My sister’s arms hung limply at her sides, but her thumb subtly slipped between her index and middle finger, tilting her head to the side ever so slightly. Surprisingly, it took me a full step to realize what she was saying. The fingers of my free left hand, the hand that wasn’t gripping my halberd, flicked before making a cupping motion three times. She responded by putting her index finger and thumb together before subtly pointing at me. I subtly tilted my hand back and forth. She gave me the barest of nods.
A subtle conversation, but there it was. Sarah had asked if I was operating under duress, and I’d told her no. I’d asked how she was, and she’d told me that she was fine before returning the question. I let her know that the answer to that was complicated, and she accepted it.
The people around her were stepping away slowly, giving us space. There was an unspoken understanding here — the two of us needed some space for this meeting. Unfortunately, they were wrong. Any other situation, and we’d need a few minutes to just talk and make sure that the other was alright. But right now? At least Valkyrie understood the need for priorities.
“Sarah Acone,” Valkyrie said, the air seeming to resonate around her. “This is Relentless, who will be leading an operation that may allow us a better chance against the Simurgh.”
Sarah’s body tensed for a moment, but she recovered fast. “I take it that you’re the one responsible for the shakeup that’s going on?”
“I am sorry if it is inconvenient for you,” I said in an even tone.
I heard her snort, and she nodded. “I take it that you need me for something.”
Valkyrie answered for me. “We’ll be working in tandem with the Dragon’s Teeth and the Sons of Bitch to deliver him to the Simurgh, but we need him to get into the air under other means. We seem to recall that you and your brother used to do something like that.”
Sarah nodded slowly. “Yeah, I can do that.”
“Good.” Valkyrie looked between the two of us. “I would stay to give orders, but I’m not allowed. I have probably overstepped my bounds as it is. Since someone else will let the two of you know when it is time to begin, I will leave you be. We shall talk later, Relentless.”
Her turning round and walking away like that was only another layer in a sandwich of surreal that today was. How could she do that and then walk away with such a bounce in her step, especially when so many people were probably going to die?
Think about how crazy it all was later, focus on the here and now.
I turned back to Sarah, my heart hammering in my chest. The world had gone insane around me, and at some point, I’d gladly waltzed into it. Unfortunately, the craziness that I’d chosen was different from the norm. I should say something, some way to communicate to her while still keeping my cover up, but it just wasn’t coming to me in the heat of the moment. I was choking.
Thankfully, Sarah filled the gap. “Relentless, huh? I take it that you’re here with D&D?”
I nodded once. What had Defiant said? “Our team is a joint unit between both paras and untriggered, outfitted with the best possible gear.” Gear from both Chis and Dragon, which only bewildered me further. “We obey the old rules while still following the modern methodologies.”
“Cool,” she said with a nod.
I heard someone behind us start to say something before getting silenced. I couldn’t make out what the whispers were saying offhand, not with the blood rushing in my ears.
“As much as I’d *love* to talk about it, I don’t think we’ve got the chance at the moment.”
As soon as she said that, the shock over seeing Sarah disappeared and my mind snapped into focus. It hadn’t been a kindness that Valkyrie had put me here with Sarah like this, but a cruel necessity. If John had been here, or even Kathy, they would have been smart enough to guide the conversation, to ensure that we behaved in the best possible ways. But people didn’t understand our group dynamics enough to cover for me, to push me in the right direction.
I had to break Sarah.
“Do not worry about me,” I said calmly. “Focus on getting into the air. The flyers, when they get here, will take care of the rest. Despite not being a para, you will find that I am made of hardier stuff than I look; my cybernetics make me tougher and stronger, which was necessary during an earlier operation. The radiation damage was quite severe.”
That got Sarah’s attention. “R… Radiation damage?”
“Yes. I had to be skinned, and several internal organs replaced. Some of my skin was returned to me, but much of it was cobbled together. Much of my digestive tract, though, had to be replaced by those taken from wildlings. Finding suitable ones, who did not fight us, put the rest of my team at significant risk. And though the wildlings were initially unwilling to leave the location, my team was eventually able to return with over a dozen of them for harvesting.”
I couldn’t see her face with her helmet on, but from the subtle movement of her body, she winced as she understood the lie that I was telling. That they’d gone to St. Louis and had collected some of our wildlings, harvesting their organs to keep me alive. That whatever the newspapers and reports had said about my condition following that first attack against the corrupt Wardens had understated things, that I had taken a greater toll on my body than had been revealed.
She took a slow breath. “And Dragon and Defiant didn’t… help? They have cybernetics and–”
“They were aware,” I said crisply. “But they did not intervene, no.”
Sarah’s helmet moved in small, jerky motions that were almost too small to see. “I… I see. Are you, uh… Are you better now?”
God, I wanted to throw up so badly. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. And yet, the words flowed out from my mouth. “I am… functional. More capable, save for needing some assistance in dealing with wastes, levels of pain that I have grown accustomed to, and the occasional bloody emesis. Fortunately, it does mean that my legs have been reinforced due to the procedures to my skin and veins.”
The clouds far above us were moving, casting the area where the ground-based blasters were occupying in light. Given how I was feeling right now, it seemed ironic.
“Does it hurt?” Sarah asked.
“It is a very unique kind of pain that I live with now,” I lied. “And I am no stranger to pain. But do not worry, it will not slow me down.”
Her voice was so very small. “It won’t, will it?”
I wanted nothing more than to hug her, to let her know that I was spewing bullshit out of my mouth. That I didn’t actually feel any pain, that our wildlings were fine, that I was only saying this for effect. But I couldn’t. I had to keep the effect going. I had to hurt her, and with her, myself.
I was trying to help all of us the way that she’d tried to help me once. God, I wished that I couldn’t remember the day that I left New Brockton.
“My brother,” Sarah said suddenly. “My brother, he’s Jordan. The butcher of New Fairfax. He… The last time that I saw him, he said that he was proud of me for joining the Wardens. It was the first time that I think I’d ever heard him say fuck.”
“I am sure that he is still proud of you.”
“Yeah, but… But I wish almost every damn day that I’d gone with him instead.”
As if I didn’t need another dagger in my chest. “He would not have you.”
“Even now?” she asked quietly.
“No. Not with the path that he walks. Someone should live the dream.”
Sarah’s helmet tilted down for a moment, and I thought that she was going to say something else, but instead she looked up sharply again. But she wasn’t looking at me — she was looking behind me. I turned my head to look, only to find two Wardens, a Dragon’s Teeth trooper with a flight rig, and gauging by the leathers that he wore, a member of the Sons of Bitch.
Right. Time to get back into it. People had cleared out a little, either so that Sarah and I could have some vestiges of privacy or to keep from offending Valkyrie. At least that gave me a little bit of room. I turned and began moving towards them, taking note of Valkyrie still lurking in the background. Fuck it, a little more flash for everyone — I quickly pulled a Steve with my spear, raising my arm as I spun it, letting it roll down my arm, spin around my neck, and into my left hand, where I caught it with a snap.
Studying contact staffs were useless for fighting, but they were handy for intimidation. The angel roll was my personal favorite, but it didn’t work as well when walking, and I couldn’t get the speed that I could get with my Steve variation. I had no idea who Steve was, and quite frankly, I didn’t care. It looked impressive unless someone had a good clue, and that was all that mattered to me.
As I reached the group, a woman from the US military landed rather quite elegantly, falling into a pointless half-crouch with her arms spread, still on the balls of her feet. At least I wasn’t the only one being a dramatic. Good. Someone got the memo.
“You three,” I said, looking between the Wardens and the trooper. “Your roles?”
“When you’re done, we’re catching you,” the trooper said.
“Hopefully we will,” the male Warden said, his chest puffing out. “The trooper here is part of a flight that’s ready for a last-ditch effort if we miss.”
I didn’t miss the mildly snide tone in his voice, and neither did the trooper, but at least she was being silent about it. Something that I could get away with ignoring as I marched up to his face. “Do you have a problem with untriggered people?” I asked evenly, my fake accent as thick as I could make it.
The man looked around as if I was crazy. I was crazy. This entire thing was crazy. Here we all were, getting ready to fight a fifteen foot tall woman with an insane number of wings that was flying through the sky, singing as she went. I was having to focus on trying to be as dramatic as possible, about to be launched into the air by my sister, and depending on people who could fly only due to castoff shards of an alien monster that had been killed over twenty years ago after it had destroyed civilization as we knew it.
If we weren’t living this life, it would be absolutely insane, the blatherings of a madman. But here we were.
“That… That isn’t what I meant,” he stammered out, looking to the other Warden for support. She wasn’t giving it.
“Good,” I said, taking a step back. “Because I am putting my life in your hands. I would not want to think that someone was prejudice against someone like myself that I would have to rely upon so closely. Especially when your armor was not made by paras. Also, it needs oiled.”
He glanced down, but the trooper was already addressing me. “Relentless. Sir. I had a thought.”
I turned to her. “Yes?”
“We can calculate the safe distance to intercept you in freefall, including the minimum before we run the risk of crashing ourselves. I suggest that we place the Wardens halfway between that point and the point where you drop, and ourselves halfway between those two.”
Not necessarily a bad idea… “But you are not knowing when I will disengage from the Simurgh.”
“No, sir. We’d have to constantly be recalculating those two points, trailing behind the Simurgh, in anticipation.”
That… wasn’t exactly ideal. But there wasn’t an ideal scenario in this particular fight. Not if I wanted to live, and part of this plan depended on me fighting with the will to live. We couldn’t afford to play it safe, but we had to act as if me surviving was important.
“Do it. Form up your wing so that you may intercept should the Simurgh avoid my initial attack. We begin momentarily, so I suggest that you hurry.”
She nodded once before turning away. I turned to the Wardens. “Are you two agreeable to this plan?”
“The one that you just committed us to?” the man asked. “I mean, uh, yeah, we’re fine. They can tell us higher or lower through the armbands. Just… We won’t be the closest, you know? We’re gonna try and keep some distance so we don’t get brain fucked by the bitch.”
“Smart. And that is working in our favor. It makes things riskier for me.” It was like playing Russian roulette, only you were making sure that you didn’t know how many bullets were in the gun. Or adding another bullet each time that you didn’t shoot yourself.
“Seriously?” the guy from the Sons of Bitch said, shaking his head. “You’re just… You’re just willing to make things riskier for yourself like that?” He looked around at everyone. “And I’m the only one saying anything about it?! What the fuck?”
I was suddenly aware of Sarah’s presence next to me without having to look at her. I took a slow, deep breath, not bothering to respond. Thankfully, she was falling into the old roles.
“You,” she said, looking at the gal from the US military. “Are you fine with delivering Relentless by yourself?”
“What?” the man asked.
The woman, though, nodded. “If he’s going to be all upset about this, then sure. My superiors approved of using him as a sacrificial lamb, and he seems okay with it. I don’t mind taking him to his doom, though I might have to get, uh, creative about how I get him there to make up for that guy not getting involved.”
“Hey now,” he said quickly. “I never said that I wasn’t going to.”
“We need people who can act without hesitation right now,” Sarah said quickly, fully professional. “We can’t have someone questioning what’s going on.”
“And I am doing what needs to be done,” I said evenly. “There is not a moment where I can afford to be easy on myself right now. The harder, the riskier, the worse, the better it will be for all of us. At least, if our wild guessing is correct. Which it might not be. As she said, I may be going straight into my doom, and it may not help us at all. But it is what we must do now. You can not always do the right thing. Sometimes, you may only do the best thing for the moment. Right now, this is the best that we have.
“Unless, of course, you have a better idea.”
He looked around at everyone else. Peer pressure could be powerful, and the feeling that I got from everyone around us was that they were waiting for him to just get on with it. Nobody wanted to be waiting any longer than necessary. They wanted to be in the fight now, or be somewhere else. There was no in between.
The woman placed her hand on his shoulder. “You tell me when you’re going to drop him, and I’ll be in position to snatch him out of the air.”
He sighed, and a moment later, his feet left the ground. “Just don’t get me with that pigsticker when I catch you.”
Good. That interaction was good. Nice and dramatic, I thought. Did someone prep him for that?
No matter. I turned to Sarah. “Get in position.”
With a nod, she ran a healthy distance away. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, that knot in my gut finally unwinding. This was it. It was finally happening. One way or another, I could deal with this. Either I’d strike a blow against the Simurgh that would help, or I would die a horrible screaming death. Brenda said that I helped even if I failed. That was worth it. So long as it helped people.
I felt like, in many ways, my life had been building to this point. Right here, right now. I had the skills, the will, the determination. It wasn’t like I had been groomed for this, but… If there was such a thing as fate, it was in full effect now. Me and the Simurgh.
I knew, deep within my bones, that we wouldn’t kill her today. I knew from my studies just how powerful the Endbringers were. They were like onions, with each layer getting progressively more durable. Nukes couldn’t kill them. When Scion had destroyed Behemoth, he must have unleashed enough energy to destroy a small planet. So no, we wouldn’t have a decisive victory here.
But we’d still have a victory.
I opened my eyes and yelled as loud as I could. “One for the money!”
Sarah crouched, pulling both arms back. “Two for the show!”
Good. She still remembered. I fell into a running crouch. “Three to get ready!”
She braced herself. “And four to go!”