I walked up to the young man, more as something to do than anything. Waiting for people to figure out who was going to replace them was painful. I needed to stay focused, to keep the anxiety from eating me alive. Talking would help with that.
“Hej. Are you alright with this?”
The young man looked at me, giving a lopsided grin. “Nope!” He flashed a quick glance to where Bitch was lurking nearby. “But Mom’ll kick my ass if I don’t make sure we’re here, representing. She insists on being a part of it if shit’s going down and we’re involved, but against a flier? Yeah, she’s forced to just stalk around and glare and punch people. Which does shit all.”
I glanced at Bitch, who was sitting on the ground, each arm draped over a different dog. She was probably around twice my age, and while I was sure that I had more technical prowess than her, she was no delicate flower. A big, powerful woman, whose body was built for strength. And she was an Undersider, so I had no doubt that even without her dogs, she had a billion dirty tricks under her belt.
Yeah, without my armor, the idea of taking one of her punches wasn’t an idea that I relished.
I looked back to him, studying him a little more intently. Sixteen, maybe seventeen, with short and spiky dark hair, and animal hide leathers. That smile was still lopsided, but now I was making more out. Like the slight trembling of his left arm, and how his left eyelid was drooping a hair. At the same time, though, his posture and the way that he tilted his head a little was almost like he was compensating for it. He was used to this, and it was nothing to him.
I wasn’t about to ask, though. That would be too distracting for the two of us.
“What is your thinking on this?” I asked.
He grinned a little more. “We got the smarmy winged bitchface moving for the first time in ages. Something’s up, right? We dunno what they ever really wanted, so what’s the point in worrying about it?”
I frowned, but before I could respond, he was continuing. “But the way that I see it, your friend is only half right. I can thinka, like, twenty ways that he could do this easier. She doesn’t have to fight us. She could just drop down outta space like a brick, reach out and stroke someone’s face before they know what’s going on, then shoot off again. Or something, I dunno. But it’d accomplish the same thing. Stroke Tatt’s face, fly off, and bam, everyone’s wondering. Then everyone’s asking about the others who were exposed to her. With that, she’s mind fucked us without having to do anything, really.
“So, mebbe there’s something more here. I dunno, though. I’m no expert or nothin’. I’m a kid who gets to stand next to older folks who know what they’re doing.”
I knew that feeling far too well. I was feeling like the little kid giving orders right now, and things were only going to get worse from here.
On the other hand, though, this guy wasn’t giving himself enough credit. That was a solid line of thought. “If you had to guess. What might that something more be?”
He puffed out his cheeks thoughtfully. “Well. I mean… The last time we pulled anyone together was a shitshow. Y’know, Aggie?” I tilted my head. “Agamemnon?”
Ah, that. I nodded a little.
His lopsided grin grew a little more. “Yeah. Like now, we had time to set up, we had time to make a plan, but it was all dumb like. Twenty years without thinking about this shit, we had no clue what we was doing. Now look at us. Until that mind fuck on us, we had shit locked down. I was watching as there was people talking, and not just all crazy-like. Like, hearing out what folks at the bottom are seeing, but only when it matters, then making sure that it gets shared with everyone else. Like, they were acting like they could handle this. That make sense?”
I nodded again. “Everyone is more organized than against Agamemnon. Clear lines of communication, planning avenues of attack, gathering intelligence and spreading it to the groups who need it.” Hopefully they were briefing latecomers this time.
But the guy was nodding eagerly. “See, that right there. That’s what I’m thinkin’. So I’m thinkin’ more ’bout it, and I’m thinkin’… What if, you know? What if gatherin’ us together was the whole idea? Like…”
He frowned, tapping his fingers together with his left hand. I knew that exercise immediately — it was something to help retain control over your manual dexterity. I was guessing he’d either suffered a bit of brain damage at some point, or maybe a stroke. He did it enough that it became something familiar to him, an unconscious action that he did while under stress.
“Okay, so. See, she goes and hangs out up in space, but she does it… Like, we can see her. We can watch her, while all the others hide and shit. I think mebbe she wants us to see, you know? Otherwise, she’d be on the dark side of the moon or something. Then she comes down and fucks with people’s heads. She’s a control freak, worse than Mom. She wants us to know that she’s in control, that she’s got us.
“But they’re sayin’, they’re sayin’ that Agamemnon isn’t an Endbringer, but it made us respond like it was one. So she’s asserting dominance on us again.”
I took a slow breath. “That is a… very educated assessment.”
The man laughed, shaking his head. I noticed that when he smiled, he didn’t show any teeth. “Naw. I ain’t all that smart, and the only school I been to is the school a life. But we got a few shrinks and shit back home, and sometimes I, y’know, listen. You listen to someone, and some a it sinks in, yeah?”
“Yes.” I didn’t know how to explain that intelligence wasn’t necessarily the same as education to him, not while pretending to be a warrior from Scandinavia. This wasn’t a stupid person. Rough and uneducated, yes, but he’d picked up a lot and could use it. That was frequently more important than someone who had just memorized books.
“Just my thinkin’, though. What do you think?”
“I would prefer not to repeat myself,” I confessed.
He shook his head. “I got no idea what you just said, man. Your accent is thicker than Betty’s thighs.”
I had no idea who that was. I opened my mouth to respond, but Emi was by my side. She hadn’t teleported, I just hadn’t been paying attention. “Relentless, it looks like we’re ready.”
I turned, only to not like what I was seeing. Half of the people here were looking out of place and lost, glancing at their superiors from whatever faction they were from. They looked like how I felt, how Bitch’s son felt, but the difference was that we were hiding it under an armor of confidence. Bitch’s son could admit that he wasn’t ready for this, say that he wasn’t smart or right for this, but he did it under an armor that he could handle literally anything that came his way.
The only one out of the assembled who looked like they were comfortable leading everyone on the battlefield was the Dragon’s Teeth commander. Everyone else was feeling the weight of having to make calls that would be analyzed and scrutinized from here on out. That they were keenly aware of the fact that their words would lead to people’s deaths.
Hopefully, I could help with that. At least the idea of dealing with them was less pants-shittingly terrifying than trying to convince Chevalier or Miss Militia.
As I approached, the US military officer glared at me. “We’re running low on time before she gets to where we’re set up. Unless you want her flying over our people, we need to act soon.”
“Indeed,” I said.
The Dragon’s Teeth Commander, pointed at the table. “At this point, I think that we should cast a wide net. Create a wide array of Blaster and Tinker beams, and then once one hits–”
“Each attempt fails,” Brenda said quickly. “By the time that you cross the beams, she’s already moved to evade. You’ll be chipping at her armor uselessly. And no, you don’t want to bicker with me about my power or else I’ll bring your son’s indiscretions from the last time I met him into the conversation. Each time that I do, it gets ugly. Let’s just avoid it, alright?”
The commander bristled, but the teenage Wardens woman laid a hand on his shoulder. “You can see into the future?”
I could only see Brenda’s lips thanks to her helmet, which looked a lot like mine, as she smiled pleasantly at the Wardens woman. “I’m from the future. I wasn’t even triggered the first time that I went through all this. Each time I travel back, though, things change a bit, so don’t take everything that I say as law.”
“Do we save New Brokton?”
Brenda snorted. “Trust Miss Alcott’s numbers on this one. We’re wasting time, though. Keep focused. Pretend that I’m not here unless I say something. Setting up save points for quick jumps is distracting.”
The Wardens woman frowned, but the U.S. captain looked at me, almost fearfully. “You’re the reason why we’re here instead of better qualified people. Do you have an idea?”
“Yes,” I said with a curt nod of my head.
“And… are you going to tell us?”
I took a slow breath. I lifted my arm and pressed a button, closing the mouth of my helmet for a moment as I pretended to work. “Dragon? I need those video files linked into–”
“Done,” she interrupted. “I’ll work off of context, so just keep doing like you are now.”
The first video came up, taking the entire “surface” of the holographic table as my helmet opened. The Simurgh swooped through Madison, Wisconsin. A black streak shot into the frame, almost too fast to see before slamming into one of the Endbringer’s wings, only to be flung off again. A moment later, a woman jumped off of a building to latch onto one of the larger wings, immediately swinging her axe repeatedly against it. With each swing, the Simurgh gave a scream of pain, thrashing until the woman suddenly exploded.
I tapped a couple of random buttons, and Dragon changed the image for me.
A white streak, plummeting from the sky, striking Leviathan.
The shockwave that accompanied the impact tore through the tower. Superficial features broke away first, followed by the internal structures that had provided structural integrity. The end result was a gradual, almost slow-motion collapse, a lingering view of the Simurgh and Leviathan as they’d been at the moment of impact.
They tilted as the tower did, but neither Endbringer moved. The Simurgh had both feet pressed against Leviathan’s stomach, one hand reaching up to grip his face, the other hand holding the gladius she’d made, buried so deep in Leviathan’s sternum that only a little bit of the handle stuck out.
As the image froze, I looked at everyone and opened the mouth on my helmet again. The Wardens woman looked spooked, the Dragons Teeth commander looked confused, but the US captain looked thoughtful.
“What are you trying to get us to see?” the commander asked.
Some distance away, I heard Tattletale give an amused snort, but she didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure if her silence was good or bad.
“Every Endbringer has a certain way of acting, yes? Every one has a way of behaving. Leviathan, a relentless force crashing against you. Behemoth, working to create fear gruesome displays of raw power. Tohu and Bohu, making you fight dark reflections of your allies, making you mistrust your environment. This is how the Endbringers work.
“However, they have particulars as to how they fight as well. The Simurgh more than the others.” I looked down at my arm-mounted computer for a moment. “Dragon? How do you, ah, loop a video?”
“The first one?” her voice asked from the holographic table.
As the first video began to loop again, I looked at everyone else. “While on our way, I spent time reviewing video footage. I have plenty of examples like this one, moments in battle that play out like this.”
Everyone glanced at each other, but it was surprisingly Bitch’s son who spoke up. “Right, uh… I think I’m speakin’ f’r us all when I ask this. What’m I supposed to be seein’ here?”
I nodded. I’d hoped everyone would catch it on their own, but the churning in my gut was because I’d expected them not to. “The streak is Alexandria. We may assume that she weighed 159 pounds, and in this she appears to be flying roughly at a speed of 125 miles per hour. With this, we can estimate that she is impacting with the wing at with enough force to be comparable to megatons.
“By contrast, Axe Wail did not impart even a fraction of that force, and I cannot figure out the explosion off hand, but it still would not compare. At first thought, one would believe that she had struck a sensitive wing. However, the more instances of situations such as this, the more that it bothered me. Not every weak attack that made her recoil made her react like this.”
Bitch’s son snapped his fingers. “So, s’mone weak would attack, and she’d flinch, when someone powerful she shrugged off, yeah?”
I nodded once.
The commander shook his head. “That doesn’t help us, though.”
“I think there’s something here that we aren’t seeing,” the US captain mused. “There’s something here, a key to fighting her, but whatever it is, I can’t put it together. Why would she react like that?”
“Because she wanted to,” the Wardens woman said in a hollow voice. “That second clip, that’s the key. She could have done that thing to Leviathan without all that, but she was putting on a show.”
“Indeed,” I said with a nod. “There was a certain… showmanship to cape culture. India highlighted this, but every culture had it. People became absorbed with the idea of heroes, of villains. Both Leviathan and Behemoth had the effect of aftermath. Leviathan with the horror of sunken landscape, Behemoth with the dead and dying in his wake.
“Simurgh has always been about the aftermath, but that does not inspire fighting. This showmanship helps us now, because we have not been trying to engage her by playing her game.”
The Wardens woman nodded with growing confidence. “It wasn’t every weak attack that made her react, but the desperate ones. The dramatic ones. If you’re right, she’s avoiding our Blasters because there’s no drama there. There’s no desperate fight for a city. There’s no person committing to a final attack. It’s just a bunch of people shooting at something in the air.”
The commander was nodding. “I can see it. If you all are right about her accomplishing her goal of casting doubt on East Coast leadership, then now all that she’s waiting for is the right injection of drama.”
“Alright.” The US captain ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not the right guy for that particular kind of bullshit, so you’re gonna have to sell it to me before I commit any of my troops to it.”
Everyone fell silent.
“Dragon,” Brenda said over the comms. “I’m looking ahead again. Yes, headache. Pretty bad. They’re looking at Thinkers for other things. No. I need you to start making some stuff. Private channel for the rest or else we’ll distract them.”
In the back of my head, I could hear Kathy complaining about Thinkers again. I was almost tempted to agree with her.
“Sacrifice,” Bitch’s son said at last. I really wished that everyone would have introduced themselves. “We need a sacrifice.”
The captain blinked at him. “Excuse me?”
The young man shrugged. “Hey, Relentless. How many of those people who got a reaction died?”
“I am not sure,” I confessed. “I am thinking most of them, though, but not all.”
“Right. So, that chick with the axe–”
“Axe Wail,” I corrected.
“–She knew that she was going, so she went out in a blaze, right? I’m willing to guess that the folks who got the biggest reaction were the folks who thought that this was it, or the people with more style than substance or whatever. People who thought, fuck it, I’m not gonna live through this, so I might as well go out in style, yeah? Well… Whomever we send, they gotta be ready for that, have that same mindset, even if they think they’re gonna live.”
“Flash by desperation,” I said softly.
The commander from the Dragon’s Teeth frowned. “I can assign an Endless–”
“Naw,” the teen said quickly. “I know how you guys work. You’ll give ’em, like, some flight thing or some bullshit like that. Or get one that’s dying already or some such. I mean, that’s fine for those other situations, but if we’re gonna do this, we gotta make it desperate.”
His voice took on a sad tone. “Like, not just taking one for the team, but if shit goes south, then they gotta still try and fight to live. Someone who’s being volunteered to die and doesn’t mind it? Not gonna make a splash, I think. It’s gotta be someone who isn’t ready to die, who’s gonna give it their all rather than just a token effort.”
They all hesitated. I could see it already in their postures. Nobody was sure they could give that order. Some had never ordered someone to walk to their death, not unless that person was perfectly willing to. The commander didn’t know the local troops. The captain had never been forced to do something like that. The Wardens woman had baggage about it — maybe she had given an order in the past that had killed someone, and now she was put in a position of doing that.
None of them had been prepared to make this sort of decision even ten minutes ago. Sometimes, though, the best answer was to not make the decision.
I walked over to Kathy, unclipping the teleporter from my belt. “I am stepping down from command.”
Kathy’s shoulders dropped, and she almost let go of her spear. “Excuse me?”
I’d made myself clear. Instead of explaining, I turned. “Dragon.”
“I’m printing targeting sensors and a safety line that will connect to your belt already, Relentless. I knew that you’d offer.” Her words were tinged with regret.
John stood up, stalking towards me. “I know that I said that I was staying out of it, but no way in fucking hell.”
“Archimedes,” I said warningly.
“No!” he barked angrily. “You… We need someone who isn’t a para leading us. That’s the entire point of this organization, right? And you’re the only one qualified.”
“Ask Jordan,” I said firmly. “Or any number of people. If I die, then there should be interest in joining.”
“Let him go,” Brenda said soothingly over comms. “Even when it fails miserably, it helps.”
Kathy slowly reached out to take the teleporter from me before offering a salute. It didn’t look right. It didn’t feel right. Even still, I returned it, feeling my stomach finally unclench.
“Work with them. I want plans in case this doesn’t work.”
“Yes, sir.” Her voice was tight. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
“No you will not. I am not planning on dying here.” I’d already died once. That should be enough for a while. I turned back to the others. “Let us figure out how to get me to her.”
Bitch’s son shook his head. “You, and not any of your crew?”
“I do not ask my squad to do anything that I am unwilling to. We can debate it when we see each other again. Let us get to work.”
The sad part was that this was the easiest thing that I’d done today.