Chris had helped us change into our armor while Amy and Karen had run off to check things for us. It was out of politeness that we usually changed in private, but now there was absolutely no modesty. Time was infinitely more important.
We did, however, take the time to strip everything from our packs but the absolute bare essentials. Medkits, honey, water, etc. A couple of quick straps made sure that the packs were tight against our backs to help reduce our profiles and we were hurrying out the door. Total time spent changing, seven minutes. We should have been able to do it in five, dang it. We’d have to practice changing more, get the speed down more.
As we double-timed it out of the hotel, Chris spoke up. “You sure you don’t want me-”
“No,” Sarah and I said in unison.
“You didn’t bring any gear for yourself, and you don’t have very much combat training,” Sarah said.
“And you’ve got too many people riding on you,” I added. “You getting this project for New Brockton off the ground is as important as taking down an S-class threat. Instead, focus on observation of people coming through the area.”
“Try and keep people calm,” Sarah continued. “Use our rep if you have to. We went through Saint Louis, and we’re not about to let anybody die so soon after that.”
As we hurried through town, it was so odd. Half the people seemed to be tying themselves in knots from the sirens, others seemed irritated that they were going off at all. They were the ones trying to go about their business. I didn’t like it, but I could understand it; they were coping by ignoring threats that weren’t in their face, trying to continue on as usual. If it helped them get through the day, who was I to argue?
Eventually, Karen caught up with us, out of breath. “West coast,” she made out as she fell in line with us. “Earth Bet. Old Oregon.”
Good. Any information that we could get before diving into this was a good thing. “Threat?”
“All I got was big. But there’s one of the larger communities out there, and it’s heading right out that way. I didn’t catch the name. But they’ve got a gate at the Warden’s office.” She fell in next to Chris as we adjusted our route. “You two don’t worry about your brother. I’ll stay with him.”
There wasn’t any need, we weren’t going to spend possibly months away. Still, I knew what her gesture was, and appreciated it. If anything happened to us, she’d make sure Chris was cared for.
“I’m not a kid,” he groused quietly. It would have been amusing if the situation would have been different.
We got halfway there before Amy met us. “Portal to Oregon Bet,” she said, having missed our original conversation. “Most people are already through, but they’re holding it open for you. It took a bit of convincing of the local Wardens, but the order came through from the other side.” They were serious about getting anybody they could into this fight. “Your parents aren’t going through, but they’re volunteering to handle Warden duties. They’ve already been deputized, and they’re staying until things are calmed down.”
“Right,” Sarah said, flipping her faceplate down. I nodded. We could use their firepower, but I was glad that they were thinking ahead like that. If a call like this came out to fight an S-class threat, then people might die in the fight, and there was still always the possibility of someone attacking while everyone was occupied with the real threat. Keeping someone here to protect the city was still technically a good idea.
I paused to grab Amy, giving her a quick kiss. We had to hurry to catch back up with Sarah.
It took another ten minutes to get to the office, the portal visible. There was a ripple across the ground and Tim glided over to us, feet barely off the ground as he rode the wave of his power. He had his Gold Morning sash on, along with another one to show his position. A radio was on his belt, a mic affixed to his shoulder. “You two going?”
“High probability of us making a difference in this fight,” I said.
“Gotta do our part,” Sarah chimed in, her voice in professional mode.
Tim nodded, his expression dark. “Then go. You hear Tammy, don’t stop. Just run for the portal.”
Sarah looked at him, but before we could say anything, there was a voice on the radio. “Heavy trigger, silver district. Any Wardens or Teeth staying in the city, please respond.”
Nobody said anything. Tim turned and activated his power, while Sarah and I took off at a dead sprint for the portal. Just before passing through, I could see Tammy sprinting away. Heavy triggers could be serious business.
We passed through the rectangular portal easily, not even a tingle or vibrancy of color like you got with some of them. Just the colder air and the surrounding lush forest. As the portal closed behind us, a member of the Dragon’s Teeth approached. His sleek armor identified him as a lieutenant, and the symbol on his shoulder identified him as being part of the communication corps.
“Glad you could make it,” he said curtly, not bothering to identify himself. “Most everybody’s in position already, and you missed Legend’s speech.” Legend was here and gave a speech? And we’d missed it? Crap!
“Here,” he said, holding out armbands that looked like they’d fit over most people’s forearms. “Press that button, state your name and what you’re offering to the battle.” As soon as we had the armbands in hand, he was off and moving again, grabbing more armbands and addressing more latecomers.
As I slipped the armband on, I took a moment to familiarize myself with the design. Three buttons, a wide screen that was designed to run the length of the forearm, and a black plastic section at the top. Probably a sensor array of some sort, maybe target acquisition gear, maybe something else.
Sarah hit the button on hers. “Sarah Abrams,” she said calmly. “Mid-level kinetic-slash-sonic Blaster, low-level Striker with increased strength.”
“Confirmed,” said a voice that sounded hauntingly familiar. “Sarah Abrams. Marking deployment zone.” The screen lit up, showing a map with various annotations.
Wait, that was Dragon’s voice, though it was a little odd. Were both she and Defiant here? Were this any other situation, I would have been excited by hearing from her again. As it was, this was far from ideal.
My own hand hovered above the button as panic set in. What was I bringing to this battle? The numbers said that I’d be useful here, but in the end, what was I really good for? If I said nothing, I’d be an anomaly, just someone mucking up the system. But if I did say something, that I was untriggered with only some basic tinker armor and items, would they send me home?
Sarah stopped that line of thought by reaching out and hitting the button for me. “This person’s name is Jordan, mid-level Thinker, low-level Tinker, low-level Trump. Specializes in front-line tactical planning and implementation, as well as power synergy. Partner to Sarah Abrams, most effective when on the front lines. I suggest keeping him with the Blasters.”
Her helmet tilted up, and I could envision her meeting my eyes behind her faceplate. There was a momentary pause before Dragon spoke again. “Jordan, please submit a voice sample.”
I cleared my throat and pressed the button. “My voice is my ident.”
“Confirmed. Jordan. Marking deployment zone.” The map came up, presumably showing where I was, and where I was supposed to go. I put my finger over us, and it zoomed in a little. Instead of one marker, there were markers for people nearby. I tapped the one for Sarah, and it came up with her stated power, position, and a status of OK. A couple more taps on the screen and it zoomed out to show the map again.
Sarah and I compared screens briefly. The fact that it looked like we both were going up to a ridge made a wave of relief spread through my body. We were together. Good. We nodded to each other before making haste.
There were other people up on this ridge, quite a few people. I called up the display again, making a few cursory taps on people. All of them Blasters. Good, ranged people without Mover powers were forming a battery. Those with Mover powers would probably engaging in closer, maneuvering to flank.
Man, I wished that I could know what we were going to be fighting. I slipped the rifle off my shoulder and looked through the scope, scanning the treeline. There was movement, but I couldn’t see anything still. The ridge was tall, but the trees in the distance were taller.
People were knocking down trees at a breakneck pace, trying to clear out a battlezone for the Brutes, Strikers and Shakers. Good thinking. I looked back to Sarah, who was stretching and trying to get herself ready. Breathing exercises, it looked like. Trying to keep herself calm.
Funny, I was perfectly calm. I hadn’t been this calm in a long time. Yes, I was frustrated that there wasn’t a lot that I could offer. Yes, I felt so small around all these parahumans, around all these people with fancier armor and weapons than what I had. But at the same time, I was here to offer any support that I could. I’d take the opportunities as they presented themselves to me.
“You good, Sis?”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding to herself. “What’s your thoughts?”
I looked back to the rapidly expanding treeline. “Well. Alright, let’s start you off at normal power. Regular full strength. Uh… If large, center of mass, if small, take whatever target you can. Let’s see what your power does, or if this many people is going to cream the threat.”
She glanced at me. “What if it’s an Endbringer?”
I shook my head. “Even if we came late, they would have said. Endbringers are a big enough deal that we have to know in advance to steel ourselves. If it’s a new Endbringer somehow…” I shook my head again. “I don’t know. I doubt that it’s going to be that. It’s figuratively big, huge, and important, but…”
“Nah,” I said with a frown. “They’d post us in the city then, and there’d be directions to capture alive. A super pack of wildlings, maybe. More likely.”
Sarah let out a huff. “I might miss our wildlings, but I’m sick of the rest. No more wildlings. Just give me a Tinker-built giant robot or something.”
We fell silent as I scanned the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse. Nothing. I was wasting my time. Instead, I looked over to the assembled Blasters. What a jumbled mess. People were milling about nervously, others were clumping together, leaving wide gaps. There was a good number of Wardens, but the bulk of our forces were civilians, mercenaries and the like. Too many people had no sense of discipline.
“Go,” Sarah said, reading my expression. She reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “Get them in line.”
In other words, tell them what to do. I didn’t like the thought of that. Many of the people here were older than me. Triggered. Capable, with far more experience than myself. Tensions were high, and I had zero authority here. I could very easily start a fight.
Sixty-seven percent. Plus decimal places. I didn’t know where I was going to be handy in this fight, but it had to be somewhere. Maybe if I could get people into a proper battery… Maybe that’s where I was going to be useful.
Slinging my rifle over my shoulder, I took a deep breath and began walking. Squaring my shoulders back and puffing my chest out, trying to make myself look imposing. I could do this, I told myself. I could do this.
“Everyone,” I yelled, getting the best authoritative tone that I could. “Form up! No less than three feet away from the edge of the ridge! I want everyone at least an armspan away from your neighbor!”
“Says who, pipsqueak?” one man shot back at me.
“Jordan,” I said immediately. Nobody budged, waiting to see how this would play out. “I should be resting right now from my mission in Saint Louis, but this is too important. I don’t want to see any of you dead if I could have prevented it.”
A woman scoffed. “Guy gets a lucky break and thinks he’s big now.”
I turned to look at her. She had a Gold Morning survivor sash. Right, I could work with that. “This ridge feels stable, but we don’t know what’s going to happen when things get thick. If it takes a hit, it could crumble. I’m assuming you can’t fly, so it’s better to keep your distance.
“I do not want to see any of you right next to each other. Think back to fighting Scion. How many died when he blasted someone because they were too close? Spread yourselves out evenly so that if the person next to you takes a hit, you won’t take it as well.”
She fell silent, glaring at me. Nope, didn’t quite cut the grade with that one. I didn’t change my expression as my mind raced. What else could I do to convince them?
Dragon’s voice rang on our armbands. “All Blasters, orders from Chevalier. Take position no less than three feet from the edge of the ridge, preferably more. No less than three feet apart from each other.”
There was a pause before people started to move. I let out a slow breath before raising my armband and hitting the communication button. “Thank you, Dragon.”
“I relayed your commands to him, and he agreed. We’re seeing a lot of the younger parahumans not knowing how to handle themselves. If you can think of any other way to keep them focused, go ahead. If necessary, I’ll echo it back to those in charge.”
Alright. Now I had backup, authority. Even if it was a false authority, it was something. I might not be giving out real orders, but I could at least keep them from driving themselves crazy. There were a lot of people who hadn’t lived or fought in the age of Endbringers, who had no idea how to handle the pressure. That much, I might be able to help with.
I pointed towards one end of the line. “If your powers come with bright lights, assume that end! No sense in blinding everyone. Unless you have a partner you work with, energy Blasters in the middle, kinetic Blasters on that end! If your powers have a different mechanism than that, go more towards the closest of those designations!
“Once in position, inform your neighbors as to the nature of your powers! No surprising each other.”
People were moving now, reorganizing. It might be a chaotic mess now, but it would help out in the long run. I walked the entire line of Blasters, nodding as if I had the slightest idea as to what I was doing. Occasionally, I’d move people further back from the ridge edge.
But this was temporary. Passing. As soon as they were in position, they’d go back into their fidgeting, slowly falling back out of formation. I thought back to school, and a thought hit me. Instead of simply walking down the line, I began to sing again. Not any song in particular, just seven chanted syllables over and over again. One of the older Wardens caught my eye and grinned a little before picking up the song.
Within moments, many of the people with Gold Morning sashes were chanting along with us. Slowly, more and more Blasters began to become involved in it. The chant became more punctuated as I walked, the voices growing louder. Slowly it mutated by small degrees as people got more and more into it.
This is what they needed. A cadence, a war chant. My expression was grim, but inside I was smiling. Parahumans were falling in line, working as a team towards this one, singular thing. This was what I’d always dreamed of. Being part of a team, being part of a cohesive unit. Fighting the good fight, and helping people to become that much more than they would on their own.
As I made my way back to Sarah, I glanced out to other groups. I could make out Movers who didn’t have the gift of flight stretching, preparing to haul themselves as quickly as possible. I suspected there were clusters of Brutes or Strikers ready to charge into melee range, but they were too far away for me to get a good idea which was which. I could see Dragon’s Teeth preparing weapons of war, Tinker built ranged weapons. Those without armor that were helping them were most likely Tinkers themselves.
It took me a moment to see the cluster of people who had to be the leaders of this fight. From their position, they had a good sight range of the battlefield, and would be able to charge in. Not that running would be easy right now — the giant swaths of forest being cleared for this fight was incomprehensible to me. I’d seen stadiums, and this dwarfed them. No, charging into battle would be a long, drawn-out process.
No doubt, though, there were Thinkers in that group. Most likely Tattletale was there. She provided excellent intel. Maybe Dinah Alcott. I wasn’t sure who else. A combination of precogs and those with the powers to analyze the battlefield, make determinations about their opponent, relay information and commands.
Honestly, it wasn’t a bad setup, given how most of the people here were pretty much just conscripts. Not everybody trusted the Wardens, so they didn’t exactly have the greatest membership in the world. Most people were more willing to strike out on their own as mercenaries or hired guards. Unfortunately, that meant that most of the people here didn’t understand what it was like to work with groups of parahumans, let alone groups this size.
Yeah, this was going to get messy once the fighting started. A hot, chaotic mess.
I was trying to keep from frowning as I stopped next to Sarah. There were a lot of paras here, but not as many as I’d anticipated. The numbers were off. Annoying.
“And they used to complain about you watching the Teeth officers train,” Sarah said softly with an amused tone. She wasn’t looking away from the treeline, and her expression was grim. “Shows what they know, eh?”
I snorted softly, but didn’t break the focused look on my face. “Looks like I picked up a thing or two. I got lucky, though. I had no right to be barking orders, and they had no obligation to follow them.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” She gave me a quick glance. “You’re underestimating our rep. Every newspaper had us in it, and if it weren’t for this being arguably bigger, people would be talking about us for months, if not years. That little display of yours only enhances it, Bro.”
I looked at her, my brows furrowing. “I don’t follow.”
“To them, you weren’t scared out of your gourd when you were talking. You were speaking like someone with first hand knowledge, with experience. When challenged, you didn’t back down, and you had the people at the top backing you up.”
“She’s right,” said a woman next to me. I turned to look at her — she wasn’t that much older than us. “If I wouldn’t have heard you just now, I would have said that Chevalier, Legend, Miss Militia or one of the others sent you to us specifically to whip us into shape. I mean, look at us.”
I did. The younger Blasters were bouncing in place with each syllable, the older ones seemed more relaxed and determined.
“When word gets out that you weren’t sent over, that you just up and did it? Yeah, that’s going to mean something to people.”
I set my jaw and looked back out to the expanding treeline. “I just don’t want anybody to get dead. Whatever this is, I want it taken out. If they’re calling this many people, we need to keep folks from panicking. That’s all. I don’t deserve, or want, praise for trying to keep everybody inside their skin.”
“Because it had to be done?”
The woman snorted softly. “Yeah, expect a recruiter when all this is over with.”
Recruiter? Whatever. Instead, I focused on watching the people clear trees. One wouldn’t even begin falling over before they would focus on the next. Hundreds of years of growth, destroyed so quickly. A part of me hoped that these were the kinds of trees that needed fire to propagate. At least then we could do a controlled blaze and ensure that there would be new growth. Or have someone come and collect whatever fallen trees they could.
There was another downside to this that I saw. The cleared out trees gave a clear sight line, yes, but it would also make travel harder. People would have to traverse the fallen trees in order to engage whatever this threat was. That would slow people down.
“Five minutes until engagement,” my armband said.
Right, work to do, not much time to do it in. I raised my armband and started calling up the various Blasters, trying to discern what I could about their powers. I hoped that it would give me a clue as to how I was supposed to be helpful here, but unfortunately it wasn’t. I only got the base details, but that wasn’t helpful. It was the particulars that told me the most about a power. How did it operate? Was there anything that I could do to enhance the effect? Doubtful, but still.
I quickly gave up, clearing the screen and looking back out to the soon-to-be battlefield. Those who had been clearing trees were falling back with surprising speed. The thing that bothered me the most, though, was the fact that I could still hear the crack and fall of trees.
“Something big,” I muttered as I lifted my rifle to sight down the scope again.
“Yeah,” Sarah said quietly.
After an agonizing amount of time, I could see movement in the treeline. Yeah, it was big, but I held off. With each crack and creak of those mighty trees, my heart sank a little more. Still no details, but I could see a brownish shape.
I wasn’t doing anything other than giving myself some dread. I lowered the rifle so that I could get a clear view when it came through the treeline. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long.
All Endbringers were big, yes, but this was on the scale of Behemoth. If the name hadn’t already been taken, it would be easy to apply it to this monster. By my wild guess, it was a good fifty feet tall. Despite the difference in color, the body was about the shape of a rhino’s. Built like a brick with short bricks for legs. The head, though, was almost like it had been replaced by the head and part of the body of a hammerhead shark, giving it extra height.
If stuff like this kept popping up, why did we even have the square cube law?
“All Blasters with range, fire on my mark.”
“Regular full strength?” Sarah asked quickly, a slight hint of nervousness in her voice now. Meaning, how far we normally pushed her. We’d never actually tested to see just what her upper limits were, mostly due to the possibility of damage to the surrounding area. Before now, that had always been a concern. Now…
“Yeah,” I said, raising my rifle. I was tempted to go ahead with her trying to put as much into it as she could, but I wanted to see what the reaction to the first volley would be before I committed to anything. We’d probably be the only ones holding back.
With the scope I could make out more details. The skin on this monster appeared to be textured. That made sense, going off of the rhino’s body, but it didn’t necessarially mean anything. For all I knew, this could still be a singular parahuman forming a manifestation, basing the body off of studded leather armor or something.
What a horrifying thought. I didn’t even want to imagine the kind of heavy trigger that would be necessary for that.
I could see large slits that opened and closed along the body. Strange. My first instinct was to think of them as a combination of gills and lungs, drawing air into the body and expelling it again. With something this size, getting enough oxygen to the entire body would be a challenge. On the other hand, there was no point in making assumptions with this thing. Again, it could be a super-massive wildling, a parahuman, a displaced creature from another alternate earth, a parahuman’s manifestation, an Endbringer, or any number of other things.
I did a quick sweep of the body, noting that I wasn’t seeing any external organs. No mouth, no eyes, only those gill things. Strange, but it put it more in the realm of manifestation, parahuman, or Endbringer. Still, even the more inhuman Endbringers tended to have at least some semblance of human characteristics to them. Even Bohu and Behemoth had human characteristics. I was putting that on the lower end of the possibilities list for now.
All other thoughts were cut off as everybody let loose.