I tried to move my head, only to feel a sharp jerk from my helmet. Seriously?! I nabbed another fire pellet and slammed it into my neck. That black ichor was still trying to get at me. It just would not give up.
The para who was responsible was dead. Or, at least, his human body was dead. There was the possibility that his passenger was keeping him alive through the black goop. Maybe he’d try and hijack someone through it, but it was hard to tell. I’d assumed it was armor at first, until he threw up more of it and chucked it at me.
Because of course someone had a power that made them throw up black goop that…
Actually, I didn’t even know what it did. It could move, and it wanted to do something to me, but beyond that…
One of Nexus’ mercenaries approached slowly, still breathing heavily. As she drew closer, she lifted a hand slowly. “I believe that the fight is over.”
Oh, I was still crouched and ready to attack. I relaxed, testing my head. Everything was fine now. Apparently the ooze had already burned off. Small favors. “How does the rest of the town look?”
“Not too many injured. We’ll be seeing to the wounded until others can arrive to help.”
I jerked my thumb at the workshop. “Hopefully Abrams has his medkit stuff. Better than bandages.”
“I’m already raiding the Dragon’s Teeth,” Lacuna said over my radio. “Schrodinger told me where to get some of that gel stuff. Why the hell didn’t you tell us about this stuff when your back was shredded?”
My back got shredded? I put a finger to my helmet. “We’ll discuss it later.”
“Abrams?” the merc asked.
“Inside, along with a member of the Dragon’s Teeth.
“How’s your squad?”
“As of a few minutes ago, they all were doing alright.” I looked around. “These wildlings—“
“They aren’t wildlings,” she interrupted, looking around. “We’ve seen them before when Teacher does something like this, and it’s always unnerving. Thankfully, wildlings have reproductive organs, so it’s a little easier to tell.”
I was glad to see that someone else checked that sort of thing, even though I wasn’t aware that there were those that didn’t have them. Still, it was vaguely unnerving that he would do something like this. Unfortunately, it made sense. He could use them as weapons of terror, and psychological warfare was still warfare.
Still, there was plenty that weighed heavily on me. “If Teacher made Agamemnon and Medusa—“
“No,” Amaia said. Amaia! That was her name, right? “I know what you are thinking, and no. I’m familiar enough with how he operates to know that he would not create them just to use as distractions for something like this. If he did create them, then he would have released them for a different reason, but planned all his other activities around it.”
“If you’re going to have a huge reaction to something, why not use it?”
I nodded as I made my way through the warzone I’d just fought in. It made a sick sort of sense. Bastard.
There was a young woman, maybe fourteen, whose breaths were coming in quick, staccato pants. She’d got into shock rather quickly after I’d cut off her legs, and chances were that she wasn’t going to live much longer. She’d been bleeding out for a bit now.
I drew my pistol, calmly removing the magazine and trading it from a pouch for a new one. I’d police my brass later. I slammed the new mag home and gripped the slide—
Only for Amaia to grab my wrist, her eyes dark and dangerous under the platinum blonde bangs that clung to her face with sweat. “What are you doing?”
“What Nexus asked,” I replied coolly.
“And what did he ask, precisely?”
I looked at her, a weight settling on my chest. “Dead or alive. And with how he’s tortured people for this information…”
“Nexus is many things,” she said with rising malice, “but he isn’t a torturer.”
“Do you forget how he makes his money?”
“No, but he lets the druggies interpret his orders however they will. Those that use torture lose his favor, and those who find ways around it gain it.” Her eyes narrowed even further. “You are falling into the trap of his power.”
I tilted my head curiously. Thankfully, she took the hint.
“His power is… inaccurate. You must never rely on it for details, as it is heavily shaped by your own perceptions. You see a man obsessed with Teacher, and so whenever Teacher is mentioned, your perceptions are influenced by that. You expect him to want his revenge on Teacher through the Students, so your communications with him make it seem like he will torture them for information.
“Students are victims, even if they walked into his influence willingly. Even should Teacher’s power wear off, they are now so brainwashed they aren’t capable of breaking free from his control without significant deprogramming. Something that Nexus spends quite a bit of resources trying to do.”
Fuck. Me. I’d been willing to kill these people because it was a better fate, but if he worked to help them get better…
I dropped to one knee, pulling the medkit from the small of my back. “Four gunshot victims, eight amputees. Check them, stat. Lacuna!” The suit’s on-board computers would automatically direct the message to her. “Once you get those med kits, head to the Abrams workshop. Careful of the Dragon’s Teeth inside. I want all the students that we can saved.”
“You sure about that, boss?”
I didn’t have enough to even stop all of her bleeding. Hopefully, Chris had more. Please, let him have more…
I watched as a prismatic strands quickly filled in the eye socket. I felt a pang of guilt – I’d used up so much medical supplies on Students, and here these three mercs were, desperately trying to keep the villagers alive and well. My logic had been sound – each Student that survived was a possible source of intelligence that Nexus could use to track down others or to thwart any future plans that Teacher might have. By focusing on them, I would be saving lives in the long run.
That still didn’t make me feel any better about it now.
Solly’s power was interesting. It was a local anesthetic and could stitch wounds together, but I was guessing that it had a deeper, more combat-related element. I could see how it could sink into flesh, ripping and tearing. Perhaps…
I looked over to where Archimedes was holding up part of a wall like it was made of tissue paper. His helmet turn to look behind it. Right.
I hurried over, only to find the fourth, newest member of Nexus’ band of mercs staring up at me in worry, a bonesaw hovering over a man’s leg.
“Sh-shredded,” the medic made out. Unlike the women, he wasn’t wearing plate. His outfit actually reminded me of the Dragon’s Teeth BDUs. “C-can’t stop the bl-bleeding like this. Have… Have t-to…”
I moved quickly, drawing the nanothorn blade from my chest. Wordlessly, I activated it, deactivated it, and offered it to him. He snatched it out from my hand and quickly removed the leg at the knee. He didn’t even look back at me as he held it back up, his free hand going to his pack, no doubt to fish out more bandages.
Some might have thought that he was in shock. They’d be wrong. I knew natural stuttering, and this guy was far too competent and focused right now to be shutting down mentally. This was a man used to seeing blood and moving quickly to save lives.
By the way that he’d looked up at me, though, I was willing to bet that he was also used to having to defend himself for it.
I re-sheathed the blade and stood, putting a finger to my helmet. “Lacuna, tell me there’s more ready.”
“It’s almost ready. Just a few more moments, and I’ll have another batch to bring you.”
Alright, that worked. “He should survive for a few more moments. Sagittarius?”
“I’ve got eight more trees cut down and de-limbed,” she said, a touch breathless. “So long as Archimedes can help, we should have the holes in the wall patched by the end of the day.”
Patched. Not repaired. It would take a bit longer than that to fully repair them, but at least this way…
Movement at my seven. I turned, fully prepared to act if need be, only to find a bloodied man with a bushy red beard and a bit of a belly moving towards me with tears in his eyes. I barely forced myself to relax before he wrapped me in a big bear hug.
Yes. Because I really needed this today.
“Your old man,” Archimedes said, so quietly that the radio almost didn’t transmit. “Tim, your adopted father.”
Oh! Right! Sonic Shaker, slight Mover, worked at the mill as a foreman and used his power to break up logs. Former Ward, opted out of the Behemoth fight. Now I remembered him.
“I was wrong,” the man said as he squeezed me. “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”
I really, really didn’t need this awkwardness.
“Tim,” a dark-haired, slightly chubby woman said as she approached slowly. Her eyes were puffy, like she had only recently stopped crying. Tabitha, AKA Tabby. Blaster, Shaker, stronger Mover. Daughter of a PRT local director. Triggered before Gold Morning, had unkind things to say about Taylor Hebert. My adopted mother.
She laid a hand on her husband’s shoulder, looking up at me with a strange expression. “Thank you, Relentless, for coming to help us.” Her words carried an odd weight to them, but it was enough to pull Tim off of me.
“Just my duty,” I said as firmly as I could.
She looked like she wasn’t sure if she should laugh or cry. “Like I haven’t heard that a million times before.”
With who her mother was, it wouldn’t surprise me. Still, what the hell was I supposed to say to these people? They were from a completely different life that was so different from who I was now… I couldn’t even begin to relate to them.
Thankfully, Tabby filled the silence. “It’s going to take some time for us to get the city situated and safe again. And the people here are going to be on edge for a while, even after help arrives. I was wondering if perhaps we… We could convince you to stay with us? In our home? For at least a few days?”
Lacuna teleported in, a small pot of the wound sealant and disinfectant in her hands. She held it up to me eagerly. Thank goodness for a distraction. I took it, moving to give it to Klightus.
Behind me, I could hear her speaking happily. “Mrs. Abrams! It’s so good to see you again! I wanted to thank you for the hospitality that you showed us while your son was fitting us for our armor.”
What? These were not the kinds of conversations that we should be having right now! No sane person said these things in moments like these.
Wait, no. Lacuna was communicating something. To them, or to me?
As Klightus got to work treating the leg, I stood again slowly. We were planning on staying here soon. But now…
We could stay a little while, at least. I returned to the three of them as Tabby struggled to figure out what to say. I laid my hand on Lacuna’s shoulder as I addressed the two parents.
“On one hand, I would be honored to. On the other hand, I would prefer it if Schrodinger were to stay with you. Her power is quite draining on her, and frequently leaves her in agony and blind for a few hours afterwards.”
I’d stressed blind for a reason – my friends had been employees of Chris’ and there was little doubt that they hadn’t been introduced to his parents. Tim and Tabby would hopefully know who they were with that.
Lacuna put a hand on her hip and took up a cheeky tone. “Relentless here frets on her something fierce, so he’ll be by a lot. Almost constantly, in fact. But she needs someone to help take care of her right now. She’s a whimpering, crying puddle right now.”
Tim frowned deeply, but Tabby’s face was like a wall of neutrality. I couldn’t read anything on it, which told me a lot. “Of course. We’d be happy to.” She looked to me. “We’d like to talk later, if at all possible, but I suppose that your… friend?”
“Teammate,” I clarified.
“Your teammate needs help, and you have work to do.” She turned to Lacuna. “If you could lead the way?”
I wasn’t as good at these situations as they were. Lacuna was a blessing. A small, punchy blessing.
But I had other things to focus on. I looked at my forearm computer and hit a button. “Dragon, would it be too distracting if we talked?”
“No, it’s fine.” She sounded as pleasant as ever. If she was operating multiple iterations of herself that were linked together, even if one was at its max for multitasking, she could still use another. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve won the battle, but Medusa is retreating towards the ocean. Given Agamemnon’s behavior, we expect that she’s trying to escape.”
Small favors. “How bad?”
“My projections were a lot worse. Tattletale says that this was poking us. Seeing how we would respond. Medusa never expected to reach her destination, and once we leveraged enough firepower, she retreated.”
That wasn’t troubling in the slightest. I felt like every other day I was thinking that to myself about something. “Any ETA on when we can get more support here?”
“Not yet. They’re trying to either put her down or get her to release those that she has trapped in her hair. But she’s displayed more powers than those that she trapped.”
I had a bad feeling about that, but it wasn’t quite taking form yet.
“Would you like me to let you know when we do know something?”
“Please. We’ll need doctors, not medics, and people to help fortify in case of another attack before there are defenses in place. And power – Chris Abrams deployed a backup generator, and a member of the Dragon’s Teeth is trying to cobble together more from what he has on hand, but the city is going to be hurting for a while.”
And that was before we figured out what all was destroyed by the EMP. Thank goodness the workshop was essentially a giant faraday cage.
“I’ll pass that along. And Relentless? Colin wanted me to say… Good job.”
Despite everything, that made me smile a little.
The Wardens had arrived before the Dragon’s Teeth. They hadn’t been pleased with showing up, but they’d dove in anyway. The Dragon’s Teeth were far more accommodating. While the troopers weren’t happy, most of the people who arrived were part of the engineering corps or medical personnel. By the end of the day, field hospitals and temporary housing was set up, psychologists were already making the rounds, and power flowed freely through the city again.
Unfortunately, it had meant that I hadn’t slept at all. With the constant buzz of activity, I’d made my own rounds. I sat in meetings, patrolled the perimeter, did some errand boy work, and generally was helpful wherever I could be. It wasn’t until noon the next day before I reminded a captain that while he’d gotten some sleep, I hadn’t. I was quickly granted my own sleeping quarters after that, with a guard posted to prevent anyone from bothering me.
I was back up by six to attend another meeting with the city council. Then I had to deal with my sister showing up to help out – the Wardens hadn’t let her go until they’d taken care of her shoulder. She’d pushed herself too hard in the fighting, but at least she was okay.
The three days passed without any major incident. There were conflicts, of course, but nothing major. People’s nerves were shot after the attack, and the bar was destroyed. Houses had to be torn down. I never understood why people got so attached to a house, but it caused conflict.
We got treated with respect, though. We’d been there, in the thick of it, protecting people. We’d stayed, doing everything that we could to help without question. People had seen that and appreciated it.
Now, three days after the attack, the five of us were sitting in my old room. We’d stolen chairs from the dining room so that we all could sit around my small table, eating MRE stew that John had fixed for us, based on some old post-GM recipes. Thankfully, the few people that we’d told understood that we needed some time to talk in private.
“I’m worried about your brother,” Kathy mused to herself.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “He’s been keeping himself busy, but I’m worried that he’ll blame himself for this when he actually has a chance to process it.”
“That’s not what I meant. I overheard some people blaming him. I’m worried about how that might spread.”
I frowned a bit. That was worrying, but I could see it. In a way, they were right, but it also wasn’t like he’d asked for this to happen.
“No,” John said, pointing at me with his spoon. “You shouldn’t be stressing it. There’s nothing that you can do right now. Other people are going to handle this one. I’ve heard it too, and told that Van Dorn guy. He said that they’d take care of it. So stop stressing. It’s in better hands.”
I took a breath and let it out slow. “Alright. How are you all holding up?”
John grinned a bit. “I hated the fighting, but you know what? Everything else? It feels really good, and not just because a few guys have been showing some interest. Nah, all this feels good. The rebuilding. Before, we were trying to get ourselves sorted, so I never really felt good about what we were doing. Now? Now I feel like I’m making real progress. We’re not only getting this place back on its feet, but it’s going to be better than ever when we’re done.”
Emi smirked. “You do have some decency in you after all!”
He rolled his eyes. “I like tangible things. A promise isn’t as good as a coin, and being told that I helped isn’t as good as seeing how with my own two eyes. If I’m making someone’s life better, I’d rather build them a house than give them money.”
“I’m also enjoying this,” Kathy admitted. “But I didn’t mind the combat so much. Maybe I’m just getting used to it?”
“Does it make me psycho if I enjoyed it?” Emi asked, suddenly almost bashful. “I mean, I feel bad for everyone who got hurt, but…”
“Would you be willing to put innocent people at risk to do it again?” John asked.
She snorted. “Uh, no?”
“Well, there you go!”
My eyes fell to Brenda. She was doing better, but she was playing up to my family that she wasn’t. Not that I blamed her – there wasn’t much that she could do to help out there at the moment. “How are you doing?”
She set her bowl down on the table carefully and sighed, tucking her chin down until it almost touched her chest. “I think… I need to talk about something.”
The air in the room immediately got a little bit heavier as we all recognized the need for a more serious conversation than what we had been.
“You don’t have to,” John said quietly.
“I don’t talk about my past, so—“
“No. This needs… It needs said.”
And then she fell silent. I really didn’t get why someone would do that. Say that a talk was needed, and then not talk. It didn’t make sense to me. When she finally did talk, though, the words seemed to rush out, like if she didn’t say it all fast, she wouldn’t be able to.
“I remember loving him. With all my heart. It wasn’t, like, a physical love. No romance, though if he would have asked, I would have offered myself up to him. It was something else. Not like how I love you all, not like how I loved my family, but it was impossibly strong. I would have died for him.
“And then I came home from study one day and found out that my parents were both going to be used in a great project. Something had happened to both Mom and Dad and neither one of them could have kids any more. I was old enough to take care of myself. They weren’t triggered. They had nothing to exclude themselves from the lottery.
“I spent the rest of the week in a panic. I studied books, I talked to anyone of any importance, trying to find a way, any way, to save them. But on Monday, I still hadn’t found anything. Mom went willingly without a thought to me. She welcomed it. My Dad hugged me and told me to stay strong. I tried to think of something to say that would keep him from going, but…”
She sniffed and wiped at her nose.
“That’s when I triggered. In that moment, I watched, millions of times, as my parents walked. They were put inside of cocoons, and… Well, the cocoons were attached to a much bigger one that was hooked to all sorts of machinery. Sometimes I left, crying. Sometimes I charged and was stopped. Sometimes, I just stood there in horror. Sometimes I tried to say something to make them stop, but as much as they loved me, they loved him more. Every time, the paras tried to figure out who just triggered.
“The possible futures stopped coming when I squeezed my eyes shut, but that’s when I realized something important. That’s when I realized that whatever power made me love him had broken. I hated Teacher now.”
With that one confession, a chill filled the room. Now I understood why she felt like she had to talk about it now when she’d spent so much time desperately avoiding it. I set my bowl on the table, suddenly feeling even worse about the Students that I’d killed.
Nobody dared interrupt her, though.
“So, since that love wasn’t there, I was able to see a lot of stuff more clearly. How we were used and tossed away like cheap garbage. Not then, sorry. Then I just used my power to get away before the other paras figured me out. After I got home, though, I realized that we were all tools. How we were never fed enough because that would require more resources. Only his chosen elite got to eat as much as they liked.
“But I kept going through the motions, despite how much they made my head hurt. I pushed myself so hard, pretending for all those months, no matter how much I wanted to die. I knew that I couldn’t stay. There were… other ways of controlling us.”
“Like Teacher’s power?” Emi asked quietly.
Brenda shook her head. “There’s hundreds of thousands of us. He doesn’t have enough time to use his power on all of us. Especially since he has to be careful about how much he uses it. Conserving the energy of the shards, he called it.”
Shards? That was a new term on me. I kept quiet, though. I could ask later. I had too much churning in the back of my head already.
“Anyway, escape is… Well, they’ve made it so that those of us with clear heads, those who don’t end up whining about not feeling the love anymore and have their heads fucked with in other ways or something, they’ve made it so that it’s hard to escape. It took me months to get an excuse to get close enough to one of the teleporters to use it. My power made it easy. I knew how to get to… Well, anywhere else.
“I figured out how to unlock it, the code to bypass the security measures, how to get it running, how to enter the coordinates. In the time that it took me to actually touch the controls with my real hands, I’d died virtually billions of times from bad teleports before I finally found a branch of futures that let me call up the list of teleport spots. I still died billions of times before I found a good place on an Earth that was heavily populated. And then I figured out how to scrub the system data after I teleported from another branch.”
She smiled sadly, turning her head in Kathy’s direction. “And when I stumbled into a town, I found all of you. Almost a minute of possible futures, and I found the very thin branches where you all told me the truth about who you were. So I… injected myself into the three of you, because I was cold, wet, starving, and sure that my power could keep me safe.”
“And we took you in,” Kathy said, laying a hand on Brenda’s and squeezing it. “And we’ve ever regretted it.”
“That’s a lie,” Brenda said, still smiling. “There were branches… But thank you.”
“You’ve told us this speech before,” John mused, somehow saying it without being accusing.
She nodded in tiny, jerky motions. “Hundreds of times. Sometimes, I would choose a branch and follow it until I was about ready to start saying something, but it never felt right. Or ended up right. There were enough paras around for both our time around Medusa and after the fight here that I was able to see branches that lead to now. I had to guess because it’s hard to remember when you see billions of possible futures, but only certain details actually mattered.”
She turned her head towards John. “Early on, when I’d tell you, you’d force me out. There was still so much that I didn’t understand. My chosen job didn’t involve the outside world, so I was never taught about it. I knew that I wouldn’t survive on my own. I said things without understanding them.
“Now I know what Fyrtorn is, and why me saying that I’d escaped a cult made you all sympathetic. Even though we were kind of a cult. You all initially suspected that I had escaped but didn’t want to be pegged as one because people might come after me. You appreciated the fact that I didn’t want to say anything, because it made me a kindred soul.”
“Thank you,” Emi said quietly. “For lying to us. I… I dunno. But I think that I would have kicked you out if I had. And… I’m glad that I’ve gotten a little sister finally.”
Brenda smiled weakly. “Even if I called your pink panties dumb?”
“My panties are fantastic.”
We all chuckled or giggled over that, even though it wasn’t all that funny. I think that we just needed a release from the seriousness.
As the mood died down, I finally spoke up. “Now for the hard questions.”
Brenda nodded. “Can I guess?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Or cheat with your power. Either way, I don’t mind.”
That got the corners of her lips to twitch upwards for a moment, but it didn’t last. “Yes, both Agamemnon and Medusa are Teacher’s creations. Agamemnon was more of a test to see if we… If they, could make something that big. A crude prototype, if you will. We threw a big celebration when it was stable. The first two weren’t. We were still running tests and hadn’t even done the combat test when work started on Medusa. She was more of a proof of concept. At some point, the Endbringers made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with him, but I don’t know anything more than that. So he’s having to make educated guesses on how to make them.”
“Why?” Emi asked.
“I have no idea.”
“Are your parents part of Medusa?” Kathy asked, her thumb stroking the back of Brenda’s hand.
“Yeah. It’s, uh…” She turned to look at me, opening her eyes. “It’s why I asked you to… To kill her. I want them to be free.”
I nodded a bit. “One way or another, I will.”
“I know you will. I don’t know how, but you’ll do anything to find a way, no matter the cost.” She bit her lip and closed her eyes, tilting her head down. “And, uh, to answer your next question… I’d like that very much. Thank you.”
I was glad that she didn’t make me ask it, though. The others might not have taken it as well as she did, but no matter her answer, I was still going to make another promise to her.
Nobody hurt the people that I cared about and lived.