Part Twenty-Four: Draconic Measures
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Midday Sunday, January 23, 2011
I looked down at the cityscape with interest as the PRT helicopter cruised over it. While I was used to flying by now, and higher than we were at the moment, I'd never flown over Boston before, either in an aircraft or under my own power. Amusingly enough, the other two passengers—Vicky and Mrs Pelham—were also fliers, which made the pilot and copilot about the safest people in the air right then.
The headphones I'd been given to wear crackled in my ears with the pilot's good-natured West Virginian drawl. I still wasn't totally convinced that he didn't put it on to impress the passengers. "Well, ladies, welcome to Boston. If you look out your windows to the right, you'll be able to see the Bunker Hill Memorial obelisk and a little further on, the USS Constitution at its moorings. In another five minutes we'll be landing on top of the Protectorate building and picking up our last passenger."
"What?" asked Vicky. "Where? Let me see!" She blatantly tried to lean over me from the middle seat she'd originally claimed because 'you see one city from the air, you've seen them all'. Evidently, she'd since changed her mind.
"Jeez, boundaries!" I scrunched back out of the way to let her look, while taking in the scenery myself. I kind of wished I'd brought along a camera, because the view was definitely spectacular, even with Vicky crowding over on top of me.
Brockton Bay had its own history, of course, but it was all local; Boston's history had helped shape the nation. We had the Isaac Lord Museum, Captain's Hill, and of course anything that the Forsberg Gallery decided to exhibit of a historical nature.
I'd heard rumours about smugglers' tunnels under the Docks dating back to the Revolutionary War, but Dad had been all over that area at one time or another, and he was pretty sure everything had been filled in and covered over after Prohibition had been lifted. There were probably still barrels of bathtub gin ageing away down there, going from horrible wood alcohol to really horrible wood alcohol, right next to way-past-the-use-by-date kegs of black powder and rotting bags of musket balls from two and a half centuries earlier.
Not that I'd ever want to go down into a place like that. I still didn't like enclosed, smelly places, and I wasn't sure what would give way first if the wyvern decided that it wanted out, and started growing. Given the durability of my Changer form, I suspected testing this out would involve some extremely dramatic urban renewal.
The helicopter swooped in toward a building with the Protectorate logo on it. It was tall and impressive, and I wondered why it wasn't protected by a force field, the same as the Brockton Bay one was. Maybe they played by stricter rules in Boston.
I automatically found myself bracing for the landing, but the chopper settled onto its wheels with barely a jolt. The only real sign that we were properly on the landing pad was when the engine noise started winding down. Along with Vicky and Mrs Pelham, I took off my headset and handed it forward to the copilot.
"Well, that's the boring part over," Mrs Pelham said as she opened her side door. "You've never done a really long-range overland flight before, so let me tell you: it gets really, really tedious."
"Tell me about it." Vicky rolled her eyes. Unfastening her five-point safety belt (which prompted me to do mine as well), she got up from her seat. "I flew to New York once, and it took forever."
We all climbed out and headed across the tarmac, ducking our heads under the still-rotating rotor blades. A skinny black man, with what Kurt would've described as 'resting bitch face', was waiting alongside a tall parahuman wearing a costume made up of layered armour. I figured the black guy was the local Director, given that he was wearing the same sort of business suit that Director Piggot favoured.
"Good afternoon," he said, stepping forward with his hand out. His manner was much more friendly than his expression had suggested. "I'm Director Kamil Armstrong, and this is Bastion. He'll be accompanying you to Eagleton today."
"I think we met at a function once," Mrs Pelham said, but shook his hand anyway. "Lady Photon, and these are Wyvern and Glory Girl."
Behind us, the chopper powered up again and took off. Director Armstrong waited until the noise had died away before he spoke again.
"Glory Girl, I definitely know of. This is my first chance to meet Wyvern." He nodded politely to Vicky, then turned his attention to me with a smile that transformed his sharp features. "I understand you're the prodigy cape who's taken Brockton Bay by storm."
I shook his hand, noting that he was actually an inch or so shorter than me. "I guess," I said with a nervous chuckle. "This whole 'powers' thing is still very new to me. But if villains didn't keep coming at me and my friends, I wouldn't have discovered half of what I can do."
"Don't be so modest." That was Bastion; he was at least six feet tall, maybe more, and had a commanding presence. "If there's one thing I've learned in my time as a cape, it's that power will find a way to express itself."
"I guess." When he offered his hand, I shook it as well. It was bigger all round than Director Armstrong's, its natural size enhanced by being encased in a gauntlet. Basically, it swallowed mine whole, but I did my best anyway. "So, you'll be coming along with us today?"
He nodded. "That's the plan. We don't know that the Machine Army has rocket launchers or other anti-air measures, but my force fields should be up to the challenge if they do. Just, uh one thing." Leaning in close, he lowered his voice a little. "The size you got up to on that footage … was that camera trickery, or did you really get that big? I mean, I understand inflating numbers for PR and everything, but realistically, how big do you get?"
I hesitated, not wanting to sound like I was boasting, but Vicky came to my rescue. "According to Hero's readouts, she's seven hundred fifteen feet long, and one thousand two hundred and twenty-one feet from wingtip to wingtip, at the largest measured size." She grinned wickedly at Bastion, and showed him an image on her phone from the demonstration. "And we don't even know if that's her final form yet."
I couldn't see his eyes, or even most of his face, but he seemed to be somewhat taken aback by the image on the screen. "Jesus Christ," he muttered. "You could shade half the city with those things."
"I don't plan to get that low while I'm still that big," I assured him. "There's too much chance of knocking over buildings. Fortunately, sizing up and down takes a lot less effort than actually Changing from human to wyvern or back again."
"Well, that's a relief," Director Armstrong observed. "Seriously though, I do want to commend you on your public spirit and your willingness to be a hero. There are many who have gone the villain route with far less provocation than you had."
"Well, I guess I'm lucky I ran into Glory Girl when I did." I nudged Vicky with my shoulder, and she nudged me back. "She convinced me to go home with her, and helped calm me down enough that I could actually Change back for the first time." I decided not to mention how Mrs Pelham had actually thought I was attacking Vicky, and had attacked me in turn; no sense in complicating the narrative.
"And well done." Director Armstrong nodded firmly, giving Vicky an approving look. "We need forward-thinking capes like you in our ranks. You give me hope for the future."
"Uh … when you ran into Glory Girl … how big were you?" asked Bastion. "I mean, that big, jetliner big, or …?"
"Oh, she was only about human-sized then," Vicky explained blithely. "She couldn't talk, but she could write in the sand with her wingtip. About the first thing she said was 'please help me'. What would you have done?"
That was a no-brainer; Bastion shrugged. "I'd have helped her, I guess."
Vicky gave him finger-guns. "Exact—"
Right in the middle of her saying it, she was interrupted by a loud crack of displaced air. Between one second and the next, a cape stood in the middle of the helipad, wearing a blue and black costume with a peaked cap. I recognised him from pictures I'd seen, of one of the foremost teleporters in the world. Strider had arrived.
"—ly," Vicky finished. "Whoa, nice entrance."
"Thank you," Strider said, though I got the impression he heard it a lot. He walked toward us, checking something on a small tablet. "Hello, Director Armstrong. I've got four to go to Eagleton?"
"Correct," the Director answered. "Bastion, Lady Photon, Glory Girl and Wyvern." He gestured at each of us in turn as he spoke.
"Wyvern?" Strider tilted his head slightly. "Not the same Wyvern who did that power display?" He seemed to be having trouble reconciling me—skinny and a bit gawky—with the gigantic scary fire-breathing reptiloid that had stopped all vehicle traffic in the Brockton Bay CBD for a good fifteen minutes.
"That's me, yeah," I said cheerfully. "I get bigger."
"So I see." Evidently deciding that it wasn't his problem, he flexed his hands as he looked at the four of us. "Is there any baggage, or are you going as is?"
"Well, I don't need anything else." Bastion looked around at the rest of us. "Uh, Wyvern, how much does that costume stretch?"
"It doesn't." I let him figure out what I wasn't saying. I'd be going costume-free for this outing, just as I had for the power test. Sizing up was the whole point of the exercise. Unless and until we could get a friendly Tinker to rig up something that would cover me after I'd been up to maximum size, it was just how we were going to have to roll.
"Okay then, let's do this." Strider gestured us closer. "Stand around me. We'll be going up in elevation by about six hundred feet, so I'd suggest you be ready for that."
We did as we were told; Vicky grabbed my hand, even though she hadn't been advised to do so. I wasn't complaining. She'd been my friend from the start, and I appreciated the support.
"And going in three … two … one." There was a crack, and my ears popped. He hadn't been kidding about the elevation change. I saw Mrs Pelham work her jaw to equalise the pressure, while Vicky and I did the same.
We were standing in the middle of a concrete helipad, with guards posted around, which I presumed was to make sure nobody wandered onto the arrival zone before we got there. It was also warmer, which was nice. All around us had the signs of being a typical military base, though the uniforms and insignia were PRT, not National Guard or Army or Marines.
Right up in plain view was a sign saying WELCOME TO EAGLETON BASE. Below that, in slightly smaller script, was a list of directives.
ALL ELECTRONICS MUST BE REGISTERED OR SECURED ON ARRIVAL.
ALL PERSONAL ELECTRONICS MUST BE POWERED DOWN OR KEPT WITHIN EYESIGHT AT ALL TIMES.
IF YOU SEE UNATTENDED ELECTRONICS, ALERT BASE SECURITY WHILE KEEPING IT IN VIEW.
IF YOU SEE ACTIVE UNATTENDED ELECTRONICS, ALERT BASE SECURITY AND THEN DISABLE OR CONTAIN IT.
DO NOT ASSUME THAT ANY ELECTRONIC ITEM IS DEAD UNTIL BASE SECURITY HAS DEALT WITH IT.
NO UNSHIELDED COMMS.
Underneath that again, in a less formal font, was the addendum DO NOT TRUST THE COMPUTER. THE COMPUTER IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. It sounded like a quote or reference of some kind, though I had no idea where it was from.
"Hello there." A PRT officer, or so I assumed from the insignia on his shoulders, and the fact that he was wearing a camouflage uniform instead of regular armour, came over toward us. "Lieutenant-Colonel Briggs. Pleased to meet you."
Bastion was already on his way over to meet the officer. Mrs Pelham thanked Strider, then headed that way as well. We followed along and waited until Bastion had introduced himself, then Mrs Pelham stepped up. "Lady Photon, but you probably knew that. Glory Girl and Wyvern are with me."
He nodded as he shook her hand. "Yes, I've been briefed on all of you, but just to make doubly sure, none of you are Tinkers or carrying Tinker gear, correct? No? Good. Now, you're going to have to surrender all electronics, such as phones, earpieces and the like, for the duration of the exercise. We don't know if the Machines can remotely hack into unshielded devices, but we've had nasty surprises before."
I'd been halfway expecting this, so I'd left my phone at home. Vicky looked mildly irritated as she pulled her phone and a pair of earbuds out of a pouch at her belt and handed them to a sergeant holding a reflective silver bag. Lady Photon turned her hands palm up to show she had nothing. For his part, Bastion shook his head. "Director Armstrong is holding my comms gear."
"Good." Briggs nodded as the sergeant carefully stored the phone and earbuds in the bag and sealed it shut. "Thank you, sergeant. Now, Wyvern, do you require anything to administer your Change?"
"Just privacy," I said. "I start small, then size up. But the change is not costume-friendly."
He nodded once, sharply. "I copy. Sergeant, which barracks is empty right now?"
"That'll be Block Two, sir." Using his whole hand, the sergeant pointed at a building that I would've been hard put to pick out from any of the others set up in their regular rows. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if someone had told me that they were aligned north-south and east-west. The military seemed to have that mindset. "The lady can go right in."
"I'll come with, and take care of your costume," Vicky offered. "If you left it just lying around, they'd probably think it was unattended electronics and tase it to rags or something."
No, she wasn't holding a grudge against them for taking her phone, or anything like that.
"Probably a good idea," I agreed, just on general principles. "Come on, let's get this done."
Once we were in the barracks, we closed the doors behind us, then I waited until Vicky had done a quick scout around to make sure there wasn't some other open door that a bunch of guys would suddenly march on in through. It was all clear, which gave me hope. Maybe I could actually pull this off, after all.
I took off the domino mask and shimmied out of the costume while Vicky grabbed a folded blanket from the end of one of the beds—whoever owned it was going to have to re-fold it, because Vicky couldn't fold anything neatly. But she was a wonderful person anyway. She draped the blanket over my shoulders; we'd established early on that just not having any clothing on wasn't enough to trigger the Change, and Amy wasn't here to burst in and give me a fright.
Vicky and I were both unwilling for anyone else to take up that role, for obvious reasons. It had been funny, once, in retrospect; never again.
However, I was getting a lot better at pushing the Change all by myself, so I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and worked at getting into the correct mindset while Vicky stood guard. The wyvern was needed. It could do what scrawny, merely human Taylor Hebert couldn't. I didn't know exactly how many people had died in Eagleton before the Machine Army was contained, or how many more would die if they broke out, but even one was one too many.
Originally I'd intended to hit Ellisburg first, as it was closer to Brockton Bay (and I kind of wanted to be on Director Piggot's good side) but Mrs Dallon and Mrs Pelham had collectively decided that Eagleton was the better idea. When I'd asked why, the answer was simple.
After ten years of being cut off from the outside world, it was doubtful if the inhabitants of the Goblin Kingdom had so much as a ham radio between them, much less a working TV set. There was no way they would be keeping up with the news of the day. On the other wingtip, it was all too easy to assume that the Machine Army was listening to everything they could possibly rig up a receiver for. Thus, if I hammered Ellisburg first, the Machine Army would hear about it and start prepping anti-wyvern measures, but the converse would not hold true.
Taking another deep breath, I opened my eyes and let out a chirp to let Vicky know I was good to go. The blanket was draped over my tail—my wings were useful for several things, but holding onto blankets (or anything, really) was beyond them—so I turned and flicked it, sending the blanket flying back onto the bunk it had come from. In my wyvern form, I was even worse at folding things than Vicky, so it wasn't my problem anymore.
"All right!" Vicky gave me a fist-pump of victory. "The wyvern is in the hizzouse!"
I tilted my head, flared my crest in lieu of raising my eyebrows, and gave her my best what-the-fuck-was-that? chirp.
Catching the nuance, she shrugged in mild apology. "Sorry. It just came out."
With a snort—though no smoke was involved; the place was equipped with detectors—I rolled my eyes and tilted my head toward the exit doors. Let's do this.
"Oh, hell yeah," she enthused, wadding up my costume—there wasn't a great deal to it—and shoving it into one of the larger pouches on her belt. The mask had already gone into a second pouch. "Let's go Wyvern those robots down to the bedrock!"
As she opened the doors, I chirped in agreement.
It was always fun to see the looks on people's faces when they were seeing Taylor as the Wyvern for the first time. There were other Changers out there, but mainly they either became something relatively familiar, or totally alien. Very few turned into fantasy critters, much less able to fly and breath fire. There was a spot deep in the human psyche that reacted to dragons on a visceral level.
Seeing a still image was one thing, but when she paced out of those barracks like a movie T-rex, wings folded at her sides and head held rock-steady, Briggs did a double-take. Vicky suspected more than one of the PRT troopers on site had the same reaction, but the closed-faced helmets hid too much to be sure.
As they came up to Briggs, Taylor inhaled deeply and seemed to concentrate, then sized up to the level she'd been after the battle with Stinger. His eyes widened as she went from looking slightly up at him to eye-level with him. "Ah," he managed. "I see. Very impressive."
She nodded and gave him a friendly chirp. Vicky grinned. "That means 'thanks'. But you ain't seen nothing yet."
Bastion grunted. "I should hope not, or we're going to be here all day."
"You will find," Aunt Sarah said with just a touch of bite in her tone, "that Wyvern is more than up to the task." She generated a force field capsule, transparent so they could see out, with three seats inside. "Time for us to do our job. Will you be joining us, Glory Girl?"
Vicky shook her head. "Nah. I think I'll run interference from outside."
"Alright, then." Aunt Sarah stepped into the capsule and sat down on one of the seats. Bastion climbed in as well, then layered over it with one of his own force fields. He'd struck Vicky as one of those guys who didn't like not being in charge of the situation, so that move was totally in character.
But he couldn't fly using his own force fields, which Aunt Sarah could. As Taylor took off, Vicky followed, with the capsule flanking them both. Vicky kept a close eye on the apparently-innocuous area that had once been Eagleton, and now had a human population of exactly zero. The Machine Army might not know what was going on right in that moment, but they had to have seen the power test, and artificial intelligences were better at adding one and one to get two than basically anyone else.
Taylor didn't want to bulk out too close to the ground, because of the very real concern that she'd already voiced; nobody wanted a careless wing-flap to flatten half the camp and kill everyone in the impact zone. So she waited until she was properly airborne before she bulked out a second time, to what Vicky privately referred to as 'Armsmaster' size. They were still gaining altitude when Vicky spotted a spark of light in the middle of Eagleton, at about the same time as Aunt Sarah got a message over the shielded radio she'd been given.
"Watch out!" she yelled.
"Energy surge!" Sarah filled in.
Bastion was on the ball; the words had not yet made it all the way out of Aunt Sarah's mouth when a flat disc of force sprang up between Taylor and the spark. An instant later, a surge of lightning zig-zagged skyward from that point, aimed directly at Taylor. It hit the shield and clung to it, snapping and popping like a forest fire. The stink of ozone filled Vicky's nostrils.
"Size!" Taylor warned them. She was still flapping her wings hard, with the capsule and the shield following her upward. The lightning attack ceased, but Vicky didn't believe for a second that it was over.
"They'll be adjusting for the shield!" she yelled, not because she'd seen any reason to believe it, but because the Machine Army never just stopped doing something.
Taylor shimmered and enlarged to the next level up, about the size of a Learjet. Bastion widened the field then added a second layer to it. A moment later, missiles burst from four separate locations in Eagleton; one bored straight at the centre of the shield, one lanced toward the capsule, one headed for Vicky, and the last one swung out in a long arc, evidently aiming to pass around the barrier and target Taylor directly.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit. Vicky could see the spark building up again, and she perceived the AIs' strategy in that second; with the defenders distracted and the shield broken, the lightning weapon would be free to target Taylor.
She'd never been worried about taking a hit, but she wasn't quite sure about what the payload of the Machine Army's missiles might be. Her brain jumped to lungfuls of nanotech, and then she decided they might have something even worse to play with. In that instant, she decided not to play the game their way.
Even as Aunt Sarah beefed up the fields surrounding the capsule, Vicky changed direction and accelerated. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the missile that had been targeting her following suit, but she had a substantial lead. Racing across the outer surface of the shield, she angled toward the missile that was targeting it. In a move that she'd long since perfected, she led with her fists, closing her eyes and tucking her chin in at the last instant.
The explosion deafened her, but only momentarily. She kept on going, vaguely aware of the missile that had been chasing her blowing straight through the debris of the one she'd just demolished; she'd hoped it would be triggered in turn, but no such luck. Which meant she was in a sticky situation, as her force field was down and would be so for a few more seconds. Seconds she didn't have, as the missile was gaining fast.
If it had been even a cloudy day, she would've thought the ripping, rending noise was lightning. But the heat on the soles of her feet and the sudden, intense blue-white glare from behind her told another story altogether. That was the unmistakeable signature of Taylor's plasma jet, and the fact that she hadn't yet been hit by the missile also meant something, but she didn't have the time to think it through. Because there was one coming around to hit Taylor from the side, right now.
Her force field flickered back into being, and she applied that extra bit of acceleration before she smashed through her second missile in seven seconds. She'd hit whatever it was using for a rocket motor instead of the warhead, so there was no explosion; it just fell out of the sky instead. But now she was flying away from the shield and Taylor both, so she pulled around in the tightest turn she could manage.
The remains of the missile that had been chasing her were falling toward the base below, just a few bits and pieces with still-glowing surfaces. Matching this was a hole that had been punched clear through both layers of Bastion's force field, which was even now closing up again.
As Vicky headed back toward the field, an explosion eliminated the last missile. Aunt Sarah had apparently taken the capsule in behind the shield for protection, forcing the missile targeting the capsule to swerve around it and come back in. This had given Taylor the time to snipe it as well, this time using an explosive fireball.
And then the Machine Army fired the lightning gun again. The hole Taylor had blown through the protective fields to save Vicky hadn't yet fully closed, and a tendril found its way through, arcing over to Taylor and latching on. More crackling tendrils of electricity crawled all over the field, seeking another way through, but without any luck.
Finally, the hole closed, and the ongoing attack was left to claw impotently at the outside of the field. Taylor looked down at the spot on her leg where it had briefly nailed her; Vicky thought there might be a small burn mark there.
They were still ascending; Vicky flew in a large spiral upward, staying clear, until her force-field popped back into existence, then angled back inward. Taylor, looking irritated, took a deep breath and bulked out yet again. Now she was bigger than a jetliner, but still not as large as she could eventually get. However, she was once again bigger than Bastion's protective field.
"Oh, shit," Vicky whispered, as no fewer than ten missiles launched from sites inside Eagleton. The Machine Army must have recognised Taylor the instant she teleported in, and had been frantically gearing up to fight her from that moment.
Now lasers were joining in the assault, spearing up into the sky to target Taylor on any exposed locations. One slashed up toward Vicky, forcing her to veer away; her field could take a single hit, but not a constant barrage. Two more targeted Bastion's field on a line with Aunt Sarah's capsule; if it dropped even for an instant, they would be under direct attack.
"Quit it!" bellowed Taylor, and unleashed a rolling torrent of flame in a huge cone downward. All ten missiles flew into that billow of fire, and none came out the other side. Even the lasers were abated, as the tremendous heat bloom temporarily blocked line of sight.
But the intelligences running the lightning gun saw their opportunity, and switched their target from the shield to Taylor's now-exposed head and upper chest. Vicky wasn't sure where they were getting their power from, but the smell of ozone was making her eyes water, and the crackling of electricity as it crawled over most of Taylor's body was deafening. As big as she was, it made her wings falter in their steady beating, and she began to lose altitude.
The protective field enlarged, briefly pausing the electrical assault, but Vicky could see that it was only one layer now, and she now had three lasers keeping her back from coming in to help protect Taylor. Emboldened, the Machine Army sent another three missiles directly at the shield, with lasers still playing on it. There was no way to stop them in time, as they came from widely varying angles. If Taylor put another plasma jet through the shield, it might weaken the structure of the whole thing enough to let the lasers through.
And then it was too late. The missiles struck, shattering the field altogether. With that opening, two more lightning guns opened up on her, all three electrical arcs converging on her body.
Taylor roared in pain … and sized up. But her markings were no longer red and gold, or even blue and black. Now, her scales were the same violet as the electrical discharge, with silver highlights. And instead of crackling through her body, the lightning guns were splashing off.
Taylor … inhaled. But it wasn't air she was drawing into her body. The lightning gun discharges curved toward her mouth, being sucked down her throat as though they were physical strands of matter. Her scales began to glow but she kept drawing on it, forcing the machine intelligences to either up the power output or shut their attacks off.
The first things to give out were the lasers; as soon as the three threatening Vicky blinked out, she flew back in to where Taylor was, but not too close. The electrical arcs running down her spine and popping from claw-tip to claw-tip made sure of that.
More missiles launched from their hidden sites, spearing up toward Taylor. But the flickering skeins of electricity were like a finely woven net, and as each projectile encountered one of these, it either detonated or went dead and fell back to earth. And still Taylor drew on the electricity, demanding more and more from below.
One by one, the lightning guns shut off. Her scales now glowing like a neon sign even in the early afternoon sun, Taylor flared her nostrils as she looked down at Eagleton, and then opened her mouth even wider. From her gullet burst an electrical arc, branching and re-branching until they struck every point in Eagleton that had housed a hostile emplacement, whether it be a laser turret, a missile launch site, or a lightning gun.
Vicky was very glad she wasn't on the ground down there right then. Even from where she was, she could see the electrical arcs jumping from building to building, and the explosions as Taylor's sudden and drastic power input overloaded whatever protections they had. Smoke began to rise here and there.
And then the lightning barrage ceased. Nothing came up from below; Vicky wasn't at all sure there was anything left down there to send anything up. Taylor evidently didn't share her attitude, because she flapped hard for altitude, and sized up at the same time. This time, as she achieved her full size, she was in her blue-and-black configuration.
"CHILL," she hissed in the harsh sibilant tones of that particular form. When she inhaled, the temperature dropped everywhere. Vicky shivered in the suddenly freezing air, and saw her breath as she exhaled. As had happened over Brockton Bay, snow started precipitating out of the air. Holding out her hand, she caught a few snowflakes on her palm.
And then Taylor exhaled again. Not with the multiple shards of ice, as Vicky had half-expected, but in a cone of cold. The very air seemed to crackle with the frigid temperatures as Taylor pulled all the heat out of everything at ground level within the confines of Eagleton, including the buffer zone. Vicky could see the sheen of ice that had suddenly formed over everything; an instant winter wonderland in Hell. Even the fires were out.
But Taylor wasn't finished yet. Apparently she was feeling bitter about the multiple attempts to kill her, which Vicky could totally understand. Drawing in a deep breath—without dropping the temperature again this time—she changed configurations to the deep purple and gold that she'd taken on for the finale of the Slaughterhouse Nine fight.
There was a tiny explosion, far below, blowing aside some of the ice. A solitary missile blasted out from the launcher thus uncovered, not heading up toward Taylor but turning away from her, desperately trying to clear the area, to carry the last of its kind elsewhere. One last throw of the dice.
It was too little, too late. Taylor released her final attack. The cone of pure annihilation bathed Eagleton from one end to the other, snuffing out the missile before it quite reached the perimeter. The ice vanished, as did the buildings under it, and the ground under that. By the time she was done, Eagleton was a pit, about two hundred yards deep from Vicky's rough estimation.
The disintegration breath cut out. Taylor hovered for a few moments, on steadily beating wings. Flying closer, Vicky stared downward as well.
Nothing moved in the crater, or around its perimeter. If any part of the Machine Army had escaped destruction, she couldn't see it. She didn't know how good Taylor's eyesight was at this range, but with eyes that big and set that far apart, it had to be pretty damn impressive.
And then Taylor turned back to the red and gold, and started to descend. As she went, her size decreased. Vicky accompanied her downward, paralleling her movement. Though she didn't really expect any threat from that quarter, she kept her eye on the remains of Eagleton anyway.
Vicky's feet hit the ground at the same time as Taylor flared her wings and landed, and the capsule containing Aunt Sarah and Bastion touched down and vanished. Taylor caught Vicky's eye and nodded toward the barracks she'd changed in before, and they headed that way.
I felt deeply weary as Vicky closed the barracks doors behind her and fetched the blanket from the bed. Instead of just draping it over me, Vicky wrapped her arms—complete with blanket—around my body and wings, holding me close. "Yeah, I know," she whispered. "That was horrible."
She understood. For all that the Machine Army was totally hostile to humanity, and had posed a direct and ongoing threat to basically everyone, I'd still just annihilated them. Once I'd gotten up to size, they hadn't stood a chance. That hadn't been a fight. It had been an execution.
It had been necessary; I understood that. I just didn't know if I'd ever be comfortable with it.
I drew in a long breath as the wyvern. By the time I had finished releasing it, I was Taylor Hebert once more.
"Thanks," I murmured. "For everything."
"Hey, you're welcome." She gave me an extra squeeze before letting me go. "You ever wanna talk, you know I'm there for you."
"I know." I tossed the blanket back on the bed, and took my costume and mask back from her. "That was way too intense. I wish there'd been some place I could send them where they couldn't come back from instead of just killing them all."
"Well, you know people have tried to talk to them," Vicky offered as I put the costume back on. "When an actual verbal dialogue has happened, they've always agreed … and they've invited the people into the quarantine zone."
I suspected I knew where this was going. "They didn't accept, did they?"
"One did." She grimaced. "He went in with a full escort. It was an ambush. Three troopers made it out, and one of those had to be quarantined when Machine Army elements were found in his wounds. He died, and his body was destroyed. Everyone else, as far as we know, either died or had their bodies used for spare parts. Because they do—uh, did—that too."
"So, good faith out the window. Gotcha." I checked myself over, making sure my costume was on straight. "Well, let's go see if they want to congratulate me or burn me as a witch."
Vicky didn't argue, because she'd seen the same PHO posts as I had. The latter wasn't too far off the mark, for some of the more extreme idiots out there. Just because I turned into a giant fire-breathing lizard didn't mean I was in league with the Forces of Darkness (whatever that meant, in this day and age).
"Anyone who wants to pull that shit on you has to come through me first," she declared. "Though I didn't want to geek out too much about this straight away, but holy shit that lightning form was amazing."
"It's definitely a thing," I agreed as we headed for the doors. "Though I can't help wondering now if I'm gonna end up with a form for every new powerset I get hit with."
"Never fight Triumph," she advised impishly. "You're loud enough as it is when you get that big."
I stuck my tongue out at her, then we opened the doors and stepped outside.
Sarah watched as Taylor and Victoria emerged from the barracks, Taylor once more in human form and properly costumed. She couldn't have been prouder; both girls had performed amazingly well under fire, and had carried out the task at hand with promptness and efficiency. The Machine Army's countermeasures had been more powerful and effective than she'd anticipated, but fortunately they'd been enough to protect everyone until Taylor got big enough to do the job she'd come here to do.
"Well done, young ladies." Lieutenant-Colonel Briggs had already said as much to her and Bastion, but his enthusiasm had not dimmed one iota. "Preliminary scans indicate that there are no Machine Army elements outside the area of destruction. You've accomplished a truly magnificent task here today."
"Thanks," Victoria replied. Taylor seemed to be more subdued, but she nodded in acknowledgement as well. "But what happens if they've managed to put down some kind of sleeper cell? Like that missile that nearly got away?"
Briggs nodded. "Astute observation, Glory Girl. We aren't finished here, not by a long shot. I suspect we'll be observing the area of destruction and combing the surrounding perimeter for the next six months, until even the most paranoid of the top brass are satisfied that nothing is left. Trust me: we're not going to just assume they're dead simply because it looks that way." He gestured toward the bullet points on the sign. "Smoking crater or no smoking crater, we've still got a job to do."
"Good." Taylor smiled, though she still didn't look totally thrilled. "I'd hate to have to come back here and do that again."
"And we'll do our humble best to ensure you don't have to." Briggs gave Taylor a respectful nod. "That lightning form wasn't covered by any of my briefings. Were you keeping it under wraps for this sort of occasion?"
"No." Taylor shook her head. "Sometimes, when I'm hit by something my current form can't really handle well, I adapt. It takes something pretty significant to make it happen, though."
"Hm. Well, you certainly gave their own medicine back to them in spades." He held out his hand. "Thank you, Wyvern. I wish you all the luck in your endeavours."
Taylor shook it. "I appreciate it, sir."
"And that's our cue to leave." Sarah gathered them in by eye, and they walked toward where Bastion was waiting at the helipad. "I believe these are yours," she said, handing the phone and earbuds she'd gotten back off the sergeant to Vicky.
"Thanks, Aunt Sarah." Vicky tucked them away in a pouch.
Behind her, Sarah heard Briggs making a call to Boston. "Yes, Director, they'll be on their way back in a moment. Yes, a total success. We may just have dealt with this problem once and for all."
Strider rose from the folding chair someone had provided for him, and met them there. He seemed to be totally unfazed by what he'd seen, but from the way Bastion kept glancing at Taylor, Sarah figured he had something to say.
"What's your problem?" Victoria asked, before Sarah had a chance to say anything. "You're acting like she kicked your puppy or something."
"What the hell was that about?" Bastion's tone was intense, but he kept his voice down as he confronted Taylor. "You burned a hole clear through my force field! You compromised its integrity!"
Taylor squared her shoulders and looked up at him unwaveringly. "And I'd do it again. Vicky was in trouble."
Sarah cleared her throat. "Is this because she did it without warning you first, or because she was able to do it at all?"
Bastion's whole attitude showed his unhappiness. "Nobody told me Wyvern was that powerful! Did you just bring me along to show me up in front of everyone?"
"What?" Sarah shook her head. "No! You saw how she needed protection. I certainly wouldn't have been able to keep her safe on my own. And you did a spectacular job where it was needed."
"Yeah," Victoria added. "Just because your force fields didn't stop everything that hit them doesn't mean you didn't contribute."
Taylor nudged her and leaned in to murmur, "Not helping, Vicky."
For a wonder, Victoria listened. "Sorry. You protected Wyvern and Aunt Sarah when they needed it. Your force fields are actually pretty impressive."
The turnaround caught Bastion on the back foot. "Ah, right, well, I did what I could. And good job stopping that first missile."
Victoria half-shrugged to acknowledge the praise. "You're welcome. Teamwork makes the dream work, I guess?"
Sarah turned to Strider. "Well, it looks like we're ready to go now."
"Gotcha." Strider glanced at everyone. "Ready? Six hundred feet down this time. Three … two … one."
Standing on the helipad in Boston, I worked my jaw again to get rid of the feeling that my eardrums were trying to meet in the middle of my skull. With a huge POP, the pressure equalised. "Wow," I said, rubbing my ear. "That will never not be weird."
"Maybe we should be flying when we do it next," Vicky suggested. "Pick an altitude that's the same as where we're going."
"That's actually a reasonable idea," Mrs Pelham agreed, letting go of where she'd been pinching her nostrils to equalise her own pressure. "And it would certainly be more comfortable."
"Just so you're aware, Ellisburg is almost exactly the same altitude as where we are now." Strider seemed to pick up some sort of reaction from us. "What? I check these things up. It's essential in my line of work."
"Well, I have no problem with doing due diligence." Mrs Pelham dusted her hands off. "So, back to Brockton Bay, girls?"
"Actually," Vicky said, "how about we just go and do Ellisburg right now? I mean, if Wyvern's up to it?"
She looked at me expectantly, and I hesitated. The Eagleton battle had been tiring, but all I had were a few sore spots from where the lasers had hit me. Once I'd gotten my lightning form, I'd regenerated all the damage the electricity cannon had done to me.
Her face was just starting to fall when I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "Why not?" The grin she gave me then just lit her whole face up.
"Bastion?" asked Mrs Pelham.
Even before he opened his mouth, I knew what was going through his mind. There was no way he was going to let a couple of teenage girls show him up. "Yeah, why not? Let's do this."
"I concur." Mrs Pelham looked at Strider. "Change of plans. We're going to Ellisburg."
End of Part Twenty-Four