And All the Foundation Shudders: Chapters Four and Five

Hello, dear readers! So, this one got a bit antsy last week and, by way of having something to do, cleaned up an unfinished piece from last year–was it November or December?–and posted it elsewhere with an added section at the end to fit it into the current series plan. Didn’t want to do that here so as to avoid taking attention away from Analogue Ruins.

Anyway, what that means for you is that today you get two entries in And All the Foundation Shudders. Fun fact about the first, Chapter Four (AKA, “Abyssal Whispers of Darkness Sowing Nova: Grey-rain Curtains Heed No Torch’s Atonement): the first two thousand words or so were the earliest draft for the opening of And All the Foundation Shudders, back before it was even named And All the Foundation Shudders. Since all this makes today’s post a two-in-one, I’ll just post Abyssal Whispers as Word and Google docs, and reserve the full text-in-post for the latest chapter of Nine White Lilies.

This one’s massive, fraught, and action-packed–hope you enjoy!

Abyssal Whispers C1:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1hTieb42dD5UcS4Rfe7zHLslNfodrZH69fD53rGuypWY/edit?usp=sharing

Nine White Lilies C4:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fCd7nqLAMkoAvDdINhBmbQm9EQfmijOW7Y6i58rNAx0/edit?usp=sharing

And All The Foundation Shudders

A free weird fiction web serial of the Riven Earth, most uncouthly delivered in pure prose, by

Kairlina Saelvur Urwollust
Copyright © K.S. Urwollust 2022

Nine White Lilies Blossom Under the Barrow:
Mach 4 Judgment Waveform

“How does these things work, anyway?” Synergy strides, full of purpose and fire and that special vigor that only comes of pushing back against fear.

Masked and suited once more.

Our steps stir the ancient dust from flagstones and crackled pillars all but swallowed by the roots of titanic, gnarled trees. Trees that shouldn’t grow in such lightless paths. Trees with other ways winding into view between roots, stretching off to vistas of red skies and burning horizons. Vistas that are nowhere to be seen, either from ahead or in the reverse sides of the roots receding away behind us.

“I can tell you in the same sense that a spider knows vibrations mean something’s found its web,” I answer. “’tis to say, m’heart, that I don’t truly know. Even the fae do not often understand the workings of fae things. In some parts of Faerie it’s a barb upon the beholder to try and find out. Fae tunnels always lead you somewhere that lets you reach the place you want to go without any more magic. I wanted to emerge in the United States. Truth be told,” I clear my throat, “I was hoping for California.”

Synergy snort-laughs. “Oh, okay. I see how it is. Mercenary fae.”

I snort. “Not half so dramatic as a gymrat super. Point is, seeing as there’s no real reason I couldn’t walk across the U.S. on foot, well… Michigan counts as close enough, apparently. Now that this particular tunnel’s taken me to Grand Rapids before, it should do so again. And the same for you, as long as you’re close enough to me.”

“Uh-huh.” Syn stops to peer at an arrow–still feathered and fit for the bow–standing on a pedestal at the end of a branching corridor. Its crystalline blue head is faceted and broadens towards the tip, glowing within. “What’s that?”

“A remnant of a legend long past.” I steer her onwards. “Let’s just say it has something to do with a plier of the night trade and a great god of the old forest.”

“Okay, but,” Synergy resists, “if there’s a story about an ancient sex worker fucking some kind of fae god, you know I want to hear it.”

An elven tongue clicks against elven masking-teeth, those pearly whites I’d all but forgotten I can pretend to have. “Right. Yes. Sorry, that was my poor choice of words. I meant a thief. And, er…” I pull her along, a little roughly. “The great gods of the old forest aren’t fae, Syn. Their kind exist now only in legends of the Alb.”

I glance back over my shoulder, fully prepared for some dreadful shape to come rushing out of the hallway behind us. “Alb gets translated as ‘elf’, but that’s not really what it means. Not what it meant, anyway, back when the Alb was a real creature that came out of the somber night to the foothills and isolated villages of the Alps, and the Black Forest, and the German countryside. A spirit that sits on the sleeper’s chest by night and oppresses them with nightmares–sound at all familiar?”

“A succubus? A nightmare? Maybe others too?” Syn asks. “Demons with mythical associations to sleep paralysis symptoms aren’t exactly uncommon, are they? Is that such a defining trait by itself? And I mean, Jamie, you can read as pretty demonic too.”

“That’s a…” I stiffen, speeding up further. “This is not the time or place for an essayistic back and forth about human literature’s handling of nuanced traits among the monstrous. Fae and demons are both monstrous, but only demons are demonic, is that fair enough for now? And if you’re asking why I’m scared…” A quiver. “‘Myself, but worse’ is the exact description of the creatures I most fear meeting.” I catch her eyes. “Demons of the wood and the earthen world. Not all demons of the ancient days were born of Hell, or aligned with it. Their tale is nonetheless as follows: Very tragic. Very dead. Let’s leave it at that.”

“Right,” Syn says, and quiets down. “Thanks, uh… thank you for explaining what you can.”

“Any other time, I’d say it’s my pleasure.” The vine-strewn walls that felt comforting and whimsical mere minutes ago now fester, ripe with the cold promise of betrayal. “As it stands, I thank you for understanding my silence.”

Nor does old fae Jamie, a traitor in her own heart, breathe easier until she–until I–and my superheroic mortal companion step out onto a bridge of meadow-grasses that crosses a chasm of night sky streaming and burbling, studded with stars.

“Mind if I talk about something weird?” Synergy asks. “I guess I just, um… just feel like saying it. Don’t really have a big higher purpose to fulfill or a moral point to make.”

“Go ahead.” I stop to consider a patch of mushrooms. Toying around with them shows nothing useful for battle or healing, those I find that the ones with green striped patterns on their caps make me hear the whispering voices of the dead for a while.

“The taboos of Islam, what to eat, what to drink, what to wear, how to act…” Synergy smiles, sheepish. “I kind of, uh… pick and choose.”

“Most folks tend to, at day’s end,” I agree.

“Yeah, but can we not talk about the religious experience of most folks?” she asks. “I don’t need you to have a take or an insight on everything, Jamie. Just to listen to me talk about me for a minute. No one else. Just Jamie and, er… Syn.”

“Oh. Good point. Sorry.” I clasp my hands together to stop me toying with my hair, or doing some similarly obnoxious gesture to try and wriggle out of the awkwardness.

“I did sleep on what you said yesterday,” she continues. “About whiteness versus faeness. A lot of that still stands, but… in a sense, the fact that you haven’t had to think about race as something that affects you, personally, does still place you proximal to whiteness, as far as headspace.”

“That’s true.” I focus on the path ahead.

Syn pats my shoulder. “Just keep that in your brain-pocket for later. No lines crossed and right now we need to be focused on crisis management. Anyway, uh…” She grins. “Sorry. Hiding behind clearly-defined stuff is a habit I picked up in college. Thesis statements are nice, static, easy to quantify and repeat. Eventually morals start to feel easy. Personhood does not. It feels safer to talk about social issues than myself.”

I nudge her shoulder. “Are you sure you’re a superheroine? You’re way too self-aware.”

“I’m trying to be a good superheroine…” Synergy takes a long, cleansing breath. “Okay. So… the thing is, my dad’s a good man. As in a really, legitimately good man. He once told me that he believes God gave him one great purpose in life, and that’s to look after his girls. He always looks for reasons to be kinder to others, stronger for the people around him.”

“Having a father like that,” I murmur, to the maze of silver-plated hedges we pass into, “explains a great deal about you, young Synergy.”

She chuckles. “Good and bad, right? I don’t know. I feel like I’ve lived my whole life in this eye of calm at the center of a vast and terrible storm. Somehow the bad things that happen to other people, to other people like me, just don’t seem to touch me. I want to make something out of that.”

“Oh, Syn,” I sigh. “You poor fool girl. Don’t you see? You’re the dream. You’re the escape everyone’s fighting to reach. What are they to think when they see you throwing yourself into the thick of it, save that there’s no escape?”

She stops dead in her tracks. The rictus baring of her teeth is awful to see. “Fuck. I hadn’t… I hadn’t thought of it like that.” But the superheroine only has to hug herself and stamp her a foot a couple of times before she answers, “okay, so that’s true. It just is. But I don’t think it matters, Jamie. That isn’t who I want to be. Coasting safely around the edges of disaster, a beautiful dream of peace. That’s not where my heart lies. I want to get in and get messy and help in every little way I can.”

This time, she’s the one to start us moving again. “I’m not always as by the book as maybe I should be. And that’s not to say I never try. There are days when nothing gives me more joy than to know I’ve paid perfect attention to halal and haram, all words, deeds, and things to order in their places. On those days I sit back and rest easier in my heart knowing that I am clean before the eyes of Allah. Obviously, ‘sometimes’ isn’t enough that I would call myself devout. But my father is. He always gets so sad if he finds out I’ve been dismissive and, y’know… I don’t have the heart to lie to him, so he usually does. Find out, I mean.” Synergy’s green head bobs once, firm. “That’s what it’s about. A promise to myself that I’ll see my parents again, and when I do, my father will no reason to be sad.”

Her eyes flick to me. A frail cold stutter creeps into her voice. “That’s not stupid, is it?”

There’s true warmth in the smile I give. “No, Syn. It’s lovely.” We reach the end of the maze. Heaviness settles against me, the felt potency of a moment to come, and I know we’re getting close. “There’s one thing I’d like to ask, if you don’t mind.”

Synergy shrugs. “Shoot. Worst case, I’ll just refuse to answer.”

“Yesterday, with the talk of the Seven Spirals and queer fascism.” I pull a root out of the wall and toy with its rotten inward end. “That was the Fourteen Points, wasn’t it, that you pulled from? Eco’s work?”

“And you want to know why I remember it that well, right?” Syn smiles wryly, but no laughter escapes this time. “That’s pretty simple. Superheroes are a few wrong moves away from becoming fascists. Powerful people defined by dynamic personalities, who promise to individually interpret the supposed collective will of the people? Dangerous ground. I wanted to make sure I knew every single way superheroics could lend itself to the Fash.”

The clench of her fist feels well and truly earned, and for the first time it steals just a little of my breath away to see the silver glow filling Synergy’s fist. “What’s good enough in fiction just won’t cut it in reality. I don’t get a reboot if I mess this up. So I’m going to make damn sure I make the real thing better than the fantasies that came before.”

“Yes.” I watch her with a very different focus to my eyes. “I do believe you will.”

The tunnel opens from a rather improbably grassy protrusion in the middle of a sidewalk. Thus it spills us both onto a sunlit road, traveling upwards, beneath a closed walkway connecting two building complexes across the road. Given the distinct scent of smoke, the crack of rifles, and the intermittent chatter of automatic weapons from many a smoldering corner of the city, the explosions echoing sometimes through the rooftops around us, I’m to fear the situation in Grand Rapids hasn’t gotten any better in our absence.

Awkwardly-staggered awnings cover the seats of the bus stops on both sides of the road, Michigan Street. Further ahead there’s a much shapelier walkway connecting the white walled, grey-trimmed facade of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital with a massive edifice of blued glass–shaped like a cylinder that’s been squashed inward on two sides.

“You know where we are, Syn?” My claws encompass the surrounding buildings. Downslope, the city spreads out before us: a church about a hundred feet away on the left of the road, same side as we are. Further in the distance with its lower reaches obscured by the lines of buildings marching down the street towards it, another blue-glass tower I can’t quite call a skyscraper. Someone seems to be full of a special hate for that one, seeing as it’s pockmarked in scorched spots and smoldering craters.

“I do!” Synergy says, flashing me a grin. “We’re a little less than half a mile northeast of Rosa Parks Circle.” She points to the squished-cylinder building. “That’s also part of Helen DeVos. Meijer Heart Center and Spectrum Health Hospital–there’s some second part to that name but I only ever think of it as Spectrum–those are right on the other side.”

Any further thoughts collapse along with the glass from one of the windows in the walkway just above. A gun barrel accuses the both of us. Behind, something almost like a uniform: a form-fitting thing of latex, black with gold. I can’t see the emblem of Seven Spirals from what little of the shooter is visible in the shattered glass, but I feel it.

“Gay or straight?” a pitchy voice shouts.

An elf and a superhero exchange glances. Flay me for a mortician’s scarlet nightmare if this isn’t the weirdest take on ‘Thunder! Flash!’ I’ve ever heard.

“Gay!” I answer.

“Certified carpet muncher,” Synergy agrees.

A pause. The muzzle bobs as the unseen gunner resets its stock against their shoulder.

“Cis or trans?” they demand.

I sigh. “Cis.”

“Yep!” Synergy affirms.

“S-stay where I can see you!” says the shooter from the SS. “Somebody will be here to take you in, and we’ll… we have to condition you first, but after that, you will be conscripted into Seven Spirals!”

Another glance shared with Synergy. I am the pulsing beat of my heart, I am the quivering mycelium under the spongy skin of my legs. Stretching down, straining, worming into minute darkening crumbling patches in the cracked Michigan road under my bare feet. Tendrils seeking spreading multiplying from the hot upper layers, to lukewarm, then to cool concrete and the humid promise of sewers somewhere below.

“Jamie, you have a plan?” Synergy whispers.

“Yes, leave it to–” A flicker of light, the quickest hint of a warp in the air around the walkway, the faint sounds of a fleshy whap and street-fragments clattering.

My words are cut off by a ‘warning shot’ that plows right into my gut. Luck of the dead or luck of the devil, one way or the other I don’t believe anything crucial’s been hit. Still smarts like an absolute bastard, though! I make no effort to hide it, baring my bramble-fangs and snarling. My viscous black blood oozes from the ragged hole, flecked with copper.

“Don’t think I can’t see you whispering!” the jumpy SS fool yells. “Don’t say another word or I’ll kill you!”

In another few seconds, three more Spirals hoof it out of the building on our side of the road. Looks like three anthro wolves. Two stop about fifteen feet away–way too close! Haven’t they had any training at all?–and level their own weapons. A modernized SKS and a double-barreled shotgun whose maker I can’t tell at a glance.

The third comes a little closer, lifting two pairs of goggles that look suspiciously like military surplus with a few key mods. A bulky box, covered in lights which I’m pretty sure have no purpose but aesthetics, has been fixed awkwardly atop the junction between the two separate lenses. A similar pair of goggles, modified for vulpine skulls, covers every one of their heads.

Oh, old weaver, would that you’d not gone quiet. I’m not sure whether to laugh or to cry, for I fear I know exactly what those goggles are for.

“Whoa, hey, why’s this one bleeding? Was that the shot we just heard?” The nearest wolf lowers the goggles in their paw. “Did you shoot her, Zoe?”

“T-they were talking about jumping me!” the shooter yells.

“They’re lying,” Synergy says.

“You think we’re going to believe you over one of our own?” the wolf scoffs. “Look, just put these on so we can get you two nice and docile, and then we’ll get that patched up.”

“What do they do?” I ask, making no move to accept the goggles.

“They calm you down and figure things out for you–look,” the wolf tilts their head towards us. “I get it. I get that you’re scared of emotions you can’t explain. We can help. I get a good feeling from the two of you. I don’t think you’re as cis as you think you are–“

I roll my eyes, snap my foot up, and bring it crashing down. The spores I’ve been growing underneath us for the last minute detonate all at once, turning the already-fragile surface of the road to dust and spraying potent, moldy-smelling sedative gas all around.

Synergy doesn’t wait for a word from me. She sprints to one side, flaring silver, feet pounding like a drum solo. The shooter tracks her but they’re not thinking clearly enough–whether leading their shots too much or trailing behind, their bullets whiz this way and that and can’t seem to find their mark.

I rush the other direction, just fast enough to clear the line of fire before the two wolf anthros in the back start blasting away. They only get off a few shots before the knockout gas does its work, and they topple. A heartbeat later Syn crashes into the walkway, smashes something with a silver-pulsing fist, and slings the struggling Spiral over her shoulder.

She drops down and considers the scene. The Spiral shortly quits struggling as the gas takes hold. “Huh. Hey, Jamie, are you able to give selective immunity?”

I grin. “Uh, no, sorry, Syn. The plan was to send everyone out for an over-winter in dreamland, then rouse you after the couple of minutes I’d need to find some dirt and grow the right ‘shrooms.”

“Oh.” She laughs. “Alright–“

“Let’s take their goggles and run,” I interrupt. “I’m going to guess, from the wolf’s words, that once we have those they’ll be in too much of a panic to lead any pursuit.”

Syn nods, grimacing as she rips the pair off the now-unconscious Zoe, then takes those of the one who was talking about ‘conditioning.’ Meanwhile I grab those of the other two wolves and also acquire that modernized SKS, along with a bandolier containing six twenty-round magazines.

I stare long and hard at the other weapons. Pick up a piece of rubble I mean to use to smash them. A glance at Synergy gives no answers.

“If you think we should, we will,” she says.

I grimace, and drop the rock. “They’re a mess, but they’re a mess because they’ve been cast out, mocked, and hated all their lives. They don’t deserve to be left declawed for the new group of white supremacists they run into.”

Synergy nods. “Fair.”

Then, looking a little absurd with five pairs of stolen hypno goggles, we hurry up the street and peel around a pile of rubble.

“So, what,” I ask Syn, having to raise my voice more than I’d like to account for the space we’re now keeping between us. “You’re immune to gas, to chemical weapons?”

“I don’t know about all gas,” she calls, “but I’ve always figured… I don’t mind danger, I don’t mind poison or weakness, but I don’t want to be helpless. I don’t want to be unconscious, or unaware, or paralyzed while someone does whatever they want.” She shrugs. “I guess maybe that had something to do with my powers? My resistances?”

“I think you might just be right.” I lead the way past the walkway bridging the two halves of the Children’s Hospital. I draw to a halt and slump down against a roadside divider with swirling blue and white panels making waves along its top.

“Hold on… have to check myself…” The wound’s already begun to seal. That’s one boon given by my viscous blood. And it seems that at close range, the bullet passed right through with no meaningful traces. “Alright… thank the Maiden, I was worried I might have fragments of a steel jacket in my wound…”

I let out a gasp of relief and I shudder, going cold with realization. “That little fucker shot me. Some tiny mortal snit, panicky and half-trained with no idea who I was or what I wanted, and she tried to kill me just for talking to you.”

“Yeah, uh… yeah.” Synergy squeezes my shoulder. “Hey. Focus, Jamie. That plan of yours? Genius. A-plus. We got out intact and learned something new about my powers.” She gives me a firm swat and a reassuring shake. “You did good, Jamie. It’s okay. Focus on that.”

“Right.” Muster a smile for the pretty heroine, now. She’s right. You’ll get through this, O’Fallows. “Thanks, Syn.”

She smiles back, offering her hand. “Anytime, pretty elf-lady.”

I wrap my fingers over hers, stained-glass claws passing neatly-trimmed nails, long amber digits settling into graceful brown ones. Her grasp is strong and true, and so smoothly does she pull me to my feet that I almost feel like I’m flying for a moment.

We press on uphill, and we’d likely keep going until one of the side roads splitting off of Michigan Street, if not for the sounds of an argument from the parking lot and turnabout to our right. A superhumanly tall figure in black and gold stands, arms folded, looking down on a shorter human in medical scrubs.

We exchange a glance.

“Alright.” I clap my hands together. “There are lots of times where I’d say, ‘let’s just move on’, but I don’t hold with bullying nurses.”

“Agreed,” Synergy says, and we turn as one to approach the hybrid facade–part brown bricks, part grey blocks–of the Spectrum Health complex.

An overhang of latticed girders and glass panes upheld by brown-brick pillars and a little island of bushes and small trees serve as set-dressing for the confrontation. The nurse is a middle-aged black woman, identified by her nametag as Cadence Andrews, with eyes so sunken it seems reasonable to guess she hasn’t slept since this whole mess started.

The Spirals agent, on the other hand, is an anthro bat of at least eight feet in height who looks smugly fresh and smells of perfume. She’s also wearing those damn goggles, of course.

“I understand your concerns,” she’s saying, “but I promise you that you will be much better off working with Seven Spirals rather than against us.”

“What’s going on here?” Synergy demands. She glows a little, her voice rings, and she has that sense of stature beyond her size that made me think of her as tall when we first met. The Spiral spins instantly to face us, and her smirking face lapses into a shocked stare for just the blink of an eye. She recomposes herself, but Syn and I exchange another glance.

Yes. We know what we saw.

“I’m just explaining to Nurse Andrews that it would be in her best interest to lend us the use of her trauma center to treat our wounded,” the agent says, smooth as silk.

“You have that use!” Andrews snaps. “Everyone has it! That’s not what you’re asking for.” She pushes past the agent to speak to Synergy directly, pointing behind her. “She left out all the bullshit they want to push on us. We’re supposed to run a background check on people who’ve had their legs blown off to make sure their politics are right!” Andrews’ eyes are wide, bloodshot, angry, and the more she speaks, the more I sympathize.

“Calls it moral triage!” The nurse turns to hurl a glare at the bat-lady. “Bullshit!” she repeats. “We had those kids out of Grand Valley State covering us for a little while, until this stuck-up asshole and her goon squad pissed ’em off enough to make ’em leave.”

“Who?” Synergy asks.

“The Pew Campus Fusiliers,” Andrews says. “As far as I can tell, it’s just a bunch of college kids with guns who decided to form a little paramilitary group when the city caught fire. But they try to stop any of the other people running around from attacking hospitals and community centers, and they don’t demand control over how we do our jobs in exchange, so that puts them way ahead of,” she glares at the Spiral agent, “you people.”

“Can the Fusiliers offer the same resources we can?” the agent asks, not missing a beat. “I am merely suggesting that you consider the technology we can provide. Many of your patients could benefit from–“

“No!” Andrews finally snaps, storming up to the agent and pushing her shoulder right against the bat’s ample chest in order to reach the Spiral’s snout with her finger. “You know damn well that’s not what this is about! My wife and I do hypno on the weekends, don’t try to pretend you’ve got some kind of monopoly on it! This whole hypno supervillain thing is your box. It’s the thing that makes you feel safe, and you aren’t willing to give anybody a single inch unless they chop off parts of who they are to cram themselves into your box.”

“The fact remains,” the Spiral says, wrapping one big hand around Andrews’ wrist and pushing it down, “we have numbers and power which you do not. At the end of the day, you need us more than we need yo–“

It turns out that Synergy moves even faster when she’s angry. A blur, the echoes of footsteps striking so fast their sounds overlap, and a scream of rage as she launches herself upward and clocks the Spiral agent with a devastating uppercut. Bone cracks audibly and when the bat slams to the ground, she’s fumbling wide-eyed at a dislocated jaw. Syn gives her no time to recover. She lunges in and drops a knee down on the bat’s collar bone.

I unlimber the SKS and take cover behind a nearby car, sights trained on the road.

“Let me make something very clear,” Synergy snarls. “I don’t care how many marginalizations you’ve tallied up. I don’t care how much time you’ve spent in your shitty little circle of shitty little friends, telling each other how you’re the specialest, greatest, most underappreciated people in the universe, telling each other the world owes you everything. There is no excuse for treating other people like toys, do you understand?”

A few whistling jabs of the superheroine’s arm rip the goggles off the Spiral agent’s head. “Let’s take this stupid fucking toy off and talk person to person. See how big you are when it’s just you and me.” Her gym-calloused fingers seize the bat by her jaw, squeezing, forcing the Spiral to look at her. “I don’t care if you’re a CSA survivor, with chronic pain, who was abandoned by every single person you know until the Spirals decided you were the right kind of easy to use and they plucked you out of the gutter. No amount of trauma gives you the right to oppress other people, do. You. Understand?

The bat slurs out something whining and moist that sounds like “Yes…”

Synergy stands, rigid with disgust, and tosses the goggles aside.

“Uh, Nurse Andrews…” she clears her throat. “Sorry, for, uh… for that display…”

“Sorry?” Andrews laughs. “Sorry, she says! No, sweetheart, that was awesome! That’s one of the best things I’ve seen all week. That felt so good it was almost worth dealing with this grody bitch in the first place.”

“Yeah, uh…” the superheroine shakes her head. “Just… it doesn’t feel so much like a win to me. Having to say these things at all. It feels like I’ve already lost.” She motions to the downed Spiral, whose fur is standing up with abject terror. “Sorry to give you more work, ma’am, but would you help me relocate her jaw? I want to ask her a question.”

“Just so long as you’re ready to put it right back out of order again,” Andrews says. She mutters to herself quite audibly all the way over. “I swear to God in heaven… had that snake girl show up an hour into the first night, and I thought, oh, just look at how happy she is to have her scales, she’s so precious. Sweet thing made me optimistic for the apocalypse for a second there. And that was a mistake…”

Working together, the nurse and the superheroine put the bat’s jaw back where it is–from one perspective–supposed to be. I know when they’ve done it because the bat screams in pain at the instant of the reset.

“Yes,” Andrews agrees, “that was a mistake.”

She stands. “I’m headed inside.” She nods to Synergy, and then to me when I risk another glance away from my roadside vigil. “You two seem like nice girls. You stay safe out there, you hear?”

And the weary nurse trudges back to her own endless war, shoulders settling in for the long haul as she disappears through the doors of Spectrum Health.

“Alright,” Synergy says, folding her arms. “These goggles. Tell me how they work or I’m going to have my fae friend play games with you until you’re ready to talk.”

I toss a wordless thorny grin over my shoulder.

The hapless Spiral-creature’s so full of fear I can literally taste it. Pouring out of her, like a cold autumn fog heavy with the scent of dying things. “Please,” she whimpers. “Please just let me wear them. Just for a second.”

“Nope,” Synergy says. She pushes her boot into the bat’s chest, quite indifferent to the massive amount of breast tissue she has to displace to find stable footing. “Tell me how they work. This boss of yours, the Archmander–is it some kind of psychic network? Does she reach right into your brain and give orders?”

“No!” the Spiral says, shaking her head frantically. “Nothing like that! It’s… look… I’m sorry…” her ears fold back. “I don’t know how it works. Not really. Each pair of goggles contains a fork from our primary AI cluster, Tandem. It reinforces positive thought patterns and suppresses negative ones. Regulates emotions by controlling chemical release. At any time by the user’s discretion, tandem will overlay spirals, inspiring or sexual imagery and messages, and emit hypnosis-related audio, feeding instructions to keep them acting while tranced. That’s the generic spiel I was given to use when converting people to the cause.”

“Uh, Jamie, I don’t know much about hypno,” Synergy calls. “How credible is that?”

“It’s not.” My frown’s heavy and stark enough to be visible across the twenty feet between us. “That just isn’t how flesh-and-blood brains work. They’re not actually like computers, it’s never as easy as just ‘elevate good thoughts, remove bad ones’. You can’t just reach in and precision-target synapses independent from each other, turning specific functions on and off with no side effects. Even when fully tranced by a domme they’re literally in love with, submissives can react very unpredictably.”

“So you’re saying it’d take magic to do everything she said?” Synergy asks.

I turn my eyes back to my sights, turning a slow circle from my combat crouch as I scan the rooftops. “Yes. That’s the sum.”

“And this is your actual plan?” Synergy demands of the Spiral. “Posturing, threatening people, throwing the goggles on them and hoping that if you fuck with their minds until they can barely think, the mess that’s left will happen to decide it wants to work for you?”

“We weren’t–” the bat blurts. She bites her words back and turns away.

“Finish your sentence,” Synergy orders, grinding her heel in.

“It wasn’t supposed to go that far,” the bat says. “We thought–I thought–people would just surrender, just be reasonable…”

“Why would they be reasonable if you’re not?” Synergy asks. “People respond to the example you set. It’s part of humanity’s common social instincts. The example Seven Spirals have set is that everyone should puff their chests out and threaten each other like a bunch of coked-up MMA fighters. Like, what,” she spreads her arms, “you really thought everyone would just roll over and show their bellies for you if you acted scary? Why? Did you think that’d work because that’s how you respond when somebody stronger than you…”

She takes in the Spiral’s cringing, the way her furry neck hunches toward her bony shoulders as much as she can while Synergy still has a boot holding her down.

The superheroine casts her eyes to the sky. “God fucking damn it.”

She steps off. “Look… I don’t regret taking you down a peg, but I’m sorry for being so vicious about it. I’m not wholly unsympathetic, okay? Everything’s scary and I don’t blame you for wanting an escape, but you can’t… you can’t throw yourself into an active warzone while relying on coping mechanisms that dissociate you from your own decisions. Like, if you hadn’t had those goggles on, would you have thought it was okay to threaten a nurse?”

“Indeed.” I adjust the SKS against my shoulder. “No shame in being so scared and tired you can’t control your fight-or-flight response, but at that point you’re a stress casualty. You shouldn’t be picking fights, carrying weapons… shooting elves in the gut…”

“Like, what happens if these goggles get broken in the middle of a fight?” Synergy asks.

“That isn’t possible!” the bat says, thrashing her head from side to side. “They’re made from an adamantine-nanocarbon composite alloy–“

“Jamie, is that meaningless technojargon?” Synergy asks.

“Well,” I send my tongue on a circuit of my maw while I consider my answer, “given that ‘adamantine’ is not a real substance, with ‘adamant’ just coming from the Greek ‘adamas’ meaning ‘diamond,’ and ‘nanocarbon’ would just refer to the size of the composite structure–sounds like a butchering of ‘nanotube’, honestly–with nary a mention of a metallic component, so the term ‘alloy’ makes no sense… yes. I’d say it’s utter dreck.”

“Right.” Synergy steps to the discarded goggles. “Out of the two of us, whose strength would you say is less super?”

“Absolutely myself,” I answer. “I can move quick and hit hard, but I can’t jump so forcefully it makes craters and sets the moon to shuddering on high.”

“C’mere,” Synergy calls. As I lift my SKS away from the line of fire and jog over, she says, smiling wryly, “and I think you’re exaggerating with that second part. Just a little.”

“Exaggerating for now,” I answer, and wink.

Syn rolls her eyes, tosses her head back, and then gestures at the goggles. “Please crush these under your shapely elven feets.”

I stare at her, hard. Syn does not unsay those accursed words.

“You won’t be able to–” the bat begins, before I left my foot, already hardening a protective shell of calcified bluish fungus around it, and promptly crash through the goggles with only a little more force than an average industrial power hammer.

Which proves excessive, exploding the headset into twenty pieces and sending sparks all over the parking lot.

“TANDEM!” the bat screams. She promptly collapses into sobs.

I glance to Syn, neither of us especially comfortable. Still… I place one of the stolen goggle-sets on the island, bring up a thick mushroom-cap to absorb the blow-through, and fire a single round from the SKS. It blasts one of the lens-tubes clean off and, again, obliterates that all-important modification box.

There’s no circuitry inside. No chips, no cables, no power supply or motherboard, and certainly not whatever exotic hardware I’d expect one to need in order to have a fully-autonomous AI cluster running inside a headset. Just a lot of metallic dust. What in the name of the devil and all the saints of the deep is going on?

“I’m, uh…” I turn back to Synergy. “I’m starting to think the leadership of the Spirals isn’t being entirely honest with the rank-and-file.”

“So it would seem.” She frowns. “Do you suppose maybe it’s a placebo effect, a power-of-suggestion kind of thing? Maybe hit them with hypno at the base, making them associate the goggles with dissociated versions of…” she fumbles for words, “their own… you know… normal coping mechanisms?”

“That’s a good working hypothesis.” I sigh, approaching the bat. “Doesn’t explain all the vivid audiovisual symptoms, though. Hallucinations aren’t that easy to induce. Let’s have a few more words with our Spirals’ advocate here, see if we can’t–“

“YOU!” an all-too-familiar voice bellows. I spin, catch sight of a massive figure hurtling down from the sky, and get moving just fast enough to dodge Shockwave’s opening ground-slam. Her blow rips the pavement wide open, a surreal jigsaw of quake-ruptured pieces spiking up and crashing back together at jagged uneven angles.

No hesitation. If that blow had hit me dead on, I’d probably be dead. I snap the SKS up and open fire the moment my eye acquires Shockwave’s head at the top of the frontsight’s needle. But she’s already filling the air around her with vibrations. The pressure waves drive me back, skidding, moving too fast to send my mycelia down below and begin preparing a spore trap, and my bullets veer back and skitter to the ground on all sides.

“You fuckers aren’t doing a single other thing to her!” Shockwave roars. She launches herself in a superpowered sprint towards me, long strides, driving off from each one with a kinetic blast that sends her faster and faster with every road-shattering step. The feral snarl of her frothing mouth gets terrifyingly close, a fist raised to smear me across the hospital walls coming up fast behind me.

A silver blur blasts into her from the side. Synergy takes them both rolling, tumbling, and I catch the flicker of her arm pumping back and forth with the three whipcrack echoes of the midair punches she deals to Shockwave’s jaw. The Spiral super roars again, snaps her arms and legs wide, and discharges a thunderous burst of energy that distorts the air and sends Synergy spinning away. She crashes through a window on the big blue-glass cylinder of the children’s hospital.

Her back is turned. Vulnerable. I bring up the SKS. Take aim. Slow, steady breaths, slipping into my own little version of bullet time. An illusion, sure, but a powerful one. Just let the needle drift to her back in its own time. She’s running in quicksand.

Squeeze–

A dark, furry shape knocks into me an instant before the shot. It goes wide, whizzing out across the street, under the walkway back down the road, and into the white walls on the outpatient section of the Children’s Hospital.

The bat’s got a few inches on me, but her strength is no more than that of an average human. It takes only an instant to seize her wing-arm, throw her over my shoulder, and get the rifle up to my shoulder with the muzzle pressed between her eyes.

“Are you insane?!” I snarl. “Have you forgotten where we are?”

“You’re the one who–” the bat begins.

“Fuck the children!” Shockwave shouts, already charging back towards me.

I note the silver glint coming up behind her. Deep breath. I am rooting, I am crawling, writhing in my own limbs. Down into the splintered ways. Seething decay.

Starting to get a little woozy. Nothing for it.

Synergy comes soaring back out of the hole she made and lands a beautiful dive-kick right into Shockwave’s back. Shockwave skids, tumbles, cracks herself against the gray walls of Spectrum. But there’s another damned burst of power and I know just from watching that she timed it just right to counteract the force of the impact.

“You.” I seize the bat by head, all too keenly aware of Synergy as a silver blur at the corner of my vision–toe to toe with Shockwave, weaving, bobbing, trading punches that lace the air with sonic waves. “Sleep.” I am tendrils burrowing under her squirming skin, I am the rebel lightning of unwilling synapses–

I am spinning through the air with a tearing pain all across my spine while chunks of brick scatter to either side.

“Get out of here, Mags!” Shockwave yells, dust from the wall she broke for ammo still misting her shoulders and hands. “Go! Call this in! This fight’s gonna draw attention, gonna need backup after I’m done with these!”

Mags looks to her, looks to me, and then bolts into the air. Fully spread, her arms are both far longer than they looked folded, and serve as the structure for big leathery wings. I contemplate the SKS, fallen nearby, and whether I want to blow her out of the sky.

I focus instead on extending down, yet again. Tendrils seeking. Finding the ones I already laced in the spot where I stood until seconds ago. Growing my web out of me, feeding myself into its strands as I grow fainter, while Synergy blurs around a clap of Shockwave’s hands and the shock-front send out from their meeting. By now every window around us is cracked or broken or blown out entirely. Sweat shines on Synergy’s brow, visible through a tear in her hood, and all over Shockwave’s body.

“Syn!” I yell. “Fall back on me!”

Tendrils growing, seeking, festering. Tendrils angling up as Syn rushes towards me. Blooming, unfurling, full of muzzy heat. Shockwave raises an arm charged with so much force it’s vibrating, set to send a pure-force slash at the two of us.

No time to say it, but I hear the words with my rushing heartbeat and the smirk on my lips. You know what’d calm you right down? I flick a wrist upward, two fingers beckoning, and my spore gas explodes from fissures in a hissing tide of red flecked with glittering pink.

Shockwave, never one to count her breaths, gulps down breath after breath of the stuff while she’s staggering back. Her limbs turn sluggish, her footsteps falter. Another. Another uncertain step. Another ragged snarl.

And another.

Oh. She’s not falling, though.

“You cheating whores!” she howls. A charge, a swiping arm, fingers tight together, and a kinetic cut that hums as it passes us by. Only the ponderous wind-up gives Syn and I enough time to throw ourselves to the ground–mostly. I lose a long strip from my gown and the pale spotted thigh-flesh beneath. Synergy gets a similar shaving from her right forearm, not able to drop it down below her head quite fast enough as she sways backward.

Shockwave’s on me before I can recover. I’m quick, dealing mean dragging cuts and little holes with my claws, but her brawny arms stop me from getting at her neck, her eyes, or any of her real vitals, and then a huge fist soars upward, halts, and emits a concussive blast that smashes into me point-blank.

All the wind goes out of me, and most of my consciousness. Spots swim. There’s a mercy: I can barely feel the fist that the Spiral super clamps around my neck, or the crunching of my bones under her grip. But I surely feel it when she surrounds me with a crushing vise of force. Grinding in. Chipping my claws, making me ache from my toes to my skull, ripping pains of things bursting under my skin.

Synergy hurtles back in, bleeding from a broken nose and a split lip and forehead, from her forearm, and Shockwave just swings me into her path for a shield.

“Gonna enjoy crushing you!” she snarls.

“Just so long as you enjoy the blood poisoning, too,” I whisper, my fingers brushing softly at the growing necrotic black that eats the tattoos on Shockwave’s sapling-thick forearm.

I can’t see her eyes under those damn goggles, but I know they’re bulging. I know it from the way her teeth lock together, from the vein bulging in her forehead, from the way she whips her arm out and hurls me at Synergy.

“THAT’S NOT FUCKING FAIR!” Shockwave screams. No traces of skill or thought left. Just big, raging hands pounding out one big, raging shockwave after another. Hammering us both into the walls. Smashing brick and plaster and wiring. Shredding furniture within.

She keeps going until we’re both dazed and bruised and barely there. Staring, vacant things awaiting the last blow.

“You ruined everything!” she screams. She’s as distant and tinny as a dream I can’t remember, a dream that had no place in daylight. Everything’s warm and swaddling. I think I’m finally about to wake up. “Do you even fucking care? When Tool told us out of the blue she was quitting, when she took her portals with her, it threw off our whole plan for Detroit! We could’ve won if you hadn’t stabbed us in the back!”

“Your entire logistical plan…” I drawl, as I wonder whether Shaenogh will be waiting for me when I pass. Probably not. “Your entire logistical plan relied on one person? What if she died… what if she… you know… collapsed from overwork?”

And I laugh, and laugh, and laugh, knowing this dream will only destroy itself with the punch it winds up–until a bright-orange gout envelops Shockwave and blasts her aside.

When she comes up this time she’s screaming from pain as well as anger. Screaming at the blistered patches on her skin. Red, angry flesh all over the right side of her face. Her goggles have been blasted right off. Aside of, course, from the plastic patches grafted to her skin by the thermal pulse. “Who has the balls?

“That’d be me.” Our rescue, if such he is, hovers down to the ground on shining steel-toed boots with two continuous micro-explosions pouring from the palms of his hands. He settles into an easy stance, legs braced, fists up to cover his core.

He’s trim, athletic, a few inches shorter than Shockwave and less than half her size. His super-suit is a thing of race-car reds and burnt oranges blending into black at the cowl, the forearms, the legs. His cape’s red inside, black outside. His mask’s a sleekly-sculpted slope of glossy metal with a black-to-orange gradient, and a glittering slit of blood-red hexagonal facets for his eyes. A cutaway exposes his lips and his smooth, lightly-tanned skin above a rounded chin-piece.

“Supercharge,” he grins. “The Triple Base Super.”

“Are you fucking serious!?” Shockwave screams, throwing another haymaker. Supercharge snaps a wrist out, his mocking grin become a calm, slight, self-assured smile. Blinding light condenses along his forearm and blips off his hand. A neat crescent splits the oncoming shock-front in two and sends it careening around him, crushing cars and cracking the pillars at the front of the hospital.

From that moment, nothing that happens in the second phase of the battle surprises me. Supercharge’s power is just better, or he’s just better at using it than Shockwave, or both. He’s deft, quick, and controlled, never wasting his time on overworked wind-ups or clumsy windmilling follow-throughs, so he easily gets in two or three jabs for every one of Shockwave’s mindless berserker sweeps.

But when he does commit, the power he puts into it absolutely dwarfs hers. His palm-heel strikes deliver scorching conical blasts that shake dust from the wall onto my head and echo across the buildings of the Medical Mile. All of Shockwave’s power is barely enough to make counterbursts that protect her from most of Supercharge’s attacks–most of them.

All the while he keeps that subtle smile.

Around and around, wearing her down with those decisive ring-spawning detonations when he gets an opening, filling the air around them with an odd faintly yellowish haze.

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Shockwave roars. Her force makes every limb vibrate, sends waves running from her jowls down into her fingers and toes. “I’M ENDING THIS NOW–“

And Supercharge ignites, flickers forward, thuds his fist into her gut. Time actually slows to a crawl, Shockwave suspended on his fist with spittle flying out of her mouth, my own eyelids moving slow as snails as they widen. Only Supercharge moves at normal speeds, a cocky twist to his lips as he says, “I am ending this–Mach Four Judgment Waveform!

And creepers of that yellowish haze find the flames all over his body. They flare, burning oh so fast, ever swifter, and then all at once a titanic blast engulfs everything. It should collapse the walls of the buildings, rip cars apart and send them flying, probably turn myself and Synergy to vapor or, at best, tumbling collections of severed limbs and gore.

But for all the debris, somehow, only one person receives the furnace-hot force that suddenly condenses, collapses, and whips along Supercharge’s forearm in winding streamers to a pinpoint as bright as the sun. Only one person becomes trapped in the physics-defying oval island of a confined, deafening implosion.

Shockwave, who couldn’t fully withstand it even with all the power filling her. She lies, smoldering and groaning, at Supercharge’s feet. All her hair and most of her tattoos are burned off. Flash-fried swaths of skin and ragged tatters of clothing cover her from end to end. Her arms and legs turn to reddish, charred stumps at the knees and elbows.

“F-fuck… you…” she growls.

“Well, Mr. Supercharge…” I say, forcing myself upright and trying to remember words.

Supercharge turns towards me, smiling, and extends a fist low to his side. In passing, the blast of fire and propellant blows Shockwave’s head apart. A red puff. Vapor. Clattering bits of skull and a few spurts of blood from her still-pumping heart.

I lose track of what I’d meant to say. Numb, my horror a distant dissonant chill.

“Yes, ma’am?” Supercharge asks.

“You… you killed her!” Synergy says.

“Yes, I’m afraid I did,” Supercharge says, looking back over his shoulder and scratching his chin. “It’s proven necessary–“

“That’s the one rule,” Synergy can’t believe it, the poor thing. She’s quivering, eyes wide behind her mask. “Supers don’t kill. We just don’t.”

“Oh, I agree with that the vast majority of the time,” Supercharge says. He sighs. Shakes his head. His posture’s no different from that of an old union worker, kicking the floor and talking about how labor ain’t what it used to be. “But, as I learned in Lansing, you can’t talk to the Spirals. They nod along and smile and pretend to hear your points when they’re on the back foot.” He taps his temple. “But it’s all a front. Getting you to open up while they take notes on your weaknesses–ways to get into your head. They don’t care about people. Just kink. There’s no one in there to connect with.”

He approaches, offering his hand to Synergy. “Come on, I’ll help you up. Supers have to look out for each other, right?” he winks.

Synergy glances to me. I give the tiniest, subtlest nod I can.

And she takes that hand, speckled with scorched dust and a few dull specks of Shockwave’s blood. Tiny pieces of her brain. And she manages not to tremble–at least that I can see–as Supercharge pulls her to her feet.

“We all grew up reading the same comics about Batman and the Joker, right?” Supercharge asks. “We all know how that goes. Fiction’s one thing. Gotta keep the best villain alive. But real life calls for a little realism, don’t you think? I’ve been forced to admit that every so often, when villains are just going to use your desire to give them a second chance against you… you just have to kill them at the first opportunity. It’s grim, true. But sometime taking one life is the only way to save many more. Can’t leave it to rigid rules. Can’t be a computer about it. Just gotta trust my gut instinct, and act on it.”

Synergy says nothing.

“Of course,” the propellant super says, “I do believe that while execution is occasionally necessary, it’s important to be humane about it. So, do either of you have any suggestions for improvement? I’m not looking to make anyone suffer if I can avoid it.”

“That, um…” I look to the blistered, headless, limbless torso that is the last remnant of a woman who named herself Shockwave. “That was quick. Quick is good.”

“Much appreciated.” Supercharge nods and steps back. “Anyway. I’ll be around if the two of you need any more trouble. Catalyst–that’s me and the rest of my super team–are moving into Grand Rapids.” He stretches. “Spent all of yesterday stamping out the Spirals in Lansing, or we’d have been here the minute our powers went live.”

Shouts of alarm, weapons raised: a group of somewhere around twenty Spirals come rushing down the road and bring their guns to bear on Supercharge.

“That’s a lot of guns,” I point out.

“Doesn’t matter, they can’t fire,” Supercharge says. He flashes me that cocky grin. “I told you, I’m the Triple Base Super. The king of ballistic propellants. Firearms don’t work unless I say so. And they work how I say.” He spares a last nod for the two of us. “I’m sure we’ll meet again, so introductions can wait until the two of you are feeling better. I look forward to working with the both of you in the future.”

His grin gets the widest it’s ever been. “And I hope that together, we can all make Grand Rapids a safer place. It’s good to be back in my hometown.”

He turns. A wave of his hand, dappled by fiery flares, cooks off a storm of powder and grenades across the staggered firing line of the Spiral grunts right as they’re busy checking their weapons. Bright tracer-streaks, sparks, and shrapnel tear open necks, faces, limbs.

We watch, not daring to move a muscle, while Supercharge slowly approaches the fallen. He lifts each hand, elbows tucked in. With each flick of his fingers a miniature sun unfolds. A burning blast. Holes blown through chest cavities and foreheads. The last few Spirals are just aware enough to scream, to beg, to make little pleading keening sounds that cut off oh so quickly as the Triple Base Super turns his attention to them.

The flashing lights of slaughter make cavern-shapes in the weary faces we turn to each other, Synergy and I. Finally Supercharge is gone. We’re alone again.

“Syn,” I say, still laboring for breath, “I don’t think we can keep on like this. I think we need an edge.”

“Yeah.” She wipes her mouth. “For what it’s worth… Today is the strongest I’ve ever felt. I could feel you starting to believe in me. I think I… I think I have to risk sticking around. Find some people. Help them. Get that boost to my power going, get grounded in that feedback loop–more belief, more heroism, more power, more belief, more heroism.”

I nod. “So, you’ll be staying here, then.”

“While you do what?” she stumbles as she walks toward me. I catch her by the shoulders. She can’t quite muster a smile at that. “Go back to Faerie on a research trip?”

“Almost.” I steel myself. “There’s only one there who I know will still talk to me. One being out of all those who might know of a way for me to surpass my limits, to compete.”

Still, the mere thought of it floods me with chills and the million knife-mouths of decay. “It’s time for me to meet my goddess in person. It’s time I speak to the Morrigan.”

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