Evolution: Covert Ops

THE FLYING FORTRESS

LOWER LEVELS

 

The Flying Fortress’s lower levels were carefully maintained by nanotechnology and robots more than humans. It was quiet down here, the air so still that every step that Nat took towards Emi Surikabe’s office seemed nearly deafening, or so Nat imagined they would if ey walked on the ground. Perhaps in the Legion’s prime, these parts of the Fortress would be bustling. Still, though, Nat knew that ey was never alone—Scanner’s eyes were everywhere, watching everything.

Continue reading “Evolution: Covert Ops”

Evolution: Fatale

BLUE NOTE CAFE

NAPERVILLE, IL

 

Nat frowned, tugging at the sequined fabric wrapped tightly over eir hips.

 

“I am not a fan of this costume,” ey subvocalized, smoothing the pencil dress over eir body. “How do you landbounds even walk in stuff like this?”

 

“Landbounds? You have nicknames for us now?” Emi’s voice vibrated up Nat’s jawbone, providing an externally silent means of communication thanks to the Damselfly’s new comm implant. “Are you an Aerial Supremacist now?”

 

“I dunno, maybe,” Nat smirked at no one, “your people have such impractical ritual garb.”

 

“Okay Nat, focus for two seconds. The guy we’re hunting is almost certainly in the audience tonight, and he has connections with the Chicago mob. We don’t know what he looks like, so keep an eye out for anyone with muscle. He likes to rough up sex workers, so your talent should hook him.”

 

“I gotcha,” Nat slipped a blonde wig over eir head and checked eir makeup and costume in the mirror. “Mm-mm. I would take that home.”

 

“Feel free to disable your comm before making more comments like that.”

 

“I’ll think about it.”

 

“Our next act is a brand new debutante from points unknown! Give a warm Naperville welcome to… Audra Natta!” The emcee’s announcement was met with moderate applause.

 

Pressing eir feet to the floor, Nat faked a convincing walk onto the stage, hips swaying. Eir petite size was offset by the four-inch stilletos ey wore, but ey still had to lower the mic stand to sing directly into it.

 

“How is everyone out there tonight,” Nat purred, and the audience applauded a bit louder. Nat started singing in a dusty alto to the pre-recorded track playing over the club speakers.

 

“Offer me diamonds; offer me pearls

make me a princess or queen of the world

I still won’t be happy, though it’s not a bad start

But all I really want is your heart.”

 

Nat looked over the crowd, person by person. If ey had been looking for stereotypical gangsters, ey would have found none: most of the crowd dressed casually or in suits with a modern cut, and not a single fedora could be seen in the audience.

 

“Buy me a big house of the greatest size

buy me the coolest car McGowan can devise

Yes, heap treasures on me, but if you’re really smart

You’ll give up and give me your heart.”

 

Worse, a large portion of the club was comprised of the kind of people who appear to be taking a brief break before returning to bouncer duty. No help there, necessarily.

 

“You could give me your hand but the meat’s too lean

you could give me a dirty look but my plate’s still clean

I need somewhere to sink my teeth, babe, but not down south

There’s just one organ that I want to put in my mouth”

 

The audience seemed to be growing more appreciative of Nat’s performance, laughing and whooping at the morbid parody of sexuality. A few audience members looked different: glassy eyes fixed on the stage, a lack of awareness for anything but Nat. One of these, the hypnotized and helpless, was eir quarry.

 

“Wanna wrap my hand round it, and feel it thud

wanna bite and lick til my chin’s dripping with blood

try to enjoy it, dear, before you depart

just watch me devouring your heart.”

 

As a musical break took over, Nat left the mic, walking out a hip-swaying rhythm and doing some simple, slinky choreography. Eir eyes stayed on the crowd, though, passing over the faces of each potential predator.

 

Moments before Nat had to sing again, the answer came. A desperate-looking man snaked through the crowd, beelining toward one of the glassy-eyed men in an aloha shirt and thick glasses. Feet away, a hulking patron with a similarly colorful shirt stood, placing a hand on the intruder’s chest. The desperate man argued with the goon for several moments, gesticulating toward his intended target, until the muscle got sick of the conversation and hauled him out of the club.

 

The bespectacled man hadn’t even noticed. His eyes stayed fixed on Nat. Bingo. The Damselfly grinned triumphantly, gripped the mic, and started crooning again.

Eir act over but still in the long cocktail dress, Nat walked a slow, weaving line through the club. Ey could feel eyes on em, but ey shrugged it all off. If the Legion’s quarry was who they thought he was, he’d make sure that he got to talk to the mysterious singer first.

 

Nat leaned against the bar and offered the bartender a directionless smoulder. “Yeah, can I get a cosmopolitan?” Ey was willing to do this noir theme, but drew the line at ordering whiskey neat.

 

“All you had to do was ask me,” a voice next to Nat said. Ey turned and found the aloha-shirted man sitting on the next stool over. The man’s goons had arranged themselves in a loose half-circle around them so they didn’t appear to be part of a group, but they were all within neck-wringing distance.

 

“Well, now,” Nat forced a grin, deliberately looking the man up and down, “I didn’t know this kind of cosmo was on the menu.”

 

“Only for the very lucky. Miss Natta, was it?” The man asked. “My name is Robert Bosko. I had to come by and talk to you after seeing your performance. You are a pleasure to watch onstage.”

 

“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Bosko,” Nat held out a delicate, gloved hand, which Bosko took and kissed. “I’m happy that you enjoyed my song.”

 

“There is something inimitable about your stage presence, Audra—may I call you Audra?” Bosko paused to let Nat nod, then continued, “your singing is all right. I am not going to lie. Your singing could improve. But your movements, your stage presence—inimitable.”

 

Nat raised eir eyebrows. “Are you negging me, Mr. Bosko?”

 

“Please,” the man’s face darkened, and Nat saw the hint of something dangerous behind his eyes for only a moment. “Do not compare me to pick up artist trash. I am merely straightforward. See: I find you fascinating and attractive. I wish to speak with you privately over a glass of fine bourbon. There. No criticisms, only interest. What do you say?”

 

Nat grinned. “You have my attention, Mr. Bosko.”

 

“Please. Call me Robert.”

Pressed against the plush seat of a luxury car, Nat painted Robert Bosko with seductive glances. Ey had to admit, there was a certain allure to the man. He was confident, straightforward, and had a situational awareness about him that was easy to find attractive. His, er, “dad bod” looks wouldn’t have been for everyone, but Nat rarely discriminated on that basis. If ey didn’t know more about him, Nat might even have been interested.

 

But Nat did know more, and Nat was not interested. His arm around eir shoulders made eir skin crawl, and ey couldn’t wait to watch a Legion task squad herd this jerk into a custody craft. Thank goodness they were almost—

 

The gentle chime of Nat’s comm implant danced up eir jaw, followed by Emi’s strained voice. “We’ve got a problem, bug.”

 

“What’s going on?” Nat formed the words inside eir mouth. It felt weird to try to talk without vocalizing or even using eir lips, but ey’d practiced it enough that Emi should be able to understand. “I’m almost to his place.”

 

“There’s a Freelancer chasing a bounty in the Arboretum. Your route is gonna take you right alongside it.”

 

“Okay, so what?”

 

“It’s Collateral.”

 

Nat was unable to stifle a sharp inhalation through eir nose.

 

“I hope you’re not having second thoughts, Audra,” Bosko’s smile sent chills down Nat’s spine.

 

“Just allergies,” ey replied, rubbing eir nose coyly before averting eir eyes and taking a few deep breaths.

 

The Freelancer known as ‘Collateral’ had not chosen that name. It was rumored that she was created as a failed experiment to make a hybrid between a human and one of the technosome machine beings, but neither she nor the Freelancers were inclined to talk about her history. Known for her violent temper, weapon-generating body, and determination to complete any contract no matter the cost, Collateral had earned her name when she wiped the entire town of Galesburg off the map during a bounty chase.

 

The Freelancers only called her when something big was going down, and usually evacuated the area first. Come to think of it, there didn’t seem to be many cars on the road.

 

“Can we listen to the radio?” Nat asked, trying to keep eir voice from shaking.

 

“Nothing but crap on the radio,” Bosko shook his head, “damn shame. There used to be a good big band station, but it got replaced with electronic junk.”

 

“I just thought it might be nice to—”

 

“Fine. Giorgio, put on a CD.”

 

Nat clamped eir mouth shut. Ey didn’t want to press eir luck with her mark’s already-dwindling patience, but…

 

“The fight is heading South, Nat, they’re going to end up on the freeway you’re exiting onto right now.”

 

“I don’t know what to do!”

 

“Abort the mission. Focus on your safety.”

 

“But—”

 

“Do not die, bug! You are more valuable than—”

 

“What in the hell?” The driver exclaimed, squinting at something beyond Nat’s vision.

 

“Giorgio, would you please shut your—” Bosko’s voice faltered as he saw the massive wave of pavement approaching the car. “Oh shit!”

 

 

When the dust-choked air cleared enough to see, it seemed ridiculous that they had somehow survived. The asphalt was reduced to rubble, and a few other cars were smashed flat, overturned, or in trees nearby. The car that the three had been riding in was the only one that looked like it had been picked up and gently set down rather than thrown violently. It bore dents and damage and no longer had windows, but it was miraculously still running.

 

Robert Bosko looked around, then frowned at the lounge singer in the next seat over, whose hands were braced against the car’s roof as though she were holding it up.

 

“It’s all right, babe, we’re safe,” he said, and turned to his driver. “What in the hell was that? A bomb?”

 

“B-b-boss….” Georgio stammered, pointing up through the broken glass.

 

Above, a lean humanoid figure descended through the air in a slow arc to land on the pavement. It was dressed in a jumpsuit colored platinum and pale gold, with an androgynous figure and a face completely covered with a matte silver oval mask. The figure was familiar; Nat had seen it on television news stories about a master tactician who could track any variable and loved nothing more than a high kill count.

 

“Oh no,” Nat subvocalised. “It’s Scoremaster.”

 

“Get out of there, Nat!”

 

Moments later, a metal monstrosity slammed into the road in front of the figure. The thing was vaguely bipedal, made of various metals and indistinguishable parts. It was not at all clear how it moved, but each move produced a cacophony of horrid squealing.

 

“Curious,” Scoremaster’s voice had a slightly distant quality, as if it were coming from a loudspeaker nearby. “You had the chance to defeat me before, had you struck without announcing yourself. I was unaware of your involvement. You have squandered that opportunity, and every diminishing one since.”

 

A great roar came from the metal hulk that contained—was—Collateral, and Nat briefly saw a woman’s heavily-scarred face inside, contorted with rage. Deafening reports filled the air as she fired a massive fusillade of bullets at ScoreMaster. He turned gently in the air, dodging them all unharmed.

 

“See?” Scoremaster lighted on the ground, not far from the unharmed car. “No unseen variables exist. What I know, I can predict. You have no means left to harm me.”

 

“All right, all right,” a confident voice drawled. Nat’s head snapped to the side and she saw Robert Bosko, hands held up in a peaceful gesture, cautiously approaching the two paranormals. “Let’s talk this out.”

 

“Robert, no!” Nat scrambled out of the car, remembering just in time to put eir high-heeled feet on the ground and pretend to walk.

 

“Just stay back, babe,” Robert gave her a smirk. “I got this.”

 

“Nat, what in the world are you doing?” Emi demanded.

 

“Being a variable,” Nat replied silently.

 

Scoremaster turned. “Begone, if you value your life.”

 

“Now hang on,” Robert held up a hand. “Listen. I happen to be fairly important, all right? I’m the main supply contact for the Family in Chicago. I bring in a lot of value, yeah? Weapons, drugs, money, manpower. Your little playtime is a little disruptive to my business, and maybe I could make it worth your time to move on. Yes?”

 

“Did you get all that?” Nat subvocalized.

 

“Wow. Um. Yes. I’m gonna send in the squad, please get out of there.”

 

“One more thing,” ey said, walking with careful stops toward the mobster.

 

“Nat no!”

 

Scoremaster turned to face Robert, looming over him. Collateral seemed to confused to do more than stare.

 

“You do not understand my priorities, human,” the Villain said. “You consider yourself important. To me, you are a single point to add to my score, barely worth the miniscule effort it will take to snuff you. You are so unimportant that I need not even consider you as a minor threat variable.”

 

With no warning and no sound, Nat struck. Ey wrapped an arm around Scoremaster’s neck, then swept one leg out from under him. Though unbalanced, Scoremaster immediately reacted, gripping Nat’s arm and preparing to overwhelm the presumed human with crushing strength.

 

He did not have the opportunity. Nat yanked both of them into the air and tumbled into a headlocked somersault, rotating in air at a rapidly climbing pace. In only seconds, Nat was spinning the Scoremaster in midair too fast for either one to be visible as anything more than a blur.

 

For a few seconds, the Scoremaster struggled against Nat, adapting to the new and dangerous variable thrown his way, but the overwhelming motion eventually overcame him, and he went slack in the Damselfly’s arms.

 

Nat responded by wheeling about one last time, shifting eir weight, and driving Scoremaster mask-first into the broken pavement. Ey floated a few inches off the ground, breathing hard, eir wig gone and sequined dress ripped up to the hip.

 

Collateral and Bosko both stared. The gangster finally blurted, “who are you?”

 

Nat shrugged sheepishly. “Nobody important?”


THE FLYING FORTRESS: EMI’S OFFICE

THE FOLLOWING DAY

 

Nat had a large bruise on the side of eir face and was holding a bag of frozen peas to it, but eir grin was genuine and unsullied. Ey pressed down into the chair across from Emi’s desk, straight-backed and attentive.

 

“You risked a lot there.” Emi’s brow was creased with worry, and she seemed to have aged a few years since Nat saw her last. “On one hand, as an agent, you were spectacular. On the other hand…”

“I just… I had this feeling, you know?” Nat’s voice was excited. Ey’d slept for twelve hours after coming back from the assignment, and was evidently just now receiving the payload of adrenaline and endorphins. “It was an opportunity, and either I had to let everything go, and probably let Bosko and a whole bunch of civilians die, or bring him in and prevent further damage from the fight! I wasn’t trying to worry you, I just… couldn’t stand the idea of just letting it all play out.”

 

“No, no, objectively, you’re right. It was the right thing to do. You made a choice under pressure and you executed it perfectly. I am proud of you, bug. And it seems like you’re suited to this line of work. It’s just…” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I would really be quite sad, were you to end up a smear on the pavement.”

“I’d be kind of cranky about it myself,” Nat shrugged, “since I’m supposed to take that cute card witch from the restaurant for an aquarium date. It’d be very rude to stand her up.”

 

Eir shoulders slumped after a moment, realizing just how tasteless the joke had been. “I… know. I’m sorry, boss, I really don’t want to die out there either. I really ought to be more careful, probably, it’s just never a skill I learned. I only survived this far by taking risks, and it’s so natural for me to keep doing it.”

 

“As long as it’s always a calculated risk. You don’t want to end up like Jessica, going for that adrenaline high every time.”

Nat nodded, face thoughtful. “Honestly, it… it was calculated. Everyone’s mood felt almost tangible, each one acting exactly like I expected them to. I never even would have moved if I didn’t know for sure that Scoremaster had written us off as non-threats.”

 

Ey giggled. “Did you read any of the stories? The news sites can’t believe that Collateral won, much less brought someone in alive.”

 

Emi finally smiled. “And you’re not present in many of the narratives, which is good. The Freelancers are eager to claim credit, and the story of a bad girl gone…” Emi hesitated. “Better, at least, is a tempting one. Add in the fact that the Legion still controls our share of media outlets, and you get to stay under the radar. Yes, a success all around, I think. Do you like ice cream?”

Thumbs up. “I’m for it.”

 

“Good. A celebration seems appropriate, and nothing says celebration like ice cream, I think.”

 

“I can think of other things, but you’re my boss, so ice cream is probably better.”

 

“Behave, bug.”

Evolution: Training Montage

THE FLYING FORTRESS

TRAINING FACILITY

Nat floated into the the training room slowly, eyes darting around. The room seemed to contain almost nothing, save for a padded floor and bare, lined walls. Sthenographer had referred to this area jokingly as ‘The Danger Room’, so where was the danger? Behind the walls? Under the floor? Above? Already here, but invisible?

 

Suddenly, the grueling hold-breaking exercises in Emi’s private gym seemed really appealing.

Continue reading “Evolution: Training Montage”

A Stitch In Time: Family Dinner

CHEZ McGOWAN

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

 

Tabitha Armitage was dressed nicely, but not formally. A wide belt bisected her simple black dress, and a brown cardigan covered by a green shawl kept out the lingering March chill. Beside her walked Emi Surikabe, who wore a long-legged black romper with a burgundy silk shirt open and flowing over it.

 

“Apparently ey managed to suss the social situation well enough to know that Scoremaster wouldn’t see a sneak attack? I was equal parts terrified and impressed, if I’m being honest.”

 

“It sounds like Nat is really working out for you, love,” Tabitha smiled.

 

“Ey is. Are? No, it’s is.” Emi smirked. “Still learning. And yes, ey is. I know they’ve been a bit of a handful for you.”

 

“Nothing compared to Alice,” Tabitha laughed, and they stopped in front of the front door to the McGowan household. “Speaking of, are you ready?”

 

“Yes! I’m excited, actually; I haven’t seen the kids in too long.”

 

“Agreed,” Tabitha said, then rang the doorbell.

 

Alice McGowan opened the door, dressed in turquoise and fuschia. The bold jewel tones looked good on her, although she had a slightly strained smile. There was the smell of something burnt in the kitchen. Tim, her son, stood on the staircase behind her, waiting patiently for his two “Aunties” to enter and give hugs and kisses.


“So good to see you both.” Alice said.  “Please, come in, both of you. Scott’s just, ah, getting some catering. He’ll be right in.”

“Oh dear,” Tabitha smiled, offering Alice a hug. “Sorry if things went awry.”

 

Emi followed Tabitha in offering Alice a hug, then immediately slipped under her arm and swept Tim up in a big hug. “Tiiiim! How’s my guy?”

 

“Auuuuntie!” Tim squealed as the short woman spun him around after a long hug. “I’m going to school with civilians now, an’ I made some friends, an’ -”

“Hold on, Tim, don’t talk her ear off.” Alice said, smiling. “Why don’t you go set the table?”

He nodded and bounded off, full of energy.

 

“You have to tell me all about it over dinner!” Emi called after him, then chuckled. “He’s gonna forget to tell me all about it.”

 

“I’m sure you’ll remind him,” Tab pulled the door shut behind her. “Are you doing all right, Alice? Just regular stress, or is something else bothering you?”

 

“…It’s Ruth,” Alice finally admitted, folding her arms across her chest defensively, keeping her voice low. “She’s Emerged.”

 

She paused, biting her lower lip. “She’s a Null.”

 

“Oh, Alice,” Tabitha placed a hand on Alice’s shoulder.


“I’m going to go help with the kitchen,” Emi said, slipping away quietly. “I think you two need a minute.”

 

“How are you doing with it, hon?” Tabitha took both of Alice’s shoulders in her hands and pulled her closer.

 

“I always wanted her to be special, to be… one of us. Tim is, and I always thought she was just a late bloomer. But this? Being Null is no easy path. I want better for her, but…”

“It’s not easy, but who better to make it livable than you?” Tab drew Alice into a close hug. “Ruth will still have a good life. She’s your daughter. I know this is hard on you, too, that you were expecting… something else. But Scott is here for you, and Emi and I are here for you, and we are all here for Ruth. It’s going to be okay.”

 

“Thank you, Tabs. I’m sure it’ll get better, it’s just… gosh, it’s easier to be a General than a mother some days.” She smiles, and then the front door swings open once again.

“work easier than life? don’t get me started,” Tab murmured.

 

“Who’s hungry?” Enter Scott McGowan, holding bags labelled with BURGER CHURCH. “It’s still hot.”

 

“Well this certainly takes me back,” Tabitha laughs, eyeballing the bags. “I haven’t had Burger Church in years.”

 

“It’s good!” He grins. “I mean, the new fry recipe isn’t as good as the old one, but that’s okay. Can’t have too many carbs, I’m gettin’ old.” He shrugged off his jacket, revealing the MERCURY unit underneath. “Hey, you guys go ahead and get started, I’ll join you in a second. This thing ain’t much suited for dinner with the family.”

 

THE MCGOWAN DINING ROOM



The McGowan dining room was significantly more cozy than a stranger would likely have expected of the Earth’s premier Legionnaire family, but Tab and Emi were well used to it by now. Ruth was sitting at the table already, nose buried in a book. Tim fiddled with the silverware. Alice’s face creased into the slightest frown at the burger bags, but sat down without complaint.

 

As everyone settled in, Emi asked, “So, Alice, Scott, how’s work? Anything exciting going on?”

 

“Let Alice say grace first, Emi,” Tab reminded.

 

“Oop! Right, sorry.”

 

Alice smiles gratefully. “Thank you, Tabs. Thank you O Lord, for these gifts…” She kept her head down, reciting the old familiar prayer. Scott made eye contact with Emi over the table and gave a small, slightly exasperated smile. By the time Alice looked up, his face was jovial as before.


“Well, y’know, I’ve been in the garage a lot lately, working on projects. Kind of thinking about the whole semi-retirement thing,” he mused, spearing some fries on his fork and dipping them generously in gravy. “On the other hand, not sure how much work there is for a guy like me these days.”

“I have faith in your ability to never run out of projects, Scott,” Tabitha smiled, “I’ve seen you solve enough problems that may not have existed before you set out to solve them.”

 

“Well, there’s some underwater sort of exoskeletons I’m looking at – you know, the MERCURY isn’t really equipped for underwater, and there’s been revelations that make me think we really oughta be ready for that sort of thing. I mean, I’ll always be happy in the garage, but part of me itches for front line action again.”

“There’s less and less of it these days.” Alice sighs. “You know how it is, with the Freelancers…”

“Didn’t we agree they ain’t appropriate dinner table talk?”

“I know.”

“I promise I don’t mean to maintain a contentious line of conversation, and I’ll drop it if you’d like,” Emi cut in, “but I’m seeing some very encouraging coalition-building between Freelancer and Legion agents. Nat has been making friends with anyone who isn’t a Villain, and it seems to be going very well.”

 

“Maybe, maybe, some of their new recruits are worth working with.” Alice grinds her teeth. “But the organization is corrupt down to the core, if you ask me. Did you know they stole some of Scott’s work, used it for their own means? One of them threw me off a roof.”

“Hon. Yes,” Tabitha said. “We remember. We’ve known you for more than the years it’s been since those things happened. You’re right that there’s still corruption in the Freelancers, but Emi’s right too. The proliferation of social media, networking, and friendship across factional lines is something I’ve been watching myself, and it’s hard not to feel somewhat optimistic about it.”

 

“Well -” Alice began, but Scott cut her off.


“Did you know that we moved the kids into civilian schools, speaking of factions and optimism and all of that good stuff. They’re really flourishing. Great staff, great teachers.”

“Tim was telling me! That’s great to hear.’ Emi grinned, then directed her next question toward the McGowan offspring. “It can be a lot of work to adapt to new environments like that. Are the other kids treating you okay?”

 

“Yeah, we were playing tag, and everyone agreed that since I’m suuuper fast, it wasn’t fair to have me on a team, so everyone just tried to chase me, and it was so much fun, and I got up the jungle gym, and then one of them grabbed me as I went down the slide, and then Mrs. Sanderson told us we had to be careful, so we started playing some other games…”

Ruth just shrugs, pushing the fries around her plate. “They’re okay.”

“Well you can tell me all about it when we play later!” Emi told them, glancing up at Scott and Alice to read their reactions to the kids before returning her eyes to them. “School is real hard work, but you two are gonna do great at the new one.”

 

“Have you talked to Miss Herja about your plans for the MERCURY, Scott?” Tabitha asked. “She’s been doing some exosuit R&D lately, and would probably have useful things to contribute.”

 

“Oh, yeah, she’s been great.” Scott grins. “She’s on another level in a lot of ways, just… us technokinetics or whatever you call it each have our own brand of genius. I’m an execution guy, she’s an ideas person… It works out super well.”

“It’s all utterly alien to me, but it’s just fascinating to see what the lot of you come up with,” Tabitha says, neatly annexing a portion of her burger with fork and knife. “Valkyrie’s just everywhere these days. It’s inspiring. Perhaps when you retire, you could open up a workshop for hire with her.” It wasn’t clear whether that was in jest.

 

“Aw, hell -” Scott began, and Alice cut in.

Scott -”

“Heck, we’ve taken over a good portion of the fortress already, and we’re starting to bring in some real income. Enough that Alice is thinking about re-starting programs like the Kids Corps, we can finally afford to start bringing in real Administrative talent too. I know that’ll be a relief to you, Tabs.”

“I won’t know what to do with myself!” Tabitha faked a laugh for a moment, then deadpans: “For all that is good and holy, yes. To say my hands are full is a gross understatement.”

 

“She’s sleeping in her office,” Emi complained.

 

“I’m sleeping in my office,” Tab acknowledged, looking sheepish. “Things got a lot easier once we hired the Sthenographer, but that only made me realize all of the things that had been put off before she showed up. It hasn’t been great for my stress levels, if we’re being honest.”

 

“It hasn’t been great for your love life either,” Emi muttered under her breath, but audible enough to hear.

 

Emi, not at the table.” Alice chided. “But yes, I’ve been stepping up my recruitment. We’re finally starting to rebuild the Administrative sector. It’s hard, because if I find a promising candidate, I have to get them to sign ASAP. Cheney keeps poaching talent. But the promise of serving the Legion and having moral values seems to be a draw.”

“Yes, some of them slip away rather fast, don’t they,” Tabitha paused with a forkful of burger partway to her mouth. “At least the Freelancers didn’t get ahold of that Pariah girl. She seems to be doing a fairly good job over in Detroit. Markus worked with her briefly and had nothing but good things to say.” She put the forkful of burger in her mouth.


“She’s open to working with us?” Alice’s eyes brightened. “Oh my goodness, does she have an address?”

Tabitha held up a hand until she finished chewing. Then, “easy, hon. The coffin squad happened to be in her territory and she helped them contain a Wheird. I’m not sure how open she is to working with us outside of defending her home. We don’t have her address.”

 

“She did show up at Nat’s club when ey invited people, though,” Emi pointed out. “And there were both Legionnaires and Freelancers there. It seems like she’s at least not holding a grudge toward our agents.”

 

“Well, that’s good at least. I’m sure Scanner can help me find her. Once she hears my recruitment speech, I’m sure she’ll sign up.”

“We’re, ah,” Emi broached the topic in a delicate tone, “we’re actually thinking of something a bit subtler, Alice.”

 

“In my experience,” Alice says, looking proud. “Subtlety is highly overrated.”

Tabitha and Scott exchanged a Look, then Emi and Tabitha exchanged a Look, then Tabitha shifted in her seat, eyes down, before looking directly at Alice. “Actually, Alice… we’re going to send in the Damselfly.”

 

Alice considered this information briefly, before sighing. “I don’t have to like it,” she finally said.

 

“I would never ask such a thing of you, hon,” Tabitha said. “It’s just a matter of… the one thing we know about Miss Pauker’s MO is that she will show up if there’s a threat to her territory. Nat brings threats close to emself by nature. This is our best bet at having Pariah and Damselfly on the same side in the same room with a strong motivation to work with each other. If we’re going to establish a positive dynamic with Pariah, this is our best bet.”

 

“That sounds like a great idea.” Scott said with just a touch too much enthusiasm. Alice glanced at him, and then gave another sigh. “Kids, are you listening? Once you start your after school program with the Kids Corps, you’ll have to tackle problems with these. And it’s very important to be a hero who does the right thing, isn’t that right?”

Emi and Tabitha both bobbed their heads in agreement to reinforce the lesson.

 

Tim eagerly launched into another long speech about his thoughts on heroes and the Kids Corps. Ruth, meanwhile, had evidently finished pushing fries around her plate. “Mom, can I be excused?”

“Put your plate in the sink, please, honey.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know.”

“Nat is doing really well, honestly,” Emi said once Tim’s speech was finished. “Ey nonlethally subdued a Villain while on a completely unrelated mission, and did so more safely than I care to tell em. Ey… needs to tighten up on the combat awareness, but I’m very proud.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve met the kid yet.” Scott says, thoughtfully. “Probably seen ‘em around in the cafeteria, though. Kind of short, floaty, redhead?”

“That’s our Nat,” Tabitha confirmed with a slight hint of weariness in her voice. “Ey’s been a handful for me, honestly. I think that ey might already be–” her eyes darted to Tim, then back to her plate “–close… friends… with Brozerker and Jupiter Strike, and apparently ey’s started dating that cartomancer we’re trying to recruit? Nothing’s exploded yet, but I’m trying to stay braced in case something does. And I can’t deny that ey has already been an extremely effective covert agent.”

 

“Mm.” Alice said, lips thinning in disapproval. “Who wants dessert? I managed not to burn that, at least.”

“Dessert would be lovely, thank you,” Emi smiled brightly. Tabitha nodded as well.

 

Before long, Alice had carved up a decadent triple chocolate layer cake, serving large slices to everyone at the table. “Oh, speaking of Administration, Tabitha… Ah, well, there’s something you should know.”

Tab raised her eyebrows and inclined her head slightly; a ‘go on’ gesture.

 

“…Helen Havelock wants to return to the Legion. In a strictly civilian role, of course, considering her… injuries.”

Tabitha and Emi both froze in place, blinking in surprise, a forkful of cake already halfway to Emi’s face.

 

“Helen Havelock?” Tabitha breathed. “I’ll be damned.”

 

Alice smiled widely. “She’s actually a very nice woman. We talked for a while. She had a lot of advice for me.”

Well, that was no surprise. Helen Havelock had founded the Legion herself, taking on the title of Excalibur. Wielding golden armour and a longsword, she had fought the forces of the Third Reich, the enemies of humanity, and been a vanguard for social change. Without her, there would likely be no Legion. It was a shame her powers had been stripped away by the Battle of New York, so long ago…

 

“And, just for saying that word in my house, you can put the dishes in the dishwasher.” Alice said, half-teasing. Only half.


“I was going to do it anyway,” Tabitha teased back, her tone prim to the point of exaggeration. “So there.” She stood and walked around the table, collecting the empty plates and glasses.

 

“What kind of advice did Mrs. Havelock have for you, Alice?” Emi asked, sounding genuinely curious.

 

“We talked about the pressures of the lifestyle, and the difference between then and now. But most importantly, she told me to always keep faith. She puts the same emphasis on faith as I do. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Oh, absolutely!” Emi agreed. “We all have different things keeping us going, and it can be very important to find mentors who can identify with that. I’m happy for you, Alice.”

 

“Don’t be happy for me,” Alice jokes. “Be happy for Tabitha. Helen knows the Legion like the back of her hand. I’m sure she’ll be a big help in the coming days, and maybe Tabitha can sleep in a gosh danged bed.”

“She’d better, if she doesn’t want me to bring other people into it,” Emi smirked.

 

“Emi! We weren’t gonna–” Tabitha hissed from the doorway, then pressed her lips together and chirped, clasping her hands. “Dishes are done!”

 

“Tim, hon, why don’t you go set up your Nintendo?” Alice waited until her son left the room and then looked at her guests with wide eyes. “Are you thinking about divorcing?”

“I’m sure it was a joke,” Scott says, standing and putting a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “You know how crazy hours can get to a person, right?”

“Of course I was joking!” Emi laughed nervously.

 

“No no no!” Tabitha also laughed, also nervously. “We wouldn’t– that’s not what I meant at all.”

 

“We were just joking about the whole thing,” Emi shot a look at Tabitha so pointed that even Alice could catch it.

 

Tabitha wiped her brow. “Can I make some decaf for anybody?”

 

Alice glanced between the two of them, and then a lightbulb flared to life above her head. “Oh! Oh. I see. You know, I uh- I’ll take my coffee um, caffeinated. Black, please. Nice and strong, ha… ha!”

“Caffeine for everyone!” Tabitha disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Emi sweating silently, eyes darting between Scott and Alice.

 

“….. soooo.” Emi said.

 

“We – don’t need to discuss anything any further, thank you.” Alice says, red in the face and making intense eye contact with a light fixture. “Especially not with both of my children home. Your home, your marriage, your business.”

“Sure, s-sure,” Emi stammered, eyes averted. A moment later, she put her hands on the table and blurted, “it’s just–“

 

“Emi!” Tabitha rebuked from the kitchen.

 

“You guys are our best friends!” Emi continued, ignoring her wife’s objection. “It felt like lying to you. I lie to enemies, politicians. I don’t want to lie to friends. I hate lying to friends.”

 

Tabitha appeared in the doorway. “Emi, if Alice doesn’t want to know, Alice doesn’t want to know.”

 

“But she was–“

 

“It’s her call. Not ours.”

 

“What is there to know?!” Alice suddenly said, incredulous. “You – you have… extra… lovers. Okay, I know that. I’m aware. Are you planning to introduce me to any of them?”

“Well, we don’t, actually.” Tabitha folded her arms and shrugged. “Not yet. Look, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have said anything, all right? I’m sorry, Scott, this must be terribly awkward for you.”

 

Emi put her face in her hands.

 

Scott leaned back in his chair, muttering: “Christ, this is hideously awkward, yeah.”

Alice was too shaken to even chide Scott on taking the Lord’s name in vain. “I… support… you? If you’re happy, that’s… good? And fine?”

“Thanks,” Tabitha replied, her voice as flat and cold as slate. “You know, I don’t really need coffee after all. Emi, I’m going to go get some fresh air.”

 

She walked out of the dining room with long, measured strides. Emi didn’t move.

 

Scott moved over to his friend and put an arm around her shoulders. “Hey.” he said. “Alice, why don’t you go check on Ruth?”

 

Alice acquiesced, standing and leaving the room, her face still incredulous and confused.

 

“Hey. Emi. Look at me.”

Emi turned her face toward Scott, lowering her hands. She wasn’t crying, but there was clear despair behind those deep brown eyes.

 

“What’s up?” He asked, keeping things simple at first. “Is this about the lying thing, or something else?”

“We weren’t expecting anything, Scott, we weren’t trying to… get you guys to do anything. This wasn’t supposed to change things, it was for us to actively be in each other’s lives. To be honest.”

 

“Yeah, I get that. Look, we’ve been kind of distant lately, but… hey, y’know, we’re all working and things are tense ‘cause of work and politics and all of that. But if you’re happy in your marriage, we think that’s rad and of course we support you. And you know Alice has come a long, long way that she said she supported it as well.”

 

He cracked a warm smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “So, that’s out of the way. All of our cards are on the table. We’re still here. Let’s make this more regular, yeah? Keep the momentum building, work on going back to how things used to be, back when we were… what, in our 20s? We were so young.”

“Cards on the table,” Emi murmured, eyes downcast, then looked back up. “Scott, Tabitha is still in love with Alice.”

 

“Huh.” Scott said, and drummed his fingers on the table, processing that. “I didn’t know she was in love with Alice in the first place. Then again, I’ve been pretty oblivious to this sort of thing. And hey, look, Alice is an incredible woman. It’s hard to blame Tabitha, God knows I’ve fallen for her charms as well.”

“She was. Is. And it’s never hurt me or made me feel like Tab didn’t want to be with me. But she’s had this locked up for decades now, and I wanted– I told her that she should… say something. Not to change anything, just to stop holding onto it. But it’s Tab.”

 

“Tabs likes to sort things nicely and compartimalize them. She has her little filing cabinet over here for work –” Scott taps the side of his head. “And this little filing cabinet over here for the marriage, and I’m sure that Alice goes into another filing cabinet. That’s her system, and I think she likes to keep her files nice and separate. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. You two are just different.”

“I know.” Emi sighs. “I’ve known that for a long time. But I guess I needed to hear you say so. I don’t know. I just feel like it’s something I hoped she’d do, and then this happened and she’s going to clam up about it for another twenty years. I don’t really think it’s good for her.”

 

“Eh, we all indulge in shit that’s a little bad for us. You’re still in the field despite your knee injury, I’m still married to Alice -” he gives a wicked grin. “Seriously, it’s one thing to love her from afar, but bein’ in the thick of it is a whole other ball game. I have a few cigarettes… It’s great of you try to and fix things, but Tabs is an adult, she can make her own choices. Even bad ones.”

Emi frowned. “Yeah, I noticed– is stuff okay, Scott? Are you and Alice okay?”

 

“Yeah, we’re okay. She’s a great mom, a great person. This sounds arrogant, so you’ll have to forgive me – I’m a genius, and she’s… not. She’s a little dim. It was hard to deal with for a while, so we went into counselling, worked on some stuff. She’s a good woman. She has so much love to give. Y’know? Before I ended up with her, I dated around, slept around. I know what a good relationship is and isn’t, and this is. Even if she’s ah, kind of a doof sometimes.”

“I’m not going to try to tell you that you’re not a genius, Scott,” Emi smirked, “nor that Alice’s intelligence isn’t… focused elsewhere. And I’m very glad that things are fine. The two of you are good for each other.”

 

Emi took a deep breath, then let it out and glanced back up at Scott. “Do you think less of us, Scott? For opening up our marriage?”

 

“Absolutely not. I’d be a massive hypocrite if I did. I slept around for a decade straight before I ended up with Alice, and if she offered me the same deal, I’d be – well, I’d be tempted. You’re like a sister to me, Emi, alright? Your marriage ain’t gonna change that.”

“All right. Thank you.” She sighed. “I should go retrieve my wife. Knowing her, her brain has already eaten itself with anxiety.”

 

“And I should take care of my wife as well.” Scott gives Emi another hug. “Bowling. Next Friday. A McGowan-Armitage-Surikabe affair. I expect you guys at the lanes in the goofy shoes and big smiles at seven sharp.”

“I look forward to beating all three of you into the finely-polished floor,” Emi grinned.

 

Recovery: Debrief

THE FLYING FORTRESS
INFIRMARY

 

Nat was awake again. Still badly injured from eir encounter with the Villain known as Sin, ey was slowly recovering. Ey was still strapped to the bed, but no longer bled through eir bandages. Surgery had removed the communication implant attached to eir lower jaw, and ey was waiting on a replacement to be installed.

 

In the meantime, ey played around on eir phone.

 

There’s a gentle rap on the door. “Bug? You up for some company?”

“Oh god, yes,” Nat’s head lolls back. “I’m so fucking bored.

 

“Good. I brought dumplings from home, home cooked, and I purchased some drinks and a hand held entertainment unit for you. The Nintendo something or other. I know, I know, you want to be out now, you want to  go home. I’m not authorized to clear that.” She busied herself serving food onto paper plates.

 

“Oh wow you’re still the best boss ever though,” Nat’s face lit up, “for real, you brought me—these are homemade? Damn, these are the tidiest gyoza I’ve ever seen. Look at that crimping!”

 

“I’m trained in many things.” Emi winked. “Benefits of my upbringing. Eat up. You need your strength. And I could use a meal too, I’ve spent the morning yelling at people. Very taxing.”

“Ooh, dish.”

 

“Let’s just say Estelle is lucky that she’s an old, sick woman, or else I wouldn’t have gone easy on her.” Emi says grimly. “And I purchased both Alice and Sawbones floral arrangements for their part in saving you and getting you back in good health, of course.”

“I appreciate what they both did,” Nat rubbed eir jaw at remembered pain, “but I’m really glad that a different doctor is doing the comm replacement. Doc Sawbones is… not gentle.”

 

“No,” Emi agreed. “She believes that being the best does not necessarily require a gentle touch, nor a bedside manner. But she is the best at what she does, even if she infuriates everyone in a two mile radius. And your health is the most important.”

“Yeah,” Nat murmured, eyes going a little distant. “They tell me I almost died of blood loss. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life, like I was on fire and my life was siphoning away from me. I guess it was.”

 

“Which is why you will NOT be working with Estelle ever again, no matter what she says about prophecies and the future. I will NOT allow it.”

“You’re the boss, Boss,” Nat agrees, nodding. “I thought it was just gonna be a party, going in.”

 

“That’s the problem with this world of ours. You never really know what you’re getting into. One time we had a party at the McGowan Mansion – this was before Scott and Alice were together, and Scott’s date was, ah…” Emi pops a dumpling into her mouth and chews thoughtfully. “A Villain of sorts, incognito. I think that might have been what pushed him out of his phase of dating random women for a night or two.”

Nat eats eir first dumpling. “Wow. Good. Really good, boss, I could take lessons from you and that’s saying something. Anyway, that’s interesting. I still haven’t met the guy.” Ey uses eir chopsticks to poke a hole in the side of the next dumpling, dunks it into the dipping sauce, and holds it there until it’s good and dead before eating it.

 

“You should. He’s a brilliant man, crucial to the war effort, a war hero… And a good friend. A very good friend. I think you would like him.”

“And I probably shouldn’t hit on him, huh.”

 

Emi shrugs. “He’d find it funny. Alice wouldn’t.”

“Alice doesn’t find anything funny. It’s what makes her so funny,” Nat smirked. “Did you need me to debrief, or do you already know everything that there is to know?”

 

“Let me hear your take on what happened.”

Nat sighs. “Okay, so. To be honest, everything went… mostly okay right up until the end. Eternium was too fast for me, but that was our tactical error, and it was bound to happen someday. I was the bait, he came at me, grabbed me by the face, hit me against somethin’. I passed out. Came out of it beat up, but mostly all right.

 

“It wasn’t until… the rewards. That things got real bad. Estelle,” Nat frowns, then lowers eir voice, “…cheated Sin. She cheated him. I’m sure he’s the scum of the earth but she made a deal and she tried to monkey paw it and to be honest, I can’t blame him for being mad.

 

“But he decided that the only thing to do was kill her, and we were in the way of that.”

 

Emi’s lips thin into a line of barely suppressed rage. “Estelle left that little detail out.” She says, voice tight. “We’ll have to have another talk, she and I.”

“She told us that she’d reward us. Give us jewels or whatever. At the end, most of us got something we wanted. But with Sin… she showed him photos of a ring. Said he’d get it when he’d made up for his crimes.” Nat frowned. “That was shitty, I feel. Anyway, Sin walked away and then turned the whole bar into shrapnel, threw it at her with his telekinesis. I tackled him and started spinning, but he hit me with that spiky chain, then threw me through the debris. People, um. People tell me that I bounced off the banister and got stuck in the chandelier.”

 

“How dare she? How dare she? She thinks that she can work outside of the Legion, her dalliances with Nova are one thing, but this… You could have died. You could have died.”

“Boss,” Nat blinked, a little surprised at the outburst. Ey reached toward Emi’s arm, but the restraint held em back. “It’s okay. I’m alive. The doctor said I’d be field ready within the week. It’s… it’s okay.”

 

“I am glad you are okay, Nat, but – you’re okay because of Alice and luck and Sawbones. You could have very easily not been okay.”

“Well, who’s to say one of my lures won’t end up being a Sin someday?” Nat says, softly. “I’m gonna die someday, and it’s probably gonna be on a mission. Right?”

 

“Bug, no. I’ve served for decades, now, and so will you. We will make you someone who can stop a Sin, stay alive. Understand?”

“O-okay.” Nat’s face still seemed a little surprised, like ey couldn’t quite wrap eir mind around the idea of not being disposable.

 

“You matter, Bug. Alright? And I will never fail you like this again. I am going to have another talk with our Ms. Prestwich… but for now, eat up, rest up. Do you like the game system?”

“Oh, uh, it looks fun!” Nat smiles. “I don’t know much about video games, but while I’m stuck here seems a good time to learn ’em!”

 

“You might like this one. Animal Crossing?” Emi looks to the side. “I had Scott pull some strings. There, ah, should be a custom avatar in the game. No ‘are you a boy or a girl’ choices. I know that’s important to you.”

Nat stared at Emi, wide-eyed, for several seconds. Ey looked down at the game system, then back up, then burst into tears.

 

“You – you don’t like it? I’m… I’m sure we can find a game you do like!”

“I—I—” Nat sobs, “n-no one’s ever done anything like this for m-me before! N-no one!”

 

“Ah -” Emi said, still looking uncomfortable. “You’re family, Nat, I… I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I th-thought the club would be the closest thing I ever had to family.” Ey snuffled, trying in vain to raise a wrist to wipe eir face, but the restraints weren’t long enough. “Fuckin’—boss, can you loosen these so I can wipe my face and hug you.”

 

“Absolutely.” Emi leans over and adjusts the restraints. “I would love a bug hug.”

Nat drifted forward and wrapped eir arms around Emi, crying into her shoulder.

Bonding Agents: Angel Awakens

THE FLYING FORTRESS

MEDICAL CENTER

 

Beep.

 

A hand stirred.

 

Beep.

 

Head felt light. She tried to lift her hand, feel her head. It snagged. There were IVs going into her and threading out. What?

Beep.


Didn’t make sense. Her eyes fluttered open. It was bright and washed out and everything hurt.

 

A voice: “She’s awake.”

And then the sound of someone in heels running towards her.

 

Didn’t make sense.

 

“Alice,” the voice sounded muffled, like it was coming through water, but she could tell that it was thick with emotion too. “Alice, don’t move too much. You’re all right.”

 

All right? Her head swam. That didn’t make sense either. She was the Oathkeeper. “Where am I?” She muttered. “Where’s Scott?” She suddenly tried to sit up, panicked. “Oh God, the kids –”

Slender hands pressed her shoulders. Gentle strength. “Scott is sleeping. The kids are being looked after. Even Nat is fine now. Everyone is all right.”

 

Her blue eyes struggled to focus. Tabitha’s face danced in and out of sight for a moment before becoming clear. “I’m not alright.” She protested. “Something’s wrong, I… New York. I was in New York…”

“I promise we’ll go over everything, hon,” Tabitha’s voice was smooth, soft, gentler than Alice had heard it in many years. “But right now, please just… focus on resting. Try to relax. Please.”

 

“I have to find her -” Alice protested, trying to sit back up – and then the gentle beep in the background accelerated. There was a click, and a soft hiss of a sedative being administered. She fell back against the pillows. “Have to find her -” she managed to get out…

 

And then she fell back asleep.

 

Time passed, and her eyes drifted open again. She had stitches, but her wounds were starting to knit themselves shut at an inhumanly quick pace. There was a sharp pain inside her of bones shifting, rearranging.

 

Alice cried out.

 

Two sets of hands on her at once, gentle, steadying. Both firm, strong, one set steady and calloused and familiar, one slender and careful and deliberate.

 

Then, moments, later, a third set. Tiny, like a child’s, but more steady, more articulate.

 

They steadied her, one stroked her arm. Soothing voices.

 

“–Hurts -” Alice gasped out. “I want my kids, I want -”

A nurse spoke. “She’s healing herself, and if we bring a Null into the hospital -”

“She’s not a Null, she’s my daughter, she’s not a Null -”

 

Click.

 

Hiss.

 

Darkness.

 

And then, finally, she opened her eyes and felt… tired. So tired.

 

“She’s awake again, y’all,” Nat was literally hovering directly over her. Moments later, Scott and Tabitha hovered in a slightly less literal sense.

 

“Welcome back, hon,” Tabitha murmured.

 

“Nat!” Alice wanted to hug the Damselfly, but she was still restricted. She settled for pulling herself up to a sitting position. Scott fussed, pushing pillows behind her and cranking up the back of the bed. “You’re okay. Thank God you’re okay.”

“Oh my god, General Mom, think of yourself for like five seconds.” Nat took one of her hands with both of eirs. “I was out of the hospital the very next day. But you… it’s been a week, Alice.”

 

“A week?” Alice furrowed her brow. “I… that doesn’t make sense. I haven’t lost that much time since -” No, not Hong Kong, that had been two days. Not the Arachnid Queen’s lair, either, that had been three. Or four. And she had never been unconscious. Captured, hiding, sure. “I’ve never… That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Smokescreen’s abilities lengthened your suppression, hon,” Tabitha’s voice was tight. “You had to know how weak you were feeling. You… you couldn’t summon your armor.” Her voice cracked a little at the memory of the video she couldn’t keep herself from watching.

 

Scott glanced at Tabitha. “Y’know, Nat, I think… one of the nurses said something about needing a reminder. Maybe we should go for a walk. Get some coffee.”

“Yeah,” Nat floated gently backward. “The Boss will wanna know that Alice is talking, anyway.”

 

Scott squeezed Alice’s hand with an I’ll be right back smile, stood, and stole away with the Damselfly trailing after.

 

“It’s starting to come back.” Alice furrowed her brow. “I… I went to Scanner. Callister! Callister Rayne, that’s it, that’s the name. I… I found him. He ran. I chased him. And then Sin…” She moved her hand to toy with a strand of her long hair in thought, and found nothing. Alice felt the side of her head. “They – they shaved my head – Why did they? -”

“You had lacerations all over your body, Alice. All over,” Tabitha’s voice was so quiet as to be barely audible. “Hundreds of stitches. They couldn’t… they couldn’t get to them all with your hair in the way.”

 

“Oh, God, my hair! Scott loves my hair, I -”

“Alice!” The cry escaped Tabitha’s mouth, then she clapped a hand over her mouth. She squeezed her eyes shut, and a single tear trickled down one cheek. When she unclenched and lowered her hand, her face was composed again, but the tear’s track down her cheek remained. “Would you just… please. Think of your own well-being right now. You nearly died.”

 

Tabitha had been working with Alice for nearly two decades now. She knew every quirk of the paladin’s face. And she knew that the look coming across the Oathkeeper’s face right now was the beginning of denial.

 

“I –  I – I can’t die, I – No, look, it’s…”

“You can, you nearly did, and you will if you keep thinking that you can run after threats without thinking,” Tabitha’s voice stayed controlled for now, but there was a wobbly undercurrent beneath it, “what you did was… was so—” she clenched her jaw and shook for a moment.

 

Necessary!” Alice’s voice was rising. “It was necessary! If I had been stronger, if I had forced myself harder and manifested my armour, you know what we would have? ANATHEMA’S LOCATION.”

“If you had waited one day and let us help you,” Tabitha whispered, “you wouldn’t have had to push yourself. Alice! We had so many resources you didn’t stop to ask about! We had the means, and now not only do we not have Anathema’s location, we nearly lost the strongest paranormal in the universe, the heart of our organization!”

 

“I had the shot! I don’t know why, I don’t know what caused it, but Callister was being stupid that day! He was out in the open, I saw him, Tabitha! I saw him, and I am never the first one to see these things! And I had to take the shot, I had to before he disappeared! Don’t you get it? She killed my parents. She’s going to kill my kids if she gets the chance. She’d kill you, kill Scott, drown the world in venom. I had to take the shot!”

Tabitha’s eyes fixed on Alice for several seconds, powerful mixed emotion roiling behind them. The next thing she whispered was dripping with icicles: “Selfish.

 

“No, no, no, you have it wrong, I was protecting -”

“Selfish,” Tabitha repeated. “You knew how weak you were. You had no intel on Rayne but a visual. You didn’t read Nat’s reports on him, didn’t know that he’s infatuated with em. You saw an opportunity and assumed that you were the only one who could take it, and in so doing you nearly deprived the world of the Oathkeeper. Your children of a mother. Me of my b-best friend.”

 

Tabitha had known Alice McGowan for over twenty years. She thought she knew everything there was to know about Alice. But what happened next was a surprise, and the fact that it was a surprise was a surprise. She had seen Alice be angry before, countless times. She was quick to anger. But this was something else. Her face twisted, she bared her teeth:

BECAUSE I HATE HER!” She roared. “I hate Anathema, I hate anyone who’s thrown their lot in with her, I had to take the shot because the last time I had her at the end of my warhammer I tried mercy, and how many people DIED for it? How many people got HOLLOWED OUT – WORSE than death, WORSE than Hell, lost their SOULS – I am going to find her. I’m going to find her, and Sin, and her Red Knight. And I am going to SALT THE  EARTH.”

Tabitha reared back, shocked and quite nearly afraid for a moment. A heavy stillness hung in the room for several interminable seconds. Then, Tabitha settled. Her poise returned, a steel frame in her spine and shoulders and hips. Her eyes so, so cold.

 

“Alice Elizabeth McGowan,” she said in a voice like frosted iron. “As lead administrator of the Infinity Legion and under consultation and advisement from the other Earthside Legion-Generals, it is my regrettable but necessary privilege and duty to remove you from active duty until further notice.”

 

Silence. And then a small, small whisper: “What?”

“In spite of your rank, I am authorized to temporarily deactivate you according to chapter 7, section 9, paragraph 4 of the Infinity Legion charter due to a lack of psychological fitness and irresponsible action in the field. Contingencies upon which your reactivation hinge include, but are not limited to, completion of an agreed-upon mental health treatment plan with Dr. Nami Meda. Assessment and agreement by both other Legion Generals and myself. Adherence to travel restrictions for the duration of your deactivation. Your teleporter access has been limited to your home and the Flying Fortress for the time being, and any other transportation must be cleared with me. Failure to adhere to these restrictions may result in sanctions including power suppression. Do you understand?”

 

Tears sprung up in the corners of Alice’s eyes, and her mouth worked desperately. “The Core,” she said, desperately. “My Core access.”

“Revoked,” Tabitha whispered.

 

“There are only two Generals Earthside, that’s – that’s illegal – there always needs to be at least three -”

Scott knocked softly. “I just got the call,” he said. “I… I’ve been…”

“We’ve taken care of it, Alice,” the well-dressed statue replied.

 

“You think I need mental health treatment?”

“I think it’s for the best, Alice -” Scott tried, and the words died in the air.

 

“Yes.” Tabitha held up a hand. “Yes. You do. Badly.”

 

“I’m fine! I’m fine! You know I’m fine, you know I’m fine, you know me, you know I’d never do anything to hurt my -”

“Alice.” Scott said. “Stop. Please.”

“YOU ALREADY DID!” Tabitha stood up so quickly that she nearly knocked her chair over. “You already hurt all of us! You need help because I cannot live through this again! None of us can!” She stalked through the room and out the door before anyone could reply. In the hallway, Nat and Emi trailed after her, making small noises of appeasement.

 

Scott pulled a chair up to sit by his wife. “I… think this will do you a lot of good, Alice. I think you need this -”

And explosive, wracking sobs burst forth from the Oathkeeper, following Tabitha down the hallway.

The Tribunal: Manual Override

Alice McGowan knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was not a part of the Council ruling over Earth because she was a tactical genius. She knew that her role was to approach dangerous situations, and be the Oathkeeper — a solid mass of light and faith that could tackle any problem.

 

There was no problem more tailor made for Alice McGowan than the False Oathkeeper appearing in Glenwood Springs.

Nat’s old family, or so she surmised from the news, had returned with this maniac at its head. They called her out by name.


Sinner, deviant, oathbreaker.

 

Alice McGowan keyed in her teleport code and waited for the tickling sensation of Scanner’s teleport tech to bring her halfway across the world to confront her destiny.

 

And waited.

 

Nothing happened.

 

Alice checked her heavy brass comm unit, exclusive to the Generals. There was a code reading across the display:

MANUAL OVERRIDE // BLACK OPS // PERMISSIONS DENIED.

 

The Oathkeeper was powerful, but rarely was she patient, and so no one in the Legion was surprised when LG-03 appeared on the Legion-wide comms demanding an immediate explanation and override to the override.

 

The first voice that answered her was Nat’s. “I’m sorry, Alice,” ey said, voice flat. Determined.

 

“…You’re black ops.” Alice said, putting two and two together. “You locked me out. You didn’t even talk to me?”

“Ey didn’t lock you out, Alice,” Emi’s voice was quiet. “I issued that order. I’m sorry.”

 

Alice paused, and when she spoke again her voice was thick with emotion. “So you pulled a coup to make sure I couldn’t help? He’s wearing my armour, calling me a whore in front of the world, and I have to – what, sit and watch? I’m too stupid to help, is that it?”

“No, Alice, that’s not it,” Nat cut in. “He has my youngest sister hostage. I haven’t gone to Glenwood Springs. None of us have, because my sister made it clear that if we showed up… Paul wouldn’t be afraid to kill Drew.”

 

Scott’s voice broke in. “We knew that you’d want to do the right thing, and help people. It’s just complicated, Alice, and this is why you made Emi head of Black Ops. You know that things can be complicated.”

“Too complicated for me, I guess.” Alice said quietly. “Can I – Can I do anything?”

“Once we get the rest of my family out of there?” Nat’s voice was like ice. “You can drop the hammer on my dear brother all you want. More than you want, preferably.”

 

“…You’re going to need me, if he’s another me, Nat.” Alice said. “But I…. trust you. Turn on my teleporter access, and tell me when.”

“Please promise me that you won’t go to Glenwood Springs until we’ve gotten my sisters out.”

 

“I promise. And please promise that you’ll call me in when it comes time to put this False Oathkeeper down. I don’t want you to try to make a duel with destiny when… Nat, if he’s another me, he could… I’m not letting you put yourself in danger just when you’ve reunited with your sisters.”

“I know, Alice. I have no intention of letting my old family take my new one away from me. I promise that when we strike, you’ll be right in front. Okay?”

 

When Alice spoke, her voice was clear and untroubled. “Legion, move out.”

The Tribunal: Disco Infiltrators

BRIEFING ROOM
THE FLYING FORTRESS

 

“Fuck,” Nat paced the room in a silent figure eight. “Fuck.”

 

“Calm down, Bug,” Emi tapped on her tablet, arranging the briefing documents as the two of them waited for the others to arrive.

 

“I can’t calm down!”

 

“You can and you have to.”

 

The Damselfly clenched eir jaw.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7Ve8ExE8YY

Black Coast (Feat. M. Maggie) – TRNDSTTR (Lucian Remix)>

 

Eyes a flaming red as she walked casually into the room, Vin “Pandora” Peters bobbed her head and occasionally wiggled her hips in time to the beat which was echoing through the bulky LED headphones on her ears. There was a deep confidence to her steps, her training earlier that day having gone very well as she had shattered her previous record on the course she’d been struggling with for weeks. She had not changed since then, however, and her bra-top, elbow-length gloves, and torn jeans showed the wear and tear of her earlier workout.

 

[Hey Emi~! Hey Nat~!] She signed cheerfully as she fell back into a chair and draped her legs over one of the armrests. [How’s it going? Everyone having a good day so far?]

 

“Not… really, no,” Nat said.

 

“We’ll say more once Alex gets here,” Emi nodded to Vin. “Hang tight, Miss Vin.”

 

Vin frowned a touch with worry at Nat’s response and then noticed that, stranger still, ey were walking instead of floating. Two feet on the ground instead of hanging in the air. That was not normal at all for Nat. She looked to em with an expression which seemed to ask far too many questions at once. Are you okay? How about your family? Oh no, did Benny get hurt or rejected? Is there something I can do to help?

 

Alex walked in not long after her, looking physically exhausted from training. Lots of bruises, cuts, scrapes, you name it. Still he gave the room a small wave, a salute, and took his seat. “Things sounded pretty urgent.” His gaze traveled over Emi, Nat, and Vin. “Does this have to do with Nat’s sister?”

 

Emi nodded. “Yes it does. Paul Schuster made a video effectively declaring war with the Oathkeeper and it’s gone viral. People are flocking to Glenwood Springs in droves, and we’re seeing a spike in violence across the country. He’s calling it ‘The Tribunal’, and our timeline just shortened by a lot.”

 

“The two of you are here because we have to get Drew out of there immediately. Paul’s not safe any more. He apparently murdered his father in cold blood, which… if I know the two of them, means that he considers himself the new patriarch.”

 

[Holy… Fuck…] Pandora looked between Emi and Nat with an expression of worry before shaking herself out of her stupor and nodding. [Okay. Yeah. When do we depart to kick this douchebag in his shiny, metal nads? I’ve got a couple choice words for him.]

 

“You don’t.” Vin looked as if she were about to argue the matter but Emi cut her off, voice steely. “Paul Schuster is not to be engaged under any circumstances. If he has even a fraction of the Oathkeeper’s power, he’ll wipe the floor with both of you without breaking a sweat. Your mission is to extract Drusilla Schuster and any of the other family members who are willing to go, and to do so quietly if possible. You’ll be working together with the Freelancer codenamed Everyperson, who is undercover as a college student named Amber.”

 

Alex listened closely, his fist clenched a little as Nat told eir tale. “Sounds like we need to act fast then. If what I have read about Oathkeeper is true then….well. I doubt that we have much time before the two of them start fighting. After Drusilla and other willing family members are extracted, are we allowed to go back for any other innocents who may want escape?” He asked Emi hopefully, and dutifully.

 

[Yeah,] Vin signed her agreement with Alex’s question. [Upon the successful completion of this mission, would it at all be possible for us to stay behind to assist in whatever ways we can? I do not wish to leave anyone behind who could be at risk if they do not want to be there.]

 

Emi nodded. “After successful extraction of whichever Schusters are willing to leave, the two of you and Everyperson will begin extracting anyone who is afraid to leave or being held. But again: do not fight Paul. If he comes after you, you run. Do we understand?”

 

Alex gave a solid nod of understanding. “Save who we can, don’t die trying. Understood.”

 

Pandora once again looked as if she were about to argue. She did not like running away. Not even a little bit. It was one of the things Emi constantly was on her case about whenever she was set up against a training scenario that was above her current power level. [But… What if… I mean… This guy is dangerous, right? We cannot just let him—]

“I don’t think I stuttered, Vin!” Emi barked.

 

Pandora retreated further back into her chair at the shouting, flinching as she got the response from Emi that she knew would be coming. Alex squeezed her hand reassuringly, letting her know he was there. That he understood. And he waited his turn to speak.

 

“Look, I know,” Nat cut in. “I know, so intimately. I want to beat the shit out of my brother just as much as you do. But he’s the Avatar of Dominance, and there’s only one force we know of that can face an Avatar down.”

 

“I’m sorry to be so harsh,” Emi shook her head, “I don’t want to be. But I have to be uncompromising, because losing either of you would be unacceptable. And if you fought Paul, we would lose you.”

 

“More importantly, fighting him would come into conflict with the mission objective.” Alex said a little quietly. “If he is as strong as the Oathkeeper, the last thing we want to do is fight him somewhere filled with the civilians we are trying to save.” He turned to Emi a bit expectantly. “I assume that, should we run, there will be some sort of contingency after we get far enough out? Neither I or Vin can fly after all. Otherwise it seems running would just delay our inevitable capture.”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPD8VbQh-oI

Jenaux (Feat. Pia Toscano) – Renegades>

 

[Also!] Vin interjected before either Nat or Emi could respond. [We have to consider the possibility that Paul will get in our way over the course of our extraction of Drew. There may even be the chance that… well… It comes down to us running or Drew getting hurt.] This was not exactly the kind of hypothetical that Pandora enjoyed bringing up, but she felt it had to be done. [Who are we to save in that kind of situation? Ourselves… Or Drew?]

 

Emi sighed. “Yourselves first.”

 

Nat frowned and nodded reluctantly.

 

Pandora closed her eyes. She neither nodded or shook her head. Instead, she looked to be deep in thought.

 

“Retreat, regroup, and report. In most situations where Paul is in the way, you can likely choose a better time to act.” Alex nodded in understanding. “If not, call me. As for evacuations, we’ll have teleport markers for you. Try to get as far out of the area as you can before you use them, but they’re not location-specific.”

 

“So we have teleporter access for means of escape. Will try to refrain from using them in front of the enemy. Understood.”

 

[I don’t… I don’t know if I could leave a child behind to get hurt.] Pandora replied after a few moments of silence. [Even if the child was not Nat’s little sister, I don’t think I could leave her behind in the arms of a monster. Please… I ask permission to engage and provide escape for Alex and the girl if necessary. I promise that, upon their successful escape, I shall then flee as well. I know I would not be able to beat someone on Oathkeeper’s level, but I might be able to outmaneuver and outthink him enough to buy us a minute or two and get out.]

 

“That’s not going to happen.” Alex’s voice was solid despite his exhausted state. “Because we are all getting out together. You. Me. Druscilla. Anyone else. No splitting up.” He squeezed Vins hand tight. He didn’t show it, but she could feel the faintest shake in them. Fear. “We are all going to do our jobs, and we are all coming home. That is the plan.” He looked to Emi for some backup.

 

Emi nodded. “It should be possible for you to get Drusilla a marker or spirit her from the house without having to face the Inquisitor. Plan so that the contingency just doesn’t occur. Be careful. Be black ops. But to answer your question, Pandora…

 

… permission denied.”

 

Pandora closed her eyes once more and gave Alex’s hand a squeeze. There was a shake to it as well, but it was not from fear. It was from anger. Not at Emi, of course, but at this whole situation that Nat’s family had been put into.

 

Emi only let one beat pass before she continued. “I’m gonna outfit the two of you with bugout teleport markers, easily hidden under clothing. You’re not to remove them, no matter what. If things get too bad, we will ‘port you out. If you fail to adhere to the mission directives, we will ‘port you out. Scanner is going to be watching. If you want to avoid having to choose between yourself and Drew, and forcing us to choose you for you… don’t mess up.”

 

[We won’t…] She signed back with one hand as her crimson eyes met Emi’s with determination filling them. [No one is going to get hurt on my watch. Promise.]

 

“Good,” Emi nodded. “We’ll send you down first thing tomorrow morning. Eat well and get some rest tonight. Okay?”

 

“Please be careful, you two,” Nat pleaded. “I want my little sister back, but… I need the two of you back.”

 

Pandora looked to Alex and gave him a nod and a smile, squeezing his hand tightly within her own as she worked to instill him with the same confidence she had. They would do this.

Alex looked  Nat deep in the eyes with conviction. “I made my promise. Nobody gets left behind. They won’t have to be.” He squeezed Vin back, his thoughts mirroring her own.  I’ll be sure we get plenty of rest tonight Emi. Have our gear prepped.” He stood up, gently helping Vin with him. “Is there anything else we need to know?”

 

“My sister, Esther,” Nat added, “the White Knight. You’ll find her in the briefing docs. She’s a potential ally, but be please be careful; she’s not trustworthy. Love you two. Good luck out there.”

 

GLENWOOD SPRINGS

LEGION SAFEHOUSE

THE NEXT DAY

 

“This is bullshit.” Vera was staring into a mirror, wearing the face of ‘Amber’. The days of wearing someone else’s face was wearing her down; it required effort to keep the facade up. She rubbed her cheeks as if stretching the muscles. “Damselfly better pay me double. God damn fuckin’ religious cult piece of -”

There was a knock on the door, and the Freelancer moved to the door hesitantly to peer through the peephole. Hopefully this was Nat’s people.


It probably was. Paul didn’t knock.

 

Standing on the opposite side of the peephole was a tall woman wearing the ragged attire of a rather poor college student. She had a pair of headphones slung across her slender neck and an MP3 player strapped to her hip that looked to be the only thing of value that she owned. Other than that, she was wearing a loose t-shirt that showed off the strap of a bright-blue sports bra and the colorful tattoo of a songbird made out of music notes on her collarbone. Her denim pants were also too big for her, seeming to cling to even this curvaceous woman’s hips through sheer willpower alone. Slung across her back was a worn hiker’s backpack with a bedroll on it. According to her cover, she was supposed to be a poor college girl named ‘Chastity Stevens’ – God… What an ironic name for Pandora – from the city who had hitchhiked to this “holy place” as pilgrimage.

 

She waved at the peephole and made a sign with her hands that was supposed to be her and Alex’s keyphrase to say they were friends.

 

Next to her was a dark haired boy in sweats and a rosary, hands in pockets, slouched the way a lot of college students did. “Hey Amber, it’s us. Ya know. From the camping trip. It’s been a while, mind if we come in?”

 

“Oh, that camping trip. Yeah, come in.” Vera let them both enter, then closed the door. “You mind if I let my face down? Seriously, it aches.”

Alex glanced at Vin and shrugged. “Go ahead. You would know better than us if it’s safe.” He leaned over one of the chairs, letting his eyes get a good look of the place. “How long have they been making you wear that?”

 

Pandora glanced around the room they had walked into as well, setting her heavy pack down against a wall as she took a seat and let out a tired breath. That thing was far heavier than it appeared to be.

 

Amber shifted into a green haired, long faced girl and sighed in relief, rubbing her cheeks and forehead. “Just part of deep recon, bud. Alright, what do you know about the situation?”

“Paul is turning the town into his army and his hostage.” Alex says frankly. “And Drusilla is the main thing keeping us from sending in Oathkeeper and Nat and other legionnaires. Apparently Esther is also a bit of a…problem. But not as much of one. Trust issues.” He looked to Vin, willing to translate incase he missed something.

 

Vin nodded and gave Alex a thumbs-up to indicate that that seemed like everything. She then turned to rifle through her backpack until she pulled out a leather notebook. After she had fished out a pen as well, she began to scribble some notes down hurriedly.

From what I recall, Drew is also a paranormal and Paul seems to think her some kind of demon which he can keep locked up. That is not only fucked up, but makes getting her out something of a problem. I cannot imagine that Paul is the type of person who likes people going to see his “demonic sibling.”

 

“You’d be surprised. He likes to trot her out as proof of what happens if you reject him and his path.” Vera scoffed. “The good news is, Esther and I are the ones watching over Drew. I think we can bust her out, especially since Scott McGowan is going to be lending us an assist.”

You already have a plan? Wonderful! Care to clue us in on it?

Pandora wrote the words with a wide grin.

 

“Yeah.” Vera said, and sighed. “I’m going to be the distraction duty, and you guys watch over Esther and Drew. Make sure that you get both kids out of there, but Drew’s the priority. I don’t trust Esther as far as I can throw her.”

Alex nodded in understanding. “Keep an eye on Esther, get Drew out. Mr. McGowan will be helping us?” He added curiously.

 

Yeah… How is that supposed to work? Also… I thought we weren’t supposed to trust Esther…

She quirked an eyebrow as if she were not sure whether that last bit was especially wise.

 

“Just ‘cause we don’t trust her doesn’t mean we leave her to die.” Vera said, pulling on her chin and raising her eyebrows to stretch the muscles. “My orders from the Damselfly are to try and get her out if we can.”

Alex nods. “Do the best we can, be aware of complications. Where is Drew usually held? And is Esther locked with her?”

 

“No, Esther’s free. She’s either with Paul or Drew. If she’s not there, then just get Drew out, okay? Drew’s held in a reinforced shed in the middle of town. You can’t miss it, it’s the one with three layers of metal grafted on.”

How tough do you think that shit would be to crack? Any obvious weaknesses to the building that we could exploit in order to break her out right-quick?

 

“Oh yeah.” Alex grimaced. “That piece of work. Wonder if I could dig under it…” He raised his hands to his lips, deep in thought.

 

“You guys are lucky that as “Amber”, Paul’s trusted college convert, I have a key to the front door. Breaking Drew out though… that’s on you guys.” Vera produced the key and gave her cheeks a few more circular rubs. “Any more questions? I want to get moving, ‘cause the more I think about this, the more I get worried, and the more worried I get the worse I do in the field.”

Pandora took in a deep breath and placed the headphones around her neck over her ears before flicking it on.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJbdMqspODQ

Zedd (Feat. Foxes) – Clarity (Vicetone Remix)>

 

Music began to pump through the bulky speakers and Vin’s pale-white eyes shifted to a light shade of emerald. She then looked to Alex and gave him a thumbs-up to signal that she was ready when he was, feet and head bouncing in time to the music.

 

“Let’s do this shit.” Alex said with a confident grin. Hoping to lift their spirits a little.

 

Vera nodded and shifted back into “Amber”. “Alright, let’s go.”

Glenwood Springs was packed, but people parted ways for Amber and her college friends. The crowds were generally streaming away from the center of town — Paul was having one of his many services in the Church again. The national broadcast and flood of converts had only emboldened him.

 

Amber slipped Pandora the key to the shed that lay ahead. Sure enough, it was an eyesore of a building covered in metal and barriers. Someone had painted SINNER on the sheet metal in red paint.


“Better get moving,” Amber said. “Time to be a distraction.”

The plump college student strode away, shifting into an older man as she went.


Vin’s eyes flicked around to watch those moving around them. Strangely, her eyes were not looking directly at where people currently, but instead seemed to watch where people would be in a couple seconds. In her mind, she saw the possible actions of those around her and predicted their movements in ways the human mind should not have been capable of.

 

She took the key, nodded to the disguised Vera, and then began to lead Alex through the crowds in a way that would keep the pair of them relatively out of sight and mind.

 

Alex followed Vin closely, gazing around lazily like a college student might, seeing if anyone noticed. Was keeping tabs. Anything like that. When they finally got to the shed, he stood watch while Pandora opened it. “Not sure how long this distraction is supposed to last. Let’s get this done quick so we can start saving others too.”

 

The shed door swung open, surprisingly heavy. The girl inside squinted as light hit her face. Drusilla Schuster was chained to the wall, left with a bowl of water and nothing else. She stared at the heroes as they entered, silent and wide eyed.

Pandora smiled at the small child and walked inside. Her stance was completely non-threatening as she made her way over to Drew, leaned down, and extended a hand to her. Once more, the music-based heroine wished that she were able to speak. Able to explain who she was. Able to explain why she was there. She instead relied upon Alex for that.

 

Alex walked up next to Pan, his friendly smile ever present. “Hey. We’re friends with your sibling.” He extended a hand, letting a small white flower grow from it so Drew could see he was a para. “Pandora can’t speak, but we came to get you out of here. Is it ok for us to try and get you out of those chains?”

“…I don’t think it’s safe for you.” Drew finally squeaked. “You’ll get in trouble.”

Vin chuckled silently and shook her head as she pulled a notebook from her back pocket.

We’re heroes. It’s our job to get into trouble for the sake of getting others out of trouble. Drew, we are here to get you out of here. To get you out of the trouble you’ve been forced into. To bring you somewhere safer. We won’t let anything bad happen, promise.

 

Alex nodded. “You’re right. It’s not safe, but if we hurry, and do this quickly….we are all going to get out of here just fine.” He gave them a confident wink. “I’m going to start getting your chains undone, and then I am going to give you this.” He showed them the legion teleporter. “If we get held up, make a run for the most open space you can and then use it. It will take you to Nat, somewhere Paul can’t hurt you. Do you understand?” He spoke quickly and clearly as he made his way to where the chain connected to the shed.

 

“Okay.” Drew said, quietly. The chain was encased in a block of concrete. There was no key or point that seemed breakable.

 

Alex, you take care of the chains. I’ll watch the door and look for a way out. This song is about to end and I think that getting a route planned ahead of time with it would be useful.

Pandora gave Alex and Drew a thumbs up as she moved to stand guard by the door, keeping out of sight as she examined the area for a route out of the town.

 

Alex looked the concrete block over with a bit of a frown. “Punching it won’t do much good. Hmmm.” He hopped over to inspect Drews wrists or legs, where the chain cuffed them.

 

“Hurry!” Drew whispered. Her hands were both changed, cuffs around her wrist. A third chain was around her neck.

 

Alex shook his head. Should have came more prepared. “Here goes nothing.” His fists both became huge tangles of wooden branches, thick bark coating them. Larger than the ones he usually used in combat, heavier. He raised them both up over his head, and smashed them into the concrete with all his force. His entire body, every ounce of muscle he could muster. And then he did it again. And again. And again.

 

The concrete chipped first, then cracked, and finally crumbled  Drew sprang free, the chains rattling behind her. “We have to go, we have to go.”

Alex gave her the teleporter marker and ripped out her chains with bloodied hands. He nodded to Vin. “Let’s go!”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGk-dVHKj1o

Singularity – Alone>

 

Pandora shot Alex and Drew another thumbs-up as she crouched low and began to lead them along the path she had drawn out in her mind moments earlier. Her eyes were a deep purple with swirls of orange in them now as she set a quick pace for those following behind her. She did not want to give anyone the opportunity to parse what they were seeing.

 

Lucky enough, the crowd didn’t seem to be paying much in the way of attention to anything but the Roaring Fork Church, where Paul delivered most of his sermons. There was quite a crowd around it, folks murmuring to each other. It seemed like there’d been some kind of disturbance.

 

Alex shoved his bloody hands into his sweat pockets as he moved, not trying to make a scene. Keeping an eye out for anyone who might recognize Drew and cause a disturbance. “Keep following Pandora.” He told them in a hushed tone. “She knows where she’s going.” He also tried to spot their distraction in case they needed help. So far he couldn’t see much though.

 

Looking behind her, Vin took the small child’s hand gently in her own. She gave Drew a confident smile and a nod as they cut their way through the compound as quickly as they could without drawing much attention to themselves.

 

Drew kept her head down, stumbling after Pandora. Her shoulders were hunched down, and even with the chains rattling behind her, her total lack of confidence rendered her nearly invisible.

 

Alex took up a position near the back, so Drew was in between them. Remaining ever vigilant. “Any chance you know where Esther is?” He murmured.

 

Suddenly, someone was up in their face; an out-of-towner with short dark hair, come to join the cult, or just for the spectacle, but no one Drew recognized.

 

“Did you hear what just happened?” The man asked.

 

Standing upright and making certain to keep Drew out of sight behind her, Pandora shook her head slowly from side to side. If she could, she would have pushed past this man and hurried them along as quickly as could be, but that would likely be something of a spectacle and so she simply stood there for the time being to listen.

 

“Don’t think so. What happened?” Alex said, walking up and squeezing Vins shoulder, a look of concern donned on his face.

 

“The Inquisitor’s father appeared in the middle of a sermon,” the man’s eyes were wild, “in a flash of light! And then he accused the Inquisitor of murdering him—the father, I mean—and then he ascended into heaven! Right there!”

 

Drew immediately burst into noisy tears.

 

Vin gives Drew’s hand a small squeeze, running her thumb over the back of it soothingly since she could not simply hug the girl right then and there.

 

“Quite the omen.” Alex said, rather grimly. “The devil’s work no doubt. Best we get on with our business…leaving this place before angel fights demon. The Inquisitor will be within our prayers.” Man, reading the bible before coming here was really paying off.

 

“Wait! If—” the man’s attention was suddenly drawn away by a brawl breaking out between Inquisitor loyalists and freshly-minted doubters nearby, allowing the small party to break away and creep out of range.

 

Before long, they were out of sight and safe for the moment, as far as they could tell.

 

When they were most certainly out of sight, Pandora would crouch and turn to face Drew before drawing out a remote teleporter. She began to enter in coordinates for the device and then handed it to the child, pointing to the button she had to press in order to activate it. The woman then pulled the girl into a comforting hug and looked up to Alex to explain.

 

“It will take you to the flying fortress. You will be safe there. I know it’s going to be hard…but we need to go now. Before anyone else comes up to us ok? We will be right behind you.”

 

“Okay.” Drew whispered, clutching the teleporter. “Thank you.”

Drew pressed something on the teleporter, and she shimmered for a moment, and then the girl disappeared.

 

Alex called in on the radio. “Drew should be arriving any moment. We are going to go and try to find Esther now. Wish us luck.”

 

[That… That went a heck of a lot better than I thought it was going to.] Vin signed to Alex with a chuckle as she turned back towards the compound. [Any ideas on where me might find Nat’s other sister around here?]

 

“Not out of the frying pan yet.” Alex said, turning his gaze towards the church. “My guess is with Paul.”

 

[Well… That fucking sucks.] Vin sighed as she turned towards the commotion near the center of the compound. [Think Paul is somewhere in the middle of that?]

 

“Probably….probably trying to figure out what the deal was with his dead dad. Hopefully Scott and Everyday got out alright. Anyway, it’s worth checking out at the very least. Our covers not blown yet after all.” He squeezed Vins hand and gave them a smile. “Come on.”

 

Pandora nodded, giving Alex’s hand a light squeeze in response as they began to walk into the center of town where all the commotion was.