Defiant paused for a moment as he looked at me. Yes, he was an old-school hero. He knew just how to leave a pregnant pause to highlight tension. It was partially nerves, partially the way that he’d presented us to the assembled, but my grip on my weapon was white knuckled. Under my helmet, my eyes were the size of saucers, and my heart was hammering like a team of smiths at work — not the fastest, but making up for it with sheer strength.
“Chevalier,” Defiant said as he looked back to the man. “Will you please recognize Relentless?”
All eyes were on me, and I was pretty sure that the only person who was fooled at all was Bitch. The only reason for that was she probably didn’t know who I was and didn’t give a rats ass. The punk-looking son of hers showed more interest than her. Chevalier was wearing an expression that I couldn’t even hope to read, very tight. To his left, Miss Militia was in her fatigues, the flag wrapped around her body but not covering her face, so I could see that she was looking at me thoughtfully.
Foil was leaning in to say something to Parian. Tattletale was smirking. Because of course she’d be smirking. She didn’t need her power to see through this ruse; it wasn’t going to fool anyone. Everyone would know who I really was. Trying to pull one over these people was useless. I should have told him that I couldn’t. I really should have.
My stomach was in knots. I so wanted to puke.
Legend was the first to do anything. His face was grim as he crossed over to me, offering his hand. “Relentless.” He waited for me to force myself to shake his hand before continuing. “It’s good to see you again. I wish that Jordan could have been here; he would have done wonders for morale after his experience with Agamemnon, but I’m sure that your familiarity with Endbringers will serve us well.”
I nodded once as I released his hand. What was I supposed to say to that? What was I supposed to say to anything? What was I even doing here, near these people? I didn’t belong here; these were important people and I was just… I was just a wanted man.
Thankfully, Defiant saved me. “What’s the current situation?”
Like he didn’t know. He’d probably been monitoring the situation during our fight. No, he knew, but was asking for our sakes.
The Dragon’s Teeth general reached out to touch the screen of the situation table before speaking in a thick accent. “The Endbringer Simurgh was first observed passing near the village of Mason’s Grove in a westerly direction.” A holographic image of the Simurgh appeared, along with a topological map. The screen zoomed out as a dotted line began to extend from her, until it appeared over another location. “She did not stop until she reached the hamlet of Wingman’s Hope. She spent approximately thirty minutes over the populace before moving on at a surprisingly low altitude.”
“We’ve already dispatched some people to quarantine the hamlet,” Legend added quickly.
The American general present nodded grimly. “Wingman’s Hope is one of the locations that is aligned with us, so we’ll be overseeing the quarantine process and doing our best to ensure the fair and humane treatment of those affected by the Simurgh’s abilities.”
Chevalier finally moved, joining in on the briefing at last. “We mustered our flying blasters here.” A point about a day’s march from the town appeared, a glowing red dot along the Simurgh’s path. “Unfortunately, engaging the Simurgh has been problematic: she seems to begin evading our attacks before we even make them.”
The Dragon’s Teeth general touched a button, and a window appeared. The Simurgh, fifteen foot tall and a beautiful shade of white, clad in a strange tunic to accommodate her plethora of wings. I watched as the Endbringer began to move mere moments before a beam appeared. A flyer who tried to engage physically was effortlessly deflected and sent towards the ground by a casual flap of a single wing.
The robes dealie things were new. Were they some sort of disguised Tinker technology, like the sword that it had used to alter Leviathan?
The general stopped the video. “Between attacks, she would once again resume her previous path. The Dragon’s Teeth engaged here.” Another red dot appeared some distance away. “It went much the same — an entire wing of flying suits and six Javelin rapid response craft were disabled in this manner. The predictive analysis program was useless against her, and we were unable to gain a targeting lock.”
It was believed that we had never actually seen the full capabilities of an Endbringer, so them being able to break old combat methods completely wasn’t surprising in the slightest.
Chevalier motioned and the map changed again, showing a path. I didn’t need to be told to know where the path was headed; I could tell from the map, the projected path, and the exact bay that it ended in. “It appears that she’s making a direct path for New Brockton. So we’ve set up here.” A new dot appeared.
Tattletale was the one to speak up now. “Which makes sense. If she wanted to throw the area into chaos, putting my city into chaos would be the way to do it. Once locked down, at least 80% of the eastern seaboard across fourteen Earths would be affected by the loss of trade. We don’t need to use Dinah to know that a lot of villages would die without those trade routes that pass through my portal network and teleporters.”
The general hit a holographic button and a red blinking dot appeared along the white dashes of the projected path. The icon of the Simurgh updated as well, showing it approaching the dot. “This is where we currently stand. The joint forces of the Dragon’s Teeth, Wardens, and US Military including all available parahuman servicepeople are prepped and ready to engage as soon as we have a plan.”
With that, he took a half-step back, looking between everyone.
“Do we know how she passed into Earth Gimmel?” Defiant asked. “The last that I knew, she was still in Earth Bet’s thermosphere.”
“No idea at all,” Tattletale said with a shake of her head.
That was troubling. Did the Simurgh have some sort of natural ability to pass between worlds, or was it some piece of Tinker tech that it had made? I wasn’t sure which possibility was scarier.
“You said that we couldn’t get a target lock? We just upgraded the targeting systems for our heavy weapons.” Defiant seemed particularly disturbed by that.
“We aren’t sure why the automatic systems aren’t working,” the general said, stoic and professional as ever. “Manual tagging hasn’t worked because she evades it like any other attack.”
“She’s aware of what we’re doing,” Miss Militia said. “This is a show of power — she’s moving this slow and low in order to taunt us. She shows us that we can’t even touch her. She’s trying to show that she is going to get to her target.”
“Mostly,” Tattletale said, starting to pace. “I don’t think that’s quite right, though. Getting to New Brockton is a secondary goal, I think, even if she’s actually worried about reaching it at all. She’s got something else in mind.”
“Any idea as to what?” the US general asked.
She shook her head. “I want to say that it has something to do with us, here.”
“Fucking Thinkers,” Bitch growled under her breath, making Tattletale grin a little wider for a moment. I got the feeling that the comment hadn’t been directed to her fellow Undersider. “I still don’t understand why we don’t just fight her. All of us at once. Watch her dodge that.”
Legend’s mouth quirked again. “Because we’re trying to do better than we used to. Do you remember how many people died fighting Behemoth? Do you want that many of your own people dying?”
That made Bitch frown. She muttered under her breath as she looked away, too low for me to catch.
“Alright,” the US general said, looking between us. “What’s the point of bringing us all together, then? Sending a message? Trying to get us to work together?”
One of the Wardens that I didn’t know shook her head. “Simurgh doesn’t bring people together. She tears them apart and breaks them down. Everything that my power tells me says that us banding together against her isn’t the goal.”
I was dimly aware of a change in John’s posture. It was a subtle movement, but he had an idea. I was willing to bet that we had a different perspective from everyone else here. Something that the others wouldn’t have because of their backgrounds. We had heroes here, we had military personnel here, but only my friends had the perspective of con men. The Undersiders had been villains, but they hadn’t been the kind of criminals that we were.
The woman was continuing. “We saw this in her post-Behemoth attacks. For example, the Protectorate had been building an alliance with China until she had forced them to destroy that plane.”
“So she wants to get us fighting,” Chevalier said, stroking his chin.
“Or she wants to use some part of the chaos of fighting her to bring on some bad blood,” Foil said, tapping her fingertips together thoughtfully. “Force us to make a mistake, maybe take out each other, so that folks start feeling some hatred to each other. Then let that resentment build.”
“No offense,” the US general cut in cautiously, “but the Dragon’s Teeth and the Wardens have enough bad blood as it is.”
Everyone fell silent for a moment. Was that the goal? To make old resentments build into an all-out war somehow? No, that didn’t sit right.
Legend looked directly at me. “You look like you want to say something, Relentless. Do you have anything to add to the conversation.”
I was glad that they could only see my mouth. I could keep my stance neutral, I could keep the lower half of my face even, but my eyes would have given me away immediately. Here I was, my stomach doing a slow roll again as all eyes went on me. And they all were going to hate me.
“I do,” I said, putting on a Danish accent. “You will not like what I am thinking, though.”
“Spit it out,” Bitch growled.
I looked Legend directly in the eyes. “Protocols are being ignored. People who have had sufficient exposure to the Simurgh during Gold Morning should stand down immediately before they have more exposure.”
I could feel the temperature lower as the blood in everyone’s veins dropped.
“Excuse me?” the US general said, bristling. “What exactly are you saying?”
At least I had their previous conversations to back me up. “Many here have had long exposure to the Simurgh. We all know that it can get in people’s heads. During Gold Morning, there was not the chance to ensure that those exposed to her were not affected. After Gold Morning, there was one crisis after another. There were so many things that needed done, and so few showed direct influence by the Simurgh’s traditional mind-altering abilities, that most of you did not have proper checking.”
“He’s right,” Parian said softly. “I haven’t. Have you?”
The Dragon’s Teeth general turned away, getting out a radio. I couldn’t make out what he was saying as he walked away, but he sounded damn angry.
“You can’t be serious,” the U.S. general said, looking at Parian as if she were crazy.
John snorted, shaking his head dismissively. “You’re the one being dumb. This is exactly what the flying bitch wants.”
Everyone turned to look at him. Great, they were only going to encourage him, and he was only getting warmed up. “What? Are you all blind? Relentless just solved the riddle for you. No matter what we do, we’re fucked now.
“She wanted us together. Why? Because of this very conversation.” John walked up to Chevalier, pointing at the hero. Did he not realize the people that we were surrounded by, or did he just not care? “You all have two options, and they’re very, very dangerous options now. You have no idea how rightfully screwed we all are because you all didn’t stop and think about the things from the past that could haunt us while dealing with everything that was currently going on.”
“Archimedes,” I said sternly, still keeping my accent. “Show them the respect that they deserve.”
“No,” Tattletale said weakly, just loud enough for everyone to hear her. I looked, and her face was white as a ghost. “No, I think we all need to hear it.”
John nodded, smirking a little. He was loving this. “The way that I see it? She’s set things up so that we have two options. The first is that we cast doubt on everyone who was around her when she was hanging out during Gold Morning. Even after you get everyone checked, people will always have those nagging questions in the back of their minds… Are they affected? How many of their decisions were legitimate, and how many were caused by her influence? Are they trustable?”
A doorway opened in the air and Valkyrie stepped through. By her posture, she was ready to give a report. When she saw the attitude of everyone, though, she paused to listen.
“The other is that you bury what Relentless just said. Pretend that it never happened, and quietly get yourselves checked. But the thing is… Which one of you is Alcott?”
Dinah set her tea down and lifted her hand a little.
“What are the odds of it coming out eventually if they try to bury what Relentless said?”
It struck me suddenly, in that strangely detached way, that all of us were in the perfect position to play our roles with such minimal time to prepare ourselves for them. We were used to giving and using fake names, to coming up with a role to play on the fly and sticking with it.
Dinah frowned. “Ninety-seven point four three one six.”
John looked directly at the frowning US general. “That’s almost an absolute guarantee that somehow people discover that you knew that people here, people in your command or your superiors, or even yourself, that they might be ticking time bombs… and you did nothing.”
“He’s right,” Tattletale said, bushing a lock of hair away from her face. “We’re finally getting back on track. A great deal of the leaders of the Dragon’s Teeth were exposed. I was exposed for far too long. Almost everyone of note has had far too much exposure to her. How do we know that she hasn’t set something up?”
John nodded. “How do we know that she couldn’t finish a job that she had prepared earlier?”
“Archimedes,” Kathy snapped, making John jump. She glanced to me, tilting her head to the side. What…?
Right. I nodded my head once, and she approached the US general.
“Sir. I understand how difficult this might be, but I can see one way to get through this with as much dignity as possible. Step aside for now, and request that Thinkers check you over as soon as possible. Then claim that you have been aware of the risk and have been getting checked periodically over the years in order to ensure your own safety, as well as seeing a psychologist. That all of you, as a group, discussed the possibility that further exposure to the Simurgh could compromise you, and that, as a whole, you decided to step aside.
“With that, begin a sweeping check of everyone here, regardless if they were exposed to the Simurgh previously or not. Demand time with a psychologist for each of them, to help ease the minds of those who don’t necessarily trust parahumans. And then plan accordingly — prepare others to take charge if another incident happens like this one.”
The general frowned, but he was caving in slowly. “There aren’t enough shrinks to go around. Not for everyone that was exposed to her back then. Let alone Thinkers who can help.”
“They’re right,” Legend said, though he obviously didn’t like it. “We can either watch everything that we’ve worked for crumble around us, or we can spend years performing checks to make sure.”
The Dragon’s Teeth general returned at last, approaching Valkyrie. “I’m stepping down from control over my forces for this operation. I have a Commander on the West Coast who was never exposed, and he has an armband on. Could you…” He paused, as if trying to remember the words. “Could you doorway him, please?”
Valkyrie nodded, but held up a finger for him to wait. “So you’re suggesting that we just… walk away from this fight?”
I shook my head. “No. Even if you are compromised, I think that you would be helpful for advice. You have far more experience than us. Ultimately, whomever you choose would have to understand that they can not completely trust your judgment.”
John looked to me. “Sir? I’m afraid that I’ll have to step down as well.”
I nodded once, and he smiled at everyone. As he moved to stand behind me, the mouth portion of his helmet closed, and I hear him whisper over his comms. “Great, now I’m pants-shittingly terrified for the third time today.”
Bitch looked at the boy in his late teens next to her. “Explain.”
“Wing bitch fucks with your head. Your head might already be fucked with.”
He shrugged. “I’m with ya, Mom. But other folks don’t know that for sure. So you step aside for a bit until they can prove it to folks. That way, we can still kick ass. It’s a compromise.”
That was a weird exchange. From my understanding, Bitch was horribly uneducated, horrible with other people, brutal and brutish, but not a complete simpleton. Was there something else going on here that I didn’t know about? Something to do with her? With her son? Or was it something else? I simply didn’t know, and didn’t have time to figure it out right now. At least she wasn’t kicking things. Well, not yet, at least.
Bitch’s frown deepened as she looked over to me. “I hate compromises.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, bowing my head.
“I won’t do this again for you. I won’t sit on my ass again, understand?”
Thank god. I looked up at her and nodded. “I understand. Thank you.”
She looked over at her son. “Fuck this up, and I’ll kick your ass.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
The US general sighed softly. “Alright. Fine. But we can’t just transfer command instantly. You’ll have to give me a few minutes that we really don’t have.”
“It’s better than the alternative, sir. Thank you.” As everyone broke to make arrangements as quickly as possible, I looked up at a corner of my HUD and blinked twice to make my own mouth guard close. “I’m sorry, Defiant and Dragon. The same will go for the two of you.”
“We were mostly here for an advisory role anyway,” Dragon said as Defiant’s own helmet closed.
“That was fucking awesome,” Emi whispered. I doubted that she needed to with her helmet closed, but I wasn’t going to correct her.
“Not really,” Defiant confessed. “We all should have been thinking of this a long time ago. With so many other things going on, I guess nobody thought of it.”
“People did,” Brenda corrected. “A lot of people did, by some of the futures that I’m seeing, and I can see about three hours even after the worst of the battles are over. There have been a lot of people who thought about it, but didn’t say anything because they were afraid or weren’t in a position to do something about it.”
That got Dragon’s attention. “If you can give us a list of notable people so that we can see about making them a priority?”
“For a few, sure. It’s hard, since I don’t know these people.”
Kathy’s voice joined the conversation. “Do we win?”
“Eventually. In the worst case scenarios, Jordan remains quiet and we lose a lot of people. She tears through everyone because of how we fight her, and ends up getting close enough to New Brockton to see it. Then, we either figure it out, or she just gives up on her own.”
“She gives up?”
Defiant spoke quickly and crisply. “Given intelligence by Tattletale, the Endbringers never ended up showing us their full capabilities. They were more powerful than anyone thought, to the point that we never should have been able to drive them off on our own. Any time that we thought that we defeated an Endbringer and drove them off, they didn’t need to. Not really. Until Scion killed Behemoth, they would feign weakness. We still don’t know why.”
“I’ve gotten into conversations about this with Tattletale a few thousand times,” Brenda said, even as she held up a finger and turned away, acting like she was talking with someone over the radio. “They aren’t human, and they have never been human. They’re something else, possibly passengers themselves or pieces of them. There’s been a lot of theories that she’s talked about, but we agree that they probably don’t think like humans do.”
John scoffed. “You’re getting along with Tattletale? There’s practically legends about how she gets under people’s skin.”
Brenda’s free hand was moving as if she was deep in conversation, but it ran opposite of what she was saying. “I’ve shot her billions of times. And that’s not hyperbole. Also, I really like this spear. Can I keep it?”
“Sure,” Kathy said. Had it been any other circumstance, she might have sounded amused. This wasn’t an amused situation, though. She still had a slightly stern edge to her voice. “What’s the situation with these possible futures? What are you seeing? How are we going to do?”
Good question. I was curious about what those threads were telling her.
“It’s both good and bad. People are going to die no matter what. Some go missing. I don’t want to give too much direct advice, because you all start leaning on me too much, and things go horribly wrong when I start picking the wrong threads to follow.”
That had to suck. To see so many threads, so many possible pathways to the future, but knowing that they weren’t completely accurate. Having to pick and choose lines hoping they were right, based on the commonalities between them rather than just being able to pick an optimal one. And to see exactly how it all went wrong if she picked the wrong one, or didn’t communicate it right.
“John, you did good with your little thing. I would have stepped in if you didn’t. Not the best, but you played your part nicely. Removing yourself saved an entire argument that could have turned ugly.
“Jordan, speak up. No matter what you say, things get a little bit easier when you aren’t a chicken. You never throw up, and you keep it together. No matter how they take what you say, even if they reject it, you speak like someone who has put a lot of time and effort into thinking about the Endbringers, when most of them have wanted to forget that they existed, like they were only a thing from the previous age. That helps.
“Kathy. Keep being the voice of reason. You’re in over your head, yeah, but we all are. And I don’t mean the five of us, I mean everyone here. We’re all doing the best we can, even though we’re all scared. Just keep being the second in command who can debate with Relentless but who also knows when to take an order without hesitation.
“Emi… Actually, fuck it. Do whatever. I want to see how this goes.”
Emi snorted, straightening a little even as she cocked her hips a bit. There was a nervous edge to her, though.
“And the two of us?” Dragon asked.
“Trust your experience. Know when to make a sacrifice. It sucks, I know, but it’s the best way to avoid even more agony and suffering. Eventually, get your craft in the air and be ready to join the fray, but stay as far away as possible. And that includes you, Dragon. Distance will be your best friend.”
Defiant was nodding thoughtfully. Finally, he looked in my direction. “Tell me you have another idea that I won’t like.”
I frowned a little. “Yeah. I haven’t even said the full idea that I formed on the ship. And no, you won’t like it. Nobody will.”