“Cuff,” I said. I used my bugs to talk. “Can you fix the platform? Make sure the floor is sturdy enough to hold our weight?”
“What are you thinking?” Golem asked.
“I’m thinking we go straight up, then exit onto whatever floor has the portal.”
“There are others inside,” Golem said. “Sveta, Weld, Shadow Stalker… prisoners.”
“They can wait,” I said. “There’s a lot of danger there. Sveta especially, if we turn a corner and run into her… We got Doormaker, we got the clairvoyant, we have Number Man, who I’m assuming is willing to cooperate?”
“We have video footage,” I said. “Of the facility, of the garden, of Scion. Stuff we can get to Tattletale. The sooner we get back, the sooner we can get others up to date, and the better our chances of coming up with a plan before we run out of time. We send PRT squads and capes who can’t help against Scion to recapture Garotte and handle the prisoners.”
Golem nodded. “Makes sense.”
He and Cuff joined Alexandria in fixing a platform out of the hand we’d hidden inside.
Much of Cauldron’s internal structure was gone. We could see a cross-section above, where rooms had been sliced through. The energy of Scion’s beam continued to eat through it, leaving a tracery of gold to cut through the gloom, all the way up to the hole at the top. Maybe two-thirds remained, with the lab and everything essential gone. A hollow husk, and this empty space, like a missile silo open to the world.
An overcast sky loomed directly above us, and a kind of breeze reached us, maybe a thousand feet underground. It stirred flecks and fragments from the burned entity and the burned of the walls above into the air, a snowfall of pitch black flakes.
“I’m betting this isn’t so safe to inhale,” Imp said. “Bits of alien, bits of… metal ash?”
“Closer to soot, I’d think,” Golem said, without turning away from the platform in progress.
“It’s essentially human flesh,” the Number Man said. “Given the form the entity took and the research the Doctor did.”
“Oh, well then,” Imp said. She took in a deep breath. “That’s okay.”
“You joke? Now?” Lung asked. He sounded irritated.
“Especially now,” Imp said. “We hit him hard enough it mattered, we made him hurt. Be happy.”
Alexandria turned the platform around. We each stepped inside.
She hauled us skyward. Imp dropped down to her hands and knees.
She saw me looking, meeting me eye to eye. Or lens to lens, anyways. “You can fly. Why are you in here?”
“Limited fuel. Does it matter?”
“It’s more weight on this floor. If it breaks off, we all fall to our deaths.”
“Don’t be a wuss,” Rachel said.
“I’m not. Wussiness is being scared about something that isn’t scary. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have a thing about shoddy constructions and drops from… oh… seventy stories up?”
“The Siberian’s protecting the shell,” I said. “Alexandria couldn’t break it if she tried.”
“It’s seventy-seven, by the by,” the Number Man said. He was surrounded by his Harbingers, the wounded piled at his feet. “We’ll be eighty-three floors up once we reach the top.”
“Here’s an idea,” Imp said. “Let’s change the topic. Like, say, it’s kind of nice to see you returning to form, boss.”
“Creep factor a thousand. You’re just standing there, and you shouldn’t be upright, with the way your weight is, but you are because of that flight pack, you’re not looking at anyone you talk to, not even opening your mouth. And when you’re talking, you don’t pause for breath or anything and there’s no emotion in your voice. I’d almost think you bit it, and your ghost lives on in the swarrrrmm.” She waggled her fingers as she drew out the last word.
“I’m alive,” I said. I made myself raise my head.
“Right. But you look dead, and that’s creepy, and that’s good, because creepy reminds me of old Skitter. Old Skitter was cool.”
I shook my head a little. Now that things were quieting down, my body was deciding to remind me of the pain in my arm.
I focused on my bugs. Searching the area. I didn’t have many, but two bugs floating a foot apart could fly at chest level and run into most people standing in a corridor.
A cluster of bugs died, wiped out by lashing tendrils.
Sveta made it.
There was a crackle, followed by a voice. “…ear me?”
“We’re here, Tattletale,” Golem said, raising a hand to his ear.
“Kinda got a little spooked there. Long time for radio silence.”
“Scion came,” Golem said. “And we spent a bit at the bottom of the complex. On our way back to you.”
“And the reason Taylor isn’t talking to me?”
“Your teammates are okay,” he said. “Weaver’s a little unsteady on her feet, using her bugs to talk. The mic wouldn’t pick that up.”
“Download video,” I said.
“Can you download the video?” Golem asked.
“Nope. I can watch in on the feed when I have a connection, or I can load the recording when I have the physical camera in my hand, but I can’t download.”
“And here I thought Dragon was a good tinker,” Imp said.
“It’s a camera the size of a sugar cube,” Tattletale said. “If you’re looking for the portal, you’re almost horizontal to it.”
I raised a hand for the benefit of the people without earbuds. “That floor.”
“Stop, Alexandria,” Number Man said. “Down a little.”
We departed. Rachel and the dogs hopped off at the same time, making the platform swing back a fraction, creating a two-inch gap.
I heard a yelp and turned back, but I couldn’t identify the source.
Sveta? Another prisoner?
“Let’s move fast,” I said.
We headed down the hallway. Alexandria had borrowed Cuff’s earbud and microphone and was communicating the basics to Tattletale. Which was fine by me, because it let me focus on more important things, like ignoring the pain and the possibility of attack from any direction. I could recognize the damage on the walls and furniture as we approached the portal. I could smell the salt water and the heavy odor of rotting seaweed on the air. A nostalgic smell, even if it wasn’t the exact same smell as home.
I saw Shadow Stalker, too, and in a way, I felt a different kind of nostalgia. Of being a little vulnerable, not at a hundred percent, and suddenly having this person appear, catching me off guard.
“You’re here,” I said.
“Nowhere else to go. Covered your rear for a bit, but when all hell broke loose, I headed back up this way.”
Was she telling the truth?
“Satyr bit it,” she said. “Others… I don’t know.”
“Others don’t matter,” I said. “Don’t say anything about Satyr for now.”
We made our way through the portal, entering the cave. It was unbearably bright, and I was thankful for the Dragonfly’s presence, blocking the worst of the sunlight.
“And they’re back,” Nix said, from above us. She was still held against the wall by Golem’s bindings
“Fantastic,” Spur answered.
“Tell us where the heroes are. No nonsense,” I said. “Fake wall, fake rock, wherever. Talk.”
“Let’s hear what you’re offering in exchange,” Nix said.
“No,” I responded. I used my bugs to open the Dragonfly’s ramp.
“You don’t know that they’re safe,” Spur said. He smiled a little.
“If you want to know what happened to Satyr, explain,” I said. “Waste any time, and we leave and send the PRT here to investigate. You won’t get any answers.”
“Hard sell?” Spur asked. “Satyr can handle himself.”
“Apparently not,” Imp said. Someone elbowed her.
I was already turning to float up the ramp.
He’s only wasting my time. Trying to buy a moment to figure out a tactic to approach this negotiation.
“I know we’re in a rush…” Golem started, as he hurried after me. “But-”
“I care about Revel too,” I said. I raised my head to look at him. “But I care about the world more.”
I could see Golem’s eyes through the eyeholes in his helmet. A frown. “I’ll stay,” he said. “In case anyone comes through, and so I can search for them.”
“Good idea,” I said. I thought about it. “What Satyr was saying… Blowout might have done something to their heads.”
“I remember Satyrical saying something along those lines. Stunning presence.”
“It’s not a power in the records, not something long-term like this. But it fits. There was a string of people found in Vegas with varying amounts of brain damage. Some permanent,” I said.
I could see his eyes widen. “He did? We were interacting with them all that time, and you knew he could have done something like this to Revel? We let them go?”
“I’m telling you so you’re prepared,” I said. “The reason we didn’t do anything, the reason you shouldn’t do anything, is because this isn’t a time for grudges, vendettas and revenge. It only sets us back.”
“Right,” he said.
“But I don’t need to say that,” I said. “You’re not the type to cross the line in pursuit of revenge.”
“No,” he said, sighing. “I’m not.”
I forced myself to raise my good left hand, and I settled it on his shoulder. The movement, the minor exertion, it made my burned stump throb.
“Thank you. For caring about Revel,” I spoke with my own voice, quiet, a little strained. “Makes me feel less guilty about leaving.”
“Cuff,” I said. “Stay with Golem? Two of you to watch two of them.”
“Everyone else, on board,” I said.
With Dragon active, I didn’t need to get in the cockpit. I could have ordered the A.I. to handle autopilot, with Dragon to keep an eye on things and manage the ship.
But I made my way to the chair anyways. I eased myself down, then set everything into motion. I put things on autopilot, and then I fiddled with the search keys until I’d found the video feeds.
A chance to sit, to catch my breath. Couldn’t deal with people, and I wasn’t up to any exertion at all, even talking. Talking meant navigating the politics of the group, of taking people into account.
I only wanted to distract myself from the pain of the burn, the rough, blackened wound where my arm should have been. I could push through it, but I was counting every second until I had some relief.
The feeds showed the three key outposts where the PRT had a presence. The largest settlements that remained, the most obvious targets. There was one in Zayin, but the Sleeper had followed the refugees in there. Even if it still stood after Scion’s visit, there was no helping any of the refugees there.
The C.U.I. had seized one settlement for themselves. A problem that needed dealing with, but our window of time for that sort of thing was past. The battle was on. Scion was pissed off. We were his target, and this time he wasn’t letting up.
Three settlements, and Earth He was under attack. Western Europe and Northern Africa, minus the English speakers. The Guild, the Suits, the Meisters, more teams I struggled to place in the chaos.
Khonsu and Leviathan, and capes I recognized as the ones Cauldron had taken. A whole army.
“Dragonfly,” I spoke, using my swarm. “Give the others a view of this.”
“Dragonfly,” I said, using my real voice. I hissed in a bit of breath between clenched teeth. “Put this feed on the other monitors.”
The other monitors lit up.
A cape flung Leviathan. Scion floated to one side to avoid the incoming Endbringer. Leviathan, in response, extended the fins the Simurgh had given him, arresting his forward momentum, and then swam through his own afterimage as it crashed into him, changing direction in mid-air.
He crashed into Scion, his fins tearing through the golden man. Golden mist billowed away as Leviathan found a grip on Scion and continued the assault.
Leviathan was blasted away, heaved into the ground with a force that made everyone present stumble. Scion then retaliated, striking first the cape that had thrown Leviathan, then Leviathan himself.
The Endbringer was clipped, losing a fin on one hand, but he got his feet under him and ran, trailing all of the disintegration fins on and inside the rocky ground beneath him. The mist billowed, Leviathan used it to mask himself from Scion’s view, changing direction the moment he was out of sight.
Scion hit him anyways. Leviathan disappeared out of the camera’s view.
Scion didn’t let up. His actions before had been slow, methodical. Now there was nothing of the sort. No pause, no break. The moment he couldn’t follow up on Leviathan, he struck others.
Capes erected defenses, Dragon’s Teeth dodged and opened fire with laser pistols. Some took shelter behind the pillar that Khonsu had erected. Whatever defensive effect Khonsu had used to wall people inside served to block Scion’s attack.
Scion maintained the attack, picking off anyone who wasn’t behind a good enough defense. Blasts, spheres, hundreds of narrow lasers, bigger lasers.
Several capes, it seemed, had the ability to transmit a power or a set of powers to others on an epidemic level. I could see how it spread through the crowd, from one cape to the nearest unaffected cape. Masses of individuals erecting forcefields, little circles no broader across than a large umbrella.
Alone, the shields were too weak. Together, the shields were still too weak. Scion’s golden lights ripped through the massed rank and file.
Two minutes, maybe three or four, Scion finally stopped. All around him, capes were broken. Any who had actually managed to get his attention by being strong enough or problematic enough had been obliterated. The rest had been taken to pieces. Wounded severely enough they were out of the fight, not so severely they would certainly die. Limbs removed, flesh burned, body parts broken by the damage to nearby ground, eyes or whole faces ruined.
Dragon’s ships were broken, with a number starting to rebuild and regenerate. The capes who remained were the ones who were behind defenses so secure they couldn’t also attack.
There was a pause in the assault. Most of the defending capes had been annihilated.
The camera afforded a glimpse of Scion’s face, tinted an orange-red by the forcefield between Scion and the camera. His eyebrows were drawn together, lips just a little tighter together. Lines standing out in his throat.
He hadn’t changed his expression once in the time we’d known him.
He hit Khonsu’s group. The blast hit the edge of Khonsu’s time effect.
Scion threw another, and it passed through. The capes didn’t even have time to react. the light detonated like an artillery shell on impact, tearing through the group.
Another soon appeared, to follow. Khonsu teleported, taking the group with him.
A whole flight of Dragon’s craft were joining the fray, and reinforcements were arriving. A share of the capes from Gimel.
And he promptly appeared on another screen.
Catching our side off guard, tearing into us with a fresh kind of violence, not experimentally, but out of some form of impotent rage.
“He’s angry, like Golem said,” Imp observed. “You could see it on his face.”
“Yes,” Number Man replied.
“But he’s not demolishing the continent,” she said. “We know he can. So… how come?”
“It’s a good question,” the Number Man said. “We can only guess.”
“I’m open to guesses,” Imp said.
“I prefer to deal with facts,” the Number Man said. “Let’s leave the guessing to your Tattletale.”
The other battle was unfolding. Much the same.
No, was he hitting harder, here? A little less forgiving?
If this was his first time feeling true grief or true anger, then it could be his first time exploring coping mechanisms.
Venting through anger. How long until he realized that this wasn’t enough and tried something more severe?
I closed my eyes. I wanted to focus, to take in any and all information about Scion that I could, but my body wasn’t up to it. If Panacea wasn’t available, then getting painkillers from the first aid kit onboard would only slow things down when I did get medical attention. Besides, they wouldn’t be strong enough to help here.
Had to weather this. Only a few minutes.
I could hear the Number Man with my bugs. “Can’t remember. Was it Bitch or Hellhound?”
“Bitch,” Rachel said.
“Bitch. Colorful. You know, it’s surprising the things you can survive, if you know the mechanics of movement, of physics and the structure of the human body… you hear about people surviving falls from seventeen thousand feet up in the air…”
“Are you threatening me?”
“No, no. Not at all.”
“Then what are you yammering on about?”
“I share Imp’s fears, on a level. We’re a good height above the water, and I can’t help but see a bit of our pilot’s reflection in the window. She looks a little peaked. Would you mind keeping an eye on her, making sure she doesn’t stop breathing?”
“I’m okay,” I said. I grit my teeth. “Four or so minutes and we’re there.”
“Very reassuring. But maybe-”
“She’s fine,” Rachel said.
But I could hear the distinct sound of her footsteps and the claw-on-metal-flooring racket as she and her dogs approached. She stood beside my chair, back to the window, and put one steel-toed boot up on my armrest.
“Not because of what he said,” Rachel said. Her body faced me, but her head was turned to look out the window. “Keeping you company.”
“Yeah,” I said.
It was appreciated.
The craft shuddered slightly as we set down on the roof of the restaurant that had been rendered a makeshift hospital. I was stirred from a daze I hadn’t realized I was in.
My eyes roved over the screens, taking in one last glimpse as the ramp opened.
Things weren’t much different from before. The defense took a different form, they had Bohu and Tohu with them, and they were reshaping defenses to buy the defenders a little slack. But Dalet had taken heavy losses in an initial attack.
There were more people running for their lives than there were people fighting.
“The fight’s almost over,” I said.
“I said this a moment ago,” Lung said, his voice deep, almost accusatory.
Without my asking, Rachel gave me a hand in standing, putting one hand under my left armpit and helping bring me to my feet.
I pushed onward, ignoring Lung. “Okay. He attacks this settlement next, probably. Then we find out what his next move is.”
“Quite a few dead,” Alexandria said.
She was making a habit of surprising me when she spoke. It tended to sound unlike the Alexandria I’d gotten to know in the interrogation room back at the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters. Obviously because she was really Pretender, but that was a hard fact to keep in mind. It was hard to shake my mental image of Alexandria sitting across the table from me.
“Yes,” I said. We started making our way down the ramp.
The Number Man mused, “It’s very possible he’ll go back to Earth H, start the cycle anew. Or he hits a world or two we’re not in touch with and then hits Earth H.”
“Or,” I said, “he realizes that this isn’t serving to vent his anger over what happened to his partner, and he steps up the aggression some.”
Gimel was entirely different. Nilbog had been hard at work, creating a horde of minions. Buildings had been reinforced, shored up with shelves of what looked to be obsidian. Capes were gathered in bands, and all were at attention, ready for an attack at any moment.
The dead and the wounded, I noted, had been cleared away.
The Number Man opened the door leading to the stairwell and the back of the restaurant-turned field hospital.
“You’re back, Lung,” Panacea said. “Ah. You’ve got wounded with you.”
“Yes,” Lung said.
I could see Panacea’s entourage. Marquis, Bonesaw, and Marquis’ followers, minus a few members. A man so tidy he beat out the Number Man in neatness, one with arms black from fingertip to elbow and dyed blond hair teased into spikes. A man so covered in chains and black tattered cloth I couldn’t make out his actual features. They had sandwiches in hand, no doubt put together from supplies that had been shipped in.
“Any priorities?” she asked.
“Skitter,” Imp said, at the same time I said, “Doormaker.”
“Don’t be dumb,” Imp told me.
Panacea shrugged, “We can look after two at a time. I can see what happened to Skitter. What’s Doormaker’s wound?”
“Traumatic damage to the cranium,” Alexandria-Pretender said. “He’s never been all there, mentally, but we need his brain in one piece.”
“The Cauldron capes are tougher,” Panacea said. “Bonesaw? Can you give it a shot?”
“Will do,” Bonesaw said. She sounded tired. None of the perkiness or endless cheer that had defined her as a villain.
Well, being a good guy was harder, really.
I used my flight pack to raise up, then laid flat on the countertop.
“Pain relief and essentials only, please,” I said. “Then the others. The Doormaker’s partner, then Gully and Canary. I’ll go last.”
Panacea glanced over her shoulder, as if checking that was okay.
“Ignore her,” Imp said. “She’s being dumb.”
“Most of the others can do more in a fight than I can. They need everything in working order. I can function without an arm.”
“Whatever,” Panacea said. “Works for me, actually.”
Then she touched me, and the pain went away. I relaxed so suddenly I felt like I’d suddenly become part liquid. I’d been so tense my head wasn’t even touching the countertop, my legs and shoulders tense.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thanks.”
“You have a high pain tolerance,” she said.
“One of Bakuda’s bombs, way back when,” I said. “I think it messed with my head, as far as my perception of pain. I found out what it’s really like to feel pain, real ten-out-of-ten pain. A part of me knew it was too much to be true, and other stuff’s affected me more because I knew it was tied with something real. Case in point, a burn is still a motherfucker.”
“Well, we’ll fix it,” she said.
I nodded. I was happy to be able to nod. I watched her face while she worked, because there wasn’t much else to look at. A young woman now, not attractive but not unattractive, her face still covered from forehead to chin in freckles, frizzy brown hair tied back with bandanna to keep the hair out of her face. Her shirt had the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, and I could see blood and smears of black here and there.
I felt a pang of envy.
She’d been just as lost as me. Maybe more lost, maybe not. I’d had friends, but that didn’t necessarily mean I’d had a rudder. But she’d found herself. She’d found a path and she’d found something she could do. She had a role in this.
I looked away.
My bugs were stirring throughout the area, as I gathered my forces and replenished my supply. I could sense people outside. Tattletale was among them, laptop tucked under one arm. She reached the door and paused, glancing up at the sky.
For an instant, I thought it was because Scion was here. He was due.
But she pulled the door open and walked inside.
Panacea looked up. I could see her eyes narrow a bit. “You weren’t invited, Tattletale.”
“Business,” Tattletale said, waltzing in anyways. “Someone camera me.”
There was a clatter as Tattletale unceremoniously dropped the laptop down on a table.
Imp was the first to get the camera off her mask and throw it to Tattletale. Tattletale set about extracting a chip. “So. Harbinger zero.”
The Number Man made a pained face. “You couldn’t call me Harbinger Ten? Or even Number Man?”
“I could. I hope you’ve got some good, juicy tidbits for us to work with, H-zero.”
“Very little that’s concrete. This is all very much guesswork.”
“Then let’s talk hypotheses,” she said. “Educated guesses.”
“Scion’s upset,” I said.
“Yeah,” Tattletale said. “His buddy died, I gather?”
“Yeah,” Imp said. “And we threw bits of his dead buddy at him to distract him before dropping a skyscraper on him. But I dunno how much that did.”
“You accomplish your goal, in the middle of all that?” Tattletale asked.
“We found out second triggers aren’t a real possibility,” I said. “Formulas either. But if we want to do the second trigger thing, Contessa should be able to point the way. It could mean extra firepower, or buying time.”
“She wasn’t there?” Tattletale asked.
“I assumed she was with Khonsu.”
“According to the attackers, she died,” the Number Man said. “Mantellum’s power was the rock to her scissors.”
“You failed,” Shadow Stalker said.
I frowned. She wasn’t entirely wrong. “Our best bet was a special kind of Cauldron formula, and he nuked them. Cauldron let Mantellum slip past their radar, so maybe there’s a chance there’s another Cauldron cape out there who got that special kind of formula, with a game-breaking power. Something that isn’t in Scion’s model.”
“Unlikely,” the Number Man said. “Mantellum slipped by us because he had a power that countered perception powers. The sort of power we’d need against Scion would be an offensive one, and I doubt we’d let things slip so badly in vetting those powers.”
“You’re a real downer, you know that?” Imp asked.
Panacea let go of my stump and walked over to where the Doormaker’s partner was lying. I supposed the essential fixes were done. I checked my stump, and found the burned skin was sloughing off.
“Don’t touch,” Panacea ordered, looking at me out of the corner of one eye.
I let my hand drop, then sat up.
“The biggest thing,” I said, “Was that Scion was wrong. He can see the path to victory, and from the vision we saw, we know that he can make mistakes. He plotted for a future that would be sure to reunite him and his partner… and he got his wish. It was just that his partner was brain-dead, gutted, useless.”
“Sooo,” Imp said. “We help him reach a future where he eradicates humanity, trick him, he waltzes away.”
“His goal isn’t to eradicate humanity,” Tattletale said. “It’s to destroy most of it. Remember? Dinah never said he’d destroy all of us.”
“If you destroy ninety-nine point nine percent of humanity,” the Number Man said, “We’ll die out.”
“Probably,” Tattletale agreed. “But he’s not going that far. He’s leaving options open. He’s got one singular purpose. To continue his species’ life cycle. To do that, he needs a partner.”
“Can we give him one?” I asked.
Tattletale smirked. “Kind of hard to pull off. A lot of bases to cover, and a lot of areas where we don’t have enough info.”
“But I’m asking if we can give him one. Can we fake him out, give him what he wants and buy ourselves some breathing room?”
Marquis stepped away from the back of the kitchen. He watched as Bonesaw dug through Doormaker’s skull cavity. “It could upset him, more than he’s already been upset. Speaking as someone who recently recovered the thing I want most in the world, the only thing scarier than the idea of losing that thing is the reality of what I’d do for revenge.”
“Upsetting him is good,” Imp said. “Right?”
“Right,” I said. “He can be affected emotionally. Not by emotion-affecting powers, I don’t think, but he’s influenced by his feelings. That’s good. That’s something we can use.”
“You want to irritate the world-destroying alien god,” one of Marquis’ men said.
“I want to get him to a point where he might make a mistake,” I said. My eyes moved to Shadow Stalker. It’s how we captured her in the first place. “It’s a starting point.”
“Starting points are only that,” Lung said. “I can understand if you would start this with your enemy off-balance, then fight him knowing you can hurt him, but he cannot be truly hurt.”
“Tea, anyone?” Marquis asked, interjected.
Lung nodded. I raised my good hand. Panacea nodded as well.
“Green?” he asked me. “The others drink green.”
“Black. With milk.”
He turned his attention to the kettle.
I looked at Lung, taking a deep breath before speaking. “Not starting this isn’t an option. If we wait until an idea comes up, then we’re going to be too late. We start this, reckless as it may be, and we leave a door open.”
“For failure as well as success,” Marquis said, on the far end of the room, his attention on emptying the kettle into the individual mugs.
“What would you suggest, then?” I asked. I might have come across a little hostile in the process.
“I would counter your question with a question,” Marquis said. “Who do you see on the front lines? Which heroes and villains are still fighting? Which ones keep returning to the battlefield, before any of the others have even found their feet?”
I’d thought something like this to myself. “The monsters, the ones that are a little crazy, the ones that are a lot crazy.”
“Not quite the answer I would have given,” Marquis said.
“Which answer would you have given?” I asked.
“I would say it’s the people who are most in touch with who they truly are,” Marquis said.
“Same thing,” I responded. “We’re all fucked up, we’re all damaged, a little crazy, a little monstrous.”
He frowned a little. “People here might take offense to that. Myself included.”
“No offense intended.”
“There’s a strength in knowing who you are. I would suggest that everyone play to that knowledge. Reflection, after all, is the province of the old. It’s in your final days that you sum up your experiences, weigh the good against the bad, think back to the pivotal moments, and decide if you’ve made your mark. Others go through this sooner, the terminally ill. Those that expect to die.”
“I don’t get it,” Rachel said.
“Are you happy with who you are?” he asked.
“In a general sense, do you know what you’re doing in the next few hours and days?”
Rachel looked at me. “Yeah.”
“Is there something in common between those two things?”
Bitch made a face, “Kind of?”
“That’s what I’m talking about.”
“I don’t get it.”
There was a distant rumble. A roar rose through the air, a series of shouts and warnings all coming in unison, mingling together into a singular noise.
It’s unending. The same thing over and over again. Destruction, an enemy we can’t truly beat, always just a little worse than the last time.
Rachel left, no question. Imp lingered, but followed, sticking to Rachel like glue. I saw Alexandria, Number Man and the Harbingers go, then Marquis and his followers, Lung excepted.
“Hey, Amelia,” Bonesaw said. “Gift wrap this one for me?”
Panacea stepped away from the eyeless clairvoyant, touching Doormaker. I watched as the bone at his forehead started to knit together, and was then covered with flesh.
He jolted a little, and then sat up.
“You were bleeding into your brainpan,” Bonesaw said. “You’re going to feel crummy.”
He raised a hand, reaching out, floundering.
“Wait, did I fuck him up?” Bonesaw asked.
“No, he was screwed up before,” I said. “He’s looking for his partner.”
Lung grabbed the Clairvoyant, then staggered a little.
It’s based on touch, I realized.
I used my bugs to draw a cord out. They wrapped it around one finger and held it straight out to Doormaker. Panacea grabbed it and tugged a little, leading the blind Clairvoyant to his partner.
They held hands.
There was a pause.
Then doors unfolded, throughout my range.
Most of the others had left. Tattletale was focused on her laptop, participating in the battle in a sense, even if she was still here.
Bonesaw and Panacea, too. They were cleaning the tables, moving things aside and getting organized, preparing for the battle to come.
The ones who hadn’t left yet were Shadow Stalker, Lung and I.
“Am I safe to go?” I asked.
At my question, as if I’d somehow prodded her, Shadow Stalker left.
“You can,” Panacea said. “But let me thicken the skin, so your stump doesn’t pop like a water balloon.”
“Let’s,” I said.
She touched my stump.
“I asked to be last for a reason,” I said.
She looked up, curious.
“You know, what your dad was saying? I kind of wish he’d finished. I feel like I was on the brink of coming to a conclusion.”
The sounds outside were getting worse. Doormaker opened a portal beside us. Safety?
It was something to do. I helped the others lead the patients through. Lung carried two of the wounded Irregulars. We entered a cave with a very flat bottom, open to the elements. A nice day, so different from the chaos and ugliness that was in New Brockton Bay.
“My dad and I have talked about this a good bit. Why?”
“I dunno. Finding our role, finding our place? Lung and I are the only ones who haven’t left or started preparing for the fight. Well, us and the wounded. The others know where they’re at. Even Imp, without any power that can really do something, is out there with Rachel, giving guidance. But Lung and I? We’re both pretty proud individuals, and we don’t have a role in this. Like Lung said, he can’t attack Scion until this is over.”
Lung had brought the last few through. All of us settled out of the way of the portal door, in case a beam came blasting through. “I have a job. I will protect these girls.”
“I think you know what I mean. You’re pissed, on a level, because you’re not a part of all of this. You’re better than this job you’ve been given.”
He folded his arms, but he didn’t disagree.
“There’s a psychiatric term for this,” Bonesaw said. “Projection.”
“No. Skitter is right,” Lung said, looking irritated. “I am more than a bodyguard.”
Reinforcements were arriving at the outskirts of the settlement, using Doormaker’s doors.
“I feel like I’m on the brink of finding where I need to be,” I said. “I sort of have the power to act, I sort of have a role. I can communicate, I can scout, I’m versatile enough to combine my powers with others. I can figure out ways to attack, I can brainstorm. But something’s missing. Like Lung says, I feel like I’m better than this. What Marquis was saying struck a chord.”
“Think back to the time in your life when you were strongest,” Panacea said.
Not a time when I had the Dragonfly or the flight pack. It was when I was fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine, Alexandria, Defiant and Dragon.
“Times when you were most scared,” she said.
The same times.
“I think those are the times when you’re most like you. And it sucks, I know. It’s horrible to think about it like that, because at least for me, it wasn’t a time when I liked myself. Just the opposite.”
“But you came to terms with it.”
“I owned that part of me,” she said. “And I can barely look Carol and Neil in the eyes, because of it. But I’m secure in who I am, and I can do this. Healing people, being a medic for the people fighting on our side.”
The image I’d seen on Glenn’s computer screen crossed my mind. Me, unrecognizable even to myself, surrounded by the swarm.
I’m just a little bit of a monster, I thought. I can’t put the blame on my passenger.
I exhaled slowly. I could hear the Simurgh’s screaming.
“Will you help me?” I asked.
“Help?” Panacea asked.
“Imp reminded me of a moment. Of something Bonesaw said, when she was carving into my head. A threat. That she was going to mess with Grue’s head, take away his ability to control his power. She was going to do the same to me.”
“I think I know what you’re thinking,” Bonesaw said. “Even if I did anything there, it’d probably fuck up your head.”
“I haven’t done anything in that department, but I’ve gotten enough glimpses to guess you wouldn’t come back from it,” Panacea said. “No fixes, no patching it up. It’d be like trying to plug a leak with water gushing out full force.”
“Second triggers are about knocking down walls,” I said. My eyes fell on Bonesaw. “Removing restrictions the entity put in place. If this part of the brain is a part that the entity shaped to help regulate powers on our end, then I need you to de-regulate.”
“If it was that easy, I would’ve done it for all the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”
“I’m not thinking it’s easy,” I said, my voice quiet.
Some capes came through. They brought two wounded through the portal, laying them out on the flat rock floor beside us. Panacea and Bonesaw bent down, getting to work.
“Give me a minute and I’ll try,” Bonesaw said. She was patching up a cape that had been disemboweled. She looked over her shoulder at Tattletale, who had set up in a far corner. “But I gotta say, I’m giving you a ninety-nine percent chance of coming out of this with regrets. Maybe you should run it by Tattletale, there?”
I looked back at Tattletale.
“You’re going to lose your mind. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Maybe all at once, maybe in pieces. Depends on how it all reconnects in the end,” Bonesaw said.
“Tattletale would stop me,” I said. “She’d…”
See it as something self-destructive, suicidal.
I shook my head a little. “…No. Keep her in the dark, for the time being. Let her focus on what she’s doing.”
“Okay,” Bonesaw said. “She’s going to figure it out pretty fast, though.”
I saw Panacea fidget. She was kneeling by Canary.
“Riley,” Panacea said.
Bonesaw looked at her… whatever Panacea was to her.
“I’ll handle it.”
“You don’t do brains.”
“I’m inexperienced, yeah,” Panacea said. “But even inexperienced, I think I can do a cleaner job than you. And Tattletale’s less likely to catch on if you aren’t sawing Taylor’s skull open.”
“I wasn’t talking about experience,” Bonesaw replied.
Panacea stared down at her hands, covered in tattoos, with a rich, vibrant red in the gaps.
“This isn’t a solution,” she said, without looking up. “You said a second trigger wouldn’t work. This is… it’s so crude you couldn’t even call it a hack job.”
The Simurgh’s screaming continued.
Dinah had left me two notes.
The Simurgh had reminded me of the second.
It wasn’t an apology for the consequences of the first note. No, Dinah hadn’t approached me since. She hadn’t decided I’d fulfilled the terms and deemed it okay to finally contact me again.
Two words, telling me that something ugly was going to happen. Directed at me.
There was a chance that it meant I’d lose someone, or I’d lose something precious. Maybe it referred to my friends. Maybe it referred to my mission, my direction. My dad, perhaps, which might have already happened.
But there was a possibility that it referred to me. That it was tied to our ability to come out ahead at the end of all this. To some slim chance.
Maybe there was a sacrifice involved.
I shook my head, unable to articulate any of the arguments, to come up with something profound to say. I only said, “Do it.”
Panacea laid her hand across my forehead.
And it all went wrong.