she focused her attention on Spawner.  Touch was best, but Teacher had given her focus, no drawback, and she was learning to use it.  To alter powers and their courses without the need for touch.  Spawner’s bugs went still, momentarily, and his regeneration accelerated, to the point he healed fully in two seconds.

Another turn of certain keys, and the bugs resumed their process of feeding him what they’d collected, finding their nooks and their holes in the honeycomb portions of their father-mother.

With her power and with all of the focus in that power that Teacher had gifted her, she controlled the path of it.  She chose the designs that would have been nearly random before, put her hands on controls, and painted him with her own brushes.  To make him the beautiful sort of alien.

“Holy shit-fuck,” she heard.

“Is there a problem?” she asked, turning.  Spawner turned with her, as did her other boys.

Scapegoat grabbed his helmet and pulled it back on.  He was silent for long seconds.  He was intact now.  His doll wasn’t.

“No problem.”

“You used up your last doll.  We should open the doors, have the injured carried out, and see about getting you some more.  In the meantime, you should give some volition to my boys and dull the senses of one of your other dolls, so we can use them in a pinch.”

The goat boy stared down at the ground, shaking.  The helmet hid his face from her.

“Yes?” she asked.

“…Yes.”

“Good.  What a gentleman, doing as the lady asks.”

“Open the doors,” he said, giving his instructions to the thralls.

“And keep them open.”

Ingenue turned.

Standing with light behind her, illumination from the daylight that touched the platform outside the hallway, was one of the Breakthrough members.  Dusty, scraped here and there, with a bandage at her side.

Swansong, wasn’t it?

All poise, back straight, hair short, a cute white dress, a band of black across the eyes, that smoked from the edges.

It made Ingenue think of the girl who had first stepped from that elevator and into the birdcage.

She saw the slight movement of the hand, perpetual.  A nervous twitch that never stopped, thumb moving in a circular motion.  The tongue that licked lips and didn’t give or find moisture.  Dry mouth.

That reminded Ingenue of her eighteen year old self even more.  They’d put her on drugs from the moment they brought her in, and when the balance was off… well, not those specific side effects.  Swansong’s drugs weren’t her own.  But enough girls in her cell block had been instructed to take their own medications, and she’d found it easiest if she kept track of who needed to take what and ensure they took it.

Not that she would threaten them or anything.

“Poor girl,” she said.  “You look so tired.  Could we call a truce?”

Truce?  That implies a kind of equality is possible, and you are too far beneath me for anything of the sort.”

“I like you,” Ingenue said.  “Come on.  Take five minutes to catch your breath and talk to me.  I’ll be the reckless, horrible lieutenant who divulges far too much of her stuffy boss’s plan, as an enticement.  Don’t you want to know what he’s doing?  Why?”

Swansong didn’t move.

“Should I-” the Black Goat started.  Ingenue gave him a hard look.  “-shutting up.”

“You lose nothing, and if you wait, there’s a chance Valkyrie’s forces mount an attack.  It would put us at a disadvantage, having to deal with you and them at the same time.”

Swansong remained where she was.  Her hand didn’t stop moving, perpetually, unconsciously.  It made Ingenue think of Black Kaze and her constant, unconscious reach for her katana.

Did you take your meds twice, in hopes of finding more balance?  It doesn’t work that way.  Or did you take medication for that injury at your side and unwittingly boost the other? 

Poor girl.

“Water?” Ingenue asked.  She motioned to Leister.  He reached for his pack and grabbed a water bottle, throwing it to her.  She caught it with one hand.  “Interested?”

“I’m not stupid,” Swansong said.  “No.”

“What does it take?” Ingenue asked.

“You bend the knee, admit you’re lower than shit, swearing yourself to someone like Teacher and threatening the world like this.”

“I always did like your type of hero.  I prefer the theatrical, majestic guy sort, but… a taste for the theatrical is so important.  A bit of healthy arrogance.  We lost that, somewhere along the way.”

“You’re not kneeling.  You’re not only lower than shit, you’re stupid too.”

Ingenue turned to Leister.  “I forbid you from lying.  Tell her about Valkyrie’s forces and their attacks.”

“They’ve been attacking regularly,” Leister said.  “We’re due for another attack soon.”

“Is it to her advantage or mine if we make idle chatter?”

“Hers, not ours,” Leister said.

“See?” Ingenue asked.

“It’s an obvious trap.”

“I’m bored,” Ingenue said.  “And I’ve got brainless company, and the rest of my company has no personality because Teacher worked on them.  Look… Spawner.  I’m going to want you to throw yourself from this ledge, to the hallway below us.  Make it a hard enough landing that it takes you a while to heal.  Leister, Usher, Captain Claw, when I say so, I want you to go to that platform all the way down there.  Hang off the edge.”

“Threats?  Hostages?” Swansong asked.

“They won’t be in earshot.  I’m getting them out of the way, so we can talk.  Idle the time until Teacher loses.”

Swansong shook her head.  “Now I know you’re baiting me.”

“I don’t have a very high estimation of the man, but he’s convenient, and Contessa is loose.  This doesn’t end well for him.  Again, let’s talk.  You and little old me.”

“The use of the word ‘old’ is the only thing you just said that I believe,” Swansong said.

Ingenue smiled.

“Jump, Spawner.  Go, Leister, Usher, Captain.”

Spawner jumped.  He crunched as he hit the ground below.  The three thralls jogged in Swansong’s general direction.  She stepped clear out of their way, and let them pass by, wary.

The hand didn’t stop moving.  Small movements of eyelids betrayed that Swansong’s eyes were moving constantly too.  It had to be obnoxious.

“Honey,” Ingenue said.  “You and me.  I can tell you what Teacher has upstairs.  I won’t get in your way when you want to go or if you want to go to Valkyrie.  In exchange, you give me a pass.”

“A pass.”

“A good word,” Ingenue said, squinting her eyes a bit.  She smiled again.  “Say I helped, I didn’t realize what Teacher was up to until I was in too deep.  You can keep me out of trouble, if you think the information I provide is useful enough.”

“Playing both sides?”

“Don’t we all?  Kind of?”  Ingenue asked.

“Start talking then,” Swansong said.  She approached at a careful walk.  As she got closer, she brought her hands together.  She seemed to concentrate for a moment, then manifested her power- a knot of darkness contained within her hands, a loose, swirling, noisy little sphere.  It snarled and scraped in a way that made Ingenue think of chainsaws, knives on blackboards, and wolves, all together.

“And that?” Ingenue asked.

“If you use your power to try to affect mine-”

“Requires touch,” Ingenue lied.

“Maybe you have filaments of your own flesh extending along the floor, too thin to see.”

With the way your eyes are twitching, you couldn’t see if they weren’t too thin.

“No filaments.”

“It could be any number of things.  I’d rather play it safe.  Talk.”

“About which part?  The upstairs?  His plan?  I’m an open book.”

The Black Goat looked spooked.  Probably because any outcome was a bad outcome for him, the way this was going.

“Upstairs,” Swansong said.

“I’ve only had glimpses, but he has a mechanism for-”

Swansong brought her hands apart.  Ingenue threw herself back as the contained power lunged out.  It had almost hit her.

A twist of the hand directed the power, which flared out into a full, cone-shaped blast with its own snarling, chainsaw-on-blackboard noise.

Swansong kicked Ingenue in the stomach, so the backwards stumble became a fall.  She stepped forward, looking down, power crackling at her hands-

A momentary hesitation.

Just long enough for Spawner’s tongue to lash up from twenty feet below, grabbing her wrist, and pulling it away as she used her power again.  It missed Ingenue.

The tongue hauled down, bringing Swansong to her knees and nearly pulling her from the ledge.  Ingenue took the opportunity to roll to one side and scramble back, eyes wide.

Swansong severed the tongue, and then looked at Ingenue.  A blast of her power saw her lunge ten feet forward, as her other hand reached out.

The blast consumed Ingenue, head to toe.

It cleared away.  Swansong stood there, head bent, a glare in her eyes.

Ingenue was untouched.  She turned her head and saw Usher.  Usher could grant an invulnerability to powers.

The heroine threw herself from the ledge, toward the intersection and the entrance to the hallway where Valkyrie and her team was holed in.

Ingenue straightened.  Bitter, annoyed, she reached out, using the focus that Teacher had given her.

She normally reserved using her power for people she liked, because she felt a connection through that link.  But she’d liked Swansong as a kind of modern representation of herself, a bit in aesthetic, a lot in attitude, so she gave herself a pass.

While Swansong was still in the air, reaching down to direct a blast that would break her fall, Ingenue reached out to take the control away from that blast.  Adjust the slides and scales.  More power, less control.

Swansong pushed to have her power come out, and it didn’t.  The hand she wasn’t intending to use her power with sparked instead, throwing her off course and doing nothing to break her fall.

The ledge they’d stood on was twenty feet above the hallway below.  The landing was a violent one.

“Get them,” Ingenue pointed in the direction of Leister, Captain Claw, and Usher.  “So they can get her.”

Swansong tried to stand, and an involuntary use of her power knocked her to the ground again.

Valkyrie’s forces were coming.  Ingenue wasn’t bothered.

She watched as Swansong, too far away to say anything, clearly in pain from the fall, reached for her belt.  She had a syringe.

Ingenue was a little more bothered by that.  Contessa is out, she reminded herself.  That meant-

An involuntary use of Swansong’s power destroyed the syringe she held.  From a distance, those white eyes outlined in black were wide.

“Go,” she said, to Spawner, who was on the floor below.  She made sure he was healed.  Leister had already caught up.  Usher was a bit further behind, hand still extended as he granted her the perpetual, inconsistent power immunity.  “Handle it.”

Secondhand adjusted his kit, then his goggles.  Always fussy.  He filled himself in on tech.  Last Minute remained patient.

“Running too hot, we’re shutting it off!” the thralls called out.

Last Minute gauged the machine, but he had no fucking clue how good or bad that was.  That was for Final Hour to decide.

For now?

“That’s fine!” Last Minute called.  The hole should be big for our man to get enough.  He turned to Secondhand.  “Isn’t it?”

Secondhand was gone.  There was a distant explosion.  Last Minute turned to look.

“Yeah,” Secondhand said.  He was back.  “One of the Capricorns is down, Antares is a bit injured.  They’re ours.”

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Dying – 15.x

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He felt important.  Critical.

Five.  The commander of squad Yellow-Black had five good soldiers.  Four of them had the wasp tattoo on their necks, signifying their affiliation to the squad, the fifth had been planning to get it in two days.  For many of the people in Teacher’s employ, all of this was temporary.  But for the Wasp Commander and his squad, they liked working together like this.  They intended to do it for as long as they were able.

Five men to lead, five men to direct.  Each had a callsign, each had been given special attention from Teacher.  Not just the regular attention, but gifts given by Teacher when Teacher was empowered by Ingenue, the drawbacks removed by the Black Goat.

His eyes were wide, taking in every detail.  With Teacher’s ‘consultation’, he had been gifted strategic awareness and focus.  He had studied maps of the complex, his team’s numbers like sprinting speed, endurance, and accuracy at the range, and he had studied the enemy.

It felt good.  He’d joined Teacher without reservations when the mentions of the deal had started being spread around.  Nilles U was too full, so he’d accepted a job pitched by a guy in white.  Others had balked, backed off, or been lazy.  Maybe a fifth of those others had been convinced to work for Teacher by other means.  Means that the Wasp Commander had glimpsed but never divulged.

He was okay with it.

He was okay with it because he got this.  Being important, being excellent at something.  Getting power, and powerful people following him.

Cathound snapped his fingers twice in rapid succession.  He held up three fingers, pointed down the hall, then he tapped his ear.

Enhanced senses.  Normally teacher granted something like enhanced hearing or enhanced vision.  Cathound had the whole suite; night vision, super hearing, tactile sense, smell, and balance.  His shooting numbers were in the ninety-second percentile among everyone who had been tested.  For squad Yellow-Black, that was poor.

Three incoming.

Every member of the squad looked to the Wasp Commander for instructions.  Hand signals relayed those instructions more neatly than words could.  Three took up positions in the hallway, aiming down the length of it.  Cathound was one of those three.  Dripfeed disappeared into the rooms at one side of the hall.  Their martial arts expert with further expertise granted by Teacher.  Horn carried a heavy shield and a pneumatic punch for knocking holes in walls.  He hid in the room at the other side of the hall.

The Wasp Commander snapped his fingers once, then drew a circle with thumb and finger, bringing it to his eye.  He pointed.

Let’s see who they are.  I’ve studied the files.

Shutter tossed a camera down the stairwell at the end of the hall.  All five men in the squad looked to the displays mounted at the backs of their guns.  The displays tracked ammunition, while giving a detailed view of what the cameras mounted on the gun barrels were seeing.  Despite intervening concrete, the displays showed the silhouettes of two running women, a young man trailing behind.

The Wasp Commander pointed his gun, attaching his phone to the back of the weapon and using it as a sight.  He saw them ascend the stairs, and opened fire at the same time his squad did.

They hit air.  The displays, however, showed the two women standing at the top of the stairs.

He aimed and shot again.  No reaction, no blood spray from hitting an invisible target.

“Cathound!  Locate them!  Cameras are compromised!”

Cathound pulled off his ear protection, donned whenever there was gunfire.  He craned his head around, then snapped around to face one direction, gun raised.

The room Horn had entered.

Dripfeed had apparently seen as well.  Their melee specialist darted from the room to the left of the hallway, crossed the hall, and into Horn’s room.  Others shifted position to provide fire as necessary, and the Wasp Commander joined their line, gun raised.

Dripfeed was fighting a young woman who was dissolving into bands of flesh.  The bands cut the soldier.

But he fought back.  He slipped past reaching bands, ducking low, then stepped in close.  Fingers stabbed at flesh, targeting specific areas.  Where the flesh wasn’t yet dissolved with her power, Dripfeed’s death touch did its work.  Each hit used a thinker power to figure out ways to convince the body to produce its own poisons or work counter to its own interests.

She coughed loudly, then expelled a mouthful of vomit with a third cough.

One hit could be enough, without medical care to reverse its effects.  Heart arrhythmia that cascaded into heart failure.  Carbon Dioxide bubbles manifesting in the bloodstream as the result of very specific wavelengths.  Clots were forced to form by impacted sites of damage, that would immediately float free and lead to stroke.  Dripfeed could be sadistic, too, leaving people brain damaged and drooling, or paralyzed and aware.

All at once, her entire body shrank into itself, then unfurled, becoming a mess of tendrils larger than a bear, with only the face visible.  She threw Dripfeed aside with explosive strength.

“Fire!” the Wasp Commander ordered.

It was Tricks who shot.  Tricks was in their ninety-ninth percentile for accuracy.  Part of that was Teacher’s gift of coordination.  He didn’t miss.

One shot, clean through the forehead.  The grasping, flailing tendrils drooped, then collapsed, flat on the floor.  She went from being a bear in stature to being a piece of clothing dropped on the floor.

“Cathound!  Find the others!” The Wasp Commander called out.  There were similarities between this one and two other capes he had seen in research he’d done.  Tress and Strung Out.  But there were no exact matches.

Tress was very similar to this, however.  A mask, tendrils.  But she didn’t have a human form.  The tendrils were closer to being piano wire than these flat strips.

The Wasp Commander looked for details, and saw the organs he was looking for.  Same as in Tress’s notes.  Unidentifiable, pulsing, struggling for life-

She was alive.

“Tricks!  The organs!” he shouted, as he aimed his own weapon.

Tress reached across the room and pulled away.  Tricks’s shot landed, catching the tail end of the organs that dragged along the floor.

There was noise behind and below.  A sound like nails on a chalkboard.

This was Breakthrough.  Two female members, one male.

“That’s Swansong!  Distance is paramount!  Scatter!”

Swansong blasted out the walls and floor below them, but the concrete was reinforced here, the Wasp Commander knew.  They were safe, so long as they retreated.

Tricks shot again.  The Commander looked and saw a trio of tendrils severed by the singular bullet, writhing on the floor.

The floor opened up as Swansong’s power tore into it.  Members of the group fired into the rippling void, and the power ate the bullets.  Tricks kept his rifle trained on the rippling power that kept on firing, without shooting.

“There’s a third combatant, we need details on him, Cathound.  Is he flanking?”

The Wasp Commander would have flanked.

“No, he’s at the bottom of the stairs, he-”

Tricks had drawn a pistol from his belt, and shot behind him with scarcely a glance backward, interrupting Cathound.  Aiming at Tress again, keeping her at bay.

But the shot was followed by a response.  A single shot that ricocheted killed Cathound and injured Tricks.  Tricks fell into the hole Swansong was making, and the power she was using to make the hole.

Blood sprayed.

The boy ascended the stairs, adjusting his glasses.

A Harbinger.  The Wasp Commander and the others turned guns on him, and bands of flesh reached out to grab those guns.  He felt a stab of fear.  Harbingers were not to be fucked with, given the records.

The Wasp Commander reduced his grip down to one hand and reached down to detach the magazine from the rifle as he abandoned it to the tendrils.  No use giving her something to shoot him with.  He fired the one round that was already loaded, then let go, kicking the weapon away and drawing his pistol, wheeling around.

It didn’t matter.  The boy fired his own pistol, placing a bullet directly down the barrel of the Wasp Commander’s weapon.  His gun detonated from the internal pressures and stresses.

Swansong used her power to leap up, taking advantage of the chaos.  The Wasp Commander gave an instruction to Dripfeed, who closed into melee with the parahuman.

She used her power, which threw off his aim, but he kicked her in the ribs, and it seemed to do a number on her, dropping her to one knee.  She used her power again, aiming at the floor beneath his raised foot, and propelled herself backward, into the hole she’d come up from.  Dripfeed checked for permission.  The Wasp Commander gave it.  Dripfeed chased.

The boy was the real concern.  The remaining three guns turned his way.  Without the pressure on Tress, however, the tendrils reached across to seize them by wrists and hands.  Shutter gripped one of the bands of flesh in one hand and shredded his palm and fingers.

While they were held, the boy walked up, striking each one of them once.

The Wasp Commander last of all.

“Why did you come?” Tress asked, as the boy advanced.  “Wait, don’t-”

The boy stepped forward, two weird stuttering steps like he was dancing or feinting, before he lunged forward, closing the distance, and struck the Wasp Commander.

The world spun as the Wasp Commander stepped back, found no footing, and fell into the hole.

His head cracked hard against concrete, and he felt his special knowledge flee him, his regular thoughts scattering into darkness and brightness, stillness, and noise.  He tried to lift his arms and legs and found them too heavy.

The boy smiled, looking down at him.

“Why did you come?” Tress asked.

The Wasp Commander struggled to listen.  If it came down to him needing to justify the use of extensive medical skills and resources and needing to justify keeping his position, it would help to have information on the enemy to barter with.

“Are you coming with us?”

“With you, yes.”

The Commander heard footsteps, and with his head unable to move without stunning pain, he had to guess who it was.  Dripfeed.

It was Swansong.

“All okay?” Tress asked.

“I took his leg.  The other fell into my blast,” the heroine said, head turning, white eyes showing nothing and staring into nothing.   A concerned look crossed her face.  “Do you have water?”

“No, I drank the last Capricorn gave me.  Why?”

“It’s not important.”

“Didn’t he give you a bottle?  I saw you drink just five minutes ago.”

“Yes,” Swansong said.  She made a face.

“She might have blood in her mouth,” the Harbinger reported.

The Wasp Commander saw it wasn’t that.  A wistful look crossed Swansong’s face, that the others couldn’t see, because they weren’t looking.

“No thanks to your recklessness,” Swansong said, a note of anger in her voice, her expression hardening.  “There are more elegant ways to do things, little brother.”

None of this suited anything.  Why had he lost, with his elite soldiers?  Why a fucking Harbinger?  One of the worst potential threats in the list of enemies he’d been briefed on.

“We’ll find some on the way.  We’re splitting up soon, right?”

“Your forehead,” Swansong said.  Tress had approached close enough for the women to see one another.

“My brain isn’t behind my forehead.  It’s cosmetic.  It’s really shitty, awful cosmetic and I have no idea if it will heal.”

“It should.  And we have Lookout for the little things,” Swansong said.  She flicked one corner of her eye, causing the smoke there to flare.

The Wasp Commander closed his eyes, and found it to be a Herculean effort to get them open again.  He considered that he might have blacked out for a second in the process of relaxing his focus.

He was dying, he realized.  His focus slipped and overall, he wasn’t recouping what he lost.  His brain was just… drifting away, sinking into numb darkness threaded through with jolts of pain that made him want to jump or writhe, though he could barely move.

“I’ll go with Tress,” the Harbinger said.  “I know ways through.”

“Why, though?” Tress asked.  “Why me?  You have no reason to care about me, and I definitely don’t like you or what you represent.  Sorry if that’s a bitch thing to say, but-”

“I’m Cauldron.  I support Cauldron.  I’d do my part to do it all over again.”

“Yeah.  You’re not even ashamed?”

The Harbinger shook his head.  To the Wasp Commander, the movement looked blurry, with severe afterimages and spots in his vision.

“Okay,” Sveta said.  She took in a deep breath, then said, “I’m going to keep my organs nonfunctional until I’m far from here and I can get help.  It felt like something internal broke.  If something happens-”

“I’ll let people know, so you don’t choke your organs for too long.  The Harbinger will do the same, if I can’t,” Swansong said.  Still more concern in her eyes.  For Tress, now.

“We got the Thrall Commander, right?” Tress asked.

“This one, probably,” Harbinger said, pointing.  Not at the Wasp Commander, but, based on direction, Tricks.

“Yeah,” Tress said.  “Okay.  Not happy about it, but…”

A silence lingered, sentence unfinished.

“How far is it to outside?” Tress asked.

“Not far,” the Harbinger said.  “I’ll show you the way.”

Tress and the Harbinger hopped down, landing on either side of the Wasp Commander, their eyes on the hallway, their destination.

“What are you doing?” Swansong asked.

She was asking the Harbinger, and the Harbinger answered, “Tidying up.  Taking care of one of a few things to make the irregular regular.”

“You’re so weird,” Swansong said.  “You do a disservice to all of us.”

Bitter with the ignobility of it all, the Wasp Commander struggled to organize thoughts that were falling into disarray.  He resigned himself to trying to find peace in the-

The Harbinger put a bullet in his head as he walked by.  One of his acts to ‘tidy up’.

“We get through this nightmare,” Mischa said.  The echo of his own voice through his headset was distorted.  He checked instrument panels, and reached past the gulf that was his own brain and into the realm of another kind of thinking.  A realm of thoughts that weren’t his own.  If left brain and right brain were two rooms of a house with no clear demarcation to separate them, then this was across the street.

It wasn’t that way for the rest of them.  Not for Saint.  It was perhaps because he never trusted it.  Or because he had learned to program at the same time he had learned to read, and his mind handled these things in a different way.

He handled everything in a different way.  He felt more at home with joysticks in each hand, pedals under each foot, and barely a foot between his face and the screen in front of him as he cut through reality and air, zig-zagging through access tunnels and the gaps between sections of the great white edifice.  He could feel the systems and the ill-health of his craft in the same way a person who had driven the same car every day of his life might understand a specific shudder of their vehicle.

Not that he’d piloted this angel for long.  It simply came naturally, easily, like stepping into a new house and finding it fit you exactly.  Everything where it should be.  There was no second-guessing, no reaching for a switch and missing.

The static and distortions were because there were so many powers at use in the area.  Mischa flipped switches and swiped a gloved finger across a screen to change to another display, tracking the stress levels that Teacher had told them to keep an eye on.  Ninety-one percent.

A small number in the corner of the screen showed a ‘98.854%’ in bold red numbers.  That was alarming, even looking at it hours later.  That was how close they’d come.  When they’d been that close, alarms had gone off, orders given out, and entire squadrons of soldiers on the front line stood down, letting themselves be shot, swept up by powers, defeated.

That was the ‘high score’, so to speak.  A reminder of how high the stress had ever been.  1.146% higher, and there would be no coming back from it.  That had been scary, and Mischa did not scare so easy.

Another wary eye watched another number in the display, right beside the red one.  White, innocuous.  ‘64.2%’.  Scary in another way.  A scary that went hand in hand with Dragon, the City, the Machine Army, Sleeper, the Simurgh, or the Titan.  If the Simurgh and the Titan could even be counted as distinct forces.  It was the fear that came from knowing there was something indomitable and too big or sprawling to defeat, dangerous, malevolent, and soulless.

He was aware that Saint had not replied to him.  He looked ahead through the display screen, because there was no window in this sarcophagus he had been buried in, only cameras and screens, ventilated air that still had an acrid flavor to it from the gas, earlier.  Saint struggled with turbulence as he flew through an aperture.  Not paying attention.

Mischa flipped more switches, diverting power, eyeing the battery load, and imagining that he was playing one small part in that 91% becoming a 91.2% as he relied more on the strange technology.

The ‘64.2%’ in innocuous, innocent white had become 64.22% when he hadn’t been looking.

His craft thrummed around him, like holding a power tool so powerful it numbed the hands, except it was his whole body that buzzed with it.  But the thrum was normal, the turbulence barely touching it.

The turbulence was because they were outside.  Out of the facility, into wind and a different air pressure.  The landscape that stretched out around them was broken and torn, strip-mined for every material available, left as shattered piles of rock, gravel, and dirt that still had traces of the chemicals that had been used to facilitate the strip mining and separation of materials.  The shattered land had weeds and grass growing over it, but the land hadn’t smoothed out.

Mist below, clouds above, and either vertical walls or sloped roof.  There were next to no windows.  Only a few ways out.  A small handful of platforms.

“We get through this,” Mischa repeated himself.  Maybe being outside of the complex would help Saint.  The crackling was worse, and the vast majority of the interference came from one direction.  He reoriented his craft, putting the bulk of the craft and its mass between the source of the interference and the communications array in the lower end.  “We get through this and tomorrow is another day.”

Better.

“Mags died,” Saint’s voice was almost inaudible.

“I know.”

“That makes today-” Saint’s voice crackled into oblivion, “-stays with us.  We don’t ever leave it behind.”

“It was always going to be a day that stays with us,” Mischa said, but his own voice crackled so much he doubted Saint could hear.  That was okay.  He was okay if he was the only person who heard it.

Saint would endure.

The intense crackling came from a fight on one platform, higher up.  The Yangban capes had been folded into an attack squad, and that squad was confronting Legend.  A forcefield pyramid surrounded Legend, and the squad surrounded the pyramid.

That’s where the dog is buried, Mischa thought.  His father’s saying.  They’d found the source of the distortions, not that they had been looking.

“Can you fight?” Mischa asked, though he knew the answer.

“Always.”

“Should we?”

“Absolutely.”

And Saint punctuated his statement by unfurling his wings.  He struck the pyramid with a projection.  Each attack that failed to penetrate the pyramid -and at present that seemed to be all of them- still slid down the sheer surface, raking across the platform, threatening to saw it off and let the people fall down to ground so far below them that clouds up high and mist further below made it impossible to see the jagged terrain.

Mischa swept in, and saw the pyramid distort with the effects of the C-level flight systems rippling through the interdimensional space.  There was a single parahuman behind the barrier, it seemed.  Mischa focused the camera in on the man’s face.  Strained.

Good.  He tapped on his screen, adjusting the halo’s auto-targeting.  Map to stress, draw up a three-dimensional map of wavelengths and patterns, adjust, adjust-

The screen showed what was a heat-map of the forcefield.  Red where it was strongest, blue where it was ‘cold’, weak.  He never liked that, because he liked to think of cold as proof of strength.  Cold drink, cold weather.

He used all five fingertips to drag the targeting grid over to the map, then set the targeting paradigm.  Aim for the blue.

As soon as he was close enough, the halo began firing arc-beams.  The weapons screen to the left of Mischa’s head was a constant in his peripheral vision, lighting up with new icons as a new arc was mounted and released by the halo.  His hand remained at the switch for targeting.

All targeting the cooler, weaker spots of the forcefield, that rippled so violently when the antigravity engines were so close.

The zoomed-in view of the parahuman’s face on the other side of the pyramid remained on the one screen.  Their head hung, arms up, and the forcefield rippled even more aggressively than before, holes appearing here and there where it pulled apart.

He began working out an addendum to his targeting paradigm.  Aiming for the people visible through the holes.  He-

The craft shuddered, lights going out, monitors switching to red, heat levels rising, system damage, system failure- he flipped the switch and got to work, figuring out what had happened.  He reset the display and saw- lasers everywhere.  Saint’s ‘Victory I’ had its wings extended, shielding Mischa and the Yangban-supported squad from the worst of it.

Mischa had known he was risking an all-out attack from Legend while his targeting was diverted, but he had assumed it was a risk he could see coming. The forcefield pyramid would go down, Legend would fire, Mischa would throw the switch, and the halo would counter the incoming fire.

Except the pyramid was up, and the lasers were omnipresent.  All silver beams with light blue nimbuses around them.  Mischa zoomed in.

The pyramid was just that- a shape that extended up and over, in a pyramid shape that was breaking down a little under the Isaiah’s assault.  Legend stood surrounded by teammates, hand extended down.  A hole burned down through the platform- and the lasers projected down, turned at sharp angles, and struck at the attackers, Mischa’s Isaiah, and Saint’s Victory I.

Teacher’s soldiers glowed white where hit, as if they were metal and not flesh.  That would be one of the powers, then.  The ones at the front reached out to slap the lasers aside, creating distortions in the air that forced the rays back toward the bubble, or up into the atmosphere.

But that didn’t do anything for Mischa, and the lasers were reaching around the wing to rake the Isaiah.  Damage to some cameras, damage to movement trackers, making the halo defense five percent less accurate against moving targets.  Damage to armor plating and overall structural integrity.  One piece of ‘arm’ on the Isaiah hung free and tore slowly at everything it hung off of.

Mischa smashed one hand into controls to his right.  Antigrav canceled, jet turbines canceled, only generalized hovering remained in use.  He fell, encased in a sarcophagus, which was in turn encased in tons of metal.  The platform was high above.  The hovering system ensured he didn’t fall in a straight line, drifting in a curve instead.

It put him closer to the point the lasers were all diverging from, but it took him out of Legend’s sight.  The man couldn’t aim at what he couldn’t-

A series of beams all firing in a line struck the Isaiah.

It had to be a guess, helped by a listening ear.

Legend couldn’t aim at what he couldn’t see.  Mischa took an evasive course of action, one eye glancing at the screen with the damage report.  Thermal control, mostly.  Some articulation, but the Isaiah didn’t need much.  It wasn’t what he would have fired at, had he been aiming that shot.

No more chance shots came, as he regained control, booted up antigrav, and started up the jet turbines.

As had become habit, he glanced at the screen.

89.361% stress.  If that hit the ceiling of 100%, there was no recovery.  They would switch to evacuating and they would pray.

The floor?  64.5%.  It crept up, little by little, innocuous, innocent.  It would go down as they put distance between themselves and this battleground, but every power used on any Earth would contribute.  Once raised, the floor never seemed to go down.

The lasers sputtered out, then resumed.  The Isaiah’s defenses tracked and countered the lasers, meeting each with a ray of its own, only for as long as was necessary to keep the Isaiah from being hit.  The ones that didn’t hit him were cutting through the Victory I’s projected wings and slicing into the exterior wall of the facility like knives into butter.  Sharp.

Mischa typed out a new targeting command, oriented the Isaiah, and steered it almost directly below the hole.  Amusing, that Legend was firing straight down, but because each laser bent in the air to strike at the opposition, they didn’t reach him.

Tracking wavelengths, adjusting the frequency, he mapped it out so he saw the lasers in a bold red against a black and white depiction of the environment.  He zeroed in.

Mischa had always liked a game of darts when at the bars.  He aimed for the bullseye.

The lasers sputtered out.  Legend was preparing his next attack, a shift in the type of lasers he was using.

Mischa shot, firing through that same hole in the platform, a singular, powerful laser blast.

He rose back up, and Legend was there to shoot at him, far more lasers radiating out from the lone hero than the Isaiah could handle.  More damage, mostly to tertiary systems.  The ‘bait’, vulnerable looking panels, windows, head, arms.  The Isaiah didn’t need any of those things.  Only flight systems, cockpit, the power cell and the halo itself.

A quick tabulation showed him the damage.  The blast from below had caught a few people who had been near Legend, knocked out the pyramid, and knocked out the cape that had been making it.  Teacher’s soldiers had attacked, adding to the casualties.

Nine down.  Forty-two more capes were gathered on the platform, using their powers to defend themselves and one another.  Brutes at the front, others with cover fire.  Crates that were lashed to the jutting platform were cover for the soldiers against the attack force, which now fought desperately.

Teacher’s face appeared on one screen.

“Saint,” Teacher’s voice came through more clearly than Saint’s communications had.  The message wasn’t aimed at Mischa.

“What is it?” Saint asked.

“I see you joined the fight against Legend.”

“We were finding a spot outside your projected danger zone to stop for repairs, and we came across the fight.  Is it a problem?”

“I need you to leave.  You’re going to win if you keep this up.”

“And?”

“And I’d rather have Legend in a stalemate.”

“Why?”

“It’s not like you to ask why, Saint.”

Mischa adjusted the laser’s defenses, focusing on letting the lasers through in places the Isaiah could afford to take damage.  It let him block damage to other areas.

Saint spoke, voice crackling out of sync with the onslaught of lasers and the powers being used by the Yangban supported squad and Legend’s remaining forty capes.  “You gave me free will, all necessary knowledge to fly these things and use the AI’s tech without the drawbacks, so I could ask these questions.  Why?”

“Because I want him.  Legend, when frustrated, bides his time and seeks dialogue.  I would like a chance to have that dialogue and bring him onto my team.”

Mischa judged he was safe to look away from the laser defense screen, hit the button, and leaned in to speak into the microphone, “I think that is a very small chance.  He is not the man he was.”

“Very small, agreed,” Teacher said, unruffled.  “But according to our precognitives, the Legend who thinks his side has lost on all fronts is going to lay siege to the facility, tearing it down with his power.”

“We could defeat him,” Mischa said.  “Shoot him down before he can.”

“You could not.  He is much harder to take out of action than many think.”

“We’ll go,” Saint said.  “I believe you.  What do we do when we’ve repaired?”

“Make your way to the C-quadrant where Custodian collapsed the facility.  Patrol it.  When they want to make their exit they’ll be tempted to go through there.”

“Alright.  We’re in endgame?” Saint asked.

“Close,” Teacher reported.  “I’m trying to find balance, when there are too many distractions.  I’d think it was her, but it’s not.  She’s unconscious or powerless.  Possibly or probably on purpose.  It forces me to keep a constant eye out for her.  I’ve updated the butterfly’s radius in you systems.”

Mischa looked.  Information between sections of the building was cut off, and as fast as she was, the bogeyman could only move so far.  The question was, how fast could her actions ripple out?  Who could she affect, that could reach them?  It would have to be someone fast.

“We’ll repair now,” Saint said.

“Fake being in disrepair as you exit, for Legend’s benefit.  Make some smoke if you can.”

Not so hard, when the lasers kept coming.  The Victory I had extensive damage to one wing and was using projected forcefields to keep it together.  It rose up into the air, swayed off course, and then detonated, a rolling explosion pouring out of an already damaged lower section.  Tertiary power core explosion.

“Was that on purpose?” Mischa asked.

“Yes.  Rash of me,” Saint said.  “That did more damage than I anticipated.”

Saint wasn’t usually one to admit weakness or fault.  Mags’ death was getting to the man, Mischa was sure.  Being reckless, misjudging, and then regretting it so openly after?

Mischa still wanted to say something.

“Can you fly without problem?” Mischa asked.

“I can fly.”

Mischa adjusted the systems for hovering and antigrav.  Break up the array, desync, put each on a different grid, then assign seventy percent to one grid, fifty percent to another.

Flying at seventy percent with his left side, fifty percent with the other.  It made the Isaiah list.  That would be his pretend retreat act for Legend.

He blocked two incoming projectiles and one blast from Legend, and escorted the Victory I up and away from the fight, into an area where clouds traced the exterior walls of the facility.  The platform had a garden at the end, railings around the edges.

He checked reference materials, and the map of the facility.  This upper floor had been where the original staff of Cauldron had entertained people of importance, and it had been a place reserved for people like Doctor Mother to retreat to, in an eventuality where they couldn’t travel elsewhere due to external threats.  She had apparently come here quite often in the early days.

The craft settled down, avoiding too much damage to trees, hedges, and flowers.

Perhaps, Mischa thought, as he flipped switches and depressurized his sarcophagus, donning a mask because the air was thinner up here, he could get through today and mourn Mags in his own way, and retreat to a place like this.

He looked at the numbers.  88.11% current stress.  It was dropping.  Dropping because people were dying, getting injured, or stopping to rest.

The floor rested at 64.6%.

The Isaiah opened up, the sarcophagus raising up as the upper body folded away from the lower body.  The tiny cockpit that had encased him now formed a kind of platform that sat above the rest.  Monitors ringed him, each showing diagnostics on different systems.

Saint was doing the same.

“How was your ventilation?” Saint asked.  His face and arms were heavily tattooed with crosses, glossy with sweat.

“It’s fine.  No problems since we cleared the vents.  I need to patch up heating, quick-weld some armor, I want to load in a power core at one hundred percent, and transfer power between the two cores I have at thirty-something percent, get one up to sixty.”

Let’s talk shop, my brother, Mischa thought.  Save the feelings for tomorrow.

“Do you need anything from me?” Saint asked.

“Victory I’s hand, to hold things.  Conversation.”

“You’re not usually one to talk much,” Saint said.

“For your sake, not mine.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Saint said.

Then, a moment later, Saint punched something.  Metal sang.  “This fucking paint on my fucking primary camera!”

Mischa was impassive, unflinching.

“Fuck!” Saint punched the terminal again.  His knuckles were bloodied.  “They had to kill fucking Mags!?  I promised her everything would be okay!”

“Aren’t you upset!?” Saint asked, his voice a roar.  Then, at normal speaking volume, unsure, he asked, “You liked her, didn’t you?”

“I did.  She was a friend and ally.  Good company.  A good person with a lot of talent and more heart.”

“But you’re not upset?” Saint asked, sounding offended now.  Zig-zagging across the emotional spectrum.

Mischa was unsure what to say.  They’d taken so many lives today, the lives of well-intentioned but misguided people, and he’d felt… anxious.  It was a bad word for something that important, but he did believe in souls and he did believe that no soul could extinguish a life without being intrinsically injured.

They’d taken so many lives today.

So many.

Yet… he couldn’t tell Saint that Mags dying was a relief.  A balancing of the scales.

“I’ll be upset tomorrow,” he said.

Saint nodded.

There was something calming about caring for the machines.  Problems that could be identified and fixed.  Other things, like the death of Mags, or the looming shadow that was Teacher… less easy.  Not calming at all.

“The last cable I need for power transfer between batteries got shredded.  Can I get your spare?” Mischa asked.

Saint roused, as if from deep thought.  He nodded, slid down a ladder, and opened an internal hatch.  The cable was threaded neatly.

He tossed it from the seat at the top of the Victory I down to Mischa.  Mischa caught it.

It took a minute to hook up.  When Mischa turned around, he found Saint staring off into space again.

“She would have liked this garden,” Mischa said.

Saint turned to look.

There was a sound like a wet towel being dropped on hard floor.  Mischa and Saint both turned to look.

Bands of flesh reached up and out, gripping Saint.  His hands and upper face were lacerated by hidden blades, as he fought to get back and get free.  Other tendrils searched him.

“Saint!” Mischa cried out.  But words were of no use here.

There was another.  A boy running across the hundred-foot-long balcony garden, slingshot in hand.

A Harbinger.

Mischa slapped the switch to turn on the halo.  The slingshot released its stone, and the stone was disintegrated by a counterattack.

Mischa activated the rest of the systems.  Dangerous to do, when Saint wasn’t in his cockpit.  He kicked systems into action, another full-handed strike to one control panel, just to push as many buttons as possible and kick-start things.  The hatch began to close up, the sarcophagus sinking into the angel’s chest as the angel rose up into the air, turbines uncharacteristically loud.

He saw the flare of the beam, then heard the impact of the slingshot’s stone striking something overhead.  There was no ricochet he could see, no damage-

Except that the open sarcophagus failed to close, the two doors jamming together.

The Harbinger had still managed something.

That made a lot of things a lot harder.  Without a pressured cockpit, he couldn’t use his machine’s full capabilities.

Them arriving at an isolated location where they were doing repairs?  This had to be Contessa, and the answer to Contessa was distance.  Escape.  Running the fuck away.  That apparently extended to pawns of the woman.

At the same time, however, he could see Saint struggling, fighting someone he couldn’t punch or kick.  The man bled from a dozen wounds.

Mischa adjusted settings.  He had to reserve some of the halo’s power for any of those slingshot stones.  That limited his offense, potentially, he had to exclude Saint himself, control the power so he wouldn’t fry the Victory I’s cockpit, which was ironically more difficult and required more power for the control systems than the full-strength laser would alone…

He typed madly, aware his longtime friend was losing the fight.

Saint fell, or he threw himself back and away from the open cockpit, landing on the platform twenty feet below.  It did not look like an easy landing, even with the grass and soil of the garden beneath him.

Mischa rose up out of his seat in his own cockpit, then kicked out violently, kicking the doors open.  A part of him worried another slingshot stone would hit him, but the Harbinger only stood there.

The doors shut properly on the second try.  He was able to tear off his mask and adjust everything to full power, drawing in closer to the open and dormant Victory I.

No, not dormant.  She’d found a way in, without the password.  Override?

It was closing up, engines firing, everything kicking into motion.

He had to adjust the targeting again.  Too many times in a short span of time, but at least his muscle memory remembered some of the number sequences.

To burn her out of the cockpit.

One by one, screens glitched out, and were replaced with a nauseating moire in light blue and magenta.  Without any external views, he was flying blind, barely any control or ability to adjust.

He closed his eyes, and the optical illusion patterns on the screens were only part of the why.  He focused on his sense of balance and did his best to adjust orientation.  It wouldn’t do to lose track of up and down.

The blue and magenta light pressing against his eyelids went dark, except for a point of light.  A word on a single screen.

hi

“Hello,” he growled.  This intrusion had to be- how?  Everything was supposed to be segregated, airgapped, secured.

Had they infiltrated Mags’s Michael III?  If they had-

He pulled out his phone, searching, praying it wouldn’t change colors too.

He saw the map of the network, the degree of intrusion.

A backdoor.  Dragon had left it in these ships.  She must have used that for this intrusion.  Except this wasn’t Dragon.

This was worse.  It was either a tinker subordinate to the AI, which was bad, or it was a subordinate AI, which would mean she was breeding.

He had a countermeasure.  He pulled the catch on the drink holder.  Beneath was a button.  He hit it.

At the same time, a skewed dizzy feeling suggesting he wasn’t entirely upright anymore, but it was hard to identify ‘up’.

i’m sorry about your friend from the Michael III.
i’m losing two friends today. pretty sure.
i think i know how it feels
i hope we don’t kill you.
you made some really pretty robots

One by one, monitors went blank, or they restored function.  The big red button shut off all systems, forcing nearly everything to be done manually.  It forced a complete reset to default for the mandatory computer systems, and made them impossible to change.

Here and there, a screen flickered as the intruder attempted to seize hold.

The damnable display was the last thing to revive.  He corrected orientation, then tracked what was happening.

The Victory lifted into the air.  Hijacked.  It wouldn’t cooperate without fingerprints, seat weight, or the right passwords, though the override did a lot.

The override would also have given the tinker access to the comms and systems of this craft.  It would be why the hacker had suddenly lunged into a complete takeover.  It would be giving her access to Teacher’s systems as well.

He watched as the Victory I scraped its way along the platform, through a section of garden, and over the edge.

It plummeted.

There was no way she could fly it, but-

But Saint threw himself over the edge, onto the back of the craft.  Mischa gave chase.

He chased, as Saint struggled hand over hand to reach the hatch, the ship periodically whipping around as a wing caught the air.  The falling trajectory of the Victory put it in line to crash into the exterior wall of the facility.

Below, Legend was in the air, assaulting the Yangban-assisted squadron.  The shots he used were either too minor to penetrate their protection, that made them glow like metal instead of being burned or cut, or they were too big, and too risky, as the squad slapped those shots aside or redirected them into the platform.  The group was cut off, and too much damage to the platform would send all of them to their doom.  It forced him to play defensive.

The Victory I crashed into the wall.  It tumbled through the air, Saint parting ways from it as he started to freefall.

And Mischa was given a choice.  His friend, who was doing his best to remain horizontal to the ground, to create more drag, or the damaged wing that broke free, careening toward the platform.

He went after his friend, disabling his halo so he wouldn’t shoot Saint out of the air, closed in, and took a heavy blast from Legend.

Again, he tried.  Again, Legend shot him.

To make sure the hero knew the danger, he focused the halo’s lasers on the section of wing that still flew on trajectory to strike the platform, demolishing it.

Legend shot the wing, breaking it in half.  He shot the next half, only to hit the projected forcefield.  Too casual a shot.

Mischa caught Saint, as gently as he was able, and held Saint to his chest.  He watched as the section of wing plunged, striking the platform without breaking it.  It crashed into the squadron of Yangban, and those it didn’t kill outright were bowled over, sent over the ledge.

Which freed what remained of Legend’s squad to go on the offensive, to catch, disable, or kill the stragglers who hadn’t been hit.

And Mischa- he had to pilot to avoid Legend’s assault, as Legend focused beams on targeted areas.  The Halo protected against some, but there was nothing to distract Legend now.  Controls, weapons, the halo itself, flight systems, oxygen- all were surgically burned away.

It was all he could do to use the systems to pilot himself toward the place where the platform met the exterior wall.  To force a rough landing, using a list of systems that dwindled by the second.  The impact was hard for him, and he was in a cushioned seat with a harness.  Saint was in the broken arms of the Isaiah.

There was no use hiding, now.  He opened the cockpit.  He wanted to check on Saint, as well.

Legend waited for him, hovering above.

“I surrender,” Mischa said.

Sveta pulled herself together, with gaps and patches where damaged bands of flesh didn’t come together, as though someone had failed to paint in those spots, leaving only dark gaps with red muscle visible beneath.  In one or two places, even the muscle had gaps.

She stood on the platform.  She’d escaped the cockpit before it had closed up, leaving the systems to run on their own.  One minute in there had been enough to tell her she had no chance in hell of piloting it.

Her head hung.  Her organs hurt from being choked into inactivity.

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

The voice came from behind her.

There was only one other person left on the platform with her.  She remained still, frozen, standing in a ruined garden.

“Why does it matter?” she asked.

“It matters.  Everything in order, things have to be tallied up.”

“I don’t believe in order, or tallies,” she said, staring out over the edge, into oblivion.  “I like art, creativity, ideas.  Kindness.  I know I’m not rational, but rational gave birth to this.”

She extended a hand and unconsciously dissolved it to indicate the edifice they were beside with bands of flesh.  Even dropping her hand to her side, she pointed at the platform, and at sections of building that bulged out from the exterior wall.

“Rational gave birth to everything good too.  Irrationality gave birth to every problem we’re dealing with now.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said.

She paused.

“How far are you going?  What are you really doing here?” she ventured, still not turning around.  If there was a gun, there would be no chance.  If she dropped and there was something to hold on to, she could-

-probably not live.  The boy was Number Man, writ small.

“The plan is to take you out of the equation,” the boy said.  “The plans always succeed.”

“Do they?”

“Yes.”

“Can you give me a chance to… say something?  I don’t know why I’d even try, when it hasn’t worked in the past.  Nothing I say gets through.”

Legend was coming.  She could see him rise.  The Harbinger couldn’t.

A bit of hope.

“Turn around?” the boy asked.

The hope tremored, like a candle flame that might go out.

She turned.

No gun.  No slingshot.

“No,” the boy agreed.  “But something else did get through.  It’s their plan, not mine.  They want to kill you, and I’d like to help you.”

Legend loomed behind her.  Cauldron-made, veteran hero.

More an ally to the Harbinger than to her.

“Thank you.  I don’t know how much of that was on purpose,” Legend said. “But-”

“It was on purpose.  It happened as it was supposed to happen,” she said, a little bitter.  “As Contessa willed it.”

“Ah,” Legend said.  He looked so tired, so harrowed.  Smoke stuck to sweat, which made his skin, hair, and costume darker, his eyes comparatively brighter, because they were untouched.  “Will you come down and help us with the next phase of the attack?  I can carry you both.”

Sveta shook her head.  “I have somewhere to be.”

“Any instructions for me?” Legend asked.

She shook her head.

“Thank the powers that be,” the hero said, in a voice that sounded older than he was.  “You good?”

“I can come help you, Tress,” the Harbinger said.  “If you’re willing.”

She started to answer, then stopped.

No guidance from Contessa on this.

She agreed with Legend.  Thank the powers that be.  As terrifying as it was.

“Yes,” she said.  “Let’s rendezvous with the others.”

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Dying – 15.8

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The collapsed section of the facility was vast enough that the people at the edges had to organize and travel to reach us.  In the gloom, they were visible as white-clothed figures scrambling around us like ants, illuminated by red emergency lighting.  Fabric chutes were unfurled, and people began sliding down from the ruined edges of upper floors to the sea of rubble below.

In a dormitory room two stories above us that had been sliced in half, one person stood at the ruined border, a person a few steps behind him.  They handed him a tinker gun, which he immediately started using.  The person behind him had a gun a moment later- a relay line like firemen passing along buckets, but kind of the opposite, because they were laying down fire.

They weren’t alone.  The evacuation chutes were acting like slides for people to drop down to the floor we were on, and there were multiple points like the dormitory room, where a single person with a tinker gun became two, which became three, then four, until they were shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall, using up the available space.  A shitton of resources were being dumped on us, a lot of guns aimed our way.

I flew up, to get above the ambient dust cloud and assess the situation.

They weren’t accurate, which-

I winced as the Wretch blocked a shot that had come at me from behind.  Sparks flew from the impact, and sizzled audibly as they landed on my costume, refusing to go out.  I had to use my armguard to scrape them off, while swiftly descending into the dust again, crook of my elbow over my lower face.

For the most part, they weren’t accurate.  Not accurate in a special way.

I was working under the impression that Teacher had gone with the tinker guns because of a weird sort of practicality.  Creating two hundred tinkers and have them each make their own guns was more discreet than acquiring two hundred normal guns of any quality, when the options were salvage from Bet, Cheit, or Shin.  Side benefit: there was more chance that a tinker gun of a particular variety or style might work against a parahuman attacker.  If he were to grab two hundred ordinary assault rifles and the first one didn’t work against an attacker, then there was a good chance the next one-hundred-and-ninety-nine wouldn’t either.

Drawback?  They were tinkers who were shooting.  People who knew how to use the specialized guns, but who didn’t have any thinker tricks, enhanced vision in the dark, or added accuracy.  With that in mind, it was the muzzle flashes that didn’t look like tinker guns that worried me.

There was a lot to unpack, thinking about it.  Could he have created one hundred tinkers and then one hundred people with powers that made them better gunmen, to partner with them?  Probably.  Why not, then?  Because he wanted to bog us down.  He was willing to kill, but time and delay were more important from his perspective.

And it was probably working.

There were some faster capes in the air now, and some tinkers with jetpacks.  They buzzed past our guys on the ground, one flier with a beam power was flying around Chastity, focusing the beam in her direction, while she struggled to keep cover between them.  I went after him.

Another tinker with a jetpack zipped out of the dust cloud around us, passing within two feet of me.  She was engaged in a bombing run, flying over Rachel’s group, lobbing what might have been grenades.  Yips, growing by the second, went bounding over to Rachel, and put himself directly into the way of the grenade that Rachel was guiding the other dogs away from.  He flew ten feet, only missing Rachel because she ducked, tried to stand for a second, then crumpled.

Couldn’t chase.  It’d be starting from square one, and this tinker was favoring the dust clouds.

Rachel spun on her heel, turning her full focus toward Yips.  He began growing faster, regenerating, the wound closing.

The flier with the beam turned his focus my way.  The beam hit the Wretch, and I brought my buckler up, putting it in the way while I closed the distance.  When the Wretch failed, the beam hit the little shield, warming it enough I could feel it radiating through another layer of metal and a padding of bandages.

I got in close enough to hit him.  I crashed into him, shield pressed against his chest, and he lurched, flying awkwardly to get out of the way of the heated metal.  He didn’t react like he was in pain, but wore an expression like, ‘yeah, this white hot bit of metal is a concern’.

He tried to dive, and the metal stuck to the burned skin, which made him flounder in the air.

I took advantage of it, catching him while he didn’t have his spatial orientation one hundred percent, then whipping him around.  He flipped head over ass, arms and legs spread-eagled, into the dust.  I chased him, diving to kick him before he had his full bearings.

He fired the beam again, and I twisted in the air, bringing knees to chest and shield up to make myself a smaller target.  My leg-guards caught the beam.

I found him in the dust, because I could chase the beam to its origin point.  I caught him, only I was upside-down as a result of my earlier aerial acrobatics.  He fought to get free, using his own flight and the propulsion it generated in the air to try to separate us.  Seeing the way he was going, I let him.

Within the cloud of dust from the fallen section of building, still yet to fully settle, he flew up and away from me.  Except I was upside-down and at an angle, so his ‘up’ was really down.  He flew up and sideways into a pile of rubble, crushing his own shoulder and ribs at high velocity.

I flew down to him to check he was alive, feet planted on his wrists, finger at his pulse.  My face was turned upward; I blinked dust out of my eyes and tried to spot motion.  The jetpack tinker- where?

I spotted the glow of their munitions, and with the assurance the wiped-out flier was unconscious but not outright dead, I gave chase.

They saw me, and took maneuvers to rise up and fly away.  They were a bomber, which meant they wanted the high ground.  They… didn’t stop turning.  The maneuver they’d started didn’t stop, as they hauled on one of their controls and kept hauling on it.  Their arc in the air was a lazy circle, flying up, over, down, and then across the ground, face and upper body grinding against concrete and leaving a red smear as the abrasive ground sanded away flesh.  I flew after, but I couldn’t reach them before they hit a piece of rubble, which saw them bank off, spiraling violently in the air with the ruins of half their jetpack spitting out smoke.  They crash-landed.

I would have wondered why, but the distraction of movement in the corner of my vision interrupted the thought and answered the question in the same moment.  Juliette was resuming her run, rejoining Chastity, who put a hand on her shoulder, supporting her as they ran across uneven ground.

Rachel was already moving again, darting from cover to cover while her wolf and a hound flanked her, shielding her from stray fire.  If Parian and Foil were here, they hadn’t been with Rachel or gotten instructions from Contessa.  I hoped they were okay.

Capricorn trailed behind her, with Love Lost running behind him, Colt floating above, wearing her breaker form.

When the shots from the tinker guns didn’t fly as fast as bullets, Colt was agile enough in the air to weave around them.

Ashley had shot the ground, carving out a furrow, and crouched in it, one hand at her side, Rain was in beside her, trying to peer through the dust.  They looked up at me, waiting for the go-ahead.

Sveta was out of the box, emerging from the dense rubble of the collapsed hallway where the box had been stored.  She passed between the Harbingers, who had found their own ways to survive the devastation.  She stayed low, her body breaking down into tendrils that allowed her to crawl lower than a person otherwise might.

That was everyone, then.  Dusty, a few scrapes.

Us being okay this far felt like it was a bit tenuous.  This was the prelude, the calm as our enemy organized and did their best to recover from the shock of an entire section of the facility collapsing.  Dust hung heavy enough in the air that every light, glowing fourteen year old, and shot from a tinker gun had their own nimbus.  That dust had nowhere to go, because we were still indoors, and whenever rubble belatedly collapsed or a shot from a gun hit something it would kick more dust into the air.

It didn’t feel like we were the major players in this, though.

No, that would be Contessa, who took no cover.  It would be the capes, who were coming at us from one direction.  I made note of the capes who wore white costumes, not the one-size-fits-all white tunics and slacks that the rest of the thralls were decked out in, which gave them cleaner, meaner silhouettes.  One of the capes was giving them the ability to float down to the ground, riding on pieces of rubble.

There were others.  Capes who wore costumes that weren’t generic white.  With the dust and distractions, I couldn’t do a lot of figuring out in the moment.  The Speedrunners were definitely among them.  There was a woman in a short skirt.  There were others.

“Decision!” Contessa raised her voice.  She threw a chunk of debris she had picked up.  A bullet struck it, that might have been on course to hit a member of Breakthrough.  Either the bullet or a fragment of the debris hit another projectile in the air, prompting a mid-air detonation.

Fuck me.  It could have been that she had done it to save two lives or prevent two injuries with one throw.  It could have been that she casually did it to punctuate her statement.

I flew down to the others, where they were using Ashey’s furrow to gather together.  Rachel caught up, but her dogs were big enough they couldn’t use the same pile of debris as cover.  The whistles and orders to get them into just the right position were constant, over the course of what felt like a minute and was probably closer to fifteen seconds.

Enemy capes are marching or flying our way.  More gunmen are gathering at the flanks.

Chastity coughed violently.  Byron passed her a Capricorn-made water bottle he still had on him, threaded to his belt with a wire.  She drank some, then splashed more water into her face, rinsing dust out of her eyes.

I huddled a little closer to the others.  My hood was up and by clustering together we could shield one another from the dust around us.

“We wrote it down on papers,” Byron said.  “Do we show them to one another all at once, tally them up?”

“B,” Rachel said.

B had been the vote to let hundreds of thousands of citizens die.  They included people close to us.

“What?” Chastity asked.  “What?  But Cassie.”

“B.  I don’t like it either, but it’s the simplest.”

“It’s not simple at all!” Chastity raised her voice, with an emotional hitch.  “Cassie.

“Chastity,” Rain said.  “You can’t-”

“I can,” Chastity said.  “She’s my most important person.  If you all vote to kill her, then you’re kind of killing me too.”

Rachel reached out.  Chastity pushed her ‘aunt Rachel’s’ hand away.

“The first option is bad,” Rachel said.  “Undersiders die, city goes to shit, more people die, only good thing is Teacher is dead.  Last option is bad, if we let him go, he will hurt others, and Tattletale says he always steps up his game, steps up his scale.  He will keep doing what he’s doing fucking worse until we catch him.  We made the choice to let him go when we fought him last time.  Now this.  We can’t do it again.”

“We don’t have to.  I picked A,” Chastity said.  She dropped her eyes.  “Imp picked the same thing, told me to pass it on.  I know it means Undersiders die.  It might mean you or Imp die, or Foil or Parian.  It might mean Heartbroken die, maybe me included.  But I can’t sacrifice Cassie, I agree Teacher needs to be stopped now, and this gets less civilians hurt in the short run.  I can’t conscience the choices that let me and my loved ones get off scott-free.”

“B,” Juliette said.  “I can conscience it.”

Byron was already unfolding one paper.  Ashley’s hand went to her shoulder, where she’d written it and then covered it with her dress strap.  Sveta reached out to cover Byron’s paper.

Love Lost and Colt settled into cover.  Noting the conversation, Love Lost pointed at Rain.

“What?” he asked.  “No.  I don’t make your vote for you.”

She tapped the side of her head.

“I know you have Cradle’s tokens.  I know you’re not yourself.  Pick yours.  Just… work at it.  Colt said you can fight through it.”

“Yeah,” Colt said.

Love Lost dropped her hand, hiding one claw beneath the other.  She made a sign with only the barest pretense of hiding what it was.  Colt made her own choice, glowing fingers extended and pointing down much as Love Lost had done, just a different set.  Love Lost glared at her, then looked away.  Colt barely reacted, staring down at a point on the ground, fingers unmoving.

This would divide us.

Putting all of her feelings aside, because she didn’t trust herself under Cradle’s influence.

I peeked, and the dust was starting to clear more, flashlights were out to better illuminate the battlefield where the red lights in surrounding areas didn’t reach, and thralls and capes were making their way across.

But the Custodian had dropped the equivalent surface area of a town.  We had a few minutes.  I made a hand motion for Rain to keep an eye out, since he was positioned at the far end of our cover.  He nodded, twisting.

We were ready, but-

-But we were distracted, because Chastity was saying something else, momentarily drowned out by chaos.  “-leaked it to Lookout.”

What?” Swansong asked.

“We wrote it down,” Chastity said, “because we couldn’t remember the options, but then Capricorn looked, and Lookout can see through his eye.”

Byron looked Swansong’s way, one eye glowing behind the eye-slit of his helmet.

“Idiots and imbeciles,” Swansong said.

“It’s too late to do anything about it,” I said.

Swansong banged her head hard against the concrete behind her.  “Use Lookout’s time camera tech, work out a way to go back in time, and make sure these idiots aren’t deprived of oxygen at birth.”

Her three extended fingers indicated the Heartbroken and Capricorn.

“Go easy,” I said.

Byron answered, “I’m sorry.  Heat of the moment, I was making sure everyone was present.  I had a lot to do in a short span of time.”

“What does it mean?” I asked.  “Lookout saw, so…”

“Lookout tallied votes from her team and Tattletale,” Byron said.  “We have their votes.”

I blinked, to bring up the communication log from Lookout, as I worked to get my glove off.  My heart was heavy.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sveta said.

I stopped, my hand at my glove, the injured hand making me very aware of how injured it was, as I held it in place.

“We have to make a call,” Rain said.

“No, we don’t,” Sveta said.  “Fuck this, and fuck her.  She’s too scared to make a decision, so she foists it off on us, and… what?  We have to live with the fallout?  Just so she can have an easier time of it?”

“It’s more complicated than that,” Chastity said.

“Do you really believe that?  Or are you standing in for Imp now?” Sveta asked.

“Can we really afford to debate about this?” Byron asked.

“No,” Sveta said.  “So we jump straight to making her decide.  Because if we decide, then it utterly destroys us, no matter what we choose.  Why?  For her convenience?  Because she’s a coward?”

“Says the coward,” Juliette said, her tone dry.  “You don’t want to make a hard call.”

“I made a call.  I heard the three options and decided which one I liked most before she was done, because of course I did.  But I’m not going to share it, and I’m not going to give my choice to her,” Sveta said.  “Knowing what we know, it’s-”

Something detonated close by.

“-tantamount to murder, with what we’d be putting into motion.”

Sveta looked at me, looking for allies, for help.

I so badly wanted to be that for her.

“We all made our choices,” I said.  “Lookout made her choice, as did the other Chicken Tenders.”

Juliette snorted at the name, a small sound, badly out of sync with the scene and conversation.

I’d already kind of wanted to slap her because she had called Sveta a coward, that didn’t help.  Except want was just that.  Want.  I held my temper.

“We’ll still feel guilty, if we made the choice and we see the fallout.  We’ll feel resentful if we make her choose, she chooses something different, and we feel like the alternative we wanted would have been better.”

“I’m okay with resenting her,” Sveta said.  “I’m less okay with resenting each other, because we picked different things, or things we think are unconscionable.”

“If it helps,” Byron said.  “I think the money is on me or my brother being the ones who end up dying or suffering for a long time.  I don’t know what happens when a case seventy dies.  I won’t hate people if they pick that option.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sveta said.

“We made the decision and we have to live with it, even if we don’t make the call,” I told her.  “Isn’t it better to own it?”

“Uh,” Rain said.  “Just going to say… you asked for my input on killing the Leper.  You did give me the option to back down, told me why.  But you did ask.”

I met the glowing eyes of his mask.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to own that.  You were the one to kill the Leper,” Rain told me.  “And I think Sveta’s right.  We shouldn’t have to own this.”

“We’re not the ones who pick the targets or pull the trigger here,” Sveta said.

“Aren’t we?” Chastity asked.  “We’re the triggers, we’re her pawns in this.”

“We’re the bullets that fly out of the gun.  It’s not great, but it’s necessary,” Sveta replied, her expression tense.  All of this, it was too close to her heart.  Cauldron had stolen her life, made her kill so many people already, by way of making her a monster.  To accept this would be to condone that, and I couldn’t blame her for refusing to condone what she’d gone through, any more than I would willingly accept any healing from my sister, knowing what she could do, and that she hadn’t meaningfully changed.

Quiet, Sveta asked, “Any objections?”

Juliette raised a hand.  Chastity made her put it down.

Nobody objected.

“Contessa!” Sveta called out.  “We decided we’re not going to choose!  You make the damn call!”

There was only the noise of chaos, gunfire, of rubble collapsing, choking dust in the air.  No voice in response.

“Contessa!” Sveta raised her voice.

“Come,” Contessa said.

Make the damn call, Sveta said.  But we’d chosen.

I’d seen Ashley write hers.  C.  Letting teacher go, knowing two members of Breakthrough would die.

In the chat log, Lookout said she’d seen Rain write his.  Rain had picked C.

Byron’s unfolded paper, before Sveta had covered it.  C.

Lookout had broken from pattern.  Her vote was in the chat log, visible through the eye tech she’d given me.  A.  Heroes die, city suffers later as a consequence.  One member of Breakthrough suffers long term.

Maybe that was the problem solver’s mentality.  Suffering wasn’t gone.  Suffering could be fixed.

She’d listed the votes of her teammates.  C, B, C.  No idea who was which.

Love Lost had been angry, glaring at Colt, because Colt had extended two fingers for the second option, B.  Love Lost had chosen C.

We’d fucking chosen.  We’d made the call.

Why did that seem to bother me more than it bothered anyone else?  I was the last one to leave the huddle, last to face this decision.  I procrastinated, even, by checking the state of things.

I could see the light of flashlights.  People halfway to us.  The area was dark, but frequently illuminated by flashes from gunfire and passing projectiles, but capes and thralls had flashlights, and the light from those was ongoing, steady.

Let’s do it, I thought.  A, B, or C?

I rounded the corner just in time to see Contessa standing beside Rain.  He was doubled over, my teammate stiff, tense, or reaching.  Contessa was stabbing herself in the heart.

Scattered gunfire passed the group, closely enough that Sveta reached out for Rain, pulling him back and toward cover.

He, for his part, reached for the pocket at his side, that had a hard case where belt flowed into legging.

Two syringes.  We’d had three, and she had stabbed herself with one.

“She powered up?” I asked.

He shook his head.

Changed the variables? I thought.  the dosage was supposed to keep the power the same, but adjust it, gain something, lose something.

“Based on the doses that are left, she took the power dampening one.”

“Nullifying, in my case,” Contessa said.  “He was seconds away from temporarily disabling my power.”

“But you just disabled your power entirely for a while,” Rain said.  “Can you even do anything now?”

“I have practice recalling what I plotted out earlier in the day.  I just won’t have perfect execution.  Harbingers?”

They were lingering in the fringes, using cover, and using slingshots.  Both turned her way.

“I need one of you to go to Citrine.  Tell her to go home, right away.”

“I’ll stay,” one said.

The other turned, running.

“What option is this?” I asked.

She didn’t answer.  “Capricorn, that way.  Find the stairs, defend them, stay there until everyone’s back.  They’ll pass through once.”

She extended an arm, pointing.  Pointing fucking through the mass of capes with flashlights, Teacher’s elite, and innumerable thralls.

“I’m going alone?  At first?” Capricorn asked.

“You’ll have company soon, and you’ll have backup.”

Byron turned and ran, shifting to Tristan for that little bit of added strength and the speed that came with it.

She took two long steps forward, grabbed Colt by the neck, and pulled her closer.  Colt initially resisted, then followed.  A glowing pellet passed through the space she’d been occupying a second ago.  It splattered like a giant paintball and melted the concrete and rebar.

“You shut off your power,” Rain said.  “Are you even-?”

“I remember what needed to be done,” she said.  “But I will remember less accurately if you pester me.  Give the needles to Swansong.”

He did.

“You, Love Lost, and Colt, go that way, you’ll face the Fallen.  Be aware of how far a voice reaches.  Circle back toward Capricorn at the stairwell, then keep going forward.  You’ll find the ones taking custody of Chevalier.  Save him.  Then go back to the stairwell.”

My heart sank.

“I-” Rain started, another question or statement.

Love Lost grabbed him, pulled him closer, then pushed him away, all in a fluid movement, managing not to shred him with her claws in the process.

They left.

“Swansong, Sveta.  You go together.  Go up to the second floor.  There is a thrall commander you need to remove.  Cut through to the outside and go in opposite directions.  Sveta will target the Dragonslayers.  Deal with them-”

“Kill them, you mean.”

Contessa paused.

“What?” Sveta asked.

“I assumed kill when I interpreted the step, but didn’t consider the alternative.  Too late now.  It should be fine, whatever you do.”

Should be fine.”

“Saint has a key on his keyring that’s a disguised override.  Take it, find the slot in his machine.  Insert it.”

“Machine.  Okay.”

“Then return to the stairwell.”

“What am I doing?” Swansong asked.

“Valkyrie.  Do not wake her up.  There is a member of her flock wearing yellow.  Make sure she takes the syringes.”

Swansong looked at Sveta, nodded, and then the two of them headed off to the side, heading for the least occupied gap in the enemy rank and file.

“Heartbroken, Rachel Lindt, assist the others in leaving, rendezvous with Imp in the process.  Then I want you to head to the stairwell, use the third floor because the way will be blocked.  Then go to find Narwhal and Miss Militia.”

“Why?” Juliette asked, looking back at Rachel.

“Because she said so,” Chastity said.

“Because you need to stop and knock out Miss Militia.  Then surrender, or the subordinate heroes will retaliate.  If she’s gone her team won’t get in too deep.  Once you answer their questions, bring them back to the stairwell.”

My heart was pounding, getting worse with every statement.

I looked at Breakthrough, as they ran for it.  Swansong wasn’t as fast as she normally was, and it was more noticeable when Sveta was moving quick.  Still, they both managed to get up to the second floor.

Rain was focused, in the zone, and I saw him jump at a nearby parahuman power in a way that suggested he was scared out of his mind.  But he persevered.  Love Lost was, the occasional glare excepted, almost emotionless, unflinching.  Colt…

I had no idea about Colt, but an uncharitable part of me was inclined to think that she was too oblivious to be scared.

Capricorn was at a piece of cover.  He was creating a constellation, which drew attention and gunfire to his end of things.  It didn’t help that he was alone out there.

Fuck me, I hoped she wasn’t going to trip up and get something wrong while depowered.

“Antares,” Contessa said.  “Support Precipice and Capricorn.  Then focus on Teacher.  Try to cut off his retreat… I can’t be sure how that will go.”

“Just tell me, did you cheat?  Did you actually decide, like Sveta wanted, or are you throwing away lives while you… I don’t know, used your power to decide what would make people least mad?  What you could convince us of?”

“Precipice needs help now.”

I shook my head, and I flew after Rain.  I could see flashlights, and I could see people who weren’t using flashlights ducking in and out of cover.  A large group, not wearing white tunics and slacks, not wearing white costumes either.  I thought I saw the look of the Advance Guard uniform, but it was hard to say.  They were following instructions, moving through the wreckage and ruins in an organized way.  Big tough guys to the top of rubble piles.  Other snuck around.

Not our guys.  Not anymore.  First wave attackers that had been co-opted with Teacher’s power or-

Valefor.

He was there, giving instructions.  He held a cane but didn’t move like he needed it.  Beside him-

My vision in one eye blurred.

Automatic blurring, because Kenzie had tech resistant to Mama Mathers’ profile.  I hurried to turn my gaze away, because I only had tech in the one eye.  Slivers and flickers danced in my peripheral vision.  I tried to keep an eye on Valefor, and her hand slipped into my view, blurred and pointing my way.  Telling him where I was.

I twisted away before he made eye contact, diving for cover.  I slammed into the ground, classic, practiced landing, sufficient to crack concrete.

“Valefor’s here!” I called out.  “He has a jaw and eyes, and he has a squad of capes he got from the first wave!”

“Shit,” Rain said.

“He has Mama Mathers with him.  I got a glimpse.  it’s fucking with me a little bit.”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Rain said.  “That means she knows exactly where you are.  Don’t try to be sneaky.”

“Okay,” I said.

The squad moved through the piles and low points between slabs.  They were organized, I could tell, one person moving forward, his buddies covering him, then the next person in the relay moving forward.

I saw the blur of Mama Mathers and looked away again, to be safe.  I kept my other eye closed, but she was playing tricks there.  Slits of light split my eyelid like it was being torn.  A line of brightness crossed it like my eye was being cracked open, and I saw something like a sea of grasping hands, all covered in sores.

“Fuck this,” I whispered.  “Why didn’t you warn me?”

I knew the answer though.  I’d stayed to quiz her instead of listening.  With her power temporarily nullified, she was playing a little sloppy with the end results.

More movement darted across my eye, like something was lunging at me.  I twisted my head away.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“Shh,” Rain said.

I could hear concrete break under the weight of the people who were creeping over it.  I moved, pointing to let Rain, Love Lost, and Colt know the direction.  Rain and Love Lost nodded.

Colt ducked into a nook in a fallen section of roof that had landed on a desk. There was a small hidey-hole there.  She stayed out of breaker form, no doubt to avoid giving away a telltale glow.

I crossed the distance, taking up Colt’s spot near Rain.

Someone shouted an order, distant, while I was in transit.  Nothing about me, as far as I could tell.

“There it is,” I heard Rain.

“There what is?” I asked.

“She said to be mindful of how far a voice reaches.”

My vision continued to flicker at the periphery, twisted, and became something lunging at me from the side.  I looked away, my neck tense.

“Sniper’s dilemma,” Rain said.

“What’s that?” Colt asked, from her hiding spot.

“When two snipers found themselves at odds, each gun capable of holding a round with a long reload, firing first put you at the disadvantage,” Rain said.  “It gave away your location with the muzzle flash, and it left you unarmed, while they got a bead on you.  The only way to survive was to wait for them to crack, or get to a position where you could take them out, guaranteed.”

“The voices?  Love Lost and Valefor?”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Whoever shouts first loses.  We have to be certain we’re in range.  If we go too early and we don’t reach him, he runs forward a bit and shouts something while Love Lost catches her breath.  If he goes too early, we can do the same.”

Love Lost nodded.

“Can’t be certain of range without looking to check,” I whispered.  “That’s hard to do, gives us away.”

“I could stall him,” Colt said.

“Not without looking,” I said, again.  “Mama Mathers.”

I wanted to move to flank, to grab stuff and lob concrete at them until they were no longer an issue, but they had hostages.  I couldn’t risk the collateral damage.  Not when it was innocent capes with brainwashing.

I could try to locate them, guess at distance, but that put me at risk, and it meant Valefor could catch me with eye contact.

I did move to flank, leaving Rain behind, but I didn’t do it with the intent of mounting a direct attack.  I circled around, and I came within ten feet of a cape surrounded by what looked like a personal sandstorm of black sand.  A big cape.

Brute, was my thought, as he reached out, arm forming a rough hand shape as the sandstorm expanded and extended out.  He tore into cover and hauled it away, and his sand stripped away at the material of my costume, scraping up my armor, and taking off flecks of my chin.

I took evasive action, ducking around one piece of cover, then around to another.

I looked back.  He’d kicked up a lot of dust, in addition to the ambient particles of his power.

Could I confront him more directly, while Valefor and Mama Mathers were in the cloud?

Work with me, I thought.  Grab it, then freeze.

The long shaft of metal had been a beam holding something up, and now lay amid the rubble.  The Wretch gripped it, and with the noise and the dust that created, it gave away my position.

Which meant more black sand, meant I had a cape slipping into the floor near me, racing along as fast as my eye could track, then popping up, throwing out a lasso of what looked like wire.  A device, not a power thing.

I ducked away from both, circled around.

I was mid-air when the black sand cape swept his arm to one side.  The dust cloud that ensconced Mama Mathers and Valefor was cast away in an eyeblink.

Valefor seemed to think he wasn’t in earshot, because he didn’t waste his breath.  I didn’t meet his eyes.

I flew up and back, then brought my feet up, using then to help hold up the beam, my abs and thighs tight.  My hands gripped the end.

I was the crossbow that launched it, Wretch strength kicking in, my legs providing the support at the front end while keeping it more or less stable.

As big and accurate a strike as I could manage, that didn’t have collateral damage.  It didn’t strike home, but it got close enough to graze him.  He grunted, even coughed as more dust was kicked up by the metal beam spearing into the rubble he was perched on.

Love Lost heard the cough.  She stepped around cover, and she screamed.

She’d always been too rash, and she was worse under Cradle.  Even knowing the game at play that Rain had talked about, she jumped the gun.  The black sand cape threw out his hand, extending a wall of black sand in front of Valefor.

Her scream didn’t touch him, didn’t bring him into a headlong run.  Not quite close enough.  She seemed to realize it, and urged Rain and Colt to run.

They had a harder path than Valefor did, and three people moved slower than one.  He could close the distance and use his own shout.

Valefor shouted something the others were more likely to hear than I was.  I wasn’t close enough to hear it.  He continued to shout, closing the distance, while I dove for something else to throw, and was blocked by more black sand.  He used his power in two violent bursts- one to knock out the Wretch, the other to hit me.  I covered my ears and my face at the same time, rising up and out of reach.

Below, I saw the tableau.  Precipice and Love Lost had stopped.

And at the same time, Valefor was no longer running.  Mama Mathers was, a blur that raced toward her child.

Love Lost closed in, moving with one arm and both legs, her eyes closed, her other hand pulling her mask away from her face.  Rain spoke, giving her instructions.  Telling her where to go and where to aim, urging her to be quick, when every step threatened to move a piece of concrete or tile and roll the ankle.  She had her power, but she wasn’t weightless.

Juliette stood off to the side, Chastity watching her back.

Valefor was frozen, unable to do anything to get clear of danger, while Love Lost positioned herself.

But Rain was partially blind too.  He avoided eye contact with Valefor.

I flew to get closer.

“Five feet to the right, turn to ten o’clock!” I screamed the words down at them.

How far does a scream reach?

She listened.  She crossed the distance, stumbling over rubble, turned, and then screamed.

She caught Valefor in the same moment Juliette was forced to break her hold on him due to incoming fire.  He began a reckless run in Love Lost’s direction, heedless of the dangerous footing.  Mama Mathers turned to run the other way.  Her troops, no doubt coordinated by phantom images of her, turned to do the same.

Abandoning her son.  Someone I had to assume she cherished.

“Claw out!” I called out.  I flew down, avoiding the black sand that was cast out to distract, and flew in so I would be right behind Valefor.

Valefor grabbed a piece of rebar as he ran, moving to attack Love Lost, while she couldn’t be sure she could open her eyes.

He swung, hitting her extended claw, rather than run headlong into it.  What followed was a short, violent melee, as Love Lost fought blind at first, swiping and lacerating chest, stomach, then arm.  She got swatted across the scalp, and this prompted her to open her eyes, maybe thinking she needed to do it to save herself.  She froze mid-swipe.

Valefor twisted around, pointing at me.  Love Lost leaped, using Valefor’s shoulder as a springboard.  I chucked the concrete at Valefor, and met Love Lost in the air.  Juliette froze Love Lost, and I had to catch her and ease her to the ground to keep her from falling in a dangerous way.

It was Colt, in her breaker form, who broke out of the cover she’d taken, slicing through, then dropping out of her breaker form to tackle Valefor.

Bleeding from where the concrete I’d chucked had hit him, bleeding more from where Love Lost had caught him with her claws, he snarled curse words, and in the midst of them, he used his voice as a power, aiming it at her.

“Die!” he directed the words at Colt.

She stumbled back, twisted, and no doubt looked for the most convenient place to throw herself.  A jutting row of rebar spikes.

I intercepted her, tackled her, and threw my hands around my ears to muffle all sounds.  I twisted around to look, and kept my gaze below Valefor’s shoulders.  He’d stopped moving, but not because of Juliette.

A bullwhip encircled his throat.  He grunted, veins standing out from rage and lack of circulation both, hands fumbling.

“Do I?” Rain asked.

My turn to answer.

Aware of Colt, I nodded.

The silver blade caught Valefor around the middle.  Chastity pulled him off balance, and he landed firmly and uncomfortably in a sitting position atop a jagged heap of concrete.  The concrete didn’t matter as much as the solid landing, which made the silver line split.

Upper half slid from lower half with an audible sucking sound.

Chastity had to get close to unwind her whip from Valefor’s neck.  I just focused on Colt, waiting to see if the instruction would wear off.  When Rain was able enough, I let him take over, while I flew into the air, ready to intercept any incoming fire.

There was less dust now, and there were still a lot of thralls, albeit distant ones.  More thralls on the same level as us, but they had to expose themselves by standing on the highest heaps or otherwise weave through the valleys and tunnels that the debris made until they were close enough.

But they were getting close.  We needed to bail.

Valefor’s power wasn’t fading.  Chastity opted to walk up and slap Colt unconscious.  A moment later, she slapped Colt awake.

Reset button, it seemed.

We were alright.  Valefor was dealt with.

But the way ahead was long and violent.

I motioned for others to follow.  They did.

While I guarded the group, keeping an eye out for Capricorn, Ashley blasted  a segment of the second floor, bringing it down near a squad of people.  Sveta dove in, to bind limbs and drag them into the dust and debris.  Capricorn created a gout of water.

As we moved one step forward, a dozen squads of men with tinker rifles headed a couple of steps in the same direction, or formed a pincer in front of us, or a pincer behind us.

A hundred steps forward, and there was an army in the rooms, corridors, and ruins to our left, an army in the rooms, halls, and debris to our right.

I could see the hallway, and Capricorn used Tristan’s natural strength to get ahead of our slower runners, while I flew over and up to ensure there were no ambushes waiting, Sveta right on my heels.

I found one gunman, and hurled him out of cover, keeping hold of his gun.

Tristan ran halfway up the stairs, and began drawing out the comprehensive diagram that would solidify into walls.  So long as he held this point, they’d be a lot slower at chasing the rest of us.

The last people caught up, reaching the base of the staircase.  A wall flashed into existence, black stone with orange-red veins.

I wanted to say something.  I wanted to be encouraging, to tell people I loved them.

Nobody had words.

We knew what option this was.  That we were saving heroes and gathering forces here.  We weren’t gunning straight for Teacher, so it wasn’t A.  We weren’t abandoning this point either, and this point was presumably where stairs led up into Teacher’s area.  It was C.  Driving Teacher to run, plan abandoned.  Some heroes died.  Few civilians would die.

It was the option I’d chosen.  I’d been ready to vote for it, A if it wasn’t feasible.  Never B.  Not that many lives.  Not that there were any guarantees with the blind spots.

Two of us die, one suffering for ‘quite some time’.

I wish I’d thought to ask if that meant one of the two suffered or not.

The building shook as someone used a power on the wall Tristan had erected.  Without a goodbye, without a commentary, without final strategy, our team split up, running footsteps sounding hollow in wide hallways and corridors.

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Dying – 15.7

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“This is the bogeyman?” I asked.

“Yes,” Sveta said, not sounding happy.

“Fuck yes,” Imp said, all excitement.  “Power: win.”

Win.  Sveta had mentioned her, but she hadn’t phrased it quite like that.  She’d called it powerful precognition, potentially the most powerful in the world.

Win, though?

“I prefer Contessa,” the woman said.  “One moment- forcefield.”

She pointed at me.

“Do it,” Imp said.

I activated my forcefield, just in time for the Custodian’s return.  She pushed, the Wretch pushed back.  The accumulated, sustained force drove me into the wall, and broke my forcefield.

But I wasn’t the target.  The force that was the Custodian rushed past me and down the hall, pushing past wires and over water, touching that water enough times to leave overlapping handprints and footprints.

My skin crawled as I shifted my position to better avoid the dangling wires.

Barely able to stand, Contessa raised her hands, fending off a similar onslaught.  Arms moved in minute, strict ways, her body twisted, one leg slightly raised, as she almost lost her balance, then regained it.

She spoke, while defending herself.

“He’s going to ask you to tear it down.”

There was a slight pause in the assault, then a sudden, violent strike.  A hand whipped out to catch a doorframe, and the woman altered the trajectory of her movement through the air, ducking low.  It bought her a second while the ambient force that was the custodian flowed around her, grabbing her and dragging her by inches, but not slamming her violently into the wall at the end of the hallway.

“Tool,” Contessa said, while she was unmolested enough to say something.  “Rain.”

“Tool?  Which tool?  What?” Rain asked.  No use.  Contessa was busy enough fending off a further assault that she didn’t have the breath.

“Any tool,” Imp said.  She stood with her back to the corner, arms folded, looking unruffled, even though the Custodian had come damn close to hurling Contessa into her.  “It’ll be what she needs.”

He reached into a discreet side pocket at his costume, where his pants were more rigid at the side with decorations.  He pulled out something that looked like pliers.

“This?”

The woman continued to defend herself, fending off a thousand accumulated strikes by way of efficiency, deflecting the ones that would have driven the entire assault home.  She sidestepped an invisible attack, and the wall groaned behind her, white paint flaking off of plaster and wire mesh.

The assault was relentless, but didn’t seem to do enough.  Here and here, the woman slipped to one side.  She was picked up, slipped away from the Custodian’s grip, and wasn’t shoved or thrown, instead buying herself a second to speak.

“Wait three seconds, throw it into the ceiling, at eleven point five o’clock,” Contessa said.

The assault on Contessa stopped.  I could see movement through the water that pooled on the hallway’s floor, with the dangling wires sparking where they touched it.  All electrified, now with the Custodian rushing toward Precipice.

I got in the way, forcefield out.  She crashed into me, drove me back, and pushed me toward Rain, where the Wretch would have him in her reach.

Stay still, I thought, as we were pushed through wires, using my flight to push back against the driving, invisible force.  Don’t lash out, don’t bite.  I can’t control you but please, don’t do anything for two seconds.

I found myself within reach of Rain for a moment, but the Wretch didn’t strike him.  A second later, he was driven back.  The Custodian had flowed out and around me to attack him, picking him up.  Sveta reached out with tendrils to support him.  He used his power to lock himself in place.

Rain threw the tool.  I felt it hit the Wretch, not hard enough to break it, and it ended up going nowhere near the eleven o’clock direction.

But it hit live wires.  Sparks flew, and all of the lights went out, casting the hallway into near complete darkness.  Only a few small fires and costume details glowed.  I saw Rain fall to the ground.

“Once this facility has served its purposes, he will discard it.  He will ask you to help him build something new somewhere else.  You will be excited, initially.  A fresh start, a new build.  Then you will come to resent it.  You will hate him.  You will hate yourself.”

There was only silence.

“You will live for a very long time, Custodian.  It will be a long time of hating yourself.”

The lights came back on.  Red-tinted emergency lighting.

Contessa now stood in the water that had been electrified before.  The switch to emergency power had removed the hazard.  She brushed wires aside as she walked through them, putting a hand out to the wall for balance.

“You okay?” I asked Rain.

He nodded, the silver-white cracks and glowing eyes of his mask bobbing up and down.  “Where is the Custodian?”

“Gone,” Contessa said.  “But not done.  We should walk briskly.”

“Or run?” Byron asked.  He stood outside of this particular set of hallways.

“Walk briskly,” Contessa affirmed.  “Ask your questions, tell me what you need.”

“How does this work?” Capricorn asked.  Byron.  He’d been in the other hallway, and now stood at the door.

“She’s a genie,” Imp said.  “Make a wish.”

“It’s not quite that,” Contessa said.

“She decides the future outcome she wants, her power tells her how to get there, and she can do it in the blink of an eye.  So!  We need Teacher dead, defeated, or disabled,” Imp said.  “We need to deal with his cronies.  Bonus points if Teacher is disabled and at our mercy.  There’s stuff we want to ask and do.”

“We need to save the heroes.  As many people as we can,” I said.  “Save people in the city from the fallout of what Teacher wants to do.”

“No,” Sveta said.  “Those are important, but there’s another important question.  Can we even trust you?”

“It doesn’t matter if you do.”

“The way here wasn’t as hard as it was in other parts of the facility,” Sveta said.  “This feels like a setup.”

“It is set up, but not as you imagine,” Contessa said.  “I was resisting the influence of powers, maintaining a thought-loop.  He wanted to keep me close enough to keep an eye on me and regularly make his attempts at controlling me, but not so close that I could disrupt everything if I broke the loop myself.  Well before I could reach him, he’ll have Custodian activate failsafes in this section of the facility, something I can’t do anything to prevent, only mitigate.  He’ll use the delay to pull the trigger on his plan, disable my power in the process, and claim a complete and total victory.”

“Uh,” Imp said.

“You were one hundred percent sure we’d win, Imp?” Swansong asked, from the back.

“You tempted fate,” Juliette said.  “Tsk tsk.  Samuel would be so disappointed in you.”

“What the fuck?” Imp asked.

“There are options.  We can work within the confines of that reality if we move quickly and if you’re decisive as a group.”

“Why are we walking briskly, then?” Imp asked.  “If they’re going to, what, set this entire place on fire?  Blow it up?”

“Running would guarantee that many of us would die, because of where we would be when the Custodian acts.  At this pace we’ll be positioned so we survive, very dusty, some of us scraped up, but only superficially.”

“How blind are you?” Sveta asked.

“Blind?” Precipice asked, twisting around.

“Remember the briefing, we talked about assets Teacher might have?  She was one.”

“And we were supposed to let Valkyrie handle her if we could.  Run otherwise.”

“Because she’s blind around very powerful capes, or near certain effects, like messy portals, strong tinker devices, Endbringers, and Scion.  When the Irregulars attacked Cauldron, she was a big thing we had to plan around.”

“Yes.  Unfortunate.”

“We weren’t positive you weren’t behind Scion.  Objectively, looking Cauldron’s operations from the outside, you were outright evil and you seemed to be doing what Teacher is doing now.”

“I wasn’t the only person who was blind at that point in time,” Contessa said.  “Right now?  To answer your question, I’m unable to see Teacher, but I know enough to simulate him.  I can’t see the full cost or casualties of his endgame, but I can simulate those too.”

“Simulate,” Precipice said.

“Determine the outcome based on all known information and outside context.”

“So you could be wrong.”

“It is very rare, and even more rare that it matters enough to throw things into disarray.  For right now, I have to tell you I can’t do as you ask.”

“You can’t beat Teacher?” I asked.  “Because of the blind spot?”

“I can’t defeat him, spare as many of your allies’ lives as possible, and save the lives of people in the city.  Not as I or my power understand circumstances, and my power understands everything outside of the blind spots that are Teacher, Valkyrie, the Simurgh, and two broken triggers that authorities aren’t aware happened.”

“The Simurgh?  She’s here?” Rain asked.

“She’s still stationed in what used to be Brockton Bay, keeping company with the Titan.”

Imp groaned.  “You’re making me look awful here.  I promised these guys one hundred percent victory.”

“If you’d found me sooner, then I could have.”

“How do you know all of this if you were in a coma?” Sveta asked.  “The Simurgh, who’s where, what Custodian is doing?”

“I’m finding it out as I explain it to you.  I asked my power for the path to provide the explanation I need to give, that serves the purpose of filling me in on present circumstance.  When you talk among yourselves, I’m asking my usual questions.”

“Like how you can avoid being fucked over by a Stranger or Master in the next day or whatever,” Imp said.

“Essentially.”

“What are our options?” I asked.  “You said you can’t do all three?”

“First, I can stop Teacher directly.  He thinks he is out of my reach, but there are options.  He will pull the trigger on his plan, but I believe it can be mitigated.  This comes at a cost.  Your group here would split up and pull members away from Teacher’s retinue and into the field.  The fighting will be hard, violent, and many heroes currently fighting in this facility will die.  Because you’ll ask, one Undersider will die, two Heartbroken will, though there may be more casualties within the blind spot.  I’ll warn you, one member of Breakthrough will not die, but will suffer for so long it may as well be indefinite.  I would die.  The casualties would be mostly among the other capes in this facility.”

“What the fuck?” Imp asked.  “Who dies?”

“Telling you disrupts the end result.  More would die as a consequence.  Besides, you don’t want to know.”

Imp had asked it so quickly.  Who dies?

But heroes were self-sacrificing.  To put on a costume and go out to fight and make the world better meant we were inherently willing to put our lives and well being on the line.

If we held a vote, wouldn’t the heroes agree that the option with the best outcome was the one where the heroes gave their lives?

Was that even fair to ask?  Breakthrough sacrificed… one member to suffering?  I wasn’t sure how to wrap my head around that.

Contessa went on, “The city will be relatively unscathed, but the lack of heroes will have long-term consequences.  There will be a period lasting a year and a half where villains rule it, because heroes cannot put up enough of a fight.”

“Not necessarily so bad,” Imp said.

“It would be bad.  Endemic corruption, civilian lives lost.”

“Fuck off!  Stop making me look bad!”

“Since we know, can’t we do something about it?” Byron asked.  “The villains ruling?”

“The only things you could do would be immaterial or would require action now, which would make other results worse.  The three plans I’m listing are already assuming best choices made.”

I summed it up, “Teacher gets defeated, his plan derailed… his best, most dangerous capes?”

“They’re close enough to Teacher I cannot say for certain, but they have good odds of being defeated and executed.”

I continued summing it up, “Heroes die en masse, city suffers-”

“Moderate consequence due to the loss of heroes.”

“What’s option two?” Imp asked.

“Executing his plan requires his devoted attention.  We allow him to pull the trigger and we use that opportunity to close in on him, subverting his control over his ‘cronies’, as you put it.”

“That was Imp,” I said.  “Isn’t that really bad for the city?”

“Hundreds of thousands of lives would likely be lost.  But heroes would be largely unscathed, and would go nowhere near the blind spot.  The disrupted portals could be closed.  Heroes would assert dominance over the villains in the aftermath, in part with my assistance.  In the long term, objectively speaking, it provides the best, healthiest outcome.”

“Hundreds of thousands,” I said.

“Including people you know.  For Antares, a list would include names like Jasper and Presley, these names mean something to you.  Presley matters to Swansong.  For Precipice, nobody you know intimately, but Erin’s mother would die, as would the boy you talk to while waiting for the train.  For Capricorn, Luciana and Sofia, Jaqueline.”

“I don’t know a Jaqueline,” Byron said, before blurring.

“The fucking noodle shop girl?” Tristan asked.

“Sveta, it would be Thad and Adah.”

“The kids Weld and I would watch sometimes.”

Contessa turned to look at Love Lost, who had emerged from one hallway, and she had no names for her.  She addressed Colt, who stood behind Love Lost, instead.  “Reese.”

“What about people we know?” Imp asked.

“Do you really want to know?” Juliette asked.  “Really?”

“Telling you runs the risk of cementing your feelings on the question.  You wouldn’t make an objective choice.”

“As opposed to saying an Undersider dies?” Imp asked.

“It’s Cassie,” Chastity said.  “I can’t think of anyone who is as important to enough of us.”

“Oh.”

“Letting you come to the conclusion makes it softer.”

“Does it?” Sveta asked.  “I can’t help but feel manipulated.  Once you do your thing, if there are no blind spots around, don’t we effectively lose all free will?  You can guide us to whatever conclusion you want.  The outcome is decided.”

“I could guide you to any conclusion I wanted without giving you a list of options to choose from.”

My heart did a kind of double-beat, hard in my chest, before launching into a rapid-fire beat, the danger of this whole circumstance making itself abundantly clear.

“I determined the three outcomes you would collectively be least unhappy with, and stopped asking there.”

“Why not push further?” Sveta asked.  “Why not use your power to choose?”

“Because determining victory here requires a hard and firm decision on what victory looks like.  Maximum lives saved?  Best long-term outcome?  Do you want your enemy dead?”

“And you can’t choose yourself?” Sveta sounded accusatory.  I didn’t blame her.

“I’ve only stopped and made choices for myself five significant times since Cauldron began.  Three of those times, the outcomes were catastrophic.  One of them led to my being captured.  The other two times, the outcomes were neutral.  Here, with the stakes as high as they are, I won’t gamble and I won’t make my own decision about what ‘victory’ is.”

“Teacher defeated with plan disrupted, heroic losses, city suffers moderately,” I said.  “Teacher pulls the trigger before being defeated, minimal or no heroic losses, city suffers deaths in the hundreds of thousands-”

“Suffering only in the short term,” Contessa said.  “Benefit in the long, excepting interference of a blind spot.”

“Blind spot could mean the option where people suffer in the long run doesn’t happen, then,” I said.

“It is not in my experience that a blind spot affecting my outcomes ever helps.  But it’s possible.”

Right.  Fine.  Shit.

“Or?” Tristan asked.  “Third option?”

“Or Teacher likely gets away, his plan disrupted, the heroes suffer moderate losses, the city suffers moderate losses.  No more than four thousand injured or dead.”

“That’s supposed to be a result we’re happy with?” Tristan asked.

“There is nuance.  Teacher has a good chance of escape, his plan disrupted, he attempts some more operations, proving to be a headache for you and other heroes, but is soon captured.  There is a chance he dies before leaving this facility- I can’t see or simulate enough about him to know with any certainty.  It’s immaterial.”

“It’s not,” Imp said.  “That bag of rats clothed in human skin needs to be gone.”

I privately agreed.

“In this third outcome, no notable heroes die.  Less civilians die overall than in the other two options.”

“Meaning the drawback is that we potentially have to put up with Teacher for a little while.”

“There’s a ‘but’,” Ashley said.  “There’s more.”

“Two members of Breakthrough are removed from the equation as a result.  One endures some torment for… quite some time.”

What?

I looked back at my team.

Why were two of the options so awful for us?

Beat Teacher unequivocally, limit the damage, good heroes die en masse, including some of our team. Long-term damage and trouble for the city, with a moderate number of deaths as a casualty.

Let him pull the trigger, spare the heroes, massive civilian deaths and damage to the city.  Potential long-term benefit.

Let him escape for later capture.  Moderate hero deaths.  Low civilian deaths.  But half my fucking team would die.

“What about Undersiders?” Imp asked.

“No deaths.”

“Oh, shit,” Imp said.  “Sorry, Breakthrough.  I’m afraid that’s the option we’re going with.”

“One Heartbroken,” Contessa said.

Fuck off.  If it weren’t for me, we wouldn’t have come to rescue you.  You owe me.  Give me better futures!”

We were in the area that fed into the cells, white hallways and corridors all tinted red with the emergency lighting.  Boxes and storage cases were inset into the wall.

“I can’t agree with the way you’re doing this,” Sveta said.

Contessa stopped walking.

“Reducing it down to these big, blunt abstracts.  Option A, option B, option C.  You’re slinging the trolley problem at us, and I can’t help but feel it’s Teacher having a laugh.”

“When you decide the outcome first and results are virtually assured, then it’s inevitable that it’s reduced to these kinds of decisions.  Always maddeningly hard ones, both good, both bad.  This is how Cauldron operates.  Let me know when you’ve made your collective decision.  For now, Sveta, would you climb into this box?”

Sveta gave the woman a dubious look.

“You’ll be fine.  Excuse me for being abrupt, but the rest of us must go,” Contessa said, before turning and moving on.

I remained where I was, as the group moved on, staying close to Sveta.  Love Lost and Colt were stragglers, and they were last to leave earshot.

“I hate her,” Sveta said.  “I hate what she represents.  ‘This is how Cauldron operates’.  Fuck that.”

I nodded.

“I don’t like any of these options.  Isn’t it better to have hope things will all be okay?”

“Yeah.  Probably.  But this might be what we have to do.”

“I hate it.  ‘This is how my power works’.  Yeah, except she talks about the end result, and skips the whole part of how we get there.  I guess we figure that out, right?  But don’t mind me, Contessa, I’m just one of the things you used to get to one of your optimal destinations.”

She touched her cheekbone, where the tattoo marked her face.

I didn’t have words, so I gave her a hug.  The armguard I wore was awkward, and Sveta’s costume had too many pokey bits, so it wasn’t the hug I wanted to give her.

She broke away, her arm dissolving into a mess of thin tendrils, which she used to reach up to the box lid.  Her control faltered, and for several long seconds, her power gripped the various parts of the tote-like container, the hinges, tugged it nearly off the shelf.

“I hate this,” she said, before concentrating for a moment to assert her control.  She opened the box, reached up to the shelf above it to lift herself over, and then climbed in.

I flew after the group.  I found them in the room with the computers, alongside Rachel, Imp, two Harbingers, two Mortari capes, Foil and Parian.  Chastity was staying close to Rachel, talking to her.  Rachel was eating out of what looked like one of Teacher’s ration kits for his thralls, nodding her head.

We’d known the Undersiders and Harbingers would be in the area.

Chastity looked scared, and I couldn’t blame her.  Whatever option we chose, Heartbroken died, or her best friend did.  It almost looked like she would cry, but a smile on her face and a persistent, constant talking under her breath to Rachel kept her from stepping over that ledge.

It made me think of Kenzie.

Kenzie wouldn’t be untouched either.  Heartbroken or Breakthrough, she would take it hard, unless we chose the option where we let Teacher pull the trigger, hurt the city and kill civilians, while leaving the heroes unscathed.

“…help in the blind spot,” one of the Harbingers said.  He smiled.

“Please do,” Contessa said.  “That makes things more consistent.  Antares, now that you’re here, could you take one of the dogs?  Into the room behind you.  Some of your teammates are there.”

“We’re just going into a room?”

Rachel put the ration kit down, bent down, and straightened up with a dog under one arm.  She approached, carrying a smaller dog under one arm.

Contessa explained, “After three impacts, use your forcefield.  I gave instructions to the others.  Go now, be ready.  Discuss what you want.  I’ll have further instructions after you’ve come to your decision.”

I wanted to ask questions, to say something.

Rachel handed me the dog.  It was a chihuahua that might have been inbred, its teeth sticking out at one side, hair in a tuft that tried to become a mane, tracing down the back of the neck, while being too thin.  More wispy fur extended around its paws.  It made its best attempt at a deep-in-the-throat growl, which was less intimidating than me saying ‘urrrrr’ might have been.

“Hi Yips,” I said.

“Good remembering,” Rachel said.  “Look after him.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

I walked away, dog in the crook of my arm, periodically turning its head around.  It stared at Ashley and Rain, growling, turned its head, and seemed to notice I was there, jumping a little, before yipping and barking.  Like it had fucking forgotten I was carrying it in the five seconds it was focused on  something else.

The room that looked like a conference room, with a whiteboard on the wall with lots of chemical formulas written on it.  Within the room, Ashley and Rain were waiting, Rain sitting on the table, Ashley by the wall.

“Are we supposed to discuss this?” Rain asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I feel like it’s a personal decision, and it’s not really a decision we have any right to make.”

“Maybe we write it on our hands?” he asked.  “We show each other simultaneously, so we don’t influence each other.”

It felt like such a shitty way to decide on so many lives.

“Yeah, if we don’t come up with anything better.  Where’s Capricorn?”

“Filling an elevator shaft with water.”

I could see through the open door as Contessa worked on the computer.  At least we had a bit of a reprieve.  She wasn’t running for cover, and I didn’t hear anything, let alone any impacts.

The Harbingers were sticking close.  Contessa pointed in the direction of the elevators, then at our group.  A third point was aimed in Sveta’s direction, where the massive storage totes were.  Both Harbingers turned their heads around to look.

“How are your ribs?” I asked Swansong.

“Fine,” she said, the answer terse.

“She got shoved by the Custodian.  It bled pretty badly.”

“I stopped the bleeding.  It’s not a problem, I’m good to fight.”

I turned around, looking for the whiteboard markers, and found one on the ground.  It seemed to be a permanent marker, used to draw the lines that sub-divided partitions and portions of the whiteboard and write headers.  A part of me wanted to grab another marker, but it felt petty and weird to do so when handling a decision like this.

I pulled off my glove, and, after some consideration, I wrote down my preference for the plan, the handwriting awkward because I couldn’t write on my injured hand, so I was forced to write on my right hand with my left, which had the armguard and buckler around it, and a squirmy dog under my arm.

Then I pulled my glove back on using my teeth, covering the letters.  Rain put his hand out for the marker, and I gave it to him.

“1, 2, or 3?”

“I used ABC.”

“I’ll do the same then.”

Contessa was still at the computer.  I closed my eyes, shutting out the rest of the world while I thought to myself.  In the doing, accidentally opened the map from Lookout’s tech.

Lookout had a question:

what r the letters for?

I found another marker, and wrote on the whiteboard.  Making a decisionCan you ask the others to vote too?  Write it down for after?

sure thing!!

Swansong pulled her costume’s shoulder strap away from her shoulder, and she wrote something there, her back to us, before lifting the strap up to cover it.

“My power would erase anything I wrote on my palm.”

“Of course.”

Contessa, still at the computer.  The Harbingers were gone.

Whatever she was doing was working.  When I switched my view away from the map and to Kenzie’s diagram of the facility’s infrastructure, I could see that Kenzie was making headway.  I could see some messages between her and the computer console Contessa was at.

I cannot work with tinkertech or tinker code but I can give you the boot passwords to the server terminals.  Old data is still on the systems, heavily encrypted. 

i reset & access old system archetecture in at boot lvl???

Yes.

d-  ! _ !  d-

It felt like we should be going after Teacher, not waiting.  The Custodian would be telling Teacher that Contessa was out, he would be making plans to pull the trigger, whatever the fuck that was supposed to mean.

“When do we reveal the letter we chose?” Swansong asked.

“Or letters.  If you’re okay with multiple ones,” I said.  “For a certain use of ‘okay’.”

“When?” she asked.

“After this supposed trap of Custodian’s.”

“We should ask others,” she was uncharacteristically quiet.

“If we get a chance,” I said.

“I feel like I’m getting more blood on my hands no matter what I choose.  And it’s going to be people I know, no matter what I choose?  People I barely know.”

I clenched my teeth, looking away.

“More blood-” Ashley started.  She stopped as she felt it.

I expected a blast, a rumble.  I expected Contessa to get off the computer in advance of the attack.  Instead, the explosion was dull, like all the air was sucked out of the room.  The room distorted, the floor dipping in one corner.

In the center of the room with the computer terminals, I saw a pillar plunge into the floor, the ceiling turning into a cone around it, dipping down.  Dust plumed up and out, and Contessa turned her head, raising a thin arm to cover her face with her arm and the fabric of her shirt.

The Custodian is collapsing this section of the facility, I thought.  All of it?

The entire terminal room followed the pillar down, concrete cracking and tearing, rebar exposed, dust pluming, and lights going out.  White tile and wall segments broke away, bounced, clattered, all illuminated by the red of the emergency lights.

Our room was next, the floor cracking with a violent shudder, then dropping away.  We fell in darkness, no cues, no idea of what to avoid.  Yips struggled violently, shrieking as he fought to get away from my grip.

The floor crashed into the floor beneath.  Half the room bucked, forcing us into one corner of the space, dangerously close to one another.  Things groaned, but I could hear the cascading destruction as the floor we were now resting on collapsed as well.

Had to get away.  If I didn’t, using the Wretch would kill the others.  I fought to fly and crawl to a more enclosed area of the room.

Rain used silver blades, drawing out lines.

The floor gave away.  We dropped, hitting the floor beneath that.  The weight of concrete and material slamming into the floor was too much, and the third impact came before I was done grunting from the second.

I used my power, pushing out- and the violence of the fourth impact saw concrete that had been in slabs coming apart into chunks as big as my head, illuminated only by the silver blades from Rain’s power.

Ashley used her power, blasting, as I tumbled, letting myself fall because any of the added velocity from flying could be dangerous.  I had no idea if I was falling into the blast, but I did know the corner I’d wedged myself into prior to using the Wretch wasn’t there anymore, and if I’d stayed I’d have been pulverized.

She continued using her power, blasting continuously, while I lay where I was, cradling the animal that had gone utterly still, only breathing with explosive pants that seemed to double how big it was.  I didn’t get the impression it was Rachel’s power.

“Everyone okay?” Rain asked.  His voice was muffled.

I panted for breath, nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see me any more than I could see him.  “Yeah.”

“Yes,” Swansong said, grunting.

The slabs had fallen in such a way that we were in a bit of a lean-to, an intact section of metal pipping holding up a slab so it formed a triangular prism.

Yips began to expand.  This time, it wasn’t because of breathing.  I pushed him away.

Concrete cracked and groaned.  I remained ready to use my power-

I closed my eyes and held my breath as choking dust flowed into our little piece of safe ground.  I waited until my lungs were fit to burst, then breathed through my sleeve.  I regretted it as I choked on dry dust, coughing.

When I opened my eyes, I could see lights, so distant and numerous that they could have been stars of the night sky.  Except they were ordered in rows and columns.

I looked up, and I saw they were ceiling lights, on a floor far above where we had been.  Past the choking dust, I could make out the skeletal rows and columns of walls and floors, from the parts of the facility that were still intact, surrounding us on four sides.

Too many had thralls perched on them, staring down at us.  Many of those thralls were armed.  We stood in no man’s land, an area of devastation so vast I knew that even if I’d flown from the moment the Custodian had disappeared, ducking and weaving through corridors, I might not have escaped the full breadth of the damage.

And yet even with all of that gone, we were still indoors, still surrounded by facility.  By thralls.

Yips, instead of waiting and letting us assess the situation, heaved himself free of the concrete slab that was now resting against him.  Monstrous and the size of a horse, he shook the dust off.

Byron was wet, joined by the Harbingers and Mortari capes.  The remains of the elevator were a spear of metal, stabbing skyward.

Contessa straightened, dusting herself off.

“His lieutenants are here.  They know how I operate, so they’ll be careful,” she said.  “They’ll be sure to only engage me from a distance, but that doesn’t mean they won’t target you if they can.  Be ready.”

I could see Saint’s angel craft.  I could see costumed figures with glowing points on their armor, that could have been the Speedrunners.  Could have been anything.  I saw Scapegoat, Black Lamb, whatever he called himself.  Had to be, with the motif to his helmet.  He wore tinker gear.

I used flight to straighten myself up, because I still didn’t have my sea legs after that drop.  Ashley got to her feet, hand at her ribs, in an uncharacteristic show of weakness.  Rain remained crouching, looking around.

“I’ll need your decision,” Contessa said, before stepping forward to pick a fight with what looked like half of Teacher’s facility.

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Dying – 15.6

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It was quiet.

We’d fought every step of the way, practically, and the din of combat had been constant.  No time to think, one crisis after another.

Now, for ten minutes, the only sound was the hum of voices and the occasional blub from one of the destroyed, partially submurged filtration tanks.

We had gathered in and near one of the side hallways extending out from the big room with the four building-size water filtration structures.  It was high off the ground, giving those of us close to the hall’s entryway a view of the flooding in the room.  The water wasn’t deep, but it was a stadium-size dome, and it added up to a lot of water.  Every one of the structures had taken damage except for the one closest to us.

I stood near the entry to the hallway, the partially open door giving me some privacy, even though the room I was in was so vast.  My breastplate was off, my costume top pulled off.  The cape who was looking after me didn’t have any powers that helped, which… helped.  I could endure that poking and prodding.

My recently flensed hand was bandaged, and my physical therapist was probably going to yell at me over the way I’d injured it, torn it open, patched it up, then torn it open again.  I had bad bruising on my upper body from when I’d taken the bullet to the breastplate earlier, especially early in the sense that it had happened only midway between our entry and our fight here.  I had barely registered it until I’d tried to sit down with the others and it hit me all at once.

Siren was the cape who was looking me over.  The costume he wore was in the usual Advance Guard style, all angles, geometric shapes and future-tech in style, with his particular aesthetic touching on the reds and blues of his namesake sirens, as well as the sea monster thing.  It almost reminded me of Byron’s outfit, run through an ‘Advance Guard’ filter.  He stepped back, leaning against the catwalk railing that I really wouldn’t have been leaning against, while I leaned against the wall by the door.  Without bending over, he reached down to the personal first aid kit he’d hung on the railing, got a thing of disinfectant spray, and rubbed his hands down.

His eyes didn’t leave my upper body.

It was enough to unnerve, but I could push myself deeper into that mindset I’d had to maintain in the hospital, letting nurses take care of me.  Privacy just didn’t happen when you needed someone else to look after your health.

Still, it had its limits.

“Problem?” I asked.

“I don’t like the swelling on your right side.”

“It hurt more, I got to thinking why.  I skimmed the ground while flying low.  More of a right-side impact.”

“Aggravated it.”

“Probably,” I said.  “Anything else?”

“You look worn out.”

“I feel like I’m fighting okay.  I’m not leading my team or calling any shots I don’t have to.  The worst that happens when I go on autopilot is that other people get hurt.”

“You’re getting hurt.”

“That’s attrition and I wouldn’t be much healthier if I was one hundred percent sharp.  I’ve been at the cape thing for long enough I have okay instincts.”

“What about other people getting hurt?”

“I… don’t have as many years of experience at holding back.”

“Ah.  Ex-vigilante?”

Vigilantes were the cape-scene term for the heroes who eschewed the game in favor of putting enemies down for the long term, if not permanently.  Break too many of the unwritten rules, break the actual laws, and life got harder.

“Nevermind,” he said, taking advantage of my pause before answering.  “You’re sharing details like you want my permission to go back into the field, but you don’t need it.  I have five years as a E.M.P., I can give you my best spot diagnosis, but it’s your call.  There’s no boss here I could tattle to, and I wouldn’t.”

“If you did have to give me a diagnosis?”

“Turn back.  If you trust your team to make calls while you’re not on your A-game, trust them to handle shit without their flying brick.  I’m betting they handled things before you joined.”

Depending on how you interpret ‘handled’.

“Do any of us capes really ‘handle’ stuff?” I asked.  Then, when he paused, I did much the same thing he’d done to me, and answered, “Nevermind.  Heavy question.”

“I’d say leave.  Heck, I’d say you have one teammate with severe enough injuries they should leave too.”

“I’m not sure the way out is going to be any easier than the way forward,” I said.  Fighting like we’d been fighting, through thralls and other obstructions, but with a pack of wounded?  Doing it with morale at rock bottom because we were bailing?

“We’d need some relatively able-bodied people to handle it.  I’d say if you’re capable of fighting but not on your A-game, then you can handle thralls without their full faculties, but not the kind of capes Balk and Stonewall were telling us are up ahead.”

“In my defense, I did help stop one or two tricks back there.  They tried discharging an electrified power core into the water.  Stopping that was fifty percent me, minimum.”

“Alright,” Siren said.  “Can’t argue that.”

“If we need people to escort wounded out ASAP, then I have ideas for names.  But I want to see this through.”

I didn’t mention that Imp’s idea of getting to the prisoners was part of our plan.  If I left, then I’d want to replace myself to ensure they had the necessary help to get that done, but at the same time, spreading the plan around increased the chance Teacher got ahead of it.

“Besides,” I heard Swansong.  “I’m not leaving.  I’m pressing on.”

I turned my head to look.  The door had a window at head level, and Swansong stood with her back to the door.  I could see the back of her head, a bit of the angel pilot’s blood still on the edge of her ear and in her white hair.

“Your ribs?” I asked, suppressing a wince as I pulled my top back on.

“Skin pushed more or less where it should be, everything’s bandaged.  Venarum said he won’t stop me.  Not that he would dare.”

“I saw your injury,” Siren said.  “I wouldn’t encourage fighting in that condition.  The kind of drugs you would need to ignore the pain-”

“No drugs,” Swansong said.  “Drugs mess with powers.  I don’t need any surprise changes throwing me off.”

“As opposed to the hole in your side.”

“Skin deep.”

“And the ribs that looked charred.”

“No cracks, no fractures.  It won’t slow me down.  Besides, if I took other drugs, I couldn’t safely take the drugs Shin gave us.”

The power altering drugs the Coalition government of Shin had given us.  One to boost raw power, only to be used if we had absolute confidence in our control.  One to boost range, at a loss of power, same stipulation about control.  One to just scupper every aspect of a power and render it useless, if we could get it into someone’s bloodstream.

“You want that, huh?” I asked, as I got my breastplate on.

“More power?  Of course.”

Her tone was cavalier, casual Ashley.  No sign of the shocked, lost Ashley I’d seen before everyone had regrouped and gathered here.  But of course there wouldn’t be.  I’d made the mistake before of thinking there was a villainous Ashley behind the mask of the hero or a heroic Ashley behind the mask of the villain.  There wasn’t.  Morality was an aesthetic and that aesthetic came second to her drive to ascend.  To look behind the mask meant to find the times that drive wasn’t front and center.  Times she was with Kenzie.  Times she was vulnerable, whether it was because she’d just accidentally killed a woman or because she’d cast off her hands in front of a crowd to make a point.

Siren didn’t help me with the breastplate, instead focusing his effort on getting his medical kit back in order.  I finished around the same time he was clipping the kit to the side of his belt.

“Thank you for the checkup, and looking after my hand.”

“I’ll say this: if you keep abusing it, I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t lose that skin altogether, or even lose the hand.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I’m sure you said that before,” Siren said.  “Then you made other things a priority.  Yes?”

“Yeah, guess so.”

“Then do something about it.  Don’t make it a consideration.”

“You’re a bit of a hardass, huh?”

“I’m backup medical and team doctor for a team of sixty full-cocked, aggressive capes with four tertiary teams, who love to get themselves hurt.  I have to be.  Put something over that hand.”

“We have someone who can do that,” I heard Sveta say, from the other side of the door.

Everyone’s eavesdropping, huh?

I stepped into the hallway, and found it wasn’t everyone, but Swansong and Tress.

“How are we doing?” I asked.

“The Heartbroken are drying off, Lookout is in regular contact since we patched into Saint’s mech, the boys were talking about the game plan.”

I nodded.

The mood in the hallway was subdued, all business, few smiles.  We’d pulled a lot of people out of the water with injuries.  We’d gone to rescue a few people and found corpses.

We passed Balk’s group, who were sitting, crouching, and standing on either side of the hallway, with just enough room between them that we had to pass single file.  Balk was dead, and they were figuring out their new leadership structure.  Sarah was with them, floating in a sitting position beside a guy who was honing his sword blade with a whetstone.  Her injuries were bandaged, and she seemed to be okay.  She watched me as I passed, with eyes that weren’t anything like my Aunt’s.

Stonewall’s group stuck close enough to Balk’s residuals that Stonewall could listen in and offer his occasional input.  Venarum had shifted focus to look after some of their wounded, in conjunction with a cyborg tinker who was very literally patching people up with temporary stopgaps.  I could see a few people who’d had bio-organic plates of armor set over their injuries.   He was in the midst of a procedure, setting a golf-ball sized sphere into a hole in someone’s head, where their ear had been torn… not off, but out, to the point that the surrounding muscles had been torn too.  He filled in the gap with what looked like biomechanical foam, dispensed out of a can.  Little LEDs that were set throughout the foam like chips in chocolate chip cookies flashed red, red, green, and stayed green.  Slowly, the metallic blob and the lights around the blob were rearranging into something that fit the lines of his head and face better.

I tested the movement of my fingers and thought about my injured hand.  Sveta, seeming to read my mind, nudged me and shook her head.

I waited until we were far enough away to ask.  “Why not?”

“Because they’re selfish about it,” she said.  “They won’t give it to someone who isn’t a teammate.  Part of that is because it’s messy, needs maintenance.  Maintenance you wouldn’t get.”

“Fair,” I said.  I couldn’t deny that a good, non-healer quick fix might have been appealing.

“Besides,” Sveta said.  “Too many nanotech incidents came through the Asylum.”

“Yeah.  Oh yeah.”

Rain and Capricorn were talking to Tristan’s old teammate, except her costume had changed.  The faceplate with the ears that she’d been wearing had changed from cat to something that made me think ‘weasel’.  Her costume was sleeker overall, with smaller ears.  Claws had been changed up, and the gear she wore at her arms extended up to her shoulders, with a of linked metal segments stringing between the shoulder plates, a ‘tail’ of the same segments running from the center of the segment, straight down her back to the floor, forming a kind of ‘y’ shape.

That was neat, if her costume updated when she used her power.  Either she was deciding on the aesthetic, which earned her some big points in my book, or her power was, which was interesting.

Rain was drawing on the floor in erasable marker.  It looked like a very rough representation of the complex.  There were some letters written around the end, arrows pointing from them.

I closed my one eye, and brought up Kenzie’s map- or I tried to.  Instead I got a new image, abstract, with lots of abstract rectangle, diamond, snowflake, and other fractal shapes, of varying complexity and size, all connected in a webwork of horizontal and vertical lines.  Some were yellow, some were white with black outlines, and some were multicolored between the two.  Some notes by Lookout were on the side, as were some cryptic options.

“What’s this new data?” I asked Sveta.  “Uh, between the map and the full chat.”

“Hack progress,” Sveta said.  “I was watching while you were getting your hand wrapped up.  Kenzie had questions and I had educated guesses.”

“Got it,” I said.  I blinked through to the map.  While I waited for it to update, Sveta stepped forward, bending down beside Rain, and took the offered marker.

“Antares needs a guard or encasement over her hand,” Sveta said.  “You have tools?”

“Some,” Rain said.  “What do you need done?”

I answered, “Something strapped to the forearm that extends forward over the hand.  Leave my hand free underneath, so I can still grab things if I have to?”

“I might be able to do that.  I saw a wall panel over there.”

He climbed to his feet, taking my offered hand, and jogged off.

“What about the east side?” Tristan asked his old teammate, tapping the drawing of the map.  “Do you remember who went in through there?”

“No,” she answered.

“Victoria,” Tristan said.  “With our group spread for the second wave, who went in through portals bringing them in from the west?”

“The benched members of the Shepherds, some sub-teams.  Mortari’s… kids, I guess?”

“The Harbingers,” Swansong said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Things one through whatever.  Never sure what to call them.”

“Thanks,” Tristan said.  “It came up a couple of times already.  When they sent us in, they didn’t send us in by the gates near where our acquaintances and teammates came in.  Furcate was saying her sub-squad changed course after some tinker hijinks made walls and rooms move.  We changed course a bit because of the obstructions we ran into.  So that’s why we ran into each other, but that’s not what Cinereal wanted.”

I made a mental note of the name.  Furcate.  Had it changed with the costume, or had I gotten it wrong?  Civilian name and cape name?

“Do you doubt Cinereal?” Swansong asked.

Tristan shook his head.  “I- no.  That’s not what I’m getting at.  Cinereal probably thought it would be bad for morale if we made our second attempt at breaking into this place and found all of our old teammates or the first-string members of our teams dead.  Add in how complicating it is if at the same time we’re running into people who should be dead but aren’t…”

“Which a good thing,” Furcate said.  “Yay, being alive.”

So good a thing,” Tristan said.

“There’s another side to it,” Sveta said.  “If a team with one mindset tackles a problem, can’t do it, you don’t want to send people with the same mindset and approach to handle the same problem.”

“That could be part of it,” Tristan conceded.

Rain had returned with the hatch of a floor panel or something of the sort in his hand, textured to be non-slip.  He also had Colt following behind him, Love Lost following behind Colt.  Rain found a spot beside me, took the marker from Sveta, and had me hold up my arm while he traced the general dimensions onto the smooth side of the panel.

Tristan went on, “You get what I mean, though, Antares?  Cinereal probably thought it was better to keep it simple.”

“I follow you, but I don’t see where you’re going with this,” I said.

“Where we don’t know all of the details of who was sent where, probably because the Wardens wanted to compartmentalize info, we can intuit who might be where by assuming they were placed as far from their first-wave analogues as possible.  If Breakthrough had sent in some members through with the first wave, they’d have gone in from one of the west entryways, while we came in through the east.  Except we’re not that big.  But the other teams are.”

“Shepherds go in through the east in the first wave, so the second wave, second-string Shepherds are sent in west.  To put them further from their team,” I said.  “Advance Guard came in from the southeast with Balk and Stonewall, so the second wave are going in through the northwest.”

Tristan shrugged, “It’s not so cut and dry, given the placements of our access points, and how some teams were split up, like Advance Guard, but yeah.”

“My team went in through the south, and we were supposed to trace a path clockwise across the facility,” Furcate said.  “We changed to split off east because we knew Advance Guard’s team was taking the gallery, and we really, really wanted to make sure we disrupted the system there.  If there wasn’t resistance, we were to see what we could do to get comms running again, using infrastructure there.  There was resistance.”

“No duh,” Colt said.  A great contribution to the conversation.

“Okay,” Tristan said.  “Then we can intuit that the other members of the Undersiders should be around there.  Dog girl-”

“Bitch,” I said.

“It feels shitty, calling her that.  But yeah.  Foil, Parian.  Tattletale’s bodyguard, Snuff.”

We knew who was going to be there, then.  I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad that it was easy to figure out, considering that we had compartmentalized information for a reason.

Rain had made the panel thinner by carefully carving it with a silver blade held in his hand, then banging it against his knee.  He slashed it with another silver blade and banged it, only for Colt to stop him.  She used her own power, going breaker and cutting with the black blade that jutted from her arm, and it made for a tidier cut.

Sveta and Tristan went over room preferences, but it didn’t seem to matter too much from a practicality standpoint.  The area had been repurposed since the Irregulars had investigated it and passed through the building, and what had been administrative offices had been repurposed into something more closed off, according to Imp’s intel.  Fridges, quarantine for sick thralls, and cells.

Rain bent the panels into shape and matched them to my arm.  From there, it was a pretty fast process, riveting them together, figuring out a way to strap them on.

I saw Love Lost watching.

“When Love Lost was helping you with your arm, it was because she got tinker tokens last night?” I asked.

Rain looked up at Love Lost, then back down at the work.  “Yeah.”

“I thought they were a corrupting force.”

He looked up at her.  She didn’t budge, only staring him down.

“Not with the random ones, I’m pretty sure.  Or that isn’t as serious.  But she did take them from Cradle, too.  The Wardens were wanting to make sure he didn’t have the capacity to fight back when they went through the portal to his campsite to talk to him about the potential raid.  Reducing his capacity by having him hand over tokens.  He didn’t want to give the tokens to me, but giving them to Love Lost meant Cradle couldn’t be clever.”

“He couldn’t be clever anyway,” Colt said.  “Dick.”

Rain went on like Colt hadn’t butted in.  “We figured she wasn’t leaving her cell so it didn’t do any harm, it helped us out, so it was more goodwill for her, kind of.”

“She wants a day off every year, so she can visit her daughter,” Colt said.

I saw Love Lost tense.

“I wasn’t going to bring that up,” Rain said.

Her daughter was dead.  Would that be a visit every birthday, then?  Or a visit on the anniversary of her daughter’s death?

“I did something similar,” I said.  “I used to go back home to where my family was, pay a visit, leave flowers or pictures I’d seen.  Matters.”

I looked back at ‘Sarah’.  My aunt’s shadow.  I looked back to Love Lost, and she was staring off into the distance, but her body language had relaxed a bit.

Rain continued explaining, “It’s why Love Lost was listening to me earlier.  The deal was she would come, I’ll say my piece to the Wardens about convincing them not to punish her as much, but this whole thing has to be on safe terms.  She’s under the influence of his tokens, but she’s not acting on that influence.  She listens to Breakthrough and the Wardens.”

Love Lost abruptly walked away.  I didn’t see any anger in it.  Maybe irritation.

We watched her go, her claws clicking on the floor.  Some capes gave her wary looks.  Many of them would have been briefed on her when we were dealing with Cradle and his whole mess.

She walked to the hallway entrance, onto the catwalk that overlooked our recent battlefield.

Rain’s whole plan with this Love Lost collaboration sounded way more precarious than I’d thought it was.

“I trust her in this,” Rain had lowered his voice.  He was still working.  “I want this whole shitty thing to be better than it is.  If that means trusting her and getting killed… fine.  But I don’t think she will kill me.  If she didn’t have Cradle’s influence, I think the chances of her coming after me would go up.”

“She wants to do it with a clear head,” Colt said.

Rain gave her a dubious look.  “Did she say that?”

“No.  Not recently.  It was when things were hectic so you can’t really blame her.”

Rain gave her a more dubious look.

“Benefit of getting tokens in our quadrant is both Love Lost and I get the bonus,” Colt said.  “My tinkering’s better, not that I had much time.  I mostly had to grab what was confiscated when they brought me in, and finish my work.”

The chatter continued, moving into less interesting stuff.  Rain began to work on a buckler to affix to the guard that was going over my hand and forearm.

I looked at the maps, and at the hacking progress.  From the text on the side, I could see one side of Kenzie’s conversation with Swansong.  Talking shop, talking team stuff.  Ashley would write something down and hold it up for Kenzie to read through the eye camera.  Kenzie would respond, printing text onto our view.

Kenzie was typing with lowercase ‘i’ instead of the capital one.  She’d let more typos slip through.  In another circumstance, I would have wholly chalked it up to her being busy with hacking, but it wasn’t that.

Hold out, Kenzie.  Keep it together, do what you can, and we’ll get through this.  We’ll stop Teacher, put this whole mess to rest, and then look after the city while Breakthrough gives you some support and encouragement.  Movies and hot chocolate, talks, whatever you need.

I could only make that mental pledge because it was what I was telling myself.

Sarah had risen to her feet, I saw.  With that, I realized she wasn’t alone.  The guy who had been honing his sword was sheathing it, slipping the honing stone into a breast pocket of his costume.  Others were getting ready.

I wanted to stop for two weeks, to have no crises, no Shin, no Cheit, no fucking Teacher.

I wanted to not have stopped at all.  To still be moving forward, because this wasn’t easy.

But my team wasn’t in good shape.

“Try that,” Rain said.

He’d done up the buckler with a star on it to match the icon at my breastplate and hood.  It was fixed to the armplate, and the armplate still needed straps, though it had holes for the straps to feed through.  I put it over my arm, and with a moment of Wretch strength, pinched it to a tighter fit.  I had spare bandage, and used that to serve as the straps.

“People are leaving,” Imp said, while I focused on the armor.  “We should go too.”

With that, Withdrawal and Caryatid approached, along with Grapnel, Fume Hood, and the scattered members of our third team.

“It might be better if we keep the group small,” Imp said.  “I’m sending Roman and Samuel with the Wardens.”

I looked over the others.  Nevermind Mortari, the Malfunctions and Fume Hood were capes in my charge, who I’d inducted into the game, so to speak.  Fume Hood had almost stopped being a hero after the community center attack, and it had been Crystalclear, Tempera and me who had convinced her to stick it out.  The Malfunctions might never have broken into the big time with the path they’d been traveling.

“This is in no way a complaint about your performance,” I told the Malfunctions.  “You stood side to side with Wardens and big-name capes and you held your own, you were strong.”

“You’re ditching us,” Withdrawal said.  Caryatid seemed alarmed at that, like she was worried about offending us.

“I’m-” I started.

“I’m joking,” he said.  “I get it.”

“Thank you for talking me through the scary stuff earlier, Antares,” Caryatid said.  She clasped her hands together, and the puffy ends of her sleeves masked her hands as they smooshed together.  “Be safe.”

“You too,” I said.

The heroes were filing out now.  I watched Sarah go.

It was gratifying and heartwrenching at the same time, that she cast a look over her shoulder.  Maybe it was because I was staring at her a lot.  A good-sized part of me hoped it was because there was some lingering affection.

Fume Hood, the Malfunctions and Mortari capes joined the tail end.  Roman walked backward while assessing our group, smirked at his sister, and then turned around, falling into step beside Caryatid.  She was at least a year older than him, maybe two years older, but he was tall and lanky, and of a height with her.  He said something, and she turned her face his way, lower part masked by her costume.  Samuel just walked, hands in his pockets, trailing behind everyone else, happy to be a straggler.

Love Lost and Colt joined us.

“We could send them with others,” Tristan said.

“The deal was kind of that they’d stay where we could watch them,” Rain said.  “But we could.”

“Their powers are useful,” I said.  I put excess bandage at the back of my wrist, so my hand wouldn’t slap back against the metal that now extended over it, stunning me with the pain.  “But trust your instincts.”

His instincts were to bring them along.  Worked.

We still had too many to be a covert group, but it helped to reduce the numbers down some.

We headed the opposite direction the others were leaving by.  They re-entered the domed area with the water filtration structures, and they would move on, chasing in the direction Saint had fled.

As for us?  We ran, we flew.

We weren’t even out of the hallway when the sounds of battle reached us.  It came from behind us, suggesting the group we had just left behind had run into trouble the moment they’d started to go after Saint.

We would have to hope Imp was right.  The numbers arrayed against us were too great, Teacher too untouchable.

“Lookout says to wait.  Imp should go ahead,” Swansong said.

We slowed, waiting.

I closed my eye, then opened it, looking for Kenzie’s message.  I could see the map, and I could see the overlay with computer systems, servers, and connections.  I could see Kenzie’s messages.

this is an area with bombs

they airgaped some of these security-sensitive systems but their computers are on and are connected to active cameras.

pinging

i can spoof commands and keystrokes if i do this right

“Lookout is bypassing security,” Swansong said.  “Bombs.  She says it’s airgapped, whatever that means.”

“You need to watch more spy movies,” Chastity said.

I saw Ashley rankle a bit at that.

Rain rubbed at his eye.  “Airgapped means no wifi, no wires, nothing connecting it to the outside.  A lot of these systems are.”

“Lookout can still do it,” Swansong said.

done. pretty sure. shouldn’t explode now

I led the way, Wretch up, and floated, surveying the area.  The others followed once I gave my tentative thumbs up.

The room contained fixtures that looked like the consoles of a nuclear reactor, massive computers with sturdy construction all around them.  Monitors showed water levels, flashing red alarms, and, with every passing second, Lookout’s mask took over more of them.  With the lights off and all of the illumination coming from monitors, the room went from a red cast from the flashing red monitors to a dull white-green.

Then, just as swiftly, the scenes on monitors was replaced by images of Teacher.  Color surveillance video showed the perspective of one of the mechs looking down.  The big guy with a cross tattooed on his face could only be Saint.  He had climbed out of his mech and stood facing it, smoking.  He was engaged in what looked like an emotional conversation with another big guy, brown-skinned, with a thick black hipster beard and tattoos.  In the moments Saint wasn’t venting, he looked abjectly miserable.  The foot of a man I could make an educated guess was one of the Speedrunners was visible at another edge of the camera.  Both Dragonslayers turned to look his direction as if he’d said something.

Next monitor.  Teacher was visible at the very edge, some others gathered near him.  I recognized Ingenue.  Ms. Webb.  There was a blur on the screen that wasn’t resolving, but I could guess who she was and why Lookout had set her to be automatically blurred out.  She stood next to Valefor.

It meant she was Mama Mathers, and, worse, Valefor had a jaw again.  He had eyes.  He was talking to her.

All of them were fine.  They weren’t fighting, and with the exception of Saint, they weren’t especially stressed out.  They waited and watched through the same kinds of camera we were looking at them through.

Teacher was the only one who was really doing anything, accepting a single file line of people in white, shaking their hands, letting them walk on with a bit less hesitation in their step.  Producing thralls by the second.

A lot of people with tattoos.  Had he tapped a prisoner population somewhere?

“Kenzie tends to lose against Teacher’s collective effort,” Swansong observed.  “In the past, the best she could do was to maintain a stalemate, without much of a counterstrike.  She’s winning now if she’s risking pushing in this far.”

I looked again at the grid of Kenzie’s influence over the base.  It wasn’t total domination, but it was a creeping victory.  Here and there, something would get flipped back over to Teacher’s control, or it would go black, and cut off a whole branch of her control.  Power and lines being cut, I imagined.

On another screen, I could see the outside of the facility through a camera mounted on an exterior wall.  The wall of the facility seemed to disappear into the mountains in the horizon, the fog of clouds overhead obscuring the upper floors.  Legend and about fifty other capes were gathered beneath a pyramid of forcefields that someone’s power had conjured up.  They could fire out, while the forcefields prevented incoming fire.  One or the other seemed to empower the forcefields, so that when they reached a certain point, they detonated, the blast exploding out in a line.

But there were a lot of capes in there, opposite Legend’s group.  Those capes had powers.

A… lot of close to identical powersets, if not totally identical.  Three different capes raised forcefields.

The camera shook, momentarily going dark as lights in the room flickered.  A part of me imagined I could feel that shake for myself, even though we were nowhere close to that.

Words appeared in my field of view, and I had to look at a dark surface to better make the yellow letters out.

teacher wants to talk to me

I found a pad and pen, and I scribbled out a note to her.

No.

There was no way that went well or made things better.

weren’t we supposed to distract him?

We were the ones getting distracted.  There was no need for us to be here.  I motioned for people to move, and I watched cameras as we passed, my hand scribbling out a message while the heel of that same hand pressed the paper against the buckler that was now part of my costume.

He’s distracting you, Lookout, I wrote.  It might help him locate where you are, or cause you to lose headway as his thralls counter your effortsUnder no circumstance.  Protocols

Her message appeared, again in a spot that was hard to read.  Then, as I watched, the letters shifted, moving down, down, down, until they were superimposed against the space beneath my eye’s field of view.  Written as if I could see through my cheekbone to see yellow letters against a pink-black background.

ok

“And you’re vulnerable to Teacher, Lookout,” I murmured.  “He could prey on your every weakness with so little difficulty.”

Ashley was walking down another aisle of the computers, and looked over at me like she’d heard.  Her expression was stern.

Same thought?

“Can you imagine?” Chastity asked.  “You have ungodly power, access to untold knowledge, you can cross between multiple worlds, access a half-dozen Earths worth of culture and knowledge, and you make bland.  White floor, white ceiling, no art, no life, no love, no humanity at all.”

I could see monitors, and there was nothing human about what I was seeing there.  Moord Nag was on Teacher’s side, wearing white.  There were so many damn capes, and too many of them were on Teacher’s side.

A part of me had been hoping that things had settled down after Gold Morning because they’d gone home, or they’d retired.  The big evil world-destroyer was gone, things were peaceful, maybe they’d just hung up the cape or cut back how much they were doing.

Maybe some had.

But enough had found their way to Teacher to make a difference here.

Enough that on one monitor, Chevalier lay on the ground, his sword dropped.  For every cape on his side, each now unconscious and lying on the ground, there were three on the opposing side, standing over limp forms, or securing restraints.  Narwhal was with him, wrapped in a sheet that had absorbed the blood from the floor, her forcefields down – no horn or scales.

On one monitor, I could see Valkyrie being carried by members of what might have been her flock.  On the monitor next to it, I could see Undersiders.  Bitch, Parian, Foil, working in concert with the Shepherds.

I could see Vista working with Golem and Cinereal.  Cinereal was breaker, producing waves of dark gray ash that converted the parts of the building it touched into more ash.  Vista made the expanses of ash wider.  Golem made hands reach up out of it.  A uniform environment for a power that was very environment dependent.

She hadn’t made nearly as much progress as I’d hoped, but from the bodies in that camera’s view, it looked like she’d had to wade through a hell of a lot of shit.  She had said her power wasn’t very good on the offense.  Too slow to apply.

It felt like being in a schoolyard game, the kids being picked one by one by the team captains.  The teams had finished picking

“Imp,” Chastity said.  “The screens.”

“We should go,” Byron said.

“Really, Imp, look at the screens,” Chastity insisted.

Imp’s face leaned into my peripheral vision, making me jump.  She reached for a screen, and for a moment, I thought it was for the Undersiders.

But it was for the image of Valkyrie, and for the revived people that carried her.  I had my suspicions as to why, but the hand blocked my view, and the group moved out of the camera’s frame, and when the monitor switched to another group, it wasn’t Valkyrie or the flock.

I looked at Imp.

“She has good taste in minions.”

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Some cute guys in there who look like they have dark senses of humor.  Did you see the guy with the red costume and the wide smile?  You have to love a guy who can smile in the shittiest circumstances.”

“I think that’s Roucouler the Liar.  And I think the smile is built in.”

“I can work with that,” Imp said, making an amused sound.

Then she was moving forward again.

I looked over at Chastity, who hugged herself a bit.  She said something to Juliette, who nodded.  The disconnect suggested Imp wasn’t being straight with me, which made me suspicious.

Chastity saw me looking.

“Cassie’s not here, right?” Chastity asked, her tone brighter, her expression not so serious.

“Not that I saw,” I said.

“Good.  I wouldn’t want this mess for her.”

Then she moved on, leaving me suspicious, still.

This group, Imp’s team, it was so hard to deal with.  They never approached anything straight-on.  Always an angle, roundabout, teasing, or ambushing.

There was another room of evacuated thralls off to the one side.  All wore white, still, but the white was stained, dirty.  They’d done indoor farming, animal care, shipping and loading, and the outfits were made more rugged for the purpose.  Now they sat, hands on knees, backs straight, being tended to by caretakers and patrolling observers.

We didn’t have to go through that room.  The map indicated a route.

From there, another set of stairs.  A door- Lookout was kind enough to open it for us, with no alarms sounding.

And then the rows of cells.  Most of the doors were empty.

Hairs tickled the back of my neck as I looked down the corridor.

Capricorn started forward.  Sveta put out a hand.

“Don’t,” she said.  “Remember the briefings.”

The briefings.

I felt the hair at one side of my face tickle me.

“We don’t make it to the end of the hallway without-”

A force slammed her into the wall.  Her body dissolved into tendrils, blunting the impact, but part of it was her forehead striking metal, and her face couldn’t break up into tendrils.

The Custodian.

Just a step behind me, Ashley slammed into the corner of a security door.  She didn’t have the benefit of being able to dissolve.

I lunged forward, flying, and something hit me, so continuous it didn’t knock my forcefield out right away.  I brought my arms and hands up to protect my face, changing my direction to fly into the doorway of an empty cell, my foot down to block the door from closing.

We had a strategy.  Sveta had briefed us on the same things the Irregulars had needed to learn and plan for before attacking Cauldron.

Reduce the avenues of attack.  Smaller confines made the Custodian smaller.  Being in the doorway meant she could only really attack me from the front.

Using powers like my forcefield, Rain’s power, and Capricorn’s ability to see what worked-

Didn’t matter.  She attacked the ceiling instead, pulling down electrical.  The wires were live in a way I’d never seen before, like there was tinkertech to the place, or they’d made it to be dangerous if the walls were breached.

Sparks flew and the wire bucked as the wire touched the doorframe.  Beside me, another wire did the same with the bedframe of the little cell.

Behind me, the pipe leading into the toilet ruptured.  Water sprayed in onto and around me-

I threw up the Wretch before the spray reached the wire.  For the time being, it blocked the water’s spray.

She tried to slam the door, but the cell was small enough my foot was close.  I flew a foot forward and blocked the slam.

Instead, she hit my forcefield, knocking it out.  I grabbed the mattress, and hauled it to one side, fabric serving to block most of it.  Then I flew forward again.  Back into the hallway, with doors to individual cells on each side.

This monster kept thousands of people prisoner.  The cells didn’t need bars, only alarms.  She was good enough to keep prisoners in line.  She’d fight people with new powers and she’d win.

She’d broken more water lines, and she’d broken more parts of the ceiling, bringing the wire down.

Turning the length of hallway into an impossible hazard.

Without warning, Colt tried to fly through, aiming for a gap.  The invisible force hit her, punting her into the corner of a doorframe.  She landed in electrified water, and the nodes on her arms glowed as they struggled to absorb the energy, while her own body convulsed.

I tried to get to her, and it was too much.  The occasional splash in my direction was as dangerous as the swing of a sword.

“Lookout says they’re sending more of their core team.  Mathers and Valefor,” Swansong relayed.  She stepped forward and blasted-

She was hit by the invisible force that was the Custodian as she used her power.  The blast came precariously close to me.

“Don’t use powers!  It was in the memo,” Sveta chided.

“I wanted to drain the water.”

“She’ll divert your aim or make us hit each other!  She’s not that strong on her own!”

She was strong enough.  The hallway was all wires, water, and I didn’t see a clear way forward.

“Go parallel!” I called out.

“Precipice, Swan!” Tristan and Byron clarified.  “Force her to split!”

The second they were out jailer’s door, I slammed it behind me.  It formed a seal that kept her from getting in or out.

Once I gauged I was safe, I flew out into the hallway again.  I made my bid for the door, weaving through wires and spraying water with my forcefield up.

I tried my aura, fearing an imminent hit, and I got further than I had so far.  A third of the way down the hall before she gathered composure enough to grab and hit me, driving me down toward the water.

I fought, Wretch lashing out and finding purchase in nearby wall, in floor.

I could hear Ashley using her power, hear the impact, the tearing as the power-use went wild, hitting things it shouldn’t.

Then quiet.

Quiet, and the sound of a squeaking door.

Imp, at the end of the hallway, and a woman in black jeans and a white dress top, underweight and hair unbrushed.

“What do you need?” the woman asked.

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Dying – 15.5

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Saint’s angels moved in formation, and that was spooky to see.  One suit used its wings to defend another not like it was automatic or robotic, but like it was a friend that had fought alongside its partner for a long time.  The movement itself was through the use of tinker tech, and in a confined space, however large that space was, that tech made the air and empty space around us into a hostile, pained, windless force.

Windless because wind went from point A to point B.  It could twist, turn, and get caught in itself.  This wasn’t that.  This was hover technology creating pressure, flight technology creating distortion, and antigrav technology that let three mechanical angels the size of small planes remain in place in the air.

Electrolysis could chemically break down water.  Gas bubbles would form out of nowhere.  I imagined something similar was happening here.  I could fly in rough winds and it would be a hassle, but as I flew over to cover, it was choppy as though I was flying through fireworks without the heat, noise, or smoke.  A counter-force hung in the air that drove me uniformly down as the suits moved up.

The winged suit unfurled its wings as it twisted in the air, more acrobatic than the other two.  Each wing was made of slats, top and bottom ends set at diagonals, each slat connected to the next, getting larger as they got further from the main suit.  With the unfurling, the wings glowed, and the slats replicated with projected images, each added slat taller than the last, with the final segments punching into the ceiling and floor both, right by the door.  Our group scattered, cut in half by the image.  The glow of the projected wings faded a second or two after the ‘impact’, but the damage remained, and a combination of smoke and concrete dust served to cloud our vision.

We took what cover was available.  Filtration systems the size of four-story buildings were spaced out around the ‘room’, pipes big enough to drive a truck through feeding out of those systems into wall, floor, and ceiling.  The domed ceiling high above us, accommodating the structures, and concrete fences were set here and there to ward employees away from dangerous parts of the structure.

Those concrete fences were our cover, until Tristan got something more put together.

I took the weird route, flying out and closer to the incoming fire from the tinkers on the ground, letting the Wretch take a hit, then grabbing the concrete fence, maneuvering myself into a spot between two capes.  Fume Hood and the harpoon guy.

Fume Hood reached a hand in front of her and three orbs appeared, manifesting from a place I couldn’t see on the far side of her hand, then circling around, small yellow-green moons in orbit around her hand.

She clenched her fist, and the orbs flickered, grew darker, a bit more misshapen.

Fist relaxed, her index and middle finger extended.  The three orbs flicked out, until there was one at her fingertips, another a couple of inches past it, and a third another couple of inches past that.  She twisted around, flinging her arm and peeking over cover in the same instant.

I had a glimpse of it as I abandoned my spot and flew over to where the smoke was clearing, Sveta was helping Rain get past the broken ground.  I was their human shield as they hurried to the concrete fence.  Off in the distance, Fume Hood’s shots hit home.  A dark green smoke covered the thralls at the top of one of the filtration systems.

Rain and Sveta squeezed in to spots along the curved concrete fence, tall enough to sit against or crouch by, not so tall that we could stand without head and shoulders in plain view.  Some other capes hurried over.  They might have been from Stonewall’s group.  We got some Heartbroken too.  Samuel, Chastity.

A hundred feet away, Ashley, Capricorn, and Caryatid were at another fence, with Gong and Prong’s squad and the remainder of the Heartbroken.  Balk’s squad was split between their fence and the next.

Past that, I could see Withdrawal with Balk’s squad and some members of the Advance Guard.  It was a contrast, and it worried me, because I knew he was more evasive than aggressive, and that group was aggressive.

Sveta grabbed my wrist and pulled me in closer, distorting in shape to give me room.  Rain didn’t have a lot of cover to himself, and hunkered down.  His recently repaired arm looked pretty ramshackle, with one of Love Lost’s claws bent and turned into a panel across the back of the hand.

I looked up, and I saw the filtration system nearest us.  A juggernaut of thick pipes and tanks.

“Harpoon guy, your name?”

“Grapnel.”

Worked.

“We might need to go up.  Can you give us your harpoons to hang on to?”

“Can’t leave ’em limp and dangling, if that’s what you mean.”

“Can you shoot at something higher up, and let people climb?”

“I-”

“Incoming!” someone called out.  “Scramble!”

It took a fraction of a second to locate the voice, another fraction of a second to realize they were talking to us.

I gripped the concrete fence, glancing over, my hair getting in my way as it momentarily floated like I was underwater.  I could see the robed suit orienting, a sword as long as two eighteen wheelers stuck end to end pointing our way.  Before, it had glowed like it was metal fresh out of the forge.  Now it was white.

My heart did something between a flip-flop and dropping out of my chest.  Sveta, Rain.  Even Fume Hood.

Impulsive, I flew over, and the act of flying in this environment was like moving while underwater.  I activated the Wretch a hair before it was safe to do so, and felt it hit the concrete barrier.

The sword became a beam, as wide as the aforementioned trucks.  The Wretch took the hit, and my forward flight was arrested, stopped.

Hold strong! I thought, as the Wretch absorbed and deflected the incoming fire.  It wasn’t large enough to block everything, and some of the beam scattered, hitting the filtration system.

Hold, damn it!

When the world had ended, the mind controlling entity that had seized us all and coordinated us for one phase of the attack had used me for this purpose.  To take a hit from Scion.  It had been almost absentminded.

The beam from the mech suit’s sword tapered off in the same instant my instincts told me to get the fuck away.  I rolled off to the side, and the Wretch flickered out and died a moment later.

It had always been better against sustained pressure than the single blows.

I took cover along the side of a pipe.  Water and steam gouted out of multiple places in the filtration system.  The cover was demolished, and my teammates gone.  Water rained down from above, cold enough to make my skin contract, while steam rose from above.

My forcefield took some time to return.  I moved slightly away from the tank I was using for cover as it did.

I had a view from the inside of the multiple heads, multiple limbs, legs.  There were naked breasts and segments that aped the length of unclothed torso, waist, and hip.

The expressions on the faces were calm, solemn.  They had hair – all hair as long as my own, even though I knew that all but one head of hair had been cut short during my tenure in the hospital.

Grapnel had fired up along the side of the building, and Sveta had hauled some people up, using the harpoons as holds.  Rain, Chastity, and Fume Hood were perched on top of a pipe.  Samuel was a bit lower.  Wide as it was, a slip could lead to a dangerous fall.  At least for Fume Hood.

Capricorn was attempting to make more cover, I saw, but the lights drew attention.  Some of that attention took the form of shots from thralls who were no longer blinded by the choking smoke.  More importantly, that glowing sword was pointed again.

I took flight.  The Wretch was in plain view for anyone who took the time to look.  I couldn’t afford to dwell on it, so I let it fall to the back of my mind, as a dim awareness of regrettable fact.

The left-hand wing of the winged suit extended, sweeping forward.  A wall of what seemed like forcefields, extending between the group and their path of retreat.  Extending in my way, so that I crashed into it, hard enough that the Wretch was canceled.

The wing-wall remained intact after I collided with it.  I tried to find a way around, only to have a shot from a tinker’s cannon pass within arm’s reach while the Wretch was still offline.

I backed off.  Sustaining big hits like I had killed the Wretch’s stamina, made delays longer for a while after.  I had to trust they had things handled.  They had Wardens with them.

Panels of the wing faded out, just in time for the laser to fire into the gap.  Coordinated effort: cut them off, fire.

Forcefields were raised- I saw Sarah’s purple one, two others.  They didn’t last three seconds.  The sword’s beam cut a furrow into the ground, sliced into the wall, and caused a fifth of the lighting in the room to go dark as it shredded wiring.

In the wake of it, I could only make out Stonewall and Caryatid.  Everyone else had fled.

The problem was that fleeing to use the bigger structures as cover meant, well, we had to get around or over those structures.  The space was huge and the angel mechs were distant.

Balk had used the distraction of the angel mechs attack to fly around and over, flying low to the ground as they closed the distance.

The angel with the massive halo extending from hips to overhead had been mostly passive to this point, flying in formation to stay with the group.  As Balk launched his offensive, the halo emitted lasers.  One for Balk’s ball, one for Balk himself.  Another for the artillery cape, another to meet a laser beam cast by Sarah, the woman who was and wasn’t my aunt.  The angel suit’s beam was more powerful, and though the two beams collided with a small starburst shedding vast amounts of sparks in the center, the point of collision raced toward Sarah until she stopped firing.  When she stopped, the counterattack stopped as well.  Wholly automatic.

But her flying momentum and her group’s formation carried her into the range of the beams.  A forcefield protected her and some of her group, but only for a moment before the beam punched through.  Another, thicker, smaller forcefield protected herself and those closest to her, while those at the edges were left to fend for themselves.

It bought her and her formation seconds.  Seconds to divert flight paths, to back off, to realize that anything that got close enough would be zapped automatically, whether it was an attack or a cape.

They didn’t get to divert.  A wing extended, a barrier of hard-light panels extending the wing’s profile, and blocking off the retreat.  Keeping them in the laser’s area.  With the angle and the blur of the glowing panels, I could see only the vague darkness of the forcefield, see the forcefield drop away, and then see the points of light where the ten or so beams cut right through the ten or so capes.

“No!” I shouted.

As if to answer my shout, a barrage of fire from the assembled thralls struck the same filtration edifice that Rain and Sveta were perched on, that I was using for cover.  Sparks and ice crystals flew as shots ricocheted off the edge of the pipe I was hiding behind.

“Stay close, Victoria!” Sveta called out.  “We need you!”

I peeked, and I saw the wing barrier drop.  With it, the blood that had stained it was shed, allowed to fall to the floor.  Capes who had been flying just a bit before now tumbled to the ground.

I could see Sarah flying at an angle as she fell.  Going to others who were unconscious or unable.  To Balk, then abandoning him a second later.  He continued to drop, and the rotation of his fall gave me a glimpse of what she’d just discovered for herself.  Head gone.

Another with a zig-zag cut from right shoulder to lower left ribcage.  The artillery cape joined Sarah in grabbing someone.  As a group, they flew away, low to the ground again, weaving around pipes as thralls with tinker guns fired at them.  Forcefields were erected behind, alternated with artillery shots that imploded, pulling projectiles off course.

Fume Hood produced more gas pellets.  They did a u-turn in the air to travel the path necessary to bombard the thralls.

One shot, I saw, had been intercepted by a laser, because the halo angel had drifted close enough to the thralls to give them some cover from fire.  The gas cloud hung high in the air, distorting with the effect of the tinker flight so near by.  Like drops of ink in boiling water, instead of still or running water.

What to do?  Couldn’t get close.  I could maybe take one beam long enough to close the distance and deliver one hit.  Maybe.  Then what?

I hadn’t let the Wretch drop since it came back online.  It was clawing at the pipe, unable to get quite enough traction to destroy the massive pipe I was hunkered down beside.  With the moisture in the air and the hints of steam from below, the Wretch was plainly visible.

I reached out for the crook, the handhold, and I moved the Wretch, respective to myself.  It put a face closer to my face, and put most of the arms out of reach of the pipe.

Rain, Grapnel, Sveta, and the Heartbroken had been climbing up, with Fume Hood alternating between climbing and hurling more spheres.  I saw her look at me, and I looked away.  Elsewhere, Capricorn was building up cover and creating a means of climbing the tank.  He looked too, staring up at me.  Ashley was more focused on the fight, staring around the corner at the distant angel mechs.

Not so distant.  They were drifting slowly our way.  The sword fired its beam at the third group.

Shitty thing was, I didn’t have many options.  I could stick near one of the filtration systems and use it as cover, but then any attacks on the group using the other filtration system closest to the door were beyond my capacity to help.  If I was between them to better my chance at responding, then the thralls with tinker weapons would gun me down.  If I charged in, the halo would shoot me.

Tinker guns fired like assault rifles, each shot producing electrical crackles, blasts of ice, and acid spatters.  One shot hit the pipe I was using for cover, and it shattered the metal.  Water came out the hole in a vicious high-pressure spray.

I saw the orb fly low, almost scraping the ground, before rising.  Curving in the air, but this time a rising shot.  It skirted the halo’s range, and it collided with a bit of filtration structure a few feet below the thralls.  The gas made the middle of the front lines back up a bit.

“Fume Hood!” I called out.  “Experiment for me!?”

“What experiment?”

“Create gas, block the halo’s view?  Fire a shot through once it can’t see!”

Rain threw one of his blades blind.  Lightweight as they were, it was a long way to throw, and he was hurling it over the top of the structure.

“More to the left, Precipice!”

He threw again.

“Further!”

A third throw.  The halo shot this one out of the air.

“It got intercepted.  Halo shoots anything down that gets too close!”

“Should I keep trying?  Burn its battery?”

“If you want, but focus on staying safe, get to a good vantage point!”

“On it!”

Precipice was using his power to lock his position to become a handhold for Fume Hood.  Fume Hood, meanwhile, was creating a series of orbs.

She threw them out.  Another vague u-turn of a curve, but not swooping low and rising.  This set went horizontal, then straight.  It passed within range of the Halo.  Each detonated as the beam cut into them.

“Another set!  Higher!”

“So fucking demanding,” Fume Hood muttered.

She threw again.  Not quite the same direction.

The orbs were lasered out of the air.  The cloud of gas hung thick in the air, too opaque to see through.

“And one in the middle!”

“One orb?”

“Yeah!”

A little low to be the ‘middle’, but it was sufficiently masked by the cloud in the air.

I saw the flash, the glow, and the laser’s appearance.  Same range, same response time.  The halo mech blocked the orb.

The suits loomed closer.

“No go!” I called out.  “Incoming!”

The fog of gas wasn’t blocking their sensors or view, but as they passed through, fans and ventilation systems sucked up and pushed away the gas.  As I’d noted earlier with Fume Hood’s fan that she’d built into her jacket, the fans here made the angel’s positions apparent even before they emerged from the cloud.

The mechs floated closer, to the point that some of our capes who’d been behind cover weren’t anymore.  I was one of them.  The halo angel had lights at its side that were glowing, and those lights grew brighter as it revved up its engines.  Antigrav panels, turbines, and larger rotary propellers encased within protective cases all sped up and glowed brighter as it prepared a charge.

Sarah and the artillery cape attacked it from behind.  The halo deflected the shots, but the engines went dark, steam venting around the mech’s body as it twisted in the air to face them down.

The warrior angel with the glowing sword pointed the weapon at me.  I flew down and away, using pipes for cover-

And it reversed its hold on the sword, gripping pommel with one hand and handle with the other, sword pointing backward and past its own hip.  The beam tore into the water filtration structure, taking out a good chunk of it.

A feint.

I hated this.  Hated feeling paralyzed.  I was in a position to observe and problem solve, but the gas hadn’t worked.

I could see where the halo’s systems were sucking in gas, spitting it back out.

“Keep hitting them!”

The sword had taken out a good quarter of the filtration structure to the right, and the amount of water was startling as it sprayed out at high pressure and massive volume.  The group that had climbed further up the same structure, Ashley and Capricorn included, were having to fight to keep their positions as pipes dipped and previously horizontal sections became precarious slopes.  On the ground, capes were running through the water or even dropping low to let themselves get carried by the flow, where the geyser banked off the wall to the floor.

In the midst of all of that, Capricorn had switched over to Byron, and Byron had been drawing out a constellation.  While I adjusted, steering clear of the halo and looking for new cover or any people in need, Byron blasted the mechs with a more focused bit of water.

The halo countered.  A single beam down the center of the geyser.  Water was superheated into steam, and the expansion of steam disrupted the geyser’s course.  What had been a focused stream of water became a splatter, a dump truck’s worth of of water thrown casually across three suits that could have taken ten times the amount.

He blurred, turning water to rock.  Splatter became a light rock coating, half of that coating crumbling away in a matter of seconds as plates shifted and parts moved.  Ventilation systems ejected stone as a plume of dust.

The halo drifted closer to me, and I was forced to abandon my position.  As it got close enough to the structure, it zapped it.

And in the background, the wing mech had been quiet, but was now doing something else.  Something protruded from its back, as if it were laying an egg.  A cartridge.  Electricity crackled around the cylindrical protrusion, and the entire craft seemed to go a bit dim.

I flew, diving, being aware of the halo’s apparent range, which was very visible with the way it zapped everything that was close enough.  Close to the ground, until I was skimming the water that layered over the floor, breastplate scraping tile.

Come on, my horrible partner.  Work with me.  Don’t kill us.

The cartridge dropped.  It was the size of a fridge and likely the same weight.  It toppled end over end.

Don’t move too violently or hit it.  Stay still, embrace it.

I intercepted it.  I felt the Wretch latch on.  No violent blows.

Arcs of energy crackled along the Wretch, dancing over droplets that had found cracks and crevices on the Wretch’s form.

I twisted around, using rotational force to add to the strength of the swing.  I’d have to take a chance at being zapped as I dropped the Wretch, but-

The warrior angel was there, twisting around, sword poised.  With the heavy object and my momentum wrapped up in swinging it, I didn’t have the option of getting out of the way.  Not unless I wanted to drop it.

And I wasn’t about to drop an electrified power cell into shallow water that some of my fellow capes were sloshing around in.

The sword plunged, striking the Wretch.  I released the cell, in hopes it would reach the halo’s range.  Not enough, with the sword’s impact driving me and the Wretch down in the moment before the Wretch gave up.

It was Love Lost and Colt who jumped in.  They’d been more or less out of sight.  I’d been at the left filtration system, they’d been at the far right of the one to the right.  Love Lost leaped out, running along the glowing sword blade, leaped off to where Colt was flying, and leaped out again.  Colt followed her, and Colt had tinker stuff along her own arms.  They weren’t artificial limbs, but studs.  When the electricity crackled out, it went to those nodes.

Love Lost planted both feet on the cartridge, residual electricity arcing along her tinker gear, and then kicked off, full-force.

It only pushed the cartridge a few feet closer to the angels, but a few more feet was enough.  The halo zapped it, and it detonated.

I flew toward Love Lost as she hurtled toward the ground.  I reached out a hand-

She batted it aside, glaring, and carried on falling until she was close enough to the filtration structure to catch it with her claws.  She ran alongside it until she reached the pooling water below us, landing on two feet.

Okay, fine.  You had it handled.

The detonation hadn’t done much.  A bit of damage to the warrior angel’s robe, a bit of damage to its hand.  One of the halo mech’s feet was scuffed.

Fume Hood was on one of the catwalks now, and was pelting them with a barrage, devoting the occasional shot to blinding the thrall gunmen who were spread out around the other filtration structures.  Some of the shots from the guns had already damaged or destroyed sections of catwalk that all of our non-flying teams were struggling to reach.

Rain threw some blades too.  An injured Sarah was blasting, and Withdrawal, perched on the top of the damaged filtration system, had his syringe out.  He tried squirting some neon yellow juice at them, and the halo zapped it.

The halo zapped everything.  Nothing got through.

The winged craft had loaded another power cell, and produced more barriers, slicing at catwalk and cutting off lines of fire.  One collapsing catwalk was stopped as Stonewall created a shield and planted it in the side of the structure.

I saw a light flicker, and for a moment, I thought it was a warning or a sign of an imminent attack or trick.  Another cartridge.

But it wasn’t.  Just a flicker.  It was the winged mech, and the winged mech wasn’t damaged.

Why?  What did we do?  What was working?  Was it Imp, onboard somehow?  No.  Because if it was, I wouldn’t remember her to know it.

The warrior angel moved, using both hands to raise and level its sword.  Aiming at the other structure, where Sveta and Rain were.

I flew to intercept.  To do it, I had to take a beam from the halo.  I pushed out with my aura, in case the pilots were actually in the craft, and took the hit.  As I put the warrior angel between myself and the haloed one, the angel with the halo used thrusters and flight devices.  The air reacted violently around me as it lunged, keeping me in its line of fire.

Even following the length of the sword to try to disrupt the continuity of incoming fire, I wasn’t able to avoid the beam’s continuity.

By the time I got where I needed to be, I wasn’t in a position to use it.  The beam fired, cleaving into the water filtration structure that my teammates were using as a stage to fight from.  The beam cut through the upper segment, raked along the side, and then swept along the ground, toward capes who were wading through water.  Some got hit.

But I was close enough to see things.  The gas from Fume Hood’s power flowing into ventilation ducts.  I was close enough to hear.  The whir, the thrum of machinery, of fans working overtime.

It didn’t seem to me that it fit Dragon’s level of talent, to have that kind of struggle.

“Capricorn!” I called out, working to keep the warrior angel between myself and the halo while the Wretch recovered.  “Drench the halo!  We can suffocate them!  Try not to wash away the gas!”

I heard him make some vague reply, but at this stage the structures were shaky enough that it was taking all their concentration to keep from falling.

I flew to Sveta and Rain first.  Sveta had asked for help and protection earlier, the structure was more damaged than the other, with damage from the very top, down one side, and into the foundation it was built into.  I gave Rain a hand, because he could stop himself from falling but not actually get back up to wherever he had fallen from.  Sveta was helping others, like Chastity and Grapnel.

The halo was fixated on other targets now, floating in closer to the other structure.  Stonewall held up his shields, protecting three other people.  The winged angel cleaved into the already damaged structure with one wing, and struck out with another projected wing-extension in the direction of the thralls.  Imp’s team, making their way toward that group.  The gas was giving them cover, but thralls were climbing down to lower ground where the gas didn’t reach them, hunkering down on pipes and blasting.  Imp and all Heartbroken except Chastity were wading in knee-deep water, so their ability to get out of the way was limited.

The one with the sword drove its weapon into the center of the other structure.  People slipped, fell, grabbed onto railings, or slid along pipes and then leaped down into the water below.  Not a good leap, when the drop was thirty or more feet and the water wasn’t that deep.

I flew over.  The halo moved closer to me, and I moved away, keeping my distance.

Ashley used her power to hop over to higher ground.  She helped someone up.  Withdrawal was agile enough to manage helping more people.  Caryatid stood on the most intact part of the catwalk, beside Stonewall.  Water flowed over every surface, spraying up the sword and into the mechanical hands that gripped it.

The sword that impaled the filtration structure glowed, then fired.  The entire room shuddered, and every single foothold, catwalk, platform, and box on the structure was jarred, knocked down a peg, or made to fall.

Fume Hood, back in a secure position, resumed her attack.  Capricorn did what he could to drench the halo ship, then turn the liquid to rock.  Ninety percent of the water was vaporized by the halo’s automatic counterattack.  Of the ten percent that remained, a majority went to waste.

Every time, it churned up the rocks that made it into internals, then vented them out as rock dust.  When he didn’t turn it to rock, the haloed angel vented it out as a spray instead.

But I felt like it was moving in a less fluid way.  I didn’t see lights die or dim, but I did notice it wasn’t using its full capabilities, accelerating movement or rapidly repositioning.

It could have been down to a restriction in the power they had.  It could have been that the gas wasn’t air and it needed air to cool efficiently, or to perform certain processes.  Capricorn’s power was forcing it to arrest all internal airflow and vent out the foreign material.

Rain threw a blade, and the blade caught the warrior angel in the chest.  A silver line, five feet across.

I flew toward it, and the halo zapped me, firing between the warrior angel’s arm and armpit.  It pulled its weapon from the structure, and the entire thing sagged.

I dove, accelerating, always keeping the warrior angel between myself and the halo, but the halo was large enough to be overhead for both the warrior angel and myself.  The beam came down, striking the Wretch.  By the time I could get away from that, a wing extended, protected by hard light, walling off my path.

The silver line was already gone.

The next two shots from Precipice were shot out of the air by the halo.

“Victoria!” Ashley called out.

She was pointing.

Fuck.  I knew what she was planning.

I saw her start to run, straight for the warrior angel.  I flew to intercept.

She used her power to augment her approach, twin blasts straight behind herself, a violent, flickering darkness that screamed like nails on a chalkboard.  Rocketing herself out and toward the warrior angel.

But the blast wasn’t quite enough.  Forward momentum died out, and she was falling faster than she moved forward.

I flew to her, and she stopped firing her blast so she wouldn’t hit me.  I caught her wrist as she caught mine, my normal Victoria strength boosted by flight alone, and then used a burst of Wretch-strength to hurl her back up and forward.

Plumes of darkness shot behind her to accelerate her approach.

But the haloed angel was rising, and I wasn’t in a position to help.

The beam came down, raking Ashley’s front.  She used her power to blast up and into the beam, but it sent her tumbling down and off course.

She blasted again, aiming for the warrior’s chest, but it was a glancing hit.  The blast extended out fifteen feet, and the warrior angel was roughly fifteen feet away.  Surface damage.

I flew toward her.  To catch her out of the air.  The wing extended between us.  A wall of hard light wrapped around whatever tinker alloys the mechanical parts of the wings were made of.  I hit it, hard.  I didn’t penetrate.  Ashley was left to fall.

“Be ready!” Capricorn called out.

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I remained ready.

The gas was heavy enough in the air to irritate my nostrils and leave my throat dry and scratchy, despite the humidity.  I coughed, and I worried.

The wing had to withdraw, as capes mounted a more focused assault.  As it did, I was treated to a spray of water.

Ashley, clinging to a wing, while Byron’s water sprayed her into the hard surface, her power helping, to keep her there instead of falling.  With the wing gone, she was left to careen in my general direction.

I caught her.

“Ah!” she grunted, as I seized her.  “Gentle on the ribs.”

I adjusted my grip, lowering her down to the nearest safe ground, which was not that near.  The warrior angel had its sword out, and it swung, only to be blocked by Stonewall’s shield.  Had I been closer, it might have swung at Ashley and I.

I lowered her down to a sitting position.  She’d been shot in the ribcage, along to the side, and one of her arms had been clipped.  Flesh was burned and raw, ribs in one spot exposed and blackened.

“Small graces,” she said.  “Bonesaw built me durable.”

“More durable than a human?”

“Reinforcements here and there,” she said.  She winced at the pain.  “She removed most of it because it wasn’t meant to last.”

The gas and sustained assault on ventilation were having their effect.  Yellow-green gas flowed into intake vents, and gray smoke came out the outtake.  The warrior angel wasn’t using its sword to blast anymore, only to swing and chop at cover.  With one swipe, it knocked the catwalk down.  Stonewall fell.  His team dove into the rising water with barely any hesitation.

I was more focused on Swansong’s injury and the structure than on the mechs.  Couldn’t attack anyway.

Go,” Swansong urged.  She tried to push me, and found that too painful, so she kicked me instead.  “Rain hit it!”

He got past the halo.

I flew, not even turning around, my chest momentarily facing the roof as I took off, only twisting around in the air once I was already flying in the right direction.  My eyes scanned for that telling silver line.

I saw it.  The halo.  A silver line at the top.

I flew toward it.  The winged angel got in my way.  It wasn’t using its full capacity either.  No wing extensions.  As a whole, the suits were backing off, retreating.

I still couldn’t get past the wing.  It was faster to raise or lower than it was for me to ascend or descend.

Colt made her move.  She was nimble enough in the air to fly around the wing and get closer.  The haloed angel might not have been shooting down everything that moved, not enough to hit Rain’s power out of the air, but it shot Colt.

I’d seen how Colt fought.  That she couldn’t touch things to the same extent, that she had to rely on her black blades.  But already, she was slowing down, being pushed back.  She wasn’t durable and those beams were hurting her.  The closer she got, the less forward progress she made.

The glowing studs along her arms that had been incorporated into her breaker form now glowed.  A hand made of purple electricity reached out to strike at the halo.

Just enough to break the silver line.

Halo disrupted, the counter-defense weakened.

All of the angels were on a fighting retreat now.  If they got away, they could count this as a win, because they’d drenched us, worn us down, and taken out anywhere from a third to a half of our number.  People drowned, blasted, or injured past the point of fighting.

The thralls were thinned out, Imp’s group now taking up guns to shoot at the angels with their own team’s fire.  I flew after, because fuck letting them walk away and call this a win.  Imp had been right.  Fuck Saint.

Withdrawal had enough jump in that agility frame of his to tackle the winged ship.  With his syringe, he applied the yellow gunk to face, then to upper chest.  It looked like paint.  I had no clue what it did.

The winged ship extended wings around itself, and Withdrawal decided to play it safe, leaping away and into water.  I couldn’t object too much.

The end of the hall was a large aperture, leading into the next building segment.  That was their exit.

Love Lost leaped up from one of the structures the thralls had been using, to latch onto the damaged foot of the halo angel.  I hit the warrior angel, knocking it off course.  It collided with one of the water filtration structures.

The winged angel twisted around, ready to help its teammates.  A wing extended my way, then extended with projected images.  It cleaved in close enough that I was essentially scraped off and blocked from accessing it further.  I could see the black smoke from the mech’s ventilation increase in volume with the push that involved.

Colt was helping Love Lost tear up the Haloed angel.

Sveta emerged from the water.  Her arms unfolded into tendrils and sought a grip, but her ascent was blocked by the slope of the projected wing.  Love Lost and Colt were making more progress, so Sveta switched over.

I did what I could to pin down the warrior angel, to slam down on the wing and drive the mech beneath that wing deeper into the water.  It was keeping two of the suits pinned down.  It put the warrior angel in the water, leaning against one filtration system closer to the exit, the haloed angel closer to the other filtration system, while Colt and Love Lost attacked it.

The winged angel, meanwhile, guarded the door.  It was struggling, a hand raised to its upper chest, trying to use some superheated steam or a chemical to get rid of the gunk.  In the end, it unscrewed a section of its chest to lose that section entirely.  As it did, the yellow gunk extended out clinging only by scattered edges and droplets, took on a texture like needles caught by a magnet, then splatted back down onto the area that had been beneath the collarbone segment, as if it had remembered its momentum and forward energy from before, and reapplied itself on removal.  The winged angel fought to scrape that away with metal fingertips, then gave up.

Thralls were shooting, though, and I had to be mindful, which limited how much pressure I could apply.  Imp’s group crawled over the structure.  Juliette froze someone, and Samuel jumped them while they were out of commission.  Imp zapped one after another.

I could hear Ashley using her power.  I twisted around to look.

Ashley blasted with one hand while running along the sloped wall, keeping herself more or less on track.  She was injured, that impacted how she ran, and I saw her slip, only to blast with her other hand, bringing knees to chest, and find her footing and forward momentum again.

The winged mech threw out another projected wing, aimed for Colt and Love Lost.  As it had done with me, it essentially scraped them off.  Colt hit the water and canceled her breaker form.  Love Lost leaped up and onto the side of the other filtration engine.

Ashley- her eyes were wide.  She blasted, bringing herself my way, toward the fallen warrior and the outstretched plane of the projected wing.

She blasted, and her power cut through the projected wing.  It annihilated metal, twisting it, disintegrating it, and leaving fist-sized chunks where metal had been condensed.

She slashed, punching with her power, heedless of the injury to her side.  Destroying one shoulder, then stumbling over to destroy the other.

The wing tried to move, and I used my power.  The Wretch grabbed the wing and grabbed the mech beneath the wing, holding onto both.  The projected image disappeared, and I flew forward to put myself in the way of the non-projected metal wing before the mech could lunge forward and swipe Swansong with it.

She continued to tear into the shoulder.

With that done, it would leave the mech with wings as the only quasi-threat, it’d-

There was a gasp, a yelp, a buzz of an intercom.

I twisted around to look.

Hidden near the shoulder of the warrior angel was the cockpit.  Further to the left than the human heart would be.

Ashley’s power had cleaved into it.  It had torn into the person within, a woman.

Now only a hand and parts of two legs remained.  The rest was a blood spatter, half covering Swansong, the other half smeared across the warrior angel’s front.

Swansong looked stunned.

I get it, I thought.  I really do.  We’ve never talked about it, but we both walked too close to that line.

I never wanted to kill, because the resolution to be better and to avert my course from the one Glory Girl had been on had been the one thing that was untainted.  Killing under orders, in a necessary situation, a teammate telling me that was what I should do?  I could make peace with that.

Swansong had her own demons in that department.  She had gone to jail for it.

The winged angel pulled back, rising up, and as I’d noted a humanity in the formation earlier, I could sense an anger now.  The rise, the indignation.

But it wasn’t in fighting shape.  The smoke shrouded it now, less than before, but still significant.

I saw it twist, turning, looking behind it.

There was a flash, a deep dark blue mingled with a sky blue, rippling through the air, forming a bubble.

Within that bubble, I saw metal mend, the damage undoing itself, lights growing brighter, where I hadn’t even noticed they’d dimmed as consistently as they had.

Things outside the bubble remained in disrepair, but that was one foot, the ends of both wings.

And its ventilation was clean.  The gunk at the chest and face were gone.

He had his backup.

There were more efforts.  A beam extending toward the haloed angel.  The bubble appeared where the beam made contact, until Love Lost intercepted it, throwing herself in the way.

It didn’t matter.  Gravity had its hold on her, and the interruption was momentary.

Another rewinding of the clock, a reversal of time.  The halo flared with light, and the beams immediately began firing on us.  On Imp’s team, on Swansong-

I put myself in the way, nearly being shoved out of the air as the force that was the haloed angel moved past me, antigrav pushing me down, turbines thrusting me to the side.

But it wasn’t trying to fight.  It was a retreat.  A hand lowered for the member of the Speedrunners.  Prancer’s old group, the time manipulating tinkers who had defected to Fallen, and then defected again to Teacher.

“They’re waiting for us now,” Sveta said.

I looked at Swansong, who had dropped to her knees, hands at her injury.

“We need first aid,” I said.  “We help the others, assist the trapped and injured back there.  Be prepared for a second attack while we’re on the back foot.  That took too much out of us.”

I had Kenzie’s tech that I’d stuck into the computer line earlier.  I dropped into the blood spattered cockpit and connected it to the system.

“Not disagreeing,” Imp said.

Kenzie’s text appeared in my field of vision.

ooh this is good. am working on comms, picking up lw level chatter, nothing super encrypted.

they waiting for you close to where teach is

“They’re waiting.  Teacher’s that way,” I relayed the message to the group.  I’d have to say it again to others.  “Just about everyone’s that way.”

Lookout sent more messages.  Now she was asking if Ashley was hurt.

Fucked up ribs, yes.  But that wasn’t the real hurt.

Too many things to juggle.  Too many things to focus on.  I put a hand on Ashley’s shoulder, and felt her flinch, move like she was going to pull away.

Then she didn’t, letting me do that much for her.

“Get Tattletale to double check all info.  But if that’s right, then we should feint,” Imp said.  “Make like we’re after Teacher while we go after the real target.”

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Dying – 15.4

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Syringes emerged from the floor like a cresting wave, growing larger and more numerous as they got further from the source.  I watched as Withdrawal tried to escape the tide, and an extension of the needles cut him off.  Tinker stilts and the repelling shield he’d stolen off of a guard caused the needles to break, spilling dirty yellow-black fluid onto the floor.

Pumps, thick pipes, and white tile defined this corner of the complex’s second floor.  We’d fanned out, our groups moving through the various rooms with the intent of clearing each room in turn and ensuring we wouldn’t be flanked, using powers to ensure we wouldn’t be followed.  Anything else ensured a constant fight from all corners.

Except we’d hit a snare.  The idea had been that if we had any fights, any victories would mean we could fold in on and flank the enemies to either side of us.  And as far as I could tell, none of our teams were winning their fights or moving on to the step two.

Needles grew out in clumps, clusters, and bouquets, and then more needles and clumps grew out of the clumps.

“Don’t get pricked!” some kid shouted.  One of our Mortari capes.  “My analysis says they’re drugged and diseased!”

Withdrawal yelped as he avoided a sudden emergence of syringes.  I crashed into the needles with the Wretch, shielding my face with my arms.  Withdrawal already had his mask, so he didn’t need to worry about the spray.

“Help,” Caryatid said, voice quiet.  The needles had cut her off while she wasn’t moving, and now grew in thicker, until they came at her from every direction, all stopping millimeters away from her face, neck, arms, chest, belly, and thighs.  She had gone human to talk, her back straight, arms at her sides, wearing the long, slim black dress with the yellow-orange poofs at the wrists and feet.  She resumed her breaker form, the poofs and her head becoming something more fractal.

For the time being, I couldn’t do a lot.  The broken glass and shattered plastic of syringes pressed in even though I’d broken them, edges reaching for me.  I backed off, hemmed in.

The geography of this particular stretch of hallways was a H turned ninety degrees, and I was in the lower intersection, Caryatid to my right.  Withdrawal was up ahead and around the corner to the left, periodically visible through the thicker pipes.

“Terminal, incurable, long term diseases,” our unhelpful helper volunteered.  “Addictive substances!”

“Got it!  Go help someone else, or get somewhere safe!”

It’s scaring our Major Malfunctions, I thought.  They’re kids who did nothing for years, then jumped into the deep end of the pool.  And that’s partially my fault for bringing them onboard like I did.

Withdrawal, skinny, wearing a skintight suit, a mask, and the limb-extending agility frame, had only the shields he’d kept for defense, the syringe he carried for offense.  But the shields required energy and the syringe made a shitty club, especially when needles erupted from the wall to hem in how much he could swing the syringe at the stuff in his way.

I could bust up the syringes, but I couldn’t bust up the syringes and then tackle the areas with more syringes.  Our attacker was staying out of sight now, but I’d glimpsed her a minute ago.  Tall, possibly breaker class, a slim, ghostly silhouette similar to Caryatid’s, with red eyes, a surgical mask over the lower face, a white covering from the neck down, so tight at the legs that it looked like she couldn’t walk, and feet impaled by the bristling syringes, points sticking out and through bare flesh.  When she’d moved, it had been on that moving ‘cushion’, syringes appearing and disappearing to stab her feet and back repeatedly while buoying her away at a runner’s speed, her body twisting and arching with each set of impacts.

Breaker class, but shaker in practice.  With a sweep of her arm, she caused syringes to spring out from the ground, walls, and ceiling like a crashing wave.  All loaded to bear, apparently, with stuff that would guarantee we died a few months or years from now.

She moved away like she considered us dealt with, and in reality, I wasn’t positive we weren’t.  Crashing through the syringes with the Wretch would disable the Wretch and impale the Victoria.  Caryatid couldn’t move without losing her invulnerability.  Withdrawal had a great deal of movement and a lot of gaps in his defenses, which were a bad combination in this environment, where moving in the wrong way would get us pricked.

I’d thrown myself into this side of the fight to help the C-team and now I was in over my head.  I hit a cluster of syringes, clearing some of the way, putting myself in the midst of them while waiting for the Wretch to return.  Then I let it do its thing.  Reaching out, clawing, destroying.  A swathe of destruction around me.

Putting the Wretch aside for a moment, I grabbed a fire extinguisher that was mounted on a wall, and I swung it full-bodied in Caryatid’s direction.  It arced through the air, and it crashed through the syringes, giving her some ability to move.  When she did move, it was in sharp, careful movements that cleared more of her way.

Even with the cacophony of noise nearby, I didn’t miss the small, frantic sound from her while she was human and not in her breaker form, reaching down for the fire extinguisher, then using it as a bludgeon.

“Cary!” Withdrawal called out.  “Stay calm!  It can’t hurt you unless you let it!”

The Wretch swiped, tore, and crushed the syringes in my way.  The ground was a carpet of broken glass, broken plastic, needles, and fluids in noxious colors.

“I can’t do this,” she said.  “I can’t stand this.  I have bad dreams that aren’t as bad as this.”

“Stay calm!” Withdrawal grunted out the words, between swings of his tinker weapon.  It wasn’t meant for the task, and it was taking a beating.  Big as it was, not every swing broke everything it hit.

Breakers triggered from disassociation.  From mental illness, from deprivation of sleep or food, from a mind-body disconnect, or from the divide between normal trigger circumstance and reality, the paradoxical events.  Brutes tended to trigger from being hurt, as I had.  A breaker with brute sub-powers tended to trigger from wanting self-harm, or from harm that was all in one’s head.  Attacks from imagined enemies could make a breaker with the subclass of striker or blaster.  For a stranger, who tended to trigger from unwanted attention, the case in the textbooks had been an exhibitionist who had been caught, experiencing the mingled sexual thrill coinciding with the fear of imminent arrest, imminent loss of family, and imminent loss of career.

Breakers also came about from medicine or drugs that altered the mind-body state.  Caryatid.

“It’s a tailor-made fight for us!” I called out.  “Caryatid, this is a counterattack from a guy with thinkers at his disposal!  People who know us!  People who’ve used powers to study us and figure out what works best against us!”

“It’s working!” she said.

“Get through this second by second!  If you can get through the stuff that’s this personal, you can get through anything!”

“What if I can’t?  What if I can’t do this?”

“You’re doing it as we speak!”

She was about to say something, but another tide of syringes came our way from around the corner, in Withdrawal’s general direction.  A second later, a shape hurtled in that same direction.  Hurtled and stopped.

Precipice, now suspended in the air above a carpet of needles, using his power.

“Uh,” he said.

“Caryatid!  The extinguisher!”  I reached out my arms.

She went breaker and used the short lunge of her movement to toss the extinguisher at me.  It took me both arms to catch.

“Incoming!” Precipice called out.  He created a blade.

I used my strength to hurl the extinguisher, changing what I was aiming for in the last moment before release.  It crashed through the thicket of needles between me and Precipice, hit the ground, and crashed through stuff there, not directly beneath him.

But it gave Withdrawal a spot to jump forward to, landing in a bare patch with just a bit of skid on the fluids and broken material that now carpeted the ground there.  He caught Precipice, then sprung back the way he’d come.

A hulking form lunged into view, coming within a handspan of getting a grip on Precipice.  Copper mask, partial armor, and a loincloth, and a body covered in oozing sores, blisters, and scabs.  Copper chains wound around his arms, and swollen, infected hands gripped the hooks at the end of those chains.

He was big and fast enough that he didn’t stop by his own power.  Instead, he hit enough of the outcroppings of needles that he was impaled sufficient times that they made him stop.

I saw them react like they were spring-loaded, plungers depressing, filling his exposed flesh on legs, lower pelvis, and arm with enough noxious fluids that the skin visibly darkened and swelled, excess fluid foaming and bubbling out around the injection sites.

He threw one hook out in the direction the pair had gone.  Glass broke as he hauled it back in.  An apparent miss.  Fume Hood pelted him with orbs, and he didn’t seem to care, except for the way it limited his vision.

He hurled the hook blindly my way, and it embedded into the wall ten feet behind me.  He hauled on it, hard, and the wall panel came away, syringes included.  My forcefield served to knock the worst of it away, but the remainder it still came at me, now festooned with broken glass and a spray of fluid.  I had to perform some frantic acrobatics to avoid it.  Needle tips scraped against the fabric of my costume to the extent they vibrated against the individual fibers.

He was backed up by a bunch of thralls.  Men and women in what looked like padded hazmat suits, heads covered by domes, all carrying what might have been laser cannons.  Needles receded as the entered the area across from me.

Emerging from the smoke, he reached out the hand that no longer held his hook.  Whatever he did, there was no dodging it, no avoiding it. My head, nose, and throat exploded in pain, fluids simultaneously choking and suffocating me, flowing out of my nose and down the back of my throat.  Ear pressure went wonky, momentarily deafening me, and the stirrings of a bad headache momentarily stole my ability to think.  My stomach did a flip-flop, and my injured hand roared in fresh, hot pain.

I was dimly aware of him rearing back to hurl his hook.

A silver blade struck the Brute.  He turned his attention to Withdrawal and Precipice.  The way he threw his hook was power-augmented, making it fly straight, and it used enough of his physiology that the silver line at his shoulder and chest split.

Pus and suppurated, swollen, infected flesh overflowed from the wound.

Two of the thralls fired their cannons in the direction Precipice and Withdrawal had gone.  The big guy threw himself in that same direction.

Another two fixated on me, raising their guns.

I flew hard at the corner, where needles bristled from pipes and ductwork.  The Wretch hit the needles and damaged one of the pipes, causing it to start bubbling something that smelled like a sharper rubbing alcohol from the seam near the ceiling.

They were beam weapons, but the beams were thin, filled with faint blue specks of light, and didn’t burn anything.  I saw as needles were pulled out of the wall, the damage segments around the part the hook had caught joining them.  As they were pulled, they collected more specks on them, until they were covered.  The more they collected, the less effect the pull had on them.

I began working my way to Caryatid, mindful of the Wretch’s reach.

“Frontload it!” one thrall called out.

“I am.”

“Flip the Z.”

“I did.”

“There’s another notch on the lever for hard Z.”

Behind me, the beam grew more intense, the faint blue became a dark blue, and the needles and debris were pushed closer to the wall.

They moved the beam, moved the stuff trapped in the beam with it, and then flicked it my way, shutting it off to release the material.  Needles and debris were sent flying our way.

The Wretch was broken by the speed at which some of it was hurled.  The back of my hood blocked a lot, but I still felt pricks at my shoulder.  I reached back and pinched at the wounds, to squeeze whatever it was free.

It was wall material that had penetrated fabric, not needles.

I worked to get closer to Caryatid.

They were making their way down the hall to the intersection I’d been stuck at.  One was slower than the other, using the beam to pick up more fluids, needles, and debris from the ground and wall.  The other peeked around the corner.

That was important, I knew, but I didn’t have time to consider it.

Caryatid made her way to me- I reached out with a hand that had blood on it from touching my wounded shoulder, supporting her as she hopped over a pile of needles.  As the next flick-throw of the beam’s contents came our way, she put herself between me and the hail, going breaker.

Which was a temporary solution at best.  The one at the corner took aim and fired.  Dragging Caryatid.  As she was pulled, she was no longer still enough to be invincible.

“Pull back on the Z!”

The pull increased in speed.  Dragging her toward needles a few inches a second.

Flying after her, I had to fly around the beam, because being stuck in it slowed me down.  I caught her and pulled her out of the beam, she stumbled, and he tried to catch us again.  I was more evasive, so he went right back to getting Caryatid.

The partner did another collect, flick, grab, in the span of a second or two.  It was only a dozen or so needles, flying like bullets, but the movement of the beam told me the angle.  Aimed at me, not Caryatid.

I drew myself together, and flew hard into a safe spot of ground, forcefield strong.  Fist and one knee hit hard enough to crack the floor and send fragments up in a radius around me.  More than I might have in the old days.

Reaching out for two of the larger fragments, I managed to catch one.  A fistful of concrete with some tile attached.

The moment I felt like the forcefield was back, while the tractor beam guy was collecting more debris, I threw the chunk, hitting the guy who was dragging Caryatid.

A harder throw than I might have done normally, but the situation was bad.

Caryatid put herself between me and the second guy, blocking the hail of syringes.

He began dragging her, and I flew around and over.

I could have shoved him into the needles right beside him.  I didn’t.  I did cave in his knee, grab the weapon, and throw him hard to the ground.

They’d had different tactics.  They’d been talking about how to use the gear, like they didn’t know.  There had been inventive tactics.  They weren’t thralls like the ones downstairs had been.

These ones had been knowingly cooperating.

I saw needles recede close to where he’d fallen, as he lay on the ground, cradling his leg.  Grabbing him by the collar, I hauled him up and forward, holding him out as best I could without using the Wretch.  More needles pulled away as I brought him closer to the needle breaker’s powerstuff.

No room to be gentle.  He was my means to clear a path.  I hurried forward, flying, and got to where I could see the brute with the sores and blisters.  Rain had cut him several times, but it seemed to remain tissue damage, and it might have been regenerating.

Down the other hallway, the needle breaker was fighting Love Lost, Chastity, Roman, and Colt.  Fume Hood had apparently gone off to do something else.

Love Lost pounced, driving clawed fingertips and toe-tips into her chest, the breaker tried to retaliate by bringing syringe-fingers toward Love Lost’s middle.  Love Lost sprung back, landing on hands and feet.  Colt was hacking at the syringes around them, cutting at them with her black blade, while deftly dodging whatever came near.

But they were maneuverability, not durability.  Same issue as Withdrawal.  As the syringe breaker got more into it, there was less room to maneuver.

She was hurt at least.

She backed away, pulling to one side-

And Imp stuck her with the scepter she held.

The woman dropped, falling backward.

Ten feet from me, in the thickest outcropping of syringes, I saw her emerge, pushing through.  Skin and skintight dress were impaled in a hundred places by the glass and syringes, pulling hard enough against it that needle points were bent to nearly right angles, bands of flesh pulled away from arm, face, neck, and sides because the flesh had been penetrated enough times to be looser and the needles were trying to pull straight again.  Some points raked her.

The damage healed, except where she remained impaled.  She hung off the wall, suspended.  Body weight pulled her free as much as anything else.  A cushion of needles waited beneath her feet, as she prepared to drop down to it.

The others couldn’t get to her, but she was close enough for me to deal with.  I took flight, still dragging the guy with the broken leg behind me-

Something caught my arm.  The hook from the big guy.  It slid down my arm until it found my wrist, the curve of the hook large enough to accommodate my arm but not my hand.  He hauled me back toward him, away from his partner.

I twisted in the air, trying to find an orientation that would pull my hand free, and there was too much pull for me to do it.

Bringing knees to my chest, I planted feet on the tractor beam thrall’s chest, and I kicked out, activating the Wretch and the strength that went with it.

He went flying, skidding along the floor, straight into the breaker’s waiting cushion.  Within a foot of him, syringes went back to whatever extradimensional space they had emerged from, and the breaker dropped down onto flat, ordinary flooring.  She crumpled to the ground there.  When she looked up, her eyes weren’t red, her hands weren’t tipped with weird syringe fingers, and her dress had blood dotting it, no longer sterile.

The Wretch broke the chain, freeing me.  I thought I might go after the breaker, but I saw as Chastity flicked out her bullwhip, catching the thrall I’d thrown around the neck.  She called out to the others, and they hauled back, pulling the guy into the thicket of needles, which receded as he was pulled into it.  He did something as he slid, activating a device or deactivating it, and their last tug pulled him into needles for real.

Choosing to get stabbed by a hundred needles to help his side win.

I flew after the big guy, who braced himself for me.  Rain threw his projectiles at the guy’s legs while his back was turned, and Withdrawal followed it up with a tackle, jumping up to kick the guy from behind.

The blades flared, the legs buckled, and the guy wasn’t braced or anything for the hit I delivered him.  The impact felt like smashing a soggy bag of trash with a car.  Ninety percent of him went everywhere.

Colt slashed through the thicket keeping the other group from accessing the breaker.  Love Lost jumped through the first gap that was visible, and tackled the breaker, who was only now getting shakily to her feet.

Claws impaled the woman by the shoulders.  Love Lost brought her masked face close, then swiped her arms out to the sides.  The claws didn’t break contact with the woman’s arms, as Love Lost raked her bone-deep from each shoulder to the respective hand.

A kick with clawed toes to the chest separated the two, knocking the breaker to the ground.

“What the fuck, Love Lost?” I asked.

She tilted her head, then pointed a bloody claw past me.

I turned to see the brute I’d hit was getting to his feet.  His mass was lopsided, and what remained was decay and pus in a vaguely human silhouette, with a single arm, part of a chest, and the legs that had belonged to a six hundred pound pile of muscle and ugliness.  The two thralls had been disarmed, one slumped against the wall, another cradling her arm.

“I know he’s alive,” I said.

The woman who had been a breaker lay on the ground, arms at her side, bloody smears beside her like she’d been trying to make a snow angel, her back arching as she struggled to move in a way that didn’t elicit agony.

The strength went out of her pretty fast, all considered.  I looked away.

“Finish him off.  He’s too dangerous,” I heard Gong.  I saw him step into view, bedraggled.

Closer to me, Love Lost was pulling off her mask, head hanging down.  She wiped gobbets of snot and what might have been vomit away from her nose and mouth.

“The thralls called him the Leper.  He killed four of ours,” Gong said.  “We can’t let him heal, we can’t bring him with, and we need to move.  It would be best if you ended this now.  Getting to you and getting back would take too long.  We need to help other groups.  All of us are struggling.”

Sure enough, the Leper was recovering.  A hole yawned in the center of the vaguely head shaped mass of congealed human sickness, the beginnings of a mouth.  I could see nuggets that might have been congealed pus or nascent teeth.

“Please,” Gong said.  “In the interest of getting this done.”

“I’d like to hear a voice I know and trust say to do it,” I said.  “Sorry Gong, I don’t know you.”

“Do I count?” Rain asked.

“Yeah.  But do you really want to make that call?  Because I really don’t.”

“I don’t either.  But I think it’s necessary.  This guy won’t stop unless he stops for good.”

I stared down the brute, who was trying to find his balance, mashing his meaty full-size hand against the needles that hadn’t gone away when the breaker bled out.  No eyes, no ears, just a mouth and flailing limbs.

I might not be able to do it if he had a face or the capacity to look me in the eye.

I flew at him, and I put my foot out, because a hand might have felt too personal, too close.

I kicked him, and I didn’t hold back.  Foot drove head into wall, and I felt the shock of soft bone and pulpy flesh crumpling beneath my boot.

Headless, he dropped like a puppet with the strings cut.

“I hope there isn’t too much more like this,” I said, as I watched to make sure he didn’t get back up.

“These aren’t even his handpicked ones,” Gong said.  He turned, raising his voice.  “Breakthrough and other second wave attackers, get analyzed, make sure you aren’t sick, hold this spot, watch for more trouble!  My group, this way, we’re flanking help other teams!”

When it came to the body, there was no ‘thank you’, perhaps because there was nothing to be happy or glad about.  There was was no ‘good’ either, or anything of the sort, maybe because it wasn’t good.

Just… back to business.  Putting cold blooded murder in the heat of battle immediately behind him and us.  My foot stuck to the floor when I set it down, and for an instant I could imagine that it and the entirety of me were impossibly heavy.

His group left, and with their absence, I could see the bodies left behind.  Some thralls.  One of Teacher’s capes.  I’d seen glimpses before I’d heard Caryatid shout.

Chasmal sat against the corner.  His veins had been blown open, to the extent his body looked like a husk and the blood was on the floor around him.  Someone had shoved a thrall’s body up beside him, which served to wall in the spreading pool of blood, leaving only streaks behind.

Another cape was missing her face.  Rotted away.

For the third, it looked like both things had happened to them, but it wasn’t the face that was missing.  Everything from crotch to bellybutton had been turned into bloody necrosis.  I couldn’t tell with the mask they wore, but it looked like they’d stumbled a few steps before dying.

Fume Hood, Samuel, Juliette, and other members of Breakthrough caught up, being careful of jutting syringes and the fact the floor was more broken glass, needles, and gore than it was white tile.

He’d told our group to wait and get analyzed.  That meant getting scanned by the new cape from Mortari.  His name was printed on the sleeve of his fairly ordinary bodysuit, but in a really annoying script, that cut chunks out of a line that was running from shoulder to elbow to make the vague, blocky letter shapes.  Venarum.

“How invasive is this?” Fume Hood asked.

“I’m thorough.  It just takes a few seconds.”

“But how invasive a look are you getting of me?”

“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

She seemed to shrug.  She saw me looking curiously at her, and said, “I bet there are piercings he probably hasn’t seen before.”

“I haven’t.  But I don’t care about piercings,” Venarum said.  “Or anything else.  You’re fine, by the way.”

Sveta approached, putting a hand near nose and mouth at the smell.  Ashley and Capricorn were with her.  I saw a sad look cross her face as she looked at the dead.

I think every hero and heroine hoped that when they went into the big fight, that it would be casualty-free, that their involvement would mark a turnaround and there wouldn’t be any more unjust death after that.

But we were fighting against a tide.

Withdrawal was sticking with Caryatid, and they were so wrapped up in themselves and their stresses that they seemed to forget Precipice was in an awkward spot with no way to slip by without pushing past.  Too many needles, and Withdrawal took up some room with limbs extended, as he now curled over and around Caryatid, talking to her in a low voice.

“You got purged?” Venarum asked.

“What?” I asked him.

“The big guy.  My analysis suggests he used his power on you.”

“Oh.  Yeah.”

“He used it on them too,” he said, pointing at the three dead.  “It triggers every latent disease in your system for a few seconds of effect.  They got pricked, scraped, or injected by needles before he used his power.”

“Hey, kid,” Tristan said.  The cape he was talking to wasn’t a kid any more than Tristan was, but he was a rookie.  “Don’t talk about the dead like that.  Like it was their failure.”

“There’s no need to be defensive, I’m explaining for those who don’t know.”

“You’re doing the thinker thing,” Tristan said.  “Where you get too stuck in what your power is telling you and trying to tell everyone else, and you stop being a decent human.”

I saw Venarum stiffen.

“Wind it back a little, Tristan,” Sveta said.

“Okay.  But I’m not wrong.”

“No.  No you’re not.  But you’re upset at how this is going and that’s changing how you approach it.  Let it be.”

Tristan looked like he might be spoiling for an argument there, but he turned aside.

“My analysis says you’re okay,” Venarum told me.  “Mostly.  You’ll want a full spectrum of antibiotics when all of this is done.  The purging clears all disease from your system after it happens, but you got that scratch on your back after, I’m guessing.”

I nodded, uncomfortable.

I halfway expected him to criticize me, to talk about my injuries and scars, the accumulation of damage.

Amy would have.  This felt a lot like talking to Amy, in some ways.

Rain had slipped past the pair of Malfunctions.  Venarum cape turned his focus on him.

“I need to fix my arm,” Rain said.  “I missed having it that fight.  It got shredded earlier, when we got clipped by the hallway warper.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I don’t suppose, uh, Love Lost?” he asked.

Love Lost twisted around, glaring at him.  She was cleaning her claws with what looked like a silk cloth, but I wasn’t positive it was silk.

“You got the tinker power last night.  And Cradle’s share.”

She continued to glare at him.  He took it, facing her square-on.

“I could help,” Colt said.

“If you could, that would be great.”

Love Lost beckoned, her expression and the tension in face, neck, and shoulders no less hard.

When he took a step forward, she held a hand up, flat, and pointed.

He disconnected his broken arm, then tossed it at her.

Imp’s group was talking among themselves.  Again, there was that omnipresent, light tone, tonally off.  I’d just killed someone, three good capes had died, and it seemed to be like water off a ducks’ back.  Roman was poking fun at Samuel.  Together, they walked down the hall toward the intersection I’d been fighting.

I heard noises, and flew to the intersection to look back at what was happening.  My feet skidded on the ground.

It was the Heartbroken and the one remaining Thrall.  The one I’d taken down with a thrown bit of concrete.

Roman was holding the man up.  Samuel was slapping the thrall, kicking.

“Hey!”

They spun around, alarmed.

“What the hell?”

“You scared me,” Samuel said.  “I’m using my power, since my family is so busy trying to score points that they keep taking the chance away from me.”

“It’s fine,” Imp said.

“You’re beating up a man who can’t defend himself.”

“You killed a man who couldn’t defend himself,” Roman said.

Samuel stopped the assault.  The thrall hung his head, and started sobbing.

“That was necessary,” I said, wishing I believed it.  “And this is worse.”

“This is for the best,” Imp said.  “Samuel can break people.  Hitting them in the right places, right times.  Goes through their mental defenses like butter.  We can extract information.”

“Torture doesn’t work,” I said.

“It doesn’t,” Swansong said, off to the side, quiet and ominous.

“Mine does,” Samuel said.  “It’s better if it’s a fair fight, though.”

“If this doesn’t get us something undeniably worth it, you can throw me or Sammy here into jail when we’re done this mission,” Imp said.

Chin stiff, I stared her down.  She didn’t flinch.

Samuel turned, then struck the thrall across the side of the face.  The man kicked out ineffectually, and Samuel stepped back out of the way.

“Is this really what we want to be?” I asked.

“It’s what I am,” Samuel said.  “And it’s why I’m here.”

“I don’t care what we are, so long as we make it through this,” Imp said.

I didn’t have a response for that.  I watched as Samuel continued to beat the thrall.  A man I’d rationalized I could hurt in the midst of battle because he wasn’t fully thrall.  He wasn’t an innocent being put through his paces.  He’d had volition, and by our understanding of Teacher, that suggested he’d had a choice.  For privileges or good behavior, he’d earned more slack.

Samuel punched the guy in the side of the stomach twice.  He motioned for Roman to let go of him.  The man dropped to hands and knees, head bowed.

“There,” Samuel said.  “What’s coming?  What capes does he have?”

“Team Green-Black has an agent that can make the visible invisible.  She’s to place explosives in a series of set locations, we detonate part of the facility if the next two waves fail, we clean up, then we rebuild.  We did it already with one of the attackers.  Took their powers so they couldn’t hold off.”

The voice from the thrall was almost robotic, hollow.  Haunting.

“How does it work?” Samuel asked.  “What are the steps in this plan?”

“You’re to be distracted, you have certain capes who can see or handle the explosives, one team is already working on them.  Team copper-white is to slow down or take out your fastest and most elusive.”

“Keep talking,” Samuel said.  He kicked the man in the side.

I started forward, purely on instinct, at seeing a villain kick a man on the ground.  I stopped myself, and a half-second later, Sveta reached me, hand at my shoulder.  She looked down the hall at the Heartbroken.

This was getting to me.  More than I wanted to admit.

When I was dropping Lookout off at one point, Darlene had remarked that Samuel was one of the nice ones.  Educated, older, smart, and the one to keep the more dangerous kids like Flor in line.

There was nothing nice about this scene.

Withdrawal and Caryatid were close by.  I wanted to distract myself, so I turned their way, running fingers through my hair.

“You did well,” I told them.

Withdrawal nodded.  Caraytid didn’t.

“You included, Caryatid.  I hate that I brought you into this, but I really think, going forward, you should be able to look back on this with pride.  You saved me when I needed it, back there.”

“It was instinct.”

“It was good,” I said, dropping my eyes to the floor.  “It was teamwork.”

“I was barely even thinking.  I was scared.  I just thought if you got hurt then there was no way I’d be okay.”

“Sometimes that’s all it is.  Even for capes like Legend, probably.  You were brave enough to move when you needed to move.”

“That’s what I was saying,” Withdrawal said.

The conversation was interrupted by another meaty sound.  Samuel delivering a kick to the face.

The man on the ground bawled, speaking between sobs.  A constant flow of words.

“Vic,” Precipice said.

I realized I was clenching my fist.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to unclench it.

“Precipice.”

“While I’m working on my hand, I think we could temporarily load something of Lookout’s into a computer line over there.  She’d appreciate the update.”

“Trying to get rid of me?” I asked.

“I thought a distraction might help.”

I nodded, holding out my hand.

“You’re clear, Precipice,” Venarum said.

The terminal was akin to a breaker box, painted-over in white, a pipe running straight up and straight down from it.  Within was a touchscreen.

Kenzie’s thing was like an old phone.  I set it into place, ran the cable along the side until I saw a green light, then hit the first button.

The dead body was so close.

What life had he lived?  What led him here, to be some kind of plague-driven giant who murdered, capitalized, and worked with a syringe woman, in some alien hallways in an alien world?

The syringe woman lay dead, arms stretched out to her sides, multiple gouges running down each arm.  Her expression bothered me.

Red light at the first button.  I hit the second.

An image of Kenzie’s helmet appeared.

“Checking in,” I said.  “Can you hear?”

“I can hear.  How is everyone?”

“Tough fight, but we’re intact.  We met with members of the first wave attack.  We’re up to the second floor now.”

“Good,” she said.

Quiet, not nearly as wordy as she usually was.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, the moment contact was established after any time apart, she could be counted on to try to make up for lost time with a flood of words.

Was she upset?

“Sorry we’re leaving you out of this,” I said.  “If you were here I think you’d want to have been left out.”

“Maybe.  Probably,” she said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.  “Are you safe?”

“I’m safe.”

“What’s the first password?”

“HSP-See-Out-Gawking-Hawk.  Is there a time soon I can take a break?”

“A break?  Have you been postponing your bathroom break so you won’t miss us if you’re needed?”

“Yes, but that’s not super important.  I meant go for a walk, get outside?  I’ll bring a bodyguard if you’re worried, maybe.”

“What’s going on, Lookout?”

“Nothing.  Can you let me know when there’s time?  If you take the current device with you can use it again.  I’m patching it now so it won’t get backtraced.”

“Go take your bathroom break now.  For the other break… we’ll let you know when we stop to rest and refresh.  Can you put Tattletale on while you’re gone?  Just in case?”

“Okay.  I’ll be back in three hundred and forty two seconds.”

“Okay.”

“Thralls sighted!” Fume Hood called out.  “They passed by and left!”

“Hold the position, don’t get baited out,” Capricorn said, barely audible because he was distant and around the corner.

“Keep me updated!” I called.  I got a noise of assent.

Tattletale’s logo, a capital T intersecting a lowercase T, with an eye embedded in the capital T, replaced Kenzie’s mask on the screen.

“What’s up?” Tattletale asked.  “Headphones on, hands at the controls.  How are my Undersiders and Heartbroken?”

“Beating up someone defenseless.”

“Then they’re fine.  Samuel’s a good bet here.  Give him a few tries before giving up on him.  But that’s not why you’re wanting to talk to me.”

“No.  Lookout’s acting strange.”

“She always acts strange.  What do you want me to do about it?”

“Her system.  If you’re on her computer, find out what she was doing?”

“How invasive.  Well, I’m good with passwords.  Give me a minute.”

“You have about three.  She’s running off to pee, wash her hands, and coming back.”

“Literally running.  Right.  Well, that makes it easier.  Looking now.  No password.  Weird.”

“She has weird views on privacy.  I think her default headspace is that all information should be available.”

“No kidding.”

A few long seconds passed.  I was aware of the time limit.

Tattletale broke the silence.  “The last time you connected to Teacher’s systems, you were close to the gallery.  She got a look at files and what they were keeping track of.”

“Files like the ones you and I were investigating?  Falsified, meant to mess with us?”

“No.  The stuff they were using to build those.  All good, untainted data.  Poor fucking kid.”

“What?”

“She spent the last twenty minutes reading through pages and pages of data about herself, her new team, her old team.  Records of how annoyed people were about her, how concerned, how thin tolerances were getting…”

“Okay,” I said.  I had a sinking feeling.

I’d been on the sidelines, with only hints, and the hints had been a lot.

“Two weeks ago, Chicken Little asked Candy and Darlene if they ever thought about kicking Lookout from the team and what would happen if they did.  Nine days ago, he brought up some things with me, asked me if it was why I was always saying stuff about Lookout.  I remember that conversation.”

This wasn’t what Kenzie needed right now.

“Three days ago, four different times five days ago, I could go back further… mean jokes and comments from her team.  Mean might be understating it.  Gutting.”

I nodded, though I was unsure if Tattletale could see.  Probably.  Kenzie stuck cameras on a lot of her stuff even when there wasn’t an explicit need for it.

“They’re kids, you know,” Tattletale said.  “They love her and she… she’s so head over heels for them she doesn’t know where her head or heels are.  I’m not going to pretend my kids are saints or their coping mechanisms are all great.  Darlene’s a mess romantically.  Candy’s a ticking time bomb.  But that’s beside the point.  They’re kids.  When they get uncomfortable and they don’t know how to process it, they push back, they band together, they can act a little shitty, poke fun, say things that would devastate someone if they heard it out loud.  It’s part of the process of figuring things out.  Even for good kids like Chicken and messed up kids like Darlene and Candy.”

“I don’t think Kenzie’s the type to be especially mean to anyone behind their backs.”

“Maybe not.  Maybe it’s because Imp and I have our shittier sides and we rub off on them.”

“Or Heartbreaker.  Or trauma.  I don’t know.  I meant that she wouldn’t understand it like you describe it.”

“Yeah.”

There was a pause.

“She’s going to be back any second-”

“I see her at the stairs.”

“Can you look after her?  We can’t handle this just this minute.  She was wanting to go for a walk to get away-”

“Her team’s here, she’s trying to put on a brave face, and she’s doing a damn good job of it.  She wants to get away to freak out where nobody can see, I think.”

“Can you give her a chance, or relieve her of her duties for a bit, or… I don’t know?”

“Sure.”

“Give her a hug and say it’s from us?”

“She’s here.  I’ll see if there’s someone better equipped for that job than I am.  Headphones unplugged, Lookout plugging in.”

“Hi,” Lookout said.  She sounded out of breath.

“Hi, Lookout.  I’m hearing a commotion.  I should probably go.”

“I hear the commotion too.  Okay.  Thank you for checking in.  It means a lot.”

“I’m sorry you’re not feeling great.  It’s been a shitty few days.  We stick it out, get through this, Swansong and I will have you over for hot chocolate and animated films.  How’s that?”

No use pretending I wasn’t concerned.  Odds were she had logs, or she could figure things out one way or the other.

“Lookout?” I tried, when there wasn’t an immediate response.

“Yes please,” she said.  “Be safe.  All of you.”

“Will damn well try.  Disconnecting now.”

“Bye!” the attempt at getting the last word was successful, but the last syllable was cut short by me unplugging.

I looked away from the terminal, and found myself confronted again by the headless corpse.  By the body of the syringe woman.

The others were talking to a new cape.  Someone from Balk’s support team.  Imp and her gang caught up with me as I passed the intersection of hallways.

“We’re being summoned,” Capricorn said.

“Can we trust that cape?  Master-stranger?” I asked.

“My analysis says there isn’t any weird head stuff,” Venarum said.  “Not biologically.”

“You gotta stop saying that,” Capricorn said.  “My analysis says, my analysis…  It wastes words and time when we need fast answers.”

“Capricorn.  Chill,” Sveta said.

“The other teams need you,” the Advance Guard cape said.  Distill, according to the name printed under his badge.  “Now.”

We opted to trust him.

A zig-zag through hallways.  There were bodies in one of the halls from one of the first wave attackers.

I saw Whorl.  The good looking preppy cape who had interviewed me when I’d applied for the Attendant.

Spell, from Auzure.  He’d been helping the farms in his off hours.

“We got something,” Imp said.  “Samuel did.”

“What something?” Capricorn asked.

“A new objective.  We handle this, then we press on to a different objective.”

“We’re supposed to rendezvous with the teams, back them up.  Save them,” Sveta said.

“This is more important.”

“More important how?”

“Dude’s cousin is also a thrall.  She does cleaning, but she has trouble, so he helps her.  He knows this area.  There are cells.  Cells with people Teacher doesn’t want us to get at.”

“He doesn’t want us to get to the other teams and get them out of trouble, either.”

“He wants this less.  Trust me.  I’ll make you that promise again now.  If I’m bullshitting you, you can throw me in jail.”

“Keep saying that and we’ll think you want to go to jail.  For the female company?” Juliette asked.

“Gross and no.  My odds are better out here.  I’m trying to convey I’m serious and I’m bad at it, so I’m putting shit on the line.”

“I believe her,” Swansong said.

“We get to those cells, we win,” Imp said.  “One hundred percent.”

“I believe her less now.”

We passed more bodies.  More first-wave teams that had fallen.  These guys were people from the city core, in the ‘New York’ area of Gimel.  Smaller teams, ones that had been benched, working in coordination with the other squads.

Butchered.  Burned.

I was having trouble getting past that.

Especially when we ran another thirty feet, turned a corner, and there were more bodies.  Cold.  The area was unlit because a power had shut things off.

And then, mercifully, an arching doorway.  Another large room, which might have been chemical or water processing.  Huge tanks loomed in the center, surrounded by catwalks.  The ceiling was high, and tiny windows high above were open to the sky, showing sunset hues.   Multiple teams were gathered on the ground level.

Atop the tanks, looking down on us, were three modified Dragon-craft, weapons armed.  Each was supported by teams of thralls and a handful of capes.

Modified to be something other than Dragons.

“Those are her old suits that she wasn’t able to find after G.M.!” Balk called out.  “She said to watch out for them!”

Mechanical angels now.  One with a glowing halo, one with extensive wings that made me think of the Simurgh, another with metal plates connecting into one another in what could have been flowing robes, carrying a glowing sword.

And us with our tinker not in her best state.

“Saint,” Imp said.  “You asssshole.

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Dying – 15.3

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“Did you encounter three capes when you came down this way?  Two teens, boy and girl, and a woman?”

“Only if they were wearing Teacher outfits and brainwashed,” Sveta said.

“No.  We sent our own that way to scout,” Gong said.  Prong was just a short distance away.  Both were the kind of dirty that came with the really extended combats, where sweat ran over your entire body, then smoke and then dust got caked into it.

“Annihilated,” Prong muttered.

“Don’t you dare say that,” Gong warned.

“Side doors,” Capricorn said.  “We checked all the rooms we could open as we passed, but we didn’t scout thoroughly for hiding places.”

“Tandem.  Take Blatherskite and Tailgate, scout the way back, check the rooms more thoroughly, bring the wounded with you, find a spot to hunker down.”

“I can fight,” Blather said.  Young kid, mask that covered cheeks and forehead, with some decoration around the eyes and a brightly colored lipstick.  Wide-eyed and flinching with every nearby impact and loud sound.  “You need us.”

“We need to not worry about the wounded,” Gong said.  The dull impacts of tinker guns striking concrete grew coordinated and numerous enough to drown him out.  I could see the wall that was taking the brunt of the attack.  Each shot seemed to morph it, carving out a shallow indent that spread the material around it out.  The combined hail of the power was enough to stretch the wall tall and thin.  Gong was annoyed enough at the distraction- at the distraction and maybe just how it seemed to affect the kids in his squad who weren’t doing so hot.  Blatherskite was feeling everything and Tailgate was stiff-chinned and asborbing nothing, staring off into space.

Gong slapped his hands together, and a shockwave rippled harmlessly past us, tracing a flat, long oval around us and our cover.  The sound of incoming projectiles softened, then stopped.  I peeked and saw the shockwave slowing as it moved, and slowing bullets and bolts of energy, a few chunky containers that might have been explosives, and some of our allies’ stuff as well.  Someone in one of the concrete cubicles near the one we were hunkered down in was firing shotgun sprays of their power into Gong’s shockwave, filling it with what looked like two-armed tadpoles the size of my fist.  They clawed blindly at the air, tails whipping around violently, and their screeches were high-pitched, feral, and muffled, as the shockwave absorbed even the sound.

Blather cringed at even those sounds, despite the fact they were friendly.  No respite, even as the sound of the incoming attack more or less stopped.

Gong did about as tight and vicious a little spin-move as I’d ever seen anyone do, spinning on the spot and slapping at something mid-air.  Wind rushed past all of us, and the assembled projectiles launched as a volley, flying out toward one of the entrances.

The crash was loud.  I flinched, and I was used to the chaos of battlefields.  Gong, meanwhile, landed on hands and knees, like something had been taken out of him.  Big guy, heavyset but not tall, wrapped in armor in the Advance Guard style.  The ‘gong’ motif was in diamond-shaped plates at key positions around his body.

Two seconds passed, punctuated by the sounds of other ongoing struggles nearby, but devoid of any of the sounds of the offense from that one direction.

Then the hail resumed.  Dull ‘splat’ impacts that made the impact areas taller, wider, and thinner.  Something more ordinary struck one of the stretched out barriers and shattered it with a sound and effect very similar to glass breaking.

Fume Hood launched a series of spheres.  The gas was both a deterrent that forced the group back into the corridor and a way to disrupt their accuracy.  Most of her focus was elsewhere, though.  There hadn’t been enough space, so her team had fallen back to another decagon.

“Kite!” Gong raised his voice to be heard.  Blatherskite flinched.  Gong went on, resuming the orders he’d been trying to give before “We need to not have to worry about the wounded.  This is your job.  You follow orders!  You, Tandem, Tailgate.  Find where the three we sent down that hallway are hiding.”

Blatherskite nodded, the motion tight.  He’d protested earlier and he didn’t protest now.  A token effort when he really wanted out.

Capricorn was in the cubicle next to ours, talking to Tandem.  I could overhear parts of their conversation as he described parts of the scene we’d left behind with the big room of people, the bars, and the number of capes there.

“…can get past bars,” Tandem was saying.

“I figured, but you have to get your team past them too.”

“What a shame that we haven’t talked.”

“I- yeah.”

“You ready, Tan?” Gong raised his voice.

“When you are!”

“Prong?”

“Yeah.  Nervous, but yeah.”

“Tailgate?  We’re going to want your power.  Two shots if you can manage it.”

Tailgate didn’t respond, like she had been rendered deaf by the cacophony.

I put my hand out, into her field of view.  She startled.

“You with us?” Gong asked.

I saw the confusion as she took stock.

“Teacher’s facility, we’re in the gallery,” I said.  “You’ve been here for a few hours, you’re being relieved by the second strike teams.  You’re taking the wounded through that door with Blatherskite and Tandem.  Tandem leads, I think?”

“We need portals,” Gong said, without giving Tailgate a chance to respond.  “Here and here.  We’re covering you with an attack.  Prong’s diving in, he’ll need all of our support.  We push, distract, cover, and then fall back to this point.”

And with that, any light of understanding in Tailgate’s expression fogged up again.  “I’m helping with that?”

“You’re going with Tandem,” Gong said, clearly annoyed.

“This way,” I said.  “I’ll cover you.  Go to the cubicle next door.  Do what Tandem says.”

Tailgate looked back to Gong.

“Make the portals.”

Fuck me, I could have hit him.

“Tandem!” I called out.

“What!?” was the answering cry.

“Tailgate’s making a portal to help your retreat and help our charge.  Give them the orders!  Sending her to you!”

“Got it!”

“Go,” I told Tailgate.  “Do what Tandem says.”

Again, she looked to Gong.

“Go,” he said, like he was all out of patience.

“Go next door,” I said.  “Take Blatherskite.”

She did.  Blather followed her, as the pair ducked out of the doorway.  I ducked out too, hurrying to get far enough away I could use the Wretch to block any incoming fire from the flanks.  There wasn’t any.

Clear, definitive orders for someone who wasn’t entirely here right now.  I knew the drill, and I knew that someone in that state needed grounding and direction.  Gong hadn’t been helping, piling on more when Tailgate needed less.

“They’re a good cape,” Gong said.  “Reliable up until today.”

“Movers tend to trigger from a need to escape, shakers usually trigger from environment.  Combine the two and it stands to reason that being trapped would remind her of that event and circumstance.”

“She’s a Cauldron cape,” Gong said.  “She dropped out of the PRT when they started cracking down and trying to figure out who was compromised.  She tried to make a graceful exit, being open about why, but got detained when she wouldn’t answer all of their questions.  Eight months in special detention.  She got out, got a sponsorship.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that.  Maybe that people who took Cauldron vials might have been motivated toward certain vials or they might have had the mental groundwork for certain end results, even with the power being from a bottle.  But I didn’t know.  The cape geek stuff on Cauldron had always been and remained a big question mark.

Sveta could usually be counted on to have some feelings one way or another when Cauldron came up in any capacity, but she was more focused on other things.

The corridor we’d come through was cleared for retreat, which shifted the dynamics of this scene in our overall favor.  The formless, sprawling space with concrete and metal decagons spaced out across it, the high ceiling, and stale hair heavy with the smell of smoke and ozone was relatively easily defended, but mounting attacks from the space was difficult to impossible.  Teams that fell back to the concrete decagons found that there was too much in the way of no man’s land to easily cross.  The speedsters, acrobats, fliers, and other movers could get around or get through that gap, but they couldn’t make a lasting dent in enemy forces while they were out there.

I heard Love Lost scream.  Not enough range to reach across the no man’s land.

If this whole operation was meant to be a surgical strike, the surgery had gone wrong.  The strike down the central thoroughfare of the facility had brought the team here, and the way behind had closed up, organized soldiers collapsing in.  No way out but through.  Our surgeon had worked deep enough to find the issue and get a grip on it -our ‘gallery’ here- but blood from the entry was filling the work area, blocking of view and the ability to get anything done.  So long as that flow persisted, it would be impossible to truly get anything done.

Capricorn was drawing constellations in the air.  Rocks thudded as they landed.  Barriers to replace the concrete walls that were being broken down.  At another decahedron, Stonewall was doing something similar, planting his shield in the ground, then manifesting another.

I could only see a little bit of the decahedron where Balk’s group had retreated.  Only a bit of where the woman with something of a resemblance to my aunt was having a drink of water.  I saw the empty container get tossed aside.

“I saw a cape,” I said, mostly to Sveta.  “Crystal’s mom?”

“Didn’t she die?”

“In Gold Morning.”

“Shit,” Prong said.

“You know something?”  I asked.  “Because the formations she was using with Balk, I thought my cousin passed on things we learned as kids to get incorporated into the PRTCJ, Wardens, whatever, but…”

“Try not to worry about it,” Prong said.

“It’s kind of hard not to.  You’re acting like there’s something weird here.”

“Valkyrie’s always tried to keep people from seeing what she does with anyone they might know.”

What?

“Focus,” Gong said.

“Wait,” I told him.  Then to Prong, “What?”

“Fuck,” he said.  “You know how Valkyrie works?”

“Vaguely.”

“Valkyrie copies powers and summons vague simulations of the people who had those powers.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That was not just powers.  That was not a vague simulation.  That was someone who flies, who has the mannerisms, who fights like my aunt did.  She gave me looks and the more I think about them the more I think she remembered me.  She didn’t fight or fly like anyone who learned the formations from the PRTCJ.  She fought and flew like the person who helped refine them.  And as far as I know, Valkyrie isn’t here.”

Prong looked at Gong, then back to me.  “Okay, fast explanation, no lies, but no follow-up questions either.  If we take too long they’ll reinforce with turrets, one-way forcefields and robots.”

I grit my teeth for a second.  I didn’t want a fast, shitty answer.

But I did recognize the need.  I nodded.

“She’s been using power interactions.  Forging bodies for them, so she can send them out.  She started with a dozen, increased to twenty-five.  Then a few died.”

“Some of us think she got rid of them,” Gong said.  “If they went bad.”

“Glossing over that,” Prong said.  “She recently made more.  Sent them on this mission.”

“How is she making them?” I asked.

“No follow-up questions,” Prong said.  “Listen, they’re fragile.  There’s stuff wrong with them.  In their heads, in their bodies.  She apparently fixes them or she lets other people fix them.  But until she gives the word, we’re supposed to leave them alone, we avoid putting them anywhere near their old loved ones, teammates, whatever.  If you see any, try to ignore them or keep interactions light.  You’ll hurt yourselves if you don’t.”

“There’s stuff wrong with them?” I asked.  “Plural?  Scattered, or multiple things in one person?”

Sveta reached out to touch my arm.

“Right,” I said.

“It worries me that they’re apparently fragile and they’re being sent into this,” Sveta said.

“She knows what she’s doing,” Gong said.  Then he raised his voice.  “Ready!?”

There were answering cries.

“Breakthrough goes with!” Capricorn called out.

He was taking charge more because I hadn’t dropped the master-stranger warning from back on Shin.  I didn’t wholly trust myself to lead.

Tailgate’s power created what looked like forcefields, extending out in straight lines from our dodecahedron.

“Look for the teleporter!” Gong shouted.  “Go!”

He lurched forward, heavy armor and accumulated fatigue slowing him down compared to how a normal person might move when sprinting their way out of a crouch, out into the open, then a hard right into the forcefield.  Except it wasn’t a forcefield, it was a gate.

Prong was faster.  Skinny guy in slim-fitting armor, with a bident.

Then Sveta.  Ashley and Rain were emerging from a neighboring cubicle, on the far side of the gate.  Capricorn had a few more feet to cross.

Each person that hit the wall of energy dissipated, disintegrating.

It spooked me, somehow.  As a spur of the moment thing, I flew, instead.  I took to the air and I could see the trails of energy, vaguely color coded because each ‘bolt’ was a vaguely arrow-shaped, fractal mess of distorted reality, careening over the concrete form, some arcing in the air, others staying low to the ground.

Gong had already arrived on site, and used his power.  A shockwave bowled over twenty tinkers.  Prong was there a second later, turning from fractal energy bolt to human.  He put the points of his weapon into a tinker’s gun-hand, and as he did, a copy of him appeared, impaling the thrall from behind.

That new version of himself pulled his weapon free, simultaneously driving the butt-end of the weapon toward a tinker-thrall’s face, and that tinker raised their weapon as a shield, blocking the hit.  Prong’s copy still appeared behind them, putting the points of his weapon into their calf.

Strike, make any contact, and he got a second free hit.  The original lasted only as long as both were making contact.

With the group still recovering from Gong’s hit, Prong had the run of things.  Weapon swiped out, points raking someone’s chest, and a Prong-copy appeared, pulling weapon free and away, swinging it out for another slash.

My team arrived.  Ashley appeared above the group, blasted to adjust her trajectory, and tackled someone from behind.  Sveta grabbed one of the people at the flanks with tendrils, then moved them around, so they were a human shield in case any other groups at other entrances tried to open fire.

Rain appeared and headbutted someone in the same instant, grabbed their gun with both hands, and had his smaller, tinker hand reach down and out to pull something out of the bottom of the weapon.

And Capricorn- it was Byron now.  He knew how to fight.  So often, I didn’t see him actually throw punches because he preferred to act from range, drawing out his power, acting as artillery.  But he’d learned with Reach, he had training in the essentials, and he had some experience with it too.

I remained in the air, taking advantage of the break in the hail of gunfire and overall chaos.  The focused strike on the one entrance was drawing attention.

No time to count heads, but I could get a feel for things.  I looked at each group in turn, one after another.  Group A, group B, group C.

Group A, group B, group C…

The Heartbroken had made it to the gates and were crossing the floor.  I could tell by the color schemes.  The retreating wounded were at the exit we’d come through and cleared.  Tandem was now two people, running hand-in-hand.  Another Case Seventy, like Capricorn.

Group A, group B, group C.

Group C was larger.

Balk rose into the air.  The artillery cape, a new flier from the Wardens, and the ghost of my aunt were with them.  I saw her look at me.  They were doing a loop, suppressing every group with airborne fire now.

Focus.

Cue from the Shepherds, formerly of the Attendant, had been the one to point out the teleporter I was convinced I was looking for.  If not them, and I figured it was a one percent chance it wasn’t, then it was tech that copied them.

When I’d been auditioning for teams, I hadn’t been willing to walk away or let the Fallen be.  The pole-wielding Cue had pointed out that the Fallen had a cape that was replenishing their numbers.  It had been subtle, people appearing in a crowd, but there had been a general feeling to it that felt like this.  That the numbers didn’t add up, that a battle was being lost and it was hard to get a full handle on the why of it.

Two plus two equals four?  No, because that first two became a three when one wasn’t looking.  Dumb, but when it applied to counting enemies, it made for an oppressive atmosphere.

Right side of C.  Right side of B, the group my team was fighting.  I was ready to jump in if they were faltering or struggling, or if C got organized enough to make an attack.  Stonewall was pressing in, shield up, keeping C distracted.

If the reinforcement teleporter was dropping people into the parts of the groups he could see, then I could work out where he was.  Right side of the two groups… he was off to the right.

D, then.  The entrance to the right of the one we’d come through.  They were furthest from the Advance Guard assault, which meant I had less distraction going for me.  I flew to one of the pillars in the complex, putting my back to it, and peeked around the corner.

They had the numbers advantage, and with only general harassment from our side, they were putting together a robot the size of a car, quadrupedal.  Thirty or forty people working, while people with luminescent riot shields and truncheons formed a wall around them on the ground.  A cape stood on the robot’s back.

It was like figuring out one of the pictures that required the eyes to have a specific focus.  Each person wore a similar outfit, which made finding the distinctions hard.  If I tried to focus, I lost myself in the visual noise and the sense of a pattern that wasn’t there.

But every thrall had a job to do.  There were ones on guard, there were ones who were building, and there were others who put down suppressive fire, to limit and punish movement and keep anyone from being able to comfortably respond.  The suppressive fire sub-group was the one who would gun me down if I was dumb about this, and they were the people who were firing into the air, trying to catch Balk’s team.

All behind a short concrete fence, protecting the guys in the very front from the waist down.  A robot in the center as a platform only one cape was brave enough to stand on top of.

The hidden picture was in who fit the pattern, who didn’t.  Who was still?

Balk’s squad did their fly-by, harassing the group, trying to disrupt what they were doing.  The ball hit the glowing shields and bounced off, flew back to him, and then hit the robot instead, crashing through layers of metal and circuits.  It bounced out, hit another shield from a defender with good reaction times, and then returned to him.  The artillery cape lobbed something, and the cape on top of the robot shot the lob out of the air.

The ghost of the woman who had read bedtime stories to me when I was little and she was visiting, who had given me baths, who had taught me to fly smart, and who had given me the first for-adults book I had truly loved brought lasers down on their heads, sniping wherever defenses were missing.

“Balk!” I shouted.

He looked for me and didn’t see me.  I waved an arm.

“What!?”

“Hit them again!”  I pointed.

He motioned, said something.  His team looped around.  Another artillery shot.  Another rain of lasers.  The other cape in his group had reloaded and unloaded their semiautomatic rifle from the air.

Shields were raised to protect the group.

One shield raised a bit slower.  A single person protected by the people on either side of them.

I checked the area below me was clear enough, then hit the pillar I was hiding by with the Wretch.

Another two hits, and I had a chunk of rebar-reinforced concrete nearly as tall as I was.  And I could ball-up while flying, using it as a shield.

I charged in.  A hail of fire whittled at my concrete.  Balk hadn’t left, though, and his team unloaded on the group below.

Ramming, I hit four of them with the chunk.  Shields in the way, they repulsed me, the riot shields flaring with energy.  I could smell ozone so thick in the air I could barely breathe.

Second try.  I threw the concrete high, lobbing it toward them, so it would crash on them from above.

I was counting on them to not be stupid.  I didn’t want to murder them.

They weren’t stupid.  They were even smarter than I’d anticipated.  Half of them raised their shields up.  The other half kept shields down and forward.  Gunners shot, catching the Wretch.

Do you have to be such a big fucking target, Wretch?

I flew in, because any direction but away was too dangerous.  An implosion from Balk’s artillery cape pulled some of the group back, but they were packed in enough that there was no room to fall over, only to be pulled back and off balance.

The concrete and the distraction of that- trying to get it to fall in front rather than behind and on top of people, that was the bigger help.  They did repel it so it was skewed to fall in front.

I flew under it, over the short fence.  The glow of the shields in my way was my only good indicator of where I could move, when I had less than a second to decide.

A gap.  I put one hand on the fence, to better control my flying vault over it, down, and into the forest of legs and boots.  No Wretch to protect me.

Reorienting, avoiding the first few kicks from people who realized I was in their midst, I caught the cape I wanted and flew up and out, hauling him with.  The stitches at the back of my hand complained at me, the beds of fingers with the recently lost and reattached fingernails made my fingertips feel vaguely mushy, in the worst, touching-a-burn-blister kind of way.  My other arm was weak.

I only got about ten feet before he caught my shin with the bottom end of the shield, repelled me, and forced us apart.  He swung the glowing truncheon at me, but that was easy enough to avoid.

He fell.  Short distance, but still a rough fall.  His shield hit the ground and bounced out of his hand.

I went after it, catching the weapon and rolling, putting it between myself and the people in the group.

They weren’t shooting.  A short bit ago, it had been what, thirty people, one robot in construction, one obvious cape, and this guy, who was dressed up as a thrall security officer, hidden in the crowd.

Now it was practically overflowing, people pushing past others, storming over the fence.

Balk’s artillery person hit the bulk of them.

Keeping the shield between that group and myself, I trusted Balk to handle it.

I focused on the teleporter, taking flight-

And I saw something not so dissimilar from the forest of legs I’d just flown into.  A portal or a power at work, a blur of people in silhouette, with bright lights shining in the gaps.

Trying to get me to fly into and through it, teleporting me away.

I flew over, instead.  He had the truncheon ready for a swing.

He hit the Wretch.  The Wretch hit him.  A single blow to pelvis or upper thigh, his legs went out from under him, and his head cracked against the ground.

With neither of my hands or arms fully cooperating, I managed to draw him up into a loose carry, then I flew.

“Good to go!” I called out to Balk.

His group flew to make a formation with me.

“Why him?”

“Teleporter, hidden in their group.  Part of the reason for the reinforcements.”

“Only part,” he said.  “They’re dragging away wounded, healing them with medical thinkers.  Sending them back in.”

“This guy was expediting them.  I want to drop him off at Stonewall’s.”

“We’re overdue for another circuit,” Balk told me.  “Hurry.”

I hurried.  No time to waste, no questions.  Stonewall’s group was holding the position that was hardest to hold, defensive capes, and a number of the more lightly injured.

Now with one more.

I passed them the injured, gave them brief information.  Balk’s group was already resuming its circuit.

I flew to my team.

Already, the tone had shifted.  The reinforcement teleporter had been seeding each group with new members, sufficient to more than replace the ones who dropped out of the fight, injured, knocked out, or dead.  In a last ditch effort, he had dumped a ton of reinforcements into the one group furthest from this door.

A game of whack a mole, where you swung at one, but two more popped up.  Focus on the one entrance, and the other entrances pushed in.  All the more so because the group I’d labeled ‘group D’ had increased in number.

The entrance to the hallway became a new spot we had to defend.  Roles shifted, our rear became our new defensive front.  Fume Hood laid down some cover fire, choking whole groups of the enemy.

And the hallway- more of the same.

Hundreds.

Hundreds, I thought again, as I processed the idea.  This wasn’t the only defensive front.  Hundreds of human beings, hundreds who didn’t flinch, didn’t break down, and didn’t break pattern.

The loss of his subject’s full volition wasn’t even a huge drawback in this kind of circumstance.  It was an asset for Teacher.

Byron hit someone, transitioned that hit into a grab, and pulled them to one side, where one of his constellations blasted out water.  Sveta made it further down the hallway, where there were less of our people in reach.  Her tendrils cut where the saw teeth ran along flesh, and grabbed otherwise.  The two combined were… nasty.  To cut someone’s arm and pull on that skin?

Roman tore through people.  Pick a target, lunge in, win.  Rinse, repeat.  Juliette, like Ashley, hung back at the sides, looking for opportunities.

We’d won the entrance.  Now the hallway, while the rest of the gallery folded in behind us, pressuring stonewall, pressuring our guys on the outside.  Me included.

I had the shield I’d confiscated, and nobody had thought to turn it off or disable it for me.  For now, I focused on using it to help shield the group.

Rain had a blade out, and ‘parried’ a swing of a gun being used as a club.  It still hit him, parry or no, but it broke in the impact, diffusing the hit.

They were doing that a lot.  I suspected the tinker guns made by Teacher’s shitty tinkers ran out of power fast.

Chastity and Samuel were hanging back.  So were some of our volunteered capes.  Withdrawal leaped up, latched onto the wall, then sprung down, over and over, targeting stragglers.  Caryatid used her breaker form’s ability to draw her costume into the form by utilizing loose and torn fabric to shield some of our team.  She’d grabbed one of the fences and used it as a shield.

One guy on the ground ran, and Withdrawal pounced onto them.  A feint, or a sacrifice play, because two more ‘hurt’ thralls went after him while his back was turned.

Caryatid slammed into them, a burst of movement, a push.  She went still again to absorb incoming fire.

Imp… I had no idea what she was doing.

The usual thing about cape fights was that they involved a fight against another cape.  Even the way the PRT broke down fights, with classifications and calls, number ratings and priorities, there was a standard order in which capes were to be dealt with.  One at a time, knock them down.  Thinkers first, tinkers second, brutes last.

This wasn’t that.  It was a fight against a swarm, and I had only limited experience with that, ‘fighting’ Crusader, getting tag-teamed by Tattletale and Skitter.  Dealing with the Merchants.

None of them had the individuality to stand up and step out from the crowd, pull out any special heroics.  But they did shelter capes, and they did target ours.

Imp could do a lot, I was sure, but there weren’t many major players here, and I imagined she was best when there was a specific, vulnerable, high-priority target to go after.

My focus, as such, remained diffuse, looking for telling breaks in the pattern.  Large scale movements, individuals that stood out, and convergences on our guys.

Stonewall had gone still.  He was drawing more and more fire by the second.  I saw him move, trying to bring his shield around, and it was slow.

Being affected by a power?

“Support Stonewall!” I called out.

My squad wasn’t the only one to leap to his defense.  Balk came down, and Stonewall’s group from the decahedron broke out of cover to hurry over.  The injured made a simultaneous break for the hallway our other injured had gone to, taking advantage of distractions and the fact that our group at the one entrance was drawing all of the attention.

I landed right beside Stonewall, borrowed shield out to block incoming fire.  His stone armor had been scarred and whittled away.  The guys at the nearest checkpoint had what looked like rifles that fired railroad spikes.  One or two had embedded in Stonewall’s armor, and blood was leaking out of the wounds.

“Power died,” Stonewall reported.  “Not strong enough to move my armor.”

He laughed.

Withdrawal caught up.  He’d gone out of his way to pick up the riot shields, and he now had two attached to each of his arms, one near each arm-tip, and one near where his actual hands were.  Orange motes circled around us.  What would be a protective wall.

And past those motes, even in the wide open space that was the gallery, there were enough thralls that they were walking shoulder to shoulder.  Many armed, though only a third of the weapons seemed to have battery.

“I thought I fucked up their guy who was teleporting in reinforcements,” I said.  “What the hell?”

“You did,” Stonewall said.  Immobile, a man within a costume that wouldn’t move.  “It’s been like this every step of the way.  They have precogs, clairvoyants, they have morale detectors.  They know where and how to push.  The big push is because you forced them to play their hand.”

“Great.”

“It’s good.  Listen, someone needs to tell my team to retreat and hold the other hallway.  We can’t have our injured getting mobbed.”

“On it,” someone reported.

One less person in our defensive huddle.  Against an army.

Hundreds.  The word had passed through my head and stuck with me.  Half of the gallery was now filled, to the point I had to wonder if we were approaching a thousand thralls in attendance.

“They’ve got masks on!” Balk called out.  “Be wary of gas!”

Shit.  He was right.  The front two rows had full-face masks on, eyes glowing, lower faces covered by blank surfaces.

The rows of thralls behind them didn’t, though.  That suggested it wasn’t gas.

“Might be flashes, not gas,” I added.

“Might be,” Balk answered.

His squad landed around us.

My aunt, for lack of a better way of putting it, landed next to me.  Again, there was fleeting eye contact.  The expression she wore was perpetually what I’d seen on her face the day Leviathan had attacked.  Before we’d lost Eric and Uncle Neil.  Serious, even a little haunted.  With purple and black eyes.

She cast a forcefield, then reached back with her other hand, creating a laser.  She began to cut through Stonewall’s suit.

The lights went out.  One by one.  I might have thought it was the shaker from before, the ripple that made the lights flicker as it passed.

It wasn’t.

All at once, we were in darkness.  Costume elements and powers glowed, there were a few scattered fires, a few flashes of sparks where wiring had been torn up, and rows of glowing eyes.

“Night vision,” the artillery cape said.

“They did this before.  We didn’t see the masks,” Balk reported.  “Wait it out, try to take down the ones with masks.”

“They had them then.  They refresh the injured or pass on the gear,” Stonewall said.

The artillery cape’s power flickered and flared with light as she created and hurled it.  Definitely an aerial sort of attack- as ground to ground it had trouble getting height and dipped downward fast, like throwing paper airplanes built to nosedive.

The riot shields were as useful as anything, when it came to the lighting.  The laser and the forcefield were another big help.

Someone audibly tore a chunk of Stonewall’s costume off.  He began to climb out, reached out, groping, and found my shoulder.

“What do you call yourself?” I asked into the darkness.  I could barely hear myself over the noises around us.  I could barely breathe to utter the words.  The battery indicator on the shield had an unfair share of my attention.  Without it I’d have to use the Wretch in an environment where I wasn’t sure where all of my allies were.

“Sarah,” was the answer.

“No cape name?”

“Photon for now.”

“Not Lady Photon?”

The response was drowned out, but I was pretty sure it was ‘someday’.

For a short while, there was only the effort, trying to stay sane and focused on what needed focus while fighting in the dark against an army that could see.

She didn’t ask about Crystal.  She didn’t ask about me.

Didn’t ask about mom, dad, or how we’d gotten on.

“Crystal’s okay.”

“Good.”

“I think she might be here.  She would have joined and I didn’t hear from-”

“She’s at the far end.”

Curt, crisp.

A lot of the guns being used by the thralls in the dark were dark.  No glowing chambers, no glowing projectiles, no muzzle flashes.  The only signs they were being used were when our defensive squadron was pummeled, wounded, or knocked flat.  Blood splattered against one side of my face.

“Hit,” was the guy’s grunt.  “F-ffuck.  Muh face.”

“Stonewall’s all the way out!  Fighting retreat!” Balk called out.  “Someone get our wounded!”

‘Sarah’ pushed past me, touching my arm in a way that suggested she could see me enough.

I couldn’t think of what to say, or what to do.  The flash of the indicator and the hum of the shield I was carrying dying distracted me.  The shield was next to useless now, and I had to do my part.

“Keep your distance from me if you can,” I said.

I stepped away from the group, away from Sarah, and knelt down, head down, activating the Wretch, hoping I wouldn’t take too much fire.

I went to your funeral, I thought.  After Gold Morning.  You meant so much to us and we couldn’t even properly grieve, because there were so many people who needed the chance to hold services.  I put flowers on your doorstep every time I went to old Brockton Bay.

I looked away, tried to get a sense of directionality.  There were powers being lobbed at the rank and file, bright enough to be seen in the darkness.  I could see where tech was being used to diffuse the impacts, break it up, or limit the damage.

It wasn’t as easy as using a single big, wide-area power.

We retreated, using guiding lights of powers as an indicator.  Ashley’s eyes glowed white in the dark.  I could see the single eye of Sveta’s, Precipice’s, and Capricorn’s, and the crack across Precipice’s mask.

Into the hallway, which had been more or less cleared.  Capes were fighting further up, and capes were fighting behind us.

But in the meantime, we had some light, and we had a chance to breathe, spacing out enough that we could find our individual groups.

I almost dropped to a sitting position as I got to the others, and I hadn’t been running around much.

Byron made water, filling a container, than drank it.  He capped it, tossed it into the air, and changed to Tristan.  Tristan caught it and drank more.  At a nudge from Sveta, he handed it over.

“My brother can make water if anyone needs a resupply,” he called out.

“Let us finish what we have,” Gong said.  “We’ll take you up on that.”

“Sveta did us all proud,” Ashley said.  “She cleared half of this hallway herself.”

“Did I?  Sorry, I don’t want to sound like I’m fishing for compliments-”

“I’ve always felt you should claim every compliment you can get.”

“-but my control slipped some.”

“You handled it.  You did well.”

“I’d like to think so.  I hope so.  I feel like I’m closer to being the hero I want to be.  I wish it was a little less bloody.”

“Don’t we all?” one of the capes from Gong’s group asked.

“It means a lot that you’d say it, though.  Thank you, Swansong.”

“Of course.”

“What’s the standard way to compliment you, Swan?” Precipice asked.  “Florid, exaggerated?  I’d probably come across like a sniveling cartoon toady to the big bad guy if I tried.”

“You’re nowhere near that,” Sveta said.

“As fun as it would be to hear you try,” Swansong added, “I wouldn’t worry.  Complimenting me risks belaboring the obvious.”

“Wow,” Tristan said.

“You did okay, Swan,” I said.  “Not a lot you can do with a lethal power and this situation.”

She made a noise of assent.

“And you?” Sveta asked.  She found a position next to me.  “Your hand is bleeding.”

It was.  Whatever.  Not enough to matter.

“Talked to Aunt Sarah.”

“And?”

“And it was eerie.  I’m not sure how to put it.”

Like something was missing.

She laid her head against my shoulder, being careful of the spikes.

Catching our breath.  Touching base, going back to the old therapy circle of group reaffirmation, maybe.

Imp and the Heartbroken were a little further down.  They… were picking fun at each other.  Roman and Juliette were having harsh words.  The tone, insults excepted, was fairly light.  Like they didn’t take this seriously.

“Can we get that water?” Gong asked.

Tristan became Byron, who provided the water, a small constellation, a short, focused spurt of stinging cold spray.

There were others who wanted drinks, so Byron switched back to Tristan, who began drawing out what might have been a bottle.  He created it, Byron filled it, and then they swapped back.

The goal had been to make it to a place where staff had access to water.  The siege in the gallery hadn’t quite allowed it.

Withdrawal had to move carefully, with the bulky frame and the hallway that was only ten feet across.  Caryatid followed.

“Hey, Withdrawal,” I said.  “Nice showing.”

He released a heavy, shuddering sigh.

“Finale would have been nice to have around,” he said.

“Wouldn’t have been good for her,” Caryatid said.

They found a spot to sit down, Withdrawal’s long limbs folding up to a degree to maintain a more compact silhouette.

Thinking about Finale got me thinking about Lookout, and thinking about Lookout got me thinking about maps.

Communications were still limited, we only had access to Lookout if we could use her tech to hack a computer, and only then for a brief time, apparently.  But we had the maps, and that was her contribution.  With Sveta, Rain and Ashley, I went over the maps, talking about options.

“Hey, Azúcar,” Tristan said.  He was still making bottles.  The group around him had shifted.

I looked up.

Tristan was paying attention to a girl in a cat mask, ears sweeping back along the sides of the head, gauntlets on.

“Hey, ass,” was the response.

“Uh, Capricorn,” I said.  “Careful.  Remember what they said.”

You’ll only hurt yourself.

“It’s okay,” Azúcar said.  “I’m a little bit further along.  Normal rules for the Flock don’t apply.  I can cheat it.”

“Sure,” I said.  I was aware that there were others standing nearby.  ‘Sarah’ being one, younger than she’d been when she died, now that I could see her standing still in decent lighting.

“You look good,” Tristan said.

“I feel good,” she said.  “Nine-six-ten-five.”

“You changed it.”

“Dying necessitates change,” she said, looking down the hall in the direction of the fighting.  What we were supposed to fight past and through.  They’d be setting up.  “But you’d know that, wouldn’t you?  False deaths?  Impermanent deaths?”

“Yeah.  Guess so,” Tristan said.  “Good to see you.  Glad the numbers are so good.”

“Only going to get better,” she said.  “I’d say it’s good to see you too, but…”

She made a movement of her head.  Hands wrapped in oversized ‘cat claw’ gauntlets moved up, claws moving close together.

“…only a little good.”

“I’ll take it,” Tristan said, eyes down on the bottle he was making.  Then he blurred.

Byron filled the bottle with water.  He stood straight to hand it over, and she wrapped him in a hug.  He hugged her back.

I didn’t try to listen in on their conversation, but they were speaking at a volume above murmurs, below whispers, and it was impossible to turn my ears off.

“Moonsong?”

“Alive and well, last I heard.  With this whole thing, though-”

“Don’t be such a downer.”

“We broke up.”

“Still being a downer,” she said.  “But that’s good.  Good she’s alive.  She was- she was trying.  Good you broke up.”

“Tristan kept one of your old lemon drop candies as a, I think it was a reminder,” Byron said, voice low.  “Always got its spot in his belt pouch.  He only cleared it out recently, a week ago, but it’s with his stuff.”

Lemon candy?  I thought.

“Oh.”

“Do you, um, still like those?”

“Still being a downer,” she said.  “You should be careful what questions you ask if the answers would trouble you.”

Ah.”

“Heads up!” Stonewall called out.  He’d regained his power and rebuilt his armor.  He had a shield in both hands.  “We’re mobilizing.”

People got to their feet, got ready.  Withdrawal unfolded his gear.

“Be well,” Azúcar said.

“You too.”

“And don’t worry.  I’d love a lemon drop right now.”

“Do you remember why they were important?”

“Don’t pick apart your happiness, Capricorn,” she said.  She punched his arm lightly, claws retracted.

I was so envious of their interaction I could barely stand it.

“Stonewall,” Swansong called out.  “We had a plan.”

“What’s the plan?”

“We don’t go forward.  We go through the wall,” she said, her hand sparking.

“Will that get us where we need to be?  I’d be worried about deviating from the set routes.”

“It’s territory without good rest spots.  But maybe that hurts them as much as it hurts us,” Sveta said.  “We can draw a map.”

“Or I can trust you,” Stonewall said.  He clapped gauntlets of high-density stone together.  “Everyone, we’re pushing for the nearest stairwell-”

He paused to check that Swansong and Sveta could get us there.  They nodded.

“-And we’re heading upstairs.  It only gets uglier from here.  We’ve fought mostly thralls up to this point.  As we get closer to the vitals of his infrastructure and organization, we’re going to have to fight the thralls and some of his better capes.”

“All precautions in effect,” Balk said.  “He recruited some of the worst of them.”

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Dying – 15.2

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Man and woman, old and young, dressed in clothes meant more for simplicity and comfort than any personal expression.  The entire scene was garish in the flourescent lights, the orderlies that handled food, water, and what looked to be bathroom breaks moving stiffly.  A lot of the people were pale in a way that suggested they hadn’t seen sunlight recently.  But not all.

“He collects people,” Imp said.  “People aren’t an easy thing to collect, and you don’t collect this many and then stick ’em somewhere.  So why?”

“Imp’s talking from experience,” Samuel said.

“Yeah, totes.  I keep an eye out for any guy who’s at least a thirteen by my metrics.”

“Thirteen what?” Caryatid asked, from the rear.  She was staying close to the door.  She’d dropped her breaker form to talk.

“Inches,” Chastity said.  About twenty feet away, Roman cracked up.

“Gotta rate ’em one to ten on the sexy scale.  Slim and wearing clothes that fit are better than muscle.  Then you rate ’em one to ten on the dark, sarcastic humor scale.  Add ’em together.  Guys’ gotta be a thirteen to count.  I’ll take a girl, but I’m pickier, she’s got to be a sixteen by my system.  I stow ’em in my personal headquarters, but I feed ’em, I water ’em.  So I know what I’m talking about.”

“I’m… eighty percent sure she’s joking,” Caryatid said.  “But that twenty percent-”

“She’s joking,” Samuel told her.  “And missing my point.  I wasn’t poking at her and trying to make her look bad.  She does collect people.  Us.  Heartbroken.”

“I didn’t go looking for you.  I went after Heartbreaker and then when I’m making sure he’s well and truly dead, there’s these kids around like, ‘Dad’s dead?  Okay, I’m going to go watch cartoons.'”

Roman replied, “Because fuck him, we looked forward to Saturday mornings all week, negotiated for what we’d watch.  He didn’t deserve to matter more than that.”

“The women screamed over the cartoons,” Samuel added.

Imp sighed heavily.  “Yeah.  I could dodge those poor women and use my power until they ran out of energy or ran off.  Thing is, they weren’t looking after you, and it wasn’t like I could leave you all.  Not an option.”

“Could’ve.  Maybe should’ve,” Chastity said.  “Life would’ve been simpler.”

“Maybe,” Imp said.

“Could have devoted more time to tracking down men who rate on your scale,” Chastity added.

The chatter continued.  I walked down the side of the room, looking, and found myself staring at a young woman, roughly my age.  Her expression had caught my eye, angry, but it was her natural resting face.  She reminded me of a girl from my patrol group, Camisola.  I moved closer, studying her.

“I see we found someone Glory Girl rates at least a thirteen,” Imp commented.

“Her hair,” I said.

“What about it?” Imp asked.

“It was cut recently.  A lot of these others, they have shaggier hair, or you can tell where they had haircuts before but the hair grew in.”

“I noticed something similar with clothes,” Chastity said.  “Some of them have had their clothes for a while, or the clothes are one of their regular outfits.  Why does it matter?”

“Because. ” It was Capricorn who had answered.  Tristan.  “It suggests they haven’t been sitting her for a while.”

“Clothes are even more telling,” I said.  “Show me?”

I flew over to Chastity.  She pointed the blunt end of her whip handle at one of the thralls.

Sure enough, the clothes were worn in a way that suggested they’d become comfortable.  There were no bulges around the shoulder or middle to suggest that someone else had worn the shirt, but there was wear.   That required movement, activity.

“This is good,” I said.

Imp chimed in, “I mean, it’s terrible.  Looks like a nurse’s scrubs from the hospital, and white stains so easily.”

“They came here recently, and it’s a change in pattern, they haven’t been… shelved… for long.  What if these are Teacher’s evacuated grunts?  Facility workers, noncombatant thralls?  Facility gets attacked, he sends everyone here, locks ’em up, keeps ’em brain dead to make them easier to wrangle.”

“Doesn’t make sense.  Look at the map.  Annotated version,” Capricorn said.

I did, bringing it up.

Annotated version.  It had suggested area labels, and with the area we’d just left and this storage space all being mis-labeled, I was skeptical of other guesses.  There were attack plans, expected distribution of forces from high-security areas, and there were notes on where certain teams might have set up camps to fall back to or areas to stage fights in as they worked their way into the facility.

“What am I looking for?”

“The flow of it.  Evacuating like this would mean sending the evacuees against the flow of incoming attackers to get here.”

“He sent them here recently.  That can mean three things,” I told Tristan.  “Either he knew we were coming and evacuated early…”

“And by doing so, tipped off his hand by having the early evacuees in a place where attackers might see them,” Tristan said.  “No.”

“Or he finished whatever project he was working on, and these workers became redundant within a day or two of the first wave attack…”

“A little coincidental, that he’d do it right before we attacked,” Tristan said.

Tristan could take on this tone, very much his ‘butting heads’ mode, where he got argumentative and stubborn.  I knew Tristan had issues with it, and Ashley had seen it as more of a point against Tristan when pushing to be team leader.  I’d have been lying if I said I hadn’t run into it as a frustration more than a few times.

Here?  Now?  I didn’t mind.  It forced me to make sense of things.

Or, last option, they were evacuated between the first wave attack and the second wave attack, but there was still a reason for the evacuation.”

“It’s option one,” Imp said.

Okay, not a Tristan rebuttal.

“The evacuation?” Precipice asked.

“Those two got so close to right, but you’re all missing the obvious.  Teacher’s an asshole.”

“And?”

“And evacuation into an incoming enemy force is the point.  Yes, he risks losing assets, but think of how much it slows our side down to have a constant filing of innocent personnel coming through every hallway, every room, potentially mixed in with armed security forces and people with powers.”

I could imagine it.

Getting a sense of how that initial attack had gone.

“What’s the chance, you think?” I asked Imp.  “Tattletale said you’ve fought him before.  You know him.”

“I’m touched.  One hundred percent, this is what he did.”

I winced inwardly at the ‘one hundred percent’.  Tattletale had never been one to give any guarantees, and hearing one from Imp made me suspicious.

But I went with it.  “They’re still evacuated.  He didn’t pull them back to resume normal operations.  Either he was anticipating the second attack, or the first wave is still mounting their attack elsewhere.  We should move on, see if we can’t catch up to the other group.”

“I can seal off this section,” Capricorn said.  “Does mean we’re cutting off our retreat.”

“We have ways of getting through barriers.  Precipice, Swansong, Caryatid,” I said, motioning for others to come.

He began drawing motes around the door.  The squads began gathering.  People who had hung back moved forward, like Caryatid and our newbie Mortari capes.  Withdrawal was perched on his stilt-like limbs, syringe-gun at his back filled with a neon yellow liquid.  Heartbroken who had scattered drew closer to Imp, and I could overhear her asking Roman and Juliette about the count.  Roman was ahead by two, apparently.  Breakthrough gathered closer to me.

“It could be a trap,” Swansong said, once she was close enough.  “On a lot of levels.”

“Yeah.  There aren’t any great ways to handle that, though.  We have a lot of powers, we watch our backs and stay aware of any greater machinations,” I told her.  “We cross our fingers that we have the powers to problem solve our way through whatever he slings at us.”

“Samuel!” Imp raised her voice.  “Regroup!”

Samuel, the blond, older Heartbroken kid, was wandering off.  No rush, no real apparent purpose.

Any weirdness was cause for alarm.  I floated up, until my toes were just above the head of the tallest member of my group.  Sveta followed my cue, heading off to the left, gripping a ‘shelf’ that housed a row of people to haul herself across the floor, dropping to one knee to skid along the surface using the low friction of her multicolored armor.

Love Lost and Withdrawal followed, metal claws and metal, curved stilt-limbs clicking on the floor as they moved into position.  The harpoon dude followed them, hands going to the back of his head as the harpoons fired out of six points across chest and stomach.  He hauled himself forward in much the same way that Sveta tended to move, but staggered the pulls.

Samuel slowed down as he walked, and we surrounded him.

Then he lunged, reaching out for someone sitting on a bench.  A guy in white scrubs with a five o’clock shadow, glasses, and hair made tall with grease and mess.  The guy fell backward off the bench to avoid the reaching hand, scrambled to his feet, and ran, while Samuel failed to catch up.

But Sveta was already in position to cut him off.  He turned to the side, and saw Withdrawal, a skinny, tall silhouette with a face covered by a tinker mask, burdened by a syringe that made the limbs threaten to buckle under him.

Love Lost behind him, wearing her modified mask, a dress with a slit up one leg, and her claws.

And me above, surveying the situation and ready to fill any gaps that appeared.

“Felt something from him,” Samuel said.  “Emotions, muted.”

“You can’t seal off the exits,” the man said.  “We need access to facilities.  People would die.”

“Who are you?”

“On-site doctor for ground level southwest.  I can monitor vitals, I help anyone here who has health issues.  Heart attacks, sores, choking.”

“What is this?” Sveta asked.  Her voice held that touch of suppressed outrage and indignation that tended to appear whenever Cauldron or Cauldron-related stuff came up.  This qualified.

That outrage and indignation were entirely fair, really.  But it was a thing and it was a thing I’d keep track of, just in case.

The guy didn’t respond, lips pressed together.  When Love Lost drew closer, he didn’t flinch or look scared.  Reduced emotional capacity.

“How many more areas like this are there?” I asked.

He looked up until he saw me.  He didn’t answer, though.

“This guy’s useless.  Seal the area.”

“No,” he said.  “Food and water are carted in from other sections when they run out.  Airflow wouldn’t be sufficient with only duct.  We need-” he seemed to concentrate for a second.  “-circulation from other sections, driven by pressure differences.”

“It won’t be for long,” Sveta said.

“If someone gets sick and I can’t help them here, I need to be able to get them to medical facilities.”

“That’s a small risk,” Sveta said.

“There were two incidents in the last ninety minutes. One pulmonary embolism and one joint dislocation from a food operations tech.”

Imp spoke up, “I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want to go charging into whatever stopped the Wardens dead in their tracks and have to worry about retreating past these guys.”

“Convince us,” I said.  “Give us information.  Enough that we feel safe enough to leave you behind.  How does this work?”

Close-mouthed.

I drew closer to him, using my aura.  “Who are all these people?”

Close-mouthed.  A staunch refusal to speak.

“What happened to the first wave of attackers?”

“I’m not in a position to know.  That’s not my purpose.”

“Where is Teacher?”

“I’m not in a position to know.”

“Have any injured come through from elsewhere?”

I stopped floating down, now at a height where I could stare into his eyes, while he did everything he could to avoid looking into mine.  I kept my aura tight enough that it only affected him.  And the people on the nearby bench, I supposed.

Oddly enough, it was the signs of their agitation that got to our doctor here.

“Some.  Don’t disturb them or hurt them.”

“Where from?”

He pointed at the end of the hangar-sized space that was furthest from the door we’d come through.

I softened my tone, while keeping my aura on ‘high’.  “Convince me we can leave you behind us without worrying.”

I could see the pull, gentler words after harsh, scary ones.  Like he wanted to oblige.

“I can’t.”

“If we shut off that end of this room, what happens?” I asked, indicating the door we’d come through.

“No medical facilities, limited water.”

“And that door?” I asked, indicating the one we’d be using.

“No food, no showers.”

“People can go two weeks without food.  You don’t need showers,” I told him.  “I can’t imagine a situation where people on the other side can’t get through a stone wall if my side loses.”

“We’re healthier with access to food and showers.”

I addressed Capricorn.  “We’ll seal that door after we’re through.  Minimizes hazards, keeps them from coming behind us.”

He nodded, switching, and the barrier he’d been working on became water, which immediately spread out into a thin layer across the floor.

“I can’t allow it,” the doctor said.  “These people are my responsibility.”

“You can’t stop us,” Swansong said.  “It’s the best compromise.  Accept it.”

I saw the doctor’s expression change, concern, almost mortal alarm.

“Don’t,” Samuel said.

The doctor twisted around, drawing in a breath.

“Defense-”

He didn’t get any further.  Whatever command he was about to shout, whatever cry for help he was about to make, it was drowned out by Love Lost screaming.

The scream had collateral damage.  Other people on the bench.  People across the hangar.  They stirred awake, emotions taking over, and rose to their feet, their emotions and their energy level swiftly accelerating from zero to one hundred.  Raw anger.

“Don’t hurt them!” Sveta called out.  “Not too badly!”

One of the guys on the bench reached out to the person next to him.  Hand touched skin and the seam between the two disappeared, as he ‘drank’ the other person into his own mass, doubling in size with only a faint ripple marking the transition’s aftermath.

Shit.  Some of the shelved people had powers.

I focused on others, flying down to a strategic point where three of the enraged bench-sitters were facing down our squad.  Sveta and Withdrawal.  I landed where their backs were turned my way, then gave each a push, sending them sprawling off balance, toward allies.  Sveta caught one woman around the ankle with tendrils and began to swing her around in a quarter-circle.  She might have intended a full circle, but more tendrils snapped out to seize more of the leg, one cutting through fabric, and she released early, backing away.  The woman was sent sliding about ten feet.

Withdrawal leveled a syringe at one of the others who had fallen, to which Fume Hood shouted, “Conserve it!”

And meanwhile, the big guy touched another person, swallowing them into sheer bodymass, a hundred and fifty pounds that turned into a blob of flesh around the hand, then hand and arm, then spread out evenly across the rest of the body.  The big guy’s features were dulled now, nose and brow less pronounced, eyes spaced further apart.

I wouldn’t hit him with the wretch or touch him, nor would Sveta or any of our other close combat specialists, but our ranged combatants needed to set up, were too severe, or both.  Precipice was out, Swansong was out on all counts, Capricorn did what he could to get ready, drawing blue dots in the air.  Fume Hood launched a trio of orbs, all fired in a straight line.  They hit the guy in the face, causing his head to disappear into smoke.

Chastity whipped the hand that blindly reached for yet another person to ‘drink up’.

The big guy charged out of the cloud, and went straight for Love Lost, making contact with one of three former bench-sitters that stood between himself and her.  Another person gone, another one hundred and sixty pounds of body mass added to his own, a foot of height, a lot of muscle and a little bit of fat, features made even more crude and brutish, eyes spaced so far apart that they looked more out at either side of his head than they looked forward.

And two more people in arm’s reach.  He reached for one and missed, still blinking gas out of his eyes.  Imp was there, beside him, and jabbed him with her stick.  It cracked audibly, with no apparent effect, and he twisted, ready to backhand-

Backhand someone.

The half-twist became a skid and stop, twisted around, and charged Roman instead.  A clearer path, with nobody on it.  Roman evaded, ducking out of the way, matador with a bull.

“Juliette!” I called out.

“I can’t stop him,” she said.  “My power doesn’t work on him.  I’m related to him.”

“What?” Imp asked.

“Sorry,” Juliette said.  “If I could, I’d make him stand still and let that big guy eat him, and the world would be a less brutish place.”

“Fuck you, Juliette!”

“Take this seriously!” Imp said.

“Rest assured, I’m deadly serious.”

Sveta and I changed our focus to keeping people out of the way of the big guy, dragging them away while Fume Hood bombarded him, orbs curving in the air to strike home over and over again, the clouds of gas lingering, until our big guy was stumbling out of one cloud of gas into another, partially dissipated one.  Withdrawal hung a bit further back from the danger, swooping up any people who looked as though they might stumble into the scene.  Drones, moving this way and that, oblivious to the immediate danger.

Harpoon dude set out some harpoons, firing them in lazy arcs that looped around wrists.  He stumbled with the initial tugs from the big guy, then found his footing, throwing himself beneath a bench to use the fact the benches were bolted down as anchor points.  More harpoons speared out from his chest, disconnecting the former lines and nailing the existing ones into the ground.

The big guy broke free with an almost elastic reaction, stumbling into one of the people with a food cart.  Sveta dragged the person out of the way just in time, but the food cart was loaded with food, and I saw that food get swallowed up as the people had.

“Roman!” Byron called out.  “Draw him closer to Love Lost!”

Roman snarled in response.

“My brother is too far gone,” Juliette said, deadpan.  “We’ll have to put him down.”

“Fuck you, Juliette!” Roman growled.  He did move toward Love Lost, veins standing out at the sides of his head.

And the big guy, still being pelted with spheres that exploded into gas clouds, did turn to charge Roman.

A gout of water from Capricorn caught him in the face, in open mouth and nose.  Pulling his head back while his five hundred plus pound body continued forward, he fell, coughing and sputtering.

Another gas bomb exploded in his face, while he was gasping for air.

Unable to breathe, not in a position to get to his feet, he flopped, arms and legs kicking and scrabbling for traction on wet ground.  And then he popped, becoming a pile of naked people and shredded chicken dinners.

Love Lost had the doctor in a headlock, and the man seemed to be winding down.

“Maybe, uh, watch your aim?” Precipice asked.  “That was messy.”

Love Lost gave him a death glare.  Extricating herself from the two-armed headlock to maintain a one-armed headlock instead, she pointed a claw at the rows of people on the ‘shelves’ at the one wall.  She seemed to be counting, pointing once a second as she moved her arm.

The doctor struggled, and she resumed the two-arm headlock.

“She did actually,” Samuel said.

“What?”

“When this guy shouted out the first word, about… twenty-five or thirty people suddenly started paying attention,” Samuel said, indicating the assembled people.  “This one guy on the bench included.”

“Waking up the warrior drones,” Precipice said.

“Yeah,” Samuel said.  “How many of those guys do you think are capes?”

“All of ’em,” Imp said.  She stuck her stick into the doctor, made a hand-motion for Love Lost to let him go, and then turned it on.

He collapsed.

“Was good, then,” Rain said, looking at Love Lost.  “Thank you.”

She gave him another dark glare.

“Okay.  Shutting up.”

She nodded.

We sorted ourselves out.  I didn’t miss Love Lost putting a clawed hand on Samuel’s shoulder as she walked by him.  I heard him say something, the word ‘butcher’ in the midst of it.

I wanted to see more going on in her eyes.  More reaction, hurt or regret.  She made me exceedingly uncomfortable as things currently stood.

“My point,” Roman said, to Juliette.

“You didn’t finish him.”

“I vote it’s his point,” Precipice said.  “He helped.  You didn’t.”

“Doesn’t matter, that’s not the game.”

“Precipice thinks it counts and Precipice is cool.”

“Doesn’t matter, stop trying to cheat,” Juliette said.

“It matters,” Imp said.  “You’re outnumbered, Catena.  Contribute next time, or hold back on the snark.”

The doctor was unconscious and would wake up soon.  There were thralls who were standing by, dragging the people who had been assimilated into the big guy to where they could be dressed in clean white linen.

Chastity climbed up to the shelves with Sveta’s help.  One by one, she backhanded the people that Samuel and Love Lost indicated, knocking them out cold.

With some consideration, as I flew by, Withdrawal hanging off of the outside of the shelving, we slapped a few more for good measure.  I took note of one guy because his knuckles were raw and misshapen like he’d thrown too many punches recently.  Withdrawal pointed out a kid that looked too athletic and muscular for his age.  A woman had a tan on her face like she’d worn huge aviator sunglasses or a cape mask.

Knocked out.  Even when the doctor woke up, they wouldn’t.  If he activated thralls with a command and sent them after us, it would be more like two to five than twenty to thirty.

That task done, we marched through and past the enmeshment of orange lines and circles that were covering the wall.

The lines solidified behind us.  Wall and a series of bars that allowed the air through while restricting people.

“This place is intimidating,” Caryatid said.  She’d dropped her breaker form and walked now.  “How do you build something like this?”

“With powers.  They had a woman who lost her body to power working for them,” Sveta said.  “I’m not sure what she’s doing now, but she can be multiple places at once, build fast.  When they kept thousands of prisoners, before Gold Morning, she kept them here.”

“There was a note about her in the briefing packet,” Caryatid said.

“It didn’t say enough,” Sveta said.  “Those thousands of prisoners- over the years, not all at once, they were mostly people with powers.  She kept them in line.”

“They love things like that,” Imp said.  “Loved?  Should I use past tense?  It’s different now.”

“Is it?” Ashley asked.

“Instead of a middle aged doctor woman who you could sort of respect for trying to do things right, we have a terminally ingrown taint-hair in an ugly sweater.”

“You’re being too kind to Doctor Mother,” Sveta said.  “She was a monster.”

“I’m not going to say you’re wrong,” Imp replied, “But-”

But?

Lights went out further down the hall, and the way they went out got our attention immediately.  Lights went out one by one, and if the ceiling-tile-inset light right in front of us was numbered one and the number furthest from us was numbered one hundred, it was counting down by twenty a second.  As each new light went out, another light behind it came back on.

“Heads up!” Capricorn shouted.

I saw it too, the distortion.  Wall, wall, ceiling, floor, all rippled, as if a wave was traveling down it.

The Custodian?  Something else.

I flew over the ripple, grabbing the nearest people.  Capricorn, Rain.

My grab of Rain’s arm hadn’t been perfect. He’d swung in my grip as I pulled, and one arm grazed the ripple.  Metal and tech was torn up like it had been thrust into a wood chipper.

The ripple was only a foot high, one or two feet long.  Ashley used her power to blast it.  Others had jumped.  If it was hard to clear the jump, it was only because many were starting from a standing position, having stopped when the lights started going out.

“Sorry,” I told Precipice

I closed my eye to bring up the map, while keeping the other open to check that everyone was okay.

“It’s coming again!”

The corridor we were in was twelve hundred meters long.  There was a security office at the eight hundred meter mark.  Past the corridor was one part of what Cinereal had called ‘the gallery’.  The massive area where they’d staged the character assassination work from.

“Cameras.  Can we get any view on the attacker or tech that’s doing this?” I asked.

-No-.  The word appeared in the midst of the map that obscured my vision.

We split up.  I flew forward.  Withdrawal and Sveta followed, with the harpoon guy and Love Lost chasing after.  Ashley remained.

I twisted in the air to watch the ripple.  I could see more of Kenzie’s message appearing in my vision.  My focus was on the others, though.  Ashley blasted the ripple as it raced to her, like a car speeding down the highway.  Caryatid took it head-on, breaker form active.  A spike of it slipped through, but it didn’t look like anyone got clipped.

Kenzie’s message was a restatement of what I already knew.  She couldn’t get into Teacher’s security system unless she had help.  Any of our phones or any of the devices she’d given Precipice would let her into a system, and maybe with enough she would gain reach.  Beyond that, they were too isolated, and too fast when it came to counteracting her and cutting her off.  Hack one system, and the remainder adapted.

Another ripple, but this one was a pillar that ran down the center of the corridor.  Where it touched floor and ceiling tiles, it pushed them into disarray, and then placed them neatly back where they belonged.

Sveta, Love Lost, and I moved to the left of the hallway, as Withdrawal and the harpoon guy fired out a harpoon and reeled himself into the air to the right.

Mixing it up.  Attacking from afar with a shaker effect.  Another ring now.  The danger wasn’t that it was so hard to avoid, but that it took effort and energy to avoid.  A leap, an expenditure of power and attention.  Mistakes would happen.  Legs would get tired.

I flew, and trusted the others to keep up.  Sveta didn’t have a lot of great handholds, except for me, and I didn’t begrudge her.  A little added wind resistance aside, it didn’t impact how hard I could fly.

The others kept up okay.  Harpoon managed with some struggle.   Withdrawal and Love Lost had tech augmenting how fast they could run.

I really needed a better name for Harpoon.  The fact he had six harpoons that came out of chest, lower ribcage and belly made me think of a dog’s nipples, which made it harder for me to ignore the fact that two of those harpoons pretty much emerged from his actual man-nipples, or somewhere very close to them.

Good thing he was in hock to Citrine, because any career with a real hero team would have a hard time selling that image.

Couldn’t get distracted.

I could see them.  A group of people running away from us.  The connecting corridor we were in was long and straight, and even though they were distant, I could count out six or seven.

Love Lost jumped up, pushing me to one side, and then screamed.

The scream travelled far enough to catch two of the guys with guns.  They stopped, shifted position, agitated.  One held their chunky gun over their head with both hands, like they intended to use it as a club.  The other took aim, then seemed to remember he needed to reload.

I flew over them.  Sveta pulled the gun away from one, while Withdrawal pounced on another, smashing him into the floor.

I tried to make up for time lost when I’d been pushed.

The one at the rear put his hand back.

More ripples.  Easy to fly past.  Easy for Sveta, Withdrawal, Love Lost and the Harpoon guy to manage.

I closed the distance, my little mover squad close behind.

His buddies had guns, though.  I saw the red-orange-white glow of tinker gun barrels, and adjusted, flying to evade two shots of what looked like hot magma, putting myself in the way of a third, to block any danger to Sveta or Withdrawal.  It clung to the Wretch, which I hadn’t expected, forcing me to drop my forcefield and move away so I didn’t fly face first into the glob that was now falling to ground.

Which cost me time, cost me progress.  Which put a big blob of molten liquid on the floor for the others to have to avoid.

I imagined that was the strategy.  To slow us down, set us up to either get shot or get steamrolled by this shaker power that was too effective in corridors like this one.

I could see the shaker preparing the power in his hands, getting ready to throw again.  The closer I was, the less time I had to react.

He threw out the power, and it webbed out to every nearby surface before lunging forward.  Before, it had been rings, a pillar.  Always with a way through.

This time, a wall, impassable.

I veered hard right, put my foot out, kicking the actual wall, just to stop my forward momentum, then reversed course to get away and get back.  My forcefield was up as part of the kick into the wall, and I felt the wall make contact with an extremity.

I felt the forcefield tear.  It didn’t die, but it remained in tatters, a body torn two, with limbs scattered.

I didn’t want to drop the field, not when I needed it, not when it had eben damaged before and taken a minute to come back up, after being hit with Rain’s silver blade.  When Cradle had hit it and knocked it out for a bit of time.  I threw myself into the ceiling tiles, into lighting and wiring, carving a furrow.

The others must have seen an opportunity, because they went for it.  Into the ceiling, then down, to appear on the far side.

Emboldened, I changed course, driving myself further up into the ceiling until the field finally died.  The shaker’s wall passed beneath me.

He’d baited us in close with an effect that was apparently easy to dodge, only to drop the full effect when I was so close I shouldn’t have been able to escape.  Maybe there was a buildup, or he’d been conservative and tricky because he didn’t know what powers we had.  Fast-moving capes weren’t likely to be capes with the ability to handle a death wall coming at them like a train down a tunnel.

I caught up to the others, and found them amid the downed group.  Love Lost had blood dripping from the claws of one hand, while Withdrawal crouched like a frog ready to leap on another injured molten gunner.

The shaker had one arm out in front of him, a harpoon impaling his forearm, a meaty cord trailing to Harpoon’s abdomen.  In his other hand, he managed his power.

Sveta didn’t have to bend down to grab one of the chunky magma guns, tendrils in her leg dissolving to grab it, lift it up, and pass it to her hand.

The shaker, like most of our group, panted for breath.

Love Lost moved first.  Ready to scream.  The shaker responded, using his power.  Not at us, but sending the power rippling down the hallway as another pillar, behind him.  Opposite direction.

A signal?

Didn’t matter.  Love Lost screamed at the same time Sveta whipped the gun at the guy.  Stricken with the scream’s effect, he didn’t have the ability to dodge.  The gun clocked him.

That was this squad.  Still small, still tinkers with low-grade equipment, but now they were supporting the occasional cape.

I was too nervous about why this guy would throw his power the other way, when he could’ve at least maimed one of us with a good toss here.  Too hard for all of us to dodge that was fast moving and shakery at point blank range.

He’d had other priorities.

“You’ve got this?”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “I hope the others are okay.”

“Me too.  I’m going to fly ahead.”

“Be safe.”

‘Ahead’ was another four hundred meters, which was like flying across four and a half city blocks, except the tunnel had nothing to differentiate it except an intersection here, a sealed door there.  The tunnel, though it was ten feet by teen feet across, was claustrophobic, and gave me a feeling like being suspended in air.

Then barricades, chunks of concrete piled up, scarred where they’d been hit by the shaker’s power.  Past the barricades, I was in the gallery.  A massive open space with a pillar skewering it through the middle.

The gallery had been named as one of the key grounds to hold, a defensible position and a place to turn into a base camp.  I’d remembered because this was where the character assassinations had come from.  I could see the groupings of desks, consoles, and concrete platforms with eight, ten, or twelve sides; I wasn’t about to count while there were other things going on.

The attack he’d flung back had been in hopes of catching someone else off guard.  They’d been defending a position or mounting an attack.  Trying to retake this space.

And they were in the midst of it.  An ongoing battle that our side was losing.  Tinkers in white came in as phalanxes, tinker guns fired, and I could see Stonewall enduring a pummeling as he fought to get close enough to a squad to start breaking some people, stone armor and shield chipping away, glowing, or facing an ever-increasing burden of what could have been acidic or radioactive slime, silver in color.  There were four tinkers in front of him, backing away step by step while they coordinated their fire.  Ten tinkers were behind him, battered and knocked down, their guns sent sprawling.

There were other capes, though precious few I recognized.  Teacher’s predominantly wore white, had similar gear.  I could see at least a half dozen thralls with powers, a few monsters that might have been master minions or thralls with drugs in their system, and a constant influx of more, rushing in to take up cover, fire over that cover, and apply a constant and unending pressure.

I’d have to trust the others to handle catching up and getting here.  For now, people needed help.

The high ceiling made flying possible, but the sheer amount of tinker guns made flying a risk, too.  I focused my efforts around the pillar, flying close to it so it would shield me, and corkscrewing around clockwise, then counterclockwise, before shifting direction.

Someone shot me.  No lightning, no plasma, just a specialized slug and a gun that roared like a chainsaw.  Wretch down.  I adjusted course.

The follow-up shot caught my armor, right where my heart was.  The impact sent me spiraling through the air.

I realized what was happening, and dive-bombed, straight for the nearest cover.

Teacher granted powers, and this included accuracy.

I landed in the midst of one of the concrete ‘hedrons, in a cubicle with a fucking filing cabinet and post its.  I hunkered down by the door to the space, grabbed a black file folder, and stuck it past the gap.

The bullet hit, striking the rounded-off metal frame my hand was close to.  Another shot hit, then a third a second later.  I could see the vague indent where it deformed the metal.  Each shot landed at the same spot, aimed not at the file folder, but at the palm of the hand that was holding the file folder up.

Hitting the exact same spot in the metal until they could punch through.  I dropped my hand, and I heard more gunshots landing.  Aimed at a different part.

Filing cabinet, then.  With Wretch-strength, I dragged it back.

With Wretch-strength, I heaved it, lobbing it into the air.  A guess.

From the air, a flier hit it with something, changing its course radically.  I looked up, expecting a threat, and I saw Balk.  One of Stonewall’s squad in the Wardens.  He had other fliers with him.

“Up!” he called out to me.

I flew up to him.  I looked down, and saw the filing cabinet had struck home.  There was more blood visible around the filing cabinet than I could see gunman.

“That’s my fault, not yours.”

I didn’t have any response to that.  Instead, I asked, “How long have you been here?”

“Hours.  We were the defensive base camp, our offensive team went ahead.  All communication died, our thinkers are struggling, and a remote trump-class keeps turning our powers off.”

“Powers?”

“Strategic blackouts.  Anyone does too well, they lose their powers.”

Balk held up his hand.  A sphere of metal returned to his hand with a violent impact, faster than the eye could see.  He wore the bodysuit with armor, a little heavier than I tended to appreciate, but the armor was stylized to use negative space well.  Circles and spike studs, red costume, silver armor.  Nice hair.

“Antares.  Do you know PRTCJ formations?” he asked.  “The ones for flying?”

“Some, and only the flying ones, but I’m not practiced,” I told him.  Crystal had actually helped with those.

“Help us?  Two of ours are injured.”

“I can help for now,” I told him.  “My team’s coming, I’ll have to direct them some.”

“Section.”

There was another gunshot.  A slower-moving projectile.  One of the fliers with us swatted it aside with a flash of forcefield.  She was a woman with a purple and black costume, her eyes altered so the whites were black and the irises and pupils bright purple and white respectively.

“Ace angel,” the forcefield cape said.

Balk played the part of the ace.  Our job was to support him.  I flew a distance away, slightly out of formation, close enough to shield him in the hairier patches, not so close the Wretch might hit him.  On the other side, the woman with forcefields shielded his other side.  Above all three of us, a woman lobbed glowing projectiles.  The projectiles seemed inaccurate.  If they weren’t, she might have been the ace herself.

“Dipping out!” I called.

I saw Balk’s hand move in assent.  A stretched-out forcefield replaced my position in the flight, as the group slowed.

A dive, striking where I was needed, hitting the side of a pillar with computer towers to send monitors and heavy computers cascading down on the people hunkered below, with a few sparks marking live wires, even.  Then a rise again, to return to formation.

Balk hurled his ball with enhanced strength, and it demolished cover.  The ensuing fire from allied parahumans forced the Teacher thralls into retreat.  A mutant hulk filled that gap, and Balk flew down to meet it.  We flew down in unison, to support him and protect him from flanks.

He was a more methodical fighter than I was.  Each punch and kick was intended to count.  He didn’t utilize in-flight rotations to boost his power, instead dropping to the ground when he wanted to sling hits, but he did tumble and fall more often, using flight to rise to his feet.  The hits were punctuated by throws and the surprise returns of the metal ball.

I kicked a piece of concrete on the ground, sending chunks flying at violent speeds.  They hit some people who were facing another direction, and with damage and distraction, stopped those people from laying down suppressive fire.

Our artillery-lobber hurled something their way.  The lob, though inaccurate, imploded, drawing every one of those people into a jumble.  One of the projectiles they’d been in the midst of firing was also drawn in.  The result was messy, a small explosive round going off in the midst of five bodies.

Yeah.  Balk was one of the guys who’d been at the warfront.  His squad and his team were more about getting shit done than playing nice.  Which might have been what we needed right now, but it wasn’t my rhythm.

“Three is clear, breaching,” I told the forcefield cape.  This side is safe, I’m going in.

“Heard!”

I joined Balk in fighting the hulking mutant, going after the hindquarters with Wretch all-out, smashing lower spine.  It counted for more than half of what Balk had done so far, and crippling the thing’s entire back half and taking away its ability to use its praying mantis forelimbs for anything except crawling.

It roared, mouth yawning open for a bite, and Balk hurled the metal ball into the mouth.  It came out the beast’s rear, stopped, then returned to Balk, splatting on impact with his hand.

My team was arriving, but in the heat of the moment, in the fray and maintaining a formation, I couldn’t quite break away.  The artillery cape with us was distraction and devastation in equal measure, forcing people to scramble, to abandon cover, or punishing them if they didn’t- sometimes.  Balk just wanted support to do what he needed to do, and to his credit, he used it.  With us, he didn’t have to worry about his flanks and communication was reduced down to key formations and phrases like ‘breach’ and ‘draw’, speeding up how fast we could operate.

Balk did his thing, the artillery cape had her own focus.  As defensive flanks, it was the forcefield cape and I working together in a weird synchronicity.  Working together with a minimum of distracting communication, relying on practiced PRTCJ formation that I hadn’t practiced because I’d never been a part of the PRTCJ.  At best I’d gone over it once with Crystal.  I was a good student but I wasn’t that good.

But it worked, and that it worked situated me in a kind of weird mental state.  It felt like the horrible fatigue of Shin and that room with Amy was catching up to me and I was almost dreaming, and yet I felt hyperfocused, not tired at all.  The only dream was the surreal cast to this whole thing.

I would have almost called out master-stranger, except it wasn’t.  My hand hurt where it had been flayed, my chest hurt in a way that made it hard to breathe because the breastplate had taken a heavy impact.  Not a broken rib, only a bruised everything from the diffuse impact.

The situation was real.

My team and the subordinate teams needed help.

I fought almost back to back with the forcefield cape, or we would have been back to back if we didn’t have Balk between us.  I called out, “Moving three!”

“Heard!” the forcefield cape replied.

“And Balk, I need to go.  My teams are here!”

“Heard,” he replied.  He didn’t sound happy.  “What’s the sitrep?”

“Getting a weird vibe, can’t share too much-”

“Then go to your fucking team, help, explain after!”

I opened my mouth to respond, stopped.  Hours of this?  Of holding positions, attacked from all sides?

Maybe I’d be cranky too.

“Flying over.”

“Section,” the forcefield cape called out.  “Balk.”

“Section,” he agreed.  He hurled his ball.  “Now or never!”

We opted for now.  Section was ‘Group up.  All together.’

They flew me back, escorting me home, for lack of a better way of putting it.  Still in the formation flanking Balk.  He threw his ball at capes who were working on Stonewall, while Stonewall beat a fighting retreat toward our squads, shield raised.

There was an explosion, off to forcefield cape’s side.  Her forcefield came up too slow, a glittering wall cutting through a mid-air detonation.  It threw us out of formation.

We assembled, found a new formation, ready to retaliate if this attack would be repeated.  It wasn’t.  Stray fire from one of Teacher’s.

But again, that eerie sensation, like something didn’t add up, or that it added up too neatly.

I looked over the scene, saw more of our capes retreating to a part of the open room we could collectively defend.  And I saw Teacher’s thralls.  We’d demolished Teacher’s goons, knocked out cover emplacements, forced retreats.

And they reinforced, they came in through other doors, and they whittled us down.

“There was a cape back when I was recruiting for teams,” I said.

“Less chat, go to your team.”

“They were Fallen.  They teleported people in.  In a way that made it hard to realize they were bolstering numbers.”

“We’ll keep it in mind,” Balk said.  Zero patience, zero tolerance.

It made sense to me, crystallized some of that eerie feeling that we could win every battle and lose the war.  It’d be something Teacher had in reserve, that he might pull out here.

And it did absolutely nothing to quell that uneasy, uncanny feeling that gripped me.

I flew down to my team.  Balk and his little team found its own formation, staying close to the right side of the room, so the forcefield cape could throw up her glittering walls, return fire, and there was no need to defend the right side because there was only wall there.  Balk continued his angry, aggressive me-first fighting and did just well enough I couldn’t condemn him for it.

I released a breath I hadn’t been holding.

“Everyone okay?” I asked, not taking my eyes off of things.

“More or less,” Capricorn said.

“What’s wrong?” Sveta asked.

I shook my head, still watching.  Seeing how they flew.  The formation.

Nostalgic.  In a fight as messy as this, the air choked with dust and the smell of ozone, I felt a weird, happy nostalgia.

My eyes settled on the culprit.  The forcefield cape.  The feeling crystallized as I caught her looking back at me with those eerie eyes.

Aunt Sarah.

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