Less than four hours had passed between Mandy's vision and Dreamland One's alert, so nobody had bothered spinning down from the aborted response to Sutro Tower. The helicopters were refueled, the SUVs were idling, the non-cape agents were in their body armor. They all wanted to be ready, now that something was finally happening. But we stood around, waiting for the 'go' order, and to find out where we were going.

I don't like waiting. I don't have to do it, usually, I'm not used to it, and I have no plans of getting used to it. Seabring came out of the building from having been briefed by the Boss, I called to her as she approached, "What's taking so long?"

She seemed lost for an answer, or a way to put the answer she had into words. "D1 is in simulation mode, has been since it talked to the mini-computer we found in Dreadbird's head." She started to continue, stopped, and then said, quietly, in the voice of someone truly shaken, "There are new variables."

"Such as?"

"Need-to-know." Before Rapture could yell at her about the non-answer, she added, "And that's direct from the Boss."

So we stood around, except for Rapture, who found a spot to sit lotus-style away from everyone else and meditate. It helps her conserve power, focus it. She wants to be fully loaded. She wants blood: for Veronica Moresbay, and even for Methis and Dreadbird, but especially for McLeary.

McLeary, whose empty husk was lying in a refrigerated coffin deep within Dreamland Headquarters, on Chowdhury's orders. I felt nausea just thinking about it.

Mandy walked up, looking concerned; behind her was Portland Drew, pushing Junior in a stroller.

"Anything?" I asked. I knew the answer, of course: if Mandy had had another vision, anything, we would have heard.

She shook her head almost imperceptibly. "What about the Boss?"

Everyone looked out of the corner of their eyes at Seabring, who said nothing. I said, pointedly, "Apparently there are new variables. What that means I have—"

"I want this over as much as the rest of you," Seabring said as if she'd been barely holding the words in. "I want…" Her eyes went wide and she put her hand over her mouth.

The others probably thought the melon-baller had penetrated the Dreamland One's shield, had taken Seabring's brain, even if only for a second. Eight people gasping in horror at once is an awful sound. I was around behind Seabring and holding her hair while she vomited onto the lawn, before they realized that she was still alive.

"If she's sick she should lay down. " Portland Drew, just turned nine, offered helpfully.

"It's just stress, Portland, dear. She'll be fine. It's been a difficult week." Mandy looked at me reprovingly. "For everyone."

"OK." Portland said, oblivious to Mandy's subtext. "But laying down cures a lot of stuff, you know. I think—" Her eyes went wide, but her hand went to her ear, as if on instinct, the way all of ours do when our earpieces come to life.


"The Boss says he's finished his simulations. He says I'm supposed to suit up and then go see him."

"What? No. Absolutely not." Mandy sounded panicked.

Seabring was still doubled over, trying to say something and failing, and the rest of us were at a loss for words. But Rapture was suddenly at my elbow. "She needs to go in, now. Find out what the plan is. Enough with the waiting."

"We're not going to send… no. She's nine. It's a mistake. The computer's made a mistake. It's not a person, it doesn't know." Mandy took Portland by the hand. "We'll go in together. Explain it. Come on."

Massive was grinning. You better do as she says, man. I know that voice as well as he does.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Dreamland One: the face of it, anyway, what you see when the blast door rolls open and you walk down into the dark and then back out into the light again. The oddly reassuring voice that probably comes from faraway speakers you can't see — probably some tech it came up with in an otherwise unoccupied moment — but sounds like someone very close to you talking quietly. "Portland Drew is vital to a successful outcome."

"Not acceptable. She's a child."

"The danger to Portland is minimal. Mandy, you've always trusted me before, even with the life of your own child."

What the hell does that mean? "Wait a second—"

Mandy, once she has a full head of steam, can't be interrupted. "The melon-baller has killed two of us already."

"It will kill more, if Portland stays behind. It will continue to kill, until she goes."

"It couldn't kill Fleet, he was too fast. Send him to the—"

"Our enemy will have adapted to Fleet's speed. The simulations results are incontrovertible: even if he never slows from his highest possible speed, not even once, not even for an instant, Fleet going without Portland will almost certainly result in his death."

"Then find some other way. Do some more simulations."

"There are no more simulations to do. There are no consequential variables yet to be accounted for. The scenario I have described is optimal. To attempt any other approach is to introduce far greater risk to a greater number of people."

"I can't believe that—"

"I want to go." Portland's voice, clear and determined and earnest. "I want to."

Mandy was virtually in tears by that point, and she got down on one knee to grab Portland by the shoulders.  "You're a little girl, you don't understand."

"I want to help make everybody safe. I could die, but Boss says I probably won't. I understand fine." She crossed her arms. "I'm going."

Portland pulled away from Mandy and headed for the door. I half-expected my wife to continue her protest, fully in tears and screaming, but she didn't make a sound. She was on her knees, unmoving, arm outstretched towards the door as Portland went through it, as if petrified by fear and desperation.

"Honey, I think…" I circled around to help her up. There was a teardrop hanging in midair, three inches below Mandy's chin; Portland had escaped by freezing her, temporarily, in time, as she'd done before to Junia and Carlos.

"Mandy will be angry when it wears off, at all of us. But eventually, she'll understand," Dreamland One said. "Go with Portland. She has the address."

At the door, I asked, because I couldn't not ask. "What did the mini-computer — the one Chowdhury took out of Dreadbird — what did it tell you? Where the melon-baller was hiding?"

"I knew where it was hiding the day I built the shield. The mini-computer told me what the melon-baller is doing with the stolen brains."


~ * ~ * ~ * ~

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