Ninsun 13.1

My staff collided with the other several times in rapid succession before I heard Sarah bark “Sparrow!”  I dropped instantly, and heard her power go off, almost overlapping with the sound of the impact.  I was straightening up when I heard another power going off right behind me.  Without looking, I reached behind me, snagged my new attacker before they could actually do anything, and tossed them away with ease.

They were laughing the entire time.

The key to battlefield awareness is breathing.  When a person doesn’t breathe, they begin to develop tunnel vision, and with any sort of tunnel vision going on, situational awareness plummets.  It didn’t matter how aware you were normally, it was dangerously easy to forget to breathe normally on the battlefield.

I only had a moment’s notice to bark out “Hawk!” before scrambling to my left, narrowly avoiding a stream.  Immediately I was back to Sarah, performing a low sweep of my staff to force her latest attacker to back off as she dealt with the flyer.  I repositioned immediately, my shoulder lightly touching hers, as I engaged another opponent, my staff impacting with his face and neck several times in quick succession.

“Mongoose!”

I spun, only having a fraction of a second to process before not quite catching my previous opponent midair, redirecting his flying jump kick into the sturdier opponent.  As I heard that power, yet again, I once again didn’t bother looking before spinning, my staff dipping low to collide with the back of her knee and sending her straight to the ground with a sqeal.

“Enough,” Defiant called out as he untangled himself from around John.  In the distance, I saw Dragon take flight again.  By the time that she’d landed, I’d already helped a grinning Emi back to her feet.  “I’ll be honest, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a pair work together as well as the two of you, not without choreographing it.”

Sarah was breathing hard as she beamed with pride.  “We…  practiced a lot.  Bro…  was insistent.”

I smiled, but inside I was frowning.  Why was she breathing hard?  My heart wasn’t even pounding.

Colin laughed.  “If I could have had the two of you back on my team back in the day…”

I was worried that it would lead into a talk about the old world for a moment, though Defiant was probably the only person that I’d gladly listen to tell them.  Thankfully, though, Dragon spoke up.  “Are you sure that we can’t convince you to leave the Wardens?”

Sarah shook her head.  “Been…”  She sucked in a deep breath and held for a moment it in order to regain control.  “Been preparing for this for far, far too long to turn away.  And Bro here would kill me.”

“No I wouldn’t!” I whined.

“Bro…”

“Maiming isn’t killing,” Emi said with another giggle.  She had far too much fun being tossed around like a rag doll.

That made Sarah laugh.  “Hush, you.  I’m not used to someone with a wit sticking up for him.”

“Then you’ll be sorely disappointed,” John said, his voice returning to normal as his density did the same.  “Despite Jordan’s best efforts to adjust our disposition, we remain people of the mind first and the body second.”

Defiant nodded.  “That I’ll agree with.  The way that the four of you just ran with your roles was…  Well, it was impressive to say the least.”  He looked to Sarah.  “We told them that they’d be playing as members of Jordan’s team on the way, so not only did they have to deal with that, but they had to deal with accepting that we’d be facing the Simurgh, that they’d have to play special forces, and new armor and designs all at the same time.  And on top of that, I didn’t reveal the names until I was presenting them to everyone.

“The deck was stacked against them, but they were even more convincing than I’d expected.  They were perfectly in-character as if they’d always been exactly as I’d said.”

“We’re con men,” Kathy said with a smirk.  “We had time to plan.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Dragon said with a proud smile.  “Calling out a character archetype and instantly knowing to show hints of a deeper and more complex relationship is less common of a skill than you’d think.  It takes some improvisational actors decades of practice to get to that point.”

Emi smirked, folding her arms and leaning back against me.  “That’s ‘cos we.  Are.  Bad.  A–”

She squealed and stumbled as I took a step away.  We locked eyes for a moment, her glaring and me smiling, before she burst into a giggle.  “Jerk.”

“You’re the one who taught me.”

Sarah gave a bark of laughter, shaking her head.  “Oh, damn…  You all have no idea how much I wish that I could join the lot of you.”

Brenda made another peek from her headband before taking another few cautious steps closer.  I stepped away and offered her my arm, which she took.  She hadn’t participated in our sparring session because her head was still killing her.  “You sure?” I asked.

She gave me a jerky nod.  “I don’t…  wanna be on the sidelines for this.  I can’t see, but I wanna still…”

“I got it,” I lied.  She felt that this was important to her on a personal level.

I didn’t catch what Sarah said, but Kathy and Emi burst out into laughter.

“Brenda,” Kathy said with a jerk of her thumb.  “I have rules.”

“And I won’t be with a guy that I have to climb like a mountain,” Emi added.

John snorted.  “And not my type.”

Wait.  I caught on to what Kathy must have asked and flashed her a glare.  She had a shit-eating grin in return.

Wait.

“Former,” Brenda said.  I jerked to look at her.  “What?  Seriously?  Did you seriously think that all that dancing was just because I enjoyed dancing?”

I frowned a little.  “Yes?”

That made her laugh briefly before halting with a wince.  “A big, strong guy who wants to hold me in his arms?  You might not be anything close to a looker, but you’ve got the body, you’ve got the personality, and you’ve got…  I dunno.  You’ve got a charm to you, Jordan.  You could get anyone if you really wanted to try.  There’s just something about you that screams ‘hold me’ that’s adorable, while also hitting the ‘I will tear apart a pack of wildlings with my bare hands’ vibe going.

“But it was just a crush, don’t worry.  I’m happy with how we became just friends.  Actually, I think it’s better this way.”

Wait, she just turned sixteen that winter.  Ew.  Ew.  Ew.  Just…  Just no.  I was glad that she’d grown out of it.

“Hey,” Emi said, turning to Sarah.  “Can I get some alone time with you for a few.  I wanna get some juicy stories about J-man here.”

“Hey,” I whined.

Sarah and Emi shared a weird look for a moment before she grinned.  “Don’t worry, Bro.  I won’t tell her anything too embarrassing.  C’mon.”  She put a hand on the back of Emi’s neck, leading her off.  Great, just what I needed.

I didn’t have time to fret about it too much, though, as Kathy was speaking up to Defiant and Dragon.  “Thanks again for helping us with the plates.”

John grinned.  “I will confess, it was fun listening to them shriek and scramble.”

Dragon had scoped out the area with her drones to confirm the forgery plates, and Sarah had stayed in the Pendragon (seriously, what kind of a name was that?) while the seven of us had assaulted the facility.  It could have been a bloodbath had the people involved been even the slightest bit prepared to fight.  Instead, screaming and panic had ruled the day, with most of the injuries being self-inflicted.

Defiant pulled off his helmet, grinning.  “I’ll be honest, it felt really good to be back in the middle of things.  It felt… right.  Besides, a con like that is one that I can stand behind.”

John grinned.  “And the Secret Service paid out nicely, too.”

“Actually,” Defiant continued.  “I honestly expected all of you to drag Jordan into more… questionable actions than what you have.”

Kathy shook her head.  “When we first picked him up, we had a talk and realized that his sense of morals was too strong to go for more normal cons.”

“Plus I threw up a lot,” I added sheepishly.

“That, too.”  She grinned a little.  “It took him a while just to get used to threatening bad guys without arresting them or something.  But we’ve also found that we can make a lot of money from people who don’t want to report it to the authorities.  The less attention that we draw to ourselves the better.”

“With one notable exception,” John noted.

I winced a little.  “Yeah, that one.  Listen, I’m going to check with Nexus, see how much intel he can get us on The Machine.  If they really do have links to Teacher, maybe we can nab their leadership for them.  The intel would be nice for everyone, and I’m more than happy to stick it to him.”

“I’d rather sit that one out,” Brenda said sheepishly.  “He was the boogieman in my cult, and…  I’ll be honest, he scares me more than the Simurgh does.”

“I’m… the same way,” Dragon confessed.  “I understand completely.”

“It’s something that we’ll have to discuss,” John said.  “But I will admit that we do owe you a little bit for the gear that you’ve given us.  It’s just a shame that if we do grab their leadership, we can’t use it.”

“Why not?” Brenda asked.

“Because you have a legitimate beef with them,” Dragon explained patiently.  “They attacked Jordan, and so Jordan can retaliate.  It helps that he’s a wanted fugitive.  As Relentless, due to his attachment to the two of us and our involvement with the Dragon’s Teeth, his team getting involved would cause as much problems as if the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth were to become involved.”

“Politics are a bitch,” John simplified.  That much, at least I could respect without actually understanding it.

Dragon turned to me, smiling softly.  “Thank you, Jordan.  I…”

“It’s my honor,” I said warmly.  It really was, too.  The chance to try and help out Defiant and Dragon a little bit was more than enough to make me happy.  Getting some revenge on Teacher for everything he’d done to them by messing up whatever his plans might be?  Oh, hapy days indeed.  I could completely stand behind that.

My warmth ebbed out, replaced by a cool anger.  “And I still owe them for what they did in that town.  Open gunfire like that, they deserve whatever they get.”

Defiant spoke up.  “If you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing there, anyway?”

———————-

I blinked, adjusting to the teleport and frowning slightly to myself.  There was an odd pressure in my gut.  Nothing bad, but just… odd.  It wasn’t caused by the heavy bag over my shoulder.  Strange…

“Hey Jordan,” I heard a voice call out in a weird tone.  A moment later, I turned and looked at my fifth employee.  Name.  Name.  Name, name, name.

Ah, right.  “Hey Cheryl.”

John and Kathy shared a look before John spoke up.  “Cheryl, I’d you to meet Dragon, Defiant, and Sarah Abrams.  They’ll be our guests for a while.”

That made Cheryl’s jaw drop, even as Dragon approached her with an open hand.  Neither Defiant or Dragon were in armor right now.  We didn’t want to spook the neighbors.  “You must be his smith.”

She was growing pale as she took Dragon’s hand.  “I, uh…  Yeah.”

“You’ve done excellent work,” Defiant said in his powerful, matter-of-fact tone.  “Some of what you’ve created is being used in the house that’s being built for us in England G.”

“I…”  Cheryl stared at the two of them in shock.  “But he’s…  He’s a criminal?  A murderer?”

“Is he?” Sarah asked.  “I know my brother, and I’m not so sure.  And from what little I know about what happened in New Fairfax, it’s insanely complicated.”

“There is another matter,” John said, almost lazily.  “Not even you believe that.”

We all turned to look at him.

“At least, not deep down.  Otherwise, you’d be gone already.  But I think that you love, and trust, your husband.  A rare thing in this age of cynics.  I think that you genuinely believe that he would not endanger you, or your wee child, to the presence or employment of a man who was a mass murderer, or worse!  So a part of you believes what all you’ve been told–”

“Some of which we can confirm has been blown out of proportion,” Dragon added.

John nodded.  “But your heart, ah…  I believe that it holds the truth.  That Jordan, while perhaps a dangerous man, might not be the bad man that he’s been made to be.  I believe that you honestly hoped that he would have responded with confusion when you called his name, that it was just a cruel joke by your husband.”

Cheryl looked lost and confused as she glanced between us, trying not to look at me.

“Look deep within your heart, my dear.  Look at the man who gleefully helped you in your forge.  Does that speak to you of a man who takes gleeful joy of the slaughter of innocents?  Or does that speak of a man who deeply desires a more simple life, where he is not constantly fraught with danger, and would much rather be helping you than fighting?”

Really, I did like helping her, but that was more because plotting and planning another con was horribly boring.  I knew enough to keep my mouth shut about it, though.

Cheryl looked down, shaking her head a little.  “I don’t know.”

“Take your time,” I said confidently.  “Think about it.  I don’t want you to work for me unless you’re comfortable with it.  I won’t force you into anything, and if you choose to quit, that’s fine.  If you take…”  Damn it, what was his name?  “…your husband with you, again, I can understand that.  All that I’d ask is that you didn’t betray us.”

“Would you hurt us?” she asked weakly.

I blinked.  I honestly didn’t understand the question.  Why would I hurt them?  I… couldn’t process it.

Emi grinned a bit.  “Brenda might–”

“Smack her,” Brenda deadpanned, her hand still on Kathy’s back.

“See?  Violent!  But we’d sit on her.  Real talk, though.  We don’t go after people unless they got it coming to them.”

“Is that how you met Jim and the others?” Cheryl asked.

“Everyone makes a mistake,” Kathy said.  “The key is finding the right people who deserve a second chance.”

Cheryl said nothing, leaving us in a brief awkward silence.  Brief only because Defiant suddenly announced, to nobody in particular, “I’m going inside.”

I nodded, heading for the door.  “Me too.  I’m useless in these conversations.”

“I don’t know,” John said, hot my heels.  “I think you’re quite skilled at them.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Oh, please, Mr. Silver spoon.”  As I opened the door I called out.  “Hey everyone!”

“You might lack the lingual skills, but you do have the heart.”

“I agree,” Defiant said thoughtfully.  “You’re like Chevalier that way.  He can’t tell speeches like Legend can, but he can make you understand how deeply he believes the things he says.  You’re better at speeches than I am.”

“Neither one of you gives yourself enough credit,” Dragon said with a slight smirk.  Maybe they were learning the weird way that we operated.  Cheryl needed time to think, so we’d let her think and deal with any problems that might arise later.  There was nothing to be done about it right now.

“Bossman!”  A woman…  Name…  Not Michelle, that was the other one.  Name…  She looked happy to see us as she entered the kitchen, only for her to pause when she saw Defiant, Dragon and Sarah.  “Oh.  Company.”

Emi jerked her thumb to each person.  “Dragon, Defiant, Jordan’s sister, Sarah.  Don’t get awestruck, Cheryl already beat you to it.”

Auroch…  No, that wasn’t it.  The woman whose name I was sure started with an A gave us a slightly nervous smile.  “Well.  Any friend of the bossman is a friend of ours.  Should I get Dave to–”

“Pancakes,” Brenda growled, finally entering with Kathy.

Defiant frowned.  “You realize that each bowl of that soup contained–”

“Pancakes,” John echoed.

“I heard the call of pancakes,” Dave said with a grin as he hurried into the kitchen.  “Oh, a crowd.”

“I’ll get more syrup,” Michelle said from the other room.  I only caught a brief glimpse of her through the doorway as she hurried out.

Sarah grinned at me.  “I take it they’re good?”

“You have no idea, Sis.”

“Then let’s get this gear squared away and eat.”

——————–

I frowned at the map.  “And you’re sure this is accurate?”

Michelle nodded.  “It was, at least.  I have a friend who ditched the Machine after you tangled with them, and she swears by it.  Cost a pretty penny–”

“I’ll reimburse you.”

“–But she says that it’s what the HQ looked like.  I thought it might be wise to grab if you wanted to bust some heads as payback.”

Sarah looked at me.  “What are you thinking?  Full assault?”

I shook my head.  “They’ll start shooting if they know I’m in town.  We’ll go the opposite route.  We’ll do a stakeout, me outside of town.  Come nightfall, I’ll infiltrate.  John and Emi take the second floor, Kathy and I will slip in through either this door or this window, and Brenda will do whatever’s best.  We’ll take it slow, neutralizing anyone that’s awake.  After that, we’ll have John and…”  I frowned.  “Let’s go with Kathy.  One at each door, taking down anyone who shows up.  If the leadership isn’t there when we infiltrate, then we’ll wait.”

She nodded.  “Smart.  Safer than the full frontal, and it minimizes the chances of civilians getting hurt.  Your kind of plan.”

“Mm,” John said, reaching for his belt.

“Smoke around the baby and I’ll remove your arms,” Sarah said, and he put his hand back on the table without comment.  “Do you need some backup?”

“You’ll be back with the Wardens before then,” Kathy said firmly.  “We’re waiting a week at least before we do this.”

We both frowned at her.

“She’s right,” Defiant said, nodding thoughtfully.  “As much as I hate to admit it, she’s completely right.  You’ve fought the Simurgh, then fought the forgers…  To be perfectly honest with you, I’m surprised that you’re still going as well as you are.”

“This is nothing,” Sarah said with a grin.  “Compared to St. Louis?  We could keep doing this all week.”

Kathy nodded.  “And if you’re able to keep up with him?  I’ll believe it.  But the rest of us?  We aren’t as good as you two.  We’re tired.  We need time for R&R.  Besides, we purposefully try to keep from letting your brother work that hard.  Not since…  Well…”

Sarah looked at me.  “Yeah, I can see that.  How are you holding up, Bro?  I saw the video from when you took on that Tinker.”

“They patched me up nicely.”  I shrugged a shoulder.  “It only hurts when I have high levels of radiation nearby.”

That got a corner of her mouth to quirk upwards.  “You’re more of a smartass than you used to be.”

Someone rubs off on me.”

“Guilty as charged,” Emi said with a grin.

“I do have to admit, you’re doing better than I figured.  Look at you, a bunch of loyal employees and everything.”  Sarah looked to Michelle.  “How was Christmas?”

Michelle’s face could have lit up the night.  “He got me the most beautiful dress ever.  I was crying so hard.”

Jim chuckled.  “Jordan’s a good boss.  He said that he doesn’t want to get us involved with anything, and he’s done everything in his power to keep that promise.  He’s always checking in on us, always trying to help us out, when it’s our job to be helping him.  Plus, I’m almost to the point where, if he decides that he doesn’t need us anymore, I could get a new job as a frontier doctor.”

“You need some more education first,” I said quickly.  “There’s stuff that reading alone won’t teach you.”

Dragon nodded.  “The equipment that I set up in the basement to fix their armor has interdimenional transmission capabilities.  I’ll go ahead and download all the medical files and videos I can to help you with that.”

“Awesome.”

Dave nodded.  “Seriously, though.  Your brother’s the kind of guy I’m glad that I work for, and not just because he almost made me crap myself when I was on the other side.  It looks like we’re lazy for the most part, but just putting out feelers and stuff is a lot of work, and the research that we’re doing takes up hours at a time.  And that’s before all the stuff that we’re teaching ourselves.  We don’t gotta, I mean, we’re not scared of him anymore, but…”

“We feel better,” Aurora finished for him.  “We feel more useful.  More capable.  More…  I dunno.  And every time that he’s come back and needed our help?  It’s always been because he was doing something that really needed to be done.  I’ve figured out that you all might not be completely legit, but there’s a huge difference between not completely legit and bad.  These guys are actually good.”

Sarah sighed.  “Damn it, Bro.  Why’d you have to decide to spread your wings after you left?”

“Sorry,” I said, ducking my head.

“Relax.  I’m just–”

She was cut off by her armband chirping at her.  Dragon was frowning before Sarah got it up to look at it.  “Damn.  They’re calling me back already.  I’d hoped for more time to spend with you.”

“While the cats away the mice will play,” John said in a sing-song voice.

As Jim took his daughter, Sarah turned to look at me.  “March third.  Here.  By hook or by crook, we meet up, alright?  I’m not spending another year worrying about you.”

I nodded.  Hopefully the others would help me remember.

With that, she looked to Aurora.  “Gimmie a week or so, then reach out to Chris Abrams in Burlington Gimmel.  Well, his fiancée.”

That made my face light up.  Chris was getting married?!

“Tell her that you wanna sell them some metalworking.  They’ll know who it’s from.”

Aurora nodded.  “Right, yeah.  That makes sense.  A good way to establish a cover for if Chris wants to come here.  We’re known in town as businesspeople, and Tinkers are known to be a little odd anyway.  No offense.”

“We are a little odd,” Defiant said confidently.  He and Dragon rose, but he paused to look at me.  “Jordan, before we take your sister back, I just wanted to say…  About the Orphanage and the first time you saw me…”

His stance was uncomfortable.  I couldn’t read his expression in the slightest, and the fact that he paused made me feel even more awkward about it.  Like I shouldn’t be here, talking about this.

Finally, he spoke again.  “I’m sorry.  I… didn’t think that me going there would be…  Would have an effect on anyone.  I should have gone back again.  Everyone, not just you, probably would have liked it, and it probably would have made things easier for all the kids back then when things were harder.  Maybe we could have gotten to know each other better under other circumstances.”

That… was a surprise.  Not that he was apologizing, but what he was apologizing for.  I couldn’t help but smile a little.  “Forgiven, a thousand times over.”

He nodded, still looking uncomfortable.

I didn’t have time to think about it further, because Sarah was already hugging me tight, a hug that I returned.  “Take care of yourself.”

“I will.”

“Liar.”

“We’ll take care of him for you,” Emi said.  “At least, as best we can.”

As we parted, I grabbed Sarah’s head with both hands and pulled her forehead against mine.  “Keep living the dream, alright?”

“Once you pop and we get all this bullshit figured out, we’ll be beside each other one way or another.”

We pulled away, and she flashed me a handsign.  Middle and index fingers down, the other three spread out.  I returned the handsign as she moved for the door.

“Keep some of your gear handy,” Dragon said as Sarah said goodbye to the others.  “If something comes up, we’ll be in touch.”

“Sure.”  It was impulsive, but she seemed to have the same thought as we moved to hug each other.  “Take care of yourself, Taylor.”

“You too, Tobias.”

As the three of them moved for the door, Kathy smiled.  “Anyone else get the feeling that a new chapter of our lives is starting?”

Nope.  Just the opposite, actually.

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Interlude 12.B

Tony reached out and snagged one of the many saplings in the forest, instantly adding it to his pre-existing exoskeleton.  He didn’t dare slow down, though — he’d already lost his Wardens handler once.  She was some sort of “social Thinker,” whatever that meant.  All he knew was that he really, really didn’t mind following her.  Not in those tight pants and stripped-down armor.

It was the only thing that he liked about today.

He saw the next target before she pointed them out to him, and rushed past her to the man.  The poor guy was moaning on the ground, desperately grasping at his leg.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was wrong, but Tony still touched the man’s head, almost using his power.

It was a newer trick that he’d learned just a few weeks ago.  A better side effect to his power.  It wasn’t enough to make the man explode, but somehow Tony knew that the guy’s leg was broken, he had several cracked bones, and heavy bruising to the point that what Tony was guessing was a kidney was bruised.  He made a mental note to actually start studying anatomy more than giggling over it.

Now he finally finally used his power properly, putting some oomph into it.

Some of his exoskeleton, really more of a framework on his body, exploded before forming into a collection of deceptively twig-like tendrils that snaked around the leg.  He hadn’t thought about it, but the way that it had formed was almost artistic.  A side-effect of his training lately.

“I know it hurts,” Tony said sympathetically.  “It hurts like hell, but I need you to focus.  Straighten your leg.  It’s gonna hur–”

The man screamed as the armor around his leg moved, straightening out the bone and locking itself into place as a brace.  Tony had learned a lot in the past fifteen minutes about how to set a bone.  Among all sorts of other things.

“Good man!  You’re gonna be okey-day!”  Now came the other part of his job.  “Broken leg, some other bone stuff and a bru…”

His words trailed off as he looked around for his handler.  She…  She wasn’t around?  His heart began hammering in his chest.  Where was she?  What had happened?

And a what?” Dragon’s voice asked from the computer mounted on his arm.  The battle wasn’t even done, and she was paying attention to little old him?  Cool!

Tony swallowed and lifted his arm.  “Um, he’s, he’s bruised inside.  Kidney, maybe?  I’m not sure.”

Alright, I have him marked.  How long will the armor last?

“I know we’re spread pretty thin, so it should last three hours.”  He looked around again.

Then I have him as a low priority.”  A map appeared on his arm, with a bunch of different dots.  That was really not helpful.  After a moment, though, Dragon spoke again.   “The solid yellow triangle is you.  The flashing yellow one is Miss Collier.

Alright, now that was handy.  If he wasn’t crap at maps and junk.  He took a couple of hesitant steps, only to find his triangle moving in the wrong direction.  Okay, how…

To your left.  Your other left.  Keep going.  There, straight ahead.

Tony couldn’t help but grin to himself.  Handy gal.  He wondered for a second if she was single.  She hoped not.  A nice, helpful girl like her needed someone.  He tried to imagine what the girl that the voice was attached to looked like, but something in the back of his head said that every mental image was wrong.  Something about Parahuman History that he couldn’t quite remember.

Instead, he moved at a brisk walk.  Oh, he could sprint, but he had crap stamina.  Absolute crap.  Even with his training with the Wardens for when he became a cadet, he was crap.  But his brisk pace was better than a lot of people could jog, better than slow people could run.  Being tall had a few select advantages.

By the time he saw his handler, she’d finally realized that he wasn’t behind her and was looking around.  She flashed him a frown as he walked, but it quickly disappeared.  Her Thinker power?  Didn’t matter.  Just in case, he brushed a bush, adding it to his exoskeleton without slowing down.  That seemed to satisfy her.  She turned and hurried, with him just behind.

God damn, he needed a girlfriend one of these days.  Maybe then his brain would shut the fuck up.

It wasn’t long before they reached the person she originally wanted him to help, and…  Well, he wished that he hadn’t.  Whatever had happened to this dude was bad.  As in, Tony couldn’t see the guy’s legs anywhere nearby.  His body just ended in a twisted mass of burned flesh and gore.  His eyes began to sting.

His handler turned to look at him.  “If…  If you can’t do anything…”

Oh, the answer was obvious.  Even before Tony slumped down next to the guy and reached out, he knew what the answer was going to be.  But his power told him that most of the guy’s guts were gone, and the damage…  Well, even if by some miracle they kept him alive, he’d never be able to count to five again.  At least, by how much the brain wasn’t working, that was Tony’s guess.

But even if the guy couldn’t feel it, Tony could end the suffering.  He closed his eyes.  This wasn’t like Dad, it was more like Mom.  Encouraging him to do it, so that she wouldn’t suffer.  So that he wouldn’t suffer.  So that he wouldn’t bury her.  She’d made him stronger, and suddenly, he needed a little strength.

The man exploded, and layers of flesh and thin armor plates made of bone formed over the exoskeleton.  He didn’t try and guide how it formed, he just let it do its own thing.  Crude, but it worked when he couldn’t.

He felt a hand on his shoulder.  “Thank you,” she said softly.  “You did the right thing.”

“Yeah,” he muttered, no emotion behind it.

“Come on.  We’ve got work to do.”

Tony pushed himself upright and nodded.  He could feel later.  He waited for her to move, and then…

And then he was flying like a bullet.  The armor shifted mid-flight, exploding and rearranging, giving him the briefest moment of falling before he was flying again.  Only, he had no control.  He tried to swerve to dodge a tree, but went way off course, slamming his shoulder into another so hard that the now thicker bone plates that covered it shattered.  In the briefest of moments before he hit the ground, time seemed to slow.

All that he could think in that long second and a half was his power.  His power didn’t grant flight… but maybe the guy he’d just turned into armor did.  This changed everything.

And then he crashed into the ground, laughing like a madman.

———————

William was probably the only Commander who honestly enjoyed riding in these response craft.  They were built for speedy deployment of troopers, not for comfort, so there was a constant rattle and shake to them that made the more sensitive officers queasy.  That always brought him a thin smile — most officers had never been troopers, they’d never had to acclimate themselves properly.  He liked it when they got a taste.

The trip… nostalgic, perhaps.  Reminders of when they’d scurried from training grounds to training grounds across the country before Gold Morning.  More than that, it reminded him of the glory days, from before he was still a young buck, ready to take on even the Slaughterhouse 9.  It didn’t matter how tainted those glory days were, he’d take them.

The fight with the Simurgh played on his tablet.  Every few minutes, something stirred within him.  There was something hauntingly familiar about the way that she moved that he just couldn’t pin down.  Something…

Maybe he was corrupted.  When they told him that they were collecting all senior staff with prior exposure to undergo analysis by Thinkers, he’d been furious.  After all this time of loyal service, now they doubted him?  While he was on leave?!

It has passed as quickly as it had come, before it even appeared on his face.  Just a mild twitch of his fingertips was the only thing that betrayed his reaction.  No, they didn’t doubt him.  The door had been opened, someone had finally asked the question, and now they needed to answer it.  For the good of everyone, all had to be checked.

It wasn’t a matter of the senior staff being the most important, either.  Truth be told, there were individuals within the Dragon’s Teeth that could be far more devastating than the senior staff if they were corrupted.  The lifers who never became higher ranked.  They had far more access codes, technical expertise, and experience.  Senior staff needed to give orders, but lifers could do more damage themselves before anyone had a chance to question what they were doing.

No, it was the duty of the senior staff to set an example.  You walk into something unpleasant with your head held high and willing to accept any outcome to show how the non-coms should do it.  You show them that the people at the top are willing to submit so that they will, too.  Naturally, they wouldn’t see it that way, but it would still make things at least a little easier.

Like now.  The trooper who had collected him had been fidgeting for quite some time.  Finally, at long last, she spoke up.  “Commander Van Dorn?”

He looked up, knowing full and well that he probably looked like a wildman with his beard untrimmed and undyed.  “Yes, Sergeant?”

“What will happen if one of us is deemed corrupted?”

That was an excellent question.  Truth be told, he didn’t know and was scared to find out.  But he had to project confidence.  “We take care of our own, Sergeant.  They’ll most likely be relieved of duty and moved to one of the asylums permanently.”

That made her frown, and he smiled patiently.  “Don’t look like that.  There’s one in particular that I go to regularly to visit an old friend.  If I wasn’t completely pleased with the environment and how they treat the patients there, if I felt for one moment that he didn’t have as much comfort and freedoms as we can allow for his individual situation, or if I felt that he felt that he was lesser for being posted there, I’d throw every ounce of weight that I have into changing it.”

She said nothing, but still didn’t look convinced.  Unfortunately, he could feel the shift in the flight trajectory; they were almost there.  He turned his attention back to the tablet, calling up a new note.

“I’ll make sure to talk to your CO.  I’d like you to visit one of them, and give me your honest opinion.  If any of our troops are afflicted, then I want you to tell me.”

“Sir?”

“I’ve only been to the one, and if you have doubts, then I want to clear them up.  We have a lot of men and women who joined up with undiagnosed PTSD and other afflictions that we treat there.  I don’t want you, or anyone else, to feel like us placing someone there is a bad thing.  I’ll say it again.  We take care of our own, no matter the form, no matter the rank, no matter the role.  Understand?”

She hesitated, but nodded.  “Yes sir.”

He smiled at her as they began to descend.  “Good.  Just remember that this isn’t a punishment.  You’re helping me.”

“If the Simurgh hasn’t gotten to you.”  She paused.  “Sir.”

“If she has, then I definitely want you to fight with your CO until you can visit whatever one I’m put in.  Remind me that the Dragon’s Teeth are doing fine without me.”

She actually smiled at that.  Did he still have some charm to him?  Or was she just relieved that he hadn’t taken offense?  He didn’t have time to ask, as the craft shook like a bell on touchdown.  “Do you need to accompany me?”

“No, sir.  We’re on high alert, but allowing operations to continue as normal as possible.”

He nodded once as he stood.  “Thank you.  And remember what I said.”

“I’m sure I won’t need to, sir.”

Grunts never failed to make him smile.

As he stepped off, he was surprised to see Elizabeth hurrying over.  “Commander Van Dorn!”

“Commander Schluter,” he returned.  Neither of them were smiling.  “What’s the situation?”

“They’re still working on the generals,” she said quickly as she motioned for him to follow her inside.  “So far, they’re all clear, though.  We’re getting similar reports from the Wardens.  We’ve got decent hopes that when she was preparing to fight Scion, she didn’t fuck with everyone’s heads.”

“Small favors.”  Huge favors, but he didn’t want to show how much it worried him.

“What’s your take?”

William glanced at her.  “What makes you think I have a take yet?”

Elizabeth snorted.  “Because you’re one step ahead of everyone around you.  Come on, Will.  I know you better than that.  Your gears have been churning since the moment you found out.”

He really couldn’t deny it.

“We’re in for a huge political fight in the upcoming weeks.  Maybe years.  The various political factions are going to latch onto this completely to try and push their own agendas, and we need to be prepared.  I’m ready to fight to the hilt to keep the Fyrtorn directive going.”

Elizabeth looked at him with a frown.  “Will…”

“Don’t start with me.”  He took a slow breath to control his temper.  Yelling in her office was fine, but they had to set an example.  “You weren’t there, Liz.  You weren’t fighting Scion.  The only reason why I just lost my leg and nothing more?  Marcus decided to be a goddamn hero when Scion popped that new power.  My next memory is of Legend and Skitter talking, and then her holding my hand while Legend worked on my foot.  I kept getting dropped on the priority list as worse wounded showed up.  I knew I was going to lose the whole damn leg before the doctors did.

“But I remember it as plain as day.  When the paras came to tell us the news that Scion was defeated.  How badly burned Marcus was as he stood up.  And then…”

He took a slow breath.  “Fyrtorn must fall.  I have to do everything in my power to make sure that Krigarguden dies.  For Marcus.”

Elizabeth frowned.  “How many of you feel that way?”

William’s jaw set.  “All of us.  Sumat’s given us a chance to regain our honor.  If people think think that they can take it away from us, they’ll find that everyone who was in that fight is ready to oppose them.  We might be in our forties and fifties, we might still be nursing those wounds, but they’ll find that we still have a lot of fight in us.  More than they can possibly imagine.”

——————–

Hannah hurried out to the Pendragon before the grate had fully dropped.  It had been surprising enough that Colin had shown up for the fight after hiding away for so long, but to have him come here?  To Boston?  And to specifically ask for her?  That was…  Unusual was a good word for it.

Still, she found herself smiling.  Dragon was still a good… robot?  Program?  Person?  It was hard to come up with the proper term.  Colin had always been a bit rough around the edges, but she never doubted that he believed.  She never doubted that in his mind, he had ultimately good intentions.

She might not like what he did against Leviathan, but she also had fond memories of the two of them talking.  Often after his training sessions, tired and exhausted, but not quite wanting sleep yet.  They’d start talking about something official, but then would turn their conversations to other subjects.  He had a self-depreciating wit to him that seemed at odds with his cockiness and arrogance, but they complimented each other.

He’d been a good friend, in his own right.  Not the sort of friendship that most people would have looked for, but it was something that she was alright with.  A good friendship between coworkers.

What surprised her, though, wasn’t the sight of Dragon and Colin in full armor.  It wasn’t even the people handcuffed.  It was the fact that Jordan — Relentless and his gang were with them.  The U.S. wasn’t sure what was going on there, and she hadn’t had the time to ask Chevalier with everything else going on during and after the battle last week.  Before now, the “Jordan situation” had always been background enough that it didn’t affect her.  She didn’t need to worry about it.

Now, she wished that she had.

“Defiant.  Dragon.”

“Miss…”  Colin caught himself.  “Hannah.  Uh, general?”

She smiled patiently.  “Hannah.  May I call you Colin?”  You had to do that dance when dealing with older paras like themselves.

He nodded as he and Dragon came down the steps.  “I hope we’re not interrupting anything.”  The other five were busy collecting the handful of people.

Hannah shook her head.  “Nothing that can’t wait.  It looks like you brought me some presents.”

“Courtesy of Relentless,” Dragon said, a bit of a playful smile on her lips.  “When everything happened, his squad was doing some deep cover work that we thought you might be interested in.”

Her eyebrows raised.  “Do tell.”

“Counterfeiters,” Colin said in his slightly curt professional manner.  “Operating outside of U.S. territory.  After we recovered Relentless, we went ahead and assisted them in arresting the group.”

Something didn’t seem quite right here.  Hannah decided to tread very carefully.  “I’m trusting that you have more than just your word on this?”

Dragon nodded, and understanding smile on her face.  “Of course.  A DVD with the assault from each of our perspectives, all of the counterfeit bills that were there, and all of the associated equipment.  The plates, the printing press, ink…  The works.”

Now that was possible evidence.  Hannah turned to a sergeant who was hanging in the background.  “Booth, get some MPs here to escort these prisoners, and call the Secret Service.  We need them ASAP.”

“Ma’am!”

By the time that she turned around, though, one of the Relentless’ squad was approaching fast, a bit of a swagger in his step.  She had a bad feeling about this.

“General.”  A New York accent?  “The others are going to dance around this, but…  We’re going to be engaging in another deep-cover mission.  It’s why we’ve been recalcitrant to show our faces when everyone else was.  We aren’t sure who we can trust.  The thing is…  We were kind of hoping for a reward so that we could fund the mission.”

“Archimedes!” a woman, the second in command, barked from inside the ship.

Hannah spent a long moment regarding the man.  The armor was newer than when he’d been at the battle — the dark red fabric was a bit more snug and form-fitting.  The hard metallic armor over his upper torso, forearms, pelvis, and shins were all in a rather pretty blue with gold trim.  Throw in some white, and one might almost mistake them for patriotic.

They said that Jordan and his crew were thieves and con men, but she’d picked up that the party line was far from the truth.  At the same time, there might be a kernel of truth.  They might have been doing some semi-questionable things in order to secure their funding.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if they were still finding their footing…

Or it could just be the truth, though she doubted it if Colin was involved with them.  Damn.  She wanted to get him alone and ask some questions, but now wasn’t the time.

“We’ll have to see what the Secret Service has to say, but I’m sure that we can work something out.  Now, the sooner that we can get your people taken care of, the sooner that we can get statements from the each of you.”

“Joy,” Archimedes deadpanned.  “The bureaucratic justice system is alive and well despite our return to both a colonial frontiersman state and the wild west.”

“No hanging judge for you,” a shorter girl shouted as she wrangled a guy who seemed to be rather protective of his groin.  “Now get back here and help us!”

Hannah couldn’t read Colin’s expression under his helmet other than his lips pressing into a thin line.  “They’re a work in progress.”

She couldn’t help but smile.

Qamaits 12.8

“A vote?” Emi growled.  “Fucking seriously?”

John sighed softly, straightening his back and putting on his aristocratic air again.  “I believe that, despite our company, this is the right time for it.”

What was going on?  I looked between my friends, then to Defiant and Dragon, then to Sarah.  Brenda was still curled up with her head in John’s lap, nursing her Thinker migraine.  Kathy was sitting next to me, looking down at her lap, echoing Sarah who was on the other side of the small fire.  On the other side of me, Emi was glowering like she wanted to strangle John.   John himself was very dignified, but his jaw was also set.  He was determined.

Defiant…  I couldn’t read him at all.  I’d had the same problem when I’d known him as Nathan — he tended to wrap himself up so tight that it was hard to get a good read.  It had been better towards the end, when he’d gotten more comfortable with me, but now…

Dragon was watching us, concerned.  It was funny, but her body language was the easiest to read.  She was worried about how all of this was going to go down.   I wished that she’d at least tell me what exactly was going on.

“There was a lot that we didn’t know when we started down this path,” John said carefully.  “Had we known about Jordan’s involvement with Dragon and Defiant, we might have reconsidered our plans.  Had we known just how closely he was being watched, again, it might have changed things.”

Emi shook her head.  “I’m getting so much bullshit today.  Look, you didn’t complain when the Wardens were just coming after us–”

“Indeed,” he said with a sage nod.

“And now that Valkyrie’s pretty much given us the go ahead to keep on, business as usual…  And she pretty much tells us that we won’t have to worry about fighting anyone more dangerous than cadets so long as we don’t hurt them to bad?  Now you’re asking for a vote on this?”

“It’s more than that,” Dragon explained patiently.  “It’s because of what we did.”

John nodded slowly.  “Precisely.  When we’re merely a group of rogues and cads, fleecing some pinks and shaking down thugs, there are only so many eyes upon us.  We were bylines in the news, perhaps a mere mention in the overall narrative that was growing around Jordan.  But now that we have this Relentless business going on, we’re going to get dragged into more and more.”

He looked directly at me.  “He won’t let us keep from getting dragged in.  We’ve already seen that, multiple times.”

Wait…  Were they talking about leaving again?

“You’re right,” Sarah said, looking up at John.  “I’m not a member of your group, but you’re right about that.  I know my brother well enough to know that he can’t back down from being Relentless.  Even if you all keep doing what you’re doing, any chance he gets to be Relentless, he’ll take it.  Bro’s always been a hero, and you can’t stop him from being one.”

John nodded slowly.  “And then there’s the matter of the price on his head.”

“Taken care of,” Defiant said.  We all turned to look at him.  “That…  That didn’t come out right, did it?”

Dragon smiled a little.  “It wasn’t us.  Last month we went to talk to Mrs. de Fer and her business partner Miss Cagle, the two women who issued the bounty, and they informed us that a woman named Serafina had come and convinced them to retract the bounty.  They’d done so shortly after the incident that you had with the bounty hunters who briefly captured Jordan.”

John gave her a look that I couldn’t quite read, and Dragon shrugged.  “Valkyrie kept us in the loop on a few things.  Though she didn’t know the name, she rather approved of our Relentless project.  From the very start, when Jordan had stayed with us, we decided that we would offer a place to him, especially as we took a more active role in world affairs.  The plan changed when he ran away from us into what it is now.”

“Well,” John said, more as a statement than anything.  “I suppose that it’s time for a vote.”

“‘stain,” Brenda moaned.

John smiled sadly as he gently stroked her hair.  “Of course you do, my dear.”

Emi squared her shoulders back.  “Well, I’m sure as fuck staying.”

All eyes turned to Kathy.  John had made it obvious where his vote was.

“Listen,” she said, finally looking at John.  “I know that what Valkyrie said has you spooked.  You’ve always been protective about your past, who you are.”

That only made him glower at her.  She’d hit a nerve by saying that much.

“But the thing is…  I don’t like the fighting.  I don’t like…  I don’t like the killing.  But look at everything we’ve done already.  We helped stop Fyrtorn from sacking a city.  We helped fight an Endbringer.  And if what I’m guessing is right?  Valkyrie is willing to let us keep doing what we’ve been doing.

“I didn’t like giving orders like that.  I didn’t like feeling… responsible for the people who died.  But you know what I did like?  Being part of something so huge.  So important.  I could have been shooting and still felt…  I don’t know.  Something more than just being me, you know?  So even if I don’t always like what we’re doing…  I’m voting stay.”

John sighed dramatically.  “Then I suppose it’s settled.”

“Doesn’t Jordan get a vote?” Dragon asked.

“He’ll abstain,” Sarah said, the slightest hint of a smile on the corners of her mouth.  I nodded eagerly at that.

Emi snorted.  “Even I knew that was coming.”

We lapsed into a silence, nobody really sure what to say.  I hated silences like these.  Rather than try and think of something to break it, I dived into my food.  After it was half gone, I pointed at it with my spoon.  “And, uh, this…  This is just stuff for…”

Crap, what was I supposed to call him?  Defiant?  Colin?  Nathan?

Thankfully, he nodded.  “I don’t need much food, and my digestive tract has been replaced to be more efficient.  Just one bowl is worth about five meals for me at this point.”  He paused for a moment before finally pulling off his helmet, smiling a bit.  “I preferred eating that over a real meal.  I actually forgot what real food was for a while there, until suddenly some kid showed up on our doorstep and I was reminded that it isn’t all bad.”

I ducked my head a bit.  “Sorry.”

That made both him and Dragon laugh.  “That isn’t something to apologize for.”

“Sorry.”

He flashed me a displeased look, but that just made Sarah grin.  “Give up.  When he gets in these apologizing moods, you can’t win.  Trust me, I’ve tried.”

“You want mine?” John asked.  “Even with what we were able to scrounge up here in the wastes, it’s a little too bland for my palate.”

I quickly finished my bowl and took his.

Sarah finally spoke up.  “You know, after that first…  Well, after Burlington, when these two armored fools walked into Chris’ workshop, I was sure that you were utterly and completely screwed.  I mean, I can’t imagine you ever fighting these two.”

Defiant chuckled.  “Trust me, getting that video was like pulling teeth.  Nothing that I did could get a rise out of him.  I had to threaten the others to get him to actually fight me.”

“Wait,” Sarah said quickly.  “Back up, what the fuck?”

Dragon reached over to lay a gentle hand on her arm.  “The current iteration of the Relentless program is based on plausible deniability.  If we just showed up with Jordan in the Relentless armor, then everyone would know.  Everyone still knows, honestly.  But when we showed up with video of Jordan genuinely fighting Colin, one that would hold up to scrutiny, it puts an element of doubt there.”

“Why Relentless?” I asked.  “I mean, I don’t really see myself as…  I mean, I don’t think that I have all that willpower, you know?  People talk me into stuff all the time.”

“Because you’re too nice,” Sarah said.  “Seriously though, Bro, you have no idea.  You get talked into stuff, sure, but once your eyebrows start to go together, it’s easier to knock you out than it is to get you to stop.”

I reached up to touch the fuzz between my eyebrows, which only made her laugh.  Dragon let her calm down before speaking up.

“There was also the matter of communicating what was going on with Chevalier and Legend.  We’d talked to Valkyrie about the plan, but we hadn’t gotten to talk to either one of them.  We couldn’t be sure that she’d filled them in on all the details.  Before Chevalier joined the Wards, though, the newspapers referred to him as Relentless.”

“I get it,” Emi said slowly.  “So you were letting them know that you were pulling a Defiant, not to let the cat outta the bag and all that jazz.”

Defiant’s eyebrows raised.  “I didn’t know what happened was that infamous.”

Emi pointed at me with a comically serious expression on her face.

“Point taken.  How much did he talk about me?”

Kathy shrugged.  “He pushes himself far too hard.  Getting him to talk about you was one of the few ways that we could make sure that he took a break.  There… isn’t a lot that he takes interest in besides training, but talking about you makes his face light up.”

“Get him talking about training and he does the same,” Sarah said teasingly.

“Don’t we know it,” John said with a sigh.  “Truly, the man has a penchant for working himself to death, and might do the same for us.”

“Only because you’re lazy,” Kathy teased.  “Really, what he puts us through isn’t so bad, and those energy drink things that he gives us before we start help out a lot.”

“Energy drinks?” Sarah asked, raising an eyebrow.  “That’s new.”

I shrugged a little.  “They aren’t used to it like we are?”  I hesitated.  “Were?  I don’t really…”

“Still do,” she said with a nod.  “I’m still working on being the best that I can, and the brass can see it.  My willingness to not throw a fit over how they breeched protocol to make sure that you ran helped with that, but I’ve got to be on the top of my game if I’m going to live up to the standard we set.”

“And she’s doing good at it,” Dragon said.  She sounded… prideful?  “She’s permanently attached to a response team as their leader, at least for now.  Her tactics scores weren’t the best, but she pairs with others well.  There’s been some talk about a promotion to one of the other response teams.  If she does well there, she might get attached to work with some of the more notable figures.”

I frowned.  “You relied on me too much for tactics.  I should have taught you more.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up.”  Sarah was grinning, though.  “Don’t give me that.  Especially not with…  I mean, look at you.  I remember when half of what you’ve been doing would have you blowing chunks.”

“He actually hasn’t thrown up in quite some time,” Kathy said.  “I mean, he still looks queasy now and then, but he’s doing really well.”

“See?  There you go.  You didn’t have me to lean on, and suddenly you’re spreading your wings.”

“I… wouldn’t quite call it that.”  I shifted uncomfortably on my log.  “I…  I mean, I’m dong good, but–”

“Dong good?” Sarah asked with a smirk.

I rolled my eyes and cleared my throat.  “Doing good.  Happy?  But…  I almost lost it walking in there.  At least, until everything started, and then I was so wrapped up in it that I couldn’t really…  Uh, I couldn’t really, you know, think.  I just did.”

“That’s normal,” Defiant said with a nod.  “I got flustered my first few times in command.”

Sarah nodded.  “Butterflies in your stomach is normal.  Still, I’ve been keeping up to date on everything.  That stunt that you and She-Bitch of the Universe pulled was…  Seriously, Bro, what did it feel like?”

“What did what feel like?”  I really wished people would be more direct.

Sarah took a slow breath.  “Gina, the last time you saw her.  How’d it feel like?”

I shrugged.  “It felt alright.  I wish she would have had been better news and all that, but we got the imposters taken care of.  I haven’t heard anything more about anyone…”  I paused as I started to put it together.  “Wait a minute…  Are you trying to hook me up?”

Sarah shook her head.  “No…”

“She is,” John insisted, a strange tone to his voice.  I glanced at him, and he had a strange expression on his face that I couldn’t place.

Sarah nodded once before shrugging a shoulder.  “Okay, maybe a bit.”

I groaned, rolling my head back.  “Why are you trying to hook me up?”

“Well…”  She chuckled a little, then looked to her left.

“Don’t look at me!”  Emi raised her fists.  “I’ll knock your block off!”

I groaned a little.  “She could turn you into paste.  Her strength boost is passive.”  I focused on Sarah again.  “Seriously, why?”

She sighed a little.  “Well, because you’re the last one of us who–”

“You have a boyfriend?!”  I was leaning forward suddenly, grinning from ear to ear.

That got her to wince.  “No…”

My enthusiasm didn’t drop in the slightest.  “Girlfriend?!”

“Jesus, Bro!  Can I just have a stable fuckbuddy?!”

“Oh.”  I deflated a bit at that.

“Why are you so eager for me to hook up?”

I shrugged.  “I want nieces and nephews?”

She put her head in her hands.  “You’re worse than Mom and Dad.  Good gift, by the way.  Mom’s probably read every damn article that mentioned Grandma multiple times.”

Kathy cleared her throat.  “Speaking of Christmas, Jordan told us a bit about that.  Is it just me, or was there something weird about the way that the Dragon’s Teeth treated him?”

Dragon nodded.  “Commander Van Dorn has a vested interest in both Chris and Jordan.  Chris, because of what he can offer, and Jordan, because of politics.  All Dragon’s Teeth are under orders to treat both with the utmost care.  Since the Dragon’s Teeth aren’t aware of what the actual situation with Jordan is, they also have outstanding orders to offer Jordan amnesty and assistance if he asks for it.”

John blinked.  “Amnesty?”

“It probably extends to the rest of you, too, but Valkyrie has no desire to allow the Wardens to arrest you for any crimes you’ve committed.  To be honest, the biggest threat that you have from the law right now is local law enforcement.”

I suddenly felt guilty — I’d been paying so much attention to Sarah that I had barely said anything to Defiant and Dragon.

It was so strange.  On one hand, they were old friends, though with different names.  They were Nathan and Taylor, people who I’d lived with, eaten meals with, trained with and worked for.  I’d gone dancing with Taylor once.  I’d forced Nathan to buy Taylor a Christmas present.

And yet… Defiant and Dragon!  How…  How was I supposed to even process the fact that they were sitting right here, talking to me like an equal?  They were so far above me that it wasn’t even funny!

“Hey,” Emi said suddenly.  “Since you two got all the answers, you know if the Machine got what’s coming to ’em?  ‘Cos I got some balls to rip off and overies to punch for the folks they hurt going after Jordan.”

Dragon shook her head.  “There’s several places where the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth don’t dare go, even if a wanted criminal is there.  It would cause too many political problems, so of course their leadership set up there after your altercation.”

Emi frowned deeply.  “And you two didn’t bust some heads?”

Dragon’s head drooped a little.  “No.”

Defiant finally spoke up.  “Due to our… history with him, we can’t afford to interact with anyone who has a connection to Teacher.  The leadership of that gang is believed to have strong ties to him, so we won’t go near him.  Plus, it could cause problems for the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“We can discuss if we’d like to go after them in private,” John said.  He did look to Dragon, though.  “But let us suppose that we were to decide to engage in some degree of primeval justice for a moment.”

She nodded.  “We’re rebuilding Jordan’s armor as we speak.  We can upload the information his armor, and that can transmit the rest to everyone else’s.  That way, you have everything that you need to make an informed decision.”  She paused for a moment.  “I won’t say that I would like it if you’d find out if they’re involved with Teacher or not, but I’d caution you.  He’s more powerful than you think, and I’ve had to go to extreme lengths to protect myself from him.”

Kathy nodded.  “I can respect that, but…  I might not know him as good as Sarah, but I know him enough.  You said that you’d like it, so Jordan’s gonna do it now, even if we’re not involved.  Just like Nexus.”

That made Sarah’s head snap up, her eyes wide.  “You took on Nexus?!”

I chuckled weakly.  “Uh, not…  Not exactly?”

Her eyes narrowed.

Defiant came to my rescue.  “I’ve seen people like him.  I didn’t agree with it, but the Protectorate would sometimes allow people like him to exist.  They might be on the wrong side of the law, but they were by far the lesser of every other evil.  Nexus may not necessarily be a good person, but he’s a principled person, with strong moral beliefs that he uses to justify his actions.  The ends justify the means, and his ends are rather a lot like our own.”

Dragon nodded.  “No doubt, you’ve heard of all the times that Jordan took on corruption within the Wardens.  Each time, with evidence.  Who do you think the evidence came from?  And who better to root out corruption than someone who makes a living off of vice?”

Emi nodded.  “Plus, Nex wants the D.”

“What?!” Sarah practically yelled, staring at Emi in horror.

“She exaggerates quite crudely,” John deadpanned.  “Well, for the most part, at least.  Nexus does give one the impression that he would gladly engage in fellatio with Jordan if given the chance.”

Sarah shook her head.  “Next thing that you’re going to tell me is that you guys have a direct line to Number Man.”

We glanced at each other before Kathy spoke up.  “Jordan kicked Lung’s ass, does that count?”

“I-I-I didn’t kick his ass!  It…  It wasn’t so simple as that!”

Emi turned to Sarah, who had gone pale.  “So, we’re sitting there eating, and Lung comes in.  Jordan refuses to fight him, so Lung carries him outta there.  But Jordan had a teleportation blocker, so Lung couldn’t skip back to wherever he was going.  So Lung just walks out of town with Jordan.  A while later?  J-man comes walking in like it’s nothing.  He’s a bit scuffed up and dirtier than when he left, but yeah.  He’s just trying desperately not to make a big deal out of it.”

“Jesus, Bro…”  Sarah shook her head.  “The rumors don’t do you justice.”

I smiled nervously and shrugged.  What else was I supposed to do?

Another awkward silence ensued for a long moment, broken by John.  “So, I do believe that you hinted that we were allowed to keep the armor that you made us.  Is that right?”

Defiant shook his head.  “We need to do some repairs and adjustments, install the soft AI for user control, and instal the user manual.  And should we find out that you use them for anything illegal, we won’t hesitate to shut them down.  But should you want to do something positive and not have the low-level Wardens not be able to raise a fuss about trying to arrest you, then I’d suggest using it.”

John nodded thoughtfully.  “Be criminals on our own time, but Relentless and his crew are the heroes that the world deserves.”

Defiant chuckled a little.  “Something like that.”  His amusement drained out slowly, though.  “However, that does leave a few questions on our own end.  Such as, what were you doing when we found you?”

Great.  We were going to explain a grift to Defiant.  Fuck my life.

Qamaits 12.7

I was dimly aware of not-quite gentle movement in my upper torso.  A nagging…  It wasn’t pain, but it was something close to it in my left knee and neck.  A general ache throughout my body.  An odd tingling.  And an almost feeling of weightlessness.  A strange taste and texture in my mouth.

I opened my eyes, but it didn’t do much good.  I just couldn’t make out what I was looking at.  I swallowed heavily, blinked several times to clear my vision, and tried again.  Foam?  Rocks?

No, rapidly moving bubbles.  And yes, there were rocks beyond them.  Right.  Okay.  That was one mystery solved.  Unfortunately, it told me absolutely nothing.

I tried moving my head, but that just made my stomach churn.  A concussion?  No, this didn’t feel like that.  What was this?

I moved my arms from above my head, only to find some sort of weird resistance.  Quite powerful resistance, actually.  What the?  With some degree of effort, I pushed them forward towards the rocks.  As I touched them, everything became briefly cloudy.

…I was under water?  I took a deep breath and exhaled.  No unusual pain there, but there were more bubbles now.  If I was underwater, then how was I breathing?

Helmet.  There were plenty of bubbles in the water, oxygenating it.  My helmet was working overtime to try and draw breathable air out of it.  Right.  Now a lot of mysteries were solved.  I relaxed, feeling something vaguely akin to content over figuring all of this out.  As my arms went over my head again, I closed my eyes.  I’d identified my situation, and assessed my condition.  Good.

I was underwater, in a fast-moving current, somehow being kept from moving.  My helmet was working hard to pull what limited oxygen it could out of the water.  I was fully armored up.  So everything was business as usual.  I could just stay here for a while and relax.  The sensation wasn’t unpleasant.

It took me a few moments to remember that my knee was bothering me.  Weird, it was my right knee that I’d injured.  Why was my left knee hurting?  Compensation injury?

No.  No.  That wasn’t it.  My knee had gotten fixed.  When?  When had it gotten fixed?  By…  Riley?

Riley?  Who was that?  What was her surname?  Did she have no surname, like me?  I wasn’t sure offhand.

I looked down, making my body move more in the current.  It took me a bit to make out what I was seeing, with all of the bubbles getting in the way.  My left leg was caught by some rocks.  That’s why I felt a heavy current around me but wasn’t moving.  I nodded to myself.  I was doing an excellent job.  Every time that I came across a mystery, I was solving it.

After a little bit of looking at it, I came to the slow realization that if I left it like this, I was going to be in more pain.  And if something was going to cause me pain, I should stop it.  That’s what they said, right?

I grabbed my leg and pulled, but it just pulled my knee to my chest.  Wrong leg.  Oh.  I tried the other leg, the one that was caught, but that didn’t do anything at all.  Why didn’t id do anything?

I wasn’t sure how long I spent fumbling, trying to muster the energy to push or pull, to free myself.  After what felt like an eternity, I finally was able to get my leg unwedged.  And at that point, the world quit making any sense.  There were bubbles, brief flashes of sky, and everything was just a blur.  Even worse, my head was suddenly starting to scream at me.

I hit one rock, and suddenly the current wasn’t so bad.  With muscles that didn’t want to work right, I began struggling, pulling my head out of the water.  That just made the headache even worse, but it didn’t matter.  I could worry about it after I got out of this damn river.

It took far too long to get to the shore, and I didn’t so much of collapse as I did throw myself to the sand, gripping at my helmet.  I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move.  All that I could do was curl into a ball as fire shot through my skull like a continuous bolt of lightning.

I wasn’t sure how long I laid there like that before it began to fade into a dull throb.  It didn’t take me too long now to put two and two together — hypoxia.  My helmet could filter air out of the water just like how it could filter toxic gasses.  However, it wasn’t as efficient at it.  However long I’d been there with my face underwater had been spent with limited oxygen.  Not enough to kill me, I hoped, but enough that my brain had barely been working.

Or, at least, that’s how my normal helmet worked.  This was the one that Defiant and Dragon had made for me;  I wasn’t sure about the specs on it.

My eyes moved to my arm, and the control panel on it.  My hand was shaking as I reached out to hit a button.

Nothing.  I pressed another, and another.  Nothing and nothing.  Each button that I pressed didn’t have a single response to it.  Either something was broken, or the batteries were dead.  Brilliant.  Here I was, all alone, and the only idea that I had as to where I was the fact that there were some rapids right there.

Where was everyone?  Where was I?  My eyes hit the thin cable attached to my waist.  They traveled down the length of the cable to where it was snapped in two.

A cold chill ran through my body.  The pain in my head didn’t matter.  The sore throat, the weird feeling and taste in my mouth, the weird pain in my gut, the fingers that felt that they were sprained…  None of it mattered.  It was like I’d separated myself from all of it.  All that really mattered was that I’d lost my spear.

I somehow pulled myself up to my feet, feeling rather unsteady.  I looked around, my cheeks feeling weirdly heavy.  There were rapids that I’d just come out of, heavy woods all around, and off where the river lead towards, there was… something that I couldn’t make out.  My helmet was foggy.

I didn’t so much of begin walking as I did lurch in the same direction of the river.  I wasn’t really thinking too much about what I was doing.  I couldn’t really feel anything.  Before, my body had felt numb.  Now, the numbness came from me.

It was a hell of a thing.  Defiant of all people had come to me, ready for a fight.  I still didn’t understand that.  Why did he have to fight me?  But he didn’t just fight me, he threw the fight and had recruited me.  Recruited me to assist in fighting the Simurgh as Relentless.  He’d given me so much gear, and then had thrown me into a situation that I didn’t belong in.

What right did I have to stand among honest leaders?  I was a nobody, just meat.  But they all listened to me when I spoke, and took what I said to heart.  I’d expected them to reject it, in all honesty.  All of it.  But they went along with it without hesitation.  It didn’t seem right.  They were more experienced, why should they even begin to listen to me?

That alone should have been the highlight of my day.  But then I fought the Simurgh.  I didn’t do much, not really, but I fought her.  I fought her and lived.  I might need to be lobotomized, but I lived.

Nothing that I did in the rest of my life could compare to today.  Everything that I did from here on out would pale in scope to the things that I’d done.

I lifted my faceplate and pulled off my helmet.  I’d done so much, and now here I was.  Stranded somewhere.  It couldn’t be anywhere near the battle — there would have been people here already.  Unless the fight had gone terribly.  There might not be anyone left to help me.  That… was a depressing thought.

But no, this didn’t feel like it.  This didn’t feel like it was anywhere near New Brockton.  I wasn’t sure how I knew that, I just did.  I was too far away from the fight to know what had happened.  They’d won.  They had to have won.

There… wasn’t a point to it otherwise, so I had to believe.  They were good and capable people, they had a plan, and people would have made backup plans in case my stupid one failed.  So they won.

One foot in front of the other.

I wasn’t a reader, I didn’t care about stories, I didn’t care about movies or theater.  And yet, I was the one who was trying to push drama as much as possible.  Everything that I did was to try and ply the Simurgh’s desire for a dramatic battle.  Everything.  After all, I was the one who tried to break Sarah out of a sense of drama.

The helmet fell from my hand.

One foot in front of the other.

Sarah.  I’d hurt her.  I’d hurt her so very badly, and I knew it.  I knew that you couldn’t even mention me without feeling pain, and the things that I’d said to her would have cut her so deep.  She was good at compartmentalizing.  Get the job done, and then feel.  She’d do the job…  She did the job, but might have screamed while doing it.  Maybe tears fell as she fired the one blast that I remembered.

One foot in front of the other.

She’d be the one to tell Chris what happened there.  He wouldn’t take it well.  He’d cry, he’d ask how could she do that.  He wouldn’t understand.  He might be blooded now, having killed a wildling, but he wasn’t bloodied like we were.  He didn’t have that deep understanding of the stakes, about how sometimes you might have to feel horrible, but you just kept going and doing what you had to do.

One foot in front of the other.

The rushing was louder now, and I could see spray up ahead.  I didn’t have a reason for walking, but my body was in motion.

The body might be in motion, but my life wasn’t.  I’d peaked.  I was 21 and nothing that I did would matter the way that it had during that battle.  The weight of thousands on my shoulders, and my back hadn’t bent.  In that moment, people could have mistaken me for a hero.

I wasn’t a hero.  I’d never be a hero.  I didn’t even count as a villain.  I’d never trigger.  I’d never be anything but untriggered.  They might dress me up in Tinker gear, they might put me in situations where I could fight to protect or destroy others, but I’d never have it.  A passenger would never take to me, and I would never be anything more than a child playing an adult’s games.

And I’d revolted against them all.  All the passengers.  Why was I so unworthy?  I’d never know, but I’d slowly taken the attitude of making them pay.  Against the people from Fyrtorn–

I fell to a knee as I gagged, but that only made the needles in my throat and mouth explode in pain and my gut feel like someone had stabbed it.  God, the things that I’d done.  I’d gouged eyes, I’d ripped off genitalia with my bare hands, I’d broken so many bones.  With that damn taste of what it would feel like to be a para, I’d placed the seed of fire inside of a woman’s chest and carried her into the air, watching as she burned from the inside out, before dropping her in front of her companions.

I pushed myself up to my feet again and sluggishly put one foot in front of the other.

I was meat.  Meat moves.  Meat expands and contracts as necessary.  And I was moving.

If I had to fight those people from Fyrtorn again, I’d do it all the same.  No, I’d do it better.  I’d make them hurt even worse.  I might say otherwise, I might swear it, but I knew deep down that in the heat of the moment…  I’d be even more terrifying.

That was all that I had left.  I had nothing more to reach for.  How could I top Defiant helping me to fight the Simurgh?  If all my other dreams were destroyed, what else did I have?  What did I have here, all alone in the forest?

I shuffled slowly up to the end of the line, feeling completely dead.  Everything drained out of me into the void.  All that there was, it laid out before me.  And it was… beautiful.

The rapids formed into a waterfall.  I wasn’t sure how far down it fell, but it was…  It was a really long ways.  I could see the mist at the bottom.  I stood at the edge of the ridge, staring out at the valley that stretched out before me.  The wilderness was beautiful.  Pristine, untouched forest as far as the eye could see as a cool breeze rushed past me.  I didn’t belong here.

I closed my eyes and tilted my head back.  This wasn’t a place for me.  This was a place for poets, for philosophers.  I was just a fighter.  I didn’t have the words or emotions for a place like this.

My eyes opened and I looked down again.  This was beautiful, though.  I didn’t have much grasp for beauty.  I found weapons and armor beautiful, but not as much places.  It rarely struck me that a place was beautiful.  I more of recognized that others would find it beautiful.

As I watched the waterfall, though, I felt that it was beautiful.  Perfect, in a weird way.  Relaxing.  I could feel my whole body relaxing as I stared down there.  Weight that I hadn’t known that I’d been carrying ebbed away.  Muscles relaxed, and I found myself no longer standing up straight.  All that there was in my world at the moment was the sight and sound of the rushing waterfall.

Until a new sound intruded.

My head snapped up to look at a window in the sky.  A huge one.  As I watched, a large metallic object flew through it, passing straight overhead.  I stared, wide-eyed, as the craft slowed to a stop and quickly lowered to the ground.

“Dragon?” I whispered to myself.  I wasn’t sure how long I had been unconscious — to me, it had been only a matter of moments from me being in the Simurgh’s wings until I’d been underwater.  It had been less than a day since I’d seen that craft land from when I’d been fighting the Endbringer, and yet, it felt like years ago since I’d last seen it.

As soon as it touched down, the loading ramp began to descend.  It wasn’t even a quarter of the way down before a form teleported in front of me.  I barely had the time to recognize Emi before she overcame her power’s resistance and bounded the two steps to throw her arms around me.  For the briefest of moments, I worried that she’d knock the two of us off the edge of the cliff, but she was immediately pulling me away from it.

“You big asshole,” she said into my chest.  “You had me so fucking worried!”

What was I supposed to say to that?  “Oh, yes.  Because I planned for any of this to happen.”

I felt her fist pound once against my back.

I looked back to Dragon’s craft to find the others bounding off.  Well, Kathy was bounding off, an excited grin on her face.  John was walking more carefully, Brenda on his back.  His smile was a lot more reserved, and her face was buried in his shoulder.  All four of my friends were still in the armor that Defiant and Dragon had made them, using the Tinker cloth that Chris had made.

Defiant and Dragon were the next two to step out.  Dragon had a relieved smile on her face, but Defiant’s helmet was closed, leaving him unreadable.  He didn’t have that enormous spear in his hands, though.  Honestly, that thing was too big to be practical — it gave him a huge radius of attack, but it also left a huge radius where people could engage him before he could realistically use hand-to-hand.

The six of them were here.  Good.  That was good.

The next person, though, wasn’t.  I blinked as Sarah slowly trailed behind my two heroes, her expression just as unreadable as Defiant’s.  By her posture, though, and the way she walked, she was in full professional mode.

This was going to be awkward.  We’d have to talk and get caught up.  Hopefully, this wouldn’t hurt her career.  God, that was the last thing that I wanted.

And then Valkyrie came into view, flanked by three of her ghosts.  As soon as she set foot onto solid ground, they sank into the earth, disappearing from sight.  Smart — it was less conspicuous, and people wouldn’t be so scared of her if they couldn’t see her entourage.

The next two to step off…  I couldn’t identify them in the slightest.  A man and a woman, and that was it.  They were wearing Warden armor, and one had some sort of case in his hand, but beyond that, they could be anybody.

I waited for a moment, but nobody else seemed to be in there.  Small favors.

Kathy hugged me just as fiercely as Emi, and once again I felt myself being pulled a step closer towards the craft.  “You big stupid genius idiot!”

I would have tried to hug them back, but Emi was pinning my arms.  “Uh, hi?  I’m, uh…  I’m not sure what to say?”  Well, with that one sentence, I at least confirmed two of the words that she’d used to describe me.  Great, I was looking like a fool in front of Defiant.

“Sorry we took so long,” John said in his thick New York accent.  “Some of us had to be done over before we could leave.”

Done over?

“Finding you was no easy task,” Dragon admitted.  “We had to launch drones into random realities to find you.  We actually sent two here before we caught the signal.”

“Signal?” I asked, finally pulling free from the two women.  I noted that Sarah was keeping her distance.

“You still have a targeting beacon,” Defiant said.  “We couldn’t get a signal from your armor, so we latched onto that.  We’ll have to do some repairs.”

The two Wardens approached us before I could respond.  “Mr. Jordan?” the woman asked.  “I’m sorry to interrupt, but we have to request your presence aboard the Pendragon.”

“I…  Buh?”  I looked to the others, bewildered.

Kathy laid a gentle hand on my shoulder.  “It’s alright.  You didn’t cross the threshold for being in the Simurgh’s vicinity, but we still think that it’s best if we check you, just to make sure.”

Oh.  Oh, yeah.  That made sense.  I nodded a little as I moved to join the two, only to pause.  “My, uh…  My weapon.  I lost it.  It might be, uh…”  I gestured towards the edge of the cliff.

There were six pops before the whine of drones could be heard.  I looked up just to see them begin to move in different directions.

“Don’t worry,” Dragon said comfortingly.  “We’ll find it for you.”

I nodded, flashing everyone a nervous smile.  “Thanks…”  I took another step before hesitating again.  This time, I hurried over to Defiant.  Both hands came to my chest, drawing my blades.  “Yeah, I, uh…  I’d better not have these.”

His helmet opened to reveal his salt-and-pepper facial hair.  “Good thinking.”  He took them from me.  “Boot knife, too.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, right.”  I quickly grabbed that one and handed it over.  With that, I turned to the Wardens and began to follow them back towards the craft.

——————–

“…Why aren’t you helping?”

I shook my head, trying to ignore the machinery pointing at me, or the way that the woman was staring at me.  “What do you mean?  None of these scenarios make any sense.”

The man smiled patiently.  “They’re just questions, Jordan.  We’re using them to see how your brain responds.  Please, answer it as best you can.”

I frowned, shifting uncomfortably in my seat.  “Alright, uh…  Well, if I’m not helping…  It’d have to be because I need to eat, need the liquid, and for some reason I can’t get to the head any other way.  I, uh, I cut the head off and…  Geeze, this sounds gross, but I drink the blood rather than let it go to waste.  I don’t want to die of dehydration, right?”

“Thank you.”  He looked at some sensors for a moment before turning his gaze to the woman.  After a long moment, she shook her head with a frown.  Apparently satisfied, he stood up and moved to the rear of the craft, calling out to everyone.  “We’ve both determined that he’s clear of any influence by the Simurgh’s mind-warping power.”

I let out a breath.  That was… incredibly rude!  I could understand him not wanting to tell me if I did, but to tell them that I was clear before telling me?  It was simply unprofessional.  It was my brain that was in question here.  I really hoped that others were treated more delicately!

I got up to my feet, my legs a touch unsteady, and the woman offered me a bottle of water.  I drank it far too greedily before walking to the exit — it helped my sore throat and mouth, but did nothing for my gut.  Those questions had been discomforting, and I had the sneaky suspicion that the woman’s power wasn’t as gentle as some might have been lead to believe.

As soon as my boot hit the ground, Defiant was offering me the shaft of my weapon.  The weird spearhead was gone, replaced by my halberd blade.

“Thank you,” I said as I took it.

“You’re welcome,” he said as he let go.  He nodded to the others, who were clustered around a campfire, the smell of food cooking in that direction.  Well, other than Valkyrie, who was walking in my direction.  “Go.  You need to eat.  We’ll talk in a bit.”

I nodded.  Not a bad idea, though talking wasn’t really something that I was up to.  I had the feeling that I didn’t have a choice in the matter.  I half expected Valkyrie to intercept me, but she simply walked inside the craft.  The Pendragon, they called it?  That was a weird name.

I moved to the fire and sat, only to have a bowl of thick stew forced into my hands by Dragon, who wasn’t in armor any more.  Instead, she was wearing a more simple pair of slacks and shirt.  No shoes, oddly enough.  “We had some field rations.  They were meant for Colin, but it’s enough to feed everyone.”  She paused, her smile becoming teasing.  “Well, maybe not enough to satisfy you.”

I smiled a little before taking a heaping spoonful, not even worrying about the temperature.  She was right about it being rations — bland and almost unappetizing, with strange gray lumps that could have been potatoes, but weren’t.  Maybe Defiant just preferred things that were nutrient dense.  Then again, I remembered that he only used to eat one meal a day.  I wasn’t sure what to think.

But I turned to Kathy, eager to keep whatever topics they wanted out of the way.  “How’d we do?”

“The battle went…  Well, I guess.  They tell me it went very well, actually.  Only fourteen deaths.  I didn’t catch how many people were injured, but it was a lot more.  And, even better, we don’t think that anyone was warped by the Simurgh.”

That was extremely good news.  “Not even that one town?”

Dragon shook her head.  “It’ll be a while before we can check them.  Thinkers who are reliable that can check for it are all being pulled away for other things right now.  The village will be kept under quarantine until then, but everyone kind of agreed that having people who are in positions of power checked is more important at the moment.”

I winced.  That made sense, but I didn’t like it.  “Still, that, uh…  That isn’t what I meant.  How did we do?”

Kathy smiled a little, nodding.  “We did fine, I think.  Nobody’s said anything about how I did–”

“Very well,” Dragon interrupted.  “You’d make a good C&C officer with the Wardens.”

“Yeah, fuck that shit.”  Kathy rolled her eyes.  “Anyway, John was a big fucking curmudgeon.”

“Damn skippy.”  He wasn’t looking at me, and by his body posture, I got the feeling that he was troubled over something.  Now wasn’t the time to ask, though.

“Brenda really impressed a lot of people,” Kathy continued.  “We probably would have been far worse off if it wasn’t for her stepping in to fill Dinah Alcott’s shoes.  I was the only one willing to ask Alcott questions, so everyone asked Brenda instead.”

Brenda was curled up with her head in John’s lap.  She looked like she was in agony.  I wished that I could do something for her.  I noted that next to the two of them, Sarah was sitting very tightly, her eyes locked on her own bowl.

“And Emi here was pretty pent up until after the battle.  We put her to good use handing out medical supplies and food, and Dragon tells me that she really helped.”

Emi sat up straighter, almost knocking over her bowl.  “Hells yeah!  There were a lotta people that were…”  She frowned, thinking about how to phrase things for a moment.  “Well, they were numb.”

“Combat stress reaction,” Dragon clarified.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  Anyway, while I was handing out stuff, sometimes I’d single one or two out and kinda…  I dunno, harass them?  Pick on them, talk with them for a bit.  Sometimes it helped.”

Defiant sat next to Dragon.  “Believe it or not, we’re more organized than we were against Endbringers, even towards the end.  But Chevalier wants to work with everyone to make us even better.  There’s still no real sense of tactics to fight these larger threats, and we need to change that.  Something simple that even the Sons of…  Sons of Bitch can follow, but good enough that we can mount a more organized offensive effort.”

“It is going to take time,” Valkyrie said with an elegant tone as she settled down next to me.  When had she come back?  “Towards the end, people were used to the concept of fighting an Endbringer.  Twenty years have passed since then, and the biggest threat to their safety that most people have had to think about are packs of wildlings.  Merely getting people into the right mindset will take time and effort.”

I nodded.  I knew what was coming, and I really, really didn’t want to deal with it.

“I am afraid that I don’t have much time,” she continued.  “Everyone wants me for something right now.  However, I do believe that we finally had that talk.”

The mood of my friends darkened.  “We can teleport out,” Kathy threatened.

“No you cannot,” Valkyrie retorted.

Oh.  One of her ghosts.  I’d forgotten about them somehow.

I was aware of her looking at me.  “Please,” she said more gently.

There was no avoiding it, was there?  “Yeah, okay.  What do you want?”

“It is less of what I want, and more of what we both need from each other.”

“New Fairfax?”

She shook her head.  “It involves that, but no.  At least, not exactly.  We know that you are innocent, Jordan.”

“What?!” Emi yelled.  “What the actual–”

She was silenced by Valkyrie simply lifting a hand for her to stop.  Her anger wasn’t enough to get past the fact that this was a woman who could kill her with a touch, if not with her ghosts.

“Just like I know that you’re innocent as well, Soseki Emi.”  That made Emi take a sharp breath.  “Your… flight was, sadly, misjudged.  It didn’t take much to determine what had happened — when they realized that Agatha Debusk was heading after you in a quiet fury, the other two Wardens were quick to chase after.  They found the body of Debusk still changing back to her human form, and were able to guess what had happened even without an investigation.”

“No,” Emi said weakly.  I was vaguely aware of Kathy putting her arm around the younger woman.

“I know,” Valkyrie said sympathetically.  It felt… weird coming from her.  “It seemed like your only option at the time.  And every crime that you have committed since has been based on the false knowledge that we were chasing you for murder.  And that, at least, is something that the Wardens would be willing to fight on your behalf for in a court of law.”

“I…”  I didn’t look up from from my stew, but the sound of Emi so close to tears was like a dagger to my chest cutting far too deep.  “I could have gone home?”

“You still may, if you so desire.  Though, that is something that you would have to discuss with your companions, I do believe.”  Valkyrie paused for a moment.  “Elizabeth Wa–”

“We get it,” John snarled.  “You’ve sought out every aspect of our lives the moment that we joined with Jordan.  Move.  On.”

Why was he so upset?  I didn’t have time to think about it, though, as Valkyrie was already turning her attention to me again.

“We are not stupid, Jordan.  Someone very purposefully left you alive for one reason or another.  Were it not for certain aspects of the crime scene, we would honestly have you as a possible subject.  However, as it stands, it would be impossible, even before taking into account what kind of man you are.  Which left us with two equal possibilities.  Either you were left alive because you were untriggered, or…”

“I was set up to take the fall,” I finished for her in a hollow tone.

“Precisely.”

Liz leaned forward, more than a hint of irritation in her voice.  “If you know that he’s innocent, why the hell did you let the smear campaign go?  Why are you sending people after us?”

Valkyrie’s was still a soothing tone.  “Because we do not know who is the guilty party.  We have ideas, yes, but no facts.  We needed to conduct our own investigation, and it has been infuriatingly slow.  The guilty party, or parties, went through a lot of effort to make Jordan appear guilty.  To not pursue him would be to tip our hand that we knew, so we had to…  Make it look good.

“As for the cadets that you have been fighting, that was due to other things as well.  Despite your histories, you are not killers.  You do not murder without good reason.  I believe that none of you do.  In order to keep up the charade that we were seeking Jordan out, it was necessary to send people after him.  Who better than cadets?  He would not hurt them, and he was skilled enough, with your help, to give them a taste of defeat.  Their handler would observe their actions and behaviors, and would plan further training and suggest assignments based on–”

“Bullshit!” Emi bellowed.

“I agree,” Brenda echoed weakly.  Well, more of moaned weakly.

“You couldn’t just fucking do that,” Emi continued.  “That–”

“It’s alright,” I said softly.  There was a pause as everyone looked at me.  “It’s…  It’s alright.  I get it.”

“I was of the belief that you would,” Valkyrie said.  “I knew, deep down, that were I to talk to you and explain it, you were exactly the sort of person who would agree readily to this.”

I looked up to Emi.  She still was far from happy.  “It’s okay.  We’re helping.”

“Told her you’d say that,” Sarah said quietly.

“I wanted to discuss this before,” Valkyrie confessed.  “I could not find him for the longest time, but it turned out that he was in excellent hands.”  She looked to Dragon and Defiant with a smile.  “Immediately after the Burlington incident, I had wanted to appear and explain things, but after explaining the situation to your siblings, they warned me that it would be smartest to leave you be for a while.  To… work things out.”

“We didn’t like it,” Dragon said comfortingly.  “Nobody did, not even the Wardens.  No matter what, it wasn’t an ideal situation.  But… there wasn’t a good answer at the time.”

I nodded a little.  “And when you tried to talk to me, I pushed you away.”

Valkyrie smiled warmly.  “Ah, hindsight says that I very much chose the wrong time.  I tried keeping tabs on you, but after you got that little telepresence suppressor, many of your activities were blind to me until after they had happened.  So I tried to arrange a time when I could guarantee that you would be at a neutral location.  I ensured that your friend knew of the people pretending to be you, and could identify the pattern.”

“The imposters,” John said with a thoughtful nod.

“Precisely.  The idea was to approach afterwards and discuss it.  However, your reaction was perfectly understandable, Jordan.  Indeed, I was presumptuous in the decision, and realized my flaw during our interaction.  The fault there is mine and mine alone.”

“S’allright,” I said weakly.  “Is it, uh…  Is it helping your investigation?”

“I’d rather not say,” she said quickly.  “For the same reason why I will not say to your sister.”

I nodded a little, feeling too hollow to do much else.  “Yeah.  I get it.”

She smiled warmly at me.  “Excellent.  Is there anything else that you would like to know?”

My friends bristled, but didn’t say anything.  Well, that was good, at least.  “No.  I’m…  I’m good for now.  I’ll find a way to get in touch with Gina if there’s anything else.”

“Excellent.  Then if you’ll excuse me…”  She rose to her feet.  “I’m sorry to keep this so short, but right now is a trying time for the Wardens, and I have so very much to do.  Please, have a good day.”

With that, she turned on her heel and began to walk.  Mid-stride, a window in space opened in front of her to a new location, where there were a lot of people sitting around a desk.  I only had a brief glimpse before it closed again.

There was a long silence.  Thankfully, that gave me a moment to take another bite of stew.  Was it just me, or did it taste better now than it had before?  Had Valkyrie done something to it while nobody was looking with one of her underground ghosts?

John cleared his throat.  “Well.  Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, and that the terrifying woman is no longer here…  I do believe that we need to make a vote.”

Interlude 12.A

“Diverting south, twenty miles per hour.”

“Ten seconds until direction change…  Mark.”

“She’s crossed over into the max range of long range guns.”

“Targeting beacons transmitting successfully.  Dragon’s Teeth report full lock.”

“Hold fire.  Let’s try and get him free.”

Liz felt a quiet churning in her gut.  Was this how Jordan felt when they asked him to do things that he wasn’t comfortable with?  That slight hammering of the heart, the heat rising, entire flocks of butterflies in the gut trying to get out, and the absolute knowledge that not only did you have no idea what the hell you were doing, but that you honestly didn’t belong here?

This entire experience was painful.  She was gaining a newfound respect for the people who were surrounding her.  The only one that seemed to be on equal footing as her was Romeo, Bitch’s son, and even he was in better position than her right now.  He was used to giving orders.  The others might look to Liz as their leader, but orders weren’t their thing.

No, that wasn’t true.  When it came to fights, Jordan gave orders.  But that was Jordan — he could point three times and you’d know exactly what he wanted you to do.  He was a natural at that sort of thing, and even now, he was communicating with them by the close-up that the table displayed of both him and the Simurgh.

Each time that line snapped, he looked like he was in danger of breaking in half.  And each time, he immediately began to struggle again.  Though his helmet masked his face, Liz could see the determined expression that he was probably wearing.  The way that his jaw was clenched, the weird way that he somehow was able to squint and have his eyes wide open at the same time.

“Hey!” Romeo barked, making us all look at him.  He pointed at the holographic display.  “Your flying soldiers.  Get them back.  They’re gettin’ too close!”

The Commander looked at the display, then back to Romeo.  “With all due respect, if that line breaks, it’s going to be hard to predict which Relentless is going to fly.  They need to close distance to–”

“He’s right,” Liz interrupted.  “Drama trumps safety right now.  A panicked flight to get him is better.  Pull them back.”  It felt like a stab to her chest to say that, but years of practice at conning people gave her what she needed to say it.  She could keep her mask on, stay in the role of the cool and confident leader.

The Commander frowned, but selected the unit and opened a communications window.

Liz was getting so much respect for these people, a dangerous thing in her line of work.  Before, she would have assumed that it would be easier to sit far away from the action, giving orders.  However, now that she was here seeing what actually happened?

This was a unique hell.  Watching Jordan go and not being able to help or do anything.  Watching people only able to acknowledge what was going on and giving orders to be relayed, knowing that they could be doing more, but unable.  She looked to where Legend and Chevalier were talking quietly with Valkyrie.  The way that the two of them kept looking at the holographic table, the way that they continually flinched their hands…  These were not people who were used to standing idly.

Liz wasn’t a fighter, but even she had to admit that being down there would be better than being here.  Nervously waiting for the order was better than watching her friend get hurt and not being able to do anything about it.

And then the Simurgh stopped, and Jordan slammed into her back.  Immediately, a small window opened up in the corner of her vision, flashing red.

ARMBAND SIGNAL LOST.  VITALS MONITOR SHOWS MINOR BRUISING, MULTIPLE STRAINS TO RIBS, ABDOMEN, ARMS, LEGS, AND NECK.  POSSIBLE CONCUSSION.

Liz frowned to herself.  After a moment, though, Valkyrie spoke up.  “I’ve lost Relentless on my armband.  I won’t be able to door him.”

Where were her ghosts, anyway?  Liz couldn’t see them anywhere.

It didn’t matter.  She turned towards Dragon.  “He dropped a beacon, and only used two.”

Dragon nodded.  “The third is still on his person, and I can track that.  I’m trying to patch it into her armband as we speak, though I’m… hesitant.  I’ll explain later, but I’m having to do significant code workarounds.”

Liz nodded once, turning her attention back to the table, even as more text appeared on her screen.

STRAIN ON HELMET.  INTEGRETY: 84%

What had Brenda said?  Even when Jordan lost his arms?

“The Simurgh is trying to crush Relentless in her wings,” she said with an eerie calmness.  Her heart was racing, and here she was, talking with a cool authority.  She wasn’t sure how, but she wasn’t going to think about it, either.  “Commander?”

“She’s within the extreme range of all guns now, and I’m sure that more than a few Wardens and soldiers can fire on her.  I’d rather wait until your man is disengaged, but I’m not sure how long we can wait.”

Which was entirely the point.  The Endbringer had stopped and was hovering, those big wings fluttering.

Liz turned to look at Alcott.  “Can I get a number?”

The woman nodded.

“What are the odds that Relentless will disengage before the safety timer runs out?”

That made Dinah Alcott frown a little.  “Eighty-seven point two four three six percent.”

A good number, and Alcott’s Thinker power was always right.  Sure, it only gave percentages, and there was about a thirteen percent chance that he wouldn’t, but it was still a good number.  But with that came a certain ambiguity that she only thought of in hindsight: which timer?

There was the timer of them not being able to wait and unleashing hell on the Simurgh, and then there was the safety timer of being exposed to the Simurgh.  She wasn’t sure which was more dangerous.

Liz glanced over at her companions.  Emi was pacing around, ever the bundle of energy.  She was a natural for the role — pulling a con was easy for her, but they had to keep her active and in the thick of things in order to keep her occupied.  Standing around and playing commander just wasn’t her style.  Jordan could keep her occupied, but…

John was… lounging.  Liz had no doubt that he was watching everyone with a keen eye, ready to bolt if need be.  Had he told the truth when he’d said that he had exposure to the Simurgh?  It was hard to say.  It fit with the story that he told of his background, but she always suspected that story was more lie than truth.  He was probably already working a way to spin this into a con job of some sort.

Brenda was the one that Liz was the most worried about.  She’d given them some good directions early on, but she had slowly silenced.  Now she was sitting, her head in her hands, her breath coming in short gasps.  Thinker powers must suck, even more if being around other parahumans increased her precog capabilities.  It meant that her power could be on for longer, but seeing so far ahead, seeing so many possible futures…  How much was from the power, and how much of the headache was from just trying to piece it all together?

Even worse was the fact that Liz had caught Brenda making the occasional comment in her whimpering about her father.  What was up with that?

Liz’s radio crackled to life, interrupting her thoughts.  The static was horrible, but she caught Jordan’s voice, still using that weird accent he had put on.  “…Even if…  Engagement zone.

She put her fingers to her helmet.  She wasn’t sure why, but it seemed right.  Before she had a chance to respond, though, Defiant transmitted.  “Say again?  You’re breaking up.

She looked at the image of the Simurgh, hovering over the table.  The Endbringer was pulling the spear out of her chest with two fingers.  She spent a moment looking at it before letting go like it was a piece of garbage.  The weapon dropped a long ways before it hit the end of the line that was connected to Jordan.

Repeat, engage… soon as you are able.  Fire for effect.  Relentless…

Liz closed her eyes.  She’d killed a few times, but never in cold blood, and almost always in self-defense.  Only once had she ever been on the offensive.  And now…

“Open fire,” she said in a hollow voice.

Her eyes didn’t need to be open to know that everyone was staring at her.  “Sagittarius?  Are you sure?” a woman asked.

Liz took a slow breath before opening her eyes.  “Yeah.  That was a direct order to open fire.”

She was too busy feeling the weight on her chest to make out what everyone was suddenly saying.  The big people in charge were barking orders, and as for her?  She just stared at the Simurgh.  She stared as over a hundred points of light hit the Endbringer, unable to imagine just how energy was being pumped into the creature.

The weird cloth the Endbringer was wearing singed.  That was it.  That entire barrage, and it only earned a singe.

“She should have felt that,” she heard Chevalier mutter.

Someone started to respond when something else hit her, looking almost like warped space.  The Simurgh screamed and whipped her body around, and Liz only had the briefest of glimpses of something rocketing away.

Jordan.

Liz looked back to the rest of the holographic table, watching a tiny red dot rocket away.  Flyers took chase, both the wing of Dragon’s Teeth and the two flyers who had gotten him to the Simurgh, but they couldn’t catch up to his speed.  What had happened?

But now there were new flyers taking to the air.  Unlike those, they were heading straight for the Simurgh.  The red dot vanished as it reached the treeline.

Liz wanted desperately to run to that weird plane they’d come in.  She wanted to climb in and somehow try and pilot it to find Jordan.  Instead, she focused harder on the board.  He’d be pissed if she didn’t keep up her role, and that meant not doing something foolish, no matter how badly she wanted to.  She had to keep being the second in command.

Damn him to hell.

——————–

Liz reached out to grab a collection of Blasters, her other hand reaching to hit the holographic communications button.  “Hold fire!  Hold fire!”

She and Romeo were the most excitable out of the bunch.  The others were able to give orders with a cool detachedness, but she just couldn’t summon that right now.  Instead, she tried to keep herself as curt as possible.

It didn’t work.  She watched the Movers fly right into the field of fire, one of them suddenly dropping.

This wasn’t working.  The Simurgh was taking damage now, but it just wasn’t enough.  It was never enough.  Her eyes flicked to the clock.  Those who had gone into melee with the Endbringer had just over a minute before they reached the safety protocols.  Dragon had warned them what would happen then — their armbands would explode and take out the people who were wearing them.

“Ay!” Romero barked for another set of dots.  “Wait until the next Dragon’s Teeth blast, then go!”

“Focus your squad on the left wing,” the Warden said.  “Intelligence suggests–”

“Artillery on my mark,” the Dragon’s Teeth Commander said in the same tone that you would to order a salad that you didn’t actually want.  “Mark.”

Liz had hated when there was nothing happening, but now she would have killed for that moment again.  She would have spent less time fretting and more time asking Dragon for advice.

“Go!  Rip ‘er fuckin’ nipples off!”

Romeo got points for creativity, at least.

The group of flyers never arrived, though.  The Simurgh screamed, as if yelling a curse against everyone here, before suddenly spinning in place and rocketing straight up.  Liz watched in amazement as the dot on the table rose and rose… until it was gone.  The table wasn’t designed to track someone that far up.

There was a long pause of complete silence.  Nobody dared say a word.  The air became heavy as everyone stared at the hologram in silence.

Romeo coughed softly.  “Uh, summone mind tellin’ me what just happened?”

The U.S. captain glanced to Miss Militia.  “I, uh, think we just won.”

“She gave her show,” John called out.  “She couldn’t leave without one.  A few people died, a few got hurt, and the seeds for something worse were sown.  Yeah, we won, but only because she let us.”

“He’s right,” the Dragon’s Teeth Commander said softly before turning to the Wardens rep.  “Your Thinkers ready?”

“Yeah,” the woman said slowly.  “They’ve, uh, been on standby.”

“Top-down,” the U.S. Captain said with a nod.  “We check our superiors first, then work our way down to the troops.  Nobody gets out until we at least have that much done.”

“Agreed,” Liz said with a nod.  “We need to reestablish proper command here, and having to worry about people that everyone looks up to is only going to do more harm than good.”

——————–

It took almost twenty minutes for Valkyrie to leave one of the tents that they’d set up to conduct their “interviews.”  There were so very many people who needed addressed by the Thinkers.  They’d be pushed to their limits for weeks, or even months, and that was just for the people who had attended the battle here today.  There were even more people elsewhere that held positions of power who would need to be checked for the Simurgh’s influence.

Valkyrie made it only a handful of steps before she lifted her arm, speaking into her armband.  “Should anyone have need, I am able to create doorways for you all.”  With that, she studied the display intently.

That was good enough for Liz.  She turned and moved to where everyone was gathered, using her spear as a walking stick.  It wasn’t quite like Jordan’s, but it was good enough.  “Archimedes.”  John lifted his head.  “Schrodinger.”  Brenda whimpered.  “I need the two of you checked, ASAP.”

“Hey,” Emi whined.  She’d parked herself next to Brenda, rubbing the younger girl’s shoulders and trying to help with the pain as best she could.  “She hasn’t been anywhere near the Simurgh!”

“Not in this timeline, no.  But I still want her checked.  Keep an eye on both of them, and let me know when they’re done.  I need to check with the flyers who went after the boss.”

That made Emi pause for a moment.  It wasn’t long, though, before she gave a firm nod of her head.  “Yeah, okay.  See if they can find out why we aren’t getting a signal from his beacon thingie.”

Liz nodded before raising her armband.  “Door me to Corporal Jennings.”

With that, a window opened in front of her, and she stepped through.  It was better to leave Emi behind for now.   She wanted to figure out what had happened to Jordan without someone who might go apeshit bananas next to her.

It didn’t take long for her to find the woman she was looking for.  “Corporal Jennings?”  The older woman looked up.  “I’d like to ask you a few questions about Relentless.”

The woman shook her head.  “I declined that job.  If folks who were exposed to the Simurgh are suspect, then I’m possibly just as guilty as Miss Militia.  You want Sergeant Morgan.  She took over for me.”

Damn.  Liz nodded once, though.  “Thank you.”  With that, she raised her arm again.  “Door me to Sergeant Morgan.”

The door opening wasn’t quite as pleasant as the last time.

“I was fucking flirting with who?!”

…Right.  Liz stepped through.

“How the hell didn’t you know?” a male soldier was asking.

“Because I was on long-range recon when that whole shit went down.  I only heard about it, like, a month after the fact.”  The woman ran a hand through her short hair.  “I mean…  Fucking Jordan?  Seriously?”

Liz knew that this masquerade was stupid.  It was all about plausible deniability.  Defiant had video of Jordan violently attacking him, demanding to be left alone.  Instead, he had brought Relentless.  Everyone could officially claim that Jordan hadn’t been here at all, or if he had, they didn’t know.  It didn’t matter that everyone pretty much knew already, they could at least say it.

And despite how much this whole experience pained her, there was a part of her that enjoyed this masquerade.  Which meant that now she had to step up and do her part to uphold it.

“It’s a pity that Jordan couldn’t come,” she said loudly enough for everyone to hear.  Morgan whipped around to look at her.  “Unless, of course, you have information that your commanding officers don’t know about?”

The man who the sergeant had been talking to snorted.  “Puh-lease.  Come off it already.  We all know who Relentless is.”

Liz regarded him for a moment.  How best to approach this?  “Are you suggesting that Defiant fabricated evidence and built our armor specifically to bring Jordan here?  Because if you are, I suggest that you report it to the Wardens immediately.  I’m sure that, even though they seemed saddened by the fact that Jordan didn’t make it, and even though Legend greeted Relentless, recalling the last time they met, that the Wardens would be more than eager to violate one of the old rules that’s actually worth keeping in order to arrest him.”

The man was suddenly looking a little paler.

“I’m sure that there would be no political consequences for the people who are currently being checked for the Simurgh’s corruption to turn on a man who came up with a plan to fight the Simurgh, threw himself at her despite having no powers, and was tortured by her.  Why, I’m sure that your superior officers would have a great deal to say if you were to make such a report.  If, of course, you are suggesting that Relentless and Jordan ar the same person.  Is that what you’re saying?”

The man swallowed.  “No ma’am.”

“But I do believe that you just said that you know who Relentless is.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, it was kind of fun to make this guy sweat.  “I, uh…  W-well, what I meant to say was that…”

Sergeant Morgan spoke up.  “He, uh, was just telling me about how Relentless is the leader of your squad, and, uh, and how Defiant had wanted to make Jordan the leader.”

“Very well, then.”  That would probably be enough.  She’d made her point clear.  “Sergeant Morgan?”

The woman stood a little straighter.  “Yes, ma’am?”

“I take it that you didn’t find my squad leader?”

The woman shook her head.  “No ma’am.  I saw him enter the trees, and we found a couple of broken branches, but he wasn’t there.  Maybe he teleported out?  If…  I mean, doesn’t he have a teleporter?”

He did, normally.  Right now it was clipped to Liz’s belt.  “I was hoping he’d been spirited away to a medical facility or something.”

The targeting beacon had helped track him right up until the moment that he’d disappeared.  If he’d been teleported, he could be almost anywhere.  But that was another problem for another moment.

“His spear.  Did you see his spear?”

The woman shook her head.  “No ma’am.”

“Damn.  Because he’d crawl back here for that spear if he had to.”  There was a weird look that Jordan got to him whenever he had to leave the halberd behind.  He’d been fine when it had been switched out for the spearhead.  Maybe that had something to do with Defiant being the one to do it.  But she always got the feeling that he was infinitely more comfortable with it around, and that some part of him hated any time that he had to be away from it.

Jordan was an odd guy, but he was her odd guy.  Like a little brother.  A brain damaged little brother.  A brain damaged little brother who could kick the ass of even fucking Lung, which still amazed her.

“Listen, I’m sorry if I crossed any lines by flirting with him, but–”

“It’s not a problem.  Just understand, he isn’t a very sexual person.  Relentless isn’t adverse to it, and I hear that he enjoys it, but if you want to jump his bones you’ll need to explain as much to him.  With diagrams.  Puppet shows might help, but he might also get confused by it.”  They both grinned at each other a bit.  Jokes were good, even if Liz wasn’t really feeling it.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

“Of course.”

Liz turned around, only to find a husky woman in a similar suit of armor to what Jordan wore standing in front of her.

Well, fuck.  Today just got extra awkward.

Qamaits 12.6

I slipped free from his arms awkwardly, sending me into a tumble as I fell.  It couldn’t be helped, but it was damn inconvenient to be in the first stages of freefall when someone else was supposed to catch me.  I dimly remembered from some dumb film I saw as a kid at the Orphanage that you could even out your fall over time, but I had no idea how.

It was kind of surreal, really.  Here I was about to punch an Endbringer in the face, in a tumbling fall from being dropped, with no guarantees that someone could pluck me out of the air.  I was tumbling in the air so fast that I couldn’t even make out the world around me.  I could die a million different ways.  Inarticulate screaming was most likely the appropriate response to this situation.

What was I thinking about?  I was thinking about how, once I reached terminal velocity, it was probably air resistance that helped even out the fall.

There was no fear, no worry, not even dread.  I was simply falling.  I realized after dealing with my friends, with how Kathy had responded, that the response of fear and shock to violence was normal.  They were learning to overcome it nicely, but that didn’t change the fact that this wasn’t the normal response.

I began to puzzle through that when my weightlessness suddenly ended with a jolt by arms wrapping under my armpits and around my chest.  The sudden change from falling to rocketing along almost made me drop my spear.

“Howdy,” Sergeant Morgan yelled into my ear, my helmet automatically adjusting for the sound of air rushing past us and magnifying her voice so that I could hear it.

“Hello.”  Awkward, but how exactly was I supposed to respond to that?  At least my helmet vibrated as I spoke to let her hear it.

The fact that we were still climbing rather rapidly did give me something to say, though, even if I had to keep using my bad Scandinavian accent.  “How high are we goings?”

She laughed melodically.  “As high as I can.  I’m not moving at full speed.  They said something about making a show of it, so I thought that I’d go up, then dive down before kicking it full speed.  Maybe do a barrel roll or two for good measure.”

I raised my eyebrows.  Maybe the US had chosen the best person for the job after all.  My opinion of them was growing.  “Can you does a loop?”

She snorted.  “Of course!”

“Can you flings me at the end of it?”

“Ah,” she said.  “I see what you’re getting at.  I like the way that you think!  Leave it to me.  I may be stuck with the Alexandria package, but I got a few ways to use it.  Lemmie surprise ya, though.”

As she slowed down, apparently at the apex of our flight, her voice took on a coy tone that I could hear clearly without the filtering.  “Hey.  Odd question.”

“Yes?”

“You single?”

Really?  Really?!  Right now was a horrible time to be asking something like that!

Which probably made it the perfect time to ask that.  Good thinking.  Miss Morgan was impressing me.  “Yes.”

“Mebbe you ‘n I could meet up after we blast the shit outta the bitch for a little, uh, victory celebration?  Assuming, of course, you survive.”

And of course, her making that offer just lowered my chances significantly.  Good.  “If we survive.”  I had to gasp for air.  We were very high up now, and I found that each lungful didn’t give me as much breath as I would have liked.  “Perhaps we wills… see who can… drink the other… under the table?”

“You’re on,” she said mischievously.

The joke was on her.  I knew from experience that I could now our-drink everyone in my group combined.  Emi didn’t count.

I didn’t have a chance to respond as Morgan rotated forward into a dive.  It was hard from how she was holding me, but I connected my spear to the small winch attached to my belt — I didn’t want to risk losing my grip on it.  Especially since it would pretty much ruin every single aspect of the plan.

Where once she held me by gravity, it was now sheer velocity that held me in her arms as she rocketed almost straight down towards the ground far faster than if I’d just been falling.  As the ground came rushing towards us, I felt her change her grip ever so slightly.  We were coming to an end of the dive.

I was proven right when she started to arc back up.  Something was wrong, though.  As we leveled out, I couldn’t see the Simurgh ahead of us.  Where was–

I didn’t have time to contemplate that as we suddenly lurched to the side, spinning as we did so.  One of my eyes felt uncomfortably tight, as if it was threatening to pop out of its socket.  I couldn’t even close my eyes, the force was so heavy.  My head slammed to the left, my core was strained, and my hips ached under the forces that were pulling on them.  If I hadn’t of had a death grip on my spear during the dive and had it so close to my body, it would have been ripped from my hands.

And then, just like that, it ended.  The strain was gone, my eye was firmly in its socket, and when I looked up, I could see the form of the Simurgh.  Whatever maneuver the sergeant had pulled off, it had brought us far closer to the Endbringer.  I was sure that there were both physicists and pilots crying somewhere.

“You okay there?” Miss Morgan asked with a surprising level of concern.

“I will manage.”  What else could I say?  Set me down, I’ll walk from here?

“Most people go out for a few moments during that one.  You’re more muscular than most of them, though, so I figured you’d pull through fine.”

Something about gee forces and lifting weights tickled the back of my head, but I paid it no mind.   I had more important things to focus on.  Namely, how close we were.  At the speed that we were moving (which I couldn’t even begin to estimate) and how quickly the form of the Simurgh was growing, I figured that we didn’t have long before we reached our target.

Simurgh.  The one who could corrupt you, break your brain in quiet, subtle ways.  You’d seem fine on the surface, able to do everything that you used to, appearing completely lucid.

A family goes through its daily routine.  Parents to go work, children go to school.  They come home and do whatever it was that families did before Gold Morning.  The son gets sent out to pick up some meat for dinner.  The meal is cooked, and they gather around the table.  The mother chastises the son for not washing their hands before they settle down to eat.  Never mind the fact that they’re eating the neighbor, they’re still the same normal, functioning, rational and loving family that they were before their exposure to her.

It was impossible to tell what would get warped by the Simurgh, but if you spent enough time in her presence, you would be corrupted.  People would do the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, but you couldn’t predict when and where it would happen.  The only answer was to check for that corruption via Thinkers, and if found, quarantine them.

That’s why I knew that at least some portion of my armor was loaded with an explosive.  To save me the indignity of prolonged exposure.  A harsh and cruel mercy, but an understandable one.

“I gotta let you go to get ready to launch ya,” Miss Morgan said.  “Just remember, drinks when you come back.”

“Right.”

I wasn’t sure if she heard me or not, but a moment later, she released me for the briefest of moments, just long enough to switch her grip so that she held me by the shoulder and my belt.  With that, she arched into a climb again, and looped back down, giving me a brief glimpse of the sky above us.  As soon as she finished her loop, though, she threw with amazing force.

Before, I’d had a great deal of protection from turbulence by her powers.  Now, though, even being hurled like a spear towards the Simurgh, I was keenly aware that the human form was not designed with flight in mind, and my armor was not helping with that.  The turbulence was incredible, made even worse by the way that I was twisting in mid air, bringing my feet towards the impossibly tall ivory woman in front of me, my spear at the ready.

I activated the spearhead the briefest of moments before impact, unsure of when exactly was the right moment.  At the speed that I’d been thrown, the impact was horrible.  The fifteen foot tall woman recoiled back as the blur of the Tinker tech spearhead entered her chest, letting out what was almost a musical cry, but even that didn’t help.  The fact that my feet hit her chest even as she was thrown back didn’t help.  I was slammed against her chest far harder than any horse could kick, the spear being wrenched out of my hands.

I didn’t have time for anything before I bounced off of her, falling.  As the line that connected my belt to the spear pulled taunt, the weapon was yanked down…

…But it wasn’t yanked out of her, much to the sudden jerking stop that suddenly wracked my body.  If I wasn’t going to blow out my knees from this, then my back was going to be all sorts of out of alignment.

No time to think.  A fumbling hand reached out to grab the strange white clothes that she wore, only to find that they were ribbons that somehow kept close together.  Even as I found purchase to pull myself close to her, my brain was aware of how odd that was, even if it couldn’t process it at the time.

I hefted myself up until one of my hands grabbed the shaft of the spear to haul myself up further.  Now I could see that I’d impacted at her solar plexus.  I looked up, and her face…  Those beautiful, graceful features were twisted in pain, mocking me.  She’d suffered worse attacks without even blinking.  This?  This was nothing, and yet she still pretended.

Do it.

My free hand reached to my belt, grabbing at the beacon.  One moment, I was pulling it free, and the next, it was slipping from my hand, falling towards the ground.  Because of course, no plan could ever go like it was intended to.

I grabbed at the other one on my belt as I became aware of movement other than her exaggerated impact.  Her hands were reaching for me.  As soon as I had a firm grip on the beacon, I let go of the spear to let myself drop.

Once again, the line pulled taunt, and the spear held in place.  I had barely dropped out of the way in time before those foot-and-a-half long hands came together where my head would have been.  The Simurgh wasn’t a fighter, not exactly, but she had more than enough strength to rip someone in two without exerting any effort.

I grabbed her weird ribbon dress, pulled the beacon free with my other hand, and thrust it into her stomach as hard as I could.

The reaction was instant — with another cry, Simurgh doubled over until her head was almost touching the spear shaft and let out another cry of pain.  Good.  At least something was going right.

I was a flurry of motion as I grabbed her arm and pulled myself up.  She was still overreacting to me giving her what could generously be considered a belly button piercing, giving me the chance to hastily reach up and grab a handful of her white hair to haul myself up further.  Not an easy task to do on a fifteen foot tall woman using only one arm.  I grabbed the third transponder…

And looked directly into her eyes.

Just like the rest of her, they were pure white.  There were no veins, none of the coloration that you would expect in someone mimicking the human form so well.  Even still, I could make out so much about her eyes.  Where the pupil and iris would have been.  The wrinkles around the corners where her face was scrunched up in overplayed agony.

That made me aware of the rest of her face, and how it all played out to reinforce her act.

I knew it was fake.  I knew it.  But I didn’t feel it.  I felt a heaviness in my chest that I was causing her pain like this.  A sucking stab wound that went straight into my heart.  At this moment, I wanted nothing more than to apologize for hurting her.  To stroke her cheek and try to calm her down.

Instead, I slammed the beacon into her forehead, letting the blade on it sink in and attach itself.

It wasn’t just her head that flew back, it was her entire body, like a child that had been struck by an extremely powerful boxer.  It was all that I could do to hold on for dear life.

As I clung to her, one hand clutching the ribbons on her shoulder and neck, the radio in my helmet crackled to life.  I could make out the smallest hints of words being spoken before they were drowned out by static.  Just enough for me to know that someone was trying to call in and tell me something.  Something important, most likely.  Whatever it was, though, I’d never know.

The moment that the thrashing stopped, though, I suddenly realized what they had probably been trying to warn me about.  I felt that massive hand grab the back of my neck and instantly relaxed my grip.  Whatever was about to happen, I couldn’t fight.  Almost as soon as she grabbed me, the Simurgh threw me away.

Only this time the spool of wire on my belt didn’t come to a stop.

Instead, I found myself helplessly watching as I flew through the air — the Simurgh righted herself, the spear still jutting out of her solar plexus.  She made it look effortless.  Just as effortless as when she turned and shot off away from me, a trail of cord like a line between us.

That only lasted a moment, though, before the line pulled taunt.  I didn’t have time to even yell before I was yanked away by my belt, making my back feel like it was going to break in two.

After only a moment, though, I felt the pressure decrease almost completely and opened my eyes again.  As I sucked in a much-needed breath of air, I realized why I wasn’t feeling any pull anymore:  She had reversed the direction that she was flying in.  She flew on her back, looking at me as she passed underneath.

When I was a child, I’d seen kids playing a weird game.  All of them would hold hands and quickly move in random serpentine patterns.  It looked pretty stupid until I saw how the person at the end was being whipped around until they lost their grip and fell to the ground.

I sucked in a deep breath and relaxed my body just in time for it to be whipped in the opposite direction.  The breath didn’t do much for me.  It didn’t even let me scream.  It just got knocked out of me.

Just like in school, this quickly became a pattern.  She’d move one way, then suddenly change direction.  When my line caught up with that sudden change, I’d be put through many more gees than I had been experiencing.  If that sudden barrel roll that the sergeant had done earlier had put me through the wringer, this was a thousand times worse.

My brains rattled in my head, and I had to focus to keep my teeth together, or else I might knock myself out from how hard they snapped shut.  Every bone and joint in my body quickly began to ache under my skin.  With each whip of the line, my body would be suddenly flung in a new direction, making it feel like my arms and legs wanted to rip themselves out of their sockets.  My neck was a world of pain, and I couldn’t see anything beyond the stars in my eyes.

I lost count of how many times my body went through this agony.  Time and time again, I was put through this hell.  This was how I was going to die.  Blunt force trauma without actually hitting anything.  My cybernetics wouldn’t be able to keep my neck or back from breaking forever, and when it gave out, Simurgh would show that she didn’t even have to touch someone or use her abilities to completely destroy them.

Or so I thought through the fog of pain.  It was bad enough that I didn’t realize that I’d stopped moving at first, until the creaking from my helmet filtered through my ears.  As I regained my wits, I realized that there was a lot of pressure on my body in all sorts of weird places.  My brain was so rattled that I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing for several miserable breaths.

I was seeing nothing but white feathers.

I blinked several times, trying to make sense of it before I understood.  Wings.  I was on Simurgh’s back.  The pressure was from where the unnatural number of wings pressed up against me, the creaking coming from where my helmet rested in the crux of a joint.  It wasn’t enough to destroy the helmet and crush my head like a grape, but there was no way that it wasn’t going to come out of this without being deformed.

With more than a little difficulty, I tried moving my arms.  They didn’t quite want to respond, and what motions they did make were hampered by the randomly sprouted wings pinning them back down.  At least I could force my head up and out of the crux, no matter the throbbing between my temples and the screaming of my neck.

And then a wing lightly slapped me in the face.  Fuck you too, bitch.  Fuck you too.

Fight.

“Computer,” I mumbled with some effort.  “Open a channel to command.”  Just talking wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t like I was actually doing anything at the moment.  Still, the chime sounded.

I became aware of a timer in the upper left of my vision — my HUD, showing that two and a half minutes were counting down.  Probably, how long I had until I had to be quarantined.  Fuck my life.

“All units, fire on the Simurgh at your earliest possible convenience, even if I am still in the engagement zone.”

There was a burst of static, and I could almost make out a man’s voice.  What he was saying?  That was beyond me.  Maybe they were hearing the same thing from me.  It didn’t matter.  I had to try.  “Repeat, engage target as soon as you are able.  Fire for effect.  Relentless out.”

I took a shuddering breath as the wing slapped my helmet again.  I couldn’t go down like this.  They were counting on me to keep this going as well as possible.  I had to go down swinging.  I might not be able to move my arms, but I had to fight, no matter how futile it might be.

“Open helmet.”

There were things that you did in a fair fight.  But when the chips were down and your life was on the line, there was no such thing as  a fair fight.  There was only what you could do to make sure that you could walk away.  I wasn’t so sure that I would be walking away, but I wasn’t bad at fighting dirty.

As the wing moved to slap me in the face again, this time I bit into it, ignoring the feathers that somehow worked between my teeth.  The taste reminded me of some unholy fusion between glass and human skin.

There was a cacophony of light and a wave of heat, and the Simurgh screamed.  The wing was pulled out of my mouth, feeling like it had tried to yank out all my teeth.  I wasn’t sure if it was successful or not.  I wasn’t even sure if I had bits of feathers in my mouth or if it was just my imagination.

I blinked rapidly, realizing that I heard something odd.  A warble.  It was familiar.  It…

Sarah.

My arm had more leeway now, and my body’s strength came back a bit.  I couldn’t do much, but I reached out and found myself touching that weird dress again.  My hand automatically grabbed and pulled, some ribbons coming free in my fingers.  It wasn’t much, but it was an act of defiance.

I couldn’t free myself, I couldn’t fight, and I couldn’t save the day.  I’d played my role, but I could continue as best I was able.  As the wing came close, I bit it again.  I was going to die here, and I knew it.  I’d known it since the moment that I’d volunteered.  But that was alright.  So long as I–

There was an explosion, and there was nothing.

Qamaits 12.5

I sprinted towards Sarah as hard as I could.  In my mind, I could see her face the look of determination; her eyes narrowed, her mouth a thin line and the muscles on her neck standing up a little.  Even after a year and a half, I could still picture her so easily.  And she could read me — nobody had told her that we needed to kick things over the top, but she’d read my own body language, and adjusted herself to match me.

I missed her so bad that it hurt.

At the last possible moment, I jumped, tucking my legs up before kicking them back down.  The explosion under each of my heels rocketed me upwards, threatening to make my knees buckle.  She hadn’t pulled her punches, and just the strength of them before activating her power would have been enough to make me airborne.  Had this been before Riley had operated on me, my knee would have been useless after that.

Unfortunately, our time apart had lead to some skills degrading — I wasn’t going up at the right angle.  I was being driven back, and there was nothing that I could do to prevent it.  If–

That line of thought was shut down instantly as I was snatched out of the air.  The flyer grabbed me in a bear hug at almost the apex of my unpowered flight.  He startled a little as his sudden bear hug brought my spear closer to him, but didn’t let go.  Excellent.  That gave me a horrible idea, and horrible ideas seemed to be the rule of the day.  Before I could say anything, though, I looked up.

I got my first real view of the Simurgh in the distance.

A primal tingle of fear ran through my body like an electric shock.  Seeing pictures or film of her was one thing.  Seeing her in person, even this far away, was something else entirely.  There was something unearthly about her, more than Valkyrie.  Even from this distance, far enough that I couldn’t make out the details, she was overwhelmingly wrong.  It was simply the profile.  I could make out the humanoid form, but the wings.

Two wings made sense, and even if the wings would have been symmetrical, it would have made more sense.  But the Simurgh had wings that made no sense.  Wings of different sizes, wings growing out of wings growing out of wings, to the point where you couldn’t tell which wing was the original.  Multiple sets of wings growing out of her back.

It was disorienting to watch them gently move in the distance, being able to see the largest move of their own accord without rhyme or reason.  Had someone told me that just looking at her could drive a person to madness, now I might almost believe it.

My heartbeat was starting to rise, and the layer of my armor against my skin cooled to compensate for the sweat that wanted to form.  This was suddenly getting a lot harder than I’d originally envisioned, and I hadn’t even done anything yet.

If the flyer felt the same way, he didn’t say anything.  He had to feel it, too.  I couldn’t be alone in feeling this.  This was simply freakish.

More motion caught my eye.  The Dragon’s Teeth were already taking to the air, moving into position to trail behind the Simurgh, hopefully beyond her radius of madness.  If we even knew what that radius was, they probably had it marked on their displays.  With a word, I probably could have found out.  I was honestly afraid to ask, though.

I glanced down at my arm, and I found the outline of the obscured control panel on my forearm outlined on my vision.  As I focused on it, text appeared, lines moving to point out the individual controls to tell me what each one did.  That was helpful.  I wasn’t sure if I’d like this helmet or not, but so far, it was working out pretty well.

As best as I could from this bear hug, I moved to touch one of the controls.  “When were you planning on doing the switch?” I asked in my fake accent.  My words were echoed from the armband on his forearm — my voice sounded very strange to my ears.

“Huh?”  He looked down at me.  “Holy crap, I can hear you!”

Seriously?  Here we were, doing something that was both incredibly stupid and dangerous, and he was focused on the fact that he could hear me?

Then again, we were flying at a pretty good pace.  Being able to hear me over the rushing of the wind was probably unusual to him.  Our armbands were probably compensating for us, running at special frequencies and directed sound so that he could hear it, and editing out the interference of the air rushing past so that I could hear him clearly.

“I, uh…  I dunno?  Whenever feels right?  But, uh, you’re pretty heavy, so whenever.”

I let go of the button, taking a chance.  “Computer, display a waypoint showing the halfway point to the Simurgh and where our armbands came in close contact to each other.”

After only half a second, a blue outline of a triangle showed in the distance, with a set of numbers next to it.  I wasn’t sure if those numbers were in metric or imperial units — Dragon was Canadian, but Armsmaster was American.  I was fine with either one, but with this new display method, I was still unfamiliar enough that I couldn’t tell which was which, or get a good idea as to where it was in relation to me.  I’d just have to wait until the numbers reached zero.

I hit the button again.  “Computer, display another waypoint at…”  I frowned.  “Eighty percent to the first.”  As it popped up, I decided that it worked.  I wanted to keep the workload for them even, or as even as possible.  If I was that heavy, then I didn’t want to be a burden on either of them.

And, as I watched those two triangles get larger in my vision, I had to start believing that I was.  It started simply, with his breathing becoming more labored.  Halfway to the closest triangle, he started to slow down.  Not good.  Even worse was when his arms began to shake slightly.

Great.  He was going to drop me.

“Computer, connect me to the Warden Mover in the air.”

Invalid query,” the mechanical female voice said.

Brilliant.  That’s what I got for not reading the users manual before now.  Alright.  “Computer, display all Mover and Mover equivalent units currently in the air.”

A map filled my vision, with various indicators.  I could make out which one was the Simurgh by the white icon, which was a grimly cute touch.  As I looked over the various icons, though, I saw a name and affiliation pop up.  I didn’t have to look at the orange triangles — by how they were positioned, they were the Dragon’s Teeth, ready to nab me.  The red squares were the two Wardens.  I mentally filtered those out.

I couldn’t tell what the Sons of Bitch or myself were — we were too close to make out, overlapping each other.  Which left the green hexagon.  I looked at it, and the name popped up.  Sergeant Mary Morgan, US Air Force.  For some reason, that struck me as funny.  It would have been even funnier if the arms around me weren’t weakening even faster.

“Computer, connect me to Sergeant Mary Morgan of the US Air Force.”  There was a chirp in my ear, then silence.  Did that mean we were connected, or that it was simply acknowledging the command?  “Sergeant Morgan?”

Relentless.

Oh, thank goodness.  “He has me in a bad hold, and I am likely slipping soon.  Prepare yourself.”

“Roger that.”

I looked back at the map, getting a better view of the blue triangular waypoints.  Honestly, I wished that I knew what number system they used.  A more sad tone chimed in my ear.  Had it severed radio connection?  It seemed logical.  “Computer, clear map.”

The map cleared from my vision, letting me see the Simurgh in the distance again.  She was closer now, less like an action figure.  I could see more detail, but I looked away quickly.  I didn’t want to.  Not now.

“Not sure,” my carrier grunted.  “Not sure how much further I can…”

“Keep going,” I barked, surprised to hear it echoed from his armband.

Lie.

“We aren’t even halfway to the dropoff point,” I lied.  We were over three quarters of the way there now.  “You keep going until you can’t anymore, and then go further!”

“Gonna…  Be soon…”

I forced anger into my voice.  “This is the best that the Sons of Bitch can offer me?!  They made it sound like you could carry me all the way to the Simurgh and back by yourself!”

His arms tightened a bit.  Good.  I’d injured his pride.  “Remember, if you drop me, then we are all fucked.  The Simurgh will roll right over Bitch and everyone else she brought.  Everyone that you know who is here will be quarantined for the rest of their life.  Keep going!”

It wouldn’t last, though.  Moments like these were good for the short term determination, but they never lasted.  They couldn’t — I’d given him a shot from the adrenaline gland.  Which was great for the short term, granting increased strength and stamina at the cost of fine manipulation.  However, it sapped reserves far more quickly than in other situations.

If he’d been scared for a while now, the gland would have been running for some time, so he’d probably been burning through energy before we’d even taken to the air.  If that was the case, then all that I’d done was fan some flames that had already burned through the logs.  Once adrenal fatigue set in, he’d lose all of his strength, and that would be it.

Which was exactly what I wanted right now.

I blinked a few times, and suddenly the Simurgh was displayed right in front of me.  The onboard computer had magnified her image.  The multicolored robes that she wore were strange, allowing brief glimpses of skin underneath.  Skin that was as white as alabaster.  Her facial feathers were refined, her eyes the same color as her skin.  Her mouth moved to the tune of the song that she sang, still that perfect unblemished hue as the rest of her skin.  Her hair flowed out from her, defying both the wind and the direction of her movement.

She was hauntingly beautiful.  Perhaps the most beautiful figure that I’d ever seen.

Her asymmetrical wings, though, ruined that beauty.  There was something so utterly wrong with them.  The way that they jutted out from each other, growing almost randomly out of others.  And it wasn’t merely two wings that grew out of her back — some were large, some were small, but how they formed almost seemed to make no sense at all.  The way that they all flapped, not like a bird or anything that you would expect to propel someone forward…  They moved of their own accord, to their own design.

Beautiful and terrible in equal turns.  And yet, I’d have to fight her.

I didn’t let myself feel fear, though.  I didn’t let myself feel anything, despite the growing desire to feel revolted somehow.  A part of me wanted to accept the beauty in front of me, but another part rejected her utterly and completely.  And I knew that I wasn’t even taking in her true majesty and horror.  This was only an image, no different than watching the videos.  No, I’d know what she was truly like soon enough, when I was on top of her.

Emotions would be handy later.  I’d be able to harness them, use them to get the maximum impact for everything that I did.  For now, though, they’d just be a waste of energy.  I had to keep everything locked down tight, tight enough to keep my body from reacting.  My heart rate was close to normal, my breathing was slow and steady.

And then, my carrier’s strength gave out.