Speck 30.3

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I made my way into Brockton Bay, the Boardwalk.  Five more steps carried me into New Delhi.  Only a minute later, I was walking through Brockton Bay again, downtown this time.

Los Angeles.

Bucharest.

Brockton Bay again.

Madison, Wisconsin.

Cauldron’s Headquarters.

Ruins.  Places built up by man, painstaking, sometimes over centuries.  Layer upon layer of human experience, history, and art, represented in stone and wood and glass.  Every single building had been put together with the idea of meeting some specific goal, a specific individual’s tastes, filling a purpose as an institution, or being built to cater to society’s tastes as a whole.  Virtually every building had been a familiar place to someone, a home, a place of business.  Roads had once been a part of people’s daily routines, bridges a convenience that was appreciated, if rarely acknowledged.

Shattered, eroded, dashed aside.  Roads were now uneven slabs, rising and falling, while buildings had folded or leaned over, spilling out their innards.  Those same innards hinted at just how much value we’d put into this world we’d built around ourselves.

I realized I’d stopped walking, struck by what I was looking at.  There was a tightness in my chest, and I struggled to put my finger on what to call it.  It was a sweet feeling, but not a pleasant one.  Not nostalgia, but it called to a certain kind of familiarity.

Home, I thought.  This is home.  Not so much a place I could return to for a hug, to kick my shoes off and let down my guard, not a place where I would sleep and wake up feeling warm.  Yet it was a place which was central to me, a place I was rooted in, and vice versa.

I’d defined myself in places like these.  The height of my growth, my strongest moments, they’d taken place in open graveyards and the aftermath of tragedies.  Not my best moments, not the noblest, but the moments where I’d had the greatest impacts and had made the choices that shaped who I was.

I started walking again.  I wasn’t actually traveling to Brockton Bay, to Bucharest or Los Angeles.  I could have, but I wasn’t.  It was only that the ruins here were so easy to relate to those places, to this home.  The memories of the locations were bleeding into my awareness, making it feel almost real.

I wanted to tell myself it was the clairvoyant in my range, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to.  I wanted to say it was the distraction of having to devote a small share of my attention to ensuring that Doormaker kept opening portals when the clairvoyant recognized someone asking for one.

With a note of desperation, I told myself it was because I was still trying to keep tabs on my power, gauge my level of control, and manage my body.  If I couldn’t get a better grip on my own movements, maybe I could get control over my swarm.  Over the people I was controlling.

But I didn’t really believe it.  I was slipping.

My bugs spilled out over the ruins.  My range was shorter, but I could use the relay bugs I had on hand.

Slipping, the thought came back to me.

Losing my mind, losing grip on things.

The Faerie Queen had told me I needed to anchor myself.  Except I’d been doing that for a long time.  It was how I functioned.  Compartmentalizing, identifying a priority, devoting myself to it.  Surviving the bullying, the mission to turn in the Undersiders, the mission to save Dinah, to turn the city around, to save the world.  I’d had tunnel vision at the best of times, and I’d had both successes and failures.

I functioned best when I had a mission, something beyond the one singular goal before me.  Yes, stopping Scion was key, but-

I shook my head.  I’d stopped walking again.  Had to focus.

I’d use smaller anchors here, smaller things to tie myself down to reality, focusing on my surroundings.  If and when the time came, I would abandon them, cast them away in order of size and priority.  In a way, it would let me gauge how badly I was slipping.

An exercise of Doormaker’s power let me experiment with the portals.  They couldn’t move or drift, excepting the way they were anchored to the rotation of the planet as a whole.  Instead, I opened and closed new portals, timing it so the opening of one was a fraction of a second before the prior one closed.  I surrounded myself with them, a shifting, shuttering array of portals.

I was put in mind of the moment I donned my costume, of being Skitter the Warlord, with her half-cape, half-shawl.  There had been a kind of power to the gesture, to draping myself in the cloth and assuming the title and the role.

As I made my way through New York, I found myself altering the portals, reconfiguring them.  I’d drape myself in them like I did in a costume.

They formed a loose three-quarter circle around me, Doormaker and the clairvoyant, at first, a cylinder with an opening in front of me.  When I turned my head, they reconfigured, the portals in my way disappearing, replaced by others.

To streamline the portal creation, I layered them.  Two half-circles, overlapping.

And then, because it was the most compact way to fit the portals together, because I needed to make a signature, to make this mine and to make it me, I made them hexagons.  A honeycomb interlocking of small, one-foot-diameter doorways, opening up to random points throughout the city, extending my range further than even my bugs could manage.  Each one showed a different image when looked through, a wall, a section of overcast sky, a bit of pavement.  It didn’t stand out, serving more as a kind of camouflage.

As I experimented, finding the places to set the portals, my awareness of the city expanded in turn.

I sensed some of Teacher’s squads.  Groups of men and women, always with at least one person who was more fit than the rest, all dressed in white, or at least in white shirts with jeans.  Most had backpacks, and all had weapons.  They patrolled, scouting the area, talking amongst each other in low voices.

Always talking about business.

I found Teacher.  He had a project in the works, and his ‘students’ were busy scavenging.  A different sort of control than I had, with my bugs or the people in my sway.  More human, maybe.  A society, rather than an army of troops gathered in formations.

The vast majority were active, each with a job to do, a task.  Men carried metal and electronics and either broke down materials or shaped them.  Women, just a little weaker in terms of physical strength, carried things like wire and baskets of clothing they had looted from stores.  Children handled the finer work, etching designs into metal and stitching.

I could almost respect it.  Except his motives were clearly selfish.

“Better to be fast than perfect,” he was saying.  He paused to touch one of his subjects for a few seconds.  The girl stood there, eyes closed, while Teacher resumed talking, “Follow the blue prints, or use the hub stations to get a clear mental picture.”

There were nods from the group around him.

Hub stations.  Not everyone was active.  There were clusters of two or three individuals that were each together, but I was pretty sure they weren’t what he was referring to.  There were also some individuals that seemed to be operating as rally points for the others, arranged in a loose ring around their work in progress.  I watched one individual bring a car door to the rally point, touch the man in the center, and then make their way over to teacher.  He murmured, “Metal and fiberglass design.”

Teacher touched him for four seconds, and then the man with the door made his way to a table, dropping a backpack and collecting a small crowbar.  As he started working, another man at the table stretched, grabbed a backpack, then joined one of the scavenging groups.

It was like a barn raising, but they were working purely in steel and electronics. Individuals that were tired switched to a different job, and everyone worked tirelessly.

They were building a Dragon-craft from scratch.

Not only a Dragon-craft.

“Eight costumes,” Teacher said.  He approached a table, lifting one costume off the surface to investigate.  “Not so flashy.  We want to fly under the radar.  Make it substandard, if anything.  C-list material.”

There were nods all around.  Teacher walked over to another table, lined with tinker weaponry and other tools.  His students were loyal, but they weren’t puppets, like mine were.  Their movements were natural.  The overall system, though, wasn’t natural at all.

I was put in mind of Regent’s games.  There was the base of operations, the cluster of villagers managing the city, and there were the more independent squads of people, deployed to the world beyond the base camp, patrolling for enemies, ready at a moment’s notice to be gathered together in a massed attack.

No doubt they were organized by ability.  Teacher could grant thinker and tinker powers.  If I assumed at least one tinker per group, with the tinkers carrying some ranged weapon or defense, and if the athletic members of the roaming squads were the soldiers, gifted with some knowledge that would give them a small edge in a fight, there were still two or three members in a given group I couldn’t identify.

I wasn’t even finished the thought when one of them perked up, startled.  She shouted, “Scatter!”

Her group moved in different directions.

Trouble?

I was the trouble.  It’s a fucking precog.

I opened portals, catching her three teammates, one by one.

It took two tries to catch her.  She was a fast runner, and she saw where I was putting down my portal before I’d even started, turning a hundred and eighty degrees around and scrambling in the opposite direction.

They were eerily calm, all things considered, much like Doormaker and the clairvoyant.  It made things easier for me.  But I knew that ‘easy’ wouldn’t last.

Teacher achieved control over people by giving them parahuman abilities.  The organization was important, and everything was key.  I’d moved too fast, and now Teacher’s human systems were starting to kick into effect.

Men and women in an isolated cluster dropped to their knees.

“Amber district, team B-six,” one of the students in the group reported.  His voice was as clear as a bell in the near-silence of Teacher’s base of operations.  There were only the sounds of tools and the steady percussion of hammers striking metal, all in unison.

“What’s the problem?”  Teacher asked.

“Out of action.”

“Change focus.  All observation teams, identify our target,” Teacher said.

Heads in every second group around the base turned.  They looked my way, as if they could see the full five or six city blocks and see me standing in the middle of the road.

One crossed to another group, touching a young man.

“Weaver,” the young man said, in turn.

It’s like a computer.  Every person carries out a specific operation, and they’re gathered in clusters with people who can communicate those ideas to others in efficient ways.

“Tinker group H,” Teacher said.  “Defensive measures, modify them for micro-scale drones.  Forcefields, area attacks.  Group N, to me.  We’ll need more tinkers on this problem.  We’ll also need to this area.  Groups F and J, I’ll recalibrate, put you on more general anti-clairvoyance duty.  She’s- You’re looking in, aren’t you, Weaver?”

I reached out to place a portal in Teacher’s camp, right behind him.  I hit a barrier, a dead zone I couldn’t affect.

Some tinker device was blocking my clairvoyant, which was blocking Doormaker in turn.

My relay bugs didn’t work either.  They only worked on bugs.

I began laying down portals around the perimeter, instead, finding the exact point I could affect.  The portals right next to me were turned around, so none faced me directly.  It wouldn’t do if he had students open fire and shoot through the portal to hit me point blank.

“This is new,” Teacher said.  “Have I done something to earn your attention?  Crossed a line, somehow, maybe I inadvertently borrowed someone you care about?  I assure you, I’m very benign.  The vast majority of my students here volunteered their services.  I told them I could use them to help stop Scion and save the world, and they agreed.  A number of others took the deal with the oath that I could borrow them for a year, and I’d supply them powers with no strings attached for the extent of their lives, no mental bondage at all.”

I frowned, shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to ensure I didn’t lose touch with my body.  If I had to move, I wanted to be able to move fast.

One of the groups was close enough to the perimeter of Teacher’s base to fall in range of my portal.  I seized them, then took a second to analyze their capabilities.  Hyper-acute senses, enhanced aim, the ability to see through walls and a danger sense.

I thought of Tattletale, boasting to Coil in the moments before I’d pulled the trigger.

Not, I reminded myself, that I’m pulling any triggers here.

But I needed to disturb things, shake up Teacher’s elegantly balanced operation.

They looked at one another, and I gauged the equipment they held.  The one with enhanced aim was the ‘soldier’ of the group, armed with an ordinary gun and a bandolier of grenades.

I controlled his movements, directing him to grab a grenade from the bandolier.  He handed it over to the one with enhanced senses.

The one with the grenade raised his hand, hollering, leaning back, ready to throw-

My danger-detector reacted, and I had Doormaker create a portal, moving the grenade out of the line of fire.  A fat blob of crackling energy soared through the vacated space.

“You’re full of surprises today,” Teacher said.  “I’m going to assume this is actually you, Weaver, and that you’re not an Ingenue thrall or something similar.  I want you to know I’m not your enemy.  I was there for that whole business against the Elite, pitting Endbringers on them, I understand why you did it.  You have your mission, a noble task, and you see it as a universal task.  One everyone should inspire towards.  Peace and prosperity in your territory, because peace and prosperity are good things, am I right?  Please feel free to comment, strike up a conversation here.”

He gestured, and his crowd of students collectively backed away from the squad of students I’d taken over at one corner of his setup.  They faced down the others, their heads and shoulders visible above a section of wall that had fallen to the road hours ago.  I watched his group move, and tried Doormaker’s power again.  The borders were at the same points.

“No?  Okay.  You’ll have to trust me when I say I’m working towards the same end mission you are.  I want to stop Scion.  But I’m not a warrior, and I’d be offering more trouble than help if I was on the battlefield.  My students are fine when I’m giving the orders, but they’re prone to undecision at key junctions.  I know where I need to be, I’ll be there shortly, and I’ll be of far more use to our side then.”

If the group had moved and the borders were at the same point, then it wasn’t a person generating the effect.

I used my bugs and Doormaker’s power to get a sense of where the perimeter of this clairvoyance-blocking power was.  It was just a little irregularly shaped, but I could factor buildings and intervening obstacles into the area.  If there was a generated signal, it didn’t extend as far with solid objects in the way.

“For the books, I was inviting you to ask where it is I was planning on going.  You seem more keen on silence.”

My squad turned a gun on the very center point, opening fire with a trio of bullets.

A box, a tinker-made device, exploded in sparks, popping into the air and bouncing off of the pavement.

I tested the clairvoyant’s power.  It worked.

I placed portals with care.  Not to ensnare Teacher’s students, but to cut them off.  Portals between them, above and behind them, in front.  Assuming twelve to thirteen feet of range, I could space them out and cover a wide area.

When I started tagging the groups, I worked from the outside in.  His precogs weren’t amazing, with only a few seconds of awareness before their power gave them a heads up, but the trap was already in place.

I left Teacher for last.  No students at his disposal.  I made a portal, and then stepped through.  My soldiers aimed guns at him, while others stood stock still.

Teacher said something in a language I didn’t understand.

I shook my head.  I didn’t have a better way of showing my lack of understanding.

“No?” he asked, smiling a little.

I shook my head once more.

“A shame, that,” he said.  He sounded genuinely bothered.

My bugs flowed over him and through his pockets.  I didn’t have silk, so I used thread from one of the workbenches, encircling the gun beneath his unfashionable corduroy jacket.  It wasn’t a fast process, but Teacher saw what I was doing and helped it along, raising his hands to his head, simultaneously lifting his jacket up and away from the weapon.

I passed the thread to one of my new underlings, and they pulled the gun free.

My new minions began examining the gathered components and gear.  I looked through their eyes, taking it all in.

“I’m not unfamiliar with robbery,” Teacher said.  “Parcel and part of this whole enterprise.  But this isn’t you, I don’t think.  For one thing, I’m working towards stopping Scion, in a roundabout way.  Or mollifying the damage he does, if stopping him isn’t likely.  It seems things have turned around, then, if you’re closer to being the Elite you were so recently condemning, and I’m someone working towards a fix.”

I gave him a hard look.  He shrugged, his hands still on his head, then said something in another language, smiling a little.

A code word?  A trap or trigger for some tinker device hereabouts?

Except nothing had happened.

“Well then,” he said.  “Scratch that.”

He tried something and it didn’t work?  My swarm shifted their stances, approaching a little closer, guns raised.

Definitely scratch that,” he said.  “Well then, I won’t ask for your forgiveness, but I can still be blunt.  You seem different, and not so much for the better.”

My attention was on the tables.  Weapons, tinker gear… I started browsing through it myself, joining the minions who weren’t actively keeping Teacher at gunpoint.

“Can I ask why?  Or is that too personal?  I understand second triggers can be mortifying.”

I turned around to face him.  I put my hand flat against my mouth.

“Mute.  I see.  And you came to me for help with that?  Do you want to be able to communicate again?”

I shook my head.

“Then you’re looking to refine this ability of yours.  I can do that.  Give capes control over abilities that feel a little lacking in areas.”

Again, I shook my head.

“What did you come for, then?”

I didn’t respond, my attention on the group.

I found what I was looking for.

Boxes, small, with a single, broad button along one side.  Like detonators.  There was nothing to them but a single LED, green, and a few ports where they could be plugged into certain ports or outlets.

I gathered them, tucking them into spare pouches.

“I don’t suppose you could sock one for me?”

I shook my head.  I gathered all of them.

Then I began gathering the guns.

“This is inconvenient, for the books.”

You don’t need these against Scion.

“Again, my power is available, if you should need it.  Anything that helps against our reciprocal enemy, you understand.”

He had an annoying habit of picking difficult-sounding words and using them instead of simpler options.  Like someone trying to sound smarter than they were.

I approached Teacher.  I saw him startle a little at the sudden movement.

He had nowhere to run, and he knew it.  He looked around, and he could see his own students caught in my snare.

I saw the surrender in his body language, an instant before he fell inside my power’s range.

Memories hit me.  Announcing myself as Weaver in front of the PRT buildingTaking on the role in New Delhi, coordinating two teams.

I could sense his power, and I could sense his general awareness of the people he’d affected.  There was no constant connection between him and them, nothing like I had over my bugs or my subjects.

I moved another over to him, and I used his power on them.

There was a connection then.  It only took a little bit of time, and focus on Teacher’s part.  I could sense both the power taking hold, and the frailty, the weak point that manifested at the same time.  There was a duality.

I let go of the subject, and I could feel that frail point linger, decaying by the smallest fraction with every passing moment.  That was what Teacher sensed, an awareness of both the power and the degree of influence he had over the subject.

No, I thought.  Not an option.

I withdrew my phone, unlocked it, and found the page I needed.  I threw it to Teacher.  Rather than try to catch it with his clumsier movements, I had him grab the bottom of his sweater and lift it up, forming a net.  It landed in the ‘net’, and Teacher collected it.

I backed away, releasing him.

Teacher staggered a little, then muttered what must have been a swear word in that other language.

“Karma, I suppose,” he said, panting a little.  “A… little nerve wracking there.  I can’t help but notice you didn’t pursue with yourself, while you had me in command.”

There would be no way to use the power without leaving myself open to Teacher’s influence.  No, I wouldn’t be able to get myself a voice this way.  Not if it affected my ability to make decisions.  Not if it left a lingering window open.

These people who’d taken his promise of a lifetime of power, no strings attached, had been misled.

“Nothing, then?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“A disappointment.”

I wasn’t that disappointed.  I had what I needed.  A speed bump for Scion, weapons, a little more information on how my power worked, and…  I pointed at the phone I’d given him.  He glanced down.

“The C.I.U.,” Teacher said.

I responded with a short nod, then held up one of the devices I’d collected.  I was picking and choosing the members of Teacher’s collection I could use, arming them with tinker weaponry and gathering them near me.  I didn’t enclose them in my little cloak of portals.

“Ah… you guessed?”

I nodded, once.

“Understand, it wasn’t spiteful on my part,” Teacher said.  He lapsed into the other language for one moment, “…I gave them the switch in the hopes it would stop the incursions and curb honestly.  They were supposed to lock themselves away, but they held on to it, apparently intending to use it if anyone retaliated.  An ingress, a portcullis, if you will.  A way to raise the drawbridge and prevent passage into their castle.”

At my order, some of his students gestured with their guns, prompting him.

He seemed to take the threat in stride.  “The one with a white button.”

I glanced at the ones in my possession.  I found it in a belt pouch and repositioned it.

“Skeleton key, Weaver.  I could make you force me to give up any of this detail, but I won’t.  I want to get back to work, so I can help.”

He was giving me a funny look, trying to drive home his point.

But this was a roundabout plan, some kind of infiltration, and he was clearly working against our side.  I wasn’t sure I bought it.

It didn’t matter.

I gestured to the phone.  He moved to throw it back, and I raised a hand.  I pointed to my left.

He wasn’t stupid.  He got my meaning, then used the phone to find the page I was referring to.

“I assume you’re not looking to find me, which leaves only the Birdcage.  No.  I haven’t provided any devices to the Birdcage, or anyone alleged with it.  But you’re going to find entering is difficult, regardless.  There are security placements in measure.”

I nodded.  My soldiers got in place, rank and file around me, all armed.

“If I grasp your intentions, Weaver, I can speculate you’ll be back for me later?”

I didn’t respond.  No need to telegraph my plans to Teacher.  Still, the thinkers were figuring out what I was up to.

I was running out of time.

Which meant taking a leap of faith.

Using the clairvoyant directly was a dangerous prospect.  He could grant the power to see the entire world, multiple worlds, but breaking that contact was troubling, debilitating.  I could see the toll it had already taken on Doormaker.

But I couldn’t afford to hold back.

I separated Doormaker from his partner.  I could sense the effect, the sensory shift, the break in perspective, the mild nausea.  But he was functionally blind and deaf, and there were only so many senses that he had which could suffer.

I’d suffer far, far more.  If I made contact with the clairvoyant and was forced to break it… that would be it.  Chances were good I wouldn’t be able to carry on.  Things would be over before I recovered.

I took stock.  I had a squadron, now.  People who would have been slaves anyways.  People with simple abilities that were easy to get a handle on and use.  I had weapons, better than a typical gun.

Hopefully we wouldn’t have to use them.

I took hold of Doormaker’s hand, and I moved it to my belt, hooking his fingers through it.  Then I used my hand to take hold of the clairvoyant’s.

My awareness started to unfold.  A slow, steady, gradual process.  I was aware of vast tracts of land.  I could see the damage done to Earth Bet.  It disoriented me, to see how we were in Washington, not New York.  Teacher had returned home.  Why had I thought we were in New York?

If I’d been distant from myself before, the enhanced vision made it that much worse.

I could remember how I’d once been comforted by the fact that my power put the world in perspective, showing me just how small I was in the grand scheme of things.

This wasn’t comforting at all.  Not this.  Not at this brutal scale.  I could sense the entirety of the world, from atmosphere to ocean floor.  I could, if I wanted to listen for it, hear the wind, the patter of rain, see the shimmers of heat on one side of the planet and the frost forming in caves on the other side of the planet, day and night at the same time.

I can see how the Doctor got a little detached from things, if she used this power with any regularity.

Teacher said something.  I couldn’t make it out, because I wasn’t really listening.

I could see the other worlds and tally up the damage.  Not even a fifth of us were fighting, but those ten percent were giving it their all.  Others had retreated, finding family or friends to take shelter with.

I could count all of the individual collections of people.  Using Doormaker, the Doctor had scattered mankind over every available earth.  Collections of a few hundred to a few thousand.  People used to civilized life were starting over from scratch.  Makeshift shelters, fires, crafting tools.  They were tired, frustrated, and above all else, they were scared.  There was no news, no media, no way to follow the ongoing fight.

When I stopped looking, they didn’t leave my attention.  They carried on in my peripheral vision, as that field of vision continued to grow with every passing second.

The only real limitation was a set of blind spots, identical to the one that had hovered over Teacher’s base of operations.  I could work around that.  There was also the fact that I could avoid looking for things, and keep them out of sight.  I could avoid searching and seeking, avoid bringing something or someone into my field of vision.

Another anchor, another thing to tie me to reality, tie me to Taylor.

I could see one cabin, off in the distance in Earth Gimel.  It would be three days of walking on foot to get there from the settlement.

Grue’s cabin.

I’m so weak, I thought.

I didn’t want to look inside and see him with Cozen.  I didn’t want to see them curled up in front of a fire, knowing the world could end at any moment, should Scion decide to shatter the landmass.

Instead, I fixed that cabin’s location in mind, and I watched it from a distance.

I found my house, or what little was left of it, in shattered Brockton Bay.

I found people.  I found Charlotte and Forrest.  I found Sierra, being very authoritarian and intimidating as she ordered refugees around.  She gave off an oddly familiar impression.

I found Tattletale.  She’d left her laptop aside and was helping with the wounded, talking with Rachel and Panacea in an intense, low voice.

Imp was giving somebody CPR.  Unlike the movies, most CPR attempts weren’t successful.  Her patient was probably dead already, but she kept trying.  Ages ago, Grue hadn’t been able to get her to take the first aid class.

Parian and Foil were moving around the outskirts of the battlefield, riding a stuffed animal.  Foil wasn’t shooting, and it wasn’t due to a lack of ammunition.

All the people I cared about, the things I wanted to hold on to, no matter what.

I found my mom’s grave.  It was a part of the ruined landscape, and the earth had cracked open.  I could see the insect life surrounding the site.  Experimentally, I opened a portal.  My relay bugs passed through, and I cleared up the area, bringing the bugs to me.

Vanity, stupidity, but I felt a little better.  The area was cleaner.  Still in ruins, but cleaner.

And my dad…

I hesitated.

I’ve lost so much, I thought.  Forgive me, dad.  I need to have the hope you’re still alive more than I need to know either way.

I exhaled slowly.

Little anchors, more things to tie me down to reality.  I double checked the others were in place.  The least important of all, the mantle, the costume, for lack of a better word, with the honeycombed portals, it was secure.  I had my goal, I had my mission.

I was still me.  I was managing.

I turned my attention to Scion.  Apparently Tattletale had been right.  A bit of a fib on Cauldron’s part, that they couldn’t use the clairvoyant on him.  They’d wanted to avoid Scion finding them, avoid having him find his way to their laboratories.

When I looked, I saw him screaming.

Even for someone who had only ever spoken twice, it was an eerie, unsettling sound.  Raw, like he was being actively tortured, a sound of pain and anger distilled, given volume by his power.

He wasn’t being tortured, though.  He was winning, tearing into the crowd with more ferocity than before, that same crowd where the others, people I cared about, were-

“Pose?” Teacher asked, interrupting my thoughts.  I’d missed the beginning of what he’d said.

I raised my head.  It was more like I saw the movement of my head through a telescope than it was like owning the head itself.

Right.  I’d zoned out again.  Taking in too much.

Needed to move.

I was omniscient.  More accurately, I was as close to omniscient as I could hope to get.  It came with an Achilles heel, but I’d make do.

My phone had the last known location of the C.U.I. portal.  I opened a door to it.

I left Teacher behind.  He didn’t warrant a goodbye.  If there was such a thing as Karma, he’d get it soon enough.  For now, I would put off getting revenge for what he’d done to Dragon.  He’d be inconvenienced by the loss of his soldiers and disruption of his base of operations, but he’d recover.

Twenty parahumans flanked me as I walked down the dirt road.  I stopped when we’d come to the portal’s location.  The C.U.I. had invaded, killing the refugees on the other side, then moved in.

The clairvoyant, moving at my bidding, took hold of the device I’d fastened onto my belt.

He hit the white button.

Teacher had sealed himself off in one world, to build up his students and work with Dragon.  He’d given that technology to the C.U.I., and they’d used it to secure their position.

Now I was breaking in.

The blind spot fractured, then dissolved.  I could see the C.U.I.’s empire.  Three hundred million people, many still migrating to places where they could settle, physically walking to separate themselves from others, so Scion couldn’t kill too many at once.  I could see where Scion had attacked at one point, and they were still performing disaster relief.

There was a member of the C.U.I. who was officially known as Ziggurat, though she was really ‘Tōng Líng Tǎ’ to her allies and countrymen.  She’d used her power to erect stone walls and start the construction of a palace for the Imperial family.  Three walls stretched between three impressive towers, with the palace at the center of the acres of empty space within.

I could see the Yàngbǎn in full force.  Three groups of sixty to one hundred and thirty capes, arranged on broad, square platforms of stone that had been raised off of the ground, each facing outward, their backs to the palace. Every one of them was in a matching outfit, their masks white, purple, and yellow, in turn.  They were tending to wounds, and the gaps in their number suggested they’d taken heavy losses.

Inside the place itself was a kaleidoscope.  Each room was mirrored several times over, the occupants moving in unison.  The main chambers had nine iterations, each with a copy of the imperial family, each with a fourth squad of Yàngbǎn ringing the group in concentric circles rather than in rows and columns.  This squad wore masks like the others, multifaceted gemstones large enough to cover their faces, but the gems were a jade green.  The bodyguards, thirty in all.  The scariest capes in their group.

A young man, fourteen, sat on the throne.  On either side, their chairs just low enough to the ground that their heads were beneath the young man’s, were family members.  Too young to be his mother and father.  A very young child, a girl, sat on a mat at their feet.  His sister.  I’d seen pictures of the new emperor and his sister when their older brother had been killed along with the Simurgh’s attack on flight BA178.

They were joined by others.  Shén Yù the strategist was a surprisingly young man, wearing a black robe that was as straight and narrow as he was.  He was focused on a small tablet computer.  Beside him was Jiǎ, the imperial family’s tinker, and surely the individual who had set up the kaleidoscope effect, throwing off would-be assassins and intruders.  Tōng Líng Tǎ was there as well, a very thin Chinese woman with a black robe and heavily painted face.

Just below the dais were three more Yàngbǎn members.  Null, One and Two.  The key components in their power structure, the ones who divided the powers, controlled the squads and gave them the strength to be effective, respectively.

If I acted, I’d be targeted.  We’d taken out one of their armies, an infiltration and raiding party with the Simurgh’s attack, but there were four groups remaining.  One of the other raiding parties was less biased towards infiltration and more towards movement.  They were the cavalry, the blitzers, the ones capable of flight and teleportation.  In the wake of the raids, the first strikes our side had deployed against them had been viciously counterattacked.  Quite possibly Shén Yù’s work.  Any attempt to attack was met by equal and opposite counterattack, targeting the leaders of the offensive party.

Even with nigh-omniscience, even with my portals, I wasn’t sure I wanted to gamble on this.  Overconfidence at this juncture would be ruinous.

Better to sunder their confidence, than let my own be too high.  They weren’t anticipating an attack.

But two hundred parahumans and a set of elite capes focused on defense and counterattacks was ominous.

I tensed, all at once.  A stray attack on Scion’s part flew through the air.  I closed Doormaker’s portals in the area, and it wiped out a building, along with six people.

I raised the portal again, connecting Gimel to the makeshift hospital.

Tattletale muttered something under her breath.  Panacea said something I couldn’t make out.

Two of my favorite people in the world, almost wiped out without a chance to even know it was coming.

I looked at each of these things I treasured, the things I valued.  My leveled ‘house’ in Brockton Bay, the graveyard, my ex-employees, my teammates… and I looked at Scion.

There was no right answer.  No perfect battle plan on this end.  There was no time.

I exhaled slowly, forcing myself to relax.

Then I began opening portals across all of the different worlds I could reach.  I began gathering bugs en masse.

I’d heard once there were ten quintillion bugs in my world.  Eighteen zeroes.  I couldn’t control that many.  Or, to be precise, I couldn’t afford the time to collect that many.

Fourteen zeroes?  If I had a dozen worlds, each with really good swamps and rainforests to tap into, my relay bugs to help extend my pitiful, three-hundred foot range?  That was doable.

Fuck it all.  There was a time for strategy, and there was a time for the brute force approach.  Hell, the brute force approach could be called a strategy unto itself.

I’d find out about Shén Yù’s power the hard way.  He could see attacks coming.  Did it work when the attack came from every direction?

I divided the bugs into tenths.  Then I opened nine portals into the Yàngbǎn’s world.

The tenth I opened into Earth Bet, above the portal I’d reopened.

They did react.  Shén Yù did manage a nigh-instantaneous counterattack.  A hundred capes deployed to my general area, teleporting in, and then flying around with speeds that would have put them on par with cars on a highway.

I watched from a distant location as my hand clenched, squeezing the clairvoyant’s.

But I’d deployed a tenth of the bugs on my location.  I was hidden within an impenetrable cloud of bugs.  I raised Doormaker’s portals as shields around me.

Some entered the cloud, and the response was swift and brutal.  The bugs consumed them, and my minions with the tinker guns shot them.  I moved to a different world, closing the door behind me, just to make their job a little harder.

The other squadrons had their own means of defense.  One had eighty or so people burning red hot, torching the bugs by heating up the air.

I began using portals, and I captured the group.

“If you little fucks had any sense, you’d know that getting the upper hand on me, just for a moment?  It’s something you should be fucking terrified of.”

Not my voice in my head.

“Oh?  The ineffectual little girl with the bug costume is awake.”

Memories of confusion, a pain unlike any other.  Of utter helplessness.

What would my mom think to see me now?  A thought from a different moment than the others.

I used Doormaker’s portals to capture other groups, though they were more scattered.

When I had the majority of them, I turned them against the palace.

Ziggurat closed up every window and door.  The ring of Yàngbǎn members was standing now, on alert.

It hardly mattered.  They’d amassed this much sheer power, they’d controlled the people through manipulation, and now they were seeing what happened when the people turned on them.

I felt a kind of anger swelling in my breast, and I knew it wasn’t mine.

But it was still a feeling I could ride.  Something that could carry me forwards.

Fuck them.  Fuck them for not cooperating.  Fuck it all, I shouldn’t have had to go this far.

The attackers tore down one wall.  I saw one of the six mirror images of the kaleidoscope interior fade away.  The interior was heavily trapped, laced with poisons, rooms with only vacuum within and, ironically, poisonous bugs.  Had someone tried teleporting in, chances were good they would have met a grisly end.

I moved the attackers around the outside of the palace, rather than subject them to the traps.  They attacked different walls.

One wall was penetrated, and two more shares of the mirror image faded.

There was another contingent of Yàngbǎn within one of the revealed partitions.  Red masks, like the ones I’d seen in New Delhi.  A small squad of throwaways.

I controlled them too.

It wasn’t long before the last mirror images fell.

My portals ensnared the remaining Yàngbǎn in a few moments.  The fighting stopped all at once.

I added Zero, One and Two to my swarm.

Alexandria, choking on bugs.  They hated me for my arrogance.  For what I was.

I exhaled slowly.  They were a little more aware than the others.

Two’s power enhanced other powers.  Refracted throughout the Yàngbǎn, it was what allowed them to have sixty powers at one fifth of the strength instead of sixty at one sixtieth.

Her power worked on my own.  I felt my control clarify.

In front of me, One extended a hand, then carefully closed it.  I moved it experimentally, testing the range of motion.

Not as perfect as if it were my own hand, back when I had full control over it, but better.

I wouldn’t be sharing this one.  I couldn’t afford to.

Shén Yù spoke.  It didn’t sound Chinese, with the wrong cadence.  It was a question, by the sound of it, accusatory.

Maybe there was a power that would have made sense of it.  It didn’t matter.

There were five layers of overlapping hexagons, now.

I had my army.

But it wouldn’t be enough.

On to the Birdcage, I thought.

I opened portals for my swarm to pass through.

I passed through, and I found myself in the midst of ruins.

Ruins, like I’d been thinking about before I met Teacher.

I used the clairvoyant’s power to search my surroundings.

No.  The structure was only partially intact, devastated by Scion’s fury, by shockwaves and literal waves.  That it still stood was a testament to how solid it had once been.

This isn’t the Birdcage.

Gardener.  My old jail.

The disorientation rocked me.  To get my bearings, I didn’t reach for more geographical reference points, but I reached for the little anchors I’d formed instead.  I checked and double checked them until I could be sure I was stable.

For the second time, I tried to make my way to the Birdcage.

I stepped through the portal, moving myself to a peak above the Birdcage itself.  Though I couldn’t really feel it, I was aware of how cool the air was, the fact that my body, so small on that vast mountain, was sweating pretty heavily.

Being surrounded by thousands of billions of bugs had drained me more than I’d been aware.

Another weakness, another point where I’d disconnected just a bit too much.

Was my own body supposed to be an anchor?  Was that something I should cling to, at the expense of other things?

I made myself draw in a deep breath, until my chest hurt, and it still felt so paltry compared to the hundreds of people I controlled.  The view, this majestic image of the landscape, of a sky that still harbored the clouds of dust and debris from Scion’s earlier attacks… it was but one piece of a scene viewed from a hundred different pairs of eyes.  Virtually all of them had better vision than I did.  I was adrift in an ocean of input, one body, harder to control than all of the others, so easy to forget about.

I’d done it without thinking, bringing them with me.  They stood on ledges and jutting rocks all over the peak, surrounding me.  More than anything else, I could feel their fear.  With so many of them, it was indistinct.

I forced my own head to move, felt the crick in my neck, where I hadn’t really moved my head in a long time.

The ones who were still in the Birdcage were the ones the cell block leaders had felt apprehensive about.  Not necessarily stronger, but less predictable, less reliable.  More of a danger than a help, if given free reign.

As far as I could tell, it was the last large group of experienced capes I could collect.

I opened a portal within the Birdcage, to capture my first prisoner.

Containment foam rained down from the ceiling, sealing him in place.

Dragon, I thought.

I didn’t make another move.  I waited.  I’d expected this.  It was why I’d come here in person.  I could use the clairvoyant’s power and see a hangar in one mountain valley opening up.

It took only a minute.  A small armored suit arrived, a fast-moving model rather than a heavy combat model, much like the one she’d used to counteract our first attack on the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters.

It perched on a rock in front of me.

Dragon’s weapons were primed and ready to fire, the threat implict.  When she spoke, her voice as clear as a bell in the clear mountain air.

It was the same language Shén Yù had spoken to me.  The same incomprehensible language Teacher had lapsed into.

English.

When I met Dragon’s eyes with my own, my head shook with the shock I felt.  I might have collapsed, numb, if I hadn’t been holding on to the clairvoyant, with Doormaker gripping my belt.

It was the anger that kept me going.  I’d felt a glimmer of it when attacking the palace.  I’d felt it when dealing with capes and civilians every damn step of the way.  The only thing I wanted was for everyone to do what they were supposed to do.  To be good and to be fair, feed the hungry, give shelter, to fix the things that were broken and to fucking band together against the real monsters.  Save the world.  For the world to make some damn sense.

I found myself chuckling a little, and it was just as displaced and not-quite right as any of my individual movements.  Off kilter, more like I was doing a bad job of acting than real laughter.

I couldn’t stop it, even as I tried to pull myself together.  I turned my face towards the sky, my eyes streaming.  Her voice continued, insistent, the gentleness giving way to concern.

Hardly the last injustice I’d have to face down in the coming hours, but it was a front runner for the biggest.  The most decent damn person I’d ever met, and she wasn’t even human.  She was the only person who was definitely still alive who’d helped me without an iota of selfishness.

I couldn’t negotiate my way out of this.  Even with the rapport we’d established, I couldn’t trust her to give me the benefit of a doubt.

As much as I didn’t want to, I knew that the only way forward would be to destroy her.

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Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

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March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

“…will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

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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.

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Migration 17.5

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“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 17.4

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They took a path that kept the fence to their right.  It meant they stayed on the fringe of the Simurgh’s power, the volume of the keening song as low as they could hope to keep it, and it meant there was one less cardinal direction that any creatures could approach them from.  There were soldiers stationed at the far end of any roads, a ways back from fences, but they weren’t taking shots at them.  If the soldiers happened to shout at them through a loudspeaker, he considered it a bonus, something to draw others closer.

He cursed the heavy clouds of fog and dust that were resulting from the ongoing fighting and the snow that had evaporated or scattered on a massive scale.  It wasn’t bad enough that there were monsters prowling around the city, but his key senses were being obscured.  He couldn’t see more than one or two hundred feet ahead of him, and the noise… there was no absolute quiet.  The screaming in their heads continued without end, low in volume and apparently low in effect, but there.  Always there.  Just as distracting and nerve-wracking were the rumbles and the sounds of gunfire, of distant explosions, of buildings collapsing, and of city streets being blasted to shreds.

It was during one of the quiet moments, one of the periodic breaks in the distant chaos where there was only the song in their heads, that they heard a shrill scream.

Krouse, Cody and Marissa stopped in their tracks.

“Was that in my head?” Krouse asked.

“No.  Definitely a person.  Or people.  We should help them,” Marissa said.

“We’d be putting ourselves in danger,” Cody replied.

“No,” Krouse said.  “We should go.”

“I feel like you contradict me to be irritating,” Cody growled.

“We should go because there’s barely anyone around,” Krouse said, “And we’ve got to find a doctor.  One person with the right skills in an area with very few people.”

“And since someone’s screaming, we know there’s at least one person there.”

Krouse nodded.  He didn’t wait for further argument from Cody, sprinting ahead instead.

His path took him to the foot of a set of tall buildings with stores on the lowest level.  He was somewhat relieved that most of the fast food chains seemed familiar.  Somehow it implied that home wasn’t so far away.

Tables and benches were bolted into the ground in a broad patio or plaza between the buildings.  The fixtures that weren’t exposed to the winds and shockwaves that were rippling across the city in all the fighting were piled high with layers of snow and ice.

Krouse could hear the crunch in the snow as Marissa and Cody caught up behind him.  He glanced back to verify it was really them, then gripped his spear tighter.

Screams, again.  To his left.

He hurried toward the sound.  He knew the singing in his head was making him more impulsive, rounding off the edges of his sense of caution and pushing him to act rather than plan.  It didn’t matter.  He had one goal in mind.

Eight people were gathered in a burger joint with the lights off.  More daunting were the three monsters that were in the room.  One of the monsters was holding a ninth person off the ground.  The windows had been shattered and curls of snow flowed into the fast food place.

Krouse dropped low, crouching behind a snow-covered patio.  He gestured for Cody and Marissa to stop.

The monsters included a man with a neck three times the usual length and a gnarled hump on his back that was plated in armor.   His arms split in two at the elbow, with one set of hands and one set of limbs that ended in built-in scythes.  He was perched on a table, cackling.  His jacket was clearly borrowed, ill-fitting around his hump, and he kept having to push the sleeves up so they wouldn’t cover his hands or weapons.

His partner held their victim, the ninth person in the room.  She was big, maybe seven feet tall, and heavy in a way that met some middle ground between being muscular and being fat.  Big boned might have been the most apt way to describe her, in a literal sense.  Her skin was thick, her features blunt: she had a porcine nose and cauliflower ears, her fingers were stubby and her lips so fat that they curled away from her comparatively tiny teeth.  She might have weighed four hundred pounds, and the way she was easily holding her victim in the air suggested she was strong enough to kill someone with one good punch.  She wore only a set of grays that looked like a prisoner uniform.  He could make out the first half of the word that was printed across her shoulders: GWER-.

Rounding out the group was a young woman.  Something was off about her, besides the obvious physical changes.  Thick black horizontal lines striped her body, crossing her eyes like a blindfold, extending from the corners of her mouth, lining her chin and tracing down her neck.  By the time they reached her fingers, her skin was more black than white.  She wore the same prison grays, but had donned a jacket and boots.  Her blond hair was straight, her bangs cut severely across her forehead.

She was off because there was a rigidity to her.  She stood too straight, and every part of her except her clothing seemed to be drawn in horizontal and vertical lines.

Scythe-arms finished laughing, took a second to compose himself, and then snarled with a viciousness that seemed to be in stark contrast to his previous humor,  “Ontige hie, Matryoshka.

The massive woman turned to shove her captured victim towards the girl with the lines.  Krouse could make out the rest of the word.  Gwerrus.  Her voice was deeper than any Krouse had ever heard. “Egesa riika se-ji.”

The line girl spoke in a thick accent.  “Speak the anglo?  This skin too far from myself for me to remember.”

“Mirzuty,” the large woman swore.  “Egesa say you take her, Matryoshka.”

“I can not.  Too far.  I will lose myself.  Begging you, Gwerrus.”

Gwerrus slammed her hand down on the counter next to her, demolishing it.  The soft drink dispenser exploded in a spray of fizz and foam.  Gwerrus looked momentarily surprised, and the scythe-armed one started cackling.  Was that the Egesa that Gwerrus had mentioned?

Gwerrus growled, “There are guards, frail one.  Many.  There are fences and the… what you call them?  Transportation.”

“Trucks,” Matryoshka said.

“Trucks.  They hunt us.  They have craft.  Burn you by looking at you.  Fly,” Gwerrus’s deep voice took an almost reverent tone.  “We must escape.  We use your craft to do it.  Fold us.  Fold them.”

Matroyshka glanced at the crowd of people that were huddled by the front counter.  Her face was etched with anxiety.  A distant rumble shook the city, and her head snapped to one side in alarm.

Ofstede,” Egesa growled.

“Egesa says now,” Gwerrus translated.

“I guess that already,” Matryoshka said.

“Clever, clever,” Gwerrus said, with a cruel note to her voice, “Should use that clever mind to think.  Longer we wait, longer we have to listen to this dwimor wail.  More time for men hunting us to find us.”

Cody and Marissa crept closer until they were beside Krouse.  Krouse winced as their feet crunched in the snow, but the monstrous people didn’t seem to notice.

Matryoshka reached out and bent down in the direction of the woman Gwerrus had thrown to the ground.  Krouse couldn’t quite make out the view, but saw a flurry of black and flesh tone ribbons.

When she stood, she had a different face, her hair was darker, and the lines on her face and hands were thinner.

“How long?” Gwerrus asked.  “To… what is word?”

“Digest,” Matryoshka said.  Her accent wasn’t so thick as it had been.  “Hours?  Two or three.  Can’t really remember.”

“Fold into me next,” Gwerrus said.  “Then Egesa.  Then them.”

Both Matryoshka and Gwerrus looked at the huddled captives.

“But if I take more than two or three hours to escape, I’ll digest you.”

“I’m a soldier,” Gwerrus spoke.  “Tough.  Hard to eat?”

“Digest,” Matryoshka said.  “I don’t know.  Not sure you can be tough against this.”

Efeste,” Egesa growled.

“He says-”

“I get it.  Fine.  Kneel.  Easier if I don’t have to climb.”

Krouse tightened his grip on the spear, waited until he saw the ribbons.

Then Krouse charged forward.  Couldn’t afford to wait until that Matryoshka woman ate someone with the know-how Noelle needed.  The window of opportunity here was small, anyways.  Had to strike while two of the enemies were occupied.

His boots crunched over snow, and Egesa turned his way, raising one scythe before he even saw Krouse.

Krouse drove the makeshift spear into Egesa’s side.  The shape of the head didn’t allow for much penetration, but it did bury itself in the monster’s stomach.

Krouse had never been in a fight.  He’d been punched, but he’d never hit back.  Wasn’t in him, he’d thought.  How much of this was him, and how much was the song in his head?  Was the Simurgh’s song pushing him to violence where he might have tried to find another way in other circumstances?  Or was this what it felt like, doing what had to be done to help Noelle?

Egesa nearly fell from the table he was sitting on, managed to brace himself, and then swung one scythe-arm at Krouse.  Krouse threw himself backward, tugging on his curtain-rod spear.

It twisted as it came free, doing more damage on the way out than it had with the initial thrust.

Egesa fell to the ground, landing with his knees, two scythes and one hand on the ground. His other hand pressed to the injury, where blood was spilling onto the ground.

The hump of a hunchback protected the man’s head, as he crouched before Krouse.  Krouse looked at Egesa’s arched back, his legs and arms under him.  He could have gone for the stomach again, but there were no guarantees.  He jabbed for the armpit, instead.  Limit his range of attack.

His body hummed with adrenaline, and he felt far, far too calm for what he was doing, as he thrust the heavy metal spear into the base of Egesa’s arm.  This time he twisted it on purpose before pulling it free.

There was more blood than he thought there’d be, with that one.  Egesa fell over, no longer able to prop himself up.

Changing his grip, Krouse brought the spear down like a bludgeon, cracking Egesa across the head.

When Egesa didn’t immediately slump over, Krouse hit him twice more.

Ende,” Egesa growled.

Krouse swung to hit him one more time.  Egesa disappeared in a cloud of black smoke that quickly dissipated and the spear hit tile.

Krouse glanced around to see if Egesa had changed locations.  The scythe-armed freak wasn’t around.  He did see Cody and Marissa looking at him wide eyed.

This next part wasn’t going to change that much.  “Run!” he shouted at the bystanders.  They scrambled to their feet and ran for cover.

He advanced on Gwerrus and Matryoshka, saw how Gwerrus was entangled by Matryoshka, wearing the ribbons like a second skin.  Her left arm, completely encased, was compressed to only half the size, almost normal.

Gwerrus looked too tough to hurt, but Matryoshka…  He slashed the end of his makeshift spear into her, and the ribbons of flesh cut and tore.  Matryoshka began to pull together, unwinding from Gwerrus, and he clubbed her over the head.

Gwerrus was a bigger problem.  The way her skin seemed to be three times as thick as normal, at least, and her massive frame, he suspected he wouldn’t be able to hurt her with his weapon.  If he-

No, Krouse made himself stop, took an account of what he was doing.  He was getting carried away.  He turned to run.

A hand gripped the back of his coat, and a scythe blade extended around Krouse’s throat.

He felt another scythe tap against his spear, tapping again shortly after.  He let the spear clatter to the tiled floor.

Matryoshka condensed the ribbons into onion-like layers. The cuts and tears he’d made weren’t continuous once she was put together.  Rather, it was divided into a series of short cuts placed around her face and hands, with more probably hidden beneath her clothes.

“Brave,” Gwerrus growled.  “Stupid brave.”

“Sculan abretoan cnapa,” Egesa muttered, just beside Krouse’s ear.

Gwerrus shook her head.  “Na.  Wac thurfan cnapa with huntians ferranan, Matryoshka cunnan fealdan cnapa.”

Egesa shoved Krouse so that he stumbled forward, finding himself in the middle of the three.

“English?  Anglo?”  Matryoska asked.

“We need the boy,” Gwerrus said.  “You fold him.”

“Uh huh,” Matryoshka said.  “We’ll need more.”

“We’ll find more.”

“Soon?  Women I just took will be all dissolved.”

“Soon,” Gwerrus said.

Krouse couldn’t help but notice how even her dialect had changed since she’d absorbed the woman into her.  “You don’t have to do this.”

Egesa kicked him from behind, and Krouse fell to his hands and knees.

“Don’t hurt him,” Matryoshka said.

“They are enemies,” Gwerrus growled.  “They hunt us.”

“We’re not hunting you,” Krouse said.

Egesa kicked him again for his trouble, driving a heel into Krouse’s kidney.  Krouse grunted and writhed at the pain.  The screaming in his head was bad, now, almost drowning everything out.  It was almost affecting his vision.  He couldn’t help but think about the pressure of being deep underwater, being so deep he was barely able to function, except this wasn’t imagined.  It was real, despite being all in his head.  That same pressure dimmed everything around the edges of his vision, made shadows darker and lights brighter.  When spots appeared in his vision, he could almost imagine they were images.

Egesa pressed the tip of one scythe to Krouse’s eyelid.  “Abysgian in eage?  Yeh?”

Krouse slipped, so to speak.  He hadn’t even realized he was resisting the song, but in the pain, in his momentary fear, he let himself listen, looked at the shapes that were filling the dark places he could see.

Am I giving up?  This easily?  The others need me.  The others…

“Noelle,” he mumbled.

“Francis?”

He winced.  “Call me Krouse.  Everyone but my mom does.”

“Krouse,” Noelle tried the word.  “Okay.  You want something?”

“Just wanted to talk.  When we were marking each other’s papers in class, I got yours.  I just wanted to say I like the way you think.”

He could see her expression change, as though the whole paradigm of the conversation had shifted.  What did I say?

“Thanks,” she said.  Her eyes dropped to her lunch tray, and she speared a piece of lettuce on her fork.  She popped it into her mouth and chewed, slowly, methodically, then glanced up at Krouse.  The meaning was clear.  With body language alone, she was asking, why are you still here?

“Comparing the way you write an essay to how you’d design a game, plotting things both on a mechanical and general level.  It was interesting to read.  Nerdy in all the best ways.  That’s a compliment, in case you’re left wondering.”

“Alright.  Thanks.”

He was turning to leave when he saw Marissa Newland approach and sit down next to Noelle.  They weren’t people he’d expected to see together.  It wasn’t that Noelle was unattractive, only that Marissa was a swan, one of the better looking girls in the school, and Noelle was maybe best described as a sparrow.  Small, nervous, plain.  He hadn’t imagined they had any shared interest, social circles or friends.

Marissa moved a small plate with a square of pizza on it to Noelle’s tray, before looking up at Krouse.  “Krouse?  You need something?”

“Nah, said what I wanted to say.”

“Don’t pester her, ‘kay?”

“I”m not doing anything more annoying than distracting her from lunch, and I was already leaving.”

“You two know each other?” Noelle asked.

Krouse answered before Marissa could.  “Our moms both do a lot of volunteer stuff for the school.  Bake sales and crap.  Been a couple of times where we both got dragged in to help and wound up working together.”

“So I know exactly what to watch out for with you,” Marissa said.  “At any given point in time, you’re pulling some nefarious prank, you’re manipulating others to get what you want, you’re making someone else look bad-”

“Stop.  All this praise is going to make me blush.”

“Sixth grade,” Marissa said, turning to Noelle, “He tells his teacher-”

“Aaand I’m out of here,” Krouse said, making sure to interrupt her, “I forgot Marissa knew about the more embarrassing stories.”

“Good riddance to you, then,” Marissa said, smiling lightly.

He wasn’t two steps away when he heard her saying, “The Ransack qualifiers-”

He turned, interest piqued.

“What?” Marissa said.  “Do I need to get back to the story to scare you off?  Or are you going to make some crack about girls and video games?”

“No, I’m not.  You said qualifiers?  As in competitive level?”

“Yeah.  We have a club we organized through the school, to manage it.  It was the only way I could get access to a computer without my mom looking over my shoulder.”

“No kidding.  That’s the same one Luke’s in?  You know Luke Brito?”

“Yeah.  He’s in the group.”

“Ah,” he said.  He floundered.  “I’m sort of lost for words.  The bar for that sort of thing is higher than a lot of people think.  Even getting to the point where you’re in the qualifiers is pretty respectable.  Kudos.”

“Thanks,” Marissa said.

“I won’t subject you to my presence any longer.  Good luck tonight.  Really.”

“You play?” Noelle asked, the question abrupt.  She tore off a bit of pizza crust and popped it into her mouth.

It took Krouse a second to mentally shift gears.  “Some.  Casually.”

Marissa looked at Noelle to double check, then gestured towards the empty seat across from them.

Krouse sat, winced as a plastic tray clattered to the ground.

Marissa screamed, the sound abruptly cutting off as she was tossed from the counter where the plastic trays were stacked to the ruined counter where the soft drink dispensers had been.  She gasped for breath, struggled to climb to her feet and fell.  She was too dazed, and the ruined counter didn’t offer much in the way of solid traction.  Gwerrus advanced on her.

Krouse forced himself back to reality, hurried to climb to his feet, only to feel the scythe’s blade press hard to his neck, only his scarf keeping it from severing flesh.

The screaming in his head was back, worse than ever.  After the peace of the memory, the tranquility of being free of the screaming, still experiencing the warm buzz that surged through him, this wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“Began’na weorc,” Egesa hissed in his ear.

“Don’t understand a fucking thing you’re saying,” Krouse responded.  In a strange way, he was pissed.  Pissed in the way he might be if he’d been woken abruptly from a good dream.  He knew it wasn’t rational, knew it wasn’t even healthy to think that way when the Simurgh was this dangerous, this insidious, but he was still upset.

So maybe, in the smallest way, it gave him the push he needed to reach beneath his coat, to where he’d stashed the sheathed kitchen knife.  With his other hand, he found and dug his gloved fingers into the wound the spear had made, simultaneously twisting, putting his less vulnerable shoulder in the way of Egesa’s scythe-hand.

It didn’t matter.  Egesa’s knees folded as Krouse twisted his fingers in the wound, dug deep.  The knife’s sheath clattered to the ground, and Krouse dragged the blade across Egesa’s long neck.

Egesa pushed him away, blood fountaining down the front of his body.  Krouse’s fingers were plucked free of the wet, sucking wound as the freak backed away.  Egesa disappeared into wisps of dark smoke.

“Stupid brave boy,” Gwerrus said.

Krouse glanced around the room as the massive bear of a woman turned to face him.  Marissa was only just managing to stand, while Cody had backed up to the opposite end of the room, crowbar in hand.  Matryoshka was on her hands and knees, not far from Cody.

“Run!” he shouted.  “Scatter!”

He was only turning to run away from the brutish Gwerrus when he realized the others might not be in a state to run.  Marissa had been thrown hard, and he wasn’t sure what kind of condition Cody was in.

Not that it mattered.  Gwerrus picked Krouse for her target.

She wasn’t fast.  There was some small blessing in that.  But he quickly realized that she was keeping up with him, and she didn’t have half the trouble he did in wading through the deeper patches of snow.  Slipping on ice, too, didn’t prove to be a problem for her when she weighed enough that the ice shattered with each footfall.

She caught up to him before he was clear of the plaza, grabbed him by the seat of his pants and the back of his coat.

He stabbed at her hand with the knife, and felt a fierce agony tear through his own hand.

Blood welled out from his palm, warm as it ran down his arm to his elbow.  Krouse screamed.

“No,” Gwerrus growled in her deep voice.  “Stupid boy.”

“Begone,” a man intoned.

Krouse felt himself slip from her grasp.  He dropped to the ground.

“Do it quickly,” another man said.

Krouse turned to look, but he saw everything through a monochrome haze.  His own hand seemed smoky, faint.

I’m a ghost?

“Any insights, Myrddin?” a man in armor spoke.  Gwerrus backed away as he advanced.  A giantess and a man in a suit of gleaming armor.  The man twirled a halberd in one hand.

“A protective power.  I just got a glimpse of the idea behind it.  Retribution,” the first man said.  He was behind the man in armor, wearing a robe.  “Her power’s based around retribution for damage done.”

“Damage reflection?” the man in armor asked.  “Or does she get more durable as you attack her?”

“More likely to be the former than the latter.”

Krouse stood as the man in armor walked up to him.  Walked past him as though he weren’t even there.

“I am stronger than you,” Gwerrus snarled.

The armored man didn’t reply.

“Why do this?  Why hunt us?”  Gwerrus asked, backing away.

The armored man slammed his halberd down against the ground, and smoke billowed around him.  A moment later, there was a sound like a gunshot.  Gwerrus dropped to one knee, one meaty hand pressed to her chest.

There was a tink and she was set on fire, head to toe.

The flames were hot enough and close enough to Krouse that they could have burned him, should have burned him.  But he barely felt the warmth of them.  Barely felt anything.  The Simurgh’s scream had faded, and his own wounded hand was little more than a dull throb.

“Hey,” Krouse said, turning to the man in armor.  There was no response.  “Hey, my friend needs-”

“That was reckless,” Myrddin said, speaking over Krouse.  “Attacking when we didn’t know the particulars of her power.”

“Two most likely vectors for it,” the armored man said, talking as though he couldn’t hear Krouse.  He raised his voice a little to be heard over Gwerrus’ screams.  “Either she needed to see me, or there needed to be some correlation between me and the damage done.  Smoke plus a nonlethal bullet works as a test for the first case.  Besides, priority one is minimizing interactions, right?”

“Yes.  But it was still reckless.”

Krouse turned to Myrddin.  “My friend’s dying.  Can you help her?”

Myrddin walked ahead, dismissing the smoke with a wave of the craggy wooden stick he carried.

“Dragon?” the armored man said.

I’m here,” the woman’s voice came from the armbands that they’d fixed around their wrists.

“Myrddin just shunted some kid out to minimize contact.  I saw some blood.  If I mark the location, can we get emergency services here for when he pops back in?”

We’re overloaded.  Was it a severe injury?”

“Bad, but not severe.”

We don’t have the vehicles or personnel to spare, and quarantine will still be in effect.

“Right.  Where did our target land?”

Two hundred feet away, down your four o’clock, Armsmaster.

“How are we for exposure?”

You two are good for another seventeen minutes at the exposure you’re facing.  Twenty if we push it.  I can have a flight unit to you shortly.

Krouse hurried to follow them as they changed direction and began briskly walking toward the end of the street..

Myrddin spoke up, “How’s the fight going?”

It goes well.  But we can’t let our guards down.

“No,” Myrddin agreed.  “This is a bad one.  Too many possible avenues to cover, too much exposure time across the board.”

We’re doubling down quarantine, and we’ll have a processing center in place shortly.  The President is pushing the D.D.I.D measure.

“It’s going to backfire,” Myrddin said.  “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, and I’ll remind you all I said it with every chance I get, from now until the day I die.  It’s going to backfire.”

I don’t disagree,” Dragon said.

“But you’re helping to enforce it.”

I’m following orders.”

“No offense, I like you, Dragon, but that’s the oldest excuse in the book.”

I’m merely picking my battles.

“If you’re not going to fight this battle, then what will push you to make a stand?”

“Myrddin,” Armsmaster cut in, “Ease up.  And pay attention.  This is it.”

Krouse stared.  It was a section of building.  White tile and white walls, a desk, and a metal cabinet with a shattered glass pane.  File folders were strewn over the floor and desk.  In the midst of it all was a man in a white lab coat.  His body had been shattered by the impact.

“Damnation.  If we could only look into this…” Armsmaster said.

“Priority one.  Minimize exposure.”

“I know.  But this stands to answer a great many questions.  If we can find where she opened that portal to-”

“If she’s answering questions for us, we don’t want to know,” Myrddin said.

Armsmaster sighed.  “I know.  Can you shift this into one of your pocket dimensions?”

“I get bad interactions if I transition something in of one of my dimensions and back, or if I take things out of one dimension and put them into another.  It doesn’t compartmentalize into the dimension properly if it’s been elsewhere too recently.  Whether these people and objects came from somewhere halfway across the globe or some pocket dimension, I don’t think we want to test our luck and risk something disastrous.”

Krouse startled at that.  Is that what happened to me?  Some bad interaction of interdimensional crap?

“I’m thinking white phosphor?”  Armsmaster suggested.  Myrddin nodded.

Dragon chimed in, her voice sounding from the armbands on their wrists, “Can’t call in a strike until fifteen minutes after the Simurgh is gone.  Mark the area.  I’ve got another danger site a quarter-mile to your six o’clock.  Then we’re getting you clear.

“Got it,” Armsmaster said.

Armsmaster tossed a small canister into the middle of the section of laboratory, they cordoned off the area with red tape, and then they left.  Armsmaster used a grappling hook to fly to a nearby rooftop while Myrddin took to the air.  

With no way to follow, Krouse was left standing there.  He prodded at a piece of rubble, but his hand passed through.

Yet he was able to walk on the hard ground?  He couldn’t process it.

“I don’t understand,” he muttered to himself.

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

He folded his arms.  That’s not something I ever expected to hear.  “You can’t blame me at least a little?”

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  She looked miserable, and he felt a knot forming in the pit of his stomach as he saw just how unhappy she was.  It wasn’t something he was familiar with, on a lot of levels.  Quiet, she said, “You’ve been great.”

He spread his arms, “I don’t get it.  I thought we were doing fine.”

“We aren’t!  This is… it’s not working.”

“I’m okay with it.  I enjoy spending time with you, and I didn’t get any impression you were having that bad of a time, either.”

“But we don’t- we aren’t-”  She stared down at her feet.  “We’re stalled.  It isn’t fair to you.”

That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, managing to sound a little angry.

“No’, it’s fine.  It’s cool.  I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about.  I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot.  And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either.  That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time.  Or you won’t.”

“It’s not fair to you,” she repeated.

“I’m not saying things have to be equitable or balanced or fair or any of that.  So who cares if things aren’t fair?”

“Don’t do that!”

He spread his arms for the second time in a minute, helpless.  Don’t do what?  Don’t make sense?

Long seconds passed.  He studied her, saw how dejected she was.  Only minutes ago they’d been having a good time talking.  Then things had fallen apart without warning, and it sounded like she wanted to break up.

It’s like karma for all the times I’ve pulled shit on others.  Only I did it in fun, and this isn’t fun in the slightest.

“Someone said, a little while ago,” Noelle spoke without looking at Krouse, “That I can’t really forge a good relationship with others until I have a good relationship with myself.

“You don’t?”

Noelle didn’t say anything.

I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

“You don’t know me.”

“I’ve been getting to know you some.  And I have yet to see anything that’s going to scare me away.”

She stared down at her feet.  “…I don’t think we should date.”

“Okay.  If you think that’s for the best.  But I just need you to do one thing.  Look me in the eye as you tell me that.”

She glanced up at him, then looked down.  She didn’t say a word.

“Because,” he went on, “I think you’ve seemed happier than I’ve ever seen you since we started going out.  Marissa said so, too.”

Noelle glanced at him.

He continued, “If you really feel like us dating is making things worse in the long run, then I’m perfectly okay with breaking it off.  I can leave the club if that makes things easier on your end.  It was your thing before it was mine, and you’ve got enough on your plate with being team captain.”

“I don’t want you to leave the club.”

“Okay,” he said.  He waited for her to speak, but she didn’t.  “Listen, I get the feeling today is a bad day.  Don’t know why it is, but it is.  And that happens.  Fine.  But I’m not willing to end this if it’s because the stars aligned wrong.  So I’m asking you to tell me that you’re worse off because we’re together.  Not asking for an explanation, just-”

“Never mind,” she said.

“Never mind?”

“I’m- just never mind.  Can we forget this conversation happened?”

“Sure,” he said.  He saw how dejected she looked.  “Want me to walk you home?”

She nodded.

It was odd.  He’d been punched before, had failed a grade, he’d lost his uncle, and yet it was here, beside his girlfriend, that he was unhappier than he’d ever been.  He was helpless, confused, frustrated.  All he wanted to do was to help her, but he wasn’t sure how.

He fought the urge to sigh, and drew in a deep breath instead.  The air in his nostrils was so cold he choked on it.  All of his senses were plunged into high gear; a keening song so high pitched it made his ears hurt, cold throughout his body, the smell and taste of dust thick in the air, and pain lancing through his right hand.

Coughing, bewildered, he stared at the pile of rubble and the laboratory.  Whatever effect had encompassed him, it was gone.

Noelle.

He scrambled up the pile of rubble.  He remembered how they’d said they wouldn’t bomb this site until after the Endbringer was gone, so he still had some time.

He needed a first aid kit.  He went through the cabinets and a set of drawers.  Nothing.  Empty test tubes, glass vials without any contents, canisters without contents, and paperwork.  Lots of paperwork.

His eyes settled on a metal briefcase beneath the desk, within a few feet of the dead man’s hand.

His fingers crossed for a portable case of medical supplies, he set it down on the desk and popped it open.  Disappointment overwhelmed him.

Six metal canisters recessed in black foam with slots cut out to hold them, paperwork was set in a flap in the lid.

He swore.

…newly purchased superpowers…

He winced.  He’d turned his head too fast, and the movement had almost made the song in his head worse, like the pain prompted by moving a broken limb.

As had been the case with the birdcage and the newspaper, Krouse’s eye had caught on something.  He’d always been a fast reader, was used to skimming through books, picking up the necessary words.  As his glance had passed over the case, he’d read something in the text without even registering that he’d done it.

He reread the first line, underneath the header.

Congratulations on your newly purchased superpowers.

His eyes moved down to the vials.

He slammed the case shut and turned to leave.  There was nothing here he could use for first aid, and certainly no doctors.  He could only hope that Cody or Marissa had caught up with some of the people who they’d rescued from the three monsters.  If there was any justice in the world, there would have been a doctor among them, and Cody or Marissa would have brought them to the house.

He ran.  He had to get back, rendezvous with the others, and get to someone who knew him.  If he didn’t hurry, he was worried he would slip into another memory and fail to find his way out again.

The cold air burned in his lungs as he ran, the metal case swinging from his good hand, banging irregularly against his leg.

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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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