The Aftermath Academy - CH30 (Pyrrha)

“Welcome to weapons, where we will discuss weapons. That might sound evident, but I say it to emphasize what we will not discuss. In case you are surprisingly dense though, what we will not discuss is any past action taken by my husband or myself,” May Butler says from the front of the class. She is beautiful, looking to be in her mid-twenties despite the fact I know she is more like twice that age. Her eyes are a piercing gray, hair a straight flowing brown down to her shoulders, and her facial features strangely familiar given I know I’ve never met her.

“Some of you hate my family. Some of you might even hate me personally,” May continues. “A few of you have better reasons than others. Whatever you feel about our failures, or even our successes, this is not the forum to talk about them. Whatever sympathy or sorrow I may feel for your losses; I will not show it here. Further, if you care for revenge someday you are welcome to try and get it, so long as you try to take it personally. You will still fail, but your defeat will be much more merciful than if you try to share my identity. Untouchables is not a title that was given to us for show. I do promise that you will come a lot closer to achieving any ill-conceived attempts at revenge if you are willing to learn what I have to teach in this class.”

I can feel some of the hatred she’s talking about. Mohinder is suppressing the urge to attack her, running through all the scenarios in which he could kill a body of hers but knowing it would lead to his death with complete certainty, most likely at the hands of The Mayflower Army herself. Though any desire for violence at all is a moot point as we are currently beyond its impact on anything but a psych test. I can’t figure out the source of his distaste. Genevieve feels betrayal at her father’s death protecting May’s sister-in-law, but it is more conflicted by memories of May’s personal kindness towards her as a child. Leila Marid despises the Butlers for their intervention in the Southern Destrian uprising because of the Destrian rebel’s attempts to use the gifted against civilians and the resulting death of her older brother.

This is in contrast to the respect that most of my classmates feel. I sense gratitude from Ray, Mr. Gate, and Ariella Melman for lives saved. Kinship and respect from Reed, who is proud one of the remaining Redarcticans has been so instrumental in protecting the world. Admiration from Forest, whose greatest hero is Nova, one of the closest known friends to The Butler and his wife.

“The easiest way to demonstrate the usefulness of weapons is to show a before and after. This will be quite violent for all of us, which is why we are conducting this class in Professor Grime’s mental simulation. First, I will fight all of you without weapons,” May says.

She doesn’t give us any time to prepare, attacking us as soon as she is done with the sentence. Where there was one of her there are now ten, splitting off in several directions. Before any of them got more than a few feet they’d been cut down. Leila melted one’s face off with a swipe of her hand, I slew two with a casual swing of Samson, Genevieve pulpified three in a blur and Mohinder teleported the organs out of the rest, feeling a small sense of satisfaction at the knowledge she would have some sense of pain from his kills. We’ve all trained for weeks not to hesitate in killing, but I notice that most of her bodies were taken out by those who had grievances against her family.

It was over quickly and we were left in the middle of an empty city block with the remains of a defeated Mayflower Army. May’s voice resonates through the world, “Well done. Obviously in a straight on fight against Gifted of your caliber, I stand no chance. It would be difficult to kill me for good given some of my tactics, but I would never be able to hurt you either. Now let’s see how round two goes.”

Mohinder’s body vaporizes in a fountain of blood as a blast of energy hits him from behind.

“Projector cannon,” Mary screams out, donning her red glasses and shooting a laser towards the skyscraper the blast came from.

“First lesson, your environment is a weapon. You will almost always be the aggressor, which means you get to pick the angle and distance of your attack, the cover you use to approach from, and what equipment you need,” May’s voice comes from around us.

Forest has planted his hands into the ground and concrete trees begin creating a perimeter around and above us, shielding us from more sniper fire. One of May’s bodies come hurtling down from the air through the tree limbs, landing near him with a sickening crunch.

“Get away from it,” I shout out, a split second before May’s body explodes in an energy blast, engulfing Forest in flames. It’s The Mayflower Army’s signature move, suicide bombing.

“Understanding the limits of your power is a weapon,” May booms from the air. “My husband is kind enough to keep me permanently boosted, but even before I became The Mayflower Army I could make good use of that trick.”

Machine gun fire begins raining down through the few gaps in Forest’s barrier. Grant Li folds space above us such that the gunfire can’t reach us.

One of the sides made by Forest’s trees explodes and several Mays flow in. Reed meets them head on with a few copies of Genevieve and they explode, further ripping apart Forest’s barrier. The copies looked little worse for the wear, boosting Genevieve’s confidence that she could survive one of May’s suicide attacks herself.

The copies vanish when Reed’s chest explodes as a tiny projectile flashes past. Genevieve looks puzzled, unsure how it could go so fast that even she couldn’t process it. I purposefully try to expand my empathy, seeking out the Mays throughout the city. The feedback loop of a single consciousness controlling so many bodies is a little disorienting, but I find the sniper, using a railgun fletchette this time, and strike her down with an expanded James. I cut James across an open angle between my classmates and take down two more of her bodies.

But there are a few in this cityscape hiding out of even my range and they just produce new copies whenever we strike any down on the front lines of the battle.

“Communications is a weapon,” May says. “Mine is inherently perfect between bodies, but you are lacking any equipment that would allow you to split up and hunt down my reserve bodies. The members of your group that can pinpoint where I am have no way of sharing the information to those fast enough to hunt me down.”

“Want to make a bet,” Ariella says, releasing her beasts. What were once housecats are now the size of overgrown jaguars, hundreds of pounds of sleek muscle. They move through the gap in the barrier at nearly a hundred miles per hour, searching out May’s scent. I snort at the fact Blue was asked to skip class. This would be a breeze if we gave him all the locations of her bodies and he’d stopped time to go deal with them.

Even allowing Mohinder to participate was a risk. If he’d been more focused, he never would have let someone get a shot in on his blind spot. He could have easily teleported all across the city, eliminating all of her bodies in a flash. But despite his super intelligence, May effectively has hundreds of years of experience in predicting people’s actions. She was confident she could get him before he became useful.

“If we stay with those things, can we track her down?” Emilio asks Ariella. She nods. He smiles and flies after one.

“No wait,” I shout. He’s already gone though. Dammit, splitting up might make sense if we were really the ones hunting May, but we’re not. She’s hunting us. At the least any offensive teams should have multiple high-defense members. But if our highest defense members all go to track her then our weaker members will be left defenseless.

Joker is concentrating hard, cards flying out of his hands into the air, floating after Ariella’s dogs. His projections are powerful, could they be enough? “Really wishing Rosen Thorn didn’t quit on us, she’d be damn useful right now,” he says, referring to someone on his team who started off ranked fourth but dropped out because she couldn’t kill a child. I can feel Ariella’s beasts nearing the locations of some of May’s reserve bodies, but then massive explosions rock the city and their presence disappears.

“No!” Ariella screams gutturally.

“If you cannot beat your opponent directly, set a trap for them,” May says.

“It was a good attempt. But you need more.” I still feel Emilio out there, flying blind now, nothing to guide him to any of May’s hidden bodies.

I strike a few more down with James and Samson long range, but there’s too many of them I can’t reach. If I even had some basic com systems we might be able to mount an effective offensive, but if we can’t put all of May’s bodies down in rapid succession she won’t be any worse off than when we started the fight. Meanwhile she’s whittling us down one by one.

Reader is turning pages furiously, looking for a power that might help in this situation. I’ve seen him call upon some incredible abilities from literature that doesn’t even exist in this world. Finding one that can effectively put down an overpowered long range duplicator though is alluding him. He’s momentarily distracted as a massive blast of light and sound reverberate from across the city. I feel Emilio’s consciousness go out.

“She got Emilio,” I let the group know.

“How the hell?” Genevieve says incredulously. “His defense is even stronger than ours.”

“Mental based power,” I tell her. “She overwhelmed his senses with light and sound, maybe more. I’m guessing it disoriented him enough to let his telekinetic barrier down a split second.” Genevieve clenches her fist in anger over not knowing what to do. She might fare better than Emilio given her speed and strength, but it’s like playing whack-a-mole. Even if she gets one May, a new body can be created on the other side of the city. Even Genevieve’s not fast enough to get them all that way.

Alexandra Tech has deployed drones, flying out below Grant’s spatial warping barrier then lifting off into the air to seek out May’s bodies. “Dammit,” she says. “I can’t talk to them as well with the barrier up, they feel too far away like this.” She’s almost as short as Mary and the sight of her stamping her small foot in frustration almost makes me chuckle aloud.

“You gave them basic instructions?” Grant says. “Because unless you want sniper fire raining down on us from above, I’m not moving shit.”

I see he’s straining extra hard to reposition the falling ordinance so that it’ll go to our sides if he gets offed rather than just all collapsing directly on us at once. It’s a good consideration that I’ll have to thank him for after this is over. Really wishing Allie could safely use her powers in the simulation, her bubble barriers would give us a ton of time to safely plan how to strike back.

“Can you use the drones to create a com system?” I ask Alexandra. She considers a moment.

“A super primitive one, maybe. They don’t have speakers on them,” she says.

“I might be able to help,” Shawnee says, fingers crackling with golden light. I can feel a flush of pleasure as Reader finds a power he thinks can turn the tide of the fight.

“Heads up!” Genevieve screams as a barrage of rockets fly in through the side. I can’t cut through them without killing half my team members. As they veer off course I wonder at first whether Grant changed tactics, but then I see that Alexandra is panting. She’s talking to the rocket’s guidance systems, which means they had high tech targeting controls. Something about that bothers me, but I’m not sure what.

“Stop them!” Miss Sedrick screams out. She has a moderate amount of power resistance and it takes me a split second to realize she means more than just redirect the missiles away in the manner Alexandra did. It was a split second we didn’t have, given how fast the missiles came in. They slam around us, seemingly a safe distance away, until the mechanical traps inside release hundreds of ball bearings.

Whereas the missiles were high tech enough for Alexandra to misdirect, the payloads are not, and I’m barely able to get myself in front of Ray as they rip through our group. Genevieve managed to swipe aside most of the ball bearings before they reached Alexandra and Shawnee, but two more rail gun fletchettes slipped in among the barrage and blew them apart. I see Reader slumped over, dead from the initial ball bearings, his book leaking blood. Leila and Mary were also victims and Jira Hellsing is pulling herself back together, literally. Heaven’s Gate lies dead at her feet, his power not at all useful for this sort of assault.

“That fucking hurt,” Jira sneers out, a second before slamming back into the ground from an energy blast. Her skin swirls with pulsing red lines, absorbing much of the energy. I hear projectiles slamming the ground in mass, Grant’s spatial distortion field dissipating and dumping ordinance May’s been firing around us.

But Jira wasn’t hit by an old blast. With Grant dead, we’re back to being sitting ducks. “Information, prioritization, timing, misdirection, deception, these are all weapons at your disposal,” May’s voice resonates through the city. She’s been listening to us this whole time. She knows our powers. She’s just picking us off one at a time at her leisure.

I process this in a split second. “Ray, do you trust me?”

“Of course,” he says.

“Then use your power and swing with me. Genevieve, get behind us!” Ray, who hates the very idea of using his power, lets loose. An energy sword materializes in front of us that reaches across the city, skyscrapers incinerating for blocks across. I swing Ray around, probably totally unnecessary, but he lets the sword swing with him, buildings obliterating for miles around us in an instant. This city is empty; I can only feel May’s bodies. Even if it weren’t, we’ve clearly been cast in the role of a target. The only collateral I cared about was my classmates and most of them are already dead.

Genevieve was fast enough to get behind us. Nelle, Miss Sedrick and Jira managed to duck for cover in time. But Joker got obliterated by Ray’s sword. Unfortunate. His projections weren’t nearly effective enough, but they’d gotten a few bodies on the outskirts of town.

“Very clever,” May says. “You’ve bought yourself some breathing room. One of your more effective tools bought the dust, but if this were the real world you would have gained some measure of his abilities with that move. It is unfortunate that the true extent of your powers is not reflected in the simulation, Pyrrha Valkyrie. This large a scale battle almost never really happens, but if you’d lost this many comrades this close to you, my understanding is you’d end up on par with my husband. I would have liked to see how you’d fight with such strength.”

There is an eerie quiet when she stops speaking, ash falling around us. I don’t sense any of her bodies anywhere near us, and there is no longer any place above us for her to fire from. “I won’t,” I whisper. “I won’t lose this many comrades. I won’t. I refuse.” Genevieve looks at me. This close to me even her power resistance doesn’t hide that she’s torn between being appalled at my willingness to sacrifice any of our class members, surprised and suspicious that I’d gone out of my way to save her, and uncertain what to make of my words.

“And if we fight against something like her?” Genevieve asks.

“Then I’ll use the Shades of the fallen to become an avenging god,” I tell her, my eyes blazing.

“All well and good, but can you tell if she’s dead?” Ray asks.

“No,” Miss Sedrick says. “Her next move will be to use her armor. She’ll pick off me, Ray, and Nelle.”

“Gee, thanks,” Nelle says. “Fuck that noise. Time for some new tricks.” She lays her hand flat in the air and swipes her hand left. Needles fly out from beneath her palm and shoot straight out through the ash. She’s shooting blind though, and I have no idea what their range or speed is. It’s an act done purely out of frustration.

“Should we move?” Ray asks. “That took a lot out of me, not sure I can do that again even if I tried. Might be better to try and use the ash to get a better position.”

Not a total truth. He doesn’t run out of energy, per se, but he’s afraid of what happens if he doesn’t ration out using his power. He needs to adapt his efforts to make sure it stays in control in real life to allow for any usage at all.

“There isn’t a better position,” Miss Sedrick says. “Now that Alexandra and Shawnee are dead, The Mayflower Army will attack us with her full battle suit. She doesn’t like using it because the creator cannot be entirely trusted, but in this scenario it’ll have forced her hand. It can see our heat through the debris.”

“You know an awful lot about her,” Genevieve says.

“My Father left me many notes about The Untouchables before he died. At least the ones that existed back then,” Miss Sedrick says dispassionately. She’s never been very emotional but the nearly toneless way she’s speaking amidst all this carnage is disconcerting and I’m beginning to think something isn’t quite right with Miss Sedrick. But I can’t get any thoughts or feelings through her power resistance.

“Then do you know any weaknesses to this battle suit?” Genevieve asks. As the falling ash begins to dissipate slightly I see several glows on the horizon. The reality of the situation hits me, May has reserve bodies miles out of reach with whatever weaponry she feels like bringing to bear. Her initial assault was just to kill our techno-path and hacker. Once Alexandra and Shawnee died, there was never any chance that we could beat her in this, and probably there wasn’t a chance even if they were still alive. I also doubt there was ever any possibility for escape.

“None whatsoever,” Miss Sedrick replies to Genevieve. “It has multiple weapons systems, extremely advanced shields and kinetic absorption plating, its self-destruct can level a city block, and she can duplicate it as much as she wants.”

“Well that’s a bitch,” Jira says, eyeing the glowing lights on the horizon.

“Why do they even need executioners when there’s crazy ass people like her? She freaking wiped us.”

“We’ve barely even started our training,” I say. “I’m sure we’d do a lot better by the time we’re done.”

“For one thing,” Miss Sedrick says. “Also, we’re more expendable. Executioners often go up against new catastrophe class gifted identified using the early warning system. The exact nature of their powers has rarely been revealed. The Mayflower Army physically is nearly invulnerable due to the power boost her husband gives her, but she has no power resistance at all. She’s had close calls in the past. Also, the creator of her most powerful weapon once enslaved her as a kid so, like I said, some trust issues regarding using it on a regular basis when there are alternatives.”

If Miss Sedrick is bothered by the idea of being an expendable convenience for the Untouchable kicking our ass, it doesn’t show.

“Incoming,” Genevieve says. The glows streak towards us from multiple directions like jets, almost two dozen of them.

“You sure you can’t swat those insects out of the sky?” Jira asks Ray. Nelle fruitlessly shoots needles up at the suits. I’m not sure what she’s hoping to accomplish until Miss Sedrick takes Nelle’s hand and starts aiming for her. A few of the oncoming glows fall out of the sky.

It’s futile though, as new ones split off the ones who weren’t hit. I’m sure that even if we knocked them all out of the sky we’d get a brand new wave shortly thereafter. “Not sure the lesson here. Thought we’ve already covered getting our asses kicked,” Jira says. I think of Blue. Could even he have found all of the reserve bodies in the simulation? Would his presence have resulted in an easy win, or the sort of stale mate coming at us unarmed from a distance would have?

“Trust is a weapon,” Miss Sedrick says. “I believe that is the lesson.” I think of Blue’s invincible Poleaxe. May might not totally trust the creator of her suit, but he trusts her not to abuse it. Or he just doesn’t care. Either way, weapons on that level require someone to be willing to entrust you with them. The purpose of this curb stomp battle is to show different elements that can be utilized in battle to defeat an opponent. It’s plausible to me that one of those elements is developing relationships with the sort of people who can equip you with a ridiculous armament. May’s power is constantly boosted because her husband trusts her, she has access to advanced military hardware because the leaders of the Consolidated Empire trust her, and she has one of the most powerful techie battle-suits ever built because Krieg Mirkov trusts her.

Ray dies first, bursting into flame from a point defense laser. The lasers hit all of us, Nelle bursting into fire as well. Miss Sedrick calmly watches her abdomen burst into fire. I wonder if she’d be as stoic about her death if this weren’t just happening in Professor Grime’s head. They flash harmlessly over my armor and Genevieve’s skin, avoiding Jira.

How would I react to my teammates really dying? Would I be able to keep planning, keep fighting, do anything but break down in tears? Given the nature of my power, I really don’t want to know.

I lash out at the suits with Samson and James, blades flying through the air in precise strikes, struggling to fall into a whirl of motion free of distracting contemplation. My swords cut through a couple of suits, but then one of them catches James between its palms. I dissipate James then strike with him again. The suits have started glowing again, lines running down the armor in a more aesthetically appealing manner than I would have thought most tech geniuses capable of caring about. Now when James or Samson hit, they repel off the suits’ surfaces.

“Energy modulation,” I say flatly. My swords are basically physically manifested energy beams. Somehow she’s adapted the energy output to exactly counter the blow. Except, they have different energies, which means…slamming both James and Samson down onto a suit together splits one of May’s bodies in two.

Unfortunately, in a split second one of her other bodies splits in two in a very different way, each half forming a perfect whole. Genevieve pulverizes both in another second, only to have the suits detonate in an explosion that blinds me. Another suit slams down into Jira from straight above us, exploding in a wave of fire and force that even that girl probably can’t come back from.

“Tag,” I hear a voice come from behind. I feel May’s presence behind me, her speed in the suit so intense I didn’t even feel her sneak up on me. May doesn’t even try to fight me, detonating the suit in close proximity. The explosion sends me hurtling towards Genevieve’s position and I feel cracks in my armor splinter out. Genevieve manages to float herself upright. That she’s even partially clothed after a blast like that is either a mercy provided by Professor Grimes or Genevieve has some seriously incredible nano-weaves.

I look down, seeing the only thing I have left on is my armor. It’s full body, including a helmet, but I still feel a little immodest given that it’s part of me. “You gotta’ tell me your tailor,” I tell Genevieve.

“Sure,” she says. “He’s a lot less of a dick than yours.” She waves towards my armor.

Can’t argue with that, a condescending voice whispers in my head. The cracks begin healing as Johannes’ shade stirs. Huh, guess that answers about whether he’s here in the simulation with me.

I catch a kick launched by May, but then the suit explodes in my hand. I feel heat through the armor as I’m hurled backwards again. Hate explodes like a cold fire in my chest and I’m disoriented by the familiarity of it. Johannes was one of those horrible people who enjoyed hating others, who did it for sport, made it an art form.

She always was tenacious. Did you know many of her copies have cyanide pills because of me? Shame, one of her only weaknesses was that she feels all of her bodies’ pain. You could catch one without killing it and really have some fun until her husband showed up. And I even got away from him a couple of times before that last bit of excitement.

Shut up, I think furiously. May keeps hammering me with suicide attacks, and I can see that Genevieve isn’t fairing much better.

“Screw this,” I say. I aim James at the ground and launch myself towards Genevieve at a blinding speed. I take the brunt of an explosion meant for her and slump over her form as the blast crushes me up against it. Not sure strategically whether I applaud her holding us up or curse her for not letting me move with the blast. “Can you get us out of here? They’re just going to wear us down like this.”

I can feel the faint stirring of distaste at the idea of running. But she knows this is unwinnable, and it might be part of the lesson to realize we can try to retreat. I feel her start to lift off.

Then the sun is covered up. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Genevieve says.

“Congratulations on surviving to the final lesson,” May says. “The greatest weapon of all if you end up in a stalemate. Reinforcements.”

More often than not, I suspect reinforcements these days take the form of The Butler. The Sky Fortress hovering above us might not be as dangerous, but it is admittedly more impressive. It descends from low orbit, almost as big across as Ray’s sword was.

I barely have time to let out a snort of derision as its main cannon fires 100 Terajoule blast down upon us.