The cereal in Federal City is sort of toasted shredded wheat with dried berries of some sort, drowned in goat milk. It's an acquired taste that I don't intend to acquire -- A voice rings through my head; a star field overlays my vision; a tone chimes like one of those giant temple bells in Tibet. "In order to preserve Agent Amari, I must undergo a one hundred percent merge. This will -- be my only opportunity to speak with you, his -- our -- my -- teammates." Cereal goes spraying. Concord. Sol. The hell? "Your commitment to doing right for the world and those you care about it admirable. Your own self-doubt is your worst and, possibly, only enemy. When you see your friends standing with you, act -- they are the clearest reflection of your best self." I've only heard him via comms, or through Adam's voice, but I know who it is, The message carries its own psychic headers across the dimensions. I take the words themselves and stuff them into the back of my head for safekeeping while I listen and try to figure out -- "They need help. Immediately." The team. A dimension away, and they need our help so badly that Sol is reaching out to us. Jesus. I'm up and moving, even as Summer and Charlotte are reaching me on the comms, having been messaged by Sol as well. I'm parsing the words. Cringeworthy complements aside, it sounds like desperate times. "Head for the Keynome chamber. We need to get home." * * * Alycia's just stepping out of the Capitol as I go dashing in. I almost grab her wrist and, wisely instead fling my hand wide, skidding to a halt. I drop into a deep Austrian accent, "Come with me if you want -- a ride home." A raised eyebrow. "Almost the right line. Why the rush?" "Trouble." She looks at me with eyes that -- oh, for God's sake, Jason -- and her forehead creases. "I am very -- down with -- helping." The words are reluctant, almost puzzled. I flash a smile at her, trying to push last night's conversation out of my head. Baby steps, Jason . I run for the stairs, hearing Alycia's boots behind me. * * * It's amazing that the tension in the chamber is even higher than it was the day before. It should be simple, right? I can create portals -- but can I create one that won't kill me a bit more? My mind shudders -- as melodramatic as it sounds, my doom is closer than I dare consider. If it's the only way to get to our friends, our Earth, I'll do it -- -- But I shouldn't need to. Charlotte has ties between the worlds. The Keynome is hooked up for power (I start to mentally thank my dad, and realize I'm fleeing away from that good-bye, too). So it should be easy, right? It's not. I rush things, make assumptions, feel that tremor in my mind vibrate, sense it all starting to go wrong -- -- and suddenly I'm not alone. The power from the Keynome surges, increases, as Alycia works the controls there, swearing about the janky jury-rigging Dad (and Chin?) built. The course of the portal shudders, begins to solidify as Charlotte directs it in a way that won't tear another hole between the worlds. Summer's hand is on my arm, steadying my body, and mind -- It's not enough. The Keynome flickers. Sparks fly from the machinery. Alycia says words in multiple languages, all of them the sort of thing Dad used to ground me for using ("But Rusty said it first!"). Dad -- -- is there. He runs to a console across from Alycia. "What are we doing?" he shouts. We. He begins to flip switches, shutting down parts of the machinery in the room, reducing the power demand, the processing power, freeing both up to help our -- Charlotte has the lead, taking possession of the gate I'm creating, aiming for -- "Jason, we need to focus on where we want to go!" Concord? The Compound? Or -- "Leo!" shouts Summer. I nod. "Do it!" Summer projects an image of Link. The Portal snaps open, roaring like a garbage disposal with an opening twelve feet wide. Not the most comforting image, but -- My eyes meet Dad's. "Thanks," I mouth. He nods. We're gone. * * * We're in a place of darkness and decay ... a graveyard in autumn ... a dank cave ... an old library ... Light breaks in, dazzling our eyes, providing a beacon ... ... a pair of beacons ... ... headlights! * * * Otto in humanoid form does a stumbling double-take, rolls, and is back into the form of a car. "Welcome to the party, guys!" he says in his usual jovial tone, but there's also a hint of -- pain? strain? exhaustion? We're on a city street -- I recognize Halcyon South, Leo and Adam' school, shrouded in construction fencing and scaffolding, all now in tangled metal and shreds, a "Corvus Construction" sign barely hanging onto a single screw. In all directions, Vyortovian troops shooting, shielding, battling against -- Link, Pneuma, Mercury, A-10 and the other Irregulars, in desperate battle, fighting, getting knocked down, getting back up -- My brain runs the numbers. We're losing. "I assume I'm shooting the bad guys," Alycia says. This is war. I'm not going to say no. "Protect our people!" I shout. Conserve your forces, Rusty whispers in my head. That's the only way to do anything else. "Protect the innocents!" The houses, the apartments, already pockmarked with blastmarks. And, for Alycia's sake, "Shoot the bad guys!" Link calls out over the comms, "Concord needs help!" I look around. Sol started this with that call for help. "Where?" And then Concord appears right next to Link. He has no scarf. His colors have ... changed. What the -- I can't hear what he tells Link, but the latter calls out to all of our people on the field, "Get a barrier up. Rally behind it. I have a plan!" I'm glad he does. This isn't my kind of thing. I suddenly realize none of this is my thing. I've been shot at an insane number of times in my life, and I've never enjoyed it. Today, less than most of the time. But that isn't going to stop the people shooting at me. "Rally on me!" Harry calls out, doing a super-speed run in circles, knocking a dozen Vyortovians away. And we do -- setting up a perimeter, defying any of the Vyortovians to cross it. A wall of nanobots spray out of my hands; Concord summons up an energy moat; Telekinician creates glowing physical barriers; Ghost Girl encircles us with a palpable aura of fear; Otto towers over us in the middle, in humanoid form, batting down the occasional jet-packed Vyortovian that seeks to swoop down on us. Even now, I hold back a little. I can feel the strain on my mind. I'll sacrifice myself, if I need to -- but not until I need to.) We have them held back for a moment, blocked from us save for a few who manage do break or bull or force their way through -- to be met by sword and bullet and super-fast/-strong fists. It's a delicate balance that can't last -- and I know it won't when see three of the Vyortovian troops approaching -- holy shit, the freaking Dread Queen ? -- and now she's looking at us. Yeah, we're dead. And I begin to think about how to go out in a blaze of glory, even as the whole thing strikes me as so unfair. I was almost out from under this. Another day -- hell, another few hours -- I'd be fixed. Or dead. Or maybe powerless. But probably fixed. And then I could -- -- what? I'm never going to know. And then I can't believe what I'm seeing, as Link joins together with Pneuma (Aria!) and Otto, and the outer shell of armor blows off, and Otto is venting fuel and an electrical spark ignites it holy shit we're going to die he's going to MOAB all over us -- -- and then as I (and Telekinesian, and Concord) briefly all redirect our barriers against the heat, Link's magnetic fields funnel all that venting fuel in a single direction, driving the three of them at staggering speed directly at the Dread Queen -- -- and, impossibly, she's ready for it. His fuel spent, Otto ejects Link and Pneuma, before pulling back away. It's not easy watching one fight when your own attention is -- has to be -- on your own safety (and the safety of your comrades in arms). I overclock my brain a bit further (not too far!) and try to watch what's happening. That's the main event, the center ring, and even if it weren't an astonishing display I'd need to keep my eyes on it. Link and Pneuma are a ballet team, something out of an anime movie, Jackie Chan meets Jet Lee meets Team Figure Skating meets Gymnastics meets Cirque de Soleil meets ... ... okay, I'm not overclocked enough to extend that metaphor. But they are incredible. Every move choreographed to follow up, to feint, to drive in to strike just where the Dread Queen is most vulnerable, most likely to be taken down, or even just incrementally weakened. Every punch, every kick, is perfect, of the highest potential to land. It's not working. The Dread Queen has a reputation for intelligence, power, and immortality. Knowledge about Vyortovia is scanty, almost mythic (as well we know), but it centers on her for as long as there's been a Vyortovian nation. If Leo and Pneuma are perfect, the Dread Queen is flawless. She dodges, parries, thrusts, spins, just so, and with seemingly effortless grace, taking their measure, getting them to expend their energy. It's an as astonishing display. If they are fighting an impossibly coordinated kumite bout, she's acting like it's simply a miraculously complex kata , almost a formalized dance that just happens to keep them from laying an effective hand on her. If you were a hyper-genius, and you had a thousand years to train, to expand your combat consciousness to its maximum, what could you do? What couldn't you do? I'm seeing that scenario right there, in front of me. Link and Pneuma aren't going to win this. I glance at Alycia, who's doing the same thing as me, fighting for her life even as she boggles at the display. Her eyes widen -- "... the fuck?" -- and then spots me looking at her. "She cheating!" Alycia shouts. I look back. Alycia's spotted something I haven't -- something the Dread Queen is doing -- a blow is about to land, and then she's simply not in its path, how the hell -- it's not just perfect martial form, but ... magic? Clarke's "sufficiently advanced technology"? Whatever, it's impossible, and it's turning a we can't win into one we can't even show up for. How do you fight that? If we had a Keynome, could we change the equation? Could we reduce her possibilities, somehow? Bend reality to cause her to simply be defeated? Just as well we don't have one, because twisting reality that way would probably have world-shattering consequences. I'm out of ideas, out of strategies, out of clever ploys. This is Link's, this is Leo's play, and I hope to hell he has a plan. All we can do is make it easier for him. "Clear the field!" I shout over comms. "Cover Link and Pneuma!" We focus on the Vyortovians trying to rally to their queen. Not that I suspect any of them would dare interfere with the her battle -- that seems like a career limiting move -- but they might seize an opportunity should Link or Pneuma give them one. So those are the guys we tackle -- the Menagerie and the Irregulars surge forward. These V troops are a cut or three above the ones we fought in the graveyard mere days ago. Those were science mooks and, my guess, light scouts. These are shock troops, walking armored units, heavily protected, heavily armed, the Praetorian Guard to the Dread Queen, her vanguard in this invasion. Nobody you want to meet alone in even a well-lit alley. We crash into them, and the battle dissolves into brief flashes as I try to keep control of myself, stay alive, and play for time. * * * How weird is it, I think for about the fiftieth time, that a guy who's all about being smart -- me -- wades into battle in nanobot armor, punching with nanobot fists with nanobot-enhanced strength, and basically being a brawler? One of those fists drives a Vyortovian down into the pavement with a crash that cracks both pavement and armor. I move on. * * * Concord does something I haven't seen before with a burst of light that sends a V trooper flying back into a bunch of his fellows. He looks different -- the colors are wrong, the scarf is gone. My mind flashes back to that message from Sol -- "I must undergo a one hundred percent merge." My blood would chill if I had the opportunity to give it more than a passing thought, but even my brain has its limits. I just hope we both survive, if Adam needs help. * * * Mercury is everywhere -- each time I glance around I catch a glimpse of him. The Vyortovian rifles double as power staves, and in this sort of close-in madhouse that's how they're largely being used. He slides under one swung his way, through the legs of his attacker, rising up on the other side to land a supersonic backhand blow to a helmeted skull, sending the Vyortovian staggering forward and to his knees. Mercury uses his momentum to spin on a dime and drive his foot into the back of the same V's head, crashing him down into the pavement, too. * * * Ghost Girl drifts flits through the crowd -- now a slow-moving whisp, then a lightning dart forward (yes, it's exactly like those video tricks they do in the movies). She can't use her cries of terrifying emptiness here, not with her allies in the mix, but here she stares into a goggled face, there she whispers a word in an armored ear, and men and women scream and stagger away. * * * A-10 isn't even bothering to fly -- it makes her too much of a target. She just punches things out on ground level.A super-strong fist breaks carbon-fiber armor and almost certainly some ribs below. A swung body takes down a half-dozen fellow soldiers. Her shouts of rage are audible even above the din. * * * Alycia rolls and tumbles and dances her way through the crowd. She's gotten hold of one of the Vytovian rifle/staffs, and uses it to good effect at the close quarters -- pole-end to the face here, a sweep of the legs there, short, brutal, efficient. I wonder if I'll see her again. * * * A guy ahead of me aims his gun at Concord. From ten feet away, I drive a spike of nanobots through his left trapezius, spoiling his aim. I hope I haven't hit a major blood vessel, but I don't have time to check. I recall some cartoon line, "You knew this job was dangerous when you took it," and wonder if I'm talking about the soldier or me. * * * Telekinetian is throwing opponents around -- not even bothering to lift and hold them, just flailing about with his TK with a dozen legs-up, letting ballistics and gravity take care of the rest. * * * Alloy is down. Animal hurls himself onto their attacker, claws flashing, victim screaming. * * * Charlotte's ghostly hands reach up from the pavement, and drag Vyortovian soldiers downward. I hope into the sewers and storm drains. If not, I don't want to know it. * * * Summer has grabbed one of the big energy/plexi shields some the V troops are using, and is playing defense for us, blocking the occasional shot, giving us a chance to react. Maybe I shouldn't have removed the weapons and targeting system. No, I needed the space for the central processor, and the fire cycles were too long for this kind of battle, but if I could make more room by consolidating -- Later, Jason. Focus . * * * "War is hell, kid," Rusty says to me, a million years ago. "To win, you have to be the biggest fucking devil on the field." * * * Armiger lops off the arm of the trooper in front of him ("It's only a flesh wound!" screeches through my head), then another trooper leaps onto him from behind, and they go down in a mass of armor and violence. * * * Harry's face is grim below his goggles. He usually smiles, or looks uncertain, or smiles with uncertainty. Now he's just focused, determined, angry. He's not the lovable goofball. He's a hero. * * * Sol's voice comes back, too. "When you see your friends standing with you, act -- they are the clearest reflection of your best self." I wish I was half as good as my friends are. So I'll just have to be. * * * Another surge of noise, and I catch a glimpse of the jerks from the JHHL plowing in from the north, down Mason Ave. No organization, no plan, just shouting and screaming and whomping on Vyortovians. Superchica hits their line like an avalanche. Kid Kelvin hoses down the stragglers. Ninjess, Stingray, Kinetica, Scr-- Bob -- all dive in. It's not enough. More troops are coming down from the carrier above. For all we've defeated, there are more on the ground now than when we started, all trying to get to their queen, with us in the way. The JHHL doesn't stop. They can't turn the tide, but they don't stop. * * * Little mistakes. Big mistakes. All can become fatal mistakes in a battle like this. You get knocked down. You get back up. Something crashes into you from the side, you knock them away. Your knees buckle, you jump harder. Your fists are bleeding, you ignore it. You hear your friend shouting, you get to their side, cover their back, double-team their opponent, stand over their body and guard it. Aim your shots. Avoid the easy sacrifice play. We can't afford a single person down. Keep fighting. * * * It's been the subject of a hundred works of art (including some by the winning side), but all I can see is Frederic Remington's 1879 painting of Custer's Last Stand. A dozen men, exhausted, wounded, shooting back, their opponents not even visible in the clouds of gunsmoke, waiting for the end. Custer was a dick, and the Last Stand wasn't anything like that, but icons are icons for a reason. * * * And then Link's plan works. I don't see the details, but I do see Pneuma flying back through the air in a shallow arc, then, a moment later, Link in an even higher one in the opposite direction. And then the Vyortovian troops start to retreat in good order, led by the Dread Queen, back to the air carrier. A-10 -- costume in tatters, blood streaked across her cheek, smashes a fist into the trooper she'd been holding with the other hand. He pinwheels down the street. Her eyes are large at the Vyortovians' departure. Her voice -- fierce, exhausted, confused -- "Are we letting these guys get away?" The ground around us is strewn with bodies -- most of them Vyortovian, some ours. Part of me wants to go in pursuit. Extract vengeance. Teach them a lesson. Part of me -- most of me -- realizes we just caught an inexplicable Minbari-surrendering-at-the-Line class break. I shake my head. "No! Hold your ground. Clean up stragglers. Help the injured. Look for civvies in trouble." My voice sounds funny, but it seems to do the trick. Nobody's obeying orders -- I'm not in charge here -- it just makes sense to them, or it's easier to follow the suggestion than think of something on their own. Whatever. I'm dead on my feet, most of the nanobots falling away to the ground except for the normal complement about my torso. I check out my team -- the team I'm on. They're all my team today, but -- Harry's collecting weapons. He's limping slightly, and his high speed is a fraction of normal, but he's good. Concord is in the air, circling around to the houses and apartments, checking for people in trouble. A number of the Irregulars and JHHL are doing the same. Good. I see Pneuma -- Aria -- staggering in a direction. Summer is moving on an intercept course, right arm hanging funny (damage to the hard light emitters, I assume, but it wrenches my gut). I realize I'm on one knee, and get back up, joining them. They -- and Otto -- are at Leo. He's lying on the ground, his chest armor torn, flesh beneath bloodied and lacerated. All from a single blow. "How is --" "He's okay," says Summer, looking up at me. The right arm is glitching. Her eyes are wide, pained. "He's okay, but he's hurt." "Do what you can." I look at him. "I don't know what he did, but he saved our asses." It's a silly, stupid, weird-macho thing to say, a mish-mosh of a dozen bad action movies. But they're the only words I can think of for the moment. * * * The rest is kind of a haze. The aftermath of something like this is always longer, and harder, and more exhausting as the adrenaline evaporates and the lactic acidosis kicks in. Harry reports there's been an intense fight in Vyortovia, out at the tip of one peninsula. That's where the HHL were in all this. Only later do we find out that Harry's dad, Silver Streak, was in the middle of that, and is now in the ICU. * * * Leo later tells me his plan. The dude is insane, except that it worked -- which is the mark of a good mad scientist. We just had to keep on coming. Keep fighting. Not surrender, not be overwhelmed by the size of the attack force, not submit, not give up . We had to attack, not because we were obeying orders, being commanded, being compelled. We were staring doom in the face and punching it, because this was our home, and we wanted to protect it, no matter the cost. You know what the Dread Queen's biggest problem is? Okay, I'm sure she's got a shit-ton of huge problems, at least in her eyes. But that's it -- it's all in her eyes , in her own head. She's immortal (or some reasonable facsimile), she's ridonculously powerful, and so she sees the world as long-term series of deltas between what is and what she wants it to be. And then she acts to eliminate those deltas. And she had an island of science soldiers cowed / bred / programmed to obey, to act as extensions of her will. We caught her attention, leading to the fight. That was step 1. But the important thing, the crucial step 2, Leo told me, was not to win the fight, but continue the fight. Because we wanted to. Because it was important to us. That led her to see us as something more than obstacles, mountains to be moved, barriers to be overwhelmed. She saw us as people. She empathized . She got out of her head and treated us, not maybe as equals, but as other wills that had to be considered. People will kick a mound of dirt out of their way. They usually won't kick a puppy. Some of this was what Leo said. Some is my filling in the gaps. I don't know if that's all correct, but I'm an SGHG, so it's not a bad guess. And the proof is in the pudding: she left, with her troopers, just when she could have obliterated us. It was a crazy, impulsive, glorious screwball plan, and it hinged on emotion and compassion and being a better person. In other words, it was incredibly Leo. * * * There are wounded among the civilians. Collapsed walls, flipped cars, things like that. Not as many as I'd feared. Ambulances are pulling up within minutes. And, of a miracle, nobody's dead. Leo's down hard, but he'll recover (soon, I hope, selfishly). Armiger was pretty banged up, Kid Kelvin maybe has a concussion from a pistol butt, and pretty much nobody on our side got away completely unscathed. Except me. Dad's nanobot armor did its job. And I was lucky. The Vyortovian wounded and otherwise downed troops will be days to weeks to recovery, and some might end up losing limbs or worse, but nobody dead there, either, for which I'm almost as grateful. * * * "She's what? Where?" Harry shrugs, looking uncomfortable, sitting on the large chunk of ripped-up asphalt and rubbing his right leg. There's a bad scorch mark on the silvery uniform there. "I don't know where. Look, I was just sitting here, and this gal walks up, and I don't know her, but she looks familiar, and then I realize it's Alycia-frelling-Chin, and I'm all I'm-a-gonna-die -- and then she apologizes for shooting me with lightning last year, hands me her holster --" He gestures to it, with a pair of guns, on the ground. "-- and says she's my prisoner and asks me to call up AEGIS, like I have them on speed-dial or something." "Do you?" He shifts his weight, "Uh, Dad insisted. Good villain-busting includes calling in the authorities." "And -- they took her?" "They showed up a minute later and hauled her off. Must have been already en route. They took Facet, too." "I have no idea who that is, and I don't care at the moment. Look, didn't she say anything else? Anything about -- um, anything to --" He's about to deny it, but his face tightens again, gets that determination, and he nods. "She said she wanted me to get AEGIS here before you figured out what she was doing and did something stupid." "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" But the answer to that question Harry is too diplomatic to say. * * * Concord -- Adam -- is gone, too. There's some confusing talk about Keynomes (there was one under the freaking high school, it turns out) and Sol, and none of it makes any sense (or I'm at a point where I can't quite grasp it). I call his house, talk to his mom -- learn he's not there, but reassure her that he survived the battle without any visible injury, and assure her he should be home soon. I hang up convinced I'm lying, but not sure in what way. * * * Oh, on the Keynome. Turns out this all started with finding out that Corvus Constructors -- a subsidiary of Rook Industries, of course -- had gotten the school rebuild contract, and was presumably going after the Keynome buried there. They're still inside, barricaded, until they're "rescued" by AEGIS. The story morphs at that point to the security bots littered on schoolyard having been destroyed by the Vyortovians, not by the Menagerie. Agent Waters shows up, asks Harry to confirm (since Leo is still semi-conscious and Concord is, as I said, gone). He looks at me, then shrugs. "Sure. Whatever." Waters gives me a look. "Hey, I was off in another dimension," I tell him. "But finding out how those Rook people got that construction contract might be something interesting to look into." "Yeah, I'll be sure and get right on that, Mr. Quill," he says, in that always tired fashion he has. "Right after I finish the paperwork on all the rest of --" He gestures slowly around. "-- this." * * * Ghost Girl has a conscious Vyortovian scientist in her custody. He won't be going anywhere, with his kneecap shattered by a bullet. I decline to comment about the only person I saw carrying firearms. * * * I sleep better that night than I deserve to, dosed down with a lot of Ibuprofin. * * * And with those body aches, I'm up early, eating Cheerios at the kitchen counter, the news flipped onto the main screen. Crazy enough, there's a speech from Vyortovia going on, being broadcast to all the news channels. From shadowy myth to media sensation overnight. "The old order changeth,"Tennyson wrote . "-- newly come to this world. We do not intend specific or egregious harm to this world --" I roll my eyes. Tell that to the people of Iceland. "-- and we are willing to discuss the current situation with appropriate authorities for this world to determine an acceptable path forward for our sovereign nation. At any point in time that the governments of the world are willing and ready and capable of conversing as equals with Vyortovia, they are welcome to do so." I shrug. The governments of the world probably aren't going to go to war over the shenanigans to date, esp. since the chiron crawl indicated their island is no longer lurking off the US coastline. The US will probably demand something, but not too, too loudly. I do find it amusing that the Vs are talking like they get to dictate the terms of the negotiations: what the circumstances will be, what's "acceptable," who gets to be there. Though not too amusing, because in reality nobody's going to force them to the table. I pick up another big spoonful of milk and Cheerios, and almost miss the next part. "We accept this negotiation provided only that the emissary in question be the members of the Halcyon organization known as --" The speaker squints at the paper. "-- the Menagerie." Cereal goes spraying. Again.