Scourge 19.7

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The heroes found positions and opened fire on Echidna.  The difference in this and the fighting as it had been before was noticeable.  Small, but noticeable.  Capes weren’t communicating and teamwork was faltering as a result.  Capes like the red lightning girl and Chronicler were struggling to find people to use their powers on.

I didn’t want anyone else running or flying headlong into the thread, so I gathered my more harmless and useless bugs in a thick cluster around each piece of thread, until each thread appeared to be a black bar a half-foot across.

Clockblocker appeared at my side.  He was in fighting shape, though he didn’t look it with his damaged costume.

“Anything I can do?” he asked.  “Anything else set up?”

I shook my head.  “She dissolves the thread if it touches her flesh, and things are too frenetic.  Someone would get hurt.”

“Gotcha,” he said.

He didn’t move from where he was standing.  A minute passed as Echidna was bombarded.  She wasn’t quite at full fighting strength, she didn’t have many capes to clone, and she was apparently hesitant to charge or make any sudden movements with the possibility of there being more thread.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”  Clockblocker asked.

“That I had something in mind?” I asked.  “I guess a part of me thought that maybe if you figured out what I was doing, you wouldn’t have frozen the gun.”

“That’s not fair.  I don’t think I’ve given you any reason to think I’m vindictive like that.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “Maybe I didn’t want you to give her a tell, or do something that Eidolon might notice.  I’m not sure why, not entirely.”

“So you’re not really doing anything that those guys out there aren’t.  When it comes down to it, you’re suspicious of us, just like we are of each other.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “It’s… a lot to take in.  What do you even do from here on out?”

“I don’t know,” Clockblocker said.

A series of neon green concentric circles exploded outward from a point in the sky above, rippling out to disappear over each horizon.  Eidolon had engaged one Alexandria-clone, and whatever he’d done seemed to have finished her off.  One left.

Echidna belched out a mass of clones, and I added my bugs to the firepower that the heroes threw their way.

Some slipped past the loose perimeter the heroes had established, and were promptly gunned down.

“I’m guessing Tattletale told you the particulars of my power?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The range?  I’m surprised you knew it would work through interconnected pieces.  Hell, I barely knew I’d be able to push that far.  I guess that makes this one of the rare days my power’s working at peak efficiency?  But you somehow knew that?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Tattletale.  She was getting out of the van, and was joined by Faultline, Labyrinth, and four members of the Travelers: Sundancer, Ballistic, Genesis in her wheelchair and a blond boy who resembled but didn’t quite match Oliver in appearance.  Tattletale was exchanging words with Regent.  Getting an update?

“You’re not responding,” Clockblocker noted.

“I”m not sure what you want me to say.”

Yes, Clockblocker,” he added a falsetto note to his voice, bent one wrist to a ninety degree angle as he raised his hand to his mouth, “Of course we know more about how your powers work than you do.  How else would we kick your posteriors with such frequency?

He faked a high society woman’s laugh, where the laugh was said as much as it was uttered.  A cape nearby, one I recognized as Astrologer from the New York team, shot us a dirty look, before she returned to calling down projectiles from the sky.

“I don’t sound like that,” I commented, trying not to sound as irritated as I felt.

“I thought it fit pretty well for one of the wealthy crime lords of Brockton Bay,” he said.

I was a little caught off guard, to see this side of Clockblocker, or more that he was showing it to me.  Was it humor as a coping mechanism?  Or attempted humor as a coping mechanism, to be more on target?  I could believe it, from the guy who’d chosen Clockblocker as his cape name.  But to let me see anything other than the hard-nosed defender of the peace was something different.  A show of trust, letting his guard down some?

Or maybe it was just a coping mechanism, and he had a hell of a lot to cope with.  Only an hour ago, he’d probably felt he had his whole future laid out for him, a career in the Wards transitioning into a career with the Protectorate, with funds, fame and every side benefit and piece of paper he might need to mask his real identity.  Now nobody had any idea how that would work out.

Another circle exploded across the sky.  Alexandria-clone-two was down.  Legend and Eidolon descended in Echidna’s direction, keeping a healthier distance.

Whatever Eidolon had been hitting the clones with, considering the area it was covering and the fact that it was apparently taking Alexandria out of action, it suggested a kind of attack that couldn’t be used near the ground, because it might have leveled whole sections of the city.

Tattletale caught up to me.  The others in her retinue hung back.

“Was that you two?” she asked.  She pointed at Echidna, where the right and left sides of the monster’s body weren’t quite lined up.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You realize that if you pull off the dramatic sacrifice, Grue won’t be able to take it?  He’s relying on you to be his crutch for the time being.  You can’t kick it out from under him mid-step.”

“He’s stronger than you’re saying,” I murmured.  I eyed Clockblocker, all too aware that he was listening in.  Tattletale was aware, too, which meant she was trying to communicate something.  “Can we finish this discussion elsewhere?”

“Why don’t I just leave you alone?” Clockblocker offered.  “I wanted to make myself available in case you wanted to repeat the maneuver, but you’re saying that’s not so doable.”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “But thank you.”

“Signal me if you need me,” he answered.

Alexandria had a steel, fire-scorched girder in her hands, retrieved from a fallen building nearby.  She wasn’t flying, but she walked forward, relying on the girder’s size and sheer presence to clear her way through the assembled capes.

Her back was straight, her chin raised, as her subordinates stared.  Her black costume, it was fortunate for her, served to hide the worst smears and stains from Noelle’s vomit.

She swung the girder at Echidna like someone else might swing a baseball bat, and Echidna was knocked off her feet and into a building face.  The girder didn’t bend like the traffic light had.  This was a piece of metal intended to help support buildings.

Echidna opened one mouth, no doubt to vomit, and Alexandria flipped the metal around, driving one end into the open mouth and through Echidna, the other end spearing out of the monster’s stomach.

Before Echidna could react or retaliate, Alexandria flew straight up into the air, joining Legend and Eidolon.

As attacks went, it wasn’t a game changer.  Something else?  A symbol?  A gesture to us?

Echidna roared, lunged, only to hit a forcefield.  The field shattered and she stopped short, the girder rammed further through her.

To say we were at full strength would be a lie.  Too many had been injured.  Still, we’d pinned her down.  I could see Noelle atop Echidna’s back, craning her head to look at me.  Through some signal or some shared knowledge, Echidna was following Noelle’s recommendation, avoiding sudden movements, enduring every attack that came her way rather than risking running headlong into more frozen silk.

In fairness, she still had something of an upper hand.  None of our attacks were slowing her down, not really.  She was healing faster than we hurt her, and our side was getting tired, burning resources.  We weren’t sustaining casualties, but we weren’t winning this fight either.

With our current disorganization, it was only a matter of time before she popped out another clone that was capable of turning the tables.

“We need to finish her,” I said.

“Sundancer could do it, probably, but she would need convincing.  Labyrinth’s going to set up while we wait for Scrub,” Tattletale replied.

“Where is he?”

“Bit dangerous to have him riding along in a car.  We put him in another, and he nuked the engine.  We rigged a sled, and he should arrive in a bit, depending on how many times they need to stop and replace the chain,” she said.

“He’s going to open the door?”

Open is probably the wrong word.”

“What’s the right word?”

“I’d say it’s more like using a battering ram than a doorknob.”

“With dimensions,” I said.

Through dimensions.  Knocking down the door, not knocking down the house.”

“I’m not seeing the difference between the two,” I said.  “What’s to say a given area is one thing over another?”

That,” Tattletale said, “Is Labyrinth’s job.”

I could see Labyrinth.  Faultline was right next to her, apparently talking her through the process.  Arches and high walls rose like cresting waves, locking into place as they met one another.  It amounted to what looked like a church, if only four paces in diameter.

“You think that’ll be easier for Scrub to punch through.”

“Positive,” Tattletale said.

“How do you punch through to the right place?”

That, Tattletale said, “is something we’ll have to trust to luck and an educated guess.”

“Not reassuring,” I said.  “What’s going on?  I’m worried.  Nearly getting yourself shot, twice?  Provoking the Triumvirate?  Spending however much it costs to bring Faultline into the city, after the financial hit you took pulling the soldier gambit on Coil?  Now this?  The dimensional hole?”

“It’s how I operate.”

“Yeah, you’ve been reckless before, got cut by Jack, provoked Glory Girl.  But this is turning the dial to eleven.”

“We came out ahead in the end, both times.”

“It wasn’t necessary.  There were other ways around either of those situations.”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Tattletale said.

Echidna roared again, each of her mouths making a slightly different noise, combining into a discordant noise that made almost everyone present wince.  Weld tore his way free of her side, two capes in his grip.

Still five captives inside, I noted.  I saw Weld climb free and drop to the ground.  He wasn’t going back in for more.

Tattletale took me by the arm and led me back and away from the fighting, to where we had more privacy to speak.  I used bugs to guide some capes at the back lines toward some clones who’d flown into an alley.  It was odd, to be playing a part in a high-speed chase while standing still, but the capes were closing the distance on their quarry nonetheless.

“I’m just looking for answers,” I told her.  “This dimensional hole, provoking the heroes, apparently spending a lot of money I’m pretty sure you don’t have.  I… I can kind of get that you’re feeling a bit aimless, a bit unfocused.  Maybe that comes across as recklessness.  I’m feeling like that too.  We beat Coil, and so much of what we’ve done over the past while, it was with the end goal of doing just that.  So I get if you’re not sure of where to go from here.”

“Except you’ve been talking to the heroes, and you’ve had that to help center yourself, figure out where you stand,” Tattletale said.  “I haven’t.”

“That’s it?  You need to talk to someone?”

“No.  That’s not what I’m saying,” she said.  She sighed.  “Yes.  Kind of.  It’s only part of it.  Who the hell am I going to talk to that grasps things on a level I do?  Do you really expect me to find a therapist and sit down and not pick him apart faster than he can decipher me?”

“You could talk to me,” I said.

“Not when you’re part of the problem, part of what I’d need to work past.”

“That’s not fair,” I told her.

“No, it isn’t,” she admitted.

Echidna spat out volumes of clones at the defensive line.  The reaction was only a little slower than it should have been.  Squads still weren’t operating as squads.  Legend and Eidolon were offering support fire from above, but they were standing apart from the rest, in a much different way than Tattletale and I were.

“It’s not you,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more about my relationship with you.”

“This isn’t the point where you confess your undying love for me, is it?”

She snorted.  “No.”

“Then what?  Or is this just going to be another secret you keep?”

“All of the good secrets are getting found out anyways, or so Regent said.  I suspected they would be, for the record.  Part the reason I dished like I did was to put us in a good position in case the juicy stuff did come out.”

“Not sure I buy that,” I said.

“You don’t have to.  It was only a part of it.  And I understand if a more in-depth explanation is overdue, but I need to turn it around in my head some, get it to the point where I can share it without it coming out wrong.”

“Your trigger event?” I asked.

“That’s a part of it.  But can we please put that off until after we’ve torn a hole in reality and stopped the pseudo-Endbringer?”

“Just tell me this isn’t another educated guess.”

“It’s not.  Except for the bit where we might be able to find the right universe.”

“When you’re saying it’s not an educated guess, is that because you’re sure or because it’s an uneducated guess?”

“I’m mostly sure.”

I sighed, loud enough for her to hear.

She grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the van she’d brought.  Labyrinth’s church had expanded considerably, and Scrub was very deliberately keeping his distance, keeping the company of Gregor the Snail, Newter, Shamrock and Spitfire.  They looked a little the worse for wear, with burns, scrapes and bandages.  Had Tattletale pulled them away from a job?

“Hey, F,” Tattletale said, smiling.

Faultline didn’t return the smile.  “You’re aware that I’m going to track you down, beat you to a pulp and leave you tied up for the authorities to collect if we don’t get our payment?”

“You’ll get your payment the minute I have access to a computer Shatterbird hasn’t toasted,” Tattletale said.  “No sweat.”

“I’m harboring serious doubts,” Faultline said.  She glanced at Echidna, “But I can look at this situation, and I understand if there’s a rush here.  How does this work?”

“Really simple,” Tattletale said.  “We should get Labyrinth clear, though.  Then I’ll show you.”

Faultline gave her a look, then hurried to Labyrinth’s side, dodging a wall that was erupting from the ground to fit into the greater structure.  The ground surrounding the temple-like tower had changed, with an ornate inlay of what looked to be artificial flowers.  The petals were gold leaf, the stems the black-gray metal of iron.  The thorns, I couldn’t help but notice, were real, like needles, sticking out of the ground.  Dangerous ground to tread.

As Faultline led Labyrinth to safety, I put one hand on Tattletale’s shoulder to get her attention.  “You sure?”

“I’ve got a theory.  With the clues on the passengers that we got not so long ago, about the powers, the idea of how the things work, I’m getting a sense of the bigger picture.  I think I could spend a decade working it out, but the basics of it?  I think there’s a lot of powers that are a lot more versatile than their owners are aware, because they never get the opportunity to leverage it.”

Above us, Legend followed through on one cape’s attacks, opening a wound in Noelle’s side.  Grace leaped in as the laser stopped, grabbed a cape that had been exposed by Legend’s attack, then kicked herself free, bringing the cape with her.

Another cape exhaled a cloud of what might have been acid vapor in Noelle’s direction, apparently to slow the healing of the wound.  It didn’t make much of a difference.

“Based on what?” I asked Tattletale.

“It’s all part of a whole,” she replied, absently.  Her focus was on the others.  “Scrub!  Get closer to the tower!  Everyone else, get back!  Labyrinth, don’t use your power any more!  Hold off!”

Heads turned.  People had no doubt noticed the tower, but now something was happening.

Scrub stepped closer, and one of his explosions ripped through the air.  Another followed shortly after, intersecting one area of altered road.

Like a gas in the air that had been ignited, the entire thing went up in a heartbeat.  In an instant, it was a white void, as undefinable as Grue’s darkness, perceivable by the edges, but with zero depth or dimension.  He’d shunted out the entire structure, as well as everything that had altered on the ground, but nothing had come back.

The door had been kicked out of the frame.

To look at it, I’d almost expected a rush of wind as the void on the other side sucked everything into it, like the vacuum of space.  There was only the sensation of a breeze as the air flowed into it.

Alexandria landed next to us, with enough force that I nearly lost my footing.  Every set of eyes that wasn’t on Echidna was on us, now.

“What did you do?”

“Made a hole,” Tattletale said.

Apparently.  You didn’t ask?  You didn’t consider the ramifications of this?  Close it now.”

“Who said we could close it?” Tattletale asked.

“You’re a fool,” Alexandria said.  She set one hand around Tattletale’s neck.  She could have killed Tattletale with a squeeze, but she didn’t.  A threat.

“I’d be careful,” a cape growled, from the periphery of the scene.  I didn’t recognize the man.  He wore a costume in orange with red metal claws.  Alexandria turned to look at him, and he added, “Wasn’t so long ago that your partner called us all fools.”

In the background, Echidna screeched.  She fought her way forward through the crowd, but the battle lines were holding, now.  Our side hadn’t been surprised, this time, and the only capes in her reach were capes she couldn’t absorb.  The rest were staying well back.

She wasn’t an Endbringer, in the end.  It would be impossible to trap any of them like this, to get an advantage.  They had other tools, ways to exert pressure that were entirely independent of their own abilities.  Behemoth generated storms and background radiation, Leviathan had the waves, the Simurgh had her scream.

“That wasn’t him,” Alexandria said.  “It wasn’t Eidolon who said that.”

“Close enough,” the cape said.  “Let her go.  You can’t throw around authority you don’t have.”

“As of this moment, I am still Chief Director of the PRT, and I am the leader of the Protectorate team that overlooks the second largest city in the United States.  That hasn’t changed.  At the end of the day, I’ll face any consequences I have to, but for now, I’m still in charge.”

“Your authority doesn’t mean anything if they don’t accept it,” Tattletale said, staring Alexandria in the eyes.  “Put me down.”

“I can’t let this go any further.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Tattletale said, “There’s no further to go.  It’s pretty much gone.  All that’s left is to find out whether this is a useful trick we just pulled or a really useful trick.”

“Useful?”  Alexandria asked.

“Worst case scenario, it’s a place we can dump Echidna.  A place where she won’t be able to hurt anyone.”

“Or?”

“Or Labyrinth figures out that she can work with this.”

The hole blurred, colors consolidating into forms.  I could see Faultline standing by Labyrinth, arms folded.

“Labyrinth… the shaker twelve,” Alexandria said.

“That’s the one,” Tattletale said.  “Mind letting go of my throat?”

Alexandria let go, but settled her hands on Tattletale’s shoulders.  The implied threat was still there, just not so imminent.

“It’s deep,” Labyrinth said.  Her voice was faint, as if from far away.  “There’s so much there.  Worlds that I didn’t make.”

“All parts of a whole,” Tattletale mused.  “Okay, Labyrinth.  The world we’re looking for isn’t very deep at all.  In fact, it’s very, very close to the surface.  When you push into that world, it’ll feel easier.  Like a path that someone’s already walked, more than once.”

“There’s two like that.”

I would have missed it if it weren’t for my bugs.  Alexandria reacted, stiffening, a slight straightening of her back.

Behind us, Echidna roared and threw herself against the barrier of ice and forcefields that surrounded her.

I turned toward Alexandria.  “What?”

“I didn’t say anything,” she responded.  Her hands still rested on Tattletale’s shoulders.

You didn’t have to, I thought.  But I wasn’t sure how to use the information, and I didn’t want to distract anyone from the subject at hand.

“Look,” Labyrinth said.  “One’s like this…”

The image shifted.  I wasn’t the only one who walked around to get a better view through the window.  The landscape on the other side the window was different, the grassy hills that had been Brockton Bay before settlement, the distant beaches.  There were houses, but they were squat and blocky, half-overgrown.

Again, the slightest reaction from Alexandria.

“…And here’s the other.”

Another landscape.  A city, like Brockton Bay, with different buildings.  Intact, undamaged.  It looked like a back road, one that didn’t get much in the way of traffic.  Apparently the streets in that Brockton Bay were in different places.

“Earth Aleph,” Tattletale said.

The Travelers’ world?

“Are you insane?” Alexandria asked.  “There’s sanctions, treaties, truces.  If you open this hole to Earth Aleph, it could mean a war between universes.”

“If that war was possible,” Tattletale said, “We’d have had it already.  The possibility of a whole other world of resources is too much to pass up.  Sure, our side has more raw firepower, by a factor of a hundred, but their side has just as many nukes.  It’s a zero sum war.”

“You don’t understand what you’re getting into.”

“What I understand is that accidents happen, and everyone in earshot will call this particular interuniversal portal as an accident, because it keeps things peaceful.  I also understand that this keeps Brockton Bay on the map.  Any other circumstance, people are going to keep trying to scrap this city, to accept that it’s too costly to rebuild, that the criminal element holds too much power.  They’ll throw bill after bill out there until the right combination of people are in power, the right hands can be greased, and Brockton Bay gets bulldozed and paved over.”

“It still could,” a cape said.

“Oh, sure, theoretically,” Tattletale said.  “But there’s really two options here.  Either we spread the word, and a whole sub-industry explodes around this simple little doorway, accessing and trading information between worlds, research, a mess of other stuff, a city full of residents who’ve put up with disaster after disaster get work, get their homes rebuilt, and ultimately get their second chance.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” I finished her thought, “And we get none of that.”

“Or we keep this a secret,” Tattletale agreed, “We do what Alexandria wants, and everything stays hush hush, just the way the big bad secret organization likes it.”

I could see the capes around us paying attention.  Ten, fifteen capes, from cities all across America and Canada.

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Alexandria said.

“Fucking you over?”

“You’re putting everything at stake.  All of us, this world.  Even if we ignore the chance of our very first interdimensional war-”

“Traitor!” someone shouted from the sidelines, cutting her off.

Alexandria turned her head to try and identify the culprit.  I got the impression she wasn’t used to people insulting her.  There were more capes nearby.  Miss Militia had backed up, but was keeping her eyes on the spot where Echidna was trapped.  On the far side of the clearing where the gateway stood, Gregor the Snail escorted a bound Sundancer and Ballistic to the periphery of the area.

“I can’t help but agree with Alexandria,” Faultline said.  “This is reckless.”

“More than a little,” Tattletale agreed.  “But I’m not sure you heard the full story.  I only heard it secondhand, and I was with you from the time your helicopter arrived.  When we last ran into Newter, you guys were looking for dirt on Cauldron.  You still looking?”

Faultline’s eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

“No less than ten minutes ago, Eidolon’s evil double admitted full culpability.  The Triumvirate, much of the upper levels of the Protectorate.  Kidnapping people from other universes, experimenting on them to figure out some power-inducing formulas, dropping them here.  Might help you to understand why people are giving Alexandria the evil eye.”

Faultline glanced at Alexandria.  “A little too easy, to find out like this.”

“It’s not the full story,” Tattletale said, “Not by half.  But it should inform your call on whether to side with her or not.”

Faultline frowned.  “That’s not… no.  Maybe she is the person behind the scenes.  Fine.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she might be right.  Better to have Labyrinth find another universe to link to.  Maybe one where a mountain is blocking the other side of this gateway, if we can’t close it.”

“Why do you have to be so reasonable?” Tattletale asked.  “That’s the worst of both worlds.”

“It’s not war,” Faultline retorted.

“Stop,” Chevalier said.  People parted to give him room to enter the clearing.  “There’s other concerns.  The deal that was described to me was that the Travelers would do what they could to eliminate Echidna.  Failing that, we find a way to move her through the gap and deposit her in a place where she can do no harm.  That’s our first priority.”

There was a murmur of agreement.

“Want to go home, Sundancer?  B-man?” Tattletale asked.  “Genesis?  Oliver?”

Ballistic, Genesis and Oliver stared at the opening.  Sundancer was shaking her head.

“What?”

Sundancer spoke, “I… it’s not home anymore, is it?  I’m not me.  Can’t go back to the way things were.  I’ve killed people.  Accidentally, but I’ve killed.  I have powers.  If I went there, I wouldn’t be Marissa.  I’d be… Sundancer.  I’d be famous.  If anyone found out about me, or if there was something in the media that goes between worlds, that clued them in…”

“They don’t have to know,” Tattletale said.

“I don’t… I don’t know if I can.”

I spoke up, “Are you talking about going home, or killing Noelle?”

“She’s… she was my best friend.”

“She’s not Noelle anymore,” I said.

Sundancer shook her head.

“Go,” Tattletale said.  “She’s not happy like this.  You do this, then you go home.  You give your mom a hug, fabricate an excuse to explain why you disappeared, and then go back to life as normal.  Never use your powers again, if you don’t want to.  See if you can eventually convince yourself that none of this ever happened.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“No.  But it’s a hell of a lot better than staying here, isn’t it?”  Tattletale asked.

“She’s my friend.”

“Was,” I said.  “It’s a big difference.”

Sundancer looked at the mound of ice, rock and forcefields.  Echidna was thrusting her clawed hands through the barriers, only for them to be reinforced.

“Are there… does she have anyone inside her?”

“There’s-” Tattletale started.  I flew a bug into her mouth and down her throat, and she choked.

“No,” I lied.  “I’ve been keeping track with my bugs.  Weld and the others got everyone out.”

Saved everyone they could.  If Weld had backed out and nobody else was able to free the small handful that were still trapped, that was it.

Nobody was correcting me.  They knew, but they weren’t correcting me.

Sundancer hung her head.  She started approaching Echidna, her hands cupped in front of her.

“Move!”  Chevalier shouted.  “Clear out of the way!”

Capes began to retreat.  Final patch-up jobs were thrown onto the mound of rock, forcefields and ice before the respective capes turned and ran.

It took Sundancer a long few seconds to form the miniature sun.  When it was formed, she held it over her head, letting it grow with every passing second.

I had to back away as the heat reached me.  I could note how the ice was melting, even though it was a hundred feet away.

Echidna roared and threw herself against her temporary prison.  Rock and melting ice tumbled away.  She began to claw free, until her upper body was exposed.  Capes opened with ranged fire, tearing into her forelimbs and limiting her mobility.  Alexandria dropped Tattletale and cast off her cape, before flying in and helping to hold Echidna in place.

“Marissa!”  Echidna screamed, her voice guttural, voiced from five different mouths.  “Mars!  It’s too soon!  I want to kill them!  I want to kill them all!  Kill this world!  Destroy this universe that did this to me!  Not yet, Mars!”

The sun flew forward, melting pavement as it traveled, before it enveloped Echidna, Alexandria and the prison of ice and stone.

It hung there for nearly a minute, deafening with its sizzling and crackling.

The sun flickered and went out. Echidna wasn’t there any more.  Only sections of her feet were still in contact with the ground, bones and claws scorched black, crumbling and decaying like any part of her did when disconnected from the core that supplied her with power.

Alexandria was there in the midst of it, panting for breath.  Her costume had burned away, and only the metal pieces remained, including helmet, belt and metal underwear, each so hot they were melting and running over her skin.

But Sundancer was already turning away, not wanting to see it for herself.  She pulled off her mask and threw it aside.  Blond hair tumbled down around her shoulders, half-covering her downcast face.

Piece by piece, she removed her costume, not caring in the slightest about the watching crowd.  Each discarded piece sank into the melted ground around her or smoked on contact with it.  When she’d finished, she wore only her camisole and terry shorts.  The ground was still shiny and smoking from the sheer heat as she approached, left cool and solid in her wake.

She stepped into the portal, without a word, and then looked around, confused.  She took another few steps, and passed around the side of the portal as though it were merely a corner, out of sight.

The other Travelers went through next.  Oliver and Genesis didn’t look like anything but ordinary people, with no costume or monstrous form, respectively.  They merely passed through.

Ballistic hesitated for long seconds.  “Trickster?”

“We have him in custody.  He’ll go to the Birdcage,” Chevalier said.

“Good.  Because we don’t want him,” Ballistic said.

He walked through the portal, still wearing his costume.

“Can you close it?” Faultline asked, when Ballistic had disappeared from sight.

“No.  Not really,” Labyrinth said.  “I can pick a different world.  So there’s no war.  Or do like you said, find a place where a mountain covers the hole.”

“Feel free,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “In fact, that might even be more useful.  Can you imagine how significant Brockton Bay might become, if we had a whole unpopulated world to get to, harvest for resources, and Brockton Bay was the terminal you had to pass through?”

Faultline frowned.  “You used us.”

“I hired you.  Not my fault if you didn’t ask for enough money.

Faultline put her arm around Labyrinth’s shoulders.  “Can you find a world without people?”

“I… yes.  There’s one with lots of trees.  I’m looking all over, and I can’t find anyone at all.  Not even on the other side of the oceans.  Only animals.”

“That’ll do,” Faultline said.  She looked at Tattletale, “Not for you.  Only because I couldn’t stand to let her be responsible for an Endbringer finding a defenseless world.”

“Much obliged, whatever the reasoning,” Tattletale replied.  She flashed a smile.

Faultline only frowned and turned to usher Labyrinth away.

“Wait,” someone called out.

Weld, with the red skinned boy and Gully beside him.  They caught up with Faultline’s crew.

Whatever words they exchanged, I didn’t get a chance to hear.  There was no way that the ‘monsters’ could serve the Protectorate.  Faultline was a known element, someone who had, as far as everyone was aware, always been good to the people I was now thinking of as the Cauldron-made.

I couldn’t even begin to guess where they’d go from there, but they’d have stuff to talk about, no doubt.

I’d mentioned to Tattletale that I’d felt adrift, after letting Dinah go.  Untethered, I think, was the word I’d used.  Everyone here now felt like that, to some degree.  The future had never been quite this uncertain.

I saw Alexandria standing by the sideline.  Eidolon had gathered her heavy cape where she’d tossed it aside and was helping to drape it around her shoulders.  I wasn’t the only one looking, but she was oblivious, uncaring.  She still stood with all the confidence in the world.

She was barely covered, with one hand pinching the cape shut in front of her, traces of now-cooled metal lacing through her hair, the eyebrow and eyelashes of her one good eye.  It highlighted the lines at the corner of her eye, a finer metal finding its way into the crevices.  Her other eye held only a scarred over ruin with cooled metal pooled in the deeper recesses.  There were nubs of melted metal rods, no doubt there to help hold a high-end prosthetic in place.  Tinker-made, if she’d been hiding her injury to play the role of the PRT’s Chief Director.

Without Echidna to divide our number, our ranks were free to line up in a rough semicircle around Alexandria and Eidolon.

“Nobody can know what happened today,” Alexandria said, utterly calm.

Someone scoffed.  “You want us to keep your secret?

“Not the secret,” she said, unfazed by the scoff.  “Echidna.  Four capes were inside her when she was scoured away.  More were injured or killed in the course of the fight, or in Shatterbird’s attack.  We can’t cover that up.  We shouldn’t.  They were good capes.  But we can’t tell the whole story.”

“You don’t get to say that,” the ice-generating cape said.  “You have no place, saying that.”

“I won’t argue,” Alexandria said.  “Everything we did, we did for the right reasons.  I understand it’s ugly, without the context.”

Someone at the front spat in her face.  Alexandria didn’t even blink.  She let the spit run down around the ruined pit where her eye had been, much like she had with the molten metal.

“If word were to get out about the clones, the ramifications would be too damaging.  We’ve spent decades cultivating an illusion, that we’re heroes.  Decades shaking the idea that we’re killing machines.  The nature of this fight threatens to reveal just how much damage even the more mundane of us parahumans could do to the common people.  That’s not only the clones and what they did, but how we dealt with the clones, in turn.  We can’t shatter the image that the Protectorate has so painstakingly built, or the entire world will turn on us.”

“And the Protectorate?” Miss Militia asked, her voice hard.

“What of it?”

“The involvement with Cauldron.  It won’t stand, not like this.”

“It has to,” Alexandria replied.  “Too much depends on the Protectorate, even internationally.  If it crumbles, then the whole world suffers for it.  Other teams around the world would go without the resources we provide.  If it means keeping the Protectorate intact, I will step down.  I’ll tender my resignation as Chief Director of the PRT, effective the moment I can reach my desk.  I’ll consent to being watched until the moment I can step down as Alexandria, if you are uncomfortable with me continuing to serve the Protectorate in costume.  Eidolon, I’m sure, will do the same.  Myrddin’s death will be excuse enough for our retirements.”

“What about Legend?” Miss Militia asked.

Alexandria raised her head, staring up at where Legend hung in the air, unmoving.

“He was only aware of the most basic elements.  That Cauldron sold powers, but not how we tested them.  He did not know of our relation to the Nine.”

“He made excuses for you,” Miss Militia said.  “Lied.  We can’t trust him any more than we can trust you.”

“I’m aware.  But what he does next is ultimately up to him.  I am only telling you what I know, and I know he did not know as much as Eidolon and I did.”

“That’s not good enough,” a cape said.  “You’ve committed crimes against humanity.  You bastards should be tried.”

“Do that, and the whole world pays.  Every cape would come under scrutiny, both from other parahumans and from the public.  Teams would dissolve, faith would falter, and I sincerely doubt we’d last through the next two Endbringer attacks in that kind of a state.”

All around me, capes exchanged glances.  I could hear angry murmurs, my swarm could sense fists clenching in anger.

“And the captives?  The people from other worlds Cauldron kidnapped?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Anyone with clearance should know that the number of people with physical mutations has declined steeply.  We’ve stopped experimenting.”

“Or so you say,” Tattletale cut in.

“I do.  Tell me I’m lying, Tattletale,” Alexandria said.

Tattletale shook her head.

“You need us,” Alexandria said.  “If not for the assistance we can provide in the face of class-S threats, then for the image, for the idea.  I’m trusting that each of you are sane enough, reasonable enough, to understand that.  You could come after us, but I assure you it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“And Cauldron?” someone asked.

“As I said, we’re only barely involved.  If you want to try going after them and get justice for what happened to the captives, feel free.  Just know that we can’t help you there.  We can’t give you access or information, because they’re out of your reach, and in the wake of all this, they’ll be out of our reach too.”

I felt numb.  She was everything I despised.  Authority, the institution, the self-serving people in power, the untouchable.  All around me, I could hear angry voices, each trying to drown the others out.  Chevalier was among them, Miss Militia was quiet.

Tattletale was quiet, oddly enough.

“I-” I started, but the voices drowned me out.

My swarm buzzed with noise.  People startled and jumped as the bugs moved, shifting from the various positions where I’d more or less hidden them at elbows and in armor plates.

I stepped out of the crowd, toward Alexandria, and then turned my back to her, facing the capes.  So many eyes on me.

“She’s right,” I said, my swarm carrying my voice for effect.

Voices rose in anger, and again, I had my swarm move, buzzing violently, until they stopped.

“I’m not a public speaker, so I’ll make it short.  I’ve got a long history with the Protectorate, a hell of a lot more experience being angry with them.  I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them, and that’s not a good thing, not entirely.  But Alexandria’s right.  Not about Cauldron, or the human experimentation.  I don’t know anything about that.  But she’s right that we shouldn’t make any rash descisions.  Talk it out with your teammates before you make a call.  Maybe the various team and squad leaders should convene, form a unanimous decision.  I don’t know.  But… don’t let your anger push you to do something that affects everyone.  Please.”

A second passed.

“You’re not with the PRT, are you?” a cape asked.

“No,” I said.

“So you don’t have to wake up tomorrow and go to work, pretend like everything’s normal?”

“No.”

“Work beside someone, wondering if they lied about their trigger event?  If they maybe got their powers from a bottle, something made only because some psychopaths,” he spat the word out at Alexandria, “Decided to experiment on innocent people and sell the results at a profit?”

“No.  I don’t really have to wonder about that.”

“Then where the fuck do you get off, telling us what to do, then?”

“Calm down, Jouster,” Miss Militia said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’re right.  It’s not my place,” I said.  I looked at Miss Militia and Chevalier.  Clockblocker was just a little ways behind them.  “Thanks for hearing me out.  Good luck.”

Atlas flew to my position.  I drew my bugs around me and took flight, rising well into the air and hiding myself in the mass of bugs before pausing to adjust to a sitting position.

I saw Legend hovering in the air.  His fists were clenched, and he was looking down.  He looked agonized.

If I’d had any idea what to say, I might have approached him.  I didn’t.

With a command, I directed Atlas away from the discussion that could decide history, maybe even the fate of the world.

I sat on the railing of my balcony, Atlas’ body hidden behind the towel-covered railing, serving as a footrest while I fed him a much-needed meal.  Unfolded pieces of paper sat in each of my hands.

I couldn’t stand to be there any longer.  I’d said what I could, for what little it was worth, but I was too tired, the stakes were too high, and Jouster had been right.  The consequences might have been world-spanning, but it was ultimately up to the Protectorate to decide what happened next.  I didn’t like feeling that helpless.

Beneath me, some kids from my territory were carrying boxes of treats I’d ordered two days ago.  They’d take more than their fair share, but they’d distribute the treats to the other people in my territory, people who had likely gone a good little while without a chocolate bar or bag of chewy candy.

There hadn’t been any clones in my range as I zig-zagged my way to the North end, no signs of swarm activity.  I’d stopped by home, checked things over with my bugs, and my dad was there, more or less fine.

I’d go home in just a little while.  It wasn’t a peaceful place, though.  This was.  My territory, being with people I’d taken care of, people I’d protected and fought for.  My heart was easier here than it was around my dad.

I was aware of the approaching figure, twisted around to get a look at Lisa.

“Can I come up?”

I pointed at the door, followed her movements as she navigated her way past Charlotte and up the stairs.  She reached the balcony and stepped out to hop onto the end of the railing opposite me.

“I own the land the hole to the other universe is on,” Tattletale said.  “Or Coil’s fake name does, and I can finagle that so I have control over it.”

I nodded.  “The meeting?  Did they decide?”

“Legend left first.  Then Alexandria and Eidolon.  The heroes were still talking when I left.”

“Okay,” I said.  That didn’t mean anything, not exactly, but it was better than the alternative.  The longer they talked, the more tempers would cool.

Perversely, I almost hoped that Cauldron had the clout to silence a few angry voices.  I could only hope that they were few and far enough between that the story wouldn’t reach the public.

“Rex,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?”

“His name was Reggie, but he got into sports in high school.  They started calling him Rex, until everyone used the name.  I don’t mean this to be insulting, but you were kind of opposites in a lot of ways.  He was this popular guy, charming.”

“Your boyfriend?”

She laughed, a short sound.  “My brother.”

“Oh.”

“My family was well-to-do, I think that’s come up.”

“Yeah.”

“When you’re that rich, when you have people working under you who do the chores and handle the stuff that you’d normally do with your family, sometimes it’s hard to stay a family, you know?”

Not really, I thought, but I nodded.

She gave me a funny look, but she didn’t call me on it.  “It gets to this point where, you know, your cool older brother only spends time with you because it’s his duty as a sibling.  And when you realize that, it sort of hurts.  Makes it insulting.  I think I caught on to that around the time I started high school.  I stopped accepting those token offers of siblinghood.  We were brother and sister, we lived in the same house, went to the same school.  Our paths crossed, but we didn’t interact.  We were strangers.  He was caught up being the popular senior, and I kind of resented him for it.”

“For not being a brother?”

Lisa shrugged.  “Don’t know.  More for acting like a brother than not being a real brother.  For being the popular kid, being the favorite child, heir to the family businesses.”

“What happened?”

“I started noticing, he was in rough shape.  The smiles seemed fake, he’d get angry easier.  Was bottling something up inside.”

“What was it?”

Lisa shrugged.  “I’ve dwelled on it so long I’ve imagined possibilities and derailed my train of thought.  Even with my power, I can’t guess.”

“And something happened?”

“He slowly got more and more distant.  He’d fake more smiles, get a little more angry, a little more reckless.  And then one day he offed himself.”

Just around the corner, some kids were screaming and shouting as they played.  One boy was pelting another with chocolate pellets.  The victim shrieked in pain.

My bugs swept over the boy with the chocolates, and the pair froze.  They looked around, trying and failing to see me, then ran for the nearest alleyway, fight forgotten.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“So am I,” Lisa sighed.  “I’ve spent so long trying to figure it out, but I couldn’t.  You’d think the star athlete might be gay, but it wasn’t that.  Something else.  I let on to my family that I’d noticed something, after, and they started blaming me.  They were grieving, but that doesn’t excuse it, does it?”

I shook my head.

“Calling me stupid, an idiot,” Lisa looked away.  “It got to be too much, like I was in a pressure cooker, everywhere I went, it was about him, and there was always this feeling, like everyone was aware that I’d known something and hadn’t spoken up, hadn’t done something to help.  I think I had my trigger event while I was asleep, tossing and turning and dreaming about it all.  And then, boom, I wake up and I start figuring stuff out, with killer migraines on the side.  Maybe if I’d caught on that it was powers sooner, I might have been more secretive, but my dad caught on.  Did a complete turnaround.  Faked affection, hid the real feelings, all to get me to use my power for the family’s benefit.”

Lisa shrugged.  “I was already seeing too much ugly, even before the powers.  Seeing more of it?  Seeing when people were being fake, when everything else was still screwy because of Rex’s suicide?  It was too much.  I took more money than I should have from my parents and I ran.”

“And Coil eventually found you.”

She nodded.  “And I eventually found you.  I took one look at you, and I had a grasp of what was going on.  Didn’t take too long for me to notice that you had that same air around you that Rex did.  Maybe I did what I could to save you because I couldn’t save him.”

“Earlier, you said that you couldn’t talk to me about the problem because I was the problem.”

“I saw it when you pulled the trigger, offed Coil.  You saved Dinah, and you described how you felt adrift in the aftermath of it.  But you found a new focus.  You could fight Echidna.  Save the city.  Me?  When you shot Coil, I realized I was done.  I’d helped you out of the same trap of despair Rex had been in.  Don’t know if the road I helped you down was a good one or a bad, but I’d finished.”

“But why be reckless?  Why take the risks?”

“Because I did what I had to do, I helped you, and I still feel like the stupid, self-obsessed little child that let her big brother die.  It wasn’t conscious, but maybe I felt like I needed to up the stakes.  Pull something dramatic.  Show that, with these crazy smart capes like Alexandria and Faultline around, I could still be the smartest person in the room.”

“And do you feel like the smartest person in the room?”  I asked.

She stared out over the cityscape.  “Maybe- maybe when the interuniversal trade takes off.  Can you imagine?  With me and you as the top dogs?  The whole world will pay attention to us.”

I hopped down from the railing, walking around Atlas as I made my way to Lisa.  I wrapped my arms around her, and she returned the hug.

I crumpled the papers in my fists.

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Migration 17.8

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“He’ll be one minute,” the woman at the front desk spoke.

Trickster nodded.

“If you’d like to take a seat…”  The woman trailed off.

“I prefer to stand.”

“As you wish.”

“Can I smoke?”

“No.”

“If I open a window-”

The woman at the desk frowned.  “My employer is… particular.”

“I’ve heard.”

“If you leave the cigarette butts lying around, or if this room smells too strongly of smoke after you’ve left, he will be upset.”

“I understand.”

“It’s your funeral,” she said.

Trickster stepped over to the window, found the latch, and swung it open.  He rested his elbows on it and leaned out, drew a cigarette and lit it, being sure to hold it and exhale outside of the window.

The Boston skyline stretched out before him, with the ocean in the distance.  Over the last year and three months, he’d picked up on how things were subtly different in this world.  It wasn’t explicit, wasn’t overt, but he couldn’t help but notice that all of the newer constructions were sturdier.  Buildings were more reinforced, just a little thicker where supports were required, as though disaster was always at the periphery of the designer’s attention.  At the same time, windows were often larger, and many apartments had floor-to-ceiling windows for a wider view of the world beyond.

How had Jess put it?  This world was sublime.  A world that was awesome in the truer sense of the word, greater in so many respects.  In a metaphorical sense, the peaks were higher, the valleys lower, works of art more artful, extremes more… extreme.  It wasn’t a good thing.  Make the mountains twice as tall and the chasms twice as deep, and things start crumbling.

He missed home, but every day, every week, home felt a little further away.

“Accord will see you now, Trickster.”

Trickster nodded, crushed his cigarette against the outside of the building, flicked it over the ledge, and then stepped away to close and latch the window before entering the office. He was sure to remove his hat.

Supervillains were weird.  Every one of them had different rules, different aesthetics, different goals.  All of them, himself included, had their own issues.

Accord wasn’t the most influential figure in Boston.  That was why Trickster had approached him.  He didn’t even look like a supervillain.  He looked like a CEO.  Only an ornate mask with curling, overlapping bands of dark metal trimmed in silver marked him as anything more.  His hair was oiled and neatly parted, and his white suit had been brushed clean with immaculate care.  Trickster doubted there was even a fingerprint or a glimmer of tarnish on Accord’s silver tie pin.  For all his presence, Accord was barely over five feet in height.

For his part, Trickster had taken care to clean his own clothing and comb his own hair.  It was becoming a ritual, entering a new city.  One typically had to find the meeting place.  Virtually every city with ten or more supervillains had one, a neutral ground for the villains to meet.  He would then find the people in the know, pay some of the money he’d held on to from the last city to get the necessary information on who was who and how they operated, and move on from there.  He’d been briefed thoroughly on Accord.

“Trickster, was it?”

“Yes,” Trickster stepped forward.  He offered his hand.

Accord shook it, his grip strong.

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m observing formalities.  My team, as you may know, tends to move from location to location, city to city.  It’s a bad idea to settle down for any length of time in an area owned by a local power, so I wanted to ask permission first.”

“I see.”

“If you saw fit to grant that permission, I would then ask if you’d let us engage in some minor activity.  Robbing low-level stores, primarily.  Possibly a bank.  All in your area.”

If I granted that permission, Trickster,” Accord raised a warning finger. “I would not be doing so for free.”

Trickster nodded.  “I understand, and I wouldn’t expect you to.  We’ve recently passed through Richmond, Paine, Baltimore and Philadelphia.  Each time, we paid a modest up front fee to anyone that hosted us in their territory.  We also offered up a twelve, thirteen, twelve and ten percent share, respectively, of our take.  For you, if you’ll allow me to make an opening offer, I’d suggest ten thousand dollars up front and a fourteen percent share of anything we gain.  We’ll be saying for ten days.”

“So you’ll give me fourteen percent when you offered less to others.  You think you’re flattering me.”

“Yes.  We’re staying a little bit longer here.  We looked into it, the heroes don’t have a strong presence here in your Charlestown territory.  We can get away with just a little bit more.”

“Don’t think I won’t look into the amounts you just gave me.”  Accord was using a stylized fountain pen to make a note on a pad of paper.  Trickster wasn’t entirely sure, but the paper didn’t seem to have lines, and Accord was still making them meticulous, with neat, tight, flowing script.

“I wouldn’t lie,” Trickster said.  “That’s a good way to get killed, and I rather like being alive.”

“It has its moments,” Accord said.  He wiped the end of the fountain pen and snapped the lid into place.  The pen joined all the other objects on the desk, arranged with explicit care to even spacing and hard right angles.  It was almost artistic, the way things were arranged for both size and utility, and the uniform nature of the aesthetics, with the colors and materials seeming to flow from object to object.  Silver and wood in dark cherry.

Accord looked down and corrected the position of the pen on his desk before turning back to Trickster.  “Fifteen thousand dollars, and fifteen percent of any take.  The heroes don’t have a strong presence here because they don’t need a strong presence here.  I maintain the peace.  It will cost me if I have people here, active and causing trouble.”

A little steep.  “I’ll have to discuss that with my teammates.”

“Before you do, let me make you an alternate offer.  You do mercenary work?”

“We do.”

“I’d like to hire you for a task.”

“What task?”

“I’d like certain items stolen from a rival.  I can describe them to you and show you photographs.  Do this for me, and we’ll waive the fee for entering my territory.  Also, I’ll concede to have my share cut down to a mere ten percent.”

“Which rival?”

“Blasto.  A tinker.  Not quite the destructive personality his name implies.”

“I read up on him.  Blasto from the latin prefix, meaning bud, germination or seed.  Tinker botanist, grows walking, sentient plants in giant glass tubes.”

Accord gave Trickster an approving nod.  “Yes.  Tinkers are… bothersome.  Tinkers who work wet are especially bothersome.  They build, they learn from past research and past projects, each thing is created more elegantly or faster with the tools they’ve designed and amassed over time.  A tinker designs a better welding torch, to use an analogy, and that allows him or her to build a better power drill.  And so the cycle continues.  Steal Blasto’s tools for my trophy case, it will set him back weeks or months.  I’ll give you a further bonus if you destroy any other projects of his, as well as any computers or blueprints.”

“Dangerous, to attack a tinker in his lair.”

“Ah, you want more than just the waiving of your hospitality fee?”

Trickster was careful to be diplomatic.  “No offense intended.  If Blasto was that easy to handle, I’m sure you would have dealt with him already.”

“Agreed.  Hm.  As you surely already know, I am a craftsman.  Not a tinker, but I use my power to create quality goods.”

“I’m aware.”

“I will pay you a moderate sum, and I will also supply a set of costumes for your team.  Use your free time over the coming week to make notes on what you desire.  Newspaper clippings, printed images or links to online images each of you individually like.  They do not necessarily need to be of costumes or clothing.  I would meet each of your teammates to assess their preferences.  With that, I can guarantee you costumes that everyone in your group will like.”

And you bring the world a little more in order, Trickster thought.  Accord was a thinker, and the running theory on his power was that he got naturally smarter as the problems he was addressing got more complex.  It gave him an intuitive understanding of groupthink, politics, and convoluted designs.  It also made him a local warlord capable of devastating counterattacks.  The power failed to grant him the same advantages in a one-on-one fight, and he wasn’t quite the same battlefield strategist when it came to direct assaults.

Which was, Trickster understood, why Accord wanted him and the other Travelers to handle the attack on their own.

“Only four of us need costumes,” Trickster said.  “The other can make her own.”

“Only four costumes?  When there are seven of you?”  Accord’s tone made it all too clear that he knew he was admitting knowledge he shouldn’t have.

He knows about Noelle.

“When there are seven of us, yes,” Trickster said, feigning a lack of concern.

The door banged open.  Trickster tensed, his power reaching, even before he saw the threat.

It was Sundancer, with the receptionist following quickly behind.

Idiot, Trickster thought.  I told you to stay back.

“Trickster,” she said.  Then she saw Accord.  “I’m sorry for interrupting.”

“The deal was for a one-on-one meeting,” Accord said.  His tone was strained, indignant.  Accord looked at his receptionist. “You didn’t warn her at the door?”

“I tried,” the receptionist said.  “She charged on through.”

“It’s an emergency,” Sundancer said.  “Trickster, we-”

“Shut up,” he said, and the tension in his voice coupled with Accord’s seemed to clue Sundancer into the gravity of the situation.

She fell silent.  She’s smarter than this, which means the situation’s bad.  But I can’t do anything about it until I finish dealing with Accord.

His heart was pounding.  “Go wait outside, Sundancer.  I was in the middle of a meeting.  If Accord is willing, we’ll wrap up this business quickly, I’ll… offer him something by way of apology, and then I’ll come and talk to you about the issue.”

Sundancer backed towards the door, turned and left.

“Very sorry, sir,” the receptionist murmured.  She closed the door.

Accord stepped over to the window behind his desk and stared outside.  Trickster waited patiently as the man composed himself.  Long seconds passed, and Trickster couldn’t help but imagine the worst case scenarios that would have Sundancer forgetting common sense and crashing a private meeting between supervillains.

“I am something of an oxymoron, Trickster,” Accord said, turning around.  He was measuring his words, stretching out the sentence, as though he were fully aware that Trickster was now in a hurry, and he wanted to apply pressure.

“Is that so?”

“You see, I deal with complicated things,” Accord touched his mask, “And I excel at them, but deep down, I’m a very simple person.”

“I think we’re all very simple when you look past the surface,” Trickster said.

“Quite so.  I like order, Trickster.  Order means everything has its place,” Accord touched his desk, moved his chair a fraction of an inch so it was squarely in place.  “And everyone has their place.  Your subordinate’s place was not here.”

“I understand.  I’m willing to make amends.”

“Of course,” Accord said.  He looked up and met Trickster’s eyes.  “I will be rescinding my earlier generosity.  Fifteen thousand dollars will find a way into my hands within the next twenty-four hours.”

“Agreed,” Trickster said.  There goes our pocket money.

“You’ll do my favor for me and expect no recompense.”

“Okay.”

Accord paused, seemed to consider something.  “She’ll have to die, of course.”

Trickster tensed.  Really, really didn’t want to have to fight this guy.  “Let’s… not be so hasty.”

“There are two kinds of people in this world, Trickster.  Some fit into the intricate machine that is society, and they serve as cogs, gears, levers and weights.  I think you’re like that.  I liked you right off.  Even your power… balance, isn’t it?  Move things from one place to the next, but things remain fundamentally equivalent.”

“Well said,” Trickster replied.  His mind was racing.  How to convince the lunatic to leave Sundancer alone?  If he couldn’t, would it be better to fight and kill Accord now or wait until he could recruit the others?  Accord wouldn’t have invited him to a meeting if he didn’t have some kind of safeguards.  Traps?  For all Trickster knew, there was a pitfall in the floor or dart traps in the walls.  Accord’s power, his knack for complexity, would make it trivial to weave such things into the architecture of his home and office.  If he knew, he could use his power, time it to put Accord in the way of his own trap… but it could be something else entirely.

Accord was still talking.  “Others aren’t so accommodating.  They are freefalling, careening elements, bouncing off any and every surface, damaging everything they touch.  Pyrokinetics so often fall into this category, I’ve found.  Rest assured, it’s better to eliminate this disordered element before it does too much damage.”

Trickster couldn’t find the words to reply.  Think, Krouse, think!

“What a shame, such a young girl,” Accord sounded genuinely upset.

“What if…” Trickster started, his mind racing.

“Yes?”

“What if I told you she was an agent of order in the universe?  That this situation, it’s not her that’s causing the discord?  Like us, she’s just reacting to another force?”

“You don’t know the details any more than I do.”

“True.  But I know her.”

“You’re biased by virtue of being her teammate.  I see no other way than to act decisively.  Would you like to do the honors, or should I?”

“I’ll show you what I mean.  She’ll show you.”

“Oh?”

“Just give me a second to go get her.  Maybe a bit of time to prepare-”

“Ten minutes, Trickster, and only because I like you.”

“Ten minutes,” Trickster answered him.

“And she comes alone.  If she’s truly an ordered individual, she’ll show me for herself.”

Trickster nodded, turned and walked calmly out of the office, counting in his head.

The second the door was closed, he bolted, checking the time on his cell phone.  That’ll be ten minutes exactly.  He set a timer, subtracting the time it had taken him to leave the office.

The entrance that led to Accord’s personal office was set in an alley, out of sight of the streets.  Trickster found Sundancer waiting.

“Trickster, it’s-”

“Stop,” he said, checking the phone.  Seven minutes left.  “Where’s your phone?”

She pulled it from her belt, “We-”

He used his power to swap her cell phone for his.  “No, listen carefully.  You just threw a neurotic, perfectionist supervillain’s world into disarray by intruding on our meeting like that.  He’s now rather intent on executing you for it.”

“What?”

“And he’s a little guy with some big muscle at his beck and call.  We could maybe deal with them in a pinch, but it wouldn’t be pretty.  So I’m going to use your phone, call another member of our team to get filled in the emergency.  You’re going to fix your mistake, and you’ll do it in… six minutes and twenty-three seconds.  Look at the screen of my phone.  That’s your deadline.  Go, stop by a bathroom, tidy your hair, get it wet and comb it if you have to, but look proper.  Better to look neat than to look pretty, understand?  When the timer hits zero, you’ll walk into his office, then you’ll perform a ballet routine.”

“Ballet?  Krouse, I haven’t done it seriously in two years.”

“Pick a routine you can do perfectly over one that’s fancier or whatever.  Do it, apologize profusely for the intrusion, then bow out and leave.  If he gives any sign he’s not satisfied, or the second you fuck up, set the place on fire and scram.”

“Krouse-”

“Call me Trickster when I’m in costume,” he corrected, his voice hard.  “Don’t worry about burning him alive.  He’ll have escape routes.  You have five minutes and forty seconds, now.  It took me three to get from his office to here.  Go.”

Sundancer rushed to get inside.

Trickster called Oliver.

“Marissa?” Oliver asked.

“It’s Trickster,” he replied.  Need to talk about being more secure with our names.  “What’s going on?

“It’s Cody.  He touched Noelle.”

Trickster froze.  “How bad is it?”

Three times, Krouse.”

“Three,” Trickster said.  “Fuck me.  I’m on my way.”

There’s no way Cody’s stupid enough to make contact with Noelle.

There’s no way anyone would do it three times.  How?

Throwing caution to the wind, Trickster moved through the crowd of people by swapping with them, zig-zagging from one side of the street to the other, scanning the crowd.  People ran to get away from him as he appeared, but he didn’t care.  Just needed to minimize the damage.

Minimize the damage.  It’s becoming a running theme.

He found his target not by spotting him, but by seeing the reaction from the crowd.  People were hurrying to get out of his way, running away.

The guy was naked, covered in gnarly, tumorous growths, and was moving at a limping run, attacking anyone he could get his hands on.  One of his arms was larger than the other, and a fluid-filled blister covered his entire stomach, sloshing with the contents.  His jaw didn’t fit right, and had dislocated on one side, giving him a lopsided yawn.

A man shoved him and ran, sweeping his two children up in his arms as he fled.

Three seconds later, the man snapped back into the same position, in front of the creature.  Perdition… Cody.  Except not quite.  The man carried through the shoving motion, but Perdition wasn’t there any more.  Shoving empty space, the man stumbled and was clubbed over the neck and shoulders with a massive, misshapen fist.  He hit the ground with enough force that Trickster doubted he’d rise again.

The two children had fallen to the sidewalk when the man disappeared.  Perdition advanced on them.

Trickster crossed the street, swapping himself for one of the people who was fleeing the scene.  The children were running, but Perdition wasn’t one to let his targets slip out of his grasp.  The six year old didn’t get more than three steps before getting reset to his original position.

“Hey!”  Trickster called out.  “I’m the one you want!”

Perdition spun around, and Trickster was already swapping himself for someone else, not allowing his opponent more than a glance.

Hide in the crowd.  Can’t allow him a chance to get me.

“Kroushe!”  Perdition screamed.  He couldn’t completely close his mouth, and slurred the words.

Inconvenient.

“Keell you!  Mehk it shlow, mehk you beg an’ crah and sheht yershelf lekk a baby!”

The little kid was getting away.  Trickster allowed himself a sigh of relief.

“Shheh wush mine!  An’ you ruinn herr!”  Perdition screamed at a volume that distorted his voice even further, left it ragged.

Trickster winced.

“Muh cahreer, muh frenndsh, my guhll!  You ‘ook hem!  Yer a ‘hief!

Some of the time, the powers would be different.  Most of the time, going by precedent, they were stronger.  Trickster was left to wonder how Perdition’s powers had changed.  Duration?  Range?  The amount of time reversed?

Then his surroundings flickered, half the crowd disappearing.

Trickster didn’t waste a second in swapping himself elsewhere, moving across the street.

Perdition was only just turning in the direction of where Trickster had been.

He doesn’t need to see me now?

Trickster saw everything shift again.

He’s got a lock on me.  Not as strong when he does it this way, but he can track me, force little jumps backward.

Perdition charged, and the crowd scattered.

He reached for his belt, saw another shift, and Perdition was suddenly twenty feet closer, a few steps away.  With no time to follow through, Trickster swapped himself out of the way.

-And only belatedly recalled that he was putting another person in Perdition’s path.  Perdition knocked a young woman to the ground, grabbed her, and then slammed her into a wall.

She wouldn’t have survived the impact.

“Kroushe!” Perdition roared.

Another shift hit.  They’re about ten seconds apart, and he’s hitting me for anywhere from one to five seconds each time.

Perdition was halfway across the street.  With the way the crowd was scattering and the number of available people to swap with was dwindling, he was running out of options.  He could run or he could stay and fight, virtually powerless.

He stayed, reached to his side, and unbuckled the largest pouch on his belt.

Perdition was getting closer.  He seemed to have only a general sense of where Trickster was, wide, mad, bulging eyes roving over the crowd.

Trickster swapped himself for someone else, waited until Perdition started to turn, then did another swap.

Perdition paced from one side of the street to the sidewalk, between the last two of Trickster’s chosen destinations.

Only one or two seconds were left before the next automatic time skip.

Trickster swapped himself for the body of the girl who Perdition had thrown into the wall, drew his gun and fired it, all in one smooth motion.  Screams of alarm erupted in the wake of the gunshot.

He stepped closer, then emptied the remainder of the clip into Perdition’s head and chest.

He swapped himself for someone in the lingering crowd, grabbed the closest person.  “I hope you own a car.  Because you’re going to lend it to me.  Fast.”

Krouse pulled the car into the driveway.  Oliver was outside, and hurried to Krouse’s side.

Oliver was taller than him, now.  The baby fat was gone, and he was fit.  Krouse had wondered at times why Chris had been so attractive to the ladies.  He didn’t wonder with Oliver.  Oliver was attractive in a way that meant he could model, he was naturally athletic, he was even smart.  It was scary how fast he was picking up new skills.

But he was still Oliver.  Whatever gradual transition his power was offering, it hadn’t changed the person at the core of it; an insecure, socially stunted teenage boy.  In a way, it had made it worse.  Oliver’s face and body changed according to his basic perception of attractiveness, and that changed a little every time he saw a new face.  In little ways, his face changed day by day, to the point that it wasn’t always easy to recognize him.

Fuck you, Simurgh, Krouse thought.  They’d all been forced to deal with their individual tragedies.  Noelle’s went without saying.  Jess hadn’t gotten to walk, Luke hadn’t gotten to fly, Oliver got a physical and mental overhaul without any fixes for the real problems, and Marissa had been thrust into the situation she’d fought so hard to escape, where she was forced to pursue a life she didn’t want.

Krouse’s tragedy was waiting for him inside.

As for Cody’s…

Oliver helped Krouse move the body out of the passenger seat.

They grunted as they carried it through the front door.  Krouse double checked nobody was observing.  He’d parked briefly to remove his costume, then swapped himself and the body for people in another car before continuing en route to their current hideout.  It was the middle of the day, and virtually everyone in this neighborhood would be at work or at school, but he feared some college student or elderly person would just happen to be outdoors or walking a dog.  It would make things complicated.

Accord wasn’t so wrong on that subject.  Things were better when they were simple.

Krouse and Oliver dragged the body to the middle of the living room.  It joined two others.  Each was different in the mutations, in the distortions and impurities.  Each of the three bodies was Perdition. Was Cody.

He looked at Ballistic, Jess and Oliver.  “Three?  You’re sure?”

“Sure enough,” Ballistic said.

“How’s she?”

“Upset.  You’re going to have to talk to her, calm her down.”

Krouse winced, nodded.

They all stared at the bodies.  This would be the third incident.  Or incidents three through five, if he wanted to count it that way.

“How much damage done?” Krouse asked.  “Anyone hurt?”

“A bunch hurt but nobody got killed by the one I went after,” Jess said.

“Yeah, a few hurt,” Ballistic said.  He paused.  “One dead.”

“Fuck,” Krouse said.  “At least two dead at the hands of the one I stopped.  Not as bad as last fall.”

Ballistic shook his head.

“We… we can’t let this happen again,” Jess said.

“That’s what we said last time,” Krouse noted.

“She’s getting stronger,” Jess said.  “And more volatile.”

“We’ll fix her,” Krouse said, his voice a touch hollow.  “We’ll fix her, and we’ll get home.”

Just words.  How can they believe me when I don’t even buy it?

“Where is he?” he asked, breaking the lingering silence.

Ballistic pointed in the direction of one of the ground floor bedrooms.

“What happened?” Krouse asked.

“We don’t know.  Neither Cody or Noelle are saying.”

Fuck.  Okay.  I need a smoke, then we’ll resolve this.”

“Krouse-” Luke said.  But Krouse was already out of the living room, pushing his way through the front door.

He stepped outside, sat on the front steps, took his time in getting his cigarette and lighting it.  He finished the first, started on the second, and gave serious consideration to having a third after that.

He shut his eyes.  Just need a moment of calm, a few minutes to organize my thoughts.

“Krouse.”

He resisted the urge to sigh.  Marissa was there, coming down the path from the driveway.  “Mars.  Glad you did okay with Accord.  Sorry to leave you like that.”

“It’s okay.  It was better that you went to deal with the situation.  I couldn’t have.  I don’t have it in me, even knowing they aren’t real.”

Krouse nodded, closed his eyes.

“He said I wasn’t perfect.”

Krouse froze, turned to see her leaning against the railing just beside him.  She’d changed into civilian clothes.  “You burned his place down, then?”

“No,” she said.  “He said I wasn’t perfect, but that he saw what you meant.  He said I was trying, despite myself.  I… I don’t know if that was a compliment or not.”

“Ah.”

“Um.  He wants you to see him tonight.  Nine sharp.  And, um.  He said that if I’m not the problem, he fully expects you to bring the real culprit.  Did he mean Noelle?”

“Cody,” Krouse said.  “Shit.  Not the way I wanted this to go.”

“What!?  Krouse, he’s going to kill him.”

“Probably.”

“We can’t!”

“We may have to.  If we don’t give him a scapegoat, he’ll send assassins and homicidal underlings after us.  We need someone to blame, not just for intruding on the meeting, but for the three very violent scenes that erupted in his territory earlier today.  Not to mention that we can’t afford to pack up shop and move right now, not while Noelle’s as upset as she is.  Between the two of us, I think we’ve charmed Accord enough that I’d bet we can get away with giving him Cody and paying him a fair sum.  We do that, we can stay for ten days.  We’ll gather some funds and give Noelle time to quiet down.”

“You’re talking about killing a teammate.”

“He was never a teammate.  He was one of us, yes, but he never cooperated, never worked with the rest of us.”

“We made a pact, a promise.  To stick together, no matter what.  To do what it took to fix Noelle and get home.”

Krouse shut his eyes.  “I know.  Not an hour goes by that I don’t think about it.”

“You’re breaking that promise if you give Cody up.”

Krouse sighed, took a drag of his cigarette and blew smoke out through his nostrils.

“Krouse-“

“Mars.  There’s no reason he’d enter her room and intentionally touch her three times.  You know that, I know that.”

He turned around to glance at her, saw her frowning.

“What do you mean, Krouse?”

“I mean he waited until the rest of us were busy, then he entered her room and he enraged her.  Because for there to be three points of contact, three uses of her power, she’d have to be the one making the contact.  She’d be using her power on purpose, and she wouldn’t do that if she wasn’t berserk.  I’m guessing he was badly hurt?”

“Broken arm, broken leg.”

Krouse nodded.  He took another drag of his cigarette.

“Why?  How?”

“He had a goal in mind, only he didn’t anticipate how fast she moves, how strong she is.  He was trying to do one of two things.  Either he did something general, said something, with the aim of making her go berserk… or he tried to kill her.  One way or another, Cody wanted to end this.  End our mission.  Free himself.  He doesn’t give a fuck about the promise, so I don’t see why the promise should protect him.”

“I don’t- I can’t believe that.”

“You can’t believe that Cody is that self-centered?  Did you just come from an alternate universe with a different Cody?”

“No.  I… I can almost believe it.  But you’re talking about killing.  Or giving him to someone else so they’ll kill him.”

Krouse finished the cigarette and tossed it to the base of the steps, crushed it under his toe.

“Tell you what,” he said.  “Let me talk to the others.  Maybe Cody too, just to confirm suspicions.  We’ll see if the others come to the same conclusion.”

“Krouse, you’re talking about sentencing Cody to death.”

“He knew what he was getting into.  And whatever else happened, three innocent people are dead because he fucked up.  So we’ll talk to the others.  We’ll come to a consensus.”

“This is ugly.  God, Krouse, it’s still Cody.”

“Yeah.  It’s not pretty.  So why don’t you take a break, clear your mind?  Maybe go do a food run for Noelle.”

Marissa frowned.  “Hate these runs.”

“We have to, and your turn’s up.”

“I know, I know.  But people look at me funny when I bring a cart of meat and only meat.”

“Tell them you’re buying for a restaurant and the wholesaler dropped the ball today.”

“It still looks weird.”

“Maybe find a butcher?  We’ve got a backyard here, if you want to get maybe two whole pigs, you can tell him you’re throwing a party.”

“Fuck it,” she muttered.  “Keys?”

Krouse fished the keys and the carton of cigarettes from his pocket.  He tossed her the keys and tapped another cigarette out of the box.

“And stop smoking.  You’re killing yourself, Krouse.”

“I know,” he said.

She was all the way at the car when she turned around and hurried back to the front steps.

“What?”  Krouse asked.

“I almost forgot.  Accord.  He wanted me to pass this on.”

She handed him a piece of paper.  There was a number printed on it.  Different area code.

“What is it?”

“He said someone was trying to get in contact with you.”

“Who?”

Marissa shrugged.

“For the record, Marissa, with guys like Accord, you can’t almost forget to pass on messages, and you don’t waltz in on a business meeting.  Things could have turned out a lot different today.  They still might.”

“I… I don’t want to interact with guys like him.”

“We have to.  Only way to go about it.”

“I know.  I just… next time we run into someone like that, I’ll stay hands off.  Keep my distance.”

“Alright.  Go, shop.  Take your time.  Give yourself a break, buy an ice cream or something.  You have my permission and my orders to go distract yourself.”

Marissa retreated to the car.

Krouse puffed for a minute on his second cigarette, pulled out his phone, and dialed the number.

Hello?

“Accord gave me this number.”

Then this would be Trickster, I presume.

“Yeah.”

I have a business proposition for the Travelers.

“Well, things have gone a little south with Accord, here, so I’m not quite sure where we stand, but I need to do this job for him before I take on anything else.”

This is more of a long-term job.

“We don’t really do long-term.  We don’t stay in one place for long.”

I’m well aware of your circumstances.

Trickster took a long haul on his cigarette.  “That so?”

I know Accord through a mutual acquaintance.  Through this acquaintance and my own resources, I’ve gathered a fairly robust set of data on you Travelers.

“That sounds vaguely threatening.”

I suppose it might, to individuals trying to avoid scrutiny.  Rest assured, it is just the opposite.  I know what issues you face, Trickster, and I am offering you a solution.

“A solution?”

I’m offering three things, to be precise.  Work for me.  Help me achieve my goals and I will allow you to achieve yours.”

Krouse leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees.  he held the cigarette in one hand and the phone in the other.  “What do you know of our issues?”

I know what the PRT knows.  I know you appeared out of nowhere, that a Luke Casseus and a Noelle Meinhardt were admitted for care to St. Mary’s hospital, yet there are no such students on any high school rosters.

“We’re not from there,” Krouse said.

Then why did Luke Casseus put down Madison, Wisconsin as a place of residence?

Krouse suppressed a groan.

Rest assured, Trickster, there is no need for any alarm.  The fact that I know these things is an asset to you.  A contact of mine in the PRT has taken over your case file and requisitioned all details on your encounter with Myrddin.  That case will not be pursued further.

“And why are you doing this for us?”

Because I have goals of my own, and I believe one can’t be too careful.  When hiring expert help, I prefer that help to be loyal.  I will get that loyalty by giving you what you desire.  Everyone has their price, and my research into you Travelers has been done with the goal of discovering what that price is.

“Yeah?  Let’s hear it.  What’s our price?”

All the money you require, for one.  So long as you’re in my employment, I will pay for whatever you require.  Even if it is nearly one thousand, five hundred dollars in groceries per week.

“How generous.”

Number two?  I will send you home.

Krouse stopped, the cigarette dangling from his lips.

A man in power like myself has contacts.  Through one of these contacts, I have access to a man who can create doorways between worlds.  The caveat is that I won’t have the power, funds or leverage to request assistance from this individual until my own goals are met.

“So we have to help you for you to help us.”

Exactly, Trickster.  As for your other problem, well, that is a more daunting task.

Noelle.

“You said you could help.”

I can’t guarantee anything.  I can offer all of my resources, which are considerable, and all of the resources I will have, which are even more so.

“Sounds pretty wishy-washy.”

Perhaps.  But when making an argument or making a sale, I find it’s best to lead with the second best offer, move on to the weaker ones, and then close with the best.  I am offering you one more thing.

“What?”

The man on the phone told him.

It was another minute before Krouse hung up.

Krouse spent fifteen more minutes sitting on the front steps of the house.  It was the first time in a year that he’d had a moment to stop and think and he didn’t reach for his  cigarettes.

When he stood, he was in something of a daze.

He stepped back inside.

“Krouse,” Luke said, “We need to talk about what we’re doing with Cody.”

“Later,” Krouse said.

“What’s going on?”

“Going to go talk to Noelle.”

“She’s pissed, Krouse.  She’ll flip out on you, and I’m not doing this again.  I won’t fucking hunt down deranged mutant clones.  Especially not yours.”

“Not an issue.  She’ll like what I have to say.”

“Krouse-“

After, Luke,” Krouse said.  He spun around, faced his friend. “I think we’ve got what we’re looking for.”

“What?”

“A way home.  Maybe even a fix for Noelle.”

“How?  Who?”

“Some supervillain in Brockton Bay.  Wants us to work for him for a little while.  There’s more, but…”

“But?”

Trickster met Luke’s eyes, “I want to tell her first.  Everything that’s happened, I have to.”

“We deserve to know too, Krouse.  We’ve been working at this as long as you have.  We’ve had our hopes up and had them dashed too.  Too many times.”

“I know.  I know.  Just… I’ll tell you after I’ve told her.  I think this is it.”

He caught a glimpse of Luke’s expression as he turned away.  A look of deep sadness.  Krouse hesitated.

What was he supposed to say?

“Just a few minutes,” Krouse said, “I’ll be back, then I’ll explain.”

He made his way to Noelle’s room, knocked.

Go away.”

“It’s Krouse.”

There was a long delay.

“What do you want?”

“I want to come in,” he said.

“No you don’t.”

“I do.  Please.”

There was a long delay.  He took that for assent.

Noelle didn’t meet his eyes as he entered.  He noted the mangled bedframe, the splintered wood from the boxspring, and the mattress torn in two.  An oak cabinet had been demolished, and both bedside tables were in ruins.  There wasn’t a single intact piece of furniture left.

He turned towards her.  “I-“

“Don’t look at me,” she said.

He stopped, then he seated himself on the floor with his back to the remains of the cabinet, his back to her.

“Come to talk?” she asked.  “Keep me company?”

“I was planning on doing it a little later. Things are kind of a mess out there, you know.  The Cody situation.”

“Nobody keeps me company any more.  Only you.”

“Yeah.  But that’s not why I’m here.”

“You want to know what happened with Cody.”

“I know what happened with Cody.  He tried to kill you.”

There was a long silence.

“I can’t die, Krouse.  I’ve tried.  Tried to end it.  Spare you guys from looking after me.  I can’t.  Nothing works.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m one of them.  Or I’m becoming that way.”

“Maybe.”

“An Endbringer.”

He felt a chill, and it wasn’t the early spring temperature.

“Maybe.  Or maybe you’re more like those monsters that were dumped on the street.”

They could die.  You told me that you killed one of them.”

“Probably.  But I saw another one die, you’re right.”

“And my power, if I get stronger, if I get more out of control-“

“You won’t.”

“I’ll be just as bad as the Simurgh.  In a different way.  I touch someone, and then I spit out copies.  Uglier, stronger… meaner.  I can’t control them.  If I got my hands on one of the major heroes?  Someone like that Myrddin guy?”

“You won’t.  Listen to me, Noelle.  I was just talking to someone.  We may have an answer.”

He heard her shift position, flinched despite himself.

“You’ve said that before,” she said.

“This sounds like it.  He’s not saying he might be able to make something that can get us home.  He’s saying he already knows someone who has a way.  Someone who goes back and forth.  And he knows people.  Scholars, scientists, this one girl with powers he didn’t explain, who knows stuff.  Like Accord does.”

“The guy you saw today?”

“Yeah, the one I told you about,” Krouse was getting excited, despite himself.  “The way this guy described it, there’s a solution out there, and he can get it.”

“Krouse, it’s- it’s not that easy.”

“I know.  I know it’s not easy, but there was a third offer on the table.  A third thing he was giving us.  He said we should consider it a bonus.”

“What?”

Hope, Noelle.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He just got someone working for him, and this person can see the future.  And she says there is a way to help you.  Definitely.  Chances are low, but he says he’s confident he can maximize them.”

“He could be lying.”

“No, listen.  The Simurgh?  This guy said she has a weakness.  Two ways where she can’t see the future.  Two ways to break free of her cause and effect.”

Noelle didn’t say anything.

“The first way, you’ve got to be basically immune to powers.  Scion is.  He’s immune to precognition, throws everything out the window when he shows up.  I saw it when he fought the Simurgh.  She couldn’t automatically dodge his stuff, because she either couldn’t read his mind or she couldn’t see the attacks before they happened.  So he hit her, a bunch of times.  I saw it.”

There still wasn’t a response.

Krouse was getting more excited, had to press his hand flat against the floor to stop it from shaking.  “And the other way?  There’s thinker powers that mess with her ability to influence events. If another precog gets a hand in events, the Simurgh automatically shuts them down and vice-versa.  The way this guy said it, the precogs get overloaded with the second-guessing the other precog, on top of having to figure out all the quantum possibilities and split paths.  And this guy?  He has a power that messes with precogs some, and the precog working for him has a power that will help circumvent the Simurgh’s power.  Get it?  So long as we work for him, we’re free of it.  No more cause and effect.  No more feeling like we’re doomed no matter what choice we make.  We go from that kind of safety to home.  To our world.

Krouse turned around, and despite himself, he was smiling.  He had to blink rapidly to clear the tears that were collecting in his eyes, threatening to run down his face.

Noelle was perched on the ruined bed.  Her fingers were clutching a sweatshirt, with no shirt beneath.  Still the Noelle he’d always known.

From the waist up.

Around where her pelvis should have been, she’d changed.  The mass of tissue left her tall enough that she had to hunch over to avoid hitting her head on the ceiling, and she was lying down.  Half of it was angry, red, wrinkled or blistered.  The other half was smooth tissue, dark greens, dark brown and pale grays.  The head of an animal, half-bovine and half-canine, extended from the front, large as a horse from the back of its skull to the tip of its flaring nostrils.  Another head was in progress, emerging just to the left.  Two forelegs extended to either side of the heads, rippling with powerful muscle, ending in something that fell between claw and hoof, massive and easily capable of tearing through steel.

There were the fingers and thumb of a hand, extending from her right hindquarters, each digit thicker around than Krouse was, with another, smaller limb extending from the palm.  Her rear left hindquarters featured only a mess of tentacles, some bearing partial exoskeleton, some long enough that they had to encircle the massive head and numerous limbs, or wind in a wreath around her as she lay down, lest their coiled mass fill the master bedroom of the house and leave Krouse nowhere to sit.  Despite the apparent lack of bones, the tentacles were capable of supporting her weight.

She didn’t expel waste.  She only grew, or she reinforced what had already grown.

She’d tried to starve herself, to die of thirst.  It had turned out badly.  She’d gone berserk and killed forty people in one autumn night.  Their tissues had played a large part in building the massive fingers and thumb that extended behind her.

The others didn’t know quite how bad things had gone, then.  He’d managed to shield them from the news reports, the total body count, had kept them moving from city to city until the story died away.  They knew people had died, they didn’t know it was forty.

It was bad.  A bad situation overall, one that had Krouse retreating from the house in the dead of night, just to find the most remote location he could reach, to weep, to scream his frustration, rage, shame and guilt and not worry about the others hearing it.

But with all of that, with her sheer intimidating presence, he was nonetheless able to look up and meet Noelle’s eyes.  Hers were welling with tears, too.

“I believed what he was saying,” Krouse said.  “I think this might be it.  Our best chance.”

“You think so?  We can hope?”

“We can hope,” he repeated, whispering the words, as much to himself as to her.

A wave crashed against the beach.

He hurt all over.  His body wasn’t listening as he told it to move.  His hand slipped on the pavement as he tried to push himself up off the ground.  There was sand filling the cracks in the pavement, denying him traction.

He flipped himself over onto his back, instead, then sat up.  He wobbled as he stood.

The first thing he saw was Jess.  Jess in her wheelchair, at the edge of the grass, where it dropped down to the beach.  She was staring at the ocean.

“J-” he started to shout, had to force more air into his lungs before he could.

“Jess!” he hollered.

She didn’t move.

Sundancer was lying beside him.  He raised her mask and checked that she was breathing.  She was just unconscious.

His eyes roved over the empty lot.  No people.  No soldiers.  No other parahumans.

His eyes settled on a dense cluster of seagulls.

Krouse nearly fell as he made his way towards them.  He didn’t miss the tracks Jess’s wheelchair had made.  She’d been here.  She’d seen.

The seagulls scattered as he approached.  He saw a white feather that had been left behind, ground it under his toe as he might one of his cigarettes.

The birds had been gathering around a mark.  A stain.  There wasn’t a better word to sum it up.

It was blood.  Enough blood that whoever it had belonged to wasn’t alive anymore.  Drag marks extended off towards one side of the lot.  The soldiers had taken the body, and the seagulls had taken much of the remaining gore.  All that was left were bits of skull, and little fatty blobs that might have been brain.  The bullet would have passed through and shattered the cranium, by the looks of it.

He had no doubt as to who had died here.  Could remember the scene as it had been just before he’d been knocked unconscious, could remember where people had been standing.

Another wave crashed against the beach.  He heard the seagulls cawing angrily, wanting the morsels that littered the ground in front of him.

Krouse spent a very long time staring at the stain.

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Migration 17.7

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Noelle screamed, her back arching.

“Well,” Krouse said, as he reached for the tubing that led from the bag of blood to her arm.  He pulled it out, then removed the tape that had held it in place. “That’s bound to get someone’s attention.”

The heart monitor was erratically shifting from a series of fast beeps to flatlines.  His own heart skipped a few beats until he realized that it wasn’t flatlining for good.  A steady blare marked an alarm going off.

He stood and blocked the door of the room with the chair he’d been sitting on.  Noelle screamed again, a howl, almost ragged.

Had he screamed that much?  Or taken that long?  He felt a twinge of anxiety.

Someone shoved against the door of the room, but the chair held fast.

Krouse wasn’t too worried.  He had his power, so if it came down to it, it was merely a question of-

A landscape stretched around him.  It was a smaller planet than Earth, he sensed, to the point that the curvature of the planet was noticeable as he looked over towards the horizons.  He realized he was looking at multiple horizons simultaneously.  They weren’t his senses.

Even with the world being smaller, he shouldn’t have been able to see the horizon.  Not unless these senses he was using were more refined, or the atmosphere was thinner.  Somehow things were degraded, blurred around the edges, but it didn’t impact his ability to see, only to draw together a complete mental picture.  A film reel with the damaged frames removed, only it wasn’t a sequential reel.  There was depth, in more ways than one.

He could focus on the ground, note how craggy it was.  Where the larger expanses of landmass had pressed together, it had cracked and separated in dramatic ways.  The compressed soil of gravel and rocky material formed zig-zagging cliffs and deep chasms.

He could focus on the grove of crystalline figures.  They were more like stalagmites than people, glassy, and the planet rotated thrice in the time it took them to move a discernable distance.  Still, they were communicating, vibrating with subsonic hums that played off of the others, complicated ideas.

He tried to discern the hum, but ran into the degradation, the distortion of the frames that had been spliced together, for lack of a better term.  He was jarred into the next available scene.  Two crystalline figures, moving steadily towards one another.

He could tell how they were different from the others.  They were bigger, and they traversed ground that didn’t bear the clusters of ‘dead’ crystal that the others left in their wake like a slug’s moist slime.  They weren’t restricted to the equator where things were hottest.

They closed the distance between them, made contact-

I’ve seen this before.  From another angle.  It’s a replay.

No time had passed, but he was dazed, caught off guard as the chair’s legs skidded on the tile.  It fell to the ground and the door swung wide open.  A man in uniform charged into the room.  The butt of a rifle caught Krouse in the stomach, and he collapsed.

“What the hell are you doing!?” the uniform screamed at him.

Krouse coughed and groaned as his stomach rebelled against the violence.  His eyes and his power roving across his surroundings.  Something he could swap for the uniformed officer or for the gun.  With his eyes, he eyeballed mass, eyeballed size and likely volume, tried to match it to what he was feeling from the gun or the officer.

The officer kicked him.

Swap the lamp for the gun?  No, the lamp was too lightweight.

He resolved to switch himself and the officer, grabbing air to compensate for the volume.  The difference was larger than it was with him and Cody, it required extra seconds.

He grunted as the officer kicked him again.

He had a grip.  He winced as a kick caught him in the side of the head, closed his eyes-

Again, he was somewhere else.  He saw energy condensing, two figures intertwining, and the summary birth of countless entities, as if from the birth of a star, only they were alive.

No, he thought.  Need to focus.  This is because of Noelle.  I’m getting caught up in whatever’s affecting her.  A sympathetic reaction.

He forced himself to look away, tried to focus on his power, instead.

Nothing.  His body wasn’t there.

He struggled further, tried to banish the visions, to focus on the empty void rather than the countless creatures that were radiating out from the detonation.

The vision chose its own time to end.  That was the downside.  The upside was that he wasn’t quite so disoriented when he came crashing back down to reality.

His power still had a grip on the man in uniform.  Krouse forced a swap.

It didn’t change the situation much.  He was still lying on the ground, the uniform still standing, but Krouse was now behind his opponent.

The confusion the teleportation had generated bought him a second.  He got on his hands and knees and then threw himself at the man’s legs, driving his side and his shoulder into the back of the knees.

The officer fell, and Krouse hurried to his feet.

The gun was a problem, and he hadn’t seen anything he could swap for it.  Everything in the hospital was either too lightweight, too miniscule, or both.

Noelle screamed.

This is taking longer than mine did.

Krouse rolled over to grab for the gun.  He only succeeded in getting a grip on it, but he couldn’t wrest it from the uniformed man’s arms.

The alarm continued to blare, the heart monitor seizing up as it ranged from high intensity to ominous low beeps, and Krouse was losing his wrestling match over the gun.  He knew if he lost it, he’d probably get shot.  The use of his power had been the only way to avoid being beaten into unconsciousness, but he suspected it also raised the stakes.  Given a chance, the officer would kill him in self defense.

The man was pulling with such force that his face contorted into a sneer of muscle strain.  Krouse wasn’t so strong, nor quite so tenacious.  He felt the gun slipping from his fingers, felt himself reaching the point where the pain in his hands was overcoming his desire to keep the man from getting the rifle.  He knew he’d get shot if it happened, or struck in the head with the butt-end of the weapon, but the pain…

He reached out, and he found something.  He wasn’t thinking in the right terms.  Was still thinking too much about shape and not about mass.  The heavy wool blanket that was draped over Noelle had roughly the same mass as the gun.

But he had to be looking at both to swap them.  Krouse let the gun go, backed away as rapidly as he could as he got to his feet.  The uniform was standing, moving his hands to get a grip on the trigger and barrel-

-And the gun was gone, replaced by a blanket.  Krouse tackled his unarmed opponent, knocking him to the ground, grabbing at his wrists.

Krouse closed his eyes and slammed his forehead into the lower half of the uniformed man’s face.  He headbutted the guy once more.  Blood welled on his own forehead, where a tooth bit too deep into the skin.  His opponent got one hand free, punched Krouse in the ribs, three times in quick succession, each blow stronger than Krouse might have expected.

I’m going to lose this fight.

Using his power to get a sense for where it was, Krouse reached over to the gun, got a grip on the rifle and swung the end of it into the uniformed man’s face.  He kept swinging until the officer stopped putting up a fight.

He managed to climb to his feet, blinked slowly as he looked down at the uniformed man. Not a cop, not a soldier, something else.  The guy’s face was a mess of blood, and his gaping mouth had at least two broken or missing teeth.

There were nurses and doctors in the hallway, staring.  Krouse stepped towards the door, and they ran.

Noelle was still struggling, thrashing.

“Come on, Noelle,” he whispered.  “Best thing you can do for me is stay alive, here.  Don’t let this be where I accidentally kill you.  Can’t live with that.”

He paused.  There were other footsteps coming down the hallway.

“And if it’s not asking too much, hurry it up some?”

When he’d disconnected from reality and seen whatever he saw in the visions, how much had he seen?  Was she halfway done, only a tenth of the way?

Krouse moved the chair to block the door, then dragged the man he’d bludgeoned into place so the unconscious body would keep the chair in place and the door closed.

“Come on,” he said.  “Come on…”

For the third time, he found himself someplace else.  All of the memories and thoughts of the hospital room and Noelle thrashing receded as he found himself plummeting, felt the heat of entering the atmosphere, and didn’t care in the slightest.  Emotion didn’t factor in, from this perspective.

A waterless, lifeless earth loomed beneath him, stretched out until it consumed his senses.

The impact didn’t hurt any more than the atmospheric entry had.

-And he was back in the hospital room.  He staggered, nearly fell, but managed to keep his balance.

“How much more, Noelle?’

She was panting, not screaming, sweat beading her brow.

“I… I’m… I think it’s over,” she said.  Her voice was stronger.

“Feel better?’

She touched her stomach, pushed herself to a sitting position with her arms.  Her eyes widened.  “Yes.”

Krouse felt a smile stretch across his face, so broad it hurt.  “Fantastic.  Feel different?”

“No… not really.”

“Well, you only got half a dose.  If you get any powers, they’re liable to be pretty weak.  Could be that you burned up whatever juice is in that stuff, healing the damage.”

“Maybe.”  She touched the hospital gown.

Krouse looked away, feeling somehow abashed.  “You’ll want to get dressed.  I saw your stuff in the cupboard, with the sheets.”

He found the half-full cup and tipped the contents into the vial, then slid the vial into the canister.  As Noelle climbed out of the bed, Krouse turned his back to her to give her privacy, screwing on the cap and closing the canister with the remaining formula.

Someone banged on the door, hard.

“There’s more of these guys.  Thought the process would be faster,” Krouse said.

“Can we get away?”

“Depends on how much backup they get.  The more the better.”

“Don’t you mean-”

“Nope,” Krouse said.  “Best case scenario, they’ll have tons of backup.”

“I… my bare skin’s fizzing.”

“Fizzing?”

“I can’t see it, but I feel like there’s bubbles, and they’re so tiny I can’t see them, but they’re flowing down from my skin.”

“Huh.  You can’t control it?”

“No.  Or… sort of?  If I concentrate, pull on my skin, it speeds up.”

Fizzing and pulling on her skin.  It wasn’t the most apt description, but Krouse wasn’t sure he’d be able to accurately describe the pressure or the feeling of heft he got when he pressed his power into something.

“Does it feel different when you touch stuff?”

“Yeah.  Feels like my skin’s fizzing against my clothes, as I’m putting them on, where the cloth touches me.”

“Touch other stuff.  If we can figure out your power, maybe we can use it.”

There was a pause.  Krouse waited while she experimented.

The door banged.  He tensed.  This time, at least, he’d be ready.

“Not much.  Less than from my clothes.”

There was another bang on the door.  The chair shifted, and Krouse moved it back.

“Worry about it later.  We’re stuck with just my power until we figure yours out.”

Noelle entered his field of vision, wearing all of her winter stuff.

Krouse stepped over to the window.  The street was lit only by the minimal moonlight that filtered through the clouds.  There were police cars and fire trucks massing inside the quarantine area, as well as black vans with pale purple stripes and the letters P.R.T. on the sides.  The people outside the black vans had uniforms like the man he’d just beat up, only they wore helmets.

There were capes, too.  Krouse could see the one with the brown cloak and staff.  Myrddin.  A half dozen superheroes clustered around him.  His team?  It was a surprise that so many heroes were still present in the city.  Did they have to undergo their own kind of quarantine processing as well?

Doing this all backwards, deciding on a strategy before I’ve fully tested my powers.  Don’t even know my own range.

Krouse pushed his power away from himself, reached for two of the men in the P.R.T. uniforms, each on opposite sides of the crowd.

They swapped places.  He couldn’t really see the physical differences between them, but they were alarmed, confused.

“I can swap us out with someone in the crowd, if it comes down to it.  Happen to know anything about Myrddin?  Maybe Jess said something?”

Noelle shook her head.

“Fuck.  And we have even less chance of knowing something about his subordinates.  Far as I know, he does something with these dimensions he carts around.  When I ran into him, he sort of banished me into this phase state where I could move around and stuff, but I couldn’t touch anything either.”

Noelle nodded.

“He didn’t mean to, though.  He thought I’d pop back in like I’d just left.  His power, it doesn’t work well if something’s changed between dimensions too much.  Which means it won’t work a hundred percent right with us.”

“Would he listen if we talked to him?”

Krouse looked outside.

“No.  I don’t think we could.  We’re on our own.  Just… we just need an opportunity.  Stay close to me.”

Myrddin was flying, now.  Two of his subordinates were advancing as well.  One had a beachball-sized ball of jet black extending a foot away from his splayed hands, crackling with arcs of electricity that were both absolutely black and somehow still glowing enough to be seen in the dark.  The other figure was an Asian woman with a painted mask and a giant lantern in her hands.

“We have a fight incoming,” Krouse said, backing away from the window.

Myrddin waved his staff, and the window shattered.  With another movement of his staff, he plunged down into the room, landing with an audible impact.

Krouse had a better look at the guy:  A brown cloak-and-robe combination that might have been burlap, but with a heavier material beneath.  If the raised metal collar around his neck was any indication, Myrddin was wearing some kind of armor or protective gear beneath the robe.  It should have been heavy, but he wasn’t having any apparent difficulty.  His staff was a gnarled stick of dense wood, worn by weather.  The upper half of his face was hidden behind a metal visor that served more to cast his face in shadow than to be actual armor.  He sported a thick, well trimmed beard.  Brown, not white.

This wasn’t a guy that Krouse could fight hand to hand, and between his armor and his stature, he was too heavy to be swapped with anything that wasn’t an appliance.

“Stand down,” Myrddin ordered.

“I’ll pass,” Krouse replied.  He looked at the injured P.R.T. soldier, “We’ve got-”

“Begone,” Myrddin said, pointing his staff.

The officer vanished in a cloud of mist.

“-A hostage,” Krouse finished.

Myrddin looked at Noelle, then at Krouse, “So there’s two of you.”

“One of us, two bodies,” Krouse said.

“What?”  Myrddin’s eyes narrowed.

No clue.  Just confusing matters.  His eyes flickered to the scene behind Myrddin.  No luck just yet.

The man with the black spheres floating around his hands leaped up to the shattered window.  Krouse could see the Asian woman holding the handle of her lantern as it raised into the air.

“Banish one?” the man with the spheres asked.

“Already banished their hostage.”

“Want me to grab one to take into custody?”

“Be my guest, Anomaly.”

Anomaly raised one hand, and the sphere floated up until it was level with Krouse’s head.

Krouse felt a pull, stepped back and grabbed the footboard of the hospital bed.

The pull increased steadily, intense enough to pull at his hair with the strength of a gale.  Noelle said something Krouse couldn’t make out as she began to slide towards the thing.

Myrddin, for his part, didn’t budge an inch.  The girl with the lantern held onto the handle with both hands to avoid the suction, setting her feet on the windowsill and perching with a crouch.

Noelle slid, and Krouse caught her with his power.  He found the lantern girl, snagged her-

And Noelle was there, on the windowsill, losing her balance.  The lantern girl slid into the sphere, virtually folded over it as it pulled her tight against its surface.

Noelle caught the side of the shattered window with one hand.  He could see her grimace in pain.

Shattered glass.  Sorry.

He swapped Noelle for Anomaly, and both she and the lantern girl fell hard to the ground.  Anomaly tipped from the window to the interior of the room.

“Who are you?” Myrddin asked.

Krouse glanced out the window.  No.  This might go badly before he had a chance to execute their escape.  If he had to teleport to the back of the crowd, they could wind up in a situation where there was no escape.

“Nobody dangerous.”

Myrddin shifted his staff, and Krouse tensed.

Where the staff-tip moved, a thread of blinding light was drawn in the air, loose and loopy, like the light trail from a sparkler.

The light exploded outward with a concussive force, and both Krouse and Noelle were slammed against the walls.  The shape of the trail Myrddin had drawn meant the resulting blast passed over and to either side of his lantern-bearing teammate.  Her clothes were barely ruffled.

He has personal dimensions he carries around with him, Krouse theorized.  And each one follows different rules.  One holds banished people, maybe that one holds energy or compressed air, and he just needs to open it a crack to let the stuff out.

“Can you open doors between worlds?” Krouse asked.

Myrddin went stiff.  “No.  Are you implying you’re one of the creatures from the world she opened a door to?”

She.  The Simurgh.

“Nah,” Krouse replied, climbing to his feet.  “Just wondering.”

“Stay down,” Myrddin warned.  The hero drew another glowing ribbon into the air, more intricate and convoluted than the former.  Krouse braced himself for the resulting impact.

Then he saw it.  A belated arrival to the party.  A police car coming down the street in the distance, maneuvering to pull in and join the ranks of officers and rescue personnel on site.

Krouse turned his head, trying to catch Noelle and the crowd in the same field of vision.

He swapped her for someone at the back of the crowd.  A moment later, gathering enough air, he swapped himself.

The cold air was like a slap in the face.  He reached for her hand, grabbed it.  This new vantage point let him see the inside of the police car.  He reached for the officer and partner, then swapped again.

Krouse found himself sitting backwards in the driver’s seat.  He flipped himself over and, as nonchalantly as he could manage, pulled away, heading deeper into the quarantine area.

We’ll abandon the car as soon as we can, then go back to the house.  Face the music.

He reached for Noelle’s gloved hand and squeezed it, but she didn’t smile, didn’t show any relief.  She looked troubled.

He realized why.  Her left hand was undamaged where she’d slashed it on the shattered glass of the window.

They traveled the last leg of the journey to the house on foot.  There were no words exchanged between them, even as minutes passed.

As they approached the house, Krouse was left to wonder which one his friends would be in.  He settled on the first house they’d broken into.

Jess, Luke, Marissa and Oliver were there, arranged in the living room.  It was dark, barely lit.  Makes sense.  They’ll be looking for houses with lights on.

“Noelle,” Marissa said, leaping to her feet.  “You’re okay!”

She hurried across the room, reached out to give Noelle a hug, and was stopped.  Noelle had her hands on Marissa’s shoulders.

“What’s wrong?” Marissa asked.

“Nothing,” Noelle said.

“You really did it, Krouse,” Luke said.  “I almost didn’t believe them.  That you’d be that stupid.”

“Oh, I’m a hell of a lot stupider than that,” Krouse said.  “But I saved her.”

“You gave it to her?  The can?”

“Half,” Krouse said.  He withdrew the canister from his front jacket pocket and switched it with a book on a nearby bookshelf, then threw the book aside.  “Just enough to heal her.  Save her life.”

“And now you two have superpowers,” Luke said.  “You’re doing exactly what we said we wouldn’t.”

“The Simurgh set it in motion, not really my fault,” Krouse said.

“That’s bullshit,” Luke replied.  Unlike Cody, he was quiet, and the words almost had more impact as a result.  Krouse wondered, Is it because he’s my friend?  

“If I hadn’t done it, things would have gotten even worse.  If she wants us to use the stuff, then we eventually would have.  It’s extortion, extortion through fate, I dunno.  But I chose to pay the price rather than wait for her to ramp things up until I had to.  If you want to blame me, blame me.”

“No fucking shit we’re blaming you,” Luke said, and the hint of anger in his voice wasn’t as calm as his earlier words had been.

That anger seemed scarily similar to what Krouse was used to seeing from someone else.

“Where’s Cody?”

“Here,” Cody said, from behind Krouse.

Krouse whirled around.

Cody was smiling, swaggering.

“You too?” Krouse asked, unsurprised.  He’d left Cody in the house with the four remaining vials.

“Yeah.  Me too.”

Everything in the room shifted.  The curtains flickered and appeared in a fractionally different position, Noelle had moved a foot away, now squarely facing them, and Cody was in the center of the room.

“See?” Cody asked.

“What just happened?”

“I got powers.  The paperwork said it was the ‘Vestige’ can.  And as luck would have it, my power counters yours.  Totally and completely.”

There was another shift, things moving all at once, and Cody was now a foot in front of Krouse.  He was laughing.

Teleportation?  No.  The others wouldn’t move like that.

“Stop it, Cody,” Marissa said.

“He doesn’t care, he doesn’t know,” Cody said.

“Just stop!”

Everything shifted positions again, and this time, Cody was swinging a punch at Krouse.  It connected and Krouse crashed to the ground.  The punch had landed painfully close to where Krouse had been struck not long ago, and the resulting pain seemed to radiate across the surface of his skull.

“Only bad part is,” Cody said, shaking one hand as though it were sore, “If I use it on myself, I don’t get the satisfaction, and if I use it on him, he doesn’t even know.”

“Just leave him alone,” Marissa said.

Krouse looked at Noelle, saw her with gloved hands pressed to her mouth.

“What’s he doing?” Krouse asked, not moving from the ground.

“Time travel,” Luke said.

Cody shrugged, “Directed time travel, anyways.  Backwards only, a few seconds at a time.  You teleport away, I set you back to where you were, then kick you in the balls for being an asshole.”

“Well,” Krouse said, “Do you feel better now?  After however many beatings you just gave me?  Kicks in the balls?”

“I feel a bit better.  But what has me tickled is that I can do it again and again, whenever I feel the urge,” Cody said, smiling.

“Don’t,” Luke said.  “That’s…”

“Brutish,” Jess said, her voice low.  She was glaring at Krouse.

“Not the word I would have chosen,” Luke said, “But yeah.”

Cody shrugged.  He couldn’t stop smiling.

“Listen,” Krouse said, “Noelle’s better and she’s safe.  That’s priority number one done with.  Now we need to get out of here, and then we focus on getting home.”

“You know, Noelle?”  Marissa asked, “You know about our situation?”

“Some.”

“Come on then, let’s leave the boys to hash this out.  I’ll fill you in on what’s going on while we get our stuff packed.”

“Food first?” Noelle asked.  “I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

Marissa gave her a funny look, but she led the way to the kitchen.

“Stuff?” Krouse asked the others, when the two girls had left.

The room flickered.

Stop, Cody,” Jess said.

“I’m tired of everyone catering to him.  He fucked up, broke the rules he set,” Cody said.  “So if he wants to run off and be the lone maverick, he can deal with the consequences.  That means we don’t go out of our way to get him caught up.”

“You’re being as bad as he ever was,” Luke said.

Cody turned towards Luke, “No.  No I’m not.”

“You’re making calls on our behalf.  You’re not being a team player, and you’re making things harder than they have to be to get your way.”

“It’s not the same,” Cody said.

Krouse looked at Cody, then grabbed him from behind and threw him into a bookcase.

“Krouse!” Luke shouted.  Marissa and Noelle hurried back to the hallway.

Cody appeared back where he’d been standing, in the exact same position.  Krouse repeated the throw from behind.  “Two!”

Again, Cody reappeared, setting himself back to where he’d been three seconds ago.  Krouse shoved him yet again.  “Three!”

On the next reappearance of Cody, Krouse shoved him and called out, “Four!  Blade cuts both ways Cody!”

This time, Cody didn’t use his power on himself.  He landed amid the fallen stacks of magazines and books, offered a snarling noise.

“Your power works against you,” Krouse said.  “Using it to protect yourself?  It doesn’t work if your opponent knows how you function and you don’t have backup to break the loop.  You shift yourself back in time, you don’t remember, and I can use the same strategy over and over.”

“That’s not-” Cody said, then he stopped.  His eyes narrowed.  “I don’t have to put you back where you were after hurting you.  Any time you do something to me, I can set you up to a position where I can hurt you, then leave you like that, hurting.  Using my power doesn’t tire me out.  I can set you back as many times in a row as I need to.”

“Just stop,” Jess pleaded.  “All of this is hard enough without you two being enemies.”

“Problem is, Jess,” Krouse said, not breaking eye contact with Cody, “Cody’s got this mindset where the guy with the bigger stick wins. He doesn’t care about the big picture until he’s established his dominance.  Since idea of dominance is kicking my ass, we can’t have him doing that while we’re trying to get back home.  It’s… counterproductive.”

“Yeah?  What are you going to do about it?” Cody asked.  He was pulling himself to his feet.

“Nothing,” Krouse said.  “You want to pull stunts like that, feel free.”

“Thought so,” Cody smirked.

“And,” Krouse said, stepping close enough to whispered in Cody’s ear, “Your power’s kind of a liability, you know. Not just the double-edged sword part.”

“Liability?”  Cody asked in a normal speaking volume.

Krouse continued whispering.  “A liability.  You saw what I was willing to do when the Simurgh forced my hand by putting Noelle’s life on the line.  Now my hand’s dangerously close to being forced again.  Because I will get these people home, and if you get in my way, if you give me reason to fear for my safety or to make me think we aren’t making as much progress as I want?  Well, the only way I can think of to shut down your power is by killing you.”

Cody smirked, stepping away.

His eyes flickered across Krouse’s face as he read Krouse’s expression.  Cody’s smile faded.

Cody forced a smile onto his face again, but it didn’t seem quite so genuine.  “I’m going to go pack my shit.  You have my permission to fill the asshole in on the details.”

You’re a coward at heart, Krouse thought, as he watched Cody head upstairs.  And I’m too stubborn to back down or give up.  As long as that’s the case, I’ll always come out ahead.

He looked at the others, “Well, I think that’s that.  Let’s talk about the next step of our plan.”

He seated himself on the couch, flashed Noelle a smile.

Noelle smiled back, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes or overcome the concern in her expression.  She turned back towards the kitchen, and Marissa followed.

Krouse’s heart sank a little at that.  It felt like they’d somehow been set back weeks or months in their relationship progress.

He distracted himself.  Turning to Luke, he asked, “What was that about ‘stuff’?”

“Stuff.  We weren’t quite sure where you went, and you kind of made it impossible to get the car out of the driveway,” Luke said.  “So we went shopping, so to speak.  Brought back clothes, toiletries, and all the cash we could get out of the registers, pretty much every place within walking distance.  We even got an old wheelchair for Jess, rinsed off the seat in the shower upstairs.  We’re just waiting for it to dry off.”

Krouse smiled.  “Good man.”

Luke wasn’t smiling back.  “It feels shitty, stealing.”

“Nobody’s going to touch that money anyways,” Krouse said.  “Not with it being in the quarantine area.  That was a smart move, really.  Does this mean we’ve got everything we need to get by for the next while?”

“Pretty much.  You should go through the stuff we brought and make sure it all fits, and that you aren’t going without something essential.”

“You didn’t happen to pick up cigarettes?”

Luke frowned, “I shouldn’t have, told myself you didn’t deserve it after what you pulled.”

“But?”

“But I did.”

“Best friend!” Krouse smiled, spreading his arms wide.

Luke shook his head.  “You don’t deserve it.”

“I don’t.  But I’ll make it up to you by getting us out of here with my power.  Shouldn’t be hard; there weren’t all that many soldiers outside the fence, and we can swap ourselves for them, maybe.  If Cody cooperates, that makes it even easier.”

“And Noelle?” Luke asked.  “Does she have powers?”

“Apparently,” Krouse said, “Though I don’t have any idea of how it works.  You guys give any consideration to the idea of using the rest of the juice?”

Luke was nodding a little.

“Luke!” Jess said, aghast.

“What?  Half the damage is already done,” he said, “And as far as I’m concerned, the benefits of getting more powers outweighs the possible danger.  We don’t have any real income, we don’t have anybody to go to for help, and it’s going to be far easier to get funds if we can do something like mercenary work with a team of people with powers.  Like Cody was talking about, we could hire someone to get us home.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Jess said.

Luke sighed, “Let’s be honest.  If it’s just Noelle, Cody and Krouse who have powers, I’m worried things will get ugly.  There’s too much tension, but I don’t think any of us are willing to leave the group and strike out on our own, not when it means being all alone in a strange world.  So we’re stuck together, and that means there’s going to be conflict.  If they aren’t the only ones with powers, then at least we can do something to stop a fight from erupting.”

“I don’t know,” Jess said, “I feel like it’ll make the problem worse.  And you talk as if being a superpowered mercenary isn’t dangerous.  And it won’t be that easy to find a tinker who can give us a way home.”

“There’s a thousand mad scientist types in this world, aren’t there?  Someone knows how to get us back,” Krouse said.

Jess frowned.

“Jess,” Luke spoke.  “Superpowers.  And the stuff healed Noelle.  Maybe it’ll heal your legs.  Think about it.  Walking, dancing?  Running?  Other stuff, stuff with boys?”

Her expression shifted a fraction.  For the first time since the powers had been brought up, he thought maybe there was a sign of interest.

She looked at Krouse, and Krouse shrugged.  “We have three and a half vials left.  Someone’s going to get only a half dose.”

“You’re assuming I take one,” Jess said.

“I am,” he echoed her.  “She set Cody against me, so I had an adversary, putting me off balance.  Then used Noelle’s injury to push me to act.  And you guys?  You, Luke, Marissa and Oliver?  She kept you occupied.  Kept you focused on yourselves.  You want to talk about the Simurgh’s game plan?  It centers around me.  I can’t see any other way of looking at it.  She isn’t aiming to have you guys get mondo powers and kill a president or something.  Why would she make Oliver feel like crap if that was her end goal?”

“It’s you?” Luke asked.

“Doesn’t it make sense?  Just look at where the focus is.  She distracted you guys because you were the ones who could have talked sense into me.  The can of worms is opened, and I’m the person she’s turned into a guided missile.”

“You don’t sound too worried for someone who believes that,” Luke said.

“I’m… I’m processing it,” Krouse admitted.  “But that’s what it looks like, to me.  And if there isn’t anything that points to me being wrong?  Maybe I should just help you guys get home, then stay here.  Become a hermit or something.  Let me keep however much leftover cash we wind up with, and I’ll find an apartment and while away the rest of my days watching movies and playing games over the internet, not saying two words to anyone.  Don’t know how much damage I could do that way.”

“Or come with us,” Luke said.  “There’s no way she can see the future of this world and ours.  No way she’s turned you into some ticking time bomb that’s going to fuck our world over.”

Krouse shrugged, “Maybe.  I can decide when we get that far.”

“Three and a half vials,” Jess said.

Krouse nodded.  She’s on board.

“You took the Jaunt one and the Division one,” Luke said.

“Leaving…”

Luke was already getting a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolding it.  “Prince, Deus, Robin and half of whichever vial you gave to Noelle.”

“Half of Division,” Krouse said, “Funny.  But it doesn’t look like Noelle has powers.  She’s said her skin fizzes, whatever that means, but maybe it’s incomplete…”

“I’ll take half,” Oliver said.

All eyes turned to him.  Oliver continued, “If Noelle doesn’t want to finish it, I’ll take half.  I’m not strong, I’m not brave, or smart, or creative.  I don’t have it in me to be a hero.  So as long as you don’t ask me to risk my life fighting stuff like the Simurgh, I’ll take the half, try to find other ways to help.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” Krouse said.  “You’re a decent guy.”

“Maybe,” Oliver said.  He sounded sad, “Maybe I’m decent.  But I’m not a great guy.  Like I said, nothing about me is special.  Nothing’s exceptional.  So I’ll take half.”

“Okay,” Krouse said.  “Anyone want to call dibs on the others?”

“Robin,” Luke said.  “Sounds like it might mean I could fly.”

“Mars?” Jess asked.  “You care?”

Marissa shook her head.

“Then Deus for me.”

“That leaves me with Prince,” Marissa said.  “I hope it doesn’t turn me into a boy.”

“Are they still next door?” Krouse asked.

Luke nodded.

“We dose you guys one at a time so we can be sure we have everything under control and minimize any damage.  Then we’ll leave before sunrise.”

The others nodded.


The car coasted down the long highway, the windshield wipers clearing away the moisture of the freezing rain.  Krouse pumped the windshield washer fluid and then wiped it away.

Madison was well behind them, now.  Odd, how it felt like he was leaving home, even when it wasn’t really his city.  A bad copy, an ugly copy.  One with more violence, where the criminals could do far, far worse, by virtue of having more power.  Having powers.  That was without even touching on Endbringers, the Simurgh, and the desolate quarantine area.

Cody was in front.  Krouse didn’t mind, didn’t care about giving up that token alpha-maleness.  If that’s all it took for Cody to be satisfied for the time being, he’d accept it.

He’d save his strength for the more serious conflicts.  They would happen.

The sun was rising.  It was a bit of a relief.  Driving in the rain and snow, in the dark, with the headlights seeming to extend a scant twenty feet ahead?  It sucked.  The rain continued, and the sky was overcast, but it was transitioning into a beautiful sort of overcast, with dark purples and oranges.

He looked at where Noelle sat in the passenger seat, reached over and squeezed her hand.

She looked at him and smiled a little.  It was better than he’d gotten in the last little while, and the surge of relief he experienced was almost palpable.

Marissa and Jess were in the back seat, either already sleeping or most of the way there.  He’d resisted the urge to comment, to note how the girls were with him, avoiding Cody.  They knew something was off.  That Cody was just a little too aggressive.  A little too testosterone driven.  As far as Krouse was concerned, it said something that the girls felt safer with him, even after everything that had happened.

They had their powers, and there was a slight cast of disappointment for everyone involved.

Jess could walk… but only with the images she projected.  Her real body seemed largely unaffected.  She got to experience everything she’d never had a chance to, even got to fly, but at the end of the day, she was still in the chair.

Marissa was managing to create flickers of light between her hands.  She’d stopped when a nearby piece of paper had caught on fire, resolving to try it when there was more open space.

Luke was especially disappointed with his power; it hadn’t been flight.  No, it was destructive, singular and without any versatility.  He turned anything he touched into a projectile.  It would be useful for mercenary work, if they were willing to take on the more dangerous jobs.  It came down to how long they were willing to wait before they got home, and how much money was demanded of them.

It was the day before Christmas Eve, Krouse remembered.  He’d have to be thankful for their well being, at least.  They were alive.  Things were okay.  Not great, but not as hopeless as they might have seemed before.  And things had settled down, at least.  For the first time since the others had joined him and Noelle at the coffee shop to discuss his inclusion on the team, things were calm.  They’d find a way to put their new powers to work.  They’d get money, get themselves home.

Things made sense again.  Mostly made sense.

Cody’s turn signal came on.  He was pulling into a rest stop.  One of the off-the-highway areas with a few fast food places and a gas station.

There weren’t many cars on the road, this time of morning, and less in the rest stop parking lot.  Cody pulled in just beside the front door.  Before Krouse was able to pull into another parking spot, Oliver was out of the door, running for the bathroom.

Oliver hadn’t changed either.  Half a dose apparently wasn’t enough.  It did seem to make the aftermath of drinking the stuff worse, though.  Oliver’s condition had been nearly as drawn out as Noelle’s after he’d taken his dose.

“Anyone need to make water?” Krouse asked.  “Fast food places might be open if you’re hungry.”

The two girls in the back seat groaned, but they roused.

“Want help with the chair?” he asked.

“We’ve got it,” Noelle said.  She flashed Krouse a small smile and headed inside.

Krouse fished in his pocket for a cigarette, whispered praise to Luke.  He popped it in his mouth and then started looking for the lighter.

Noelle knocked on the windshield, gave him a death glare.

“What?”  He offered her an exaggerated shrug

“Not in the car!” she admonished, her voice muffled by the intervening windows.

He smiled a little, climbed out of the car, leaned against the door and lit the cigarette.  While he puffed, he stared at the clouds as faint traces of the sunset’s colors traced across them.  The rain was freezing cold and irritating, but the cigarette was worth it.

When he’d finished the first and the others hadn’t returned, he resigned himself to walking across the parking lot to a spot where there was shelter from the rain, starting on a second cigarette.

He was halfway done when Marissa came outside.  He walked slowly in the direction of the car, taking a deep pull on the cigarette, thinking of how to gracefully point out that the others were taking a long time.  Then he saw her eyes.

She was afraid, white as a sheet, and she was silent in a way that suggested she didn’t know what to say.

He ran her way, spitting out the cigarette.  She held the door open for him, and then led the way toward the women’s bathroom.

There was a heavyset manager from one of the fast food places just at the door, shouting at Cody in a gruff voice.  Krouse ignored them, headed inside the bathroom, ignoring the manager’s shouted protests.

Noelle had crumpled to the ground at the far end of the bathroom.  Oliver, Luke and Jess were huddled around her.  Marissa moved straight to Noelle’s side.

“Don’t touch me!”  Noelle screamed, her voice shrill.

Marissa stepped away, hands raised, as if showing she were unarmed, safe.

“What happened?” Krouse asked, his voice quiet enough that the others might hear, but Noelle wouldn’t.

Each of the others gave him a look, expressions haunted.

He stepped closer, to get a better view.  Noelle’s pants were down around her knees.  Her jacket meant Krouse couldn’t see anything but her thighs.  There was a mark about a foot long and eight inches wide, raised on her left leg.  Red, angry, it was wrinkled and blistered like a bad burn.

She saw him. moved to try and cover herself, “Don’t look, Krouse!”

He turned to step away, to turn his back, but Jess reached out, caught his pants leg.

He looked again, saw Noelle’s head hanging, her hair a curtain around her face.  She was sobbing.

The skin on the angry red mark parted.  There was no surprise from the others; they’d seen this already.

Beneath the angry red skin on Noelle’s thigh, there was an eyeball, twice the normal size, with a broad yellow iris.  Noelle’s hands were clenched into fists, gripping the cloth of her jeans as the eye’s gaze darted from one member of their group to another.  It settled on Krouse.

Accusatory.

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Migration 17.6

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“We have to tell them,” Krouse murmured.

He and Jess were in the kitchen of a stranger’s house, using that stranger’s utensils to prepare their food.  It felt odd, invasive.  Except it’s not like they’ll be coming back any time soon.

“I need another knife,” Jess said, “This one’s awful.”

“Are you dodging the subject?”

“No.  I need a better knife if I’m going to keep cutting strawberries.  We can still talk.”

Krouse opened a drawer and passed a knife to where Jess sat on a stool at the counter.  “They’re going to find out sooner or later.  I’ve noticed something like five major clues since I started paying attention.  They’re distracted for now, but-”

“This knife sucks too.”

“All the knives suck.  Whoever lived here didn’t take care of their stuff.  Make do.”

Jess set to cutting the tops off the strawberries.

“They’re going to be upset,” she said.

“No shit.  We’re stuck in a whole other world, and things are just different enough that we could fuck up and reveal ourselves as aliens.”

Jess nodded.  She gathered a mess of strawberry tops from the cutting board and strained to reach forward enough to get it in the empty plastic container.

Krouse put one foot on the bar of the stool to give it a little more weight, so it wouldn’t fall, then moved the plastic container closer.

Jess said, “That would be bad, if we got caught.  The people of this world?  They’re scared.  There’s laws against people or objects being transmitted across worlds.  When that hole between universes came about, the first idea on people’s minds was that we might go to war, a whole other planet with resources.  Water, oil, wood, metal, all that stuff.  And Earth Aleph would lose because Bet had all the capes.  The rest of the world thought this gateway would make America into a bigger superpower than we already are.  So there were sanctions, deals.”

Krouse nodded.  He flipped the pancakes over on the frying pan.  They were the crappy sort, the sort that came from a box.  Still, it was better than nothing.

“It’s bad, Krouse.  Even if we were willing to go home, with the Simurgh maybe planning something-”

“We can’t let that dictate our choices,” Krouse said.  “We’ll go crazy trying to second guess everything.  We can minimize the damage, try to keep a low profile.  And I’ll admit you’re right.  Not using the contents of that briefcase is a start.  If we get a chance to meet the president or something, we should probably turn it down.”

“Yeah,” Jess said.  Then she held up a hand.  “Shush.”

Floorboards upstairs were creaking.

Marissa came downstairs, her hair wrapped in a towel.  “Shower done, if either of you want to rinse off.  We have power?”

“Came on a bit ago,” Krouse said.

“Got restless, decided to do something.  Food in our bellies, keep the furnace burning.” Jess said.  “Hungry?  Offering up some pancakes for dinner.”

“Yeah,” Marissa said.

Krouse checked the pancakes and put them on a plate, tearing one in half and popping it in his mouth.  “Mars, you want to relieve Oliver?  He’s looking after Noelle right now.”

“Who took the shift before that?”

“Me,” Krouse said.  “I’ll bring you a plate.  Butter and Syrup?”

“Sugar and lemon juice,” Marissa said, before leaving for the living room.

Krouse spoke in a low voice, “We have to tell them.”

Jess nodded.

Krouse opened his mouth to say something else, then shut it as conversation erupted in the living room.

Noelle?

He turned off the oven burner and headed in that direction, only to be stopped by Jess.  “Krouse?”

He paused, looked back, saw her perched on the stool.

“Bring me?”

He grimaced, sliding one arm around her shoulders, with his other one beneath her knees, making sure not to bump his injured hand against anything.  He lifted her and commented, “You’re lighter than I thought you’d be.”

“Ever a charmer, Krouse.”

“Guys!”  Marissa called out.

Krouse hurried for the living room, pausing only to ensure he didn’t slam Jess’ head or feet into a door frame.

His blood ran cold as he saw what had the others attention.  It wasn’t Noelle.

The television was on, and it was displaying footage of the Simurgh.

Shit,” Jess whispered.

“We have cable!” Marissa said, smiling.

“Maybe we’ll have working phones soon,” Luke said.  “Get ahold of our parents.”

Krouse navigated past where Oliver was lying on the ground, blankets balled up so he had something to lean against, a book in his hands.  He stepped around the coffee table and set Jess in the one empty armchair.

Then he walked over to the TV, blocking it with his body, and pressed the volume button at the top until the sound was off.

“What the hell, Krouse?” Luke asked.

“Asshole,” Cody said.  He was sitting in the adjacent dining room.  “We might finally get a chance to find out what’s going on.”

“You’re going to find out because I’m going to tell you,” Krouse said.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Luke asked.  “Is this that thing you were putting off telling us yesterday?”

Krouse nodded.  He saw Jess shifting position as though she were trying to face everyone else, met her eyes and shook his head just a little.

She frowned, but she kept quiet.

“Spit it out,” Cody snapped.

“We’re a long way from home,” Krouse said, shrugging.  “Better you hear it from me than find it out on TV.”

Marissa frowned, her eyebrows knitting together.  “Long way from home?  But-”

“We’re still in Madison.  We’re just… we’re not in our Madison.”

He stopped to let that sink in.

“Oh fuck you,” Cody snarled.

Oliver was looking around the room, seeing people’s expressions change.  He looked at Krouse, “I don’t understand.”

“When the building fell, that was her bringing us through?” Luke asked.

“Yeah.  From Earth Aleph to Earth Bet,” Krouse confirmed.  He saw Oliver’s eyes widen as he belatedly understood.

“Wait,” Marissa said, “But… what?”

“You knew too, Jess?” Luke asked.

“I- yeah.  Yeah, I figured it out.”

“It’s what we were talking about, after we first got to this house,” Krouse said.  “I convinced her to keep quiet.  Figured it wasn’t crucial to know just then, and with the screaming in our heads, we didn’t need the added stress.”

Jess stared at him.  He glanced at her, then turned his attention to the others.  I’m better at being the bad guy than you are.

“You had no right,” Cody said.

“Probably not.”

“So you were keeping us in the dark?” Luke asked.  “Deciding it was for our own good, deciding for us?”

“That’s the gist of it.  I think you’ll look back on this and see why I did it.  We needed to look after ourselves, look after Noelle, and we couldn’t do that if we were thinking about how we had no way of getting home.  I strong-armed Jess into being quiet, hid one or two pieces of evidence.  Hate me if you have to, but it made sense.”

“But we- is that why you told us we should stay here instead of heading out?”

Krouse shrugged. “Part of it.  Another part of it was just like I said; we can’t be sure the heroes have found and defeated all the monsters the Simurgh dropped into the city.  Maybe they won’t ever get all of them.  But yeah, no point leaving because there’s no home to go to.”

“But how-” Oliver started.

He didn’t get a chance to finish.  Cody was on his feet in an instant, his chair falling to the ground.  He rushed Krouse, gripping him by the shirt collar.  Once he had a hold, he swung Krouse around to one side, shoved him, throwing him across Jess’ lap and into the coffee table that sat between her and Luke.

Luke tried to stand from his chair, but Cody pushed him back down.  While Luke fell back, Cody stooped down to seize Krouse’s shirt with one hand, striking at his face with the heel of the other.

“You fucker!  Lying to us?  At a time like this!?  Fuck you!  Fuck you!”

Krouse tried to shield himself with his arms, but it didn’t help much.  He brought his knees up to his chest, between himself and Cody, then kicked outward, forcing Cody off.

Cody fell back, nearly hitting the coffee table in front of the couch.  It would have been a good opportunity to close the distance, to hit back, but he didn’t.  Krouse took the opportunity to stand, tenderly touching the spots on his cheekbone, chin and nose where Cody had landed some good hits.

“Fucker!”  Cody shouted, from across the room.

“I… well, I guess I deserved that,” Krouse said.

“Krouse-” Jess started.

“Hm?” he turned her way, touched fingertips to his nose to check for blood.  Only a little.  “It’s fine.”

Better they’re mad at one of us than both of us.

“Fine?” Cody growled.  “We’re fucking stuck in a world with Endbringers like that psycho alien bird bitch!  And we’ve got you playing head games with us on top of that!”

“He wasn’t playing head games,” Luke said.  He winced as he moved his injured leg from his footrest to the ground.  Not exactly.”

“Thank you for saying so,” Krouse said.

“Don’t thank me,” Luke said, angry, “I’m not on your side.  I’m just saying you didn’t fuck with us for your own gain, you fucked with us because you thought it was in our best interests.”

“So that’s it?” Cody asked.  “It’s not just that we’re pawns in some crazy chess game the Simurgh is playing.  We’re stranded here?”

“Yeah,” Jess said.  One word.

“There’s got to be ways home,” Luke said.

“Probably,” Krouse replied.  “But they won’t be easy to find.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Oliver asked.  “If we go to the police-”

“They’ll realize that we’re probably pawns in the Simurgh’s game plan,” Krouse said.  “We’ll be detained.  And let’s not forget, they killed that superhero, because he might have been caught in her web.  Odds are pretty fucking good that we’re caught in it, between the coincidences Jess mentioned and the fact that the Simurgh pulled us from our world to this one.  The people in charge?  They won’t fail to notice.”

“You think they’d kill us?” Oliver asked.

“It’s hard to believe, but I find it hard to believe they killed the cape and they did.  Yes.  I think they’d kill us..”

When a minute passed and nobody spoke up, Krouse turned the volume up for the television.

…final decisions.  In the meantime, plans are underway to build permanent blockades around the affected area, with concrete walls placed South Midvale Boulevard to the west, Capitol Square to the east, and Haywood Drive to the south.  A quarantine processing center is already established at St. Mary’s Hospital, servicing city residents who were not evacuated before temporary blockades were set up.

Restitution will be offered to citizens displaced from their homes, paid for with international funding.  Authorities report that no catastrophic damage was done, and the situation was quickly brought under control by the first responders to the scene.  Chicago Protectorate leader Myrddin is quoted as stating, ‘This is a win for the good guys.  Scion arrived early to put the pressure on within minutes of her arrival and Eidolon delivered the final blows, driving her off.  We’re getting better at fighting these guys, and it’s showing.’

However, insider sources in the PRT suggest that things are not so glowing.  A vault holding the equipment of now-deceased supervillain ‘Professor Haywire’ was accessed by the Simurgh.  Shortly after, the source alleges, the Simurgh activated a large-scale replica of the devices, depositing large amounts of foreign bodies in the heart of the city.  Among these bodies, multiple reports say, were innumerable monsters with superpowers and hazardous materials.  When asked, the Chicago PRT director declined to comment, except to say that there have been no breaches of quarantine and there is no indication of risk to anyone in the vicinity of the quarantine zone.”

“MWBB coverage of the Endbringer attack will continue for the rest of the day, but next, we have a story of-

Krouse turned off the TV.  “St. Mary’s?”

“Not in our world,” Jess said.  “And we’re running a lot of risks by going…”

“We don’t have a choice,” Krouse said, looking at Noelle. “We’ll find a map, and we’ll need a car, with half of us unable to walk.  Let’s get Noelle to a hospital, ASAP.”

Finding the car proved to be the hardest part.  There wasn’t a car in the garage of the house they were borrowing, and though Krouse saw a car in the driveway of the neighboring house, he couldn’t find a set of keys in any of the obvious locations.

Be nice to know how to hotwire a car.

In the end, they headed out as two teams.  Krouse was joined by Marissa, while Oliver and Cody formed the other team.  It was dark, the streets were empty, and snow still drifted in dense clouds.  Few places had lights on, but that proved fortunate, as those places tended to be businesses.

They found a car rental place, but metal shutters on the window barred their access.  The keys are probably in a safe or something, Krouse thought.

They ran at first, jogging lightly as they hurried from place to place.  As they ran into continual failures, failed to find a car they could use, they slowed to a brisk walk.  It meant preserving their stamina, even as the slowness of it made Krouse anxious.  Every second spent looking was a second that Noelle had to wait.  Settling in and leaving her to linger in a nigh-unconscious state had been their only option before they’d heard the broadcast.  Now, though…

They passed the area with the restaurants and patios as they continued searching for a usable car.  Every time he passed a car, he peered inside to see if there was a key in the ignition, if maybe it had been left abandoned by the owner.  No luck.

This is pointless.

He checked another car, wiping snow from the window, then hurried to catch up to Marissa.  She was checking the cars on the other side of the street.

“No luck,” she said.

“Can I ask what you saw?” he asked.

“What?”

“When the Simurgh showed you stuff.  What did you see?”

“Why does it matter?”

“Because I’m trying to get a sense of what her game plan was.  Cody told me that she reminded him of me.  Brought up all the bad memories of times I gave Cody a hard time, times he thought I slighted him or whatever.  I’m wondering if it was the same for you.”

Marissa shook her head.  “If I say no, will that be enough?”

“I won’t force you, obviously.  But… I’ve been trying to think about all this the way shes thinking about it.  Anticipate her moves.  It’d help a lot if you shared.”

Marissa made a face.  He couldn’t see a lot of her face, with the white scarf that was wrapped around the lower half, but he saw the grimace, the skin wrinkling on her nose.

“Okay.  It’s fine, don’t stress about it,” he said, hurrying to check more cars on the other side of the street.

She called out after him, “I was on stage!”

He stopped, turned.

“I was on stage.  It was just before I stopped doing all the dance and music stuff.  The whole thing then had been lyrical dance.  But I’d been rebelling…”

She trailed off.

“I don’t follow.”

“I was fighting with my mom, top of our lungs screaming at each other, always about stupid stuff.  The color of my dance uniform, and what I was eating for dinner, the amount of homework I was or wasn’t doing.  So I stopped practicing.  Started hanging out with friends like I’d wanted to do for years.  Thought I was getting back at my mom, that I’d get on stage, and I’d get fourth place, and she’d be pissed, whatever.”

“But?”

“I froze.  It’s never really happened to me before.  My mind went blank, I, um, I couldn’t even bring myself to move, or pull one coherent thought into my head.  I was sweating, breathing hard, to the point that I almost thought I’d finished, except I hadn’t even started.”

“Scary.”

“It’s… it’s worse than that, but it wasn’t scary so much as… devastating?  I don’t know if I explained it right, but it’s like, I managed to get a little of my own strength, break away from my mom’s grasp, and all the pressures she put on me, become my own person.  And then I’m standing there on stage, and I feel a bead of sweat run down the inside of my leg and for just three seconds, I-“

She stopped.

Krouse didn’t want to interrupt, and Marissa was busy talking, so he took over checking the inside of the car windows as they walked.  He peered inside the next car. “You thought you’d pissed yourself.”

“…I don’t know why I said that out loud.  You fucking mention that ever again, and-“

“I won’t.”

It was another ten seconds before she continued.  “I must have turned bright red.  I’d felt strong, felt independent for the first time in my life.  And then it turns out like that.  And she’s in the audience, front row.  My mom.  She’s smiling, because she thinks it’s a victory for her.  The rebellious daughter discovering that mom was right about everything after all, you know?  That’s how she probably saw it.”

Krouse nodded.

“That smile?  That was what the Simurgh showed me.  Except it lingered.  Couldn’t shake it.  Almost as if it was the Simurgh doing it and not my mom.”

Krouse scraped at ice that had packed against one passenger-side window, peering inside.  “What happened after that?”

“Here or back then?”

“Back then.”

“I had a bit of a breakdown.  My grades went to hell, I stopped doing everything, all of the music, all of the dance, all of the after school stuff.  Retreated to my room.  Wound up going to therapy, but my mom sat in on all of the sessions, and how could I get better when the person that’s ninety-percent to blame for the problems is in the room with me?  Stopped going to that therapy until I could get a therapist who’d be for me and just for me.  That’s where I met Noelle.  Chris backed me up in general, but it was Noelle that helped me find my way.”

He could see her face fall, understood why.  “I’m sorry about Chris, by the way.”

“He was a genuinely good guy.”

“Yeah.  Sorry I didn’t get to know him more.  He was always more your friend than our collective friend.  But he was nice enough.”

“And without Chris or Noelle, there’s nobody left in the group that I really could talk to,” Marissa said, “So it’s the same for me, now, kind of.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “You can talk to me, if you need to, you know.”

She snorted.

There was a break where they only investigated the cars.  Krouse knew he should be on the other side of the street, looking for keys, but it was fruitless.  There was an expensive looking hotel at the end of the street that had a parking garage, and he held out hope that the place would have valet parking.

Oliver had been saturated with self-doubt, loathing, all the things that made him introverted, passive, even whiny.  He’d been brought to tears at one point, even.  Marissa had been brought back to the stage, her focus turned to her relationship with her mom.

What purpose does that serve?

The only thing that Krouse could think of, and he had to ask Luke to get a third data point, was that the Simurgh had wanted to distract them.  Cody, meanwhile, had been set against Krouse, and Krouse’s attention had been turned to Noelle.

This doesn’t strike me as the kind of maneuvers she’d be making if she was planning something for years from now.  This is more imminent.

“What are you thinking?”

“That I need to talk to Luke about what he saw.”

“To make sure he’s okay?”

“That, and to round out my theory.  With your situation, what you were talking about with the aftermath of the stage fright, was that it?  There was nothing afterward?  Things got better?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Marissa shrugged.  “It was good to be free, to have time to myself, without my mom, um…”

“Your mom’s intensity?”

“Intensity.  Yeah.  But it sucks, because I’m a year away from the point where I could move out.  Maybe more, depending on how long it takes me to get first and last month’s rent together.  And until then, I’ve got to put up with dinner conversations where every other sentence has a hidden barb, a prod to accomplish something, or a dismissal of the stuff I’m actually interested in.”

She’s talking like all that’s still a consideration.  We’re a long way away from that stuff, from our families and having to worry about rent.  Krouse knew she’d feel worse when it hit her, if she kept thinking that way.

“You don’t need to worry about any of that now, at least,” Krouse said, trying to sound nonchalant, checking the next car.

He didn’t hear a response.  Turning back, he saw her eyebrows drawn together in a frown.  He asked, “Sorry.  Was that too blunt?”

“No.  Um.  I dunno.  Is it strange I miss my mom?”

“You know your feelings better than I do.”

“For years, I’ve dreamed about running away, or getting enough money together to move across the country and cut all ties with her.  Only now a situation like that’s been dropped in my lap, and I realize I might not see her for a long time, if ever, and Chris on top of that…”

“I think these circumstances would make anyone feel lonely,” he said.

Marissa nodded.  “How are you holding up?”

“Just want to get Noelle help.”

“And your hand?”

“Hurts like a bitch.  But it feels silly to complain when we have bigger problems and other people are hurting more.  And I’m getting antsy, taking so long doing this.  Looking in the car windows isn’t getting us anywhere, and it’s getting too dark.  Let’s check the hotel.”

“Okay.”

They crossed the street and found the front door of the hotel unlocked.  Only half the lights were on, set for daylight rather than evening, and the interior was abandoned.

“Everyone really did evacuate, didn’t they?”  Marissa asked.

Krouse hopped onto the front desk and swung his legs around to the other side before hopping down. “Two ways to deal with the Simurgh, I guess.  Far easier to be preventative than to clean up the mess afterward.”

He opened a drawer and found a mess of business cards, each organized into neat rows with elastic bands around them.  The next drawer was locked.  “Mars!”

Marissa returned from the employee-only hallway beside the front desk, “What?”

“Can’t get this open with one hand.  Want to try?”

She tried and failed to get the drawer open.  Struck by inspiration, she hurried back into the hallway and then came back with a toolbelt.  It took less than three minutes to get the drawer open.

Half of the drawer were largely empty, containing only two credit cards, a piece of jewelry and a paper noting procedure for managing the lost and found.  The other half of the drawer was sectioned off with a grid of wood panels, with keys and slips of paper in some and plastic cards with numbers in stylized golden letters in the others.

“Score,” he said.

A dozen keys in hand, they made their way to the parking garage, stopping at the stand with all the brochures to find one with a map of the area.  Marissa got in the first car they found.  Testing the remaining keys, Krouse made another nearby car beep.  Seven of us, and Noelle should lie down.  This works.

They opened the metal paneled door to the parking garage and hurried back to their cars.  He followed her out.

The plan had been to loop around and find the others.  If they couldn’t, they were to beep and signal them.  With things this quiet, it wouldn’t be too difficult to hear the horn.  Still, he’d rather not have to.  There was no guarantee the freaks weren’t still around.  Two people would be hard to spot in the gloom and the curtains of falling snow, but cars with glowing headlights?

Oliver and Cody were nowhere to be seen.

He beeped twice and waited, while Marissa drove ahead and did the same.  A minute passed as they staggered their movement across the area Oliver and Cody had headed off to.  The pair didn’t show up.  Either Oliver and Cody were in trouble, or-

He peeled out, driving past Marissa.

Was the gut feeling his own, or was it something implanted in his head by the Simurgh?

The wheels skidded on the snowy surface of the road.  He didn’t have far to go.  If he was wrong, he knew this would cost them only a little time.  If he was right, though-

There would be a car parked outside the house.  There was; Cody had left it sitting in the middle of the street, by the fence.  Krouse pulled his car to a stop and climbed out.

The soldiers on the other side of the fence were still there.  All but a few were inside their vehicles, now.  Others were outside, smoking.  They didn’t seem to care about what was unfolding ahead of them.

Krouse rushed into the house.  He glimpsed at Noelle.  She didn’t seem to be any worse, and Oliver was beside her.  Jess shot him a concerned look, but Krouse wasn’t waiting long enough to exchange words.  He rushed towards the kitchen.

Luke was standing, one leg bent and off the ground, holding a door frame for balance.

“Cody-” Luke started.

“I know,” Krouse replied.

There was a noise as someone ascended the stairs.  Cody burst into the kitchen.  “Where are they!?”

“And you call me the asshole,” Krouse said.

“Fuck you.  You hid them.”

“Close, but no cigar.  We did leave the suitcase in plain sight, took the canisters out.”

“Where!?”

“But we didn’t hide them.  Jess and I destroyed ’em, before we started cooking dinner.”

Bullshit.”

“We weren’t going to use them,” Krouse shrugged.  “It’s a bad idea.”

“You fucker!  Making decisions for the rest of us!”

Krouse shrugged.  “Cope.”

Cody turned towards the area where Luke was at the door frame.  “Luke.  You’re going to stand by and let him act-“

“You don’t have any ground to stand on,” Luke said, interrupting.  “Not that Krouse is doing much better, destroying those vials before we had a chance to discuss it further, on top of what he’s already pulled, but the worst Krouse has done thus far is lie by omission.  You lied to my face.  Said you were looking for something to help transport Noelle.”

“I’m willing to bite the bullet,” Cody said.  “I’ll take the hit.  I’ll drink the stuff, or inject it, whatever.  And if the Simurgh has things set up so I get fucked over down the road, I’m okay with that.  I can still use whatever powers I get to get us out of here.  Maybe get us home.”

“Get us home?” Krouse asked, “Like it’s that easy.”

“Everything comes down to money,” Cody said.  “Think about it.  We get a few million bucks, pay one of those mad scientist types, and they get us home.  Maybe I die or something in a few months or a few years.  But I’m not staying here!  I’m not putting up with this fucking dynamic!”

Krouse noted Marissa coming in through the front hall, standing behind him.

“What dynamic?” Luke asked.

“The one where he comes out on top!  Where everyone else is okay with the shit he pulls and then pats him on the back when that shit works out in everyone’s favor!”

“The Simurgh fucked with your head,” Krouse said.

“No!  This has been bothering me for a long time!”

“Listen!” Krouse raised his voice.  Cody glared, but didn’t speak.  Krouse continued, “She fucked with your head, brought that simmer to a boil.  She wanted this.  She wanted Luke and Noelle and Oliver to be distracted, that’s why she made them remember the things they did.  She wanted you to hate me, and I think she wanted me to go just a little too far.”

“Krouse,” Luke said, his tone a warning.

Krouse’s tone was matter of fact, calm.  “I will.  I’ll admit it, I’m a crummy person and Noelle seems to like me anyways.  You have no conception of how major that is, or of the hurdles we’ve had to get past to get even this far in our relationship.  So yeah, I’ll go too far if I’m pushed, right here, right now, because I have to protect Noelle.”

Cody folded his arms.

Krouse continued, “It’s probably what the Simurgh wanted, maybe even why she made me as reckless and violent as I was when we ran into those supervillains.  So I’d cross that line once.  She set me up so I’d do it, like she’s set you up so your resentment’s at a fever pitch.  If you attack me, I’ll probably kill you.”

“You’re talking out your ass,” Cody snarled the words.

“I’m done with you,” Krouse said.  “You can’t let go of shit, can’t see far enough past what’s between the two of us to know how shortsighted you’re being.  Our situation right now?  We’ve got priorities.  Noelle is number one, but the rest of these guys come in a close second.  So I’m going to go help Noelle and get her into the car I brought, and we’ll get her and Luke to a hospital.”

Cody only glared.

“And Cody?  If she suffers at all because you wasted time, then I’m going to make you answer for it.”

Krouse turned his back on the guy, making his way to the living room.

“Need help?”  Marissa was on his heels.

“Help Jess.  I can carry Noelle, and I want to be out of here sooner than later.”

“Okay.”

“Luke?” Krouse said, “Want to use my shoulder to steady yourself?”

“I can use Oliver.”

Krouse nodded.

One by one, they made their way to the cars Krouse and Marissa had brought.  It took time to get Noelle settled in with blankets around her.  Even a little cold left her whimpering and moaning, struggling with less strength than a baby might have offered.  Her eyes never opened, and she couldn’t even lift her arms beneath the blankets, after they were in place.

All the while, Cody stood in the doorway of the house, staring.

It was only after Krouse and Marissa had pulled away that Cody made his way to his car and followed.

“Need help!” Krouse shouted, as he pushed the hospital doors open with his foot.  Noelle was in his arms.

There were only twenty or so people present.  No staff.  Plastic panels had been boarded up so that they blocked half of the access hallways.  The front desk, too, was similarly blocked off.  A camera sat on the desk, pointing forward.

Krouse went out of his way to avoid putting himself in front of the camera.  He banged on the plastic panel that hung over the front desk’s window.  “Hey!  This girl is dying!”

Please wait,”  a voice said.  It sounded over an intercom or something.

“She’s waited way too long already!”

Stay calm and be patient.  The staff at this facility are strictly limited to the volunteers who were willing to undergo the quarantine procedure themselves.  As such, this facility is currently understaffed.

Was it an automated message?  No.  He didn’t get that vibe.

“Sit, Krouse,” Marissa said.

Krouse settled Noelle into a chair, then sat beside her.  “Fucking creepy.  I think that thing in the booth is an artificial intelligence.”

“No shit?” Luke asked.

“No shit,” Krouse said, his leg bouncing up and down restlessly.  It had to have been at least eight hours since the initial injury, but the minutes that were passing now that help was so close were a special kind of torture.  He studiously ignored Cody, who was standing on the other side of the waiting room.

The others in the waiting room included two nuclear families, a collection of older people who might have come from an old folks home and five men in protective gear that looked like what a firefighter might use, but they had the word ‘Rescue’ emblazoned across their shoulders.

“We get asked about where we came from,” Krouse murmured to the others, “We stick as close to reality as we can, but we don’t name people or places.  Better to look dumb than name a place that doesn’t exist.  Any tips, Jess?”

“Nine-eleven didn’t happen here.  Endbringers did.  They have one dollar coins in this America, not bills, and they phased pennies out.  Um.  There’s an installation on the moon, half-built and abandoned.  I don’t know.  Stuff is different.”

“Is any of this even liable to come up?” Luke asked.

“Don’t know.  Better to be safe,” Krouse said.

Two people in nurse’s uniforms hurried out of the mouth of the hallway.  One, a man, approached Krouse and his friends.  Krouse stood from his seat.

“Situation?” the nurse asked.

“Two moderate injuries, one severe,” Krouse said.

“She’s the severe one?” the nurse asked.

“Yeah.  Stuff fell on her.  Her stomach’s turning black.”

“We’ll look after her,” he said.  He whistled.  “Esme!  Stretcher!”

The other nurse ran to get one.

“Only six of us volunteered,” he said.  “Lots of rules, lots of drawbacks, when it comes to the quarantine.  We were on the outside, but we get treated same as you for coming in.  Can’t blame others for not being willing to make the sacrifice, but it’s tough with the limited staff.  Who else is injured?”

“Impaled hand,” Krouse raised one hand.  He pointed at Luke.  “And sliced leg.  If you’re going by priority, put me last.”

“Not critical?”

“No,” Krouse said.  He looked at Luke, “No, right?”

“I’m okay for now,” Luke said.

The other nurse had arrived with a stretcher.  The pair checked Noelle over, then loaded her onto it.  She disappeared down one hallway

Krouse sank into his seat.  It was out of his hands now.  He could finally let himself relax just a little, finally-

Sir?

It was the intercom by the camera.

Hesitant, he stood, then he stepped closer, still avoiding the camera.

Please take these papers and distribute them to your companions.

Krouse took the stack of paper.  They were stacked together in packs of six.

Be informed, individuals within the quarantine area must meet the prerequisites noted on those sheets before they can be permitted to process out and re-enter society.  Under the D.D.I.D. measures, individuals found to be circumventing the listed procedures and strictures or violating the post-release conditions will be criminally charged.”

“What?”

Do you require further explanation of the D.D.I.D. measures?

“What measures?”

To be processed out of the quarantine area, individuals are required to undergo ten months of twice-weekly checkups with a rotating body of quarantine processing agents.  Eight of those months will also involve weekly sessions of counseling and psychiatric evaluation.

“Ten months?”

Ten months, correct.  Further, anyone processing out of quarantine is required to accept a tattoo marking their D.D.I.D. status.  Each such individual will be placed on a list, with twice-weekly checkups with quarantine processing agents continuing indefinitely.  Attendance at any official or non-official function with more than ten individuals present requires permission from a quarantine processing agent, a minimum of forty-eight hours in advance.  The individual in charge of the function should be notified of your D.D.I.D. status upon your arrival.  Any employers should be notified of your D.D.I.D. status at the first opportunity.  Anyone selling or renting property to you should be notified of your D.D.I.D. status at the first opportunity.  Financial institutions should-“

“Stop.”

The remainder of details are noted on the sheets provided.  This counter can answer any further questions.  The operator overseeing the quarantine area can answer any further questions.  As noted on the sheet, the operator can be contacted-“

“Stop.  Shut up,” Krouse said.

The mechanical voice went silent.

Krouse turned to leave.

“Sir?  There is one other matter to discuss.”

Krouse turned back.  “What?”

Regarding the care of the young woman, will you be paying the balance?

“I don’t have any money.”

Understood.  If you will provide the name of your financial institution-

My financial institution… a world away.

It dawned on Krouse, belatedly, that he was a person without an identity.  His driver’s license, his banking info, his birth certificate… they didn’t count for anything here.

“Why?”  Krouse interrupted it.  “Can’t you guys pay for it?”

Of course.  You will be reimbursed for costs incurred in the course of your processing.  But the process will be expedited if you pay now.  Failure to do so could mean additional delays.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Krouse said.  He thought of the credit card he’d taken from the drawer. If he used that…  No.  Too dangerous.  But there had been any number of stores that had been left abandoned.  “I can pay cash, if given a chance to go collect it.”

These measures were put in place to ensure that we are able to track anyone undergoing quarantine processing, as well as those who may be attempting to circumvent processing.  We will require a credit card or a bank account number.

“If I don’t?” he asked.  “My stuff got destroyed in the attack.”

Again, we can contact your financial institution on your behalf and start the process of restoring your accounts to your control.  If you do not pay, you will not be processed.”

“And my girlfriend?”

The patient will not be processed, either.

“If I say I don’t have the money, and I can’t pay her fee?”

“We will request financial information from the patient at the first opportunity.

Noelle, Krouse was almost certain, didn’t have a wallet on her.  No, they’d left her purse in Luke’s apartment, and that was in shambles.

“If she can’t pay?”

“We will attempt to contact her financial institution.”

“If you can’t?”  He searched for an excuse, “She was confused, before she went unconscious.  She might have hit her head.  If I can’t give you that information and she can’t give it to you, what then?”

Then the department will pay.  But quarantine processing will not continue until you have provided identification and financial information to verify your identity.

Krouse returned to his seat, set his hands on his head.

Fuck you, Simurgh, he thought.  Fuck you and fuck this foreign Earth.

“Krouse?”  Marissa asked.  “Was it about Noelle?”

She’s forcing our hands.

“Quarantine measures,” he said.  He shoved the papers at her, half-crumpled in his hand.

She took them with a gentle touch that stood in stark contrast to the force he’d just used, as if afraid to provoke him further.

“What do you mean?” Luke asked.

Krouse spoke in a low voice, “I mean we don’t get out of this quarantine area without I.D. and bank info, which we don’t have, and even then, we get treated like criminals for the rest of our lives.”

“There’s got to be a way around it.”

“No.  I don’t think there are.  They’re on the watch for that stuff.  For anyone trying to slip past the system.  So we either need to take ten months to process out of here, with enough psychiatric counseling and talks with quarantine officers that we’re bound to slip up somewhere, and we’d have to get flawless I.D. that’s going to meet the standards for their checks-“

“Which is impossible,” Cody said.  He’d approached and was listening.

Krouse nodded.  “-and we’d get treated like criminals for the rest of our lives, or we take option two, we try to escape, and again, we get treated like criminals for the rest of our lives, only we deserve it.”

Another family came in the front doors, finding chairs to settle into.  Two twenty-somethings and two people who looked more like grandparents than parents.  They were sitting close enough that Krouse couldn’t continue risk being overheard.

He fell silent, and the others read the papers detailing the quarantine protocols.

It was two hours before the male nurse returned to the lobby with news about Noelle.

Krouse didn’t even finish listening before dashing for the door.

“Well played,” Krouse said, as the car skidded to a stop outside the house they’d borrowed.  “Well fucking played, Simurgh.”

He stepped out of the car.

Permanent damage.  Removing the majority of her lower intestine.

He didn’t step into the house they’d borrowed.  He headed straight for the house next door, the one they’d broken into when they were looking for house keys.

Interrupted blood flow, infection, possible signs of necrosis.  She’l require a colostomy bag even in the best case scenario.  In the worst case scenario, well, there’s any number of ways this could end badly for the patient.

End badly, Krouse thought.  She’ll die.

Heading inside through the side door, he locked it behind him and made his way to the living room.  The canisters were sitting under the couch, along with the papers.  He flipped through them.

Canister A:  F-1-6-1-1, ‘Deus’, 85% mixture.
Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 15% mixture.
           To be consumed by Client 1

Canister B: R-0-9-3-6, ‘Jaunt’, 70% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 30% mixture.
           To be consumed by Client 2

Canister C: C-2-0-6-2, ‘Prince’, 55% mixture.
           Added: O-0-1-2-1, ‘Aegis’, 30% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 15% mixture.
           To be consumed by Client 3

Canister D: M-0-0-4-2, ‘Vestige’, 75% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 25% mixture
           To be consumed by Client 4

Canister E: X-0-7-9-6, ‘Division’, 80% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 20% mixture
           To be consumed by Client 5

Canister F: E-0-7-1-2, ‘Robin’, 60% mixture.
           Added: C-0-0-7-2, ‘Balance’, 40% mixture
           To be consumed by Client 6

“Can’t even say what they do, huh?” he asked.  “Because you want to leave maximum room for us to screw up, is that right?”

He could hear a car on the road, the crunch of heavy snow beneath tires.  A car door slammed.  He flipped back several pages to reread the directions.  Nothing more complicated than drinking the stuff.

But which one?  He stared at the list, muttered, “Jaunt.”

A small laugh escaped his lips.  Didn’t a jaunt mean a short trip?

“Well, that’s as fitting a choice as any,” he said.  He could hear the others making their way inside.

He screwed off the top of the canister and withdrew the vial inside.  “A toast!  If I’m screwed no matter which path I take, then at least I’ll go forward with courage!  Fuck you, Simurgh!”

Marissa and Oliver appeared at the entrance to the living room just in time to see him tossing the contents of the vial back.  They rushed forward to stop him and only succeeded in catching him as he fell.

Pain.

It was like cold electricity, moving through his body at a speed of an inch a second.

He saw fragmented images, faded, blurry.  A crystal formation, growing in fast motion.  Two crystals, each somehow alive.  They moved by creating more of themselves, letting the crystal behind them die.  He sensed that years were passing, but they moved together, insistent.

The second they made contact, the entire world was turned to crystal in a heartbeat.

Another heartbeat later, the world shattered.

Another image.  Creatures that folded and unfolded through space, existing in multiple worlds simultaneously, too many to count, spreading out from the remains of a world.

A third scene.  Falling towards a barren planet, seeing the descent with countless eyes that weren’t quite eyes.  And a fragment of an idea… that the world had the same general shape as Earth.  Landmasses in the right place, if not quite the right shape.  No water… but still Earth.

“Krouse,” Marissa whispered.

“All good,” he smiled.  He struggled to his feet, then nearly lost his balance.  He had to put one hand on Marissa’s shoulder to keep from falling to the ground.  “It’s all good.”

Why?”

“Because I’m brave and stupid and because she’s the only one who ever gave me the benefit of a doubt,” he said.  He tried to walk and fell.  Marissa caught him.

“You can’t,” she said.

“Can too.  ‘Cause I’m pretty sure it worked.  Not sure how.  But it worked.”

He felt a pressure behind him.  A matching pressure to his right.  He turned to look, to see what was happening, and only saw the flatscreen television and a heavy speaker poised on the edge of the bookshelf.  There was a chord, as if a string stretched between them, vibrating, and the television was suddenly sitting on the bookshelf, the speaker in the midst of the entertainment center.  The television fell with a crash, and the remains of the screen danced across the floor.  Marissa shrieked.

“See?” he smiled.

“Krouse-”

He was aware of the pressure, aware of the reaching.  He tried to push it to move, like he’d move his hand, and it did.  He couldn’t exactly feel the shape, but had a sense of the heft of the thing he was pressing against.  He pressed the other presence against the coffee table, but didn’t feel the same chord.

Could expand and contract it, he noted, as if he were opening or closing his hand.  He tried expanding one.  No, that made it worse.  Expanding the one around the coffee table, grabbing, what, air?

The chord.

The desk from the front hall crashed to the ground and tipped over just beside them.  The coffee table settled in the front hall.  Again, Marissa made a noise of alarm, a yelp.  “Krouse!  Stop!”

“It’s all good,” he repeated himself.  “Because I’m going to help her.  Fuck the Simurgh.  Fuck destiny.”

He stopped when he saw Cody in the hallway.

“They’ll accept this too,” Cody said, “Our friends, your friends really, they’ll let it slide, won’t they?  I get threatened, treated like shit, and you?  Well, you get the breaks.”

“Pretty much,” Krouse said.  “But if it helps, you’re doing it for you.  I’m doing it for her.  For Noelle.  Because I love that girl, and she puts up with me, and I’ll probably never find another person like that again.  Not in our world and not in this one.”

“You’re not capable of love,” Cody said.

“We’ll agree to disagree.”  Krouse pushed the presence against Cody, surrounded himself.  No, not quite.  I’m smaller.  Need to suck in some air…

They swapped places in a flash.  Cody staggered.

Krouse nearly fell, too.  He caught the rails of the stairwell to balance, grit his teeth in the anticipation of pain.

No pain.  He clenched his bad hand, the one that had been impaled.

It was healed.

“All good,” he said, knowing he was saying the same thing over and over, rambling.  “Guess I’ll need one for her.”

He grabbed the heaviest book from the coffee table, then reached for a canister…

He could feel it, but couldn’t get a lock.  He turned around, looked.

There.

The book was replaced by the canister the second he made eye contact.  He nearly dropped it.

Krouse smiled.  “Not too difficult.  Not hard.”

He whirled around, nearly lost his balance.  “Well, I’ll meet you guys at the hospital.”

“Krouse!”  Marissa shouted.  She stepped forward, reaching for him.  He pushed his power into her and Oliver, switched them so that Oliver was within a few feet of him.

Oliver backed away, scared.  Krouse had expected as much.

“Hypocrite!”  Cody shouted.

“I know this is shitty,” Krouse admitted.  “And my excuses, my reasons for doing it, maybe they don’t make up for what I’m doing.  But I’m okay with you guys hating me if it means helping Noelle.”

He headed outside, stepping through the side door, glanced around.

The garage of the house he’d just left was still open from where they’d investigated.  It had a car sitting inside.  He smirked.

He had to wait until he had both Marissa’s car and the one in the garage in sight before he could lock on to both.  He pushed his presence into each, didn’t find it particularly difficult to get a hold…

They switched.  Marissa’s car made a crashing sound as it settled in the garage.

He got in his car, then pulled it into the driveway, just in front of the garage.  Cody was just stepping out of the side door.  Krouse saluted him.

Then he swapped himself and his car with the one that was now on the street.

They didn’t have keys to that car that was now blocking the driveway.  It would buy him time.

He shifted gears and drove.

“Hey, No’.” He said.  He sat down beside Noelle’s bed.

She opened her eyes, smiled just a little.

He smiled back.  “You’re finally awake.”

“Morphine helped.  Hurt too much to even open my eyes, before.”

“Sorry.”

“Hey, Krouse… things are pretty fucked, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He smiled a little.  “So you caught some of what we were talking about?”

She nodded slowly.  She closed her eyes with such languidness he thought she was falling asleep, but it was only a slow-motion blink.

“Yeah, things are supremely fucked,” he said.

She nodded a little.  “I’m due for another surgery.  They gave me one short one, and now they’re replacing my blood, see?”

“I see,” he said, eyeing the blood bags.

“…I kind of wish we’d done more boyfriend and girlfriend stuff,” she said.  “Sorry.”

“Don’t need to apologize.  You did what you had to.”

“I could die,” she said.  Her voice was feeble, quiet.  “They’re cutting too much out, and they can’t wait any longer, but my condition’s bad, so I could die on the table.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“And even if I live, I’m gonna be ugly.  Nice big plastic plug in my belly, with a bag of shit attached.  Which is really ironic, you don’t even know…” she trailed off.

“I sort of figured it out,” he said.

She nodded.  “Big scars, bag of shit.  Is why I wish we’d done more, before.  Won’t be any good to look at, after.”

“I don’t care about scars.  But it doesn’t matter anyways.  You’re not going to die, and you won’t have scars.  Or a colostomy bag.”

She turned his way.

He asked, “You catch any of what we were talking about?  Back at the house?”

“Only some.  Um.  I can’t distinguish the reality from the delirium dreams.”

“I suspect the delirium dreams made a little more sense, if that helps,” he said.

He set the canister down on the short table beside the bed.

“What’s that?”  Her eyes widened.  “That wasn’t a dream, then.  Krouse, no.”

Yes.  You’re going to take this, and it’ll help.  You’ll live, and you won’t need surgery.  Then I’ll get you out of here, and we’ll go home.  Somehow.”

“I don’t- no, Krouse.  People were saying…  They were scared.  This… this isn’t some minor thing.”

“No.  It’s big.  It’s huge.”

“There were only six,” she said.  “And there’s seven of us.”

“You deserve special treatment, after what you’ve been through.  And I want to make sure you get better.”

“No.  It’s… it wouldn’t be fair to the others.”

“Screw the others.  Cody, at least, can go fuck himself,” Krouse said.

“No, Krouse.  I… there’s too many things, too many warnings, and stuff you guys were saying about poison-“

He could hear footsteps in the hall.

“What if you take half, then?” he asked.  “Only half.  It’ll be fair to the others.”

He drew the vial, then found a paper cup by the sink.  He poured half into the cup.

“See?”  He handed her the glass vial

“Krouse-“

Someone’s going to come in any second now.

“It’ll work,” he said.

“And if it doesn’t?  Or if that horrible stuff you guys were talking about comes true?  The… what did you call it?  The cause and effect?”

“If it happens,” Krouse said, “Blame me.”

“I don’t-“

“Please,” he said, the word barely above a whisper.  He hadn’t realized he was saying it out loud before the word had left his mouth.

She gave him a small nod, and he helped her to drink.

I’ll take the blame.  I’m okay with being the bad guy, he thought.  Just so long as you get to live.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Migration 17.5

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“You made it,” Cody said.

Krouse stopped in his tracks.  They were more than a block away from the house, and Cody was standing with his back to a wall, in the middle of an intersection.  None of the others were in sight.

He felt a moment’s trepidation, saw the way the crowbar hung from Cody’s fingers, tapping against the wall.  He couldn’t help but read the situation as threatening, but tried to dismiss the thought.  It could have been the Simurgh’s influence, coloring his perceptions.

“Yeah,” Krouse said.  “I made it.”

“You’re hurt.  Sorry if I don’t shed any tears.”

“Noelle’s okay?”

Cody shrugged.  “She’s not any better.  A little worse.”

“Where’s Marissa?”

“I took her back.  She had a bad spell where she froze up.”

“Did you find a doctor?  Even a nurse?”

“Didn’t manage to catch up to anyone to ask.  I’m okay, by the way.  Just in case you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t.  You look okay.”

“Sure, but who knows how I’m doing when you look past the surface?  I could be a mental and emotional wreck, putting on a brave face.”

“Cody,” Krouse had to bite his tongue to keep from saying something he shouldn’t.  “I’m pretty badly hurt, here.  If we have to talk about this stuff, can we at least do it while walking back?”

“Because the Simurgh’s been replying old memories for me, and the irritating thing is they aren’t my most painful memories.”

Cody wasn’t listening.  Krouse walked past him, and Cody turned to follow, talking to him from behind.  “Not the time my mom had my cat put down, when they definitely could have saved him.  No, every time she brings some memory to the surface, it’s you.”

Krouse paused mid-step, then forced himself to keep walking.

“Isn’t that a pisser?  I get some lunatic alien bird thing speaking in my head, and all she wants to do is make me remember the times you irritated me.  The little pranks you pulled, like getting to the clubroom early and fucking with my computer before a game.”

“That was a practice game,” Krouse said.

Before a game.  I’m there to improve myself, and because I can pull in something a little under minimum wage just by playing and streaming a video of my gameplay online, and because maybe I could get that fucking sponsorship, so I could pay part of my way through college.  The sort of stuff that , and you’re sabotaging me.”

“It was a practice game, Cody, and it was just a prank that took two minutes to fix,” Krouse said.  He slowed his pace to let Cody catch up some.  He was starting to think maybe having the guy behind him with a weapon in hand wasn’t the best idea.

“Two minutes I was late to the match, two minutes where I looked bad to the audience following online, and we all looked bad to another serious team.”

“I’m sorry,” Krouse said.  He wasn’t, really.  It had generated more viewers, for him and Cody both.  It had been publicity.  He wasn’t willing to argue the point; it was more important to get the situation settled down.  “But can we talk about this later?  You know we’re on edge-”

“Pisses me off that nobody else sees it.  Pisses me off that you don’t get that I see it.  The smug smiles when you get one over on me, the condescending look you gave me when you first walked into the club, holding Noelle’s hand.”

“Cody-”

Thats the shit the Simurgh keeps showing me.  Any time I close my eyes, any time I stop for a freaking second, I get it rubbed in my face.”

“She’s doing it on purpose,” Krouse said.  “Either it’s just automatically bringing up the issues that are closest to the surface, or she’s doing it because she thinks reminding you of that stuff is going to do more damage in the long run than reminding you of your cat.  You play into her hands if you let it get to you.  You let her win.”

“Funny thing is,” Cody said, “I’d rather see her win than see you come out the hero, here.”

“She’s making you think that way.  That’s not you, Cody.”

“Maybe.  Doesn’t matter.  I’m still going to help out, I’m not going to get revenge or anything,” Cody said, offering Krouse a humorless smile, “Because even if I hate your guts, Krouse…  Francis… I don’t hate theirs.”

“Okay,” Krouse looked at the crowbar, wondered if he’d be able to defend himself with one good hand and the metal briefcase.

“She makes Marissa freak out, she has Oliver crying when he thinks nobody’s looking, Jess has gone crazy paranoid, to the point that she’s barely talking, if it isn’t about looking after Noelle, and apparently Luke can’t take his mind off the pain.  But you’re doing fine, isn’t that funny?”

“I’m not fine.”

“Oh?  What’s wrong?”  Cody’s voice was almost taunting.

If he doesn’t hurt me, I might hurt him.

“Doesn’t matter,” Krouse said.

“So the mighty Krouse, who gets all the luck, who has everyone wrapped around his finger, who gets the girl and dodges all the consequences, he’s not invincible after all.  What’s she doing to you?”

“None of your business.”

“Isn’t it?  We need to know what’s going on.  You could turn homicidal any moment, for all I know.”

“I’m not homicidal.  It’s just not stuff I’m willing to talk about with you.”

“Suspicious, suspicious,” Cody almost sounded like he was having fun.

Krouse quickened his pace.  He didn’t like the idea that the others were doing that poorly.  He’d had three breaks from the screaming, with whatever power Myrddin had used to shunt him halfway into some other dimension, and the two flashbacks.  Cody seemed functional, if vaguely unhinged, but he’d had the flashbacks as well.

Krouse tried the door, found it locked.  He glanced at Cody, then knocked a few times, loud.

Oliver opened it.  He looked like twenty four hours had passed and he hadn’t slept a wink.  Oliver’s eyes were red, and he averted his gaze as he saw Krouse and Cody.

How’s she getting to him?  Oliver’s biggest weakness would be his self confidence.  Was she tearing him down like his mother would?  Raising memories of past embarrassments, times people had laughed at him?

Was there a way to fix that?  To support the guy?

Krouse settled for a quiet, “Thanks, man.  We’re going to get through this.  It should be over soon.”

Oliver nodded, but he didn’t perk up.

Krouse ventured inside, heading straight for Noelle.

Marissa was sitting at the foot of the couch, head leaning back, asleep or trying to sleep.  Luke had blankets piled on him, having barely moved since Krouse had left.  Jess was in the other chair facing the couch, looking much as Oliver did.

“You’re hurt,” Jess said.

Marissa stirred.  her eyes went wide as she looked at Krouse’s hand.  “We, um- first aid supplies.  We have them.”

“Okay,” Krouse said.  He knelt by Noelle’s head, setting the metal briefcase down.  He could see Cody out of the corner of his eye, leaning against doorway, watching him.

“You ran into people with powers.  Villians?”

“I don’t know if they were villains,” Krouse said, absently, his attention on Noelle.  Someone had cleaned up the blood, but she didn’t look good.  Blankets were piled over her to the point that she should have been overheating, but she was shivering.  Eyes closed, she opened her mouth, as if to say something, but her mouth hung half-open, jaw jittering as though her teeth were chattering.

“They were going to kill people,” Cody said.  “They were going to kill you, last I saw.”

“They were scared people in a strange place,” Krouse said.  “They’re hearing the same song in their heads that we are, and they barely had any clue how our world works.  I’m not saying they were right, doing what they did, but I almost understand it.  Shit, I can’t believe you couldn’t find a doctor from the people we saved.”

“They didn’t know how to find you, after they ran,” Luke said.  “They came here to rendezvous.  Marissa wasn’t doing well, so Cody went out alone to look for you.”

Look for me?  Krouse turned to look at Cody.  You were waiting around.

“And I found him,” Cody said.

“Yeah,” Luke replied.

“You’re a champ,” Krouse said, offering Cody a level glare.

Cody only smiled a little.  He stepped back out of the doorway as Marissa came through with more bandages.

“I don’t know how to take care of this,” she said.  “Sprains, yeah, but not this.”

“Clean it and wrap it,” Krouse said.  “Listen, I ran into some heroes.  Couldn’t talk to them, they wouldn’t let me, but I heard them saying something about the fight being almost over. The Simurgh might try to pull something as a final measure, but the heroes were winning, and they were working out what to do after things were done.”

“Really?” Marissa asked.  She had put a folded towel on the coffee table, and was holding back on pouring the disinfectant on his hand.

Krouse nodded.  “Maybe fifteen minutes, maybe half an hour.  But it’s almost over.  We just need to hold out, stay calm.  Make sure Noelle doesn’t take a turn for the worse.”

Marissa poured the disinfectant onto Krouse’s injury, and he hissed at the pain, forced his hand down against the table with his good hand, so he wouldn’t reflexively pull it away.

“What’s this?” Cody asked.  He advanced from behind, tapped his foot against the metal briefcase.  “Medical supplies?”

“No,” Krouse replied.  “And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.  Give it to Jess.  She’ll like it.”

Cody picked it up and carried it to Jess.  She sat the thing on her lap, gave Krouse a wary look, then popped it open.

He waited as Marissa put antiseptic cream on his wound, laid down some thick white bandage pads and started binding it all in place with a cloth wrap.  For all her inexperience with the other stuff, she seemed to know what she was doing with the wrap.

Jess dropped the papers onto the vials without putting them in the separate flap they’d been in, then shut and latched the case.  “Destroy it.”

“What?”  Cody said.  “Wait, what is it?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jess said.  “Destroy it.”

“What are you talking about, Jess?”  Marissa asked.

Krouse double checked the bandage was in place, then stood.

He approached Jess, and she clutched the case to her chest.  She was almost pleading, “Put it somewhere nobody will find it, or destroy it.  Mix it with sand and pour it into a hole in the backyard or something.”

“I thought you would be more interested in this than anyone,” Krouse said.

“What is it?” Cody asked.

“Superpowers,” Krouse said.  “If I read it right, if I’m not losing it, then the contents of that suitcase tell you how to get superpowers.  I found it with the stuff that got dumped here with the monsters.”

Cody’s eyes went wide.  Marissa, Luke and Oliver reacted as well.

“You’re not getting it,” Jess said.

“What’s not to get?” Krouse asked.  “We’re in a dangerous situation.  Is this any different than taking a weapon when we go out there?”

“It’s a whole lot different,” Jess said.  “It’s permanent.  If it works, it’s going to change your life.  And that’s if it’s not a trap.  It could be poison, if it’s coming from the same place and the same culture that those monsters did.”

Was it his gut or was it paranoia that told him that she, again, was withholding information?

Krouse cleared his throat, explained, “I found it in the remains of some office or laboratory.  They were selling this stuff, the papers you were just reading, from the one line I read, suggested this stuff was on store shelves or something.  Why dress it up like that, with a fat pad of paperwork, an expensive suitcase and protective foam padding, only to fill it with poison?”

“I’m not saying it was poison-”

“You did,” Krouse corrected.

“No, I mean.  I’m just saying.  There’s any number of places this could go wrong.  We shouldn’t risk it.  Not when we have other stuff to worry about.”

Yeah, she’s being evasive.

“They’re superpowers?” Cody asked.  He reached for the suitcase and Jess twisted her body to shield him from getting to it.  “Seriously?  How?”

“Six canisters,” Krouse responded, but his eyes were on Jess.

“Is that six doses?” Luke asked.

“Krouse,” Jess said.  “Come on.  You get this situation we’re in.  You know it isn’t good.  Don’t you want to get back to normal?”

“Wait, it sounds like you’re saying there’s something more going on,” Luke said.  “You guys were whispering before.  Is this-”

“Luke,” Krouse cut him off.  “Listen, you know me, right?  Better than anyone else here.”

“Pretty much,” Luke said, but he glanced at Noelle.

“Better than anyone who’s conscious,” Krouse clarified, though he wasn’t sure either way.  “And you know Jess fairly well too.  So can you trust us when I say that there’s stuff going on, and we’re acting in everyone’s best interests if we’re not sharing the full details?”

I don’t trust you,” Cody said.

“This isn’t some ploy?” Luke asked, ignoring Cody.  “You know you’ve pulled stuff before, and yeah, this isn’t the situation for it and normally you’d have more common sense than to try something when things are this screwed up, but if this singing in our heads is making us act funny, then…”  He trailed off.

“It’s not a ploy.  If you don’t trust me, at least trust the fact that I wouldn’t pull something when Noelle’s like this.  Even with my head screwed up.  There’s bigger priorities.”

Luke frowned.  “Okay.  I’m trusting you on this.  Don’t fuck us over.”

Krouse nodded, expression solemn.  He took a deep breath, then addressed the main issue.  Jess.

“Jess, you’re the one that’s always followed the superhero scene,” Krouse said.  “You follow the lame ass superheroes and villains we’ve got running around, and the three or four who’re maybe actually worth something. You’ve followed Earth Bet, all the stuff that goes on with the real heroes and villains.  And you’re saying no?  Like I told Luke, that suitcase, it’s not my top priority, not even my second or third priority.  Cross my heart.  But this is a pretty big deal.”

“How is this not a priority?” Cody asked.  “Powers.”

“Shut up!”  Krouse snapped, his voice hard, louder than he’d intended it.

Everyone fell silent.  The only noises were the screaming in their heads, the distant noises of the ongoing fighting, and Noelle making faint noises as she stirred.

Krouse knelt beside her and brushed some hair away from her face.  He turned around and sat so his back was against the couch, holding Noelle’s hand.  “Jess.  Let’s read the papers in the case.  Figure out if it’s real, a hoax, if we can even use the stuff.  If we can’t, maybe we can still sell it.  We could use the money.”

“You don’t understand,” she said.

“I don’t understand, you’re right.  But I can’t if you don’t explain, and I don’t get the feeling you’re about to.”

“If you take the papers, you’ll decide you should do it.”

“Maybe we should.”

“We can’t.”

He sighed.

She went on, “And If I open the case to give you the papers, you’ll snatch the stuff, and I can’t exactly get up to wrestle  it out of your hands if you do.”

“We won’t,” Krouse said.  “Just… take the papers out, hand them to us, you can hold on to the suitcase until we’ve decided.”

“Unanimously?” Jess asked.

“I don’t know about unanimous-” He saw her expression change.  “We’ll at least discuss it thoroughly.”

She nodded.  She opened the case to grab the papers and held them out.  Krouse reached for them, but it was Cody who snatched them from Jess’ hand.

Krouse took a deep breath, exhaled.  Stay calm.  Cody’s under the influence of the Simurgh.

“Six formulas,” Cody said.  “Each designed to give different sorts of powers.  It doesn’t say what powers, exactly.  Really vague.”

Marissa moved back to Krouse’s side, joining him as he checked on Noelle.  His heart skipped a beat at the realization that her teeth had stopped chattering.  He had to put his hand in front of her mouth to make sure she was still breathing.

“This stuff’s expensive.  Seven digit expensive,” Cody said.

Jess shook her head, “Second page said something about there being a whole battery of physical and psychological tests,” Jess said.  “Think about that.  Why?  Simple logic here, on why we shouldn’t use it.  They think there’s a reason someone with psychological issues shouldn’t take it, and we’re in the Simurgh’s area of influence.  We’re all a little neurotic right now.”

“We can wait,” Krouse said.

“Not that I’m on Jess’ side,” Luke said, “But you’re contradicting yourself.  You were saying we should use this stuff to protect ourselves, and now you’re saying we should wait until everything’s over with?  Why do we need to protect ourselves after the Simurgh’s gone?”

Krouse shook his head, glanced at Jess.  She wasn’t backing him up on this count.

Because even after the Simurgh is gone, we’ve still got to get home.

“I… guess I don’t know,” Krouse said, unable to think of a good response that didn’t involve telling the whole truth.

Shit,” Cody said, his eyes going wide.  “Jess, how far did you read?”

“First few pages.”

“You read this part?”  He folded the front few pages over the back and put the papers in Jess’ hands, pointed.

Krouse looked at Noelle, squeezed her hand.  She squeezed his back, weak.

“You awake?” he murmured.

Marissa leaned over, “She is?”

Noelle didn’t respond.  Krouse shook his head, “Thought I got a response there.”

Marissa rubbed his shoulder.

“Guys,” Cody said, excited.

Krouse could have hit Cody.  That attitude, that excitement, when Noelle could be dying?  Being so excited about fucking superpowers, when a friend was seriously hurt?

“Wait, look, give me that,” he took the paper from Jess, “Listen.  ‘Client three should be informed about the impact of the product on his cerebral palsy, blah blah, legal stuff about liability, no promises, blah, blah, where was it?  Right. Product potentially offers a mild to total recovery.”

They stopped.  More than one set of eyes turned towards Jess.

“I-I don’t have cerebral palsy,” she said.

“But cerebral palsy starts with the brain, right?” Cody asked.  “That’s the most complicated, delicate part of the body.  If something’s going to fix your brain, maybe it could fix other stuff.  Let me read more, it’s-”

“No,” Jess said.  “Even with that.  Especially with that, I’m not going to take it.  And I’m not going to let you guys take it either.”

Why?” Cody asked.  “Why especially?”

“Because!”

“You’re getting paranoid,” Luke said.  “It’s the singing in your head that’s making you think that way.”

“It’s not!  I know.  I’ve read about this stuff!  About her!  This is what she does!”

“What is?” Krouse asked.

“Why do you think they’re so scared?  Why do you think there’s a fence with soldiers ready to shoot you?  Do you even get why they’re staying out of earshot?”  She pointed at Krouse, “Why the heroes Krouse saw wouldn’t listen to him?”

“Because of the music.  Because we’re edgy, unpredictable,” Oliver said.

“They could use tear gas to manage that.  Or soldiers and guns!  Why couldn’t they, with ninety percent or more of the the city evacuated?”

“Then why?” Krouse asked.

“Because this is what she does.  This is why she’s scary.  Behemoth can turn people to cinders if they’re within two hundred feet of him, Leviathan has sunk or leveled major landmasses.  Killed millions in one day.  But the Simurgh is the one that scares them all the most.  You saw how she fought, the way she dodged and blocked stuff.  She sees the future.”

Krouse nodded, “I kind of guessed that, but-”

“No,” Jess cut him off.  Her eyes were wide.  “Listen to me!  She showed up in this city in Switzerland.  First time.  Then after a while, she sings.  Starts throwing buildings around, puts a nuclear power plant in critical condition, spreads winds contaminated with radioactive dust, kills some heroes, drives people to riot and panic with her song.  Like, okay, that’s Endbringer standard, right?”

Krouse stayed still, waiting.  He could see Marissa and Oliver nodding.

“Six months later?  A promising scientist commits suicide.  Another person tries to blow up a TV station to get back at his girlfriend.  Superhero assassinates a prime minister and the next guy to be in charge of that country starts a war.  They were all there, when the Simurgh showed up.  The superhero’s friends said there was no sign, before his encounter with the Simurgh.  He just went downhill, after.  There was other stuff, stuff I don’t remember.  But it’s all bad.”

“I don’t get it,” Luke said.

“It keeps happening.  Every time she shows up.  Every time, people who’ve heard this song that’s in our head?  Things go wrong.  They snap, they break, their lives fall apart, or they do something, and it makes something else happen, and there’s a major disaster.  That guy who was supposedly making a clean energy source that could power whole cities?  His wife and kids got killed and he became a supervillain who made it a life goal to murder anyone who tries to better society with their powers.  There were others.  Over and over, every time she shows up.  She never does quite as much damage as Leviathan or Behemoth, not right away, but stuff always happens later.”

“So she… what?  Makes people into murderers?”

“No,” Jess said.  “Not exactly.  She doesn’t change how you think.  Not directly.  It’s more subliminal, like… like cause and effect.  Every time she shows up, she picks a few people, turns them into guided missiles, so they make something horrible happen weeks, months or years after they ran into her.”

Krouse looked at the suitcase.  “And you think this briefcase is that?  A cause and effect thing?”

Jess offered a short, high laugh, humorless, “Isn’t it?  Isn’t it awfully coincidental that we got in this situation, here, trapped within her range, with Krouse going out to find a doctor for Noelle and finding this instead?  I know what you guys are thinking.  This stuff, maybe it can let me walk again.  If it works.  Maybe we all get superpowers.  But the Simurgh sees what’s going to happen.  Probably.  And she’s not on our side.  However she does it, she’s already rigged it all like some Rube Goldberg machine that starts and ends with a mindfuck.”

Luke shook his head.  “But you can’t… if you think that way, then there’s no action we could take that she wouldn’t have predicted and nudged so that it leads to the worst case scenario.”

Jess laughed again, short.  There were tears in the corners of her eyes, “If she picked us, and that case makes me think she did, then we’re screwed.  Period.  Every time she shows up, people in her range become walking time bombs.  We don’t use the stuff in that case, we still wind up playing the roles she predicted we’d play, and horrible things happen.  But if we do use the stuff in that case?  It’s the same, we’re following the sequence of events she envisioned, only the horrible stuff is worse because everything we do from then on out is a few orders of magnitude more… I don’t know.  Superpowered.”

“There’s got to be something-” Luke said.  He winced as he shifted position and moved his leg, “Something we can do.”

Jess shook her head and said.  “There’s no way this works out for us, because she’s already seen what’s going to happen.  That’s why I didn’t want to tell you.”

Nobody responded.  Krouse looked at the others, saw Marissa’s eyes, wide, saw Oliver sitting with his arms hugging his knees.  Luke’s face was drawn.

Jess continued, “Those soldiers outside the fence?  They knew it too.  That’s why they were scared of us, Oliver.  They think we’ll say or do something, and it’ll give them some idea, put the right ducks in a row, and they end up dying in a car accident or murdering their wives.  It isn’t a quarantine against a disease or a virus or any of that.  It’s a quarantine against cause and effect.  A quarantine to limit our ability to affect the outside world.”

“It can’t possibly work that way,” Krouse said.

Jess shrugged.  Bitterly, she said, “Maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe you have to listen to the song, so she can hack your heads and figure out how you’ll act, and people are otherwise too complex for her to predict.  The way we act, the fear and all the emotion, maybe it’s just a side effect of that hacking.  Or maybe all that’s wrong, and she really is that powerful.  But that’s what she is.  She’s more fragile than the other two, doesn’t last as long in a knock-down, drag-out fight.  But the aftermath?”

Jess shifted the case from her lap, shoving it to the ground.  “The aftermath is where she’s worst.”

Krouse stared at the metal case.

It took maybe a minute before Krouse could be sure it was happening, but the screaming began to fade.  Two more minutes passed before it was gone in entirety.

Silence.  Absolute silence, without any screaming in their heads, rumbles of destruction miles away, or ambient urban noise.

That silence was broken when Jess began to sob.  None of the others joined her.  Krouse suspected it was because they had yet to process it.  Only Jess had had the chance to really think through all the ramifications, only she knew enough of the details and evidence to paint a more complete picture and believe it all.

Krouse felt damp in his own eyes, more for Jess than himself, odd as it was.  Some of it was exhaustion, the sheer mental strain they’d been under.  He would have stood, walked over to offer support, to reassure her, except how was he supposed to tell someone things would be okay when everything suggested they wouldn’t?

But he wasn’t the type of person who could do that anyways.  He’d never had to, didn’t know how.  He was worried he’d fuck it up, and Jess was good people.  She didn’t deserve a fucked up attempt at reassurance.

No.  He’d stick to what he knew.  Krouse blinked the tears out of his eyes, cleared his throat, forced a shit-eating grin onto his face.  “I don’t see why everyone’s getting so worked up.  How bad could it be?”

Jess made a choking sound, some combination of a sob, a sputter, a hiccup and a laugh.

Krouse saw the incredulous stares, couldn’t help but smile.

Ass,” Luke said, but he smiled too.

Cody turned, stomped off, kicked something hard as he passed through the front hall.  Any miniscule lift in the mood faded in his wake.

The room descended into silence again.  At least, Krouse noted, Jess isn’t crying anymore.

Krouse was still holding Noelle’s hand, his fingers interlaced with hers.  He pulled her hand towards him and kissed the back of it.  His eyes settled on the metal case.

Maybe it wasn’t us, he thought.  Maybe she picked a bunch of other people, and dragging us into this world was just something that happened.  Maybe we’ll get Noelle fixed up, we’ll find our way home, and all of this winds up being some scary memory.

He huffed out a breath, a silent, derisive, one-note laugh.  He’d managed to distract or trick Jess into feeling just a tiny bit better.  But even telling myself something that ludicrous, I can’t do it for myself.

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Migration 17.3

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“Hey!”  Krouse screamed at the soldiers.  “We need medical attention!”

There was no response.

“They can’t hear you,” Jess said.  “They’re too far away.”

“Fuckers!”  He shouted.  Stepping forward, he roared, “Why!?”

The loudspeaker blared, “Step away from the fence!

The man in charge must have given an order, because every gun present moved to point their way.  As one, Krouse and his friends backed a healthy distance away from the fence.

“Bastards,” Krouse muttered.

There was a distant rumble.  The Simurgh ascended from the skyline a mile away, a half-dozen uprooted buildings orbiting lazily around her.  As chunks of concrete came free of the ruined ends of the structures, they too orbited her, a protective shield.

Or a weapon.  Each of her wings curled forward, and the smaller pieces orbiting her went flying ahead, simultaneously striking a hundred targets Krouse and his friends couldn’t see.  Scion fired one beam, and she moved one of the apartment complexes she was lifting to put it between herself and Scion.  The goal seemed to be less about blocking the attack and more about hiding herself from Scion’s sight so she could take evasive action.

“Cover!” Cody shouted.

The angle of the beam meant that they were in the path of the resulting devastation, the remaining chunks of the building sent flying in their general direction.  Shouting incoherently and screaming, they ran to take shelter around the corner of the nearest building.

Chunks of concrete, pavement and metal hit with enough force that they cracked brick and etched divots intp the snow-covered road.

“Oh god,” Marissa said, sliding down to sit where the sidewalk met the base of the house, “Oh god.”

“How’s Noelle?” Krouse asked.

“Pale,” Jess answered.  “You awake, No’?”

There was no response.

“She’s still breathing?”

“Yeah,” Jess said, pulling off a glove and reaching over.

Krouse closed his eyes.  There was nothing they could do for Noelle just yet.  He glanced at each of his friends, to gauge how they were handling things.  They looked scared, Jess most of all.  But she was the one with the biggest idea of what was going on.  She was the one who read the websites and magazines about capes, who had the best idea of how the Simurgh operated.  Marissa looked lost in thought, no doubt grieving over the brutal death of her best friend.  Luke’s face was drawn with tension, suggesting he was in more pain than he was letting on, and Cody looked angry.

Not that Cody was wrong to feel that way.  The people who were supposed to be on their side were putting them in danger with attacks that sent chunks of concrete flying halfway across the city.  Or, on a more mundane level, they were fencing them inside the city’s limits and threatening them with guns.

“Luke?  Your leg?”

“Doesn’t hurt that much.  I think it’s pretty shallow,” Luke said, bending down and touching his pants leg.  It was red-brown of blood, and had frozen stiff enough that it was only about as flexible as cardboard.

“It doesn’t look shallow.”

“I’m more worried about Noelle,” Luke said.  “We should get inside, try to get her warmer and see if there’s anything we can do for her.  If we can find supplies to bandage my leg, that’s a bonus.”

“Let’s go, then.  Is this place okay?”  Krouse looked at the house they were huddled beside.

“It’s a little close to the guys with guns for my liking,” Luke said.

“Yeah, but if there’s trouble, maybe they’ll come help us,” Krouse pointed out.

“Doubt it,” Jess said.

He turned her way, but the way her lips were pursed suggested she wasn’t planning on elaborating.

They moved around the building until they found a door.  Use of the doorbell and liberal knocking didn’t get a response from anybody inside.  After Jess was set down, Cody and Oliver took turns kicking at the door, to little effect.  They quickly abandoned that idea.  Not like it is in the movies.

They had to wait while Cody used a fencepost to shatter a basement window and climbed inside.  It would be a minute or two before he reached the front door and unlocked it from the inside.

“Hope there’s nobody hiding in there,” Oliver muttered.  Mewled might have been a better word.

Krouse didn’t generally dislike Oliver, but the guy was hard to like, too.  He’d joined the group when they’d started their gaming club at school, had once been one of Noelle’s friends, back when they were in kindergarten or something.  Now he was in a few of Krouse’s classes, but despite the associations, he remained a second string member of the group.  Krouse was willing to admit to himself that Oliver was a second string friend, too.  He was short, a little pudgy, with an unfortunate haircut and no real personality, rarely joining in of his own volition.

Marissa had done everything her mother had asked of her, fought to be number one in ballet, number one in violin, number one in dance, in the pageant circuit, in grades and in countless other things.  In each case, Marissa had either broken down under the pressure or it had become clear that first place wasn’t in reach.  Her mom would let up for a few weeks, and then push the next thing.  It had only been at the start of eleventh grade that Marissa had finally put a stop to it and pursued something that her mom didn’t understand and couldn’t pressure her on.  The gaming club.  The drive to win had stuck with her, and she’d still remained Marissa at the end of it all.

Oliver’s mom was a hardass in her own way, too, but he had buckled under that domineering pressure, breaking rather than thriving.  In contrast to Marissa, his identity had been ground away.

“I’m scared,” Oliver said.

Grow up.  “We’re all pretty fucking scared,” Krouse said.

“Look at them,” Oliver was looking past the fence and across the park to where the soldiers were standing.  “When Cody broke that window, they tensed, like they thought we were a danger to them.”

Krouse glanced at Jess, saw her staring hard at the ground.  “Maybe we are.  Jess?  You seem to have a better idea of what’s going on than any of us.”

“You never followed this stuff?  You really don’t know?”

“What is she?  What can she do?  Why are we under quarantine and why did Grandiose’s team kill him?”

She averted her eyes.  “Let’s wait until Cody’s with us, so I don’t have to explain twice.”

Fuck waiting for Cody,” Krouse said.

“Krouse!” Luke admonished him.

“This shit is important!  She’s stalling because it’s bad, but we need to know if it’s that bad.”

“We’ll wait for Cody,” Marissa said.  Luke nodded in agreement.

Krouse scowled.

It was another minute before they heard the clatter of the latch on the other side of the door being opened.

“Place is empty,” Cody said.  “Basement was such a mess I had to wade through all the crap down there.”

Krouse was the first inside.  It was someone’s house, but messy.  Stacks of magazines covered every surface in the living room, there were plastic bags with the tops tied sitting underneath the hall table, and artwork that included paintings, clay figures, vases, and bird sculptures sat on every surface that wasn’t occupied.

Where are they?  He wondered.  He’d assumed that anyone who hadn’t evacuated while he and his friends were getting free of the toppled apartment building was hiding out.  Had the residents here cleared out?

He found a couch and got into a sitting position, easing Noelle down.  He rubbed his shoulders where the sleeves of her shirt had been pulling at him while Marissa and Oliver handled getting Noelle from a sitting to a prone position.

“On her side,” Marissa said.  “There’s a lot of blood in her mouth, and we don’t want her choking.”

Oliver nodded, and Krouse found space to get close and help them shift Noelle over.  Once she was in position, he seated himself on the oak coffee table, elbows on his knees, facing her.

She was white to the point that she was pushing pushing past pink and moving into the bluer hues, and she had a purple-brown bruising around her eyes.  The blood around her nose and mouth was caked on thick.  Some had gotten onto her coat and sweatshirt.

“She’s still breathing?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Marissa said.  She touched Noelle’s throat, and Noelle shifted, pulling away.  “Shhh.  It’s okay.  Just checking your pulse.  It’s weak.”

Can’t stand this.  Seeing her like this, when I can’t help her.  Krouse turned to look at Jess, where Cody was settling her into an armchair.  “You were going to explain.”

“I don’t know if I should.”

“We have to know what’s going on, what to watch out for.  This screaming in our heads-”

“Don’t remind me,” Cody said.  “Fuck me, I’m losing my mind.”

“That’s what I was going to ask,” Krouse said, staring at Jess.  “Are we losing our minds?”

“Not… not permanently,” Jess said.

“Oh god,” Marissa said.

“It’s what happened in… what was that place called?  Lausanne?  Switzerland.  She showed up, and nobody wanted to pick a fight with her, and they were curious, so they studied her, and tried to communicate with her.  Tons of people gathered.  Then she… sang?  Screamed?  Whatever this is.  There was chaos, people didn’t know what was happening, so they weren’t able to evacuate that well.  Roads clogged.  And then they started flipping out.  Emotions ramped up, inhibitions lowered, flashbacks to old traumas.  And a lot of the emotion that got juiced up was fear.  People can do pretty stupid, dangerous things when afraid.”

Oliver put his hands to his head, his fingers scrunching up his hair, his eyes wide.  “She’s getting into our heads?”

We have nothing to fear but fear itself, only it’s taken literally, Krouse thought.  Aloud, he asked, “It goes away?”

“A temporary break in sanity can be pretty devastating,” Marissa said, her voice small.

“Yeah,” Jess said.  “But it’s still temporary.”

“So that’s why they’re scared?  They think any guy with superpowers that loses his mind is too big a danger?  And the army guys are there in case we turn into a rabid, panicked mob?”  Krouse asked.

“…Yeah,” Jess replied.

Krouse hadn’t missed the delay before she’d spoken.  It had only been a fraction of a second, but it had been there.

“So we just need to minimize the damage we can do if worst comes to worst,” Luke said.  He’d settled in the armchair beside Jess, and was rolling up the frozen leg of his jeans.

Krouse studied Jess, saw how she was looking hard at the ground.  That pause: there was something she wasn’t saying.  Was she lying about it being temporary?

“I’m going to go see if I can scrounge up anything to take care of that leg,” Marissa said.

“Thanks,” Luke said.

“Oliver,” Krouse said.  “Find blankets?  Look for a linen cupboard.  Something we can put around Noelle to warm her up.  Maybe around Luke, too.”

“And me, if it’s no trouble,” Jess said.  “The circulation in my legs isn’t so good, and the idea of what might happen if they get cold is pretty scary.”

“Okay,” Oliver said, hurrying to obey.

Jess added, “And what are you doing, Krouse?”

“I’ll watch Noelle,” he said, his voice firm.

She frowned.  “Can you get us some water?  Or juice, maybe?  Both Noelle and Luke have lost blood, they’ll need to avoid getting dehydrated.”

“But Noelle-”

I’ll watch Noelle in the meantime.  I’m not good for much else right now.  Don’t worry.  You’ll be in earshot if there’s trouble.”

“Right,”  Krouse reluctantly agreed.  He stood and went looking for the kitchen.

He found a carton of orange juice, a plastic container of cranberry, and glasses.  He had to search for a pitcher to put water in, opening cupboards.

He stopped when he reached the far corner of the kitchen.  There was a small banging noise, repetitive.  Too small to be the house’s residents.

No.  the back door of the house opened into an enclosed back patio with a dining room table and heavy green curtains blocking each of the windows.  On top of the table was a cage with a small bird inside.  A cockatoo or something.  The bird was standing on the floor of its home, slowly, steadily and monotonously banging its head against the raised metal lip of the cage.  Blood and bloody bird footprints joined the bird shit that spattered the newspaper that lined the cage.

She affects animals too.  Is this what’s in store for us?  It was unnerving to watch, to imagine that it could easily be him doing the same thing, sometime in the near future.  That steady, mindless kind of self harm.  Suicide by compulsive repetition, beating his head to a pulp against the nearest solid surface… if he was lucky.  He was a human with opposable thumbs, and there were a hell of a lot of ugly things he could do to himself if that fucking bird woman decided to push him that far.  Just as bad, there were ugly things that he could do to others.

He looked away to find something that could serve as an improvised pitcher for the water, and his eyes caught on something.

He returned his eyes to the cage.  He’d been scared, earlier, had felt genuine fear for Noelle’s well being, for his own.  But this was something else entirely.  What he was experiencing now wasn’t fear, but despair.  He backed away, thinking hard.  Too many things weren’t making sense, but this threatened to bring everything into a kind of clarity he didn’t want.

He found a knife, returned to the cage, and then grabbed the bird in one fist.  It didn’t struggle or resist as he held it down, severing its head with one clean stroke.

It’s just a dumb fucking bird, but it doesn’t deserve to suffer.

Maybe he could hope for the same.

Can’t let anyone else see this and get freaked out.  He disposed of the cage’s contents in the nearest wastebin.  He found a combination sheath and knife sharpener in the kitchen drawer, tucked the knife away and stuck it in his back pocket, covered by his jacket.

Better to be armed if another monster shows.

Before anyone could come looking for him, he grabbed a flower vase and started rinsing it out in the sink.  He tried not to think too much on the subject of what he’d seen, but was unable to break his train of thought any more than he could free himself of the steady, endless screaming in his head.  There were enough notes to it now that it almost did sound like singing.  Something a few notches above soprano in pitch, holding long notes that stretched on just enough for him to get used to them.  Then they changed, jarring his thoughts, never settling into a pattern.  It was as if it were designed to rattle him.

He finished filling the vase and, with a little more force than was necessary, he snatched a tray from between the microwave and the neighboring cabinet.  Dropping it onto the counter, almost relishing the clatter it made for the distraction from the screaming in his head, he collected all the glasses and drinks.

Marissa had already returned to the living room by the time he brought the tray through, and was working with Cody to disinfect and clean Luke’s wound.  Noelle wasn’t moving, and Oliver was still occupied elsewhere.  That left Jess on her own, watching Noelle with an eye on what the others were doing.

Krouse put the drinks down at the end of the couch.  “Jess?  Water or juice?”

“Water.”

He poured a cup and brought it to her.  He didn’t let go as she took hold of it.

“Krouse?”  Her brow furrowed.

He leaned close, kept his voice quiet, “Please tell me I’m losing my mind.”

“What do you mean?”

He hissed, “This thing with the Simurgh, the singing, it’s not even half the problem here, is it?  We’re far more fucked than that.”

He noticed the way she averted her eyes.

“You know, don’t you?  You figured it out, too?  The way you’ve been acting.”

“When did you find out?”

“When I was in the kitchen.”

“It’s not a priority.  We need to get help for those guys and-”

He gripped the glass harder, jerked it a little to make sure he had her attention.  “No.  Don’t dodge the question.  You’re keeping way too fucking quiet on all of this shit.  About this, about the singing in our heads, you’re hiding something else about the Simurgh.”

“It wouldn’t help to tell,” Jess said.  “They’d panic, and we need to focus on taking care of Noelle and Luke.”

“We damn well need to know what we’re up against,” he hissed, maybe a bit louder than before.

“Krouse?” Luke asked.  “Jess, you okay?”

“We’re just talking,” Jess said, looking at Krouse.

He let go of the glass, letting her take it, and straightened.

“If that Simurgh is going to play up our emotions, we need to stay on the level,” Luke said, eyeing them,  “Keep calm, cooperate.  No whispering, or you’ll make the rest of us paranoid.”

“Right,” Jess said, looking at Krouse, “That makes sense.  We should watch our words, in case we make others unnecessarily upset.”

Krouse gave her a long look.  “Fine.”

“What’s going on?” Luke asked.  “You two are acting funny.”

“It’s nothing,” Jess said.  “Not important right now.  How’s your leg, Luke?”

“Deeper than we thought,” Marissa said.  “We-”

The crack of gunfire interrupted her explanation.  The initial burst was followed by a longer, steadier stream of shots.  Something broke just outside, and everyone in the house that was able threw themselves to the ground for cover.

“They’re shooting at us!” Oliver shouted from the stairwell.

“Get down!” one of the girls urged him.

Oliver hurried down the stairs and then lay down in the front hallway of the house, hands on his head.

The gunfire stopped.

“What in the blue fuck?” Luke asked.  He was still in the chair, hadn’t moved.  “Why the hell did they do that?”

“Not us,” Marissa said, as she gingerly rose from her crouch to stare out the window of the living room.  “Trouble.”

Krouse climbed to his feet.  A sheer, translucent curtain showed a figure by the fence.  The sheer curtains masked the details, but Krouse could make out a pair of short horns on the thing’s forehead, marking it as one of the monsters.

“We’re not safe here,” Luke said.

“We’re not safe anywhere,” Marissa said.

Krouse hurried across the room to check on Noelle.  She’d been periodically rousing to mutter something before drifting back to unconsciousness, but the fact that she hadn’t moved in response to the gunfire was alarming.

“Hey, Noelle,” he said.  He brushed her hair away from her face.  She was paler than before, and the bruising  around her eyes was worse.  Even in the past few minutes, she’d gotten worse, not better.  “Give me a response?  Anything?”

There was nothing.  I wish I knew something about first aid.  Something that could help.

Two gunshots echoed in the distance.  A low, faint rumble marked a series of attacks from Scion or the Simurgh.  Buildings falling.

Without looking away, he said, “Marissa.”

“What?”

“I need you to give Noelle a thorough check-up.  I… I don’t think she’d want me to do it, or see.  She was always sensitive about that stuff.”

Even hugs, even kissing, or holding hands, they were things that she’d parceled out with reluctance.  She wouldn’t want him manhandling her, checking for injuries.

He stood up to make room for Marissa to get close, stepped back.  Marissa began undoing Noelle’s jacket.

“Do you want me to move Jess closer, so she can help?”  He asked.

“No,” Marissa said.  “I can handle this, I think.  What am I looking for?”

“She shouldn’t be this pale, but there’s not a lot of blood, except around her nose and mouth.  Check for injuries?  I’m worried she’s bleeding into her boot or her jacket or something.  I don’t know.”

“I’ll look.”

Oliver had headed back upstairs and was making his way down with an armful of sheets.  Krouse grabbed one and threw it at Luke, “Cover your head.”

“You’re being a little extreme,” Luke said.

“Do it.”

“I’m not saying I won’t.  I’m just saying you’re being a little intense about it.”

Krouse spread his hands.  “I don’t know how to help her.  I-  all I know is that she cares about that stuff.  If nothing else, I want to respect that.”

“She’s modest,” Oliver suggested.

Krouse twitched with irritation.  He wanted to stab his finger in Oliver’s face, growl, you don’t know her.

He bit his tongue and kept from reacting, reminded himself that he was under the influence of that incessant screaming in his head, a constant pressure on his psyche.  If he let himself slip, he knew how easily he could transition into tearing into Oliver, expressing all the frustration he had over how passive and submissive and fucking whiny he was.  The guy wouldn’t even fight back.

Noelle’s not modest.  She’s damaged, Krouse thought.  He glanced at Marissa, and he didn’t say anything.

“Are the rest of you guys going to move to another room, then?” Marissa asked.

“Yeah,” Krouse said.

He, Cody and Oliver retreated to the kitchen, while Luke reclined in the armchair with his leg propped up and a folded sheet over his face.

“She could die,” Cody said, once they’d reached the kitchen.

Krouse tensed.

“Just saying.  It was bad when we were getting out of the apartment, and it’s getting worse.”

“We’ll help her.”

Cody nodded.

A minute passed, and Oliver turned his attention to searching the cupboards for food.  He found a fruity cereal and poured some out into his hand.  Krouse took some for himself, chewing on it.

Cody’s eyes narrowed as he glanced away.  “I don’t like you, Krouse.”

“This isn’t exactly the time to hold onto old grudges.”

“I know.  I know that.  I’m just saying, I think you’re an asshole.  I think you’ll fuck the rest of us over if it means serving your own ends or helping Noelle.  But we can’t afford to fight between us.  Whatever I think of you, we can’t afford to be enemies.”

“That was never a concern,” Krouse shrugged.  He heard Marissa, Jess, and Luke exchanging words in low voices.  He stepped closer to the door to listen in, keeping his eyes averted.  He couldn’t make out the words.  He wasn’t really hearing the screaming in his head, but it was almost drowning out the faint, muffled words.

Cody muttered something under his breath.  “Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Put me down, act like I’m not worth your attention.”

“I wasn’t.  I was saying I wasn’t stressed about us being enemies.”

“You phrased it like you wouldn’t care even if I was your enemy.”

You are, and I don’t, really.

Krouse shrugged.

“You have no problems benefiting off my hard work, but you look down on me, you talk down to me.  I’m inconsequential to you.”

“I thought we weren’t enemies,” Krouse said, turning.

“We aren’t.  I’m just saying you’re making it really hard to be allies.”

Krouse shook his head.  “Okay.  Whatever.  Change of topic: what kind of stuff was in the basement?”

“Anything and everything.”

“I’m going to go look, while we wait for Jess and Marissa to finish.”

“I’ll come with.  We shouldn’t go anywhere alone,” Cody said.

They headed downstairs, and Oliver followed.

Piles of magazines, piles of tupperware, pieces of wood lashed together, bags of old clothes… Anything and everything.

Krouse began digging through the stuff.  He tossed all the bags of clothes into one corner to forge a path.

“I asked her out first,” Cody said.

“Uh huh.”

“But when she said she wasn’t interested, I accepted that.  I walked away.  Stayed her friend.  You didn’t.  You slithered your way in, pressured her.”

“I just let her know I was still interested, while respecting the boundaries she set.  If you don’t believe me, ask her.”

“I might not get the chance, if she doesn’t get better.”

Krouse flinched.  “Let’s drop this topic of conversation.”

“Why?  You keep doing that, trying not to talk about stuff.  Is it because you know I’m right?”

“It’s because we know that whatever happens, this screaming in our head is going to push us to the edge.  Any argument could turn ugly if we aren’t careful, and I’m not forgetting that you wanted to hit me before.  What’s to say you won’t try again, with a weapon in your hand?”

“Fuck you.  I have self control.”

“If self control was all it took, I don’t think the Simurgh would have Jess as scared as she is, and I don’t think they’d be blowing up the superheroes who spend too long listening to this never-ending motherfucking scream in their heads.  We should stick to talking about this shit, the danger we’re in right here, right now.”

“Mm,” Cody grunted.  “What are we looking for?”

“Weapons.”

“What?”

Krouse stepped over a few garbage bags.  He found a tool bench, and grabbed a short hatchet from where it hung on the wall.  Holding it by the head, he extended the handle towards Cody.

“Are you insane?” Cody didn’t touch it.

“If we run into another monster, we’ll need to defend ourselves.”

“Didn’t you just finish saying we’re in a dangerous mental state?  We’re more dangerous to each other than the monsters are.  And you want to walk around with weapons, so we can kill each other if someone snaps?”

“I want to walk around with weapons so we’re safe.  If you’re not going to take this, then Oliver…”  He extended the handle to Oliver.

He paused.  “Oliver?”

Oliver looked haunted, his eyes wide, staring at the wall.  Krouse had to double check that there was nothing there.  “Oliver!”

Oliver jumped.  When he looked at Krouse, his eyes were shiny with tears.

“You okay?”  Cody asked.

“I’m… no,” Oliver said.  He didn’t expand on the thought.

Krouse extended the hatchet’s handle towards his friend, “If I give you this so you can protect yourself, you’re not going to hurt yourself, are you?”

Oliver reacted as though he’d been slapped.  “No!”

“Then take it.”

Oliver did, weighing the weapon in one hand.

Krouse found a battery operated nailgun, fiddled with it to find the clip and check the number of nails inside.  He pulled the safety at the nozzle back and fired an experimental shot into a black plastic bag.

“This is a mistake,” Cody said.  “A ranged weapon?  We walk upstairs with this stuff, and in half an hour we’ll have killed and butchered each other.”

“If we’re going to go crazy enough to kill each other,” Krouse said, “We’ll find ways to hurt each other anyways.  I’m more concerned about us living through the next half hour.  With Noelle living through the next half hour.”

Cody frowned.

“Anyways, the nail gun’s useless.  It’s not going to do any real damage to anything like those monsters we ran into,” Krouse said.  He put it back on the workbench, grabbed a crowbar with a pickaxe head.

“Give me that one,” Cody said.

“Just remember what you said.  We’re not enemies.  If you have to, tell yourself it’s more satisfying to beat my face in with your fists.”

“We’re not enemies,” Cody said.  “And I have enough self control.  I’m more worried about what you’re going to pull.”

Krouse touched the small chainsaw that hung on the wall, saw Cody and Oliver stiffening in alarm, and decided against it.  Instead, he walked over to the corner, where duct piping and curtain rods were stacked against the wall.

He pulled one curtain rod free.  It had fleur-de-lis caps on the ends, and was apparently made out of cast iron.  Or stainless steel fashioned to look like cast iron.  It was thin enough that it might bend after one good hit, but it would serve as a functional spear.

Seizing a hammer in his other hand, Krouse said, “Let’s go see how they’re doing.”

Cody looked at the crowbar and frowned, but he followed without protest.

“It’s bad,” Jess said, as Krouse knocked and approached the living room.

“How bad?”

Marissa had removed Noelle’s jacket, and she hiked up Noelle’s shirt and sweater to show her stomach.  It was bruised to the point of being purple-black, and the right side was swelling in an ugly way, nearly twice as thick as the other side of her abdomen.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.  But it’s stiff, hard.  She might be bleeding inside.  Or a hernia?  Something could have torn loose and shifted places, inside.”

Krouse nodded.  He felt his blood run cold, but he wasn’t surprised.  This was just a confirmation of what he’d already suspected.

“What are we going to do?”

“I’ll look for a doctor,” Krouse said.

“What?” Cody asked, “Are you insane?”

“I know it’s risky-”

“No shit,” Cody said.

“But I’m willing to put my life at risk if it means we have a chance at helping Noelle.”

“If you’re playing the gallant boyfriend because of what I said in the kitchen-”

He wanted to slap sense into Cody.  He settled for raising his voice, “Fucking stop!”

Cody shut his mouth.

“We don’t have a lot of time.  Noelle doesn’t, I mean.  So I’m going.  I knew I’d probably have to, even when I asked Marissa to check Noelle over.  It’s why I grabbed this,” he lifted the spear.  “I’ve got a little something to defend myself with if it comes to that.  I’ll go, see if I can track down any groups of people, find a doctor.”

“Alone?” Jess asked.

“I’ll take any help we can get.  But I’ll go alone if I have to.”

“I’ll come,” Cody said.

Krouse suppressed a wince.  He almost didn’t want Cody to come, knew that his company would offer as many problems as help, but next to Luke, Cody was the strongest one present.

“Oliver?” he asked.

Oliver shook his head.

Damn you, you little coward.  “Okay.  Just Cody and I, then.”

“I’ll come too,” Marissa said.

Krouse nodded.  “You’ll need a weapon.  Take Oliver’s.”

She did, and Krouse handed Oliver the hammer he had in his free hand.  Krouse glanced at the others, gave Noelle one long look.  Maybe the last glimpse he’d get of her alive.

“Let’s go,” he said, swallowing around the lump in his throat.  He walked to the closet and found a heavy wool coat that hung down to his knees, a replacement for the meager fall jacket he’d been wearing.  “Sooner the better.”

Cody and Marissa followed him as he ventured outside.  He glanced at the creature that had been gunned down by the fence.  A man, fat, with rows of horns on its head and shoulders.  He glanced at the soldiers, saw the guns that were pointed his way.  They weren’t firing, but they wouldn’t show him any more mercy than they’d showed the monster.

He didn’t know what was up with that.  That was one detail Jess hadn’t shared.  The soldiers didn’t fit with the scenario she’d described.  Maybe the people who’d failed to evacuate would go crazy, become dangerous.  But even a good fence would serve to stop that.  There could be other measures, like tear gas or tasers.  But guns?  Or blowing up a superhero?

No.  There was more to that story.

“Where is everyone?” Marissa asked.  “We’ve barely seen anyone on the streets.”

“They know better,” Cody said.

“They evacuated,” Krouse corrected.  “It’s why the heroes were okay with knocking down buildings like they were.  Everyone was already cleared out.”

“So quickly?  Why didn’t we evacuate too?”

“Took us too long to get out of the apartment,” Krouse said, the lie smooth.

Marissa shook her head, but she didn’t argue any further.

With Jess staying behind, at least, he didn’t need to worry so much about Luke, Oliver or Noelle asking similar questions and coming to the same conclusions he and Jess had.  Or, just as bad, would be if they got the bright idea of going to look for their families.  Jess would dissuade and distract the others, just like he would with Marissa and Cody.

He wished he was going crazy, that this was paranoia.  But he felt an ugly feeling in the pit of his stomach, along with a hard certainty.  The pieces fit too well together.

The reason people had evacuated so quickly was because the fighting had been going on for some time.  Jess had said the Simurgh wasn’t a tinker.  She was probably right.  The Simurgh had merely copied an existing design, copied a device that had already been used once.  Making the massive halo-portal was just a question of copying the layout, remembering how the pieces had been put together, and being very, very smart.

Jess would have figured it out, once she saw enough of the capes, or when Luke had gotten lost in his neighborhood.  Even when they’d just climbed out of the apartment, she had asked why the Simurgh was here.

He thought back to the bird in the cage, and the bloody newspaper that it had been standing on.  He’d only been able to read part of the headline.  President Gillen orders…

It isn’t that Alexandria, Scion, the Simurgh and the other heroes somehow came here.  We’ve been taken there.  The Simurgh had brought them to Earth Bet.  Earth B.  It was the Earth they’d heard so much about on the internet and the news, stuff Jess had followed with such curiosity that they’d jokingly called her a cape geek.  An Earth where Japan was in shambles, a different president led the United States of America, there were a thousand times the number of parahumans, and Endbringers threatened to crush humanity in a merciless, unending battle of attrition.

They were a long, long way away from their families.

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Migration 17.2

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They ran, their feet sliding on the side of the building.  One misstep meant possibly stepping through a window, slicing a leg open, or falling through.  Making things even more hazardous, the concrete of the building’s exterior was slick with moisture and ice.  Luke was in the front, carrying Noelle.  Twice, Luke lost his footing, but he managed to keep from sliding through a windowpane.

But it was slowing them down.  There were countless reasons why they couldn’t take their time.  The upper half of the apartment building had collapsed, and smoke suggested a fire was spreading somewhere.  There was the fact that Noelle was bleeding, unconscious and might very well be dying as Luke carried her.  And then there was the more immediate threat, the Simurgh.  Krouse cast a nervous glance towards the Endbringer, who was rising into the air.

There was another figure there too, higher in the sky.  A man with a muscular physique, golden skin, golden hair and a pristine white bodysuit.  Krouse recognized him: Scion.  Definitely not someone he’d ever expected to see in person.

Scion and the Simurgh both moved in the same instant.  A beam of golden light turned the road into glowing dust, and the Simurgh evaded by flying to the left, taking cover on the other side of a nearby skyscraper.  Scion followed, turning the beam her way.  The lance of golden light sheared through the building as if it wasn’t there.

As the remains of the skyscraper crumbled to the ground, the already-difficult run across the side of Luke’s toppled apartment building became impossible.  Krouse let himself fall, kicking out with one leg to brace a foot against the corner of a window.  He caught Marissa and stopped her from sliding onto the window and falling through.

“Fuck!”  Luke shouted.  “Fuck, fuck me!”

Third time isn’t a charm for you, Krouse thought.  Luke had put his leg through a window and his leg was slit open from the base of his foot to his knee.  Krouse belatedly realized his friend was wearing socks.  He’d taken off his shoes as he’d stepped inside his apartment.  No wonder he has no traction.

“How-”

He was interrupted as Scion fired another beam further away, following the Simurgh.  It was surprisingly quiet for a weapon that was obliterating three or four hundred feet of road and felling two or three buildings with each two second burst, but the resulting chaos of falling buildings was deafening.  Krouse was torn between staring and averting his eyes in fear; he went with the former: he wanted to be paying attention in case Scion happened to turn the beam their way.  Not that he’d be able to do much.

“How bad is it?” Krouse finished, glancing at Luke.

“I… I’m not sure.  It doesn’t hurt that much.”

“Can you move your foot?”  Marissa asked.

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” Krouse said, “Give me Noelle.”

Luke didn’t argue.  Krouse crawled on his hands and feet to get to his friend, helping him up.  Then he got help from Luke and Marissa to rise to his feet with Noelle in a piggyback position.  Marissa tied the sleeves of Noelle’s sweatshirt together so Krouse could hang the loop around his shoulders.  With his hands, he kept her toes from dragging on the ground.

The fight was getting more distant as Scion continued to fire at the retreating shape of the Simurgh.  Krouse could make out her alabaster form, wings spread, as she swooped and darted between buildings to evade Scion’s fire.  The cloud of dust and debris that had followed Scion’s attacks in their immediate area blocked his view as they continued their progress across the city.

We’re safe for the moment.

He turned his attention to their present circumstances.  Luke had no traction, and his leg was hurt, now.  Krouse didn’t trust himself to manage with his burden, which meant someone else had to lead the way.  Someone that wouldn’t slow them down.

“Marissa.”  She used to dance.  She’s the most sure-footed of us.  “Take the lead?  Check our path is clear?”

She nodded.  Her eyes were wide, her gloved hands gripped the zipper-tag of her sweater’s collar, fidgeted.  She’s in shock.  Saw her best friend die.

But she would have to deal.  They didn’t have time to mourn, to tend to their wounds or play it safe.  They had to escape, before the fight came back this way.

We still have to get down from here, and we aren’t well dressed.  The temperature, last he’d looked, was supposed to be fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, or somewhere in that neighborhood, but it felt colder.  If we have to climb

Jess shrieked, and Krouse turned his head to see why.  Jess was pressing her hands over her mouth, as if to keep herself from making any more noise.  He followed her line of sight…

The Simurgh.  She was stepping out of the cloud of dust that Scion’s attack had left.  As though she were light as a feather, the Simurgh took one step forward and lifted into the air.  She floated down the length of the street one block over, the opposite direction they were traversing the building, her wings folding around her as she landed.

Judging by her lack of a response, the Simurgh hadn’t heard Jess, nor had she seen them.

How is she here?  He’d seen her disappearing over the horizon, Scion in hot pursuit.  Did she teleport?

The Simurgh stopped and raised one hand.  Pieces of machinery began to flow out of a gaping hole in the side of the building nearest where she’d landed, stopping when they reached her immediate vicinity.  A massive box that looked like an oversized washing machine, a large engine with blue L.E.D.s lining it, and tendrils of electrical cords with frayed ends still sparking with live current.

Telekinesis.  She’d created a false image of herself out of snow and ice, baiting Scion away.  Judging by the sound of Scion’s continued onslaught, she was still controlling it.  Controlling it even though there was no way she could see what it was doing by eyesight alone.

The screaming in his head hadn’t let up.  If anything, it was worse: too loud to ignore completely, but every time he paid attention to it, it seemed to distort, rising in volume.  Jess’ shriek had brought it into the forefront of his mind, and he couldn’t seem to shake it.

“Go,” Krouse urged Marissa, “Fucking go!”

She moved twice as fast as Luke had, and Krouse tried to follow her footsteps, matching his foot placements to hers to help avoid the spots where there was ice, cracked concrete or snow layered just finely enough to fill the treads of his boots.

Marissa slipped, landing hard, but was climbing to her feet a moment later.  Krouse chanced a look at the Simurgh.  The Endbringer had folded her wings up, forming a protective cocoon around herself, and was relying on telekinesis alone to manipulate the machinery.  She was still calling other things to her, bringing desktop computers through the holes the larger machinery had made, tearing them apart and connecting components.  Insulation stripped itself away from the wiring, exposing metal that moved to entwine and splice into other wires.

Where are the heroes?  He wondered, as he turned his attention back to the task of getting down from the side of the building.

No.  The better question to ask was where is everyone?  The streets were almost empty, only twenty or thirty people running for cover, hurrying away.  As far as Krouse could tell, the area was deserted.  He felt a chill that wasn’t just the cold weather.

They reached the far end of the building, the lowest floors that they could access.  Concrete and rebar jutted out, ragged, where the Simurgh had torn the building free of the ground.

“We’re going to have to climb down,” Krouse said.

“We try that, the concrete’s going to crack and we fall.  And we don’t have gloves,” Luke said.  “If we have to hold on to cold concrete and rebar, we’re going to get frostbite.  Or our hands will go numb.”

“Or we’ll slip on the snow and ice,” Jess said.

Krouse leaned forward as much as he was able with Noelle on his back.  It was a solid hundred-foot drop to the street below; there were areas that would be easy enough to descend, where rebar offered handholds and even ladders.  But other spots… there were areas where the concrete might break away under a person’s weight, other spots where they’d have to move horizontally, hanging by their hands alone.  Doing it with another person’s weight on his back?  With Noelle?

“There’s no way,” Marissa said.

“Do we have another choice?”  Cody asked.

“Yeah,” Krouse said.  Cody gave him a dark look, as if he was being argumentative for the sake of it.  He elaborated, “If we look inside, maybe there’s a place where we can climb through the building.”

“We could get trapped,” Jess said.  “If there’s fire, or a gas leak, or if the building resettles while we’re inside…”

“And if we climb, there’s the possibility of fire, wind, or the building shaking.  Let’s head through the window,” Krouse said.

As his less encumbered friends broke the window and climbed through, Krouse stood on the side of the building, his hands tucked into his armpits, watching the Simurgh as she worked.

Cody stood by, carrying Jess.  Like Krouse, he was waiting for others to make sure the way was safe, and hopefully they’d be able to set up a series of footholds or makeshift ladder.

Krouse glanced at the Simurgh.  She was still threading components together.

“She’s one of those gadget capes, right?  What do you call them?”

“Tinker.  And she’s not a tinker,” Jess said.

Krouse gave her an appraising look. “Right.  You follow that stuff.  If she’s not a tinker then what the hell is she?  I mean, I know the basics, but I never paid that much attention.  Only kind-of, sort-of, following the damage done.”

“She’s an Endbringer, obviously.  When she first showed up, she just appeared and hovered there.  Some place in Switzerland.  They thought she was like Scion.  Maybe someone who got a concentrated dose of whatever gives people powers, maybe someone who was in just the right mental state for a trigger event.”

“Trigger event?” Krouse asked.

“It’d take too long to explain in detail.  The moment when someone gets their powers.  The idea was maybe she and Scion met some specific set of conditions.  So the whole world watched for something like three days, to see if she would be another Scion, or if she’d be something else.   People approached, she even communicated with them some.  Not talking, just gestures, I guess.  Interacting might be a better word.  And when we thought things would be okay, she made a move.  The entire population of the city around her, with all the people who had come to talk with her and research her…”

Jess trailed off, stopped.  Anxiety etched her face.  Marissa was midway through climbing down through the window, looked up at Jess.

“What happened?”  Cody asked.  “I remember hearing something, but I was a toddler then, and I didn’t figure I’d ever actually see her.”

“I don’t want to say,” Jess said.  “It would distract you guys.”

“Hey,” Krouse cut in, “That’s not cool.  Not your call to make.”

Jess glared at him.  “She-”

There was a sudden movement from the Simurgh, tearing sections of wall free from the nearest building, maneuvering them to form a makeshift barrier in mid-air.  Not one second after the barrier was in place, a pair of heroes flew around the corner.  One had a forcefield bubble around him that exploded on contact with the wall, while a woman fired blasts of energy that sent the fragments of concrete plummeting to the ground.

How did she know?  The Simurgh had seen them coming?

The Simurgh flexed her wings, and snow raised around her.  Krouse nearly lost his footing as the snow that had piled on the side of the building began drifting towards the Simurgh, an almost gentle push from behind him.

The snow condensed and pummeled the two heroes.  The bubble-man formed another shield around himself, but he left his companion out of it, choosing to interject himself between the Simurgh and the woman.

A section of concrete from a building to the right of the heroes flew free and caved in the costumed woman’s skull.  She dropped out of the sky, her head a bloody ruin that Krouse couldn’t make out in the midst of the flying snow.

The bubble-man flew forward, aiming not for the Simurgh, but the machinery she’d gathered to one side.  His forcefield swelled, a blue-green that glowed brighter and whiter with every passing second.  Just as he reached the machinery, it reached a critical level and detonated.  The Simurgh was already putting one wing between him and the machinery.  She took more damage than the machine did, and even that was minimal.  Scorched, scattered feathers.

She retaliated, sending rubble, snow and debris in a constant, consistent assault against him.  He raised forcefields to block the attacks, but each was shut down before it could approach critical mass for detonation.  He retreated a hundred feet or so, and the Simurgh began working on the machine once again, giving him only cursory attention.

“Come on,” Marissa called.

Krouse cast one look at the Simurgh and the lone hero, then hurried to the window.  The others had moved a refrigerator so it was directly below the window, and Luke stood on top, ready to accept Noelle as she was handed down.

It took a second to free her sleeves from around his shoulders, another second to work with Cody to lower her down.

As he watched Cody taking hold of Noelle’s arm and waistband, he was struck with the idle recollection that Cody had been one of the people who’d tried to approach Noelle, one of the first to ask her out and be soundly rejected.  He’d nearly forgotten.  It went a ways towards explaining some of Cody’s anger.

He had to shake his head and refocus on the task.  Noelle was being handed down to the others at the base of the refrigerator, and the way was clear for him to make his way inside.  He helped Jess down, then they made their way to the front hall.  He opened the closet door and began handing out coats and gloves.  Luke tried on some boots until he found some rubber ones that were big enough.

“How’s the leg?”

“Hurting more, but I can still walk.”

Krouse nodded.  With Marissa and Luke’s help he got Noelle in position on his back, then opened the door of the apartment and hopped down to the wall beneath.  That left them the task of breaking into another apartment, kicking at the door in an attempt to dislodge it.  Not as easy as it looked in the movies, especially with the threat of falling through and dropping ten or fifteen feet down someone’s front hallway.

“It keeps getting worse.  The music,” Marissa complained.  “It’s like it’s stretching between three notes, and the moment I think there’s a pattern to it, it changes.”

Krouse glanced at Jess.  What does she know?  To Marissa he said, “It gets worse if you pay attention to it.  Focus on what you’re doing.  Distract yourself if you have to.”

Marissa bit her lip.

The door broke, and they had to catch Oliver before he dropped through.  They climbed down using handholds from the closet door and doorframe, then made their way to the lowest point.

“That smell,” Marissa wrinkled her nose.

“Raw sewage,” Luke said.  “Pipes were destroyed when she tore this part of the building free, probably, and they’re spilling out here.”

It isn’t raw sewage, Krouse thought.  It’s the smell of death.  People had shit themselves as they died, somewhere nearby.

Wherever they had been when they died, he didn’t have to see the bodies.  They headed straight out into the sunlight, stepping onto the snow-covered roads.

The Simurgh was fighting a trio of heroes now, including the man with the forcefield bubble.  Using telekinesis, she was fending off the worst of their attacks and either building or rebuilding parts of the construction she’d been working on.  In the ten or fifteen minutes it had taken to get down through the building and break down the one apartment door, she’d nearly finished creating a complete circle of various components, thirty feet wide.  It looked like only a stray attack had slowed her progress, knocking out a piece of the overarching work.

She made the fighting look easy.  Every time an attack was directed her way, there was something already in place to protect herself or her device.  One cape began to launch ice crystals towards the hoop, and the Simurgh caught the shards out of the air with her telekinesis.  The crystals flew into the man with the forcefield bubble, shattering.  The resulting shards and flakes of crystal didn’t fly away, however.  They turned around in the air and condensed in a thick shell around the force field.

The ice-encased sphere slammed into the ground with a speed and force that suggested it was the Simurgh, not the cape, who was controlling his movement.  He skidded and rolled, the ice shattering first, followed by the collapse of the forcefield.  With momentum still carrying him forward, the cape rolled on the ground, his costume tearing from the friction.

When he finally stopped a few paces from Krouse and the rest of the group, the cape managed to stagger to his feet.  He bled from a dozen open wounds, his skin abraded, his costume in tatters.  He had more ice, blood and dirt on him than he had clean skin or costume.

A tide of snow and ice hit him like a truck, driving him into the ragged edge of the building.  Oliver yelped as he threw himself out of the way.  Marissa’s shriek seemed oddly delayed, until Krouse noted what had happened to the man.  The cape, in a bodysuit of velvet blue with gold armor, had been impaled on a tangled mess of rebar, his intestines pushed out the front of his stomach.

It took Krouse a moment to realize the man was actually saying a word, and not just letting out a long, guttural groan, “Fuuuuuck!  Uuuuunh!”

“Grandiose down, Z-D-6,” a mechanical voice blared from the armband that was fixed to the man’s wrist.

“I’m not…” the cape tried to pull himself forward.  “Not… down!”

“Stop!”  Marissa rushed to the man’s side.  “Don’t move!  You’ll bleed out if you move!”

The man seemed to notice them for the first time.  His eyes went wide, “What… doing here?”

“Don’t move!” Marissa said.  She stepped forward, reaching out, and he swung one fist in her direction.  The motion seemed to pull something, because he coughed up a mouthful of blood and folded forward.

“Go,” the cape grunted.  “Evac.  Or you… good as dead.  Might be… late already.”

Grandiose,” a voice sounded over the device on the man’s wrist.  It didn’t quite sound the same as before, “She’s shut down most of our movers, and your time-“

“No!” Grandiose grunted.  “Have… have time!”

I know exactly how fast you fly.  You couldn’t get out of her reach in time, even if you left now.

“I have time!”

I’ll let your wife know you fought bravely.  Do you want me to keep a recording for your son, for when he’s older?

“Dragon!  Damn you!”

I’m sorry.

The armband beeped, then beeped again a second later.  There was a steady repetition, beep, beep, beep.

Grandiose turned his head, “Why are you…”

Beep.

“…Still here!?  Run!”

Krouse grabbed Marissa and turned to run, barely managing to keep his feet under him with the uneven ground and Noelle’s weight.  He glanced over his shoulder to see the cape pressing the armband against his collarbone.

They weren’t four paces away when the armband detonated, a small, localized blast that didn’t even consume him in entirety.  It did take his head, most of his upper body and his left arm.  The remainder of him was scattered around the surrounding area.

Krouse stared.

“The fuck!?” Cody screamed, staring.

“Go!” Krouse said, “Go, just run!”

They ran, putting distance between themselves, Grandiose’s remains and the fighting with the Simurgh.  One wave of capes was retreating, backed up by another squad.  A woman with a black costume, a heavy cape and straight black hair flowing from the back of her helmet led the charge.  Alexandria.

The heroine dove at the Simurgh, and the Endbringer was quick to fly to one side, reaching out to catch Alexandria with her telekinesis and use her momentum to force her into the street.  The road caved in, sections of pavement with accompanying drifts of snow falling into a sewer or storm drain beneath the street.

The hoop nearly tipped over, and the Simurgh caught it with her power.  There were four other capes in the area, two on the ground and two in the air, and she was forcing each back with pelted ice and fragments of concrete.

Unmolested, the Simurgh spread her wings wide and rose into the air, towing the hoop of exposed computer chips, wires and assorted pieces of technology after her.  Wires trailed from it to nearby buildings.

“That explosion,” Luke was saying, panting as he ran with a lopsided gait.  “They blew up their own person.  Why?”

“Because he’d been here too long,” Krouse said.

He glanced over his shoulder, saw the various components of the circle crackling with current as it rose behind the Simurgh, like a gargantuan halo, wide enough that it nearly exceeded her wingspan.

Alexandria was pulling herself out of the rubble, shouted something.  They were a distance away, but her voice could carry.

The electricity died, the great circle going dim.  They’d cut the city’s power.

“Come on!” Luke urged them.

There weren’t any more people on the streets.  Were they hiding inside, crossing their fingers?  Or had he underestimated how fast people would clear out?

There was a flash behind them.  The hoop was live, with twice the power as before, and the brightness of it made the overcast sky seem dark by contrast.  The snow and dust that the Simurgh and Scion had kicked up weren’t helping on that count, either.

The heroes had cut the power, and the Simurgh was still managing to activate the thing.

The heroes had been working in waves, because apparently too much exposure to her, to this fucking screaming in their heads that never stopped or let up, it was dangerous somehow.  Only a few heroes fighting at a given time, enough to maybe try to disrupt whatever it was she was up to.  Staying for an allotted amount of time.

Except whoever was calling the shots had seen fit to override that battle plan.  The heroes were arriving en masse now, waves of them, in the air and on the ground.

The Simurgh lifted Lucas’ apartment building into the air and tore it into shreds.  The various fragments, the little things, the bodies and pieces of furniture, they became part of a protective maelstrom around the Simurgh, orbiting her and blocking the barrage of long-range fire that the good guys were directing at her.

The screaming was getting worse, fast.  It shifted between a half-dozen different sounds, each only vaguely different from the others, a chant, a pattern.

Krouse was wearing a borrowed hat, gloves and jacket, but the jacket was probably better suited for fall weather than winter.  He was cold, his teeth chattering, the temperature sucking the warmth from his body and legs, making him feel just a little more fatigued, a little more tired.

Yet he was drenched in sweat.  It was freezing cold as it ran down the side of his nose to his chin.  His shivers weren’t entirely the cold, either.  He was terrified, terrified for himself, terrified for Noelle, and for his friends.  Terrified because of the countless little things that didn’t make sense, and because he couldn’t shake the idea that if he paid too much attention to that screaming, that keening song that the Simurgh was singing in his head, it would start to sound like words.

The circle flared with more light than before, and the resulting shockwave threw Krouse and his friends into the air.  Windows shattered and snow was kicked up into clouds as tall as the high rises around them.  The sky visibly darkened with the clouds that had been kicked up, heaping snowbanks dissolved into their constituent snowflakes and water molecules.  The indistinct and distant noises of the heroes firing on the Simurgh had stopped all at once, as the heroes were killed or left reeling from the aftershock of the device’s activation.

The protective wreath of flying objects and debris that surrounded the Simurgh slowed, then stopped circling her entirely.  One thing after another dropped out of the sky, as if the Simurgh was consciously letting go of each individual object.

The first of the heroes were already recovering, pelting the Simurgh with long ranged fire or flying up to her to engage in close-quarters combat.  Her wings shielded the worst hits, her telekinesis let her catch or deflect projectiles and she floated out of the way of a handful more.  For the ones who charged in, the Simurgh used thrown debris to strike them out of the air.  One tried to attack the Simurgh’s halo, but was struck out of the sky by a flash of electricity before they got within fifteen feet.

A low rumble shook the city, and the gate began to bulge with a dark shape that stretched out from within the metal, like a soap bubble emerging from an enclosed loop.

Or a lens, Krouse realized.  It flared bright, rays of light meeting, and things began pouring forth from the point the lines met.   Piles and piles of solid matter flowed down to land at the heart of the city: debris, fragments of architecture, and tiny shapes that were very likely to be people, in a stream as wide across as the Simurgh’s wingspan, lit in high contrast by the light of the halo.

And there were tiny shapes that most definitely weren’t people, but were alive.

It’s a portal.  A door.

“How the fuck is she not a tinker!?” Krouse shouted.

“She isn’t!” Jess called back.  “She’s never done anything like this before!”

The heroes were making an offensive push, and the Simurgh moved her halo out of the way of one series of attacks.  The halo tilted at a right angle as she moved it, continuing to spew its contents forth.   Objects and sections of building were scattered across the city.  More than a few things sailed over the heads of Krouse and his friends as they fled.

One figure landed a city block in front of them, contorting itself in mid-air to land on all fours.  It had the vague shape of a man, but dark gray skin like a tree’s bark and a froglike mouth filled with jagged teeth.  Each finger and toe was tipped with a claw.

A monster.  The thing bristled, muscles visibly tensing beneath its coarse skin as it readied to lunge at them.

Another body landed not too far away, a man with a muscular physique taken to a monstrous extreme, rolling head over heels before he finally stopped.  He might have weighed five hundred pounds, stood eight feet tall, and had an exaggerated bodybuilder’s frame, an underbite and a neanderthal brow.  His limbs had been shattered by the landing.  The frog-mouthed thing leaped onto him and began tearing him to shreds.  Easier prey.

Marissa led the group through a side alley, screamed as an object was flung into one of the buildings they were running between.  A stainless steel bathroom fixture, it punched through a window and part of a windowframe, caused a catastrophic series of crashes as it sailed through the interior of someone’s apartment.

Something nearby screeched, the kind of noise that reverberated through bones and organs, and Krouse could feel his sense of balance dissolve.  His knees turned to rubber and he nearly ran face first into a wall as his vision swam.

Jess threw up over Cody’s shoulder, followed by Cody vomiting as well.  Even as he felt the effects of the sound recede, Krouse couldn’t avoid emptying his own stomach.

Noelle stirred, squirmed.  He struggled to change position so she wouldn’t vomit onto the back of his head.  The remains of her breakfast, a coffee and a donut spattered on the ground just by his right hand.

Was that the Simurgh?  No.  The scream was something else.  Another monster.

“Don’t… no… I’ve tried so hard,” Noelle mumbled, not even lucid.

“Keep trying, Noelle, stay awake and keep at it,” Krouse said, struggling to his feet.  The effect had dissipated.  He wanted to be gone before that frog thing gave chase.

Something heavy struck a tall building in front of them, across the street from the alley’s mouth.  There was an explosion, and within seconds the building was burning, billowing with plumes of smoke.

Krouse led the way through the mouth of the alley, turned to check on the others and saw Luke on the ground.  He’d fallen.  Marissa gave him a hand standing and supported him as he ran.

Come on, we don’t have time to waste.

But Krouse wasn’t willing to go ahead, either.  They had to stay together, especially with the danger posed by the monsters that had been scattered around the city.  The way he was carrying Noelle, he couldn’t check on her, couldn’t make sure she was still breathing.  He needed the others with him.

Stepping out into the middle of the street, Krouse had a view of the fighting: the Simurgh was still airborne, and the halo-gate was still active, spewing more creatures and ruined architecture into the streets.

A flash of golden light signaled Scion’s return to the scene of the fight.  With one attack, he severed the halo in half, but the portal didn’t disappear.  Instead, like watercolor paint, a different perspective began to bleed into the surrounding sky, too bright, too blue a sky, with pale, squat buildings almost glowing in the comparative absence of clouds.  Larger chunks of buildings, massive rocks, and even chunks of earth with several trees rooted in them began to spill out and plunge to the ground.

Scion held back on shooting again, instead charging himself with power.  When he released it, it manifested as a slow radiance, a sphere of light that expanded from him in slow motion.  The tear in reality dissipated, and everything the light touched stopped.  Shifting clouds went still, objects that were flying through the air ceased moving and simply fell, and the ambient noises of destruction, fire and fighting was replaced by an all-too brief silence.  Even the Simurgh’s song, Krouse realized, had momentarily stopped.

The light reached them, swept over them, and he could feel his heart skip a beat.  His entire body hummed with the effect of the stillness, as though he were a tuning fork and for just a moment he’d ceased vibrating.

The Simurgh’s movement was slowed in the wake of the light, and Scion took the opportunity to land one well placed shot.  She was driven into the ground like a nail from a nailgun, somewhere Krouse couldn’t see.

Luke and Marissa had caught up, along with Cody and Oliver.  Krouse turned from the scene.  He had to hike Noelle up so her sleeves wouldn’t pull on his neck, then they ran in the opposite direction from the fighting.

“They’re winning,” Cody said.  “Beating her.”

“She just dumped who knows how many monsters into this city,” Jess said, “And some of them are here.  Near us.  We’re not close to being safe.”

“And Noelle’s hurt pretty bad,” Marissa said.

Krouse grit his teeth.  He didn’t want to think about that, about how he was jostling her, how she might be dying as he ran.  He was carrying her, his legs, back and stomach screaming from the hundred-and-fifteen or hundred-and-twenty pound weight he was carrying piggyback, but he couldn’t check on her, couldn’t see how well or how badly she was doing.

“Luke, are we moving in the right direction?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  Fuck me, this sound in my head-”

“Focus!”  Krouse barked the word.

“It’s… I got turned around.  This isn’t an area of the city I’ve spent any time in.  Did she throw us a few blocks?”

“She couldn’t have,” Jess said.  “The building would have shattered.”

“Then we’re on some side street I’ve never been on,” Luke said, “Sorry.”

Think!  Which direction is the nearest hospital?” Krouse asked.

“I don’t know.  I can barely hear my own thoughts over this noise in my head.”

Krouse growled with inarticulate frustration.

Ease up, Krouse,” Cody said.  “He doesn’t know.”

“Noelle might be dying!”

“-And we’ll get to safety first, then someone can take us to a hospital,” Jess said.  “But we can’t help her if we’re hit by some flying piece of concrete or laser beam.  And… they thought that it was better to kill that guy than to let him live, because he’d been here too long.  He’d heard too much of that sound in our heads.  So his own side killed him.  Think about that.  We’ve been here longer.”

Krouse shook his head.  “But if Noelle-”

“We’ll help her, Krouse!”  Jess said.  “Save your breath for running!”

He grunted affirmation.

They crossed paths with another monster.  A man, pale, with a head twice as large as his torso.  His arms and legs were atrophied, and he crawled, dragging his head along the pavement.  It looked as though he’d sustained some damage in being flung halfway across the city, his head was nearly caved in at the top, a bloody ruin with fragments of skull sticking out.

“Help me,” the thing pleaded.  He reached out with one emaciated hand.

“How?” Marissa asked.

“Mars!”  Krouse shouted, “No stalling!”

She ignored him.  “How can we help?”

“Give me your memories,” the monster said.  Marissa backed away a few steps in alarm.  “Give them!  I want to dream again!  I haven’t dreamed in so long!”

Marissa bolted, the hard heels of her boots clacking on the hard ground.

The ground shuddered with a distant explosion.  One of Scion’s beams speared into the sky, parting clouds in tidy circles as it passed through them.  There was the sound of something howling behind them.  A minute later, it howled again, closer.  Is it chasing us?  

One by one, they each came to a complete stop.  Krouse noted how the screaming in his head seemed quieter.  Were they almost out of her range?

Krouse’s eyes widened as he tried to comprehend what he was seeing. If we are nearly out of danger, then this is some sick joke at our expense.

“No,” Luke whispered.  Louder, he repeated himself.  “No!  Why!?”

A chain link fence barred their way.  It was topped by barbed wire.

In the distance, on the far side of a park, there were squads of men and women in army fatigues, with jeeps and other army vehicles helping to add presence to the already formidable line of defense.  Each of the soldiers was aiming a gun at the fence.

Krouse flinched as a howl sounded, closer than the ones before.  Caught between a rock and a hard place.  Not to mention Noelle’s condition, or even Luke’s.  He winced at the noise in his head.  It was quieter, but his stress here, his alarm and confusion, it was making the screaming spike to a brutally high pitch.

Step away from the fence!”  The voice sounded over a loudspeaker, gruff, authoritarian.  “This area is under quarantine!  Seek shelter and wait for further instructions!  If you approach or touch the fence, you will be shot!

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Migration 17.1

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“Francis!” The word was an admonishment.  “Where do you think you’re going with that?”

He hung his head.  The luggage he was hauling behind him was on wheels, but he propped it up so it stood straight, sticking his hands into his coat pockets.  He reluctantly turned to face his mother.

“We have family over.  Your Uncle Felix came all the way from California.  I think they might want to spend some time with you this Christmas.”

“You arranged that.  I made these plans weeks ago, I told you about them.”

“Nothing that involved luggage,” she folded her arms.  Olive skinned, with a hawkish expression, his mother managed to look intimidating even though she was an inch shorter than him.

He bent down and placed the luggage flat on the ground.  He unzipped it and opened it for her to see.

She sighed.  “It’s not a productive pastime.”

“I’d say it’s pretty productive.  We stand to make a pretty decent amount, here.”

“You’re going to make money?”

“We already are.  But the thing is, depending on how today goes, we could make a lot more.”

“You’re dissembling, Francis.”

He cringed, more at hearing his name than in response to the accusation.  “I was going to save it for an announcement in front of the family tonight, after we see how it goes.  We have stuff to hash out first, and it probably won’t be pretty.”

She gestured for him to go on.

He frowned.  “We’re on the verge of getting a sponsorship. It’s pretty generous, too, even split between the five members of the team.  And it’s in addition to what we already make.  Contract’s just for one year, and if we prove ourselves, show we can hold our own, we could get a bigger, better contract when we renew the terms next year.”

“This sounds a little too good to be true.”

“We’re good, mom.  Ridiculously good.  The sponsors have been talking about us being on the international stage.”

“And just who is us?”

“This is starting to feel like an interrogation.”

“It should.  Who’s on the team?”

“Well, there’s two answers to that question-”

“Francis,” she made it sound like a warning.

“You don’t know all of them.”

“Mm hmm.  Is your alleged girlfriend in this group?”

He nodded.  “Yeah.  Her, Ms. Newland’s daughter-”

“Oh, lovely.”

“No, she’s cool.  Then there’s this girl named Jess, there’s Cody, and Luke.”

“You left yourself out.”

He smiled sheepishly.

“You’re not in the group.”

“Yet.  Like I said, we have stuff to hash out,” he said.  He tried to force the smile from his face and failed.

“It’s dangerous to mix business and friendship.”

“I’m being careful.”

She gave him a sharp look.

“Really!”

“Go.  Be back by two.”

“Can’t.  Going to take all day.  I’ll be back seven-thirty-ish.”

“Seven.  If you’re late for dinner I’m taking your biggest present back to the store for a refund.”

“I don’t know how long it’ll take.  I can’t make any promises, and all of this is kind of important to me.”

“Then decide if it’s worth losing the present.”

He rolled his eyes.  “I guess it is.  Love you, mom.”

“Go.  Get lost.”  She smiled as she said it.

He zipped up his luggage and headed outside.

It was crisp.  Fat snowflakes drifted down from above.  He tugged his scarf tighter and headed out, the bottom edge of the luggage wiping out his footprints behind him, the wheels serving as the only trace of his passing.

His breath fogged up in the air, making his scarf damp around his mouth.  This moisture, in turn, froze, making the fabric of his scarf stiff.

It wasn’t a short walk to the bus stop, and getting the luggage onto the bus was a chore.  It didn’t help that it was crowded, packed with men, women and children eager to finish their Christmas shopping.  He should have felt bad about the awkwardness of having his luggage there, getting in people’s way as they got on the bus, but he didn’t.  A part of him thrived on being annoying.  He liked to think it nourished him.

He even felt a little smug.  He’d finished his shopping in September.  Half of his motivation had been to avoid the hassle.  Half was so he could lord it over friends and family.

Getting off the bus with his luggage was twice as hard as getting on.  He made his way into the coffee shop and scanned the crowd.

He saw her, but he didn’t hurry to her side.  Instead, he spent a moment standing by the door, watching as she stood at the end of the short line.  Her cheeks were red from the cold, and the snowflakes had melted into droplets on her eyelashes.  Some flakes still clung persistently to her straight brown hair.  She made her way to the front, and ordered.  While she waited, she dabbed at the snow, wiping her eyes and hair, and then tucked her hat into her pocket.

Seeing her rub her cheeks to warm them, he felt an urge to hold her as tight as she could bear, to feel her cold cheek against his, to warm her with his body, and to let her warm him in turn.  It caught him off guard in its suddenness and intensity.

He took a deep breath and crossed the coffee shop to wait by the far end of the counter.  He jammed one hand in his pocket, as if that could keep him from following through on the impulse.  After a few seconds, he pulled it out again.  He did have self control.

Her face lit up as she saw him.  He, in turn, snapped a smart salute.  “Captain Noelle, ma’am!”

“Don’t!”  She blushed.  “People are going to stare.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I do!”

He smiled and led the way to the nearest empty table.  He used one foot to slide the luggage bag against the wall and then pulled her chair out for her.

“I can’t tell if you’re being a gentleman or if you’re trying to sweeten me up for this talk of ours.”

“I’ll take that as a good thing.  It means I still get the brownie points, but you won’t be hard on me to make up for the fact that I’m being conniving.”

“I should.”

“Besides, it’s my prerogative to treat you well, right?”

She smiled a little and took another sip of coffee.

“We are boyfriend and girlfriend?” he asked.  He could see the smile fall from her face.  He hurried to speak before she could protest.  “Probationary boyfriend and girlfriend.  You know you can still break this off any time, right?  Don’t give a second thought to my feelings.”

“That’s not it.  I like you, Krouse.”

Francis Krouse felt something jolt inside him.  It was like surprise but not.  He already knew she liked him, but hearing it said…  he felt his face warming up, and distracted himself by untucking and folding his scarf.

Finding himself unable to look directly at her, as embarrassed at his own embarrassment as anything else, he replied, “I like you too.”

“I just- I worry I’m not being fair.  We don’t actually-”

“We do what we want to do, right?  We enjoy each other’s company?”

“Yeah.”  She sipped at her coffee again, then put it down to rub her hands for a second.  “I enjoy your company.”

Tentatively, he reached out and placed his hand over hers.  Cold.  He reached out with his other hand and placed it under hers to help warm it.

“Look at this.  Krouse is being sweet,” a girl said.

He turned in his seat to see the others.  Marissa wore a pristine white jacket with a fur ruff.  Between her delicate features and the way her blond hair glittered with the moisture of the snow, she looked almost angelic.

Luke was almost the opposite.  Grungy, mismatched, dressed in layers, with a plaid green button-up shirt under a blue jacket, and a red t-shirt beneath that.  His beard was a thin teenage scruff.  He bumped fists with Krouse before sitting down.  Krouse was almost embarrassed to realize he was doing something so stereotypically ‘cool’.  It had started as something they did ironically and turned into habit.

Jess was the last to join them, navigating between the chairs, tables and other customers, making sharp turns as she wheeled herself to the table.  Her hair was shaggy, she had three piercings in one ear and thick eyeliner around her eyes.  A shopping bag sat in her lap and more were hooked over the handles of her wheelchair.

“I’m sorry, Jess,” Noelle apologized the second the girl arrived.  “We should have found a table closer to the door.”

“She keeps saying she doesn’t want us to treat her different,” Krouse said, shrugging.  “Don’t see why we should have.”

Jess gave him the finger.  “There’s a middle ground that lies between being an asshole and being so accommodating that you make me feel like a freak.  The others have found that middle ground, I don’t see why you can’t.”

“I’m doing exactly what you asked for and not treating you any different than I’d treat a non-cripple.”

“Alright, alright,” Marissa said.  “Let’s not get into another argument.  We’re short on time.”

Noelle nodded, “We don’t have long before we have to get ready, and we really should figure out what we’re doing.  You guys got my emails?”

Marissa sighed, the mood changing in a flash.  “Yeah.”

There were nods from the others.  Krouse stayed very still, watching them.

“This makes things complicated,” Luke said.  “You’re in charge, though, so you get the final say.”

Noelle made a face.  “I know, but the problem is we’re not just teammates.  We’re friends.  And you guys know that Krouse and I are dating.  That complicates things.  I don’t think I have the perspective to make the call on my own.  I put my thoughts in the emails, I’m just hoping you guys can give me some direction.  If you say we shouldn’t-”

“No.  The shitty thing is that the logic is sound,” Luke said.  “No offense, Krouse, but this would be a lot easier if you sucked and we could kick you to the curb.”

Krouse shrugged.

Luke went on, “Look, if we were talking about staying local, being casual about this, or even sticking to the national level, we’d keep Cody.  He’s reliable, but he’s not at the level we need if we’re actually going international.  He’s boring, he doesn’t have fans.  He won’t get any future sponsors interested.  To top it off, he’s too traditional.  He won’t surprise our opponents.  They know how to deal with people like him.”

Noelle nodded.  “Say what you will about Krouse, like how he’s crap when it comes to calling shots-”

“Hey.”

“Or even the fact that he’s prone to ignoring orders if he thinks it’ll help us.  Um, he’s right so long as it’s just him operating solo, but yeah… The thing is, if we’re talking about the big picture, international recognition and going head to head with the best in the world… Krouse has the natural ability to change things up, so we can adapt our strategies to whatever they’re able to pull off.”

“And he has fans,” Jess said.  “As many as any two of us combined.”

Krouse couldn’t help but smirk.

“As a call for the good of the team, it makes sense,” Luke said.  “But in terms of our friendships, well, Cody’s going to be hurt.  He put in a lot of effort helping us get to this point.  He’s my friend, just like Krouse is.  This is a pretty big betrayal, kicking the guy off the team right before we get our sponsorship.”

“Will the sponsor be okay with this?” Jess asked.

“As long as we prove we’re ready this afternoon,” Noelle said.

“You know the arguments Cody’s going to make,” Marissa said.

“Yeah.”

“Can I say something?”  Krouse asked.

He could see them glancing at one another, trying to decide.

“So long as it’s helpful,” Jess replied.

“Look.  Cody is a type A personality.  Like Marissa-” he saw Marissa’s expression change and added, “I don’t mean that in a bad way.  Marissa and Cody are training the hardest and practicing the most.  That’s respectable.  The difference is, well, we’ve all seen how much time Cody puts in.  And I think he’s hit his ceiling, and he knows it.  He’s not keeping up, and I don’t know how much he’s going to improve over the coming months or years.”

“And me?”  Marissa asked.

“I don’t know how close you are to hitting the ceiling, but you have natural talent and ability that Cody doesn’t.  I would have zero worries with you backing me up, even on the world stage.”

She pursed her lips.

“Anyways, we’re talking about Cody.  He’s not improving.  If I’m on the team, I’m going to work harder, I’m going to improve in every department, and I fully expect you guys to kick my ass to make me do it.  And I’ve been pretty excellent already.”

“If you fuck this up for us, you know we’ll never let you live it down,” Luke said.

“Of course.”

Luke sighed and said,  “I’m caught between two friends, so I can only make this call in terms of the team and in terms of the business.  I think we should go with Krouse.  He’ll put in the work, and we all know he’s good.  Some practice and we’ll get everything coordinated, and we’ll be far stronger for it.”

There were nods all around.

Luke continued, “Krouse was saying that Cody and Marissa are type A personalities.  He’s not wrong.  Marissa’s who she is because of the megabitch.”

Marissa frowned, but she didn’t argue the point.

“And Cody’s who he is because he can’t stand to lose.  So how’s he going to react if he finds out he’s been bumped for Krouse?”

Nobody responded.  It was too easy to imagine.

“We’re in agreement, then?” Noelle asked.  She was hunched over her coffee, both hands wrapped around it for warmth.  She didn’t look happy.  “Last chance for objections, or to say if you’re having second thoughts.  I won’t be angry if you do.”

Did she want there to be a good argument against this, so there wouldn’t be a confrontation?

Nobody spoke up.

“Let’s go deliver the bad news then.”

While Krouse and Jess navigated their way past the maze of tables and chairs, Marissa hurried to the front counter and ordered.  She joined them outside a minute later, handing one donut to Noelle, who accepted it with a roll of her eyes.

They’d chosen the donut shop because it was only a block away from Luke’s apartment.  It made for a short walk to their destination.

“Krouse, you want to take the elevator with Jess, rest of us will take the stairs?”  Noelle offered.  She turned to Luke, “Cody here already?”

“Probably.  My brother said he’d stick around long enough to let him in before he went shopping.”

“So you want to break the news to him without me there,” Krouse said.

Noelle and Luke nodded in unison.

“Alright,” Krouse agreed.

“Krouse is being cooperative?”  Jess commented, quirking an eyebrow.  “I’m impressed.  And a little unnerved.”

He smiled at that, and he looked to Noelle as he said, “Good luck.”

A moment later, it was just him and Jess in the lobby, along with two elderly couples who were sitting in the chairs in the mini-lounge by the doors, talking.

“You must be nervous,” Jess said.

“Never,” he smirked.

“See, I have you figured out.  You have a tell, when you’re lying.”

“Sure.”

“The more overconfident you act, the more nervous you are.  And when you’re feeling down, you poke at people, provoke them.  I think you get some validation out of it, like, if you can test people and they’re still your friends after, you can feel confident in that friendship.”

“Ohhh, seems like you spend a lot of time thinking about me.  Maybe a little bit of a crush there?  Eh?  Unrequited love?”

She broke into laughter, too sudden and hearty to be anything but genuine.

He shook his head a little and let her go first into the elevator before following with his luggage.

“What-” he started speaking, but he stopped when she broke into another fit of giggles.  “Come on, now.”

The thing was, he mused, Jess would probably be a good match for him.  She was probably the best when it came to keeping him in line, keeping him real, and calling him on his shit.  She wasn’t bad looking either.

But she was in a wheelchair, and though he sort of wished he could be the kind of person who could take that in stride, he had to admit he wasn’t.

Then there was Marissa, the most attractive member of their group by far.  Nobody would deny it.  Tall, blond, slim, with a body honed by years of dancing and ballet.  She was good looking enough that it was intimidating.  Odd as it was, nobody in the group had asked her out, as far as he knew.  Marissa’s mother played a part in that; nobody wanted to deal with the megabitch.

Noelle, oddly enough, had been the girl they’d fought over the most.  It was odd because she didn’t have Marissa’s head-turning beauty or Jess’s confidence.  It made her more approachable, in a strange way, up until the point where Noelle had shut down any and all advances.  Getting close to her had been a slow process, one with a lot of missteps on his part and skittishness on hers.

He had a sense of what the story was behind that.  Marissa knew too, by all indications, but he hadn’t asked.  That was Noelle’s private story, to be shared when she was ready.

The moment the elevator doors parted, he could hear the shouting.

“You assholes!  I didn’t want him on the team in the first place and now you’re replacing me with him!?”

“Calm down, Cody.”  Luke, ever reasonable.  “Shouting isn’t going to help, and it’ll bother the neighbors.”

“He’s manipulating you!  He’s a slimy creep, and you know this is exactly why he’s dating Noelle.  Or don’t you find it a little suspect that they started dating almost right after we voted her captain?”

Krouse glanced at Jess, who furrowed her brow as she looked up at him.  They stepped out of the elevator and paused outside of the door to Luke’s apartment.

Oliver and Chris were standing outside the door.  A more different pair was hard to imagine.  Chris was Marissa’s friend.  After Marissa had dropped all of her old hobbies and joined the team, Chris was the only one of her friends who’d stuck around.  Krouse didn’t see why, but Chris tended to have girls all over him.  He was worlds different compared to Oliver, who was short, pear shaped, his blond hair cut in an unfortunate bowl-style that wouldn’t have suited someone four years younger.

“You idiots!” Cody swore.  “You know he planned this.  Asshole thinks he’s so smart, and you just feed that delusion!”

Chris mouthed the word ‘wow’.

“Cody,” Noelle started, “We talked it over-”

“Without me!”

“Because we knew you’d react like this, and we wanted to be sure we all agreed before we moved ahead.”

“And I bet Krouse was there, wasn’t he?”

“He was.”

“Real fair.”

“He kept his mouth shut,” Noelle said.

Not exactly true, Krouse thought.

“He was still there.  You think the others are gonna say he sucks and he doesn’t deserve a spot on the team while looking him in the eyes?”

It was Luke who answered him.  “Honestly?  Yeah.  We would.”

The directness gave Cody pause.  Krouse decided to head inside.  He found Luke, Marissa and Noelle standing together against a red faced Cody.

“You.” Cody narrowed his eyes.  “You dick.”

“I’m honestly sorry,” Krouse said.  “If there was a way for the deal to include all of us, I’d take it without question.  We can only have five.”

“But you have no problem stabbing me in the back for your own benefit.”

“It’s more for everyone’s benefit-”

“Except mine.”

“Really, I am sorry.  I know how hard you’ve worked.”

“I work twice as hard as anyone else,” Cody stabbed a finger at Krouse, “Ten times as hard as you.”

“And you’re only about as good as Mars,” Krouse said, shrugging, jerking his thumb in Marissa’s direction.  “And if I’m better than you while putting in as little effort as you say, how much better will I be when I’m trying?”

Cody clenched his fist, and Krouse could tell that he was about to swing.  He grit his teeth and braced himself for the hit.  Better to take it than-

“Cody,” Luke cut in, putting himself between the two.  “You’re pissed.  You’re allowed to be pissed.  I would be too, if I was in your shoes.”

“I thought we were friends,” Cody replied.  The emotion in his voice was raw enough to make Krouse cringe.

“We are.  But this is business.  And we need to get to business, because we only have a little time to get ready.  You can hit him, or you can stay.  Pick one.”

“Stay and watch him make his debut?”  Cody asked, bitter.

“This isn’t set in stone yet.  If he fucks up today, if this doesn’t work out-”

“We’re boned,” Cody finished.

“No.  We’ll drop him and reinstate you, we’ll apologize to our sponsors-to-be and we’ll move ahead.”

“So I hit him or I stay and watch him crash and burn?”

“Basically.”

Cody smiled.  “I’ll stay.”

“Wonderful.”  Krouse smiled back.  “We really should get ready.”

Everyone else was already set up, so they took on the job of prepping the room.  Luke shared his apartment with his brother and another roommate, but both had vacated for the day, leaving Luke the freedom to rearrange the furniture.  He recruited Marissa and Oliver to help with the moving of the stuff he hadn’t been able to shift on his own.

Chris took the job of pulling the curtains closed, reducing the light that streamed in through the windows to a few glowing slivers that stretched across the floor.

Cody stood by with his arms folded.

“Here, Noelle,” Krouse said.  He set his luggage flat on the ground and unzipped it.  There were computers inside, each half the size of a regular desktop, wrapped in layers of towels and plastic sheeting.

“Thanks for the loan.  Don’t trust mine with the sheer amount of crap my cousin downloaded onto it.”

“Actually…” He trailed off, sticking his hands in his pockets.  “I took my old machine, I replaced the power supply, formatted it, installed a clean OS and done all my usual tricks for clearing out the crap that we’ll never use and optimizing it.  You can consider it an early Christmas present.”

She stared at him, and he tried to interpret her expression.  A used computer for a present, would she be offended?  Or, conversely, was she bothered at the idea that he’d given her a two-year-old, two-thousand-dollar machine and that he might want something of equivalent value?

She hugged him for the first time in recent memory.  “It’s great.  Thank you.”

“I know the hardware is two years old, but it’s still better than most.”

She hugged him tighter, then let go, “I don’t know how to thank you, and I don’t want you to take this as me dodging the subject or being ungrateful, but we really should prep.”

“For sure,” he smiled.  His body was buzzing from the physical contact.

With Oliver’s help, Luke had pulled the couch away from the wall and turned it around, and arranged desks and tables in its place.  Five computers were set in a row.  Noelle and Krouse left their computers off, but the others started up.  A few mouse clicks and the loading image for Ransack appeared.  The game’s login screen music played over the speakers of each computer, each out of step with the others.

Krouse looked at Chris and Oliver.  Second stringers.  He’d been one of them, more or less content to watch as everyone else had all the fun.  Oliver was trying to get to a competitive level, but he wasn’t very good.  Chris only participated to keep Marissa company and to earn some pocket money.

“Let’s talk strategy for tonight’s tournament, then,” Noelle said.  “Krouse is new, they might not expect him, but Jess is our best overlord.  I think she should go first, Krouse second, I’ll follow up, then Luke, then Marissa if we get that far in the best of five.  Any complaints?”

There were shakes of the head.

“We’re up against the Chork Pops, North American team.  They’ll lead with Mark Key as their overlord.  We know him.  He likes to stall and put every resource towards making a brutal end-boss surrounded by traps and trap spells.  Kind of the opposite of Jess.  I’ll take the lead as tank and team captain for round one.  Krouse, you have any idea what you want to do?”

“I’ve been practicing with an illusion-subtlety-assassin hybrid class.”

“Illusion sucks,” Cody muttered.  “And a three-way hybrid?  You’re spreading your points too thin.”

And this is why I’m on the team and you aren’t.

“I take the first opportunity to invade our dungeon, use the subtlety and assassin part of my build to pick them off as opportunities come up.  Our core group’s pretty strong, so they’ll be fine as a trio.  Since it’s normal to fall behind when invading, they won’t notice I’m weaker with a shallow point spread.  Endgame stage, I can return to the enemy dungeon to help against the boss, I’ll whip out the illusion magic and we’ll make a play.  Circle around, or get him to activate the traps too early-”

He stopped as a rumble shook the building.

“What was that?”  Krouse didn’t hear who asked the question.  One of the other guys.

The power cut out, the music from the computers cutting off, the lights going dark.

“Shit!  The tournament!”  Luke swore.

The light that leaked in around the edges of the windows dimmed, the curtains simultaneously billowing inward.  Except the windows were closed.

Krouse didn’t have two seconds to wonder what was going on before he felt a momentary weightlessness.  He felt himself tipping over, stepped back to catch his balance, and found the floor tilting, out of reach of his foot.

A heartbeat later, the windows were directly overhead, and he was falling.  He started to scream, but he managed only a monosyllabic, “Ah!” before he fell onto the side of the dining room table, tumbled to one side and slammed into the chairs, the wind knocked out of him.

Noelle wasn’t lucky enough to have the dining room beneath her to break her fall.  Wood splinters flew as she hit the chair.  The table that had held the computers followed her, striking hard and then sliding across the wall to rest against what had been the ceiling.

The wires connecting the computers to the power bar and the power bar to the wall came free.  One computer tower dangled, swung, bounced and fell, a projectile aimed directly for Krouse’s head.  He threw himself toward the space under the dining room table, as much as he could with the chairs beneath him.  The computer punched a hole in the wall.

Noelle wasn’t so lucky, nor was she as free to move out of the way.  The remainder of the computers and computer monitors came free of the wall and fell on top of her.

The others had been further back, had fallen against the wall that framed the kitchen, to Krouse’s right.  He could only hear their shouts and screams, the heavy thuds of bookcases, books, couch and television falling on top of them.

Then stillness, with only the sound of a high, steady scream to break the silence.

The apartment had turned on its side.  The windows loomed high above them, curtains hanging straight down.  Dim light streamed down into the otherwise dark room.

“Noelle,” Krouse gasped, staggering to his feet.  He climbed over the heap of furniture, tentatively setting foot on the wall to circle around to get to her.

She was limp, blood streaming from her mouth and nose.  She wasn’t the one screaming.

“Come on,” he muttered, making his way to her and carefully dragging her out of the pile of computers.  He checked her pulse: not strong, but there.  Her breathing was thin.

Had to get her help.  Just had to get out of there.  He looked around.  The kitchen door was a solid ten feet above the new ‘floor’, the ledge that the others were on, the wall that had encircled the kitchen, was five or so feet above that.  Every surface around him was flat, featureless, with nothing to climb.

One of the girls on the upper level was muttering, “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” over and over.    Marissa or Jess.  The girl who wasn’t repeating the words said something he couldn’t make out.

And that keening, it wasn’t stopping.  Didn’t she need to catch a breath?  He covered his ears.

It didn’t help.  Must have hit my head.

“Hey!”  He shouted.  “We need help!”

Luke peered over the edge, face pale as he looked down at Krouse.

“Noelle’s hurt,” Krouse said, a tremor in his voice.

“Chris is dead,” Luke replied, oddly calm.

They stared at each other, eyes wide, experiencing mutual shock.  Luke seemed to break free of the spell first, disappearing from sight.

It was a few minutes before Luke returned, throwing down a knotted sheet.

Carefully, Krouse picked Noelle up and arranged her so she draped over one shoulder.  It was awkward; she was nearly too heavy for him to lift.  He managed to keep hold of her with one hand and gripped the knotted sheet with the other, wrapping it around his hand and wrist so he couldn’t lose his grip.  He could hear Luke giving orders to the others.  They began hauling him up.

Once he was high enough, he set foot on the doorframe by the kitchen, stepped on the half-inch ledge as they lifted him again, then accepted Luke’s hand in getting up to the ledge.

Jess was caught, her wheelchair trapped beneath the couch and a bookshelf, and she had a thread of blood trailing from the corner of one eye, which was bloodshot.

Cody was reeling up the knotted sheet, avoiding looking back at Chris while Oliver attached another sheet at the end.

Krouse glanced at Chris and then looked away.  The boy lay against the wall, his head bisected by the top of the bookcase.  Already, Krouse could detect the cloying odor of mingled blood, urine and shit.  Marissa knelt by her friend’s body, holding his hand, unmoving.  She’d stopped chanting in shock.

“What happened?”  Oliver asked, sounding very much like a little boy.  Not that he was.  They were in the same class, the same age.

“Could have been an earthquake” Luke suggested, still sounding strangely calm.  “We need to find out how to get out of here.”

“Noelle needs a hospital,” Krouse said.

“We need a way out of here first.”  Luke looked up at the windows, ten feet above their heads.  Neither the floor nor the ceiling offered anything to grip.  “All the stuff from the bedroom and closet fell into the front hall.”

“Then we go out the window,” Krouse said, looking up.  “We can use the couch and bookcases like ladders.”

The work was grim, quiet, as they moved the furniture, sharing the burdens between four of them at a time.  Nobody looked at Chris, nor did they touch the bookcase that had fallen on him.

Twice, they had to rearrange and reposition the parts of their improvised ladder as resounding impacts shook the building.

Krouse was first up, followed by Luke, who carried Noelle.  As her boyfriend, it smarted to let someone else carry the burden, but Krouse knew Luke was stronger, more athletic.  Going first meant he could help them up and ensure Noelle didn’t fall.

He was glad the snow had stopped, but there was a strong wind, and it was painfully cold.  They hadn’t brought jackets and gloves up with them, and getting clothes from the front closet would be nearly impossible.  They’d have to find shelter soon.  He perched on the building’s concrete exterior, waiting for the others.

He stared out at the city around him.  Snow had been stirred into clouds, and half a dozen buildings had obviously been knocked down, judging by the remaining wreckage.  Luke’s apartment building had toppled.  How did it not collapse in on our heads?

He turned his attention to his girlfriend, reached over, and squeezed her hand.  Noelle still hadn’t woken up.

Cody came up with Jess riding piggyback, her wheelchair abandoned.  Oliver and Marissa were the last to ascend.

“That music,” Marissa complained.  “Driving me crazy.”

“Music?”

“Like an opera singer singing a high note and never stopping for breath.  Only it changes a little if I pay attention to it.”

The scream.

“You hear it too?”  Krouse asked.  He pressed his hands to his ears to warm them.

“I thought it was a siren,” Oliver said.

“It’s not,” Krouse replied.  “It’s in our heads.  Try covering your ears.”

One by one, they did.

“What the hell?”  Luke asked.

But Krouse saw Jess’ face, the dawning look of horror.

“What is it?”

“I know what it is,” she said.  She started looking around, twisting around from her perch on Cody’s back to search the cityscape around them.

Another earthshaking crash and a flash of light drew their eyes to the same spot.

Three buildings floated in mid air, a distance away, the lower floors ragged where they had been separated from the ground.  One by one, they were hurled through the air like someone might lob a softball.  Even with the impact happening half a mile away, the ground shook enough to make them stumble.

There was a flash of golden light, and the mass of some irregular shape hurtled in their general direction.  The impact seemed mild for the size of the object that landed.  It was hard to make out through the cloud of snow and debris.

Then it unfolded, so to speak.  No, it isn’t that big.  But ‘big’ was a hard thing to define.

She seemed human, but fifteen or so feet tall, waif-thin, and unclothed.  Her hair whipped around her, nearly as long as she was tall and platinum-white.  The most shocking part of it all was the wings; she had so many, asymmetrical and illogical in their arrangement, each with pristine white feathers.  The three largest wings folded around her protectively, far too large in proportion to her body, even with her height.  Other wings of varying size fanned out from the joints of others, from the wing tips, and from her spine.  Some seemed to be positioned to give the illusion of modesty, angled around her chest and pelvis.

Each of her wings slowly unfurled as she stretched them out to their limits, and the snow and dust around her was gently pushed away.  The tips of the largest three wings raked through the building faces on either side of the four lane road, tearing through concrete and brick and bending the steel girders that supported the structures.

She rose off the ground and settled on her tiptoes, as if the massive wings were weightless or even buoyant.  There were parts of her that were see-through, Krouse realized.  Or not quite see through, but porous?  Hollow?  One hand, one leg, some of her hair, her shoulder, they were made up of feathers, the same alabaster white of her skin, intricately woven and sculpted into a shape that resembled body parts, with enough gaps that he could maybe see the empty darkness beneath.

She turned to one side, and Krouse could make out her face.  Her features were delicate with high cheekbones.  Her eyes were gray from corner to corner.  And cold.  There was nothing he could point to, no particular feature or quality that could help him explain why or how, but seeing her face made it harder to ascribe any kind of human quality to her.  If he’d been thinking she had a sense of modesty before, he didn’t now.

She raised one wing to shield herself as a beam of golden light speared through the clouds.  Feathers glowed orange-gold as they were blasted free, disintegrating into tiny sparks and motes of light as the remains drifted away.

The screaming in his head was louder, Krouse realized.   There was a new undercurrent to it, a thread that seemed to point to the sound taking shape, altering subtly in pitch.  What had been a single note was now shifting between two.

“It’s the smurf,” Cody breathed.

“The Simurgh,” Jess corrected, her voice small.  “What is she doing here?  Why is she here?”

“Shut up and run,” Krouse said.  “Run.”

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Monarch 16.10

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I pushed open the rusted metal door that marked the first real barrier to entry for Coil’s underground base.  It was unassuming, if secure, easy to ignore for anyone who happened to find their way underground.  It swung open without resistance; unlocked.

Every door was unlocked as I made my way through the series of checkpoints and gates.  There were no guards, and the cameras in the final room before I entered the base proper didn’t move to track my movements.

I pushed on the final door and let it swing open.  The base was empty.  Except empty wasn’t exactly the right word.  It had been cleared out.

The on-duty squads of soldiers were gone, as were the trucks, weapons, supplies and furniture.  The entire ground floor was desolate, with clean patches in the dust where furniture and crates had been.

In groups big enough for me to get full coverage of the area, my swarms took turns roving over my surroundings.  They couldn’t pass through closed doors, but they gave me a sense of my surroundings that my eyes couldn’t.  The results were almost the inverse of what I might expect from my eyesight.  There was no grasp of color, beyond what I could guess from the various clues I got from my other senses, but I had a keen sense of textures.  Where my eyes would have been capable of focusing on one thing at a time, my swarm-sense gave me the ability to pull together complete mental pictures from a thousand different points of focus.  I could ignore line of sight, sensing around objects, and even though my bugs’ senses translated poorly, the sum total of their awareness gave me a sense of the little things, in addition to the big picture.  I could sense where the air currents were traveling and the force with which they moved, the thickness of the dust in one area versus another, and where temperatures where higher, if even by a fraction.

None of this was new, exactly.  I’d always been aware of it to some small degree, but my core senses had always been there as regular, reliable fallback.  I’d never researched the subject, but reports seemed conflicting when it came to the topic of blindness making other senses sharper.  With only half of a day’s experience, I was beginning to think that maybe it didn’t improve my other senses, but seemed to free up the semi-conscious, semi-unconscious intake that my eyes typically used as my dominant sense.  The brainpower that was usually allocated to idle glances, comparing and contrasting, or just taking in ambient sights while my thoughts were preoccupied with other things?  It was freed up to be used for listening and my swarm-sense.

The Travelers were here, I noted.  I wasn’t startled to note their presence, but I was somewhat surprised.  They’d gathered in one room above the vault that Noelle was presumably being kept in.  They’d noticed the bugs and were venturing outside onto the walkway.  I met them halfway between their apartment and the entrance.

They were in civilian wear.  Trickster and Ballistic were in regular shirts, jeans and shoes, but Sundancer was wearing what I took to be pyjamas, her hair tied back in a bun.  Genesis was in her chair, a blanket on her lap, with Oliver standing just behind her.

“Skitter,” Trickster said, “You’re here alone?”

“My teammates are upstairs.  We wanted to have words with Coil, but he wasn’t free to talk until sundown, so we’ve been killing time and waiting around.  There’s still a bit of time, I sensed some movement down here, I needed to stretch my legs to keep my injuries from earlier today from stiffening up, so I decided to take a bit of a walk.”

“And they’re staying put?”  Ballistic asked.

“I can signal them in a heartbeat if I have to,” I responded.

“Just saying, but you know Coil’s dead, right?” Trickster asked.

“I saw it happen,” I answered him.  I chose my words carefully, “So I have a very good idea of how dead the man is.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you guys?” I asked.  “You’re keeping eyes on your teammate?  Noelle?”

“Noelle’s fine,” Trickster said, “You don’t need to concern yourself over her.”

There was just a touch of hostility here.  I turned my head to face the two girls, using my bugs to figure out the orientation so I could appear to be looking at Sundancer and Genesis.  The two of them were, I figured, the closest thing to allies that I had among the Travelers.  That wasn’t to say I was on good terms with them; Sundancer was especially wary of me and had been since I’d carved out Lung’s eyes, and Genesis had been a little weird in how she related to me when I’d delivered Trickster to her at the mayor’s house.  Part of that might have been a reflection or a response to my own paranoia, where I’d thought they were planning to kill me.  Either way, they hadn’t given me the impression of dislike or hostility to quite the same degree that I was seeing with Trickster and Ballistic right now.

This was where my current inability to see was hurting me.  I couldn’t read their expressions or body language, and even though my bugs were giving me a sense of how they were standing and where their head, arm and legs were positioned, I didn’t have that innate human ability to instantaneously assess and process those details.  Time and effort spent trying to figure it out was taken away from my ability to plan and follow the conversation.  It was sort of like talking to an answering machine; I was left trying to hold up my end of a conversation without the ability to assess what the person on the other end was making of it.  End result?  I was left there, silent, while none of the Travelers were volunteering anything.

“If you’re done checking up on us, or visiting, whatever you want to call it,” Trickster said, “You could go.  Your duty’s done, you’ve paid your respects to the other team while you’re in their territory.”

That’s something we’re supposed to do?

“I don’t want us to be enemies,” I said.

“We’re not,” Trickster replied, but his tone was far from friendly.  “We’re on the same side.”

“But?” I asked.  “It sounds like there’s more to that.”

“We’re not friends, Skitter.  Let’s not pretend like we are.  You’ve got your goals, we have ours.  You want to work together to tackle a situation like the Dragon thing?  Fine.  Great.  You want to backdoor Ballistic, going to the boss to recruit that cape he was trying to take down?  Hey, that’s fine too.”

Ballistic folded his arms.

Trickster went on, “Really.  We’re doing what we have to do in order to make this thing work.  I don’t love what you pulled, I’m not jumping for glee, but I get it.”

“So we’re business associates, but not friends.”

“Succinctly put.”

“There has to be more common ground there.  We can’t meet, share a box of donuts and talk about ways to mutually benefit our territories?”

“The fact that you have to ask that is a pretty good indication of how clueless you are about this. Let’s count the ways.  One, I don’t give a ratfuck about my territory or the people in it.  None of us do.”

I could feel Sundancer turning slightly away from him.  Was there disagreement there?

Two,” he continued, “We don’t plan to be here much longer anyways.  Either Coil fulfills his end of the bargain and we’re out of this hellhole, or he doesn’t and we take a hike anyways.  Take our chances elsewhere.”

I could remember how Ballistic had talked about his frustration with the group, the idea that he might stick with this gig regardless of what Trickster and the others did.  If I brought it up, would it refocus the discussion to the point that Trickster wasn’t opposing me, in an abstract sense, or would it derail it with the ensuing drama?

I kept my mouth shut, and I was sort of glad that I couldn’t see, or I might have given in to my impulse to glance at Ballistic and give something away.

Maybe it wasn’t worth worrying about.  I was wearing my full costume, including the additional pieces I’d accumulated over time; I wore the tattered cape, the ragged semi-dress over my leggings, and a heavy carpet of bugs clung to the black fabric and armor panels.  My goggles would hide my eyes.  Nobody would see any tell, if I could see, and I doubted they’d notice I was essentially blind.

Trickster took my silence for an excuse to go on, “Three, again, there’s no common ground to be found, and I’m not interested in hunting for it.  There’s two things I want in this world, and being part of Coil’s thing was my way to get those things.  You were useful only as far as you helped make Coil’s thing work, and that’s over now.  To put it bluntly, you don’t have anything to offer me.”

“I get the picture,” I told him, cutting him off before he could continue.  “Okay.  Friendship’s off the table.  Even a friendly business relationship would be pushing it.”

He nodded once.

I sighed a little.  “Okay.  That said, as one local warlord to another, I’d like to extend an invitation.  We’re going to talk to Coil, and I’m saying you’re free to come.”

“Coil’s dead,” Ballistic made the words a drawl.

That was getting old fast.  “Do we really have to maintain this charade?”

“Coil went to a lot of effort in putting together his grand plan.  He died in a blaze of glory and violence, just like he wanted.  Do you really want to spoil that by going on about how he’s still alive?”

“Like you said,” I retorted, “We’re on the same side.  If you didn’t know, you’d be more upset than you are now.  Why pretend he’s dead when he’s alive?  Especially when it’s getting in the way of the larger conversation about the man and my invitation to come hear what he has to say?”

Trickster leaned against a wall and fumbled in one pocket for a cigarette.  “You mean outside of the possibility that you’re wired and my saying the wrong thing could out him?  Whatever.  I don’t have anything to say to him that I haven’t already said.  Maybe you aren’t getting the point.  We went out of our way to help you once, rescuing Grue, and it nearly got us carved up by Bonesaw.”

Your plan, I thought.

He went on, “I don’t care about the Undersiders.  I don’t care if you get a hundred trillion dollars and wind up kings of the planet, and I don’t care if Coil kills you.  We’ve wrapped up our business with Coil, and that’s as far as my interest goes.”

“Alright,” I said, raising my hands, “Point taken.  Listen, I get that maybe we haven’t gotten along so fantastically, but I really do wish you guys luck with your circumstances, whatever they are.  I hope you get what you’ve been looking for.”

“Sure,” Trickster said.  He turned to leave, making his way to the doorway that led to the pseudo-apartment they stayed in when they weren’t in their individual headquarters.  He beckoned for his teammates to follow, and they did.

Only Genesis lagged behind, her hands on the wheels of her chair.  After Trickster had rounded the corner, she said, “He’s tense.  Too much comes down to what happens in the next forty-eight hours.”

“Believe me,” I replied, “I get that.”

“Then good luck with your thing,” she said.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again.”

How the hell am I supposed to take that?

I didn’t respond as she wheeled herself to the corridor.

Okay, I thought, learned what I needed to.

Whatever the terms between Coil and the Travelers were, he hadn’t seen fit to invite them to the meeting place.  I’d had to think for some time before making the offer to join us for the meeting.  I knew that whatever Coil had planned, inviting the Travelers wouldn’t hurt.

If Coil fully expected to cooperate, to give us the answers we needed and hand Dinah over, then it didn’t matter if the Travelers were there.  If he was expecting conflict and he had planned to invite them, then we only gained the benefit of knowing in advance that they’d be there.  Finally, if he’d expected trouble but he hadn’t invited them, there was probably a reason, and that reason would be something we could exploit in a pinch.

They hadn’t accepted my invitation anyways, and I hadn’t sensed anything sinister when Trickster had rejected the offer.  He’d been too self-centered.

Funny, as I thought on it, how easily he seemed to slip between talking about ‘I’ as in himself to talking about ‘we’, the group.  It was as if he assumed everyone in the Travelers was on the same page as him, and my discussions with Sundancer and Ballistic had suggested anything but.  Even Cherish’s taunts had pointed to some strife within the ranks.

The second major piece of data that I’d gleaned from my detour was that Dinah wasn’t here.  There were a handful of locked doors my bugs hadn’t been able to slip past, but the room Dinah had been in when we’d first visited was empty.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Dinah wasn’t still in Coil’s underground base, but I had a hard time believing that Coil would leave her there with no armed guards.  She was too valuable to risk losing her to one of his enemies or losing his bargaining chip he had in his dealings with me.

We’d agreed that if I could prove myself as a valuable asset, he’d accept my fealty in exchange for Dinah’s freedom.  I hadn’t earned him any money, not directly, but that had never really been his goal.  He had money, and he could get more by exercising his power in some high-risk, high-reward ventures.  I had gathered more followers under my wing than all of the others put together, with the possible exception of Tattletale.  I’d put life and limb at risk, partially for his benefit.  I’d proved myself as a leader, a soldier and a problem solver.  I’d put up with every challenge he’d set in my way: the false death threat he’d put on my head, convincing the mayor, dealing with Dragon and going up against the Nine.  Hell, I’d tended to my territory while my dad lay bleeding in the hospital.

I couldn’t say for sure whether Coil would actually follow through with his end of the deal.  In his shoes, ignoring what the right thing to do would be, if only because it was pretty fucking obvious he didn’t put much stock in right and wrong, I wasn’t sure I’d give Dinah up.  For a guy like Coil, who did things from behind the scenes, playing the long game and orchestrating events to get the best possible results, Dinah’s power was invaluable.

Trickster had used a chess metaphor, back when the thing with the Nine was just beginning.  Would I be considered a bishop?  Hell, even if I thought of myself as a queen, I wasn’t sure Coil would value having me on his side of the board over having Dinah.

Dinah let him rig the game.

I ventured outside and made my way to the flights of stairs for the building that was still in progress.  It had proceeded nicely in recent days, and the outside was partially complete.  The sun was setting, and my bugs could see and feel the warm light that streamed in through the openings in the outside, where tarps had come free.  The thick dust of concrete and shorn wood layered the area and formed clouds wherever the wind made its way inside.

I’d climbed the stairs to the meeting place only an hour ago, and I’d ventured all the way to the bottom to investigate Coil’s base.  That made this my third trip over the twenty flights of stairs, accessing the roof.  On my third trip, my aches and pains from being tossed around by Coil’s explosion were most definitely making themselves felt.

In a way, I didn’t mind.  I felt restless, and moving made me feel better.  Nervous wasn’t the right word.  Nervousness implied there was uncertainty, and I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Trepidation wasn’t right either.  I might have settled on ‘a sense of encroaching doom’ but that felt over the top.

Then again, this was someone’s life on the line.  Maybe our lives too.  Was it possible to be over the top when the stakes were this high?

The others had arranged themselves around the roof.  Bitch was in a half-sitting, half-lying down position, leaning back against Bentley’s side, Bastard sleeping on her lap.  Tattletale and Regent were having a discussion at the top of the stairwell, while Grue and Imp were at the edge of the building.  Imp sat with her legs dangling off the side of the building, while Grue showed more caution, standing a distance behind her.

“You should be careful,” I spoke up.  “If you’re standing too close to the building’s edge, you’re making yourself a prime target for a sniper.”

“You said these suits were bulletproof,” Imp said.  I noticed how she didn’t move.

“I said they might be.  But judging by the fact that mine let some non-metal shotgun pellets through, I don’t think they’ll stop a bullet.  Either way, I’d really rather not start experimenting tonight.”

Imp pulled herself to her feet and retreated from the edge of the building.  I could feel Grue’s shoulders drop slightly as he relaxed.

Grue and Tattletale drifted my way, while Regent, Imp and Bitch each sort of moved to the periphery of our huddle.  It was Grue who asked, “You think he’s going to take shots at us?”

“I feel exposed,” I said.  “If he opens fire on us, are we really in a position to take cover?  Or if he bombs out the first floor of the building?  Or calls in the teams of heroes he’s in charge of?  Could we really get down?”

“I’m not getting that vibe,” Tattletale said.

“But he’s figured out how to trick your power,” I pointed out.

“Any solutions?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve been working on one, but I’m not sure it’ll work.”

“Share?”

I extended one hand, and a wasp took flight, bearing a trio of spiders.  It was forced to turn and fly in circles to slow its forward movement to account for the speed at which the spiders were spooling out thread.  The ends of the thread were already wrapped around one of my fingers.

It took a minute before they reached the other formation that was doing the same thing.  I began reeling in the thread, until I’d raised a length of cord to the edge of the roof.

Bitch ventured over to see what was going on, and then spun around, “No.”

“My first night out in costume, I got stuck on top of a building.  I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.  We called Thomas Calvert, he agreed to meet us, but just in case he decides to level the building rather than have a conversation, I want us to have a way down.”

“A way down?” Grue asked.

“I’m pretty sure I got the lengths right.  I hope I got the lengths right, because I used up a lot of silk here.  Eight cords, we each hold one, or tie one around our waists, and then jump off the side of the building.  Swing out over the intersection.”

Awesome,” Imp said.

Pretty sure?” Grue asked.

“Pretty sure,” I admitted.  “I’ve tried to stagger it, so the silk stretches out over horizontal lines I set out between buildings, so we aren’t just dropping straight down to the street.  But it’s elastic, and I can’t account for how much stretch there’ll be in the material.  Or how much stretch won’t be there.”

“And if he’s got gunmen, too?  We’re left there dangling out over the middle of a street?”

“It’s one option,” I said.  “One.  We’ll have your darkness so they won’t necessarily have clear shots.”

“And you have your bugs,” Regent said.

“Our opponent here knows exactly what we can do.  He’s worked with us and observed us for weeks.  Excepting Imp and I, he’s worked with you guys for months.  Over a year.  So no, he’s not going to do something like underestimate the range of my bugs.  He’s going to have snipers that are just beyond my usual range and I won’t be able to fight back.”

“Your relay bugs?”  Regent suggested.

“Dying.  But yeah, I’ll bring them out.  I suppose a night like tonight warrants using up the last of their reserves.”

“And you can fly,” he said, pointing straight up, where Atlas was in the skyline, circling around a stationary Shatterbird.

“I can, but I’d almost rather use the cords and swing down to the street level.  If I’m flying and they get a lucky shot off, I’m pretty fucking screwed.  They hit me, Atlas won’t ease me to the ground.  They hit Atlas, nothing I can do to stop falling.  Besides, being on the ground means I have the utility Atlas brings to the table.  Being mounted on him means he and I are essentially one unit.”

“I think you’re overthinking this, dork,” Regent said.

“No,” Grue and I said together.  Grue didn’t say anything more, but I added, “We plan for every possibility and we’re wrong?  We don’t lose anything.  If we plan for a situation that does come up?  We’ll be glad we did it.”

“You’re going to drive yourself insane worrying about it,” he retorted.

“If she hasn’t already, I don’t think she will in the next ten minutes,” Tattletale said.  “You sense them on the ground, Skitter?”

I shook my head.  “My power’s radius is like a bubble, and the bottom end isn’t covering that much ground.  I should have been waiting at a spot lower in the building.”

“They’re on their way up.”

I could sense them as they reached the base of the building.  Thomas Calvert would be the man who led the way, and the men who followed him were outfitted in PRT gear.

It took time for them to ascend.  The building was only partially complete, with floors, some walls and the steel skeleton of beams with tarps stretching between them for the remainder, but no elevators.

Without discussing it, we arranged ourselves on the rooftop, preparing to meet them.  I was a little surprised that Grue and Tattletale positioned themselves so they were each just a little behind me, with Imp, Bitch and Regent behind them.  Bentley prowled at the perimeter of our group, three-quarters of the way to his typical ‘monstrous’ size and slowly growing.

Thomas Calvert was the first to cross the threshold.  Annoying that the first time I would ‘see’ Coil unmasked, I would be blind.  He waved one hand to brush away my bugs as they passed over him, but I managed to pick up the essential details.  Close cropped, coarse hair, trimmed eyebrows, thin lips and a cleft chin.  He wore the body portion of a PRT uniform with an insignia stitched onto his sleeve that I couldn’t make out with my swarmsense.

Most of the squads remained below, but he was joined by a handful of soldiers and three young men in plainclothes, one of whom looked like a bodybuilder.

“Yo, Frenchy,” Tattletale said.  “Sup?”

One of the uniforms nodded a slight response.  Was he backed up by a ‘PRT’ squad or two consisting of his hired mercenaries?

“Undersiders.  After your last interaction with Director Piggot, I assumed you would want to speak to me and try establishing ground rules?”

“We know it’s you, boss,” Regent said.

My bugs caught the slightest exhalation from Director Calvert’s nostrils, a minor expression of annoyance.  “The Travelers were a little more circumspect.”

“Circum-what?” Imp asked.  I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely wondering or if she was being intentionally obtuse.

“Tone it down, guys,” I said.  They’re the types to go after any weakness in authority figures.  They’ll nettle him until someone gets in trouble. “Director Calvert.  Would it be too much to ask for you to ask your squad to wait downstairs?”

There was an extended pause before he offered a slight nod to one side.  His squad turned to return downstairs, and I followed them as they took position by the base of the stairwell.

“I asked you to stay out of costume until further notice,” he spoke.

“With all due respect, Director,” I said.  Tattletale had coached me; I would stroke his ego by reinforcing his new position.  “I was injured as a bystander in Coil’s attack.  I wouldn’t have been hurt if I’d been costumed.  Until everything cools down, I think my team and I will play it safe.”

“I see.  I can respect that.  Nothing serious?”

“Serious?  Yes.  But it’s nothing life threatening and nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Thomas Calvert reached beneath the armored panel of his vest and withdrew a small remote.  He stared at it for several long seconds before putting it away.  That done, he clasped his hands behind his back.  It was a position that was very ‘Coil’.  It was obvious and direct enough that I suspected he was dropping his Director persona and admitting his true nature.  “My apologies.  I am not infallible.”

You let a dozen or more people die and left twice that many people injured in some way.  No, you’re not infallible.

I kept my mouth shut.

“I just checked for listening devices.  You aren’t recording this, which means I can answer any questions you have.”

“How much of that was planned?”  I asked.

“More than you might suspect.  Every person in that room who was not in the audience was accounted for.  Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo were selected and recruited well in advance.  Circus and Chariot were hired nearly a year and a half ago, their actions and development in the public eye carefully orchestrated.  Über and Leet were recent acquisitions.  I needed a heavy metal suit that could carry a package, and Trainwreck died at an inconvenient time.  Most reporters were selected and stationed well in advance, claiming the rear of the room where they would bear the brunt of the attack, so to speak.”

“They didn’t die?” I asked.

“As with Circus, Über and Leet,” Director Calvert nodded in the direction of the three individuals in civilian clothes.

“Wait, Circus is a guy?” Regent asked.

“Depends on your definition of guy,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re talking biological or what Circus identifies as.  Not that I have it pinned down; I can’t tell if you’re a guy posing as a girl when in costume or a girl who poses as a guy when in plainclothes.”

Circus spat, directing a loogie to shoot a horsefly out of the air.  “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”

“The three of them and most of the reporters were removed from the premises in time,” Coil said.  “The reporters, as I said, were plants.  I needed news reporters in place who would be sure to catch the details I wanted them to catch.  Some editing of the footage just prior to it being sent to the news stations served to smooth rough edges and highlight key points.”

“Making Piggot look worse, for example,” Tattletale said.

“Among other things.  Appearances are one of the most important things, here.  With Chariot’s help, we created a rough emulation of Trickster’s power.  The reporters were swapped out, a sufficient amount of raw biological matter was swapped in.”

Human matter?” I asked.

“That is what the paperwork will say, which is the most important aspect,” Director Calvert answered me.  “Rest assured, no serious harm was done.  Circus’ abilities allowed us to place the knives in nonlethal areas.  Better that Director Piggot looks as ineffectual as possible than simply perish.  The same applies to the mayor.  Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election, supporting Mrs. Padillo, despite his strong showing.  It will help shake the notion that things were staged.”

“But they were.  Every part of it,” Tattletale said.

“Every part of it.”

“The bomb?” I asked.

“The sabotaged power supply was real, but Über’s metal suit housed a teleportation apparatus to detect when it was removed from the premises, so a replica could be brought into the lobby.  The initial detonation was little more than light and a shockwave primed to make the most of the Manton effect, leaving my agents with little more than bruises and scratches.  They were teleported out, as I already said, just before the final, true detonation.  We estimated how fast the evacuation would proceed and calculated a blast radius that would leave the building standing and the crowd largely untouched.”

I could remember Tattletale mentioning how there were less killed or injured than I might have thought.  Had she guessed this much?

“Every action I’ve carried out has been carefully weighed, with attention given to the aftermath.  Circus, Über and Leet will be leaving Brockton Bay with a sizable reward for their efforts.  I don’t expect they will need to return to a life of crime, but I believe they will use a different identity and modus operandi if they do?”

He’d made it a question, and Über answered, “Yes, sir.”  I could feel Leet and Circus nodding.

“Good,” Director Calvert spoke.  To us, he said, “It just isn’t worth killing good help.  Should my ultimate plans here fall through, it’s better to have individuals like them on reserve.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“Your part in Brockton Bay isn’t entirely over, yet.  I established you here for a reason.  As Director, I will lead a slow but successful campaign against Brockton Bay’s villains.  The Travelers will be the first.  I expect a strike squad of my PRT agents will catch them off guard, but they will ultimately escape capture.”

“How unfortunate,” Tattletale said.

“Indeed,” Director Calvert replied.  “Doubly unfortunate if other villains should establish a presence in Brockton Bay’s south end, forming a loose alliance with the Undersiders, who maintain a firm hold on the flourishing North end.  Oh, rest assured, you Undersiders will lose your hold on this city over the course of months, but it won’t be quite as bad as it sounds.”

“We’ll avoid being captured, probably,” Tattletale said, “Or we’ll get captured and break out before there’s an issue.  And then we don’t come back to Brockton Bay.  We wind up establishing presences in nearby cities.  One or two Undersiders with a firm grip on a given city with other villains under us, establishing a new kind of villainy, and you, Director, as the valiant hero on the opposing side.  Your power grows in a way the public is very much aware of, and, well, we’re not losing quite so much as it seems, so your power grows in other ways too.”

Thomas Calvert spread his hands, “It seems you have a firm grasp on what’s going on.  I won’t waste our time reiterating.  Any questions?”

“Why become PRT director?” Grue asked.  “Why not mayor?”

“All eyes will be on the mayor after the recent fiasco.  Mr. Grove will serve as a red herring, drawing all suspicious eyes to him before he defers the election to Mrs. Padillo.  Besides, who would you rather rule?  A dozen capes or fifty thousand unpowered civilians?”

“I see,” Grue said.

“The fear this event creates among the public will make requisitioning additional capes and resources that much easier.  The remnants of Coil’s personal army will remain in the city, a sub-gang of highly trained individuals who will serve as an excuse for why the forces of the Undersiders do not grow beyond a certain point.”

“You said the Travelers will be the first to be ousted,” I said.  “Does that mean you’ve found a solution to their problem?”

“No.  But we have several last resort answers, and those will be exhausted soon.”

With my bugs, I noted Tattletale making a hand gesture.  Left index finger and middle finger pressed together, she tapped her thumb against the tips of the other two fingers.

“Any other questions?” he asked.

“Dinah,” I said.

“Mr. Grove’s concession to Mrs. Padillo will involve an offer.  He will push for his constituents to support Mrs. Padillo if she accepts his terms.  Among these will be a restoration project for the North end, employment stimulation for the laborers and a restoration of the ferry service.  In exchange for your continued cooperation, I can give you executive powers in naming the measures you’d like to see pass.  I am well aware of what I agreed to, but I would offer this as a compromise in exchange for a one year delay on that term of our contract.”

“No,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to let her go.”

“Then I will.  I’m disappointed, but I won’t have it said that I’m not a man of my word.”

My heart was pounding.  Just like that?

Director Calvert clasped his hands in front of him, “How would you have us resolve this?  I can return her to her family, or pass her on to your custody.”

I didn’t think this far ahead.  “Her family, then.”

“Very well.  With your permission, we’ll release her to her parents, with some covert surveillance to ensure she does not reveal any details of my greater mission.”

“Okay.”

“My officer will take you to her.”

I hesitated.

“Your teammates can join you, if you don’t feel secure.”

Grue placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you, Director,” I said.  “I don’t mean to impugn your sense of honor, but I didn’t expect this.”

“I have a healthy respect for paranoia, Skitter.  Go.  Tattletale, could I borrow a few minutes of your time?  The Travelers grow anxious, and you can offer some more answers about Noelle’s situation.”

Tattletale turned our way, “Your call, guys.”

“Take Regent and Shatterbird with you,” Grue said.

“You sure?”

“If he respects paranoia, he’ll respect the fact that I’m as worried for your well-being as I am for Skitter’s.”

“Aw,” Tattletale gave Grue a pat on the cheek, “You’re not a very good liar.  I appreciate the sentiment, though.”

I felt entirely out of my element.  For weeks, months, I’d been bracing myself to hear Coil say no.  To hear him say ‘I promised I’d consider it’ or ‘I promised to release her when my plan reached its conclusion, and that won’t happen for another year.’  I didn’t know what to do with my hands.  If I’d had pockets, I’d have jammed them in there, but I didn’t.  My belt didn’t really suit itself for me hooking my thumbs in there.  I didn’t even trust myself to speak, with the possibility that I could say something to ruin this.

No, it was better to be on my guard.  I swept the area for threats, with bugs on every set of gloved hands and every weapon.

But the PRT uniforms climbed into their vans and the doors slammed shut.

Director Calvert stayed at the gates that marked the construction site from the roads beyond, Tattletale and Regent beside him.

“In the truck,” the remaining PRT officer told us.

“If it’s alright,” I said, “We’ll ride.”

He looked to Coil, who nodded.

I climbed onto Atlas, and Grue settled behind Bitch on Bentley.

It was a fifteen minute flight, following the truck, and I was on edge for every second.

We stopped outside of a brick building, and the driver of the truck stepped out.  I swept the area with my bugs, then swept it again.  The interior featured modest living accommodations, a squad of armed soldiers, a man who wasn’t armed and a little girl.

I set Atlas down and waited outside, bugs poised to attack.  The door opened, and the soldiers stepped out, parting to let Dinah go free.

The little girl stepped out, hesitant, then stopped.  Nothing gave me any indication that she was unhealthy or hurt, but she wasn’t lively either.  She was dressed in a skirt, sweater and uggs, her hair thick with chemical smells that told me it had been recently washed.

“Want to go home?” I asked.  I reached out.

Her hand found mine, and I clutched it tight.

Couldn’t leave on Atlas.  I turned, and she stepped to follow.

Through my bugs, I could feel the thrum of the truck as it started up, I could feel the mild heat and see the flare of light as the highbeams shifted on.  If I could see, they would have been blinding.

I tried to squeeze Dinah’s hand, to reassure her, and found myself clenching an empty fist.

My bugs weren’t where they were supposed to be.  I was momentarily disoriented as I tried to map my surroundings.  When I felt hardwood beneath my feet, I scattered the bugs from beneath my costume.  Containment foam, all around me.  I’d been teleported.

And Calvert.  Calvert and a squad of his people.

“You bastard,” I said.

There was no response.  I could feel how his arm was outstretched, sense the general shape of the weapon in his hand.  The others had weapons too.  I could attack, but it would only make them open fire.

“No monologue?” I asked, “You’re not going to explain how you did it?  How you’re going to deal with my teammates or explain what happened to me?”

He answered with a pull of the trigger.

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Colony 15.4

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Sundancer had once described her life in costume as intense, violent and lonely.  I’d had a hard time understanding the last point.  That had been about the same time that I had been riding the high of having friends for the first time, after a couple of years spent in almost total solitude.

Maybe, if the subject had come up again in recent weeks, I might have understood, nodding my head in sympathy.

Powers raised us above the common people.  It was maybe arrogant to think that way, to say I was better than the likes of Sierra, Charlotte or my father, but I sort of was.  I had all the potential they did and then more.

Even if I looked at how powers elevated us, though, I had to admit we weren’t raised to the same level.  We weren’t all raised up together.  If anything, the powers drove us apart: our trigger events, our reasons for wanting to use our powers, the agendas and missions we took upon ourselves, and even how those powers made us think and operate in different ways… they put barriers between ourselves and others.  I just had to think of Panacea or Bitch, and I had some damn good examples of that.

I couldn’t think of two capes who were in a committed relationship where there wasn’t some degree of fucked-up-ness.  Night and Fog were, if I’d understood Tattletale right, essentially functional sociopaths.  They’d acted out the role of a married couple with none of the affection or fondness.  Victor and Othala were screwed up in a different way, burdened by a shared event in their past.  Brandish and Flashbang?  If their kids were any indication… yeah.  Fucked up.

It was no small wonder we were all so fucked up.  It was the human condition, to need a supporting hand now and again, and yet we could barely help ourselves, let alone each other.

Worse, if by some small miracle two capes managed to find comfort and support in each other, there was no guarantee that those other two points that Sundancer had raised wouldn’t ruin things.  The intensity of our lifestyle and the sheer violence.  Lady Photon had lost her husband in the Leviathan fight.  Glory Girl had, if the magazines and papers were any indication, maintained an on-and-off relationship with Gallant.  He’d died too.

So this?  Lying here beside Brian?  It was sort of bittersweet, with maybe a 60-40 split on the sweet vs. the bitter.

I couldn’t see Brian’s face without raising my head, and I didn’t want to do that and risk waking him.  I’d left my glasses on the table with the knife and gun, so I couldn’t see that well anyways.  I settled for studying the fabric of his sleeveless shirt, the nubs of lint, the weave of the textile, and how it shifted with the slow, deep and rhythmic breaths he was taking.  I could smell his sweat, with the faint traces of his deodorant beneath.  It was funny, because when we’d settled in, I hadn’t been able to smell anything.

I felt warm in the core of my chest.  That wasn’t just the morning light streaming in through the windows.

Not happy, exactly.  I didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy, not with the responsibilities I wasn’t attending to right now, not with the mistakes I’d made and the people I’d failed.

But I could convince myself that this was something I should be doing.  It was one of the tasks that I had to tend to, no matter how the coming days and weeks unfolded, and we’d settled on making those tasks a priority.  We had to support Grue if we wanted him around to help us when everything started going down.

I wouldn’t rest any hopes on this, not with the way every other parahuman relationship seemed to go.  I’d take these individual moments for what they were.

All of which amounted to a pile of excuses and rationalizations I was layering on top of one another, trying to convince myself this wouldn’t end disastrously, that I wasn’t being irresponsible or that I wasn’t going to regret this on a hundred different levels.  It was enough that I could feel at peace, here.

Mostly at peace.  I had to pee, and yet I didn’t want to move and disturb him.

Nothing was easy, it seemed.

My body won out over my willpower, and I decided to extricate myself.  I didn’t even try to get to my feet, instead easing myself down to the ground as I unwrapped myself from Brian as slowly as I could.

Once I’d disentangled myself from Brian and the couch, I grabbed my glasses, knife, cellphone and gun and rushed to the washroom.

The cell phone rang while I was on the toilet.  Tattletale.  For Brian’s sake and my own sense of decency, I refused the call and texted her instead:

What’s up?

She replied soon after:

R is done.  Bird in the pen 4 now.  C wants a meeting neways.  Get G I and come 4 11am?

So it was time to see if Brian could glean anything from Victor’s power.  I responded:

G sleeping.  Don’t want to wake him.

I could guess her reply before it appeared:

hate to break u 2 lovebirds up but we r tight on time and C is impatient

I texted her an a-ok before hanging up and putting the phone away.

The kitchen had been cleaned up, but my bugs hadn’t alerted me to anyone coming in.  Had Aisha returned and used her power to stay quiet?

I decided to assume she had and began preparing breakfast for three people.

If I had to rouse Brian, I’d do it with the smells of bacon, coffee and toast.  It was as inoffensive a method as I could think of.

Aisha woke up before Brian did, venturing downstairs in a long t-shirt.

“Thanks for cleaning up,” I said, quiet.  I could remember her reaction the last time I’d been talking to Brian, and added, “And for not getting upset.”

“I can’t help him, don’t know how.  So I’m putting it in your hands.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me.  If you screw this up, I can and will make your life a living hell.”

I frowned.  “Honestly?  That’s not very fair.  I think I probably will screw up along the way.  This isn’t going to be smooth sailing, whatever happens.  So maybe it’d be better if you just trust that I’m going into this with the best intentions for him.”

She plucked a piece of bacon from a plate and popped it into her mouth.  “Maybe.  But no. Don’t fuck this up.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’ve had a lot of practice.  It’s the little things, convincing someone they’re going crazy, nothing they put down is where they left it.  Things go missing.  Furniture gets moved.  Then it gets more serious, they find the stash of drugs they were supposed to barter for stuff is missing-”

“I don’t have any drugs,” I told her.

“Talking hy-po-theticals.  I get them in trouble with people they know.  Then they have little injures they can’t remember getting.  Splinters under their fingernails, papercuts between their fingers or at the corners of their mouths, little cuts on the back of their hands.  That’s usually when they freak out.  They run, go somewhere else, and it stops, just a little while.  Until it comes again, twice as bad as before.  They snap.  Then I leave them a message telling them that it all stops when they leave the city.  Put it on their walls in blood or put it on their bathroom mirror in soap so it shows up when the room gets all steamy.  They’re glad.  They’re happy to have a way out.  Except I wouldn’t leave you that note.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Brian asked, from behind her.  “And where are you getting that blood?”

Aisha wheeled around, not appearing even half as guilty as she should have.

“I asked Coil’s lieutenant for some.  He asked me how many gallons I wanted.  How weird is that?  I mean, seriously, who needs gallons of blood?  Or maybe I could use it.  Paint someone’s house, see if I can’t freak them out hardcore,” Aisha smiled wickedly.

“Ignore that question.  What were you saying to Taylor, about not giving her a note?”

“It’s fine,” I told him.  “She’s being protective of her big brother.”

Aisha plastered a fake smile on her face.

“I didn’t know you cared,” Brian told Aisha, with a touch of sarcasm.  “I’m dropping this only because Taylor’s sticking up for you.”

Aisha rolled her eyes and began serving herself.

It was nine-thirty.  Assuming it would take us half an hour to forty-five minutes to get to Coil’s place, that left us only about an hour to get ready.  We ate in awkward silence.  Aisha took the first turn in the shower, leaving Brian and me alone once again.

I didn’t know what to do with myself.  We had taken a step forward, but I didn’t exactly have any experience on this front.  What was I supposed to do?  What did I say?  I wanted to hug him, to hold his hand or raise the idea of spending time together later, but I didn’t know what was allowed, or what would be pushing boundaries or taking things too far.

He sat down on the couch, putting his feet up on the coffee table, and I grabbed a glass of orange juice before sitting down next to him.  Would he put his arm around me, or-

“This thing with Coil.  Do you have a plan?”

Opportunity missed.

I shook my head.  “More like I have a bunch of smaller plans.  Can’t commit to anything, in case things unfold in an unexpected way.”

“Okay.  Let’s talk about them.  Plan A?”

“I whip my territory into shape, Coil decides that it’s more valuable to keep me in his service.  The idea is that he values my ability to keep an area stable more than he values having Dinah.  He lets her go.”

“Not likely.”

I frowned.  “I almost gave up on it after Burnscar torched everything.  It isn’t that impossible.”

“Think about what it would mean in terms of security leaks.  If he let Dinah go home to her family, she wouldn’t be able to return to her normal life.  If Coil was dumb enough to let her go with no safeguards and without people to watch her, then the heroes would swoop in on her and use her to get him.”

I nodded, glum.

“And really, can you honestly say that your services are worth the cost of everything you’re taking from Coil in the way of resources, plus the cost of the agents he’d need watching Dinah at all hours?”

“So you think he’ll say no.”

“Tattletale thinks that Coil may be considering dropping you from the team once he has what he needs.”

I turned to look at Brian.  His forehead was creased in a frown.

“You think I’m expendable.”

“To Coil?  Possibly.”

I nodded.

“It’s something to keep in mind,” he said.

“Thing is, I don’t know how that really changes anything.  Should I stop helping the people in my territory?  I’m not going to.  It wouldn’t be fair to them, and it would tip Coil off.”

“I think it was a bad idea to tip him off by making the deal in the first place.  Now he knows you’ve got pretty strong morals.  On a level, anyways.”

I nodded.  On a level.

He went on, “I imagine it’s troublesome to have someone with those sorts of moral concerns that could throw his long-term plan off course.  He might be looking to replace you.”

“And with his power, that might make for a bit of a pinch.”

“His power?”

I paused.  “Tattletale clued me in.  He creates parallel realities.  Makes two different decisions, and he gets to see the outcome of each as they unfold.  Decides which he wants in the end.”

Brian frowned.  “And he’s been doing that with us?”

“Since before I joined the team.  Send us on a job in one reality, keep us back in another.  If we succeed, great.  If we fail… well, nothing lost.  He deletes the reality where he sent us out.”

He rubbed his chin.  I noticed he had stubble.  “So he gets two tries at everything.  Including dealing with any of us who cause him any trouble.”

I nodded.  “Which is why we need to play along for as long as possible.”

“Fair.  What’s your plan B?”

“Plan B… well, it’s not so much a plan as a fallback.  If I get found out before we make any headway, it means fighting Coil and his underlings.”

“The Travelers and Circus included.”

“Tattletale and I have talked about how we might approach that.  The problem is that Coil would be backing them up.  Normally I’d suggest we go on the offensive, so they don’t have time to go after our weaknesses, but with Coil at work, we have to assume that it’s all the more likely that the Travelers would get that one lucky hit off, or that they’d pick the plan of attack that would work out for them.”

“And they’re powerful enough that they’d really only need to get lucky once,” Brian said.  I saw his expression darken.  He was staring off into space.

“Sorry,” I said.  Impulsively, I leaned closer, so my arm and shoulder pressed against his arm.

“Hm?”

“If you want to talk about something else-”

“I want to make sure we come out of this alive.”

“But it’s stressing you out.”

“I’ll manage,” he answered, putting one arm around my shoulders and hugging me close.

But he didn’t raise the subject again.  Aisha got out of the shower, he took the next turn, ostensibly to clean up after her.  I took the brief period of quiet to get my stuff in order.  I’d worn my costume under my clothes, the top and dress portion  bound around my waist, beneath the sweatshirt.

Once I was free to use the shower, I pulled off the costume and hung it up.  The steam would help with any wrinkles for the parts that weren’t skintight.

I had to admit to being a little disappointed with the way the morning was unfolding.  Part of that was with myself, not knowing how to act, but part of it was with the lack of romance.  RationallyI knew that the movies, TV, books and all that, they didn’t paint a realistic picture.  I knew that we wouldn’t instantaneously click, that everything would be fixed.

But at the core of it all, I wasn’t a hundred percent rational.

Had to take what I could get.  Last night, cuddling?  It had been nice.  Really nice.

All in all, we were ready to move out well ahead of time.

I wracked my brain, trying to think of things to say.  Everything social or romantic seemed forced or awkward, especially with Imp there.  Everything related to our costumed selves seemed too delicate, fraught with reminders for Brian.

Each time I entered Coil’s headquarters, it seemed like it had transformed.  On our first visit it had been a bare bones setup with piles upon piles of crates, and soldiers congregating wherever there was room.  Our last visit had seen some organization.  Now it had finally taken form.

The interior was divided into two levels.  The lower level sported a cafeteria, a bar, a small computer lab and bunk beds for the soldiers on standby.  Doorways leading to what I suspected were washrooms.  I knew that Coil had squads positioned across the city by now, in quarters not unlike the lairs he had assigned us, if a little more austere.  Anyone who stayed here had the bare necessities.

There was an area with more of a focus on the actual ‘war’ part of soldiering, with men at the ready to hand out the guns and ammunition that were tidily arranged on racks and shelves, a massive laundry room that appeared to be devoted to washing and preparing the uniforms and two more stations for heavier gear and more esoteric stuff like walkie-talkies and explosives.

The upper level was pretty plain, with a metal walkway bridging the gaps to the doorways that were recessed in the concrete walls.  Still, things had been added, including whiteboards with shift schedules and maps very similar to the one I’d seen in Tattletale’s base of operations.

I glanced at one map; our territory had expanded somewhat.  Or maybe it was better to say that the pockets of enemy forces that had lurked at the edges of our territory were collapsing.

Cranston, the blond woman who served as one of Coil’s liasons to us, who was my contact when I needed something, was standing outside the door to the conference room.

“Skitter.  How are you?”

“I’m fine, Ms. Cranston.”

“You’re a bit early.  Can I offer you anything while you wait for Coil to arrive?”

I shook my head.

“Grue?  Imp?”

They refused as well.

“It’ll only be a few minutes.”

Grue and Imp stepped away to talk to the fat, short man who I took to be their liason.  I stepped over to the railing and watched the scene below.

A group far to my left caught my eye.  I ventured closer.

Trickster, Sundancer, Genesis and Ballistic were gathered around Tattletale, joined by Coil and a blond boy with striking good looks.  I couldn’t really get a good look at it from my vantage point, but the wall jutted out beneath the walkway, and there was a heavy vault door set into the concrete, similar to the ones I’d seen at the shelters.

Noelle.

Tattletale was shaking her head as she talked.  She gestured toward the door.

I could see the Travelers respond to that.  Trickster folding his arms, Sundancer turning away slightly.  Genesis, in her wheelchair, hung her head just a bit, her mop of hair blocking the view.

They weren’t hearing what they wanted to hear.

Tattletale touched the wall, some panel or button system, said something, and then turned away, walking towards the staircase.  The Travelers and Coil followed behind.

“Everything okay?” I asked Tattletale, as she joined me.

“Oh, not really,” she gave me a tight smile.

“Fill me in later?”

“Can’t.  Sworn to secrecy.”

“Uh huh.  You know, for someone who calls herself Tattletale, you’re way too fond of keeping secrets.”

“Believe me, some secrets aren’t so fun to keep.”

I frowned.  What was going on there?

I could only trust that she’d inform us when we weren’t in earshot of Coil and the Travelers.

Bitch and Regent were waiting outside the conference room as we approached.  I gave Bitch a small nod of acknowledgement, and she returned it.  All together, we got seated; Travelers on one side of the table, Undersiders on the other, Coil at the head.

“I understand that things have been hectic since the Nine departed the city.  Communications are difficult to establish, there’s still lasting damage from the Endbringer attack, and everyone has their individual concerns.  Before our focus fell on the Nine and eliminating Jack Slash, I told you to establish your territories and do what you could to effect some sort of control.  As Tattletale may not have all of the necessary information to draw the right conclusions, I’d like each of you to inform us on your progress.”

He gestured to Trickster.

“Putting me on the spot, huh?”  Trickster asked.  “Dunno.  Nobody’s doing business in my neighborhood, and there aren’t any crooks there that the public knows about, but Purity and her people are still hanging around, and I’m waiting on my teammates to wrap up their stuff so they can lend me a hand.”

“Infrastructure, recruitment?” Coil prompted.

“I’ve made a few small steps forward for each of those things.  I offered some of the low-level thugs the option of moving out of the city or serving under me.  Got a half-and-half split of each, more or less.  Enough people to deal product, if you want, or to scare some people.”

“Good.  Sundancer?”

Sundancer had the posture of someone who’d desperately hoped to avoid being called on in class.  “I don’t know.  I’ve been working with the maps Tattletale provided me, but I’m not good at this.  I burn them out of whatever place they’re holed up in, they run, then half the time it’s like they settle somewhere else that’s nearby.”

“You have to scare them more,” Trickster said.

“I burn their houses down.  I don’t know why that’s not scary enough.”

“You’re too soft about it, being too careful to let them know what you’re doing and when, because you don’t want to hurt them and they can tell.”

Coil cleared his throat.  “How far along?”

Sundancer didn’t look happy.  “I dunno.  I’ve maybe cleared out one in four of the local groups?”

“Genesis?” Coil asked.

“Mostly clear,” Genesis replied, leaning forward and putting her elbows on the table, “Not sure how to get anything going in the way of operations.  It’s not exactly heavily populated territory.”

“You’re keeping Noelle company tonight, yes?”

Genesis nodded.

“Then we’ll discuss it then.”

“Okay.”

“And Ballistic?”

“Further along than him,” Ballistic jerked a thumb toward Trickster.  “Nobody doing business in my area, only two capes hanging around.  Got that girl from Dolltown who’s pretty insistent on holding onto her neighborhood, even if pretty much everyone that lived there is dead, now.  It’s the only spot that I haven’t taken over.”

“I see.  And the second cape?”

“There’s a kid from the old Merchants group.  Has powers.  Going to try to scare off the Doll girl and recruit the Merchant kid.”

“You might start with remembering their names,” Genesis pointed out.

“I’m not a cape geek like you.”

“You’re a cape.”

“Parian and Scrub?” I spoke up, hoping to keep them from going off on a tangent.

“Sure.  Sounds right,” Ballistic conceded.

“If you’re dealing with Parian, can I come along?”

“Actually,” Coil said, “I had a request to make of you, Skitter.”

I turned my attention to him.

“After,” he told me.  “Let me get to the main topic of this meeting before I address it.  For now, I’d like to hear how the Undersiders are coming along.”

“Been busy helping everyone else out,” Tattletale admitted.  “Like Trickster, I guess, I’m waiting for others to finish what they’re doing.  I’m pretty solid for business, though.  Bringing in more cash than I’m spending.”

“What’s the business?”  Trickster asked.

“The big one is reclaiming items and homes.  I offer goodies to any people from the shelter willing to band together and scare them off, anything too difficult, I use the mercenaries you provided.  Coil’s hooked me up with some banking services so we can actually make the transactions.  People don’t have a lot of use for money with the way things are right now, and they do have stuff that they value.  Figure a few hundred to a thousand dollars per job, three or four jobs a day, and they’re sort of doing my work for us, dealing with the gang members.”

“With the idea that your teammates will claim the areas at a later date,” Coil said, his voice firm.

“Right.”

“Grue and Imp?”

I saw Grue hesitate.

“Seventy-five percent clear,” Imp said.  “The Chosen and leftover Merchants mainly moved into our territory and Regent’s.  Maybe we’re not a hundred percent done, but when we scare people off, they stay gone.”

“Good.  Can you drive out the remaining threats in the next two days?”

“Got this far in three, don’t see why not.”

“Excellent.  Regent?”

“About the same.  Nobody wants to cross Shatterbird, but lots of people keep popping up, moving in because they’re oblivious that she’s there.  With no radio or TV, they’re clueless.”

“Make it more obvious, then.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch?”

“Nobody left in my territory.”

“No threats?”

“Nobody.”

Coil sighed, “I did tell you that you could run your territory as you wished.  Still, that’s not ideal.  Would you object to a rearrangement of territory?  I would grant you more overall area to control, but it would be limited to the outskirts of the city.”

“So long as it’s mine.”

“Good.  And Skitter?”

I shrugged.  “No threats, nobody’s daring to pop their heads in.”

“Then consider working on rooting out the individuals too afraid to show themselves, before they cause a problem.”

“They’re dealt with,” I said.

“Explain?”

“I’m doing two sweeps through my territory every day.  Only one yesterday, but we were busy dealing with the Chosen.  I’m checking every building for trouble.  If I find contraband, drugs or weapons, I confront the individuals in question.  Past two days, I haven’t had to confront anyone.”

“The only people with weapons are your people, then?”

I nodded.  “I’ve got sixty people working under me, and maybe a hundred more who are working for me in an indirect way, joining the community that’s started on the cleanup projects.  Filling, moving and placing sandbags to control and reroute the flooding, clearing the area Burnscar burned down, and setting up accommodations.”

“Impressive,” Coil said.

I nodded.  “I feel like I’m cheating, though.  My power’s suited to this.”

“It remains impressive.  Let me explain just why I find this of interest, Undersiders, Travelers.  The mayoral elections are in one week.  Before this occurs, I would like to have this city firmly in my control.  It will shift the tone and the aim of the election, which would be to my advantage.  Our advantage.”

“So you’re saying we have less than a week to wrap stuff up in our territory,” Trickster said.

“Yes.  I also have some other issues I would like you to address.  Skitter, Genesis, I trust you’re able to step away from your territories to give me a hand?”

Tattletale leaned forward over the table, looking at me.  I glanced at her, then turned to Coil, “Yes.”

“Sure,” Genesis said.

“And Trickster, if you’re idle while you wait for your teammates to come assist with Purity’s group, I’m sure you can lend your assistance for one night?”

Trickster nodded.

“The mayor and several members of the city council will be traveling to Washington to discuss the state of Brockton Bay and the possibility of condemning the city.  Skitter, Imp, Genesis, I would like you to visit him and ensure he argues towards our ends.  Brockton Bay will stand, and it will recover.”

I nodded slowly.  “Sure.  I think I can do that and still help Ballistic with Parian.”

“I haven’t asked for your help,” Ballistic said.

“Coil’s call,” I responded.

“If Skitter feels she can spare the time, I would be glad to have the extra assurance the job will get done.”

Ballistic folded his arms.  Didn’t look happy at that.

“That’s the last point of discussion.  I will provide anything you need to see your tasks to completion.  If there’s no questions, that will be all.”

After a brief pause to check that nobody wanted to speak, we all stood from our seats.  The Travelers headed out the door and turned a right to go back to where Noelle was sealed up.  Tattletale led our group to the cells where Shatterbird and Victor were.

While we waited for Regent to go and bring Victfor out of his cell, Tattletale stepped close, so she was right next to Grue and me.  She murmured,  “One piece of good news, two pieces of bad news and one spot of catastrophic news.  The good news is that Coil is impressed with you, Skitter.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s what we were hoping for, right?”

“But something tells me we’ve got a major snag.  I’d say odds are pretty fucking good that he’s on to us.”

I felt my heart drop.

“How sure are you?” I asked.

“Not positive, but pretty damn sure.  And I’d say there’s a fifty-fifty chance one of ours informed him of our aims.”

“A member of the Undersiders?” Grue asked.

“That, or he’s got our places bugged.  But I didn’t get the sense that anyone who built the place or brought our stuff in knew about any electronic bugging.  Like I said, fifty-fifty chance.”

I nodded.  I glanced around, looking at Bitch, Imp, and the door Regent had disappeared through.

“Fuck,” Tattletale swore under her breath.  “I was trying to signal you to say no to Coil’s request, but you weren’t looking at the right moments and I couldn’t exactly tip anyone off.  I’m positive he’s asking you to go on that errand with Genesis and Trickster because he’s planning on eliminating you.”

I felt Grue’s hand squeeze my shoulder.  He’d gone rigid, as if he was more spooked than I was.

“And of course, he knows I know.  So this is a loyalty test, I’m betting.  If you don’t go, I flunk.”

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