“I’m not seeing a flight system in your armor,” the commander from the Dragon’s Teeth said thoughtfully. “If you’re going to be personally delivering the targeting system, then you’re going to need some way to be deployed directly to the Simurgh.”
It was interesting. Bitch’s son, the captain from the USA, and the Wardens rep were still looking at me like I was crazy, which admittedly wasn’t outside the realm of possibility at the moment. Was it crazy for wanting to take the fight to the Simurgh, knowing that you might die in the process? Sure. But it was a little crazy to be a town guard, a Warden, or a DT Trooper. Any day you might die or worse, and anyone who told themselves differently was crazy.
But just getting out of bed that day, people ran the risk of dying or worse. Death and pain were a part of life, and you couldn’t avoid them. But when something was bigger than a single life, when your actions could impact multiple lives, changing them for the better, it made the more immediate risks worth it. And keeping others, an entire city, from being Simurgh-bombed was so much bigger than the lives of everyone standing here at the moment.
Only the commander, my crew, and those who had stepped away from being in command weren’t bothered by it. Chevalier, Legend, and Valkyrie were a short distance away, whispering to each other as they looked at a Tinker tech tablet computer. The Indian DT General was standing at parade rest, the turban that he wore somehow making him look even more dignified and determined. Dragon and Defiant were facing each other, most likely talking as their craft produced the gear that I’d need, but with Defiant’s helmet sealed, I couldn’t hear anything.
Bitch was staring at her son intently, scrutinizing everything that he did. Miss Militia was moving between the various groups, returning to talk to her superior in the US Army; no doubt, she was trying to keep up to date on everything that was going on. Foil had her arms folded over her chest, while Parian… Well, her dress and mask hid everything that she was doing. Miss Alcott and Miss Wilbourn were… drinking tea.
None of them were so much as raising an eyebrow over me going to do this. They all understood. None of the others were used to asking others to sacrifice themselves. None of the others had been there for Gold Morning, watching people fling themselves uselessly at Scion.
Neither had I, true. But at least I understood it.
Kathy was doing something with her arm-mounted computer, her own helmet closed. John was pacing back and forth, but that was part of the act; his outburst had been part of it as well, playing the role that we’d laid out. Emi was bouncing on the balls of her feet, a bundle of infinite energy, anxious and eager to unleash herself at a moment’s notice. Brenda was content to stand in the background, looking mysterious. She would move to look at someone only when they glanced at her, causing them to look away quickly.
I hated to admit it, but Alcott was doing better at the whole mysterious woman thing than Brenda was.
The DT Commander continued. “I can have a couple of our flyers–”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I am sorry, but we can not do that.”
“There’s some suggestion that Simurgh can mess with electronic systems,” Legend called out from his corner. “It’s better if you use a para Mover.”
The US Captain turned to look at his own superiors. “Don’t we have a few flyers here?”
“Only one who could get him there,” Miss Militia said. “Corporal Jennings. She–”
“Hey!” Bitch’s son barked. “Excuse me. We’ll do a tradeoff. Something really dramatic, like my guy grabs him, then your guy–”
“Woman,” Miss Militia corrected.
“Your *person*, whatever.” He rolled his eyes. “Fucking PC bullshit. Anyway, my person grabs him, hauls him up, then tosses him. Your *person* snatches him out of the air. That sound good?”
“It sounds needlessly complicated,” the DT commander growled.
“Complicated’s good,” the captain said. “Make it flashy and showy. If we’re right about her liking drama, and I’m still not sure if I buy it or not, but if we’re right, then having something complicated is a good thing.”
“Then we kick it up a notch,” Kathy said, finally looking up from what she’d been doing. She turned to me. “Sir. Dragon gave me access to the Wardens here. I have someone who can launch you into the air. The flyer from the Sons of Bitch would grab you at the highest point, carry you a good ways, and then trade you off to the US para.”
She turned to look between the captain and their commanding officers. “How strong or fast is your para?”
Miss Militia’s lips quirked. “Not quite as fast as Alexandria was, but she was known as Bullet back in the day. She once launched canon balls at a Tinker robot in Boston.”
“Good enough.” Kathy looked to Bitch’s son. “And your Mover? Will they be alright with that?”
“They can do a snatch and grab, yeah. Sure. I mean, they ain’t gonna *like* it none, and might call me a few dirty names and shit for makin’ ’em do it, but fuck it. Fuck ’em, kill ’em, ‘n eat ’em.”
Um, gross. But I didn’t so much as even twitch. Don’t react, keep in the role.
“What about afterwards?” Emi asked. “No offense, but for some dumb reason I like this big lug, and I don’t wanna see him be a burn mark on Winged Bitch’s skin or a splat stain on the ground.”
“Then we’ll catch him when he’s done,” the DT commander said. “We’ll have a flight team in place, trailing behind. They aren’t the fastest, but having a wing desperately trying to get to him is dramatic, right?”
The Wardens woman looked to Parian. “I know that all of you are supposed to be staying out of it, but is there any chance that we could have some of your giant stuffed animals to catch him, just in case?”
Parian shook her head slowly. “They don’t move very fast. I don’t think that I could unless you could tell me in advance exactly where he’d come down.”
“I can help with that,” Valkyrie announced. Everyone turned to look at her. “I would offer to doorway Relentless directly to the Simurgh, but I do not believe that it would be dramatic enough. However, it would be trivial to have a doorway open to the general area that he would fall to, and allow you to place your animals there.”
“I’m supposed to be staying out of it too,” Parian said offhandedly. “So I don’t think it’s a big deal. But yeah, that solves that problem. Let me go see if I can combine a couple into something better.” With that, she turned to hurry away, Foil hurrying to catch up and whisper to her.
The US captain spoke up. “I’m a little worried about what Schrödinger said. Something about when it doesn’t work.”
“It still helps,” I reminded him.
Brenda shook her head. “It’s not as cut and dry as you think. No, the targeting doesn’t always work. I’ve been through this fight, oh, about fifty or so times, and it works about half of the time. However, since we’ve started doing this, the Simurgh never reaches Brockton Bay.”
The Wardens woman was looking at her intently. “So, you could go to the end of this fight and let us know if a plan works or not?”
“Kind of. There’s a bit of quantum variation each time. I’ve talked with Miss Alcott extensively about my power–”
“I’ve never seen you before,” Dinah Alcott said flatly.
“Of course not! Do you think I’m going to waste a years pay on you?” Brenda snorted. “I rewind time, remember?” She was doing a good job of playing this up.
“Anyway, every time that I go back, even telling you to follow a plan causes some variation that I can’t account for. It’s a butterfly effect in action. Usually, it’s a small variation, but there was one where I said to go through with the plan and even though it was the same plan, it ended with half of the people here wiped out. In that one, I ended up killing Tattletale myself, but she shot me in the process. I’m fairly certain that I would have died if I hadn’t restored from a save point.”
Everybody looked to Tattletale, who raised an eyebrow. I noticed that she didn’t take her eyes off of Brenda, though.
“She has a holdout,” Brenda said offhandedly. “She isn’t naturally that busty.”
“Miss Wilbourn,” the US captain said firmly. “If you could relinquish that weapon until we confirm that you’re not influenced by the Simurgh?”
Now Wilbourn’s lips became a thin perturbed line. I turned, preparing to raise my spear if need be. The weight was different from what I was used to, but at least it was still the shaft that I’d always been using. A bit of comfort in my hands.
“Please,” Brenda said, flashing an almost vulpine grin at the Undersider. “You’ll still be armed with your greatest weapon. Nobody can take that away from you.”
There was a moment’s hesitation before Wilbourn suddenly smirked and undid the top button of her blouse. Thank goodness. “If it helps us win,” she said in a downright chipper tone.
Which brought my fear straight back. The tales of Wilbourn when she smiled like that were legendary, and not in a good way.
“That said,” she continued as she fished out the derringer. “How many of the others are dangerous?”
Brenda shrugged, her fingers dancing in the air oddly. “In the right circumstances, everyone here. Even me. The only one that I trust completely right now is Relentless, and that’s because he has his mission objective in sight. When he loses both limbs, he still finds a way to hurt the Simurgh.”
“I see,” Tattletale said thoughtfully. “I… I see. So, what about my village?”
Brenda waved her hand before touching her chin, her posture strange. “Tall and proud. When all is said and done, it’s protected, the enemy defeated, and you’re happy.”
It finally hit me what was going on. The conversation that we were hearing was a front — Brenda was communicating with Tattletale in a way that only she could understand thanks to her power. New Brockton was far bigger than any village. Each of their words was carefully chosen to mean something far different from what they were actually saying.
“We don’t have time for this,” I growled. I turned to the others. “Are you all fine with the plan?”
Emi snorted. “What? You running into something dangerous without the slightest care for your personal safety, where eleventy bajillion things could go wrong, and Miss I Can’t Tell You Everything there openly saying you could die, with the rest of us sitting here worried about you? C’mon, man! This is Tuesday for us.”
“It’s Thursday,” I deadpanned.
Brenda bounced, grinning wider than her helmet let me see. “Woo! Special day!”
“The gear is ready,” Dragon said. I turned to look — neither she nor Defiant had moved, but I could see a couple of Dragon’s Teeth that weren’t in armor hurrying towards us carrying everything. “Four targeting beacons, a new head for your spear, and a spool that will connect to your belt and the head so that you don’t have to worry about falling off of her before you can attach the beacons.”
I nodded once, turning to Kathy. “Coordinate. Help them plan.”
She nodded, but her voice was tight. “Ten-four. Good hunting, sir.”
It bothered her. This entire thing bothered her. But she was holding up well. Hopefully, she’d be able to help, but really, what were any of us supposed to do? The people who were in the best positions to be in charge couldn’t be, leaving only two people who had any right. The rest of us shouldn’t have even been involved with the planning at all.
This entire situation was bullshit, plain and simple. But what could we do? I couldn’t very well speak out against it, could I? I was the one responsible for it. At least I didn’t have to pull a Legend and give some sort of speech. Fighting the Simurgh was better than that.
I turned, and marched towards Dragon and Defiant. By the time that I got there, they were already taking the gear.
“I’d rather you have a harness,” Defiant said quietly, “but we just don’t have time. The spearhead works like both the blade that I made you and your normal spearhead — it’s a short-term nanothorn generator. This differs in that it will create spikes that should bind into the Simurgh’s flesh. It shouldn’t be detached without either massive damage to it, the surrounding tissue, or unless you activate the spearhead again.
“The nanobundle fiber of the cord should hold up to almost anything, but it is far from indestructible. It should hold through quite a bit without breaking. The beacons operate on the same principle as the spearhead, but are designed for single-use. Slam them against her body, and they will activate, mounting themselves.”
Dragon started clipping on the beacons. Emi should have been doing that, but… Well, I had to swallow my preference for traditions. The small chestplate that I wore had two knife sheaths — one for the knife that Chris had made, and one for a nanothorn blade. Another thing that I wished that I’d had time to study and play with more.
I still didn’t really get why Defiant had fought me, especially since it had wasted so much time that we desperately needed, but I didn’t have time to think about it even now. There was too much to do, and not enough time to do it in.
“How are you feeling?” Dragon asked.
“Nervous,” I lied, keeping my accent up. I wasn’t sure who was listening. Honestly, I wasn’t feeling much at all but a slight tingle of anticipation. “But not in a bad way.”
“Good,” Defiant said firmly. “Nervous on your first major assignment is good, so long as you keep it under control. Fear is good, too, for the same reason. So long as you don’t let it rule you and use it to keep you sharp, it’s not nearly as bad as most people make it out to be. And I know you, you’ll use your nervousness to fight harder.”
That seemed… strange, coming from him. It took me a moment to realize it: Armsmaster had lead a PRT strike team, back before he’d been assigned to Brockton Bay, before he’d betrayed everyone for his own glory and had been forced to become Defiant to chase the Slaughterhouse Nine. He’d probably had to give brief pep talks to newer members now and then in order to keep them steady.
I didn’t need a pep talk. I was cool and collected. But the others? They needed to hear it, most likely. He was talking to me, but he was saying it for them.
When I turned back around so Dragon could attach the first nanothorn spearhead to my back, nobody that had needed to hear it was paying attention. Everyone was arranging our gamble, speaking into their armbands while throwing occasional glances in my direction.
One by one, though, people looked up to me. I waited until Bitch’s son glanced up, giving me a lopsided grin, before stepping towards them again. I was halted in my tracks, though, by a doorway unfolding in thin air next to Valkyrie. I could see plenty of people milling about on the other side.
“Won’t you join me?” she asked, motioning to it.
Not like I had much of a choice. I nodded once, and as I stepped through, she fell in line next to me. On the other side, though, she took the lead, knowing where they were going apparently.
I’d learned that she didn’t have all the same advantages as Cauldron once had, back before it had been destroyed. She could doorway people anywhere only to select locations that she knew. She got around this by the armbands that everyone was wearing — they had some sort of location transponder that tied into her armband. Using that, she was able to set a doorway near their location.
But she was walking like we had a bit of a hike. I knew what was coming, and I’d rather be in the fight already.
“It’s a shame that Jordan didn’t come,” she said, an odd tone to her voice. “I’ve had a great deal to talk with him about for quite some time now.”
“I suspects that he did not want to talk with you.” Was tacking on a superfluous plural there good for the accent? I wasn’t sure.
“I would imagine that he thinks that I want to ask him questions about New Fairfax, or even to arrest him. But I think that he’d find that what I want to discuss with him is different from what he suspects. Oh well.” She looked at me. “Perhaps, after this, you and I could sit down and have a chat? Mayhaps over a glass of mulled wine?”
Crap, was she flirting with me?
No. Now I felt a tinge of fear. She wasn’t fooled by any of this, not in the slightest. Why were we doing this, then? What was the point of me going through this whole charade if she saw right through it? And what the hell did she want to talk to me about so very fucking badly?
I didn’t know, and I wasn’t in any hurry to find out. I hoped that I never would, either.
“Perhaps.” That was a nice and neutral statement, yes.
We began to approach a group of people, though, and my heart began to get tight. Even more so as one woman in particular turned to face us. She wasn’t a small woman, but it wasn’t obesity. Nor was it heavy musculature, just on the side of hefty. Most people these days would have found it attractive, even if she didn’t have a lot going on in the chest area.
Her armor was a particular blue and red, with only the vestige pieces of standard Warden leather armor thrown over it. It was tight, almost skin tight, but with enough flex and give that she could move comfortably. It was like a thick canvas cloth with seams but no visible zipper. Running up and down her arms was a strange framework of braces. She’d already tucked the gloves easily into her belt, that had a circular white buckle. The same white spot was in the center of her chest. To top it all off, her helmet was perfectly smooth, seeming to cover her entire head seamlessly, leaving no part of her skin beyond her hands uncovered.
There was a part of me that wanted to scream, and by the way that she jolted and stood up even straighter, I could tell that Sarah felt the same way.