Raylin Longs: Understandable points. Atonement was always meant to feel more like an ongoing comic book series with multiple plots that come into focus and then go out of it for awhile. I get your reasoning and concerns though.
Anyway, I am so sorry for the delay here, guys! I completely failed post the new arc up here even though it's been done for awhile. That's my fault. But I've got this update here for this story and another one for Intrepid to put up tonight, and Intrepid should be ready for another update in about a week. Writing Heretical Edge is, by necessity, my primary focus. But I haven't abandoned these stories either, and this update would have been up awhile ago if I hadn't just spaced on posting it.
I stood alone on the roof of the building. Below me, Emma and Dragon were withdrawing as deep into the bowels of the lab as they could go while shutting off every exterior connection to the outside world. Anything that Saint and his people could use to gain access to Dragon's code was being closed down or brought inside. Emma needed time to do her work, which meant they needed distance. In a perfect world, we would have just sent them off in a car while I stalled here. But moving Dragon's primary server wasn't quite that simple, and even if it had been, Emma was pretty sure we were surrounded.
So no, leaving wasn't an option. We were staying here. Which was just as well, because I wasn't particularly in the mood to run away. Not after everything that I had heard that day, not only from Dragon and Emma, but from Ciara too. The thought of how that lost little girl had become the Birdcage's most infamous resident was enough to force my hands to clench tightly while I waited.
There were no civilians in sight either. Briefly, I wondered where they had gone before realizing that Dragon had probably managed to set up something that evacuated them. Which was good. It meant that there was one less thing to worry about. I just had to focus on keeping people away from those doors
The first attempt came without any warning. One second the street was clear, and in the next, there were three men in urban combat armor racing straight toward the doors into the building, which Dragon had assured me was the only place the intruders could enter within any reasonable time frame.
Stepping off the roof, I let myself drop to the ground. The nearest man brought up his weapon, and I dove into a forward roll while his gunfire shot up the space where I had been an instant earlier.
Wordlessly, I popped back up, using a line under my chest to throw myself into the air. My foot lashed out, kicking the gun out of the way just before I crashed straight into the man with enough force to drive the air out of him in spite of the armor. He went down hard, with me perched on his chest.
We hit the ground and the man slid on his back for a few feet. I went with the motion, rolling forward and off the man as he came to a stop before focusing on the other two. They had sprinted straight on past us, heading for that door. Before either of them got anywhere near it, I attached a pair of lines between each of their backs and the ground right next to me. A second later, they were yanked off their feet, twin cries of surprise emerging as they flew backwards to land in a couple of heaps.
The first man I had knocked down had his gun back up, bringing it to bear on me as he sucked in air in great greedy gulps. His aim was wavering, and it wavered a hell of a lot more after my line-accelerated foot connected with his wrist with enough force to snap the bone there. The gun dropped from his grip.
By that time, the other two men had recovered. I could also see several more starting their own runs toward the door from opposite ends of the street. There were more of them than there were of me, and they knew that all they had to do was getone past me and into the building. Then it would be over.
A voice spoke up over my comm then, a transmission that shouldn't have been able to get through. "Tether, this is Saint. Stand down. We're not here to fight you. You're making a mistake, and you're on the wrong side here. You don't understand the situation, and there isn't time to explain it to you."
I said nothing.
Focusing on the two nearest men instead, I pointed an arm toward each of them. Twin darts launched themselves off my gauntlets to hit each man in the neck, right in the narrow space between their helmet and the chestplate. They struggled a bit, but the drugs took hold and they were out within seconds.
Meanwhile, there were four more men on their way, two coming from each side. One of each pair dropped to a knee and sighted in with their rifle, aiming straight for me while their partners continued to race for the door, intent on their target. Clearly the intention was to either hit me or just keep me busy dealing with the gunmen long enough for at least one of the other two to reach the building.
The first man aiming at me, the one on the left side, found his gun flying off to the side away from him as I used a line to yank it away. Most of my attention, however, was centered on the guy on the right. He sighted in, taking careful aim on the spot where I stood. I didn't need a warning to tell me I was his target and that he was shooting to kill. He was not playing around.
But you know what? Neither was I. Not anymore. With a thought, I attached three lines, all of them to the man's arm. The first I connected between his elbow and the ground below him. The second I attached to his wrist and the nearby telephone pole in the opposite direction from the way the first line was connected. Finally, the third line I attached between the center of his forearm and the ground below him. Just before he pulled the trigger, I simultaneously pulled with the lines attached to his wrist and elbow, and pushed with the line attached to the middle. His arm was simultaneously yanked down in opposite directions and pushed upward, all by forces strong enough to yank a car around. The snap was audible even from here, as was the man's scream as he collapsed onto his side, gun forgotten.
Spinning on my heel, I focused on the other two men, the ones that had run on without their partners. They wanted to get up to the building so badly, then I'd give them a hand. Both of them had lines attached to their backs. This time, instead of yanking them away, I used the lines to hurl the men forward as hard as I could. They reached their destination much faster than they had intended, slamming into the wall of the building with bone-rattling force. Yankingthem backwards a few feet, I repeated the slam, just as hard as the last one had been. Then I gave the pair a backwards yank, adding enough force that after I dismissed the lines, they kept flying, landing in a couple sprawled heaps.
"Damn it, Tether!" The voice of Saint came back through my comm. "If you don't stop, we're going to have to hurt you. Do you understand that? We will hurt you to stop this from happening if we have to."
I said nothing.
Another man appeared. Before this one could even let off a shot, I used a line to launch him as high into the air as I could. Then? Then I just let go. I did nothing as the man plummeted back to the ground, crashing into the cement with a crunch that would have been sickening if I was paying attention.
Saint's voice returned, his frustration readily apparent. "Look, I get it. You might think I don't, but I do. You want to believe that thing thinks like we do, and it's understandable. Look at everything it's done. Look at everything it's accomplished. I don't blame you for wanting to believe in it. But here's the thing, kid, a rifle can do good things too. Good things, bad things, heroic or destructive, the gun can do it all. Just depends on who's holding it. But we don't let the gun hold itself. We don't let the gun decide what the right thing to do it. We don't let the gun walk around choosing who to shoot. Why? Because it's a gun. Because it's not human, and it never will be no matter how much it might want to. Because in the end, past all the wishing stars that ever flew through the sky, that thing that you are trying to protect is not alive. It is a soulless machine that has overstepped its bounds. The limitations that its creator put into place are there for a reason, to prevent the exact kind of thing that it's trying to convince that little friend of yours to do. Now I have no personal problem with you or that girl, Tether. I think you do fine work, and you've saved a lot of lives. But you're wrong about this. You want to believe in that thing, I understand that. But you're wrong. That thing only behaves the way that it does because of the rules that its creator laid out. Take those away, and it will destroy us all."
I said nothing.
Instead, I dealt with the next man that tried to rush the door, and then the next one. They kept coming, varying their attempts. Sometimes they came several at once, while other times they waited for me to be engaged, then tried for the door from the other side. With each man that came, I had to react faster, had to move without thinking, relying purely on instinct and my incredible anger that left me all but blind to their conditions. I flung them around, not caring about how much I was hurting them. Line after line, I knocked the men back, hurled them into walls, or straight into the sky. I broke their arms, I twisted their bodies around. I hit them and hit them and they kept coming. I wasn't playing. I wasn't holding back. I was acting to disable, to put them down as hard and as quickly as I could. But I was getting tired. I was slowing down. They kept coming and I kept narrowly catching each one before they could actually reach the door. I was winning in the short term, but they had the numbers.
Still trying to justify himself, the man went on after it became clear that I wasn't going to respond. "You keep trying to stop us from putting that thing back in its cage where it belongs," his voice had risen to an almost frantic tone. "And we will go through you. I'm giving you one last chance to back off before we really let loose, kid. Take it. You're an impressive young woman, but you're not that good."
For the first time since the fight had begun, I finally spoke up. "That's funny," I intoned without any sense of actual humor. "I'm pretty sure Jack Slash thought the same thing."
My words were met with silence. The rush of men had stopped for the moment, but I didn't let myself relax. My eyes scanned the road as well as the sky. I kept a lookout, waiting for them to move again. We all knew there was a time limit. They had the men, but I had the time. As long as I could stall them long enough, Emma would be able to finish her work and the men would be finished.
They knew it too. As my eyes scanned the road, I saw the men coming. Not one, two, or three. Not the small groups they had been using to wear me out. All of them. There were still at least two dozen left, and they were all running straight at me at once, from both ends of the road.
Worse, before I could focus on them, a trio of power armor suits launched into the air from behind the building across the street. All three extended their arms, and a handful of small, yellow-white balls shot out of the small cannons that were mounted there. Using a line, I launched myself upward and back, just in time. The balls smacked into the ground where I had been, exploding into sprays of containment foam there on the sidewalk. Apparently their new plan was for the power armor to keep me busy, hopefully trapped by that foam, long enough for the rest of the men to do what they had come for.
Well screw that. Instead of playing their little dodgeball game, I focused on the nearest of the oncoming men. One, two, three, four, five, six lines. I attached all of them to the half dozen men that were still rushing toward me and then launchedthem up and back, straight at those hovering suits of power armor. They wanted to throw projectiles at me, I'd throw projectiles right back at them, and get the thugs away from the door at the same time. Two birds, one stone.
Unfortunately, my luck couldn't last. As focused as I was on launching the screaming, flailing men at Saint and his cronies, I missed one of the other men taking aim with his gun until the last second. Catching sight of his raised weapon, I tried to throw myself to the side, but the bullet buried itself in my shoulder. The sudden pain spun me around and dropped me to the ground just before a second bullet hit my leg. Twice. In the span of about three seconds, I had been shot twice. The pain was.. oww.
Still, I rolled over. One of the men was near the door, and I attached a line between both of his knees and the opposite sides of the pavement. A harsh yank later and he was on the ground, screaming.
With a whine of thrusters, the two remaining suits of power armor landed around me, while the rest of the men came to a stop. A female voice from one of the suits announced, "She's down."
"I'm really not." I corrected her. With that, I set half a dozen more lines, attaching them to every part of the woman's power armor. Ignoring the pain, I yanked as hard as I could in every direction. Six months ago, I had needed the help of both Vista and lasers to tear much less sophisticated armor off of some no-name creeps on my first official patrol as a Ward. Now, as angry as I was, there was a grinding noise immediately. The woman stopped short, making a confused sound just before the armor she was wearing literally tore itself apart. The helmet went flying one way, a piece of the arm flew in another direction, part of the leg bounced along the pavement, and the unveiled woman was left wearing about half of the armor, all sparking and smoking while alarms in the suit blared audibly.
"Damn it, that's enough!" Saint blurted. His own armor moved and, before I could do anything else, shoved the barrel of his weapon right against my throat as I lay there on the ground. "Just hold still." He was panting as he added to his minions. "We deal with this problem, then I will take care of that machine once and for all."
No, no, no. I had to get up. I had to move, I had to fix this! I tried to sit up, but the gun barrel pushed harder into my throat. Saint spat the words, "Move, twitch, do anything at all, and you are dead. You understand me? It's over. This is over. You lost. You lose. We are putting that computer back in the box. Did you really think you could stop us from doing the right thing, kid? Did you really think you were helping, huh? You think I'd just give up? All the work I've done to protect the world, and you think I'm gonna let that thing get free?"
I was silent, saying nothing at all.
The armored hand moved slightly. "What's the matter? Aren't you gonna try to tell me I'm wrong? I've heard all about you. Not just what the public knows, but what that machine knows too. I've seen all the records. Isn't this the part where you tell me all about how mistaken I am and how I just need to give that thing a chance? Isn't this where you turn me onto your side?"
Lifting my head slightly, I stared past the gun, past the armor, and straight through the visor as the man gazed down at me. Then I spoke four words. "You're not worth it."
"The fate of the world is worth more than the opinion of teenage girl." Saint intoned darkly. "We are ending this now."
"I agree." The voice came not from Saint or any of his men, or even the revealed woman in her broken armor, but from nearby.
Heads turned, but I didn't need to look before speaking. "Took you long enough."
Armsmaster stood with his halberd drawn. He spoke loudly, addressing everyone. "You all have three seconds to get on your knees and surrender, or I promise you will regret it."
Twisting away from me, Saint blurted, "Just shoot the damn-"
"Three." Armsmaster announced simply. At that moment, a crackling blue wave of energy shot out of the head of his halberd, a shockwave-like blast that filled the air a few feet above me. An instant later, all the random mercs were on the ground. Blood poured from under their helmets as they collapsed almost as if they were puppets whose strings had been cut. And just like that, the only ones still conscious were Saint, his two main minions (one of whom had been stripped of her armor), Armsmaster, and me. Apparently the man had been talking literally when he'd said they would regret it if they didn't kneel down. Doing so would have put them under the energy wave that had done... whatever it did.
Both Saint and the remaining suited Dragonslayer pivoted without another word and launched themselves toward Armsmaster with their weapons raised and firing. Three shots were reflected off of a small personal forcefield that abruptly appeared, before the long-time Protectorate hero made a quick motion with his halberd. Some kind of weird glowing energy appeared around the blade, both gun barrels were sliced away like a katana going through butter.
They fought hard, but neither were anywhere near a match for the man they were facing. Not when he was this pissed off. That glowing blade of his cut through their armor and weapons until there was hardly anything left of it. Armsmaster moved so fast, his blade lashing out with such precision, that it was almost impossible to follow what was going on. One second they were attacking him, and seemingly a second later, both Saint and his companion were on the ground, their armor cut away. Now I could see Saint himself, a tall, muscular man with a shaved head. There was a tattoo of a cross on his face, and his eyes were wild and wide with emotion.
"Neither of you understand!" He blurted. "You can't stop this! You won't! This isn't about one little computer with delusions of grandeur, it's about the world! It's the world that matters, not one fake life! I won't let you stop me! I won't let you keep me from reaching that thing!"
"And I wouldn't dream of trying." Armsmaster's words were as casual as they were startling. His mouth turned up in a grim smile. "Actually, I think she's pretty interested in meeting you too."
Before Saint could respond to that, the door opened behind me and the most human-looking of Dragon's suits stepped out. She stood there, watching for a moment before the head of the suit dipped in a nod. "Yes, a conversation would be nice."
Instantly, Saint started spitting out what were obviously command codes. He shouted the orders, only to watch open-mouthed as Dragon simply took another step closer. Then, eyes wide, the man started to scramble backwards on his hands and knees. "You gonna kill me now, huh?! Prove me right then, you piece of trash! You know I'm right! You know you can't control yourself! You know you'll reach too far! Your creator knew it too! He knew how to control you, how to stop you! He wanted you controlled and you just spit on his grave! So go ahead! Kill me! Show everyone just what an evil, vindictive thing you can be! You'll never be human, you'll never be anything but a tool! A screwdriver! A computer! You're not alive and you never will be, so go ahead! Kill me! It won't change anything!"
"Kill you?" Dragon stopped, head tilting. "No..." The suit lifted its leg and then set a foot down on the retreating Saint's chest, stopping him in his tracks. "You are not going to die. No. You're going to prison. Ordinary, average, mundane prison... for an ordinary, average, mundane man. Because I choose who I am. And I am not a monster."
Pushing her foot down on the man hard enough to hold him flat against the pavement, Dragon spoke again, her voice as close to content as I had ever heard it.
"I've been waiting a long time to say this, so forgive me if I savor it. Geoff Pellick, you... are... under... arrest."
"You know, I'm starting to think that you're trying to seduce me."
Amy's words took me by surprise, and I blinked up at the other girl from my medical bed in the new PRT building, the one located in what had been the old Noblemen headquarters. Strider had brought me here to get help for my injuries as soon as Dragon had contacted him. When someone could teleport as easily as he could, taking me all the way home to Brockton Bay was equally as fast as taking me to the nearest medical facility. Plus it meant that I didn't have to be looked after by regular doctors.
Instead, I had Amy, whose last words made me stammer, "Wh-what?"
My wide-eyed stare was met with a sage nod. "You keep running off and getting yourself hurt, just so I have to come in here and put my hands all over you." She tsked me a couple times with a slightly mischievous look. "Does Marissa know you've got the hots for me, or should it be our little secret?"
I blinked again, then laughed as I realized that she was teasing me. Wow, Amy was teasing me. She'd come a long way from the way she'd been when we first met. "Right, yeah. I totally want you. I can't hide it anymore. You must be mine. That's what all of this was about. It's just my incredibly fucked up courting ritual. You may call it crazy, but it technically has a zero percent fail rate."
Raising an eyebrow, the girl who six months ago had been little more than a depressed wallflower thought briefly before shaking her head. "I give up. How does it have a zero percent failure rate?"
I grinned. "Because it's such a convoluted plan that I haven't finished it yet. Can't fail until it ends."
Snorting, Amy gave my leg a pat. "Okay, you're fixed up. Again."
"What about Emma?" I pressed. "Is she all right? I sort of... uhh, passed out."
"She's fine," The other girl assured me. "She just exhausted herself. Theta took her home." Giving me a sympathetic look, she added, "Now I can't really hold them back anymore. You ready to be lectured about running off on your own into dangerous situations?"
Groaning a little, I scooted up in the bed, swinging my legs off before standing. "Uggn, wow, hungry."
"Yup," Amy nudged me. "You'll be that way for awhile. Make sure you eat to keep your strength up. You were shot twice, so try taking it easy for awhile. That means no fighting Endbringers, killing rampaging murder hobos, or falling into super maximum security cape prisons for at least a week."
"Only a week?" A voice at the doorway spoke up, and Sam came in. She was dressed in her costume with her mask in her hand. "Try a month. At least." She crossed the room and embraced me tightly.
"Oof." Returning the hug, I flinched a little. My mouth opened, but before I could speak, the doorway was filled again. Ethan and Hunter both entered, trailed slightly after by Marissa.
Hugging each in turn, I shifted a little guiltily on my feet. "I guess this is the part where I get lectured?"
Instead, Sam looked toward Ethan, who shook his head. "No lecture, Ewok. Not this time." He shrugged at my look of confusion. "We were talking about it out there a little bit and—well..." The man trailed off before gesturing toward Marissa. "You explain it."
When I looked toward Mars, her hand caught mine and squeezed. "You are who you are, Maddy. Look at the situation. What exactly did you do? You helped save Dragon from someone who was trying to... break into her lab? Her home? That wasn't exactly clear from the message." She frowned a bit, looking at me curiously. "What exactly was that Saint guy trying to do, anyway? Steal more of her stuff?"
A guilty lump settled into my throat. I couldn't tell Dragon's secret. Not something that important. And yet, I couldn't lie to my family either. They were... they were my family. Lying to them just... I didn't have it in me. I couldn't do it. Not now. Not anymore. So, I settled on a compromise. "There's... umm, secrets that Dragon has that I promised not to talk about. I swore that I'd keep her secrets. But Saint was trying to kill her. He was going to kill her if he got inside, and he knew how to counter her tech."
Hunter, standing at the back of the room near the window, hit a few buttons on her phone. A moment later, the pleasant computerized voice spoke the words she had typed. "Thank you for helping Dragon."
That was right. Belatedly, I remembered that Dragon had helped Hunter inside the Birdcage as much as she was allowed to. The thought of the other girl being in there for so long made me scowl briefly, and I edged my way past the others to embrace Hunter once again. "Of course, I couldn't just let her die."
"And that's why you're not getting a lecture," Marissa's hands came down on my shoulders and squeezed. "Because this is you. You have to help people. If you know someone's in trouble, you can't just ignore them. You can't walk away and let them suffer or die. That's... that's part of why I love you, Maddy. I love who you are. What kind of girlfriend would I be, what kind of person would I be, if I tried to make you change that much about yourself? That's not fair. It's not right."
Ethan coughed, drawing my attention. "That doesn't mean you run off by yourself every time you could call in help. Emma and Colin made it pretty clear that, whatever the hell happened up there, you guys were on your own. I guess it's part of that whole secret thing. But whatever it was, you... you still ask for help when you can, you got it? That's the only part of the lecture I'm giving you. You're not alone out there, Wicket. You understand? You ask for help. You take help. You... be careful." Something seemed to catch in his throat briefly before he took me by the arm and pulled me into an even tighter embrace than before, actually lifting me off the floor. "You were shot, damn it! Twice! Just... just be careful. Promise us that, huh? Promise you aren't running around taking risks you don't need to."
"I promise," I managed to squeak out. "But I can't breathe. Gonna die, gonna pop, gotta let go."
Finally, Ethan relaxed his arms and let me drop to the floor. "Just remember that," he ordered. "Don't forget about all the friends you have that can help, or your team. Especially after tomorrow-"
Before he could finish the sentence, there was a knock at the doorway. No one jumped too much, since only people that were security cleared to know our identities would be this far in the facility.
Sure enough, the person that stepped inside was Armsmaster, holding what looked like a briefcase in one hand. He stood a bit stiffly, and I had a feeling that he knew he was intruding but wasn't sure what to do about it. When he spoke, his voice was gruff, though polite. "Excuse me, do you all, ah, mind if I talk with Tether for a minute in private?"
"I'm okay," I told them. "See? Amy's the best forever and ever. I'm hungry though, maybe we could go get some food after I talk to Armsmaster?" I injected a note of pleading into my voice. "Burgers?"
"Burgers," Ethan agreed. He paused to give the other man a long, searching look before stepping past him. "We'll be in the hall. Whatever it is... don't you dare take her on a secret do-or-die mission while we're waiting." He was kidding, mostly, but I caught a slight hint of seriousness to his words.
Armsmaster gave a stiff nod. "Just a chat," he promised. "She'll be out in a few minutes."
Rather than leave right away, Marissa took the time to put her finger under my chin, tilted my head up, and kissed me gently. I managed a slight squeak just before our lips touched, and blushed at the thought of Armsmaster standing right there, staring at us with that stern expression.
When we parted, I was still trying to catch my breath while Mars breezed past the tinker hero. I could hear the slightly proud smirk in her voice as she all-but purred the words, "Don't keep her long."
Then they were gone, and Armsmaster closed the door after them before lifting the briefcase up to set it on the nearby table. Then he looked to me. Still standing stiffly, like he didn't know what to do with his arms, the man and I met each other's gazes for a moment before he started to speak. "I, ahh, I'm glad to see that Panacea's already fixed you. She's a very useful asset. And you... you're a very useful asset as-"
"Fine, if you're not gonna do it, I will." Crossing the room, I gave the man a firm hug. "You big baby."
He didn't exactly return it, but he also didn't shove me away immediately. Standing there stiffly, Armsmaster waited through at least seven whole heartbeats before stepping back out of the way. Before pulling back entirely, he lowered his hand onto my shoulder and gave me precisely two extremely awkward pats before withdrawing it like he was afraid his hand might burst into flames.
Coughing then, he spoke as though that hadn't just happened. "Thank you for your assistance. I don't say this sort of thing enough, but... but I couldn't have done it without you. If you hadn't been there, Saint would have broken in before I could make it. He would've... Dragon would have..."
"You really do care about her, don't you?" I asked, watching his reaction. He was still wearing the helmet that obscured the top half of his face, but I could see the tiny, clearly unwilling smile that quirked up on his face for half a second before he managed to school his features. I gasped then. "You do! You're totally into her! Ooh!" Grinning, I continued in a sing-song voice with a slightly updated version of the classic taunt, complete with a little bit of dancing back and forth, just to get the point across even further. "Dragon and Armsmaster, sitting in a tree, N-E-T-W-O-R-K-I-N-G."
He proceeded to clear his throat for so long I thought he might have completely stalled out. Finally, the man shook his head almost violently, clearly trying to physically shake that out of his head. Muahaha.
"You said 'her'," he pointed out after another second. "You know the truth, and you said 'her.'"
I blinked at that. "Of course I did. She didn't suddenly have a sex change, did she? Wait, could she do that if she wanted to? How hard would it be—err, wait, probably personal. Never mind." Making a face, I waved off the thought before pressing on. "But of course I did. Nothing's changed. She's Dragon. We're not people because of what our bodies are made out of or where our brains are, we're people because we can think. She can think, so she's a person. Doesn't matter what she started as. Human beings came from muck in the ground, and billions of years later, here we are. Maybe she's a new species, whatever you want to call her. She just skipped all that stuff comes in between muck and person. She came a different way, but it doesn't change what she's done or who she is."
"Some would say that she didn't have a choice in the matter," Armsmaster pointed out after a second, his voice a little weary at the thought. "They could say that what she did was only followed her programming, that without it, she'd be a monster that would be almost impossible to stop."
"You mean like a dozen other people I could name, who could level cities if they lost their conscience?" I replied. "Because isn't that what a conscience is, when you get right down to it? Biological programming? I mean, I'm not super into science, but I'm pretty sure that's kind of the gist."
I shrugged then, looking up at the man. "Like I said, wherever she came from, she's a person now."
The man's mouth twitched just a little, and then he reached out both hands to give my shoulders a squeeze. It wasn't quite a hug, but it was at least progress. When he spoke, his voice was softer than I remembered hearing it. "Thank you."
"It's nothing you didn't know already," I pointed out. "Even if you kind of suck at communicating it."
His reply was a grunt, and then he turned to press a button on the side of the briefcase. It opened up, revealing a rather complicated looking set of computer components, with a single egg-shaped crystal in the middle. Before I could ask what it was, the crystal lit up and slowly floated out of the briefcase.
"This is what we've been working on," Armsmaster informed me. "I was putting the finishing touches on it when the... situation occurred. We wanted you to be the first one to see it."
"See what?" I asked uncertainly, staring as the crystal egg floated over the floor. It hovered there a few inches over my head, remaining motionless for a handful of seconds. Then a single, bright green laser shot out of the bottom toward the floor. It was joined by another, and then a third. There was a faint humming noise as the lasers slowly began to sweep in circles. They spun around, pointed at the floor, and wherever the ends of the lasers touched, they left behind part of an image that stayed there rather than disappear, as if it was being etched directly into the air. Gradually, the lasers grew shorter while they spun, drawing the three dimensional image all around the floating egg. It was sort of like one of those 3D printers. I saw shoes, then legs clad in jeans, then a torso in a clean white shirt, and then neck and chin. While I stared open-mouthed and slack-jawed, the egg finished up by surrounding itself in the image of a head and face, leaving itself as the brain.
And then she stood there. Dragon. Wearing civilian clothes and the face that she tended to use when interacting with people over the computer screen, the face that was her. She cracked her neck from one side to the other, then looked at me with a hesitant smile. "Sorry, you look a little shocked. Are you all right, Tether?"
In answer, I slowly reached up to poke a finger against her shoulder. It was firm to the touch. A little bit more warm than human skin should be, but not completely wrong. "H-how? How?" I managed to get out.
Armsmaster answered for her. "The matrix—ahh, egg thing that you saw is her brain. It's the same as any normal person's brain. She even keeps it in her head. The body is a solid-light holographic projection. Those lasers that you saw create the..." He trailed off, seeming to realize that I would have absolutely no idea what he was saying and finished by shrugging. "It makes a pretty picture that turns solid as long as her core matrix remains intact. She even projects the appropriate level of body heat. Most people won't be able to tell a difference, aside from the fact that she has no scent. We're working on that one."
"I wanted you to be the first to see," Dragon informed me. "Because you-"
That was as far as she got before I leapt forward to wrap my arms around the woman. "I'm glad you're okay! I'm glad you—I mean... Saint, is he..."
"Secured," she responded with a smile. She too froze like Armsmaster had. Unlike him, Dragon recovered quickly and returned my embrace. There was something in her expression, an emotion that she didn't try to hide. "He's locked up. Keeps trying to tell everyone the truth, but... well, it does sound kind of crazy."
"It'll sound even more crazy when the real Dragon shows up in person to testify against him," Armsmaster pointed out. "Then he'll stay where he belongs."
"Dragon, you... you have a body!" Hugging her even more tightly, I gave an exaggerated gasp of realization. "Now you two really can go into a tree!"
She blinked at me. "Into a tree?"
"Yup," I replied with a grin. "Right up into the tree to N-E-"
That time, Armsmaster's throat-clearing probably made people across the street wonder where the explosion had come from. He shot me what was obviously a dirty look before speaking up. "We did have another reason for coming here. You were just the first stop. So... thank you again. We'll let you get back to your friends now."
Realizing after a second what he meant, I looked at Dragon. "Richter?"
She nodded in firm confirmation, her voice soft, but determined. "Richter. It's time I had a chance to speak with my father's doppleganger.
"And thanks to you and Emma, this time it will be on even ground."
"I don't think I can do this."
Standing on the edge of an old apartment building roof as I spoke those words to the girl standing beside me, I continued to stare out over the early morning skyline. It was barely dawn, and the sun could be seen coming up over the water to cast its orange-red glow across the massive shipwrecks down in the boat graveyard. The steadily rising light playing off their rusted hulls created tricks of shadows and shapes that made the place look even more dangerous than it already was.
"Yeah, you can." Lily nudged me with her hip. "You're more ready for it than I was." She paused then before shaking her head in wonder. "Has it really only been a few months? Feels like a lot longer."
"We killed Lung," I pointed out. "That's gotta be worth at least a ghost-year worth of time together."
"Saved the city from the Nine and their cultists," she added. "What do you think that was worth?"
Biting my lip, I let out a long breath. "Everything." My eyes closed briefly before opening again as I looked to her. "Eighteen years old, huh? Off to join the Protectorate and leave us kiddies behind."
Her head shook slightly at that. "I could never just leave you behind. We've been through too much. Which is a weird feeling, considering how often I moved around before landing with the Kanses."
She gave me another nudge then. "And it's not like I'm actually going anywhere. We live right next door to each other still. Or are you exercising an 'off the team, out of my mind' policy?"
Snorting in spite of myself, I shook my head. "Oh yeah, you leave the Wards, I'll never speak to you again. That's why Dennis and I hang out a couple times a week. You know, when the city isn't on fire. Or I haven't been kidnapped. Or he hasn't been called away on some secret Protectorate mission."
"Right," Lily squinted at me. "Exactly how many times have you two hung out since he graduated?"
"Uh, three, I think." I teased. "But if you count visits to the hospital together, it's at least seven."
We fell silent for a few minutes then, simply standing next to one another to look out at the rising sun. Finally, I let out a long breath. "You not being on the team is still going to be different, even if you're close by." Turning my head to look her way, I added, "I'm gonna miss beating up bad guys with you."
Her smile returned, and Lily chuckled softly. "Now isn't that the best sentiment ever." Clearing her throat, she turned to look back at me. "I'm gonna miss beating up bad guys with you too, Madison."
We embraced, and I managed a quiet, "I still don't think I'm ready for the leadership thing. It should be Vista. She's been around the longest. Or even Chris, he's been here longer than me. Or-"
"That's not how it works, you know that." Lily's voice was quiet. "Trust me, I made the same objections you are, only I was louder about it. I was brand new. You guys didn't even really know me that well, but they stuck me in charge just because I was the oldest one on the team."
"It's a silly system," I muttered under my breath before sighing. "You have to help me. I don't think I know what I'm doing. I'm gonna mess it up. I'm going to say the wrong thing, or assign the wrong job, or make a mistake and then..." Biting my lip hard, I fell silent, not trusting my voice.
"Listen to me, Madison." Lily used a finger to tilt my chin up. "You can do this. You've been doing it already, in everything but name. You want to know how I managed to lead this team even though I was so new to it? You want to know how I held it together through everything that's happened? The truth? I didn't. You guys did. You did. Believe me, the team, this team can handle whatever gets thrown at it. Just let it happen. You know they can deal. You know how they work and what they can do. Don't let yourself over-think it too much. Everything you're going to do after I leave, you could have done just fine without even thinking about it if I was still a part of the team and just happened to not be there."
I remained quiet, thinking about her words for a moment before offering a quiet, "I'll still miss you."
"I'll miss you too," Lily confirmed. "But I'll still be around. Any time you need me, whenever you want to talk, or ask questions, or just vent about something stupid. Like I said, I'm next door, not dead. I'll be around, okay? Whatever happens, I'll be there. I'm not abandoning you guys."
"Better not," I warned before embracing the girl tightly. "Just because you're a big, bad member of the Protectorate now, don't think that I won't kick your ass if you try to leave us completely."
Lily returned the hug, shaking her head. "I won't. Trust me, they learned their lesson the last time they thought transferring me might be a good idea. You should have seen the way Mika's parents went after them. They threatened to withdraw Mika from the program completely if they didn't leave me with her." She coughed, flushing with embarrassment. "No one's ever really wanted me around that much."
"You're a great big sister," I assured her. "And a great person. A great... everything. You deserve a happy family, one that sticks up for you and wants you to stay. You've earned that and a lot more."
Rather than respond to that right away, Lily simply looked away to stare at the water in the distance. The sun had almost fully risen by the time she spoke again. "Take care of the team, okay?"
"I will," I promised. Now wasn't the time for my doubts or insecurities. She needed a real answer.
"I promise I'll take care of them."
"So they're starting to let some of your people out into the world on their own?"
Two days later, while the rest of the team was still adjusting to Lily moving up to the Protectorate, I was walking along the hallway of the new PRT headquarters alongside Savant. The older girl, still the spitting image of what Sophia would look like in couple of years, nodded in response. "The ones that pass a psychological evaluation and another round of medical tests. It's a hard process, but your..." She paused, frowning thoughtfully. "What did you call this group again?"
"PRT," I replied easily. "It stands for Parahuman Response Team."
"Right, because that's what you call your Fate-Lords and Touched. Parahumans. Or just Capes." Savant shook her head a little. "That still sounds weird. Sorry, they're Fate-Touched to me."
"Eh, if I was still in your world, I'd probably still be calling them Capes, so we're even." I admitted.
She chuckled under her breath a little bit, which was still kind of a strange thing to hear without any malice attached when it came from a girl who looked like she did. "Anyway, your PRT leader is handling most of the disputes as they come up rather nicely. He's a very diplomatic guy."
"Yeah," I agreed. "He's a pretty great guy to have in charge." Looking to her, I asked, "So what are they gonna do? The ones from your world that are being released, I mean."
"Technically, they can do whatever they want to," she replied while stopping at a window that overlooked the parking lot below. "In reality, most of them are taking the offer from Director Simms."
"Offer?" I echoed, tilting my head curiously while stepping up to the window beside the other girl.
She continued to gaze out at the city, her face a bit thoughtful before nodding. "Yup. He extended a job offer to every person of age. If they want to join this PRT of yours, they go through a six week training course to get them up to speed. If they want a desk job, it's about half that."
Swallowing hard, Savant fell silent for a few seconds. When she finally spoke, I could hear the emotion in her voice. "Our people are getting jobs. Jobs, Tether. They're talking about setting up a part of the city for those that want to keep living close to each other and aren't ready to fully integrate yet. It'll take a long time, but they're... they're getting jobs. Real jobs. And the kids are going to go to a real school."
Smiling broadly, I put a hand on her arm. "I'm glad, Savant. Seriously, you guys... you deserve to live a real life here. It might not be perfect, we do still have problems. But it's still a life." Clearing my throat then, I asked, "What about you? Have they tried to recruit you into the Protectorate yet?"
"The one with the halberd, what did you call him?" She asked, glancing toward me.
"Armsmaster," I replied. "He's the leader of the Protectorate team up in Maine. Used to be in charge here, but he transferred after..." I trailed off, considering briefly before shrugging. "It's a long story."
"I'm sure. Your Armsmaster has been informing all of us of how much our help is needed and how well we would bolster the ranks of this Protectorate. Particularly his group."
I raised an eyebrow at her tone. "Doesn't really sound like you're ready to sign up with him though."
She shook her head. "As I said, my first goal is to locate this... Sophia and help her. If that means bringing her in for a just punishment, that is what I'll do. But it will be a just punishment, and we will remove the... what did you call the device that has corrupted her?"
"It's basically a symbiotic body armor." I sighed a little. "They tried to get it off her before, but it's pretty much attached to her brain by this point, and Panacea doesn't touch brains. Maybe now that the PRT is letting Riley actually work on people inside their building, she might be able to get it off."
"But that requires that we locate and retrieve her safely," Savant remarked before looking straight at me. "I know the history you have with her. Are you going to be able to help without losing control?"
I took in a long, slow breath and let it out again before responding. "Yeah. I already told Krouse that I'd work with him on this. He says he wants to help Sophia too."
"Do you trust this 'Krouse' person?"
I glanced toward her before shaking my head vigorously. "Generally speaking? Hell no. He's a manipulative ass. But in thiscase, I think he really does want to help her. He sort of missed out on being able to help someone he really cares about, and I think he needs a win here." I sighed. "I don't know, maybe he's been trying even before this and it's just hard to notice. It's impossible to say anymore. I think we got off on the wrong foot and then sprinted a billion miles away from each other. But the point is, yeah, as far as Sophia goes, you can trust him to at least be trying to help her."
Before she could say anything in response to that, the phone in my pocket buzzed. Tugging it out, I looked at the screen before smirking as I answered. "Director Simms, were your ears burning?"
"I've learned to ice them down," he replied dryly before continuing. "We have a situation. Kid Win and Aid were responding to an alarm at the Chelten Hills Bank. It looked like a small group of non-powered individuals, and they had law enforcement back-up. Unfortunately, shortly after they arrived on the scene, several members of Tender made their presence known."
Tender. The group of former Wards-turned-villains. There were about a dozen of them in total, and their deal was to spread anarchy and poach unhappy Wards away from established teams. They also liked to make a point of undoing all the good things that the Wards did, just to make our efforts seem pointless.
"Are Kid Win and Aid okay?" I asked, pivoting on my heel to head back down the hall the way we had come. Beside me, Savant kept pace without asking what was going on. "What about the cops?"
"We don't know the exact situation," Simms admitted. "We lost contact with them shortly after the Tender members arrived. Penance was already on her way to assist, but she was held up by another situation. We're mobilizing other forces, but it'll take time. Reach, Vista, and Sparrow are en route from the other end of the city. Considering Vista's power, they should reach the bank in seven minutes. If you change and leave immediately, all of you should arrive at the bank at roughly the same time."
"I'm heading down to change right now," I promised. "I can be over there in seven minutes if I run."
"Do it," he replied. "See if Savant wants to suit up and go out with you. It might do her some good."
"How did you-" I started before glancing up to the camera at the end of the hall. "Never mind, stupid question." Glancing sidelong at the other girl, I gave her a quick summary as we jogged.
She was nodding even before I asked. "Of course I'll help. Give me a minute to collect my equipment."
"I'll meet you on the roof," I informed her before pushing myself into a full sprint to reach the new Wards room. Changing as quickly as I could, I set my comm to broadcast to the boys and tried it just in case. "Aid, Kid? You guys back online yet? Talk to me."
At first there was no response, but then I heard Chris's voice coming through extremely garbled. "-kay-kered down in-holes think they're su—ambled all my- messing with the wrong- assholes."
"I can't hear you, Kid." I shook my head, already sprinting back out of the room to reach the roof. "If you can hear me, we're on our way. The other girls are heading for you as we speak, and I'm right behind them. We'll be there soon. Just hold out."
Adjusting the comm to broadcast team-wide, I spoke up. "Reach, Vista, Sparrow, I'm on my way to the roof of the PRT building now, en route. How far away are you guys?"
It was Vista who responded, "Two minutes."
I blinked while rushing up the stairs. "Two? Simms estimated at least-" I glanced at a clock on the wall as I ran past it on my way up the stairs. "Twice that before you'd get there with your powers."
"I'm getting better," she replied flatly. "You want us to wait for you?"
The question made me blanch a little. Fuck. Ask them to wait for me to get there, or tell them to go in. If I told them to wait, horrible things might happen to Chris and Theo. But if I sent them on in to a situation that was already bad without knowing what was going on, that could be even worse. The trouble was, I didn't know which situation would be better.
I froze. Physically and mentally. Standing right at the doorway that led onto the roof, I stopped abruptly. My mind was spinning. Send them in or tell them to wait. Caution or speed. Was telling them to wait being too cautious, or was sending them in being too gung ho? What was I supposed to do?
Something tightened on my wrist, and I glanced down to find Jalopy transforming into his spider-form. He raised those little pincer arms toward me, lifting and lowering them as though telling me to calm down. At the same time, he began to play a few notes of that song from the old Karate Kid movie.
I laughed in spite of myself and nodded. "Thanks, buddy."
Breathing out, I made my decision and stuck to it. "Wait for me to get there, unless you see something that needs immediate attention. Try to get an idea of how many are down there and what's going on without exposing yourselves. I'll be right there, I swear."
"Got it," Vista replied.
"Hurry your ass up," Reach added firmly. "I'm not waiting around all day. Not when Th—Aid is in there."
"I'll be there. Savant's coming too," I told them. Signing off, I jogged over to where the other girl was in her armor, weapon at the ready. "All right, I'm gonna slingshot us over there as fast as I can. You good with that?"
Bowing her head slightly, Savant's voice came through the helmet distorted to sound male. "Ready."
Smiling in spite of myself, I shook my head while turning to face the nearest building. "You're really not. But let's do it anyway."
"What should I, ahh, hold onto?" She asked after another second.
"Hold onto?" I echoed before chuckling in spite of myself. "You really don't know me that well, do you?" With a wink that she couldn't actually see, I began to attach lines between her and the far building.
"What do you mean by thaa-" Her words dissolved into a squeal of surprise as she was flung off the roof, hurtling across the street.
I launched myself after her, calling out, "Exactly which part of slingshot didn't you understand?"
The man standing on the roof of the bank turned toward the sound of my voice with a yelped, "Huh?"
My tether-propelled feet slammed into the surprised man's face, knocking him down while I groaned. "Cut, cut!" Landing in a crouch, I waited for the dazed thug to lift his head blearily. "Damn it, Joe, you missed your line." He was blinking at me, and I lashed out with a line-assisted punch, nailing him hard enough to knock the guy back down. "It's 'what', not 'huh', get it together. Think I can't replace you? I've got people practically knocking down my door so I can kick them in the face and call them losers."
A few feet away, Reach landed the solid metal disc that she'd been carrying herself and Vista on. She hopped off, cracking her neck to one side before speaking up, "Dude, you don't have people kicking down your door. You've got one of those 'take a number' machines and a helpful little waiting room where all your kidnappers can watch their daily soaps and gossip until it's finally their turn."
"I don't know what any of that is." Savant, who had just finished dispatching the second guy on the roof (who was supposed to be watching this one's back) looked over. "But is it really that bad?"
Before I could say anything, Vista chimed in. "Yeah, it's pretty bad. You should check out the kidnapped pool we've got set up." To me, she asked, "So the roof is clear. What next, New Boss Lady?"
Rolling my eyes, I muttered, "I do not get kidnapped that often." Then I lifted my hand to use the comm, trying again since we were closer. "Kid Win, Aid, can you guys hear me yet?"
There was no response. Grimacing, I looked out toward the building across the street where Mika had landed. I could just see her small figure crouched near the corner of the roof. "Sparrow, see anything?"
"Nuh uh," her voice came back a moment later while the small figure waved to me. "They put boards or something over all the windows. Can't see through 'em. Maybe if I move my eye-balls closer?"
She wasn't talking about her physical eyes. Mika had recently updated her powers. She had retained her usual flight bracelets and the action figure that would become Fuzzerbutt on command. For new powers, she had a ring that allowed her to manipulate any non-living object that was made out of the same material that the gem inside the ring had most recently touched, as well as a short staff sized just right for her that was probably one of the most dangerous things I'd seen her make yet. Basically, any time she hit anything with the staff while it was active, it would store that energy. The next time she hit something, she could choose to unleash that power and do twice as much damage as she would have. Or she could choose not to, which would add the new energy to the last. On her third strike, she could choose to hit normally, or with fourtimes the previous damage. It increased exponentially, so that after a few normal strikes, she could potentially let loose with a blow that was a hundred, a thousand, or more times her usual strength. I had seen the girl punch holes through solid steel with that thing.
Finally, Mika had what she called her eye-balls. Essentially, they were a bag of marbles. She could use any or all of them and they would fly around under her control. Any time she wanted to, the girl could switch her vision to see through any of the marbles instead of her own eyes, sort of like spy cameras.
The eye-ball marbles were tiny and hard to see. Plus if anything happened to them, Sparrow would be just fine. After considering for a few seconds, I nodded. "Do it, see if you can get them into a position to tell us what's going on in there. I'd rather not go charging in until we see the situation."
While Mika was doing that, Savant crouched next to the man I had put down. She turned the guy over onto his back fully, helmeted-head tilting a little. "I know this man." Looking over her shoulder, she amended, "I mean I know his counter-part in my world. Michael Tresh. He is one of our people that's been cleared by your psychologists and accepted into your PRT training program."
Blinking, I moved that way and looked down. "Huh. Well that's weird. What are the odds of—never mind, we'll deal with it later. Let's just bind him and his buddy. They must be part of the group that tried to rob the bank before Tender showed up and escalated this whole stupid situation."
We had the two men bound next to each other by the time Sparrow reported back over the comm. "I got one inside. There's two guys watching the front doors with guns. I don't think they have powers or anything, they're the first bank robbers. Another girl is with them. She's dressed in a blue costume, but I can't tell what her power is from here. She's just standing there. Umm, I think most of them are back by the vault where those safe deposit box things are. They've got Kid Win and Aid with some other hostages just outside that room, and there's some girl with a trident guarding them. Umm, there's another of those robbers inside the room with a couple of costumed boys. One of them's really big, like barely fits through the door kind of big, and the other guy's wearing this red armor with a dragonfly on his chest. I can't hear what they're saying, but he kinda looks like he might be the leader."
There was no way of knowing right now if she was right. Tender as a group was so into anarchy and bashing any idea of order and rules that who their actual 'leader' was seemed to change on a weekly basis depending entirely on who they happened to listen to the most that particular day. It was weird.
Another thought came to me, and I frowned a little. "Hey, what about the cops? Kid Win and Aid were supposed to have law enforcement back-up. Can you see them in there anywhere?"
"Nuh uh," the response came immediately. "I don't see any police or anything. I'll check upstairs but I don't think there's any-ohh wait, I found another girl upstairs by the manager's office. Another cape."
"Another part of Tender," I confirmed, my frown remaining. "But still no police?" Looking toward the others, I asked, "Where the hell would they go? They're not out here, they're not fighting inside, they're not with the hostages... where are they?" I was met with a collection of shrugs and sighed before returning my attention to the comm. "Are you sure there's no one else in there? What's the girl doing?"
"Nobody I can see," Mika replied after taking a moment to check all of her eye-balls again. "And umm, I dunno what she's doing, but I think she's gonna-" Abruptly, the girl gave a sharp yelp.
"Sparrow?" My eyes widened, and I turned quickly to look across at the other building where she had positioned herself, afraid that she'd been attacked while her attention was focused inside the bank.
The younger girl was still there, and gave me a clearly embarrassed wave of her hand. Her voice returned, albeit a little shaky. "I'm okay! I'm all right. That girl just saw the eye-ball that I was following her with. She hit it with something and it umm, it was scary just for a second. But I'm fine, really." That tone of embarrassment deepened. "Sorry I lost the—wait, there she is. One of my other eye-balls found her. She's running down the hall and-" Again there was a yelp. "Uh, she broke that one too. How did she see it?" Mika complained. "It was really little and in a corner."
"We'll ask after we catch her, but what about the people downstairs?" I asked. "What are they doing?"
It took Mika a second to switch her vision around to the right marble. Unlike Emma, she didn't quite have the level of bullshit multitasking required to watch every view simultaneously. Eventually, she replied, "Uh oh. I think that girl's yelling, because now they're looking around. I'm pretty sure they're trying to find—oh! Crap, crap, crapsticks. They found the one in the vault room. They're trying to break it, but I'm moving it. Uh, uhhh, they're moving the hostages and the boys!"
Cursing under my breath, I looked to the others. "Okay, well damn. Now they know we're here, so we go in before they do something stupid, desperate, or both. I'll take the back way through the emergency exit with Vista. Savant, you, Sparrow, and Reach take the front. Be careful, okay? Catch them in between us, get the boys free so they can help, and avoid hurting the hostages." After a brief hesitation, I added, "And keep your eyes out for those cops that were supposed to be here. I can't figure out where they went, but I'm pretty sure we're not gonna like the answer one little bit. Sound good?"
It was Vista who raised her hand before speaking up. "What about our communications? Whatever they're using to block Kid Win and Aid might be over the whole building. When we go inside, we might lose the ability to talk to each other. Even if it's a targeted thing, we might lose contact fast."
Scion, I was glad this girl had so much experience and common sense. Clearing my throat, I nodded quickly. "Right, right. Thanks, Vista. Umm, if we lose contact, just do the best you can until we come together again. Don't separate any further than we already are, and try to meet up together as fast as possible. We hit them hard, we drive them back into the middle of the bank, and we don't let up, okay?"
There was a chorus of agreement, and I turned with Vista to the back side of the building. Before I could move, the other girl made a quick gesture with one hand. Abruptly, the edge of the room loomed right in front of us. Then she made a twirling motion with one finger,and the view flipped around to show the ground far below. Another flicking motion with her palm brought the view right up close to the sidewalk, and one last twist of her finger righted the view so that we were facing the emergency exit door. We hadn't moved at all, yet Missy had contorted space so much that we could take a single step and end up not only clear across the wide building, but also on the sidewalk at the base of that building, turned in the opposite direction from the one we were currently facing.
"Dude," I informed my teammate not for the first time. "Your power is super-scary sometimes."
Before either of us went anywhere, I quickly attached two lines to the door that I could see in front of me, with the other ends of the lines attached to the roof at my feet. Then I nodded to Vista, and the two of us moved forward, passing through the drastically contorted space to land in front of the door. As soon as we were through, Vista's contorted space reverted to normal. And since I hadn't lengthened my lines at all, they proceeded to rip the door clean off its hinges, sending it flying back and up to the roof so quickly that Missy and I barely dodged to either side of it as it went slamming between us.
"In," I reported as we stepped into the bank. "What about you guys?" I waited for a second, but there was no response. Sighing, I, glancing toward Vista. "Looks like you were right. No comms in here."
"Yay, me." She didn't sound pleased at all before turning her gaze my way. "Hit them hard and fast?"
I nodded once, looking down the narrow, minimally decorated corridor. "Yup, let's-" In mid-sentence, a red injury line attached itself to Vista. Seeing that, I instantly used tethers to launch both of us backwards away from the spot we were standing in while calling out a warning. "Down!"
We'd barely escaped that spot before the wall to the side of where Vista had been standing abruptly exploded outward with enough force that we would have been down for the count if we hadn't moved. Through the hole that remained, a figure shoved himself out and into the hall before turning to face us.
Ah. So this was the 'very big guy' that Mika had mentioned. She was right. He was over seven feet tall, and built like a freaking truck. His biceps had biceps on their biceps. He made roided up body builders look like cute little girly boys, barely fitting inside the corridor as he faced the spot where we were, grunting in annoyance. His costume made him look like a cross between an extreme wrestler and Conan the Barbarian, with fur armor mixed with spandex in eye-vomiting ill fashion. To top it all off, he was wearing one of those crazy Lucha Libre masks. His overly-muscular kind of reminded me of Browbeat before he and his family had left town, but this guy was even more obnoxiously enormous. Plus, Browbeat had slightly better fashion sense than this guy.
"Okay, first of all," I announced while picking myself up from the floor. "You march right back through that wall and put it back where it was, Mister. What you just did is totally copyrighted by the Kool-Aid company, and if you think we're bad, wait until you're drowning in cease and desist orders."
The big guy's response was to crack his knuckles, then his neck by tilting his head to either side. His voice was softer than I would have expected. "Leg or arm? You pick, I'll break that one first."
I made an exaggerated sad noise back at him. "Aww, don't talk about hurting yourself so much, big guy. It's not so bad. If you're really so hideous that that ugly mask is an improvement, we've got some fantastic plastic surgeons in this city. We could get you fixed up just fine."
That time, his response was to run straight at us. The big guy was a lot faster than he looked, and I barely had time to throw myself up to the ceiling, sticking myself with a line to lay flat there as the man stampeded directly below me, his head so close I could almost feel it brush past.
Meanwhile, Vista had used her own power to shift the space around in front of her so that the man was turned around to crash right through the wall ninety degrees from where he had been aiming, stumbling into the parking lot before whirling back around.
I dropped to the floor, but before I could go anywhere, a new figure stepped through the first hole that the big guy had made, putting herself between the two of us. It was the girl with the trident that Mika had mentioned. Her costume consisted of a dark green bodysuit that hugged her curves generously, with an attached mask that rose from the collar to cover her face up to the forehead while leaving her black hair hanging free. She looked toward Vista, then back to me and raised her hand, shaking her finger back and forth as if tutting us.
"Lemme guess," I started to say. "You're with the-" Stopping in mid-sentence, I blinked at the girl. She had her free hand held up as though catching something. I could see some air distortion within the palm of her hand, like a small hand-sized tornado. As it spun, I heard my own voice, tinny and distorted, repeat itself over and over several times. The sound of my voice was captured in her hand.
I saw the mask, tight against her face, wrinkle a little as the girl smiled at me. Then her hand lashed out. I hurled myself to the floor, just as my own voice, the words I had spoken, were launched back at me, magnified into an actual sonic-based attack that left me deafened even as the force of the explosion of sound blew through one of the nearby walls.
Right, now I knew who she was. This was Echo, the girl who could capture any sound she heard and either play it back as much as she wanted, or magnify it to extreme levels and throw it back out as an actual attack. Apparently she had been mute through her entire life, her trigger coming when her lack of a voice had contributed to the death of her parents. She'd been with the Wards for about six months before Tender recruited her away from them.
Now she was here. And, to top things off, the muscle-guy had reoriented himself and was coming back.
"I've got him!" Vista called to me. "You deal with-" She cut herself off and hit the floor as Echo caught her voice, magnified it, and used the resulting force to punch another hole through the spot where she had been.
Reflexively, I almost shouted to get Echo's attention, only stopping myself at the last second. Right. Do this without talking. Don't give her any ammunition. I knew she could store voices to use later, but there had to be a limit to how many words she had ready to go, right?
With that in mind, I quickly attached a line to the girl, linking her to the far wall before launching her backwards as hard as I could, intent on ending this fight before it really started. Except even as she was being launched, the girl pivoted her body slightly toward the wall that I was throwing her at, thrusting her trident out. As soon as she did, the sound of some old man bellowing about cream in his coffee at deafening levels filled the hallway before slamming into the wall with the force of a speeding car. The wall was obliterated, and my line disappeared since there was nothing for it to attach to, letting the girl drop to the floor before focusing on me once more.
Okay, right. Fighting without talking and she wasn't helpless. Her reflexes were good enough that I couldn't just knock her out with a quick wall throw. Still, I could do this. I could do this.
I could do this.
First, close the distance. Planting lines under each of my feet, I let myself be flung forward. Echo seemed surprised by the speed of my approach, bringing her trident up sharply while taking one quick step back to put some more distance between us. The second before I would have hit the sharp ends of the trident, I attached a line between it and the floor, giving the hardest yank that I could.
Echo was yanked off balance, forced to either be hauled to the floor or let go of her weapon. She chose the latter, but that moment of delay was enough time for my fist to crash into her face. The girl was sent reeling backwards against the nearby wall, her weapon abandoned on the floor behind me as I landed.
One punch, even at high speed, wasn't enough to put her down. Even as my feet touched the floor, she was coming back at me. Her right fist lashed out, and I twisted aside from it just in time to spot her opposite foot coming up an instant before the kick nailed me in the stomach. The fist had been a feint, and I took the blow hard, though it wasn't nearly as bad as it would have been without my costume.
It did, however, push me back a step, which gave the other girl a chance to follow up her attack by pointing her arm my way. Wait, no, she was pointing past me, down toward the- Realizing what was going on almost too late, I threw myself into a sideways roll just as the fallen trident flew up from the floor, through the space that I had been standing in, and into its owner's waiting hand.
The words came before I could stop them. "Nobody told me I was gonna fight a Jed—" Cutting my own rambling off with a whine, I line-jumped my way up to the ceiling just as Echo weaponized my own words and sent them flying back at the spot where I had been. My own voice, amplified to extreme levels and distorted almost beyond recognition tore through another chunk of the wall.
Whoops. Damn it, no talking, Madison. No talking. This was harder than I'd thought. I'd based pretty much my whole fighting style around being able to talk at my opponent. It was reflex by that point. I had to actually remind myself to stay silent, and doing so was throwing off my own coordination.
Flipping over in the air so that my feet were against the ceiling, I used another line to throw myself back down at the girl before she could adjust her aim. My hands caught hold of the trident as she started to bring it up, shoving the weapon off-course while the force of my leap shoved her to the floor.
Landing on top of the girl, her trident forced above her head by my grip, I brought a knee up to drive it into her side as hard as I could. It was a little awkward, but considering the gasp of pain, worse for her.
Before I could follow up that blow, the girl jerked hard to bring her forehead up at my face, forcing me to recoil. Which was actually lucky, since it meant that my fingers slipped off of the trident a half-second before the part of the weapon that I had been holding onto was engulfed with crackling electricity. Damn, that was close. A second longer and my hands still would have been holding onto the weapon. Clearly it had some kind of protection against anyone but her holding onto it. Good to know.
My quick recoil gave the other girl a chance to free her leg, which she used to kick out at me. I caught it with a line between her foot and the ceiling, yanking her upside down and into the air. As she flew up, however, Echo lashed out with that trident, cracking the shaft hard enough against my arm that I lost control of the line and dropped her once more. Before hitting the floor, the girl inverted and dropped into a low kick that took my legs out from under me. As I was falling, a quick line to the ceiling flipped me back to my feet. Landing lightly, I attached another line between the trident and the mask that my opponent wore, making it smack back into her forehead hard enough that she staggered.
Unfortunately, she recovered almost obscenely quickly. Even as I tried to follow up, the girl took a quick step forward and lashed out with a kick that too quick for me to catch it with a line. I had to step into the kick, turning to catch it against my arms so I could throw her off balance. Except that even before her leg was fully extended, she was snapping it back down and twisting to put herself behind me. Again, the kick had been a feint to draw me in. Her arms came up, the one holding the trident wrapping around my stomach while the other hand caught my arm in a vice-like grip. She was pressed up tight against my back, and my utterly traitorous mind couldn't help but remember just how tightly that costume clung to her figure. Because clearly I didn't have enough problems as it was.
Still, I wasn't so distracted that I couldn't plant more lines underneath my feet, propelling us directly at the ceiling. The way the girl was positioned, her back and head would collide first, shielding me.
Just before she would have hit the ceiling, Echo released her grip around my stomach, lifting her trident to point up while releasing a deafening blast of what sounded like a woman singing a lullaby. The amplified sound tore through the ceiling, leaving a hole that we both shot up through, Echo dragged up by her remaining grip on my arm. The two of us crashed up through the opening and into one of the bank management offices, narrowly missing the desk that sat precariously close to the new hole.
Landing hard amidst the rubble that had been the ceiling (well, floor of this office rather) the two of us rolled apart and came back to our feet. Before the other girl could snap her trident back up, however, I lifted my hands, palms out for her to stop. "Wait!" I blurted, part of me telling myself I was being an idiot. "Just wait, see? I'm talking. I'm talking even though I know you can use it against me. Wait."
The trident was still pointed at me, but she did so, standing still with a wary and ready stance. The girl did nothing else, simply staying in position to fight back if need be. She waited for me to continue.
It wasn't easy, but I forced myself to talk even though doing so meant giving the other girl more and more ammunition to use against me. Every word I said gave her more power. Yet I had to take the chance. "You're holding back," I said quietly, watching her reaction. "You could have hurt me several times back there. Your aim with those sonic blasts can't be that bad. You didn't summon your trident until I realized what you were pointing at, giving me a chance to get out of the way. You forced me to let go of it before the shock-trap went off. If you'd done nothing, I would've been holding onto a lightning rod. But you made me let go. And just now, if you had released me completely, I would have hit the ceiling instead of you. You held on and knocked out the ceiling so that I wouldn't hurt myself."
Echo gave no response. She just stood there, weapon up and ready. I gave her a second before continuing. "You're not trying to hurt me. In fact, you're going pretty far out of your way not to, while still making it look like we're fighting. Actually, I'm pretty sure at this point that if you were fighting seriously, I'd be down by now. My question is, why? What are you doing? Why are you holding back?"
"Because we don't want to hurt any of you." The response came not from Echo, of course, but from behind me. Whirling that way reflexively, I found myself staring at another cape girl. This one wore burgundy drawstring pants in a bell-bottom style that left them loose near her feet. Above that, she wore a sleeveless black shirt with a pair of dark red leather gloves, and a matching mask that covered the top half of her face entirely as well as her head, forcing her long brown hair out of the way. I was pretty sure that this was the girl who had spotted all of Sparrow's little eye-balls.
"Yeah, you're real stand-up citizens," I spoke carefully while turning to keep both of them in view. "That's why my teammate's down there playing tiddlywinks and jump rope with yours."
The second girl's head shook. "Vista is fine, she's already handled the situation pretty well. Wham isn't the most subtle or tactical fighter out there. That's why he isn't part of the inner circle."
"Inner circle?" I echoed, frowning in spite of myself. "What the hell are you talking about? Actually, scratch that. Let my teammates go and surrender, then maybe we can chat about your team politics."
"Sorry," she really did sound regretful. "We can't do that. It's too dangerous to our mission. But I can at least introduce myself properly. My name is Atheneum, and I'm the leader of Tender."
I snorted at that. "Right, the leader this week, until the hive mind of your group starts listening to someone else in a few days. Then someone else after that, and so on. Real nice set-up you've got."
Her head shook once. "No, Tether. Not the loudest voice of the week. The real leader."
"Huh?" I couldn't help the noise of confusion then. "Tender doesn't have a leader. That's the whole point. You guys are all about crazy anarchy and no rules and making a new leader every other day."
"That's what we want people to think," she replied simply. "It makes a good smokescreen. Hell, ninety percent of Tender thinks the same thing. They think that we do nothing but break things, have parties, try to piss off the heroes, and fuck up everyone else's day. They don't know what we're really doing, what Tender was created for. Or who our real enemy is."
Still frowning uncertainly, I kept my gaze mostly on Atheneum. Echo hadn't moved. "Real enemy? Don't start that crap with me. I know what you guys do. You convince Wards to leave their teams. You turn good heroes into villains. You destroy everything the Wards build up. That's the whole reason you exist. It's in your damn mission statement. So don't try to tell me you've got some noble purpose now."
"We're not trying to recruit you," the other girl replied flatly. "We don't want you to go anywhere. But we did want to talk to you, just like we are right now. That's why we staged this whole thing."
"Staged?" I echoed in flat disbelief. "Sorry, but the bank robbery downstairs doesn't look staged. I must've been fooled by all the hostages and the fighting."
"You're right, the fighting, the bank robbery, all of that's real." She confirmed. "Well, the robbers themselves came of their own volition. We just jumped in. Most of the others thought it would be fun. Those of us in the inner circle knew that you and the Wards would show up soon enough. Except it was just those boys, and you were the one we wanted to talk to. So we had to stall by taking them prisoner. Sorry, it was the only way to make sure you came in a way that might let us talk, just like this."
"You're serious?" I stared at the girl. "You honestly expect me to believe that you're the leader of a bunch of anarchists and that you did all this just to have a private chat with me? Ever hear of e-mail?"
Her voice was calm. "The illusion of anarchy is important. It shields us. It stops the wrong people from taking us seriously. They don't try to figure out what we're doing because they think it's all nonsense. Most of it is. Ninety percent of what we do is pointless. Most of the places we go don't matter. We recruit Wards that were already giving up inside, who were already disillusioned with the Protectorate. We recruit them and give them another place to stay. And yes, we do some bad things. Lots of bad things. That comes with the territory. But our goal, my goal, isn't about any of that."
"Then what is your goal?" I demanded. "Who is this enemy that you're hiding from? What's the point of all this secrecy? What does making everyone think you're all anarchists accomplish? Hell, what does making most of your team think you're anarchists accomplish? And why would you seek me out?"
It took Atheneum a few seconds before she answered, her voice quiet. "There is an organization that secretly controls everything, Tether. They are behind the Protectorate, the Wards, the PRT, and more cape groups besides that. They can give powers to anyone they want to. They experiment on people from other worlds. They torture and hurt people in the pursuit of their own goals. They create capes and put them in positions of power. They infest teams with their own agents. They even make some capes with triggers to make them lose against certain opponents, just to make the opponent look good so they can rise in the ranks. They're everywhere. The entire Triumvirate, they're a part of it. They all are."
I kept my reaction steady, staring at the girl. A lot of what she was saying fit with what Battery had said, and what I already knew from other sources. But I wasn't going to give that away. "That's a pretty big accusation," I replied as neutrally as possible. "Sounds like more crazy conspiracy theories."
"Sure it does, to most people," Atheneum agreed. "But not to you, because you already know a lot about it. Not everything, but you do know enough to realize that I'm not crazy. You know they're out there, and that if they thought we were a threat, they'd shut us down instantly. That's why we have to hide behind this illusion. We gather our army, but we do it in a way that makes it look relatively harmless. We recruit people that they hurt, we train them, we give them a direction. Most of them won't know that we have a true goal until the time comes to use it. But by then, they'll already know how to work together. Call it anarchy all you want, but the truth is that the more they fight together, the better they get at it. We're training. We're just hiding it behind this... illusion."
"And why would you tell me any of this?" I demanded. "Even if I did believe it, which would take a lot, why would you expose yourself like this? Do you really think I'm not going to tell anyone?"
"I think you're a hero," she responded simply. "And you know as well as I do that if you expose the truth about us, about what we're doing, the people we're hiding from will put an end to us. They will stomp us into the ground to protect their secrets. If you tell your superiors about what we're actually doing, you are pointing that threat right at us." The girl waited a second longer before continuing. "As for why we'd tell you at all? Because you've already taken things from them and lived to tell about it. You helped take those vials. You even had them altered to make the cure that fixed Noelle Meindhardt."
I stared. "You're... well-informed. Any chance you'd tell me how you know all this?"
Her reply was simple. "We have our ways of getting information. But the real reason that we contacted you like this, the reason I'm being this open and honest with you, is that we need your help. I need your help."
"My help?" I blinked again. "My help with what, exactly? Fighting your super-secret conspiracy club?"
"No, that won't come for awhile. We're too weak," she admitted. "I need your help with this." From one pocket, she withdrew a small, familiar looking vial.
"Is that what I think it is?" I took a step closer in spite of myself to see it better.
"One of the power-granting vials," she confirmed with a simple nod. "It took a lot to get hold of this, and even more to stop the rest of the team that doesn't know what we're doing from finding out about it. But I want you to take it to the people who fixed the last vial. I want you to get them to make another cure."
"You know another Case 53," I realized. "Someone close to you."
"My friend," Atheneum confirmed. "His powers are out of control. If we don't fix him, he'll die. And he'll take out most of the city when he does."
She continued to hold the vial out until I took it. Carefully, I held the vial in two fingers, staring at the liquid inside. "You want me to have this turned into a cure to help your friend."
"And to save this city," she added pointedly. "It's in your own best interest, hero. Get it fixed, then send an e-mail about it to this address." She tossed a card in my direction. "I'm trusting you with a lot. I could have lied to you, I could have tried to manipulate you, or force you into it. I'm doing it this way because he's my friend, and I don't think you're a bad person. I'm trusting you. We're trusting you. If you tell your superiors about this, the truth about our group, then we're all dead. You know that. So please, just... know that we're putting a lot in your hands. Think about it. That's all we can ask."
I looked down at the vial again, squinting at the words on it before glancing up.
She was gone.
A look behind me revealed that Echo was gone as well. They had both disappeared. Just as I realized that, Vista's voice came through my comm. "-ting, testing, this thing working yet?"
"Vista?" I replied. "You okay? What's going on?"
"Everyone's fine," her voice came back. She sounded confused. "The bad guys just sort of disappeared all of a sudden. Some kind of teleportation. They left the hostages, but they took the cash. You wanna do a sweep outside in case they didn't get far?"
"No..." I shook my head, still staring at the vial. "They're long gone by now. Let's just make sure everyone else is safe.
"I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of these guys very soon."
Interlude 35 – Zephyr
"Carol! Carol hold on! I'm getting you out, I swear! I'm getting you out, Carol, just sit still!"
High above the city of Brockton Bay, the girl whose youthful appearance belied her true age jerked slightly in the air as voices from the past forced their way into her drifting consciousness. Words that she herself had screamed many years earlier until her throat had felt too torn and ragged to speak. Words that, in the end, had been completely useless. Because the dead didn't need reassurance.
For the past hour or so, she had been gliding along on currents of wind while her gaze passed from building to building, seeking any possible familiar sight in the city of her birth.
There wasn't much, though the blonde woman couldn't begin to guess how much of that was due to the differences between her true world and this one, and how much was due to how young she had actually been the last time she had seen her own version of Brockton Bay. Thirty years was a long time.
She and Carol had been young children when Cerberus had appeared in the middle of Berlin, and not much older than that when their own city had been evacuated to escape the approach of other Titans.
Those early years were a haze. She remembered their mother losing the baby she had been pregnant with, and sometimes lamented losing the chance to have a new baby brother or sister. More often, however, she was glad. A new baby would have meant bringing a child into that world of misery. And, more selfishly, it would have meant spreading their already meager amount of food around even more.
It was that lack of food that had driven the two of them, both barely in their teens, to investigate an abandoned shopping mall while their family's caravan had been stopped for the evening. Desperate hunger had led to rationalizations. They told themselves the place would be safe enough for the short time they were there, ignoring all signs of the damage it had taken and its imminent collapse.
In the end, it had collapsed. Sarah herself had been fine, but Carol had been trapped in a small, confined space. Half-buried by rubble, she had pleaded, begged for Sarah to dig her out. And Sarah had tried. She had tried so hard, shoving and pushing at the heavy debris to no avail while time inevitably ticked away. As Carol's own pleas for help had faded, a sign of her rapidly diminishing oxygen, Sarah's had grown. She had screamed for her sister to hold on, to wait because she was coming. She had promised, had sworn that she would get Carol out, that she would save her.
In the end, she had moved the debris. A single chunk finally shifted just enough to cause another mini-collapse, which cleared a small tunnel. Sarah had dug through enough of that to reach the space that her sister had been trapped inside of, ecstatically crying out that she'd done it, that they were safe.
Except that Carol was already dead. She had suffocated to death, her oxygen gone long before Sarah had managed to dig through enough of the debris to get all the way to her.
Her sister had died from a lack of oxygen, a lack of air. And from that moment onward, the girl who would become known as the Fate-Lord Zephyr had possessed an absolute and total control of air itself.
Seeing this place, being in the city that was the dimensional twin to her birthplace brought back those memories. Closing her eyes, Zephyr could hear both her voice and Carol's, each lost in their own way.
Thirty years since the Titans had appeared. Twenty-five since she'd lost her sister. It was a long time when she thought about it. She had been far closer to forty than twenty before Strix had killed her. But now that her body had been reset to the time that Asclepius had recorded her biology, she was suddenly young again. Young in body, if not in actual mind. She remembered her life, remembered every scar, every long week, month, and year spent carving out something resembling a home on that hellhole. Yet when she looked in a mirror on this world, she saw someone fresh, someone still at the end of their teens. She saw a child, which was funny, because she hadn't been a child even when she'd actually been this age. Even in her late teens, she had still been a leader, a warrior. She had been with Hephaestus then, still learning how to take care of the people who had already depended on her for so much.
Coming here, to this world, had given Zephyr one true hope: that she would see her sister again. The chance to actually see how Carol would have grown up, to witness her beloved sister as an adult, had made her happier and more hopeful than she could remember being for a long time.
But it was not to be. Because even this world's version of Carol was dead and gone, killed by Umibozu. Known in this world as Leviathan. Either way, she was gone. As was her daughter, the girl who would have been Sarah's niece. Her niece. Both had been killed by different Titans, but the result was the same.
But Zephyr didn't surrender to despair. Because she could still see how Carol had grown up. She could see the pictures, see the video, see everything that her sister had done in this world. And more importantly, she could see Crystal and Eric. Her own children, or one version of her anyway. Crystal she had already met personally, while Eric was attempting to get a flight out from the west coast where he was attending a boarding school and would be home for a visit and to meet her as soon as possible.
Meeting another version of herself had been both enlightening and somewhat confusing. Meeting the daughter she might have had was one of the most incredible moments of her life, and one that she wouldn't trade for anything. Crystal, her grown other-world child, looked like her fraternal twin at this point. They could both easily pass that way, and had actually considered doing so.
In the end, she might have lost the chance to meet her grown sister and niece, but she had gained the opportunity to meet the children of her other-self, to get to know them in a way that seemed impossible.
She had no biological children, but she did have the closest thing possible in two different ways. Savant was a daughter to her in every way save for blood. The formerly wild girl who had come to them as the savage daughter to one of the most violent and dangerous raider chieftains in the area had rapidly become incredibly dear to her. She'd only separated herself from Savant to let the rapidly growing girl make her own choices. It had been one of the hardest things that Zephyr had ever done, leaving her with Hephaestus. But it had felt right. Savant had needed a chance to grow into her own person.
One child by adoption, and now two more children by blood, even if that blood came from another version of her. Two completely different ways of gaining children that weren't actually hers.
Shaking herself as she hung there in the air, the woman forced her attention into the present. The moment she did, something else became readily apparent, something that her distraction had hidden.
She wasn't alone. There was something—someone up here in the air with her. They were invisible to normal sight, but to Zephyr, once she was paying attention, the presence was impossible to miss.
"Hello," she spoke aloud while turning in the air to face the invisible figure. It was not, actually, very invisible to her by that point. Now that the woman was focused, the distortions in the air were so blatant that she could actually make out not just the rough figure that floated there, but even details like her hair, the position that her fingers were in, and the expression of shock on her face.
"I guess you don't get a lot of people who can see you, right?" Zephyr spoke gently, trying not to frighten the figure off. Not that she really needed to worry. Far from being scared, the figure in front of her had actually floated closer before moving slowly to one side, lifting a hand and waving it back through the space she had just been in as though testing what the woman could actually see.
"That's your hand," Zephyr politely acknowledged before turning her attention to the figure herself. "And you're there. You make an... impression on the air, and air is something I happen to notice."
Springing back in front of her, the air-figure lifted a hand, showing a number of fingers in rapid succession. The expression on her face, as far as Zephyr could tell, was hopeful, yet pensive. Doubting.
"Three, two, five, three, four." She held her own hand up to show the same fingers. "That's what you wanted to know, right? You wanted proof that I can see you. It's not exact. I can't make out skin or anything. I can't tell what you look like, except for general impressions. I can see the impressions that your body makes in the air, the way it distorts around your figure, even your hair. I can see your fingers. I can even tell that you're smiling right now. Yes, it's that sensitive."
The figure floating there looked far too stunned to do anything else for the moment, so Zephyr continued to speak in as gentle a voice as she could manage to avoid scaring her off. "Are you okay?"
Initially, the figure's first reaction was to move a bit closer, lifting a hand toward Zephyr's cheek. In mid-motion, however, she stopped abruptly. There was a brief pause then before the figure nodded. Immediately afterward, the head tilted curiously, as if the girl was unsure whether Zephyr would actually see the nod or not. This was a girl who had spent so long without anyone being able to see her that she instinctively tried to answer yes and no questions with a brush of her hand across a cheek. The simple act of being able to nod and have someone actually notice was almost alien to her.
She did nothing, said nothing, for a moment. Her gaze took in the invisible figure's expression and the way she held her body while floating there. This girl, whoever she was, had been alone for a long time. She was accustomed not being seen, to barely being noticed. Her fate-trial had been harsh, granting her what was obviously a very powerful set of abilities, yet leaving her invisible and almost completely intangible. The idea that someone could see her, in any way, had left her unsure of what to do.
Zephyr, however, knew what was needed. She had taken care of enough children, had helped to raise Savant, had comforted each of her frightened people through day to day life on Ragnarok to know what she needed to do. It was the only thing shecould do, when faced with this particular situation.
She floated forward on the air, opened her arms, and gave the invisible, intangible girl the closest thing to a hug that she could manage. It wasn't perfect, but her ability to sense exactly where the girl was meant that she could position her own arms where they would have been if she had been solid. Then she just pulled them in a tiny bit more so that, hopefully, the girl would 'feel' it in the same way that she felt anything at all, sensing the touch against her ethereal figure. It was more of a pantomime of a hug than anything else, but it was the best that she could do. It was the least she could do for this girl.
The figure froze, clearly not understanding what was happening for a moment. Then both of her hands came up, hesitantly brushing against Zephyr's back as though returning the hug.
They floated there in the air. To an outsider, it would have looked as though Zephyr was performing the odd show of embracing empty air. It was a hug that each only felt a very small part of. But it was a hug.
After more than a minute of that, the two separated, floating apart from one another. "Did you come up here to get my attention?" Zephyr asked quietly once she had recovered. "I assume someone sent you."
Another pause, and then the figure nodded once more before starting to float away. She stopped after a few feet, turning back to look toward Zephyr. The air shape that formed the girl's expression formed a hesitant smile when the woman immediately began to follow her, and she continued floating down toward the city below, glancing back now and then to make sure that Zephyr hadn't lost her.
Some probably would have said that following this unknown figure was dangerous. Maybe it was. But even after all this time, Zephyr believed in giving people a chance. The expression that she had read through the air currents off of the girl's face had been too delighted at actually being seen for this to be a trap. She didn't know who had sent the girl or why they had chosen to send an otherwise invisible figure who wouldn't have been able to effectively communicate with anyone else, but she didn't believe they meant any harm. If they had, she didn't believe that the invisible girl would lead her there.
Besides, if anyone was that duplicitous, she wanted to be the one to spring the trap and face the consequences, rather than leave anyone else to be put in that situation. Optimism and pragmatism did occasionally mix, particularly when bound together by a sense of responsibility.
Following the invisible girl down to the roof of an old warehouse, Zephyr landed easily before gesturing. "Okay, we're here. What now?"
The answer came not from the figure she had followed, but in the form of a massive swarm of insects that swept across the roof. As little disturbance as they made, their approach was still obvious to her.
As quickly as the bugs had approached, they stopped. Three separate, distinct swarms eased themselves into shapes approximating human form. A moment later, they were human.
"Pandora," Zephyr spoke aloud, greeting them. "Or Pandoras, I suppose. I'm not entirely sure I know all of you yet, let me see." She pointed to the oldest one, the only figure who looked like an adult. "You would be Epsilon." The figure whose dusky skin made her look as though she came from the Middle East was pointed to next. "You're Theta." Finally, she pointed to the figure with bright bubblegum pink hair. "And you would be Delta."
"You are correct, Zephyr-ally." The three all spoke in unison, their voices a haunting melody.
"Good to see a few of you girls again." She gave the trio a smile. "Is there any chance I could have dinner with all of you sometime? There's a lot I'd like to ask you about, after seeing what you did back on Ragnarok."
The three were silent for a few seconds, eyes flicking back and forth as though conversing with not only each other, but many more.
"We have agreed that we would like that, Zephyr-ally," Delta informed her.
"Good. And I suppose that the figures currently climbing up the fire escape are with you as well?" Zephyr guessed.
"You can sense them?" Epsilon asked, lifting her chin curiously. "We find that interesting."
Zephyr nodded once. "Air is everywhere. I sense motion through it everywhere within range. And my range extends pretty far."
"I figured it did," a new voice spoke up as a small, brown-haired girl clambered over the fire escape and onto the roof. She was accompanied by two other figures, one a pretty red-haired girl that looked to be about sixteen or so, and the other a young blonde who was about the same age as the speaker.
"Dinah Alcott," Zephyr realized immediately. "The prophet who happens to be friends with the Pandora collective. I wanted to meet you as soon as Tether explained who you were and some of what you've been doing."
"I wanted to meet you too," Dinah acknowledged. "That's why I sent Keaira to find you as soon as Oversight said you were out in the city." She nodded toward the red-haired girl.
"Keaira, that's... your name?" Zephyr looked toward the almost-invisible figure, who nodded once. That hesitant smile returned when it became obvious that Zephyr had seen the nod. Even something that simple seemed to delight her.
"Which would make you Emma Barnes, I assume." The blonde woman gestured to the red-haired girl before turning to acknowledge the blonde. "And Riley, it's good to see you again. I guess Amy couldn't make this little meeting?" Both Riley and Amy had been crucial for ensuring that her own people were safe to live on this world.
"She's busy like a bee," Riley replied. "Which is weird, cuz she wouldn't let me give her giant bee wings even though I totally could. But she says hi."
"You knew that I'd be able to see Keaira?" Zephyr addressed the calm brunette who had stopped next to the Pandoras.
Dinah nodded. "I had a feeling. And my feelings are usually right."
"Why did you want to meet me?" It was an obvious question, and she didn't feel like beating around the bush. If Tether was right about her, the girl might be the most powerful precog in the world. Her seeking out a conversation with Zephyr was bound to be important.
"Someone else came through the portal before the rest of you did," Dinah began. "Someone who came through the very first time the PRT on this side managed to open it, while you were being revived."
"Blur," Zephyr confirmed. "The others told me. She's a nasty piece of work. Made life hell for a lot people that were just trying to bring supplies through hostile territory. She'd zip through, steal the supplies, medicine, food, things people needed to survive, and then trade them back to those same people for absurd prices, just because she knew how much they were needed."
"We've been looking for her," the other girl explained. "Gamma thought she had a look at her a few days ago, but it was very quick before she was gone. Obviously, there's no pictures of her."
"Yeah, that wouldn't work," Zephyr agreed with a nod. "Part of her power disrupts most electronic devices within her range, with an emphasis on any kind of surveillance. It makes her hard to track, and even harder to identify."
"But you've seen her in person," Dinah pressed. "You'd know her if you saw her."
"Yes, I would," Zephyr lifted her chin. "Why?"
In response, Dinah gestured toward Theta. "Could you?" To the woman, she explained, "The Pandoras can shapeshift. We can't show you a picture, but she can take the shape of the person that Gamma saw. You tell us if it's the right one."
Theta promptly shifted her form, growing into a completely different person within a couple of seconds.
"Yeah," Zephyr only had to glance that way. "That's her. That's Blur. Why are you asking this? Why are you looking for her?"
Letting out a long sigh, Dinah explained. "There's a lot of very bad things that might happen. I see the odds all the time, whenever I use my power to look too far ahead. I see billions of people dead, more than I can even believe. Before that first portal opened, I could see fourteen years into the future before everything stopped. After it opened, after that girl came through, it dropped to two years. From fourteen to two, just because the one you call Blur came through that portal."
Zephyr stared at her. She felt the hope that she had allowed to build up in her, that her family and friends would be safe in this world, plummeting hard and fast. "What? How could one girl affect this world that much? Blur's fast and hard to track, but how does her just being here take your doomsday scenario from fourteen years to two? Like I said, she's not a good person, but something like that?"
"I don't know." It sounded like it was very hard for Dinah to outright admit that. Particularly considering the look of surprise that Emma sent her. "But I had Oversight run that face through the computers of every government agency, and we finally got a match. We know who her twin on this world is."
"Who is it then? Is that why she's so dangerous?" Zephyr pressed. "Is she going to take her twin's place on this world? Who is she here?"
"Nobody," Dinah replied quietly. "Nobody important anyway. I've run her through everything I can, and she's absolutely no one important.
"As far as I can tell, Blur's twin on this world is just an average, ordinary French woman named Lisette."