The futures knotted and tangled too closely at this point to be sure of who was the most important to save, until the very moment came to save them. In some cases, it might never be clear. Even an angel could only do so much, being only a facet of the Infinite and not the Infinite itself.
So she wielded her powers, her spear of fire and her flaming sword, across the face of ravaged Atlanta. She saved those she could, and regretted those she could not. She felt every person that fell, felt their pain, their lives, their transitions. Sometimes, without meaning to, she Looked at them, and at those she did save, and saw their lives laid bare before her, and their pain became her pain.
She raged across the sky with the curiously impartial anger that only an angel could sustain, using her powers with surgical precision. She could have flattened the city, but a Seraphym is absolute power constrained by absolute control. She used only what she had to: no less, but no more.
Not all those who saw her, saw her for what she was. That was a matter of belief. Virtually all the metahuman magicians knew her, of course; they were used to thinking in terms of transcendence. Those who believed in more saw her in her full glory, robed in flame, fire-crowned, embraced in Light and borne upwards on the Wings of the Phoenyx, with the Sword of Michael in her right hand and the Spear of Justice in her left.
The rest saw another metahuman, one they did not recognize, who must, by the success she was having against the Thulian constructs, be at least an OpThree. One more who wielded metahuman fires with the precision and accuracy of a needle laser.
It did not matter to her how they saw her. She had her mission.
Save as many as you can.
She did not answer prayers. She ruthlessly followed the web of the futures, bending her intellect upon the paths that told her there, that one! and sent her flashing across the sky like a comet. And perhaps that broke the faith of some, who saw her and her siblings making seemingly arbitrary or even senseless decisions if one weighed those decisions only in terms of faith.
But their duty was to the future, not faith.
If she had been mortal, she would have long since fallen to earth exhausted. But when darkness, lit by the fires of burning buildings as well as her own, closed over the city, when the last of the war machines had swept up as many of the fallen as they could and made their escape, she took to a perch atop the building that her omnipresent intellect told her was called the Suntrust Plaza and brooded down over the ruins.
She and her siblings had done what they could.
And now it was time to wait for the futures to settle into a new configuration, bent into new patterns by their intervention.
Then came the still, small voice in her heart.
An Instrument is still needed. Will you stay?
A Seraphym is not often startled. This made her raise her head.
She—Angel of Fire and Love as she was—loved humanity. And not with the abstract agape of her siblings, but the warmer, closer-to-mortal filios. For as long as there had been creatures that stood upright on two legs on this world, she had watched them, studied them, cared about them. Her chosen form even imitated theirs. And sometimes, in the past, she had regretted, deeply, not being permitted to intervene.
The city was in chaos. Fires were still spreading, even though the attackers had retreated more than a dozen hours ago; their “death spheres” had dragged all of their dead and wounded out of the city once they had their fill of killing. Buildings had collapsed, cars and homes destroyed, and the majority of the municipal personnel were overloaded, scattered across a dozen different crises, or dead. National Guardsmen and disaster relief workers had been called in, but there weren’t nearly enough. After John had been revived and put to service helping rescue survivors, he learned that the attacks weren’t isolated to New York; almost every sizable city or one with a national significance had been hit, in America and the world abroad.
But of them all, Atlanta had been the hardest hit. Echo headquarters had been under siege for hours. There were rumors that even the legended OpFours that no one ever really saw had been called in. The coordination and terror were mind-blowing; no one had even bothered to try to estimate the casualties in New York, let alone the United States as a whole or the rest of the world.
John’s wounds had been hastily tended to; there were a lot of wounded, and none of his injuries were critical enough to warrant more than some slap-on first aid administered by a Girl Scout. Of all the damned things…it was the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Guides, the Campfire Girls, all those kids’ groups, that were being pressed into service as first-in first aid. There were kids in uniforms all over the city right now. Who’da thought it.
He’d been pressed into helping clear rubble and searching for survivors as soon as it was apparent that he was going to live himself.
A motley group of scouts of all stripes, rescue workers in blue and white vests, CERT workers—community emergency response teams—in green and white, and bloodied citizens were busy clearing a downed brick apartment building; John was among them, doing what he could by hand. A single backhoe had been brought in, which was more than most of the groups operating around the city had been able to get. This one was donated by a contractor who’d been doing sewer work in the area.
A husky woman in a man’s work shirt and jeans, head bandaged and hair shaved around a scalp laceration, took the place of the guy who’d been working at John’s left on the brick line. She glanced at him a couple of times, sharply. Finally she said, “You were with that kid, right? Burned up those robot guys?”
John stole a glance at her, still working at clearing rubble. After a moment, he responded. “Yeah, I was.” He still didn’t know the kid’s name; he didn’t even know who to ask to find out. He probably never would.
“You Echo guys, what were you doing here, anyway?” she asked. “I mean it’s lucky for us you were but…”
He shook his head. “I’m not Echo; I just found that kid on the street when I was tryin’ to get the hell outta town, after those Nazis—or whatever they were—attacked.”
“I thought all metas—” she shook her head. “Never mind. Well hell, if you aren’t you should be. They lost a pile of metas out there today. Seems like they all oughta be coordinated like the Scouts or something.”
John gritted his teeth. “You had it right at ‘never mind.’ It’s not my problem.” Wasn’t it?
She gave him a funny look. “Mister, from here it looks like it’s everybody’s problem now.”
John paused, looking to the woman again. He worked things around in his head for a moment, then went back to working. “Well, maybe.”
John spent the next two days alternating between resting and helping with rescue efforts. He found a couple of people in the rubble that had survived, but not too many. John thought a lot as he pulled bodies out of the rubble; he thought quite a bit about the kid and what the woman he had been working beside had said. And…about what he had seen after the kid had died.
John took measure of himself, and figured he would have to go to where he could do the most good. Five days after the attack, John left for Atlanta, hitchhiking and walking south.
Moscow, Russia: Callsign Red Saviour
The attack had taken a dreadful toll on her team. Of her roster of the seventeen Moscow CCCP members that had been with her at her hearing, only seven had survived: herself, People’s Blade, Soviette, Chug, and Soviet Bear—assuming the doctors could restore him to consciousness—plus Worker’s Champion and Molotok.
The militsya and army had arrived to clean up the aftermath. Ambulances jostled for position, hospital helicopters hovered overhead, and paramedics shouted orders. Red Saviour stood apart from her comrades, knowing that if she spoke, despair would pour out like a thunderstorm and wash over her.
Reporters led camera crews around the periphery of the square. They strained against the police cordon to capture glimpses of the carnage.
People’s Blade stepped over the plastic body bags with an almost surreal air of calm.
Setting down her coffee, she tapped at her lapel comm unit. The white noise of an open line greeted her—the radio was no longer jammed.
“Meet me by Saviour’s Gate,” she murmured into it.
The gate had taken several direct hits, demolishing the iron grill and parts of the stone façade. The ceremonial guard’s halberd lay on the ground. She wondered if he survived the attack.
Her people gathered, pale-faced and silent. Only People’s Blade retained her serene countenance.
“Any word on casualties?” She let the question hang.
“Three hundred and counting,” Worker’s Champion said. He wore a borrowed militsya jacket over his demolished suit. “Indications are that this was an isolated incident.”
“I doubt that, tongzhi,” People’s Blade said. “The Nazis utilized advanced military armaments and discipline in their deployment. That implies they were part of a larger force, which in turn implies that their masters have a purpose served by a larger force.” She answered Worker’s Champion’s scowl with a small smile. “I recommend we issue warnings to the United Nations.”
“One moment,” Red Saviour said. The comm units had come online minutes after the Nazis vanished; she adjusted her comm unit to tune in to Interpol’s bulletin system. A reedy voice spoke over the tiny speaker: “…strikes in Prague, Atlanta, New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Tehran, Sydney…”
She shut it off, her mouth a grim line.
“Invasion,” she said.
“Then they’ve been biding their time ever since we beat them back in the Great Patriotic War,” Worker’s Champion said. “Sixty years of plotting to take over the world.”
“Perhaps not,” People’s Blade said. “What we fought today was nothing more than a small expeditionary force. Regardless of their individual power, the troop allotment was too small to occupy any territory.”
“They killed most of CCCP.” Rage colored his voice. “Here, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, Ykaterinaburg, Samara, Omsk…”
“That may have been the goal.” The Chinese woman turned to Red Saviour. “The Gentle Wind Through the Grasslands.”
“Spare us your poetry,” Worker’s Champion said.
“It’s a military maneuver from her time,” Red Saviour said, moving her hands as though they were a gust of wind. “Attack fast, without entrenching. Retreat quickly when you’ve done your damage.”
Molotok’s eyebrows rose. “Blitzkrieg.”
“Bah.” Worker’s Champion scowled more. “She has a point.”
“She often does.” Molotok pursed his lips. “But Blitzkrieg was often followed by an occupying force.”
“Unless Germany has been hiding an army of giants in basements, that seems unlikely.” Red Saviour fished out her cigarettes.
“So now what, Commissar?” Soviette’s smooth contralto broke the silence.
“Don’t ask me. The council was about to fire me.”
Worker’s Champion grunted. “We’ll see about that.” Without ceremony, he turned and walked off.
An ambulance backed into sight. As the reporters shouted, mourners wailed, the militsya counted the dead and paramedics dressed wounds, she explored the exhausted faces of her comrades, thinking: war has found Russia again. Las Vegas, Nevada, USA: Callsign Belladonna Blue
Bella Dawn Parker wanted to sit in a corner, wrap her arms around herself, rock back and forth and cry.
She didn’t have that luxury. She was still one of the few medics on the ground here, and there were casualties everywhere. Crying was for later.
At least her parents were safe. That Cold War–era bunker her dad had herded everyone into had somehow escaped the attentions of the Nazi metas. Maybe it had looked too old, too abandoned, too archaic to matter. What had been state of the art in 1950 wouldn’t have held up too long against those energy cannons; the only reason that the bunker was expected to survive a direct nuclear hit on Groom Lake was because the eight floors of underground labs and offices above it would have served as ablative armor.
Bella let her thoughts ramble while she served as a kind of automatic healing dispenser. Someone had found a supply of pure glucose solution; while people who qualified as “walking wounded” were being patched up by non-meta medics, she was hitting all the black-tags, the victims triaged as “not expected to survive,” too badly hurt for conventional emergency medicine. The guy serving as her coolie had a lab cart loaded down with the bottles of glucose and was following her around while she went from triage point to triage point. She’d gulp down a bottle of glucose, lay her hands on the victim, and—do her thing. It had never been so clear or strong before…it was as if she could look inside them, see what was broken, and then, just like some movie-special-effects sequence, make it knit itself back together again just enough that they would live. It was…scary, was what it was. She’d have been freaked if she’d had any time to be freaked. But she had lost too many today, and she didn’t intend to lose any more.
Finally she reached the main triage center, a big open courtlike area in front of the vaults. She’d only heard rumors about the vaults. Her folks didn’t talk about what they did here. Rumor had it that this was where all the weird-ass inventions that the US government could get to before Echo did were kept. And this was where all the weird-ass weaponry went that government scientists, rather than Echo scientists, created. And, rumor had it, this was where all the alienware from all those supposed flying saucer crashes confiscated by the government went.
Well, she didn’t know anything about saucer aliens, but here were the vaults, all right. They ringed a giant open space lit from above by a single solid panel of…something…She’d never quite seen lighting like that before. The floor was something else she didn’t recognize—not concrete, because it was warm to the touch and deadened sound rather than reflecting it. Its uniform gray surface was untouched by battle. There was one tunnel entrance coming into this place, and one going out. Forklifts, carts, front-end loaders, other machines, presumably meant to get things too big to carry into and out of the vaults, had been parked in orderly rows here. Someone had used a skid loader like a bulldozer though, to shove a lot of it out of the way to make room for the injured and dying, being too impatient to start up and move each piece of equipment individually. Around the periphery were the vault doors, some of which were two stories tall, all of them shiny and silver-colored and with no visible way of getting them open. The Nazis had been coming here, that much was clear by the path that Bella and her team had followed. But they hadn’t actually gotten here, because the makeshift meta team had stopped them.
There was only one vault door open now, one of the smaller ones, and a white fog coming from it suggested it was refrigerated. As Bella settled down by the side of the first man in the black-tag section and her body slave handed her a bottle of glucose, she saw a lab-coated scientist with a pair of uniformed bruisers drive up to it in a little golf cart pulling a wheeled platform loaded with Nazi bodies. They began carrying the bodies into the vault as she laid her blue hands on a man’s pale, chilly forehead. Whatever disgust she might have felt at the vultures carrying on business as usual was swallowed up in the overwhelming sensations and half sights coming to her from the man’s broken body.
She was jolted out of her trance some time later—fortunately she was mostly done at the time—by the sound of shouts and screaming. Her eyes flew open, her heart racing, as she reached for the sidearm she’d been given. “What?” she snapped at her assistant, who had his radio out.
“Something—” A smattering of voice in a surge of static came from it. “Something’s come back. One of those flying things. It’s—” Another babble of voices, more static. “—they say it’s not firing, but the metatroopers that they cornered upstairs and all the bodies are, like, flying towards it—”
“Shut the vault!” The imperious order rang out over some hidden PA system, and the door of the refrigerated vault swung ponderously closed. With a dull, booming sound, it came to rest, and the clank of what must have been huge bolts shooting home signaled that it was locked.
And that was when the bodies still on the cart began to glow.
“Take cover!” screamed one of the soldiers that had been moving the bodies into the vault a moment before. Instinctively, Bella and her helper ducked behind a forklift, as the bodies glowed red-hot, then yellow, then white, then too bright to look at, and the metal cart they had been lying on slagged and sagged to the floor, the rubber tires going up in flames, triggering the overhead fire-suppression system. Not sprinklers, no. A dozen nozzles protruded from the ceiling and doused just that spot with foam and a cooling mist which never even reached the injured.
Within minutes, the fire was out, and the metal cooling down through red…but there was nothing left of the Nazi metatroopers but slagged metal indistinguishable from what was left of the flatbed and the little electric cart that had pulled it. The air was full of the smell of hot metal and burned plastic, although the ventilation system was quickly pulling all of the smoke and stench up towards the ceiling.
“What the hell—” she gaped at the remains.
“I guess they didn’t want us looking at their suits,” her helper said, and handed her a bottle of glucose.
With that reminder, she gulped it down, and moved on to the next victim.
It got to the point where not even pure glucose was making up for all the energy she was putting out. She felt feverish, light-headed, and oddly thinned out. Next to her, the vault door had been opened again, and from the activity inside apparently whatever had caused the Nazi armor to melt down out here had not gotten through the vault shielding. At least three people were in there now, and they sounded busy. Her helper had been looking concerned about her for the last three victims, and now he put his hand on her shoulder.
“You need to stop now, ma’am,” he said quietly. “You’re about to fall clean over.”
But the last of the black-tags had been pulled back from the brink, and she was halfway through the red-tags—
“Ma’am, the doctors from Nellis are here now. You can stop. And you better.” The hand on her shoulder got heavier. “I got my orders, ma’am. Nothin’ is supposed to happen to you. Echo says.”
Only now did she look at the logos on his fatigues, and realized that this was no GI, this was an Echo OpOne. She felt herself flush. “Can’t let the prize cow drop, huh?” she drawled, thinking angrily of how she had been pulled away from her station, her crew, when they needed her the most. Of course, she had been needed here too, but—those were her guys…and some of them had been missing.…
“Ma’am, I have my orders,” he repeated. “You do what you can here, and I keep you in good shape while you’re doing it, I make sure you’re fit when you’re done, then we go to Atlanta—”
“Atlanta!” she shouted. “Like hell I’m going to Atlanta! When this is over, I am going back to my crew, back to my station, and—”
The sound of someone shouting louder than she was interrupted them both, as three men came stumbling out of the vault, two of the three looking green and the third looking white.
“Get the general!” shouted the white-faced one to one of the nearest soldiers. “Get the Echo re—there you are!” He pointed at Bella’s helper. “Get in here! You have to see this!”
“I’m keeping tabs on our newest OpTwo,” the man began, his demeanor changing in an instant from subservient to commanding. “There can’t be anything in a pile of powered armor more important than that.”
The white-faced man began to laugh hysterically. “Oh god,” he gasped. “Oh god, if only you knew! That’s just it. It’s what’s in the armor!”
The white-faced man sat abruptly down on the floor and began to cry. Bella got up, took one of the glucose bottles and handed it to him, and began to soothe him. It felt like she was sending out waves of quietude somehow…like the mental blasts, like the vastly increased healing powers, this was just…coming out of nowhere for her. At this point, she wasn’t going to question it. She just used it.
Her helper stood there uncertainly for a moment, then his expression turned decisive. “Don’t let her get herself into trouble. I need to make a call.”
“The President?” asked one of the green-faced men, with a gulp.
“No,” the answer came back as the man sprinted up the tunnel, heading for the surface. “Tesla.”
The Seventh Circle
Mercedes Lackey, Steve Libbey, Cody Martin, Dennis Lee
So, there we were. Civilization as we knew it had just had its ass handed to it. Turned out that most of the communications satellites were out for civilian media—cell phones, and so on. Military still worked, and so did landline. And nearly every city had what came to be called “destruction corridors”—paths of complete devastation leading to wherever in that city the Echo HQ had been. It was clear, very early, that the Nazis had meant to take out Echo entirely, and any other enclave of metas, but when they couldn’t, they pulled out, falling back to some contingency plan. And initially, that made people angry, as if some serial killer was going around sniping firemen. That worked in Echo’s favor, and Echo was going to need all the favors it could get.