About Ritic

I'm just this guy.

Manananggal 14.4

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.”

Alright, and?

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?”

“Precisely.”

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?

“Do it!”

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…

“Relentless.”

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?”

What?

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 do.”

“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.”

“You’re welcome.”

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.

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Manananggal 14.A

Yejin stood up as straight as she could, making her back pop. Weren’t you supposed to feel like this when you hit your thirties? She wasn’t that old yet. Maybe it was this protective outfit. Not that she actually minded it – the built-in temperature controls had been a godsend this summer.

Her mom had been an electrical engineer, back in the day. Yejin barely even remembered her these days, but her dad had told her all sorts of stories. He’d wanted her to have a link back to her mother. Maybe a link back to before Gold Morning.

He’d been strangely approving when she’d joined the Dragon’s Teeth. She’d joined for the education opportunities, which were far better than she could hope to get in the dying Yonkers. A portion of her paycheck went to him every month, helping him out in New Brockton. Meanwhile, she got sent all over the place, working as much as she studied.

Not that she didn’t enjoy it. She wasn’t Orphanage-trained or anything, but she’d studied all of the books that she could find to be a little closer to her mom, giving her a serious edge and some early promotions. Now, she got to help study all sorts of neat stuff.

“How’s it going?” Lieutenant Brady asked, making her start.

She put a hand to her chest, and that only got a soft chuckle out of him. “Geeze, I thought you took off with the combat squads.”

“I wish.” The deep scars on his face seemed to almost crawl as he sighed. Aftereffects of a broken power. “I’d give anything to be with them right now, but orders are orders. So here I am, trying to keep myself occupied.”

Which came with the unspoken request to occupy him.

Civilians might think that it was odd that the outpost commander was only a lieutenant, but it wasn’t like officers grew on trees. Brady had been a staff sergeant and an Endless before he’d gotten his commission. He was fair and level-headed, but had a good head for the political side of things. With how pressed they were for outpost commanders, there were far worse choices than Brady.

Even if he was a little creepy to look at.

“Well,” she said with a deep sigh. “Uh, I’m just a first-exam girl. I just get first impressions before they send everything back to the geeks at HQ, so I’m not exactly—“

“I get it,” Brady said, a hint of firmness in his voice. “But you spend days hunched over the stuff that Abrams produces, and what you figure out saves HQ a lot of time. Don’t doubt yourself so much. Your insights are valuable, or else we already would have rotated you back out. Now, what do your fine elven eyes see?”

Lord of the Rings? An odd choice.

“Uh, well… His old designs were all based around, like, washing machine motors and stuff. Those make decent generators, but not always necessary the best.” She looked down at the generator that she’d spent the past week working on. “This uses his room-temperature superconductors in one of the designs that the D.T. developed. So far, the difference is… Well, it’s incredible.”

“How incredible?”

She doubted that he’d understand the actual numbers. He wasn’t an idiot, but he wasn’t specialized in the same things that she was. She laid a hand on the generator that she’d spent all day tweaking. “Well, uh… It’s only about a twenty-eight percent improvement over his usual design, but it’s a good four-hundred percent over our standard model. And this is just my first attempt to incorporate his tech into our mundane stuff. Give this to the people who actually build generators?”

“It’ll only get better, yes.” He stroked his chin. “Only twenty-eight percent? If our design is so much better than the standard…”

She wanted to roll her eyes so bad. Only twenty-eight, and only on her first test. That was a huge improvement! Whatever was going on in these superconductors that allowed that insane rate of energy production was incredible, and he was upset that it was only a quarter-again better than his usual model?!

“This is just a cobbled-together example, sir. I usually install them, not make them. Here.” Yejin moved away from her workstation to retrieve one of the ones shipped to her from the racks. She’d spent forever comparing it to her own work, and knew just how badly she’d done. “I’m just analyzing feasibility. I’ll be honest, I made a lot of mistakes while putting this one together, and—“

Several things happened at once, making it hard for her brain to make each of them out. The lights went out. Her skin got a good ten degrees colder. She felt a shove, and her outfit hardened for a moment.

The generator behind her had exploded.

Yejin whipped around, trying to make out what she could. Despite the generator having exploded, there wasn’t any fire, only a few glowing pieces littering the room. Not nearly enough to see by, especially since emergency lighting wasn’t working. Why did she have to work in an interior room, and not one with a damn window?

There was shouting elsewhere in the building. There was the sound of her own startled breathing over the slight whine in her ears. There was the sound of fizzling components.

There wasn’t the sound of anyone else breathing. Not that she could tell. If she could see Lieutenant Brady…

“L-Lieutenant?” she made out in a half whisper.

The fact that he didn’t answer made her shiver even more. Wait, she was shivering?

It hit her suddenly, cutting through the fog in her head caused by the acrid stench of burning metal. Even the emergency lighting was out. That meant that it had to be a particularly powerful EMP. They were under attack.

Fuck! She wasn’t a trooper! She didn’t…

Protocol. Protocol said that all personnel, troopers or otherwise, were to respond in situations like this. She was only temporary, so she didn’t have a set combat station. They were supposed to call for backup, but with the power out… What was she supposed to do?

Last year, she’d helped set up an outpost in a Florida. She wasn’t sure which one offhand. The armory had electronic locks, but in the event of a complete loss of power, they would disengage and the mechanical lock would be the only thing in the way. The outpost commanding officer would have a key, and if the outpost would big enough, the armorer would, too. And the armorer was never a trooper.

Which meant that they’d still be in town.

Yejin stumbled out into the hall, where there was more light. Her legs felt like jelly, but got stronger with every step until she was running down the stairs. She didn’t want to do this. She wanted to find a place to hide. If there was an attack… She didn’t sign on to fight!

But she found herself standing, wide-eyed, in front of the small armory, with Sergeant Salazar handing her a rifle and a vest already stuffed full of magazines. Her hands were shaking as she quickly put the vest on, trying to figure out what to do.

Staying here seemed like a good idea. But she could already hear gunfire in the city. There wasn’t much point of holding down the outpost if the civilians weren’t coming to it. So should she go out and… what? What was the fucking point?

Christopher Abrams. Tier One asset.

Her assignment briefing flashed back to her. Abrams. If someone was attacking the town, then they were likely going for Abrams. She liked Chris, even if he seemed just a little too desperate to talk to people.

Yes. Protect him.

She hurried out the door, thankful that she was wearing the weird semi-cloth armor he made. Maybe if Lieutenant—

No, don’t think about that.

In the distance, she could see that the west wall was gone. Where it had once stood was a splintered, shouldering mess. How the hell had she not heard that?

What few personnel had been on site were running for the west gate. A part of her wanted to join them, but the entire town was already in chaos. The west wall might have fallen, but there were screams and gunfire in every direction.

A tremor of fear ran through her. What the hell was she doing? She was an overglorified electrician, not a fighter! Sure, she’d gone through basic, and she knew how to shoot a gun even before she’d signed on, but…

Yejin closed her eyes and took a breath. Fear was the mindkiller. She was letting it rule her and cloud her thoughts. Her CO was dead, and more people were going to die. That was inevitable. But maybe she could… Something positive, she didn’t know. But she could do something. She opened her eyes, and started running for Abrams’ workshop. He’d be there right now.

She only made it a block before a lumbering mass of rock moved into view, making her freeze in place again. Whomever this person was, they were easily seven feet tall with large, jagged spikes of granite jutting out of their stone skin. Each step that it took landed audibly. Glowing green eyes fixed themselves on her, and it began to move in her direction.

A person popped into existence next to him, firing two pistols. The armored woman seemed to be ignoring the halberd strapped to her back, instead quickly backing up as she continued to fire.

“We get it!” the woman yelled over her twin guns. “You have a little dick!”

What?

But the monster began to lumber in her direction, ever so slowly. A… distraction? The bullets weren’t doing much, so…

Right. Yejin had a rifle in her hands. She quickly raised it and squeezed the trigger. Nothing. She flicked the safety and squeezed again, this time being rewarded with recoil. The bullet glanced off the body, not that there was much of a way to miss. She actually braced the weapon against her shoulder and fired again, this time hitting the head.

It half glanced at her, but quickly turned back to the woman. How many bullets did those weird guns have?

The question suddenly became moot as the woman teleported a few feet away a moment before what looked like one of the logs to the walls came crashing into the monster from the direction it had come from. The granite body shattered, an unconscious man dropping to the ground from its chest cavity.

“Weaponizing penis jokes,” the woman said in a smug tone as she looked around. A moment later, there was a woosh as she disappeared again.

What the fuck?! Now was not the time to be joking! What the hell?

Wait. That armor. The woman had been wearing armor somewhat similar to the stuff that the troopers were testing. Abrams’ cloth armor, with hard metal sections, but it was all wrong. It didn’t follow the standard overall look of Dragon’s Teeth armor, the color was wrong, it didn’t cover nearly as much of the body…

It didn’t matter. They had people helping defend the village. That’s all that mattered.

Yejin began running again, looking down every street that she passed. A man in similar armor to the woman’s leaping onto the top of a house. A villager half-covered in black tar, walking in a jerky manner. What looked almost like dogs made of that black tar running down the street. A group of villagers firing desperately into a large group of enemies.

What the hell was going on? How could anyone make any kind of sense out of this all?

Another armored woman started running towards Yejin, only she was holding her halberd. The woman paused and threw, making Yejin stop dead in her tracks.

Half a second later, what almost looked like some sort of wildling burst out of a house with a snarl… Only to be impaled in the head by the halberd. How did…?

There wasn’t time to think. The woman was already running again, collecting something from her belt. She smashed her hands together, causing them to burst into flame. As she ran, she threw them almost blindly down a street, immediately being rewarded with screams. Yejin barely had time to register what was happening before the woman ran past her.

That was definitely Abrams tech. No doubt about it. But what was going on?

Yejin looked down the alley where a group of men were on fire, thrashing blindly. Every few moments, they would split into two people who were, unfortunately, also on fire. Very quickly, the street was getting filled with these people.

Were they attackers? Villagers? She wasn’t sure. With the taste of bile in the back of her throat, she turned and began running again.

She glanced down another street to see a single villager standing there, looking cool and confident as a group of those not-wildlings began to charge in his direction. She stopped in her tracks and raised her rifle, only to blink as the creatures stopped in their tracks, letting out a deep howl of pain. It wasn’t a moment later before all twelve of them exploded into gore.

The bearded man turned, then paused for a moment. Except for the gunshots, the sounds of fighting all over town paused. She’d seen that enough to know what it was – someone triggered, throwing all the paras for a loop for a moment. She didn’t get why that happened, it just did.

The man came back to his senses as quickly as he’d been knocked out of it, looking at her with narrowed eyes. After a breath, he seemed to recognize that she was with the Dragon’s Teeth. “My son,” he barked. “Focus on him.”

God damn it. She didn’t need distractions. “Where?”

“His workshop.”

Wait, now she recognized him. “You’re Timothy Abrams?” He nodded. “I’m on my way there!”

There were more howls approaching. “Go! I can handle these!”

She didn’t need to be told twice. If the father was active, then the mother was out there fighting, too. Probably electrocuting someone or something to death.

A few blocks down, a massive yellow beam of energy fired, and a moment later, another armored woman came charging past like she was on fire. How many of these people were there? How many attackers were there that so many could be fighting like this?

There was so much that Yejin couldn’t process it all. A part of her mind had just shut down. It was like she was walking through a dream. A nightmare.

She watched as a woman in plate armor struck a sword into the ground, making lines of golden light arc across the ground and burn some of those tar dogs. Instead of going down, their eyes began to glow with that yellow light. Another woman in plate armor stepped behind the first before exploding into birds made of the same golden light. The moment that they moved above the lines, they flew like bullets, punching through the dogs like they were tissue paper.

She watched as more people, covered in tar, lurched like zombies down a street.

There was so much. Too much.

As she approached the warehouse, though, she was greeted with something else. Equally horrific in its own right, but with a strange… Serenity wasn’t the right word, but she couldn’t think of anything else.

One man in armor, much like the others, a spear in his hand. There were bodies littering the ground all around him as he destroyed more of those tar dogs. Literally destroyed. His spear danced as his body flowed in a way that was strangely as brutal as it was graceful, slicing them in half like they weren’t there. As if he did this every day, he drew a pistol and shot it four times one-handed, dropping four people to the ground. As a cloud of bat-like creatures approached, he holstered the pistol and whipped his hand. Instantly, the bats were a person again, encased in… something up to her waist. Another flick, and a knife was suddenly imbedded into her forehead.

Yejin wasn’t the type to fetishize combat, but it had a strange beauty to it. At least, until a beam from the sky slammed into the man, pinning him to the ground.

“Jordan!” she heard someone on the ground yell, but she was already raising her rifle, her thumb switching to full auto. The moment that she found the source of the beam, a person hovering twenty feet up, she pulled the trigger.

The woman stopped firing, falling from the air like a brick.

By the time that she looked back, the man was already on his feet, his foot kicking into someone’s crotch before driving a knife into the back of their skull.

Yeah, he had this covered.

She looked to the door of the workshop, where Abrams was standing, looking weird. Like he was enjoying this. How the hell could anyone enjoy this?

As she ran to the door, half expecting the guy in armor to kill her like a mosquito, she caught sight of Abrams’ fiancée pulling on his arm, a shotgun in her other hand.

“But he’ll keep me safe,” she heard Abrams whine.

Wait. Jordan? Fuck, now everything clicked into place. Now she knew who the people in armor were, and wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

“Chris, we need to—“

“That’s not Jordan,” Yejin barked as she got to the door, putting a hand on the boy’s chubby chest and pushing as hard as she could to get him inside.

Abrams looked confused, but now at least he moved. As soon as the door shut, the fiancée moved to lock it.

“What do you mean, it isn’t Jordan? That’s my brother!”

“That’s Relentless. And even if it was Jordan, he’d… He’d want you to be inside and safe. I…” Yejin’s words trailed off as she saw a man with a head that had been damn near blown completely off.

“It’s okay,” the fiancée said quickly. “One got inside before Relentless showed up, but I got him.”

And only one had gotten in. She wondered if Lieutenant Brady looked like that.

“Come on,” Chris whined again. He had this odd expression to him. Was he in shock or something? “You don’t have to feed me that line of bull.”

Bull? Bull?! There was every damn real chance that the reason that people were dying out there was because someone wanted to bundle up Abrams and take him off somewhere, and he was standing there whining like a little bitch?

No. You don’t scream at tier one assets. You treated them like the special VIPs that they were, no matter how little they deserved it.

Yejin looked around. “You’ve got power…”

Abrams gestured around the room. “The whole building, it’s a Faraday cage. And a few other things. I had to shield it for my work, and in case something like this happened. I—“

“Batteries,” the fiancée clarified, condensing down what was probably a fifteen minute explanation into one word.

Yejin opened her mouth to say something, but there was a loud bang on the wall from outside, followed by five more in quick succession. “Get him somewhere deeper, away from doors, and sit on him if you have to!”

Only now was she aware of others in the building. His employees, just as scared as everyone else, but not out there helping.

As the fiancée lead him away, the workers following, Yejin cursed herself silently for thinking that. She was a temporary addition to the local forces, and what good was she doing? She’d taken a pot shot at a guy when it wasn’t even necessary, killed a flier when the guy they were shooting could have probably handled it with one arm tied behind his back, and pushed a guy through a door.

It was so damn frustrating. Fucking parahumans. This whole situation was because of them. It wasn’t people like her who were attacking just to get at one useful person. And they cheated at everything!

Fuck the Blasters, who suddenly got to shoot people just because they had to put their heads down! Fuck the Changers, who got to mix it up just because they were uncomfortable! She was uncomfortable with her body a lot, everyone was! Why should they get to be special because of it? Fuck Thinkers, who got to just know shit instead of having to study and learn it like everyone else! Masters get their jollies from controlling something? Yeah, fuck them, too!

Yejin set her rifle on a chair and moved to the reception desk, grunting as she moved it. She was getting angry now, and that was helping to clear her head.

Fuck the Brutes! It wasn’t fair that they got to be Olympians just because! Nobody should get to survive being shot in the head! Fuck the Movers for making sprinters look like shit! Fuck the Strangers, for fucking with everyone’s heads!

She grabbed her rifle, popped in a fresh clip, and hunched down behind the desk. If she was lucky, they’d attack by the front door. If they came through a wall or something, things would get interesting.

Fuck command for putting her here! Fuck the LT, for fucking dying and leaving her to guess blindly on what to do! Fuck the troopers for leaving the city practically undefended! Fuck everyone else stationed here for not even having checked on her when shit went down! Fuck them for just running off and leaving her! Fuck that motherfucker outside, for making this look fucking easy!

Yejin felt a tear running down her cheek as she sighted down her rifle like they taught her in basic.

Fuck them all for making her go through this. Fuck them all for the people who wouldn’t go home today. Fuck them all for the people who’d wake up screaming after this. Fuck the passengers for not even giving them a choice about this.

She just wanted to make the world better. Why couldn’t people try and do that instead of killing each other?

Fuck life for being so damn unfair.

She sniffled as her vision went blurry again. Fuck her for being so pathetic.

Manananggal 14.3

As we stepped out onto the hill, people were already scurrying to get to work. I could see the Dragon’s Teeth working with one of their Tinker subcontractors to set up the table, and Wardens were busy clearing the area. Just like with Agamemnon. They’d probably clear out some woodland in order to establish a proper battle area.

Valkyrie was already here, giving out orders with a level of grace that felt strangely out of place. Heck, everything about her felt out of place – here she was, in full costume, when costumes tended to be only worn by crazies and people unwilling to accept that time had changed.

The irony wasn’t lost on me.

But it also worked for her. The battle skirt hung down past her knees, letting her thighs be more lightly armored to provide mobility while still being protected. The armor was your typical chainmail under heavily stylized plate that didn’t cover as much as it probably should have. The wings were, admittedly, a little much, but it added to the overall theme. And somehow, her helmet helped break up her facial features nicely without actually covering her face too much and allowing her long blonde hair to cascade down her shoulders.

The way things had been going lately, I half expected her to wave us over, but she only spared us a quick glance before looking down at her armband for a moment before opening a doorway in the air, letting a large group of people hurry through.

Right. Way too busy to be dealing with us at the moment. I figured that she was in armor all the time, letting her get here immediately. I didn’t see Chevalier around, so he was probably suiting up, which would take a while.

Archimedes snorted softly, the sound carried to my earpiece. “Romeo, Romeo. Whyfore art thou Romeo?”

I glanced at him, but it took me a moment to remember that he couldn’t see my face. Whatever. I looked back, only to see a familiar face running for us.

“Oi,” Bitch’s son called out, that slightly lopsided grin on his face. “Relentless! Good to see ya!” As he got close, he slugged my shoulder.

Yeah, gauging by his smile, his gait, and the way that he moved, he had problems on the left side of his body. A stroke or brain damage, most likely.

I opened my mouthpiece before speaking to him. “This will sound awful, but I do not think that we have actually been introduced.”

The young man snorted, grinning even wider as he motioned for us to follow him. “Yeah, things were pretty insane. Romeo Lidnt.”

Ah! I looked to Archimedes. “What were you quoting earlier?”

“Romeo and Juliet,” Archimedes, Lacuna, Sagittarius, Schrodinger, and even Romeo all chorused at me.

Romeo grinned at them. “Though I think I’m more of Mercutio than Romeo.” He looked back to me. “You seriously haven’t heard of Romeo and Juliet? Even I have, and I’m, well… Yeah.”

Yeah what? I would have preferred if he’d finished that sentence.

“Relentless is infuriatingly uneducated in the arts,” Sagittarius scoffed. That was surprising – I expected Archimedes to be the one to give me hell about my lack of culture, not her.

Unless she was covering, saying what he couldn’t because the both of them were undercover.

“Fair ‘nuff,” Romeo said with a grin. After a moment, he slapped my shoulder. “You had me scared half to death, you bastard! I refused to leave ‘till after you got found. Mom surprised me. I ‘xpected her to demand we left soon as it was done, but when I told her, she just nodded and waited.”

Now Archimedes chimed in. “Makes sense to me. She’s lost enough people without knowing for sure what happened to them. No doubt, she respected your wish to just know.”

“I’m surprised that you care,” I said offhandedly.

He looked away, content to just walk for a few breaths. When he spoke again, I could physically feel the pain in his voice.

“We’re a lot alike, you’n me. More than you might think. Folks is always asking me what my powers are. I mean, look at who my Mom is, yanno? They don’t even stop to think that mebbe I ain’t a para. Everyone keeps sayin’, since I’m her kid, and since I got it rougher than some, I should.”

I nodded solemnly. “It used to be that children of paras triggered easier, but within five years of Gold Morning, things changed.”

“Right! And then some folks just don’t trigger. And Mom, she’ll take people down by their throats ‘cuz she thinks they don’t show me the respect I’m due just ‘cuz I ain’t triggered. And then here’s you, this guy that everyone takes in like it’s nothin’, but you’re also like us. Don’t matter if you’re triggered or ain’t, if you got skills, if you got balls the size a boulders, all that, you know?”

“I getcha,” Lacuna said, nodding her head. “I was using my teleportation kinda weak-like before I got recruited by the bossman. So even if you got powers, it doesn’t mean much if you don’t got the skills at using them, right?”

“Yeah,” Romeo said, grinning at her. “That’s right. And you all are like that. I mean, that’s kinda why I’m here today.”

I tilted my head curiously.

“Most people think Mom’s dumb, but she’s smart in skills. But because she don’t got a head for a lotta stuff, she ain’t too good at all this tactics and stuff, you know? But I seemed to do alright in her opinion, and if I’m the one dealing with that sorta thing, then she can focus on her own stuff, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Leave the tactics to someone with a better mind for it, and focus her attention on fighting and taking care of her people. And Romeo might not be educated, but he was far from stupid.

He grinned at me. “Exactly. And from the first sec, you and Sagittarius took me serious. That means a ton, you know?”

“She’s not the only one,” Schrodinger said. She and Lacuna were walking arm-in-arm, though their postures suggested that Lacuna was forcing it and she was just putting up with it. Covering up for her being blind most of the time.

“Yup!” Lacuna said, grinning. All of us wearing face paint was a good idea, really, even if I could only see her mouth. It made us look more distinctive, like we had some sort of internal culture going on. “Listen, dude, we got your back. Hey, ‘Lentless, show your face. That way, he can get a read on what you’re doing and you can give him some silent advice if he wants it.”

I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, but it was kind of the reason why we’d painted ourselves up. Slowly, I reached up to touch the side of my helmet. I didn’t see any effect, but I knew that the faceplate of my helmet had just gone invisible.

Romeo grinned a little. “Nice.” He glanced at the others, and I turned to look.

My makeup was a simple black, with a white skull running from my upper lip to my forehead. Archimedes, John, had white paint, black lips, and then a jagged silver design over his eyes that was outlined in black. Sagittarius, Kathy, was painted fully white, but the curves and flowery designs in shades of black and red gave her the appearance similar to a skull without actually looking dreary. Lacuna, Emi, had gone for a similar design, but in purples and taking a far more flamboyant design to her work, making her look downright playful and happy.

Schrodinger, Brenda, hadn’t made her helmet invisible at all, which was fine. She wasn’t wearing any makeup anyway.

“Why do you wear that makeup anyway?”

Sagittarius answered before I could. “We do a lot of undercover work. The masks let us be able to look people in the eye without immediately giving our faces away.”

Not entirely accurate. “Masks without eyes are disconcerting,” I added. “People don’t know where to look, so it makes them uncomfortable. Which is bad at times like these.”

Romeo snorted. “Your accent is softer, too. I’m not struggling to get what you’re saying.”

Was it? “I haven’t been in Scandinavia for a while.”

“Sure.” He wasn’t buying our story in the slightest. He wasn’t challenging it either, though.

We were at the outskirts of where everyone was setting up. There were infinitely more people now, but things still needed to be done. Which left us twiddling our thumbs while the people who had to actually give commands while they worked.

Lacuna broke the ice, lightly shoving Romeo. “You aren’t quite what I imagined Bitch’s kid to be like.”

Romeo flashed her his lopsided grin again, running a hand through his spiky hair. “Yeah, I get that a lot. Folks expect me to be a fighter and in your face a bunch. When I was younger, Mom and I used to roughhouse a lot, but…”

He trailed off. We’d hit a bad memory. “Anyway, even though there’s a lotta people still holding out that I’ll trigger, I’m just kinda… Going with the flow, y’know? I’ll never be as rough and tumble as Mom, and I’ll never be as badass as people want, but maybe… Maybe this is what I’ll be good at.”

“A good attitude,” I said with a nod. “Find your strengths, play off of them.”

He nodded absently. “If this is what I’m good at. I dunno.”

Archimedes snorted. “If your mother is trusting you with us, then I’d say you’re doing fine.”

Sagittarius started to say something, but our words were cut short as a section of forest simply disappeared, and a massive, towering wooden hulk that was bigger than Agamemnon appeared. I looked to her, then back at it, but despite everyone responding with the same level of shock and surprise, nobody was doing anything yet.

As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared again. I could barely make out a person falling before a flyer snatched them out of the air.

“Dragon? What did we just see?”

A soon-to-be Wardens cadet using his power to clear some land. The armor that he made was too big and tight, though, and he couldn’t breathe, so he had to let it go.

That was an interesting power, from what little I saw of it. I wanted more details, but now wasn’t the time to ask. Maybe he could do it again and just… fall on our opponent?

They were almost set up, but Romeo turned to me, jerking a thumb towards Valkyrie. “You got any idea why they aren’t sending Goldilocks out?”

Aha! This I had an answer to, even if I didn’t fully understand it. “Politics. Many people remember her as the Faerie Queen, so sending her out in something so far in the public eye like this makes people… suspicious?”

“Nervous,” Archimedes corrected. “They think she’s a glory hound and more. Plus, let’s be honest here. Mother’s Hospital might be great, but I grew up listening to stories about what Bonesaw did to people. There’s no way that I’d willingly go under the knife.”

Romeo looked back over at Valkyrie, a sympathetic expression on his face. “A lotta folks do that with Mom. I mean, she’s not like most people, but once you’re with us, you’re family. She does everything in her power to look after you, to help you. But most folks, they just see her as some sort of brutish thug who only knows violence. I mean, sure, she’s got a lotta that, but there’s way more to it.”

I nodded, but he didn’t continue.

It might have seemed weird that we were having these conversations to everyone else, but to me, it made perfect sense. Unlike everyone else, there wasn’t much that we could do at the moment. We had to wait, and with waiting came the possibility of getting trapped in your own thoughts. Working yourself up into a dead panic wouldn’t do anyone any good. This talk distracted us from the concept that, soon, we would be making decisions that would get people killed.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Chevalier and that Dragon’s Teeth general from India waved us over. I noted Tattletale and Dinah Alcott hovering nearby.

“I’m glad that all of you could make it,” Chevalier said, not bothering to remove his helmet. “We have twenty minutes before our target reaches the engagement zone.”

“How much do we know about it?” Romeo asked, his voice deeper. He was trying to be more professional, meeting them on their level. I had to remind myself that he was only seventeen or so.

Thirty seconds,” Dragon said from the holographic table. I glanced back, noting that the Pendragon had left some time beforehand. How did I miss that?

“Not a lot,” he confessed. “I’m hoping that Dragon can shed some light on the subject.”

Images popped up on the table, showing the various sensors on the Pendragon as they scanned trees in the distance. Suddenly, an image was outlined in blue. Two legs, feminine in form, and I was guessing that it was a full head of hair. She was absolutely massive, easily the size of the Simurgh. Even worse, she seemed to be both clearing a path and sticking to the cover of trees, keeping us from getting a clear view.

I’m going to go ahead and do a strafing run.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and this will be an easy day,” the General mused to himself.

We watched as the Pendragon swooped in, and as a glittering blue beam shot out into the trees. It struck the creature with a direct hit, and Dragon immediately began to climb again.

It didn’t last. Within moments, one of the cameras suddenly went fuzzy, and a moment later, they all did. A few moments after that, all of the sensors went black.

Fear struck me, and my free hand suddenly gripped the table. “Dragon!”

It’s fine, Relentless. I was prepared for this. Drones will have a direct line of sight momentarily.” Another image popped up, this time showing how the craft suddenly began to break up. It wasn’t as if it was hit by a blast or anything, but more like it just suddenly began to fall apart. Whole bulkheads of solid steel crumbled to bits in a matter of seconds.

Tattletale gave Chevalier a hard look. “You recognize that power, don’t you?”

He nodded slowly. “The Wardens who approached her. She started out human-sized, but quickly grew to her current height and… It was described as the back of her head eating them. One of them had the power of disintegration, but this seems to be an extremely amplified up version of it.”

Tattletale nodded thoughtfully, her eyes falling back to the table.

After a moment, twenty more windows opened, showing different shots and angles. Now we could see her in all her glory. She was an odd color of green, and her skin seemed almost like plastic. Not the shiny kind of plastic, but almost matted. She was fairly human, too, though she lacked anything between her legs.

And her hair was a writhing mass of tentacles.

Archimedes chuckled dryly. “At least we can safely call her Medusa.” He paused as people looked at him. “Agamemnon, Medusa. I’m just following the naming scheme that you all established here!”

“She’s not an Endbrigner,” Tattletale mused.

The General looked over to her, running a hand over his beard. “You were a wealth of information about the Endbringers. What can you tell us about her?”

Tattletale frowned a little, studying the images intensely. “She… She’s not like Echidna. She isn’t a passenger run amok. But… I’d say that she probably was human at some point. Maybe a Tinker alteration, but don’t quote me on that. She’s so far modified, though, I wouldn’t call her human any more. Her biology is alien, right down to her cells.”

She pointed at Medusa’s hair tentacles. “Those Wardens are still trapped inside of her. She’s got them in her head, literally, and are accessing their powers.”

“Blaster three,” Chevalier said quickly. “Master four. The shots don’t do very much damage, but make the victim think that they did, cause confusion, and can occasionally cause hallucinations and other deep altered states.”

The General sighed softly, shaking his head. “Which means that this will be our fight. No offense, but getting your people close enough to be snagged by her hair would be disastrous.”

“How many can she hold?” Romeo asked, looking between Tattletale and Dinah.

“I don’t know,” Tattletale admitted. “I’m kind of busy trying to figure out… She’s got a lot in common with Endbringers, but…”

She probably was busy trying to see enough glimpses to come up with an answer to every single possible question. I didn’t envy her in the slightest right now – everyone wanted her answers, but she had to wait for them to present themselves.

Chevalier looked to Dinah. “What are the odds that we’d regret sending in the Wardens to fight?”

“Thirty-eight point two-six-three-one,” Alcott replied in an almost lazy tone.

Now it was my turn. “What are the odds that the fight would go better if we were to wait until after the Dragon’s Teeth engage before the Wardens do?”

“Eighty-six point six-four-six-zero.” Her tone didn’t change in the slightest.

Chevalier turned to address me. “You’re already thinking about that?”

I was distracted for a moment as the images from the drones warped before going black. After a moment, Dragon selected highlights for us to look at.

“I was just thinking. The Dragon’s Teeth soften her up before the Wardens engage.” I resisted the urge to lick my lips and ruin my makeup.

Thankfully, Sagittarius spoke up. “He’s suggesting that we hold the Wardens in reserve to limit the possibility of their powers being used against us. It’s like a boxing match – we wear the opponent down before going to the K.O.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” the General confessed thoughtfully. “But I’m worried about that disintegration power. Wilbourn, is there anything else that you can tell us? How powerful that power is?”

Tattletale’s eyes were dancing over the display. “What? Right, right. She needs a few moments between using the power again. Building up batteries. Each person has a different set of batteries, in essence. No, I don’t know how many she can hold.

“I’m pretty sure that she has other powers at her disposal. No, I don’t know yet until I start to see them in action. She’s also got a core like the Endbringers, but it moves around in her body. Her body’s more liquid on the interior, but like the Endbringers, it gets denser the deeper that it goes. If I were to guess, and this is just a guess, I’d say that whomever made her was trying awfully hard to replicate an Endbringer.”

“Like Agamemnon?” Chevalier asked.

“I don’t know. This is a completely different route, though. Agamemnon was a melding of hundreds of people. This… Her cell structure is almost crystalline. Other than her core, she doesn’t have any actual organs. But she still uses her eyes to see.”

“That’s a weakness,” Romeo said quickly.

“Not necessarily,” I said hesitantly. “If she has other powers that we don’t know about yet, then we should assume that she has defenses.”

Dinah spoke up again, just as evenly as ever. “Eighty-two point four-six-one percent chance that attacking her eyes makes the battle go faster.”

I kept my sheepishness from showing on my face or in my posture. I’d been unnecessarily cautious. Such was life, unfortunately.

“Captain,” the General said, waving an officer over.

I felt a familiar tingle in the back of my head. Damn it, if this was about another job offer…

I walked into a wooden war room. A massive map stood in the middle of the room. Mom glanced up at me from under gray bangs before moving a circle next to a cluster of squares on the map. She was dressed in some sort of tan military uniform that looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

My attention was drawn to the only other solid person in the room – Nexus. He was in his own uniform, but it was much more grandiose, with massive bands of aiguillettes on his shoulders, and a chest that was almost comically overloaded with ribbons.

He looked up at me with tired eyes. “Jordan.”

“Now isn’t the time,” I said quickly, taking off my military cap and tucking it under my arm. “I’m a little busy.”

“With the new Endbringer, yes. I heard you were there. But right now, I need to redeploy you somewhere else.”

Had he lost his ever flipping mind? “First, it isn’t a real Endbringer. Second, you said it yourself. New Endbringer. We need everyone that we can for this battle!”

He looked back down to the map. “If this were anything else, I would agree with you, but I need boots on the ground, and I need them now. All combat capable Dragon’s Teeth troopers are being redeployed to where you are, and I can’t convince them to stop.”

And as right they should! Still, no need to burn bridges quite yet. “And you think that’s wrong because…”

“Teacher is making a move. I need someone to intercept and—“

“Seriously?!” I looked around the room, at Mom as she moved more shapes into position on the map, at the phantom people lining the walls. “Listen, I know that you supposedly triggered during Teacher’s attack on New Brockton, but isn’t this taking the whole revenge thing a little far?”

The tiredness fled Nexus’ eyes as he looked up to glare at me. “Revenge? Revenge?! This isn’t about revenge, Jordan. You have no idea how hard I’ve tried to get my hands on every single agent of his that I can, how much I’ve worked in order to get them to open their mouths. How many of them have died in the process. The timing of me getting this information is too perfect. It’s bait, but I have to take it, do you understand?”

This was still insane. Pure bullshit. Here I was, about to take on a damned Endbringer, and he was obsessing over what? An arch nemesis.

Nexus pointed at the topographical map again. “He’s attacking Burlington.”

My heart froze in my chest as I looked down. How did I miss that? It was so blatantly obvious now.

“Chris,” I whispered to myself.

“Exactly. Your brother. And with the troopers in Burlington pulling out, it’s virtually undefended. The person who we got to open up admitted that Teacher was going to wait until the next S-class threat, when all combat capable troopers were pulled from everywhere that they could be, and when the Wardens would be in the same state.

“Since no other way to get to Mr. Abrams so far, this is Teacher’s only recourse. He will take your brother, Jordan. Unless we do something about it.”

I nodded slowly. “Okay. Okay, yeah. I’ll go.” Like there was ever any doubt. “And your other mercs?”

Nexus shook his head grimly. “They’ll get there, but it’s going to take some time. My archangels need time to prepare, and my other main team of mercenaries are otherwise indisposed at the moment. I don’t know how long until those Students make their move, but I want to be as prepared as possible.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, okay. I get it. I’ll get backup, but I might already be in the middle of things before then.”

“Exactly.” He drew in a deep breath. “About the Students. I need you to take care of them.”

“Take care of them?” I felt like a parrot.

“Kill them or capture them. I’ll see to it that any who survive are taken care of, personally. Just stop them. We can’t afford to have your brother’s technology fall into Teacher’s hands.

“That is all. Dismissed.”

I blinked rapidly, looking and double-blinking to close my helmet. “I have to go.” I felt strangely gutted to say that.

“It’s okay,” Schrodinger said softly. “You don’t complete your promise today.”

“What’s going on?” Lacuna asked without closing her mask.

Sagittarius looked at me. “Visors.” Ah, she’d said that over the radio.

I touched my helmet, letting it go opaque again. “Teacher’s attacking my brother. Right now. We need to go.”

I wasn’t about to lose my family.

Manananggal 14.2

I looked to Lacuna. “Makeup us all, just in case.”

John settled into the console next to me. “Dragon, do you have any images of Tommy Thayer in makeup? We should all have something with similarities to Relentless, but I should have something different.”

“She’s probably busy,” Kathy said, settling in on the other side.

“It’s fine,” Dragon said in a speaker, banks of monitors lighting up at John’s console. “You forget, I’m an AI. I can multitask. Here’s a selection of possibilities that I could come up with offhand. Emi, would you look over them with John?”

Emi moved, putting one hand on the back of John’s chair and leaning forward to frown at all the monitors with such an intense expression on her face. “Hm… Do we have access to other colors?”

“The onboard minifacturing systems can get you pretty much any color,” Dragon confirmed.

“Hey! Kath! How do you feel about second to the left?”

Kathy turned and frowned. “Uh, a sugar mask is fine, but that doesn’t have any other colors?”

“I was thinking for Brenda, we’d just do her lower face in white and give her these big, pouty red lips.”

“I like it,” Kathy said with a nod. “Play up the mysteriousness.”

“Seductress,” John clarified.

“Whatever.”

Emi looked to me. “What do you think?”

I blinked. I’d almost zoned out, having just let myself… watch them work. It was interesting; they were moving in the same way that they did while power planning a heist or quick con, but the purpose was exactly the opposite of that. Instead of screwing someone over, they were trying to find the right way to present themselves to be heroes.

The Protectorate would have loved them and their quick thinking. They could have branded heroes in a New York minute.

“I approve,” I said with a nod. I turned back to my own bank of monitors as Emi moved to get started. “Dragon, status.”

“ETA to arrival is half an hour. One Wardens team on-site, maintaining distance.”

I nodded as a map appeared on the main monitor. “Do we have a visual?”

“Not yet.”

“Wardens response?”

“Auspice, Red Flag, and Crystal Porter are all in agreement, this is an S-class threat. Auspice doesn’t know if it’s an Endbringer-level S-class, but the other two are hesitantly saying yes.”

Hesitant. It was a little word, but it said a lot. Less than what it might have said if I had any idea how their powers worked, but…

“But they’re still erring on the side of caution?” I asked.

“Exactly. They’re still focusing on mobilizing. Chevalier is suiting up as we speak.”

I nodded slowly. “Legend?”

“On retirement again.”

Of course. Brilliant. “Dragon’s Teeth?”

“All points alert, they’re mobilizing all troopers.” I opened my mouth, but she cut me off. “Except for those assigned to prison duty, this is a full response. Armories are being unlocked for the big guns, and they’ve put in the call to Mother’s Hospital to prepare for heavy casualties.”

Interesting. Were they expecting this?

John spoke quietly. “I recognize that expression.” I turned to look at him as Emi quickly applied the face paint. “It’s politics, Jordan. They had a good performance on the Simurgh, but they’re still licking their wounds from Agamemnon. The papers focused on you, your sister, and the Wardens more than them. They’re still feeling the burn.”

“You have a good eye for the political situation,” Dragon observed.

“I had a rude awakening once,” John said, looking at the ceiling. “And I believe that’s all that needs said, yes?”

Dragon was silent for a long moment before answering. “Of course.”

Odd.

John raised his hand to rub at his chin, only to have it smacked away by Emi before she wandered off. He frowned for a moment before pulling on his helmet, just so that he could rub at its chin. “Okay, so they’re pulling out all the stops. Are we discussing ‘take down the Wardens’ level of hardware?”

“Pretty much,” Dragon confirmed. “Every single big gun that they have is focused on this.”

“Hmm.” Archimedes turned back to the monitors, his index finger tapping. “That’s… interesting.”

Whatever he meant by that, I didn’t know.

It didn’t matter, I guessed. “Any other responses?”

“No,” she confessed. “The US government that you’re used to is still recovering from the Simurgh, and they haven’t been able to make inroads to the area. The local version of the USA doesn’t have the same resources available to them. They focused too much on scavenging than trying to find or reactivate original resources. They’re claiming that they pay the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth for this sort of thing.”

Brilliant. Fucking politics. “Right. If you have any estimates on numbers, I’d love to see them.” I pulled on my own helmet, looking up at the monitors. I used my bracer and my helmet’s interactive display to begin pulling through information.

It was a good five minutes later when I heard a soft voice in my ear. “Jordan?

I turned my head. Emi was hovering over Kathy, applying makeup with the help of a template that Dragon must have made her. Archimedes seemed to be looking at things on his monitor. Schrodinger was staring at me intently, her helmet closed and her shoulders hunched.

Might as well. I closed my own, winking at the icon to confirm our direct communication. “Yeah?”

Her hands fidgeted in her lap. “I… I need to ask you for a favor. Both as Jordan and as Relentless.

Well, that wasn’t worrisome in the slightest. “Alright.”

I want you to promise to do everything in your power to kill her.

I narrowed my eyes from under the helmet. “You’ve seen something with your power.”

Shrodinger sighed softly. “I don’t always talk about how far I see ahead, the possibilities that I see. I’ve seen countless ones where we all die, where the tiniest change, a look, a sound, an annoyance… They all change things. I’ve seen minutes ahead and didn’t say anything. Hours. Months.

“The Simurgh.”

I would have missed her nod if I hadn’t been looking right at her. “There’s… things coming. Things that change if we aren’t there at this battle. Things that are worse if we address them now. I know that I’m probably going to tell you all everything, but… I need to be here first.

That made a frightening amount of sense. Her power told her of possible ways that the future could play out. Just asking about the baby had confirmed that things were going a certain way, her own way of making sure that she was following one set of possibilities. “You need to be around that many paras to extend your power’s range, don’t you?”

Yeah. I can’t go into details, not yet. Not for a while. Not until what’s currently happening plays out. Please, Jordan. Relentless. Promise me that you’ll end her.

I frowned a little. “Will I keep the promise?”

I don’t know,” she confessed. “But… It isn’t just about that, about my power. It’s… It’s personal. Please. I’ll explain later, I promise, but—

“I promise.” There was a gravity to my voice that surprised even me. “I give you my word that I’ll do everything within my power to kill this person.”

Thank you,” she whispered, sounding close to tears.

I nodded once and turned away, looking at the bank of monitors in front of me again. The cult she escaped from was coming into play at some point. This woman, girl, female, played a hand in that. Some sort of pain that I didn’t have the information to put together yet.

She knew that she had to explain soon. That wasn’t a good sign. It meant that there was someone else that I’d have to fight. Which was fine, I didn’t mind that. I just hoped that the others wouldn’t get dragged into it.

Whatever. It didn’t matter right now. I had more important things to attend to.

I opened the mouth guard of my helmet again. “Any images of our S-class threat?”

“No,” Dragon said, a hint of disappointment in her voice.

I sighed. Because of course it couldn’t be that easy. “How much information do we have?”

“Three members of the Wardens were dispatched to investigate a possible Case 53-esque individual. One, a teleporter, appeared at Wardens HQ severely wounded. From what I’m gathering, the other two were killed or disposed of by the individual after it assumed Endbringer size. Thinkers were consulted, and you’ve already heard the results.

“They have a staging ground already selected, thanks to Red Flag.”

I nodded. “Show me.”

The main display popped up with what appeared to be a satellite image, and the one next to it showed a topographic map. Both had a site marked with the staging ground, but the topographic map also had varying shades of red. The staging ground was a mild shade of pink, slowly darkening into a large swath of red that streaked across the map.

“That’s the route that Red Flag thinks our S-class is going to take?”

“Yes,” Dragon said. “Its total predicted path…” The map zoomed out. “Keeps it just out of range of attacking coastal communities until it hits Seattle.”

Seattle was pretty much the west coast version of New Brockton, having a small handful of portals into other realities. It didn’t have the political clout of New Brockton, and the main hub was in Bet, leading to problems with weather. Still…

“They think that it’s going to pass through a portal to Bet and attack Seattle directly.”

“Exactly.”

“How long until we change realities?”

“Five minutes. The shifter isn’t like yours; the double gyroscope would take too much space, so I had to go with one that requires more charging time. Once we get there, I’ll drop the five of you off, then do some scouting.”

“Possibly a strafing run?” I asked.

“You read my mind. The Pendragon might be good for a transport, but it was also meant to be an assault craft.”

I nodded and started to focus on the maps. If the staging ground was safe, then how long would it take me to get there? My teleporter had saved the day against Agamemnon, so I might be able to use that again. Maybe. The teleporter had been damaged, after all, and I had the feeling that it had taken a far larger chunk out of Agamemnon than it should have.

As I studied, though, a sudden pain radiated through my gut. It wasn’t like being punched, more like someone had put a cattle prod right below my belly button and turned it on, with the pain radiating out the space of my palm, sending thin tendrils further out. It wasn’t that bad, just rather uncomfortable and distracting.

Stupid indigestion.

I pushed the pain aside with a frown, studying the map again. I had to be familiar with the terrain. I had time to prepare, and was going to be walking into things on equal footing to everyone else for a change instead of being late to the party. I didn’t have much that I could offer, but if I could give feedback on terrain…

A new monitor popped up with a real bird’s eye view of the area. We were there. Crap.

This helped me a little bit, giving me more information than just the other two images. Neither one of them felt the same as actually seeing the actual battlefield. Is this what it felt like to be Tattletale? To get more out of seeing than looking on a monitor?

Thoughts for a different time. We were descending. Already, I could see where the staging grounds were going to be, and not just because trees were disappearing. I was making sense of everything now. Small favors.

The Pendragon landed in the clearing, and we all got to our feet, heading for where we’d stowed our weapons.

“Is anyone actually ready for this?” Sagittarius asked.

“Nope,” I confessed.

“Hell no,” Archimedes added helpfully.

“Fuck yeah!” We all turned to look at Lacuna. “All I gotta do is move around and say something silly on occasion. Easy peasy lemon squeezy!”

Schrodinger scoffed softly, a sentiment that I agreed with. I didn’t feel like reprimanding her, though. The ramp was already opening.

Manananggal 14.1

John glanced at me as I entered the bathroom, the straight razor hovering above his face. “Shaving so soon?”

I shrugged as I dropped my kit on the stand next to the second sink. “Beards aren’t really my thing. If there’s no point in me hiding who I am here, then what’s the point in keeping it? Besides, if I need to get my helmet on, it’s easier without it.”

John nodded before pushing his cup and brush towards me. “Try mine. You just use simple soap, but you need to live a little. You’ll find it works a lot better.”

I shrugged and grabbed the brush, working on rejuvenating the lather nicely.

“So,” he said, going to take a careful swipe at his neck. “You didn’t come back yesterday after your little meeting.”

“I had something to do for Nexus. Nothing major.” I began working it into my skin. Huh. It felt vaguely tingly.

“And how did it go?”

I glared at him. “So soon? So direct?” John just smirked. “I don’t like this shrink. I got the feeling she was judging me or something. I dunno.”

“That’s a shame,” he said bladly. “Are you going to go again?”

I shrugged a shoulder as I got back to work. “Yeah, I’ll give her at least a couple more visits. Maybe I just had a bad first impression, I dunno.”

“How utterly mature of you.” He paused as he took another slow swipe at his neck. “Thank you. And the thing for Nexus?”

“Nothing major.”

“Will it seem major if I read the newspapers?”

“Nah. It ended up being a bust. Didn’t even get to threaten anyone.”

He took another swipe before cleaning his razor.

I drew my own knife.

“Ugh, I don’t know how you can shave with that thing.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I’ve never used a straight razor. I’m pretty sure I’d be nervous.”

“Ah, the proverbial virgin to comfort. How utterly like you, too. Insisting on doing things the hard way.”

I smirked a bit as I checked myself again, ignoring it as John took back his dish to lather up for his second pass. “So, how’s everyone else doing on money?”

John shrugged a shoulder as he did his own application. “Decently, I suppose. We can live in relative comfort this winter, but nowhere nearly as well as last year. We only have a month before we should be seriously thinking about leaving, too, so I’m not sure what we’ll do.”

Was it honestly that time again? Where had the summer gone?

I was content to be silent as I worked, thinking over the problem. “How hard are you willing to work?”

“Oh, Jordan! When will you learn? I’m a cutpurse, not a laborer.”

“I wasn’t talking about that.”

He turned to look at me, raising an eyebrow. “A little bit of the old ultraviolence, I assume?”

“Nexus has some jobs that he isn’t sure if he wants to outsource to outsiders, but wants done quickly. He’s been working both of his teams heavy, so he’s been pretty much begging me for help. I’m sure that we can talk him into a higher rate if he’s getting the full team. Even split, and we both know that I’ll be doing the bulk of the work.”

“And you get to relieve the frustration of a decidedly unhelpful psychologist visit, hmm?” John laughed, deep and from the gut. “Perhaps we can do that. I won’t deny that a bit of quick mercenary work would do me some good.”

I took a deep breath. Time to go for it. “Kind of surprising, considering how you initiated a vote to get rid of me.”

John’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Don’t look at me like that. Valkyrie hints that she knows everything about our lives, and not only do you shut her down, but you initiate a vote soon after. And don’t give me that ‘you were trying to shock me’ bullshit. That’s an excuse if I’ve ever heard one.”

John sighed softly. “I forget just how perceptive you can get when you want to. Or, rather, when you let yourself.”

I ran my blade across my skin.

At least he didn’t look away from me. “Some of us have pasts that we’d prefer to forget, Jordan. Enemies that we’d like to run away from. Enemies that you can’t just take down and walk away no matter how downright evil they are. Consequences that you don’t dare face, or a power vacuum that you’re too scared to allow to create.

“My enemies are perfectly willing to let me be so long as the man that I was simply doesn’t exist. The man that I was has to be dead. There are many days where I can’t even remember his name. So, yes, having people know who I am is downright terrifying, especially people like the Wardens or the Dragon’s Teeth.”

Power vacuum. Consequences. He wasn’t telling me much, but what he was telling me spoke greatly of power. He wasn’t concerned with his own personal safety, he was concerned with something bigger. I knew that he didn’t mind walking through New Brockton so long as he kept his head down.

The Wardens? The Dragon’s Teeth? Those were the two first thoughts, but it could easily be someone else. Twain? No, he was as willing to go there as anywhere. Old Seattle? No, his New York accent was too natural – he would slip into it at times where he tried to suppress it.

“But now you’re willing to fight,” I said as I did short strokes right under my nose.

“How the hell can you talk while you do that?”

“My sister shaves her legs. I don’t get the point, myself. But she had trouble understanding what the big deal was with shaving your face, so she’d talk to me.”

John chuckled, shaking his head.

“You think that’s bad? One time she decided that since she shaved a greater area just as regularly, she could do it better.”

That made him wince. “That strikes me as a recipe for—“

“Two thousand cuts and a vow that she’d never do it again.” My facial hair was far, far different from her leg hair.

John snorted and finished lathering himself up. “You come from quite the queer family.”

But he glanced at me again. “As for the fighting… There are things in this world that become easier the more that you do them. Those potions that you have us partake in, the ones that alter your mind, those probably help as well.”

Now it was my turn to look at him in surprise.

“What? You think that we don’t know? We play along because you’re happiest when you’re doing something like that, and when you’re teaching us so many basics of combat, it’s almost like the old Jordan is about to shine through. And, truth be told, there is a need. You charge into battle with nary a care in the world, but even worse, combat follows you. Cathbad weeps for you, for you never heard the full prophesy.”

What the hell did that mean? I hated when he talked in riddles.

Unfortunately, he didn’t pause long enough for me to ask. “If we’re going to spend time with you, we need to be able to contribute, to deal with those dangers that trail behind you like a lovesick puppy. So we take your ‘energy drinks’ without complaint, see the old Jordan stir, and better prepare ourselves for what is to come.

“In this, we also find ourselves… Better equipped for trials. More comfortable with them. I’m still no fan of combat. Truth be told, I will always be far more comfortable holding the gates shut than face to face with wildlings. Ah, but the wail of the banshee named Fear is not so loud. Besides, even I am forced to admit… The feeling of a job well done, the knowledge that I’ve lined my own pockets while making others safe and sound? It has an appeal.”

John smiled at me from under the white foam. “So, assuming that the others are up to it, what sort of tasks might our illustrious drug peddler have for us?”

——————————

I fired my AR15 in a quick burst, the lead wildling falling. Next to me, I could hear the cycling of Emi’s Calico M950 in full auto punctuated by her LAR Grizzley. Spraying and praying. On my other side, Brenda was taking the time to line up the shots of her Calico. I lined up another shot…

——————————

…and fired my pistol. The thug screamed in pain as the bullet tore through his thigh. Damn. I’d hoped that it would go clean through. That was dangerous within city limits. I heard something to my left and turned…

——————————

…activating my spear as I lowered it. The wildling disintegrated itself as it lunged for me. Another to my right. I turned and swung…

——————————

…only for my halberd to be deflected off of the para’s energy sword. I backed up quickly and gave a quick thrust, only for it to be deflected over his head. As he moved for a backswing at me, though, I quickly jerked my halberd back down, cleanly severing his shoulder. He…

——————————

…screamed, charging at me. I backpedaled quickly, barely able to hear Emi yelling insults over the roar of battle. The para’s scream made my insides vibrate, which was probably more dangerous than the mass of tentacles that she’d turned into. My hand fell to my belt, drawing a fire pellet, and threw…

——————————

…my halberd. It sailed straight and true, the spearpoint piercing the wildling’s skull and barely dropping it just short of the terrified boy. I drew my pistol and fired three more shots into it, just to be sure before…

——————————

…jaws clamped around my torso and shook me like a rag doll. My halberd was wrenched free from my hands. All that I could do was flail as the massive beast tried it’s best to get its teeth through my armor. A brilliant beam of light from Kathy’s power struck its neck and…

——————————

…I fell on top on the para, my knee driving into…

——————————

…his groin, making him double over in agony. I crouched, grabbed his hair, and thrust myself up to drive my knee squarely…

——————————

…into the small of her back, making her stumble down the ramp of the craft, to the waiting Dragon’s Teeth along with the others.

“A fine job you’ve done,” the Captain said, nodding absently. “A fine job. We’ve been hunting this group for three months now. How’d you find them, Relentless?”

“It’s all in the name,” I said calmly.

“We will need some compensation,” Sagittarius said more firmly.

The Captain frowned. “I’m afraid that there wasn’t a bounty on this group.”

The message light began blinking in the corner of my vision. Right. “Archimedes,” I barked. “Help Sagittarius explain to these people the resources that we put into this. I need to look into our next target.”

I turned on my heels, marching up the ramp. Or gangplank, as John called it. He passed me to join Kathy, an angry swagger in his step. Good enough for me.

I moved deeper into the craft, taking up a seat at one of the control panels before looking at the dot and winking one eye twice. Immediately, an audio visualizer appeared at the bottom of my helmet’s field of view, with HQ above it.

Jordan,” Michelle’s called out cheerfully in my ear.

I looked to the left and squinted, my armor’s mouthpiece closing. “I’m in armor, so it’s Relentless.”

Right, sorry, sorry. Anyway, you asked me to remind you. Your br… Chris Abrams’ wedding is in a week. Here’s the reminder. Next Friday.

“Excellent, thank you.” I paused. “How are things going over there?”

Uh, well… We were kind of scared as hell when the Dragon’s Teeth dropped by to pick up nails unexpectedly. But I think it was just a cover to drop off all of these tablets. There’s, like, fifteen of them.

Interesting. “Dragon?”

Another visualizer appeared, joined by her voice. “I asked that they contact you first before delivering them. I’m sorry about that. I think I know where the lines of communication got crossed. We wanted you all to be able to study at once instead of one at a time.

Michelle’s visualizer spiked as she laughed. “We figured that out. It also downloaded a whole bunch more lessons to our system. Most of them seem to be for the Dragon’s Teeth, but it’s pretty cool. We’re all studying. Even Cheryl’s getting into it. She’s been using some of her spare metal to make some nifty things, too. She can’t wait to show you.

Cheryl… The blacksmith, right. I opened my mouth to speak, but felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned, and Emi quickly pointed to Brenda, who was waving her hands excitedly.

This time, I actually used the control panel on my arm to add her to the conversation.

“Michelle, it’s Schrodinger.” Hm, Brenda’s voice was odd. “I wanted to ask, how’s the baby?”

There was a pause, probably as Michelle tried to remember who Schrodinger was. Finally, she perked up. “Right! She’s babbling a little! Let me know before you all drop by. I’ll make sure she’s around for you.

Brenda nodded, but her mouthpiece closed and she seemed to draw into herself a little. Odd.

Not the time, though. “Alright, is there anything else?”

Nope. If you’re in full Relentless mode, you’re probably busy. I just wanted to remind you about that and let you know we’re doing good.

“Right. I’ll see you soon. Relentless out.” Both visualizers disappeared. Good. I looked up at the craft. “Thanks for that delivery. They seem to be really appreciating it.”

“I’d say so,” Dragon mused, her voice echoing through the craft. “They’ve been studying as much as possible, though except for Jim, none of them are really focusing on anything. I think that they’re just enjoying the ability to learn whatever tickles their fancy at the moment.”

Good for them. “And thank you again for letting us use the Pendragon.” Sagittarius and Archimedes were entering the craft again, and the ramp closing. “How’s Defiant doing?”

“You can call him Colin,” Dragon said teasingly. That didn’t feel right, though. “The surgery is going well, and I’m directly assisting Riley. We’re pretty sure that we can fix all of the nerve damage, but it’s going to take a couple more hours to make sure that everything integrates with his body properly.”

Good. There were downsides to cybernetics, I supposed.

“What’s going on?” Sagittarius asked, taking off her helmet.

“A reminder about Chris Abrams’ wedding,” I said, moving over the keyboard to call up some displays. I wanted to take a look at known crime hotspots.

Archimedes shook his head. “Take off your helmet.”

I looked up, realizing that he’d already taken off his own. I frowned a little as I pulled mine off.

“You always get too far into Relentless when you’re wearing it. I wish deal with Jordan, not him. Anyway, some bad news. If my exchange rates are right, we only made fifty each in New Brockton coin.”

I nodded. It wasn’t bad, honestly – a single work week’s pay at a living wage in New Brockton. Not bad for a day’s work, but John was probably hoping for more. “Nexus will be making up the rest, don’t worry.” Anything that the Wardens gave us was simply icing on the cake at this point.

“Right.” He looked up, grinning suddenly. “Hey, Dragon! Would you care to guess where I got the idea for his face paint?”

“Hm…” Dragon paused for a moment. “Houngan?”

He gave a bark of laughter. “I had one of his shirts as a little kid. I think he did more for the religion than any of those Christian heroes did for theirs. I was in tears when I learned that he’d died. It’s a nice little homage, and it gives Jordan an out if people want to see his face.”

Emi giggled. “I think it just looks badass. Skull Face Man!”

I rolled my eyes. “You all are weird.”

Kathy looked at John with a smirk. “I never figured you for a cape fan.”

“Only the cool ones, m’dear.”

“I’m not making fun,” she said as she settled in a seat. “I don’t think that there’s a girl from back then who didn’t have at least one pair of branded panties from someone.”

“Oooooh!” Emi teleported next to Kathy, grinning from ear to ear. “Who was yours?”

“Chevalier, duh.” She grinned. “Well, it had his canonblade on it, right across the front. My, uh, my mom had a pair, like that, and I wanted one like hers. It wasn’t quite right, mine was across and hers was down, but…”

“I remember seeing boxers like that,” John mused. “For guys, of course. So the blade went up. I don’t think that they were official, though…”

“They weren’t,” Dragon confirmed. “But the PRT didn’t fight it. They didn’t fight any illegal paraphernalia, so long as it didn’t cast the Protectorate in a bad light. Well, except in Germany. They fought every trademark that popped up there due to the local trademark laws.”

“Fair,” he mused quietly.

“So,” Emi said, leaning against a bulkhead. The ride was so smooth on the Pendragon that we didn’t actually need to worry about taking a seat. “You and Sternly going to come with us to the wedding?”

Dragon laughed. “I didn’t want to try and invite myself, but I’d like that. I’ve been to a few weddings, but they weren’t really people that I knew like this. People who were thankful and invited me, mostly. I’m pretty sure that I can get Colin to come along, too. It would be good for him.”

“Awesome,” Emi said, grinning. “Did you all remember to get prezzies?”

I looked at her, my eyes wide with fear. “Presents?”

“Yeah! That’s what you do at a wedding, you get presents for the bride and groom! I made them some shirts that I think that they’ll like! Surely you knew that!”

“Emi,” John said in a mock-warning tone. “What have I told you about mocking Jordan’s ignorance?”

Emi rolled her eyes.

“And about calling him Shirley?”

That made Kathy snort, at least.

I shook my head. “What kind of presents do you get someone for a wedding? Clothes?”

“Whatever you think that they’ll need,” Kathy said soothingly. “Or that they’ll like. With how good you are with Christmas presents, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Easy for you to say. I haven’t gotten anyone any gifts so far this year.”

Emi gasped. “Who are you and what did you do with my—“

She stumbled as the Pendragon suddenly banked hard enough for us to feel it.

“Dragon?” I slapped my helmet back on, immediately back to full business.

“I’m redirecting to the west coast. Either there’s a new Endbringer, or it’s another like Agamemnon.”

And just like that, our plans for the rest of the day were ruined.

Interlude 13.C

“Father, please.”

He shook his head, pouting. Pouting! “No. No. It’s… It’s turning me into something that…”

The others tensed. They hated seeing him like this. That could go… very bad.

“Father,” she whispered, laying a gentle hand on his arm. “You know how important it is to take your pills.”

He didn’t say anything, didn’t even meet her eyes. That hurt more than anything. He looked into everyone’s eyes, always with such pride in all of them. He never said anything negative about them. A disappointed look was devastating, enough to make them question themselves.

For him to not look at her like this was like a knife to her heart. But she couldn’t stop.

“You know what it means if you stop taking them.”

His nod was minute, almost imperceptible. “But… I feel so small. So weak. I… I used to be somebody. I used to be so powerful. I…”

He ran a hand over the graying whiskers on his face. “You don’t understand. It’s… It’s like a different world. I don’t belong here. I… I feel like a nobody.”

Her eyes watered. “You’re not a nobody.”

“I am! Compared to who I was, I… I still remember. The pills, they don’t take away the memory, they just make me think that I was wrong then. But was I? I was so much more than I am now. Now, I’m just a man that people look at with sympathy. Sympathy!”

“Father,” she whispered softly, unable to summon anything else.

“I remember who I was then. That’s the worst part! I remember it all. And I know it was wrong, but it still doesn’t feel wrong. What I felt then was right. And…” He raised his eyes to look at everyone. “I want to feel right again. I want to… I want to feel like I haven’t let you all down again.”

Tears were falling, and not just hers. Almost everyone was crying.

Almost.

“You’re still a king to us,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

He turned his attention back to her. Gentle, almost frail hands cupped her cheeks as his eyes looked deep into her own. What did he see when he looked at her like that?

“My beautiful child. You’re all so very, very beautiful. So precious. I wish I could do more for you all.”

“We know.”

“And I wouldn’t have any of you if I stopped taking my pills.”

“No.” That was the harshest truth of them all. “And I don’t know what we’d do without you.” Most likely, they’d go crazy.

He was silent for a long moment. “I need them, don’t I?”

“Yes, Father.”

His hand reached out, and she gently put the cup in it. As soon as he tossed the pills into his mouth, she offered a cup of water, waiting patiently for him to drink all of it. It was only when he was done that she stood again. “Thank you.”

He looked around all of his children, smiling so very sadly. “Thank you, all of you, for being more than I could ever ask for.”

If Alcomb’s heart broke before, now it melted. She took a hesitant step backwards, waving with her fingertips. Once he returned it, she turned and made her way out, wiping at her eyes.

“I’m still amazed that you can get him to take them so easily,” Dr. Phelps said.

“Jamie Rinke will always respond to his children better than you. I just wish that more of us could speak as easily as I do.” Sadly, the orderlies could only use prepared phrases for now. They were working on it, though. At least she could understand them.

“You and me both.”

The orderlies always wore scrubs and masks for a reason. With how many of them there were, proper surgery to make them look fully human was out of the question. An approximation was all that they could hope for. Lurking just beneath the façade, they quickly turned inhuman.

Dr. Nolan offered Alcomb a tablet. “Riley’s still in surgery with the Endless trooper. She insists that she can give him full mobility.”

Alcomb could call, but she’d rather take care of that in person. “If she isn’t done by the time that I visit her, I’ll make her get him stable and table him for later. We have too many do or die patients today to let her go into hyperfocus on one patient again.” For now, though, she stated scrolling through the patients as they walked. “What’s the situation with Lung?”

“Full success,” Dr. Hendrickson said. “He’s already in recovery and should be back up to full strength by the end of the week.”

“We aren’t in the clear,” Nolan said quickly. “Churchill says that both the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth are pushing heavily for us to release him into their custody.”

Alcomb snorted. “Have her remind both of them that our willingness to treat them for free is part of the arrangement for this being neutral territory. They’re only allowed to do anything, including accost our patients, if we give them permission.” Or if her siblings got too dangerous. That was always the silent threat hanging over their heads.

But still, Lung had paid for the heart surgery in advance. Anyone who paid their bills and obeyed the rules was to be protected from all outside aggressors.

She frowned as she noticed something in the reports. “Stemb isn’t on collection duty?”

Wooten winced. “I, uh… We had to restrain him. Inconsolable crying, some self-harm.”

Alcomb sighed, shaking her head. He always was one of the more sensitive siblings, but something had to be setting him off. “Get Nurse Tea. I—“

“It’s her day off,” Wooten interrupted. “Or else I already would have.”

Now Alcomb groaned. “We have four severed spinal cords to repair before the end of the day. We need him to be throwing up those stem cells. Call her. If she refuses, get me and I’ll get her moving again.”

Wooten nodded, instantly walking away. She didn’t blame the man for not pushing it – Tea was more like a little sister than most of her siblings, having gotten many of the cognitive and speech upgrades that she had. Tea didn’t have the same level of medical training, but her extreme pheromone control and subdermal mesh made her better for dealing with low-profile but potentially dangerous individuals.

Unfortunately, the retractable claws made most of the human staff hesitant to deal with her ever since those disemboweling incidents.

Still, Alcomb was envious of Tea. What she wouldn’t give for days off.

“One of Riley’s special projects is here today,” Phelps mentioned almost offhandedly. That made her perk up. “Cassidy Greene.”

Ah, right. “The counterphage.”

“Right. He says that he’s been throwing up, and I quote, black tar that moves on its own.”

On its own? She blinked and glanced, letting her glasses call up the relevant information from the database. A gift from Dragon, and a good upgrade from the last pair where she had to use buttons on the frames.

Greene was one of the special projects, those who would get preferential treatment and experimental procedures any time they visited. With their permission, of course. His in particular allowed his body to modify itself down to the DNA level on the fly. Within hours of exposure to something the changes would be complete, though there were limiters in place to prevent him from losing his human form and appearance.

Unfortunately, his files didn’t give any indication as to what might be going on.

“Tell me he’s saved it all and didn’t let any escape.”

Phelps smiled a little. “Small favors.”

“Alright. Who checked him in?”

Phelps quickly looked at his tablet.

“Actually, you know what? I don’t want to know. It’s best if I don’t. Just do me a favor and pull them aside to have a loud, vocal conversation with whomever did it about where VIPs go on the patient order. I’m not even seeing him on this list, and that needs to be fixed in the future. Understand?”

“Yes, Dr. Alcomb.”

She sighed as she called up the spinal surgeries. She went ahead and moved two of them to tomorrow. With luck, they could get two done today, assuming there weren’t any more emergencies.

“Alright, I’ll visit my office, complete my welfare check, then talk to Mr. Greene. Is there anything else that I need to know?”

“Day-to-day administrivia,” Phelps said with a shrug. “Nothing that you won’t see in your terminal. The quick overview is that we got another batch of intern requests from both the Orphanage and University of Washington.”

At least it wasn’t Harvard. Harvard still tried to present itself as an Ivy League school, but its best staff had been gutted after Gold Morning and absorbed into the Orphanage. Those who went to there before Gold Morning were good, but since then, they seemed to lack something. The University of Washington seemed to put out a lot of weirdos, but the rebuilding after the Endbringer attack had left it in mostly good shape following Gold Morning.

“We’re also losing one due to improper conduct with a patient.”

“I take it all the sordid details will be in the report?” she asked with a smirk.

He grinned at her. “Not enough for you, I’m afraid.”

That earned a snort out of her. “Then the rest of you have jobs to do. Get to it.”

Thankfully, nobody else seemed to mind separating or wanted to tease her more. Truth be told, the idea of human sex was disgusting to her. There was only one human that it was a possibility with…  Who was, thankfully, too old and incapable thanks to medication side effects. A small favor, but it was still enough to make her stomachs churn.

There were so many little differences between herself and the humans here. Little details of her mind that popped up at the weirdest of times. She wasn’t even sure how much of her mind was truly hers and how much were due to the modifications that she’d received.

Outwardly, she was human. Her skin looked human, it felt human. Her body was perfectly shaped like a human’s in every way. Her eyes looked human, they acted like a human’s should. The way she walked, the way that she talked, everything screamed human, but it was all just the surface. Most of it was due to the work that had been put into her.

Once you started to peel back the layers, though, both in mind and body, things started to fall apart. Her organs weren’t right, her brain was built differently, and if she were to get a blood transfusion from anyone except select siblings, it would most likely kill her. The heart that they recently put into her had to be taken from one of her deceased brethren, and it acted more like a jet engine than a traditional mammalian heart.

For all the differences, though, she was fond of humans. She was happy that she could help them. She regretted the fact that she wasn’t an actual doctor and could only act as a face for Mother’s Hospital.

As Alcomb rounded a corner, she was greeted by a couple of residents hiding behind counters, peeking out to try spray each other with water from large syringes. It wasn’t even midnight and they were already at it?

She gave a shrill whistle, and immediately the two perked up. As they recognized her, the both of them rose, their eyes downcast. Good.

“Come here,” she barked, and the two men quickly hurried over to her, looking like children who got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. “Give.”

The men glanced at each other before holding out their makeshift weapons. She wished that she was tall enough that she didn’t have to look so far up at them.

“I am very disappointed in the both of you,” Alcomb snarled as she turned the syringes around in her hands. “You two are residents! I expect you to know better than this! What do you have to say for yourselves?”

The man on her left tucked his chin into his chest. “We’re sorry, Dr. Alcomb. We were—“

Whatever else he was going to say was cut off as she emptied the syringes into their faces. As they spluttered, the corners of her mouth twisted upwards.

A nurse snorted from her station. “Ya’ll shoulda known better than to hand ‘em over to her by now.”

Both men were too busy staring at her in shock. Everyone expected her to be uptight all the time, but sometimes… Well. She flipped the syringes around in her hands again before offering them back. “As you were, gentlemen.”

The moment that both syringes left her hands, she turned and bolted for her office. She wasn’t about to give these two their chance for retaliation!

——————–

Alcomb’s glasses were handy, but it was no replacement for looking at a screen. Words floating in midair didn’t feel the same. You couldn’t focus on them the same way, couldn’t take in the information quite as quickly. The glasses were good for a quick scan of a subject, but for an actual review and familiarization, you needed a monitor.

Especially now.

Alcomb approached the window to the operating theater, looking inside. Her hand came up to carefully draw a circle on her arm. “Mother.”

Beyond the window, Mother’s mouth moved in unison.

“Alcomb,” Mother replied, using Alcomb’s own vocal cords.

Alcomb had been purposefully made so that Mother could easily take over her motor controls and tune into Alcomb’s senses. While she couldn’t return the favor, she could at least use it to communicate.

“It’s alright if you come back to this tomorrow.”

Mother didn’t look up from her work, four of the robotic arms mounted on her back working in unison with her hands. “I’m close to done.”

“You have two spinal repairs to finish today, and then one of your VIPs. The counterphage’s augmentations seem to no longer be just affecting his own body, but also that of the bacteria inside of his body.”

That made Mother’s head snap up to look at the window. “Vector?”

Alcomb shook her head. “I don’t know. The first results are in from our first analysis, but I don’t understand them. I’m sorry, Mother.” There were distinct downsides to not having any real medical knowledge beyond what she picked up on the job.

While Mother and Alcomb didn’t share a mind when Alcomb was possessed, there was a little bleed over. Mostly, it was emotions, and occasional… Impressions. Alcomb could sense when Mother’s passenger would speak to her, and while Alcomb couldn’t understand it, she was getting close. A couple more years and she’d understand, if she lasted that long.

Mother glanced up at her, a scowl visible behind the mask that she wore. “You’re as bad as the first.”

Ah, yes, the first Alcomb. Mother couldn’t possess the first, but still used her as a way of interacting with others via a radio implant in the ear. Alcomb had that, too, but they rarely used it.

Originally, the hospital had no name. The official reasoning behind the name was as a tribute to Mother’s mother. The truth of the matter was that someone had asked the first Alcomb what the in-progress hospital was called. In her innocent naivety, she had told the person that it was simply “Mother’s hospital” and the name had stuck.

Mother sighed softly before looking back down at her work and moving a bit faster. “I thought I had four spines today.”

“You did. But if the two of us are going to try and help the counterphage and prevent another superplague, we’ll have to shift some of the work load to tomorrow.” Mother had already cured three naturally occurring plagues through… potentially dubious means that both the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth had turned a blind eye to. “Plus, Stumb is having another suicidal day.”

Mother’s hands froze, though her mechanical arms kept working. “Again?”

“I’m afraid so. I suspect that the implant may have already fouled.”

Mother’s eyes squeezed shut. “Less than two weeks. It should have lasted well beyond his death.”

“It could also be a shift in his brain structure, or any number of things. Father made him specifically for the stem cells, not for mental stability.” The one downside to the medication that they gave Father was that he needed to be reminded to make sure that his children were of sound mind.

“Right. Something else to do tomorrow. Damn it.” Mother took a breath. “Alright, give me five minutes to finish up here, we’ll do another half hour round on this one tomorrow. How long until they have the spinals prepped?”

“They’ll be ready as soon as you finish your break.”

Mother groaned. “Ten minutes?”

“An hour,” Alcomb stressed. “You skipped lunch, and if your blood sugar crashes in the middle of surgery again…”

“I take back what I said earlier. You’re worse than the first.”

——————–

“The surgery itself shouldn’t last too long,” Mother said through Alcomb’s mouth. “But recovery will take a couple of days. We need to make sure that your bacteria culture properly.”

The counterphage nodded, still looking uncomfortable. “Is it going to happen again?”

“I’m sure that Riley can fix it this time.” By what Alcomb could feel through the synchronization, Mother was sure that she could. Her passenger was speaking to her. “It isn’t as terrible as you might think. Even still, we’re going to need you back for an examination every month again.”

“Sure. Okay. I… So long as something doesn’t try to crawl up my throat, sure.”

Mother smiled Alcomb’s lips. “Just lay back and relax. The anesthesiologist will be in shortly, and we’ll have you taken care of soon.”

Most of the connection severed. Instead of controlling Alcomb, Mother was simply watching through her senses. The man, though, did as he was told. Good enough. Alcomb smiled reassuringly one last time before making her way out, handing the clipboard to the nurse waiting outside.

“He’s agreed to surgery. Mother’s almost ready for him in the theater.”

The nurse nodded. “The Wardens want a Thinker on hand.”

Because of course they did. “If they see anything untoward, have them page me before rushing in there.”

The nurse nodded once more before leaving, the hulking orderly trailing behind. Mother quietly released the last of the connection.

Honestly, this wasn’t turning out to be a bad day. Alcomb started back towards her office, smiling to herself. Father had a moment of good lucidity that would probably help whatever siblings he created today, Mother was getting a decent amount done, Alcomb got her to take an hour lunch break, the human doctors had completed a good number of difficult surgeries, no major emergencies had come up, only five people died, and she might actually get a full four hours of sleep tonight. She might even treat herself to a nice bowl of cupcake vomit.

Unfortunately, there was still a lot to do. There were still a lot of requests for meetings with either Father or Mother to go through, she had to read through the daily complaints about her siblings, check any requests for statements by the press (which would no doubt involve the heart transplant Lung had received), and then respond to whatever internal mails demanded her attention.

On a whim, she decided to turn around and head for the organ farm. There were a few siblings that grew organs suitable for transplant to anyone who needed them. The usual, heart, lung, kidneys, pancreas, eyes, and so on. But they usually only got one or two visitors a day, outside of the doctors who would harvest their pods. She could spare the time to say hello and let them know how many lives they’d saved.

Poison.

It wasn’t a spoken word, but all of Father’s children heard it all the same, passing it along. It was a warning, an urgent request for aid that was said somewhere between a frequency that humans couldn’t hear and something else.

Bad. Doctor. Here.

Alcomb sprinted to the phone mounted to the wall, thankful that she’d worn flats today. “Trauma team and security to room 431. Possible homicide in progress.”

Lung’s room.

She slammed the phone down and began sprinting. Already, those of her siblings that were dressed as orderlies were hurrying. Unless ordered, or unless they actually saw a person being attacked, they wouldn’t engage. They all were compelled by the upgrades in their brains to follow the rules.

Outside, she commanded as they hurried up the stairs. Guard.

Her orders were instantly relayed by the others. As she burst through the stairwell doors to the fourth floor, she could see a doctor running into 431, no doubt already responding to the mass page.

Alcomb’s sacs in her mouth filled as she hurried to the door, making her throat bulge. Her siblings fell into place behind her, ready for anything.

As she reached the door, she almost ran into a woman holding a bloody scalpel. In the briefest of flashes, Alcomb knew that she should give the woman to Father. The woman was bad. The woman deserved it.

Instead, she opened her mouth.

The sacs sprayed their contents on the woman, and crystal immediately forming around the woman, encasing her completely. It would hold the doctor in an almost suspended animation.

As the sacs emptied, vertigo slammed into Alcomb. She fell against the doorframe, her glasses falling to the floor.

No. She needed those. They had medical scanners in them. She could relay what kind of… whatever it was the woman did.

Alcomb blinked as her legs became weak. The doctor who had rushed into the room was on the ground, a bloody slash on his chest.

The crystal she’d created was red tinged. That… That wasn’t right.

This felt wrong. Everything felt wrong.

There was a crash, and something long and flat slithered out of the vent.

The human part of her tried to smile as her sibling wrapped around her.

Filaments caressed her as he began to support her.

It was a human emotion, but as those flat eyes on the ends of tendrils looked at her, she couldn’t help but love him.

She’d held out for a long time.

Nothing lasts forever.

Alcomb smiled and closed her eyes.

Interlude 13.B

Having your last class of summer school be a study hall had some serious advantages. Before her parents died, Kaitlin had been in a village where they’d only had three actual teachers for all the kids. The elderly helped out as best they could, passing along trades that they couldn’t physically perform all day anymore.

She could read, write, do math, make soap, build a shed, wire a house, help birth a cow, make bread from scratch, sew, plant a field, and all sorts of other things. She was more skilled than the city folks, and she knew it. She’d thought of herself as pretty smart. It wasn’t until she’d gotten to the Orphanage that she’d learned just how uneducated she actually was, though.

Fortunately, the Orphanage was prepared for just that. Most of her classes were for people like her, who had gotten the basic education but nothing more. She was learning about science and math that she’d never dreamed of, that she’d never had the ability to learn in such a limited location.

It wasn’t easy, though. She was fairly smart despite her poor education, but getting up to speed took a lot of hard work. Fortunately, she had help.

She put her backpack over both shoulders, adjusting the leather straps and metal buckles until it was tight. Satisfied, she reached into the large vent carefully, searching blindly for the latch. Once it opened, she slipped inside into the cramped hall. It always gave her a bit of a thrill to move through this dark tunnel with only dying light to guide her. It didn’t take long for her to reach the door and carefully push it open.

And let out a soft meep when she almost bumped into a woman.

The woman didn’t even look up from her clipboard. “Be a dear and close the door behind you, please.”

Kaitlin found herself looking down at the ground as she did what she was told. This was the first time that someone had been in here when she’d come.

“Thank you. Now, what are you after?”

Kaitlin shifted from foot to foot. “A root beer, a cream soda, an orange, and a cherry.”

The woman wordlessly began to move for the soda. As she did, the door opened, bumping Kaitlin’s back and making her meep again.

“Sorry,” a familiar voice said. Kaitlin whipped around to look at Tony’s grinning mug as he poked his head through the door. “Ayyy, girl! I’m glad I bumped into you. Better’n getting in trouble for both of us nabbing them. Oh, hello Ms. Steadman! How’s the inventory?”

“Good,” the woman said, still in a business-like tone as she forced two sodas into Tony’s hands. “How is your summer break going?”

“Awesome, and I’m excited for this year. I’ll be shipping out at the end of the upcoming semester! I’m actually gonna graduate, woot woot!”

Ms. Steadman handed the cream soda and the cherry to Kaitlin, a slight smirk on her face. “Good. Now, I trust that the two of you were never here?”

“Not at all!” he beamed. “C’mon, Kait, let’s get outta here.”

He virtually dragged her back through the door into the tight corridor, grinning. “See you in the hall?”

“Sure.”

With that, he slipped into the boys’ bathroom, and she wandered further back to the girls’. The stall was closed off and marked as out of order, with even the toilet missing to help with the illusion. Kaitlin wasn’t sure why they had built the bathrooms here to have a secret passage to storage, but she wasn’t complaining. And the fact that the stall was more closed off than the others helped keep the boys from peeking.

As soon as she stepped into the hall, a soda in each hand, she found Tony standing there, arms outstretched. She rolled her eyes as she stepped into a hug.

There were a couple of people who gave her hell for hanging out with Tony and David, teasing her about dating one of them, but… Well…

It was awkward. If she were to be asked if she loved them, she’d say yes without hesitation. But dating them? David… His problems made it difficult to even imagine dating him, and that was before the scars. Tony? Hugging him like this, feeling his heartbeat move his chest, feeling every single rib on his skeletal frame was slightly unnerving. And that was the kindest understatement that she could think of.

The love she felt for them wasn’t romantic, and it wasn’t like family, but the thought of the both of them leaving broke her heart.

“We still on?” she asked as she pulled away, trading the cream soda for the root beer.

“Yeah, totes.”

“Cool. So, is it true? End of the fall semester, you’ll leave?”

Tony nodded as they started walking. “Yeah. I’d do Wardens training at the start of the school year, but with the classes that I already have, I’d get a post before David graduated. I wanna stay close as long as I can. It’s still gonna be up to you to look after him, while I’m training.”

“And he’s going to graduate mid-year, huh?” Tony nodded. “I really think that he should stick around longer. Take more full college courses, keep up with therapy, you know?”

Tony’s usual energy was completely gone. It always felt a little weird when he was somber like this. “Yeah, I’m with ya. Fuck, am I with ya. But… I mean, at the end of the day, it’s really not my choice, is it?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “I’m pretty sure that if you pushed him—“

“Life’s too short for that,” he interrupted. “Listen, can I force him? Sure. It’s the best thing for him, staying here and getting more treatment, and he knows it. He wouldn’t even hate me for it. But that’s the thing, I’d be forcing him. I already force so much in his life. He wants to leave here with me, and he’ll be tagging along wherever I go with the Wardens. So I’ll be forcing him there. We force so much of his life right now, too. Don’t you think that he should have some control over his life?”

She frowned. “Can I sound like a bitch for a moment?”

“Get your bitch on, girl!” And like that, the energy was back. His ability to flip-flop between somber and energetic had only grown since that whole Simurgh thing. It worried her, but there were things that you didn’t talk about. Not with Tony, not with anyone. The possibility of an answer was worse than wondering.

At least he’d come back at all. That was enough for her.

“I don’t want you to go,” Kaitlin admitted softly. “I don’t…”

“You don’t wanna lose anyone else.” And gone again. Tony smiled serenely at her. “Nah, I get it. I mean, I’ve already checked, and I can take calls from wherever I am. I can talk whenever. And I won’t be going to the Big Apple with the Wardens ‘cos of David not being a para, sooooooooooooooo…”

That energy was back. “I was thinking. Mebbe, if you don’t find another group to hook up with in the meantime, mebbe you could come with us after you graduate?”

She blinked at him. That wasn’t what she was expecting at all. “Seriously?”

“Hells yeah!” He giggled. “Trust me, I’ve been working with the Wardens reps a lot, and they’ll be putting me somewhere that’s good for him. Not too many paras, but still good city defenses. Also, some place with a possibility of a job for him. I think that Twain would be good if it didn’t have way, way too many paras. Maybe one of the places other than New Brockton that they deal with heavy. I dunno yet.

“But if there’s a job for him there, then I’m betting there’ll be one for you.”

“You really think so?” Kaitlin asked with a small smile.

“Yupperz!” He gave her a lopsided grin. “All this is depressing talk, though. We’ve got more than enough time. Tell me some good news! Tell me you’ve made a move on Tanya!”

“I’d shove you into the wall if didn’t have the soda in your hands.” Tanya wasn’t into girls, unfortunately. A wasted crush that Kaitlin couldn’t quite bring herself to give up on.

That made Tony erupt with his weird, wheezing laughter as he danced ahead to the room, fumbling the bottles as he opened the door. “I! Live! Again!”

Kaitlin placed a bottle in the small of his back to push him forward. “David! How’s it going?”

David held up a finger, his nose still deep in the book.

Kaitlin missed the old room. Being on the second floor wasn’t as good as the third, but David was able to get more care. This room didn’t have as many hiding spots, which didn’t help David in the slightest. Once a week, orderlies would check the walls, hardwood floor, and ceiling to make sure that David hadn’t found a way to smuggle something in without them knowing.

This room was infinitely smaller, and… Well, it just didn’t feel as warm and inviting. It was more sterile, less inviting. The fact that there was always an adult or someone who worked in the special needs wing in the room with them didn’t help matters any.

The only good thing about it, the thing that everyone agreed was nice, was the chalkboard that took up one wall. Kaitlin noted that there was some sort of huge equation that covered the entire wall that ended in a large WTF?! Whatever he was working on, at least he was as clueless as she was in the end.

She often wondered about how smart he was, though. How connected were his intelligence and brain problems? Was he crazy because he was smart, or was he smart because he was crazy? Maybe it was the fact that he secluded himself and needed something to occupy his mind from his past and his father that he delved into trying to force the world to make sense? Or was it a happy coincidence? Bad things just happened to someone who was brilliant, breaking them?

She doubted that she’d get the answer to that. Instead, since Tony was staring so intently at the equation like he had any more of an idea as to what it said than she did, she looked to the small desk on her right. “Hi Clarence. How’s the studying?”

He sighed softly. “Not what I wanna be studying. I’d rather be on malaria ‘cos a few people got home, but instead I’m using my week break to bone up on head trauma.”

Clarence was their most usual watchful eye. He’d been nervous at first, ever since that… episode. But he had insisted. The people who helped keep an eye on David had an emergency button to summon security if anything happened, as did his teachers. Clarence had insisted on being one of those people for some reason.

Over time, though, he’d grown into it and relaxed around David. Once upon a time, he’d been just a watchful eye, but now he felt like one of them.

“Bone heading,” David said meekly, looking up from his book. The new scars on his face from the episode were still pink, but at least he was smiling, even if it was just the corners of his mouth.

“Exactly,” Clarence said with a grin. “Did it have what you were looking for?”

David’s smile faded. “No. I’ll have to wait until Mr. Schuell gets back from the field trip and see if the real scientists have figured out how the batteries don’t violate—“

“Found it!” Tony interrupted with glee.

Kaitlin glared at him. “Found what?”

“Kitty face! David always slips one into these.”

He pointed in the middle of a block of numbers. A colon and a three. Weird. But that made David smile again. Might as well keep the good times running before she and Tony enacted their cunning plan.

“What do you want? Root beer, cream soda, orange, or cherry?”

David hesitated before answering. “Could I have a root beer, please?”

Ever since the episode, David had decided that he loved root beer, but always seemed guilty to ask for one for some reason. She didn’t get it, but there was a lot that she just accepted with David. She might not get it, but she didn’t get a lot of things about people.

“Thank you,” he muttered shyly as she handed it over. She resisted the urge to reach out and ruffle his hair. Sometimes, he just seemed like a little kid.

She popped the flip top of the bottle of cherry, taking a swig. Some of the adults said that the soda here didn’t taste right, but what the hell did they know? “So, uh, David. Are you busy?”

His neck tightened a bit. She could practically feel his heartbeat jump. “Um, n-not really. Why?”

He was barely able to pull his book out of the way as Tony flopped on the desk. “Aw, c’mon! Don’tcha remember what’s coming up?” David shook his head. “Dance of the Seelie!”

David frowned. “Last year it was the Dance of the Summer Court, the year before that it was the Blossom Ball, before that it was Golden Waltz…”

Crap, he was getting wrapped up in the details. Kaitlin put her hand on her hip and grinned at him to try and distract him. “I know next to nothing all about fashion. And even less about elves. Stupid themed dances. But I want to look like a proper faerie for it. I was wondering if you could come with to help figure out what kind of dress they should make for me.”

He tucked his chin down against his chest. “Are you just humoring me? Trying to make me feel involved?”

That hurt in ways that she couldn’t put words to.

“Naw,” Tony said, moving his head so that he could look up into David’s face. “Dude, she asked me if I thought you might be up to it. It’ll be fun! We’ll go out, pick out an outfit, and then come back and have dinner. C’mon, what do ya say?”

David’s arms drew in tight against his body. Crap, he was going to say no, wasn’t he? Because she really was looking—

“Okay,” he whispered. “Clarence? Can you step away from your studies, or do you need to get someone else to—“

“I can tag along, sure.” Clarence took a sip of his soda. “Besides, I still don’t have a suit for it yet, and I already donated mine from last year. Maybe I can find something.”

“Cool,” David whispered, getting up.

The four of them made their way out of the room and downstairs, pausing only so that Clarence could sign them out. David liked his presence, and it helped that Clarence genuinely believed that he wasn’t there just to protect David from himself, but from David’s old man. That meant the world to the boy, even if he sometimes protested that it would just get Clarence killed.

Kaitlin didn’t know much about the old man. The bastard had been a nobody para that clashed with the Protectorate once or twice in Texas before Gold Morning. He’d cleaned up for a while after everything went down, but apparently he’d gone crazy after David’s birth. All that she knew after that was that he was determined to get David back, and that David had watched his own mother be killed by the fucker.

How David wasn’t a para was beyond her.

Once they were outside, she looked to Tony. “You got a costume yet?”

“Nah,” he said confidently. “I don’t need one.”

That made her eyes widen. “Oh, come on! You can’t skip—“

“I’m making one,” he sing-songed, complete with jazz hands. “Remember, nifty power?”

Clarence coughed. “Hey, mind if I ask a, uh, a kinda morbid question?”

“Naw, man, go ahead.”

Clarence frowned. “Uh… Why didn’t you use one of… I mean. Why didn’t you replace your hand with… Uh…”

“The people I turned into armor?” Tony flashed him a grin. “Eh, didn’t feel right. I was, like, doing triage and junk. I mean, I was totally distracted by other stuff. Plus, I dunno if it’d feel right, using them like that. They were fighting. Holding onto them… I dunno.”

The way that he said other stuff seemed odd to Kaitlin, but he couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Anyway! I’m going to be using my power to make myself a suit out of leaves and junk. I’ve been practicing. Plus, a couple a guinea pigs will be sacrificed to make me a pair of ears. Asshole Tony Dickenson’s probably gonna have better ears, but still.”

David piped up in a soft whisper, his eyes still focused on the ground in front of him as they walked. “Two male guinea pigs and twenty females and form a self-sustaining colony while providing enough meat to sustain a family of six.”

“Woah,” Clarence said, looking at him. “For serious?”

“For serious,” David said weakly. “Guinea pigs are really good for food. For every pound of beef, you need eight pounds of feed. Guinea pigs only need four to render a pound of meat. From what I’ve read, the quality of meat can vary from poor to good, but so can anything else.”

“Uh…” Clarence coughed gently. “Can you get me where you read about that? I’d like to send that home to the folks.”

David frowned. “Give me a week or so, please? I’ll need to hunt it down.”

“So,” Tony said. “Other than trying to break the laws of physics using physics, what have you been up to today?”

David shrugged. “Just a new design idea for a blower for a forge. Are you familiar with a pedal lathe?”

Tony shook his head. “You’re gonna have to explain that to me.”

“Okay. Um. See…”

Kaitlin looked to her side, and was immediately not paying attention any more. Fucking. Bitch.

Mandy.

The girl looked at them guiltily for a moment before turning and hurrying off in another direction. Good. Run, bitch, run. Play Tony like that, then the moment that things get difficult for your crush, run away and never come back? Screw you, you stuck up bitch.

Kaitlin took a deep breath and focused herself. No. No. This wasn’t a day for that. This was a day for fun in town until David reached his limit. Of costuming, and just relaxing with friends. The boys hadn’t seen her, so there was no point in dredging up the past for them.

She had to remind herself just how traumatic it had been for her. Could she really blame Mandy for not being able to handle it? She wanted to, but…

Ugh, heavier stuff for another day. Focus.

“That makes sense,” Tony was saying. “I think. I dunno. I don’t have a brain for this sorta stuff. But if you want to write it out, maybe do some sketches, maybe I can show it to someone and see if they can make it work?”

“That’d be awesome,” David said with a grin.

A sudden thought struck Kaitlin. “Hey, beanpole.”

“Yo!” Tony turned to her, grinning from ear to ear. “Wazzup?”

“Hey, I was thinking. You can move your armor to others, right?”

“He can,” David said quickly. “Apparently he did it to me once.”

Apparently? She wasn’t sure how to take that. “So, uh… Once we get an outfit for me, mebbe you could do some, like, wood and leaf jewelry or something?”

That made David’s eyes light up. Oh, fuck. She’d just given him more options for an outfit. She was doomed.