Apologies

I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but due to circumstances beyond my control I can’t post a chapter today.  Today is a massive goatfuck, and anything that I wrote would be of inferior quality.  I don’t want to do that to you.

I will be writing epilogue chapters.  As a way of extending an apology, if there is anyone that you would like to hear from in them, please let me know.

4/16 edit:  Chapter is 2/3 done, but I’ve gone two days without any sleep.  I can’t finish it today.  I’ll get it up Thursday morning.

4/18 edit:  It will be up Thursday morning as scheduled.

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Interlude 15.D

Everyone made decisions about people based on how folks looked. Just human nature, something that everybody did without thinking. If you saw someone in a swanky suit, your first judgement was that they was some uppity, prim and proper, self-important asswipe. Someone in threadbare clothes was a poor soul who didn’t have much. Even age was a thing — if you was below 30, you wasn’t properly educated or anything. Maybe not an idiot, but not smart.

But there was several kinds of smart. There was book smart, head smart, people smart, world smart, work smart, fighting smart… All sorts of smart. Everyone was plenty dumb in their own way, and you could learn a lot from almost anyone, so long as you knew what kind of smart they was. That was the hard part, though, because foks had already made their minds about you, based on how you looked.

Stand there in well-worn leather breeches, a linen tee, and a homemade padded leather jacket with a thick collar, with spiked hair and a couple of piercings in your ears? Didn’t matter if you had those big thick radio headphones around your neck, you was a thug, plain and simple. Dumb as a box of rocks, they think. Didn’t matter if you killed the buffalo, skinned it, salted the meat and rendered the tallow, make the leathers, and even wove the shirt, all by yourself, you was an idiot.

Which suited Romeo just fine. He wasn’t head smart or book smart, and he knew it. But he wasn’t dumb. Sure, he’d never been to school a day in his life, but he could read (so long as people didn’t get bitchy about him using his finger to help), do math, he’d spent plenty of time learning with the shrinks, knew people, could do a little bit of everything back home, and could even build a rock solid house all by hisself. He’d had plenty of debates about if the Sons of Bitch was a tribe or not, and he always thought that he’d made his argument about “neo-tribes” and their place in the modern multiverse a good one.

This was beyond him, though. He’d kept up with all the bullshit when they was fighting the Simurgh and Medusa, but that was because everyone was focused on one thing. Watching this Relentless Legion fighting was impossible. It was pure chaos, plain and simple. Hundreds of Tinker monitors flickered with maps that was being created on the fly by the computers and sensors and shit on the suits those people wore. Groups would fight other groups almost at random to his eye, then suddenly run off to fight someone else or do something that the dozens and dozens of folks in this here complex told them to.

Both the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth was helping, but he couldn’t make hide nor hair of what they was doing. Maybe if he’d been to a school or something, but he felt like even he felt like it would be too much chaos out there.

Archimedes caught him just standing there bewildered and moved over. “If you want to step outside and have a quick smoke, I wouldn’t blame you. I’d just ask you to take another drag for me.”

Romeo grinned, thankful for the reprieve. Archimedes was a manipulative asshole, right up there with the best of them, but he was good at what he was doing, almost as good as that Schrodinger chick. And maybe Romeo was standing in someone’s way. “Thanka, yo. Will do.”

He hurried out of the building, not wanting to be in there for any longer than necessary. As soon as he was outside, one of the pre-rolled smokes was in his mouth, lit by an all-too-expensive match. It wasn’t long before Mercu, his favorite pitbull, was sitting at his feet and waiting for a head rub. He obliged the boy, waiting until the third drag that he slipped the headphones onto his ears and turned on his radio.

“Ay, Mom.”

There was a bit of a wait before her voice answered, gruff and blunt as always. “What’s going on?

“’bout what I figgard. Can’t make sense a too much a it, but if it gonna go down, it gonna go down here an’ now.”

His mom made a thoughtful noise before speaking again. “Tattletale? What’s she doing?

“Keeps looking ‘tween those screens that the Wardens dude shows her. Tryin’ ta guide ’em all to where she thinks’ll do most damage. She, a Wardens bitch, and the Legion gal I warned you ’bout is always talkin’ ’bout where ta hit, yeah? Can’t keep up.” He pulled another drag.

Are you smoking?

Romeo blinked. Abrupt change, there. More abrupt than usual. “Was the only way ta talk wif ya, yeah?”

She didn’t approve of him smoking, but she’d never said to stop. He wasn’t sure why, but he wasn’t going to argue.

Watch her. She’s smart, but she isn’t smart. Talks too much.

What? Oh, right, Aunt Lisa. “Too many talkers not sayin’ enough, Mom. Lots a ’em. You’d hate it. Anyway, if things is gonna go how we think they is, I gotta get back in. Jus’ wanted ta letcha know that things is getting thick, and I’mma gonna keep close eye on this shit. I’ll letcha know when ya need ta know.”

Good.

“Love ya, Mom.”

She didn’t give a response. You don’t go to Mom for human affection. Aunt Cassie, as damn codependent and needy for affection and connection as she was, she was the one he went to for words of love and hugs. Mom’s hugs… She was awkward about them. She showed her affection better in other ways. He knew that Mom was getting laid when she didn’t share a bed with him. He was used to puppy piles, sometimes with actual puppies in the mix.

Mom could nod and walk away, and it would say more than any words ever could. And if he ever needed proof that she loved him, well…

——————————

Romeo didn’t so much of get off Bastard as he did fall into Mom’s arms. It was enough to make him want to throw up again, but he’d even run out of bile a half hour ago. Mom wasn’t a fast woman, but her powerful legs carried her like a whirlwind, kicking the doors to the big building open.

The world was blurry, and his arm was pinned painfully against his chest as she carried him like he was a babe. Even with how out of it he was, unable to move his head more than spastically, he was aware of insectoid figures surrounding them, hissing warningly.

He tried to give a cry of fear, but it only came out as a gurgle.

“Where is she?” Mom boomed, making the only eye that could open wince.

“Miss Lindt,” a man said soothingly. “They called ahead and–“

“Where?” Mom demanded, somehow even louder. That was enough to make him wimper, and that made her freeze. After a moment, she adjusted her grip on him so that she could gently lay her cheek against his forehead. When she spoke again, her voice was more quiet, but brimming with even more danger and threat of violence than he’d ever heard before.

“Take me to her, or I’ll kill you all.”

He couldn’t see anything with her holding him like this, but after a moment, Mom was moving again. His had had a tiny bit of motion, and he was able to snag her shirt with a baby’s grip. He wasn’t quite sure what was going on, and really, it didn’t matter. Mom was here, and she’d been dead serious when she’d said that she’d kill them if they didn’t help. That was enough for him.

The man said something that he couldn’t make out. That ear wasn’t working so well. Mom moved even more quickly, stopping only to gingerly, delicately set him on a table of some sort. The lights were odd here. Too bright. They were indoors, how was it so bright? It was dark out, but the light was from overhead. How?

“Help him,” Mom growled. He was having trouble making her out with the blur and bright light.

“I will,” a new voice said. She sounded… pained?

“Don’t screw him up. Not like you did Brian.”

“I won’t. I’m a different person now, don’t worry. But I’m going to have to ask you to go into the–“

“No.” It was Mom’s no argument voice. Romeo squinted, and he could make out her face. Hard and firm as ever, but she was… crying? Mom could cry?

“Then stand over there. I’ll need the light to figure out what happened.” The new woman’s face came into view, her smile soft. “Hello, Romeo. Tattletale tells me that you took a tumble last week, and now your head doesn’t work so well.” Two thin metal things moved behind her, but he couldn’t make them out. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you all fixed up…”

——————————

Romeo frowned as he made his way back in. Aunt Lisa had tears in her eyes as she stared at a monitor in shock, but nobody else seemed so strongly affected. Or really affected at all. Strange.

The monitor showed the view of someone running. He looked to the map in the corner, trying to make sense of it. He wasn’t sure if he was reading it right, but he was guessing… Someone was way away from the bulk of the fighting. It showed a trio of dots follwing it, trying to catch up, maybe?

Too confusing. If he was there, he might be able to make sense of it all, but looking at images like this? Cameras only told a thin slot of the action. The big holographic displays of the Dragon’s Teeth at least gave him a three-dimensional view of the action, but even that wasn’t the same as being there.

He might not be a good fighter, but he’d taken on his fair share of wildlings and assholes who thought that the Sons of Bitch was all bark and no bite. He’d gotten told what to do in the middle of a fight more than once, and even been yelling the orders once. Not that they listened, but that’s what you got for being surrounded by people much better than yourself.

Here, he had no clue, so he settled into watching again.

Archimedes was pacing around, keeping an eye on everyone. Not just the “delegates” here, but the Legionnaires who was manning various computers and desperately trying to keep everyone in the proper places. Didn’t hide his nerves none. Schrodinger had her own set of computers, moving like greased lightning.

When the Wardens had shown up, some blonde dame had commanded a whole slew of computers to give her the most action. To be fair, she was probably doing the work of fifteen people, no doubt helped out by her assistant, who seemed to be giving everyone else things to look at. Romeo had no idea what was up with that, but folks was too busy to ask.

Behind them stood the big three of the Wardens: Chevalier, Legend, and Valkyrie. Legend wasn’t wearing his tights, but civvie clothes. Probably retired again, but decided to attend for whatever reason. On occasion, he or Chevalier would move to discuss something with either their gal or one of the Legionaries, offering the voice of wisdom and experience.

Both of the current Americas had their reps. Mr. Grayson was just watching silently, probably the first time he’d seen action like this while it was happening. From the better America, Miss Militia occasionally whispered with Chevalier, which made Romeo smile a bit. The two of them stuck close and seemed to have their own shorthand. It was all professional, but… Well, there was a familiarity there that Romeo liked.

And then General Gill. The Indian man with the headwrap and the oiled beard. Seemed weird for the usually prim and proper, not to mention shaved, Dragon’s Teeth to have someone like him as a general, but hey, there was probably a reason. The man was pensive but still. His jaw worked on occasion, but he kept his hands firmly clasped behind his behind his back.

Miss Alcott, bless her soul, looked like she needed another forty winks or so. She wasn’t taxed or nothing, he knew that Thinker exhaustion look, but she was dead tired as she watched everything. Old memories haunting her last night, he reconed. Didn’t sleep, and probably kept slipping into the past now. Poor lady.

Over yonder, Nexus was sitting with a platinum blonde gal who was in full plate armor. He’d been in New Brockton when Teacher had attacked, which had lead to his trigger event. That much, Aunt Lisa had told Romeo when he asked about the two of them. Nexus would do anything to give Teacher the bird, and he wasn’t about to miss the grand attack.

The Legionaries themselves was a motley bunch. They didn’t have military discipline, but they also didn’t have the ability to do what they wanted. Even the untriggered seemed to have an unhealthy devotion to what they was doing, though. When shit had started, he’d heard some of them quietly mutter “For Relentless.” Which, if Romeo was reading everything right, was a real bad thing for them. Unless…

Unless Aunt Lisa’s head snapped up, her eyes going wide. Yup, she just got it and was kicking herself for not getting it before now. Had to be. Smart, but thanks to her power. Not as smart as she thought when she wasn’t using it, or when she didn’t use it right.

As Romeo slid his hand into his pocket, she turned to Miss Alcott. “Can I get a couple of numbers?”

Alcott frowned for a moment before nodding.

“What are the odds that Jordan achieves his primary goal?”

“Fifty-six point three one one eight.”

Aunt Lisa nodded. “And what are the odds that he dies here?”

“Fifty-six point three one one three.” Surprisingly, Alcott didn’t look surprised in the slightest.

Aunt Lisa, though, went from shocked to furious. “Jesus Christ! How the fuck did I miss this?!”

Romeo was willing to bet that she missed it more than she knew.

Chevalier, though, was too fast on the follow-up. “Missed what?”

“Jor… Relentless did this mission to get himself killed.” Her eyes began that tiny jump left and right that people did when they started to put the puzzle pieces together. “And… And I think that he’s always been trying to get himself killed.”

The Wardens dame snorted. “Just figuring that out, bitchtits?”

Romeo grasped the tube in his pocket.

Aunt Lisa turned to her. “You… Yes. Yes. His entire life…”

“Hold on,” Miss Militia said carefully. “Do you mean to say that all of this was just a… suicide attempt?”

“A convoluted one. Everything’s always been… He doesn’t even know, does he?”

Romeo pressed the button on the end of the tube. It was only a matter of time now before his own plan came into effect.

“You aren’t making any sense,” Archimedes said, crossing over. “He’s been… having some problems the last few years, but he’s been seeing a therapist and–”

“No he hasn’t,” Schrodinger said. On the screens, Relentless was being suspended by some sort of Tinker tech bullshit. “He went to the one, but after that he’s just been telling you that he has. In the branches where I convince him to take me with him, he just goes and trains for a few hours.”

“Goes a lot longer than that,” the Wardens gal deadpanned. “He’s been suicidal for as long as I’ve known him.”

“I don’t understand,” Miss Militia said. “How does a person get this far–”

“Depression,” Aunt Lisa said quickly, even after some Legionaires freed Relentless from his prison. “Everyone thinks that it’s just being, well, depressed, but it takes a lot of forms. Some of those forms are just not feeling anything. You just feel a void, and any emotion that you feel seeps into it. Sometimes, that just makes things worse — you feel the emotion briefly, and then the overwhelming lack of it afterwards.

“But he’s tried to avoid it. He pushes himself so hard because… Because the endorphins make him feel alive, if only for a little bit. He forces himself to smile, to laugh, to be pleasant, but even if it’s genuine, it’s gone as soon as it’s there. Pushed down into the void.”

“Bullshit,” Archimedes barked. “Listen, there’s no way that he’s suicidal. There’s plenty of moment where he could have died, but hasn’t.”

The Wardens gal looked away from her screens, a sad expression on her face. “And how many of them are because he’s had someone else there?”

The small tube in Romeo’s pocket buzzed. Perfect. Now he just needed the right moment.

Aunt Lisa nodded, putting more and more together. “It isn’t an active desire. At least, not until recently. Maybe the last year. But he’s always had that push to put himself in dangerous situations. That walkabout he took after Agamemnon… There was nobody there with him, and I’m told that he used up all his food and kept walking instead of trying to find more.

“But in a weird way, his self preservation and his own suicidal tendency worked together to give him one driving goal — be a hero. Save people. So the same urge that his subconscious desire to die gave him, to throw himself into conflict so someone could kill him… His self-preservation made him fight to protect people. So long as someone needed him to keep them alive or safe, he’d keep fighting.”

Nexus ran a hand over his face. “That corridor. He fell down and didn’t look like he was going to get back up until he got radioed that his friends were in trouble. Then he got a second wind. He didn’t even think about his own injuries after that, about how he was cooked from the inside. All that mattered was the others.”

Honestly, Romeo was a little surprised that so few had seen it before now. When Jordan had first come onto the scene after St. Louis, Romeo had taken a shine to him. Another normal person, doing badass things. Sure, he had to use some Tinker tech, or stuff made from Tinker tech, but in the end it was just him and what he brought versus the world. No powers, just brass balls.

All that had changed when he’d seen the pictures of Jordan. The ones from Twain and that big image from Agamemnon that people had seemed to love for a month or two. What everyone else saw as him standing in defiance of Agamemnon was actually acceptance. The way that his smile never reached his eyes, the way that every picture seemed strangely larger than life…

He’d known that Jordan was depressed then, and he was willing to bet that he wasn’t alone. With how many people had PTSD or depression, they was things that was accepted but not really commented on. He was willing to bet that a lot of the people who showed Jordan favor over the years was being kind due to knowing, or suspecting, what he was going through and trying not to make his lot in life even worse.

Aunt Lisa nodded at Nexus’ assessment. “When I first saw him and his sister, I knew that he was acting and that he needed her, but I thought that was the nerves over the act of dealing with Missy in the restaurant. I caught onto the fact that he always needed to be doing something, reading or exercising, but I shifted my attention, and never continued down that path again.

“All of this, from Agamemnon, the way that he fights, how he volunteered to take on the Simurgh, facing–”

Romeo cleared his throat dramatically. They all knew that Krigarguden had willingly sacrificed himself out of guilt in his final moments, but it might not be wise to let the Legionnaires know that. Maybe they’d already said too much. Fortunately, he had a good distraction.

Aunt Lisa’s eyes narrowed. “What did you do?”

“Nothing,” he said, measuring every word carefully. Enunciation was tricky, but he was determined to speak like everyone else did right now. “However, it seems like Mom, Bitch for those of you who might have forgotten, has become impatient. I regret to inform you that she and a few of our best warriors seem to have gone through your portal to get a piece of the action themselves.”

Aunt Lisa’s head whipped to look at Miss Alcott. “Odds that the Legion tears itself apart when Relentless dies?”

“Seventy-one point four seven three one.” She blinked a couple of times. “And that’s before the battle is done.”

Romeo looked around at everyone, his face grim. “I would suggest that, in order to keep our truce with the Relentless Legion, anyone who has troops ready would deploy them. To stop Mom, of course.”

“Of course,” the Wardens gal said dryly, returning her gaze to the monitors.

General Gill put a finger to his ear. “All units, be advised. Operation Broken Steel is a go. Operations Moon Blade, Red Albatross, and Bloody Dreamcatcher are not to be acted upon until my say so.”

Miss Militia was getting out her own radio. “General, it’s time. The Legion needs our help.”

Chevalier and Valkyrie began their communications. How sad — everyone had been prepared to betray the truce. Tut tut.

Romeo, however, was focused on Archimedes and Schrodinger.

“You knew,” the man said angrily.

She held up a finger for a moment. Finally, she addressed him directly. “Yes, and I ordered those who are still on this side of the portal to let everyone through before the battle began.”

Archimedes balled his hand into a fist. “You’re letting your friend die?!”

Romeo couldn’t see her expression under her helmet, but he imagined it was either a glare of exhaustion. Her voice could have worked with either. “If you knew how many times I’ve seen him blow his brains out or something, you’d understand just how much I’ve been working to keep him going. This? This is the best balance between what he needs and what is best for everyone.

“He is my friend. I don’t know anyone that I trust more than him. But unless an impossible set of odds comes into play, single-digit odds that depend on things that none of us can account for, then Jordan dies, or worse.”

“What’s worse than him dying?” Romeo asked.

“We all die, because unlike them, he doesn’t hold back. Not ever. And he will understand just how powerful he really is now, and it will be more terrifying than anything you can imagine.”

Schrodinger looked back up to Archimedes. “Defiant could stop him, but he can’t go there, because Teacher will take over his cybernetics.”

“Alright.” Archimedes took a slow breath. “According to the bossman, you hijack the passengers of others to boost your own, right? Then your power tells you the questions to ask her to maximize our odds.” He pointed at Miss Alcott.

“No. I already know the answers.” She looked Chevalier and Legend. “One of you will save his life, and set into motion the way to save all of us from him. The other will kill him. And as much as everyone hates a cryptic bitch, if I tell you, then it only gets worse.”

The entire building shook as several somethings seemed to pass by. The monitors showed several Dragon’s Teeth personnel carriers going through the portal and deploying troops. Doorways in reality opened into Teacher’s city, and both Wardens and U.S. troops poured through them. Huh, it seemed that Miss Militia was been working with Chevalier and Valkyrie on their plan.

He’d be genuinely disappointed in them if he hadn’t come up with his own plan. Nobody wanted to see Teacher get through this as a free man.

Chevalier squared his shoulders back. “Well then. Gear.”

Romeo couldn’t see the portal, but he could tell that Chevalier reached into one and pulled out his helmet and sword. Black and red, just like his Endbringer-enhanced armor. As soon as the man had his helmet in place, he looked to Valkyrie. “Either I save him and the Legion, or I kill him. And from what she said might happen, I’ll carry the weight of this one. Door me.”

Valkyrie spend a moment studying her armband, which gave Romeo a chance. “Ay, ‘old up!” He hurried to a Legionnaire. “Y’all got any a them there cameras like on yer armor?”

The woman paused before one seemed to form in the palm of her hand. He snatched it up and gave it to Chevalier, who silently fixed it to his armor. Instantly, thanks to the Wardens guy, a monitor lit up so that they could see it. Perfect.

Only then, did another portal open. With that, Chevalier stepped through. Romeo only hoped that it was the right person.

Gehenna 15.8

If the circumstances were different, I’d probably find all of this horribly fascinating. I’d never been in a war before. I’d never had thousands of lives depending on my every decision and action. Instead of being able to study it, though, to try and learn some leadership skills from it, here I was, desperately avoiding it, running to whatever waypoint popped up on my helmet. I didn’t care about the details. If Brenda said that this was where I needed to be, then I was fucking going there. She was about the only person that I trusted with absolutely everything right now.

I regretted abandoning my assault rifle as I ran — there were plenty of targets, and only a few were within range of my halberd. Some carried a some form of Tinker weapon, but even if I beheaded them, there wasn’t a point in grabbing it. For all that I knew, Teacher had some sort of lock on it, and I didn’t have the time to play with it. Any other time, any other life, and it might be different, but with how things were…

I could have sworn that one that I gutted with my halberd said thank you as he died. I might have just been imagining it, though.

Despite the blood, the constant violence, and the general insanity going on all around me, I found it oddly comforting and peaceful. People were trying their best, and were either succeeding or dying. At the very least, I was granting them a quick death, and I liked to think that the people from Second Chance would do the same. I’d given a lot of sermons on it lately, on being clean and efficient. The people that I’d trained to take Fyrtorn had been reinforcing it in their squads, and between that and the sermons, I hoped that it had taken root.

Especially since there were a lot more people at those sermons than when I first started. Even the untriggered were eating them up. John was a good speechwriter.

This new body had its advantages, though. I hadn’t been training for more than an hour or two a day for months now, but it moved automatically exactly the way that I wanted it to. It was also faster and stronger than anything that I’d experienced before. I wasn’t so much of fighting people as I was effortlessly destroying them. A single backhand that wasn’t even at full strength had enough force behind it to shatter someone’s skull completely. And with how many of these small fry were ignoring me… It had to be a side effect of the body.

I should have spent more time testing it, but that just would have worried people.

And the new eye… The strange almost-filter that it provided my vision was intense. Somehow, I could make out more than I ever had before, able to make out details at an impossible distance. Fires were raging deeper in the city, where the houses weren’t giant tenement blocks, but my eye could see through the haze that was starting to coat the city. Even more importantly, I could tell at a glance who was enhanced by Teacher, who was a para, and who was just a normal person.

Normal in the relative sense. All of them now seemed to be carrying some sort of Tinker gear. That alone raised their threat rating enough that I had to pay attention to them. Hopefully, Brenda was transferring the data from my helmet’s cameras to the appropriate parties. The Thinkers that we had analyzing data on the fly to disseminate to the various squads who needed to know it were probably taxed to the max. And with Tattletale there, she was probably having a field day.

Or screaming and clutching their heads. Whichever.

A woman screamed as I swiped my halberd, cleaving her in two like it was nothing. Okay, maybe not always a clean kill.

I sprinted into a gore-covered intersection and suddenly my feet left the ground. It felt like some enormous dragon had plucked me up and was squeezing me tight, but Lung wasn’t anywhere around. I just knew it. Instead, this was completely without any physical form lifting me up.

A quick glance revealed the source — not only on the ground level, but on the rooftops were all manner of Tinker equipment, pointing down at me. My halberd was pressed tight against my chest at the crushing force gripping me, getting worse as more of those giant, mounted radar dish-like weapons pointed in my direction. Even with my incredible strength, I found myself unable to move my arms. If I still had lungs, I would have lost my ability to breathe instantly.

I would have smiled if I still had a full mouth, so I wasn’t sure what expression I gave them. If they could have seen it, it would have been a downright terrifying image; the monster with half a head smiling at them as they tried to crush him with their Tinker weapons. Sane individuals would have bolted, but whatever Teacher had done to ensure the loyalty of those who he didn’t more directly control ensured that they wouldn’t break.

Fyrtorn had ensured loyalty through cult reinforcement. As the pressures against my body vibrated violently, trying to shake me apart, I contemplated that. It was the perfect moment: it wasn’t like I could do much else.

The PA system had spoken about Teacher loving them. I knew that from Brenda as well. They all loved him, but triggering could remove that love reaction. But people who were triggered could be affected by whatever made them love him. Most likely, some sort of Tinker effect. Or wait…

My pistol exploded on my hip.

He had access to Amelia Dalton, AKA Panacea. She had countered a transmittable prion disease by releasing a counter-self-replicating prion. One that had a limited ability to heal brain lesions caused by the one created by Bonesaw. What if she created one that caused an alteration of the brain that produced a release of oxytocin or something whenever Teacher was mentioned to create a positive reinforcement loop, but was disrupted by triggering? It made as much sense as anything else involving powers.

That made sense, though it didn’t necessarily do me any good. As my viewscreen cracked under the incredible pressures being put on it, not a lot actually mattered much. This was the proverbial it. There was nothing that I could do. I was going to die.

Unless, of course, I heard a familiar warble of the air a moment before I saw a beam shoot through the air. The beam hit one emitter, causing it to explode, while another was blasted apart by something that appeared to be only a disruption in the air. One that I was very familiar with.

I saw a figure appear by another one, pointing a pair of Calico Liberty III pistols at the people operating it and opening fire. A moment later, she was gone again as another two were ruined.

I fell to the ground, landing on one knee, planting my fist into the ground. Funny how once upon a time, just landing like that would have absolutely ruined me for at least a week as I recovered. Now, I slowly made my way back upright like nothing had happened as I watched the other emitters get wrecked.

I turned to look at my two soldiers running towards me, only for the bigger woman that my IFF identified as Shrimp-1 to yell out “Hawk!”

“Vole!” I responded by instinct as I dropped to one knee again. She reared back and thrust her fist forward, sending out a blast flying that took out someone that had been rushing for me. Even without the power granted by my eye, I could remember that. I hadn’t given her a single thought in so long, but here was my sister, running for me. How had Sarah been part of my own squad?

Because they’d hand-picked her to be part of it and not told me for some reason.

Emi appeared next to me as Kathy hurried to join us. “You okay, ‘lentless?”

“Not the time!” Sarah shouted, blasting another person literally through a wall with her power.

I turned to find people right on top of us. I moved without thinking, flipping one only to hear a retort from Emi’s pistol firing five rounds into him. I grabbed another, flinging him directly into the disk that Kathy had formed, fueling a blast that took out another emitter that was pointing in our direction. Instinctively, I judo tossed another in power armor into the air, only for Sarah’s punching blast to almost tear them in half as it threw them into another emitter.

I was up on my feet again just in time for Emi to catch one’s arm, using his own momentum against him. My halberd came up, the point sliding effortlessly between plates to drive deep into his fleshy body.

Our movements became a blur of unity. One of us would meet an opponent directly, disabling them or otherwise moving them into position, only for another to immediately follow up. Be it a chop or stab with my halberd, Kathy’s vortex-fueling-Blaster power taking out even more of the heavily armored opponents, Emi shooting into weak spots with armor piercing rounds, or Sarah either smashing them with her enhanced strength or blowing them away with the Blaster component of her power, every time that I did something with one of my enemies, I didn’t even need to think about it. They were already dead. I didn’t need to worry about it, it just automatically happened.

That wasn’t to say that I didn’t get plenty of my own kills. I was out of ranged options, but it didn’t mean that I was helpless. Sarah would announce that I was in her way, and I would move to take out someone who was trying to flank her. With my body’s enhanced strength, my halberd could cut through their power armor like it was butter.

Were it any other four in this entire fucking army, a fighting force of over forty taking them on would have spelled certain doom. Within minutes, all of them were dead or dying.

As the three most important women in my life stood there, panting for air, I looked between them with a sense of wonder. “What the actual fuck are you doing here?!”

“Saw you… ran ahead,” Sarah made out between sucking down air. “Y’never told me not to follow.”

Kathy chuckled, wiping off blood from her faceplate. “You told us to stay back, but we figured… We figured that if we let your sister get axed, you’d gut us.”

I looked at Sarah, my eyes so wide that the natural one ached. Her armor was covered in an exoskeleton, to help protect her from the lack of passenger-granted fortitude. My other eye showed her outline covered in a violent explosion that seemed oddly empty. A suitable look for her power.

I grabbed her exoskeleton, pulling her off her feet to look her blank helmet in what I presumed to be the eye. “What are you doing here?!

Both Kathy and Emi moved, but Sarah lifted her hands to calm them. She’d expected this response. “Saving your bitch ass, Relentless. Did you really think for even one moment that you could pull something like this and I wouldn’t come following along behind?”

Honestly? I hadn’t thought about her in so long it hurt. Shrimp had joined shortly after Chris had arrived to outfit everyone, and had quickly been assigned to me. I’d worked her hard, assigning her to all sorts of tasks that I simply didn’t have the time to handle myself. She’d always risen to the occasion, including the task of handling both cultists and diplomats when the others were busy. She’d shown enough of a skill for social situations that I rarely had time to deal with her personally.

I’d never even suspected. If we’d had more time dealing with each other, would it have been any different? Would I have realized who she was? And what would I have done then?

The questions just made me angrier.

Still, she did have a point. I put her down, snarling. “I wish this were the time for this conversation, because I want to ream your fucking ass for giving up a good career with the fucking Wardens! But right now, we don’t have time.”

“Damn skippy,” Emi said. She shut up quick when I pointed at her warningly, though.

“The three of you, get back to the portal, now. God damn it, I am not losing the three of you if I can help it, and I need someone to keep the assault going if I fall.”

“You fall, I fall,” Sarah said firmly.

“Then I’d better not fucking fall then, should I?” I snarled again, making the three of them take a step back. I quickly said the first thing that came to mind. “Emi, you can lock down any para who comes through that portal, and the two of you? You can stop anyone from coming through. And right now? I desperately need that.”

Kathy’s head tilted slightly. “You… You’re expecting others to come?”

“Yeah,” I said with false bravado. “We’ve got the Wardens, Dragon’s Teeth and others in our CiC, and I promise you that they’re chomping at the bit to come through. If they sense even a moment’s weakness, they’re going to screw up everything. We aren’t even done with phase one yet, and they’ll ruin it all if they get impatient. We’re winning. It’s slow, but it’s still happening. But if they come through? We’re fucked, and even worse, they’re fucked, too. And it’s easier to say that I want to keep you safe and expect you to do the smart thing and guarantee the future of what I’m building by doing what I know you’ll do than to try and explain all of this.

“Unless, of course, you get stubborn and bull-headed and make me do it the hard way!” I took a deep breath, which felt weird without lungs. I should have just killed them and moved on. We were wasting time. “Please. You know that I can handle myself in a fight, but I need people who can do the things that I can’t.”

Yeah, that sounded good, didn’t it?

Sarah took a breath like she was about to argue, but paused, lifting a finger. It was enough so that the other two also hesitated for a moment. After what felt like an eternity, broken by the three of us killing another nine people in power armor, her head drooped.

As I shook a rather persistently clingy bit of spleen off my halberd, Sarah laid a hand on my shoulder. “Alright, we’ll go. Your Thinker makes a good argument. Take care of yourself, alright Bro? No dying out there.”

“Same goes to you. All three of you.”

As Emi walked by, we casually bumped fists. She wasn’t happy. Hell, Kathy was hanging back, eyeing me suspiciously, but she was less upset by this than Emi was. Pity that I didn’t have time to deal with this.

I put two fingers to my helmet. “Brenda, I don’t know what you said, but thank you.”

It won’t last,” she said ruefully. “You need to make the most of it that you can. I’m sorry about how that turned out.

“It happens.” Thankfully, Kathy started moving on as I continued to scan the environment. “How’s the projections looking?”

Right now? Everything but the worst of scenarios nets you the tertiary objective. The primary objective, though? I need to work at it to make it a reality. Which is more interesting with our compromised comms. Are you ready?

I heard a bust of gunfire and the sound of Sarah’s power behind me. “Do they pull through?”

Almost every time.

“Good. Then I’m ready.” It was good, in a way. To see them, to talk like that. Even with all the chaos around me, even with the enemy ignoring me again, it was good to see the three of them. It felt… right.

I’m uploading a waypoint. It leads to a data processing center. Getting in won’t be the hard part, but they’ll be ready for you when you come out. Big gun, ready to fire from the only exit. It’s powerful, and a tipping point.

I nodded. “Get in, destroy the computers, then deal with the inevitable?”

Without the computer destruction. You spend far too long trying to destroy one of the server racks before you realize that it’s from Twain and inviolable. Instead, you always end up taking the easier route of going to the power station and destroying it, preventing the backup from powering it.

Which would also give people the advantage of being able to retrieve the data on those servers. If we actually managed to take down Teacher, that would be our advantage — we’d be able to pour through the data here to learn what all he’d been up to. If we didn’t, well, Teacher would be able to repair the power and go from there.

Only, the waypoint looked about a mile off from where I currently was. Brilliant. “Chances of primary?”

It’s the best bet, unless you get the grenade launcher back. Or unless someone goes for the head.

About what I figured. Fine. I began running again. While even after what Riley did to me I was a good long-distance runner, it was nothing compared to now. This body didn’t tire, and the more pressure that I put on it, the more energy it seemed to have available to it. I was just as fast as ever, and even with pausing for the occasional slaughter of someone who didn’t even realize that I was there, an eight minute mile was more than feasible. Even taking detours around hastily-constructed roadblocks didn’t slow me down too much, kicking it up to nine minutes.

As I made it to the waypoint, though, I knew immediately what was going on. That gun that she mentioned was mounted on the back of one of those super long wagons that were pulled by those big six-wheel cars. The Tinker weapon was as big as any used by the Dragon’s Teeth against Endbringers, and was pointed right at me, powering up.

Compromised comms, she’d said. I’d taken it to mean that the people who were in CiC with her were the ones compromising them, but apparently Teacher could still hear us and give orders, even if the loudspeakers were still silent from my virus. He’d heard what she’d said, and had beaten us to the punch.

As the barrel of the weapon began to glow, I flicked my halberd and began a slow march towards it… only to find my path blocked by a massive black and red slab of metal right in front of me. Near the top was a barrel and chamber, connected to a hilt. I glanced back, finding a familiar set of armor connected to it.

Chevalier?!

I heard the whine from the weapon change, heard the power being dumped from the stepping array and into the focusing chamber. No time to ask what the fuck he thought that he was doing. Without thinking I turned and stepped, finding myself on the other side of his famous canonblade, and lifted my halberd in a defensive stance.

It was the last thing that I saw before my world was enveloped in light.

Gehenna 15.7

I moved as hard and as fast as I could.  War was a special kind of chaos like I’d never seen before.  It was impossible to process it all.  Someone would pop into view and fall before you even had a chance to register what you were seeing.  Flyers streaked overhead, flickering in and out of sight too fast to keep track.  The only time that you could track them was when one of those massive AA guns that were probably designed to take out Dragon’s Teeth craft caught them, turning them into bloody chunks.

The chaos on the ground was even worse.  Snipers were out in force, firing guns that made even my people’s heads explode with precision shots.  I’d accuse Teacher of having a Harbinger, but no doubt they had hardware for that.  Targeting them, though, was just as impossible — my own teleporters were moving just as soon as one popped up, trying desperately to keep our forces going as effectively as possible.  An explosion, and people screaming.  Who’s were responsible for those?  Teacher’s?  Mine?

It was easier, better in a way, to let instinct take over.  Take a deep breath, focus on your destination, and let your body make the decisions for you as you ran.  When to draw the rifle, when to fire into a crowd of people, when to reload.  I didn’t have to worry about bystanders, at least.  I could afford to feel bad over their deaths, but I couldn’t afford to stop doing it.  It was sadly them or us.

I should have tried to demonize them to my people.  It would have made keeping our cohesion easier.

My near-blind firing was interrupted by a man’s voice on my radio.  “Jordan.

My top lip peeled back from my teeth in a sneer.  “That’s not who I am!”

Ah, I see.  Very well.  Relentless.  Please, cease your attack.

Now the voice clicked, the same voice that I was hearing over the loudspeakers.  “Not seeing many reasons to stop, Teacher.”

Not even the deaths of so many innocents?

“People here are either brainwashed by some love method, a puppet of yours, or someone who’s thrown in with you,” I countered, killing another three of them.  “Regrettable, but it happens in every conflict.  Innocent casualties.”

Very well,” Teacher said, sounding like he’d expected that response.  “And when I take an eye for an eye?  When I return the attack?

I picked up my pace.  “Then Second Chance falls.  Big loss, since I put together this army so that nobody’d be missed if we failed.  Your unwritten truce with the others depends on non-aggression on your part, especially now that we can access this place.  Since they all tried to talk me out of this, there’s no hostility so far out of them for this.  You attack them, they’ll come for blood in force.”

There was a pause.  Was he thinking about what I’d said, or was there something else?  Giving orders, perhaps?

I can give you what you really want,” he said in a voice that was smooth and alluring.

I snorted as I lashed out with my spear, vaporizing a woman Brute’s neck.  “Really?”

Oh, yes.  I can give you powers.

“At the price of puppetry.”  Fuck this.  I slung my rifle, bringing up my arm to begin typing on the display there.  I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but damn it, it felt right as that screen filled up with text.

That’s just one method, and I don’t even need to do that.  Even if I do, controlling your mind would be a waste.  You’re far, far too creative for that.  Still, I understand my reputation.”  I would have rolled my eyes if I hadn’t been so busy.  “No, I can give you powers in so many other ways.  Your corona is damaged, Jo…  Relentless.  I’m almost surprised that Bonesaw didn’t tell you as much.  But I can repair it.  Without that repair, you’ll never trigger.

What?  Did he have a backdoor into Mother’s Hospital, to Riley’s personal records?  Or was there something else, some other way that he was getting his information?  Not that it mattered at this point.

“Even if you could, there’s no way to make sure that someone can trigger.”

Ah!  That’s where you’re wrong!  What if I told you that I’m on the cusp of being able to do it perfectly?  What if I told you that I now understand more now about Scion and his mate than anyone else?  We can’t do it perfectly, but we’ve been figuring out how Scion controlled the shards of himself that grant powers?

 

“Think about it, Relentless.  The rules were breaking down for so many years, with so many more broken triggers.”  I hated that term.  “But it hasn’t been so bad in the last decade or so.  You have me to thank for that.  I’ve been manipulating it, trying to make the process better for everyone.  Isn’t that a noble goal, in and of itself?  To grant powers to any who want them without needing to put them through horrible trauma?

Yeah, maybe, but not from him.  He didn’t figure any of this out, he was using the hard work and discoveries of people who didn’t even have a choice.  Teacher hadn’t built anything in his life, hadn’t done anything to progress humanity in a positive way.  And here he was…

“Lemmie tell you a story, Teach.”  I thought I heard footsteps behind me, but when I turned around, all that I found was a crumpled mess of organs and metal.  I hadn’t even heard anything that could have caused that.  Didn’t matter.  I had the story that the guy from Twain had told me, and places to get to.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who loved animals very much.”

If this is about that Undersider–

“Let me talk!” I boomed, and the world seemed to quiet just a hair.  “She loved animals more than anything, even after she triggered.  The only difference was, she could make her pets.  It wasn’t easy, but over time she developed the ability to make them without needing outside interference.  She was even planning on making some so that she’d never have to go out for food again.  And then Gold Morning happened.”

Ah,” he said quietly.

“Ah.”  Bastard.  “Yeah.  We don’t know what happened to her after that, but St. Louis, her home, was altered.  There was nothing, nothing living there at all.  But her equipment was there, stable forever.  Someone set up a randomized portal generator, a tank to feed her gear insanely fast-growing algae or bacteria or whatever, and set the machine to make random batches of creatures that were hostile to people.  Then set the machine to periodically make people-friendly creatures to protect the whole rig for when people came to do maintenance.  Maintenance that we think was done a while before the Legion checked on it.

“But these friendly ones, they had their own breeding cycle, because this woman loved her creations so much and wanted her little family to grow.  During those breeding times, they’d venture out for more food and stuff.”

You’re upset about the wildlings.

“No shit,” I snarled.  Almost to the waypoint.

Believe it or not, we did that to protect people.  Things were falling apart.  Humanity was starting to fight itself too much, lashing out over old grudges, perceived slights, greed, for so many reasons.  You would have been too young to remember, but loosed from almost any sort of regulatory system, parahumans were more dangerous than ever.  Without anything to focus them, they would have torn the world apart.

“People needed that focus, and we gave it to them.  We created and distributed the wildlings not because we wanted to terrorize people, but because we wanted to give them a clearly defined threat.  A boogie man that they could point to and say ‘We must stand together, lest they kill us all!’  And despite some… unfortunate unintended consequences, and a sad amount of lost life, we accomplished this.

“Please, Relentless.  Believe me when I say that I’m deeply sorry for the pain that I’ve caused, but it’s always been towards a more noble goal.  For you, for me, for everyone.  Is there anything that we can do to convince you of that?

“Yeah,” I muttered.  “Hold that thought.”

Four of the members of Purity Squad hurried the join me, carrying Phaser-1.  I frowned as they landed, the man in the Tinker armor landing last so that he could gently let down Phaser.

“Where is Purity Actual?” I demanded.

“Downed,” Purity-1 said in a near-panicked voice.  She took a breath before continuing.  “Concussion from some sort of Tinker weapon.  She said to go ahead without her.  With comms down, we can’t even get orders.”

Fair enough.  I turned to Phaser, and he was already getting the case that I’d given him earlier.

“What is this anyway?” he asked.

I opened the case, pulling out the grenade launcher.  Just in time, too — I could feel her approaching, deep in my bones.  I turned to look, finding the rapidly-growing form of Medusa walking down the street.  As I watched, a tendril of her hair snatched up a Student, pulling them into the back of her head.  Damn.

“Hold this,” I muttered, handing him my spear.  With that, I turned my attention back to the armband for a moment, letting my fingers do the walking until a small button appeared on the display.  Perfect.  “Keep your distance.”

With that, I started fast walking to meet Medusa.  “Alright, Teacher, you there?”

I am,” he said in a patient tone.  “Have you thought of something?

“Yeah, yeah I have.  See, I have a friend who’s parents you stole from them.  It hurt a lot, and hearing them talk about it hurt me just as much.  I wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t done that.  I’d even be willing to forgive the attack on Burlington for that — you takes your pay, you takes your chances and all that.  I want those parents back, and I might be willing to walk away.”

There was a long pause.  “I can’t do that, can I?

Okay, he was honestly smarter than I’d expected.  “Nope, I’m looking at both of them right now, tied up into this tentacled green giant.”  The nude female figure was rather quickly bearing down on me.

Relentless, please.  You don’t know how important these entities are.  We’re trying to recreate the Endbringers so that–

As Medusa began to reach out for me, I lifted the grenade launcher and fired.  To me, the grenade was an impressive size, but it looked tiny in comparison to her.  I watched as it arced through the air to only a few yards away from her chest before exploding.

The effect was hard to comprehend.  An explosion, to be sure, but it only seemed to leave a small speck hovering in space.  The immediate effect, though, was that Medusa’s arm, torso and head immediately turned to crystal.  A moment later, though, that speck fizzled into blackness.  A hungry, angry blackness that caused Medusa’s now-crystal body to crack and fissure for the briefest of moments before it shattered.  The chunks of crystal flew into the dark speck, even as her legs and lower torso fell to the ground.

I heard Teacher give a cry of shock.  Whatever.  Fuck him.

I worked the pump on the grenade launcher and fired again.  My aim was a little off since the speck pulled at the grenade as it arced close, but it still did its job — the blast created a spinning vortex of yellow and green smoke that seemed to pull what was left of the body into particles.  Those particles seemed to break up even further as they drifted outside of the vortex, until they were nothing at all.  I watched in grim silence, barely aware of the others taking down the Students that were rushing us.

A Student in power armor finally seemed to notice me, but she didn’t make it very far before her power armor seemed to lock up.  A yellow light ran across all the seams and joints in a flash, and she fell over.  Good riddance.  Molded breasts on power armor was stupid anyway.  I turned my attention back to Medusa, content to watch until it was all gone.  Only then did I speak.

“See that, Teach?  Agamemnon’s next.  Then I’m going to hurt your efforts as hard as I can, and finally?  Finally we’ll meet face to face.”

“We don’t have to fight, Relentless!  Please, listen to reason!

“You don’t have to fight.”  I held the grenade launcher in my left hand so that I could look at the armband.  “I’ve got to drive my thumbs into your eye sockets.  I’ll be seeing you real soon.”  With that, I hit the button on the display.  A progress bar opened, and only took a second to finish.

My helmet lit up with new information.  Targeting data points, how the battle was going…  Everything that I had been missing out on.  Even more importantly, though, was the soft voice that whispered in my ear.

Thank you, Relentless.

“You’re welcome, Brenda.”

“Bossman!”  John’s voice was high and quick.  “We had a total lockdown of comms from everyone.  Cameras were still on, but we couldn’t even be sure if the waypoints we were sending got through.  What’s going on?

“Killed Medusa.”  I could hear someone in the background cheering on John’s side.  “Had a chat with Teacher.  The usual self-justification, good of humanity bullshit that I expected out of him.  I uploaded a virus to throw his own comms system into disarray.  Eye for an eye.”

I somehow knew that the computer virus was semi-sapient, and would only throw their comms system into disarray for a bit before it ate itself.  That should make them more desperate.

“And a tooth for the truth,” John said, more calm now.  “And with Medusa out of the picture, that should help.”

“Even more here in a bit.  Hold.”  I turned and marched to the others, offering the grenade launcher.  “Armando.  You’ve shown a great deal of loyalty and trust, and I need to show it in return.  I need you to finish what I started so long ago.  Single shots, wait for the effect of one to dissipate before launching another, but no matter what, take out Agamemnon.”

Phaser-1 took the launcher and handed back my spear, standing a little bit straighter.  “Thanks for not killing me, back during that whole St. Louis thing.”

“People change, and I had faith that you just needed a moment to straighten yourself out.  You’re a good man who let himself fall into a bad situation.  I’m just sorry for how many times I’ve racked you.”  I turned my attention to Purity-1, who straightened himself up.

“We contacted Purity Actual.  She’s still grounded, but offering what fire support she can.  She says that she hasn’t felt this bad since the ABB got her.  A couple more squads are offering her cover for the time, but now that comms are back up again, she’s pretty sure they may have to move out.”

Who?  Didn’t matter.  “Good.  I need you to take Armando here to Agamemnon.  This is now your primary mission.  Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Wordlessly, I turned on my heel and began charging off.  Too much to do, and not enough time to do it in.

Another waypoint appeared on my visor, some distance off, making me take a hard left.  Another group of students, carrying some sort of equipment.  Once again, my assault rifle found its way into my hand and I opened fire.  I should have kept it at short bursts, but I didn’t care.  I kept the stream of bullets going until all were down, and even then kept shooting the bodies.  I knew how people could fake being dead.  It wasn’t until, after what felt like an eternity, the bullets stopped that I threw the AR away without a second thought.

“This waypoint…”

It leads to where they’re setting up a blockade,” Brenda said quietly.  “They’ve got some heavy weapons set up there.

Perfect.  That was absolutely perfect.  And I’d be far enough ahead of the bulk of our forces that I didn’t need to worry.  Maybe now I could complete my primary objective.

I only made it another block, however, before it felt like something slammed into my gut.  Weird.  I looked down, only to find a small, thin hole in the belly of my suit.  I tilted my head, only to be rocked from the side.  I looked again, finding another hole.  From the direction of a concrete wall.  Huh.  How did that happen?

Relentless,” a new voice said over my radio.  A woman’s that sounded familiar, even if it had a weird tone to it.  “I need–

Whatever she was going to say was drowned as a pop happened in my head, in my eye.  I doubled over, hissing in not-quite pain, my hand going to my helmet.  More of my body changing, leaving me with a weird pressure against my skull, right behind my eye.

I whimpered softly to myself.  Not now.  As I opened it, though, I found my world blurry.  My right eye was fine, but when I closed it, my left eye showed me something completely different.  I could see everything, but it was like I could see more colors, thousands more.  As if my right eye was looking through a filter, I could see colors that were uncountable with my left.

Including a human-shaped darkness that was holding my spear head.

Without thinking, I drew my nanothorn blade and threw it, catching the figure in the chest.  The blade went straight threw them, sending them to the ground.  Now, at least, my right eye could see them.  A dark-skinned woman, fitted with some ugly cybernetics including a leg and something attached to her head, covering one of her own eyes.  Her convulsing body didn’t make it easy, but I could have sworn that she looked up at me and smiled.

A moment later, she lost her strength, falling back.  The only motion from here now were involuntary muscle spasms.  Good enough for me.

“Threat neutralized,” I muttered as I reached to my back.  Grabbing the halberd blade attached there, I snapped it onto the shaft.  Yes.  Yes, this was right.  This is how things should have been.  The only weapon that I should be using.  “Moving on.”

No time to dally.  I didn’t have much time left.  No matter how long the rest of this battle took, I didn’t have much time at all.

Gehenna 15.6

Despite the massive battle raging around us, Marquis and I seemed completely unaffected by it all. He seemed content to just size me up, and I was content for him to make the first move. He looked rather good for a man who had been in his middle-ages when Gold Morning had happened. If anything, I’d have to guess that he was in his twenties, still primed and fit for a long, brutal life. No doubt, thanks to his daughter.

Finally, his shoulders worked slightly, a hint of a smile forming at the corners of his mouth. “So, you must be–”

In a flash, I drew my pistol, firing a shot that barely missed his head before he could even fully comprehend what I was doing. A first move takes many forms.

However, that broke whatever magic it was that held the tides at bay. As he crashed into a group of people, I had to fire three quick shots, head strikes each. I turned, firing three more, and was rewarded with more blood, bone, and brain. Another turn, another two were removed from the mortal coil. I paused just long enough to fire another shot inches away from Marquis’ head before putting down another four poor souls, only one requiring two shots to kill. I wanted to maintain a perimeter.

That made me pause, though. Wait. One plus three plus three plus two plus one plus four was more than eleven. Right?

My thoughts were interrupted by a spike of bone bursting through the cement between my legs before opening and spinning like a blender. I fell into it before being flung off, plowing through the legs of someone that had been rushing me. Right, let myself get distracted in a battle again. I had the feeling that this would be happening a lot today.

As I came to my feet, I pushed against my faceplate briefly. I only had a moment before another spike slammed into me, once again sending me tumbling.

Marquis was an old-world villain who could control bone, growing it and twisting it into all manner of shapes. He had to touch it, though, in order to manipulate it. While for some that would mean that he had an extremely limited power, he could use his own bone just as effectively as anyone else. As I righted myself into a crouch, I noted that he was barefoot and standing on soil instead of road. That, no doubt, would make forcing his own bone matter to tunnel a lot easier.

This time, I dodged the bone spike, firing a single round into it, earning a wince out of him. Good, one suspicion out of the way. Using his own power had to hurt. As the spike withdrew back underneath the road, I charged for him, only for a small spike to pop out and hit my foot, making me stumble. Not enough to make me collapse, but enough to make me stagger.

“Dirty pool old man,” I snarled, speaking surprisingly well for someone without a bottom lip.

His only response was to fold his arms. I didn’t mind the silent treatment in the slightest. I could play that game, too. I re-holstered my pistol and took my spear in both hands before charging him again. Honestly, I didn’t care one way or another about him. His daughter, Amelia Dalton, was more interesting to me. If he was here, then there was an excellent chance that she was, and having a person that could warp and twist DNA, heal wounds, and even theoretically alter the nervous system? Yes, she was important. Useful.

And he was the key to getting to her. For once in this battle, I needed to take someone alive. That was going to be problematic.

I knew that he was planning something as I charged because he didn’t bother to move. As I drew close, though, I was rewarded with my answer as five spikes burst out of the road around me. I skidded to a stop, only for one to slam into my spear, wrenching it from my hand and sending it flying.

I moved to jump out of the way, trying to dodge over the spikes, only to find one boot planted firmly against the ground, unable to move. I looked down, only to find that bone covered my boot, binding it down. My flashed jerked towards a knife on my chest.

Unfortunately, the rest of the bone spikes lurched towards me, flowing over me like water. Hard, solid water. My hand barely grasped the blade before my torso was completely covered, locking my arms in place. Having something binding like that, right against you and not letting you flex, made movement almost impossible. My sister had once buried me in the sand, and I’d been amazed by how little sand it honestly took to make it difficult to move at all. I almost hadn’t been able to free myself.

Sarah…

My head jerked back as if by reflex, flipping my visor up. The bone spike filled my vision… only to hit my chin.

It didn’t feel like he’d just tried to put a new hole in my head. Instead, it felt like someone had put a finger just barely against my chin. There was hardly even any pressure there.

I glanced up at Marquis, only to find him staring at me in confusion. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one. I didn’t think my chin was so tough that I wouldn’t really feel it. Was… Was I really that powerful that a man who had been a cellblock leader in the Birdcage couldn’t at least do a little damage?

My hand tightened around the blade strapped to my chest, applying pressure just right so that my suit’s onboard computers retracted the sheath. That worked. I activated the blade, and the nanothorn generator blurred to life underneath the cocoon of bone surrounding me, allowing my hand greater freedom to move and swipe the knife further.

Marquis screamed, pulling his bone back as I continued to vaporize the very marrow from his body. I was going to make him suffer. It wouldn’t earn me any points of favor with his daughter, but that was fine in the end. I could still use it. If Teacher was watching, hoping that this poppet would take me down, I’d increase my threat rating by–

My thought process was interrupted by a blur hitting me like a supersonic jet against the chin, sending me flying.

Not enough gun to do damage, but at least I felt that.

I crashed into a group of people, limbs and portions of torso disappearing as my knife moved. By the time that I gained my footing amidst the screaming people not long for this world, the attacker was making a wide loop, flying in the air to come back down on me. My eyes squinted as I made her out, somehow knowing who she was and wasn’t. The fact that she was wearing her old cape gear helped in that regard.

There was no way in hell that was Glory Girl, AKA Victoria Dalton. Even if she was one of Teacher’s puppets, there was no way that she was here right now. This was a clone or reproduction of some sort, not the real deal. I didn’t know what happened to her after the Slaughterhouse 9 attack on Brockton Bay, but somehow I knew that it wasn’t her.

A member of my CiC spoke quickly over the radio into my ear. “Relentless, sighting of Agamemnon, coming our way.

Which meant that Teacher was pulling out all the stops, releasing his monsters to fight us. This time, it wouldn’t be so easy to drive it, or Medusa, off. We were fighting on Teacher’s home turf, and he probably wouldn’t call off his monsters for anything. I didn’t have time for this fight anymore. I needed to end this as quickly as possible.

As Glory Girl looped back around for another subsonic strike, I sheathed my knife. Connections fit in my head, and I knew just what I had to do. She swooped down, hauling back for a punch…

That never landed. One of my hands flicked through the air to her wrist and deflect the punch, while my other found her costume to help direct her as I guided her. Using her own momentum against her, I slammed her into the ground hard enough to send a shockwave that threw those coming to rush me off their feet. That wasn’t the interesting bit, though. The interesting bit was that something shattered.

It was only for a brief moment, but I could feel a force field shatter. Her power, in and of itself, was a typical Alexandria package with an added emotional manipulation bonus. However, two people could have outwardly similar powers that were achieved in completely different mechanics. Glory Girl’s power… A skintight force field that allowed her flight, strength, and durability. But damage could temporarily break it. Not for long, but for a moment.

“No!” Marquis shouted as I drew my gun. I ignored him. For the moment, he was inconsequential, an annoyance. The battle stilled around us again as my hand went to my belt. I threw, and a split second later, I pulled the trigger. The bullet shattered the containment pellet ever so momentarily before it hit the force field, shattering that.

The clear liquid splashed over Glory Girl, instantly forming into a rock-solid coating. It had been originally designed to smother fires, though it would have been better served by lowering temperature. No, it was better suited to this purpose. In the brief time that Glory Girl’s force field was down from my shot to her chest, I’d bound her to the ground.

My rotated my head, turning my eyes to look back to Marquis. “She’s fine. I didn’t hurt her. Not for your sake, or hers, but for your daughter’s.”

That was like a slap to the face for him. He stared at me for a long moment before nodding. “She… She’s helping my daughter come to grips and–”

“I don’t care. Don’t have time to care.” I rose to my feet and stretched out a hand. My spear moved through the air, coming back to me as if carried on the wind to plant itself right into my grip. I’d done it by instinct, but… If it were a different time, a different set of circumstances, I would have loved to study that. Right now? I wished it hadn’t.

“We both have families, old man. No matter how this goes, your daughter is going to be needed. I could fight you, kill you, but family… It’s a strength and a weakness. You fight for family. You die for family. You tear your heart out for them, put yourself through hell for them, even if you don’t actually like them, but because you love them. Love gives you strength, but it will force you to do certain things in the name of it.”

Marquis’ eyes narrowed. “What are you?”

Right. I dropped my faceplate back in place. “A very determined man, with a secondary objective to see to. Sit. Stay. Or else we’ll find your daughter and rip all her limbs off. She’s still useful to humanity as a human worm.” His hand clenched into a fist. “But to be honest? I’d rather Amelia have a chance to be happy when this is done with.”

I turned away, calling up a map. There were two new markers, one getting close to engaging our people, and another en route. I didn’t need to be told.

“Phaser-1, I’m uploading a new map coordinate. Meet me there.”

I’m kind of fucked here!

“Unfuck yourself and meet me there, ASAP. Purity Actual, please have your squad help Phaser-1 disengage from his opponents and meet me at the target location.”

I didn’t bother looking back at Marquis or Glory Girl as I sprinted off. My promise would hold. Right now, I had work to do. I’d lost my chance at an 18% improvement of odds. I’d have to make that up somehow.

Gehenna 15.5

I was aware of several pops in my skin and bones, but it did nothing to ease the pain. For a slow eternity, all that I could do was stand stark still, my body locked down so tight that nothing might have made me so much as twitch. I was glad that I didn’t have a bladder anymore, because it probably would have emptied.

Finally, my hearing came back first, relinquishing shouts and a cacophony of feet, a thunder in the distance of pulsing guns like I’d never heard before. After that, the sparkles of blackness finally released from my vision. Hundreds of bodies were charging past us, streaks flying by as Movers charged on the land and air.

I took a useless breath, forcing myself to move, to turn my head this way and that. People were holding my arms, keeping me from being trampled to death. I loosened my grip on my spear, not entirely, just enough that I wasn’t white-knuckled.

Well, if my knuckles could turn white anymore.

“Condition?” I made out.

“Fliers are getting hammered by anti-air,” my Brute squadmate barked. “They seem designed to take on Dragon’s Teeth, but they tear through us just as well. We’re prioritizing those first so that we can have support.”

“Estimated eighty of ours dead,” the Changer announced, his voice tight.

The Breaker paused in his directing people around us. “Someone talked!”

Someone might have talked, somehow letting Teacher find out what we’d had planned. Of course, there was an equal chance that Teacher was just a paranoid bastard who was ready for anything. I hadn’t actually asked Schrodinger… Brenda. I hadn’t asked Brenda for any real intelligence, and she hadn’t offered any up to me. Maybe to the others, but not me.

Which reminded me. I quickly called up two frequencies. “Sagittarius, Lacuna! Stay close to the portal. I need to make sure that he doesn’t shut us down.”

Too late,” Lacuna barked. “We’d have to fight our way back.

Damn it. I called up the auto-generated map, showing that she was already three quarters of a mile ahead of us. “Objective?”

Those guns!

“Do it, then work your way back.”

Expecting a counterattack?” Sagittarius asked.

“Something like that.” I wanted them where they could pull back before things were shut down. If this went bad… I wanted to at least protect those that I cared about.

Finally, I took stock of my surroundings. I’d expected Teacher to have built some sort of crystal spire wonderland for his home base city. I did see a few rather beautiful skyscrapers in the distance, but for the most part the buildings that greeted us were ugly, blocky cement structures that seemed to have a floor missing every three or four floors. At least, that’s what I was guessing by eyeballing it — there were no windows that I could see.

The only other non-para in my squad turned to look at me. “What do we do?”

“Support the weakest front.” I turned and broke into a sprint, moving around to behind the portal. We’d made a mistake in only going through in one direction — we could have gone through both sides so that our rear wasn’t undefended. Still, that worked to my own personal advantage at the moment.

What few forces were funneling around behind the portal were getting overwhelmed by barely-armed individuals who almost seemed to be using their sheer weight of numbers to stop the advance. As I charged towards them, I was dimly aware a man’s voice calling over loudspeakers.

Your Teacher loves you very much. Defend him with your lives.

Oh, for fuck’s sake! I thought I escaped stupid propaganda!

These people were technically as innocent as my cultists. No less brainwashed, and many of them had literally no choice over their actions. The difference was that Fyrtorn kept themselves through religious brainwashing, while Teacher relied on a sick sort of enforced love.

Which was fine. I could be an eraser of love. I had no qualms about it. But I also didn’t have time to think about it — we were already on them.

A man swung at me, only to find my hand catching his wrist. As a twisted and pulled, resulting in a crunching of bone, I put my halberd against his knees, forcing him into a controlled fall. Not that it lasted, though; before I could even loosen my grip, the Brute slammed her reinforced fist into his ribs with a satisfyingly loud snap of ribs, sending him flying out of my grasp and into a group of others. A group that suddenly found themselves covered by a sentient blanket of pearlescent black tar, smothering them.

The Brute continued forward, only to slam her foot into the cement so hard that it lifted her off the ground. Hard enough to make the other side of the reinforced cement to jerk five feet upwards, sending people flying before it crumbled.

The non-para raised his rifle, firing short bursts into the crowd, his naturally expert aim enhanced by on-board computers giving him firing solutions to maximize effectiveness. People fell, some killed and some injured, tripping those behind them.

I turned, activating my nanothorn spearhead for a moment as it vaporized a group’s legs as if they weren’t even there. I jerked it back just in time for the Changer to launch back. His inky black form wrapped a tendril around the neck of a man that the Breaker had just kicked in the nuts, using the momentum of his launch to flip the man around and onto the ground before slamming his head into the ground.

The Breaker reached out to grab a woman’s wrist. Instantly, the woman became an incorporeal outline as her clothes shuffled to the ground. He paused only long enough to jam two spikes into the ground were her feet would be before snatching his halberd back up and stabbing a woman in the face that the Changer had entangled.

My own foot lashed out, connecting with a woman’s face with a satisfying crunch of skull and jaw, ensuring that she’d never be getting back up. I moved past the Brute as she boxed a man’s ears hard enough for his eyes to become dislodged so that I could drive my spear into another man’s shoulder, almost severing his arm without even activating the nanothorn generator. As I wrestled it free, a burst of gunfire took out a couple of people trying to take advantage of the moment.

I was pretty sure that I’d never actually trained with any of these people, but we were acting as a perfect team, instantly moving to assist each other. There were people with powers that were technically grander than anyone in my squad who weren’t accomplishing nearly as many casualties as we’d inflicted in just a few moments. As we continued to fight against these people, though, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough.

I needed to maximize my threat rating. I needed Teacher to realize who I was and quake in fear. I needed him to consider things that he never would have before, no matter who threatened him. I needed to be the physical representation of everything that he feared, everything that had ever made him hesitate before falling asleep.

I needed more threat. I needed it all.

My hand went to my belt and drew three firestarter pellets, throwing them blindly into the crowd and igniting them. More of our forces were coming to back us up, no doubt trying to join Relentless in his moment of glory.

They were going to die with that sort of mentality, but that was fine. We were meat, each and all of us. Meat by design.

I pushed forward, into the throngs of desperately fighting people. My body vibrated, somehow shattering the blind blows that they attempted to send my way.

I couldn’t see it, but I knew that the non-para stopped trying to keep up with us, switching to his more close-quarters firearm to send barrages of bullets into the crowd, trying to clear us an alley. Smart, if he kept himself from getting overwhelmed.

I pushed forward.

The Breaker grabbed at people randomly, making them incorporeal for just a moment, just long enough for someone to jostle into where they were. As they became whole again, those body parts that overlapped fused together, sometimes with instantly fatal results. Even still, it was slowing him down as he desperately avoided fusing with them himself.

I pushed forward, internal organs liquefying as people got too close.

The Changer dove ahead of me, blanketing out to cover a group of people, dragging them to the ground. It took a few moments for the toxins that were part of his form to affect people, and he had to be careful or else someone might use energy attacks or fire against him. Not that the people here seemed to be paras, but you never knew. He would fall behind.

I pushed forward, my lips pulling away from my teeth as more people blindly threw themselves at me.

The Brute suddenly stopped trying to keep up with me, instead standing her ground. Behind me, she began to use her enhanced strength and her reinforced armor to lash out with punches like a boxer. Wide hooks and crosses targeting multiple people, most likely killing those she hit first and wounding the rest. A simple blind backhand shattered skulls, keeping people from overwhelming her.

I broke through the line, coming out to a very less density of enemies. I grabbed one man’s head and swung, snapping his neck as he slammed into one group, and then swinging again to break bones of another that rushed me.

I looked and blinked as I took my spear again. “Voice, now!” With that, I began to strike out, thinning the rear lines of enemies.

As one, everyone spoke. I wasn’t sure how far it reached, but the small devices that all of my people wore on their belts that were based on the ribbon tech activated, minor hijacking the mouth and vocal cords of everyone that they could reach.

Teacher!” the city shouted. “I am Relentless, and I have deemed you guilty! You have engaged in unprovoked attacks on communities, have engineered the deaths of thousands, and have threatened the lives of many more. You have engaged in theft and espionage, and are suspected of countless crimes. You control people against their will, and sacrifice them without asking for consent. For that, you are deemed an S-Class threat.

“I am coming for you, and you cannot stop me. Your people cannot stop me, your technology will not stop me. I am the savior of Agamemnon, have defended myself from countless attacks on my person as the Butcher of New Fairfax, and have hunted all who tried to use my rep. I have gone fisticuffs against the Simurgh. I have destroyed your attacks twice. I have killed Krigarguden. I am a force of nature, victory incarnate! Once I set my sights on something, there is nothing, and no one that can stop me!

“Cease all hostilities, tell your people to stand down, or die.

He wouldn’t. Archimedes had confirmed as much, and the profile that the Dragon’s Teeth had on Teacher suggested that the man’s ego wouldn’t let him listen to me, wouldn’t allow him to even consider surrender until it was literally the only option available to him. Marcus had never actually believed himself to be a god, but Teacher might as well have. But that was also fine. I wanted him to keep fighting.

Desperate people did desperate things, which was exactly what I wanted.

My spear was rending flesh as fast as it could, activating sparely, but I didn’t actually want to kill these people. They were a necessary sacrifice. You can’t have a steak without killing a cow.

My armor stiffened and crackled as I rocked to the side. I turned and was aware of a man in one of those wall less floors several blocks away already running for a stairwell. My rifle was in my free hand and pointed at him, but there wasn’t a point. I couldn’t actually see him, and he would be safely behind the concrete wall of the stairwell before the bullet would reach him.

However, he would run upstairs, take the point-to-point teleporter there to a building two blocks away before using his Teacher-granted power to identify where I was. He would take the stairs down, move to take position, and fire at me again.

I turned, emptying the entire magazine into the crowd in a wide sweep. Normally, I’d be against wasting bullets like that, but for once I was given the advantage of having enough targets that I couldn’t actually miss, and that all of my forces were in armor that could take stray bullets from this rifle without worry.

My body seemed to pulse with each round, making my eyes go wider and wider. As soon as the final round ejected, I stabbed my spear into the cement and calmly reloaded. I worked the bolt and calmly took aim at empty air, hesitating for a moment before firing. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew that my bullet would hit its target.

I turned and lashed out with a foot, catching a woman whose jaw was distended unnaturally wide in the shin with enough force to shatter it like a twig. She tumbled to the ground and I considered her for a moment as I was aware of the man’s head blossoming three blocks away. There was something odd about her, something that I couldn’t put my finger on. I could feel it there, but I just didn’t know what it was.

With a sigh, I grabbed my spear again and jammed it into her skull just as she looked up at me. It didn’t matter. We were meat, and Teacher had turned them into meat.

Full paras are entering the fray on the northern front,” Brenda said over the radio before I could ask her.

Good to know. I changed frequencies with a few glances and blinks. “Do my odds of completing my primary objective improve by going there as compared to staying here?”

By eighteen point five five zero one percent,” Alcott said tersely. I hadn’t wanted them in my command center, but it turned out that they were worth something after all. Brenda’s power worked well with most paras, even Thinkers, but Alcott’s power was apparently too complicated for Brenda’s passenger to accommodate easily. I’d just have to phrase things carefully and hope for the best.

I oriented myself as I called up the map, showing a massive warzone. We were making good headway simply by the press of bodies, taking what I hoped was a good portion of the city. I called up our numbers: over two hundred dead. I switched information screen, waiting as it cycled through — Dragon’s code was compromised, so we had to rely on encryption and programs that were created by our own Tinkers, using shunts in order to make it work with the suits systems. Unfortunately, that created lag.

I frowned at what I saw. We were down to a quarter of our fliers already. Purity’s squad was still running, though, which vaguely surprised me. I’d purposefully put an untriggered gay black man in her squad to see if she’d crack. While she’d been hard on him, it had all been in the training department, forcing him to get better. She apparently hadn’t left him to die, though. Good to know.

I went back to the main map, calling up the northern front. We were taking heavy losses there, no doubt due to the paras. I’d have to wade my way back through–

My thoughts were interrupted as something burst through the ground, impacting my groin hard enough to launch me a good foot into the air. Oh, right. I got distracted in combat and was paying the price. As I landed, I only got a brief glimpse of something snaking back into the ground, but I immediately knew what it was, and what it meant.

I scrambled to my feet, taking my spear in both hands as I looked back at the source. A broad-shouldered man with long hair raised his foot from the ground before smirking at me.

So, I was going to face Marquis, huh? This was going to get interesting…

Gehenna 15.4

“I really don’t want to do this,” I muttered to myself as we walked.

“Nobody does,” Archimedes said quietly. “But agreements are agreements. We avoid a lot of oversight by doing this, and–”

“Are you okay?” Sagittarius asked me, laying a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Your voice sounds… weird.”

Fuck. I was hoping nobody would notice. “Weird?”

Her painted face twisted into a frown. “Deep and scratchy.”

Double fuck. I had a plan, though. “I had a cold.” Before she could say anything, I put a hand on her back to urge her forward. “We’ve been dealing with people filtering in from so many realities that it’s only been a matter of time before we started to pick up something. Just because we’ve won the lottery for so long didn’t mean that it was going to last forever.

“But the emphasis is on had. I got an elixir to help, but it tore the crap out of my throat. They say that it’s going to take a while to heal. Apparently ‘elixir’ meant something different to him than ‘thing that you drink.’ It might take some time.” Which was a nice lie to get around saying that I’d cut all the skin away from the bottom half my throat last night. The use of powers on me seemed to only speed up the changes in my body, and the cultists seemed to think that stacking powers on a person without their permission was perfectly fine.

The female Brute that wore an exoskeleton from my personal squad, hand-chosen by Sagittarius, snorted. “That sounds like you. Both feet first before checking to see how deep the water is.”

Chills went up my spine, but I ignored them. Too much to focus on at the moment. Instead, I turned my attention to Archimedes. “Which reminds me. Get one of the speechwriters to come up with something about getting permission before using powers ready for tomorrow’s service.”

“Oh, truly an important topic. I’ll have Thane do it — he’s better at the religious gibber-jabber than yours truly.”

As we reached our destination, I turned to the Brute. Funny, my suit’s IFF, Identify Friend/Foe, system only tagged her with Shrimp-1. Then again, I went by Relentless, so I couldn’t complain too much about using a code name. One of these days, I’d have to actually learn the names of the people in my squad. One of these days.

“Keep everyone out. Our people, their people, it doesn’t matter. Once this meeting starts, nobody comes in or out without me first giving the all clear. Understood?”

“Got it. Powers, or–”

“Guns, knives, sharp pointy sticks, containment pellets, I really don’t care what you do. Try to keep them alive if at all possible, but preventing any entry trumps all of that.”

“Got it.”

With that, the three of us went inside, only to find everyone waiting. And that wasn’t an understatement.

Legend, Chevalier, and Valkyrie. Defiant and Dragon. Generals Takahashi, Gill, and Weston. Tattletale, Romeo Lindt, Parian, and Foil. Dinah Alcott. Dr. Alcomb and one of Nilbog’s creations. Alloy and Inmann. Nexus and… one of his religious mercs whose name I couldn’t remember. Lacasa and his… wife? I wasn’t sure. Two politicians from two different United States of America. A rep from some pissant place whose name I couldn’t remember, but they were offering us enough iron to justify them being here.

A New 53 that looked like a fusion between a snake, a bat, and a person. A Khepri cultist, allowed because of how much they were helping us redo our infrastructure. Will Jameson, the copper monger. A politician from the Greater Seattle Area Comfort Dome. Another suit from Dracheheim. Another from the New Canadian Territories. One from the American Confederation out in Earth C. Yet another from the Interdimensional Alliance of France. The Prussians, Norwegians, and even a Brazilian, whom I knew was interested in having us destroy a wildling infestation. And yet five more people that my IFF didn’t even bother to pick up.

My suit’s onboard computer systems were heating up as various programs went into overdrive, analyzing each and every single person in the room. Defiant’s and Dragon’s programs were never meant to be used in mass combat against this many enemies at once, and tended to draw more power than they should have. They promised that they’d have an update within the next two weeks. I hoped that they were right — they had three.

As the three of us entered, everyone quieted down, abandoning whatever conversations they were having. We took our place at our table, there being far too many people to all sit at a single one. Every meeting that we had, more people showed up. Only one or two, but it was growing.

“Thank you all for coming,” I said, wishing that I could get away with having my faceplate down. I turned my attention to Nexus. “May I assume that everyone here is clear.”

He nodded once. “Clear.”

“Excellent. Then I’d like to remind everyone that you are under a non-disclosure agreement for this meeting. You are hereby barred from discussing this with anyone, including your own governments, and violation will mean banning from further attendance and possibly retaliatory action.”

“I will have to tell my government something,” one of the five that I wasn’t sure of said angrily.

I took a breath. Thankfully, Archimedes spoke up instead. “Tell them that they will not be the target of our next large-scale operation. If you’re here, then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. However, the details of who our target is must be kept a strict secret. Should it get out, and should we find our that it was because of any of you releasing details, we will seek reparations for loss of life.”

The New 53 rep leaned forward. “For a group that’s been playing up how expendable they are, you’re worried about loss of life?”

“Yes,” Sagittarius said. “If our forces are completely wiped out, then that’s it. We’re done, and everything that we’re holding back, and not just the former Fyrtorn, will come apart. Look at how much we’ve done already. Taken a hostile city. Deactivated the machinery in the heart of St. Louis that was mass-producing wildlings that were capable of breeding. Twenty altercations that otherwise would have happened outside the bounds of accepted law that we have been able to put down. So, yes, we accept that we will suffer major casualties, but at the same time, we are trying to keep them to a minimum through loose lips.”

“Perhaps,” Valkyrie muttered, just loud enough for everyone to hear thanks to a power. “Perhaps it would be wisest for us to remain silent until Relentless has finished briefing us on what they are planning?”

There were wordless murmurs and nods. Good. At least I had that much going for me.

“Thank you. Now.” …Shit, where was I?

Right.

“I’m asking you to do this because of the nature of the operation that we’re gearing up for. One of our greatest concerns has always been S-class threats. Those things that were, until now, untouchable. The Machine Army, for example, is on our timeline.”

That got the interest of the Canadians and the Dragon’s Teeth. They were committed to weekly bombing runs, not to stop the Machine Army, but to keep them away from a portal. The Machine Army had advanced all the way up to the Yukon Territory, and were busy stripping natural resources. With our projected numbers on how wildling breeding might decrease, there were talks with Twain about getting some of their superweapons.

I had people working on a way to stop them, but it would take time. Plans were created and discarded by our people daily. Still, it was appealing to some.

“However, we have our priorities. In order to secure the funding and manpower for the creation of the Legion, I was forced to make several promises. The first of which being the reason why I’ve called you all here today. In three weeks, we will be attacking Teacher.”

A murmur went through the group, but it was Inmann who spoke up. “You can’t be serious! The last time, he–”

“He killed exactly one thousand people,” Tattletale interrupted, somehow both firm and calm at the same time. “Relentless has already considered that.”

I nodded. “Indeed. This is part of the reason why we’ve developed ourselves in such a way that we’re independent from the rest of you. Our operations are solo for the precise fact that we know that intertwining ourselves with you may cause retribution. By doing this, we allow ourselves to be able to engage in action that would open us up to retribution without fear of those communities that we are helping being acted upon.

“And why me telling you this is a formality.” I looked across the faces of everyone in the room. “You have no say in if we do this. On how we do this. This attack is happening. You have no control or authority over it.”

Gill nodded. “And if you fail, and Teacher wants to teach anyone a lesson…”

“We will be that lesson. Right.” I paused for dramatic effect. “I know that you all have questions and concerns, so I am willing to hear them.”

Romeo lifted his hand. “Yeah, I gots one, if’n ya don’t mind.”

Everyone turned to look at him.

“See, my mom, she’s right’n angry at Teach. Been wantin’ ta skin his hide fer ages now, yeah? Now, if you go ‘n do this, and she don’t know nothin’ about it… Well, win or lose, you can prolly guess just how she’s gunna go.”

“I’d rather she not break my arm again,” Tattletale admitted. Wait, when the hell did that happen?!

“Yeah, you got it!” He laughed. “‘Xept, she’s gunna wanna skin all a ya. Now, I can’t promise everythin’, but I feel like I’m here not jus’ ta represent my people, but ta protect ya from ’em if they get hoppin’ mad, ya know? So, maybe we kin work somethin’ out, so that Mom, Bitch of the Sons a Bitch fer those a ya don’t know, so that she don’t drop a ton a shit on ya when all this is done.”

“You can’t participate,” I stressed again.

“No, he has a point,” Legend conceded. “I know Rachel, and she won’t take it kindly. Unfortunately, he isn’t alone — there’s a lot of people who are so eager to get a piece of Teacher for one reason or another that you’ll face fierce opposition when it’s over.”

One of the people that my IFF didn’t tag looked at everyone like they were crazy. “Are you ignoring the fact that he’s only hostile when people attack him?!”

“Burlington,” I said flatly. “And more. Two attacks perpetuated by Teacher that I’ve witnessed by my own eyes, and our Thinkers estimate that one eighth of all city-devastating attacks not attributed to Fyrtorn were either ordered by, or assisted by Teacher in one form or another.”

“And more,” General Gill agreed. “We’ve determined that the faux Endbringer attacks were tests performed by Teacher.”

“The Dragons Teeth stand behind Relentless’ assessment and willingness to attack,” General Weston said. “The only reason why we haven’t launched an offensive ourselves is because we haven’t been able to access the reality that he resides in, and because we were focusing our major offensive efforts on Fyrtorn. Am I to assume that you have a way to reach him?”

“We do,” I said flatly. “His reality lock relies on a very specific variance in the teleporter, one that doesn’t occur naturally and is changed on a monthly basis. We have a way of bypassing it.”

“Are you willing to share it?” Weston asked.

“No.” I glanced left to call up a text message to Schrodinger, only to find that nothing happened.

Wait. That’s right, my faceplate wasn’t down. I looked back at everyone else, only to find the IFF tags fading from my vision. Like just acknowledging that they were there when they shouldn’t be there caused whatever had put them up to break.

Stuff like that was happening a lot lately, and I didn’t get the impression that it was the Fyrtorn folks granting me boons. Just like when I didn’t focus on what my hands were doing they were capable of working on Tinker tech or the weird way that things would just happen around me, this seemed to be just natural. Now if only I could control it.

“Then we don’t have much of a choice,” he concluded. “We have to let you do this alone.”

“No chance in fuckin’ hell,” Romeo said. “Not unless you want Mom knockin’ on the door wif her boot an’ makin’ a mess a things. You’d have ta take ‘er down, then we’d have ta try an’ kill ya, an’… Well, like I said, a mess a things. But mebbe we can come ta a com-pro-mise, eh? Like, let some a us in yer command center.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Command center.”

He laughed. “Don’t gimmie dat shit. I was there when you was trainin’ em ta take this ‘ere place down, man. I know how you think. Thinkers, they may not be so good at fightin’, but they still got skills. You ain’t gonna let those go ta waste, so you’ll put ’em somewhere ta help behind the scenes. Some place ta tell ya where ta hit ta do the most damage. So yeah, yous gots yerselves a command center.”

Damn. Romeo was smarter than he looked. “None of the Sons of Bitch are trained on how to understand what happens there, so it wouldn’t do any good.”

Romeo snorted. “Bruh, please.” He looked to the Wardens delegation. “All y’all gots someone who kin… Wazza word. Help ya see the things you gotta ta understand best? Plus that bitch who kin understand it all?”

“Indeed,” Valkyrie mused.

Legend was quick to add his two cents. “The issue is that we won’t have an interface that connects to yours.” He looked to Defiant and Dragon. “Perhaps the two of you can help?”

“No,” Dragon said regretfully.

Defiant’s helmet opened. “Dragon will be unavailable for this, and we’d prefer not to use any of her code. It follows certain protocols that Teacher can take advantage of. However, I can help.” He paused for a moment. “I’ll need the Dragon’s Teeth to install the hardware, though.”

Sagittarius slapped a hand on the table. “We may not be the best at this whole political thing, but we can see what you’re doing. You’re trying to get as many groups as possible into the command center.”

“Not me,” Tattletale said with a grin. “Due to certain arrangements, we’re obligated to be there already. And I’m bringing Dinah with me.”

Which explained why Alcott was here. I didn’t want either of them here, but I had to put up with it. Instead, I focused on her. “Odds of achieving my primary objective?”

“Eighty-eight point three nine nine six,” Alcott droned before going back to her tea.

Huh. One in ten failed. I’d have to boost those odds.

Archimedes jumped in. “Alright. You all want into there? Then let’s have a discussion. Remember that this will dictate the basic terms and conditions the next time that we do this.”

I leaned back, folding my arms. A sign for the others to take control. Too much time, too much wasted breath. I’d basically said my piece. The others were accepting that they couldn’t stop us, couldn’t aid us, so my main goal in this meeting was done. Now all that I had to do was suffer the moment. Let the politically minded people do their thing.

I’d rather be fighting.

——————————-

In the dimly lit privacy of my private shack, a clawed hand reached up and grabbed my bottom lip, peeling it off of my face. Deft claws carefully trimmed off the excess flesh, cutting through the subdermal mesh like it wasn’t even there. Three weeks had not been kind to my body. But that was fine. I was in control, we had frameworks in place that I didn’t have to deal with people, I could give sermons with my helmet on, and everything was good. I was in control.

I tossed the bits of flesh on the table, watching as they broke themselves down to their component elements. Those elements joined the others that were on the table, which then moved to work on the things that were being built in front of me by invisible hands.

I didn’t let myself feel like this wasn’t natural in any way. I watched in mild disinterest, which seemed to do the trick of letting it work.

After a few moments, I turned my attention back to my body, looking at the gap in my forearm, like someone had stripped off all the muscle and only left behind the bones.

I ran my tongue over my teeth, and one by one they crumbled into a powder. Something else was underneath, mimicking actual teeth. They were blocky and flat, but came to a razor sharp chisel-like point. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but I was pretty sure that I could bite through steel if the rest of my skull would have supported the pressure.

The muscles of my calves flexed, pulling away from the bone. Had it not been for the strange skin-like structure covering them, I could have slipped fingers between the muscle and bone. No, these weren’t actually muscles, and didn’t really do anything. I moved because I willed it, not because muscles drove the motion.

My skin was deep black with dark blue highlighting my body’s structure, making bones and select muscle groups stand out. What was almost like a random assortment of white veins spiderwebbed across it. It was monstrous, terrifying. Like some dark reflection of an artist’s concept of a desiccated corpse.

Only the top half of my head ruined the effect, but even that was slowly changing. Half of one of my ears was already dead flesh, but I didn’t dare pull it off yet, and a dark vein of something snaked underneath the skin towards my eye, stopping just short.

My new skin felt strangely smooth going one way, but impossibly rough in the other direction. But as I flexed it, it felt on the inside like a series of layers. Like I could shed my skin if need be.

It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but today. I moved to dress myself with purpose, having made sure that Lacuna would be overly busy with her squad today so that she wouldn’t try to help me. No, that… That didn’t feel right, to have her do it. Even if I would have felt comfortable with her seeing me like this, I didn’t want her to dress me this time. That little tradition was dead.

I ran my hands over the cloth armor and it instantly tightened against my body. “Good, good.” Whatever magic was on me, it was trying to help with this moment, at least.

I paused. “Ablative armor makes me very thirsty.” Huh. I could talk normally, at least. Still rough and deep, but I was enunciating properly. Good. I got back to work.

As soon as the metal armor and helmet were in place, I looked to where the magic had been worked, finding a standard-issue revolver-style 40mm grenade launcher, and six Tinker grenades waiting for me. A certain subconscious knowledge welled inside the back of my head, and I moved to carefully load it. I knew exactly when this had to be used. Perfect.

My pistol, assault rifle, and halberd were last on my list. Only then did I open the door, wincing in pain over the bright light outside and hissing.

“Your own fault for not turning on a light in there,” the Brute joked without any humor in her voice. Nerves were high. Well, they should be.

I handed off the grenade launcher to Armando. “Keep this for me. It’s only to be used when I give the order, understand?”

“Yes sir.” He flung the strap over his shoulder, adjusting his own autoshotgun to accommodate.

With that, the five of us began the slow march. It was so ironic in so many ways. Here, in Second Chance, it was a beautiful day, one of the last ones of the year before it got cold. People should have been playing, out doing something to try and enjoy it. Instead, as we walked, we were surrounded by a ghost town. It was half a mile before we saw anyone, and then it only made the contrast that much worse.

We went from nobody to being surrounded by thousands of people, all dressed in Tinker cloth armor thanks to Christopher, and holding halberds forged by my people in Angel Grove. Thousands, broken up into groups of five, who raised their arms and cheered as we marched past before getting back into position. They then began lifting their arms in a chant that I couldn’t quite make out. Fliers took to the air, doing last minute check of their own grenade launchers, loaded with EMP grenades. The grenades didn’t have very good range, but with how many Movers we had, I wasn’t worried. Quantity has a quality of its own.

I couldn’t help but feel a little pumped, a little hungry, a little anxious. With so many people ready, comping at the bit, it was infectious. My body wanted to be there, be fighting right now. It wasn’t long. It wasn’t long at all.

This was it. How much planning had gone into this? How much dealing with others, useless meetings, taking Fyrtorn… How much had I done all in the name of this moment? We were finally going to do it. So much pain and misery to enact revenge for, so much to make Teacher pay for.

My sharp tongue ran back and forth over the back of my teeth in time with the chanting as we made out march. Yes. Yes. My entire body was trembling with anticipation. This would be it…

I glanced, opening a private channel. “Schrodinger.”

It all ends on the other side,” she whispered solemnly. “Thank you.

“Don’t thank me yet. How long before you can open the portal?”

I’ve timed it out. Don’t worry.

Fair enough.

We walked for what felt like forever before the huge circular portal planted in the ground loomed over us. As we approached, it pulsed twice in rapid succession, but didn’t activate. After a moment’s hesitation, it did that quick double pulse again, three times as it finished powering up under the precise conditions necessary to breach Teacher’s lockdown ward. A bubble of deeply warped space formed in the circle before collapsing into a flat field, a large window through which a glowing city of skyscrapers and suddenly confused people could be seen.

I hollered wordlessly as I charged for the portal, squads of flyers, both paras and suited individuals, shot past myself and my squad. The entire legion at my back charged lunged, joining me in this frantic moment.

As I hit the portal, my entire world became an unending torment of pain, blinding me. My first step through, and I was already being put down…