“You needed worthy opponents.”
June 24th, 2013, now
“He returns,” Glaistig Uaine spoke in her chorus of voices. Were there less voices in there than there had been? She was dripping wet, having just ascended from beneath the water’s surface, but a spirit was attending to her, drawing the moisture forth, coiling it into wreaths and ribbons that trailed around the Faerie Queen and the other spirits.
Eidolon stared out at the horizon. He could sense the shift in air pressure, see the movements in clouds and water alike. Scion wasn’t any bigger than an ordinary man, but the world seemed to react to his existence.
“I know,” Eidolon answered, belatedly.
Something crumbled beneath them. The oil platform wasn’t designed to stand on two legs, and it was deteriorating under the stresses. Eidolon could feel his pulse quicken, excited despite everything.
Excited, despairing, hopeful, hopeless. He had no idea what to do.
He had a mission.
He’d never been one for drumming his fingers, for pacing or biting his nails. He had never gotten in the habit.
Eidolon closed his eyes for a moment, releasing his hold on the sensory power. Like something swelling within him, filling every available space, another ability took hold. Something defensive. An invisible bubble surrounded him, linked to another power. Teleportation.
It was a strong defense against aimed attacks, but it wouldn’t help against something indiscriminate enough. He had a matter creation ability that was perhaps worth trying, and he had a density warping ability that could perhaps deflect blasts while letting him stand on the air.
He was reluctant to give up either of them. Both were options, possibilities. Warping of time and space tended to have an effect, so the offensive power was a good one to have on hand. The density warping ability was key to his staying airborne.
Flight was too important, but it was an ability he had in shorter and shorter supply.
“Can I assist you, High Priest?”
He opened his eyes. High Priest. “I need more abilities than I have. There is a hole in my defenses. To cover it, I’d need to give up my flight, or give up my offensive power.”
“Not a concern. I’ll carry you.”
“Let go of the flight,” she said. “I’ll catch you.”
He glanced down, and he couldn’t make out the individual waves. That wasn’t because of the fog that still lingered after Scion’s disintegrating glow, but because of distance. The occupants of the platform weren’t visible either. A drop from this height would be fatal.
He could survive it if he manifested the right ability. He might not have given it a second thought if it was only a question of his power’s reliability or only a question of Glaistig Uaine’s allegiance, but the two together gave him doubts.
He looked at her. Her clothing was dry now, animated by the wind around her, like the limbs of an octopus, green where the light caught it and black otherwise. Thin streams of moisture surrounded the garment, complementing her form, enhancing the unnatural appearance. A human face in the midst of an alien, abstract form, her eyes far older than the flawless, childlike face.
Her stare transfixed him. He couldn’t even guess at her motivations.
Scion, the Endbringers, they were the others who typically came up in the same breath as Eidolon. He was the only one of them that was human. He had less power than they did, but more power than most.
Glaistig Uaine was one of the others, a contender for the title, though not necessarily in the public’s perception. The PRT had controlled how much information the public had about her, to keep people from getting too scared. She was a nonfactor, a captive in the Birdcage. She’d taken down Gray Boy, had attacked the King’s Men and slain Athrwys, and then she’d turned herself in.
Easy enough for the average Joe to dismiss her as a lunatic.
Except Glaistig Uaine had been amassing power during her time in the Birdcage, and he had been losing it.
Had he been supplanted in his role as the most powerful person in the world?
“A leap of faith,” Glaistig Uaine spoke. “Give up your power and I will be able to lift you.”
He glanced at her. She was smiling a little, as though she’d said something amusing.
“Can you tell me why you call me the High Priest, before I put my life in your hands?”
“I could say it’s because you rely on a higher power for your strength,” she said.
“You could. But will you say so? Because when you talked about the others, you were speaking about their faerie, their passengers, their agents, not the individual.”
“Yes,” she said.
He remained still, inviting her to elaborate.
“Some lead by logic, by law, by order and organization. Others lead by the abstract. By faith and the imagination of the public. Yes?”
“You’re talking about leading… the passengers, the agents?”
“Naturally so. Plotting, raising the faerie up as objects for worship. They are chosen, cultivated, as the situation demands, to suit the world outside, to best manipulate it. The pantheon in the temple.”
“Me. I’m this temple?”
She nodded. “Mmm.”
He frowned behind his mask. His voice was just a touch harder than it had been. “This ‘High Priest’ you speak of doesn’t sound like any priest I know.”
“I have little love for gods or the godly, High Priest. I may have to apologize for choosing such an unflattering title to describe you, but it fit as described, fit on other levels.”
“I would continue, but then we’d run out of time. A minute, perhaps less.”
“You seem to know a dangerous amount, Glaistig Uaine.”
“And you know dangerously little,” she responded. “We’re out of time.”
The statement was ominous.
New powers took time to take hold and build up to full strength. As of late, it was taking longer, one of the areas where he was growing weaker. Could he trust her to catch him? Or would she let him fall to his death, attacking him if his powers saved him, just to collect his abilities and add them to her own?
Was it maybe better to die? Perhaps she could make better use of his remaining power. Or perhaps passing his power on to another individual would fix things, reset the gradual losses. The Eidolon-clone that had been created in the Echidna attack in Brockton Bay hadn’t seemed as restricted.
He released his hold on the flight power, thinking of the broad-target attack that had eliminated Granka’s spirit, scalding everything in sight, disintegrating the spirit’s branches as they reached across the sky. He could only hope he got something suitable.
Eidolon fell, tumbling head over heels.
Perhaps High Priest is fitting.
My life, always in the hands of greater powers.
December 5th, 2012, six months ago
He stood from his seat, fists clenched.
His powers were adapting. He’d been holding on to them, but the anger and circumstances were apparently enough to force a shift. A perception ability, an offensive ability that would let him move objects violently along strict paths that were dancing across his field of vision, and a future-sight ability that was making the world change colors, identifying points of high future stress and danger with colored blotches.
Doctor Mother was so unthreatening that she might as well have been absent. A shadow in the midst of the lines that continued spiraling out in every direction from every inorganic object in the room, each flaring with color.
Contessa remained still, but she was highlighted in danger. Her breath fogged in the air as though it were winter, but it was merely the abstract representation of danger. Her lips, her eyes, her hands.
The Custodian, as well, loomed. There but not there, filling every space in the complex, moving not her physical body, because she had none, but her focus, as if that were a concrete object.
The telekinetic smash would let him move her aside. Contessa… he couldn’t beat Contessa. The precognitive power he’d gained wasn’t one he’d used before, but he knew.
The precognitive power, apparently useless in this circumstance, disappeared. Another began manifesting. Something abstract, offensive enough to level the entire complex if he needed to.
Equally useless. She had an answer to that as well. The ability to see danger as colors still lingered, disappearing as the other power grew. Any fading in the color around her was solely because he was losing the ability, not because she was any less dangerous.
Idle thoughts. He was angry, the desire to harm them in retaliation was one his agent responded to, but not one he would act on. Frustrating, that the distinction was lost on the agent.
“Say it again,” he spoke. He let his voice tremor with the power that surged through his body.
“I can’t, in good conscience, give you another booster shot. They’re getting less and less effective in terms of how long they last and how robust the effects are.”
“It’s still having an effect,” he answered. “Small or otherwise. The Endbringers are attacking every two months. Paris was just two weeks ago. You can’t deny I helped.”
“Scion won that fight, Eidolon,” the Doctor responded. Her voice was gentle, patronizing.
He clenched and unclenched his fists. “You can’t do this. The number of lives I save…”
“You’re asking me to leave them to die, Doctor,” he said, and the words had a bite to them. “You don’t want to look me in the eye and tell me that. Don’t betray me by telling me you’re now going against everything we’ve been working towards.”
“I’m asking you to leave it to others. Each dose we give you is a formula we’re not giving another person.”
“Nothing you ever said suggested that quantity was limited,” he said. I know it isn’t. I used a power to put the numbers together.
“It isn’t limited. Not to the point that we’d run out in the foreseeable future.”
“Then I don’t see the problem,” he said. He leaned forward, gripping the table’s edge.
“The formulas take some time to create. Gathering the raw materials, getting the balance right, twelve minutes on a good day, thirty on a bad, only to provide a booster shot that doesn’t last two days? That gives you a ten percent boost to your abilities and manifestation times? At best?”
“It’s meaningful,” he growled the last word.
“It has to stop at some point, Eidolon. I have to draw a line in the sand and say that, at some point, you’re going to have to adjust. That giving a formula to someone else for that one-in-a-thousand chance we get something we can use is better than having you be marginally stronger.”
“You can’t-” Eidolon shook his head, changed tacks. “Doctor. I’ve always been on board. You told me about the true goals, about the experimentation, I was loyal, I understood. I know what we’re up against. The rate of parahuman growth, the number of villains, the Endbringers, the end of the world…”
“I’m not debating that,” the Doctor said. “I’m saying it’s more efficient, and we have to be efficient now.”
“More efficient. Says who?”
“Fuck Contessa!” He leveraged the telekinetic power, slashing his hand out to one side. The desk moved like a bullet-
-And stopped, no more than a hair from the wall.
The Custodian, invisible but to his other senses, gently set it down.
Eidolon hung his head.
Once upon a time, she wouldn’t have been able to stop him. If it came down to it, he could attack her, drive the Custodian away. He could see the lines. But that wasn’t the important thing here. It was another reminder of how he was getting weaker.
The Doctor spoke, “I should have listened to her sooner, but there are too many blind spots around this situation. The Endbringers, the End of the World, the formulas. Things she can’t see. I held on, told myself I wouldn’t cut you off until we had another Simurgh attack, to ensure you could minimize the damage, that you’d be able to recuperate and adjust for at least a few months before she showed up again.”
He shook his head slowly.
“The Guild found the mass-production tinker. All signs point to them becoming a force in their own right. We won’t be helpless.”
“No,” he said.
“This is for the best, Eidolon.”
“If it’s a question of labor, can we divide the task? Get more hands on the job, for making the formula?”
“It’s not worth the risk. We’d be risking another Manton situation.”
“With Contessa’s ability, though?”
“It didn’t allow us to know about or prevent the Siberian from coming into existence. It’s a blind spot. If we must take risks, then we need to be smart about it, ensure we limit it to the risks we need to take. Gambling on creating deviances, outside cases or others.”
“You asked me for my trust, I gave it. You asked me for loyalty, I gave that to you as well. You asked me for sacrifice, and I gave that. I was content to be second place in the Protectorate, because it’s what you needed.”
“What Alexandria needed.”
Eidolon shook his head. “Let’s not pretend.”
The Doctor paused, then nodded slowly. “Fair enough.”
“When the shit hit the fan, when my clone divulged the ugly details to the public, I made sacrifices there too. I walked away, so the Protectorate could stand. Gave up everything.”
“And I’m afraid I must ask you to give up this as well.”
“This is all I have,” he said, his voice quiet. “It’s my career, my life. It’s my legacy. Some have children, flesh and blood to carry on their name and their memories. I went without, for your sake, for the world‘s sake. I didn’t have children because I wanted to save lives more than anything else, and if I made peace with that, it was because I told myself this would be my legacy.”
He realized he was staring at the floor, raised his head to meet the Doctor’s eyes. She was managing to look sympathetic. It pained him.
“I’m not- being famous was never a focus. I never begrudged Legend his status in the Protectorate, never put my status or any of that above saving lives. Understand that.”
“Oh, I understand,” the Doctor said. “It hasn’t always been pretty, but you’ve never wavered.”
He pulled off his mask, letting his hood fall down around his shoulders. His face was briefly reflected in the reinforced mask. Homely, balding, with heavy cheeks, lines in his face from stress. A nose and ears that were too large.
“Maybe I’m not a good man, but I hope the people I’ve saved can do enough good to make up for that. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” the Doctor said.
“So I hope you don’t mistake me. I hope others don’t mistake me, when I say that it does matter, still. The legacy. That I want people to remember me at my best, not as someone withered.”
“Do you need to sit, Eidolon?” The Doctor asked. “David?”
He shook his head slowly, but he took the seat, using his telekinesis to move it left, then forward, until it was right behind him. He collapsed into the chair.
The Doctor took her seat at the chair that had been behind her desk. Confident, prim, proper. The one with the answers, even if he didn’t like those answers.
Priest and confessor.
A silence lingered.
“With the table gone, all this empty space between us, I’m put in mind of a psychiatrist and her patient,” the Doctor said, echoing his thoughts. “I’m not that kind of doctor, though. I’m not equipped to give you that sort of answer, David.”
“No. No, I know that.”
“When all of this started, we made an agreement. I made only one promise. I can’t betray that promise for the sake of your legacy, for anything. Not even if it means saving you, saving any of us.”
“I can hear you out if you need to talk. As a friend, as an impromptu therapist, whatever you need.”
He met her eyes. There weren’t tears in his eyes, but that fact was more surprising than not. He felt like he wanted to cry. When he spoke, he almost wished the words would bring the tears. His voice was tight as he said, “I’d rather die in a blaze of glory than go out ingloriously. I just- It feels like it’s something I need to do. I can’t put my finger on why.”
“We need you, David. We can’t lose you, gloriously or otherwise.”
“You’re still among the strongest. Only those who’ve watched from the beginning would know you’re not at full strength. There’s some time before the changes become so pronounced the public notices.”
“They’ve already noticed. The problem of being in the public eye. Everyone’s watching as I fail.”
She had no response to that, and he didn’t volunteer anything further. Staring down at the floor, he could see Contessa’s legs in his peripheral vision. She was leaning against the wall, watching.
He’d come to see her as a fixture. Harder, now. She couldn’t give him the answer he wanted. For better or worse, he was another of her blind spots.
The desk slowly slid back into place. The Custodian was nowhere nearby, but she could move the furniture.
It made faint scraping sounds as it crossed the room, before it stopped in front of the Doctor. The dust on the surface was whisked away in a swirl.
“You understand that this is necessary?” the Doctor asked, the instant the dust was gone.
David nodded slowly.
“I’m going to go check on the latest recruits. Let me know if you need to talk, or if you have any questions.”
He nodded again.
She stood from her chair, pushed it in beneath her desk, and then stepped out of the room.
His eyes followed Contessa as she stepped away from the wall and followed the Doctor out.
She hadn’t said a word, but she usually didn’t. It had taken him some time to understand why.
Had the Doctor chosen, Contessa could have handled the entire discussion. She would have won the argument. Had she so chosen, she could well have framed it so that he walked away happy, content with the situation.
Yes, he was a blind spot for her, but she knew him well enough to construct a sufficiently ‘David-like’ model in her head, to come up with the right answers for every question and statement. But he would have known. He knew what she did and how she operated, and it would have colored everything.
With the blind spot surrounding him, she couldn’t refine her path to victory enough that she could make him walk away happy and content with the situation, to the point that he stayed happy, stayed oblivious to what she’d done.
So he would come to resent her.
Doctor Mother handled the talking, instead, whenever she talked to anyone who she thought she might work with. She took no overt cues from Contessa.
Every time Contessa was silent, she was holding back. A weapon, held in reserve, an answer to every dilemma, from the most trivial to the most major.
She brimmed with potential power.
It was uncharitable, Eidolon knew, but he resented her a little for it.
For all of his loyalty, his devotion to the mission, he found it ominous, in a way he couldn’t place.
Staggering a little, as if he were wounded, he made his way to a standing position.
Obeying, being a good soldier. Acknowledging the greater good.
June 24th, 2013, now
Glaistig Uaine caught him. He had the ability to fly.
His other power was manifesting. His skin prickled, and that prickling soon extended to his costume. In moments, he could feel it as an extension of himself.
His vision changed, shifting to an aquamarine color as the pane of his helmet took on another texture. Crystalline.
The crystal continued to grow, forming more layers of crystalline cloth, ornamentation and more.
Something that would withstand a broad attack that his other defensive ability couldn’t dodge.
He exhaled slowly.
“I am glad to be of assistance, High Priest.”
He stared out at the horizon. There was a golden light at the edge, and it wasn’t the sun. Scion, approaching with a surprising deliberateness.
“Testing. Testing.” It was a young woman.
“I’m here, Tattletale,” he spoke, letting his power alter his voice.
“Lines went dead. We just got camera and audio.”
“You’re going to lose it again soon. He’s coming back.”
“The test is done. It went about as bad as we could have hoped against, but it’s done. There’s no need to fight.”
Eidolon thought back to that conversation he’d had with Doctor Mother, six months ago.
Going out in a blaze of glory.
“I have more things to try. I’m reasonably confident I can survive. Glaistig Uaine is here too, but I don’t know how committed she is to the fight.”
“You’re talking to the negotiator,” Glaistig Uaine observed. Eidolon nodded.
“Whoops. My bad. I do not get this system at all. Got you on the line, magnificent Faerie Queen.”
Glaistig Uaine nodded once, confirming.
“We’re not going to second guess you two. If you think you can try some stuff that might maybe possibly theoretically work, I’m thrilled. We’re reeling. Lots of dead, morale’s rock bottom. Just going by what I’m getting from my power, more than half the people who were on board before this are running scared. You want to buy us time? I’m not complaining.”
The light was fast approaching.
“I’m guessing we’re going to go dead. If you guys want to kick some ass, put on a show, it’d do a hell of a lot for people’s confidence, keep more soldiers on the battlefield. We’ve got a lot of ground troops who wouldn’t have been so good in this last test run, Lung and a few others. If you do well here, might mean we can keep them from changing their minds, yeah?”
Eidolon could feel his power shift in response. Same power, but different application. “Perhaps something more dramatic, if the opportunity allows?”
“Make it dramatic enough that they can see from a distance, or stay alive so we can get the logs off the cameras you’re wearing.”
“I’ll try to oblige,” Eidolon said, his voice dry. His eyes were fixed on the growing golden light. His power was already obliging, had been before he asked the question.
The line went dead.
A moment later, Scion attacked. A flash of light.
The light penetrated the bubble, and Eidolon was gone, a quarter-mile away.
Reactive teleporting. He felt the bubble form around him.
Eidolon focused on Glaistig Uaine. She responded by creating a spirit that formed a construct of metal, like a dragon the size of a small island flowing from a point the size of a grapefruit.
The metal construct grew faster than the laser tore through it. It slammed into Scion.
He physically tore through it, and Glaistig Uaine maintained the assault until the last second, before teleporting to join Eidolon once more.
Still cloaked in the shifting garments, Glaistig Uaine was breathing just a little harder.
“Just you and me left,” he commented.
“No, High Priest,” she said. She composed herself. “There are others.”
“The wounded, who could not walk through the portal of their own will. Some down there. A meager few.”
Glaistig Uaine formed her garments into a shell around her. Eidolon followed suit, drawing his arms in front of his face.
“And there are the dead as well,” the Faerie Queen’s voice echoed from within her cocoon. “We mustn’t forget the dead, High Priest.”
Eidolon thought of Alexandria.
Scion struck. An indistinct attack, striking everything he could see at once.
Eidolon reeled, flying through the air, momentarily berift of his flight. The remains of the structure toppled before he even reached the apex of his trajectory.
Glaistig Uaine caught him once again.
The explosion had afforded Scion a chance to close the distance. It would be harder to dodge, harder to time defenses.
Eidolon, for just a moment, imagined he could sense Scion’s distaste. The Faerie Queen was between the two of them, but Scion ignored her in favor of him.
Eidolon used his matter creation power. As with the Faerie Queen’s monster of steel, this was derived from a single point, an expanding creation of matter. In this case, however, it was an explosion. Carbon unfolded from a single point. Eidolon chose Scion’s right ear canal as the center point.
The carbon expanded as a sphere, and there was a glimmer of Scion’s reaction as the orb expanded until it was a hundred feet across. A distortion, golden flesh stretching.
The sphere dropped towards the ocean like a comically large cannonball, and Scion advanced. Intact, unhurt.
Does he heal, or was my mind playing tricks on me?
Scion lashed out, fifty-foot blades of golden light extending from his wrists, and the bubble was once again penetrated. Eidolon teleported a distance away.
His pulse was pounding, his attention focused.
This is my focus, this is what I’m here for, he thought.
A repetition of the last attack. A charge, another laser prepped.
He moved to create the same sphere of carbon. A crevice was best. Scion’s mouth was closed, but his nose-
Eidolon didn’t choreograph his attack, didn’t move his hand, didn’t act, but he placed the next sphere of carbon in Scion’s left nostril.
Scion shifted direction at the last second.
He’s adapting, learning.
Smug, superior. The feelings mingled with the faint sense of disgust that Scion seemed to radiate. Confident. Amused.
Another attempt, another miss. Scion’s reaction was faster.
The bubble was breached by a narrow golden beam, and Eidolon reactively teleported again.
Scion followed up with a blast of golden light, again, radiating in every direction.
The bubble hadn’t reformed, and it wasn’t strong enough. Eidolon’s crystal exterior cracked and wore away. The attack wasn’t letting up, the crystal wearing down.
He could drop a power, but which? To lose the crystal exterior would end his life before another power was on board. The teleportation? He’d be a sitting duck. Losing the offense, when it was something that almost worked, no.
He held tight to each of them, grit his teeth as the light dug into flesh.
He felt his flight leave him. An effect of the golden light?
No. Something else had caught him.
Scion let up, leaving Eidolon to desperately cast aside the crystal exterior and pray for regeneration.
His flesh began to heal, forming bone ridges where flesh met flesh. It would take him some time before the bone fell off, but it was the fastest regeneration he had available.
A trio of objects moved towards the alien from the fallen rig. Spheres.
They detonated, each one exploding a fraction of a second after the one before.
Glaistig Uaine. She had four spirits with her, and three were working in concert. One to form raw materials, two to fashion them into objects, a telekinetic to manage it all by holding Eidolon immobile in the sky while launching the bombs in Scion’s direction.
One bomb was creating spaces of alternately accelerated and decelerated time. Another was distorting space to the point it was painful to look at.
Eidolon banished his powers, keeping only the offensive one. Could he afford to draw Scion’s attention?
But he did anyways. He focused on the other ear canal.
Scion shifted to one side, whirling around to face Eidolon.
I’m not strong enough.
June 21st, 2011, two years ago
They gathered where they had met innumerable times in the past, but they were quiet. There was no confidence, no assurance.
Legend stayed by the door, not taking a seat at the table.
“Bound to happen eventually,” the Number Man spoke. “The odds-“
“Don’t,” Alexandria said.
The Number Man shut his mouth, turning his attention to his laptop.
Eidolon pulled off his mask, brushed at it to clean it of the slime from when he’d been swallowed and then vomited back up.
He stared down at the opaque pane.
“We’ll need to think,” Doctor Mother said. “What does this impact? The next Endbringer attack, at the very least. We can’t afford to lose a fight at this juncture.”
“The Protectorate,” Alexandria said. “We’ll lose members. Critical members, no less. We’ll retain others, but the tone of things will change. I’ll need to step down, but I can effect some change before I do.”
“It changes a great deal,” Legend said. “Forgive me for asking, but are you sorry?”
“Not in the slightest,” the Doctor said. “What we’ve done, it’s always been with a singular goal in mind. We knew it would be ugly, but-“
“You created the Siberian,” Legend said. “The Siberian killed Hero. Every action has effects. Stupid, mindless arrogance, and look at what it cost you. Hero’s death spelled the end of our best years, countless members of the Wards and Protectorate were disillusioned.”
“One could argue,” the Number Man said, “that his death spurred others forward. He was a martyr.”
“I’m sure he’d be comforted by that argument,” Legend said. His voice was hard. Days of pent-up anger were now being given a voice. “You told us this would be a net gain for the good in the world, more heroes.”
“It has,” the Number Man said. “Less than we hoped, but a net gain nonetheless.”
“Gray Boy? Siberian? Human experimentation?”
“Yes to all of the above,” Doctor Mother said. “I won’t lie to you at this juncture.”
“I’d ask to see this testing facility, but I’m not sure my conscience could withstand it,” Legend said. “My god. What have I done?”
“You unknowingly participated in our greater scheme,” the Doctor spoke. “If it’s any consolation, your conscience was strong enough that there wasn’t a good way to bring you fully on board. Whether we’re branded as the heroes or the villains of history will depend on the outcome of this war.”
“I’m not sure I can believe that,” Legend said. He ran his hands through his wavy brown hair. Beads of sweat stuck to the strands. “I have to go home. Look my husband and child in the eyes. Are they- will they know?“
Contessa spoke, stepping forward. “Alexandria handled the situation masterfully. We can curtail this information with some swift action and discouragement. A few weeks of activity and people will stop trying so eagerly to spread the word.”
Legend stared at her, uncomprehending. When he spoke, his voice was level, out of alignment with his expression, his narrowing eyes. “Two questions.”
“Please,” she responded.
“First of all, who the fuck are you, to decide? You’d go after heroes who’d want to spread the word, why? To try and silence them?”
“I would succeed.”
He shook his head. “And my second question… who the fuck are you? All this time, you’ve been lurking around the Doctor. You’re more than just a bodyguard.”
“I’m the person who would succeed,” she said. She glanced at the Doctor. “At whatever she needs me to do.”
Legend shook his head again. “You’re all so cavalier about this, so mechanical. It means nothing to you?”
“It means a great deal,” Alexandria said. “We lost a great deal of power, leverage, trust. The heroic organizations are going to be sundered by this knowledge. Try as we might, we can’t erase their memories.”
“No,” Doctor Mother said.
“Unless you wanted to use the slug?” Alexandria mused.
Doctor Mother shook her head.
“The slug,” Legend spoke. “I was wondering how the case fifty-threes came to lose their memories. Not something of Manton’s, because he wasn’t involved in making them. It’s yours.”
“It and others,” the Doctor said.
“Aren’t you ashamed?” Legend asked, his voice rising.
“I’m ashamed,” Eidolon murmured.
“I failed. On many levels. We lost this fight.”
“We’ve lost before,” Alexandria spoke.
Eidolon looked up at her. “Can you look at me and tell me we wouldn’t have won this, years ago? When I was new to the game?”
She met his eyes.
He let go of all of the powers he held, waited for others to take root. “I’ll know if you lie to me. You can control your body language, but I’ll know.”
She lowered her gaze.
“Yes. I’m getting weaker. We’re slowly approaching the moments where we need to be strongest, the most critical battles, where any one Endbringer attack could mean a chain reaction of loses, the world being too weak at the end… and I’m getting weaker.”
“And you worry you’ll be too weak to contribute in the final days,” Alexandria said.
“Final days?” Legend asked.
“We know who ends the world,” Alexandria said. She met her old leader’s eyes. “We know what ends the world. Scion.”
Legend’s eyes widened. “And you haven’t told anyone?”
“It would be disastrous,” Doctor Mother said. “Disastrous and premature. Especially now, with morale already critically low. We’d hoped to wait, to time things. Everything we’ve done this far has lead to this eventuality, but we need all of the organizations across the world on board, we need assets, ones we’ve developed thus far and ones we’re going to work on shortly, and… we need Eidolon.”
Legend glanced at him. “For his strength?”
“He’s an anomaly. We can only guess, but he’s an outside case. A deviant case that isn’t deviant in anything but execution. He breaks rules, and that’s something we can use against the enemy who decided the rules this game would be played by.”
“But I’m weaker,” Eidolon said. “Too weak. My powers are slower to arrive. I use one power too much, and I lose it. I can’t tap it again. I can’t choose what powers I get, so my agent reaches for those which serve double uses, and when they get spent, I’m left less versatile. Even then, the powers aren’t quite what they were. Fire doesn’t burn as hot, lasers aren’t as focused, ranges aren’t as great. If I couldn’t beat Echidna-”
“Then we have to find others. More experimentation,” Doctor Mother said. “We’ll have to hope for another Eidolon.”
Eidolon set his lips in a grim line.
“More experimentation,” Legend said, stunned.
“Contessa will explain,” the Doctor said. “If you’re willing to hear her out?”
“Fine,” he said.
Being replaced, Eidolon thought, a tool to be used by others. I agreed to it, but…
Scion cast out another shaft of golden light, and Eidolon was flung across the sky by Glaistig Uaine, his powers still taking hold.
Not strong enough.
He created more matter. Scion avoided it for the third time.
Despite Eidolon’s desires, the matter-generation power began to recede. His agent had apparently decided it wasn’t sufficient.
It hurt Scion once, hadn’t it? Or had he wanted it to so badly he’d seen it?
He began to glow, a brilliant azure.
Eidolon took on the form of a living field of distorted space. Air ignited on contact with him.
Scion lashed out, and he danced around the edges of the blast, closing the distance to swamp Scion.
There were abrasions where Legend’s finest lasers had cut. He drove his new body into them, expanded.
It was working.
Up until Scion radiated golden light. Nine tenths of Eidolon’s body was destroyed. The remainder was cast out across the sky.
Too far apart to pull himself together.
The Faerie Queen did it instead, using the long-ranged telekinesis, bundling him together.
His senses became a haze as he traveled, indistinct and incorporeal. He found other powers, and he painstakingly rematerialized.
He was beside Glaistig Uaine, and the world around them was gray, shrouded in thick mist. Scion’s beam pummeled some unseen barrier.
“A reprieve,” Glaistig Uaine spoke. “I thought you’d need one.”
“You’re more powerful than I am,” he said. The words broke him a little.
She shook her head.
“No?” he asked. “Or is this a faerie riddle? It’s not really your power?”
“It’s mine. Ours. But you’re stronger than I am. I can see it. The issue, High Priest, is that you need to open your eyes.”
“My issue is that the well has run dry. I can’t tap it for power anymore. My best abilities are gone, and I’m spending the remainder with every minute I fight.”
“Refill the well, then,” she said.
“It’s not so simple, but I’ll take any suggestions.”
“I’ve given it to you several times. I’ll tell you again, open your eyes, High Priest. You weren’t given your role on purpose. You took it, understand? Now you need to wrap your head around your duties.”
“What are my duties?”
“Those of the High Priest.”
He almost swore out loud. “Less riddles, more answers, please. Unless you’re interested in dying here.”
“Death is inevitable. Life is too. Even if Scion succeeds, there will be some who remain, because they hid well enough, because they aren’t interesting or different enough to kill. Life, death, a binary.”
“This isn’t constructive.”
“It can be, but I won’t repeat myself a third time. Binaries. Everything represented on the other side of the mirror. Not perfect reflections, but reflections nonetheless.“
“What’s my reflection, then?”
“You should know,” she said.
“Mm. No. But I could be, in a small way. Like I said, the reflections are distorted.”
“Your power is death, my power is life?”
“Not so overt, but you’re thinking along the right lines. I am alive as the faerie queen, I collect the dead, I tap them for my strength, to better shepherd them. You are the High Priest of the stillborn faerie, but you could tap the living for strength.”
Glaistig Uaine pursed her lips. “I told you twice and alluded to it a third time. I do like threes as numbers go. There’s a significance in threes. Triads, triumvirates…”
He thought back. “Open my eyes.”
“Yes. I was starting to worry you’d injured your head in the fighting. I would hurry. The next demonstration will occur soon.”
Open my eyes.
His powers were defensive and offensive ones. Possibilities, still growing to full strength.
Scion was knocking down the barrier. To relinquish those defenses in the face of Scion’s imminent attack…
He did it, cast them all aside.
A leap of faith was nothing if he didn’t take it with nothing held back.
He felt powers stirring, manifesting. Three powers lost, he could only hope that one of the three new powers would be sufficient.
God, let me see. The agent never listens, but please, for all that is right and just in the world, let it give me the ability to see.
He felt the powers begin to take hold.
Something affecting his body. He cast it aside.
The barrier around them flickered. For an instant, the water and the sky around them were blue.
Another power, something offensive, in his fingertips. He banished it.
Flight, the ability to run. No.
Six powers lost and gained.
He’d dug deep while fighting Endbringers, while fighting Echidna, the Blasphemies, and other great threats, but it had been for something offensive. Something safe in its own way.
To dig so deep for something mental, it was scary.
Something he’d explored, but not like this.
He took a deep breath, murmured an indistinct prayer, and tried to empty his mind of all of the other needs and wishes and fears.
With the seventh power, he felt a sensory change.
He could see the passengers light up, taking form. Glimmers of images, shadows, scenes both Earthly and alien.
Glaistig Uaine was a mosaic, a stained glass window of three interlocking scenes, flowing into and through one another. Three spirits.
He could see how she reached out to them, how they flowed into and through her.
This was her.
What was he? What was his dream?
“Now,” she said, as if from very far away.
Nearby, a cape who had been wounded in the rig’s collapse died. He could see the images start to fade, to degrade, consumed from the edges like darkness might creep in around one’s peripheral vision as they lost consciousness.
He saw Glaistig Uaine claim them, banishing her creations and leaving only the framework around the images.
The framework took in the other cape, and it bloomed with a new life.
He felt his own power stir.
It emulated, copied. Grasping tendrils, reaching for Glaistig Uaine.
He saw her expression change, repressed anger.
There weren’t many. Four that had been left behind, for whatever reason.
He used hydrokinesis to bring them closer.
The tendrils connected to the images surrounding them, abstract ideas, as though the agents had no identity or concept of their own beyond the memories they stored.
He felt his power grow, hurried to allow new powers to fall into place so he could fill them with reserves, tap them for energy. Tendrils connecting agents here and elsewhere.
They’d lose their abilities, be rendered weaker. They were dying anyways.
New powers fell quickly into place. They reached a greater capacity in less time.
Still standing at the edge of the ruined platform, Eidolon’s took in a deep breath for what felt like the first time in a decade. A weight had fallen from his shoulders.
Two powers, a third for this extra perception, the ability to tap others for energy.
He tapped into an erasure power he hadn’t had since he had fought Behemoth the first time. Destroying matter. No defense to penetrate, nothing to attack or avoid. Merely a vast area cut away.
Scion moved, but the affected area was as broad as a tennis court. The golden man lost a hand.
Thunder crashed as air rushed in to fill a space where even the oxygen molecules had been cut away.
Something to keep him still.
Another power was needed.
The power was a familiar one. One he’d used to curtail Leviathan’s movements in the Kyushu fight. He reached into another Earth and pulled the cliff faces into this world.
Scion blasted the cliff faces, but his golden light only affected the cliff on this earth. The moment he stopped, more emerged.
He stopped to strike again, this time obliterating the cliff faces on this Earth and the one in the other reality.
Eidolon struck out with the erasure power while Scion was still.
Scion was gone.
No. Not gone. He had slipped into another Earth, avoiding the affected area as easily as someone might avoid a thrown stone by stepping to the right.
Glaistig Uaine approached Eidolon. She granted him the ability to fly.
He banished one power, felt another come back to him. He fed off two more of the injured capes.
He used the new power to shove himself and Glaistig Uaine into the next reality. He fixed his eyes on Scion, then lashed out, shoving part of the golden man into one reality. Scion reeled, then retaliated.
Glaistig Uaine created an obstruction, the tornado-mass of swirling blades and iron that emerged fast enough to absorb the beam’s impact.
Eidolon slashed with another reality push, and Scion disappeared.
Nearly as strong as I was in the beginning.
He nearly felt like himself.
May 1986, twenty-seven years ago
A strange place for this discussion.
The woman looked supremely at ease as she took a seat opposite David. The teenage girl who accompanied her was just as confident. Here and there in the little cafe, people gave them dirty looks.
The woman was black, dressed all in white, the girl wore a private school uniform and held a notebook and fountain pen.
They were tidy, prim. David felt underdressed, small.
“I admit to being a little confused,” David said.
“Understandable. You can call me Doctor.”
“No last name?”
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I’m kind of bothered by the lack of a last name,” he said, “If you’ll pardon my saying so.”
“Pardon granted,” the Doctor said, smiling slightly. “Very polite.”
David frowned a little at that. “Somehow, I get the feeling you know everything about me, and I don’t know anything about you.”
“At this stage, very likely. But I’d still like to talk as if I didn’t know all of the details. You applied to the army, and you were turned down.”
David chewed his lip, looking across the cafe. It wasn’t a big town. How many of his father’s friends or acquaintances were here, possibly listening in?
“You aren’t surprised, but… you were still clearly disappointed, crushed.”
“Don’t,” he said. He stared down at the table, his lips pressed into a firm line.
“They aren’t listening, not really. They’re busier looking at a black woman in a town where black women are rare,” the Doctor said.
“Sorry,” David said, suddenly feeling embarrassed.
“Your town isn’t under your control. What is under your control is what happened last week.”
David clenched his jaw. Lines stood out on his throat as he looked out the window.
“You tried to take your life. The army, it was something you wanted?”
“I just- I know I’m not in any condition to fight, to do drills or any of that. But there’s other stuff I can do. Desk jobs.”
She nodded. “I can offer you better than a desk job.”
“Part of me thinks you stole a look at my records,” he said. “And now you’re here to make fun of me.”
“I don’t intend to make jokes at your expense, David. What does the other part of you think, if not that I’m an unscrupulous medical doctor with a bad sense of humor?”
“That if you told me your name, it’d be something sinister. Fire and brimstone. This sounds an awful lot like a deal with the devil.”
“I suppose it does. I’m only mortal, I confess.”
“I can’t make promises, David. Infernal, divine or otherwise. I can’t tell you that you’d be joining the army. Just the opposite. It would raise a number of questions.”
He glanced out the window again. He felt so ashamed of himself he couldn’t meet her eyes. “The army wasn’t the thing.”
“I wanted to go do something of my own will. Take charge, take action. Stop living a life where everything is decided for me.”
“By joining the army?” the Doctor raised an eyebrow.
He laughed a little. “I know. Stupid.”
“You wanted independence. I can’t promise it. In fact, if this deal with the devil goes through, it might be something I demand from you. Your assistance, your aid. I need a soldier.”
He took his time thinking about it.
“I’ve thought it over, I get that there would be obligations. Yes. Please. I’ll do it.”
“I did outline the risks? The chances are slim at best.”
“Yes. Well, I obviously don’t put much stake in my own life, do I?”
“Apparently not. Good, come,” she said. “We’ll do this now.”
His hands were stiff to move as he brought them to his sides and unlocked the wheelchair’s wheels. The scars on his wrists were only part of it. The nerve damage from the seizures he’d had several times a day since birth were the rest.
He avoided the eyes of the people around him as the Doctor took hold of the wheelchair’s handles, guiding him to his destination.
June 24th, 2013, now
He was catching up. Scion continued to run.
A world without air. He held his breath.
A world of magma and smoke. Glaistig Uaine provided the protective shield.
More and more remote Earths, less habitable, less familiar. Earth Bet was a long, long way behind them.
A glimpse here, of Scion with his back turned. A glimpse of Scion, hand raised to attack.
Eidolon counterattacked with a distortion in space, while Glaistig Uaine provided a defense, moving them a distance away.
“Almost,” he said.
“Almost,” she said.
He remembered Weavers warning. He couldn’t trust this girl.
But he had to.
Every step of the way, his life had been decided for him. He’d been the disabled kid, carted everywhere by his mother and father, barely able to wipe his own ass. Careers denied him. Superheroics chosen for him. Then predestined events, the dissolution of his career in the triumvirate, the looming end of the world.
This was the closest he’d ever felt to being free, but still, there were obligations. He had a mission, he knew what to do.
Another attack. Glaistig Uaine coordinated with him on this one. Another attack, rending Scion. An attack that would have killed an ordinary man.
He could sense a degree of distress. Of concern. Not as dramatic as the disgust he’d felt from Scion before, but noticeable.
If Glaistig Uaine was going to betray him, it would be now.
“Are you going to stab me in the back, Faerie Queen?”
“Every time-” Glaistig Uaine spoke, stopping as they stepped into a lush Earth, “he uses his power, it costs him time.”
“He experiments, he plays, but he doesn’t yet abandon hope. I don’t abandon hope. The cycle could yet complete, by luck alone. He needs to find his reflection in the mirror. He lost his, like Peter lost his shadow, but another could appear.”
“This doesn’t answer my question.”
“You are so blind, High Priest. Deaf. He will not let himself run out of time. If he runs out, then he will stop playing, stop experimenting, and simply wait, bide his time in the hopes that another will come to act as his reflection.”
“That’s your goal?”
I believe you.
He redoubled his efforts, no longer worried about defending against a possible attack from just to his right. They passed from world to world as quickly as he could make portals between them. They drew closer… closer still.
And came face to face with Scion, mere inches in front of them.
He’d stopped, turned around.
Glaistig Uaine distanced herself from Eidolon, until she was to Scion’s left. Her body was tense, ready for an attack. Eidolon raised his hand, ready to attack.
Had Scion decided on a tactic that would cost him less time than he was losing by taking Eidolon’s repeated attacks?
Scion spoke for the second time.
Four words, barely audible.
It took time to sink in.
Eidolon let his hand drop to his side.
He turned the sounds around in his head, trying to convince himself of a different configuration, convince himself he had heard wrong.
But he hadn’t. It dawned on Eidolon. He has Contessa’s power.
How many years did it cost Scion to use it?
Not enough, he was convinced. Scion had defeated him.
Scion raised a hand, and Eidolon didn’t move. Glaistig Uaine was fleeing.
Scion fired the lethal blast.
“Run!” I screamed the word. I took my own advice.
The golden light around Scion had solidified, forming a sphere. The light dropped.
Others were already scrambling to get away, but there wasn’t a place to go. No portals, no place to run. The speed and size of the orb made one thing clear. The people in the center wouldn’t be able to move fast enough to make their exit.
I’d been standing in the direct center, to better observe those on the other sides of the portals. I was one of those people.
I’d spent years running on schedule, interrupted only by injuries here and there, more hectic weeks and a spell in prison. Years of pushing my limits, pushing myself to move faster, strengthen my legs, build my stamina. I used it all, pushed myself as hard as I ever had. The wings on my flight pack extended, and I used the thrusters to give myself some additional speed.
Lab Rat, who had apparently realized the futility of trying to move, wasn’t running at all, but was rearing back, a device the size of a baseball in his hand. He threw it, aiming to put it over the water.
Not enough. Lab Rat wasn’t one of those prisoners who’d packed on muscle in prison. The ball fell short, then started rolling slightly back towards him.
He swore in a language I didn’t know, started to run towards the object. Too slow. If he wasn’t going to make it over the edge and get to safety, he wasn’t going to reach the object.
My bugs hit the object as a mass, rolling it. It tipped over the edge. Lab Rat stopped.
The bugs around him caught one word. “Angel.”
Lustrum used her power. It was like walking into a wall, but it wasn’t physical. My brain went blank for an instant, the heat and energy in my body seemed to disappear like someone had flicked a switch. My power, too, faded, the range zooming to a point close to me, my control momentarily going haywire. An instant later, it was back. I staggered, compensated with the antigravity, managed to not fall too far behind.
The sphere above us shrunk a fraction. Maybe. Hard to make out, considering the size of it, and the speed with which it fell. Lustrum, for her part, grew.
I didn’t get to see how big she grew. The orb made contact with the platform, shearing through everything it touched. My bugs died as the orb touched them, and I could sense the devastation spread as more and more of it came in contact with the structure.
The outermost edges of the orb were still directly overhead, plunging towards me, towards us.
I stepped off the rig, pushing myself off, letting myself fall as I continued moving out, moving away. Falling was good, because it put me further away from the orb. I’d sooner hit the water than let that thing touch me.
Bugs that couldn’t fall as well as I could died as the orb made contact. Bugs that were close to me. Bugs to my left and right, bugs beneath me.
I felt a momentary disconnect between what I was seeing and what I was feeling. I felt like I was plunging into the water, everything going numb, pain, my thoughts fragmenting. Yet I was still fifty or so feet above the water’s surface, my view shifting as I veered to one side, despite my instructions to the flight pack.
I felt increasingly disoriented with every heartbeat. Couldn’t fly. Spiraling.
I tried to take in breath. Couldn’t. I felt pain instead. Right ribs, back, stomach, left buttock, left thigh.
I was falling. I spread my arms out, trying to slow the descent, failed.
Right hand gone. Blood, fragments of golden light eating away at stump, making the bleeding worse.
Falling faster, spiraling more. Thoughts weren’t flowing. I jerked to one side with wind catching wing, spinning abruptly, felt something wrench, pulling from the center of my body.
Fragment of a memory: Legend speaking. Talking about Leviathan. Hit water moving fast enough, worse than hitting concrete.
Had to slow my fall. Most important thing.
There were bugs on me. I moved them, to get a sense of where I was. Compare to surroundings.
One wing on pack.
No legs. Half of stomach left.
The pulling feeling was organs sliding out of body.
Help, passenger. A plea, an order.
Move arms of flight pack that aren’t broken. Brace against injury.
Wing retracting, propulsion canceled.
Focus on bugs, on antigravity.
Time activation to break spin. Left, right, match to speed.
Disorientation getting worse. Two, three seconds where I can’t remember where I am.
Focus on bugs. Only bugs.
Flight pack pulsing. Rely on intuition. Starting to feel more pain. Burning sensations. Pulling in middle of body. I start timing flight pack to heartbeat, waves of pain, instead of where I am, direction I’m facing.
Fix position, facing sky, see Scion hovering. Great smoky shimmering figure stands on water, holding ten or twelve people against arm, tall as oil rig was.
Oil rig collapsing. Only two legs remain, slumping into water.
Facing sky. What was I doing?
Gravity, push against direction of fall, slow my descent.
Not enough. Falling too fast. Need to slow fall just a bit more.
I extended the wing. Propulsion.
Started spinning again, feel wrenching get worse, spreading through entire upper body.
Hit water while spinning.
No breath left in lungs for impact to take. Wing breaks, flopping over and over across water’s surface.
Sinking. Use antigrav to try and stay afloat, but system isn’t meant to be used underwater. Can’t float because no air in lungs. Slowly sinking.
I opened my mouth to draw in a breath, had to struggle to manage it, felt intense pain, a crushing in one side.
But I managed to get some air.
Small bubbles spilled out of my side, from beneath the water.
The water around me was murky with blood.
No chance I’d live like this. Nobody nearby. Scion was attacking the giant, cutting her to pieces. Capes she was holding fell.
The rig was collapsing, two pillars slowly falling in opposite directions, one left, one right. The platform itself was twisting, splitting apart.
So was I. Half of me gone, the remains slowly leaking out into the water around me. Blood, fluids, intestine.
I didn’t want to die. Not like this.
Not at all.
I thought about my tools, as if there was an answer there. My pepper spray?
Delirious, I almost thought about using it on my wounded lower body, some broken connection between burning sensation and burning and cauterizing.
My taser was gone, obliterated by the damage to my side.
I couldn’t manage a laugh, but I would have if I could have. Thoughts of amusement crossed my mind. Shooting myself would be one answer, but it wasn’t one I wanted to make.
I wasn’t ready to die. Even hovering over Gimel’s version of Brockton Bay, I’d tested the limits, stayed out too long.
But now, like this, I knew I wouldn’t have let it happen. I would have fought to swim back, would have called or signaled for help, pride be damned.
Damn it all, I wanted to fight.
Ironic, that I’d be so idiotic when the fight had been taken out of me, but I’d feel so compelled to fight when there was little option besides making peace with the end.
I managed a little breath.
Just let yourself sink. Tell the antigravity to cut out, take in one mouthful of water. That’d be the end of it.
I couldn’t. I didn’t.
But the pain was getting twice as bad with every heartbeat.
I didn’t have a right hand to press the button with anyways.
Lab Rat’s device?
I thought about it, and in that same thought, I recognized a sensation that had been drowned out by the pain. A repeated pressure. A poke, a pause, another poke.
I raised my arm over the water, shifted my orientation with a use of one of the antigrav panels, and I briefly heard a beeping in the moment the device was raised above the water level.
A part of the platform fell. The resulting waves rolled towards me.
I didn’t have it in me to hold my breath, so I closed my mouth, prayed water wouldn’t flow up my nose.
I was drowned, swamped by the water, rolled. I felt a dull, indistinct pain in a place that felt disconnected from my real body, something tearing. The body parts that were spooling out in the water beneath around around me.
I found the surface again.
My lungs were burning for air as I opened my mouth to try and draw air into my lungs. My lung, considering the other might have collapsed.
Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, my thoughts simultaneously chaotic and focused. I had nothing left but adrenaline.
Water flowed into my mouth. I shut it, moved my tongue to help force that same water out between my lips. Needed to get higher.
Everything was going dark.
The prodding in my arm continued.
Lab Rat’s device. Whatever it was trying to do, my costume was getting in the way.
I couldn’t reach up to move it because I was missing a hand, couldn’t twist my left hand to move it, because of the limitations of my body. The attempt at even moving my left arm made me acutely aware of the damage to my hand. I might have fractured or broken it as I hit the water.
I took in a small breath, forced myself to take in another. I could hear the wheeze of my lungs and throat straining to work.
And then I used the flight pack to rotate myself, turning myself so my face was in the water.
I floated there, arms extended out to either side, rocking as the waves continued to shift me.
My bugs descended from the air above, landing on me.
The strap that attached the device to my arm wasn’t spider silk. Cockroaches began to chew it.
My lungs burned. Every moment, even the smallest movement, it redoubled the pain.
I’ve dealt with worse, I told myself.
I couldn’t quite believe that, couldn’t think back to that, compare, and convince myself.
The water rolled over me. My cockroaches were washed away.
Again. More. Hornets, more cockroaches.
They hovered for the ten or twelve seconds it took me to raise my arm up above the water again. I let bubbles of air leak out between my lips, as if I could convince my brain that I was breathing, convince my body to hold on just a bit longer, forestall that involuntary gasp.
The device came free. Strands of silk helped to hold it as the swarm descended, hurried to carry it.
Nape of the neck.
Over the hill that was my hood.
They reached the point where my mask stopped, my hairline began.
Vanity. I’d held on to my long hair, wore a costume that let my hair free.
When I’d been filled with self loathing, when I was so focused on the individual imperfections and the overall ugliness of my features, in the midst of the bullying campaign that had defined my early teen years, I’d still liked my hair.
The skin was exposed there. No costume to get in the way.
Please be healing, I thought, lowering the device until it was against my back.
Pause… and then a prod.
A needle, piercing the skin.
A pressure, as something pumped into my body.
It wasn’t healing.
Flesh knit together, but it wasn’t healing.
The pain faded as quickly and dramatically as it had taken hold, but, still, I wasn’t healing.
My thoughts became clearer.
Water churned where it came in contact with my blood. Where my flesh closed together and trapped water inside me, the effect intensified. It was soon the only pain I felt.
We’re eighty percent water, or whatever the number is, I thought. Resources have to come from somewhere.
Water was seeping into my throat, despite my efforts to keep my mouth clamped shut.
I turned myself over. I breathed, and it wasn’t as hard as it had been before. My mouth opened, but it wasn’t just the lips parting, or the jaw moving up and down. Things separated and stretched open on a horizontal plane as well. The soaked cloth of my mask stretched.
My legs kicked, but they weren’t good legs for swimming. I kept kicking anyways. Something about the way they moved, they were designed so that the motions shifted my abdominal cavity, pumped it, forcing air in and out with the rhythmic activity.
I had to use my hands to paddle myself forward. Well… one hand and one other limb. The shape was still nebulous, the growth warring against the steady deterioration of the burning golden energy that still lingered here and there. It blackened and flaked off, and a little headway was made.
The digit extended, broadened, flattened.
It wasn’t fully formed, but it served as a paddle. I began inching myself closer to the platform. Easy enough to manage, considering the steady movement of the water. Things were flowing into some sort of narrow, tight whirlpool, where water was flowing into some hole in the ocean floor.
I shifted my arms in movements that were jerky, not quite muscular. The motions were strong, but hard to control, to moderate. It was fine. I didn’t need control or moderation here. I made my way towards one of the intact legs of the platform. A circle of concrete, cracked by strain, with rebar visible in the cracks.
I pulled myself up, but the attempt was spastic, spasmodic. I managed to haul myself up, moved a little too far, then fell.
Another attempt. This time I focused on holding on, bringing my legs up. One leg in one crevice, another leg into a crack, another set on a ledge where the concrete above wasn’t quite seated properly.
My right hand opened, and the motion was more like metal tearing than anything else, tissue parting violently and unwillingly, creating a gap that was as much wound as it was design.
The flesh joined together, forming ridges that faced one another.
I closed it, felt the ridges meet. The flesh was still tender. I left it alone.
My flight pack provided additional lift as I climbed. It was overly heavy, the antigrav weak, but it gave me lift. I found footholds, handholds for my one hand, and used the arms of my flight pack where I saw opportunities.
I found my stride, scaling the surface with increasing speed, until I was moving faster than I might have covered the same distance running. My swarm climbed over the surface and provided a map of the places I could find footholds.
I tested my right hand. The flesh wasn’t tender. It was hard. There were studs at regular intervals along either half, like teeth. Very like teeth.
I raised my claw over my head, then drew it down violently, driving it into a crack.
I was able to climb faster. I reached the point where the concrete ended. A shaft of four steel beams reinforced by criss-crossing beams set at diagonals loomed above me.
It was an even faster climb than the concrete. My legs ended in points, and those same points slipped off of the metal beams, but I had seven limbs to work with. Even if half of my limbs were reaching out for holds, I still had three or four solid points of contact I could maintain at any given point in time.
Rage bubbled inside me, but it wasn’t mine. I’d experienced my own anger, I knew how it influenced my own body, how it was connected to my emotions. This was something else. Hormones kicking into overdrive, compelling my body to react. Other parts of my body being designed angry, designed so they were primed for fight or flight, driving me to act and refuse to let me sit still.
Lab Rat’s stuff was geared towards turning people into weapons, making them take whatever forms he keyed into the formula and then act. I knew it. My awareness of what was going on wasn’t stopping it. I was riding a tide of emotion, moving towards a fight where I couldn’t possibly do anything to stop Scion, putting myself in danger.
Had I chosen to, I could have turned away.
But I liked being emotional, liked coming out of my shell, acting.
Some of my finer moments had been when I was doing just that.
I reached the top of the pillar and paused. I wasn’t out of breath, and my limbs weren’t really built in such a way that they got tired. Still, I had a barrier overhead, now, and I didn’t trust my flight pack to hold my weight. I glanced down, and the individual waves were too difficult to distinguish. Here and there, there were flecks of white where they crested.
Water still trailed from gaps in the pack as I reached up, folded two tarsus -two ‘feet’- around a beam over my head, and then swung myself up, grabbing another beam with my claw. I experimented, testing the security of my grip. It looked like it could hold all of my weight. I wouldn’t make it do so, but it was a good option.
Movement across the underside of the platform was swift enough. It only required a different kind of thinking, an abstract sort of grasp of how I moved my legs, found leverage with only one opposable thumb.
A beam came loose as I tried to hang my weight off it, and I nearly fell. I found leverage on one beam with my third leg, reached out with my hand to grab elsewhere. Neither hold was secure, but I still managed to swing myself over and seize another beam, securing myself.
I reached the edge of the platform, looked up and over, to see the fighting underway.
Less fighting than systematic elimination. The only ones who were truly holding their own were Legend, Glaistig Uaine, Pretender and Eidolon. Even then, they were more focused on avoiding Scion’s attacks than dealing damage. Here and there, Eidolon or Glaistig Uaine would try something.
The remains of the platform had stabilized. Only a few remained on top. Weld’s people, the Irregulars, made up the bulk of the group.
Sanguine was tending to two injured. Not Irregulars, but not capes I recognized either. The boy had hair and skin with a texture and color like clotted blood. The injured had blood piled and crusted over their wounds, scabs bigger than my hand. Or my claw.
Weld looked at me, and his eyebrows raised.
I opened my mouth to speak, and found I couldn’t. My tongue was thinner, layered in something hard, and the sides of my mouth were odd.
I communicated through my swarm, instead. What little of it remained, anyways. Drones and buzzes and chirps. “Lab Rat. The boxes he gave us, they’re designed to trigger when we’re hurt, force a transformation.”
“Might get a few more recruits,” Sanguine said, not looking up from the wounded. He had hands extended to two different wounds on one individual, and was drawing blood into one hand and letting it snake out of the other, flowing into the wound. Was he cleaning it?
“His transformations are temporary. Buying time. He cut me in half, and I’m not sure I’m going to be in one piece when this stops working.”
“But it worked?” Weld asked.
I nodded. The motion was jerky.
I reached up with my good hand, the movements twitchy, and felt my neck and shoulders.
The little muscle I had was gone, and the skin was taut over cords, like tendons, of varying sizes. The muscle had been cannibalized to build flesh elsewhere, I gathered.
Weld frowned, then reached into the pouch at his belt. He held another device.
After a pause, he pressed it against one of the wounded.
It beeped, then a light went on in the corner.
The cape convulsed, his back arching.
A moment later, transformations began, veins standing out along his arms and legs.
“Another one,” Weld said. “Get me a spare.”
Sanguine handed him another. Weld applied it. Scales were manifesting around the most prominent veins on the first one by the time the second patient started reacting.
“Gully,” one of the other Irregulars said. “If we can get to her-”
“We can’t,” Weld said, looking down towards the water, “But she’s wearing one. I trust her to hold her own.”
Their discussion of how their teammate was doing made me think of others. Grue. He’d come back through the portal, and he’d been close to the edge of the platform, but that was no guarantee.
It was a hell of a drop to the water, and he didn’t have a flight pack. Not quite something that Masamune had managed to mass produce.
Above us, Glaistig Uaine had created a spirit that was spreading across the sky like circuits on a circuitboard, extending itself across a plane. Scion was blasting it, but it had reached the point where it was spreading as fast as he destroyed it. Her other two spirits were working in concert, one duplicating the other, so it could create and lob projectiles that exploded in the air. The detonations left patches of a strange, nebulous darkness in their wake. They couldn’t move more than a short distance from their master, which limited their number, but they added up to twenty or thirty in all.
“It’s working,” Sanguine said.
It wasn’t. I looked at him, confused.
His eyes were on the patients. He’s talking about Lab Rat’s matchboxes. I looked, and I saw how the scales were spreading. They were breathing easier.
“Good,” Weld said. “We need everyone we can get.”
“It’s a temporary measure,” I spoke through my bugs, my mouth firmly closed. “Moment this wears off, they might need emergency assistance. Me too.”
“Situation’s bad,” Weld said. “Not sure we’re going to get any help, emergency or otherwise.”
“The Triumvirate came.”
“From miles away,” one of the other Irregulars said. She had a head that was many times the size, a body that was disproportionately frail, to the point that I wondered how she could hold herself upright. “They can’t open any gates here until Scion’s gone.”
“We need to drive him away, then,” I said. “Or hurt him. Kill him.”
The last two words slipped out, so to speak. Fueled by my anger, my outrage.
No, not quite my own. A programmed bloodlust, one that came with this body.
“That’s… not really doable,” Weld said. “Pretty sure the scientist who knocked him through the stratosphere died. Nobody else has really been able to knock him for a loop.”
The tendril-girl spoke, her voice harboring a soft Russian accent. “We should go, Weld. Run. There’s nothing more we can do here.”
“There’s nowhere to run,” Weld said. “Even if we swim-”
“We’re stronger than we think,” the tendril-girl answered, her voice soft. “Isn’t that what you always say? There’s a strength inside us and we just need to dig for it. We came to help the wounded, with Sanguine and Matryoshka. Let’s take the wounded and go.”
Weld hesitated. I suspected I could understand why.
“I want to help too,” I said. I twitched, as if my body was taking that sentence as permission to go. “Murder that fucker. But there’s only so much we can do. Go.”
He gave me a funny look.
“I was put in charge of ordering people in the field. Take it as an order from me.”
“I’m not your subordinate,” Weld said. “And I’m not sure you’re in your right mind. You keep talking in a strange voice.”
“Everything she says is in a strange voice,” Sanguine murmured.
“A stranger voice,” Weld clarified.
“Not in my right mind,” I said. I stretched.
Not in my right body.
I shook my head a little. “But this is the smart thing. Retreat for now. This was never supposed to be a prolonged fight.”
“No,” Weld said. “I’ll stay. I can help others. I’m tough enough to walk away with most of my body gone. I’ll search for others who need help.”
There was the mask again. Even the case fifty-threes had them. The emotional defenses, the guise. He was hiding something, lying without speaking falsehoods.
“Go,” I said. There was an emotion in the sound there really shouldn’t have been. Anger. Irritation. Insofar as I could even express that with a voice generated by my bugs.
Scion erupted with golden light. It wasn’t the sort of attack one dodged. Instantaneous, hitting everything in every direction.
My skin began to blister, the golden light searing through it, appearing in the ridges between spots where flesh was simply being eaten away.
I scrambled for cover, moving back towards the underside of the platform. As I leaped over the railing, I grabbed one of Sanguine’s patients with my claw. My movement was reckless, too quick, unpracticed, and I nearly threw the cape I was holding over the edge.
I waited, hanging by my three legs, two flight-pack arms, and one hand, the cape dangling below me, gripped in my claw.
The light faded. I checked, then climbed back over the edge.
Weld and his people had taken cover. Sanguine was covering injuries with scabs, but the damage was bad. The tendril girl’s tentacles were worn so thin they were barely there.
The cloud cover had been largely dissolved, bringing more light down onto the battlefield. More to the point, Scion’s likely target had been affected as well. The cape that had spread across the sky was falling apart.
Scion turned his attention towards Glaistig Uaine.
Eidolon appeared beside her, taking her in his arms, and then the pair of them disappeared just as quickly. Legend opened fire with a series of lasers, while Alexandria ducked around to get behind the bastard.
The cape I was holding climbed over the railing. I made my way under it, then sort of staggered in Weld’s direction, the tarsus segments of my legs sliding on the slanted, gritty surface. The light had eaten through metal, eroded everything in sight.
Below us, the water had been affected, boiling. Clouds of steam rose from the water’s surface.
My thoughts turned to the capes below us. My friends, past allies.
Murderous instinct flared, and I restrained it.
“We need to go,” the tendril girl said. “We’re no use to anyone dead.”
“I can’t swim, Sveta, understand?” Weld’s voice was quiet. “It’s not- I’ll stay behind. We’ve got the case for you to hide inside. Sanguine can carry you. You should go.”
“We need you, Weld,” Sveta said.
Weld looked away.
“Another form,” Sanguine said. “Something that floats.”
“Metal boats float,” Sanguine said.
“What is it?” Sveta asked.
“I’m not sure it’ll work.”
“If it doesn’t,” Sanguine said, “walk.”
“On the ocean floor?” Sveta asked.
“He doesn’t breathe.”
“It’s not that simple,” Weld said. “I’m going to stay. I have old teammates to look after. You guys should leave.”
“Not without you,” Sveta said, her voice angry.
A golden light speared past us. Striking the water. Scion was cutting up the capes who’d fallen in and survived.
Glaistig Uaine appeared behind him. Three spirits surrounded her.
One to levitate, grant the ability to float. A telekinetic or power granter.
Another to duplicate capes. Duplicating the telekinetic, in part. But more focused on duplicating the third spirit Glaistig Uaine had made.
She’d gone through a phase, hunting down some of the scariest capes around, defeating them, claiming them.
This was one.
Scion was trapped in a time well, turning monochrome.
Without any apparent effort, he broke free of the effect, shattering it.
Only to be frozen again.
My swarm was agitated.
Agitated but futile.
Scion started moving in the direction of Glaistig Uaine and her creations, gliding through the air. The effects went up as easily as they were torn down.
I wanted to help. To stop him. I was powerless. A cockroach.
Glaistig Uaine wasn’t stopping him, but it seemed to have his attention. He wasn’t using his power, either. Was it because he couldn’t, or something else entirely?
Eidolon, Legend and Alexandria flew down to the water. They rose with no less than twelve capes between them, Eidolon levitating several, and then disappeared towards the horizon.
Weld seemed to come to a decision. “Okay. If it’s what it takes to make you guys leave, I’ll go. Make our way down.”
I shut my eyes, exhaled slowly. The air moved in a funny way across my mouth-parts.
“Here,” I said.
I reached for my belt. It dangled, held in place by the silk cords that wound under and beneath my costume. Some of it had been obliterated by the blast. I used my bugs to start connecting the silk cords together.
Too thin, too short.
I reached behind my back, instead, past the small tube of pepper spray. More silk there. Some beneath the armor panel on my hand, others beneath my shoulders.
I plaited them together into a rope.
“Others go down first,” Weld said. “Order of weight. Let’s get you packaged up, Garotte. If you aren’t climbing down, stay still.”
He began undoing the little clasps of metal that bound Garotte against his body. She unfurled, reached out to railings, to edges of metal.
Where the tendrils surrounded the railing, a barrier that might have stopped a speeding car, the metal bent, crushed tight.
The tendrils continued to find their way to things to grip. There were more of them than I’d thought.
One tendril seized my claw, faster than I could react. Just as fast, it pulled back, found somethign else to hold.
She and Weld both stopped.
I watched as she closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, and then exhaled.
Weld released her organs, hidden in a space in his broad back, and she was free of him. She collected herself around the railing, her eyes closed, drawing in deep breaths and then exhaling slowly. Slowly, the tendrils released, and she stretched out to her full length.
She looked like a fish underwater, a lionfish or jellyfish with dramatic, crazy fins or fronds. Where they weren’t bound to her surroundings, the fronds fell in line with one another, moved with their own rhythm, a mind of their own, that searched the surroundings.
“Tight, Garotte,” Weld said, an order. His eyes weren’t on her, but on Scion and Glaistig Uaine.
Garotte wound herself around the railing, weaving her tendrils into gaps of the platform itself, to seize infrastructure. It was beautiful in a very different way, sinuous like a snake was, a face with everything condensed behind it, a mobile, flexible body.
Scion and Glaistig Uaine began fighting in earnest. They weren’t more than a hundred feet apart. Glaistig Uaine was drawing on spirits with a shorter range, now.
One with a fox-face that seemed to be granting three different kinds of enhanced movement, teleportation, super speed and flight. The other two varied from moment to moment. Some existed so briefly that Glaistig Uaine didn’t even try to keep them afloat in the air, images that lasted two or three seconds, employing their powers before they exceeded her natural range and dissipated.
Some came back, used powers in different variations. The ones Scion destroyed, though, they didn’t recur.
Glaistig Uaine was running out, and running out fast.
Weld patiently helped Sveta bind herself to a single pole inside a half-sphere the size of a beachball. When she was inside, he attached another half to the sphere and began screwing it shut.
Here and there, the smallest tendrils found their way out of airholes. They gripped his hand.
“Be brave, Sveta,” Weld murmured.
“I just tell myself I need to act like you,” Sveta’s voice came from within the sphere.
Weld didn’t answer that. He handed the sphere to Sanguine. The red-skinned boy gave his leader a nod, then started sliding down the length of the cord.
The capes who had taken Lab Rat’s juice were among the largest. They descended the rope I’d created. Only a couple were left, now.
“Matryoshka, get the ones from inside,” Weld said. “Think you can manage?”
A young case fifty-three with horizontal lines marking the length of her body nodded. She began dissolving into ribbons as she made her way across the platform.
“You’re not coming, I suspect,” Weld said. I realized he was speaking to me.
I shook my head, the motion jerky.
“If it’s about the injuries, the juice wearing off, we can support you, give you some healing.”
“There’s nothing you can do. Nothing we can do. Any of us.”
“String Theory hurt him.”
“String Theory died. And she didn’t hurt him so much as shove him. It’s like a three year old pushing a grown man. Right time, right place, catching him off guard, nothing more.”
The metaphor was eerily similar to Shadow Stalker’s one about cockroaches.
“I’m talking abstracts,” I spoke through my swarm.
I watched as a very androgynous figure left the building Matryoshka had entered. She bore innumerable injuries, but stoicly limped her way to the rope, gripping it. She glanced at Weld, then nodded.
“We know it’s possible to shove him, maybe other stuff is possible too. There’s hope.”
“So you want to do this again?” Weld asked. “How many of your friends came? What did you stake on this?”
I thought of Grue. I didn’t know if he was okay, or if he was one of the capes who had been in the water.
“One came,” I said.
“Is he okay?”
“I brought everyone, lost three for sure, one that’s a maybe,” Weld said. “You don’t- we can’t do this again. He’s too strong. Unstoppable.”
“You wanted to stay,” I said, stressing the you as much as I was able, speaking through the bugs.
“No,” Weld said. “I didn’t want to leave. Different thing.”
I didn’t have a response to that. Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon had returned. Legend and Alexandria rescued more stranded capes, flying off, while Eidolon rose into the air, positioning himself so Scion was between him and Glaistig Uaine.
“Sveta idolizes me. She sees me as a hero, a spokesperson for our kind. Her therapist asked me to come visit, because she heard about what happened in the Echidna attack, what Cauldron was doing. All of her progress, gone. So her therapist wanted her hero to show up. Give her guidance, support. It worked.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” I asked. I saw Eidolon open fire, not a dramatic attack, but a subtle one, a series of darts that left dark streaks in the air. My entire body tensed, as if I could jump into the fight.
Weld was shaking his head. “She thinks I’m fearless, but I’m not. I don’t have any hormones, any real heart that can pound, adrenaline to flow through my veins. But I still feel fear, still feel despair. I can’t jump into the water and sink to some point lower than mount Everest is tall, spending months or years without any goddamn music. So I stay here and… I try to convince them to leave. I’m a coward in the end, putting them at risk because I’m scared I’ll sink.”
“They left,” I said.
“Because I lied. I’m not going to follow them. I’m staying.”
“Sweet fuck all we can do, you know.”
“I know,” I responded. “But nothing we can do except fight.”
“I don’t know if I should pity you for that perspective or envy you.”
I shook my head.
Weld spoke, his voice grim. “In terms of morale, there’s no fixing this. We put our best foot forward, we failed. I can’t speak for the others, but I can guess how they’re going to feel. I think of myself as a brave guy. I pulled off the hero bit, I lead by example. But I don’t think there’s anything we can do but run.”
“That’s all you’ll do from here on out? Run?”
He looked down at his hands. “And get revenge. I promised other people we would.”
“That’s the opposite of what we need to be doing, Weld. You have to know that.”
He looked up at me with inhuman eyes that were framed by fine wire eyelashes. His expression communicated so much, considering it was hard metal.
“Give me a chance to prove otherwise,” I said.
“Prove-” he stopped mid-sentence. “Prove what?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Then I moved, hopping up onto the top of the nearest structure, a small building that had stood on the edge of the platform. My bugs stirred around me.
You took my dad from me, my hometown. You took our hope, betrayed humanity.
I don’t do well with betrayal.
As I moved along the platform, I got a view of the last of the Irregulars making their way into the water. Fallen debris was keeping them from being dragged into the narrow whirlpool beneath the structure. They swam as a group, some using pieces of wood for flotation.
They just had to get far enough away from Scion for someone to open a door.
My swarm climbed the rope, taking it apart, for multiple strands. They formed a single cord that was thin, but a quarter of a mile long.
Me, my passenger and my screwed up monster body were all in agreement.
I want to hurt him.
Want to prove this isn’t hopeless, that we can do something.
I don’t want to lose to another bully. I’m done with surrendering to forces of nature, human nature or otherwise.
My swarm extended in his direction, carrying a strand.
I hurried across the length of the platform. Who was still here?
What could I do?
Nobody of consequence on the upper level.
Drawing out a cord of silk between me and the railing, I used my faulty flight pack to lower myself towards the water.
Silk wound itself around Scion’s eyes. He didn’t pay it any mind. His focus was on Glaistig Uaine. Her spirit was the same one she’d used before, launching ineffective attacks that left blotches of darkness across the sky.
I found the capes on the water. A Thanda, three birdcage capes. The Thanda was using his power to fix them all in space, so they stood just a short distance above the water. Two of them recoiled in fear as I lowered myself to their level. The Thanda was calm, by contrast.
The wind blew the silk, threatening to pull it from my grip. Scion was moving, and it could break at any instant.
I passed the silk to the Thanda.
He gave me a curious glance.
Then he froze it in space.
It fixed the thread’s location in space, froze Scion as well. The golden man was rendered immobile.
Glaistig Uaine, Legend and Eidolon all struck him with everything they had. Attacks too big or too slow to land otherwise.
I collected the remains of the silk before it could land in the water.
Not enough length to use the Thanda again. I moved, relying on the flight pack.
It shorted out, and I used the sole remaining panel of antigravity to land on a shattered corner of the oil platform. It was slowly sinking into the waves.
The swarm. Not many bugs, but something.
I’d thought he was perceptive enough to see through the decoys, but he was the golden fool. The Simurgh had deceived him before.
Maybe it wasn’t that he could draw the logical conclusion and know that there wasn’t a human inside. Maybe he was too ready for breakers, for capes who didn’t follow the usual rules.
I created a swarm decoy, gathering all of the bugs from the surrounding area. I couldn’t tap the resources beneath the water, but I could draw from the life that had gathered on the rig, the bugs that feasted on the algae that clustered around the legs of the structure.
The body approached, and Eidolon moved aside. He moved as if it were a comrade joining the fight, as if he, Glaistig Uaine and the swarm-decoy effectively had Scion surrounded.
Idiotic, nonsensical. Scion didn’t even react to the maneuver.
Glaistig Uaine attacked, and Scion retaliated. Her spirit teleported her away.
Eidolon created mirror images of himself, illusions, and Scion lashed out. Only one of the illusions remained.
It fizzled out.
No. Eidolon struck out from the clouds above. Scion seemed to anticipate it, sliding out of the way.
The tempo of the attacks and counterattacks continued. Scion attacked Glaistig Uaine’s spirits, and still, the destroyed ones failed to return.
He was an alien combatant, a stranger from another world, who saw the world in an entirely different way from how we did.
But there was a pattern.
I divided the swarm decoy in two.
Divided each of those two into two more.
He’d stopped the spirit from spreading across the sky, and had made a concerted effort to eliminate Glaistig Uaine’s spirits. He’d eliminated Eidolon’s illusions.
Whether the creations were concrete or otherwise, it was something that seemed to provoke him.
Was it something instinctive? A part of his species? Something he watched out for in enemies, in threats or competition?
Scion turned and blasted the swarm out of the sky.
The last of my bugs.
His hand turned my way, as he floated in my direction.
He knew who was controlling them.
It was a diversion, a crucial distraction.
Glaistig Uaine flew in close, creating another set of spirits. Two to either side of her, one in the lead.
I recognized the one in the lead, distorted as it was.
Clockblocker’s spirit touched Scion, and the golden man froze.
She banished the ghost in an instant, recreated the one who had created the dark blotches in the sky.
The blotches began to move, gravitating towards Scion.
Concentrated in one spot.
She plotted this, planned out the extended attack.
I felt my hair stir, drifting towards that spot.
I’d seen something similar, once upon a time. I backed away until I was able to grab something for a hold.
They all gathered into a single dot, and the effect intensified.
The effect around Scion broke, and he began drifting towards the dark point.
He resisted, and I could sense something from him. Not alarm, but a reaction nonetheless.
From Glaistig Uaine and Eidolon’s body language, they saw it too.
He reached out, one hand stretched towards the center of the effect.
And Eidolon used a power, effectively detonating the effect, reversing it.
The G-driver had sent Scion flying into the atmosphere. Eidolon had apparently taken a lesson from it, because he’d emulated the effect. Here, Scion was plunged into the water.
Another hit, another inconvenience. Something.
He was in the water. He’d come back up.
We could do it again. I just needed to form another decoy.
Except I’d used up every bug I had on this.
Not bugs, then.
I flexed the legs that Lab Rat’s serum had given me, then dove into the water. I held my breath, making my way deeper.
It was negligible, but I wanted as many as I could get.
Simple lifeforms. If there were none above the water’s surface, I’d use the ones below. A glance above me showed one of the flying heroes above the water’s surface, watching. Good. We’d be able to coordinate an attack.
We were too far from the ocean floor for me to find crabs or lobsters, but there were others.
Krill. Two inches in length, at best. But they were alive, and I could move them. I could use them. Another swarm decoy, another combination attack. Something that-
My claw twitched.
I closed it, then flinched. The ‘teeth’ of the claw had bitten into soft flesh. It hadn’t been soft before.
I kicked, and I could feel the lack of strength in the leg’s movement. The spasm wasn’t as strong, and a wet feeling was running along the inside of the leg. Fluids leaking.
No. I wasn’t going to stop. Not now, not like this.
He’d have to surface, he’d be angry, distracted. There could be an opening.
I kicked, paddling myself forward, and I wasn’t moving towards the surface Just the opposite.
My lungs were feeling the strain. I didn’t care. He’d come up, and we’d-
Crimson blossomed across my vision, obscuring my view. Blood. Mine.
One leg came free of the socket.
Piece by piece, I started to come apart.
The decoy. If I keep it together until he comes, let them split apart naturally, maybe he’ll be fooled.
I started to try and move towards the surface, aware of my circumstance. My strength wasn’t there. My muscles had been cannibalized for parts to build this temporary body, and the reversion process wasn’t supplying them with everything they required.
My flight pack failed. I couldn’t raise myself to the surface.
Let me prove we can fight back. Don’t let people like Weld give up at this point.
My consciousness began to dim, faster than it had before. I didn’t have the benefit of adrenaline. I had desperation, but it wasn’t quite the same.
My vision gradually fogged. I felt my body going numb. My arm, my face.
Water began to fill my mouth. I didn’t have the strength to keep my lips pressed together.
Let him rise to the surface. Let this trick work again and again. Let it be the Achilles heel.
A false hope, a faltering one. I knew it wouldn’t work again.
I coughed, and it was a weak cough, barely a hiccup. Enough for water to make its way into my throat.
But I focused on the swarm, on the krill. Kept them in formation.
Alexandria died like this. Drowned.
A shadow passed over my vision.
I forced my eyes to focus.
Glaistig Uaine, smiling slightly.
She’d been the one above the water.
And here she was. Not helping. Waiting.
At least I’ll still be able to contribute, I thought.
The water moved, and I saw a look of disappointment on her face.
A glance to my right showed a portal. A door. The water was flowing into it in vast quantities, and I was being pulled along.
He’s gone. He’s nowhere close, I thought.
We won’t recover from this, I thought. Won’t pull together with this kind of strength again.
I blacked out.
The last portal closed. The Birdcage had been emptied of everyone that could reasonably be let free, and probably a handful that shouldn’t.
We’d deal with that later.
“No faces present that shouldn’t be?” Chevalier asked. Ingenue was standing beside him.
“Every person on the list has a corresponding face in the crowd,” Defiant said, “Going by the facial recognition program.”
Chevalier nodded. “With respect, I’d like to ask everyone who isn’t participating in the upcoming confrontation to please leave. The others, your enemies, your teammates, friends or family, they need to focus on stopping Scion.”
Crowds had body language and attitudes much as individuals did. Though they were mingled with the capes in the area, the people who’d arrived to see the people leaving the Birdcage were easy to pick out. They shifted position, as if Chevalier’s request had a physical force to it, a wind pushing at them. Then they planted their heels. Hesitation, out of love or out of hatred.
But the portals opened, leading to different worlds.
“Bet, New York!” someone announced, as a portal opened. “Bet, Red Fist HQ! Gimel, New Brockton settlement!”
More portals opened as locations were announced.
The bystanders began filing away as their destinations were called out. I was surprised to see New Wave among them. Brandish said something to Panacea, squeezed her hand, and then turned to leave.
Had they retired? Given up on fighting? Or was this simply a fight on a scale they weren’t prepared or able to participate in?
“I’m going to go,” Rachel said.
“Yep,” Imp said. “No use for us here.”
I looked at them.
“Okay,” I said.
“Me as well,” Grue said. “Cozen-”
“No,” I said.
He stopped, tilting his head at a funny angle, as if he could get a better understanding of me by viewing me from a skewed perspective.
“You’re not useless. I get if you don’t have the courage, but your power, there’s potential. Even if it doesn’t work, that tells us a lot.”
He folded his arms. “If you say so.”
“Okay,” he said.
He stepped back as Rachel and Imp made their way to Gimel.
Parian and Foil hugged, and then Parian passed through, leaving Foil behind.
Sophia turned to go as well, very casually avoiding eye contact with me. She didn’t want me to raise an issue, so she was slinking away.
I drew bugs from the other side of the portal together, then whispered a message to her. “I’ll talk to you later.”
She turned, but the people behind her were pushing forward. She couldn’t exactly turn back to retort.
The portals closed.
“Forty-five minutes,” Chevalier announced. “We’ve got Defiant and Tattletale at systems, managing Dragon’s A.I. and running the data. They are your resource, the people you go to if you need something, be it information or materials.”
I glanced at the Azazel. Tattletale was sitting on the ramp, while Defiant stood at the end, near Chevalier. Tattletale would process the data, picking up the essential details, while Defiant would handle the lion’s share of the code.
“They should be able to accommodate all requests, so don’t be shy. Keep them updated on everything, the plans, the weapons, the possible applications of your powers. They’ll categorize and prioritize your plans and we’ll relay that information to people with the ability to put that into a plan.”
To Cauldron, I thought.
“Forty five minutes isn’t a very long time,” Lab Rat commented. His voice was a rasp.
“No. But Defiant has been mapping Scion’s route with his analysis engines, and Scion is somewhat predictable. He’s spent the last few hours veering between extremes, choosing different kinds of targets. He strikes a major population center, then scales down to strike a select target. Individuals, a subcategory of the population like adults or capes, or properties. Right now he’s in one of those lulls. We expect that, in forty-five minutes, he’ll move on to a bigger target again. With luck, this attack will serve to distract him and buy us time to finish evacuating.”
“He’s tough,” Defiant said. “You know that. He took on Behemoth with minimal effort. This is an attempt to see if we can find his limit, any weak spot, weapons that work. If we can, we expand, extrapolate. Keep that in mind and prepare accordingly.”
“Alright! Let’s move!” Chevalier announced. “First up, a door to the New York sub-office!”
The portal began to open. Chevalier continued, “If you don’t have access to costumes or weapons, we’ll outfit you here. Defiant and Tattletale will direct you to other locations for other goods.”
I watched as a bulk of the forces began to head through the gate to the New York location. Chevalier and Revel stood by the portal, watching the various capes as they made their way through.
I, too, hung back, watching. I could get a fresh costume and a spare flight pack easily enough. I wanted to know what the others were doing. The people who were hanging back.
Slouching, hands clasped behind her back, String Theory made her way over to Chevalier and Defiant. The petite, odd-looking woman glanced around, not speaking up, but waiting until Chevalier deigned to look at her. Lab Rat, behind her, looked more impatient. He wasn’t good at hiding his feelings.
“I’ll need a lab,” String Theory said. “Tools. My tools, if you can get them.”
“You can prep something in time?” Chevalier asked. He sounded surprised. “We expected the tinkers to take part in the next attempt.”
“I’m not an ordinary tinker,” String Theory said. She tapped her head. “I’ve had four years to think, plan what I’d build if I got out. All up here.”
“Me too, seven years of thinking,” Lab Rat said. “Need a lab. Not sharing one with her.”
“I wouldn’t let you, darling,” String Theory said, condescending. I could see Lab Rat’s lip curl, but I wasn’t sure if it was in irritation or amusement.
“You’ll both have what you need,” Chevalier cut in, before anything could start between the pair.
“Tell me what you need and when,” String Theory said. “You want me to hit him? Tell me how hard.”
Chevalier glanced at Revel and Defiant.
“When you were arrested,” Defiant said, “The-”
“The F-Driver,” String Theory interrupted.
“Yes. Start from there, scale up.”
“Oh,” String Theory said. “Interesting.”
“With a minimum of collateral damage,” Defiant added.
“Less interesting. Next question: when? My work is one-shot, and my best work is on a timer.”
“We attack in… thirty-nine minutes. Time things for forty seven minutes from now. Most of the combatants will be cleared from the field by then, and the rest can move to safety before you put your work to use.”
String Theory nodded slowly, “You’ll hold out for eight minutes after the initial offense?”
Defiant paused. “Make it forty-three minutes from now.”
“Done. I’ll need a fusion reactor. Or a suitably large source of plasma. Something I can draw power from.”
“We don’t have-” Defiant started. Then he reconsidered. “We may be able to find something from tinker materials the PRT has confiscated. Go inside the ship, talk to Tattletale.”
Without another word, String Theory turned to advance up the ramp, disappearing inside.
Defiant looked at Lab Rat. “Your old workshop is still there, sealed off.”
“No. I’d be spending more time cleaning up than working, and the samples would be dead, if you haven’t tampered with them. Something else. A room in a hospital would work. I can stay out of the way.”
“We’re not giving you access to humans,” Defiant answered, his voice hard.
Lab Rat frowned. “Animal shelter? With the animals still present?”
“Fine,” Defiant said. “Thirty-seven minutes. If you’re going to contribute, you should get started. Door, please. To an abandoned animal shelter on Bet.”
The door opened.
“Mm,” Lab Rat grunted. “I’ll figure something out.”
Then he was gone.
“And me?” Bonesaw asked. “I can help.”
“You will help,” Defiant said. “After. When you work, it’s going to be with supervision. Panacea can check your work and vice-versa.”
Bonesaw sighed. “My lab. The alternate dimension, the cloning vats-”
“Destroyed,” Defiant said.
He didn’t respond.
I shivered and looked out at those who remained. Panacea hadn’t gone with the other members of New Wave. Instead, she sat on the cliffside with Marquis.
I felt a stab of something ugly, seeing that. I couldn’t justify or explain it, let alone give it a name. It felt fundamentally unfair, and I couldn’t rationalize it. Life wasn’t fair. Good guys sometimes got the breaks and sometimes they didn’t. Bad guys sometimes got the breaks and sometimes they didn’t. Panacea had taken more bad hits than most, and yet I wasn’t able to convince myself she deserved to have that.
Not because she didn’t deserve the chance to sit and stare at the view on this cold mountainside with her father beside her, but because an irrational part of me wanted to have it instead.
Someone to sit beside, to talk with, to discuss things, to be able to talk about stuff without avoiding everything cape related… someone to lean on, who’d been through some of this stuff.
I turned away.
Acidbath had stayed, rather than leave to go get a costume, and was splayed out on the rock of the cliff face, his shirt off and laid out beneath him. Soaking up the rays, insofar as they was any sun to be had.
Just a short distance away, Glaistig Uaine was using her power. A shadowy figure, translucent, was kneeling before her, hands raised in a supplicating gesture. The figure had created a flame in the two joined palms of its hand, and Glaistig Uaine was using the flame to warm her hands.
I hesitated a moment, and then approached her.
“Faerie Queen,” I responded. “Mind if I share your fire?”
“Not at all.”
I glanced down at the spirit. It wasn’t smoky or blurry, and was fairly substantial, all things considered, but the features of the costume that the figure had once worn had been smoothed over, to the point that the line between costume and flesh was impossible to discern. An overly pointed nose, sweeping up into flames at the sides and top of the head, eyes without irises or pupils, pointed fingertips with more flames at the edges of the wrists. The gender indeterminate.
Odd, that it had picked up on something so integral as costume, but not identity.
How had Golem put it? Someone who’d had a life, a mother, a father, family. He’d had dreams, had undergone a trigger event or paid a small fortune for powers in a jar. He’d had a story.
Relegated to being a servile handwarmer.
Was there any of the original personality in there? The memories of the person that was? If there were, then it implied something ugly. Glaistig Uaine collected passengers, tapped them for power, and if this thing had memories, then what did that suggest about the passengers?
I didn’t want to be cold and uncaring anymore, I didn’t want to be calculating and efficient. It made sense to ignore this individual, the spirit, to maintain peace with the Faerie Queen, but I didn’t like what it forced me to do.
So, instead, I turned to the spirit. “Hello.”
It opened its mouth to speak, but the words were faint, incoherent, as though it were emulating language rather than actually uttering it.
“Did you have a name?”
“Phoenixfeather,” Glaistig Uaine said.
Bit of a mouthful.
I warmed my hands at the fire. “Thank you, Phoenixfeather.”
He only lowered his head, shutting those featureless eyes that could have been lenses.
I felt a bit of a chill at that.
What if I fell in battle? Would she claim me? Would I become like that? What form would that body take? Skitter, Weaver, or a blending of the two?
“You’re not armed for battle,” the Faerie Queen observed, as if reading my mind.
“Yes. I wait as well. The head that wears the crown bears a heavy burden.”
“You view us both as queens, Faerie Queen?”
“I do. But let us drop the titles when we talk.”
“Okay… Glaistig Uaine. Anyone else?”
“There are others who stand shoulder to shoulder with us, but queen is the wrong word, Administrator. The champion, the high priest, the observer, the shaper, the demesnes-keeper. Why do you ask?”
“Just trying to make sense of it, trying to figure out where you stand.”
“Ah. Do explain.”
“You want to see the faerie rise again, apparently, and Scion’s a big part of that whole equation.”
“Yes. I’m seeing what you’re getting at, Administrator. A conflict of interest?”
“We all have our parts to play.”
“Yes. Like actors taking a role in a play. We wear our human faces and harbor our dramas and fantasies, but it’s the same individuals playing the parts, as the play starts anew on a different stage, with different faces and forms. If it all goes well, a figure from the crowd joins the stage for the plays that follow, and the roles are refined.”
“And us… Queens and Kings. Do we have a bigger part? Leading roles?”
“Everyone’s the lead in their own story, Administrator. Some roles are bigger, some smaller, but none are more important, understand?”
“Yes,” I answered her. “What’s your role in this, then?”
“We’re back to the topic of my… conflict of interest. I have a special role in this. I keep the company of the faerie who have left our metaphorical stage.”
“The dead,” I said. “You keep the company of the dead.”
“Yes. The other nobles, their tasks are more immediate, shorter in term. What makes us truly noble is our role before and after this act. The others sleep, and we toil. We’re practiced, stronger, for that constant effort. The champion and observer ensure the next act goes on without a hitch. The shaper and demesnes-keeper clean up after we are all done here, one way or another. So it goes.”
“And the priest?”
“The high priest,” Glaistig Uaine admonished me. “You and I may be doing without the titles, but we mustn’t offend the others.”
“Right,” I said.
“As for his role, well, you should know.”
“I should know?”
I could only think of one powerful individual who was on a par with the others she’d named. Contessa and Glaistig Uaine were easily twelves or higher on the power-ratings scale, and I could look to others with powers in that neighborhood to figure out who she was referring to. Panacea, Labyrinth…
Which raised two questions.
Why the hell was I on that list, for one thing?
And was Eidolon the high priest? He was the only one I could think of to fit the role.
“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.
“He doesn’t follow either,” Glaistig Uaine replied. “Which complicates things. We have two courts, but the other court arrived to the stage bedraggled, maddened, and they don’t have any instructions or forewarning, you understand?”
“I believe so,” I said.
Trying to, anyways.
“The high priest is in similar straits to these unfortunates. He stands straight and bluffs through his lines, but he’s wearing the wrong costume and he’s arrived at the wrong time, just like the others.”
“And… what does he think of this?”
Glaistig Uaine shrugged. “I couldn’t tell you. But what would you think of it, in his shoes? He’s set this in motion, and there’s no finale, there’s no promise of another play after this one is done. The nobles of our court’s mighty faerie may have no role to play.”
“But you’re not concerned?”
She smiled a little, but didn’t respond.
“If it comes down to it, if we somehow get one over on Scion and if it looks like we might win, are you going to back him up? Because you want to see the next play?”
She used long fingernails to tuck hair behind her ear, turning pale eyes towards the horizon. The sky was still red, but it was more to do with the dust-heavy atmosphere than the sunrise. “I do wish to see it. I’d like to see the spirits of the dead dance through the landscape, even more than they are right now. Yet I’m still carrying out my role, and that’s the evidence I’ll give to my loyalty in the here and now.”
I wasn’t quite putting two and two together, and I suspected that might have been because she didn’t want me to. She was still carrying out her role, which was to collect and comfort the dead. Because… she hoped this all to go according to Scion’s plan?
I looked down at the fire that her shadowy specter was creating, then to the specter. To Phoenixfeather.
I’d watch Glaistig Uaine for trouble. I thought of the other major players who I already was keeping mental tabs on.
“What is Scion to you? He’s the director of this… play?”
“The audience, as well. The metaphor falls apart at this. He’s our father, our child, our creator and now our destroyer.”
I could grasp that much. Was there another I could ask about, that I wasn’t so sure about?
“Doctor Mother,” I said, without even really thinking about it. “Can I ask what role she plays on this stage?”
“Ah, now you’re asking me to answer questions that could make enemies.” Glaistig Uaine glanced up at me, and there was an implicit threat in the glance.
“I wouldn’t ask you to answer questions if it was inconvenient, Glaistig Uaine. I’m sorry.” Be polite, keep in her good books.
“I should hope you wouldn’t,” she said, and there was an admonishment in her tone. Then, her tone lighter, she replied. “No matter. She’s not one of ours. A prop, nothing more.”
“No powers, then.”
“Like I said, a prop.”
“She doesn’t seem that unimportant,” I said. “She has a lot of power.”
“A prop can be important. The grail was a subject for innumerable quests and tales. A message can decide the outcome of a war. A living prop…” she trailed off.
“Forgive me, Faerie Queen,” I said. I saw her start to object, then hurried to continue, “I’m using your title because I’m about to be rude, and I do want to show you the respect you’re due. It’s been a hard day. I’m not quite so distanced from this as you are, not so willing to be the actor rather than the act, if that makes any sense.”
“Perfect sense,” she responded.
“That means I’m not connecting the dots as well as I should. Instead of wasting your time, I’ll be blunt and say that I’m not following. That’s the rudeness I was mentioning. Can you elaborate? A living prop…”
“I can’t elaborate. They watch and listen for mention of doors, so they can take us from one stage to the next, and they’re listening to every word we utter. If I continued, it would upset everyone in question.”
“I see.” So there’s something more. Something the Doctor is keeping up her sleeve.
I wasn’t surprised.
“I should prepare for battle soon,” Glaistig Uaine said. “Unless there’s something else you’d like to discuss, Administrator?”
“There is. I’m sorry. My role. What’s my role in things?”
“In this act or in the greater plan?”
She reached up, placing a hand on the side of my face. It was warm from the fire. Her thumb brushed along my cheekbone, the long nail coming dangerously close to my eye.
She could kill me right here. Pull my passenger away from me and claim it.
“I already told you,” she said. “I don’t like to repeat myself. Now come, bend down.”
I bent down.
She gave me a kiss on one cheek, then the other, then stepped back. “I look forward to collecting you, Administrator, or to meeting you at the end, if you outlive me. We can have long discussions.”
“They can talk?” I asked, looking down at Phoenixfeather.
“No. But we can discuss. You’ll understand, sooner or later.”
I nodded slowly.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Administrator,” she said. “Things become a great deal easier once you realize how temporary it all is.”
She stepped away, raising one hand. Like an explosion occurring in reverse, Phoenixfeather condensed into a point in her hand as she closed it into a fist.
She opened her hands, and two figures flanked her. Again, the blending of costume and flesh. The blurring of identity. Both were women, but one had perhaps been mutilated in death, or she had been a case fifty-three. She was four-legged, her two arms different lengths.
They worked together to fashion Glaistig Uaine’s costume, discorporating the modified prison uniform she’d fashioned into a shroud and reforming it into a proper cloak and robe, with a texture that scintillated green and black, as though it were made up of thousands of scales the size of grains of sand.
I took that as my cue to leave.
“Door. Chicago Protectorate Headquarters.”
The portal opened.
I stepped through onto the roof of the headquarters.
There was a strong wind, and the heavy clouds of moisture and dust were soaring across the sky. I looked down, and saw an empty city. No people in the streets, no moving cars. During the morning runs, even, or the dead of night, Chicago had been full of life.
I could sense some life, though. I reached out to the bugs that populated the empty city and drew them to me.
I knew why they had placed me on the roof. Moving the bugs through the building, I could feel the cracks in the structure, the broken concrete, the fallen boards of plaster from the ceiling of the office level. Something had shaken the building and it was at risk of collapse.
The opening on the roof for flying heroes was ajar. I sent my bugs inside, all too aware of echo to the event that had led to the ironic case of my joining the Wards.
They collected fabric, collected materials and fit themselves into the channels of my spare flight pack. Then they made their way up to me, everything on hand.
The swarm circled around me, and they deposited every item, straightening the things out, spacing it evenly around me, a kaleidoscopic pattern.. Spare costumes, costume concepts, weapons, gear.
I’d wondered what form my body would take if Glaistig Uaine were to seize me. The core costume was the same, but the details, the features… clawed fingertips of Skitter or the extra armor of Weaver’s, with a spare coil of silk hidden beneath an armor panel at the back of the hand?
Black? White? Gray? Red? I had silk bodysuits in every color, from when I’d tested dyes and worn the bodysuits to see how the color held up when the suit was stretched over my body.
What color lenses?
Scion was a different sort of opponent. Behemoth could be misled by swarm-decoys, one could hide from him. His attacks were lethal, but most wouldn’t tear through cover as though it wasn’t there.
There was no camouflage against Scion. No cover. A gun could conceivably draw Behemoth’s attention for a crucial moment, with a well-aimed shot. Not so with Scion.
I’d been in a black costume as Skitter, a gray costume as Weaver. A part of me wanted to go purer, to go white and continue that progression.
But I picked up the black bodysuit.
This wasn’t preparing myself for the fight. We wouldn’t be trading blows, and I doubted my costume would be any better or worse than a suit of plate mail or going into the fight naked.
No, I was preparing myself on a mental level. I gravitated towards the black because it had seen me through the toughest and most personal crises.
It was home, for lack of a better word. I didn’t have Brockton Bay anymore, didn’t have my dad’s. The black costume was the closest link I had to the last time and place I’d been at home.
White armor panels, to balance it out.
A handgun. Again, more for the sake of my headspace than for anything else, and because I wasn’t sure I could trust everyone present to be on the same side. Two ammo clips. It reminded me of Coil. My first true kill.
A taser, for the same reason, and to balance things out once again. I didn’t dislike the added weight of the weapon on my belt.
I donned the flight pack and fixed my hair where it had been mussed up by the straps.
Then, as a final token gesture, I picked up a small canister of pepper spray. Symbolic.
“Door,” I said. “To the battlefield.”
The portal brought us to a small drilling platform, in the midst of the ocean. No music, no chatter, only the sound of the ocean crashing around us, from horizon to horizon in every direction. The water was dark, murky, a reflection of the sky above.
Everyone was wearing spider silk. I recognized the individual components. Spare costumes, and costumes I’d created and sent out to Protectorate and Wards teams.
A meager contribution, considering our opponent’s firepower.
Eighty in all, and we hadn’t brought anyone like Rachel or Imp, the people who couldn’t contribute to a fight where the opponent could fly like Scion flew, hit like Scion hit. A dog would never get its jaws on him, and he’d penetrate Imp’s defense in an instant, either by seeing through it or by the sheer amount of collateral damage he did.
Lab Rat walked among us, a backpack dangling from one hand. He handed us devices. An armband, for communication, earbuds for those of us who didn’t have them, and little plastic cases the size of matchboxes, complete with straps.
He was already wearing the full outfit, the wristband over the sleeve of his labcoat, the little matchbox similarly positioned, but over his bicep, like a blank white badge.
He held one out to me, then hesitated. He fished in the backpack, then handed me another.
“What’s the box?” I asked.
“My work,” Lab Rat said.
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“You don’t want the answer to your question. Wear it or don’t,” he rasped. “I’m wearing it.”
He continued on, handing out the packages.
When he was out of earshot, Clockblocker commented, “I don’t think that’s a good recommendation. That guy is crazy. At one point he made himself into some kind of photosynthetic lardass, so fat he took up two stories of a house. It’s the only reason they caught him in the end.”
I looked pointedly at Clockblocker’s arm. The little white box blended in with Clockblocker’s white costume. “You’re wearing the thing.”
“It’s a shitty recommendation coming from Lab Rat, but as far as I’m concerned, I’d cut off my left arm if it bought me a better chance. I like knowing there’s maybe a chance this would help. An explanation would suck. Give me a little hope.”
“Maybe that’s all this is,” Vista said. “Hope.”
I shut my eyes, focusing on the capes who were present, marking them with bugs.
Here and there, portals opened, and capes stepped onto the platform. String Theory, carrying only a laptop. Galvanate.
Galvanate reached out and touched a select few capes. Layering invincibility over invincibility for Alexandria, for Gavel, Gentle Giant, and a Birdcage cape I didn’t recognize.
“Could do with some of that,” Grue said.
“Borrow his power?” I suggested.
“Doesn’t work. We did a few test runs before you showed. Some options. We’ll see.”
Bonesaw and Panacea were both absent, I noted. Somehow ominous.
Another portal opened. Glaistig Uaine, twice as tall as she had been, moving as though she were walking, but with no legs beneath swirling tatters of green-black cloth. Three spirits flanked her, walking on the platform. Not individuals I recognized.
The wind turned, and I raised my head to let it blow through my hair. I’d always liked the sensation.
“Why put us out in the middle of the ocean?” Vista asked. “It’s crazy.”
“Symbolic,” a voice said, from high above us. I looked up to see Legend looking down. “Our planet’s mostly water. We’re mostly water. It’s something you don’t really get, being stuck down there on land.”
“Rub it in,” Clockblocker said.
“Sorry,” Legend said.
He was a changed man, looking ten years older than he once had. How much of that was emotional? The toll of dealing with Endbringers, with being a pariah? He was respected by the common people, but anyone who knew anything about capes had picked up on Legend’s lack of status in the community.
“I never liked locations like this,” I commented. “Rooftops. Can’t get down safely.”
“It’s isolated, to minimize chances he can track us somehow,” Chevalier said. “And we have a good escape route. Not to mention it’s the furthest point from Scion.”
When he spoke again, he raised his voice to be sure that everyone on the platform was able to hear. “It’s time! This is our staging ground. We’re not going to get close. We can’t, because of the danger it poses, and because the Cauldron capes can’t create portals within a certain range of Scion.”
“Can’t or won’t?” someone asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Chevalier responded. “This is a test run. Trying one trick, it won’t work. We’ll get obliterated. So we hit him with things in a series, from multiple directions, and we see what sticks.”
“I’ll be with you every step of the way,” Tattletale’s voice sounded over the earbud. “Defiant’s here too.”
Defiant spoke over the comms. “Take our cues, don’t hesitate.”
Chevalier said something, but I didn’t hear it, because Tattletale said something else. By the reaction of the others, it was something for me and me alone. “And because we’re limited in what we can do, I asked to have you in the field, as my liason.”
“Right,” I muttered. I put on Lab Rat’s matchbox and then the armband. A display flashed, and then a request for ID.
“Taylor,” I said.
My name appeared. I confirmed.
The display showed what appeared to be a distorted clock, with a square in the center. The clock had fourteen numbers and only one hand.
“Fourteen points of attack. We’re alternating strong and weak, clockwise around the dial.”
One number for each attack.
“One sec. Switching String around to keep us on schedule. Chevalier likes his speeches an awful lot for someone who doesn’t like speeches.”
“-Doors!” Chevalier finished.
As if corresponding to the fourteen clock faces, the portals opened up in a circle around the platform.
“Ingenue!” he called out.
Chevalier and Ingenue passed through the door just to the right of the northernmost portal.
He’d taken the lead, the first attack. He knew there would be too much risk of someone backing off if he put someone else in that crucial first slot.
“Four miles north of Scion. Hitting him unawares.”
The portal door was left open, and my bugs gave me a sense of what he was doing.
Ingenue’s power was to muck with other people’s powers. More power, at a loss of control, more control, at a loss of range. Her choice.
If I had to guess, it mucked with people’s heads. Maybe something to do with their passengers. Her partners tended to go loopy at some point. Homicidal loopy.
Chevalier’s cannonblade grew to three times the size in heartbeats. Not the gradual growth of before. It was a wild, reckless growth. Unfettered by restrictions he’d been held by before.
Ten, twenty times the size. I’d seen it be as long as Leviathan was tall, and this dwarfed that by a factor of two.
The weapon was too heavy for him to lift. He let it fall, the serrated blade biting into the earth on the other side of the portal.
He fired, and the combination of the detonation and the recoil wiped out my bugs.
“Second Group!” I called out, an instant before Defiant barked out, “Two!” over the comms.
Clockblocker, a Chuckles clone, Gentle Giant and a group of others.
A spread of powers, with mobility and one of the few people who could maybe stand up to Scion’s blasts, enhanced by Galvanate’s attacks.
They’d be getting dangerously close, using Chuckles’ mobility.
I waited. Waited… twenty seconds passed.
The world on the other side of the portals rumbled. Even with portals miles apart, the rumble was felt in roughly equal measure across each of them.
“Third group,” Tattletale said. “Big guns. Watch for collateral damage. The others may still be there.”
Pretender, Eidolon and Legend took off, and were soon followed by Glaistig Uaine.
“He’s running,” Eidolon reported.
“Tattletale,” I said. “Do me a favor?”
“Anything for you, sweetie.”
She was being even more offhanded than usual. Nervous?
“Pass on a message to Legend and Eidolon. Pretender too, might as well. They should watch their backs around the Faerie Queen. I talked to her, and she never quite denied she’d help Scion if it came down to it.”
I concentrated my focus on the world beyond the portals. I could feel the bugs on the landscape, the high hills with sharp cliffs, the tall grass that could drown a man, eerily bright beneath a dark sky, with the way the light filtered down.
I closed my eyes, and focused on the senses of my bugs. I couldn’t see detail, but I could make out bright and dark colors. Scion was bright, and so were his lasers.
An enemy that hit too hard to defend against, too tough to hurt. Eidolon teleported rather than try to stand up to his lasers, Alexandria took a glancing blow and plunged to the ground. Legend peppered Scion, paused, then hit him with a bigger laser.
When that failed, Legend doubled down again.
The others had already gathered at the respective portals. This group was Grue, with a select few others. Shuffle was among them.
Grue looked over his shoulder at me, then saluted.
I felt a lump in my throat. I wanted to be Taylor, here, but there was a limit to how far I could go with that.
I saluted him back.
As much as I could see the distorted contrasting shapes, I could make out the block of Grue’s darkness that Shuffle had teleported into the air above Scion. It sank down, subsuming the golden man.
Grue fired off a laser, spearing into the midst of the cloud of darkness.
No, not Scion’s laser. Legend’s.
If he could use Scion’s laser, I imagined he would have. Legend’s lasers weren’t doing anything substantial, if they were doing anything at all. Scion didn’t falter, and he didn’t act like he was blind. Alexandria had gotten back up and was fighting at close range.
Scion lashed out with another laser, and some portals winked out before the laser could intersect them and pour golden death onto the platform.
“Grue, return,” I said. “Different tack.”
Chevalier was just returning, carrying a burned Ingenue. He’d left his Cannonblade behind. Destroyed?
“Fifth group in,” Tattletale said. “Everyone else, clear out!”
Fifth group. One individual. String Theory.
“Open one of those portals,” she said. “My lab. Right in front of the G-driver. Point the other end at the target.”
“Clear out,” Tattletale repeated herself.
Capes at the periphery of the fight were returning. The Chuckles returned, carrying two wounded capes. Not even a third of the size of Clockblocker’s original group. Vista hurried to Clockblocker’s side.
“He wasn’t even aiming in our general direction, and he took out most of us,” Clockblocker murmured. “Fuck!”
Grue’s group returned. Shuffle glanced at me and shook his head.
One more power eliminated as a possibility, I thought.
I had to do something here. “Clock, you leave anyone behind?”
Grue shook his head.
“Nobody left on the other side,” I reported. “String?”
“Idiot!” String Theory snarled, “That’s not the opening! Put a portal on the other side of the machine!”
There was a pause.
“Better. Twenty two seconds. Use it to give me coordinates.”
“Patching you into the Number Man,” Tattletale said.
There was a pause.
The portals all closed, like shutters sliding down, with an ever-narrowing rectangle of light at the base.
We’d left Scion on the other side with nobody to tie him up. Dangerous. We couldn’t predict what he’d do.
We hadn’t, as far as I knew, done any harm to him. Nothing suggested he had been affected in the least by their powers. Clockblocker’s time freeze, Grue’s darkness, useless.
“Give me a view,” String Theory said.
“Too dangerous,” Chevalier grunted. He sat down on the floor of the platform.
“A view! Now! Or I’ll make it miss!”
A window opened at the platform’s edge.
A view of the scene, a landscape torn to shreds by Scion’s attacks, grassy fields with steep hills, a fence in the distance, trees on the highest peak. The grass continued to glow, but some of that was from fires that the fighting had started.
Scion’s golden light was distant. He turned, then began advancing towards the portal.
It was more like the zap from a bug zapper than a shot from a gun. There was a distortion, like one saw with a shimmer of heat in the air, and Scion was punched out of the sky, leaving behind a golden streak of light. The path suggested he’d disappeared straight out of the atmosphere.
“Sources corroborating the visual,” Tattletale said. “Direct hit. It worked.”
String Theory pumped her fists in the air.
“What was that?” Vista asked.
“G-driver,” String Theory said. She lowered her fists, then fixed her lab coat and glasses. She turned around and gave us a smug, superior smile.
“Which is?” someone else asked.
“Upgrade of the F-driver.”
“The Firmament Driver,” Defiant explained, over the earbuds. “At the time of her arrest, String Theory was threatening to use her Firmament Driver to knock our moon out of orbit.”
“And we didn’t hear about this because-”
“Morale,” Defiant replied, as if that was explanation enough.
“Would have done a lot for my morale to know we could do that,” Clockblocker said.
“In case anyone was wondering, it’s G-driver for God-driver,” String Theory said. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Clockblocker muttered.
“He’s coming back.” Tattletale reported.
But we could hit him.
“Sixth group, ready,” Defiant ordered.
The sixth group. Thanda, plus Birdcage capes I didn’t know, including one that Galvanate had charged up. Heavy hits.
We didn’t get that far.
“He’s gone,” a voice I didn’t recognize sounded over the earbud.
All had gone quiet, still.
“Checking cameras, monitoring, radio reports… Bastard’s hard to keep track of.”
I felt my bugs stir. Not the wind.
I looked up.
Scion. Here. Directly above us, to the point he was barely a speck.
I’d sensed disgust from him once, when he looked at Eidolon. Nothing measurable, not an expression I could quantify, like a movement of the eyes, brow or lips. But I’d sensed it.
Now I sensed bloodlust. Not anger. Nothing so germane.
Only that sensation I’d had when I was in Lung’s clutches and he was squeezing me to death. The sensation I’d had when Bonesaw was straddling me, carving into my head. A feeling I’d experienced when I was face to face with Cherish.
A feeling that, underneath it all, there was some base, primal urge to carve people apart.
But he was waiting, watching.
Toying with us.
“Tattletale,” I whispered. “He’s here.”
“No. Can’t be.”
“We need an escape, now.”
There was only silence.
I felt a kind of grim despair in the pit of my stomach.
“They’re saying no. Cauldron’s saying no.”
“String Theory hurt him, or at least struck him. We need others in case they can do the same. You can’t tell me they’re going to let us gather some of the strongest capes around and then leave them to die when things take a turn for the worse.”
“You don’t understand. We put you on the opposite side of the planet, on a different earth. He wasn’t supposed to be able to access you.”
She didn’t respond.
One of the Birdcage capes somehow picked up on the same vibe I did. Maybe they sensed the latent hostility that filled the air and followed it to its source.
They let out a muffled gasp. Others noticed.
The golden glow above intensified. Ominous. Like a second sun, on the wrong side of an overcast sky.
If I was Skitter, I might have tried to sacrifice myself.
If I was Weaver, I might have made peace with the fact that I needed to die, so Cauldron could preserve their portals, maintain the fight. For the greater good.
I wasn’t either. Not at my core.
“Cauldron,” I muttered. “You’re listening, with that creepy omniscient cape of yours. You’re watching. If you’re wondering what you should do, sitting on the fence between letting Scion see your portals up close and track you down or letting us die, let me cast a fucking vote. You save us.”
“He knows already, he has to, if he found us this easily. Come on.”
“Oh god,” someone said. “Oh god, oh god.”
With my bugs spread out over the area, I couldn’t feel a single telltale breeze of a portal opening around us.
I closed my eyes.
“I’m sorry, Taylor,” Tattletale said. “I wish-”
Her voice shorted out as the energy of Scion’s attack cut out the communications.
Back to the beginning.
“Emma’s dead,” I said.
Sophia nodded. “Her dad told me.”
Not a trace of emotion on her face. Not a flicker of a change in expression. Did she not care, or was she wearing an exceptional mask?
Funny, just how easily those masks came to people. Costumes were nothing in the grand scheme of things. Cloth or kevlar, spider silk or steel. It was the false faces we wore, the layers of defenses, the lies we told ourselves, that formed the real barriers between us and the hostile world around us.
Looking at Sophia, I found myself instinctively reaching for that mask. I was using my bugs to channel my feelings, even with my concerns about my passenger and how it might be merging with me. I was wearing that aura of indomitable calm, even though I wasn’t sure I liked the Taylor of this past year and a half, who had been doing just that as a matter of both habit and necessity.
The two of us, in this shitty little makeshift prison. Tattletale had had this place built ahead of time, with the idea that we might need secure storage or a prison for anyone who made trouble in Earth Gimel. Too little, even with the measures being taken. Those with less than six years in their sentences were being given a limited release and kept in a more isolated location, with family and friends free to join them. The only exceptions to that early release were the parahumans.
Maybe there was a human rights violation or a lawsuit in there, but the people in charge had other concerns.
My phone buzzed. I picked it up and looked at the screen.
Japan hit. V. little left. Most evacuated. 22m est. dead. Total est. toll 500m.
“PRT issue phone,” Sophia commented. “Newer model than the one I had.”
“Yeah,” I answered. I put the phone down on the little ledge beneath the bulletproof glass.
“Big bad Weaver. That’s what you go by now, isn’t it?”
“I prefer Taylor.”
“Taylor. Made it pretty big, as capes go.”
I shrugged. “Wasn’t really a priority, in the grand scheme of things. I only wanted the power so I could do what needed doing.”
“Never appealed to me, power in the greater sense,” she said. “Personal power? I always paid more attention to power on a one-on-one level.”
I let myself relax a little. We had something to discuss. It wasn’t going to be a fight, a series of attacks.
“I guess,” Sophia said, “You took my lessons to heart. Used what you learned from our little… what’s the word? Lessons? Made something of yourself after all.”
She’s taking credit? I was a little stunned, the mental gymnastics she must have managed to do that… what?
A small smile touched her lips. Smug, superior. I’d seen it enough times in my interactions with her.
“Mark on your cheek is gone, where I gouged you.”
“I think it disappeared at some point when I got healing or regeneration. Grue or Panacea or Scapegoat. Don’t know.”
“Mm,” she said. Her eyes were studying me, and the look wasn’t kind. “Your family make it out okay?”
Just the question was like a slap to the face.
“No,” I said. “I don’t know. Haven’t bothered double checking or asking.”
“Me either,” she said. “Not that I’m really in a position to go look for answers. But they weren’t visiting much anyways. Token visits, you know?”
“I don’t, really,” I said. “My dad was pretty cool after I joined the Wards. We didn’t see each other as much as I maybe wanted to, but it didn’t feel like token visits.”
“Difference between you and me,” she said. She glanced over her shoulder at the guard behind her, then planted a foot against the little ledge beneath the bulletproof glass. Her hands, handcuffed, settled in her lap. “Your daddy cared. You know, that meeting where you tried to get us that in-school suspension? I was more pissed at the fact that your dad was there than the suspension.”
“Then the woman was-”
“A PRT twit.”
I nodded, but I was distracted from my response by another vibration of my phone. I picked it up to look at it.
Mordovia bubble hit. Sleeper has been roused, last tracked en route to Zayin portal. Casualties unknown.
“World’s really ending?” Sophia asked.
“Yeah,” I said, putting the phone back down. “Scale, damage, repercussions, all worse than any Endbringer attack. They’re predicting that maybe five hundred million are dead already.”
The mention of half a billion people being dead didn’t affect her more than the mention of Emma’s passing. Not visibly.
“Too bad,” she said.
“There’s no going back,” I said. “We’re preparing for a counterattack right now. We’ll see what works, what doesn’t.”
“He beat Behemoth,” Sophia said.
“I know. I was there,” I said.
She looked annoyed at that. Her eyebrows drew closer together, and she shifted position, putting both feet up on the little ledge, one ankle crossed over the other. It was only after she was settled that she responded, “He beat Behemoth, and nobody could manage that. He’s stronger.”
“We’ll try anyways,” I said. “I don’t think any of us are prepared to roll over and die just yet.”
“Dumb,” Sophia said. “Throwing your lives away for nothing.”
“The alternative isn’t any better,” I said.
“What? Not fighting? Finding a good spot in another dimension to hide out? It’s a thousand times better, Hebert. We’re like cockroaches in the face of this asshole. You know what happens if we line up and march off to die single file? The strongest of us die, there’s nothing left to protect the others and humanity gets wiped out. No. Fuck that. Cockroaches survive because no matter how hard you try, they’re numerous enough, tough enough, and spread out enough that a few of them always survive. They survive the predators, the poison, the fire, the radiation, and a few generations later they’re back in full strength.”
“Yet you fought Leviathan.”
“I fought Behemoth too, few months before. Kind of. Mostly did search and rescue. Difference between that and this is that we’re more like rats when going up against a fucking Endbringer. We’re vermin in comparison to them, but we’re vermin that can take bites out of them. Get enough rats together and they’ll take down a human, no matter how well equipped that human is.”
“But cockroaches can’t?” I asked, with a note of irony.
She gave me a look that people typically reserved for when they’d been spit on. “Don’t try to be clever, Hebert. It doesn’t suit you.”
I rolled my eyes.
“I’m speaking metaphorically. It’s a… what’s the word? Like a ladder.”
“Hierarchy. Yeah. Scion’s one step above the Endbringers.”
“Couple of steps,” I said.
“A couple of steps. Whatever. So you’ve got to evaluate that shit, understand? Where the fuck do we stand in relation to him? Rock bottom. How do we deal? We scatter. Spread out far enough apart. One guy can’t murder all of us if we can find a way to spread out over a million different earths. Stick to villages and shit. Whatever.”
I was somewhat caught off guard by that. It wasn’t a bad plan. Defeatist, but not bad. Something we’d implicitly settled on in the meeting, though we’d also agreed to keep our mind open for options. I was getting a chance to see how she parsed the world, if maybe she had been influenced by her passenger like I was by mine, and I was seeing a philosophy that she seemed to value.
It was an insight into Sophia, and it wasn’t one that matched up with my expectations.
I ventured, “And here I thought you were more focused on being superior to others.”
Sophia shook her head, her lip curling up a fraction. “I acted superior because I was superior. Still am superior to most. That comes with perks. Do what you want, get away with shit, get people to look past the stuff you want them to look past. What you’ve been up to, I bet you’ve done that. Leveraged power?”
“Leveraged power,” I said. “Yes, I have.”
“Because you’re better. You’re a little arrogant, maybe? A little less forgiving of mistakes?”
“I was,” I said. “Thing is, when it came down to it, I wasn’t stronger or cleverer because of it. It wasn’t an advantage in the critical moment. Maybe the opposite.”
She dropped her feet to the floor and leaned forward, folding her arms on the ledge, her face not even an inch from the glass. “But it got you that far. Others there, and they couldn’t fix it either. Not a reason to change your mind.”
“It was a pretty important moment,” I told her. “The most important moment. But I wasn’t in the right place, wasn’t in contact with the right people. More than anything, I wasn’t asking the right questions.”
She looked profoundly disappointed. “See, now you’re just being a whiny bitch again. Negative.”
“Retrospective,” I said. “Figuring out what I did wrong, changing.”
“Your biggest problem, Hebert, is that you never realized your place. I almost had respect for you. Hard not to, when you’re pretty much copying me. But you’re still waffling on shit you shouldn’t be waffling on.”
I’d admitted to taking lessons from Bakuda, from Jack. I’d picked up some of Purity’s protectiveness, only I’d turned it towards my territory. I’d learned from Coil, from Accord, and yet Sophia saying this nettled me.
I knew why, and it wasn’t because I felt like she was eerily on target. No, it was because it was an out for her. An excuse, a justification that let her keep her tidy little worldview.
The best revenge was supposed to be living well, but maybe there was a petty fragment of my psyche that wanted to rub it in her face. Not that I was living well. The situation was catastrophic, my dad was dead, and I wasn’t sure where I stood.
I looked down at my gloves. They were dark gray, but they’d been caked in blood, and even a good washing in cold water had failed to get them thoroughly clean.
“Sophia,” I said.
“What?” she asked. She leaned back in her chair.
“They’re opening the Birdcage. Letting some of the scarier criminals out, in the hopes of getting some assistance against Scion. There’s a lot of good firepower in there.”
“Doesn’t make sense to go that far if we don’t extend the same concept to a smaller scale. Not sure what the numbers are, but there’s a hell of a lot of possible recruits there.”
“And you’re here because, what, you’re going to recruit me?”
I ignored her. “Problem with this situation is there’s no good way to keep track of all of this. In the chaos, it’s hard to manage records, and time’s tight enough we’re not going to be able to pull a review panel together. So how do you decide who gets to go free?”
“What a good question,” Sophia said. She met my gaze with a level stare. Not a glare anymore.
“Capes interact most with other capes. Smaller pool of people to find, contact and question, versus trying to hunt down civilians who might know so-and-so. It’s not a perfect method. It’s flawed, even. But we’re asking the victims. Teammates who were inconvenienced, enemies of the capes in question, all of that. Is this cape in prison worth letting free? Knowing what’s at stake, are you willing to put the past behind you and give them a second chance?”
She smirked. “And you’re my victim?”
“Me and the Brockton Bay Wards,” I said. “The Undersiders were asked, too, but they gave their votes to me, with only a few words of suggestion.”
She’s fucking useless, Imp had said. And she shot my brother. Bitch isn’t worth having to worry about being shot in the back with a crossbow.
“Moronic,” she said. “Making it a popularity contest.”
“Doing what we have to,” I responded.
“Moronic,” she said, again. I might have missed it, if it weren’t for the repetition of the same word. Slightly different. A hint of emotion? Disdain? Disappointment?
Maybe she cared more about being freed than she was letting on.
Maybe, on a level, she grasped that she was reaping the consequences of earlier actions.
Well, I’d been there.
“I suppose this is the point where I’m supposed to beg? I give you some satisfaction, you get some…”
“Closure,” I said. “No. I’m not going to make you do that.”
“Because I won’t,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
It’s not in you, based on what you’ve said here. That personal pride, the security she’d apparently found in knowing what her niche was in the world and how she fit into it, it was her mask, the barrier she erected against the world.
“You hurt people,” I said. “And the way you reacted to me, on that night where the Undersiders kidnapped you, trying to slash my throat… you’ve killed.”
“Yes. So have you. You might have a body count higher than mine.”
“I might,” I said.
“You hurt people too.”
“I did,” I agreed.
“A lot more than I did.”
“And you weren’t even subtle about it. Taking over a city, robbing banks, attacking the fundraiser, attacking the headquarters…”
“Extorting the mayor,” I added, “Unlawfully imprisoning people, a lot of other stuff.”
“Yet you’re out there and I’m in here,” she said. Then she smirked. “Funny how that all works out. It all comes down to strength in the end. Power. How useful are you to others? I was useful, strong, even marketable on a niche level, and they pulled strings for me. Pulled your strings, even.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“But I became more trouble than I was worth. They throw me in jail, say it’s because of a probation violation. But why are they really doing it? Because I’m more trouble than I’m worth. I’m not useful, am I, Hebert? Regent got me, I was a liability. Couldn’t be used to fight the bad guys. They sacked Piggy for the same reason.”
“Even if that was true, they could have moved you to another city. They would have,” I said. “But maybe you burned bridges. Maybe the other teams didn’t want you.”
She shook her head a little, her smirk turning up a little.
“I think your view is a little narrow,” I said. “It’s about more than usefulness. There are other factors.”
“Like what? Likability? Substance? Respect? Trust?”
“Along those lines,” I said.
“Bullshit,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. “You think you’re more likable than I am? Fuck that, and I’m not just joking around like we did back at school. You and I? We’re the same. We’re tough where we need to be, we hit hard so our enemies aren’t in any shape to hit back. We’re good at what we do. Difference is you were a little luckier, bet on the right horse.”
“No, Sophia,” I said.
“No? You run, right? It was on TV.”
“I run, yes.”
“And you don’t think you were trying to emulate me? Subconsciously? I was on the track team, and there you are, a bit of a loser, looking for a way to improve yourself, and you start running?”
“Not even remotely close to the mark,” I said, feeling a note of irritation. “Not on that count. The other stuff? Maybe we are similar in respects. Maybe being a cape in this fucked up world means you have to go that route, just a little.”
“Being a person,” she said. “Dealing with reality.”
“Maybe,” I said “But if I was like you, I was better at it than you were, went further, tested the limits more.”
I could see her eyes narrow further.
“And I think it’s a pretty shitty way to exist,” I finished.
“Ouch,” she said. “You wounded me.”
I couldn’t hear anything in her voice, nor could I see anything in her expression… but her shoulders were tenser, her hands had stopped fidgeting and were still.
I stood from my chair, collecting the phone. I glanced at it.
NZ gutted. Timeline for counterattack set for 1.5 hr from now. Testing efficacy of some abilities at range. Legend, Pretender, Eidolon on board to help. Weaver has been requested for assistance and field administration.
“You’re going, then,” Sophia said.
“Yeah. You said you wouldn’t help, you’d rather scurry away like a cockroach.”
“I’m not saying I’d rather. I’m saying it’s what we should all do.”
“Either way. You’re free to convince me.”
“To beg, we’re back to that.”
“To convince me.”
She shook her head a little. “Fuck it. Let the world burn. We’ll all be better off. No pretension, no fakery, none of the tradition and ‘this is the way things are and always will be’. Hit the reset button, whoever’s left will pick things up later.”
“That sounds remarkably similar to how Jack sounded.”
“Fuck you, Hebert.”
“Fine. I’m walking away from this with a clear conscience. Sit there in your cell and worry every minute that Scion’s going to come tearing through here and wipe you off the face of the planet.”
She smirked, but I could see that tension in her neck and shoulders, still. I felt like Rachel, looking at someone and trying to piece together their natural responses, figure them out.
Or was it the opposite? Was I like Rachel in how she looked at a dog, understanding them on a level most people couldn’t?
“You’re afraid,” I said.
“Fuck you, Hebert,” she spat the words.
“You’re afraid and you’re hiding it behind a very good mask.”
“Fuck that. I hate that fakery, that false-faced bullshit.”
“You said we’re alike. You’re right. We’re both very good at putting on a front.”
She snarled the words. “There’s a difference between acting and being. I’m not faking anything.”
“Yet you refuse to do anything to deviate from your path. That’s why you’re so big on sticking to your place. If you never budge, you never have to risk seeing if the mask comes off.”
“Oh fuck the hell off, Hebert. You sanctimonious, know-it-all, orphan bitch!”
She’d picked the ‘orphan’ bit to hurt, to get a rise out of me. Yet I felt okay. Hurt? Yes. I felt something deep and important missing, and I wasn’t quite ready to let myself feel that emotion in its entirety. To hear the words in full or see the body and know my dad was gone.
I needed to do that, and maybe to do it soon, if only to pay respect to my dad.
So yeah. I hurt. I felt the sting of her words. I still felt off kilter. But I was calm.
No act. No mask. Me, and I was okay.
“Thank you, Sophia,” I said. “I feel a hell of a lot better than I did before this meeting. I don’t know if-”
She’d gotten the guard’s attention with her outburst. The woman was approaching.
“-if you were right about us being similar or not. But I don’t want to be the sort of person you could compare yourself to. I’m going to be Taylor again, so thank you, for helping me come to peace with that.”
I can be Taylor without being weak. Keep the best parts of Skitter and Weaver.
I turned to leave.
Her maneuver was a practiced one, no doubt something she’d trained herself with in her cell or in the moments she was cuffed and unobserved. A way to buy herself a fraction of a second to use her power, where her wrists wouldn’t come in contact with the cuffs, as she let them drop from a point further up her arms to her hands. I could sense the motion with my bugs.
Her leg hooked under her chair as she made it as shadowy as she was, and she kicked out, sending the chair flying through the bulletproof glass. It rematerialized as it crashed into mine, and the two chairs in turn hit me.
I stumbled. My shin stung where the little folding chairs had hit me.
Sophia, in turn, was being held down by the guard, the handcuffs pulled taut against her wrists.
“Is this the real you, then?” I asked.
“Oh my god, you pre… pre-”
“Cunt!” Sophia snarled the words between her grunts of struggle. “I’m going to break you!”
“Take a minute or two to calm down,” I said. “Breathe. If you can relax, if you can look me in the eye and promise you won’t hurt me or anyone else, I’m going to give the go-ahead for you to leave.”
There was a pause, shock stopping both the guard and Sophia.
“You’re joking,” the guard said.
Sophia just lay there, her head pressed against the little ledge, panting. Her hair covered her face.
“Offer’s open just a bit longer, Sophia,” I said. “I want to take some time to get ready, and if you’re coming, you’ll need the same.”
She didn’t budge. The guard took her weight off Sophia, and only held the chain of the cuffs, twisting so Sophia’s arms were held taut above her. It must have been uncomfortable with the way her body was forced to one side, her head forced down.
“I’m not asking you to fight Scion. Just doing search and rescue would be fine. It’s not safe, but-”
“Will you shut up?” Sophia’s voice was muffled, not in a position to let her voice pass through the perforated space in the glass. “Fuck, I’ll do it if you stop prattling at me.”
“Look me in the eye and promise you won’t fuck with me.”
The guard let Sophia straighten.
She met my eyes, glaring as if a look alone could express a hundred different kinds of violence. “I promise.”
I shrugged. The guard looked at me, and I nodded.
“Your funeral,” she said. “I’ll go take her to the back and get her ready.”
“No need,” I said. I looked towards the ceiling. Let’s try this. “Two doors, one for me, one for her, to where the others are on Earth Bet.”
The doors opened, rectangular windows. Unlike the portals I’d seen before, these ones were dark, one on each side of the bulletproof glass.
Sophia, still cuffed, shot me an ugly sidelong glance, watching as I made my way through the portal. The door was already closing as I saw her turn and step through the other.
I didn’t want to let her loose without any observation. I’d bring her along for just a short while, then find a place to stick her.
I felt okay with this decision. Comfortable. It wasn’t a mask I was wearing, so strong it might as well have been real. No. It was something simpler.
I’m not scared of her anymore.
There were other, bigger things to be scared of.
The sky was overcast, but it wasn’t wholly clouds. Dust choked everything, thick and heavy. The sun was rising, and it felt like it had been rising for some time. The issues of teleporting across time zones.
Red. The sky was a surprising red color, filtering between clouds that were almost black. It cast the tall mountains in similar shades, with deep shadows and vivid color.
My breath fogged in the air. I’d been dressed for summer. This… it was cold. The landscape around us looked like coals resting in a fire, cast in ash white, charcoal blacks and reds, but it was cold. The cold leeched warmth from my feet, even. We were on a mountainside, a broad, flat ledge that could have held three helicopters. Instead, it held one Azazel suit and a crowd of perhaps sixty.
The cold wasn’t just the altitude. The levels of dust in the atmosphere would be having an effect as well.
My bugs were having a tough time here. I clustered them against my body, more so they could benefit from my warmth than the opposite.
With the bugs so close to me, crawling on my skin, in the cradle of my folded arms, and beneath my clothes, my sense of others was limited. Even so, I could sense Rachel’s approach. I didn’t react as she set her coat over my shoulders, except to glance at her and nod my thanks.
A crowd had gathered. Everyone from the meeting, minus Saint, was present. There were also innumerable others who hadn’t been at the meeting. Some I recognized, many I didn’t. Here and there, portals opened and people stepped through, joining the crowd.
“Long time,” I heard someone say. Boston accent.
I turned around. It was Weld, with his partner, the tendril-girl that wound around his body. He hadn’t been talking to me.
No, his focus was on Sophia.
“Hey chief,” she said.
He gripped the two loops of her cuffs, and absorbed them into his hands. She rolled her shoulders, then rubbed at her wrists.
“Don’t cause trouble,” Weld said. “Too many people on edge here.”
“Yeah,” Sophia said.
Then Weld left, returning to his group.
Sophia was left standing there alone, cold in her prison sweats.
Time passed. I’d hardly arrived in the nick of time, for the main event. I walked around the edge of the ridge, navigating around clusters of people, then approached the Azazel.
Tattletale was within, her attention on the computer screens. Defiant was leaning over her, giving instructions.
I left them alone, joining Rachel and Imp, where they sat with their backs to Bastard’s side, feet inches from a precipitous drop. Grue was keeping more of a distance, simultaneously watching and keeping as far away from Bonesaw as he could manage.
“No more malls,” Imp was saying. “No more going shopping, no more reality TV, no more stupid boy bands to make fun of…”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Talking about everything I’m going to miss,” Imp said. “I’m trying to start from the outer edges and work my way in towards the biggest stuff. Work up my courage to say, you know…”
“You’ll miss us?” I asked.
“Aw, you’re so full of yourself!” Imp said. “It’s so sweet! I was going to say, um, those creepy little kids who look way too much like their big brother? I’ll miss them way more than I should. I’d miss them more than I’d miss you.”
I reached over and pushed her head a little, trying to mess up her hair and failing to do so before she’d pulled away. I found a seat beside Rachel.
Bastard’s chest rose and fell. It was one element of an uncomfortable seat. Warm, but not quite cozy enough for me to nod off. It was too cold, for one thing, and I felt my rear end going numb from the cold before I’d been sitting for a minute. Even more alarming was the general sensation that someone was gently pushing me towards the ledge, then easing up, pushing me, easing up.
If he lurched to his feet for any reason, I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to stop myself from being shoved over the precipice. I should have worn my flight pack.
“I don’t have a lot,” Rachel said, breaking the silence. “Haven’t ever had much more than I could take with me if I left home. Had money, but it was just a number I couldn’t really follow on a computer I didn’t have.”
“You have something now,” I said.
She bobbed her head in a motion that was almost too slow to be a nod. “Yep.”
I didn’t elaborate. We watched the crimson sunrise.
“Don’t want to lose it,” Rachel said. “Any of it.”
I couldn’t even complete a thought, hearing that. Damn it, Rachel, don’t say that, don’t remind me.
I thought of my dad.
Of my mom, though that was a wound I’d thought I’d healed.
I thought of my hometown, which wasn’t quite home anymore.
I thought of my pride, my mission, neither of which I quite had anymore.
I lowered my head, bringing my knees up to support my arm as I nestled my face into the crook of my elbow, burying it into the fabric of Rachel’s jacket. This was too public. The wolf’s overlong body provided a barrier between us and everyone else, but… too public.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. My tears were hot against my face.
“Why the fuck are you sorry?” Imp asked.
I raised my head up just a little, trying to pull myself together. “Feeling kind of- my feelings are all over the place. A little unhinged.”
Imp didn’t look my way, instead turning the narrow black lenses of her mask skyward. “It’s been a bad day, in case you haven’t noticed. You’re allowed to feel bad. It’s kind of normal.”
I’d been thinking of my feelings as being off-kilter, out of control, unreasonable and irrational.
Were they just regular feelings? Emotions that weren’t being reined in by my discipline and bottling everything up, by distraction and disconnection?
Somewhere along the line, I’d stopped thinking about my feelings as being mixed up or fucked up and stopped concerning myself with them altogether. On a level, I’d blamed my passenger.
But I wasn’t sure I could justify that with what I was experiencing now. Why would the passenger take away, gain ground in subsuming my identity and then give it back, all like this?
Was it just me?
Fuck. I wasn’t sure I wanted this to be me and me alone.
I lowered my face into my elbow again.
What was it all for?
I drew in a breath, trying to keep my breathing level so I wouldn’t give any audible clues as to what was going on, and it backfired. My breath hitched and I released a little hiccup of a sob. It was all downhill from there.
I didn’t care anymore. I wasn’t about to mentally berate people for caring about secret identities when we were so far past that, and then care about my reputation or how I looked.
Screw it. If I was going to be Taylor again, I wouldn’t give a fuck.
Rachel put her arms around my shoulders in a clumsy hug that squished my shoulder. Then, with the hand of that same arm, she reached up and put her hand on my head, rubbing left to right and back again. My head rocked with the motion.
Soothing, but… ridiculous enough that I let out a little half-sob, half-laugh.
Which was probably even better than anything else.
I let my head settle against her shoulder, and she left her hand on my head, no longer rubbing.
We watched as the sunrise continued, the red of the atmosphere leaking through the gaps in the clouds.
I felt the tears stop at one point, and rubbed them away. I had to try twice before I could voice a question. “How’s Grue doing?”
“Ask him,” Imp said.
I shook my head.
“He’s okay. Cozen made it out okay, but Rook didn’t. So Cozen’s getting a promotion.”
Is there even anything to lead? How do you manage a group of thieves when everything that’s worth stealing is slowly being erased from the planet’s surface?
I wouldn’t push it.
“I’m-” Imp started.
“Ready,” someone in the crowd called out, interrupting her.
Every single person on the broad, flat ledge of the mountainside turned.
I wiped at my face again with my hands, then stood, a little alarmed at how the stiffness of the cold hampered my movements, and the nearby ledge that yawned before us.
But no, no disasters. We made our way around Bastard’s sleeping form and joined the group.
The first of the portals opened.
A broad-shouldered man with facial hair like that of a homeless man’s stepped through. He wore prison sweats with the words ‘Baumann Parahuman Containment Center’ across the shoulders.
“Is this safe?” Someone asked. A girl, in her early teens.
“They sent everyone to their cells. Maybe a speedster could slip through, if they knew what was happening, but we have a lot of people here,” a man next to her said.
“You didn’t answer the question,” Imp said. “No, it’s not safe. These guys are assholes.”
The man with the beard turned to glare our way, inexplicably, looked momentarily confused, and then walked forward. The crowd parted to let him through as he approached the edge.
I’d done my reading on these guys while making my way to Sophia, waiting for her to arrive. If this went balls-up, we’d be stuck between these guys and Scion. I’d wanted to know.
The man with the beard was Gavel. Cell block leader. A vigilante who had gone after families, particularly spouses and children, all so he could break his enemies before his namesake weapon could. He’d been notorious in the days before the three strike rule or even the code. Even with that, people had lost patience with his ‘mission’ when a villain had threatened to detonate a small bomb, and Gavel had called a bluff that wasn’t a bluff. Gavel had walked away. Many, many others hadn’t.
A woman ventured forth. Her hair was long, her features matronly. She wore a prison uniform that had been cut apart and pieced together into heavier cargo pants and a jacket. Lustrum. Part-celebrity, part-antihero, she’d gathered a following of college-aged feminists, building up an almost religious fervor, before giving the fateful orders that turned things violent, pushing her thousands of followers to humiliate men, often violently. Things soon escalated to the point that more fanatical followers were emasculating and murdering men, even carving up followers who weren’t playing along.
My mom had, in her graduate school days, been a part of one of Lustrum’s groups. She’d backed out around the time things turned violent. I’d heard her wonder out loud, to Lacey, my dad’s coworker, whether Lustrum had intended for things to get as bad as they had.
But they had. A lot of people had suffered.
Weird to think about, that my mom had been in the midst of this, and here we were, the loop closing.
A woman, thin, with her hair cut short, with swooping, platinum-blond ‘feathering’ at the sides, to the point that I couldn’t tell if it was just messy or styled that way. Her eyes were the sort that looked like they were usually half closed, her features pointed. She moved with a strange kind of fluidity, as if she had twice the usual number of joints, limbs like spaghetti noodles. They weren’t. It was Crane The Harmonious. Crane for short.
The records of her arrest were spotty, suggesting things had been redacted or hidden, no doubt to protect her ‘children’ that had gone on to careers in the Wards or Protectorate. She’d collected children with powers and raised them to be her soldiers.
She walked into the crowd, and came face to face with a hero, twenty or so years old, wearing a robe.
She stood on the very tips of her toes to raise herself up enough to kiss him on the forehead. The kiss was prolonged to a point that it went past weird. The next portal was already opening by the time she lowered herself and stood with her back to her old subject’s chest.
Acidbath. Copkiller and capekiller, he’d used his power to horrifically scar innumerable opponents and girlfriends. His blond hair wasn’t the grass-green of his mugshots anymore, and he had circles under his eyes. He took one step away from the portal, then sat on the ledge in front of the crowd, searching for something, then settling into a stare when he found it.
I looked, and I saw a man, not in costume but in a suit, standing and staring at Acidbath, with an expression as though he was going to cry at any moment. But he didn’t avert his eyes.
String Theory and Lab Rat stepped out of the same portal. String Theory was short, shorter with her slouch, and petite, her dark hair tied back into a braid, her lips pulled back into a wide expression halfway between a grin and a smile. With her glasses, it made me think of a frog, or a small lizard. Lab Rat was the opposite, the last person one might expect to be a tinker. He had a mouth full of teeth that were screaming for braces, all crammed towards the very front of his mouth, overlapping and sticking out of lower gums. He had a mop of hair and heavy brows, was tall and broad shouldered, and had a bit of a belly.
String Theory had made her tinker devices and then auctioned away ‘safeties’. Not uses of the weapon or offering targets, but only guarantees that the owner of a ‘safety’ wouldn’t be one of her randomly selected targets. The targets had ranged from gas stations in Indonesia to a filled football stadium in Cardiff.
As one could imagine, there had been a high demand for her arrest.
Lab Rat, conversely, had worked in secret, developing formulas that could transform people into monsters. He had used formulas on the homeless, then when the local homeless ran out, started picking off individuals that were isolated, out for jogs in the early morning or new visitors to his town. It wasn’t clear just what he was searching for, in developing the formulas. What I found myself wondering was whether he’d been testing his work on his test subjects before using them on himself, or if it was the other way around.
Both ideas were weird, almost inexplicable.
Galvanate appeared. He’d been one of a number of players that had supplanted the local organized crime in the early-to-mid-nineties. A mafia enforcer with powers who had decided he had what it took to be a boss. He’d done well, rendering entire squads of his soldiers effectively invincible, simultaneously capable of electrocuting someone to death with a touch.
Nothing short of Alexandria or an Endbringer would stand up to Scion’s sustained laser beam for even a heartbeat, but there was hope that Galvanate would render some people capable of surviving a glancing blow.
Black Kaze. A Japanese urban legend that had turned out to be too real. Word was she’d snapped after Kyushu was destroyed. Except she’d remained lucid throughout trials, calm, patient. Nobody knew her real body count, but conservative estimates put it in the tens of thousands. She’d roamed the remains of the landscape, killing survivors, killing rescuers, boarding the ships that approached too close to the ruined area and killing the crews, and rendering a widespread area devoid of life.
And with that reputation, she was only an exceedingly ordinary looking Japanese woman in prison sweats, her hair tied back into a ponytail. The fingers of her right hand clutched and grasped as if she expected to find something there, missed, and then reached again.
They’d apparently talked to her and considered her okay to go out and interact with the world at large.
I watched as Masamune stepped away from Defiant and the Guild members to approach Black Kaze.
They stood there for a moment, inside each other’s personal space, still but for the reflexive opening and closing of Black Kaze’s hand.
Masamune returned to the cluster of Guild, and Black Kaze followed, directly behind him, head bowed a little.
Ingenue, not quite the pixie I’d seen in her mug shot, eight years later. She’d been wide-eyed and cute before. Now she was an attractive woman, but not quite someone who could have starred as the girl next door in a teen movie.
Hopefully she had changed in her habits, as well. She’d partnered herself with three male capes, heroes. They had gone to the Birdcage, and records suggested they hadn’t survived more than a day after her return. When the fourth partner had used his power to poison a town’s water supply, killing nearly a thousand people, people started wondering about the common denominator – the girlfriend. The fourth had gone to therapy, and Ingenue had made her way to the Birdcage.
She extended a hand, pointing a painted nail, and swept her hand over the crowd. She settled on her target.
Her walk was a practiced one, with a swaying of the hips, an unhurried pace. She approached Chevalier, then wrapped her arms around him, raising one leg off the ground. Chevalier, for his part, didn’t move a muscle.
Marquis was next to arrive. His brown hair and beard were just now starting to get strands of gray in them, wrinkles at the corners of his eyes.
He’d been one of the scary bastards of Brockton Bay well before the Undersiders were even on the map. A guy who could go toe to toe with a full squad of Empire Eighty-Eight and walk away. He’d been successful enough to pay for hirelings and ruthless enough to execute them for failures. His path to the Birdcage had been very similar to the path that had almost taken me there; so many violations of the law that the three strikes rule had been left well behind him by the time the good guys finally won.
He didn’t look quite so intense as his mug shot. He seemed calmer.
He approached the crowd, and he stopped in front of a woman I recognized but couldn’t place.
In the moment she slapped him, I drew the connection.
Lady Photon. Sarah Pelham.
Flashbang and Brandish were with her, looking just as grim.
All around them, people were tensed for a fight.
That stopped when Marquis nodded solemnly. He murmured a few words, then walked away, standing on the same ledge that Acidbath had perched on, a little to the right of Lab Rat and String Theory.
Teacher emerged, and I searched the crowd for Saint.
Teacher was a mundane looking man. If one were to put a argyle sweater and khakis on him and put him in a classroom, he would have looked well at home. He had a receding hairline, with curly hair that had been cut short-ish.
Crimes: conspiracy to assassinate the Vice President of the United States. Successful. Conspiracy to assassinate the Prime Minister of England. Successful. He picked big targets, took his time and was successful. Setting up his pawns and giving them the low level thinker powers they needed for observation and information gathering, for getting glimpses of the future or intuitively knowing how to hack or decrypt, or for knowing the weaknesses of their enemies and how best to hurt them.
Followers that remained absolutely loyal as long as they had the granted powers.
Saint had wanted him more than he had wanted to retain his control over Dragon’s power. Why?
Because having Teacher free would give Saint the capacity to regain control of that power and to use it at its full capacity?
It didn’t matter. We’d win this first and then we’d deal with that. Whatever Teacher was capable of, it couldn’t be worse than Scion.
In a manner typical for royalty, Glaistig Uaine was fashionably late. The Faerie Queen.
Just like String Theory’s terror campaign had driven people to desperation in their attempts to stop her from her scheduled sprees of destruction, Glaistig Uaine had drawn entire flocks of capes down on her head, by virtue of her habit of finding, killing and claiming the ‘spirits’ of capes.
Thing was, they’d sent multiple teams after her, and they’d failed. Thirty two capes killed and claimed.
So they sent more after her. Again, they failed. Of the fifty who were forced into a retreat, thirteen were killed and claimed.
When that wasn’t enough, they hit her with everything, only for her to surrender.
She walked into the Birdcage of her own will.
Now they’d let her out.
The cell block leaders. They’d held their own, maintained their territories, and had been okayed to stick around by the thinkers. That double-check didn’t have as much weight as it should have, given how this one group alone had no less than three ways to screw with thinkers.
But they were firepower.
We had roughly forty-five minutes to half an hour before we’d take our first shot at Scion. Try as much as we could while risking as little as possible. These guys would be assets at best. Cannon fodder at worst.
Other prisoners were arriving. Dozens. Some seemed to be subordinate to the cell block leaders. Others, they didn’t look like they had a place to go. I watched Lustrum beckon to a girl with yellow feathers in her hair, and the girl didn’t budge.
I saw Lung step forth, in the company of several capes. He stopped, taking in a deep breath, then exhaled with a volume I could hear. He was shirtless, and didn’t move to cover himself up, even with the cold. His eyes roved over the crowd, and settled momentarily on me, on Rachel, and Grue.
Then Panacea stepped out.
She was different, her wild brown curls tied back into a plait, her face thinner, with more pronounced cheekbones. She wore a camisole, with her prison jacket tied around her waist. Tattoos marked the length of her arms. A sun held a position of prominence on her right arm, a heart with a sword on the left.
The simple tattoos, symbols and ideas got denser as they got closer to her hands, and a vibrant red ink marked the space between the individual black and white images.
Blood on her hands.
I was very aware of how the common prisoners around her stepped away when she stepped forward.
Very aware of how Lung spoke to her, casually, his voice a low bass rumble as she scanned the crowd. Her eyes locked onto the members of New Wave. Her mom and dad.
Brandish advanced, wrapping her arms around Panacea.
Panacea received the hug in a stiff way. Her eyes were downcast.
As if to distract herself, she raised her eyes, scanning the crowd. Her eyes fixed on me, on Rachel, Grue and Imp.
I saw a momentary look of puzzlement cross her face as she looked at Sophia standing off to one side, then back to me.
She mouthed a word. I didn’t hear it over the murmurs of the crowd, the discussions.
Then her eyes fell on someone else. On Bonesaw.
Bonesaw raised her hand in a short wave.
This time I heard Panacea.
The setup was the same, but there were undeniable changes. More people, and just about everyone was showing up in force.
Thirteen panels, glowing lightly to light the individual groups from behind. Each had a symbol on it, now, representing the teams.
Rachel stood at the corner at the end of the hallway, her back against the panel. Her hair was a little out of sorts, and she wore her jacket with the heavy fur collar. With stray dog hairs sticking to every article of clothing, each individual hair and strand of fur seemed to glow luminescent. Bastard sat beside her, and his eyes reflected the same light.
We entered the booth as a group, Tattletale leading the way, with Rachel falling into step beside me. We settled into a similar formation as we joined the others. The booth was framed by a railing, same as before, but there was a crescent-shaped desk on our side of the railing. Tattletale had already laid out handheld devices, a phone and several documents.
She took her place at the center of the desk. Our spokesman, apparently.
I glanced over my shoulder. The others were present, Parian and Foil included. Grue’s presence made for a dramatic effect, tendrils of his darkness coiling around the base of the panel. He was making himself larger, moving the tendrils more. It signaled a higher degree of emotion.
The logo was the name of the team, drawn out like a gang tag.
I took a deep breath, then looked over the rest of the room. The other booths were crowded as well. Every face was shrouded in shadow, the groups lit only by the glowing panels behind them.
It pissed me off. I was surprised at how much it bothered me, at the vehemence of the emotion, the impulse to act, to react. To yell at them and call them all imbeciles, because they were busy trying to protect their identities and be secretive when that was the lowest priority right now.
I managed to make myself stay still, instead. If I was a little unhinged right this moment, then I needed to be calm, logical.
It wasn’t really working. I couldn’t keep that sense of outrage over this trivial thing contained. I settled for channeling it into my swarm, having them crawl in a slow rotation over me, flowing over and around one another. It was the equivalent of drumming my fingers or pacing, if somewhat more mental than physical.
It barely helped.
Cauldron was present. Doctor Mother stood behind their desk as Tattletale stood behind ours. Contessa and the man Tattletale had identified as the Number Man stood with her. Our god damned accountant, from our supervillain days, a major player in Cauldron. They’d managed our bank accounts, just like they’d controlled virtually everything else from the shadows.
Chevalier was here, alongside Revel, Exalt, Golem and various team leaders from the Protectorate and Wards programs. I saw the dirt, dust and bloodstains. I looked as bad as they did. Chevalier had laid his cannonblade across the curved railing, and the elaborate, heavily embellished weapon served to help frame the group. The Protectorate logo marked the back of the panel.
I looked at Golem, and he averted his eyes, very deliberately turning his attention to the other groups around the perimeter of the room. Was he ashamed? Angry? I couldn’t parse it.
The Guild, with Dragon absent. Narwhal stood beside Defiant, both of them ridiculously tall. Masamune stood beside them, not old but still stooped and frail, with a thin beard. A D.T. soldier stood by the man. I could guess which soldier it was. The Guild’s icon, the spear-pole with the ribbon-like flag flowing from it, marked the panel.
“…and I’m not going to appeal to emotion,” Defiant was saying. “I’m not going to tell you how brave she was, how selfless and noble. You were watching us, before you pulled the plug on her. I know that, and I know you saw all that. No. You don’t care. So I’m going to talk about the facts, Saint. You’re failing.”
Saint, standing in the booth opposite the Guild members, had been ignoring him, focusing on a computer as he typed ceaselessly. At those last two and a half words, Saint paused for a fraction of a second. The other Dragonslayers were situated at either end of the crescent-shaped desk, seeing to their own tasks. The woman glanced at Saint, and that seemed to be enough to remind him to get back to the typing.
“Dragon could evacuate. She could minimize damage, manually control the forcefields instead of relying on automatic overrides. New York’s forcefields went up too early. Golden beam sheared through, knocked it down. A third of the city gone. Dragon would have succeeded, you failed. Two point two million estimated deaths. I want you to know the numbers. I want you to be aware of every single one of those deaths. Believe me, I’ll remind you, and I’ll make sure everyone else knows as well.”
Saint reached up to his helmet for a second, then dropped his hand back to the keyboard.
“Don’t bother,” Tattletale said. “He muted you.”
Defiant stopped talking, setting his hands on his spear instead.
All of the other major players were present, minus the Birdcage contingent. The Thanda had six members in near-identical robes. Their logo was a block of letters arranged in a five-by-five grid. Moord Nag had a ring of skulls around a black circle. Faultline’s crew had a wavelength, like a reading on an seismic monitor.
Looking at them, I was startled to realize Dinah was in the group, standing right beside Faultline.
Which didn’t parse. I turned my head to look across the room at another little girl.
There was a nine emblazoned on the panel, well above her head.
I glanced back at Grue, saw how he was deliberately looking away, and connected the dots as far as why he was withdrawn and generating more darkness.
“We…” I started to speak, and found the pitch of my voice to be a little skewed. Quiet, I continued, “We invited Bonesaw?”
“Cauldron did,” Tattletale said. “Hard to see, but she’s restrained.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.” Custom made organisms could erode metal or break glass. She could have a breakable capsule that released a plague throughout the room..
“No,” Tattletale said. “But Cauldron okayed it.”
“Fuck me,” I said. My bugs stirred in much the same way Grue’s darkness was. It wasn’t enough of an outlet. I settled for gripping the railing in front of me. “Fuck them.”
“Do you need to leave?” Tattletale asked, her voice just as quiet as mine. “I could send Rachel with you.”
I shook my head.
No. I was pissed, but I wanted to stay.
What the hell was Grue experiencing? This was the girl who had cut him open and spread the still-living contents of his body around a walk-in freezer, complete with augmentation that would allow him to experience pain on a level that a normal human couldn’t.
For kicks. Because she was curious.
We were joined by a group of the Yàngbǎn, in flowing uniforms that fit somewhere between martial arts outfits and army gear, with masks like multifaceted gems. Faceless, with only numbers to identify them. There were capes I knew to be the Elite: Nonpareil and Patrician, Agnes Court and Blueblood. They were the opposite of faceless, taking great pride in their appearance and their powers. The Elite were an organized crime syndicate, shutting down anyone who tried to use their powers for profit, unless those people worked for them.
I recognized Adalid, a South American cape, hero to the people, alongside Califa de Perro, who had one foot propped up on the desk, an elbow resting on his knee. There was a man I assumed to be an interpreter beside them. The representatives of the Suits were present as well, each with costumes stylized after different card suits from the original and newer decks – heart, club, spade, diamond, sword, wand, coin and cup.
I was surprised to see them. The Suits were capes from the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom had been obliterated. The leader of the Hearts, Swords and Cups weren’t present, leaving me to assume they were among the ones who hadn’t made it. The Suits managed different duties, classifying capes into groups for public service, fighting, intrigue, fast response and watching for malfeasance in other areas of the public. I’d read the PRT’s pages on them when I’d been investigating possible vectors for the end of the world, only to discover that the Suits were barely treading water as a group, in terms of funding and membership. Too many deaths to Endbringers, even before the pace had picked up, and the merchandising wasn’t working out, with the group accepting handouts from the PRT on a regular basis. Not exactly the image they’d given to the public, of an elite group that was hipper, cooler and more effective than the King’s Men.
The King’s Men hadn’t made it, I noted.
The three blasphemies were standing at one booth, young women with masks depicting ruby-lipped faces, a smile, a frown, a snarl. Alabaster white skin, white hair, white flowing dresses. The frowning one held hands with the other two. They were silent, still, and their very presence seemed to be bothering the nearby Suits and Protectorate members.
The final group was arriving, stationing themselves opposite Cauldron. I glanced up at Cauldron’s icon, marking the upper half of the glowing panel – a stylized ‘c’, tilted upward at a forty-five degree angle.
That same mark, in different sizes and at different angles, marked the various members of the new arrivals. Weld’s Irregulars. Weld had altered his look, a little more edgy, a little less human. Segments of his metallic flesh stood out like horns or scales, and the veins and crevices were deeper.
Strangest of all was that he was wearing another of the case fifty-threes, in addition to his thick canvas pants. Tendrils encircled his arms and legs, wound around his fingers. Loops of metal, in turn, bound the tendrils, locking them into place, or helped direct them into and through his limbs. All of the tendrils led to the same point, to a pale girl’s face, with Cauldron’s mark on her cheekbone. She had no body I could make out, no hair, only the tendrils.
I saw Gully, standing a little taller than she had the last time I’d seen her in person, a muscle-laden young woman with braided hair that trailed on the floor. Sanguine, with red hair and red skin. Gentle Giant, a placid-faced young man who stood head and shoulders above even Gully, and innumerable others.
The moment they were settled in, their icon appeared on the screen above them. A three-fingered hand.
“We’re all here,” Doctor Mother said. Civil, pleasant, unruffled even though the world was being dismantled.
Weld wasn’t so inclined to be polite, nor was he unruffled He spoke with a harsh tone that overrode his faint Boston accent, “I’m trying to think of why I shouldn’t tell my Irregulars to murder you three right here.”
The Doctor didn’t reply. She met his stare with one of her own.
The tendrils around Weld’s body tightened to the point that they bit into the metal. I saw some people shift position
He continued, “I know what your Contessa does. I know about Number Man too. Hell, we know about the ghost girl who keeps you company.”
“We call her the Custodian.”
“Is she one of your mistakes, like us?”
“Yes,” the Doctor said.
“And did you brainwash her to keep her servile?”
“No. For one, she has no brain. Is this really necessary, Weld?”
Weld didn’t show a trace of hesitation. “I think it is. Everything seems to tie back to Cauldron. To you.”
“You’re blaming us for this.”
“You’re the most likely culprit,” Weld said.
“No,” the Doctor replied. “Our issue here is a lack of information. We have four sources that can corroborate the same story. One of those sources is in the Birdcage, where they’ll remain until we decide it’s time to free them.”
“There’s Bonesaw, who isn’t our most reliable source, and I’m guessing Tattletale is the fourth,” Weld answered. He saw the Doctor respond and nodded a little. “Convenient. For those who don’t know, the Undersiders got their start working for Coil, who was linked to Cauldron by two degrees of separation at most.”
“You have done your homework,” Tattletale said. “But no. No ties to Cauldron here, aside from the rare clandestine meetings where we do rock-paper-scissors to figure out who plays a big part in the latest Endbringer attack.”
Weld shook his head a little, and then turned his attention to the Doctor.
I didn’t hear the question but a large part of that was the fact that I wasn’t listening.
“You knew?” I asked her.
“No. I only figured it all out just before it happened,” Tattletale murmured, not taking her eyes off Doctor Mother.
“But they knew?”
“Yup. Marquis did too, but they told him to stay quiet.”
I clenched my fists.
No. I wasn’t going to be able to suppress this.
I could leave, stalk from the room.
Except why the fuck should I? To spare these people’s sensibilities?
“You knew,” I said, interrupting Weld’s angry monologue about Cauldron’s monstrous parahumans. I spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. I didn’t care anymore. “You knew Scion would do this?”
Doctor Mother looked my way. “Yes.”
“And you did nothing. You stood back and you let this happen,” I said. I was aware that every set of eyes in the room was on me.
“It’s better that this happens now. From what we know- and I do want to express that I’m eager to compare notes with the other parties- it was inevitable. Now or later, Scion was going to go rogue. If we waited until a decade had passed, we might not have the numbers or the powers we have now.”
“You knew,” I repeated myself, staring at her. “We could have put this off. Bought ourselves time to deal with other crises, to find an answer, a way to stop him or…”
I trailed off, lost for words. To stop him. That’s enough.
“We did try,” the Doctor said. “We offered as much assistance as we could without hamstringing ourselves for the next part of this.”
The Number Man spoke, “All of the statistics point to a decline in population over the ensuing few years. We were already in the midst of the breaking point. You experienced much of that yourself, Undersiders. Enough capes in one place, and it becomes the equivalent of nitro waiting to blow. Brockton Bay wasn’t managed quite so well as other clusters like New York or New Delhi.”
He gestured towards Chevalier, then the Thanda as he named the cities.
He continued, “You yourself took part in the chain reaction of events that followed the attempted ABB takeover.”
I didn’t move.
“Cause and effect. A local gang leader by the name of Lung was arrested by Armsmaster, the leader of the local Protectorate team.” He paused very deliberately, very knowingly, before continuing, “A subordinate member of the gang goes on a rampage, escalating violence and forcing another local cape to advance his plans for taking over the city. He already has the very talented Dinah Alcott, and he recruits the Undersiders and the Travelers to remove enemies from the board and bring them into his camp. The latter group of heroes sets the seeds for a later fiasco, the Echidna event. Conflict and the dormant Echidna’s presence lead to Leviathan attacking, which leads in turn to the Nine visiting. I could go on, naming the Undersider’s actions in regards to seizing the city and stopping Coil, but you know the story.”
“You’re saying all of that stemmed from one arrest,” one of the female members of the Suits said.
“No,” the Number Man said, and he managed to sound only a little condescending. “I’m saying that parahumans as a whole are chain reactions waiting to happen, and we were already approaching a critical point. Every year, the percentage of parahumans in the population increases. At that same time, the odds of a cataclysmic event happening somewhere are increasing steadily. Imagine a situation like the Echidna event that turned out more unfavorably, or a Nilbog who wasn’t content to stay in one place. We have the blasphemies, Sleeper, and the Ash Beast, even the Slaughterhouse Nine, all as living examples of this concept at work. The world already stood on a precipice, and I’m not even mentioning the Endbringers in all of this.”
I glanced at the blasphemies. They hadn’t moved an inch, even as they were mentioned.
The Number Man paused. “There was an exceedingly good chance that we would have only sixty-six to twenty-five percent of the forces available if we waited ten years.”
“Fourteen years from now was the breaking point,” Dinah spoke up.
“Fifty-three to two percent of the forces available, then,” Number Man responded.
“Yes,” the Doctor said. “We weren’t helping it along, but we’re not overly upset. In fact, we consider this a best case scenario.”
I saw Contessa tense even before my swarm moved, expanding, drawing out lines of silk-
A slam interrupted me, jarring me back to reality. I turned to look at Chevalier. He’d struck the desk in front of him.
“Don’t,” he said. It took me a second to realize he was talking to Doctor Mother.
“A poor choice of words,” the Doctor said. “What I mean to say is that a very large number of powerful capes remain active and alive, ready to combat the threat. We’re situated to respond to this somehow, both offensively and reactively. At this very moment, we are managing a large-scale evacuation. We consider it a priority to keep Scion unaware, so we are evacuating the landmasses on the opposite end of the globe in hopes he won’t be able to respond or act.”
“Evacuating people like you did in New Delhi?” Tecton asked.
“Mm. No. Different earths, closing portals behind us as we go.”
One of the Thanda spoke, “Then you were capable of this evacuation before? Moving hundreds of millions to safety?”
“Yes,” the Doctor responded.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because of Scion.”
“Because you knew,” I repeated myself for the third or fourth time. My fists were clenched. “You had an idea this was going to happen.”
“Yes,” she said. “Everything we’ve done has been to build towards this eventuality.”
A silence hung in the air.
I looked over the room. Moord Nag and the South American capes had interpreters rattling off the particulars of the conversation. The Protectorate, the Irregulars, Faultline’s crew, the Suits… all bristled with anger.
Hell, I did too.
Faultline spoke, “So. It all comes down to this. Millions or billions die and you get to step in now and be the big damn heroes.”
“We have no intention of doing so. In truth, as much as we’ve stockpiled countermeasures, gathered information and planned ahead, we fully expect to fail.”
“Fuck,” Tattletale muttered, just beside me.
“All of the war crimes, kidnapping people, human experimentation, creating monsters, creating psychopathic monsters, letting millions die… and you think it’s for nothing?” Faultline asked.
“It’s very, likely,” Doctor Mother said, unruffled.
“Then why?” Weld asked.
“Because we decided in the very beginning that we don’t want to be left wondering if we could have done more, in the moments before humanity ceases to exist,” the Doctor said. “Why did we make you into what you are, Weld? Because it was an option, a step forward. Why did we keep it secret? It improved our chances. Why did we not tell you about Scion? Because it improved our chances.”
I stared down at the roughly circle-shaped patch of darkness in the center of the room. “You made sacrifices, you made sacrifices on the behalf of others, and you made the hard calls, but it was all for something greater. I bet you think you won’t have any regrets at the end.”
“It’s been some time since I lost sleep because of a heavy conscience,” the Doctor said.
Weld gripped the railing hard enough to make the wood splinter explosively.
“I know what that’s like,” I responded. “I’ve walked down that road. Maybe not so ugly a road, but I’ve gone that route. All the way along, I told myself it sucked, but I wouldn’t do it differently. I did everything I did for a reason. Except now, having reached the point I was working towards, I finally do regret it all. The last two years, the way I treated my teammates, leaving the Undersiders… I’d change it all in a heartbeat.”
I turned my eyes to Golem, then the Undersiders, and then to Doctor Mother.
“Maybe I will regret it,” the Doctor said. “But I’ll run that risk. If the world ends regardless of our efforts, the only one left to judge me will be God.”
I shook my head a little, but I didn’t answer her. We’d dragged this on long enough.
She seemed to agree. “Let’s talk about the situation. Tattletale, if you would?”
“Me? I’m flattered. Let’s see… Scion isn’t human. All of our powers stem from the same source. It’s this big alien bastard that we keep seeing when we have our trigger events. Except each of his cells is coded with just a fragment of his brain and a technique he uses to manipulate his environment, protect himself or attack others. He spread powers around Earth as part of a way to stress test them. He wants to leverage our brains and imagination to figure out ways to make the most of these abilities or innovate new ones. With me so far?”
“No,” Gully said, from her spot beside Weld, “Not at all.”
I nodded my head in silent assent. Not that I didn’t understand. It was just a lot to take in.
“Okay, well, it gets worse, so follow along. After distributing all of the powers he could, he left a chunk of himself still active, still alive, and he kept all of the good powers, the abilities he needed to ensure this whole process continues. Except something went wrong, and the process is fucked. How am I doing?”
“Minor errors,” the Doctor said, “But roughly on target.”
“Great!” Tattletale’s grin was visible in the gloom. She rubbed her hands together, clearly enjoying herself, despite the circumstances. She wanted a scene where the detective reveals it all. This is just… a little weirder. “Okay! Let’s see. The process is fucked, and he’s a daddy with no little ones to take care of. They’re dying or dead or something else went wrong and he’s been looking for a purpose. He got that purpose when a guy called Kevin told him to go help people. He got a new purpose when Jack told him to start murdering.”
My dad’s face crossed my mind.
The dead I’d had to ignore while rescuing others were a jumble, too numerous for me to even piece together in my mind’s eye.
“If it were mindless destruction,” the Doctor said, “It would be acceptable. We could convince him to abandon this, or hope he burns himself out on this Earth’s remaining inhabitants, after we evacuate everyone we can. There’s another problem.”
She touched something on her desk, and the various panels behind each booth changed. They were video screens, three times as tall as they were wide, and each showed the same clip of Scion’s rampage.
“United Kingdom, first target struck. Obliteration,” the Doctor said. “Eastern coast of Canada and the United States, damaged, but casualties were a third of what they were in the initial strike.”
She paused. Faultline took the opportunity to interject, “Not following.”
“The third attack was against Mali, followed by Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and all down the coast of Africa. In this attack, he selectively murdered specific individuals.”
I watched the scene. Scion flying with a speed like an arrow shot from a bow, narrow lasers blasting from each hand. He came to a stop a short distance from the camera, canceling the laser assault. The image panned over to look at the city as Scion hovered there in the sky. A major population center. Capes were already taking flight to stop him. No, not capes. People in civilian clothes with powers, many heavily tattooed.
He glowed, and the glow flared.
The camera dropped a short distance and struck something solid.
“That blast we just saw,” the Doctor explained, “Was a calculated strike. The city was left mostly intact, but Scion killed specific people, targeting anyone who had already hit puberty.”
“How?” Tattletale asked.
“His perceptions are finely tuned,” the Doctor said. “He’s aware of his immediate vicinity, and in absolute control of how his power is expressed. He left… what was the number?”
“An estimated four hundred and thirty thousand,” the Number Man said.
“Four hundred and thirty thousand orphans.”
He didn’t kill them all.
Why is that scarier than the alternative?
“In Russia, his beam started fires. He cut off every escape route, then began setting fires from the outside in. It took him thirty-five minutes to start the fire, and he waited for fifteen minutes while the flames spread and everyone within was cooked. Heroes that attempted to stop the attack were killed.”
“He’s experimenting,” Tattletale said.
The Doctor nodded slowly. “Following a very distinct formula. He’s reversing what he did at the outset. Saving children, stopping fires. The man who initially gave him the orders is hospitalized, or we’d ask about the instructions he provided. It might give us an idea of what Scion is going to do and the patterns that might emerge in the course of this… experimentation.”
He didn’t have to learn to be dangerous. He was capable of obliterating us all in a matter of days.
“We’re bringing the girl who was in contact with Scion here,” the Doctor said. “Provided she survives. Scion is too close for us to access her at the moment.”
“I only want to know two things,” the Dog King said. “What do we do, and how do I protect my people?”
There were nods from around the room. I found myself joining them.
At the simplest level, that was what we all wanted.
Those of us that weren’t monsters, anyways.
“We run,” the Doctor said. “Save as many people as we can. Muster your forces. Strategize, think outside the box. If you have ideas, run them by the group.”
“Let me start, then,” Faultline said. “Simple answer. Talking to him got him to be a hero before, and talking to him made him do this. Let’s talk to him again.”
“And say what?” Tattletale asked. “Stop, pretty please?”
“No,” Faultline retorted. “I want to find another option. We’ve got a planet full of thinkers and tinkers, let’s gather intel, figure out just what it is he wants, and see if we can provide it. Get him to leave.”
“It’s not that simple,” Tattletale said. “That faerie kook who’s going on about queen administrators and all that crap? She was a big hint in me figuring this stuff out, and she’s under the impression that this all ends with this Earth and every other Earth being obliterated. We don’t want to give him what he wants.”
“Then we trick him,” Faultline said. “Before he gets too clever and before he wipes us out. Tell him to, I don’t know, fly to the edge of the known universe and back?”
“You try that,” Tattletale said, injecting a note of sarcasm into her voice. “That sounds brilliant.”
“Any idea is a good thing,” Chevalier said. “We’ll emphasize protecting and preserving the people we can save. Can you give us access to your portal network?”
“Yes,” Doctor Mother answered. “Of course. We’ll be observing you at all hours. You only have to ask for a door and we’ll connect you to our central hub, provided you aren’t on the same continent as Scion.”
She took a deep breath, then sighed audibly.
“I don’t ask you, any of you, for your help. I don’t ask for your assistance or cooperation. I only want us to share resources, provide solutions. Contessa, if you’d please ungag Bonesaw?”
Contessa nodded, then strode across the room. She worked something away from Bonesaw’s face, then returned to Cauldron’s booth.
“Hello,” Bonesaw’s voice was eerie, childish in a way Dinah’s wasn’t. She craned her head around, clearly unable to move anything below the neck, looking at the panel behind her. “I’m not with them. Honest to gosh.”
“There’s no reason for her to be here,” Defiant said.
“There is,” the Doctor said. “Contessa believes it is the most economical way to get what we need. Tattletale?”
“I’m really having mixed feelings about that whole ‘Tattletale’ thing you keep doing,” Tattletale responded. “It’s like calling for your dog, which is irritating, but you keep giving me chances to do awfully fun stuff. You want me to dismantle Bonesaw?”
“Feel free,” the Doctor said. “Our goal is a remote.”
“I’m playing nice now,” Bonesaw said. “Promise.”
“Gotcha,” Tattletale replied to the Doctor. She turned to the little girl. “So.”
“This is cheating,” Bonesaw said. “I’m not trying to be tricky or anything. I just want to stay alive, help out. I don’t want the world to end. The remote’s just collateral. Once I give it up, you have no reason to keep me around.”
“Which is,” Defiant commented, “Exactly what you’d say if you were Jack’s sleeper agent, biding your time to deliver the worst possible attack at the worst possible moment.”
“No,” Tattletale said. “She’s being honest.”
“The murderous little tot had a change of heart. A partial change of heart. Let’s be honest. You’re not going to turn away from the art of your powers that easily, are you? You’ll still crave to do something interesting, and maybe that interesting is at the expense of others.”
“It can be at the expense of bad people,” Bonesaw said. “Does that work?”
“No,” Chevalier said, Defiant echoing him by a half second.
“Besides,” Tattletale said, “The only bad person that concerns us is Scion, and you can’t touch him.”
“Drop the act,” Tattletale said.
There was a pause.
A voice that wasn’t nearly so childish, so perky, sounded across the room. “Okay.”
“Better,” Tattletale said. “You’re in the middle of a metamorphosis. Something triggered that change. Love? No. Friendship? Friendship. Someone outside the Nine.”
“Yes. It’s not that big a deal. I realized Jack’s been playing me because that woman,” Bonesaw jerked her head in the direction of the Doctor, “fucked with my head.”
“Which is why I’m handling this and not her, I guess. And because this little show builds the idea of solidarity between our factions. Multiple goals, I’m sure.”
“An illusion that’s strained when you mention it to everyone present,” Doctor Mother commented.
“Whatever. Bonesaw. Boney. Bones.”
“Riley. You’re going through some changes. Let’s-”
“Can we cut the jokes?” Chevalier asked. “There’s a lot going on out there. We’ve wasted enough time already.”
“Then go,” Tattletale said. When he didn’t budge, she added, “I’m having a conversation with Riley here. She’s figuring out who and what she is, and we’ve got a bit of a snarl. Her art.”
“My power. That’s all it is,” Bonesaw said.
“You’re attached to it. You feel a bit of pride in what you’ve made, even now that you’re apparently turning over a new leaf. I’m afraid I’m going to have to tell you to get real.”
“I’m not that attached. Or proud,” Bonesaw said.
“Sure you are.”
“No. I mean, like, I think about my friend and I imagine messing with him and it’s like… I don’t want to do that. I enjoy his company. So I think about the other people and put his face over theirs and-”
“And you still do horrible things. Let’s not pretend you weren’t screwing with Nilbog or palling around with the rest of the clones. You made them possible.”
“I had to. I-”
“Chevalier was right. We don’t have a lot of time. Stop equivocating and listen. You’re a monster. Maybe the worst one out there. But when it all comes down to it, you’re just like that big golden bastard out there. You’re Jack’s pawn. Everything you ever made, everything you ever did, the strongest parts of you, the little vulnerabilities, custom tailored by him.”
“No,” Bonesaw said.
“The friend I made, this new me, it’s-”
“Calculated. By Jack. Don’t tell me he doesn’t plot things for down the road. Hey Golem, talk to me.”
Golem’s voice sounded from the other end of the room. “What?”
“You thought Jack had a thinker power. Why? What?”
There was a pause.
“Because he’s like Weaver. He reacts like someone that is way too aware of what’s going on.”
Acts like me?
I’d made the comparison myself, but I’d tempered that, held back as I formed that conclusion. Hearing it in such a blunt way stung as much as a slap in the face.
“And you sent in the D.T. guy because-”
“Because Weaver surrounds herself with bugs, and Jack surrounds himself with capes. The non-cape is the only variable we haven’t seriously tried. The competent non-cape.”
Tattletale nodded, “Thought so. So let’s think about that. He’s got a thinker power that lets him manipulate parahumans, or read them, or gauge how they’ll react. He uses it, probably unconsciously, to constantly maintain the edge. And he gets bored. You’ve seen him get bored, haven’t you, Riley?”
“Yes. And when he gets bored, he sets up scenarios like the game in Brockton Bay, the test with Golem coming after him, whatever else. It usually falls apart before it comes to a head, because Jack is chaos incarnate, people cheat, Jack cheats, and so it goes. So tell me, do you really think he wouldn’t let you have a little slack to see how you’d operate?”
Bonesaw didn’t respond.
“Yeah. Exactly,” Tattletale said. “Your art? It’s his art. Your power and everything you do with it, it’s stuff he’s shaped.”
“That’s not true. I come up with my own ideas,” Bonesaw sounded almost defiant. She’d also, I noted, forgotten the original message, saying her art wasn’t important to her.
“His ideas. Everything’s tainted with Jack. And you know it better than I do. You can think of all the little scenes and conversations. How your favorite projects were the ones your family applauded. The ones Jack praised, above all.”
Again, Bonesaw was silent, unable to retort.
“You want to face the new you? Here it is. It’s not an easy change. It sucks, even. The magic’s gone, now. Your power won’t be quite so fun. Just the opposite, maybe.”
Still, there was no response.
“This is the real change,” Tattletale said. “Being reduced to nothing, starting anew. And you get to carry all the shit and all the hate that you earned being an unholy terror before. You deserve to carry all that shit and deal with the hate. You’ve got a steep uphill climb, before you even get a trace of respect or trust. You understand? Putting your buddy’s face on possible victims isn’t even close to redemption.”
I could see Bonesaw’s posture change, even in the midst of her restraints, her shoulders drawing forward, head hanging a bit.
Fuck me, was I feeling a pang of sympathy? My feelings were still off kilter, undefined, unpredictable. It was scary, like stepping off a ledge with my eyes closed, not knowing what was on the other side. Except the feeling recurred constantly.
Let’s not push the lunatic too far, I thought. That’s rational.
But Tattletale had let up a fraction. Her questions and attack were calculated, based on cues from her power. “You want trust? Give us the remote.”
“Fuck that,” Bonesaw said. “Fuck no.”
“You have to trust us before we’ll trust you. Give us the remote.”
Bonesaw didn’t move.
I saw Contessa lean close to Doctor Mother.
“It’s done,” the Doctor said. “We’ll have the remote shortly. Thank you, Tattletale. Next order of business is the Birdcage…”
I looked at Tattletale, who was still staring at Bonesaw.
I could see Grue as well, tense, the smoke tendrils churning around him.
And Parian, her hair and frock stirring as if there was a wind blowing. She’d lost her entire family, either to the Nine or to Bonesaw’s warped plastic surgeries, making their faces identical to some of the most hated people in America.
They had derived satisfaction from this. An attack on someone who’d attacked them, fair and just, acceptable, not quite torture.
Not physical torture, anyways.
I’d had my head cut open. I’d seen Grue change, becoming a shell of his former self. Hell, I’d been traumatized by what she’d done to Grue. I wasn’t about to begrudge them that.
But I still felt a measure of sympathy.
“To be clear,” the Doctor was saying, “We didn’t invite the Birdcage residents here tonight because we knew it would be hard to impossible to send them back, all things considered.”
“And because you’d lose our cooperation,” Defiant said. “Saint hamstrung us at a crucial juncture, he abandoned a number of people in this room to die when we were going after Jack, effectively delaying us, and he’s supplanted Dragon, doing a criminally ineffective job at managing her duties. He’s done all of this to free one man from the Birdcage. For selfish ends. If you accommodate him-”
“You’d intentionally obstruct us?” Saint asked. “Out of spite?”
“I promised I would kill you,” Defiant said. “I will. Anyone who allies themselves with Saint gets the same treatment.”
“I’m terrified,” Saint said. “Not of you, but of your shortsightedness. The end of the world is nigh, and you have a vendetta.”
“I’m inclined towards tunnel vision,” Defiant replied. “For now, a great deal of my focus is turned towards one task. Denying you what you want. There are six blocks on the Birdcage that Dragon set in place. Dragon is incapable of opening them, because she didn’t want to be coerced into doing so. I imagine Saint is here because he wants the keys to the blocks.”
“Yes,” Saint said.
“Then if everyone here accepts that the Birdcage should be opened to let a select few prisoners out, I will give you the key.”
Slowly, hands raised around the room. Countries all around the world had prisoners in the Birdcage. Countries all of the world had stories, horror stories about the people who had been sent there and what they’d done before.
But things were dire, and we needed firepower.
I raised my own hand.
“Then I’ll provide the keys. Two stipulations.”
“I can guess what these stipulations are,” Saint said. “You want to wake Dragon up?”
I saw Tattletale tilt her head at a funny angle at hearing that.
“No. You’re as singleminded as I am, and you’ve turned that focus towards being her enemy. We need the access you stole from Dragon as much as we need my keys, and you wouldn’t give the access if it meant helping her. Two things. You step down, and Teacher remains in the Birdcage.”
“No?” Defiant asked, his voice level.
“Hardly a fair bargain. Give me time, and I can find the keys. It’s just a matter of time before I dig through the code and find it. You want to goad me about the lives I’ve cost? Know that your stubbornness is doing the same thing here.”
“You and everyone else here just agreed we should open the Birdcage,” Defiant said. “But you’re the only one here who wants to be in charge, the only one here who wants to free Teacher.”
“We need information if we’re going to fix this, and he’s our best source of Thinkers.”
“Weak thinkers,” Tattletale said.
“Thinkers, all the same.”
I could see Saint’s head turn, the cross on his face glowing as he scanned the room, searching the shadowy figures for signs of body language or gestures, for signs of agreement or disagreement.
I could see just as well. Nobody was jumping to agree.
His only chip was his monopoly on Dragon’s technology, and he now had to choose between agreeing to Defiant’s terms or refusing and making an enemy of everyone present.
“A compromise,” Saint said.
“No,” Defiant cut him off. “You’re unable to use Dragon’s full complement of resources, and many people in this room are aware of the fact. Many came close to losing their lives.”
“All I want is Teacher free. I’ll step down, if you have someone to replace me.”
“There are options,” Defiant said. He looked to the Undersiders.
“Then that’s settled,” Doctor Mother said. “Select the people you want, and we’ll create the doorways.”
“That would greatly simplify matters,” Defiant responded.
“Any other business? Suggestions? Options?”
“Yes,” Faultline said. “Again, being pretty simple here, but you guys are going way over our heads here. If we’re opening the Birdcage…”
“There’s less dramatic measures,” Defiant said. “Amnesty?”
“In a time of crisis,” Faultline said.
“I’ll talk to my superiors,” Chevalier responded.
“Good,” Doctor Mother said. “Many of us have things to see to. Do what you can. Use the doorway or ask for one of us if you require it. We’ll see you all have a means of communicating shortly.”
People began preparing to leave, gathering stuff together.
“No,” I could overhear Contessa saying, “I ask myself several questions before I go anywhere, and one pertains to strangers. Stay behind.”
Imp appeared next to her. She walked back to us with a very dejected appearance.
My eyes turned to Bonesaw. She hadn’t moved or spoken.
I felt another pang of sympathy.
But not quite enough to act on it.
Not enough to forgive her, not this easily.
It was strange to enter a prison as a visitor and not an inmate. Very similar in some ways, down to the pat-down, different in others.
Free to leave. Free to wear clothing.
The place was ramshackle, an ancient building of stone slabs that had been modified to serve as a prison. Ten inmates to a room. Innumerable guards.
I took a seat and waited. I didn’t feel calm. I didn’t feel confident. My feelings were still in a state of flux, and I couldn’t pin them down. I felt like I could scream or cry at any moment.
But, more than any other time, I wanted to appear confident here.
The door opened, and four guards led a prisoner to the chair opposite mine. We were separated by a pane of bulletproof glass.
Her eyes glared at me, cold. Not the eyes I’d known, no act, no hiding behind a mask. This was her.
“Hi, Shadow Stalker,” I told Sophia.
“Taylor,” she replied.
The news came through the earbuds, and it was like a shockwave rippled through our assembled ranks. Some of the strongest of us dropped to their knees, staggered, or planted their feet further apart as though they were bracing against a physical impact.
The one Azazel that was still in the area landed atop one of Bohu’s buildings, nearly falling as a section slid off to drop to the empty street below. It found its footing and roosted there.
The pilot couldn’t fly, and the A.I. wasn’t willing or able to take over.
The other capes were talking, shouting, asking questions, sometimes to nobody in particular. With the blood churning in my ears, I couldn’t make out the words. I’d used my bugs to find Hookwolf’s core, but they’d been decimated twice over in the process, and I wasn’t interested in trying to use them to figure out what was being said.
I could guess.
I raised my arms, then found myself unsure what to do with them. Hug them against my body? Hit something? Reach out to someone?
I let my hands drop to my sides.
I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to cry out, swear at the overcast sky above us.
Then I shut it.
There were no words. Anything I could do or say felt insignificant in the grand scheme of it all. I could have used every bug in the city to utter something, something meaningful or crude, and it still would have felt petty.
I looked at the others. Clockblocker was with Kid Win and Vista, Crucible and Toggle were nearby, on the back of a PRT van, bandaged. They were looking over their shoulders at the screen mounted on the wall of the van. Footage, covering ruined landscapes, and what had used to be the United Kingdom.
Parian and Foil were hugging. Odd, to see Foil hunched over, leaning on Parian for support, her forehead resting at the corner of Parian’s neck and shoulder. The crossbow had fallen to the ground, forgotten.
I wanted something like that. To have a team close, to hold someone. I hadn’t had something like that in a good while.
Chevalier was a distance away, his cannonblade plunged into the ground so he didn’t need to hold it, a phone to his ear. He was talking, giving orders, and demanding information.
Revel was stock still, not far from him. I watched as she stepped back, leaning against a wall, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the street. She placed her head in her hands.
I’d never known her to show any weakness. She’d always been on the ball, always the leader. I knew how much concussions sucked, and I’d seen her carry on and contribute to the Behemoth fight when she was reeling from one.
It hit me harder than I might have expected, to see that.
Tecton was standing a distance away, almost frozen, his eyes on the screen of his armband. Golem did the same, but he wasn’t still. He paced, looking around for guidance and finding none, then turned back to the screen, watching.
Glancing at the images from a distance, I could see the figure, the speck visible on the long range camera, surrounded by a golden nimbus.
I wasn’t close enough to make out details. Only staccato flares of golden-white light. On the third, the screens fizzled, showing only brief gray static, then darkness.
Another target hit. He’d taken his time on that one, measured the attacks.
I took out my earbud before the report could come in. Not my focus right now.
Instead, I reached for my phone. I dialed the Dragonfly.
Would the A.I. be able to cope? Saint had apparently pulled something.
If there was any hint he fucked us here, he’d pay for it.
The phone responded with a message. An ETA.
My eyes turned to Rachel. She was more agitated than Golem, her attention on her dogs. She used a knife to cut away the excess flesh and retrieve the animals from the placenta-like sacs within their bodies, and the actions were aggressive, vicious, savage. Her expression was neutral, but I could see the way the muscles shifted in her back, beneath the sleeveless t-shirt she wore, the tension, the way she was hunched over.
The attitude fit the Bitch I’d been introduced to, way back when I’d first joined the Undersiders, not the Rachel I’d come to know, who’d found a kind of peace.
Angry, defensive, bewildered. Scared of a world she didn’t comprehend. Aggressiveness was the default, the go-to route when there weren’t any answers.
It dawned on me. I sympathized. Given a chance, given something to do in that same vein, hacking through dead meat with a knife for some defined purpose, I might have acted exactly the same way.
She flinched as I approached, as if I were invading her personal space. When she turned and glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, glowering, the tension faded.
I drew my own knife and started helping. Bugs flowed into the gap and gave me a sense of where the sac was. I was able to cut without risking cutting the dog inside. It helped that my knife was sharp.
We were both sweating by the time we finished. Rachel had already been sweating from more physical exertion, and her hair was stuck to her shoulders at the ends. The German Shepherd got free, walked a polite distance away and then shook herself dry.
I looked at my phone, my gray gloves crimson with the dog’s blood. There were incoming messages. Updates on the damage, the disaster, and on Scion’s current location.
I ignored them, looking for the Dragonfly’s status.
Minutes away. It had already been headed into the area by default, tracking me by my GPS, ready to maintain a constant distance until I was prepared to call for it.
That was fine. I started walking down the length of the street, my back to the others, to the Azazels and the heroes. Rachel fell into step just a bit behind me, her dogs and Bastard accompanying us.
Parian and Foil were still hugging. I paused as we passed them, tried to think of how to word the invitation.
Parian’s eyes weren’t visible, hidden behind the lenses on the white porcelain mask she wore. I hadn’t thought she was looking at me, but she shook her head a little.
Good. Easier. I left them behind.
The Dragonfly started to land in an open area, an intersection of two streets. Moments later, the ground began to crumble. The craft shifted position, coming perilously close to striking a building as it avoided falling into the hole that had appeared in the street. A trap.
Rachel boarded the craft. As I waited for the dogs and Bastard to join us, I looked into the pit. As deep as a six or seven story building was tall.
I turned away, boarding the Dragonfly. I plotted a course, then took manual control of the craft.
The A.I. was better at flying than I was, but flying meant I didn’t have to think. Didn’t have to worry about what I was about to find out.
Rachel didn’t seat herself at the bench along the wall, or even at the chair behind mine. She sat down beside me, on the floor of the Dragonfly, her back against the side of my seat, the side of my leg, staring out the narrow side window. It was physical contact, reassurance, seeking that same reassurance from me. Her dogs settled on either side of her, Bastard resting his head on her lap.
We had the whole country to cross. Every few minutes brought more visuals, more reminders of what had occurred. Highways grew choked with cars. Countless vehicles had stopped at the sides of roads, at the edges of fields and at the fringes of small towns.
Innumerable people running, seeking escape. Except there wasn’t anyplace good to escape to.
No. That wasn’t true. There was.
But the degree of the damage done was becoming clear. Before we even reached the East coast, I could see the damage done to the landscape. Smoke was only just settling around the cracks and fissures, fallen bridges and ruined highways. People were making concerted attempts to move, to leave, but every step of the way brought more difficulties, more forced detours. Some had abandoned cars altogether, wading or swimming across rivers to make their way.
Every step of the trip revealed more devastation, successively more vehicles choking roads and highways, forging paths around impassable roads. More and more people were forging ahead on foot, in crowds, because walking was faster than travel by car.
More helicopters, marked with red crosses, had taken to the skies. Travel by ambulance wasn’t doable.
This was one place. One moment’s attack. The display in the cockpit was showing more locations hit. Libya, Russia, France, Sweden, Iran, Russia again, China…
Time passed. Forty-five minutes from the point in time I started paying attention to the clock, searching for a yardstick to try to track the scale of what I was seeing on the surface. How much worse did things get in five more minutes of traveling? In ten? It all seemed to get exponentially worse as the Dragonfly took flight. It wasn’t just that we were getting closer to the point where the attack had hit. Enough time had passed that people could react, now, realizing just how severe this was. All of the power of Behemoth, mobility almost on par with Khonsu.
The psychological toll of a Simurgh attack.
These were the people with a strategy. Doing just what I’d be doing if I were one of the unpowered. The world was doomed, so they sought to flee to another world. Problem was, there were tens of millions of them, and the escape routes were scarce at best.
The best known escape route: Brockton Bay.
I felt my heart sink as we approached the coast. Mountains I’d grown up with weren’t there. I let the autopilot take over as we got closer, approaching an airspace choked by rescue aircraft.
I didn’t trust my own hands.
It had collapsed. The blast had only struck the northern edge of Brockton Bay, then changed orientation, striking through the bay itself to slice through the very foundation the city sat on. Everything had been dropped a solid thirty or forty feet. Tall buildings had collapsed and only the squatter, sturdier structures and those fortunate enough to come to rest against other buildings were still mostly erect.
Folding and collapsing, the entire city had been shattered, no section of the ground more than twenty-five feet across remained fully intact. The landscape rose and fell like waves, petrified and left frozen in time.
The portal tower had fallen, but the portal remained there, oddly bright, too high to reach on foot. Work crews were struggling to erect something beneath, so the civilians could finish their journeys. The new arrivals were alternately joining in with the construction and making their way inside by way of rope ladders.
Elsewhere, there were capes and rescue crews trying to contain the fallout around the scar. A structure had been raised to seal it off, but the collapse of the city had released the contents. A lot of containment foam was being deployed to slow the spread of a pale patch of earth, and there was one spot of fire that didn’t seem to be going out.
But the most eye-catching thing was a thin, scintillating forcefield that was holding off the water. It was taller than any building that had stood in the city, an artificial dam. Every few minutes, it flickered for a tenth of a second, and water would flood through to seep into the gaps and fissures. In time, I suspected, the water would cover everything in the area but the tallest buildings and the hills. Arcadia High might stick around. Maybe.
I recognized the rainbow hues. It was the same force field that had been intended to protect the Protectorate headquarters. Leviathan had torn the structure apart at the roots, and the tidal wave had knocked it into the city proper. In the time since I’d left, they’d repurposed the fallen structure and the forcefield setup.
Not, apparently, to try to block Scion’s attack. No. This was more to stop the water, to break that initial wave, so it wouldn’t simply sweep the ruins out to sea.
I could only hope they’d done similar things elsewhere, to minimize the damage.
We circled the city twice before I gave the go-ahead for the A.I. to start descending.
My second sense extended through the area as we approached the ground, extending out to the bugs that were scattered throughout the ruined, shattered city. I immediately set them to work, searching, scanning, investigating.
I changed the course, dictating a final, slow, sweep of the city.
Not everyone had made it. Stupid to think they might.
My dad’s house was gone, collapsed. Nobody inside.
Winslow High, gone.
The mall, the library, Fugly Bob’s, the boat graveyard, my old hideout, gone.
My old territory, unrecognizable. The Boardwalk was underwater now.
It didn’t even take him seconds to do.
Too many dead, not enough who were merely wounded and unable to walk. Humans were so fragile in the end. I stopped the Dragonfly and stepped out to seek out the first wounded. My bugs signaled rescue teams to get their attention.
The wounded here could have been my dad’s coworkers. People he went out to drinks with. They could have been Charlotte’s underlings.
So easy, in the midst of it all, to lose track of the fact that these were people. People with families, friends, with dreams, lives and goals.
Golem had said something like that, hadn’t he?
How many people had simply been erased in the wake of something this random, so instantaneous? So inexplicable? I still wasn’t sure what had happened. Tattletale was supposed to fill people in, but she hadn’t gotten in contact with me.
Or had she? I’d taken my earbud out. I looked to my phone, looked for transmissions.
A burst of messages, following just after takeoff. From the Chicago Protectorate, people who might have been my teammates if I’d ever been inaugurated. More messages, from Chevalier and the Brockton Bay teams.
I didn’t read them all. My eyes on the phone, I pointed the search and rescue to the next batch of wounded. I knew it was cold, but the corpses would have to wait. There were living people to find.
There were no shortage of corpses. The number of living people, by contrast, well… we’d see what happened in the next twenty-four hours.
The number of messages declined about thirty minutes after takeoff, then stopped altogether. Everyone who might have wanted to talk to me had found other things that needed doing. Other priorities, personal or professional.
Which was exactly why I was here. I’d just arrived at that conclusion earlier than they had. I put my phone away.
My mouth was pressed into a firm line as I helped the rescue workers.
We lifted a corner of a second floor’s floor, making room for someone get under and start retrieving a pair of women. Rachel whistled and pointed, and her German Shepherd seized the floor in its jaws.
The rescue workers seemed to hesitate with the dog’s presence, so I took the lead, crawling inside on my stomach. I used my hands with the arms on my flight pack to move enough debris that we could slide the second woman out.
There were more. Almost without thinking about it, I let myself slide back into the mindset I’d held for the past two years. Sublimating what I wanted to do in favor of doing what needed to be done.
Minutes ran into one another as we worked. I could see Rachel growing progressively more short-tempered, slower to give the orders, hanging back, rushing with the jobs.
That ended when we rescued a child that had a puppy wrapped in her arms. She clutched the limp animal like it was a security blanket, not crying, not speaking. She only stared at the ground, coughing hoarsely whenever she had to move. Her parents had been on either side of her, and neither had made it.
The paramedics fit her with an oxygen mask, but they failed to pry the animal from her arms.
I looked at Rachel, but she only shook her head.
Rachel’s power healed animals, but this one was gone.
From the moment we left that girl to be loaded onto a stretcher and carried off to firmer ground, Rachel moved a little more quickly, a little more decisively.
We finished with one site where the ground had collapsed and people had fallen into a depression, and then moved on to the next area. Some heroes were working alongside the authorities to try to rescue people from a building that had partially tipped over.
Clockblocker was there, along with Vista. I joined my powers to theirs in finding people and opening the way. Frozen time was used on panels, which were subsequently layered, so that one could offer support if another stopped working prematurely. Vista reinforced areas, then opened doorways, as I designated rooms where people were trapped within.
A golden light streaked across the sky in the wake of Scion’s flight, just along the horizon. A thinner beam being directed from Scion to the ground as he passed.
The aftershock of his passing took time to reach us. Steam started to billow, but the forcefield absorbed it.
The shuddering of the ground was more problematic. The entire city rumbled in response to the distant attack, a blow that was no doubt slicing deep into the earth’s crust, forcing everything to resettle.
The building we were working on was among those things that resettled. I watched as the building started to slide where it was resting against the building beside it, slowly descending, building speed.
My flight pack kicked in, and I flew through a window. I could feel the glass scrape against my scalp and the fabric of my costume.
I found one person, a twenty-something guy, took hold of their wrist, and pulled them behind me, running and using my flight pack at the same time.
Tearing him through the window meant slashing him against the shattered glass, and the weight wasn’t something I could manage with my flight pack. The building fell down around the people on the ground as I fell too far, too fast.
The wing on my flight pack was still broken. Couldn’t trust the propulsion.
I let him fall into a tree instead, from a solid two stories above, and then focused the rest of my energy into pulling out of the plunge.
The building was still crumbling as I landed a distance away. The rumble brought other, smaller structures down. I stood and watched as it continued its course.
There’d been seven more people to rescue inside. The other buildings in the area that had been caught up in the domino effect had contained three more. That was just in my range. How many more were dying as he continued towards the mainland, cutting deep into the plate of land that the landmass was perched on?
He hadn’t even been near us. Closer to New York or Philadelphia than anything. More lives taken, purely collateral.
When the dust settled, I moved in to help the people who had been on the ground. Vista and Clockblocker had protected most, between a dome and a shelf of land to provide shelter. Rachel, for her part, had helped others run in time, snatching them up with her dogs, but I counted three more dead, one dying.
Seeing them like that, bleeding, still warm, it caught me off guard. A kind of anxiety rose in the pit of my stomach, like an impulse to do something coupled with the frustration of knowing that everything I could manage to come up with was futile, hopeless. I either couldn’t do anything or I couldn’t think of what to do. It put me in mind of being back at high school, before I had my powers. Of being a child, powerless and unable to act.
I saw the image of Parian holding Foil in my mind’s eye, and it was joined by an almost sick feeling of mingled relief and fear. I knew exactly what I wanted and I was terrified to seek it out.
I could feel that same impatience Rachel had expressed earlier, but I couldn’t turn my back on this. I got the guy out of the tree and found him okay, but for a broken arm. He didn’t thank me, but I let myself chalk that up to him being in shock. I almost stumbled over to the latest injured and I attended to the wounded until the medics pulled themselves together, got organized and relieved me.
Then I backed away, flexing my hands, feeling how stiff they were, battered by my attempts at moving things, at pushing things aside. My gloves, too, were stiff, crusted with dried blood, layered with dirt and fresh blood.
I looked at Rachel, and saw her gazing at the portal.
I didn’t really have a home anymore. Knowing my old house was leveled, that the cemetery where my mother had been laid to rest was gone, and that I’d never really come back here to hang out with the Undersiders… it hurt in a way that was very different from a knife wound, being shot or being burned. A crushing feeling, more like. But it was tough for reasons beyond the fact that I considered it home. I’d relinquished Brockton Bay, and my concern right now was more to do with the residents than the place itself.
I didn’t have a home in Chicago. Not in the jails, either.
But Rachel had forged a home for herself, and it had been in arm’s reach since we’d arrived.
Bastard and the dogs seemed to know I’d decided before I said or did anything. Rachel and I fell in step behind them.
Rachel mounted Bastard before we got to the portal. The efforts to erect a proper support beneath the portal had been set back by Scion’s strafing run, which left the portal hanging in the sky. Train tracks extended out from the portal in every direction, twisted and broken where collapsing ground had pulled other sections away.
There had been a tower erected around the portal, but it had collapsed into shambles as the ground dropped. Now they were using the pieces to form the general structure for a tower of ramps that would lead up to the portal.
Bastard picked up speed as he approached the tower, then set his claws on one of the ramps. The tower wavered perilously as Bastard leaped up to a higher point, coming to a rest on the very top of the dilapidated structure. It didn’t look like there were nearly enough reinforcements, and I could see everyone present tense as they saw the mutated wolf’s weight come to rest.
That tension redoubled as the wolf flexed its muscles, hunching down, and then leaped, more up than across, to get to the portal itself. A few planks of wood broke in that sudden, powerful movement, and one rail of the train track fell free as the wolf scrabbled for a grip on the ground beneath the portal.
When she was gone, the people beneath simply resumed work, heads down, dirty, defeated.
I took flight, entering the portal for the first time.
The tower that contained the portal had a counterpart in Gimel, a matching tower, tall and riddled with train tracks, like a train station designed by Escher, tall rather than squat, with wide doorways for the trains to exit, and complicated reinforcements for the aboveground tracks, positioned so as not to interfere with the tracks below.
I flew out through one of those gates, catching up with Rachel.
Trains extended in every direction from the portal, on tracks that extended out into the middle of nowhere, into pristine forest and mountains. They were long, almost absurdly long.
Then again, the whole idea had been to have instant evacuation. Rather than have people make their way to trains, they’d had eight trains that simply spanned the length of Brockton Bay, so any given individual had to find the nearest train car and make their way down the aisle to an empty seat.
Around the tower, a small, odd settlement had sprung up. All of the sensibility of the city, but contained to a small area. Tall buildings, wide streets, and a look that matched up with a city proper rather than a smaller town. It was as though someone had cut and pasted the big city into the middle of this landscape.
On any other day, it would have been energizing, the fresh air, the sunny day, the green and the blue water of the bay, subtly different from the shape of the bay I knew. But today wasn’t that day.
People at benches were clipping the corners off of refugee’s drivers licenses and trading them for food rations and tents. Everything was prepped, set up in advance, and people were being orderly, even though the lines were so lengthy it looked like it might be hours before they got what they wanted.
Those that already had their kits were setting up or settling into spaces they’d designated for themselves. Some clustered close to the settlement, while others spaced out, where they’d have more elbow room. The tents were identical, dotting the area. The kits, apparently, included signs, and these same signs listed family names and details.
John and Jane Roe. 1 Diabetic.
Jason Ao. Looking for Sharon Ao my wife. A crude picture was drawn beside the message.
I scanned the signs, looking for names I might recognize. I headed in the direction Rachel had gone, but I moved carefully, making a mental note of everything I saw.
It was an extension of what I’d seen back in Los Angeles. People trying to cope against something where coping was a pipe dream. There were some breaking down in tears, people getting angry, those who had withdrawn into themselves.
In each expression, there was something that echoed my own feelings. A part of me wanted to hide from that, but another part of me knew I couldn’t.
It wouldn’t do any good, but I made a mental note of faces, of the pain, the loss. People who’d been removed from their homes and had all hopes for the future dashed. If I ever had the opportunity to get revenge, to get back at Scion for doing this, I wanted to remember these faces, find just a little more strength, make it hurt that much more.
But I wasn’t one for simply wanting to help, paying lip service and promising vengeance felt hollow. Instead, as a token gesture, something that might not even be noticed, I gathered up every mosquito in range and proceeded to murder them with other bugs. I kept the biting flies.
I wrapped the bugs around me. Fuck PR. The faint weight of the insects was reassuring, like a blanket. A barrier against the world, like Tecton’s armor or Rachel’s intimidating nature.
A sign caught my eye. I stopped, looking over the people in the small campsite.
No further details, no requests. I almost hadn’t recognized them.
Alan, Emma’s dad, had lost weight since I’d seen him last. He’d noticed me, and looked up, staring, his eyes red. His wife sat in a lawn chair beside him, while Emma’s older sister sat on a blanket at her mother’s feet, her mother resting one hand on her head.
Zoe’s -Emma’s mom’s- eyes were wet. Emma’s sister looked equally upset.
Emma wasn’t in sight. I could guess what they were crying about.
Alan was staring at me now, and there was an inexplicable accusation in the look. His wife took his hand and held it, but he didn’t move his eyes a fraction.
When Anne, Emma’s sister, looked up at me, there was a glimmer of the same. A hint of blame.
Emma hadn’t made it. How? Why? Why could they all leave while Emma wouldn’t be able to? I might have thought Emma had been somewhere out of reach, but that didn’t fit. There would be no certainty she was dead. They’d be putting her name on a sign and hoping she turned up?
And why would they blame me? For failing to stop this from happening?
I turned and walked away.
Once I was out of their immediate vicinity, I took a few running steps and let my flight pack lift me up. Better than zig-zagging between the campsites.
I floated over a sea of people with their heads down, their expressions alternately emotional and rigidly stoic in defeat. Hundreds or thousands of tents surrounded the area, and string fences no higher than one’s calf bounded off each of the sites.
Rachel had made her way outside the city limits, past even the tents that were set a five or six minute walk from any of the others. I followed her over the hill, to another small set of buildings. Cabins set on what had been Captain’s Hill in Earth Bet. I knew they were Rachel’s because of the dogs that were scattered around the premises, a small crowd milling around Bastard and the other mutant canines.
The largest cabin had three large bison skulls placed over the cabin door. Bastard and the other dogs had been tied up outside like horses, left to shrink, with a trough of water to drink from.
I landed, and I was struck by the realization that my flight pack might not be so easy to recharge, now. I still had the spare, fully charged, but Defiant might have his hands full, and the infrastructure or resources might not be available.
It was a minor thing. Inconsequential, in terms of everything that was going on. It wasn’t like the flight pack was going to matter a bit against Scion. But it was one more reminder of what was truly happening.
I stopped and turned to look over the landscape. I turned my head right until the small settlement and the sea of tents wasn’t quite visible, then turned it to the left to do the same. Focusing on the nature, the untouched wilderness.
Is this what Brockton Bay will look like, if we can’t win this fight? How many years does it take for the last building to collapse, for dirt and grass to drown away any and all signs we were ever there?
It was a daunting thought, a heavy thought that joined countless others.
The dogs barked as I approached on foot. I kept calm and waited.
I recognized the girl with the funny colored eyes and darker skin from Rachel’s hideout. I’d met her on my last week in Brockton Bay. With her presence alone, the animals collectively quieted. A single dog barked one last time, with two others reflexively following with barks of their own, but that ended it. The girl held the door open from me, and the dogs didn’t protest as I made my way inside.
Rachel was sitting on a couch with dogs arranged around her. Angelica was afforded a bit of favoritism, and received a touch of extra attention from her master. She, in turn, was extending a gentleness to Rachel that went beyond Angelica’s poor health and the glacial movements that accompanied chronic pain. Rachel looked defensive, her eyes cast down at the ground. Something more severe than the whole Scion business.
Charlotte, Forrest, and Sierra were present too, keeping their distance, keeping silent as we met again for the first time in over a year and a half, not moving from where they stood.
The kids gathered at the far end of the room, silently occupying themselves with a mass of puppies. I recognized Mason and Kathy, and didn’t recognize Ephraim at first glance. Jessie was conspicuously absent, but nobody seemed to be reacting to that gap. She’d left on her own, maybe. Found family.
Aidan sat off on his own, a pigeon sitting on his knee. He opened and closed his hands, and the bird hopped from the one knee to the other, then back again. Something had happened there, but it wasn’t a focus. Not right now.
Tattletale sat in her computer chair, but the computer screens were dark, the computers themselves unlit, quiet and still.
I didn’t like the emotion I saw on her face any more than I liked what I saw with the others.
It wouldn’t be Grue. No. That didn’t fit. He’d been flying back, and he hadn’t been so far away that he’d be in the path of danger.
Not Imp either. Parian and Foil had been fine the last time I’d seen.
Tattletale was best situated to focus on Brockton Bay. Who had made it. Who hadn’t. And there was only one Brockton Bay resident who truly mattered, that hadn’t been accounted for.
I felt a lump in my throat growing with every heartbeat, expanding every time I tried to swallow and failed.
Without waiting for a response, for any words of pity, or even verification, I turned and pushed my way out the door, taking flight.
I flew. Up over the bay, away from the city, away from this alien Earth. I blinded myself with my own swarm, drowned everything out with their drone, their buzz, their roar.
All of this time, the sacrifices, the loss of security.
The loss of me.
To do what? To stop this?
It had happened despite our attempts to the contrary.
To reconnect with my dad?
We had reconnected. I’d come clean about who and what I was. We’d built up a relationship that was new, accounting for the fact that we were changed people. Now, as I continued to fly, to put distance between myself and everything, I wasn’t sure it had been worth it.
The wind blew my hair, and I let my swarm move away, revealing the open ocean all around me. There was only the wind and the sound of the water to hear. The smell of salt water I’d come to miss.
My dad was gone, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get verification. I couldn’t handle it if there wasn’t verification.
I was cognizant of the fuel gauge, of the dwindling power of the flight pack. I knew I’d have to go back. I knew there was stuff to do.
But I’d spent the last age trying to build towards something, to prepare for the pivotal moment. I’d played my role, helped stop Hookwolf. I’d communicated with Foil to urge her to play possum, tracking where the enemy was and what they could see. It had led to us taking down Gray Boy and Siberian, trapping Jack.
And now the death toll was climbing. Scion continued his rampage, and I hadn’t even had the guts to own up to the failure.
I couldn’t bring myself to go back and do something minor. It was arrogant, proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do search and rescue while the population was steadily scoured from the planet, the major cities wiped out like a human child might kick down anthills.
There was nothing in the worlds that I wanted more than a hug and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for one. My dad and Rachel were the only ones I could trust to offer one without further questions, without platitude or commentary, and I couldn’t get to Rachel without going through the others. My dad was even farther from my reach.
The mask I’d erected to see things through to this point was cracking and I couldn’t bear to show anyone my face.
The fuel gauge ticked down. I noted it reaching a critical point, where reaching land before I ran out might be difficult, if not impossible.
The sky was darkening. No clouds, no city lights. A cloud passed over sunset and the moon overhead, and it was startling just how dark things became.
A fluorescent glare cut through the darkness. My hair and my swarm stirred. I could feel the breeze from behind me.
I didn’t turn around.
“Your call,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet. “I’d like you to have my back, but I understand if-”
I shook my head, my hair flying out to either side. I turned around and floated over to the doorway that hung in the air.
I set foot on solid ground, and felt weirdly heavy when I did. It took me a moment to find my balance.
Tattletale caught me as the door closed beside us. Then she wrapped her arms around me in a hug. Odd, that she was shorter than me. When did that happen? I could remember her giving me a one-armed hug once, a long time ago. She’d been just a little taller than me then. Just the right height for a hug. Now we were like Foil and Parian. I was taller, receiving comfort from someone shorter than me.
I’d underestimated her. She didn’t ask any questions or offer any sympathy.
“They’re all here,” she said. “Ready?”
I hesitated, then spoke. My voice was rough. “Ready.”
We didn’t budge. She didn’t break the hug.
“Fuck it all,” I muttered. My voice was still weird with emotion. Maybe I’d keep my mouth shut at this meeting.
“Fuck it,” she agreed.
That said, we broke apart, took a second to breathe, and then made our way into the meeting room.