“Hey!” Krouse screamed at the soldiers. “We need medical attention!”
There was no response.
“They can’t hear you,” Jess said. “They’re too far away.”
“Fuckers!” He shouted. Stepping forward, he roared, “Why!?”
The loudspeaker blared, “Step away from the fence!”
The man in charge must have given an order, because every gun present moved to point their way. As one, Krouse and his friends backed a healthy distance away from the fence.
“Bastards,” Krouse muttered.
There was a distant rumble. The Simurgh ascended from the skyline a mile away, a half-dozen uprooted buildings orbiting lazily around her. As chunks of concrete came free of the ruined ends of the structures, they too orbited her, a protective shield.
Or a weapon. Each of her wings curled forward, and the smaller pieces orbiting her went flying ahead, simultaneously striking a hundred targets Krouse and his friends couldn’t see. Scion fired one beam, and she moved one of the apartment complexes she was lifting to put it between herself and Scion. The goal seemed to be less about blocking the attack and more about hiding herself from Scion’s sight so she could take evasive action.
“Cover!” Cody shouted.
The angle of the beam meant that they were in the path of the resulting devastation, the remaining chunks of the building sent flying in their general direction. Shouting incoherently and screaming, they ran to take shelter around the corner of the nearest building.
Chunks of concrete, pavement and metal hit with enough force that they cracked brick and etched divots intp the snow-covered road.
“Oh god,” Marissa said, sliding down to sit where the sidewalk met the base of the house, “Oh god.”
“How’s Noelle?” Krouse asked.
“Pale,” Jess answered. “You awake, No’?”
There was no response.
“She’s still breathing?”
“Yeah,” Jess said, pulling off a glove and reaching over.
Krouse closed his eyes. There was nothing they could do for Noelle just yet. He glanced at each of his friends, to gauge how they were handling things. They looked scared, Jess most of all. But she was the one with the biggest idea of what was going on. She was the one who read the websites and magazines about capes, who had the best idea of how the Simurgh operated. Marissa looked lost in thought, no doubt grieving over the brutal death of her best friend. Luke’s face was drawn with tension, suggesting he was in more pain than he was letting on, and Cody looked angry.
Not that Cody was wrong to feel that way. The people who were supposed to be on their side were putting them in danger with attacks that sent chunks of concrete flying halfway across the city. Or, on a more mundane level, they were fencing them inside the city’s limits and threatening them with guns.
“Luke? Your leg?”
“Doesn’t hurt that much. I think it’s pretty shallow,” Luke said, bending down and touching his pants leg. It was red-brown of blood, and had frozen stiff enough that it was only about as flexible as cardboard.
“It doesn’t look shallow.”
“I’m more worried about Noelle,” Luke said. “We should get inside, try to get her warmer and see if there’s anything we can do for her. If we can find supplies to bandage my leg, that’s a bonus.”
“Let’s go, then. Is this place okay?” Krouse looked at the house they were huddled beside.
“It’s a little close to the guys with guns for my liking,” Luke said.
“Yeah, but if there’s trouble, maybe they’ll come help us,” Krouse pointed out.
“Doubt it,” Jess said.
He turned her way, but the way her lips were pursed suggested she wasn’t planning on elaborating.
They moved around the building until they found a door. Use of the doorbell and liberal knocking didn’t get a response from anybody inside. After Jess was set down, Cody and Oliver took turns kicking at the door, to little effect. They quickly abandoned that idea. Not like it is in the movies.
They had to wait while Cody used a fencepost to shatter a basement window and climbed inside. It would be a minute or two before he reached the front door and unlocked it from the inside.
“Hope there’s nobody hiding in there,” Oliver muttered. Mewled might have been a better word.
Krouse didn’t generally dislike Oliver, but the guy was hard to like, too. He’d joined the group when they’d started their gaming club at school, had once been one of Noelle’s friends, back when they were in kindergarten or something. Now he was in a few of Krouse’s classes, but despite the associations, he remained a second string member of the group. Krouse was willing to admit to himself that Oliver was a second string friend, too. He was short, a little pudgy, with an unfortunate haircut and no real personality, rarely joining in of his own volition.
Marissa had done everything her mother had asked of her, fought to be number one in ballet, number one in violin, number one in dance, in the pageant circuit, in grades and in countless other things. In each case, Marissa had either broken down under the pressure or it had become clear that first place wasn’t in reach. Her mom would let up for a few weeks, and then push the next thing. It had only been at the start of eleventh grade that Marissa had finally put a stop to it and pursued something that her mom didn’t understand and couldn’t pressure her on. The gaming club. The drive to win had stuck with her, and she’d still remained Marissa at the end of it all.
Oliver’s mom was a hardass in her own way, too, but he had buckled under that domineering pressure, breaking rather than thriving. In contrast to Marissa, his identity had been ground away.
“I’m scared,” Oliver said.
Grow up. “We’re all pretty fucking scared,” Krouse said.
“Look at them,” Oliver was looking past the fence and across the park to where the soldiers were standing. “When Cody broke that window, they tensed, like they thought we were a danger to them.”
Krouse glanced at Jess, saw her staring hard at the ground. “Maybe we are. Jess? You seem to have a better idea of what’s going on than any of us.”
“You never followed this stuff? You really don’t know?”
“What is she? What can she do? Why are we under quarantine and why did Grandiose’s team kill him?”
She averted her eyes. “Let’s wait until Cody’s with us, so I don’t have to explain twice.”
“Fuck waiting for Cody,” Krouse said.
“Krouse!” Luke admonished him.
“This shit is important! She’s stalling because it’s bad, but we need to know if it’s that bad.”
“We’ll wait for Cody,” Marissa said. Luke nodded in agreement.
It was another minute before they heard the clatter of the latch on the other side of the door being opened.
“Place is empty,” Cody said. “Basement was such a mess I had to wade through all the crap down there.”
Krouse was the first inside. It was someone’s house, but messy. Stacks of magazines covered every surface in the living room, there were plastic bags with the tops tied sitting underneath the hall table, and artwork that included paintings, clay figures, vases, and bird sculptures sat on every surface that wasn’t occupied.
Where are they? He wondered. He’d assumed that anyone who hadn’t evacuated while he and his friends were getting free of the toppled apartment building was hiding out. Had the residents here cleared out?
He found a couch and got into a sitting position, easing Noelle down. He rubbed his shoulders where the sleeves of her shirt had been pulling at him while Marissa and Oliver handled getting Noelle from a sitting to a prone position.
“On her side,” Marissa said. “There’s a lot of blood in her mouth, and we don’t want her choking.”
Oliver nodded, and Krouse found space to get close and help them shift Noelle over. Once she was in position, he seated himself on the oak coffee table, elbows on his knees, facing her.
She was white to the point that she was pushing pushing past pink and moving into the bluer hues, and she had a purple-brown bruising around her eyes. The blood around her nose and mouth was caked on thick. Some had gotten onto her coat and sweatshirt.
“She’s still breathing?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Marissa said. She touched Noelle’s throat, and Noelle shifted, pulling away. “Shhh. It’s okay. Just checking your pulse. It’s weak.”
Can’t stand this. Seeing her like this, when I can’t help her. Krouse turned to look at Jess, where Cody was settling her into an armchair. “You were going to explain.”
“I don’t know if I should.”
“We have to know what’s going on, what to watch out for. This screaming in our heads-”
“Don’t remind me,” Cody said. “Fuck me, I’m losing my mind.”
“That’s what I was going to ask,” Krouse said, staring at Jess. “Are we losing our minds?”
“Not… not permanently,” Jess said.
“Oh god,” Marissa said.
“It’s what happened in… what was that place called? Lausanne? Switzerland. She showed up, and nobody wanted to pick a fight with her, and they were curious, so they studied her, and tried to communicate with her. Tons of people gathered. Then she… sang? Screamed? Whatever this is. There was chaos, people didn’t know what was happening, so they weren’t able to evacuate that well. Roads clogged. And then they started flipping out. Emotions ramped up, inhibitions lowered, flashbacks to old traumas. And a lot of the emotion that got juiced up was fear. People can do pretty stupid, dangerous things when afraid.”
Oliver put his hands to his head, his fingers scrunching up his hair, his eyes wide. “She’s getting into our heads?”
We have nothing to fear but fear itself, only it’s taken literally, Krouse thought. Aloud, he asked, “It goes away?”
“A temporary break in sanity can be pretty devastating,” Marissa said, her voice small.
“Yeah,” Jess said. “But it’s still temporary.”
“So that’s why they’re scared? They think any guy with superpowers that loses his mind is too big a danger? And the army guys are there in case we turn into a rabid, panicked mob?” Krouse asked.
“…Yeah,” Jess replied.
Krouse hadn’t missed the delay before she’d spoken. It had only been a fraction of a second, but it had been there.
“So we just need to minimize the damage we can do if worst comes to worst,” Luke said. He’d settled in the armchair beside Jess, and was rolling up the frozen leg of his jeans.
Krouse studied Jess, saw how she was looking hard at the ground. That pause: there was something she wasn’t saying. Was she lying about it being temporary?
“I’m going to go see if I can scrounge up anything to take care of that leg,” Marissa said.
“Thanks,” Luke said.
“Oliver,” Krouse said. “Find blankets? Look for a linen cupboard. Something we can put around Noelle to warm her up. Maybe around Luke, too.”
“And me, if it’s no trouble,” Jess said. “The circulation in my legs isn’t so good, and the idea of what might happen if they get cold is pretty scary.”
“Okay,” Oliver said, hurrying to obey.
Jess added, “And what are you doing, Krouse?”
“I’ll watch Noelle,” he said, his voice firm.
She frowned. “Can you get us some water? Or juice, maybe? Both Noelle and Luke have lost blood, they’ll need to avoid getting dehydrated.”
“I’ll watch Noelle in the meantime. I’m not good for much else right now. Don’t worry. You’ll be in earshot if there’s trouble.”
“Right,” Krouse reluctantly agreed. He stood and went looking for the kitchen.
He found a carton of orange juice, a plastic container of cranberry, and glasses. He had to search for a pitcher to put water in, opening cupboards.
He stopped when he reached the far corner of the kitchen. There was a small banging noise, repetitive. Too small to be the house’s residents.
No. the back door of the house opened into an enclosed back patio with a dining room table and heavy green curtains blocking each of the windows. On top of the table was a cage with a small bird inside. A cockatoo or something. The bird was standing on the floor of its home, slowly, steadily and monotonously banging its head against the raised metal lip of the cage. Blood and bloody bird footprints joined the bird shit that spattered the newspaper that lined the cage.
She affects animals too. Is this what’s in store for us? It was unnerving to watch, to imagine that it could easily be him doing the same thing, sometime in the near future. That steady, mindless kind of self harm. Suicide by compulsive repetition, beating his head to a pulp against the nearest solid surface… if he was lucky. He was a human with opposable thumbs, and there were a hell of a lot of ugly things he could do to himself if that fucking bird woman decided to push him that far. Just as bad, there were ugly things that he could do to others.
He looked away to find something that could serve as an improvised pitcher for the water, and his eyes caught on something.
He returned his eyes to the cage. He’d been scared, earlier, had felt genuine fear for Noelle’s well being, for his own. But this was something else entirely. What he was experiencing now wasn’t fear, but despair. He backed away, thinking hard. Too many things weren’t making sense, but this threatened to bring everything into a kind of clarity he didn’t want.
He found a knife, returned to the cage, and then grabbed the bird in one fist. It didn’t struggle or resist as he held it down, severing its head with one clean stroke.
It’s just a dumb fucking bird, but it doesn’t deserve to suffer.
Maybe he could hope for the same.
Can’t let anyone else see this and get freaked out. He disposed of the cage’s contents in the nearest wastebin. He found a combination sheath and knife sharpener in the kitchen drawer, tucked the knife away and stuck it in his back pocket, covered by his jacket.
Better to be armed if another monster shows.
Before anyone could come looking for him, he grabbed a flower vase and started rinsing it out in the sink. He tried not to think too much on the subject of what he’d seen, but was unable to break his train of thought any more than he could free himself of the steady, endless screaming in his head. There were enough notes to it now that it almost did sound like singing. Something a few notches above soprano in pitch, holding long notes that stretched on just enough for him to get used to them. Then they changed, jarring his thoughts, never settling into a pattern. It was as if it were designed to rattle him.
He finished filling the vase and, with a little more force than was necessary, he snatched a tray from between the microwave and the neighboring cabinet. Dropping it onto the counter, almost relishing the clatter it made for the distraction from the screaming in his head, he collected all the glasses and drinks.
Marissa had already returned to the living room by the time he brought the tray through, and was working with Cody to disinfect and clean Luke’s wound. Noelle wasn’t moving, and Oliver was still occupied elsewhere. That left Jess on her own, watching Noelle with an eye on what the others were doing.
Krouse put the drinks down at the end of the couch. “Jess? Water or juice?”
He poured a cup and brought it to her. He didn’t let go as she took hold of it.
“Krouse?” Her brow furrowed.
He leaned close, kept his voice quiet, “Please tell me I’m losing my mind.”
“What do you mean?”
He hissed, “This thing with the Simurgh, the singing, it’s not even half the problem here, is it? We’re far more fucked than that.”
He noticed the way she averted her eyes.
“You know, don’t you? You figured it out, too? The way you’ve been acting.”
“When did you find out?”
“When I was in the kitchen.”
“It’s not a priority. We need to get help for those guys and-”
He gripped the glass harder, jerked it a little to make sure he had her attention. “No. Don’t dodge the question. You’re keeping way too fucking quiet on all of this shit. About this, about the singing in our heads, you’re hiding something else about the Simurgh.”
“It wouldn’t help to tell,” Jess said. “They’d panic, and we need to focus on taking care of Noelle and Luke.”
“We damn well need to know what we’re up against,” he hissed, maybe a bit louder than before.
“Krouse?” Luke asked. “Jess, you okay?”
“We’re just talking,” Jess said, looking at Krouse.
He let go of the glass, letting her take it, and straightened.
“If that Simurgh is going to play up our emotions, we need to stay on the level,” Luke said, eyeing them, “Keep calm, cooperate. No whispering, or you’ll make the rest of us paranoid.”
“Right,” Jess said, looking at Krouse, “That makes sense. We should watch our words, in case we make others unnecessarily upset.”
Krouse gave her a long look. “Fine.”
“What’s going on?” Luke asked. “You two are acting funny.”
“It’s nothing,” Jess said. “Not important right now. How’s your leg, Luke?”
“Deeper than we thought,” Marissa said. “We-”
The crack of gunfire interrupted her explanation. The initial burst was followed by a longer, steadier stream of shots. Something broke just outside, and everyone in the house that was able threw themselves to the ground for cover.
“They’re shooting at us!” Oliver shouted from the stairwell.
“Get down!” one of the girls urged him.
Oliver hurried down the stairs and then lay down in the front hallway of the house, hands on his head.
The gunfire stopped.
“What in the blue fuck?” Luke asked. He was still in the chair, hadn’t moved. “Why the hell did they do that?”
“Not us,” Marissa said, as she gingerly rose from her crouch to stare out the window of the living room. “Trouble.”
Krouse climbed to his feet. A sheer, translucent curtain showed a figure by the fence. The sheer curtains masked the details, but Krouse could make out a pair of short horns on the thing’s forehead, marking it as one of the monsters.
“We’re not safe here,” Luke said.
“We’re not safe anywhere,” Marissa said.
Krouse hurried across the room to check on Noelle. She’d been periodically rousing to mutter something before drifting back to unconsciousness, but the fact that she hadn’t moved in response to the gunfire was alarming.
“Hey, Noelle,” he said. He brushed her hair away from her face. She was paler than before, and the bruising around her eyes was worse. Even in the past few minutes, she’d gotten worse, not better. “Give me a response? Anything?”
There was nothing. I wish I knew something about first aid. Something that could help.
Two gunshots echoed in the distance. A low, faint rumble marked a series of attacks from Scion or the Simurgh. Buildings falling.
Without looking away, he said, “Marissa.”
“I need you to give Noelle a thorough check-up. I… I don’t think she’d want me to do it, or see. She was always sensitive about that stuff.”
Even hugs, even kissing, or holding hands, they were things that she’d parceled out with reluctance. She wouldn’t want him manhandling her, checking for injuries.
He stood up to make room for Marissa to get close, stepped back. Marissa began undoing Noelle’s jacket.
“Do you want me to move Jess closer, so she can help?” He asked.
“No,” Marissa said. “I can handle this, I think. What am I looking for?”
“She shouldn’t be this pale, but there’s not a lot of blood, except around her nose and mouth. Check for injuries? I’m worried she’s bleeding into her boot or her jacket or something. I don’t know.”
Oliver had headed back upstairs and was making his way down with an armful of sheets. Krouse grabbed one and threw it at Luke, “Cover your head.”
“You’re being a little extreme,” Luke said.
“I’m not saying I won’t. I’m just saying you’re being a little intense about it.”
Krouse spread his hands. “I don’t know how to help her. I- all I know is that she cares about that stuff. If nothing else, I want to respect that.”
“She’s modest,” Oliver suggested.
Krouse twitched with irritation. He wanted to stab his finger in Oliver’s face, growl, you don’t know her.
He bit his tongue and kept from reacting, reminded himself that he was under the influence of that incessant screaming in his head, a constant pressure on his psyche. If he let himself slip, he knew how easily he could transition into tearing into Oliver, expressing all the frustration he had over how passive and submissive and fucking whiny he was. The guy wouldn’t even fight back.
Noelle’s not modest. She’s damaged, Krouse thought. He glanced at Marissa, and he didn’t say anything.
“Are the rest of you guys going to move to another room, then?” Marissa asked.
“Yeah,” Krouse said.
He, Cody and Oliver retreated to the kitchen, while Luke reclined in the armchair with his leg propped up and a folded sheet over his face.
“She could die,” Cody said, once they’d reached the kitchen.
“Just saying. It was bad when we were getting out of the apartment, and it’s getting worse.”
“We’ll help her.”
A minute passed, and Oliver turned his attention to searching the cupboards for food. He found a fruity cereal and poured some out into his hand. Krouse took some for himself, chewing on it.
Cody’s eyes narrowed as he glanced away. “I don’t like you, Krouse.”
“This isn’t exactly the time to hold onto old grudges.”
“I know. I know that. I’m just saying, I think you’re an asshole. I think you’ll fuck the rest of us over if it means serving your own ends or helping Noelle. But we can’t afford to fight between us. Whatever I think of you, we can’t afford to be enemies.”
“That was never a concern,” Krouse shrugged. He heard Marissa, Jess, and Luke exchanging words in low voices. He stepped closer to the door to listen in, keeping his eyes averted. He couldn’t make out the words. He wasn’t really hearing the screaming in his head, but it was almost drowning out the faint, muffled words.
Cody muttered something under his breath. “Why do you do that?”
“Put me down, act like I’m not worth your attention.”
“I wasn’t. I was saying I wasn’t stressed about us being enemies.”
“You phrased it like you wouldn’t care even if I was your enemy.”
You are, and I don’t, really.
“You have no problems benefiting off my hard work, but you look down on me, you talk down to me. I’m inconsequential to you.”
“I thought we weren’t enemies,” Krouse said, turning.
“We aren’t. I’m just saying you’re making it really hard to be allies.”
Krouse shook his head. “Okay. Whatever. Change of topic: what kind of stuff was in the basement?”
“Anything and everything.”
“I’m going to go look, while we wait for Jess and Marissa to finish.”
“I’ll come with. We shouldn’t go anywhere alone,” Cody said.
They headed downstairs, and Oliver followed.
Piles of magazines, piles of tupperware, pieces of wood lashed together, bags of old clothes… Anything and everything.
Krouse began digging through the stuff. He tossed all the bags of clothes into one corner to forge a path.
“I asked her out first,” Cody said.
“But when she said she wasn’t interested, I accepted that. I walked away. Stayed her friend. You didn’t. You slithered your way in, pressured her.”
“I just let her know I was still interested, while respecting the boundaries she set. If you don’t believe me, ask her.”
“I might not get the chance, if she doesn’t get better.”
Krouse flinched. “Let’s drop this topic of conversation.”
“Why? You keep doing that, trying not to talk about stuff. Is it because you know I’m right?”
“It’s because we know that whatever happens, this screaming in our head is going to push us to the edge. Any argument could turn ugly if we aren’t careful, and I’m not forgetting that you wanted to hit me before. What’s to say you won’t try again, with a weapon in your hand?”
“Fuck you. I have self control.”
“If self control was all it took, I don’t think the Simurgh would have Jess as scared as she is, and I don’t think they’d be blowing up the superheroes who spend too long listening to this never-ending motherfucking scream in their heads. We should stick to talking about this shit, the danger we’re in right here, right now.”
“Mm,” Cody grunted. “What are we looking for?”
Krouse stepped over a few garbage bags. He found a tool bench, and grabbed a short hatchet from where it hung on the wall. Holding it by the head, he extended the handle towards Cody.
“Are you insane?” Cody didn’t touch it.
“If we run into another monster, we’ll need to defend ourselves.”
“Didn’t you just finish saying we’re in a dangerous mental state? We’re more dangerous to each other than the monsters are. And you want to walk around with weapons, so we can kill each other if someone snaps?”
“I want to walk around with weapons so we’re safe. If you’re not going to take this, then Oliver…” He extended the handle to Oliver.
He paused. “Oliver?”
Oliver looked haunted, his eyes wide, staring at the wall. Krouse had to double check that there was nothing there. “Oliver!”
Oliver jumped. When he looked at Krouse, his eyes were shiny with tears.
“You okay?” Cody asked.
“I’m… no,” Oliver said. He didn’t expand on the thought.
Krouse extended the hatchet’s handle towards his friend, “If I give you this so you can protect yourself, you’re not going to hurt yourself, are you?”
Oliver reacted as though he’d been slapped. “No!”
“Then take it.”
Oliver did, weighing the weapon in one hand.
Krouse found a battery operated nailgun, fiddled with it to find the clip and check the number of nails inside. He pulled the safety at the nozzle back and fired an experimental shot into a black plastic bag.
“This is a mistake,” Cody said. “A ranged weapon? We walk upstairs with this stuff, and in half an hour we’ll have killed and butchered each other.”
“If we’re going to go crazy enough to kill each other,” Krouse said, “We’ll find ways to hurt each other anyways. I’m more concerned about us living through the next half hour. With Noelle living through the next half hour.”
“Anyways, the nail gun’s useless. It’s not going to do any real damage to anything like those monsters we ran into,” Krouse said. He put it back on the workbench, grabbed a crowbar with a pickaxe head.
“Give me that one,” Cody said.
“Just remember what you said. We’re not enemies. If you have to, tell yourself it’s more satisfying to beat my face in with your fists.”
“We’re not enemies,” Cody said. “And I have enough self control. I’m more worried about what you’re going to pull.”
Krouse touched the small chainsaw that hung on the wall, saw Cody and Oliver stiffening in alarm, and decided against it. Instead, he walked over to the corner, where duct piping and curtain rods were stacked against the wall.
He pulled one curtain rod free. It had fleur-de-lis caps on the ends, and was apparently made out of cast iron. Or stainless steel fashioned to look like cast iron. It was thin enough that it might bend after one good hit, but it would serve as a functional spear.
Seizing a hammer in his other hand, Krouse said, “Let’s go see how they’re doing.”
Cody looked at the crowbar and frowned, but he followed without protest.
“It’s bad,” Jess said, as Krouse knocked and approached the living room.
Marissa had removed Noelle’s jacket, and she hiked up Noelle’s shirt and sweater to show her stomach. It was bruised to the point of being purple-black, and the right side was swelling in an ugly way, nearly twice as thick as the other side of her abdomen.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. But it’s stiff, hard. She might be bleeding inside. Or a hernia? Something could have torn loose and shifted places, inside.”
Krouse nodded. He felt his blood run cold, but he wasn’t surprised. This was just a confirmation of what he’d already suspected.
“What are we going to do?”
“I’ll look for a doctor,” Krouse said.
“What?” Cody asked, “Are you insane?”
“I know it’s risky-”
“No shit,” Cody said.
“But I’m willing to put my life at risk if it means we have a chance at helping Noelle.”
“If you’re playing the gallant boyfriend because of what I said in the kitchen-”
He wanted to slap sense into Cody. He settled for raising his voice, “Fucking stop!”
Cody shut his mouth.
“We don’t have a lot of time. Noelle doesn’t, I mean. So I’m going. I knew I’d probably have to, even when I asked Marissa to check Noelle over. It’s why I grabbed this,” he lifted the spear. “I’ve got a little something to defend myself with if it comes to that. I’ll go, see if I can track down any groups of people, find a doctor.”
“Alone?” Jess asked.
“I’ll take any help we can get. But I’ll go alone if I have to.”
“I’ll come,” Cody said.
Krouse suppressed a wince. He almost didn’t want Cody to come, knew that his company would offer as many problems as help, but next to Luke, Cody was the strongest one present.
“Oliver?” he asked.
Oliver shook his head.
Damn you, you little coward. “Okay. Just Cody and I, then.”
“I’ll come too,” Marissa said.
Krouse nodded. “You’ll need a weapon. Take Oliver’s.”
She did, and Krouse handed Oliver the hammer he had in his free hand. Krouse glanced at the others, gave Noelle one long look. Maybe the last glimpse he’d get of her alive.
“Let’s go,” he said, swallowing around the lump in his throat. He walked to the closet and found a heavy wool coat that hung down to his knees, a replacement for the meager fall jacket he’d been wearing. “Sooner the better.”
Cody and Marissa followed him as he ventured outside. He glanced at the creature that had been gunned down by the fence. A man, fat, with rows of horns on its head and shoulders. He glanced at the soldiers, saw the guns that were pointed his way. They weren’t firing, but they wouldn’t show him any more mercy than they’d showed the monster.
He didn’t know what was up with that. That was one detail Jess hadn’t shared. The soldiers didn’t fit with the scenario she’d described. Maybe the people who’d failed to evacuate would go crazy, become dangerous. But even a good fence would serve to stop that. There could be other measures, like tear gas or tasers. But guns? Or blowing up a superhero?
No. There was more to that story.
“Where is everyone?” Marissa asked. “We’ve barely seen anyone on the streets.”
“They know better,” Cody said.
“They evacuated,” Krouse corrected. “It’s why the heroes were okay with knocking down buildings like they were. Everyone was already cleared out.”
“So quickly? Why didn’t we evacuate too?”
“Took us too long to get out of the apartment,” Krouse said, the lie smooth.
Marissa shook her head, but she didn’t argue any further.
With Jess staying behind, at least, he didn’t need to worry so much about Luke, Oliver or Noelle asking similar questions and coming to the same conclusions he and Jess had. Or, just as bad, would be if they got the bright idea of going to look for their families. Jess would dissuade and distract the others, just like he would with Marissa and Cody.
He wished he was going crazy, that this was paranoia. But he felt an ugly feeling in the pit of his stomach, along with a hard certainty. The pieces fit too well together.
The reason people had evacuated so quickly was because the fighting had been going on for some time. Jess had said the Simurgh wasn’t a tinker. She was probably right. The Simurgh had merely copied an existing design, copied a device that had already been used once. Making the massive halo-portal was just a question of copying the layout, remembering how the pieces had been put together, and being very, very smart.
Jess would have figured it out, once she saw enough of the capes, or when Luke had gotten lost in his neighborhood. Even when they’d just climbed out of the apartment, she had asked why the Simurgh was here.
He thought back to the bird in the cage, and the bloody newspaper that it had been standing on. He’d only been able to read part of the headline. President Gillen orders…
It isn’t that Alexandria, Scion, the Simurgh and the other heroes somehow came here. We’ve been taken there. The Simurgh had brought them to Earth Bet. Earth B. It was the Earth they’d heard so much about on the internet and the news, stuff Jess had followed with such curiosity that they’d jokingly called her a cape geek. An Earth where Japan was in shambles, a different president led the United States of America, there were a thousand times the number of parahumans, and Endbringers threatened to crush humanity in a merciless, unending battle of attrition.
They were a long, long way away from their families.