The distant whine of air raid sirens underscored the sound of helicopters circling overhead. They had arrived in a sports stadium, which looked like it had been re-purposed as a rally point for the defense, city of tents in military drab had sprung up on the grass, the sound of helicopters, shouting police and soldiers, and the pop, fizzle, and flash of incoming teleporters continued while in the background the air raid sirens wailed without pause. Capes flew through the air by the dozen. There were hundreds of warm bodies moving within her awareness, both costumed and uniformed. Charnel had a few secant seconds to take it all in before a man wearing a radio headset waved them off the arrival pad.
Kalie took Charnel's hand and drew a deep breath, "Right, let's do this. Just stick with me, all right?"
"Yes." Chanel said, for Kalie's nerves. Kalie liked to talk, and didn't like it when Charnel stayed silent. Maria might have chattered with nerves as well, but Maria was long ago. She jostled and bumped, someone elbowed her, but Kalie's hand remained on her shoulder. There were so many warm bodies it was distracting. She couldn't focus, couldn't find one place to direct her gaze. Instead, she stared at her reflection on the back of Armsmaster's polished armor. There was only one reflection, one face. Pale, blank. Not afraid, calm. Armsmaster stopped suddenly, and she nearly ran into his back, but her face never changed.
"Welcome to Bruce Stadium," the teleporter in the blue costume and goggles with a tired droop to his shoulders said, and immediately yawned cavernously.
"Thank you Strider. I will be ready for another transit in two minutes."
The man nodded wearily, "Right, I'll be back. Good luck." He frowned in concentration and with a pop he was gone. Then the moment was over. Leaving behind the oppressive crush of bodies. A police officer from the cordon around the receiving pad jogged up.
"New arrivals? You don't have masks."
"They will need costumes, help them not get lost." Armsmaster said bluntly. The officer nodded.
Armsmaster caught Battery's eye, "Sign them in. The staging area is out front." Armsmaster said, "Zipline, I'll escort you to Dragon's coordination center. Everyone else, follow Battery to the primary rally point."
Without another word, Armsmaster spun on his heel, walking off with Zipline struggling to match his pace.
"All right, everyone keep up!" Battery shouted, "We're on a time limit everyone, move it!"
The group trailed after her and the police officer, herded on along with urgent steps. Young Lady brought up the rear with Charnel and Kalie, nervously wringing her hands. Badcell and Facsimile out in front and hard on the officer and Battery's heels.
Instead of attempting to linger on the swiftly-moving tide of humanity on every side, Charnel's gaze wandered skywards. Overhead, a vaguely reptilian Tinkercraft cast a shadow over the stadium, one of Dragon's largest, like a huge, predatory bird. A formation of Tinker drones and aircraft flanked the larger Dragoncraft, which was in the process of disgorging more. That would be the Brain Trust mobile command center. Another flying ship, sharper, blockier, with a massive Union Jack painted over the side, flew alongside them.
A helicopter swooped low, forcing Kalie- and everyone close at hand -to duck and move out of the way, through the tents and moving bodies.
They were well within the military cordon, close to the center of Canberra. The sun was sinking overhead. It had been early morning in the eastern United States but Australia was nine hours ahead of them. In eastern Australia, it was mid afternoon. Only the sirens, wailing behind it all remained the same.
Kalie kept one hand on her arm as they wove through the tents. Until they pushed their way past a flap into one of the largest tents, to find row upon row of folding chairs- about half of which were occupied. Sweltering in the heat of early Australian spring.
There was an underlying order to the chaos and the press of bodies. After just a few steps, everyone was moving in the same direction. Then there were screens over head height on either side of them now. One of the men pushing past them at a brisk walk wore a cape and mask. Then they turned left and saw ahead of them a sign that read 'dressing room'- and the hanging flaps of a tent, and the policeman headed back to the arrival pad.
Inside a man was managing a folding table, he wore the uniform of the Australian Volunteer Corps, underscored by the Black Diamond Dagger Patch of the Longrangers. His hair was sunbleached and he had a deep tan. Behind him were shelves that held cloth in clear packages, and racks with gloves, boots, and armored vests. The man's gaze swept each of them, in scrubs and shoeless, and held up a tablet without pause. "How many?"
"Five." Battery replied.
The man turned and began pulling items off the shelves- "I'm afraid you'll need to divide up by gender. Do any of you have special power requirements?"
He was looking at Young Lady, the haze that lingered around her exposed skin. Charnel blinked once, one corner of her consensus recalling the sensation of steel in her hands, easy access to blood, "I would greatly appreciate blades."
Battery frowned, that was what people often did when Maria talked about the requirements of her powers, "No. No weapons."
Charnel blinked slowly, but didn't respond; considerations surfaced. Profanity, defiance. Submission, capitulation. Sycophantic groveling. There was no consensus.
Also silent, Facsimile stared at the man as he laid out armored vests and laid them out, scowling deeply. The volunteer didn't say anything, but Charnel could feel the speedy, nervous beat of his heart.
He gave them a forced smile, "It's one size fits all. If you need help adjusting anything give me a shout. Changing rooms three and eight are open." He tapped his tablet briskly, "Proceed to the right."
"Fine. Whatever." Battery replied, still frowning at Charnel.
Battery motioned for them to follow and without pause she led them to the right of the folding table, beyond a partition. The tent was divided into aisles, most were opened.
Facsimile and Badcell turned left, pushing past the flap with the big red three on the front. Battery hesitated, "Feral, keep an eye on those two."
"Yes Ma'm!" Feral saluted, and nudged Young Lady towards the flap labeled eight.
Battery sighed, and pushed past the flap after the guys.
"Come for a show?" Badcell drawled from inside.
"Shut it, someone had to keep an eye on you." Battery snapped.
Gently, Kalie grabbed Young Lady's elbow, and steered both of the girls into room eight, and drew the flap closed behind them. Inside, there was a folding table and a bench. Kalie made a beeline for the table. "All right, let's get into these..." she said.
She opened the package and began to unfold and lay out the contents. They were dark blue bodysuits or unitards that ran to her elbows and knees. A one-size-fits-all with lots of elastic. Generic.
"I bet you're looking forward to wearing something new? Finally getting out of those scrubs."
Young Lady hesitated but Charnel considered; two, and then three consensus. No conflicts with her directive. "Yes."
"Here then." Kalie handed her one of them.
Charnel turned and worked the scrubs over her head. Her pants followed.
Young Lady gasped, and even Kalie- who had seen it before, flinched a little. It was understandable, her body was unnerving. Even the doctors that worked with her regularly were sometimes put off. The bridge between her hips and chest was an arrangement of armor plates like a pair of synovial joints, with a softer black connective over the fittings. Her chest was only vaguely feminine in shape, like a store mannequin without clothing to display.
Kalie was stepping out of her pants too, her legs were muscular and toned. Her arms were longer than most, her fingers longer still- more pronounced with the claws. She had to work around the claws, long practice to keep them from catching on the fabric.
Young Lady was less developed, less toned. Thinner, scrawnier. Where Kalie had tan lines, she was pallid.
Charnel recalled her real name was... Tawney, and she had been at Alchemilla a year. She had never been prominent in any capacity as a cape. Young Lady meekly pulled on her own bodysuit, trying to not make it obvious when she stole nervous glances at Charnel.
She wore a bra and briefs. Both of the other women did. Charnel didn't, she didn't need to, there was nothing there.
The notion drew out a complicated morass of unimportant things twisting away in Maria, but Maria was unimportant to Charnel's function. She shook out the fabric and stepped into the unitard and worked the up her legs next, and the sensation of fabric moving- for an utterly human moment of consensus Charnel felt naked. Even if the hard outer shell of her chassis meant she didn't feel the air on her skin properly any more. She had long stopped having such urges for physical stimuli, and her automatic responses were muted.
Charnel worked the suit up over her shoulders, worked her arms down the sleeves. She looked down at her hands, at the ball joints that articulated her fingers.
"There we go." Kalie lifted what looked like a large wristwatch, "You know what this is for?"
"Yes, I... I." Young Lady blinked quickly, "I haven't been... To one of these before. But my boyfriend did, before he died."
"Oh." Kalie looked sympathetic, "Sorry."
"It's fine." Young Lady said quietly as she took the wristwatch, gingerly fiddling with the clasp and slipping it over her wrist, "It happened a long time ago."
"I..." Kalie sighed and glanced at Charnel, holding out another wristband, "Do you know how to use one of these?"
Kalie nodded, and handed it to her. Only a part of Charnel knew how, had done it before, but she latched it over her wrist, closing the clasps with sure fingers. An electronic chime sounded. "State your name." Kalie prompted.
This was a matter of consensus, decided long ago. It came easily, "Charnel."
"Acknowledged," an electronic voice chimed from the wristband. "Welcome Charnel."
Kalie attempted to smile, but it was weak, she looked like she wanted to say more, but instead picked up the next package. "There, now the boots and gloves. And masks."
Kalie helped her pull them on, the gloves, boots. A domino mask over her eyes and cheeks. It stuck to her face with adhesive strips. Young Lady looked at the mask dubiously, but put it on all the same, probably wondering how it was supposed to protect her identity. It was more a formality, but a corner of Maria noted it did have some advantages- it would be easy to remove and didn't get in the way of CPR, for one.
Charnel flexed her fingers in the gloves, and reached up to touch the mask. For a moment she reflected- it had been years since any part of her had worn a mask, and sentiment buffeted Maria in great waves of nostalgia. White and blue, the colors of a hero. The consensus wavered.
One of her consensus had favored red, black, and grey. The second liked the heroic colors, and wistfully recalled how she had wanted to get out of the ugly orange scrubs. The second wished she could have a weapon. The directives did not engage- it was irrelevant. Maria and Maria conflicted, and her hand trembled.
The mask was redundant. There was no identity to hide. The consensus returned.
"And the vest. I know you're a Brute, so am I, but I'm wearing one too." Over the bodysuit went the white padded vest, a plate carrier with 'Hero' across the back in four languages. It matched the sturdy white boots and gloves.
Before Charnel could reply the sirens, still blaring in the distance, changed tune. When they pushed the flap aside and stepped out, the tempo of the bodies moving outside had changed. There was a greater urgency, and it was only rising.
The others were waiting for them, Badcell looking angrily at his feet while Battery refused to look at him and Facsimile grinned and quietly chuckled to himself.
Battery wasted no time, taking all three of them in at a glance, "Double time!" She barked.
Young Lady brought up the rear, tense and drawn in on herself. Lagging behind. Kalie detoured slightly and slung her arm around Young Lady and Charnel's shoulder's. Young Lady squeaked, but Charnel remained quiet. Kalie used them both to sweep up Badcell and Facsimile, who looked almost as lost as Young Lady.
Kalie's arm dangled beside Charnel's jaw. This drew Charnel's eye, her wrists, her throat so, so close. The warm blood so near. Once, that would have fizzled and hissed in the back of her throat. Like an enticing smell. Once, it would have felt like thirst, like smelling food, it would have made her whole body jerk and quiver. If she wasn't ready for it.
Maria did so, locked away in the furthest corner of her mind, clawing and biting fruitlessly. Maria also wept, impotent. And Maria watched carefully in control, watching for ways to exploit the situation. There was no consensus, Charnel remained impassive and allowed herself to follow Kalie.
Out of the far end of the tent, back into the sunlight to allow another group in to use the booths, and Battery was off again, the rest of them trailing her in turn. This time they were headed to the largest of the tents, and the tide of costumed arrivals, police, and Australian military- many warm bodies flowing in the same direction, towards the largest tent in the stadium.
The front flaps were thrown open, and inside row upon row of folding chairs where set on the grass in front of a stage- a group of five policemen were still busy at the back of the room, offloading more from a cart. Roughly a quarter of the seats were occupied, and the steady influx of colorful costumes continued to fill more.
"Take a seat," Battery said, not pausing. She continued towards the front.
Charnel observed the tent.
It was divided into two aisles, a member of the Australian Longrangers pushed a cart between them, distributing more armbands like the one Charnel now wore. Though subtle, there was a hierarchy to the seating. Heroes dominated one side, with bright primary colors. Whites and silvers, golds and blues. The other side was darker, blacks and reds more common.
They had been seated on the villain side, a corner of Maria noted. That same corner wondered if it was because she associated them with 'villains'. Feral, a former villain, and Charnel, what was left of an insane villain. Young Lady and Badcell, also villains.
Kalie seemed mostly unconcerned. It was hard to say if she picked up on the division.
At the front of the tent, the names were bigger, both hero and villain. Charnel spotted the stern, heavily muscled, and towering presence of Gavel, the most prominent hero in Australia and head of the Australian Longrangers. He was speaking with Narwal, head of the Guild- the Canadian organization and something of a counterpart to the Protectorate- who had elected to not wear clothing again.
Not all of those present were as eye-catching as those two, however. In a corner, drawing no attention to himself, Kazikli Bey stood, head shrouded and lowered,apparently in thought. His iconic red scarf and long cape wrapped and draped around his neck and over his shoulders. His ponytail waved above his head like a banner, whipped in his perpetual winds. The trademark long-bladed spear was leaned against one shoulder. His colors and costume were less reminiscent of a villain, and more that of a hero. Black leather notwithstanding.
"Oh, hey." Kalie murmured.
Following her line of sight, two other villains, and these two were even more photogenic than Kazikli Bey. Neils Beru and his wife, Tayir Alsahra, gilded like royalty and glittering with multicolored glass and gold. Neither of whom looked the part of some of the most dangerous warlords of northern Africa.
Behind them, a cadre of a half dozen brightly-colored Japanese heroes with matching full-head helmets and bodysuits trailed behind a woman in black armor with gold trim. She carried a sheathed sword in hand. The others followed her- red, blue, yellow, pink, green, white. The gold trim set her apart as a captain of one of the Sentai's Eight Squads of Justice... but she didn't quite look the part of a hero.
Other names, other teams. Some she recognized, eight capes from Great Britain, representing the Suits. A towering, heavily armored knight with a regal blue cape, Lord Walston. Beside him, in gold and red, Athrwys and their squires. The King's Men. Four Protectorate Branch heads, and perhaps forty or so heroes with them together. Around a hundred, heroes or villains both that she didn't recognize. She documented as many faces and costumes as possible.
Several orange jumpsuits, or prison sweatsuits. One man, sitting directly in front of them- twitching and muttering to himself, withdrawing perhaps, in a simple track suit with its arms cut off.
And at the far end of the room, a trio of names that needed no introduction.
One, standing with a small cluster of intense debate, was Eidolon.
The dozen or so capes clustered around him were probably looking to get their powers modified, either temporarily for the battle, or permanently. The multicolored nimbus wreathing him shifted and bent as he nodded slowly and pensively as one of the men gestured to another, hands moving wildly.
Another, a woman with phone held to her ear hovered nearby. She wore black armor, a helmet and cape. She did not pace or fidget, but the ribbons that composed her body in layers shifted. Her hair writhed without wind directing it, the cape curled and parted and reformed in her distraction.
The emblem on her chest was of a tower, Alexandria.
And the last one, flanked by a quartet of floating video screens. This man wore golden armor, a golden helmet with a crest, and a white bodysuit and cape, a helmet ringed with antennae and protrusions- vaguely reminiscent of a crown.
With a wave of his hand, Hero dismissed the screens, which folded into impossibly tiny squares and nestled into compartments in his armor. It was a signal to the rest of the room, and silence fell.
"I want to thank you all for being here. I know it isn't easy. I know some of you have lost people to these things. For those of you who haven't been informed, five minutes ago the Simurgh entered the atmosphere. Long range Thinker support places her in the stratosphere. She seems to be taking her time, but I know what happened at New Delhi, so I'll cut this short and let everyone get set up."
"For all of you volunteers, anybody who hasn't been to one of these before, or who haven't participated in a drill. First, the wristbands." He lifted up one, like the one around Charnel's own wrist, "If you don't have one of these, get one from the tables in the corner. You'll need them to access the emergency response network, they monitor your vitals and can act as a retrieval beacon if you are injured. And, lastly, if the worst should happen and you are caught out in the Simurgh's scream... they act as a fail safe."
He paused, the weight of that statement and a lot of things unsaid.
Hero resumed, "You must wear one if you are going to be fighting here today. If you need to back out, no one will hold it against you."
There was shuffling in the back as some of the gathered capes stood and left. There weren't many. Most of those that had made it this far knew what they were getting into. Or thought they did.
"For those of you left, the defense is divided into three components." Hero held up three fingers. "First is the logistical corps. Dragon is going to be in primary command. She is in the process of deploying resonance generators. Any Tinkers or non-combat Movers would be welcome here."
He lowered one finger, "Next, the sortie teams. These will be commanded primarily by by myself and Eidolon. Fliers, teleporters, anyone with a lot of mobility. You will be bringing the fight to the Simurgh, containing her and limiting her movement. Limiting the damage she can do."
His last finger was raised, "And lastly, the bunker teams, you will be holding fortified positions at the resonance generators. We need everyone there, everyone who can't bring the fight to her. This is the most vital and most dangerous position, the generators are immobile, and I promise you she will target them."
Hero continued, "Fighting the Simurgh is not like fighting other Endbringers, she comes with restrictions. The Simurgh's influence has been known to impact emotionally and mentally compromised individuals with an exaggerated effect. Dragon and I, in cooperation with many other Tinkers and scientists around the globe have developed means of shielding against her Master capabilities, but against a Tinker as powerful as she is, it's an arms race. Countermeasures are never certain. As it stands, we are lucky," He said, "We have the Think Tank Foresight Division, Dragon and Hero's predictive models. Red One. When the Simurgh first appeared we lacked that infrastructure, and we suffered for it."
"I don't think I need to remind anyone here what happened at her first appearance."
Marun Field, Iran. 1992. A chill settled over the gathering.
A category five earthquake, an international mobilization of heroes, a landmark for international politics and parahuman history. Then the Simurgh appeared out of the sky- later meteorological evidence suggested she came from the other side of the moon.
She appeared in the middle of the relief efforts. At first it was assumed she was there to assist the heroes. Then the madness began.
Widespread riots. Anyone who had spent too long in her presence was at risk, and for the ones that didn't go mad their lives were over regardless. It was a war zone, heroes fighting thousands of civilians, military units directed to engage by compromised leadership.
The death toll was in the tens of number of international leaders she had gained access to as part of the disaster relief was still classified.
"Our network has eighty-five percent coverage in Canberra, but that doesn't matter if she can destroy the generators. Your lives depend on them." Hero let the silence linger before turning to the towering Australian hero to his left, "Gavel, you're up."
He stepped to the side, allowing the towering, scowling bulk of Gavel to take center stage. The leader of the Longrangers was not known for his speeches, and his tone was curt. "All volunteers for Bunker Teams, report to the north end of the stadium for immediate teleport to action stations. Sortie teams will be organizing at the south end. The Longrangers and Protectorate have established units of regulars and military response teams already on site, coordinate with them. If you are uncertain where you will be needed, if this is your first time, press and hold the yellow button on your armbands and you will be directed to Manhunter, he will analyse your power and find you, or your group, something to do."
"If you are separated from your group or posting, ask your wristbands for direction to the nearest generator, each of them is a designated rally point. If you can't find one of them, follow the evacuation routes. There are police cordons that can reorient you, and posted public maps. Understood?"
A chorus of murmured assent.
A woman in Longranger fatigues and a slouch hat stepped forward, "All right, everyone to your stations- let's go!"
The room was instantly filled with commotion, people standing and moving toward the door. The Protectorate heroes moving in closely contained groups, last-minute volunteers hesitating. Across the moving bodies, Battery was headed in their direction. Kalie was up, popped to her feet like a spring. Charnel followed with more reservation. The tent was emptying rapidly.
"We're... We're on the ground teams, right?" Young Lady asked.
Battery, pushing her way through the crowd answered her, "Yes, everyone follow me."
"Wish we could just ditch the bitch." Badcell muttered. Facsimile leaned his head back and laughed.
Battery stopped, turned, grabbed Badcell's ear, and started to drag him off through the crowd.
"Ow, hey, how'd you know that's what I wanted? Keep doing it, more, yeah!"
"Oh shut up!" Battery snapped, but let go of his ear, "...Shut up Facsimile!"
Facsimile just kept laughing.
They flowed out of the tent, half the capes peeling off to the North end of the stadium. They passed medical tents, red crosses proudly displayed and row upon row of cots standing ready. Doctors, nurses, and everyday people- volunteers -opened boxes of medical supplies. Some stopped to watch as the capes passed, one or two clapped and some saluted. Charnel was elsewhere as she was led, contemplating how the general tension- the tempo shifted in different parts as different parties separated. Pockets with a certain energy, banks of heartbeats like embers glowing with different intensities.
A crack overhead as something passed faster than the speed of sound. Charnel looked up. High above she could see Dragon's flotilla of Tinker craft, with faster fliers and capes darting by the larger metal constructs. The number had grown since Charnel had seen it last. The squadron was thirty large suits and ships strong, with dozens of smaller drones in a screen around them. The largest dwarfed them, a new addition like a blimp with spires and antenna extending above and below it like fins off a shark.
At the end of the stadium they found three circles marked in the grass with chalk, and as Charnel noticed them, a cluster of heroes stepped into one. A moment later they vanished with an echoing thunderclap.
"Orderly lines. Orderly lines mates!" Longranger staff corralled the arriving capes.
"We have four minutes to contact!" Another shouted, "Get yer arses in line!"
Kalie led Feral, following Battery and the others. The stadium speakers blared overhead, "First stratosphere contact made, outriders engaged, initial touchdown projected at Braddon or Reid. Sixty-two percent certainty."
One of the Longrangers stopped in front of them. A short, portly girl with goggles, a tablet, and a scowl. She gave them each a look before tapping the radio on her shoulder, "All right... This group's mostly Brutes. Three, a couple minor Movers, but nothing with real punch. Unless you count Badcell there."
"Not ideal, but pure Butes aren't much use against the Simurgh anyway." a voice replied over the radio, Manhunter again, "All right, I'm directing them to Canberra University. They can reinforce post eighteen - it's mostly Masters and Blasters. A little muscle can balance them out."
"Right," the girl nodded, "Follow me, pad three."
A sharp crack overhead again, Charnel glanced up. Energy trails as a group of six parahumans streaked by overhead, parallel to Dragon's fleet, which had begun to move more quickly. The silhouettes of metal birds and dragons were beginning to shrink, they were gaining altitude.
High above, the sky was darkening as the clouds grew.
"Pluslight!" a Longranger from further down the line shouted, "These four too!"
"Right, right, hurry it up!" The girl- Pluslight -shouted back, "We got to move!"
Four heroes jogged up the line, a man muscular with a flame motif on a white body sleeve, another in white and black spots- like urban camouflage, a woman in blue and yellow, and a teenage girl in a homemade costume in teal and blue. The girl was in tears, the woman had an arm over her shoulder.
Pluslight took one look at her and stopped, "Are you cleared for action?"
"Yeah, yeah- I'm... I'm fine." the girl stammered.
Pluslight paused, tapping her tablet as she walked, "Manhunter, this girl is not in a good headspace, confirm?"
"... Yeah. Just ran the numbers again. Gunpowder. She's new, and borderline, but she passes on the safe side of the margin."
Pluslight sighed, "You're the boss." Both groups reached the end of the line- the pad labeled three, and Pluslight paused, "You okay, honey? Nobody would blame you if you have to back out."
Gunpowder nodded, quick and jerky, "I gotta stay."
"Nobody is going to force you to fight."
The girl choked, "I gotta! Everyone I care about is here!" she wailed.
Pluslight sighed and nodded, looking at the older man, the one with the flames, "You all ready?"
"All right. Everyone in the square. Keep your limbs inside the square." Everyone shuffled into the center of the square.
"Stand by." Pluslight said, fiddling with her Tinkertech goggles with one hand, the other pressed to her ear. After a moment, she raised her thumb, "Good lu-"
A flash, vertigo. Badcell cursed quietly. Someone coughed.
They were on a rooftop. The stadium was nowhere to be seen. In front of them, the distant glimmer of a blue lake peeked through trees and rooftops. Off to the left, taller buildings of inner city Canberra rose over the horizon, which was broken by both high-rises, plentiful trees, and gently rolling hills. At their backs, another hill covered in trees rose, a low mountain with more squat grey buildings. Their vantage rose slightly above the rest, an office building that allowed them to see the roads, which were choked with cars and fleeing people. Charnel could feel the distant abundance of bodies like a source of heat, far enough away that individuals bled into the background of panic and energy.
The populace was fleeing Canberra. Kalie had told her a lot about it, once, years ago. Explaining the mechanics of the Endbringer response with frustrated gestures from her one good arm as she waited for the other to finish regenerating.
In the first few years following the advent of the Simurgh and her attacks, some cities had been paralyzed with the traffic burden when a target was identified. Cars jammed the highways, made worse because once it became clear that the traffic was going nowhere drivers would abandon their vehicles to flee on foot, effectively trapping most of the population.
Evacuation plans had been refined since then, neighborhood awareness plans and designated rally points. Evacuation routes and shelters. The larger the city, the more difficult and expensive modernizing evacuation procedures became.
It looked like Canberra was behind the times...
As she scanned the horizon, a spire rose over one of the larger high-rises, like a very sharp, narrow radio tower. One very like the one on their own roof, embedded in a foundation of sandbags that anchored it to the center of the roof. A small alcove built into the side housed a lanky man in a headset, working off a laptop and a folding chair. Eight Longrangers in full costume and half a dozen Austrailian soldiers continued to lay out sandbags from a pallet. Two worked setting up a kind of articulated arm. two more still set up tripods in the heaps of sandbags. Another hero, possibly a Tinker, was fiddling with a collection of tubes and canisters, and bundles of wires that ran to each emplacement.
One of the Longrangers stepped away from the spire. He wore a black top hat and evening wear, complete with opera cape, and a white domino mask that contrasted his dark skin.
He eyed them critically, "Call me Arvo. You our irregulars?"
"Some of us." Battery said, "Six of us are Protectorate, the rest are independents."
"We're setting up some mounted weapons. Plasma and lasers. We also have a particle cannon." He turned, leading Battery back into the makeshift sandbag bunker, "Most of this batch are Brutes, right?"
"Yes. Myself, Feral, Charnel. Facsimile can be one in a pinch. Young Lady is a teleporter, injury trigger. And Badcell, Blaster and Shaker, also injury trigger."
Arvo shook his head, "I will need whichever one has the most physical strength hooked up to the arm, manning the particle canon. Pluslight said it will give up the equivalent of a Blaster eight, but it's got wicked kickback."
"I'm probably the strongest when you aren't charged up, ma'am." Kalie spoke up.
Battery considered her, and nodded, "Probably."
Charnel noted it, but that was not true. Charnel was the stronger and more durable than Kalie by a wide margin. Still, that fell under the purview of revealing her specifications to the authorities, and she could not do that.
"We are going to be using the canons to keep her too far away to use her telekinesis."
The crying girl spoke up, "How far is that?"
Arvo frowned, "With the resonance generators, if they can keep up with her trying to break through? Two hundred feet, maybe three."
He paused as another wave of capes flew low overhead more than a dozen. Dragon's flotilla ran parallel to them, now quite high up and still climbing.
A series of distant thunderclaps erupted in the distance, like a sudden summer storm. Charnel looked up. High above, it looked like a thunderstorm was brewing, but the clouds were white. Distant flashes illuminated them from within in three colors. Bright yellow, green, and purple.
"Oh, we're in for it." Arvo muttered.
"Captain, we have engagement, four kilometers up! She's hit the drone screen!"
"We're in for it now." Arvo muttered again, "All right, let's get situated. Follow me."
Kalie steered Charnel and Young Lady to one of the emplacements and sat them down, Badcell and Fascimile drifting along as well.
"Can you stay here a second?" Kalie asked, distracted. Before she stood back up and rejoined Arvo and Battery. A moment later the younger girl from the Protectorate team walked over and sat down too. Maybe it was because they looked somewhat younger, Badcell, particularly, had frizzy blonde hair that made him look younger than eighteen. Coupled with his tattoos, it made him look like a junior high student playing at being older and more mature than he was, and instead coming across as the opposite.
The girl sat, nervously wringing her hands, and fiddling with a homemade cape. She was blonde, her hair was shoulder-length. Average height, average build. She sat quietly for several minutes, nervously stealing glances at their little group.
Charnel watched Kalie over her shoulder as she got hooked up to a full-body harness. The articulated arm was finished now, suspending what looked a little like a minigun with a counter-weight.
A pair of Longrangers walked over, carrying a long metal tube between them. They hooked it onto the tripod, running wires out to it from the spire. Badcell and Facimile distracted themselves stacking sandbags.
"Uh- hum, ah, hello?" The girl began, hesitantly. Charnel met her eyes, and held her gaze until the girl blinked. Charnel remained silent, staring back.
"Are..." The girl squinted, "Are you human?"
Charnel blinked slowly. "Yes."
"Oh..." She seemed confused. "It's just, I can usually sense people by the sulfur in their bodies, mostly in their bones... And, um... I don't feel that from you."
Charnel blinked again, then, after a long silence, said, "Oh."
The rest of their little group was silent, turning to look at the girl, to see how she would respond. The moment stretched on, and when the girl realized hat she would not answer the unspoken question she seemed at a loss.
For a moment she seemed flummoxed, but rallied gamely, "Is it why your hands look like-"
"Do you hear that?" Facsimile interrupted.
"Hear what?" Badcell replied.
Charnel listened, but she could hear nothing but the distant sound of explosions and traffic, the wind, and muttered conversation as Kalie struggled with the harness. ("It's a bit too small...")
Then the woman in blue and yellow stopped talking, "Wait, you hear that, right?" Over by the Particle canon, the group stiffened.
Facsimile grimaced, "It's like... A buzzing, I think."
Charnel's wristband crackled, everyone's did.
"Attention, the Simurgh is attempting to pierce the dampening field. Setting all resonance generators to full power. Cycle modulating. Prepare to engage."
A series of rumbling explosions over head. Charnel looked up. Young Lady followed her gaze, then Badcell, Kalie. Everyone on the roof was looking up, as the Simurgh broke through the clouds.
High above, the shape solidified with deceptive slowness, emerging from the clouds in a series of concentric rings, each within another. An orbiting cloud of objects circled the outermost ring like rays of light. At its furthest point, it had to be as broad across as the stadium they had arrived in.
And in the center, dwarfed by her creations stood a figure. Perfectly white, in contrast to the dark metal of the halos surrounding her. Wings sprouted from her asymmetrically, covering her, no two the same size.
The concentric circles of the Simurgh's halos emerged from the cloudcover, and for a perfect moment they hung in the evening sky over the city. The setting sun lent them a burnish, like rings of gold. It had to be huge, but it appeared paradoxically tiny, compared to the city.
The impression of gold was further heightened by a ring of red lights, like rubies, all along the outermost ring, growing brighter and brighter...
"Barrage, incoming!" Dragon warned, echoing from all their armbands.
For a moment, everyone was transfixed. The lights flashed, and a line of ruby light ran from the top of the outermost halo, down each side to the bottom, where it pooled for a moment, before lancing out- a line of red fire and sound like a thunderbolt's crack in an instant.
The light passed overhead, into the city. A second, following the first. Then, a third. The sound of the strikes took a moment to arrive, lagging by half a second and rumbling underfoot like thunder.
"We're probing her shields in three seconds, stand by."
High above, Dragon's fleet was maneuvering, larger fliers behind a screen of drones, barely visible in the fading light. The largest fliers, Dragons command ship and the colossal flier at the core of her fleet, lit up.
Dragon's answering salvo was a mixture of greens, reds, purple, and yellow. Long trails of light, and rapid series of pulses. Most stopped short of their intended target in a cluster of flashes, like fireworks. One of the green rays, however, passed through the shield, and scored a single, bright point on the second, larger ring.
"Frequency isolated, transmitting. Hang in there. Barrage incoming."
The Simurgh was moving now, flying out in front of the halos, the rings trailing in a cone behind her. The red lights glowed, and once again dropped from the top of the halo.
"Everyone take cover!" Kalie shouted.
Badcell dragged Charnel behind the sandbags. Everyone scrambled behind the sandbag mounds, and a pair of Longrangers manned the nearest tripod, one laying back almost flat, the mounted gun pointing almost straight up. A large square screen was mounted at the back. A second one the other Longranger, who carefully adjusted a dial at the bottom of a wavering line.
A think bank of black smoke from the Simurgh's strike wafted over the city. The smell of burnt rubber was choking even halfway across the city.
"Grab a gun!" Someone shouted.
Charnel blinked as Tinkertech rifles were handed out, long, heavy ones, one pressed into her hands.
"Calibrations complete, ground crews, fire all!"
"Yeah!" Kalie shouted, manning the canon- and the roof was illuminated with green light. The supporting arm bucked, shaking as Kalie fired, and deafened them all. Charnel saw four other trails of light arcing up into the sky from around the city, even as the Simurgh fired again.
"Shit!" Badcell screamed, hunching down under the sound, "Shit!"
The green light pulsed overhead as Kalie fired the plasma canon.
"Her shield is recalibrated, hold." Dragon reported, "Probing shields, stand by."
Kalie stopped firing. High overhead Dragon's ships fired another salvo. The Simurgh dipped lower as Dragon's weapons found their mark, her halos ducking under the majority of Dragon's fire. As she fell, the rays along the outside of her outermost halo began folding in.
"W-what's she doing now?" Young Lady asked.
"Probably trying to close in." One of the Longrangers replied. One of the costumed ones- he looked like a jester.
A sharp crack overhead, and Charnel looked up. Six trails of light as capes streaked low over rooftops. Neon green, bright red and orange. Pulsing purple. Two wearing jetpacks and some kind of body armor...
The sortie team neared the Simurgh and let loose with a volley of blasts, bright lights filling the air between them.
The Simurgh didn't pause her lazy curving trajectory, and the ruby light dropped to the bottom of her halo once more- the light lancing out into the city again. The sortie team swung around the outside of her arc, peppering her on one side and allowing Dragon's fleet to fire a third time. The Simurgh remained unmoved, debris rising from the city below, fragments of her halo, and her own feathers orbited her. The majority of the fire coming her way was absorbed by the cloud.
The outer rays of the Simurgh's halo finished folding in, now facing forward. There was a pause in fire from Dragon and from the Sortie team.
Then, an invisible wave of force extended from the Simurgh- a distortion that ran in a solid pillar of shimmering weight in front of her, towards the city and the fleet. Everything disappeared behind the shimmer, Charnel could see the sound before it reached their rooftop. The force was enough to blow one ranger, who was still standing, off his feet, across the roof, and over the edge screaming.
Comms descended into chaos- warbling tones and static that leveled off into Dragon's voice.
"Burnish down, G4, Greenspectre down G4, Hurdle down G5, Fallboy deceased G6." Dragon was calm, but there was an edge to her voice now, "Sortie team three, fall back. Teams two and seven stand by."
As the distortion of the Simurgh's weapon faded, the city and sky became visible once more. Charnel could hear Kalie cursing.
There was a gap along the horizon where buildings had been standing. Dragon's ships were still there, but now they were scattered, not neatly grouped in a firing line. Two spiraled out of the sky, and another left a long black trail of smoke as it angled for a controlled crash. The ones left were arrayed drunkenly like driftwood after the passing of a wave.
"Alert, the Simurgh is closing, engaging short range weaponry. Sortie teams, stand by."
Dragon kept talking, but her voice dissipated under the wavering, modulating static and ringing until it cut off.
"She's leaning on our comms." Arvo shouted, "They're cycling frequencies. Hang on!"
The plasma canon fired again, sending a green bolt up at the Simurgh, but it went wide. Kalie wrestled with the harness, "How do you turn this target assist off? She's messing with it!"
High above, the Simurgh turned leisurely, the red laser lancing out. Again. And again.
Young Lady, crouched beside Charnel, lying almost flat against the stacked bags, screamed sharply- as the Simurgh completed her turn and faced their direction. A red flash- and a deafening, ear-shattering explosion, and the rooftop lurched under their feet and a wave of sudden, blistering heat washed over Charnel, along with smoke and choking concrete dust.
There was a groan of steel and concrete, and a bone-shaking crash.
Charnel could smell blood.
The roof settled, and stopped shaking. Charnel assessed her integrity, all limbs were intact, she was unharmed and unimpeded. With this discovery, she sat up, and climbed to her feet.
The rooftop sagged in the center, the concrete was cracked and steel beams thrust up through the breaks. The dampening spire listed drunkenly to one side. The Simurgh and Canberra was hidden behind a screen of smoke. The smell of heated metal, powdered concrete, and burning wood and plastic was overwhelming.
After a moment a very shaky Facsimile stood, "Is... Is everyone all right?"
A grunt. It was the muscular man with the flames, he was cradling the woman, who had blood running down her leg and forehead. Charnel could see the girl, the one who had asked if she was human, standing behind them staring into space. In shock, possibly.
"Gunpowder? Gunpowder, are you all right?" The man in the urban camoflogue shouted, pulling himself to his feet and staggering to the girl.
"I'm fine Fetch." she whispered.
"Help me! Medic!" Someone screamed, after a moment, Charnel realized it was Badcell. There was blood. She could smell it, hot and sharp, it tingled in her senses in that distantly familiar way...
"Oh, fuck!" Kalie swore, loudly. Her voice was strained and choked, and she coughed. Kalie was currently entangled in the Plasma canon, the arm it had been mounted on was destroyed. Kalie was currently trying to pull herself off a length of rebar that was driven straight through her chest, and a second pinning her thigh to the roof.
"Feral!" Arvo shouted, shoving sandbags aside, "Medic!"
"Nah, I'm..." Kalie gripped the rebar in her chest, and laborously pulled herself up the length, "I'm..."
With a squelching sound, she pulled herself off the rebar. She gave a choked cough, spat blood, then took a proper breath.
One of the rangers, dressed in military fatigues with a white helmet and red cross, darted from one to another. Badcell stood, with a limping and bleeding Young Lady hanging off one arm- and another Young Lady standing awkwardly and untouched nearby. Badcell looked from one to the other in mild confusion. Charnel stared with mild interest as well.
"It happens when I get hurt," Young Lady murmured.
In the background, Kalie groaned, and Charnel could hear the squelch as she finished pulling herself off the rebar.
Arvo tended to his rangers, and the one who had been tending the damper, who had an arm hanging at an odd angle, but refused to lay down, instead desperately attempting to tend to the transmitter. Arvo had lost his top hat in the confusion, and his hair was dusted with grey ash.
"We're naked out here, the damper's down!"
Everyone flinched and fell on their faces when something exploded high overhead.
Somewhere, someone was screaming; a high, thin sound- the wail that continued in a single, continuous note.
"Sortie Team Seven, you are cleared to engage!" Dragon's voice crackled.
Through the smoke overhehead, Charnel could see the Simurgh, still surrounded by her halo, the rays still pointed ahead at some distant target. As she watched, a black blur struck. It hit the Simurgh's rings, deflected off, doubled back, orbited her- probing, prodding her defenses, looking for a weakness. Bodies occupying all space between one point and the next.
Others joined it- Red, Blue, and Yellow striking together in a colorful conflagration. Green bloomed in a flash of light on the outermost edge of the largest halo- and part of the ring vanished, unbalancing it.
The ring toppled and began to loose altitude a moment later. The sentai had brought the fight to the Simurgh.
She retaliated, the failing ring came apart, separated into neat sections and divided- it became a cloud of fragments, orbiting her. The yellow point of light was swatted from the sky. The other points of light followed, and the yellow light vanished above the rooftops in a flash of white light.
"Hinamatsuri down, G9. Sortie team withdrawing. Ground teams, fire!"
Lights lanced up from the rooftops as the Simurgh turned, the cloud around her absorbing most of the volley. She was reorienting, reassembling. Telephone wires, cars, and debris began to rise from under her to join it. One of the other dampers had to be down too.
Charnel's attention was drawn back to the immediate problems at hand as Badcell swore, "Can you get that thing working again?"
The muscular man was kneeling beside the woman, and Gunpowder still standing, looking blankly towards the fighting. Charnel noted her fingers twitching.
The wailing was still there, faint and distant.
A flash, and a thunderclap that bowled Charnel over. From the ground, Charnel watched as the fragments of the Simugh's outer halo evaporated in yellow light. Where the Simurgh had floated, there were now three, each split off in a separate direction, half hidden in the smoke. Impossibly, under each the steady rise of debris continued, multiple interlocking halos of metal and free-floating concrete, and from them- larger objects began to form. The inner halo, that had framed the Simurgh initially when she had appeared, was left behind. Free-floating. It glowed a colorless white, illuminating the clouds of smoke with eerie flashes of cloud lightening, and rotated so that in was flat facing the sky and the city below. Against that backdrop, Dragon's fleet, now re-formed after it's scattering, maneuvered.
"The Simurgh has generated decoys. Target priority is her secondary halo, Thinker support and Foresight algorithms are giving a ninety percent chance that her halo is the focus of her attack." Dragon's voice reported, and began to issue orders.
The stairs were collapsed and nearly entirely blocked, but a moment of cautious exploration down the new slope of the roof revealed, despite the persistent cloud of smoke and dust, that the building had been nearly leveled. As it had fallen, it had listed sideways, and now only a fifteen foot drop separated the fire team from the pile of crushed concrete and brick that had been siding moments before.
Arvo and Kalie jumped down first, and then caught the rest of the group as they fell- except for the Longranger in the Jester costume, who stepped off the roof and landed light as a feather without batting an eye.
Once on solid ground again, they found they were not alone. The distant sense of people that had lingered in the back of Charnel's awareness had gradually been growing, and now she could see them.
They were eerily quiet. There were no screams, no shouting, just knots of people, or individuals, too exhausted to do anything but walk briskly with whatever they could carry in their arms. All moving away from the city, and the distant fight. Sunlight turned the dust almost opaque, cutting off all vision past twenty feet abruptly, and turned Trees and buildings into nameless, vast shapes. The fleeing survivors emerged from it pale with concrete dust, like ghosts, emerging from the haze. Emerging, and then vanishing again into the gloom again.
Gunpowder shook herself a little, blinking at the people emerging from the smoke, "Where did they all come from?"
"Simurgh's destroying the roads, herding them," Arvo replied.
"...You're a Thinker?"
"Yeah, a little. Movement." he grunted, "She's been destroying roads, toppling buildings onto evacuation routes. Weren't great to begin with... Everyone's gotten bottled up in the city, they're taking the fastest route out."
Arvo barked a laugh, "I have no idea."
The ANU campus was fairly open, and a river wound through, nearly dividing it in two. The smoke and clouds of dust changed this into a blank wall of white. Trees and buildings loomed out of the gloom unexpectedly. They found the river unexpectedly, the Longranger with the Jester's uniform nearly falling over the concrete bank wall. It made Arvo frown, since it meant they had been headed east, not north, but it was a brief detour. They began to follow the river.
They were slowed when they reached a footbridge, which had bottle-necked a larger presence of fleeing people.
Gunpowder offered to fly on ahead. Arvo reasoned that it was an unfamiliar city, she was an out of towner, and the smoke would make navigation even more difficult. Feral backed him up.
They moved at a steady jog, the stream of fleeing civilians gave them a wide berth.
"Sortie teams, disengage. The Simurgh's shield has re-attuned, probing her shields."
Dragon's covering fire was a series of thunderclaps and flashes hidden in the clouds of smoke overhead. A hissing scream cut through the gloom as a fragment of metal scythed down through the cloud and cut a tree in half. There were scattered screams And the tide of bodies through the gloom increased in volume, the tempo of their pulse and heat of their blood increased in urgency. Several pulses stilled.
"Attention, team eighteen, Thinker support has identified three potential targets. Eighty-nine percent return for the Black Mountain Research center." Dragon reported, "One of her is headed right for you."
Arvo swore, vehemently, Kalie shouted a question.
"It means she's headed this way, is what it means!" he shouted back.
Then, screams rose through the smoke. Sharp and sudden. There was no warning, it was impossible to see what they saw. Then just another explosion, this time nearly directly overhead.
And for a moment- three voices, dissenting. Charnel was dismayed, she had not lacked synchronization in years, and it paralyzed her. Locked in the confusion, she stood unmoving as the smoke was swept away in the wake of one of Dragon's suits falling on fire, coming apart.
The chances of avoiding an impact were low. Compromise of Charnel's chassis integrity was a high probability, directives allowed maximum force. There was no consensus now, instead a chorus of three voices together cried out.
Cloth tore. A seamless compartment opened, and a telescoping limb extended from behind her shoulders and from her stomach, punching through and shredding the bodysuit and vest both, and anchoring her to the ground. Her arms separated into four a moment before impact, and distributed the weight, extended claws that punctured and held the metal in place.
Even so, the shock drove her into the earth, up to her knees; and the suit bowed, bending over her and hitting the earth a moment later on either side. The heat from the flames rested on her shoulders, dripping down her back. Civilians scattered.
Arvo grabbed the two nearest bodies and dragged them away from the fire. Gunsmoke was dragged away. But Kalie wasn't moving. She was still on the ground, in the dirt and the powdered cement, clutching her shoulder. Kalie's arm was trapped under the suit, where it had collapsed from hitting Charnel. "Ow damnit!" she hissed.
"Are you all right, Kalie?" Charnel asked.
Kalie looked up, in pain. The sight of Charnel's unfolded state made her pause.
"Sh-shit Charnel, w-were did all that come from?"
Three responses sprang to mind, struggling for priority. After a moment, she tried a different track, "Can you move?"
Kalie tested her arm, the tendons in her neck stood out with the effort. It was no good.
"No..." Kalie managed, "C-can you cut me free?"
That might fall under the purview of revealing her specifications to the authorities, but she could choose how she replied. Not a query of her equipment, but of emotional capability. That could work. What stopped her was dissonance again. Maria did not want to hurt Kalie. Maria wanted to see, feel, touch, taste the blood. Maria wanted to curl up and cry.
Keep it together.
Keep it together.
Keep it together.
She tried again- focusing. And this time she came to a consensus. "I can."
The weight balanced on three arms, the fourth extended, a thin three foot long blade folded out. She flicked it once. The meat and bone parted above Kalie's elbow. Kalie twitched as she brought the blade down, but the cut was clean. "Not again..." Kalie moaned, looking at the stump.
Arvo slipped under the wreck, grabbing Kalie's ankle, assisted by Fetch. Together they dragged her out. With that, Charnel was the only one still trapped. The suit had landed half in the dirt, half on the concrete of the footpath. One of her bracing retractable legs was anchored on the concrete, the other was in the dirt. Not an ideal anchor point, but there had not been time to find a better one. She could feel it slowly sinking, even with its anchoring claws extended...
She adjusted the weight on her shoulders, rotating her four arms until the majority of the weight was settled slightly behind her. All eight limbs as well, anchored slightly behind her center of mass. Then she extended her front leg's anchoring claws, gripping the concrete. She withdrew her rear leg first, wrenching it from the earth and retracting it. Unbalanced, the suit began to sink. She let go of the weight, and let it fall, pulling herself with her frontal leg, now more like an arm, and with a whipping motion, snapped her body out from under the suit as it crashed to the ground behind her.
Charnel landed on six limbs, righting herself and taking stock of the situation.
The smoke was much thicker now. The fires from the crashed suit had spread to the nearby trees- some of which had been crushed and splintered by its impact. There were three Longrangers on their feet, Arvo and the jester-themed cape helping pull the wounded further from the fire. Gunpowder was standing beside the large, muscular cape, who lay on the ground with the woman, both tended to by the man in the camouflage- Fetch. Most of the civilians had fled, but there were a few on the ground along with one, a man who might have been a doctor- attempting to tie of a tourniquet.
There was blood everywhere, rich and thick. Charnel hesitated, twitching as she tried to untangle the convoluted conflicts. A sound brought her back to herself, and momentarily cleared her head.
Kalie was kneeling on one knee, the point were her arm had been severed already closed. The smell, the blood on her clothes and skin, that remained.
"Thanks..." Kalie said. She closed her eyes, and when she opened then they glowed pink. So did the rest of her, particularly her arm where it was severed. The blood on her shimmered like an oil slick, peeling off the cloth and running back toward exposed skin. With a squelch, the newly closed skin on her stump parted and white bone pushed through, followed quickly by red muscle and veins. In fast-foreward her arm became an anatomical display, muscles glistening and new, then skin crept up over it, shiny pink and new. Kalie grabbed then new limb as it twitched and choked back a scream.
"Ugh... God... I hate doing that..." Kalie gasped, swaying, and gave Charnel a slightly drunk smile, her eyes were still blazing pink, "So, the extra arms are new."
Charnel tried to articulate three different replies at the same time, resulting in garbled nonsense that stuck in her throat. It was getting difficult to differentiate them properly, and the distant scream had faded into the background and developed a complex undulating melody. She settled with something simpler, collapsing two arms into one that was more human, not as sharp. She grabbed Kalie's good arm, and slung her over one shoulder.
Overhead, a great shape passed low overhead, momentarily visible through the smoke. There was a flash, three capes attacking, trying to penetrate the Simurgh's screen of rubble and machinery. The Simurgh wove in and out of forcefields and purple blasts of energy almost casually, taking only superficial damage.
On the ground, large feathers floated down around Feral and Charnel. A moment later, the three capes peeled off, leaving the Simurgh free to fly on, past them, to Black Mountain.
A bright light.
Charnel's eyes adjusted almost immediately, filtering out the excess glare. Kalie was not so lucky, and had to shield her face with her still-regenerating arm.
Across Canberra, the Simugh's second halo had become a pillar of light, energy pouring out of the halo in a cascade of colors. As Charnel watched, it began to move, and a skyscraper evaporated when the light passed over it. Smoke rose in incredible quantities and the city began to vaporize.
How is she doing this?
What do we do?
Where do we run?