Beacon – 8.5

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The wind blew my hair across my gloved hand and the glowing screen of my phone.  On the screen, a short email chain had me biting my tongue in reality, even though it was an exchange of text alone.

I flexed the arm that was no longer in the sling.  The injury was still very much felt.

I’d been idle for too long, because the ‘circle’ dropped down from the top, obscuring part of the screen.  Two options were on the circle.  On the left, the phone offered the option of trying to draw power by way of ambient, wireless energy, including solar, EM, and whatever else.  It would put the phone in a ‘rest’ mode.  On the right, a music note and a list of my music, with the phone browsing recent messages and context to try to smart-pick a playlist of music to listen to based on my guessed mood.

The phone left both up as choices, with an upward swipe to go back to what I was doing.  Each option grew and diminished as a two-segment pie chart while the phone’s thinking process brought up words and ideas- distance from home, recent browsing.

Just about every part of that whole process was about two steps shy of being hot garbage in terms of accuracy and functionality, but watching it happen and seeing the pie slice of ‘rest’ shrink was a distraction.  The countdown appeared, as the phone prepared to make its choice.

I swiped in the last second.  The emails.

Mayday
Re: Proposal
ReSound and I are away right now. Killing toxic waste eating mutants on Bet. Wish I was joking. Not even the lousiest part of my week. If Looksee hasn’t had any contact with the files or computer in question we will look at what you have. Meet our guys on their patrol and give them a disk or something? Sound and I will review when we can or others can check it out and give us feedback. Sound good? Will call my guys and find out who you’d meet and where.

Antares
Re:Re: Proposal
Sounds good.  Looksee is busy with a project- no issues there.  I’ve got a flash drive with info I can leave you guys.
Sorry to hear about the mutants.  Good luck.

Mayday
Re:Re:Re: Proposal
They’re racing down Post st. in pursuit of unpowered criminals and should pass through Westport soon coming from the east.  Can’t call them but you should be able to help intercept. Notify if intercept fails or is too much trouble. Is Spright Flapper Shortcut.

Mayday had a habit of writing in big blocks of text.  In the gloom, half an hour past sunset, my phone bright and everything else dark, the grid of black text was hard to read.

I squinted at the name ‘Shortcut’, my teeth still set on my tongue, biting down.

Advance Guard was tricky.  Things weren’t great when it came to Lookout and her history with a few members of that group, but Shortcut was a bit of a problem too.

My hope was that Shortcut was a chronic enough problem that his dislike of me in specific and our group in general wouldn’t taint things.  We needed these groups, if we were going to make this work.  It just so happened that Advance Guard was both the most difficult to wrangle and the fastest when it came to responses.

On the other hand, if Mayday wanted to set us up to fail here, while maintaining plausible deniability, having us offer unasked-for help to a group that included Shortcut would be the way to do it.  Just… was it worth it?  What did he gain?

Advance Guard was in a bad spot, and they had to be careful.  It had been a leading team and its numbers had diminished.  A handful of losses and a bit hit to morale had led to a cascading effect.  The team was half what it was.

Despite the later hour, traffic was stop and start below us.  Headlights formed a staccato line of yellow-gold, stabbing through a haze of illuminated car exhaust and dust.  Behind us, the car headlights were red, the dust and car exhaust less visible in that particular light.

No sign of the chase.

Capricorn stood on a piece of construction equipment, near one of the bottlenecks that was slowing down the flow of traffic.  He was decked out in his armor, illuminated from below by the lights of the cars, but also by the background tint of a dull orange light by the motes that swirled through the air in tight spirals, out to about fifty feet to his right, fifty feet to his left, and to varying heights above him.  The orange light coupled with the red of taillights for an even more exaggerated effect.

As ominous as it might be, he periodically turned his head or bent down, to better communicate with people on the ground.  Eight o’clock at night and the construction workers were still suited up, some still working, though mercifully without any heavy, loud equipment or too much obstruction of traffic.

Sveta, meanwhile, sat in the light of a spotlight that had been used for construction, that was standing in lieu of some streetlights that had been knocked over.  There was a platform below the light, and she was there, head both bowed and askew.  Tendrils crept out of the neck portion of her costume, back to her hair, and down the front of her body and arms.  She was changing the colors in one of her arms, pausing here and there to look up and make sure our Advance Guard heroes and their quarry weren’t on their way.

The work she did was very precise and particular, twenty-plus tendrils looping down her body, around her arms and then anchoring at different points on three different paintbrushes.  The movements of each paintbrush were meticulous, six to ten tendrils all pulling at the same time, one relaxing to allow the others to pull it away from that direction.  At the same time, a tendril worked its way around her face, gripping her eyelid, working her way into the socket.

She shook her head fiercely, and it pulled away.  Others snapped out to grip the edges and bars of the platform she sat on.

Dangerous, maybe, to be doing it in the open, but she was above the cars, on a platform a distance away from the road, the people were safe within vehicles, and she was partially anchored to her body and the platform.  I knew she had control enough that she’d been able to hang out with me and she hadn’t lost control to the point that she’d broken my forcefield.

I put my phone away, drifting through the sky, to find a position where it wasn’t pitch dark, but where I wasn’t breathing in car exhaust or letting the wind blow my hair into my face.

Sveta spotted me.  I watched as the paintbrushes were pulled into a plastic package, still wet, and tendrils retreated into her body with remarkable speed.  Her head tilted one way and then the other as she closed up her shell, locking the tendrils within.  She raised a hand.

My invitation to approach.

I flew to her, one eye on the direction the criminals were supposed to be coming from.  She was closing up the paint- a curated selection of paints in the same colors she had as part of her outfit, each ‘pot’ no larger than a dairy creamer.

“Can I see?” I asked.

She twisted around to show me her new paint.  “Patching up scuffs, and the shading on the octopus face never looked right.”

“It looks good.  I can’t give you a real verdict until we have better lighting.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “All these poor people.  It’s eight fifteen, and they’re still on their way home.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make a big dinner, go car to car, and hand out chowder or something?”

“That’s the go-to?  Chowder?”

“Yeah,” Sveta said, eyes widening at the thought.  “Soup is just depressing.  It makes you think ‘soup kitchen’.  Thin, and in times like this, you know you’re getting it because there’s not much and the people serving you are trying to stretch things as far as they’ll go.  But chowder?  Big chunks of salmon or crab?  Tons of butter and salt, then some potato, onion, celery, some dill?”

“Sticks to the stomach.  Serve with some rolls.  Toasted, ideally.”

“Yeah, absolutely.  Fresh baked rolls.  That’s part of it.  It’s not enough that the quality is there.  There has to be just enough in a serving that people can’t eat it all in one go.  Give them that tiny bit of security for tomorrow.”

Impractical, a herculean task to put together.  And it was far from being part of the ten percent of issues we were gearing up to tackle.

But this wasn’t about practicality.  That wasn’t what she was imagining or spelling out.

“It makes me think of crisis points,” I said.  “Head to the houses where the crimes just happened, say hi, offer to patrol the area for a bit, just to help them feel a bit safer- security.  Like you said.  Visit the church, talk to the people who just lost their home.  Police stations, hospitals.”

“Absolutely,” Sveta’s voice was barely audible.  In the distance, cars were honking.  It didn’t look like it was because the villains were whizzing by.  “Except nowadays, if you want to help the traumatized…”

I brought my hand up to my hair, to push it back behind my ear, before I flipped up my hood to try and give my hair some shelter.  My eyes were on the road, my ears on the honking and on the slams of car doors, as people opened them and leaned out the side of their cars, trying to see what lay ahead.

“It would be nice if we could wave our hands and get all of them home,” I murmured.  “Get the obstacles out of the way, dedicate some time, help with reconstruction, and make it happen.  Give the ones who missed dinner because they’ve been on the road for the last two hours and there aren’t any rest-stops.  But doing too much is a problem too.  We do what we can.”

“I want to find the middle ground between not doing too much and not being self-indulgent.”

“That’s- self-indulgent?  That’s not what I think of when I think of you,” I said.

“Except I am, aren’t I?  This body paint- some like it but it’s by me, for me.  The wig, it’s for me.  The body, the hassle others go through for me, to help me with the little things.  The trip I took with Weld, all for me, and the errands surrounding getting this body put together- he didn’t have that much time before he started with the Wardens, and it all went to me.”

“Ah, this is about Weld?  Even the parts you talked about that aren’t about Weld.”

She paused, deer in the spotlight.  “Yeah.  Am I that obvious?”

“There were hints.  For what it’s worth, I think he’s the kind of guy who gets invigorated and refreshed by helping others.  He seemed pretty genuinely happy that you were where you were at, that first meeting.”

“I dunno,” Sveta said.  She shrugged, shoulders squeaking slightly.  “I wanted to make him something for dinner the other day, and he said no.  It took me a bit before I found out it might be a bit of a chore, trying to find things he can eat.  He came home so mentally worn out that he didn’t have it in him to pretend or feign interest.  What else do I do for him, if you cancel that out or call it a chore?  What can I do for him?  It’s supposed to be a partnership.”

“It’s not an answer, but… one thing I found, that I talked to Dean with a few times, is that guys can’t always wear their hearts on their sleeves.  They can’t turn to their friends and cry it out.  So they bear it, carry it.”

“Dean would know that stuff, huh?”

“Some.  I’m generalizing a lot.  Thing is, a lot of the time, guys only have one outlet, if they have one at all.  And even then, they-”

I saw lights in the distance.  Advance Guard had the costumes with panels, sharp angles, illuminated sections and hyper-modern cuts.  Some of the panels, it seemed, acted like reflectors, or were bright enough to make them distinct from a distance in the dark.

“There they are.”

“I see them,” Sveta said.

“We’ll talk about this later?”

“Please,” she said.  “I don’t know who else to ask about some of this stuff.”

I got Capricorn’s attention with a wave, pointing.  He nodded.  The orange motes swirled more.

He hadn’t solidified the motes into anything.  He just kept drawing, the motes remaining in the same spaces, filling in gaps between orange lines.

Flapper had her wings out – her clothes had altered, sleeves extended to great length, formed into great wings that she beat, as she swooped and dove to ride air currents.  The wind was at her back, and she had the natural flier advantage of not needing to worry about following the road or terrain.   Where the road curved, she could fly in a straight line.  Nothing like the old-timey flapper style to her, except the short dress in the Advance Guard style.

Shortcut- I could see him on the ground, periodically obscured as he moved behind trucks and obstacles.  He was fast, but it was hard for him to see where he was going.  He zig-zagged, with careful movements.

And then Spright- who had both the wings out, though he wasn’t flying.  His feet were on the ground, and the same stop-start zig-zag motion, if a bit freer.

I flew for the spotlight that Sveta was under.  Gripping it, I twisted it around, aiming it at the incoming pursuit, keeping the worst of the light out of Shortcut and Spright’s eyes.  Flapper was high enough up that she wasn’t going to be blinded.

Two trucks, what might have been postal vans or armored trucks- I wouldn’t know until I was closer.  One eighteen wheeler, that lagged behind the rest.  One parahuman- a man in what looked like a blurry hamster wheel.  All traveled on the flat ground to the side of the road.  Traffic of construction vehicles had torn up the ground already, and the passage of these vehicles kicked up geysers of mud and dust, depending on how dry or cold the ground was where they passed.

The hamster wheel was the worst of it, when it came to the collateral mess.  The geysers of flung dirt would’ve painted the face of a two-story building.

“Don’t engage just yet!”

“Right!” Sveta called.

I gave the hamster wheel guy a wide berth, flying to Spright.  The moment I got close to him, though, he kicked off the ground, taking flight with what looked like a combination of my flight and Flapper’s.

“Yesss!” he called out, before lunging forward with a combination of wing flaps and Glory Girl flight.

Which, inconveniently, meant I couldn’t ask him stuff.  It left me two options – Shortcut and Flapper.

“Flapper!” I called out.  “Mayday sent us!  What’s this!?”

“Capes and getaway drivers.  Living cargo in the trucks!”

“What capes?”

“Trial and Error!  Trial’s the wheel, crazy strong, but he’s tiring out!  You can’t hit Error!  She picks one person and they’re fucked.  There’s a general fucked effect around her too!”

“There’s an aircraft runway and helicopter landing pad at Westport Stretch!” I warned.

I saw her digest that.

“Does Spright know the rules?” I asked, flying closer to her.  I could feel the force of the wing flaps.

“He knows!”

I flew in the direction of the wheel, who was leading the way now.  Sveta was keeping pace, but only barely.  Ahead of us, Capricorn had his motes of light, ready to form his barricade, if he had to.

Airspace meant restricted flying.  Standard operating protocol for getaway drivers was to try to cut through an area where police helicopters couldn’t pursue.  Once the aerial was lost, it was that much easier to disappear on the ground.  Westport was large enough that it was conceivable that three trucks could disappear, if advance preparations had been taken.

“Wheel is heavy offense!” I called to Sveta, as I caught up.  “One truck has a stranger!  Trial and Error!  Stranger in truck with fucky effect!”

She went for the trucks, leaping onto one cab roof.

“Careful!” I called out.

Traffic was mostly at a standstill, and we were racing past it, to the point it was easy to imagine we were traveling faster than we were.  The air was cold, and it was filled with flecks of dirt, in the wake of those guys.

Capricorn’s wall popped into being.  Crenellated, styled, with ram-headed men in stoic, stern positions at set intervals along the wall’s length.  For the moment, the bottleneck on the real road was made small enough to only let small, regular cars through.

Trial was gunning for the wall now, evading Spright’s harrying fly-bys.  Shortcut drew nearer, raised his weapon while skating on the grass, and then leaped- only to skip the follow-through.  He ducked and rolled on the ground, got his feet under him, and resumed skidding endlessly on the ground, legs barely moving, while holding his polearm.

I gestured, as dramatically as I could, for Capricorn to get down, my arm sweeping from above my head to down and away.

He jumped off the wall at the same time Trial reached it.  Trial unfolded from his wheel form, going high with the final ‘kick’ of the disassembling wheel, and his mechanism became clear- chains.  Heavy chains with what looked like telekinetic control slammed into Tristan’s wall and knocked a good chunk of it down like it was a sand castle.

He was still airborne as the chains came down toward other targets.  Spright evaded, as did Shortcut.  The remains of the wall couldn’t.  Chain snagged the remaining parts and flung them away.  One chunk came toward me, with Flapper a short distance behind me.  It became water in the air, and I was sprayed by what felt like a shower of ice-cold needles, breaking my forcefield in the initial spray, the follow-up pricking my exposed skin, the liquid soaking my costume.

I would have preferred the big chunk of rock.

A truck passed through the gap Trial had made.  Spright harassed it.  Shortcut followed behind, but without much vigor.  He didn’t attack.

They were getting through.  The second truck.  The third had Sveta on it- she was reaching inside the cab, forcing a hard brake.  It had to be the emergency brake she’d grabbed.

“Knock it over!?” Flapper called out to me.  “Gently!”

I could do that, especially given the gentle slope away from the proper road with the gridlock of cars.  I threw myself at the side of the truck Sveta had stopped.  Wretch out.  Fingers gripped corrugated metal, digging in until they found purchase in the heavier, sturdier frame.

With flight, some strength, and some attention to pushing on the end where the wheels sat on more of a slope, letting the torque of that initial motion carry through to the front of the eighteen wheeler’s container, then to the cab at the very front.  Once it started moving, I flew along the side, arm out, forcefield skimming against the corrugated metal, periodically snagging or catching on it as hands that weren’t mine gripped parts of it.

But the pressure and the push that moved forward helped with using the rotation that was already there.  The truck tipped.  The wretch gripping metal and the fact that the metal had to tear for the truck to fall was even something of a help.

I flew up, gathered myself, and flew down, kicking at the point between the door and the frame of the vehicle.  With the benefit of my forcefield, the kick served to bend metal.  That door wouldn’t open easily.

Glancing at the others to make sure there was no imminent danger, I hopped down, and I used my aura to drive the point home.  Through the windshield, I could see a face reacting to the aura.

Hopefully he would stay put.  Breaking an intact windshield or opening a car door that was above him and damaged would be very difficult.

Flapper’s wings had transformed- each had been an exaggerated overextension of her sleeves, but now they each had middle fingers- lengths in the middle that she was using to attack in time with her wingbeats.

A combination of wind, trying to stay aloft so she could attack from above, no doubt her most effective tactic, and a slip in her technique led to her misgauging things.  She missed the van and couldn’t get her wing up in time for another flap, as it slapped the ground by the moving vehicle.

I flew to her rescue, as she fell, landing hard.  Her wing hit construction equipment and one car at the head of the line.  I could hear her swearing.

“Careful!” Sveta called out.  She’d been on a vehicle, but she was moving alongside the convoy now.  She looked scuffed, her hair in disarray.

“What’s going on!?” I called out.

“That stranger effect!”

You can’t hit Error.

Shortcut hadn’t been able to hit Trial.  He’d decided to hold back.  Flapper had told me that the stranger effect stuck on someone, and then there was a general effect on the parahuman and their truck.

Flapper had apparently decided to test the limits of that general effect.

Capricorn had been left a bit behind, but he was active.

“Heads up!” the words were bellowed, in the top-of-the-lungs way, where it would have hurt.

And it wasn’t in Tristan’s voice.  Even in a shout, I could hear the difference in the two boys.

Water shot toward the armored vans in five mirror spurts, all flying in parallel.  Each jet of water became solid as Capricorn blurred, coalescing into javelins.  They landed in front of one vehicle- and that vehicle rammed them.  The van shuddered, rocked, and then swerved, before coming to a stop.

Leaving Spright, Shortcut, Sveta and I against Trial, Error, and the mooks from the trucks.

A push of my aura helped to spook them.  They’d been grabbing what they had on hand for self defense, and they slowed for a moment.

“Boss?” one asked, nervously.  “You need us?  I don’t think we can fight capes.”

“Stay by the truck.  We can handle this,” Trial said.  He said it with near-complete confidence, too.  If there was a waver or a pause a tenth of a second longer, it was because of my aura.

Only fear, these days, with exceptions for someone like Kenzie.

Trial had armor in overlapping plates that were each connected by chains, and more chains wrapped around him.  His mask was the best part of it, with a shaped metal mask that contoured to the angles of his face, and two ‘laurel’ horns, and the mask was only a B-.

Error had a costume with red ‘x’ icons across it, in a motif that recurred like spikes did on a punk rocker.  She wore a medical mask with a red ‘x’ on it, and a flat-top hat with the same above the bill, and I could see a white outline where it had been cut imprecisely from whatever the source material was.  The non-red parts of the costume mixed khaki green and black.  Nothing about it was even B-.

Error.  She made people fuck up.  Right.

It was such a bad name, it gave so much away and it barely worked as a cape name.  It was such an offensive costume from a design standpoint… Trial, unless I was missing something in the background of the name, didn’t even make sense given the guy’s power, it was a shitty gimmick…

“Didn’t ask for help,” Shortcut said.

I was already irritated, digesting who we were up against, and he had to go and say that.

“I had something to hand over, you guys can watch it or pass it to Mayday.  If you want, we can leave.”

“Leave,” Shortcut said.

“Don’t leave!” Spright said.  “Please.  Shortcut, ease-”

Trial lashed out with chains.

I flew to intercept.

“No!” Shortcut bellowed.

I felt the pressure wash over me before I even got to the chain.  If my response to Shortcut saying something might’ve been mixed, given our past history, the sensation helped tip me to the one side of the scale.  I changed course in mid-air, flying straight to the ground.

The chain flew over my head.  It came perilously close to Spright and Shortcut, but both were nimble, using Shortcut’s power.  They dodged.

Sveta, as quick as her hands were, wasn’t able to reach out and grab something, and also haul herself away, before the chain could connect.  The chain clipped her.  I heard the impact.

“Error’s specific,” Shortcut said, like Sveta hadn’t just taken a hit.  “She turns your attacks-”

I flew to Sveta’s side.

“Against you.  Including deflections.”

I saw the chains move.  I tensed, ready to fly up there, to beat the incoming attack back, collateral be damned.

What happened, then, if I deflected?  The chains went in the worst possible direction for our side?  Did I miss and hit the wrong part?

“Don’t,” Shortcut said.  “Trial.  Don’t.”

Spright added, “You lost your cargo, she’s giving medical attention, the other one needs it.  You don’t fuck with that.”

“Nobody cares about that anymore,” Error said.

Sveta’s chest was broken.  Tendrils were creeping out.

“You alright?” I murmured.

“Rattled.  Broken.  I have stuff, but I can’t move my arms.”

In another situation, where the rules were in place, Sveta might be fine like this.  She could lie dormant and wait for help, or ask for the coast to be cleared.

It was always the problem, lingering in the background.

She looked tense.

“Can I?” I asked.  At the nod, I reached for the small of her back, where her clothes covered her kits.  I saw some smaller tendrils reach out for my hand and stop short.

Her tendrils were growing over time.  She grew new ones.  Right now she was keeping the longest at bay, because they were a danger to others, not just to me.

“This is taking concentration,” Sveta said.

I grabbed the kit, hauling it free with a tug that would have been violent if Sveta’s body were flesh.

This situation was requiring me to split my own concentration.  I was trying to ignore Trial and his chains, and the fact that Error had her hand hovering near her belt.  The bars at the side- batons?

Nunchucks.

“Let us go,” Trial said.  He had an accent like someone from the midwest.  “We take our trucks, we drive away, and you stay.”

“I can’t see myself agreeing to that,” Shortcut said.

“I’ll attack those girls,” Trial said.  “And I’ll attack that line of cars.  Error’s rule means that no matter what you do, it’s going to be messy.  The heroes can’t afford it.”

“If you attack us, the only mess will be the stains your bodies leave behind,” I growled.

“We’re willing to take that risk,” Trial said.  “But only if we have to.  You can afford to let us go.  It’s pigs, chickens, and cum.”

“Valuable, needed pigs and chickens,” Spright said.  “The equipment and refrigerated material for breeding stock.  Forty pigs at a thousand a head, plus the other stuff, forty-two thousand on the one truck, easy.”

I pushed the seal over the armor- the damage was enough that one patch didn’t cover it all.  Tendrils reached around and touched my hand.  I pulled away.

“Pigs, chicken, and jizz… or their lives.  And their lives?” Trial asked.  The tip of the chain turned in the air to point for him.  At me and Sveta, then the cars.

I didn’t want to be a bargaining chip.  I gripped Sveta by the shoulders.

I had to wait.  Wait until I could be sure Error wouldn’t focus on me, use her power, and potentially turn my attempt at an evacuation into a horrible disaster.

A tendril wrapped itself around my hand.  It squeezed, and it squeezed against my forcefield.  The forcefield didn’t break, but I was aware of the strain.  Fuck me- I was too close to Sveta, I could see the whites of her eyes.  She was too close to me.  I’d destroyed door handles on cars and pavement like this, and she was this close.

I canceled my forcefield, and something in the micron of slack that resulted saw the tendril fail to cinch tighter, then unwind.  It twisted and kinked in the air before retreating into the crack.  I pressed down another patch.

Sveta had her eyes closed.

Capricorn was approaching.  I saw a mote pass me, and I shook my head.  Error saw, turning to Capricorn.  He froze.

Spright looked at me.  I raised my hand, indicated with a thumb jab.  That got me a nod.

I seized Sveta and dragged her away.

Trial twisted around, chains raising up around him.  Four at each side, each as big around as his arms were, tipped with a spiked ball as large as his head.

Error, meanwhile, had her hands out to her sides, one in front, one to her left.  A mime pressing against two walls of her invisible box.  Except it wasn’t- she was broadcasting, or maintaining a signal.

Trial went on the offensive.  chains whirled at one side, rotating in a circle with enough force to strike the ground and cast him forward.  Spright slid on the ground, ran to chase-

“Go,” Sveta said.

I charged in.

Spright manifested his own chains.  He started to swing them around- and then stopped.  Chains shattered, each individual link breaking.  He turned to look at Error.

Too dangerous to use when under her influence?

I had to unravel this- figure it out.  While her back was to me, I could go after her.  Wretch out- one move to take her out of the fight.  Given what we were up against, I wasn’t sure we’d get a second shot.

A swing for the legs, like I’d done when hitting concrete.

I felt the effect as I got within a few feet.  I felt it intensify as I swung-

I saw other movement in the corner of my eye.  Shortcut closing in.  The effect was like grabbing soap, only for it to slip free of one’s hands.  The swing was too soon, the angle and arc, and Shortcut’s timing of super-quick approach put him squarely in the way.

I canceled out my power.  I swung only a fist, and my fist turned up, so I struck him with a lighter blow using the heel of my hand instead.  I hit him in the shoulder, strength unaugmented.

He shoved me away.  He swung his polearm, missed, and the butt end of the thing came perilously close to me.  If I hadn’t been flying back and away, it would have hit me.

Was it because it didn’t hit me that it succeeded in scratching her?  Or was the power itself no guarantee?

More concerning was the chain guy.  Trial.  I flew back, out of shortcut’s reach, and I tried to find an opening.

The chains were defensive- they slapped at Byron’s water, they blocked Spright.  They were offensive– small wrecking balls with whip-crack power behind them.  They were mobility.  Whirling them in one hand like a wheel or whipping them around him like a fucking skip rope -I hated these guys- moved him at high speeds, with good maneuverability.

Error might need to concentrate.  She seemed to focus on looking at people.

Identify the cracks, then strike.  So long as it was reasoned out and so long as it didn’t escalate…

I hit the ground, scooping up as much as the Wretch could get, and sending a cascade of dirt and clumps of earth at Error and into the air.  In the process, I hit Shortcut, because of course I did.  But as much as it blinded and debilitated him, it also served to blind and limit her.  I flew in closer, aura on, and I didn’t feel the pressure of that power settling in around me, warping space or altering my tactile and visual senses, or whatever it did.

Sveta’s hand grabbed me.  I turned to look- and I saw that the dust was thick enough in the air that she couldn’t tell us apart, a fact that wasn’t helped by darkness and dirt.

I did the natural thing to communicate to her without tipping off Error.  I gave the hand a waggle.

Then I grabbed it and I threw it out in Error’s direction.

With how this power seemed to work, it might get Shortcut instead.  That would win us points.

But Shortcut, blinded, had backed off.  Sveta’s hand dragged Error to her, and though her other arm was still disabled, she wrapped her legs around Error’s neck and shoulders.

That left Trial- and Trial was winning.  Capricorn had sealed chains down by creating water and turning that water to stone, but with a simple tug, the chains came free, stone flecks flying.  Shortcut was fended off, and Spright was maneuverability, not offense.

And, it seemed, even with where we were at, Error could use her power.  Spright came dangerously close to impaling himself on Shortcut’s halberd.

On the ground ten feet from me were Capricorn’s javelins.  As I approached them, people backed away.

“Cover her eyes!” I called out to Sveta.  At those words, Trial looked and he seemed to realize the position and the numbers.

He lunged for the street, where cars still choked the road.  Chains went up, and I turned on the Wretch, reaching for javelins that weren’t in my reach.

“No!” Shortcut shouted.  “Stop.”

There was a pause, as if nobody was entirely sure he was referring to them, nobody wanted to stop if the others were still going.  At this stage, people on the other side could be maimed or killed if the dynamic shifted.

“Pause,” Spright said.

The lighter word seemed to have more impact than the shout and the firmer ‘stop’.

“Stop,” Shortcut said.  “You really want to go this far?”

“As far as we have to,” Trial said.

“Then go.  Take your semen.  Take your swine.  Take your cocks.  You’re in good company.”

I wanted to facepalm at the lame line, but Shortcut was on our side.

And frankly, I couldn’t fault him for calling it here.

It wasn’t worth.

“Hens actually,” Trial said.  “Let my friend go.”

“We’re giving you a head start, but this definitely isn’t over,” Shortcut said.  He gestured at Sveta.

Error climbed to her feet.

“This way,” Trial said.  He gestured at the trucks.  He was careful to remain within a chain’s length of the road, doing so with Error at his side.  “There should be one more truck.”

“Tipped over,” I said.

He shook his head.  “Tip it back over.”

“Driver was unconscious, last I saw,” I lied.  “You can send someone if you want.  Maybe Error can drive.”

“It’s not worth,” Error said.

I watched as Trial considered his options.

He indicated for the trucks to go, with one pausing by him to let Error on.  The chains started up, and they were gone.

“We’ll tail,” Shortcut said.   He looked at me.  “You…”

“We can cooperate on this.”

“We could,” he said.  “No.  Spright, tell Flapper to handle this mess, talk to the unconscious one when they wake up.   Catch up with me after.”

Then he was gone.

“Dick,” Capricorn muttered under his breath.

“Yeah.  No way that was going to end well,” Spright said.  “Heavy hitter paired with that kind of stranger power.  We’ll take our lumps.  This loss is Advance Guard’s fault, provided you don’t ask Shortcut to assign blame.  Always good to see you.”

“Spright-” I said, interrupting before he could go.

“What’s up?”

“Two things.  Mayday wanted me to pass this on.  It’s a proposal for information sharing, networking.  Dividing up the ten percent of threats that really need cape attention, swapping out.  Take a look?”

He took the flash drive.  He considered for a moment, the nodded.  He floated a foot above the ground, borrowing my power.  Just the movement aspect.

“Second thing is… I’m not okay with leaving it like this.”

“Me either, but sometimes we need to eat our losses.”

“I don’t like losing,” Capricorn said.

“What do you say I gather reinforcements and we do this again, try to corner them?  This time with no civilians nearby.”

“If you want to try, I’m not going to complain.  You have my number.  It won’t make Shortstuff happy, but…”

“Rare thing?” Capricorn asked.

“Sure.  Do me a favor and brief Flappy?”

“Okay,” Capricorn said.

Then Spright was gone, flying away using my power.

“I’ll call and check on Sveta,” I said.  “You handle that side?  See what the driver of the big truck says?”

“Yeah,” was the reply.  Capricorn jogged off.

Yeah.

I had my phone out a moment later.  The automated process for idling had selected one of the songs I’d downloaded for Gilpatrick during one of the Patrol’s visits to a school.  Gun rules as a song for grade schoolers.

Because of course it had.

Tristan was gone.  Sveta was sitting up, rubbing at the shoulder that wasn’t working, near where the damage was, and the cars were moving down the road, barely visible past the cover of construction.

At least chances were slim that some of the Error-induced disasters hadn’t been caught on camera.  I could imagine that would go over well.

With the phone pressed to my ear, I walked over to the javelins, which were almost lost in the dirt that had been turned over by the passage of the vans and slashes of the chain whip.

I released the Wretch, and I reached out with my free hand, the bicep twinging from the gunshot wound that hadn’t fully healed.

Come on.  Come on.  Come on.

If it had mattered, would I have been able to?

Come on.

The Wretch grabbed the first javelin, then the next, and then a third.  One broke in two- a bite, not a hand.

The other two, the Wretch simply held.  I waited, then I moved my hand.  There was no way to tell if it would work or not, because they broke to pieces as the grip tightened or changed.

I bent down and looked in the direction Capricorn had gone, and I reached down to one of the chunks of stone.

It crumbled in my grip.  No power in effect.

We’ll work this out, I told the Wretch.

I straightened.  Sveta reached me, having walked over.  Her metal shoulder bumped my spiked one.  Solidarity.

The phone was answered.  There was squabbling.  Boy and girl.

“Cryptid.”

“She hasn’t gone home?”

“No family dinner to get back to.  She’s fiddling.  Her person’s here, the guy Natalie knows.”

“I’ll have a talk with her in the morning,” I said.  Talks were overdue.

“You call for something?  I hope you called for something.  I was asleep and you woke me up.  The thing go okay?”

“Atrociously, actually,” I said.  “But it’s not over, as far as I’m concerned.  I need you to call people.”

I could hear his groan.  I could also hear Kenzie in the background, volunteering her help.

“Or give me the numbers.  I’ll call.”

“It’s fine.  I’ll do some.  Which people?”

“Everyone underlined in green.  It’s not an emergency, but if they’ll do us this favor and help out, we’ll pay them back, or I will.”

There was a pause.

“If I didn’t spontaneously swap rods and cones in my eyes, that’s… a lot of people.”

They were the ones I didn’t think would take too much convincing, ones we’d worked with or had contact with.

Capricorn was back.  There hadn’t been delay in getting the info.  His arms were folded as he stared at me, and orange motes danced to either side of his head, forming shapes.  Like branches.

Like antlers.

Prancer.  His last hurrah, or his new and improved way of doing business.  It couldn’t be easy- not someone we were already gunning for.  It only reaffirmed my conviction here.

“Yeah,” I said, setting my jaw, glancing at my two teammates. “A lot of people.  The villains might not want to stick by the rules of the cops and robbers game, but I want to keep the penalties.”

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Beacon – 8.4

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“Crystalclear,” Capricorn said.  “As employee, or-”

“No,” Ashley said.  “Inmate.  Rain was paying more attention to the employees.  I was focused on…”

She paused.

“The competition?” Capricorn tried.

“The pecking order,” was her reply.  “They limit contact, make us keep a certain distance from one another, but we cross paths and we see each other.”

“Not solitary, not segregated confinement,” Cryptid said.  He was standing by the picnic-style table with its broad top, rather than sitting.  He spoke differently when he was in costume.

“Kind of segregated,” Rain said.

“It used to be fully segregated,” Ashley said.  “There are too many of us now.  They can’t send each of us individually to go exercise and still give us enough exercise.”

Rain put his elbows on the table, hands together, cracking his knuckles, before cocking his head to look at Ashley.  “I haven’t seen Crystalclear, and you didn’t mention him.”

“It was recent.  The main yard isn’t that far from my place.  You can see it from one of the windows.  The boys go to their windows to look when the women exercise, and the women go to the window when boys exercise.  I heard the jeering and went to look.  He’s recognizable from a distance.”

“I don’t have a view of the yard from my place,” Rain said.

“You draw the shittiest hands in life,” Cryptid said.

“I guess.  I’m as red blooded as anyone, but I feel like I’d watch for five minutes and then get bored.”

“Five minutes is long enough for most,” Cryptid said.

“Maybe for you,” Tristan said.

I rolled my eyes.

Lookout looked from me to the boys.  “Oh.  SO gross.”

“Yes,” Ashley said, tilting her head Lookout’s way in a conspiratorial way.  “Keep this in mind when you’re older and interested in your first boys.”

“In my defense and in defense of my gender, I’m not part of this,” Rain said.  “This is those two.”

“It’s standard teenager talk,” Cryptid said.

“Everything’s fair game, so long as nobody’s uncomfortable,” Capricorn added.

“Okay,” Lookout said.

“Um.  Sorry, I’m feeling a bit awkward.  Can we just go back to talking shop?” Sveta asked.  When eyes turned her way, she shrugged as best as she was able.

“Okay,” Cryptid said.  “Sure.”

“Thank you,” Sveta said, “Where were we?  Crystalclear?”

“Crystalclear,” Capricorn confirmed.  “From the good guy side in the community center attack.  You’ve talked to him, Victoria?”

“Yeah.  Fume Hood and Tempera didn’t mention him going to prison,” I said.

“Maybe they don’t know,” Ashley said.

“Probable.  He doesn’t seem like the criminal type.”

“Spooky, that you never really know what your teammates are like,” Sveta said.  “Do you think he’d talk if you reached out?”

“I can try,” I said.

“I thought he seemed out of place, he’s a contact of yours, and from what little I saw, he was talking with others.  A lot.  That’s not always easy,” Ashley said.  “Guards weren’t really pulling him away, I think because he’s got a past record as a hero.  He seemed like a good person to ask.”

“How does that work?” Capricorn asked.  “Talking to others.  There’s talking across the balconies, right?”

“At yard time, four buildings with sixteen people get out at the same times,” Rain said.  “We get split up into areas.  There’s a weights cage, a basketball court with one hoop, two people allowed at a time, but you can’t play with someone if you’ve had any altercations.”

“The basketball hoop is the Queen’s court,” Ashley said.  “Top woman on this side of the prison, Llorona, gets the court and nobody argues if they want to have a good stay.  She invites different people every day.”

“Similar for the guys who get out around the same time I do, but they hog the court,” Rain said.  “Coalbelcher and his right hand man get the court every day.  It’s rare that someone else gets to go.  You basically have to kill someone to earn enough respect to get in.”

“If you go that far you’re never leaving,” Capricorn said.  “Maybe they figure they might as well get to know you, if you’re committing to being a lifer.”

Rain snorted, a laugh without humor.

“Court, weights, and…” I prompted.

“And the main yard,” Rain said.  “There are a lot of rules for all of it.  Weights cage, you get seven minutes at a time, have to clean up and reset the area as part of those seven minutes, or you don’t get a turn for a week.  You go from there to the yard, next person in the yard gets a turn.  Court, you can’t have a record of altercations with other prisoners.  Yard is where most go.”

“Most people run laps,” Ashley said.  “You have to stay a set distance from others.  If you don’t, your ankle beeps until you get away.  We can’t stand close to one another, but there’s leeway if you’re in the middle and doing something active.  Some throw or kick balls.  Talking happens while running thirty feet behind someone or playing catch.  You’re always far enough apart you have to raise your voice, and so you can’t conspire with anyone.”

“I’m not really social,” Rain said.  “I haven’t really tried, but it’s hard enough to run that long and not look like a wuss.  People try to lap you, too.  They’ll signal the guards, guards call out for you to stop in a corner and let them pass.”

“They do it on purpose,” Ashley said.  “You get the people who run together, just close enough to not cause trouble, talking while they run, others try to lap people, shame them, show off their stamina, and the rest are either trying not to look bad or they give up and throw balls.”

“Sounds right,” Rain said.

“Can you talk to Crystalclear?” I asked.

“You might have better luck than me.  I haven’t seen him yet.  They keep some buildings of people segregated from others.  Like, they don’t want Fallen in the same yard as me, you know?”

“You have a better chance of ending up in the same yard with him than I do,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Sure.  I mean, if the chance comes up, I’ll try.”

“And I’ll try on my end,” I said.  “I’m not sure if it’ll ring alarm bells, me being too obstrusive, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Rain nodded, cracking his knuckles again.  “While you’re at it?  Could you keep an eye on Cradle and Love Lost?”

“We have been,” Lookout said.

“Cradle is in custody here,” I explained.  “Other end of this complex.  I wasn’t able to check in for his meeting with the court processors, because I had physio.  I would have skipped, but Capricorn had it.”

“I looked in, sat in the back,” Capricorn said.  “It went by quick.  He’s been doing a lot of business, which is working against him now, because he can’t explain where his money came from, but he doesn’t have many friends, either.  Not while Tattletale is freezing him out.”

“She’s staying out of it?” Rain asked.

“She’s staying out of it,” I confirmed.  “As far as we can tell.  It’s hard to know for sure with the masterminds.”

“Do you trust her?” Ashley asked.  “Or will she try something?”

“No, I don’t trust her,” I offered up half of a laugh to go with it.  “But I do believe her, I guess, when it comes to this.”

“That simplifies things,” Sveta said.  “I don’t think she’d breach a contract, written or unwritten, if it’d hurt her ability to do business.  I believe her too.  And I’ve been on the same side as her, I guess.”

I nodded.

“What about Love Lost?” Rain asked.

“She’s hanging out with Nailbiter, Sidepiece, Disjoint and that group,” Capricorn said.

“Oh, my friends,” Ashley said.

“I think she’s in charge,” Lookout said.  “I don’t know how that works, someone who can’t talk being a leader.”

“Keep an eye on her?” Rain asked.  “She’s stronger than she was.  Cradle too.  The bias of power shifts around a lot between our group.  Since Snag’s gone, it’s… stormier.  The pendulums swing further and harder.”

“We will,” Capricorn said.

“Scapegoat’s here, Seir’s here,” Rain heaved out a sigh as he said it.  “Valefor is in a hospital with one of these ankle bombs attached.  Mama Mathers is…”

“Isolated,” I said.  “Classified location, given the likelihood the Fallen would try to get her out.”

“I don’t know why they would,” Sveta said.  “She ruled by fear, everyone’s finally free.”

“I think being controlled and managed, having that firm a hand on you, it’s reassuring to some types,” Rain said.  “Like how some people can’t handle it after they get out of prison.  They no longer know how to be free.  She’s had control for a long time.”

“Creepy,” Sveta said.

“Definitely,” Rain said.  “Just… keep me updated?  I feel so out of the loop, stuck in this weird prison-town, ghost-town setup, a universe away from you guys.”

“Three universes away, if you consider the number of steps you need to take to get here,” Cryptid said.

“Thanks, Chris.  Thanks.  That really helps with the weird disconnected, homesick feeling I’m wrestling with.”

“I’m sorry, Rain.  We’ll send a care package, okay?” Lookout said.

“Okay.  Just to warn you, I think they’re pretty careful about what they let me have, though, given how I’m a tinker.  They measure out all the materials I get and what goes into Ashey’s hands.”

“Okay.  Books should be okay, right?  And you’re online, so we can message you?”

“Yeah, but they look at everything we send, so… secret identities, and be aware our enemies could be getting the same info.”

“I’ll message you, we’ll catch you up,” Capricorn said.

“Cool,” Rain said.  “Just keep me in the loop, and I think I can do this.  Maybe.  It’s the boredom that’s making me second guess what I felt before, that I can ride out this entire sentence, whatever it winds up being.”

“I’m patient,” Ashley said.  “We’ll entertain ourselves with our side of the investigation.  I won over Llorona, I think.”

“The Queen of the basketball court?” Sveta asked.

“Yes.  Everyone meets with her, if they’re here for a couple of weeks without incidents.  She keeps the peace and smooths out wrinkles, so they let her.”

“I would have thought you’d have to play a good game of basketball to win her over,” Capricorn said, pausing while Ashley nodded.  He added,  “And your hands aren’t working.”

“Yes.  That’s one way.  And I’ve never played basketball.  I’d lose if it came down to it.”

“Then how did you pull that off?” Capricorn asked.

Ashley smiled.  “When she acted like she was better than me because I wouldn’t play, I tore my left hand off in front of her.”

“Awesome!” Lookout reacted to the self-dismemberment with awe and glee, because of course she did.

“That’d do it,” Cryptid, by contrast, was almost smug, even though he hadn’t had anything to do with it.

“I think she likes me now.”

“You do realize staff are watching you, and they report these kinds of things, right?” Sveta asked.

“Yes.  I told them I needed maintenance, no sweat.”

“It was such a mess,” Rain was almost despondent in tone, contrasted with Lookout’s excitement and Cryptid’s satisfaction.  “I’m the maintenance, you know.  And there’s blood with forced removals like that.  Like, hurry, hurry, get dressed, shoes on, and run, because she might not live if it’s not plugged in right.”

“Spooky,” Sveta said.

“Messy!” Rain exclaimed, to Sveta.  To Ashley, he said, very seriously, “Messy.”

“Letting the Queen place me at the bottom of the totem pole would have been worse,” Ashley said.  “It helps Rain, too.”

Helps?” Rain asked.

A buzzer sounded across the complex.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Rain said.

“Time’s up?” I asked.

I saw their nods.

“Aww, what?  No.  We just sat down,” Lookout said.

“Another time,” Ashley said.

“Keep an eye out for the care package,” Lookout said.

“It’s not like I’m going to be out when it arrives,” Ashley said.  She stood from the picnic table.

“I wasn’t sure what to do but I thought books would be best,” Lookout said.  “They were always something I went to when I couldn’t sleep.  I had stacks of them on my bed, piled high enough they could have tipped over and bruised me.  I’d sleep with my head on a book sometimes.”

“I don’t think I’m going to do that,” Ashley said.  “But I’ll read what you send me.  C’mon.”

Lookout went to her.  They hugged.

The buzzer sounded again, more intense.  Rain’s anklet beeped once.

“I should go,” Rain said.  “They’ll get pissy if we get in the way of schedules.”

“Yeah.  I can stay, I think.  It’s my yard time,” Ashley said.  “They’ll let me know if it isn’t.”

“Then I’m going to duck out,” Rain said.

He clasped hands with Capricorn, then the handshake became a half-shake, half-hug thing.  “Keep us up to date on that team thing.”

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.

We parted ways, our group heading back toward the gate, while Ashley walked on the other side of the road.

Guards were out, each with positions in mind.  They fanned out, each armed and uniformed, their belts heavy with gear.  For the most part, they were isolated – one guard to a given location.  There was one case where the guards moved in a group of three, with something of a determined cast to their features.

We were almost at the gate when Lookout took a hard right turn, striding away from the group.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

She was silent.

Something was wrong.  I lifted off, but in that same moment, Sveta’s arm went out, propelled by tendrils.  She grabbed Lookout by the shoulder, stopping her in her tracks.

I wasn’t the only one to look in the direction she’d been going.

Off by one of the buildings, a woman with black hair and a few tattoos was leaning against the side of a building, camouflaged.  She was a considerable distance away, to the point where I couldn’t make out details of her face, tattoos, or outfit – only a top with a ‘v’ cut at the neck and a frilly flap that went from collar to shoulder, black pants, and shoes.

“Monokeros!” Ashley shouted the name.  When she had Monokeros’ attention, she shook her head.

The woman laughed in response, audible even from a considerable distance.

The woman stepped away from the wall, thumbs hooked in pockets, and started walking away.  We’d been traveling north to south, and Monokeros had been a few hundred feet to our west.  She walked north, which put her behind us and off to the side.

A non threat, supposedly.

Ashley stared, watching the woman as she left.

“Fuck,” Capricorn said.  “You okay, Lookout?”

“It was like getting hit with Victoria’s aura, but without the jittery oh-shit-ness of it,” Lookout said.  “Purer, stronger.”

I folded my arms, thumb hooked into sling.

“I pretty much only ever get the jittery oh-shit part from Victoria,” Capricorn said.

“Same,” Cryptid said.

“I’ll talk with her,” Ashley said.  Her expression was cold.  “She was testing me.  That can’t stand.”

Don’t get yourself in more trouble,” Sveta said.

“She fucked with Lookout.”

“Stick with the rules,” I said.  “Use the system against her.  Report her, let them handle it and change their policies.”

“No, don’t use the system,” Lookout said.

We looked at her.

“If you do, they’ll say the easiest fix is to not let me come back.  They’ll say it’s too dangerous to let kids come here, and then I won’t be able to see you.”

“They’d punish her, not you,” Sveta said.

“They might punish me.”

“I’m on the kid’s side,” Cryptid said.  “Institutions are dumb.”

Ashley drew in a deep breath.  Holy shit, she looked more pissed than she had with Beast of Burden.  I could imagine the only thing that was stopping her was that her potential target was out of reach.

“Leave it,” Lookout pleaded.  “It’s fine.  Please?”

“I’m not going to leave it,” Ashley’s voice was quiet.  “But I won’t make it an incident.”

“Take care of yourself,” I said.  “If you let her get to you, she wins.”

“It’s fine,” Ashley said.  “I’m betting she’ll go back to her cell to hide, the coward.  I’m going to run, and I’ll think for a while before doing anything.”

“Good plan,” I said.  “Except the doing part, I’m worried.”

“It’s fine,” she replied, with a tone that suggested it was also final.

“Okay,” I said, glancing at the others.

“I’m sorry things ended on that note,” Ashley said.  She set a hand on Kenzie’s head.

“Me too,” Lookout said.

“Don’t let this place get to you,” Sveta said.  “Remember your goals.”

“Yeah.  Always focused on the future, hm?” Ashley asked.

“Exactly.  Just get through today.”

Ashley stepped back, like it took a measured effort to separate herself, then she smiled.  With that, she left, heading back into the deeper prison, while leaving us to enter the gate.

Capricorn and Sveta each placed a hand on one of Lookout’s shoulders.  I glanced at Cryptid, but I couldn’t read the expression he wore, Lookout’s device masking his face.

There were people to keep tabs on, both enemies and on our side.

Our hideout was coming together.  Kenzie’s computers were hooked up, monitors and projected screens arranged.  Whiteboards and desks were being moved around.  Ashley’s whiteboard with ‘Swansong’ across the top in fancy script was now joined by ‘Rain’.  The preliminary notes on what they needed and what they’d found were going up on their shared board.

The board we’d freed up listed the other teams, from the Wardens, the Guild, all the way down to the pairing of Fume Hood and Tempera.  It stood at the back of the room, furthest from Kenzie’s workstation.  People we’d rope in.

Kenzie’s projectors started showing images from her camera feeds.  A couple were from Cedar Point.  The graffiti had been painted over in places, or had chipped away because some of the yellow paint they’d co-opted and used had been meant to draw temporary lines for outlining buried power cabling or highlighting spots for danger, not to paint something in a way that lasted for weeks or months, across weather changes.

Tristan’s laptop stalled as it loaded the page.  I’d stepped away to sort out whiteboard markers while it took its time, and now I approached again.  He was wearing only the lower portion of his armor, the upper half just the under-armor part that prevented chafing.  Sveta was beside him, hands clasped behind her back as she bent over to a degree that most would find untenable after a minute or so.

The page that had only loaded ninety percent of the way was a map with a list of crimes reported, as compiled and shared out by the police of the Megalopolis.  Citizens managed it, apparently, listening in on the police scanners and putting in push-pin style markers on the map.

A slice of the map was gray, refusing to load in, but the overall situation was clear, especially as Tristan moved the slider.  Petty crimes were up.  People were cluing in that the heroes and the police didn’t have the authority or power to arrest everyone.

In Cedar Point, things were ‘better’.  The vacancies were filling, as people relocated here from places nearer to the devastated portals, the villains were scattered with only a few lingering and not really conducting business.  Even here, according to the map, there were burglaries, robberies, and concerned citizens reporting that they’d seen drug deals or drug-related activity.

It was a ‘good’ area, with an influx of hopeful people and criminals still spooked from the recent crackdown and collapse of their power structure- there were bad areas too, and there were areas that had been bad, that had been lowered a few notches by the portal fiasco, and by the threat of war.

“We need to figure out how to handle this,” Capricorn said.

“Is that even possible?” Sveta asked.  “Handling this?”

“Let me refresh before I try to answer that,” Tristan said.

He refreshed.  Some of the site elements lingered, while the map reloaded.  I bit my tongue rather than comment or complain.

“I’ll have you guys hooked up to my internet in five or ten minutes,” Kenzie said.  “Things will be faster then.”

“Please God,” Tristan said.  “Thank you.”

I looked at the other pins on the loading map.

“Domestics, assaults, threats, noises at late hours,” Sveta recited, listing pins.

“Those are rare,” I said.  “At least compared to some of these others we see over and over again.  Look.  Robbery.  Dealing.  It’s about resources.  It’s about people feeling the cold and not feeling ready to face months of it, of darkness and food shortages.”

“That’s not law and hero stuff,” Sveta said.  “That’s infrastructure.  We can’t do much about that.”

“Drops in the bucket,” Chris said.  He was standing beside Kenzie’s chair, watching.

“I could help a little if they let me give them tech,” Kenzie said from her workstation.  “But they won’t.  Speaking of tech, second box going live.  Additional systems, monitors, and information, no super internet just yet, sorry.  We’re booting up in five, four, three, two, one-”

There was a pause where a second or two passed.  She kicked the box to her left.  Projected images began to fill up more of the walls.  News having to do with capes, with politics, with crime and industry.  Some terrible newspaper comics popped up briefly, before being replaced by more pertinent things.

“And zero,” she said.  “Tinker internet hookup next to come.”

In one area, according to a headline on a news ticker, Mayday was getting a hard time.  The territories that Advance Guard was managing were seeing civilian pushback, citing Mayday’s lack of leadership in years before Kenzie had even joined his team.

I glanced at her, but she was busy enough that she didn’t see it.  I watched as it lingered on the ticker before other news pushed it off.

The map had loaded incompletely again, with more gray than before.  Tristan groaned loudly in frustration, walking away.

“We can’t make this about riot duty and supporting a crumbling infrastructure,” I said.  “We can’t be extra police officers, with some extra capabilities and a lot of access and procedural stuff missing.  It’s inefficient.”

“We stop going after criminals?”  Tristan asked.

“We go after the key ones, prioritize the worst, and the ones our team can break up.  The courts are under enough strain as is.  They aren’t going to appreciate us sending petty drug dealers their way.”

“And there’s subversive, hostile elements in the city,” Sveta said.  “Earth C’s soldiers.”

“That’s the big reason we’re needing to coordinate,” I said.  “Them.  The Fallen.  Maybe Love Lost’s group.  Possibly Prancer’s remnants, depending on how resentful they are.  Those who aren’t playing along or who pose too big a risk.”

Tristan added, “And each group or major location may be targeted by hostile powers.  Dragon, Defiant and others at the top know, but…”

“We have to keep an eye on the prison,” Kenzie said.  “Ashley and Rain.”

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.  “Among other things.”

“I was thinking about it,” Lookout said.  She swiveled around in her chair.  “It’s a lot.”

“It’s a lot,” I agreed.

“We can pick something to do, and we can go after it, but other stuff is going to come up while we’re doing that, even if we’re really, really good about it,” Kenzie said.  “Even if we get the other teams to coordinate and we’re really, really, really fast with getting other teams to cooperate with us, it’s going to be hard.”

“Maybe impossible,” Chris said.

“Why does you chiming in like that make me suspicious?” Tristan asked.

“Me?” Chris asked.

“You’re hanging out with Kenz, no snark, no hostility, you’re being quiet, you’re helping-”

“Because he likes me,” Kenzie said.

“No, it’s because,” Chris said.  “I’m not stressed about being in the latest of a long, annoying line of institutions.  Don’t put me in a hospital, orphanage, jail, school, I’m good.”

Good might be overstating it,” I said.

“You two are conspiring,” Tristan said.

I studied their expressions, carefully neutral.  Kenzie had the hint of a smile on her face, but she mostly seemed jittery, heel on the top of a cardboard box, foot jiggling.

“I can see it,” I said.

“It’s not a conspiracy.  Can I just make my pitch, explain how I see things, and you can correct me if I’m wrong?” Kenzie asked.

“Go ahead,” Sveta told her.

“This is a big thing.  I’m going to end up working really hard either way, but if we go the way I was just talking about, where we try to do one big thing at a time and other stuff keeps coming up and getting in the way, we’ll get buried, we’ll start slipping, and I’ll end up working super late to build stuff we super duper absolutely need.”

“It’s possible.  We could establish rules to avoid that,” Sveta said.

Or,” Kenzie said.  “We agree we’re in trouble.  If things were really terrible in a fight, Victoria would stop holding back and would hit hard to smash people to smithereens.  Tristan and Byron would use some of their tougher tricks, like stalactite rain or drowning people in rock.”

“I’ve never had cause to do that.  I’m not even sure I could.”

“Sveta-” Kenzie started.  “There’s maybe possibly a situation where things were dangerous and you’d leave that body.”

“Let’s not discuss that,” Sveta said.  “I don’t want to entertain the idea.  I know how bad it could be.”

“My point is, we’re all really strong.  Sometimes there’s a situation where we stop being nice about it and just do our best.”

I saw the almost-smile become more of a smile.  Because her means of self expression was different, with a smile meaning something totally different, I had to parse eyebrows, eyes, mouth and body language individually and then piece it together to read her.

Worry, guilt?

“What did you do?” I asked.

She froze.

“Smooth Kenz,” Chris murmured.

“Fuck off if you’re not going to help,” she said, under her breath.  “I figured we needed all the info we could get.”

“You didn’t take Dragon’s files, did you?” Tristan asked.

“No!  No.  Nothing like that,” Kenzie said.

I imagined everyone in the room breathed a faint sigh of relief at that.  Even Chris probably would’ve, and she’d apparently included him in her plan, confiding in him.

Taking Dragon’s files would’ve been a potential shitstorm of epic scale.

“I took over the prison security system, so we can use their surveillance” Kenzie said.  “And Chris and I kind of worked together to get cameras inside.”

She hit a key.  The feeds along the wall switched to footage from the cameras spaced across the prison.  A few of the scenes flicked between multiple perspectives across the building.

I closed my eyes.

“Chris, why?” Tristan asked.

“You’re getting on my case?” Chris asked.  “She’s as culpable or more culpable than I am.”

“She’s two years younger than you and you’re supposed to be a good role model.”

“I failed at that a while ago, Tristan.  And she’s right.  We need this, because we can’t take the long road every time.  We were going to end up doing this anyway.”

“Why didn’t you just ask?” Sveta asked.

“Because,” Kenzie said.  “It’s the kind of thing where it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than ask permission.  Plus if I got caught, you all can claim I’m the ditzy tinker kid and you had no idea what I was doing.  It’s proof against even lie detector capes.”

There were some out there, in Foresight.

“But I didn’t get caught and now the chances are really slim we get caught.  Just like my being on their server.  Now that it’s done… I think it’s done, I can tell you guys and you can decide what you want to do with it.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Um.  Here.”

She reached for a book at the edge of her workstation, checked it front and back, and tossed it to me.

A novel of the sort that was aimed at young adolescents.  It was one I’d read a long time ago, but had largely forgotten.  I remembered more of the movie of the same name.

Examining it, I found the circle of the ‘o’ in word ‘Holt’ on the spine had been colored in black.  The book opened and closed, with nothing shaking out of it.

I pried at it, got my fingernails under it, and pulled it out.  It was the eye camera that Kenzie had placed in Ashley’s eye.  It had phased into the book, the extra bits almost invisible, they were so phased out.

“The books you were talking about,” I said.

“My care package.  It comes with a way to keep a better eye on things.”

“You helped?” I asked Chris.

“The tech I had on me that they looked at was what let her get access to the security cameras,” Chris replied.

“Let me get this straight,” Tristan said.  “You hacked a secure facility.  Using a… virus?”

“Vector of attack,” Kenzie said.  “Yes.”

“Chris feigns being an asshole to buy time to hack in-”

“I didn’t feign, thank you,” Chris said.

“You had and have control of prison oversight now,” Tristan continued down his list.

“Yes,” Kenzie replied.

“And you snuck in a camera- multiple cameras.”

“One for Ash and one for Rain,” Kenzie said.  “So I can show you stuff, and we can communicate with them, and it gets a lot easier to do stuff.  Look, look, I can show you-”

She swiveled around and then hit buttons

“Kenzie, stop,” Sveta said.  “We need to discuss this, then we need to discuss what we do with the aftermath.”

“Too late.  Feed’s up,” Kenzie said.  “Sorry.”

“I’ll cover your entire system in stone if you aren’t careful,” Tristan said.  “Soak it in water.  You’re getting carried away.”

“I’m saying we might need to get a little carried away because the whole situation is carried away.  I had to do this little dodgy thing, but it means we can communicate better with them, and we definitely need that.  It means we can communicate more to other teams, and that’s super important.”

The projected icon showed a slice of Ashley’s cell.

“This is old footage,” Kenzie said.  “About half an hour ago.  She figured it out.”

The image distorted, the book’s perspective shifting.

As Ashley’s prosthetic hand reached in, almost covering up the lens in entirety, it was momentarily possible to see the artificial texture of the thumb-tip.

“I can’t get you out,” she murmured, her voice amplified by the speakers.

There was a thud as the book was allowed to fall to the table.

“Problem?” Ashley asked, audible through the computer speakers.

“I need your claws.”

“They’re mine, and I’m not about to hand them over.  I like looking dangerous.”

“To pry something free.  And for something else.”

“Pry?  Now I’m curious.”

“Voice down for the camera.  Come.  Here, see the ‘o’?”

“I see it.  You want it cut out?”

“No!” Kenzie said, to the wall.  The wall and the two Ashleys weren’t in positions to hear.

“No.  Bring your blade this way, pry.”

“Don’t scratch the edges of the lenses,” Kenzie said, again talking to the wall.

There was no echo of her statement this time.  The Ashleys worked in silence.

“There.”

“Got it.  Here we are.  I’ve seen this before.”

“It looks like someone wrapped barbed wire around an ice pick and put a lens on the butt end.”

“A small ice pick, maybe.  I need you to stick that into my eye.”

Me?

“You.”

Kenzie’s eyes widened.

“Didn’t leave instructions?” Chris asked.

“I… kind of forgot that her hands are wonky right now and her sister’s hands are even more dangerous.”

“We might need to turn it on,” Ashley said.

“It’s on!” Kenzie hurried to say, shouting at the wall.  “Don’t flip the switches or you’ll change polarity or bias, or you’ll turn it off and it’ll become a weird stabby knife instead of one that goes through eyes!”

They couldn’t hear us, and a phone call or message was a procedural nightmare that would take a while to arrange and use.  Even if we did tip them off about what was going on, we’d risk the ‘good guys’ finding out about the cameras.

I folded my arms.

The camera’s focus changed.  The strange Ashley had the lens gripped by the flats of four blade fingers.  The points of the fingers extended a bit beyond the pad or ‘head’ of the eye camera.  If everything went in smoothly, the points would bury inside the eye before the object fully did.

Ashley took it, not flinching as the point touched home.  Other parts of the camera flowed in.  The points of her sister’s claw came perilously close to her eye and eye socket, but they didn’t penetrate.  Our Ashley pushed it the rest of the way in with a stiff finger.

“One eyeball on the inside,” Tristan said.

“Until battery runs out,” Chris said.

“Nuh uh,” Kenzie said.

“Batteries run out.  There’s no way you hooked that up to some greater power source and still sent it that far away from the source.”

“I included a battery recharger,” Kenzie said.

“What you said about sleeping with your head on a book,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Did you worry, when I had my claws so close?  Did you fear me?”  It was the other Ashley, talking to our Ashley.

“I trust you as far as I trust myself.”

“So corny,” Chris said.  “I can imagine them just doing that nonstop for the next two years, and acting like it’s still cute or funny.”

“For the record,” Tristan said.  “You’re not in the good books either.  This whole thing with being underhanded and potentially screwing up everything is so not good.”

Kenzie protested, “In really tough fights, Victoria can go all out and hit full strength.  In really tough information warfare, why can’t I do the same?  This stuff is maximum importance, and now we can do more with less!”

“We might,” I said.  “But we talk this sort of thing out first.  This is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do.”

Kenzie nodded, smiling.

“We should talk restrictions,” Sveta said.  “Make sure we don’t make anyone suspicious.  What if we waited a while before visiting again?”

“What?” Kenzie asked.  “You’re joking.”

Sveta said, “We just dropped some tech off at their place and compromised their systems-”

“It’s not going to get caught.  I guarantee you.”

“Just to be safe,” Sveta said.

“You’re punishing me.”

“I’m being safe,” Sveta said.  “If it’s unreasonably safe, maybe it’s because I don’t like my team doing things behind my back, and I’m uneasy.”

“I’m- really sorry,” Kenzie’s voice had unexpected emotion in it.  Her expression was a contrite half-smile.

“Good,” Sveta said.  “Apology accepted.”

“I really thought this would be best.  We can get info to and from there without it being stuck behind paperwork, or super difficult to get there and back.  We’re so behind on everything, and-”

“And we communicate,” I said.  “Please.”

Kenzie smiled and nodded.

Damn it.  I’d have to figure this out, in a time and place where I wasn’t putting her on the spot.  Smooth things over, make sure she wasn’t too upset.

“Speaking of communications,” Chris said.  He was on a computer.  “We have a peek at their systems.”

“Stay away from classified files,” Tristan said.  “We’ve torn past enough boundaries today already.

“Nothing classified,” Chris said.  “Employees make notes of frequent callers and people who request visits.  We’ve got some threads to follow.”

“Cheit?” Sveta asked.

Chris tapped the screen, before stepping back.

Rather than us go to the computer to look, Kenzie changed the display, broadcasting the image of yellow text on a black background onto the wall.

The self-proclaimed Blue Empress was wanting to see people within the prison.  She had been refused a few times.  For good reason.

She went by other names.  The Woman in Blue.  Goddess.  She’d taken over a world single-handedly.  After Gold Morning, she’d been left in our world, where she’d lurked on the fringes.  Something or someone in the prison had piqued her interest, and now she was exerting pressure, trying to get inside.

What to even say?  On the one hand, to dismiss this would be madness.  On the other hand, to mark it as important when doing so would only encourage Kenzie…

Pieces were almost falling into place.

“Chris, can you find information on Crystalclear?  Requests, communications?”

“Yeah,” Chris said.  “I can try.”

I folded my arms, looking at the image on the screen, the moving text, the slow-moving query.

My aura was like a push, fear or awe.  Lately it seemed to be only fear, with a few rare, weird exceptions.  Monokeros could pick one person and sway them wholly and completely.  The Woman in Blue was the best of both, or even stronger.

She’d been making subtle moves, biding her time, and nobody knew exactly why or what that patience served.  Now we had a glimmer of what she was doing.

She was after someone, something, or what the prison offered to someone who had absolute control over others- an army.

“Crystalclear is in communication with others,” Chris said.  “It’s encrypted.”

“We can get in,” Looksee said.  She looked at us.  “If you’re okay with that.”

One of the biggest players around was circling around one of the biggest, meanest collections of parahumans around.  Cheit knew and planned on turning it into a trap for her, explaining their interest in the place as a form of bait, or they’d happened to be after the same prize.

This was going to turn into a battlefield.

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Beacon – 8.3

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The wind had reached inside the apartment space, blowing papers through the room and across the floor.  A window had been left cracked open, and the combination of persistent wind and a few days of us being away had added up to a fair bit of mess.

We hadn’t left anything too vital behind, nothing too identifying on papers, no computers, nothing that would hurt if stolen.  Some of the basics had been left behind, as had a lot of the detritus.  Some were things like the snacks for when we patrolled or camped out in headquarters, loose papers and an assortment of tinker notes, Sveta drawings, and what seemed to be Chris’ notes for a game he was playing or designing.  The whiteboards had been wiped down, but some had been wiped more meticulously than others, and traces of letters remained here and there.  Sveta’s still had fragments of the individual pieces of art.  Ashley’s hadn’t been wiped clean at all.  ‘Swansong’ still stood out on it.

I bent down and picked up one sheet of paper, which looked remarkably like an instant message conversation- one line on the top left, a line just below it and aligned to the far right.  The left column had a spiral drawn above it.  The right a teardrop.

note to self: owe 45m and thank-you treat to
awesome brother

suck up

seriously what do you want?  we time share a body and I
have no idea what sort of thing you like. think about it
and write something down when I pass control
$50 max.  I have cash from work on construction block

dunno. clothes? clothes are expensive
something in my style

proposal: I get you two somethings not totally your
style but maybe broaden your horizons

I like my horizons where they are
hoodie / v.neck tee / straight-leg jeans
no big graphics. dark colors if any color at all
or don’t worry about it. if it’s a hassle
don’t sweat it

The conversation terminated there.  No reply from Tristan.  No indication if they’d found equilibrium or if the gift had been given.

The long plastic tables with the legs that folded down were still in place.  I rolled up my sleeve, hesitated, and then undid my sling, ducking my head to get the strap over it and off.  I wouldn’t do anything more strenuous than what I was doing in the physical therapy sessions.

Both sleeves rolled up, I began gathering papers.  When repeatedly bending down got to be a pain, I used flight to dip and move along the length of the floor, gathering with one hand and holding them with the other.

Everything in order.  There was a process, and I could follow steps and make things better.  It was meditative, even.  I didn’t mind that there were parts that were mind-numbing or dull.

The landlord had sent an email, asking if we were staying and asking us to either check and see that the place was intact or let her know so she could stop in.  With it being a hero headquarters of sorts, temporary or no, I’d decided it was better to err on the side of caution.  Easiest for me to stop in, considering how much easier it was for me to travel around the city.

I had originally planned to simply stop in and check that the place was intact. Now I found myself staying.  Fifteen minutes of tidying became thirty.  After another fifteen minutes, I dug into the snacks, getting a drink and a small bite to eat.

Food not from our Earth.  An unfamiliar variety of trail mix gathered together by something like honey and some preservatives, packaged in waxy paper rather than plastic.  It was supposed to be in bars, but it crumbled so much that I ended up eating more of it by tipping the open bag into my mouth to let the broken-off bits fall in, than actually eating any bar.

This was where we were at.

This is how things are now.

We weren’t in a position to fight against a dedicated, serious enemy that wanted to dismantle us.   The foundations our buildings were built on weren’t as solid as they should be.  Our infrastructure was stretched thin, and a lot of it had been built with things given by other worlds.  Things that had strings attached.

Clothes, appliances, even things as simple as screws were coming from elsewhere.  We’d been desperate to set ourselves up and get back to a semblance of normal; it was to the point that a lot of things that looked like Earth Gimel things with the inevitable shortcuts and changes made were actually foreign products.  Not Gimel, not Bet.  The clues were subtle.  The font had weird serifs on it, the layout of things like ingredients and the absence of nutrition info, the lack of anything like trademark or copyright symbols by brand names-

It wasn’t ours.

Now relations with other worlds were tense.  Some remained allies, but the construction workers’ riots, Cheit in general, and the sheer mess of this portal disaster were taking their toll.

I picked up some papers that had blown against the wall and beneath a table.  Kenzie’s homework, with doodles all over it.  She was experimenting with art styles on her English homework.  An apple in the top corner, realistic and shaded, with ‘apple for teacher’ written beneath it.  A lot of disembodied heads littered the page, drawn in an art style that consisted of circular heads with details and hair drawn on.  ‘T.soup’ praised the drawing of the apple.  ‘Maxtag’ suggested asking Sveta for tips.  Another, unnamed one at the bottom right told her to start over on a fresh page, because the current one was a mess.

I put it on Kenzie’s table with other papers and weighed it down with a small hammer.

After another fifteen minutes of work, I got my laptop and put it on the table at my station.  Once it booted up, it took a while to connect to the internet- long enough for me to sweep the entire floor.

No disasters so far today.  No major fighting, the blackout and phone connectivity tracker was already up, and there weren’t any fresh outages.

I left it on in the background, music playing, while I resumed work, so the group could have its fresh start if and when we resumed working out of this headquarters.  My work was punctuated by my searches online.

I paused to stop and check my arm.  The muscle twinged.  I’d go easier, I decided.

Trash collected from the small bins and put away, stray boxes returned to where they belonged.  Rain had left us a few stray pieces of traps, and blades both with and without handles.  I left those where they were, because a tinker’s stuff was sacrosanct, even if it didn’t look like tinkerings.

Though I’d have to touch it anyway.  Odds were slim that he’d be the one to turn up here and collect it.

I was wiping surfaces clean of dust when I heard heavy steps on the fire escape.

I flew, heading first to the ceiling, my sudden movement stirring some of the thin snakes of damp dust and hair that I’d been wiping away.  From the ceiling, I headed to the space above the door.

The footsteps were quieter as the person reached the top.

“Hello?” he called out.

“Tristan,” I said.  I dropped down to the floor.

He pushed the door open.  He wore his costume top, helmet, and jeans.  He had his usual rugged gym bag with him, heavy with his costume stuff.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I saw the door open and thought maybe someone broke in.  You got the email from the landlord?”

“Yeah.”

“I wasn’t sure if it was only me.  Huh.  You beat me to it.”

“I fly,” I said.  “Tactical and logistics advantages.”

“And I’m jealous,” he said.  He stepped inside, pulling off his helmet, then looked around.  “I was thinking I’d sweep or something, but I guess I made the trip for nothing.”

“I did send out emails, trying to set the plan.”

“Outages.  My ulterior motive was that I wanted to come here and see if the internet and phones were working.  Besides, it seemed like the thing to do.  If we can’t communicate with anyone else, we should go to the nearest rendezvous point.”

“Until Lookout gets us some means of communicating reliably,” I said.  I remembered the conversation.

“Yeah.”

He put his bag down.  He wasn’t gentle, and I could feel the weight of it settling through the floor.

I walked over to my computer and turned the music down.

“You can leave it on if you want.  What is that?”

“Oldies rock,” I said.

“Oldies, huh?  Where’s the line drawn for that?”

“Before we were born, I think.  A lot of what I listen to is from a decade before that.”

“Ahhhh,” he said, like it was a big revelation.  He walked over to his table and whiteboard, paging through the papers he’d left behind.  The conversation with Byron was among it.  “From the days before powers.”

I frowned a little.  “I hadn’t wanted to make it about powers.”

“I ruined it for you.”

“No, not ruined,” I said.  “It’s more-”

“It’s hard to get away from, isn’t it?” he asked.  He did what he could to fix his hair, where the helmet had pressed it down.  As simple as the action was, there was something very serious in his eyes and his voice as his hands worked.  “It saturates everything.  Our team, we get it more than a lot of others, I think.  Other teams, maybe they have one or two members who really feel the weight of powers the way we do.”

I thought about it.  “Different ways, for different members of our group.”

Fingers worked to twist locks of hair into the rolling curls.  He still hadn’t painted his hair again.  “You’re an outside case, but I think you qualify, you’re even an expert on the matter.  Sveta’s been like she’s been for… five years?”

“About.”

“Ashley dealt with her hands from the time she was thirteen to the time she was a little older than twenty.  Two years spent being dead, clock turned back a bit, fuzziness from not being her original self… still.  Eight or nine years at most?”

I shrugged.

“Byron and I trigger, endure a few years of this.  Kenzie triggers really young, same principle, though, and she doesn’t have that many years under her belt.  Rain triggered later than most of us, but he’s very, very similar to you, I think.  He grew up within arm’s reach of powers.  Not so direct as you, but… there.”

“Yeah.”

“You lived it.  From birth, your mom was a hero and that was normal.  Your dad.”

“My aunt, my uncle, my cousins.  My boyfriend, friends, afterschool activities, hopes, dreams, field of study, the meals I ate.  Over a thousand nights spent acutely aware that one of my parents was out there, and they might not come home.”

“How do you avoid drowning in it?” Tristan asked.

“If you’d asked me before?  I’d have said they were natural waters for me.  I didn’t drown because I breathed it.”

“And now?”

I shook my head.  “I think I could still breathe it, live it, if it wasn’t for-”

For the wretch.

“For?” he prodded.

“Things I need to figure out.  One personal, and a bunch of external ones.  People, forces, trends.  I feel like I might be drowning, but it’s because of others making the waters choppier.  Pushing me under, even.”

“Tattletale?” he asked.

“That was a fast reply.”

“An accurate one,” his voice was smug.

“Yeah.  People like Tattletale.  Don’t get me wrong, I have my own stuff to deal with, and I’ll figure that out with my therapist.  But I really want to handle or get away from the people who are making life way more fucking difficult than it needs to be.  Get some control over things, so they stop getting in the way.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Capricorn said.  “This strategy of yours.  Uniting the teams.  Is that you handling things like you just described?”

“Yeah.  Some.  Is that a problem?”

“Nah,” he said.  He smiled.  “Nah, it makes sense.  Assess the problem, get the resources together to address that problem.  More contacts is good.  More resources is good.”

I nodded.  “You brought this up for a reason.  How hard it is to escape, the power stuff.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Nothing big.  Tired of swimming, always on the cusp of drowning.  Can’t get away from my situation.  Rain was a friend and we’re going to see him later, but he’s gone.  Sveta- can’t complain to her.  It’s like bitching about a cut finger when your friend is inside a blender.”

“I think she’d listen and understand,” I said.

“I have days where I can’t do it anymore.  No energy to keep fighting and pushing forward.  Byron worries about me then, you know?  But that’s not the hard part.  It’s that all the time, I’m also watching Byron, worrying about him.  Gotta keep an eye out, try to analyze, figure him out, make sure I’m not being too hard on him when he’s having a bad day.”

“It’s good,” I said.

“But I was never good at understanding him.  I want the days we fight tooth and nail and fuck with each other.  I know they’re bad, duh but that’s so easy.  This is what drains me.  We’re not fighting each other, and how do you fight onward if you’re not revved up and ready?”

“You find external focuses.  Other enemies to fight.  Line them up, knock them down, vent off steam that way.”

He created what had to be his fourth top, setting it to spinning.  It was more balanced than the others, but it had some wobble.

“I miss kissing boys,” he said.  “I saw a guy with a beard on my way here.  He wasn’t my type at all, but it hit me pretty fucking hard, that I’ve never kissed a guy with a beard, and I might never.”

“Never is a pretty ridiculous word when we live in a world with powers.”

He snorted loudly.  Then sniffed, hard, blinking fast once or twice.  “You’re Sveta’s friend, for sure.”

“Yeah.”

“She likes to hold out hope.  There’s hope, there’s always hope.  But that doesn’t do any good, does it?  I’m trying to get through the now, and you two are telling me what the future has in store.  My boat’s sinking because there’s a big gaping hole in it, and every time I ask for help, my friends say, ‘If you get to shore, there’s an awesome party with great booze, music, and dancing’.”

“What I’m saying- what Sveta’s no doubt saying, is don’t stop bailing out the boat because you’ve lost sight of that shore.”

“I lost sight of shore a while back.  I dream of it, but I dunno.  One of the coolest night of my pre-cape life, I was teenager, went to a birthday party and it was boys and girls, big house, mostly unsupervised.  Someone had the bright idea of playing strip poker.  We didn’t get that far before everyone started chickening out and panic-squabbling over rules details until it wasn’t fun anymore, but… that energy, before it went to pieces.  You know?  The people, wondering if it’s going to be the best night of your life or the night you fuck up so bad you wince about it for years?  It’s stuff like that.  Jumping off the roof of a house into the pool below and having everyone cheer.”

“I can see it,” I said.  “I think my equivalent is different.  The cheering I get, I think.  Validation.”

“I’m not sure I’m chasing that anymore, and that’s my identity, or it was.  I’m not sure I’m bailing out the sinking ship anymore.  If I can’t figure out those things, then I’m not sure it matters whether there’s a shore or not.”

“Pretty dark place to be,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said.  “And I wish I had a not-Case-53 Weld of my own to lean on or help me bail out the boat, but I don’t.”

“Shit,” I said.  “I most definitely hear you on that.”

He smiled.

“I’m not six feet tall, broad shouldered, or all that muscular, but if you want to hammer this stuff out-”

“Nah,” he said, dismissing me.

“Seriously, Tristan.  Listening ear, time.  I’m not sure I have it in me to dredge up the time I couldn’t bail out, see shore, or even… whatever it is.  Remembering the good days.  But if you need me to, if you want to tackle this like our team tackles the bad guys, I can try.”

“Don’t.  No,” he said.  “Because if you tackle this like this team handled the last few things, two-sevenths of you will be gone by the time you’re done.”

“That sounds about right if I have to do any dredging.  But the offer stands.”

“Nah,” he said.  “No need.  You’re looking after the kids, right?  Checking on Chris, you checked on Kenz.”

I nodded.

“And that was important to do.  You’ll check on the others.”

“Probably.”

“Focus on them.”

“A lot of what you were saying sounded like a cry for help, Tristan.  Especially toward the end.”

“It’s not, not exactly.  It’s- I can’t talk to Byron, because the two of us can’t be in the same room at the same time.  My parents don’t like talking to me.  Not since the murder charge.  I’m limited in the friends I can talk to, with one being worse off and one in prison.  I needed to vent and I needed to say it out loud and make sense of it.”

I frowned at him.

“For the record.  This is coming from three places,” he said.  “Beard guy I saw on the way over.  That’s a bit of it.  Sveta was asking me for boy advice, that was the second.  So you know, look out, because that’s probably coming.”

I frowned more, but mostly because Sveta had asked Tristan first, and not me.  I could set that aside because Tristan was wrangling something.

“And the third part, which actually got me thinking about this in the bigger sense… that whole thing about how powers are hard to get away from?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.  That’s our group, but when I was trying to figure out who we might be seeing at the prison, the mentality we were working with or around, what to look out for… isn’t that it?  They can’t get away from their powers or what their powers have done to their lives.”

He grabbed the latest spinning top he’d fashioned with his power, caught it between fingertip and thumb, and crushed  with an ease that suggested his superpower wasn’t even needed.

“I can turn into a monster that’s ninety percent mouth.  I could do it now.”

“Don’t,” Capricorn said.

“Or a form that’s all slimy tentacles.”

“No,” Capricorn said.

“I just don’t see why it matters what’s in my pockets.”

“I don’t see why you didn’t just leave it at home,” Lookout said.

“Because,” Cryptid said, “I need a bunch of this stuff.  There’s a good chance it matters.  And because it matters, I don’t need glorified security guards tampering with it.”

“You could put it in the locker,” Sveta suggested.  “Two of us can move fast.  If there’s an emergency, we could go get it.”

Discussion continued.  I waited, my eyes roving over the surroundings.  The entryway to the jail was built of the same prefabricated segments, with the arching ceiling over the booth, the layout of the hallways, and the setup around the door.  The difference was in the protective measures.  The entryway looked like a place that was triply fortified, with shutters that could drop down at regular intervals, and a very fortified booth.  Painted lines traced along the floor, pointing to different destinations.

“I’ll keep some of the essential stuff,” Cryptid said.  “If I end up unconscious for any reason, if I look dead, if I’m dying, something vital plops out of my chest, just stab me with these.  If you can get me conscious again, I’ll figure out the next steps myself.”

They looked like the epipen needles and the adrenaline-shot needles that came in the mass-produced first aid kits.  He had three of them, and he walked over to the desk to show the guards.

We were in costume.  Cryptid wasn’t cloaked, because cloaks would have been concerning, but instead had decorated himself in a look that was shadowy, crocodile-like scaling.  The light and shadow that hit him affected him in a different, odd way, with deeper shadow and slimmer bands of light.

He ended up having to hand over the cloaking device, too.  He turned his head away from both guards and security cameras.

“You don’t need to worry,” one of the guards said.  “We’re law enforcement.  We’re on the same side.”

“I prefer to play it safe,” Chris -not Cryptid for the moment- replied.

“If we didn’t have this recommendation letter, your attitude here might mean we’d turn you away.”

“But you have it, right?”

“Cryptid,” Capricorn said.  “Go easy.”

“I am, believe it or not,” Cryptid said.  He took the cloaking device as it was slid back in his direction, and snatched up the syringes when they were passed his way.  “I’m here because it’s my duty to a friend.  I hate institutions.”

“You live in one,” Lookout said.

“Barely.  It’s a place with a bed and we have a nice agreement where they don’t make me follow rules and I don’t bother anyone too bad.  I don’t see why it matters what I have on me, when we’re capes.”

As much as Cryptid was complaining to us, but the guys at the desk overheard.  One said, “The question is what you might slip to them, not what you do yourself.”

“They have powers.  What tool are we going to hand over that would trump that?”

“Don’t know, don’t care,” the guy at the desk said.

I was given the all-clear.  I fixed my bag over my shoulder – my arm was back in the sling, so the management of the bag was made more difficult.  The contents had been confirmed safe.  I’d have to use their supplied cord for my laptop, since they’d taken the battery, but that was fine.  At least it lightened my load by a pound or so.

“Keep a safe distance from all prisoners in the area,” the instructions came from the desk.  The first shutter between us and the yard was opened.  “Limit hugging or touching to once at the start of the visit and once at the end.”

“Aww.”

“You may sit at the same table, but nothing may cross that table while you’re there.  The breadth of the table should be kept clear.  You will not agitate the prisoners, whether the ones you are visiting or the ones who may be observing.  Some others will be out exercising, but they won’t be allowed to approach within three hundred feet.”

“Got it,” Capricorn said, with a rush to his voice that, in another context, might have suggested he was in a hurry and he wanted the guard to stop talking.

In reality, he was probably trying to get an answer in before Chris said anything ill-advised.

“Don’t wander off,” the guard said.  “Stay within ten feet of one another.  If there is an emergency-”

“If there’s an emergency, we’re capes, Cryptid said.

“If there is an emergency, you’ll return here.  Failing that, enter any non-residential building.  There will be two near where you are seated.  You’ll be free to seal and shutter the entrances.”

It was such a messy prison system.  A minimum of guards, the prisoners free range, without even a wall between them at the outside world.  It was just… flat and marshy out in three of the four directions, with the fourth not being fantastic.  Everything hinged on the ankle-worn bombs and other countermeasures that the prisoners wore.  To run meant to have one’s foot and calf blown off.

The shutter down the hall opened.

“You may proceed straight ahead.  The prisoners you’ve asked to meet will be on their way to the table shortly.”

The light from outside was bright as the shutter came up.  Wind blew through as the shutter raised, but it wasn’t because of the distorted portals and weather from that.  We were too far off the beaten track, and things were more tranquil here.

Buildings were set down in tight clusters, for administration buildings, or in nondescript collections of apartments, fitting within the narrowest possible interpretation of code and then cramming that full of one-room apartments.

One set of a dozen prisoners were filtering into the buildings.  Our visit had been timed by the prison to take advantage of the shift to the next exercise period.

I saw three or four of the Fallen capes in the mix.  Complicated.  They were some of the ones who had been in the background during the raid on the camp, periodically using their powers.  If they were here, they were diehard enough to be deemed irredeemable.  Most of the others had either expressed genuine remorse or they’d feigned it well enough to convince a judge.

If they were here, they were the kind of Fallen who were unquestionable problems.

I was glad that most seemed to be going inside.  Some found seats by windows, where they could stare us down.

I spotted Rain, who approached from the other half of the complex, passing through a corrugated metal gate that a guard managed, and approached us at the table.

The table was longer and wider than what I was used to, and so were many of the other parts of the area – the buildings were squat and heavy, with a lot of fortification.  Roads were wide enough that four cars could pass down them side by side.

The large fixtures and the wide, broad planes of everything coupled with the isolated individuals to make the entire space out to look exceedingly isolated.

Rain took his seat.  He’d trimmed his hair short, and with no hair in the way or covering anything up, his eyes were open wider, no longer shielded or half-closed in readiness to blink as hair fell over them, and a multitude of tiny nicks and cuts covered his face.  There were places where the scars left a tiny notch in his jawline or ear.  The lines of his hands and the half-moons of his fingernails were black with oil.  He wore a prison-issue denim coat over his regular clothes.

At least he had that luxury.

“Hi,” Lookout said.

“Hey critter,” he said.  “I heard about some of your adventures a few days ago.”

“All good now.  Things are mostly the way they were, except I don’t see my parents outside of the courtroom.  It’s nice.  More peaceful, with more people to talk to.”

Rain nodded.  “Peaceful, yeah.  Same, except for the whole imprisonment part.  Boredom so bad you might imagine you’d do something stupid.  Some do- and I’d join them if I didn’t have the realty check every night.  The days don’t seem to end.”

“We brought gifts,” Sveta said.  “Things to read.  The guards will bring it to you later.  I hope that helps with the boredom.”

Rain smiled.  “That’s perfect.  I’ll probably end up reading each one twenty times.”

“Have you heard from Erin?” Lookout asked.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “She dropped by yesterday.  She’s splitting her attention between me, her family issues, and Lachlan Hund.”

“The brainwashed teenager,” I said.

“So apparently when I ran off the night before the attack, going to March to try to break the connection to Mama, Erin was given some options.  One of those options was that she marry Lachlan.”

“Oh no!” Lookout said.

“They’re both really nice, attractive people,” Rain said.  His expression was grim.  “Front-facing people to recruit others.  They could become celebrities without any issue.  I can see the logic”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Logic, except, the brainwashing, the forced marriage, all that.”

“Mmm,” Rain grunted.  “It’s an awkward thing, her helping him and him being a go-between for her and her family- who aren’t dealing well with the family mostly shattering.  She might be by later.”

I noticed mostly because Lookout was bouncing in her seat, but Ashley was in view now.   Double-vision.  There were two of her, wearing similar dresses.  The one slightly in the lead was our Ashley, our Swansong, with hair cut short.  It had fanned out slightly at the bottom, and where weight had pulled it straight, it had a bit of a twist to it.  Her bangs were similar, but more twisty, pushed over to one side.

Our Ashley’s hands were intact.  Her darker self had knife-hands.

“So cool,” Lookout said.

Rain leaned forward, touching the intercom at the middle of the wide table.  “Can the other Ashley Stillons join us?”

“Checking,” came the reply.

I was aware of the eyes on us.  The visitor seating table was about a hundred feet down from the main office.  Some chicken-wire fence separated sections of the greater infrastructure, but little effort had been made to make it tall or make it private.

I might’ve seen one or two more fallen, as I surreptitiously glanced around.  I got my notebook out and began scribbling down notes as best as I could with only one arm free.  People, places.  Suspicious individuals.

Lookout bounced out of her seat, half-running-

“No running, careful!” Sveta called out.

-and half skipping.  She slowed down at the warning.

Ashley pulled her into a hug.

“How are the hands?” Rain asked.

“More functional, but the right is giving me jolts of pain.”

“Damn it, sorry,” Rain said.  “Tonight’s not a good night.  We’ll see about tomorrow?”

“Okay,” Ashley said.  She set a hand atop Kenzie’s head.  “If it gets bad, I can take it off.”

“Best not to,” Rain said.

The intercom buzzed, but no voice came through.  It took three or four seconds, and then there was only a “Permission refused.”

Too bad.  It had been a long shot, to bring Swansong’s sister in.

I looked at her, and I saw a reflection of Ashley, but one that casually wore the glares and haughty expressions that had been rarer or which had only emerged in times of stress.  She stalked, eyes wide.

I was reminded of the Siberian, seeing her, what with the long pale hair across her face, the natural arrogance, and the dangerous look in her eyes.  I didn’t see it in the Ashley that was hugging Lookout right now.

“You’re getting our emails, right?” Capricorn asked.

“Yes,” Rain said.  “Thanks to your testimony.  Until we fuck up, we get some slack.  You guys had ideas for a new team direction.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “We didn’t want to decide on anything definite without consulting you guys.”

“I have questions, yeah,” Rain said.  “Like what does Capricorn Blue think?”

“He’s not protesting as hard as you might think,” Capricorn said.  “We need to do something.”

“It’s bad.  The war,” Sveta said.  “It’s not one with battlefields, and we’re not organized enough to win a war of information.”

“I like it,” Ashley said.  “The thing about the group that never made sense was the insistence that Capricorn was a leader.”

“Hey.”

“But,” she said.  “We have three leaders.  Different styles.  Different focuses.  It fits for a group that’s steering other teams to better places where the old didn’t fit us.”

“We’re not taking over anything,” I said.

She snorted.

“No, really.”

“Capes take over.  We take power because we have power.  Just as those with money have a natural ability and desire to earn money.  The healthy are inclined to stay healthy.”

“Capes are unhealthy by definition,” Cryptid said.

“There’s room to maneuver in there,” Capricorn said.  “Listen, Rain, Ash, are you two talking?  How easy is communication?  What other channels do you have open?  People here you talk to?”

“I can do bi-weekly maintenance on Ashley’s hands, we get internet, some freedom of movement, some access to tools.”

“More of a benefit to Rain than to me.  But it’s nice to be able to talk to him, at least,” Ashley said.

“Some people talk to housemates by standing on the balcony,” Rain said.

“My roommate is fine.  Exceptionally beautiful and graceful,” Ashley said.  “Good genes, I think.  Clever.  Quick to learn.  Witty, even.”

“That joke is wearing thin,” Sveta said.

“I’m not joking,” Ashley replied.

“I think it’s a perfect assessment,” Lookout said.  “I like our version better though.  The hair looks amazing.

“She’s fine.  There’s a lot to catch up on.  The others in the house- not good people.  A big Asian woman who won’t tell me her cape name.  She stonewalls me.  Another woman who only whimpers and cries.  She panicked months before we arrived.  Tried to take off her ankle bracelet.  Now she has a bracelet on the one ankle she has left.  The last is a child killer.”

“What?” Sveta asked.  “That’s a thing?”

“She went by Unicorn, but it was an inherited name.  So she’s Unicorn the fifth or something.”

“Unicorn four,” I said.

“Shit, yeah,” Capricorn said.  “I heard about that one.  It was on the news a decade ago.  She was on the sponsored team ‘Goldenrod’.”

“She’s Monokeros now,” I said.  “Yeah.  Stay away.”

“They send teams of two to escort her when they need her to do something, like visit the doctor,” Ashley said.

“Not much help then,” Rain said.  “I’ve talked with my housemates, a bit.  They don’t love me, but two sound like they’d be willing to sell me info, if they see anything hinky.”

“If it’s verifiable info, I can put money in their commissaries,” Capricorn said.

“Great,” Rain said.  “We’re looking at staff, mostly.”

“You’ve already started then,” Cryptid said.  He looked over his shoulder.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Definitely.  Helps with the monotony.”

There were so many people watching from windows.  Our investigation couldn’t help but be conspicuous… and if it was staff that was interfering, then they had the benefit of access to surveillance, records, and any number of other means of tracking these patients.

Now that it struck me, we’d have to figure out if a staff member could theoretically detonate the ankle bombs as a weapon, to control or remove problematic individuals.

I’d ask when Rain and Ashley couldn’t hear.  It wouldn’t do to stress them out.

“I found one person who stands out,” Ashley said.  “It might be worth looking at them or having a chat.  Or it might be a problem.  You know them, Victoria.”

Oh, no.  Those were spooky words.

“It’s not bad,” she said, seeing my reaction.  “From the community center.  Crystalclear is on the boys’ side.  That’s your starting point, I think.  If anyone knows something, it’s him.”

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Beacon – 8.2

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Defiant walked over to the Dragon craft, knocking on the frame of the hangar door.  He wore power armor -armor heavy enough it needed engineering to move around- and the rap of metal gauntlet on metal frame turned more heads than necessary.

He wasn’t the kind of guy who cared.  That hadn’t changed any from when he’d been Armsmaster.  I knew most of what I knew of him from Dean, with a little from chance encounters.

There were tinkers who were barely restrained.  They were excited about what they did and they needed only the slightest excuse to go on at length in their attempts to explain their work.  Then there were tinkers who were drawn into themselves, the work and the inspiration all happening in their own little world.  Kid Win had been more the latter.  Chariot had been, but he’d been a special case, with reasons to keep secrets.  Armsmaster, obviously, but that had been what had set me on this train of thought.

Lookout was the explaining, excited sort, naturally.  Bakuda, from what I’d heard, had been the sort to go on at length, even while in captivity, but she took that to an extreme, like it applied to other things than her tinkering.  Bonesaw… yeah.

I shivered a little at that thought.  Bakuda had been able to make bombs that threatened hundreds, thousands, or even theoretical millions of lives.  Bonesaw worked on one subject at a time, but her ability to make actual monsters and set worse things in motion made her scarier, in my books.

I distracted myself from thinking too much about that, focusing instead on how that the names I was pulling up were so divided along the gender lines.  Chariot, Armsmaster and Kid Win on one side, Bakuda, Bonesaw and Lookout on the other.

If I thought about it harder, putting effort into finding exceptions to that gender rule, extending my line of thought to tinkers I didn’t know but could make guesses about… it was really hard to imagine Dragon talking about the minutiae of her work with anyone that she wasn’t very close to.  Past a certain point, professionalism had to take over.  She couldn’t risk revealing weaknesses, right?

Trainwreck from Brockton Bay had been both a Case-53 and a tinker, reportedly.  The guy had taken the oversized silicone testicles meant for hanging off the back of pickup trucks and incorporated them as an ‘easter egg’ in his power armor at one point, to be revealed if the heavy metal ‘kilt’ of his power armor moved the wrong way – usually when he vented enough steam.  No surprise that he’d ended up with the Merchants when everything had gone to hell.  I hadn’t interacted with him in any casual capacity, but I was on the fence about whether his demeanor meant he’d be less guarded about talking tech, or if the fact that he’d had to build his Case-53 body made it too personal.

Had I been able to go to college and study parahumans -it still stung that I hadn’t- even something as simple as the dispositions and presentations of tinkers could be something really, really interesting to look into for a paper.

I wanted to be able to do research and dig for answers.  We’d already unraveled some of the big mysteries, and by some tragedy, we couldn’t actually work on them.  We weren’t sharing information.

Time enough at last.

Either way, it tied back to my general observation: as Bakuda’s personality had been colored by the same traits that made her ramble and rave about tech to even her captors, Armsmaster had taken the taciturn tinker approach and extrapolated it to the rest of his personality.  He stayed by the door, silent, knuckles of one gauntlet still resting on the frame, and he volunteered no small talk.

In fairness, I’d given him something to think about.  The Leviathan attack had to be something that weighed heavily on him.

Unfair of me to confront him, but I’d felt I owed my family that- living and dead both.  I’d have asked about Dean, but Dean had been injured early enough that I couldn’t imagine that he’d been swept up in the setup or rendered a casualty that might have been avoided if someone like Kaiser or one of the giantess twins had lived.

Thinking about it and Defiant’s place in it was heavy, so loaded that I felt inarticulately guilty by association alone.

I thought about the information and how we might share it.  The old Parahumans Online was there, but it was bare bones, fractured, almost so messy that it was easier to restart than to fix.

“-if I wanted to make something like that, I’d have to make it a cube.  I think that would be awfully silly to have a cube flying around.”

“You could make one of several cubes.  Or a thousand cubes all strung together.”

“It’d look awful, and the connections between cubes would be weak points.”

“If you want to talk about artificial and abstract constraints, the person you should really talk to is Defiant.”

“Really?”  Lookout was coming down the ramp with Dragon beside her, Dragon offering a guiding hand at her shoulder.  Lookout looked at the cyborg in green and gold armor by the side of the ramp.  “You break constraints?”

“I could help work out ways to minimize the size, the scale of the weak points, limit energy loss, even the look of it.”

“That’s awesome.”

“If you get a chance, on a day we’re not as busy, you should have a conversation with him.  He’s not as intimidating as he looks.”

“Hm,” Defiant grunted.

Lookout looked up at Defiant, then turned back to Dragon.  “But I want to keep talking to you.  I could talk to you forever.”

“Not forever when we have work to do,” Dragon said, giving Lookout a couple of pats on the shoulder.

“Thank you for showing me stuff,” Lookout said, turning around, talking while she walked backward.  I put out a hand as a just-in-case, because the ground was uneven, only recently covered in undergrowth, which had been uprooted and cut away to make this parkland accessible to humans.

Sure enough, Lookout tripped.  I caught her weight with one hand between her shoulderblades.  Cloaked tinkertech bounced against my wrist and forearm.

“It was my pleasure, Lookout,” Dragon said.  To Defiant, she said, “We got an alert from Valkyrie.”

“I saw.  No rest for the weary,” he said.  “Do you want to go?  Or should I call?”

“I’ll talk to her.  We might have to go, either way.  She doesn’t call often.”

“I’ll be out here until you’re ready to go.”

They were busy, so Lookout and I said our parting goodbyes then headed back in the direction of the others.

There was no reading Lookout’s expression, but there was a skip in her step.

“You happy?” I asked.

“Very.  Thank you for making me.”

“I didn’t make you,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“You’re welcome, though.”

“I really want to see them again soon,” Lookout said.

“Maybe,” I said.  My thoughts were on their admitted association with my sister.  That was a road fraught with hazards.

“Did you have a good talk, at least?  Or was it not a talk?  Did you both just stand there being all grim with you having your arms folded and him looming there with his spear in his hands?”

“We talked.  I don’t know if I’d call it ‘good’.  I got some answers on stuff.  My shoulders feel lighter, but I’m not sure if it’s genuine or if it’s because I transferred the burden over onto his shoulders instead.”

“He’s strong.  He can handle a lot, I think.”

I opened my mouth to retort, and then closed it.  It wasn’t worth arguing.

Besides, we were closer to people who could overhear and put pieces together.

Tempera and Fume Hood.  Tempera raised a white-painted hand in a wave, and they walked over in our direction, intercepting us.

“It’s been a little while,” I greeted them.  “Have you heard anything about Sam or Hunter?”

It had been so long ago- a scared boy and his friend with new and uncontrolled powers.  Too dangerous for me to intervene, apparently, but I’d been able to tap Tempera for help, and to ask Mrs. Yamada to look in.

“They headed over to the settlement across the ocean,” Tempera said.  “It’s smaller, with its own problems, but it has a place to hold parahumans.”

I nodded.  “And you guys?”

“We’ve been busy,” Tempera said.  “Trying to find places where help is needed, and where we won’t cause too much of a commotion.”

“We’re toxic,” Fume Hood said, with some irony.  “I see you got hurt.”

“Yeah,” I said, shrugging one shoulder.  “Shot.”

“Stupid thing to do,” Fume Hood responded, with more irony.  “Don’t do that.”

“All the cool kids were doing it,” I replied, “A power nullifier knocked out my defenses, I figured I had one shot to get on board with the trend.”

She slouched forward a bit, head hanging so her hood covered most of her upper face.  Her thumbs were hooked into the belt of her outfit.  I saw the hint of a smile on her face.  “If you’re saying I’m cool, you might have other problems.  Any head injuries?”

“Ooh,” Lookout said.  “Or it could be the same thing.  Bullets have lead don’t they?  If you get traces of lead in your system, it can cause permanent brain damage.  Among other things.”

Tempera looked at me, eyebrow quirked- the eyebrow had white paint from her face-paint mask on it, making the fine hairs clump.  “Smart kid.”

“I’m not all that smart,” Lookout said.  “I just researched it a lot recently.”

“Oh.  Lookout, this is Fume Hood and Tempera.  They were at the community center attack.”

“I know.  I looked everything up and I found some of the surveillance camera footage, so I got glimpses of stuff.”

I wasn’t really sure what to say to that, so I put it in my back pocket for later.  I’d digest it and talk to her when we weren’t in front of others, if needed.

“That thing about it being cool to get shot- don’t take that as an actual example,” I told her.

“Ha ha,” she said.  “Give me some credit.”

That was part of the general problem- I had no idea how much credit to give her.

“It seems you’ve found your team,” Tempera observed.

My knee-jerk reaction was to say no.  That the team was breaking up, even though it wasn’t.  That it wasn’t my team, even though it clearly was, now.

“Guess so,” I said.  “You?”

“Seeing where I’m needed.  I was with the Wardens on a trial basis until things-” Tempera stopped herself.  “It was probably for the best.”

“For the best?” I asked.

“I mean the Wardens and what they needed from me- the rest of it was definitely not for the best.  The work I was doing was heavy.  Tensions between worlds.  It’s not me.  I prefer community level things.  Hands on work where improvements are tangible.  After I moved on, I was checking in with Fume Hood before and after doing low-level cape stuff.  Mostly refereeing riots.”

“It went so well last time,” Fume Hood said.  “I ended up going with Tempe for a bunch more.”

“Wise,” I said.

“Oh yeah.  That’s me.  I exude common sense,” Fume Hood said.

Tempera looked back in the direction of the other members of Breakthrough.  “In an email a bit ago, you mentioned what you were doing at Cedar Point.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It didn’t go great.”

“Well, um,” Lookout cut in.  “We did scare off the villains there.  We more or less handled it.”

“It was messy.”

“When powers get involved, it’s always messy,” Lookout said.

“It’s true,” Tempera said.  She produced a glob of paint in her hands, then dropped it.  It splattered on the ground to her right.  A moment later, it reversed course, leaping up to her waiting hand.  “Messy.”

“Neat,” Lookout said.

“I asked, after your email.  People were positive about it,” Tempera said.  “Cedar Point, and what you were doing.  It got me thinking, we wanted to be community heroes, but- there wasn’t opposition.”

“So they created opposition,” I murmured.  I glanced at Fume Hood.  “Sorry.”

“The timing was wrong.”

“You guys are thinking about this stuff?” I asked.

“After dropping the ball in our inaugural event, I think we have to,” Fume Hood said.  She had a billiard-ball green sphere in one hand, that she tossed into the air as she said ‘ball’.

“We have opposition now,” Tempera said.  “It makes it easier to be active.  So long as people can believe we’re doing something about this disaster with the portals, they’re letting us be.”

“Maybe,” Fume Hood said.  “Seems too easy.”

“It does tempt us down the potential road of manufactured enemies,” I said.  “History’s told that story enough times.  But I don’t think we have a shortage of real ones.”

“No shortage, for sure,” Tempera said.  She drew in a deep breath, then looked down at Lookout.  “Sorry, kid, to be talking about stuff this heavy.”

“Heavy and messy.  I can handle both,” Lookout said.  “So long as I’ve got my team.  And my team has their own people.  We share the burdens.”

Her focus turned to Sveta, Capricorn in red armor, and Weld, who weren’t as under siege as they had been earlier.  No mob of questions or attention.  Weld bent down to kiss Sveta, and held the kiss.  Not a makeout session, but not a peck, either.

I looked away to give them their privacy, a smile finding its way to my face.

“I like that,” Tempera said.

“Hey, Breakthrough,” Fume Hood said.  “Are these guys enemies?”

My head snapped around to look at her, then followed her line of sight.

Mom and dad.

Ugh.  “My parents.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Fume Hood said.

To my left, Lookout stood up straighter.  If I hadn’t been watching for her body language in the absence of facial expressions, I might not have noticed.

“We didn’t mean to interrupt,” my mom said.

But you did, I thought.

“Tempera, Fume Hood, Lookout, these are my parents.  Brandish and Flashbang.”

“You mentioned you grew up with capes,” Fume Hood said.

“Yep.  Yep.”

“I actually wanted to talk to Natalie,” my mom said.  “Check that she’s managing okay, with everything.  But it would be strange, I think, if we didn’t even say hello to each other.”

“A little strange.”

“We won’t bother you,” my dad said.  “It’s good to see you’re doing well.  I like the costume.”

“Thank you.”

“I wanted to ask,” my mom cut in.  “Have you heard from your cousin?”

I shook my head.  “Not since we parted ways.  Communication is usually sporadic to begin with, but the attackers have been knocking out the phones.”

“You’ll let us know if there’s any news?  I worry.”

So they were an ‘us’ again, now?

“Yeah,” I said.

“And I hear you moved,” she said it in a way that left the question or follow-up there only in abstract, not in any tangible form.

“I don’t remember the address off the top of my head, but I’ll let you know the address at some point.”

It was the best dodge I could come up with on the spur of the moment.

“I know the address,” Lookout said.

Damn it, Lookout.

“Remember, you never know if there are people with enhanced senses around,” I said.  “I might not have a secret identity, but it doesn’t mean I trust everyone here with the address of the place I live.”

“Oh, for sure,” Lookout said.

“Very sensible,” my mom said.

Yeah, well.  I gave her my best convincing smile and a small nod.

She totally knew why I’d just done that.

Turnabout was fair play, though.  I knew why she’d done this, pressing me for information I might have been reluctant to provide on my own.  Telling her where I lived meant I had to deal with that slim chance that there might be a knock on my door, with my mom, my sister, or both on the other side.

Nah.

“Oh, Natalie brought Tony, I’ll introduce you,” my mom told my dad.  She laid a hand on my arm in passing.  “Take care of yourself, Victoria.  You too, Looksee.”

“I’m Lookout, now.”

“Oh, did you change?  Be careful,” my mom said.  “Rebranding is a useful tool, but not if done in excess.”

“Yep,” Lookout said.

My dad gave me what I decided to read as an apologetic smile, before following my mom.

I sighed.  I glanced at Tempera and Fume Hood, and I could see Fume Hood’s annoyance.

Wrong thing to comment on, mom.

“Is it a problem?” Lookout asked.  “That I changed it?  I used to be Optics and then Looksee, and now I’m Lookout-”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You were never officially Looksee, really.  Even if you were, it really doesn’t matter.  I think the mentality only really applies if it’s twenty-twelve, you’re in the Protectorate or an up-and-coming team, and you really want to rise in the ranks.”

“Was that you?” Fume Hood asked.

“A bit,” I said.  “Yeah.”

“Is it you now?” Tempera asked.  A change of wording and tense, and Tempera had a good way of sounding thoughtful, serious, and kind all at the same time.  I could really believe that prior to Gold Morning, if her aspirations were different, she could have been great.

And in that little observation, I was already snapping over to my mom’s kind of mindset.

“Hard to say sometimes,” I said.  “You grow up with that drive, your parent’s ambitions in line with your own interests.  It can be hard to separate them from your own.  But I think so.  Yeah.”

“You want fame?” Tempera asked.  “No judgment here.  I’m curious.”

“Sure,” I replied, taking my time with the word, feeling less sure in the two-Missisipi seconds it took me to utter it.  “Maybe fame is the wrong word.  Prestige has a power to it.”

I glanced at my mom as I said it.  Was that her idea, too, rather than my own?

“Me too,” Lookout said. “Fame for me.  I want lots of people to cheer for me and think I’m awesome.  Does that make me shallow?”

“No,” Tempera said.

That thought brought me to the edge of what felt like an existential cliff- the wobbly, spooked feeling that hit when at a high ledge and the brain and body momentarily forgot that flight was a thing.  I’d had similar wonderings when I’d been in the hospital.  I’d wondered if my thoughts were my own, and it had been terrifying and maddening, because they’d been all I’d had.  My heart had been my sister’s, because of the hormones, dopamine, connections and whatever else that had resulted from the changes-

-even just thinking about that made me feel nauseous-

-and my body had belonged to… nobody.  Nobody and nothing.  Not a single fucking soul had wanted it.  Not me, not my family, not the hospital, not my sister-

“I think Capricorn would be down for it, but I’m not sure about the others.”

Maybe my sister had.  Maybe it hadn’t been an accident.

“Ah,” I said, trying to bring myself back to coherence.  “The others and fame?”

“Yeah.”

“Swansong yes, for sure,” I said.  “Tress.  I don’t know about our multi-trigger or Cryptid.”

“We need to bug our multi-trigger to come up with a name,” Lookout said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I felt distinctly out of place, with the memories and the existential brink such a short distance behind me.  “I think there’s potential.  For rising in the ranks.  I think I’d be happy with it.”

“I have no interest in that, so if we get too much attention, we’ll send the people your way,” Fume Hood said.

I smiled.  “I don’t think it works that way.”

“If-”

She was cut off as Dragon’s craft started up.  Narwhal and Cinereal joined Dragon and Defiant on board.  Weld, I saw, remained behind.

Another crisis, of the sort that wasn’t announced or explained.  Some of our best were out there now, trying to handle it.

And this- this series of attacks by Cheit.  We had to handle it ourselves.

There was a rush of wind as the air blew downward and out, with the dragoncraft navigating a route through the foliage so it wouldn’t knock too many branches down.  In the midst of it, it was hard to be heard, so I just signaled a goodbye to Tempera and Fume Hood.

“You’re pretty deep in thought,” Lookout said.

“Sorry.  Talk with Defiant, then my parents, thinking about our goals.”

“It’s okay.  I am too.  I saw stuff on Dragon’s ship that got me thinking.  Aren’t Weld and Sveta cute?”

I looked.  They were leaning against a pair of trees that had grown together- or one tree that had grown apart, with a seam running through it.  Weld had his arm around Sveta, who leaned against him, and the wind from the craft had blown her hair around.  Some had blown into his face and around his chest and shoulders- some, it looked like, had gotten snagged.  He didn’t react or brush it away like someone else might, if they had hair across their face.

“Super cute.”

“I want to find someone like that one day,” she said.

Capricorn sat on a slab of stone that looked Tristan-created.  Red armored, so it was Tristan in the armor right now, Byron as the observer.  Cryptid was a few feet away, sitting on a seat that was much the same, but smaller.  The coloring of the stone and the veins running through it made Cryptid easier to spot, as the camouflage extrapolated from the image of what he was sitting on and painted it up into his body, in fragments.

It was camouflage that would primarily work against someone who wasn’t actively looking for trouble, and primarily in static, dull environments.  In the city or the immediate vicinity of strange textures, it wasn’t nearly as effective.

“And there they are,” Cryptid said.  “Did you steal Dragon’s notes?”

“No!” Lookout said.  “And I wouldn’t.  She’s nice.”

“She gives me a vibe like Legend and Valkyrie do,” Sveta said.

“Good vibe or bad vibe?” Capricorn asked.

“Bad.  Sorry,” Sveta said.

“So powerful they’re scary?” Capricorn asked.

“No.  I think if it was that, I could deal with it.  I’m scary,” Sveta’s voice was quiet as she said it.  “But they give me this feeling, like they descend from the heavens and deign to deal with us mortals, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I could see that.”

“But also… Legend was tied into the Cauldron thing.  I had to get the full story from Weld, but it’s why he left the Protectorate.  He got caught.”

“He seemed remorseful, but I don’t know if that’s good enough.”  Weld was as serious as I’d ever seen him.

“Where I get paranoid is that I have to wonder if Valkyrie, Dragon and some of those others are for real.  Why are they that strong?  What happened, and… if they’re on that level, are they tied into it, like some of the other powerful people were?  Did they ignore stuff?”

“It makes for an uncomfortable feeling,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Sorry if I offended anyone, saying stuff about their favorite people.”

There were a few heads that shook across our group.

“I like them,” Lookout said, “But I’m not offended either.”

“I think if I had a chance to get to know her and reassure myself on things, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But she’s kind of… distant.”

“Less distant for me, I think, because she’s apparently dating the Protectorate team leader from back when I was in Brockton Bay,” I said.

“Prettty much the same for me,” Weld said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She smiled.  “I get that.”

“I don’t like her,” Cryptid’s voice was almost a mumble but not quite.  It wasn’t until I saw him lower his hand that I realized he’d had his fingers in his mouth- maybe adjusting his braces.  “But I think I’m different from you, Svet.  I get the vibe that the more we knew about her, the less we’d like her.”

“Well,” Lookout said.  “That’s screwed up, but that’s okay, because you’re screwed up.”

Chris scoffed.  “Thank you for respecting my opinions.”

“I might respect them if you justified them, except Dragon is cool and there’s no justification for thinking otherwise,” Lookout said.

“No infighting,” Capricorn said.

“Okay,” Lookout said.

“Let’s change the topic.  Before Antares and Lookout arrived, we were talking jurisdictions,” Capricorn said.  He leaned forward, elbows on his knees.  “Remember when you were talking about your rationale for making Cedar Point our focus, Victoria?”

“I remember,” I said.  “High villain population, not covered in any existing jurisdictions, it slipped the net.  Plus they flaunted their villainous independence from things.  That kind of pissed me off.”

“Cedar Point is mostly okay now though,” Lookout said.  “I peek in now and again using cameras I set up a good while back.”

“Mostly okay,” Capricorn said.  “But there were other places that were up for consideration, and I get the feeling some more have sprung up since.”

“They have,” Weld said.

“Teams have other focuses,” I said.  “The gaps are getting wider.  It doesn’t help that the portals blew up like they did.  A lot of key sites fell apart.  Places where a team like Foresight might have headquartered are gone or hard to use.  It means crime is up, there’s more distractions, and there’s a lot more places for people like Cheit’s groups to hide without leaving the megalopolis.”

“What are you thinking?” Capricorn asked.  “An agreement?  That we all take territory and commit to keeping the streets clean of crime there?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m thinking… more comprehensive than that.”

“Comprehensive how?” Weld asked in a voice that was deep, the tone serious to the point of concern.

“Comprehensive… like jurisdiction.  Why do we fight over it?  We don’t want to be crowded out or to let others take credit for our successes.  Very often our territories are close to home, so there’s a personal element.  If there’s crime and we want our people to stay safe, we want to rid that area of crime.  Financially, it’s easier to hero in some areas than others.”

“Sure,” Capricorn said.

“I think so long as those issues exist, no matter what we do, there’ll be pushing, shoving, and trying to get people to take some cases or to get others for ourselves.  If we can address those issues… say we all get a special allotment, we put funds into a pot and apportion it out, and we organize, with communication and sharing of information.”

“I can do the getting and sharing information parts,” Lookout said.

“And,” I said.  “Keeping in mind this whole Cheit thing is demanding attention and resources while they’re doing other things in the background- it potentially addresses some of the other heroing issues we run into.  Like how hard it can be to go run off and do something where we’re needed when things can be going to pieces on the home front.”

“Meaning we can go investigate this group that attacked the portals while still maintaining a territory,” Capricorn said.

“Or investigate whatever.  Yes, for sure,” I said.  “And then a week later, we might babysit another territory while simultaneously giving the team in charge there a new, fresh set of eyes for any ongoing problems, while they do their thing.”

“Have you been thinking about this for a while?” Weld asked.

“Only since talking to Defiant.  I’m talking out loud as I think about it.”

“And you want to take over where the Wardens left off?” he asked.

“Not taking over, and not doing what they did,” I said.  “They’re- you’re, if you want, you’re still a fixture.  But the Wardens were always focused on the top-level threats.  Distant wars.  Class-S stuff.”

“Ogun,” Weld said.  “Sleeper.  Machine Army.  And a bunch of other things I can’t even namedrop, because they’re classified.”

I nodded, my arms folded.

“I’d have to ask,” Capricorn ventured.  “Let’s say we did this, and magically everyone was on board.”

“We wouldn’t need everyone,” I said.

“Even so.  We’d need enough, since it’s…” he struggled for a moment.

“The more you have, the more effective it works in aggregate,” Weld said.

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.  His mouth moved with a smile, barely visible with the gaps in his mask.  “Thanks.”

I tilted my head.  “What are you asking?”

“What’s our role in it?”

“Nothing too special,” I said.  “Except that people were already talking to us and communicating about collaborating.  They wanted a chance at doing their part in Hollow Point.  Let’s… I don’t know.  We’d coordinate until things were coordinated.  Let’s learn from our mistakes, and make every territory into a Hollow Point.  Make it so the bad guys don’t know who’s going to show up on a given day.  And because we have other focuses and bigger priorities, we offer leniency if they help us with the things that matter.”

“Cheit,” Sveta said.

“The Fallen,” Capricorn said.  “They’re not all gone, Defiant said.”

“Or any other big group that’s a problem,” I said.

I saw them considering.

“It’s a tall order,” Capricorn said.

My motivations weren’t pure.  My mom and the conversation with Tempera and Fume Hood had me thinking about why I did this stuff.  Why I did the hero thing.  She was a little ways away, having a conversation with Natalie at the very edge of the parkland clearing.

There were other things too.  I wanted information.  I missed having resources and we couldn’t lean wholly on an eleven year old girl with a bad family situation to tackle it.

“I know someone from the library who might know how to set up a database,” I said.

“I-” Lookout said.

“A mundane one, that doesn’t require tinker maintenance.  It’ll last longer.  You- you’ve got something amazing with the time camera, and you wanted to be more frontline.”

“Yeah,” she said.  She gave me a frenetic nod, helmet bobbing.

“I don’t think we can or should chuck you into a fistfight with a cape, but… we can get you closer to what’s going on, test the waters, and we can only do that if you’re not maintaining databases.  Breakthrough has something solid with a pretty strong set of powers, and good group cohesion in a fight.  Let’s start building an infrastructure that we can lean on.”

“It would need refining,” Capricorn said.

“For sure.  We can sleep on it – but we can’t wait for too long,” I said.

“No, you’re right.  I don’t think we can afford to wait too long before doing something big to try to fix these big problems,” Capricorn said.

“And,” I said.  I paused for effect.  “Defiant gave the a-ok.  They’ll talk to the prison-”

“Yes!” Lookout shouted.

“We can go in as a group-”

“Yesss!”

A cloaked Cryptid covered her mouth.  “Let her finish.”

“We can see our people, see what we can figure out about what’s going on.  Let’s make sure our asses are covered and that we’re not neglecting anything back in the city.  There’s a chance that if we start poking our noses in, we might scare the people who are trying to pull something there.”

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Beacon – 8.1

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A gloomy morning was punctuated by the worst blackout the Megalopolis had suffered yet, making plans more difficult.

The city was dark, and we were well into autumn, with temperatures dipping low enough that frost dusted farms, fields, and grass.  The sunlight that managed to reach through the clouds and touch the ground melted the frost, which then remained melted, but it was a slow, inconsistent process that would take until ten or eleven o’clock to finish its work of changing things from a dull white-frosted green to a damp, vibrant green.

The world kept spinning, like a stubborn top, the seasons changed, and I was left to consider the logistics of costumes and updating them for the coming winter.  Ninety percent of the group’s activities had taken place in the span between Norwalk to the west and Bridgeport to the east, and I could already tell that this area was a far cry from the more moderate, terrain-sheltered weather of the city I’d grown up in.

The wind didn’t help matters.

It was light out, but we apparently needed power, because the blackout meant that I got a text with a change of location for the meeting.

I had the ability to do a bit of a reconnaissance sweep before dropping in, because I knew that the others would be driving, and it would take time for everyone to adapt, especially with the condition of traffic across the Gimel Megalopolis.

No major crime, even with the blackout.  Some people were scouting abandoned buildings, looking over their shoulders to see that nobody was watching them.  My landing near them was enough to send them running.

Mischief, likely with some intention of breaking in, but not anything I could definitively act on.

I could see the crowd of costumed individuals well before I landed.

It was interesting that the location chosen was ‘parkland’.  A slice of wilderness from a foreign reality, tamed only in that the thickest of the underbrush had been cleared away.  In a clearing, opened up on three sides by logging, a creek emptied into a fat pond.  A rock stabbed out of the pond, of a rough size and shape to serve as a podium.

This general area reminded me of our skirmish outside of the library, in our first testing of what the team was capable of.

My initial thought was that the destination had changed because the other place had no power, and that this place would, but… obviously wrong, given that there wasn’t any power out in a patch of park.

Other heroes had gathered already.  Narwhal and Weld stood out, as part of the remnants of free and available capes from the Wardens.  Cinereal was about as somber and intimidating in a breaker shroud of gray ash as Narwhal was scintillating and bright.

Auzure was here.  I knew Spell, Dido, and Lark.  Black, blue and gold.  Uncomfortable to see them, but they didn’t seem to pay me much mind.

The Shepherds had Moonsong, who was paying a lot of attention to Capricorn.  She wasn’t in charge, though, thankfully.  Whorl had the reins for now, and he was decent enough.

Advance Guard had turned up.  If the Shepherds occupied the nine o’clock spot on the dial, then Advance Guard situated themselves at two o’clock.  Their numbers had been cut down by their part in the unfortunate conclusion to the Fallen raid, and the help they had provided after.  They were still numerous.

Foresight hadn’t grown beyond its relatively narrow roster, but they hadn’t shrunk or been folded into another team, either.  We’d continued to trade information with them up until the last moment, when we’d switched our focus wholly to Cedar Point and the raid.

There were other players.  Some were individual.  Others were small teams with their own core identities, or offshoots from the other big teams.  I saw one or two friendly or friendly-ish faces.  Tempera.  Fume Hood.  Houndstooth as a ‘friendly’ face from the Kings of the Hill.

I raised a hand in a wave as I approached.  Tempera raised a white-painted hand in return.  Fume Hood smiled beneath her hood.  Houndstooth gave me nothing.

I would talk to Fume Hood and Tempera after, given a chance.

Capricorn was present in blue armor.  Tress had a freshly painted body.  Cryptid was camouflaged, and from the way Lookout was talking, she was having a dialogue with him.

There weren’t a ton of clear non-capes around, but our group had two in its orbit.  I recognized Natalie, who was embroiled in a discussion with her friend, a guy with a bushy beard.

With the weather being what it was, the water being close enough that wind could blow over it and chill everyone present, and the light weight of costumes in general, a lot of people looked like they were struggling to stay warm.

Natalie’s friend wore flannel, and Natalie wore an overly puffy coat that I was guessing would do a lot to keep her warm in this chilly weather.

“Hey!” Lookout greeted me, as I got closer.

I put my hand out, and she jumped up a little in the process of giving me a high-five.  With everything else going on since the dinner at her place, it was good to check in outside of the bounds of one on one meetings and phone conversations.

Our lives were in upheaval.  Capricorn’s life was overturned on two hour shifts.  Chris’ body and schedule were mixed up by form changes, but the chaos he wrestled was one he wrestled mostly alone, in a way that only made sense to him.  Sveta’s boyfriend was away and the loss was felt.

Rain and Ashley?  Relocated as a part of incarceration.

That left me -I’d just moved out of a desire to burn restless energy- and Kenzie, who had just turned her parents in a few days ago.

“Hey, so rude,” Sveta said.

I put my hand out.  She gave me a prosthetic high-five.

“You realize the other teams are going to see this and think we are the absolute lamest, right?” Cryptid asked.

Maximum sass Lookout retorted, “You are dragging the rest of us down when it comes to the averaged numbers.”

“Oooh,” he said.  “Just so you know, if you sound like a math dork when you’re giving your comeback, you fail.  I’m sorry.”

“If you get a mouthful of comeback after you burp because you chug so much-”

“Nooo,” I interrupted.

“I’m going to be glad I didn’t commit to the team thing, and I’ll let my brother deal with this,” Byron said.  “Zero guilt.”

Byron became Tristan.  From blue scale armor to red plate and chain.

There was a moment’s pause as he looked around.

“Fist bumps are better than high fives,” Capricorn said.  “I’m pretty sure someone out there has enhanced hearing and got to hear Lookout say that.”

“There’s more where it came from,” Lookout said.  “I went to the training camps for Wards.  That’s like, ten percent kids acting like it’s prison and crying in a corner being homesick, twenty percent kids with stars in their eyes being amazed by everything, and seventy percent kids trying to establish a pecking order and murdering each other with words.”

“You were, what, nine?” Cryptid asked.  “I can’t imagine you establishing any pecking order.”

“I didn’t say I was one of those seventy percent.”

“Oh, stars in your eyes, of course.  You have that all the time.”

“Ha ha,” Lookout retorted, working her shoulders so one stuck forward with one ha, switching orientation for the next.  “You got it wrong again, Cryptid.  Heart shaped pupils, not starry ones.  Like my online handle.”

“That doesn’t mean what you want it to mean,” he said.  “But I’m not going to try to explain it if Capricorn’s scared of eavesdroppers.”

“I’m not scared,” Capricorn said.

“You’re concerned,” I said.  “Let’s change the topic.”

Lookout jumped in, “What we were talking about before- Those seventy percent kids were mostly the problem cases who the higher-ups thought needed boot camp to straighten them out.  Most became problem cases who could kick ass, instead.”

“Ah yeah,” I said.  “I’ve met one or two of them.”

“When you were a temporary Ward?  Oh, wait, I can take notes, look up that team and work out who.”

“Boundaries,” I said.

“Boundaries, right.  No prob.”

I wished I could see her face.  The helmet she wore covered it.  I had a sense of how she comported and conveyed herself now, and… she gave away very little like this.

There was an energy to her, a combativeness that I wasn’t sure was there all the time.  Trick was, I wasn’t sure if she was more inclined to drop retorts or seize the initiative in conversation because she was unhappy, because she wanted more control, or if she was freer to do it because she wasn’t spending so much energy on defending herself against her parents on a day to day basis.

I glanced back at Natalie and her colleague.

Ashley was the only person besides Jessica and maybe me that ‘got’ Kenzie.  She’d signed off on my proposed course of action.  We’d turned the Martins in, leveraging Natalie, my mom through Natalie, my old Patrol contacts and the nebulous phrasing of ‘the complicating factor of a parahuman in the mix’ to get people to not sweep things under the rug.

The Martins had their initial tribunal meeting.  It helped that they were on a different track and a different field of focus than the groups that were working their way through a backlog of Fallen arrests.

Kenzie was still at home, her parents were locked up, and people from the system were staying with her at her house.  I was being kept out of the loop on purpose, until they could make sure that everything was square.

“By the way, just so you know, because boundaries, I’m recording stuff for our missing team members.”

“Might have to edit that recording,” Capricorn said.

“Keeping secrets?” Lookout asked.

“Just… depending on what you pick up,” Capricorn said.  “We don’t want to get on anyone’s bad side because you recorded them and word of it got to the wrong people.”

“Oh, sure.  Recaps, maybe?”

“Maybe.  Let me glance over it before you send.”

“Okay.”

“That’s a good policy,” Sveta said.  “Back at the hospital, if we wanted to vlog or upload gaming videos, we had to run it by the people in charge, first.  It took forever, because they didn’t want to watch through everything.”

“They wanted to make sure no vulnerable kids were being groomed and that there weren’t any shitstorms from kids using their vlogs to claim they were being held prisoner in a parahuman hospital,” I said.

“Yeah, that,” Sveta said.  “Probably a good thing for guardians to do.”

“Aww, are you my guardians?”

“Yes,” Cryptid said.  “Now go clean your room, and scrub the toilet.  Using a toothbrush.”

“Ha.  My room’s always clean, and if I use a toothbrush on any toilets, it’ll be yours.  Except you’d probably become Happy Disgust and enjoy it.”

“That’s not the convention, you dolt.  I try to make it sound good.  It’d be Wallowing Filth or something.”

“Oh God,” Capricorn said.  He shook his head.  “This team.”

“I’ll stop,” Lookout said.

“If anyone can overhear, I think they’ve made up their mind already,” Capricorn said.

A few of the stragglers were arriving, now.  The last-minute change of location had screwed some people up.  Most fleshed out other groups.  A few solo individuals stood off to one side.

I spotted Longscratch.  He didn’t join Tempera and Fume Hood.

I spotted my mom and dad.  They were together, part of the same ramshackle group I’d seen my mom with when they’d been dealing with the student protesters.

An odd, uncomfortable feeling, seeing that.

Dad had updated his costume a little, too.

The key players of our big meeting here were the last to arrive.  The trees swayed as the wind changed, and the soft roar of engines preceded the display.

A Dragon-craft, sleek and powerful, loaded to bear with weapons.  It descended slowly with engines working against gravity, emitting a blue shimmer into the air that diffused into the area, tinting the craft’s surroundings.

It landed in the water, and the head rested on the stone.  The occupants emerged.

Yeah, that was something.  Wow.  After getting taken out of the picture like I had, I’d missed so much of what had gone on in Brockton Bay, during the latter part of the Slaughterhouse Nine attacking, the villain takeover and the heroes’ attempt to establish the peace.  I’d missed this.

Defiant.  Armsmaster.

An awful lot of the bad that had flowed from that point in time had been due to a lack of leadership on the heroes’ side.  Miss Militia had stepped up, but Armsmaster had ‘retired’ after flipping out at the hospital.  My sister had filled me in on details.  We’d been left short on good guys when we’d really needed them.

Things were never going to be okay after an Endbringer attack.  I knew that.  I’d known it to the core of my being when I’d attended Eric and Uncle Neil’s funerals, my dad unable to stand for segments because he hadn’t had the faculties.  I’d known it when I’d lost Dean.

But something had gone fundamentally wrong, even beyond that.  Between the Endbringer first arriving and the Slaughterhouse Nine, things had gone from a bad situation to something almost unsalvageable.

I wanted to know what.  I wanted to know more about the role he played in it or the perspective he had on it.

Because we were in a place very close to that.

“Can we ambush them, knock them out, and then see about kidnapping the Speedrunner guys, just so I can have two forevers to look at her stuff?” Lookout asked.

“Either one of them would kick our asses,” Sveta said.

“I’m joking,” Lookout said.

“Maybe if we ask nicely,” I said.

People were drawing closer to the vantage point.  Dragon was greeting Narwhal, leaning in close enough to say something in her ear.  Narwhal smiled.

Defiant, meanwhile, looked pretty grim.  When he got a nod from Dragon, he tapped his spear-butt against the rock, hard enough to be audible from the far end of the clearing.  All conversation stopped.

“Thank you for coming,” he said.  “As of right now, the city is under a steady, surreptitious attack.  Several arrests were made and now that we have some information, we want to make sure everyone knows the pertinent details.”

“If you want transcripts of the talks with the captives, you can message me at my Parahumans Online account,” Dragon said.  “I’ll send you what I can.”

“The attackers are Earth Cheit,” Defiant said.  “The divergence point for Earth Cheit was six hundred years ago.  There was a change in the royal line and a push for an ‘age of enlightenment’ stance, denigrating and even criminalizing some aspects of religion.  The backlash was severe and sharp.  An inclusive, aggressive faction emerged in answer to it, and that faction would eventually absorb and conquer others.”

“The world has a population well beyond that of the Earth Bet we knew,” Dragon said.  “It also has sub-sects which are violent and willing to die for their cause.  These people have been steadily infiltrating and occupying.  Now they’re escalating their attacks.  You’ve all heard of the attack on the refugee site.”

Defiant shifted his grip on his spear.  “They go for what vulnerabilities they see, and we have a lot.  We’re stretched thin and it’s easier to destroy than it is to protect.  If you’re willing to face this threat, expand your patrols, keep track of power lines, phone lines, railroad tracks, and key buildings.  Hospitals, portals, schools, community centers, political offices and team headquarters are all possible targets for strikes.”

“If you aren’t willing to face down these people, or if you’re a group of minors,” Dragon said, “Allow others to cover this ground in your territory.  We cannot allow them footholds.”

“Share information,” Defiant said.  “Team rivalries, pride, rankings, and even financial competition should be set aside.  If you’re willing, and if it would make the difference, we will subsidize you in the meantime.  If you need or want mediators, referees, or brokers for trade, we will provide them.”

“It’s a state of emergency?” Mayday asked.

“It is,” Defiant said.  “Thinkers, strangers, some changers and some tinkers may be invaluable, given the shape this conflict is taking.”

“Yes,” Lookout’s voice was barely audible.

“The man behind the worst of this is named Teacher,” Dragon said.  “He grants thinker abilities or tinker powers.  The tinker powers he grants may be something he’s using to create his own temporary portals.  It’s not as simple as guarding the portals that already stand.”

“Are we considering working with villain groups?” a cape standing near Fume Hood and Tempera asked.

“We have to be careful,” Defiant said.  “Several are working with other groups and powers, including Cheit.  Cheit formed loose ties with the Fallen, who are…”

“Antitheotical?” Dragon suggested.

“Antitheotical to Cheit’s own belief system.  But Cheit’s doctrine is one that accepts any sub-sect or branch religion that is willing to agree to a set of fundamental truths.  The Fallen, with some strained interpretations, fall in line with that.”

“Is that where they went?” Mayday asked.

“Some,” Defiant said.

“The new self-described Thomais branch and remnants from the attack on the compound made a break for the wilderness.  End of Days phases things into desolate alternate worlds- we think they gathered supplies and used a tech-augmented version of his power to escape into another world.  They’re migrating to a settlement that isn’t part of the Megalopolis and they’ll emerge there.  If we get information, we will reach out to interested parties.”

“Right now we’re trying to shore up what’s missing now that the Wardens are- I don’t want to say dead.  We have no reason to believe they’re dead,” Defiant said.

“Out of the picture,” Dragon’s voice was soft.

There weren’t many people here who hadn’t felt some loss when the Wardens’ HQ had disappeared.  Teams had called it a base of operations, worked with staff, or lost team members.

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “We’re available.  We’ve already reached out to some of you, and we’ll reach out to others soon- our focus is split and we do have to concern ourselves with things beyond the city.”

There was a kind of attitude shift across the crowd.  On a level, I could get it.  That things were sinking in.   On another level, I felt like we were already seeing it, and that it shouldn’t be a surprise- even to the point that I was really kind of pissed that people were only just now getting it.

“This is about survival,” Dragon said.  “We’re in this together.  That’s the gist of it.  Talk to us if you need more information.  We will coordinate as we develop tools and gather information that helps with this problem.”

That marked the end of the speech.

Discussions started around us.

“The war’s finally reached us,” Sveta said.

Natalie and her friend drew closer.  I had my arms folded as best as I could with my sling on.

“This is for real,” Natalie said.  “They’re talking about this like there’s a very real possibility we might lose.”

“We might,” Capricorn said, putting a hand on her shoulder.  He’d put an emphasis on ‘might’, but it didn’t feel like enough emphasis to change the meaning of his statement.

He was usually better about wording and presentation.

Leaving it up to me to try to rally the troops.  “We’re tenacious.  We made it this far.”

“Says the girl from Brockton-survived-Leviathan-Bay,” Cryptid said.

“Crypt,” Sveta said.  “Show a little tact.  That wasn’t a good period of time.”

Weld was making his way to us, but he was getting questions from every group he passed, and he wasn’t able to disengage or dismiss as fast as they came.

This was really it, wasn’t it?  The good guys didn’t have much more than these groups that had been called here, and there was a lot of ground to cover.  If we left a flank undefended, then it was possible it would get blown up or dismantled.

That was without getting into the other flaws and issues.

“Scapegoat turned coat.  The Speedrunners did the same,” I observed.

“Thomais branch now, apparently,” Capricorn said.  “We should talk to Rain.”

“In person,” Lookout said.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Sveta said.

“It would be good if it was,” I said.  “We need to figure something out over there.”

We need to figure out a lot of things.

“They might see a group visit as being a breakout attempt,” Chris said.  “It sounds like a very sketchy, incomplete way of imprisoning people, they won’t want to add anything new or uncontrolled to the mix.”

I nodded, my arms still folded.

My mom was off at the other end of the clearing, looking at me.

“I’m going to go to Weld, so he doesn’t have to work so hard to get to us,” Sveta said.

“I’ll come,” Capricorn volunteered.

It left me with Lookout, Cryptid, Natalie and her friend.

I looked at the friend.  He was red haired, with a red beard, and very blue eyes, and hooked his thumbs into his belt in a way that I wanted to describe as forced-casual.

“I’m Victoria.  Antares if you want to use something fancier,” I introduced myself.

“Tony.  I got the rundown on the group from a distance,” he said.  He shook my hand.  “I’m keeping an eye on things at Lookout’s house on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, making a dinner, breakfast.  Usually there are two of us there at a time.”

“Because I really need that much supervision,” Lookout said.

“We supervise each other, too,” Tony said.

“They thought we should send someone here for this meeting to supervise and ensure we know what’s going on,” Natalie said.  “Tony’s a friend of a friend of mine that’s in family law.”

“We saw each other a few times when we did the big friend group get-togethers.  You know the kind, where you say hi to a bunch of people that are three degrees of separation away from you, but you don’t ever really talk to them,” Tony said.

“I know the kind,” I said, smiling.

“We’re talking now,” Natalie said.

“Everything’s okay on the home front?” I asked.  I looked at Lookout.

“Okay enough,” Lookout said.  “Quiet.”

“We’ll figure out something more long-term later,” Tony said.  “For now, quiet isn’t the worst thing.”

“No power all last night,” Lookout said.  “It’s terrible.  No TV, no movies, no computer, can’t run half my tech.”

“Build a generator,” Cryptid said.

“I’d have to box it up, and I’d have to make it big if I wanted to get energy from nothing, and it takes resources, and it takes time.  And oh, duh, I can’t build in the dark, so I’d need a generator to build a generator.  See my problem?  Ugh.

“Ugh,” Cryptid echoed her.  “Try harder.”

“Go easy, Cryptid,” I said.  “Why don’t you go for a walk?”

“Whatever,” he said.  The camouflage that cloaked him slipped around his body as he moved, adapting to the surroundings within a few feet of him with each step or so.

“Come on,” I told Lookout.  “You two okay on your own?”

“Capes are neat,” Natalie said, in a way that made me think she was being sarcastic.  “We’ll crowd-watch.  Right?”

“Yeah,” Tony said.

“What are we doing?” Lookout asked.

“Checking in,” I said.

There were too many things I needed to know, wanted to ask.  Some were past, some present, some future.

And Lookout needed some distractions, because as far as I could tell, her home life was less mired in the bad, but there was also a distinct lack of good in it.  I could imagine it was lonely.

As I took her hands, my eye fell on my mom, who was talking to my dad.

Even when things weren’t great, or when there was a measure of resentment or hurt feeling, there was sometimes hope.  There was a lingering fondness.

I flew, lifting Lookout over the crowd, past Weld, Sveta, and Capricorn, who were together, Weld with one arm around Sveta’s back, helping to keep her upright as they tried to talk to five people at once.

We landed on the far side.  There was a crowd here too.  It was more the team leaders like Mayday and Houndstooth who were lingering here.

We lingered, waiting.  Lookout craned her head around, looking at the Dragon mech.

“She combined my tech with that hack Brim’s stuff for the eyes, I think,” Lookout said.  “I know I signed off on other PRT tinkers using my stuff, but it kind of sucks that she didn’t use just my stuff on its own.”

“If you get a chance, you could ask her why.”

“I don’t think I could.  She’s so amazing and important, and I’d sound so petty.”

She was interested, her attention occupied, but I had no idea on whether she was okay.  I wasn’t sure the home situation was good like this, as temporary as it was, but did she ever have a good home situation?

I could have asked her how she was, but I wasn’t sure I could trust the response.  She would sooner tell me she was fine when she wasn’t than be upfront and risk scaring me off.

Maybe… a roundabout route?

“If Swansong was here right now, what would she tell you?”

I saw her head tilt.

“Don’t overthink it.  It doesn’t matter what I feel or know.  How does she respond?  Generally speaking, not about Dragon.  But about anything today.”

“You keep telling me stuff and changing what I’m supposed to think about.”

“Just… don’t think.  Off the top of your head.”

“She’d be like, imbecile.  Go kick ass.  Be proud of yourself.  I dunno.”

“Doesn’t sound quite right.”

“I’m not the Swansong whisperer,” Lookout said.  “But I know she treats me pretty nice and she doesn’t think much about other people being important.  They’ll all be… subservent?”

“Subservient,” I said.

“They’ll scrape and bow before her in the end.  So she’d say even Dragon shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’m focused more on you than on her, though.  What would you regret?  Saying something and being shut down, or saying something and maybe getting a neat bit of info?”

Lookout shrugged.  “I get turned down a lot, I guess.”

“I didn’t mean to frame it that way, but…”

“But…” she picked up where I’d trailed off.  “Can’t hurt too badly.”

Mayday kept giving us more and more wary looks, until he gave Defiant a handshake and left.  A bit nervous – it hadn’t been my intention to bring Lookout uncomfortably close to him.

My intention was more along the lines of opening a dialogue with the closest thing we had to heroes at the top.  The new Triumvirate were all either busy or they’d been taken when Mrs. Yamada had.  There wasn’t any clear indication.

Defiant turned his attention to us.

“Victoria.”

“Defiant.  Thank you for coordinating people.”

“Thank you for the information you sent us.  We’re still sorting through it and verifying.”

The stuff from beyond the G-N portal.  In drafting it, Capricorn, Sveta and I had included the details about the jail, as well as how they’d been acquired.

“Your mother and father are over there,” he said.  “You’re not with them?”

I shook my head.  “Not right now.”

“It’s complicated,” Dragon said, like she knew.  When I gave her a curious look, she said, “Your parents are working for us, until the Wardens are established again.  In costume she’s halfway with us, halfway with her old team.  Whatever she prefers at the time.”

I felt uncomfortable that my mother had so casually, even easily slotted herself into this.

“Parents are complicated,” Lookout said.

“They really are, aren’t they?” Dragon asked.  “We interact now and then with your sister, just to make sure you aren’t caught unawares.”

I winced.  I tried to be diplomatic.  “Makes sense.  She’s strong.”

It was Defiant who mercifully changed the subject.  “You did a good job with the portals, getting us to a place where we could save most.  Valefor.  Mama Mathers.”

“Our team’s collective efforts,” I said.  “This is one member.  Lookout.”

“I know Lookout,” he said.

“We’ve met?”

It was Dragon who replied, breaking away from a side conversation with Cinereal.  As she approached, the head of her dragon craft moved slightly to follow.

“The internet slowdown?” Dragon asked.

“Oof.  Embarrassing.”

“Confidential files on capes.”

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  “Oops.  I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

“If you got into the files, we might have had to take action.”

“Not going to do it again.”

“Glad to hear it,” Dragon said.  “I’ve read your file-”

“Oooohh.  Oh no.”

“-and I know where things stand.  Did you need anything?”

“Nothing big.  I know you’re busy.”

“The little things can matter a lot.  I wouldn’t mind a brief distraction.  What did you need?”

Lookout looked up at me, then over at Dragon.  “Why’d you use Brim’s visor tech with my eye tech?”

“A very good question.  If you promise to be good, and if your teammate is okay with it…”

“Sure,” I said.  “We need her back in a few minutes, though.”

It looked like Weld, Sveta and Tristan might soon wrap up the Warden business of corralling people and handling questions.  The crowd was dwindling, with people breaking away to talk to others.

Lookout took Dragon’s hand.  The ship opened up to accept them into the bay area, where a team or cargo could presumably be stored.  Monitors lit up around them.

“I’m glad you’re better, Victoria,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  The words were kind, but I wished I hadn’t heard them, because they were a reminder.

“I’ve scanned files about your team members,” he said.  He leaned back against the side of the ship, setting the spear so it stood a few feet beside him, needing no hands on it to keep it upright.  “You’ve taken on a pretty heavy job.”

I nodded.

“I wish things had gone differently.”

“I want things to be different this time around.  Thinking about the future, not the past.”

“I agree.”

“And- completely contradicting myself… Armsmaster- Defiant.  I don’t know exactly what happened, when Leviathan attacked.”

Even with the power armor he wore, not just regular armor but armor that required motors and machinery to move, I could see him draw in a deep breath.  I couldn’t see his face to read his expression.

Same as Lookout.  Same as Dragon.

Was it because I’d grown up with New Wave that I found it so frustrating, now?  I’d always considered myself a cape at heart, and now I was feeling this annoyance at the omnipresence of something fundamental- masks.  Secret identities.

Did I jar them just as much?  Did they look beneath my hood and expect to see a mask there?

“What about that day concerns you?” he asked.

“You did something- you broke the truce.  You were deemed guilty enough that they ‘retired’ you.”

“All correct.”

“Eric Pelham.  Neil Pelham.  Shielder and Manpower?”

“Yes.”

“You did something, and… did that something get my family members killed?”

“Shielder was before my mistake.  Manpower- he was after.”

“You got him killed?”

“Not through malice.  Not even carelessness, I feel.  My mistake was that I decided I was fine with villains dying if it meant the monster could be slain.  By me, ideally.  Manpower was there, but I didn’t want him to die.  I told myself that if Leviathan had to kill someone to end up in a certain time or place, it might as well be Kaiser.  My computer helped work out the sequence of events.”

Shit on me.

Yeah.  That was a violation of the truce.  It fit neatly into things.

“If the villains had been spared- if you hadn’t started down that route?  Would his chances have been better?  Do you think Shielder could have died because you were subconsciously preparing to do this?”

There was a pause.

“I don’t know, Victoria Dallon,” he told me.  There was something less crisp and confident in his voice, more momentarily lost, that left me feeling like he genuinely didn’t know.  Maybe even to the extent that it wasn’t something he’d truly considered before now.

I wanted to be angry and I couldn’t.  It just hurt.  I felt the loss of those family members very pointedly right now, especially with Crystal away.

He went on, “But if there’s even a possibility, I’d be willing to do anything reasonable to make it up to you.  It’s the sort of effort that keeps me moving forward.”

I nodded.

I wasn’t even sure how to feel about that.  I understood the idea, even if I hated that he might be responsible for the renewed feeling of loss I was dealing with right now.

I hadn’t come here with the plan of guilting him and using that- but he was offering help and… fuck me, we needed it.

“The prison complex.  We have teammates there,” I said.

“I don’t think we can release them.  Things are volatile.  Unless you have new evidence you’d like for us to push through.”

Kenzie needed this.  The team needed it.

I shook my head.  “I don’t think you could or should, either.  My question is, can you get us in to visit?  As a group?”

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Torch – Interlude 7.y

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Gary Nieves was trying to save a world, and he was failing.

Twenty-six million people. The world had ended two years ago, and, as of last week, there were still twenty-six million people trying to survive on Earth Bet. The attacks had hit the portals, and some of the most accessible avenues between Earth B and Earth G had been wiped out.

He was pretty sure that they hadn’t been able to process more than a few million in the last week. Over twenty million people were out there, ready to file through with the things they could carry or pack.  Many had been forced to relocate to other portals, after months of waiting for their turns at the portals in Earth B or equivalent areas in Earth B’s New York. Many found themselves at the back of the line at whatever stations they were forced to move to.  Some would get on trains.  Here, they had to get on trucks, because the portal was too narrow for anything else.  The narrowness slowed things down more.

The only light was from spotlights, and for a moment, every spotlight was on a giant robot with a glass face, a giant eel swimming in the fluid within. Metal and strange technology gleamed in the instant before the spotlights changed focus, some turning to the convoy that followed the giant robot. The parahuman who managed the robot stood atop the thing, waving at someone on the ground as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Gary saw more of the trucks come through, most were logging vehicles with benches fixed to the back, every bench crammed with people, shoulder to shoulder, knees often touching the people on the bench in front of them, bags crammed beneath them. There was no exterior to the truck, nothing to break the intense wind that whipped through the area and stirred up the dirt and dust. Many of the people on benches faced off to the side, looking at the world they were being brought into.

Some looked directly at Gary, who was beneath a canopy tent, open on four sides because the wind that blew across the city was liable to blow any tent with walls down.  He was surrounded by foldable tables, computers, communication gear and plastic crates.

Jeanne Wynn from Mortari had told him that people were getting sick over there. He’d seen people come through looking pale, underweight, and listless, but up until recent days, he’d chalked it up to the weather on the other side, the rationing, and the wounds that many had sustained to their very soul, to lose the universe they called home.

He wanted better for them. He did. Earth G was better than what they were coming from, but it wasn’t nearly good enough.

He’d made his bid to run the city, and he’d been ousted, because he wasn’t willing to cheat.  Now he felt the acute lack of leadership in this situation.  This was so far from being good enough.

“Ed!” Gary bellowed, double checking the monitor in front of him. This was triage at this point – there weren’t any locations that were actually ready to take people in, so he had to send them to the closest thing to ready, but there were other factors. The plaza at block nineteen was most capable and had the most capacity, but security had been called there five times in the last hour. Tess, the woman in charge, had called for some parahumans to help keep the peace, and Gary knew that she hated the people who ran around in costume. He had Ed’s attention, and now he had to make a call. “Take the convoy to block three!”

Ed was atop a concrete tower by one of the gates. The man moved the illuminated batons he held, indicating the direction to lot C. His partner would be on the radio, talking to others, ready to indicate the rest of the direction.

Gary hoped that the plaza would be peaceful enough to accept new people, because there were already messages coming through, saying that there would be another convoy in two minutes.

Sixty people could be packed into the back of one logging truck. Ten trucks had come through with the giant robot and its eel.

Not even a dent. This convoy marked six hundred out of an estimated twenty million.

Trucks passed. He recognized one of them as a military supply truck that had jackknifed and rolled while carrying civilians, just two weeks ago. A mechanical failure. People had died, and the image of that same truck carrying both civilians and bodies covered by white plastic sheets had burned into his mind’s eye. Now it was back on the road, because they were short on vehicles that could carry large numbers and traverse some of the rougher, broken terrain on the far side of the portal.

He saw mothers and fathers who couldn’t even bring themselves to look hopeful as they made it through the portal. He saw others, more heartbreaking, who came through with light in their eyes- until they saw the distorted portals looming along the horizon.  There was no doubt they’d heard about them, but to see it?  He was thankful that it was late evening, and that the portals weren’t that visible.  He didn’t have to see the expressions change.

The giant robot with the eel inside stepped aside, the hand raising to give the person on top a platform to stand on. It lowered, putting the parahuman on a level with his teammates. The Shepherds.

Gary wasn’t the only one who was watching their every move. Reasons differed- children looked because costumes were brightly colored, personalities standing out in bold relief. Men looked because they worried, like Gary did, or, he assumed, because their eyes were drawn to young ladies in dresses that showed bare legs and left no illusions about chest size. Women- he had no idea why women stared. Probably the same things.

“Are they getting in the way?” Heather asked.

Gary shook his head. “Not so far.”

Heather was Gary’s relief, meant to be available if he took a break, with a five-hour shift due to start when he wrapped up his evening to get his five hours of sleep. That would have been an hour ago, but there had been so much to do he hadn’t been able to conscience stopping. She could have stood down, taking the extra opportunity to rest, but she was working in the background, supporting and double checking his work for mistakes, because mistakes happened when people were as tired as they were.

Given the fatigue and everything else, it would have been so easy for them to be at each other’s throats.  Even if they’d both followed the routine outlined, stress, proximity, and fatigue could easily have seen them at each other’s throats.  It didn’t happen.  They worked well together, he felt.  He had zero complaints, and she hadn’t suggested she was upset in the slightest.

As trucks slowed to round a corner, heading off to lot three, people were hopping up onto the sides of the trucks, bags in hand. Water and some basic food, to greet the newest refugees and look after those in need.

The heroes were still caught up with their discussion. The Shepherds were one of two hero groups present, the other being a loose assortment of the parahumans that had been guarding stations. The other stations were closed so all available personnel and parahumans could focus on getting people out of Earth B.

The Shepherds broke from their huddle. Each of them moved with a direction that suggested they knew exactly where they were going. Nobody came his way, though he was supposed to be in charge of this station and the connecting nodes. Nobody went to Ari, Mortari’s representative on scene- technically the person who was supposed to have final say from the higher-ups. Had they gone to Ari, Gary would have felt snubbed, but he would at least have felt like the parahumans recognized that people were working here, trying to get stuff done.

Had they come to him, or even if they’d gone to Ari, they’d have been told to stay clear of lot nineteen until things settled down. Gary could have told them where they would be useful.

He could taste acid in his mouth, and swallowing was hard.  It was nothing to do with powers, and nothing to do with medical problems, not this time.  It was his body’s unique way of telling him that he was stressed out.

“Ed!” he called up to the tower. “See if you can’t get any of the Shepherds on the radio! We need to know where they’re going!”

“Right!” Ed called back.

“One hand doesn’t know what the other’s doing,” Heather said.

She was half his age, liked by just about everyone, and, despite the fact that everyone here was supposed to be on the same side as they tackled this crisis, it didn’t work out that way in practice. She was one of the few he could count as being unreservedly in his corner. For much that reason, the talk and grumbling about hands and the struggle to get people to cooperate was a common refrain between them.

“Shepherds are doing their own thing, the… whoever they’re supposed to be, that used to be Wardens and are keeping an eye on things-”

“The thinkers,” Heather said.

“Sure, if you want to call them that. No leadership, no communication. They come, they do their shifts, they leave, and they act as if they’re insulted if we try to ask for details or if they can appoint a liaison. Those thinkers don’t think,” he said.

“And then John Druck, and Mortari, and the organizers on the far side, in Earth Bet-” Heather went on.

Gary checked the timers. His main window was an overhead map of everything with lots marked out and an 8-bit bus ticking along the map millimeter by millimeter. It was supposed to be black, but it was now ticking back and forth, an alarming red.

She leaned close. “Late.”

“Help me out, Heather? See if you can’t find Ari and figure out if he knows where we’re getting tripped up tonight? People keep showing up later and later, and they’re getting processed slower.”

“I think we’re all tired, Gary.”

“Feels like more,” he said. “Find Ari?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Don’t fall asleep.”

“I’ve got coffee.”

A thinker near the main portal relieved the detestable girl with the rats.

The ‘heroes’ did their own thing. Other factions were serving their own leaders. Druck’s labor, Mortari reporting to Wynn. That left a share of maybe twenty or thirty percent who were citizen volunteers, serving under him. He’d organized the volunteers and set the systems in place to train them. The backbone was a team of people that he’d once hoped would be able to go back to Earth B and start cleaning things up enough that they could start resettling it.

He’d hoped they’d be able to go home.

It was the numbers that slipped through his fingers, and drove home how out of reach it all was. Six hundred bodies out of twenty million. Twenty to thirty percent of the three thousand people here were his, or were supposed to be.  But so many of them believed in the Shepherds, felt the Shepherds’ views aligned with their own.  Gary knew they didn’t.

The lights flickered, spotlights going off, then coming on one at a time, unevenly, as the power came back on.  He could hear the distant machinery buck into action as generators came online.

He looked around his tent, spotting his bulky flood flashlight in the moment before the power went out for good.

The generators only ever really bought them a second.

Blind, he went to the flashlight, hitting the button to turn it on.  There were battery powered lanterns in one of the totes.  People nearby came to him like moths to a candle.  He was one of the only proper sources of light.  The others were Patrol, officers, and others with flashlights as part of their standard operating gear.  Those lights were more for personal use.

Gary’s supply was the kind of thing meant to light up work areas.  He passed them out until he saw a face he recognized, and then delegated.

“Where’s Ari!?” he called out.

He got mixed, inconsistent answers.

“The Shepherds?”

“Full patrol,” came a nearby report.

He had no idea what that meant.  He’d tried asking about terminology before, too.

Up on the tower, Ed had battery power for a floodlight.

“Conserve batteries!” Gary called up.  “Only half on at a time, until we know what’s going on!”

His computer had a battery of its own, and the machine it was hooked up to gave it a satellite feed.  In a vast sea of darkness, with much of the city unlit at this late hour, people were retreating to Gary’s tent.

It was a primitive instinct, like cavemen retreating to the shelter of the campfire.  The instinct made it hard to check his computer.

It couldn’t be easy.  The stalled convoy was moving again.  If it had stayed put, then at least they could get organized and ready before it appeared.

“We don’t get a break just because it’s dark!  Another convoy is coming through, and it looks like eight hundred!” he called out. “There are construction helmets with lights mounted on them in the tent with the barricades!  There should be flares!  We need enough light that we can point them in the right direction and keep them from driving into anything!  Go!”

People ran to do as he’d ordered.  Others were moving the opposite direction, clustering closer.

Why wasn’t Mortari leading?  Why couldn’t the heroes be here to offer up one of their magical solutions?

As if thinking about them had summoned them, he saw how the girl with the rats was part of the crowd, and her eerily terrible mask with its bent nose was made all the worse by the dim lighting that came from low, below-the-neck angles.

“I’ll help,” she said.  “Even though I’m on break.”

Then she turned to go.

When he’d been in fourth grade, an abysmal teacher had left him so stressed out that he’d gotten an ulcer.  It was the kind of person he was.  He could remember the ambient pain across his stomach, the distended way he’d felt, as if the stress had gathered inside him and was stretching his skin, and he could remember the acid taste in his mouth.  That teacher and that experience had shaped him, driving home a distaste for authority figures who couldn’t lead.

He hadn’t had an ulcer since two years ago, but something psychosomatic made him feel echoes of those old sensations and tastes when he was acutely stressed.

He’d been feeling the acid in his throat and mouth and a dull pain in his stomach for a while now.  It felt more pronounced now, to the point it probably exceeded what he would feel if it was real.

“People with headlamps on each side of the road!” he shouted.  “Make sure they know where the road stops!  The rest of you, if you don’t have business in this tent, there’s lights going up under the concrete towers!  Go there, or go get water and hydrate our refugees!”

“He’s saying he wants you out of our tent!” Heather shouted.  She was back, or she’d turned around when everything had gone dark.

The shouting didn’t help with the acid taste in his mouth.

Most people left the tent.  The ones that stayed were recognizable faces- people he didn’t mind seeing.  Not his, not one hundred percent, like Heather was, but they were friendly enough.

“Ari’s occupied.  He’s tied up in policy stuff.”

Gary shook his head.  “Well, I don’t envy him, but I think if he was going to be this busy, Mortari could have sent more people here.”

“Wholesale agreement here, Gary,” Heather said.

The headlights of the convoy were visible.

“Make sure they come in slow!” Heather called out instructions.  “We don’t have enough light!”

He looked at his monitor.  He hated it, especially since there was no sign that nineteen had resolved its disputes, but this was a big load of people, and he couldn’t conscience overburdening others with an influx of refugees when nineteen was mostly empty.

“Block nineteen,” he said.

“Nineteen!” Heather shouted, her voice high.  Others passed it on, and on the concrete tower, illuminated batons touched tips to form a chevron shape.  ‘Careful’.

The trucks were overburdened.  People were almost falling off or walking alongside because there wasn’t enough space on the benches.  The wind was fierce, as it so often was around the portals, and the trucks were having a hard time driving in a straight line as a consequence.

What was this?  A thousand people?  It was supposed to be eight hundred at most.  Even if every single waypoint was ready, stocked, and fresh, there wouldn’t be a good place for him to stick a thousand people.

He left his canopy, waving down the lead driver.  A hero sat on the roof of the vehicle- a man with a costume that had some technological aspects hooked up.  Purple fluid glowed like it was under a blacklight, running through tubes to bracelets and something he wore along his spine.  When the guy smiled, the saliva in his mouth was more glow-in-the-dark purple.

Gary tried to ignore him.  There were things to do, answers to get.  “What’s going on?  A thousand people?”

“Eleven hundred.”

Fuck me,” Gary said, his voice pitched low so that any kids at the back of the truck wouldn’t hear.  “Come on, man.”

“They’re sardines over there.  Logistics are a nightmare.  Sir, seriously, just bring them over here and set them loose into the woods.  It’s gotta be better than what we’re dealing with on the other side.”

“We’ve got to give them ID, make sure we aren’t letting dangerous people in.  We give them a bit of money to start off, because they almost always have immediate needs.  If we do like you’re saying, they’ll be second class citizens.”

“These guys are all people we vetted ourselves.”

“We don’t know your standards,” he said.  “Can you split up the convoy?”

“You’d be parting some people from their belongings.”

Gary turned to Heather, who was standing back, a walkie talkie to her ear.  She mouthed the word ‘Ari’ to him.

It took a minute.  People were restless, and all the more restless because there were so many refugees coming through on foot, who weren’t staying in one place.

The thinkers were walking around and through the crowd, checking people.  That was supposed to be some solace, he imagined.  They’d see any weapons or traps.

“Ari says we can split up the people.”

“Have people get their belongings if they can.  Trucks should get into position, moving slowly enough that we don’t run over anyone.  One to block nineteen, one to block six.”

The trucks began to move at a crawl, a mile an hour if that.  People hopped off or moved to the other truck, or made sure they had their bags.  If this took too long, Gary knew, the next load of people would arrive.  Backups and jams led to dissent, which led to violence and people who had only frustration as their first exposure to Earth G.  It set bad precedents.

Things were still creeping forward when a sharp sound cracked through the air.  His first instinct was to think it was something like the truck jackknifing.  A mechanical failure, a backfire-

He heard the screams.  The parahuman that had been perched atop a truck hit the ground, luminescent purple blood splattering to the ground around him.

There were more shots.

“Get down!” he shouted, but so many people were shouting or shrieking at the very tops of their lungs that he couldn’t be heard.  It was a noise and a sudden onset of chaos that made it hard to see straight.  He did what he could, motioning, indicating direction.  The blood had sprayed in one direction, the parahuman knocked from his perch by a shot from the west.  He had people take cover by the base of the truck, backs to wheels.  People hugged the bed of the truck, using the benches and luggage as cover.

The next battery of shots came from the east.  That was- it had to be automatic weapon’s fire.

A planned maneuver, to give them no place to take cover.  Flanking gunfire from two separate directions, with serious firearms.  Even the blackout-

Had it been planned?  The idea filled him with a terror that somehow had more certainty than the bullets coming from the opposite direction.

“The tents!” he shouted, and nobody could hear him.  “The tents!”

He started toward the tents, crossing open ground, and a shot hit the dirt a foot from where he stood.  He beckoned, urging.  Here, at least, there were plastic totes filled with equipment and supplies, enough that a bullet wouldn’t necessarily pass through.

He saw the woman with the rat mask.  She ran low to the ground, straight toward the source of gunfire.

People followed him.  People got shot for following him, because they were exposed, and each person he saw fall was a wound in the fabric of his very soul, because he was responsible.

Not wholly for the deaths.  People would have died regardless.

Not wholly as leadership here.  Others were supposed to be here to take charge.  He was trying.

But between and through some alchemy of the two, he was responsible.

“Hurry, hurry!” he shouted.  People weren’t screaming as much.  They went to the tent, ducking inside.  He found his back to one crate heavy enough his weight resting against it didn’t budge it.  It would be cover- if it was placed in a better spot.  His face distorted with effort as he dragged it across dirt.  Someone else put a hand on it, helping.  “Stack crates if you can!”

People did.  He did what he could to help, when he was close enough to reach, but he and most others prioritized keeping their heads down.  When crates were lifted up, it was by groups of four people who were careful to use cover.  One of the heavier crates was being emptied, so the bin could be placed up high and then filled.

Assailants who lurked in the deep shadow around the portal station emptied their guns into the camp, placing their shots in the vicinity of people who had yet to take cover.  Gary watched people die.  All ages, all creeds.  He felt a stabbing pain in his stomach like he had been one of the people shot, ten times worse than anything he remembered of the ulcer he’d had as a child.

Someone was calling his name.  He looked back.

Ed was at the door at the base of the concrete tower.  He had guns -rifles.  They fired one shot, then needed a multi-step process to reload.  They were meant for hunting and maybe for self defense, for the vast majority of instances that a single bullet would serve for.

Not for- for an outright battle.

He had been in one fistfight in his life, with his brother when he had been twelve and his eleven year old brother had called him gay.  He knew his guns, and used them for fun, but he had never been one of the people who had dreamed up scenarios where he might have a justifiable excuse to use one or be a hero.

Ed pressed the gun and a box of ammunition into his hands.

In this situation, he felt the furthest thing from being a ‘hero’.

Every second, someone was dead or set firmly in that direction.

Ed was handing out more guns, favoring people he knew.  The stockpile- weapons meant for refugees, kept more for their barter potential and in case of what had once been thought of as a worst case scenario, that the refugees might riot here in this camp.

There were only ten of them with shitty rifles.

He didn’t want to do this, but he couldn’t ask it of anyone else- he knew he could land his shots, if he could see his target.  It would be hard to see.

“If one of us shoots, we all shoot.  Hold your fire unless you think you can make it count,” Ed said, only audible because his mouth was almost against Gary’s ear.  He spoke to the group, two people at a time, in much the same fashion.

Gary stared at the scene.

Flashlights had fallen.  Yellow construction helmets with lights attached to the front lay in dirt.  There were places the beams sliced across sprays of blood that had formed fluid balls or layers atop the dirt, rather than soaking into it.

He was so rattled he couldn’t count the arms and legs he saw strewn across the area around the trucks.  It wasn’t that they were dismembered, but that the light and darkness chopped things up, so only one thing was visible at a time.

Too many moved- still hurting.  But it was impossible to get to them if the guns weren’t dealt with.

Beyond those isolated beams of light, there was so much darkness.  There were no flashes in the darkness as the automatic weapons fired.

“Go,” Ed said.

They broke away, using a hill for cover as they circled toward the group with the guns.

It felt like a suicide mission- they would each fire once.  At best, they could drop half of the people on this one side of the station.  Then what?

The opposition would open fire.  Even with cover, they’d have no chance.  There would be no returning fire.

But to do nothing?

Every second or third step he took, he tripped, because the ground wasn’t even, or there were obstacles.  He thought the noise of it might disturb the shooters, but the sound of the guns drowned everything out.

Only darkness, absence of light.  Only cacophony, overabundance of sound.

Only the cold feel of a weapon in his hands, hot feel of arm against body, armpit sweaty.  Foot in boot, his awareness so sharp and out of place that he was aware of toes rubbing together, swimming in sweat like it had dripped off his body and filled his boots.

They hunkered down around one stone that stuck out of the hill.

No heroes in costume, no Mortari, no light, no help.

“Ready,” Ed said.

They got into position, guns pointed in the direction of the sound.

“Fire,” Ed said.

There was a hesitation after the word, as if the tried and true, universal ‘ready, aim, fire’ that had been imprinted in the collective consciousness had been broken, and that in itself created the doubt.

At least, that was what it felt like to Gary Nieves.  The fact he might be shooting at someone was lost in the moment, because he couldn’t see them, and he couldn’t hear them.  They were disembodied and if he straddled any fence at all, for all that he’d lived a mostly nonviolent life, the outrage he felt put him firmly in the universe where he pulled the trigger.

The guns were so loud- louder even than the semiautomatic ones that fired eight or more bullets in a single violent ‘splaaat’ sound.  His jaw clenched so hard that his temples hurt.

Then, fumbling, he worked to reload.

The next wave of semiautomatic fire was directed at them, hitting the rock they were using for cover.

Gary slid down to the ground, crawling around the rock.  Peeking around the corner at the very base of the rock, he took aim as best he could in the near-pitch darkness, and he fired.

The shot provided a hint of illumination.  There was a figure striding toward them- a man in a knit mask with no holes for eyes or mouth.  By his posture, he didn’t seem to care that people behind him were shooting past him to try to hit Gary’s group.

Others saw, and they opened fire.

The man darted around, jumping a half-foot to the right, a foot to the left, a step back, two steps forward.  Teleportation or something like it.  No bullets landed because he was relocated in the instant before anything -friend or foe- could hit him.

He hopped up onto the rock, boots scuffing, drawing a knife from his belt.

No, Gary thought.

“Run!” he barked out the word.

Half the group, Gary included, ran.

The other half tried to fight, with ‘try’ being the fundamental idea at play.  Gary’s third rifle shot was aimed at the man in costume.

The first attack on the man’s part missed, because he relocated mid-swing, avoiding a bullet.  He swung back the other direction, however, then back again, almost careless in how he swung back and forth.  Ed’s friend Shane died.  Ed kicked out- hit only air as the man relocated to a spot just to the left.  A knife plunged into Ed’s chest.

Gary fumbled to reload, dropping his ammo.  They’d left their cover, and they were still under fire.  Soon was hit in the midsection and sat down hard, falling back because they were on a slope.  Even in the dark, the whites of his eyes were visible.

Gary found more ammunition, slotting it into the side of the rifle.

The man with the knife had three bodies near him, now, and the dark silhouette on a dark background was fixating his attention on a fourth person, who was trying to run for it.  That person -another of Gary’s volunteers- wasn’t nearly so camouflaged in the dark.  His blue shirt stood out in the gloom.

The knife-wielding parahuman didn’t get his hands on that person- but only because the people with the semiautomatics landed a killing blow before he could get there.

Gary ran.

A loud noise and an intense gust following the movement of aircraft bowled him over.  He skidded on the slope below him.

A giant robot, and not the one with the eel inside.

Anyone would have recognized this kind of design.  Sleek, green with gold trim, with enough lights on it that it seemed to glow.  The craft landed a short distance from where the shooters had been.

The flashes as the machine attacked were brilliant, though Gary wasn’t in a position to see what had caused it.

The parahuman who nobody could touch was approaching Gary’s group.  A sharp whistle from behind gave it pause.

A man in green scale armor with gold trim, a faint beard on his chin, a spear in hand.  He swung the spear, and the head detached, swinging like a flail with what had to be a thirty foot cord or wire.

The parahuman disappeared, reappearing at a point close to the base of the hill.  Just out of reach of the flail.

The man in green armor swung the flail again, but this time the head came loose.  It disappeared into the darkness.

An explosion ripped through an area at the foot of the hill.  The spear’s head had detonated- and the parahuman stood at the periphery of the explosion.  His arm went up to his nose and mouth.

“You can’t touch him!” Gary shouted.  “He killed three people!”

“More than three,” the man in green and gold armor said.  He held his spear-shaft like one might hold a rifle.  It bucked like it had fired something, but it was silent, and there was no light nor smoke.

Another explosion, but this was more of a firecracker, detonating before it made impact with the parahuman’s head.

“There,” the man in green said.  “Who can give medical attention?”

Gary couldn’t.  One of the people Ed had conscripted could.  He went to the man in green armor’s side.

The parahuman at the base of the hill was coughing violently, now at his knees.  Gas.

The situation was resolving.  The gunfire had ceased with the arrival of the big craft.  Other capes were down in the town below, including the giant robot with the eel in it.  They weren’t- he refused to let them be important.  Gary could only see the carnage, the massive loss of life.  People who had come here hoping for better.  They hadn’t even had a chance.

How unjust a thing was that?  How galling?  They’d had no part in Gold Morning.  They’d had no part in the waits or the delays, the plodding efforts to move people through when people were getting more sick or more desperate every day.  By whim and the movements of greater players, they had lost their lives.

He dropped the gun.  It wasn’t needed, and it wasn’t him.  He wasn’t the kind of person who could give medical care.

He made his way down the hill and toward the station, where the road emerged from the portal and concrete walls with a few towers for vantage points helped to secure the area.  The people within guided people coming through to other locations.  The lights of Dragon’s craft illuminated much of the area.

People were in a daze, as they tentatively emerged from the shelter of the tents and the surrounding crates.  They stared around them at the bodies.  The trucks had taken enough gunfire that tires had popped and small things like door handles and side-view mirrors had broken away.

“If you’re able bodied, try to find the wounded among the dead,” he called out.  “We need clean water, get it boiling so it’s sterile, for the wounded.  Jim, use the coffee machine with no coffee grinds- it handles large quantities.”

Jim got moving.

“Kath- blankets, we have rescue blankets in one of the totes.  Recruit help, see if you can find them.  They might be under other crates.  Lay the ones we aren’t using for people on the ground.  Dominic, you-”

He stopped as he saw Heather.

He walked around her body, the words failing him.

So many eyes were watching him, looking to him for leadership.  They saw him crack a little in the moment.  He’d let them.  He clenched his fist, like he was grasping something in front of him, then let it fall.  He thought he might cry, but he stopped himself from going that far.

So many.

“What do I do?” Dominic asked.  The poor fucking kid, he was only sixteen, and he was trying to hold it together and help.

It helped Gary to pull himself together.  “Radio.  Let other places know what happened.  Uh- we’re going to need people for-”

So many.  Attacked and shot for no clear purpose.  It caught him off guard.

The ground rumbled as the giant robot landed nearby.  Mechanical arms reached out to the nearby power poles, and the power came back on.  It wasn’t a good thing, when it brought the losses into sharp relief.

Dragon and Defiant emerged from the craft.

“I’m Dragon, that’s Defiant, and that’s my ship.  We can take wounded in her,” Dragon said.

People tentatively drew nearer to the two heroes and their giant robot.

“It was an act of war,” Defiant said.  “More brazen than the other recent attacks.  They’ve been testing the waters, going after areas they see as vulnerable.”

There was a pause.

“I’m so sorry for your losses,” Defiant said.

“You’re in charge here, Gary?” Dragon asked.

She knew his name?

“You were a candidate for mayor,” she explained.

“I’m-” he started.  His voice was small.

That was the thing.  He wanted to show emotion but he couldn’t show that emotion, because he would break down.

“Ari was in charge,” he said.  “From Mortari.”

“Ari Burke, I assume?” she asked.  He nodded.

She knew the names so easily.  His.  Ari’s.

“Ari’s dead,” she said, her head turned.  “Does that put you in charge?”

“I-” he started.  He shook his head slightly.  “I guess.”

“Let us know if you need anything.  Until we get other instructions, we’re going to tend to the wounded and shuttle them to hospitals.  We’ll take routes that let us keep an eye out for trouble.  When the refugees start coming through again, we’ll take some with us, if they’re willing to settle a location a little further afield.  Jeanne Wynn already signed off on it.”

There it was.  The magical solutions.  Getting to be a hero.  Jeanne Wynn was a parahuman, he was ninety-five percent sure, and she got her own magical solutions.

There was no acid taste in Gary’s mouth as he digested that.  It had been a long, long time since he’d felt this bitter about something and his body hadn’t conjured up that strange sensation.

It felt too far away, when the here and the now were in such brutal, bloody relief.

“This is horrible,” Dragon said.  “Seriously, anything we can do to help, let us know.  We’re putting ourselves on the line by showing our faces, but I don’t think we can conscience holding back any longer.  We can help with this.”

“Help?” Gary asked.  “Why- I mean, if you want to help, let me ask you.  Why did this happen?”

“Greed and wrath,” Defiant said.  “People want this world and the resources it has, everything it’s connected to, and the possibilities it offers.  They’re willing to hurt others to get what they want.”

Gary shook his head.  “It’s you.”

Defiant looked confused, but Dragon said, “I don’t think that’s especially fair, Gary.  Heroes as a whole are doing their best.  Defiant and I haven’t been showing our faces, but we come with potential solutions to key problems.  Give us a chance.”

“Parahumans took the world from us,” Gary said.  “They took the sky.  Our greatest hero turned out to be the greatest monster, and we don’t get any answers about why.  Haven’t we been giving you chances from the beginning?  How much worse do things have to get?”

He’d barely remembered that he had people watching.  Like always, people in costume drew intense focus, and so his debate was drawing more attention than an argument already would.

It surprised him that the people were nodding along as he talked.

“We’re doing the best we can, just like any of you,” Defiant said.

“I think we’re owed better than this,” Gary said.  He gestured.  Emotion seeped into his voice, unwanted.  “This- this isn’t good.  I was a candidate for mayor.  I heard things, saw the photos and video.  There are things out there that, sure they aren’t as strong as Endbringers, but we’re fighting them with a fraction of the number.  There are worse things out there.  Tinker devices gone haywire.  Sleeper.  Monsters who look like men and women.  And now war?”

There were murmurs of agreement.

“Perfect is the enemy of good, Gary,” Dragon said.

“The ‘good’ guys ran!  Where were the Shepherds!?”

Again, he had to remind himself of where he was, but he did so too late, here.  The people here weren’t necessarily his.  Twenty to thirty percent of the people at this station were people he’d recruited or people who worked alongside him.  Ostensibly, they were largely in support of recolonizing Earth B.  But the Shepherds had linked their group to the ‘go back to better’ cause, and that ran contrary to something fundamental in Gary’s view of the situation.  They hadn’t earned that publicity, only rode the wave of popularity as the movement found traction.

To speak against them was to potentially lose his own people.

His own people drowned out Dragon’s initial response, joining their voices and growing outrage  to Gary’s.  Some weren’t as loud as the others, but all the same, it surprised him.

“They were stopping a third group,” Dragon said.  “They left discreetly when they got word that there were trespassers.  We didn’t think it would be that bad.  The flanking party was unexpected.”

“You got it wrong,” he said.  “We put our trust in you when you come to places like this, but I’ve been here for a week and the Shepherds have barely said a word to me.  They barely communicated with Ari.  They left tonight and I had to send someone after them to try and open channels of communication.  I didn’t get a chance, and now dozens are dead.”

“That could be how they operate, let’s not get carried away,” Defiant said.

“No,” Gary said.  His voice was firmer.  “No.”

“I talked to them,” Dragon said.  “They didn’t want to tip anyone off that something was wrong.  They thought they would deal with this discreetly.”

“People died!  A- a horrendous amount of people died!” Gary Nieves shouted.  At ‘horrendous’, his voice cracked like a teenager’s.  He’d been a politician, a businessman before that.  Had anyone laughed, he wouldn’t have blamed them.  He might have stomped off.  But there was only silence.  When he turned to look, people gave him encouraging nods.  He went on, “In Gold Morning.  Broken triggers.  The monsters you try to keep secret from us.  Here.”

“They got it wrong.  We’re only human, Gary.  We’re trying our best.”

“No.  You make yourselves out to be more than human.  You have more, you put on costumes and you dress yourselves up, but you know… the Shepherds not talking to any of us and going it alone isn’t an isolated incident.”

“Defiant and I had our reasons.  If you’d sit down and talk to us, I could tell you about our ongoing projects, and how we can start making great strides.”

“I don’t want your answers,” Gary Nieves said.  “Your solutions- if they worked, if they properly worked for us, then we’d be leap years ahead of the other worlds.  Instead?  When the power went out and people flocked to the light of the monitors and flashlights, I was left imagining that we were primitives gathered around the light of a fire.  That’s where we are.”

“You exaggerate,” Defiant said.  Dragon laid a hand on the man’s arm.

“I want to open a dialogue,” Dragon said.  “But there are wounded.”

Gary looked at the wounded who were being tended by the paramedics.  People that had been on site already, ready for refugees to arrive, and people from nearby areas, who were starting to filter in.

Many were paying a wary eye to Gary and his stand-off with Dragon.

“It’s not where we are overall, but it’s where we were that moment.  You want to open a dialogue, but- you weren’t here.  The Shepherds weren’t here.  In my limited interactions with parahumans, I keep on noticing- over and over again, even the good ones, we’ll hear you say that you forget our names, or we all sort of ‘blend into each other’.  Again and again.  There’s a disconnect, where we don’t even rate.”

“I remembered your name, Gary,” Dragon said.

Gary shrugged.  He looked around at the fallen, at the wounded- the critically wounded were already being taken care of.

“The power may go out when I disconnect to take people to the hospital,” Dragon spoke, her voice carrying.

“Flashlights,” Gary called out, giving the orders.  “Lanterns, same as before.  Don’t conserve battery.”

Back to work, to the impossible numbers, and the hills with peaks that seemed to climb out of reach as he ascended.

But different, now.  People avoided the Shepherds.  They cleaved closer to him.  People had felt lost, confused, scared, and his explanation had been an easy one to accept.  It made sense, for one thing, and it spoke to justifiable fears that every single person harbored even before the first and best of the parahumans had wiped out landmasses and extinguished a good portion of the population.

They were angry, and the snippets of conversation where people voiced their anger were audible here and there.  He could have stopped them and he didn’t.  In the wake of this tragedy, of so many hurt and killed, they needed someone to blame and this was an instance of blame that had been a long time coming.

Dragon’s ship disconnected from the local grid, and Gary Nieves and his people were left in darkness.

From the safety of darkness, someone threw something in the direction of the Shepherds.  The girl in the moon costume raised a hand, and stopped the thrown object in the air.

He could have said something to the thrower, but he didn’t.

Silence became murmurings and before the murmurings became a roar, the Shepherds left for another patrol of the area.  They didn’t return to the main camp.

Gary tried not to begrudge people for the lines, especially when it was an effect of population saturation in small areas, but he hadn’t eaten earlier, and the services hadn’t had food.  Not with people going lean for the coming winter.

He stood among people in clothes with cement on the pants leg or paint on the edge of the sleeve.  Mud-caked boots flowed seamlessly into mud-caked pants, in places.  He, in turn, wore a black suit, black tie, and a somber expression.

“Mr. Nieves?”

The person asking was narrow, Asian, with a very pointed chin and short hair.  He wore a red tie with a gray shirt.

“Can I help you?”

“Question is more along the lines of whether I can help you,” the man said.  “I heard some of what you said to Dragon, three days ago.”

It was hard to think about.  Images of blood and bodies weighed heavy on his mind.  He closed his eyes before fixing his focus on the food behind the glass displays.

“Were you there?” he asked, to maintain the conversation.

“No.  Word of what you said reached me secondhand.  Could I buy you lunch?  I’d like to talk about things.”

“Ah,” Gary said.  “I’ve just come from a funeral.  My second today.  She was a friend.  I’d like some peace and quiet to grieve.”

“Of course.  Could I give you my card, so you can call me at your convenience?”

Gary nodded.

The man was quick to present a card.  Erwin Daeyoung.  The English writing of the name was mirrored by what he presumed was the Korean translation.  Mediation and Public Relations.  The remainder of the card was in fine gold script- Korean letters to go with a Korean name.

He reached the end of the line, paid, and then waited for his food.  He tried to think of what he could do for Heather, and for the others.  His thoughts went in circles as he considered gestures, worried about whether the gestures would flop – donation drives were difficult when everyone anticipated a difficult winter.  He thought of statues and symbols and nothing fit.  Heather had always been a doer, not someone who put emphasis on things.  Ed had been practical, and would have said something about any statue.  The refugees who’d never gotten their second chance, because they so often didn’t matter- how did he even pay respect to that?

He was pissed, and he couldn’t even express it.  He’d tried to write two articles before abandoning them, and there were no people to speak to that understood things quite like Heather had.

In one corner of the cheap little diner, a television showed Jeanne Wynn addressing the city.

Gary’s finger tapped against his leg.  The card was within his pocket.

Looking back, he saw the man in line, and signaled him.

“My lunch is already paid for,” he said, “But if you want to talk, you can sit with me.  My thoughts aren’t where they should be.”

“I don’t blame you.  These are confusing times.  I’ll join you as soon as I have my meal.”

He sat, setting his sandwich and fries down on the table, the card turned over in his hand while he waited.

Erwin sat across from him.

“You’re a mediator?  And PR.”

“Are you a politician, Gary Nieves?” Erwin asked.

“No, not anymore,” Gary said.

“Then no, I’m not a mediator or a PR person.  Not anymore.  Despite that, I could be said to resemble one, because I have the skills.  Maybe the same is true for you.”

“Maybe.  It’s still cryptic.”

“You’re right.  There are too many secrets,” Erwin said.  “That’s why I started paying attention to you.  You’re honest.  You’ve had the position and opportunities to see things clearly.  I think you and I, we’re similar in where we stand and how we feel.”

“How is that?”

“Angry,” Erwin said.  “Lost.  But you tapped into something as you talked to Dragon and people were willing to listen.  I can tell you what you need to know.  I can provide some direction, even make some radical suggestions.  We could use that anger and loss, the righteous indignation, along with the very clear view of where we currently stand.  Bronze age barbarism and stone age huddling around fires for warmth.”

“Given my background, I have something of a talent for spotting bullshit,” Gary said.

“I’m genuine.”

“You’re burying the idea of ‘radical suggestions’ in between promises and hope.”

Erwin nodded slowly.  He drew his phone from his pocket, and searched for a minute, nibbling on his sandwich as he went.  He turned it around and pushed it forward.  As his hand left the phone, he pointed.

Gary looked.

Jeanne Wynn was still on the television.

On the phone-

A woman in costume.

“Stop me if this sounds familiar.  A supervillain by the name of Citrine worked under a mastermind by the name of Accord, who was on multiple lists but skirted prosecution because he was very clever and very careful.”

Gary nodded.  He’d suspected, but…

His lips pressed together.

“Accord wrote booklets.  Booklets spelled out things like city planning, economy, efficient feeding of the many, logistics, environment.”

“This sounds familiar,” Gary said, saying the words slowly, as if he were trying them on and then deciding to keep them.  “I’ve seen these booklets.”

“As have I,” Erwin said.

“From what I’ve read, thinker plans go sour.  Things that parahumans create fall to pieces, as a rule.  They create problems, first and foremost.”

“Is that your plan then?  Do you wait until disaster strikes Jeanne Wynn, then swoop in to make your next bid at leadership?”

“I don’t know.  I may retire.  There are enough things to do.  I keep it in mind as a possibility.”

“What if I told you it wasn’t possible?” Erwin asked.

“Keeping it in mind?”

“For disaster to strike.  What if I told you that Accord’s plans will work?  Through texts he wrote and Jeanne Wynn’s slavish adherence to the terms of those texts, he will turn things around with a minimum of casualties.  People will be fed as well as you could hope.  We’ll be able to defend ourselves, get set up in terms of shelter, and things will be good.”

“Isn’t that positive?”

“She’ll hold her seat.  It would be madness to remove her from it if she was doing so well, which she will.  So she’ll continue forward.  There should be no disasters at all, beyond unavoidable external events, and she’ll handle them with aplomb.”

“Like the event earlier this week?”

“The handling of it was technically correct.  Resources were moved, people hired and fired, and mercenaries tapped as an external resource.  People higher up in government are applauding her.  People on the ground feel safer.”

“Then the threat is… she does too well?”

“Government by parahumans.  Once established, it’s hard to shake.  There will be no opportunity.  No mis-steps, no character weakness.  The biggest skeleton in the closet is her past.”

Erwin picked up his phone.  He fiddled for a moment, then set it down.

Gary looked.  It was Sierra Kiley, one of the other past contenders for the mayorship.  She too had stepped down.  In the picture, she stood talking with the leader of the Undersiders and Citrine- Jeanne Wynn.

Gary nodded.  “The game was rigged.”

“It so often is.  But being down doesn’t mean you’re out.  I looked for you and approached you because I think I have a plan.  You would mobilize on the ground and swiftly rise to power.”

“You want me to use the dissent against parahumans?”

“That’s a sliver of it,” Erwin said.  “I think you can get enough people behind you that they can’t ignore you.  That would be your first step, and you’re already on your way.”

“What’s the last step?  What’s your end goal?”

“That is a very complicated question, and it depends on a lot in coming weeks,” Erwin said.  “But… we go back to what I said about the radical.

Gary frowned.

“Think, Gary.  What do these other Earths want?  Why do they threaten war and pick at our weaknesses with increasing viciousness?  They want the territory.  A world of resources, and a network of portals.”

“And?”

“We give it to them.  We promise leadership without parahumans in charge, stacking the deck.  We turn to an established government we’re on friendly terms with and we invite them in.  We become a vassal state.”

“Who are you thinking of?” Gary asked.

“Nobody.  That would be a decision for you to make without my input.  If I told you one or the other, you would think I’m working on their behalf.  There are options.  It’s an idea that takes some getting used to, but if you’re thinking you’d like to go home… perhaps a middle-ground solution would be to open communications and borders with a world that has hints of our old amenities and culture.”

It was an idea that took some getting used to.

It was ominous, uncomfortable.

He looked at the television.

The idea of Mortari failing to see the Megalopolis through the winter was terrifying.  The people that would die, the desperation.

The idea of Mortari and Jeanne Wynn succeeding like Erwin had described… doubly terrifying.

The notion of banding together with another Earth was tempting, if it meant a steady supply of food in the winter.  More people that could fight off attacks like the horrendous one earlier.

“I can see the beginning.  I could perhaps see the end,” Gary said.  “What would fill the gap?”

“For that, you need ammunition in the chamber,” Erwin said.  The man smiled.  “I have a list.”

He picked up his phone.  He found a page and showed it to Gary.

“A list of people with stories to tell.  Horror stories about parahumans.  Stories that stoke anger.  You would pick the right stories at the right time to hand over to the press, see if they bite.  You use these narratives to build something.”

Stories about people in positions on teams.  Stories about the monsters.  Stories about those who had re-engineered their identities.

“You’ve been keeping this up to date,” Gary observed.

The most recent was from four days prior.  A family, it looked like.  Julien and Irene Martin.

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Torch – Interlude 7.x

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This could be fixed.  This wasn’t as bad as it could have gone.

What was she supposed to say?

It made her heart hurt.  It bothered her, because they were stupid and shortsighted and it threatened to ruin everything.

That, and what they’d done to the food.

She had to calm down.  Being upset only made things worse.  She was angry, even pissed, but as that feeling faded, a door between her and her stupid-ass idiot parents, it left her with an ugly, all-too-familiar feeling in her middle.  That didn’t help either.

“Kenzie,” Victoria said, behind her.

Kenzie turned around.  Victoria hung back, near the door of the workshop.  Kenzie stood in the middle of everything.

This could be fixed.

“What’s going on?” Victoria asked.  She made her voice so gentle, so caring, that it made all the anger and hurt from elsewhere feel worse.

“I can explain.”

“Okay.  Before you do, I have to ask… are you okay?” Victoria asked.

Kenzie smiled and nodded.

Victoria was a threat.  Not an enemy threat, but a problem and a danger.  If she talked to others, said the wrong things, then everything could blow up out of control.

“Are they okay?” Victoria asked.  She put a hand on the doorknob, opening the door a crack.

Mom and dad were still at the table.  Kenzie saw only a glimpse of them, and her phone burned a hole in her pocket, promising a clearer, more immediate view of them.  She was so used to checking, and she had to work to convince herself there wasn’t a need right now.

They weren’t important now that the damage had been done.

She needed to fix the Victoria problem her parents had made, first.

“They’re okay?” Victoria asked, again.

“That’s a really easy question with a hard answer,” Kenzie said.

Victoria didn’t move.

“They’re not going to get hurt or anything, they’re okay like that,” Kenzie elaborated.  Her heart was racing.  “But um, if I was going to start explaining, I’d start by saying they’re not okay.  There was this time, um, I was talking to Jessica and I said they’re bad people.  It’s not that they do bad things, because, duh, they do… it’s more that they’re bad at being people.  I said that to Mrs. Yamada once and she liked it.”

“Bad at being people how?”

“Stuff’s missing, I guess.  Like it is with me, but different stuff.  Um-”

Kenzie’s instinct was to reach for something.  This could be fixed, but fixing couldn’t happen on its own.  Left on their own, things broke down and one problem became a hundred million problems.

Fixing needed tools.  She had lots of tools.  It was enough that considering the possibilities made her thoughts a mess.  What camera?  What perspective or images?  What data?  What combination came together and made everything mostly okay again?

“I’m on your side,” Victoria said.  The statement interrupted Kenzie’s thoughts.

“I know,” Kenzie said.  “I wouldn’t have invited you over if you weren’t.”

“Would it help to step away?  Go for a walk, maybe?”

Kenzie shook her head.  Her workshop was hers.  Her tools were close by, and it made her feel more secure.

Tools.

Kenzie jammed her hand into her pocket.   Victoria stepped away from the door, toward more open space, like she did any time she wanted to be able to use her wonky forcefield.

She was spooked and weirded out, which was totally, one-hundred percent okay.  Kenzie knew as well as anyone that her parents could be spooky and that the whole thing could be weird.

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said. “Nothing bad.  It’s cards.”

“Cards?”

Kenzie drew the case from her pocket.  It had held a chepa sewing kit once, but it was the perfect size to hold three of the memory cards with a foam backing.

“You had that earlier today.”

“Yup,” Kenzie said.  She held it out, giving Victoria her best reassuring smile.  “Here.”

Victoria took the clear case with the three long cards within.  “For the diary?”

Kenzie nodded.

“There’s no paint on these.”

“That’s because I know how it all goes,” Kenzie said.

Pencil scratched on paper.  Her headphones were on with music playing and the tiny television on the corner of her desk had a show on that was probably meant for older kids.  There was violence and fighting, so she tried to not pay attention to it.

Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…” the music on her headphones pumped, the tune happy and poppy.  The girls in her class had been talking about it.  She liked most things so she used that sort of thing to decide what she listened to, on the off chance she could talk to them about it.

It was good.  Normally she would have sang along to it, but she was distracted.

There was safety in numbers.  The pencil scratched on paper, finishing another long division problem.  She moved on to the next, because as long as she was doing this, she wasn’t being a pain, and she could mostly ignore the feeling in her belly.

She could smell dinner.

It was harder to not be a pain and stay out of the way when she had to go to the dinner table.

Pencil to paper, tongue pressed between her lips.  The seven didn’t go into the one, but it went into the fourteen… she counted, eyes going to the ceiling.  Her head bobbed with the sound of the music, even though she wasn’t paying attention to the words.

Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen.  The seven went into fourteen twice.

The door to her room opened.  Dad leaned in and said something, and she hurried to pull her headphones down, hands wrapped around them, with fingers covering the parts where the sound came out.

Dad looked annoyed.

“Dinner is in a few minutes,” he said.

She nodded.

“You’re doing homework?”

She nodded again.

He stepped into the room, and she looked down, sliding the book across her desk.

“Division.  Do I need to check your work?”

She shook her head.

“Speak up, Kanzi.  You have a voice.  Use it.”

“No.  I did today’s homework already.  I was doing some work from later in the book.”

“Wash your hands and get ready for dinner.”

She nodded.

He went back toward the kitchen, and his movement was marked by a waft of cigarette smoke, pungent.  It smelled better than dinner.

More bad feelings squirmed through her belly.

She tore the notebook paper out of the pad, then popped open her binder, slotting it in at the end.  It was easier to stay in her room and be quiet, and better still if she was doing homework, because it was hard for anyone to complain about her doing her homework.  There wasn’t enough work to do to fill whole afternoons after school and before bed, so she’d started to work ahead.  A lot of it was dull or confusing, but after a while, she’d started to make a game of it.  It was her hope that she could finish the entire third grade math textbook before Christmas.

Binder closed.  Books put away in her bag for school tomorrow.  She turned her music and television off, then turned off the light in her room.

The bathroom was empty, the coast clear.  She closed and locked the door, then got one of the metal wicker baskets from the shelf, moving the hand towels inside to the edge of the counter before putting the basket down upside-down on the bathroom floor.  It worked like a stepping stool, giving her the height she needed to reach the taps, which was harder to do since the new counter and sink mom and dad had put in.

Sleeves pushed up, hands thoroughly washed and dried, sleeves rolled down.  Towels went back in the basket, which was dusted off before it went back on the shelf.

Then, because she was looking for reasons to delay sitting down to dinner, she gave the bathroom what mom called a once-over.  She saw the glint of drops of water on the counter, hurried over to the basket to get one of the hand towels, and dabbed them up before folding the towel back up and putting it in the basket.

Her nose wrinkled as she walked down the hall, past the kitchen, and through the corner of the living room to the dining room.  She made sure nobody saw.

The table was one that could seat six, mom had been proud of that when she picked it.  It was old and gleaming and nice, but there were only three of them for the very big table.  Her dad had  chair at one end, her mom had a chair at the other, and she had a chair in the middle, each of them off to either side, where she had to turn her head to see them.  She took her seat, fingers clutching the end of her skirt, toying with the pleat.

“Creamy Parmesan Chicken Gratin,” her mom announced, as she set down the plate.

Despite her best efforts, Kanzi couldn’t keep her nose from scrunching up as she gave the dish her best dubious look.  It looked like vomit with a crust on top.

It smelled like vomit with a crust on top.

She stared down at it while mom set down the plates for dad and then herself, before returning to the kitchen to get something.

“Eat,” dad said.

She got her knife and fork and held each clenched in one fist, waiting until her mom returned.

“Eat while it’s hot,” her mom said, before sitting down.  She began to pour drinks, while Kanzi set to working on her dinner.

It was like when nachos were overcooked in the microwave, and the cheese boiled and got super hard.  The difference was that she still wanted the nachos when they were overdone.  The dinner knife refused to cut the hard crust.  Pressing down on the hard portion made the runny goop in the middle ooze out onto the plate right in front of her chin, and the smell was worse.

Her dad was having trouble cutting up the food too.  She opened her mouth to say something, and between the smell and the feeling that had been worming through her belly for the past hour, a barfy feeling surged up.  She stopped herself before it became actual leaving-the-mouth barf.

“Hurk,” she couldn’t stop herself from making the sound.

Her mom’s chair scraped on the floor.  Kanzi’s shoulders drew forward her head down, while she tried to breathe as little as possible.

“I worked really hard on dinner,” her mom said.  One hand rested on the back of Kanzi’s chair, the other on the table by her plate.

“Just eat, Kanzi,” her dad said.  “You don’t have to eat it all, but eat.”

“I would like her to eat it all,” her mother said.  “I slaved away in the kitchen for hours, with the expectation that my daughter would appreciate my work.”

“Alright, Irene.”

Kanzi gripped her utensils.  She made a renewed effort to cut her food.  Her knife slipped and scraped against the plate, producing a screech.  She was startled enough that she dropped the utensils.  The knife clattered to the plate, while her fork fell, clattering to the floor.

“There’s no gratitude.”

“I’m sorry,” Kanzi told her mom.

“We give you everything.  Nice clothes, nice food, a hairstylist, a nice big house, and there’s no appreciation.”

She looked to her dad for help.

“Listen to your mom.  We need you to try harder when it comes to these things.”

She moved her chair back, so she could go down and get her fork off the ground.  Her mom reversed the course, pushing the chair in, hard.

“Where are you going?  What did your dad just say, Kanzi?”

She froze.

“He told you you need to try and your first thought was to get up from the table?”

She’d wanted to get her fork.  That was all.

She was cornered.  There was nothing she could say or do when mom got like this.  She could only try to listen.

“Eat the dinner I made for you,” her mom said, and her tone was dangerous.

She didn’t have a fork to eat with.  She couldn’t cut it, and she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to eat it if she did cut it.

She-

Her mom’s hand found the back of her neck.  Her face was pushed down onto the plate, into the creamy chicken whatever.

“We said we wouldn’t discipline her physically, Irene.”

Her grip tightened at the back of Kanzi’s neck.  “What do you want me to do, Julien?  It wasn’t a cheap or easy dinner to put together.”

“I know,” he said.

Kanzi’s shoulders drew further together, and she huffed out a breath, the breath forming a briefly-lived trough in the runny cream at the bottom of the plate.

My mother never cooked for me,” mom said.  “I had an au pair.  I would have loved- loved- for my mom to put in that effort!”

With the second utterance of ‘loved’, her hand moved, moving Kanzi’s face with it.  The movement brought face against the raised lip of the plate, making the far end of the plate come up.  Food moved.

“Ungrateful.”

Another movement, face sliding against slick plate, another push against the lip at the edge of the plate, bringing the other end up.

This time, though, it came down sharply, striking the table.  It cracked, and Kanzi felt a shock of pain at one side of her face.

Her mom released her.

“I can’t.  I just can’t!  I can’t!” her mother proclaimed.

“It’s fine.  Plates can be replaced.  If she doesn’t want to eat it hot she can eat it cold.”

“I didn’t work hard at it with the idea it would be eaten cold, Julien!  What’s the point of introducing our daughter to a variety of cuisines if she’s going to throw it back in our faces like this?”

Kanzi’s face hurt.  She pulled her face away from the broken plate, and looked down in bewilderment, because the dish had changed.  It wasn’t just the fact that the plate had broken and the placemat below was visible.  The dish had been a beige-yellow-brown before and now there was a shock of crimson running through it.

“Oh my god, Julien,” her mother said.  “She’s bleeding all over the table.”

Kanzi flinched as her dad’s chair scraped.  Her mom flopped down into her chair while her dad approached.  With a brusque movement, he turned her face up so he could see.  With her napkin, he wiped away what she figured was the worst of the vomit-food.  The napkin was crimson when he pulled it away, which made her heart leap in her chest.

She’d never bled before.  She’d been grabbed hard enough that she’d had bruises, but mostly it had been shouting.

“Take care of it,” her mom said.

“Just seeing how deep the cut is.”

Kanzi’s mother started trying to cut the food on her own plate.  She gave up, throwing knife and fork down with enough force that they traveled a third of the way down the table.  “If you’re going to do that, don’t do it at the dinner table.”

“Press your hand down there,” he said, moving her hand into place.  Kanzi did, and felt the sting of pain at her cheekbone.

His hand was firm, grabbing Kanzi by the arm, taking her into the living room, down the hallway, and into the bathroom.

“I don’t know, Julien,” her mother said, from the hallway.  “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.”

“I don’t know about you,” he said, voice pitched to be heard, “But her antics and this mess has caused me to thoroughly lose my appetite.”

“Yes,” Kanzi’s mother said.

“Let’s step away.  I’ll take you to Screwball, we’ll have burgers and shake, like way back when.”

Kanzi’s eyes widened.  Screwball was a place with the best burgers.  They had ice cream floats that were Kanzi’s favorite thing.

“And you’ll stay,” he said, his voice quiet, just for Kanzi, and stern.

She felt a kind of outrage well in her chest at that.  Stay?

“You’ll only agitate her if you’re there, and you really, really could have done better tonight.”

The outrage faded to about half of what it had been, mixed with confused, choked guilt.

“Keep that there,” he said, pressing a wad of white bandage down to the part that hurt.  “Hold it until the bleeding stops.  Then I want you to clean up and put yourself to bed.”

She didn’t dare reply.  Her heart was pounding, the bright crimson of blood she kept seeing in places startled her in a way that stabbed right to the middle of her heart, and tonight felt like one of those nights where there was nothing she could do that was right.

She only nodded.

Julien huffed out a sigh, going back to the hallway.

Kanzi remained where she was, seated on the lid of the toilet, a bandage pressed to her cheekbone.  Still, inoffensive, quiet, up until the door slammed.

If they came back to mess, they might get mad.

One hand pressed to the bandage, she started to clean up.  The smell of dinner still made her want to hurl, as she cleaned up the plate and began to clear the table, so she grabbed one of the towels from by the oven, holding it so it pressed against the bandage and covered her nose and mouth, keeping the smell from being so strong.

It was slow, with one hand keeping the bandage and towel in place, but she cleared the table.  All the food went together, and she put it in tupperware, before putting the tupperware in the fridge.  She cleaned up the pots and bowls as best as she could with everything stuck on.

The sound of a car outside made her stop, frozen in worry.

Not them.  She carried on.  Everything put away, but the sink was hard to clean things.  She took things to the bathroom, so she could use the bath and shower spray on really hot.  It worked, even though it meant a lot of trips.

Everything she washed went on the drying rack.  More things went away, as best as she could figure.  She’d had to do this before, though it hadn’t been quite this messy or even a hundred millionth as smelly.

On one of her trips, she stopped, and she stared down at the trail of dots on the floor.  She checked, and saw that even with the towel and bandage pressed down, the blood had run down her arm to her elbow, dripping off the point.  There was some on her clothes.

The blood was scary- almost worse to have to face than the dinner.

She made herself fix it.  Wet towels from the basket in the bathroom.  The blood didn’t get soaked up so much as it streaked, and more kept dripping down.  She used a new towel to stop it.

It was a feeling like drowning.  First being cornered, now drowning.

She cleaned everything up as best as she could, her heart pounding, head swimming, and then went to her room to get herself ready for bed.

She changed into the pyjamas with the ducks, brushed her hair twenty times on each side with the brush, and retreated to bed, every light off, covers pulled tight around her.

The house was quiet.  The only sounds were inexplicable creaks and grunts from the house itself, a drip of water from one of the sinks.

Her heart wouldn’t stop pounding.  Her face wouldn’t stop hurting, even as she pressed the towel hard against it.

Sleep wasn’t a possibility.  Her normal bedtime was nine, and it was only eight, according to the clock on the wall.  She watched the hands of the clock.

When the clock was close to nine, she heard another car.  She tensed.

This car pulled into the driveway.  It was them.

Her heartbeat raced.  She pulled tight at the covers, paralyzed, and closed her eyes.  If she pretended to be asleep-

Her mother’s voice was faint.  Something about the mess on the floors.

The volume rose, as if one thing after another was being found, each making things worse.  Each made her draw tighter and tighter into herself.

“The towels!” her mother’s voice wasn’t that far way.  The bathroom was only a few steps from Kanzi’s bedroom door.

The door opened, and her dad was there, and as she squinted, pretending that her eyes were closed, he didn’t even look normal.  His face was cold and scary as he marched toward her.

He grabbed her by the arm, hard enough it would bruise, and hauled her out of bed, out of the bed that was sleepless but warm and safe, into the hallway, the noise, and madness.

Kenzie looked between the still scene and Victoria.

“That’s them,” she said.  “I might have gotten some details wrong.”

“I’m so sorry you had to deal with that,” Victoria said.

“Isn’t it funny?” Kenzie asked.  She smiled.  “We’re supposed to get powers when stuff like that happens, but I couldn’t even get that right.”

“You did nothing wrong.  You didn’t deserve any of that,” Victoria said.

Kenzie shook her head.  “I guess not.  Not all of it.”

“Do the others know about this?  You’ve told Mrs. Yamada?”

Kenzie drew in a breath, then sighed.  “Yes and no.”

“What’s yes and what’s no?”

“They know what my parents were like.  They haven’t seen these diary dioramas, you’re the first.  But I’ve told them the stories.  Ashley started being nice to me, after I did.  I did tell them that things are better now, because I have powers and my parents are scared.  Which I guess is true.”

“I feel like you’re telling people a lot of things that are only technically true.”

“Real truths are hard if they’re all-the-time truths,” Kenzie said.  “Sometimes it’s nice to pretend things are better than they are, you know?”

“Yeah.  I know.”

Kenzie hesitated, then she reached up to her hairpin, with the hearts.  “I haven’t shown anyone this except Mrs. Yamada, and a few others who had to see because of circumstances.”

She double-tapped the hairpin.  There was a faint tingle as things shifted.  The projection at her face dropped away.

Victoria approached, bending down.  “Kenzie-”

Kenzie shrugged.

“-Really truly, I hope you don’t mind my saying it, but the scar is barely visible.”

The projection was down.  The hairpins had one job, to cast a projection on one area of Kenzie’s face.  Her hand moved up to her cheekbone, and found the groove.  It was about an inch long.

“I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t shown me,” Victoria said.

“I notice,” Kenzie said.

“Okay.  You do what you have to do, but I want you to know I don’t think that’s bad at all.”

Kenzie fidgeted, messing with the remote control.

“Before, when the power was cut off to your devices, you told me there wasn’t anything.”

“I looked over my shoulder so you only saw half my face.  I didn’t want you to see it and think differently of me.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“I know that now.  I didn’t know for sure then.”

“Okay,” Victoria said.  She paused.  “What happened between then and now, with your parents?  Can I ask?”

“A lot happened,” Kenzie said.  “Can I show you?  It’s a lot extra.”

“You can show me.”

Kenzie fidgeted with the remote, before switching the diary diorama to the next scene over.

School.

The boys kept talking to each other, looking her way and laughing.

Twice now, they’d sent someone over to talk to her and ask her questions.  The first time, she’d ignored it.  The second, she’d given a fake answer, but the fake answer only seemed to egg them on.

Lunch was almost over, and she wasn’t sure what to do.  So many other kids acted like school sucked, oh, school was awful.  Even the television shows acted that way.  But it wasn’t.  School was nice.

Except when the boys were bothering her.

Oh, no.  Janesha was talking to the boys now, and where Janesha went, other girls followed.

It sucked because Janesha was super stylish with new clothes every week, and Emily was really, really pretty with super black skin- not just brown, but so black it looked unreal.  She mixed it up with electric blue braces, and her mom let her wear makeup, and she always looked freaking amazing, even though her clothes weren’t all that.

Kanzi would have liked to be their friends, but instead they were hanging over there with the boys, looking over at her every once in a while and laughing.

She was really tired, her face still hurt when she touched it, her arm hurt where her dad had grabbed her, and she was hungry because neither her mom or her dad had made her breakfast before sending her to school.  They were still mad at her.

She wanted it all to be over with and she didn’t want it to be over, because once the school day was over she had to go back home.

It was Emily’s little sister that the group sent over.

“Kenzie, right?” the little girl asked.  She was barely out of kindergarten, and she had beads in bright primary colors worked into her hair at regular intervals.

Kenzie nodded.  “And you’re Lizzie?”

“Liz.  Um.  What happened to your face?”

Kanzi forced a smile onto her face.  “A bear.”

The little girl looked skeptical.  “A bear?”

“My mom and dad told me to go put the garbage out, and I did, and there was a bear on the street, going through trash cans.  Bam, slash, it got me.  I ran and went inside.”

“You told Leon it was an axe murderer.”

“Because I didn’t think he’d believe me about the bear.”

“There aren’t any bears in the city, though.”

“Exactly,” Kenzie said.

The little girl looked confused.  She turned to go report to the others.

“Liz,” Kanzi said.  “I really like your hair.”

Liz gave her a weird look.

“You and your sister are always super stylish and cool.  I wanted to let you know that.”

“You’re weird.”

Liz had been walking, but now she ran back to the others.

Today sucked.  It really, really sucked.

The teacher called for everyone to go in for afternoon classes before Liz made it back to the group.  Kenzie joined the crowd that was re-entering the building.

Liz reached the others, and there was a pause.

Then laughs.  There were a lot of things Kanzi couldn’t seem to figure out, like making friends, or how to deal with her mom, or even why saying something nice could lead to her being called weird, but she got this, at least.  She could tell the difference between people laughing at her, instead of with her.

Her hand went up to her cheekbone, covering the rectangle of bandage there, and she ducked her head down, walking along the wall so nobody was walking to her left.

She’d gone the entire morning without any teachers noticing, but her behavior as she made her way into the classroom had Mrs. Johnson notice.  Before she could duck into the classroom, a finger tapped her on the head a few times, before pointing.

She waited in the hall.

“Everyone settle down!  I’ll be with you in a moment!” Mrs. Johnson ordered.

The door shut.

“Kanzi, honey,” Mrs. Johnson said.  “What happened to your face?”

It was the fourth time she’d been asked.  She tried to find the words, like the jokes she’d told the other kids.  She tried to find the white lies she’d had to come up with when she’d had the bruises or when she’d been super tired and cranky, or when she’d had homework she hadn’t done despite being a super good student, because she hadn’t had the chance at home.

It didn’t even have to be a convincing lie.  She could tell the teacher anything, even the bear story, and because the teachers didn’t care  enough to press her, they had other kids to look after.  They’d accept it and go on with their day.  Then she could go on with her day, and things would keep on being normal.

Even the axe murderer story would work.

She could probably even make up an even sillier story.  A silly animal, like an elephant.  And a funny weapon, like a… lawn dart.  She could tell Mrs. Johnson and laugh, and Mrs. Johnson would roll her eyes and take her back into class with a smile on her face.

All words failed Kanzi, and she broke into tears instead.

The chair was too big for her, and the blanket was scratchy.  It was the wooly sort that could be used to scrub dishes, warm but not nice.  Someone had given her their jacket, earlier, a shiny badge on the front breast, and it bunched up in an awkward way behind her.  She would have sat forward to try and rearrange it or fix it, but then the blanket on her lap might have fallen to the ground.

She’d talked about a lot of things, sometimes telling the same story over and over again, until she’d gotten annoyed with how forgetful they pretended to be.  Then she’d gotten to the point where she had started to doze off, and they’d left her alone.  The problem was, she’d started to doze but she hadn’t made it all the way there.  Now she was just tired and half-asleep without really being able to be full asleep.

Adults milled around her, and every time someone showed up, she was nervous it would be one of her parents, and that she would be in trouble.

When the superhero showed up, she thought it was a dream, because she was half asleep and it was a man with wings built into his blue and red costume, connecting wrist to ankle.  He had a weird cape thing, too, and a mask with a headband built in.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” she responded.

“Can I sit?” he asked.

She nodded with a fierce sharpness.

He took the seat next to her.  She shifted position, grimaced, and he seemed to notice.  He helped with the bump at the small of her back, and then he took the blanket, refolding it, draping it across her lap in a way so most of it wasn’t on the ground.

“Snack?” he offered.  He produced an assortment that were probably from the vending machine.

She touched and then took the bag of chocolate covered pretzels.

“I’m Aerobat,” he said.

“I’m Kanzi.”  She opened the bag.

“You know, superheroes like me go out in costume every night.  A big part of what we do is try to help people in trouble.  So as part of that, we’ll visit police stations like this or we’ll go to hospitals.”

“I’m not that important,” she said.

“You never know,” he replied.  “Can I try one?”

She held the bag out for him.  He took a chocolate covered pretzel.

“Mm, that’s good,” he said.

She took one herself, tried it, and nodded.  “Very good.  Thank you.”

“Part of what we do when we reach out to people who need help is we try to let them know that if they ever need help, they can call us.  Especially if it’s because of powers or weirdness.”

He had a resealable baggie.  Inside, there was a business card with a propeller icon, like the one on Aerobat’s chest, there was a sheet of stickers, temporary tattoos, a white pen with a logo on it, and a trading card.

She held it against her chest with both hands.

“The other thing we try to do,” he said, “Is we ask people if there’s anything we can do to help.  Is there anything you need, Kanzi?”

She had to think about it.

“Could I have a hug?” she asked.

“Oh, kid,” Aerobat said.  “I would really love to give you one, but there’s a whole thing going on elsewhere, and we’re being told to limit physical contact until it blows over.”

“Okay.”

He hesitated before venturing, “What do you say I hold your hand, instead?”

She nodded again.

His hand was huge and warm.  There was a bit of gravel in the fabric somehow, but he didn’t seem to notice.  It dug into her finger a bit, but she didn’t want to point it out, in case the guy let go and left.

A little while passed before a woman approached.  She was white, short, and not especially thin.

“Hi, Mrs. Yaris.”

“Hi, Aerobat.”

“June’s a friend,” Aerobat said.  “It’s her job to make sure you’re safe and happy.  You and a lot of other kids.  She’s gotten good at it.”

“I wish,” Mrs. Yaris said.  Her tone softened as she looked at Kanzi.  “I manage.”

“I don’t really get it,” Kanzi said.

“What do you think happens next?”

Kanzi shrugged.  “The police had a lot of questions for me.  I think my parents are going to get a ticket, like when my dad speeds, then I’ll go back.”

“Part of what I do, Kanzi, is I make sure that the young people assigned to me are comfortable and safe.  When we don’t know for sure if the situation is a good one, we temporarily assign people to homes.”

Kanzi digested that.

“What do you think?” Aerobat asked.

“Please,” Kanzi said, barely audible.

“Her teachers sing her praises, she hasn’t been in any trouble, and her grades are stellar.”

Mrs. Yaris was doing most of the talking.  Kanzi hid behind the woman, looking up at the men.

One was bearded, thick black hair in a topknot.  His chest was barrel-shaped, with the hooded t-shirt he wore straining across it.  A tattoo, black ink on black skin, was only barely visible.  Letters.  She only saw ‘wall’ at the end.

The other man was skinny, with a button-up shirt done up all the way.  He had a receding hairline, a line of beard going from lower lip to chin, and lips that didn’t quite meet, just a bit of teeth showing when his expression was normal.

“Kanzi,” Mrs. Yaris said.  “This is Keith and Antonio.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Kanzi said.

“Go on in.  Make yourself at home,” Mrs. Yaris said.  “Keith, Antonio, you have my number.  It’s emergencies only, or else my phone would be ringing off the hook.”

“We have your number, we have the number for child services, the hospital, if we need it, we should have everything,” the big guy said.

“I know this wasn’t quite the timeframe you were hoping for.”

“I’ll manage,” the skinny guy said.  “Thank you for everything.”

Kanzi was wide eyed as the adults carried the bags.  There were three big black garbage bags with her stuff inside.  Clothes, old school stuff, projects, and art she liked.  She had her toothbrush and all the other bathroom stuff.

The house was smaller than hers, but it was nice enough.  The outside walls were plastic and the plastic had been bent back in one place, and the garden was a bit messy, but there weren’t any super-major issues.

On the fridge was a grid that looked kind of like a Calendar, but there were three rows of about ten spaces.  A pocket on the bottom had a bunch of laminated symbols and faces inside.

She picked out one.  It was an angry face, like the sort that sometimes appeared on phones, red faced with flame rising around it.

“That,” the big guy said, “Is our mood tracker.  It’s to help us figure out how the others are doing.  I can reach in and I can take… let me find it.  Here we are.  Excited.  And I put it by my name up top.”

The big guy was Keith, then.

The other guy was talking to Mrs. Yaris.

Kanzi fished around in the pocket.  She found one with ‘z’s floating around its head.

Tired.  She was tired, after everything.

“Perfect,” Keith said.  “Maybe we’ll do something easy and simple tonight, and if you’re tired you can go rest.  That way you being tired won’t be so much of a problem.  See how it works?”

Kanzi nodded.

“Anything you need, you can talk to us, okay?  Antonio is busy with a project for work, so he’ll have days he has to focus on that, but outside of those times, we’re here to help you.”

“Okay,” she said.  “What do I do, then?”

“You… do your best at school, and you’ll help out here and there around the house.  We have a chore wheel, by the mood chart here, see?  Every day we’ll turn it one notch clockwise, and everyone has a new different chore by their name.”

“Goodbye, Keith!” Mrs. Yaris called out.

“Goodbye!” Keith boomed out the reply.  He was loud in a way only big people could be, and he smiled as he lowered his hand from the wave.

Antonio returned.  “Do you want to see your room?”

She nodded.

It was a room.  The garbage bags went onto the end of the bed, and aside from them, there wasn’t much at all.

“We were thinking,” Keith said.  “Sometime today or in the next few days, we could go shopping.  You can buy whatever decorations you want for your room, even paint, and we’ll make this space yours.”

“I’d like something for the fridge and living room too,” Antonio said.

“Ooh, good idea,” Keith said.  He looked like some of the boys in class when they were excited over a favorite game, but he was being really nice about things.

“I might not be here for long,” she said.  “If my parents get out of trouble, I might go straight back to them.  Maybe you shouldn’t buy me things.”

“It’s worth it,” Keith said.  “Anything that helps, anything you need, just let us know.”

She could tell.  Mrs. Yaris had told them something.

It wouldn’t be that her parents were getting out of trouble anytime soon.  If it was, she wouldn’t be put here like this and these two men wouldn’t be talking about things so far in the future.

It would be a while before she saw her parents again?  If she saw her parents again?

A light, fluttery feeling settled in her chest, and she almost didn’t recognize it.  She wasn’t sure there would be a smiley sticker in the pouch to represent it.

A careful, uneasy relief.

She was worried, fidgeting.

The shopping bags were unloaded.  She’d carried a big one.  Keith was the chef, but Antonio had managed the shopping list.  He was bossy but Keith seemed to like it so that was okay.  He wasn’t nearly as bossy with her and that was one hundred percent okay with her.

Cheeses and vegetables and fruits and meats.

“Do you want to help?” Keith asked her.

“Okay.”

“Here, take this, put it in that cabinet over there.”

She did.  Onions, in the lower cabinet by the fridge.

“Give this to Anton-”

Meat, taken to Anton.  Anton put some in the fridge and some in the freezer.

She wrung her hands together.

“Did your hands get sticky?”

She shook her head.

“Can you put this cereal in that cabinet over there?” Keith asked.  “Excellent.  We’re getting this done lightning fast.”

She resumed wringing her hands.  She fetched a few more things, and then came face to face with Keith, who was kneeling on the floor.

“Antonio,” Keith said.  “Can you hand me the mood tracker?”

Antonio pulled the thing from the fridge; grid and pouch and all.

“The day before yesterday, you seemed upset.  Then we went out to eat, and everything was good, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

“The day after, we had spaghetti, and you were quiet.  We watched a movie, which you seemed to like.”

“I did.”

“And today, it feels similar.  You’re quiet and you’re bothered.”

She shrugged.

“You don’t have to say what, but maybe if you dug around in this pouch, you could find a good face to represent the feeling you’re dealing with right now.”

She hesitated.  Then she dug.  She found the face- one of the ones she had almost convinced herself she wouldn’t ever use.  It was an ordinary face, coffee brown, with a blue tint around the top that faded away by the halfway point.  Sweat drops, eyes open wide with no pupils, and two tiny hands at the sides pulling at the cheeks.

She saw the looks on their faces, and she regretted her choice.  Concern and something bigger.  Something that made them pull away.

“Thank you for letting us know,” Keith said.  “It’s usually around dinner, huh?”

She shrugged.  “Usually.  Dinner was always a big thing.”

“Well, we can’t eat out all the time, you know,” Keith said.

“I know.  My mom always suspected people of spitting in her food, if she didn’t make it herself or see it being made.”

“I don’t think that happens very often,” Keith said.  “I wouldn’t worry about it.  But this stresses you out big time, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“What if,” Keith said, “You decide dinner?”

“Isn’t that more stress, having to make choices?” Antonio asked.

“We’ll have something that is almost always delicious, that we can’t do wrong,” Keith said.  “We have the ingredients for cast iron pizza, right?”

“We do,” Antonio said.

“We have pepperoni, we have peppers, we have mushrooms, ham, chicken, pickles, and everything under the sun,” Keith said.  “What do you say, Kanzi?  You can decide what we put on the pizza, we’ll make it as crispy or as soft as you want, you tell us what to do and we’ll do it.”

She smiled.  “You bought chocolate sprinkles and chocolate sauce.”

“I think we could try that,” Keith said.

“I think we should eat something healthy,” Antonio said.

Keith stood, crossing over to the fridge where Antonio was.  He wrapped his big arms around the skinny man’s body.  “One tiny pizza, with chocolate sprinkles, chocolate sauce… marshmallows?”

“Yes,” Kanzi said, very seriously.  “Definitely.”

“As a treat, for after the pizzas with healthier ingredients,” Keith said, his face an inch from Antonio’s.

“Deal,” Antonio said.

Keith gave Antonio a kiss.  Kanzi smiled.

“Let’s get everything put away, and then we’ll start experimenting,” Keith said.  “Can you put the mood chart back up on the fridge, and then I’ll give you the dairy to give to Antonio so he can put it in the fridge.”

She nodded.

The chart went back up on the fridge, and the spaces were empty, because the magnets hadn’t been holding them up.

She saw Keith looking at her out of the corner of her eye, and reached into the pouch to pick a smiling face.

She didn’t feel a hundred percent of the way back to smiling, but she kept that picture of a smile, putting it on the chart.

Keith tried to hide it from her, but she saw the clenched fist, the happy little fist-pump, before Antonio gave him a hug and blocked her view.

A gentle shaking stirred her from her sleep.  Her eyes popped open.

“Oh hey,” Antonio said.  He stood over her bed.  Her bedspread had the space opera pattern they’d picked out while shopping two months into her stay.  A lava lamp in the corner was casting out illuminated shadows across the room.

Keith slept in her bed, the book he’d been reading before dozing off dangling from the one finger that was wedged in between pages.  Kanzi had dozed off after Keith, and now lay in bed, her head on his arm.

“I wanted to wake up my husband, so I could bring him to bed.  He sleeps like a log, doesn’t he?”

Kanzi nodded.  She smiled.

“I woke you up before I woke him, I’m sorry,” Antonio said.

“It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t been around quite as much,” Antonio said.  “I got promoted a year ago and I’m still trying to get up to speed with my peers.”

“I don’t mind.  I’m figuring out a lot of things too.”

“Neither of us have any experience being parents.  Keith at least has some experience babysitting.  I hope we’re doing okay.”

“You’re doing perfect,” she said.

“I don’t think we are, but I’m really happy you think so.  If you need anything at all, I hope you’ll tell us.  We want to do right by you.”

How could she even tell him?  Just the fact that he said that was so super duper important.

“I need something,” she said.  “Two somethings.”

“What somethings?”

“I don’t want to be Kanzi.  I’m so tired of people getting it wrong.”

“That’s… a really complicated thing, actually,” he said.  “There are rules.  Things as simple as you getting a haircut get really complicated when we have to check a lot of the time.”

“Because I’m not yours.”

“Because-” he started.  “I don’t know.  But it’s eleven at night and I’ve been up since five.  We could discuss that another time.”

“Okay,” she said.

“I’ll ask in the meantime, make sure it’s okay.  What’s the other thing?”

“Can you not take him away?  Please?”

Keith slept in a slumped over way, his ass on the bed, his feet on the ground, his back and head against the headboard and pillows.  His arm had a faint mark where her face had smushed up against it.  Antonio reached over to touch Keith’s face.

“Please,” she said.  “Please please please?”

“I’ll compromise with you.  Fifteen minutes.  I’ll come back and I’ll take him to bed.  If he sleeps like this, he’ll have a bad back in the morning, and then he won’t be able to do anything with you.”

She nodded.  “Okay.”

“Deal?”

“Deal.”

Antonio reached over to give her a pat on the head.

He left, dimming the lights on the way out, so the lava lamp was the only light source, and left the door ajar.

She’d never felt so relaxed and safe as she did right this moment, but the fact she felt so okay worried her.  An inexplicable, terrible fear welled up inside her, worse than the ‘dread’ smiley that only ever went up on the fridge as a joke, when it was Antonio’s turn to cook.

The more she loved these moments, the more afraid she was of losing these moments.  The love was uneasy, tentative, like a baby horse taking its wobbly first steps, gradually getting better at it.  The fear was a feeling like someone had a big fat crayon inside her, scribbling madly, defying the lines the color was supposed to go inside, except it wasn’t color.  Just… black.

She let her head rest against Keith’s arm.

Victoria paced.

“He doesn’t have a face,” Victoria remarked.

The still image of Keith lounging against the bed, the children’s book precariously at one fingertip, was incomplete, the face left unrendered.  Everything else was as realistic as anything, from backhair to cuticles to pores.  The face was an artist’s palette, a mixture of colors in vague patches, not the artist’s canvas.

“No,” Kenzie said.

“Why?”

“Because,” Kenzie said.  “He asked me not to.”

“We’re the worst foster parents.”

Kenzie mouthed the word ‘no!’, silent, her eyebrows drawing together in anger.

They liked to sit on the swing near the barbecue.  If she situated herself right in her room, then she could eavesdrop.  It was nice, a lot of the time, because it meant she could hear them being goofy with each other, or if they were stressed out about money she could avoid asking for things.

“We’re terrible,” Antonio agreed.  “You in particular.”

Kenzie, upstairs, shook her head.

“I admit it.  I’m far, far worse than you.  You at least had the decency to be a workaholic.”

“I’m not a workaholic, Keith.”

There were murmurs, then laughter between the two.

Concerned, Kenzie sat by her window, knees drawn up to her chest, remaining silent.

“I’m too fond of that girl.  She’s wickedly smart, determined, everyone remarks about how she’s as cute as a button, and she reads for fun.  If I could get you pregnant-”

“You’re trying your hardest.”

“-Ha ha.  I’m serious.  I’d want a kid like her.  I’d be the embarrassingly proud dad if my kid was half as great as she is.  I am psyched to wake up every day and spend time with you two.  I want to do that more.”

“Keith, you can’t.”

“We can talk to people about options.  They haven’t mentioned the bio parents much, but they were incarcerated, and it seems like some bad stuff went down.  We could figure out what the requirements might be, make sure we’ve crossed our ‘Q’s and dotted our ‘i’s, right?  We’d be the absolute worst foster parents if we took the first foster child to pass through our doors and then half a year later, started asking about adopting them.”

“The absolute, unequivocal worst.”

Kenzie’s eyes were wide.

She had no idea what she was supposed to do with this feeling, but she knew she had to do something.

“Ahem,” she said.

The teenagers continued talking.  Her attention was on the one at the end of the bench who was alone and silent.

“Ahhhehehm.”

“What?” the teenager asked.  He turned his head and gave her a once over.  “Go fuck yourself.”

“Remember when the grade nines spent time with the grade threes, and the grade fours were with the grade tens, and so on?”

He turned his head her way and gave her a deeply aggrieved look.

“The buddy you were assigned told me that you’re really good with computers.”

“I’m okay.  Why?”

“I need help with my phone.”

“Fuck off,” he said.

“I’ll do anything,” she said.

He looked at her.  “You’re too young to be useful to anyone.”

“I’ll give you my lunch money.”

“How much?” he asked.

She fished in her pocket, counting change.

“That’s not going to do it,” he said.

“I get a dollar and twenty five cents every weekday except pizza day Wednesdays, where I get two dollars and fifty cents.  I can give you some money every day until we’re square.”

“Twenty bucks, and it can’t take any longer than this lunch period to do.”

She nodded fiercely.

“Come on.  Library,” he said.

They left the schoolyard and entered the school building, hanging a right until they were in the library.  The library was one big room, and it had windows that overlooked the very spot where they’d just had their conversation.

He plunked himself down in front of the computer.  “Phone?”

She handed over her phone.

“Unlock it.”

She did.

“And what do you need done?” he asked.

“I need it so I can search the web.”

She watched as he clicked the icon.  The internet browser didn’t turn up internet, but instead it was a page with a talking car, suggesting some safe, pre-vetted search terms.

“You got helicoptered,” the guy said.

“I don’t know what that means.”

“They’ve got a program running on your phone.  Controls the internet, messaging, contact lists, it also transmits your location, so they know where you are at every second.”

“Okay, that’s fine, but I want to be able to search the web and look for stuff.”

“You’re a little young for porn.”

“Eww.  No, no interest, thank you mister.  Not that.”

He turned his head to look at the clock.  “I can give you a fix.  It’s going to require that you change your background.”

“I like my background.”

“Look,” he said.  “Here’s my fast, quick, and dirty solution.  We change the background to blue and gray.  We install a web browser obscure enough that these programs don’t know to control what you see… and downloads are also blocked.”

“Yep,” she said.

“File transfers usually aren’t,” he said.  “Let’s try downloading onto the school computer… then using my cable, we move one file…”

It took a minute.

“There.  You have a browser now.  Do they check your phone?”

“All the time.  They pay a lot of attention to what I watch, what I listen to, what I’m searching for online…”

“That’s horrifying,” the teenager said.

“It’s great, because they care.”

“If they check, we have to be careful.  What we do here is make it so the circles behind every icon are dark gray.  Then with our freshly web surfing program, we click, hold… and we get options.  We give it a custom icon, the space invader pixel monster, and we change the color to dark gray.”

She watched as the icon changed from a folder online to an old game sprite.  The sprite became invisible against the background provided.

“Click that space and the web browser will pop up,” he said.

She bounced on the spot, before giving him a hug.

“Okay, fuck off.  And give me my money.”

She forked over the money for the day.

She had the access she’d wanted.  A world of information now at her fingertips.  She went straight to the bathroom, taking a seat on the toilet, so she had some privacy.

The typing was laborious, especially since she knew she didn’t have much time.  Just a couple of days ago, she’d overheard about them possibly taking her for keeps.  She needed to lock it in, somehow.  It felt wrong that she wasn’t doing anything on her end, while they were doing something so monumental.

She entered her first search term.

how do i show somoene i love them

She looked it over, fixed the typo, and then submitted.

She read, studied as hard as she had ever studied math or sciences.  When she wasn’t in class learning or doing, her phone was out.  There were too many roads to go down, key phrases, like ‘making relationships last’.

Kenzie’s foot scuffed the floor of her workshop.

“Oh, Kenzie,” Victoria said.

Yep, she got it.

“In my defense, I was nine, and I was really, really oblivious,” Kenzie said.  She smiled.  “I wanted to do my part and make something really awesome happen, so the coolest, most awesome person in the world might adopt me.”

“It was going to happen either way, if it was going to happen.”

“So I’ve been told.”

There was a long pause.  Neither was eager to press the button or move the diorama over to the next scene.

Victoria checked on the dining room.  Neither had moved.  Kenzie was tempted to resume surveillance, but still, it didn’t matter.

Surveillance was like the safety in numbers, from way back in the day.  A thing to dive into, so real life didn’t seem so real or important.

“If I’d color coded these, the next scenes, set of you can probably guess, would be pink.”

Victoria nodded.

“I’m going to skip it.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“I definitely don’t mind.”

Kenzie hit the button twice.  The image flickered, holding the first for only a fraction of an eyeblink.

Then the aftermath.  Kenzie winced.

So embarrassing.

“Jesus.  Jesus!”

Kenzie backed away, eyes wide.  Her eyes went wider as she saw Antonio enter the room from the adjunct bathroom.  Her fingers clutched her nightie.

“Are you okay?” Antonio asked her.

“Yes,” she said, but she looked at Keith, saw him freaking out, and backed up a little more.

“Keith, you’re scaring her.”

“I’m a more than a little scared myself!  She woke me up and I thought it was you.

“Baby,” Antonio said.  “Sit down on the bed.  Deep breaths, okay?  She’s the priority, remember?  If you get freaked, she’s going to be freaked.”

She was freaked.  Definitely freaked.  Everything had turned sideways and she wasn’t one hundred percent sure on why.

Keith sat back down on the bed.

“I’m going to take her back to bed.  We’re going to have a chat while you catch your breath.  Okay?”

Keith nodded.

“Come on, Kenz,” Antonio said.  “Let’s get you put back to bed.”

She was shaking as he took her hand.  She let him lead her down the hall to her room, glancing back to see Keith with his head hanging, eyes wide and alarmed.

“Oh boy,” Antonio said.

“Oh boy is right,” Kenzie said, her voice about as small as she felt.  “I didn’t know- I don’t know how this happened.”

“A lot of people, they go to this because it happened to them.”

“It didn’t happen to me.”

“Then where on earth did you get this idea from?”

She was back in her room.  Her phone was over there.  She could point it out, explain it, but-

“Kids talking at school.”

“Oh Kenzie, hon.  There’s no need.  Personal space is personal space, and that’s just for him and me, because we’re married, understand?”

She nodded, firm.  Her heart was still pounding, and she had a sick feeling in her middle.

“I think- and I’ll ask Keith, but I think it would help everyone if we talked to an expert on these things.  What do you think?  Can’t hurt, right?”

She shook her head.  “Can’t hurt.”

“I think I’ll look into that first thing tomorrow, then.  Can I give you a hug?”

She nodded.  A hug was the best thing in the world when she felt as horrible inside as she did now.  It almost made the horribleness melt away.

He kissed her on the forehead.  “Scoot down.  I’ll tuck you in.”

She scooted.  He tucked her in.

She didn’t sleep.

“My favorite person ever wouldn’t make eye contact with me,” Kenzie said.  Her legs kicked where they dangled from her chair.  Her toes scuffed the ground.  “The next appointment Anton -that was his nickname in the house- that he could get, it was a week from the incident.”

“What happened?” Victoria asked.  “It didn’t help?”

“They weren’t talking in the usual spots where I might be able to eavesdrop, and for the first time since I got there, Keith was going to work instead of working from home.  It meant they were talking on the phone, everyone was more distant, and there was this big meeting with a therapist and child services to talk about things, coming at me like a big train.”

Kenzie flicked through scenes.  Diorama images of her with the phone.  Her with the baby monitor that Keith and Anton had kept in case they ended up fostering a baby.

“I just wanted to know what was going on.  So I downloaded the same app they used to lock down my phone and watch my browsing.  I put it on their phone and I hid that application like the teenager from school hid the icon on mine.  I didn’t control his browsing, but I did make it so I could watch their texts.”

She’d set herself as parent, and consequently, the helicopter app let her monitor where Keith was.

She opened the door as he pulled into the driveway.  He seemed startled to see her there so suddenly.

“Hey, Kenz,” he said.

There wasn’t the same heart in the words that there had been in the early days.  No hug at the door.

A hand on the shoulder, instead.

She’d read the most recent messages.  She knew what weighed on his heart.

This is the kind of thing where if it goes wrong, we can’t ever foster or adopt.

It’s not going to go wrong.  We’ll explain.

Anton, I’m really worried.

This is the kind of thing where we need to be upfront with services for her sake and to cover our asses.  Honesty is the best policy.

They wouldn’t ever adopt her, they wouldn’t adopt anyone.  They were some of the best people and parents she’d known and they’d lose the ability to ever be parents.  Because of her.

She’d considered running away, but she worried that would make things worse.

Cornered.  Trapped.  Drowning.

Everything was off.  Things at school were off, because she was trying to put on a veneer of normal when she felt anything but, practicing being ordinary and casual so she would be ready today, and people thought it felt forced, which only made her feel the need to practice more.  It was a feedback loop that had led to her being called creepy.

She wanted to scream and throw things and she wanted to curl up into a ball and eat her feet and keep eating until she was nothing.

“I brought snacks,” Keith said.  “I don’t know if that’s appropriate, given what we’re doing.”

“I don’t know either,” she said.

“All you have to do,” he said, “Is you tell the truth.  I’m not going to ask you to say or do anything more.  Yeah?”

She nodded.

He smiled.  He reached over and mussed up her hair.  She tried to fix it.

“Help me get the snacks out?”

She hurried to get the bowls for the chips and the chocolate covered peanuts.

Antonio showed up a few minutes later, and decided a smaller number of snacks would be more fitting for the occasion.  Too much, he opined, was a party, and this wasn’t a party occasion.

The child services workers arrived, with the therapist in tow.

“I’ll talk to her alone?  Then we’ll trade off?” the man said, looking at Mrs. Yaris and the other woman.

Kenzie tossed the remote up into the air, and then caught it.

She looked at the still image.  Herself and the therapist.  She’d found a picture of the therapist in a book and used it to render a composite, which helped make things accurate.

“What happened?” Victoria asked.

“I studied,” Kenzie said.  “Keith and Anton were looking up resources and I read all the resources, best as I could, to try to figure out what I needed to say to fix things.”

“They thought you were coached.”

“Yup.  They thought I was coached, and they decided to separate us temporarily.  New house, new foster parents.  That’s the point where I had to take a bad situation and make it a hundred times worse.”

“Kenzie…”

“That’s my thing!  That’s me.  Anyone else, they like someone and then they have this stopper inside them.  They think, oh, they love this person, they love them a lot, so they’ll do this thing and that thing and give them this gift and bam, that’s enough.  Bam.  But that’s not me.  When I love people it overflows and it makes a heck of a mess.   I don’t know where to stop things, and when things start slipping away, I reach out harder.”

She hit the button.

“Kenzie, there are ten, twelve reasons you shouldn’t be here right now.  You can’t keep doing things like this.”

“I wanted to see you.”

“Kenzie,” he said.  He knelt down in front of her.  He put his hands on her shoulders like he was trying to minimize contact, only palms touching fingers and thumb splayed out.  “I would love to see you.  The best chance at getting back to normal is to take a break, stick to our routines, and avoid making waves.”

His coworkers were looking.  She swallowed hard.

“You’re supposed to be in school.”

“There was an assembly.”

“And you’re not supposed to be here, and it just raises questions.”

She reached, grasping for some kind of answer or way to try to fix things.

“Kenzie,” he said.  “At the bookstore two days ago.  Was that you?”

Her mouth opened, then closed.

“No,” she lied, under her breath.

“How in the world did you know to find me there?”

“Luck,” she said, her mouth dry.

“How did you know I was here, and not working from home?”

She shook her head, mouthing a word that, if she’d been asked, she couldn’t have said what it was.

She saw the look in his eyes.  Wariness.  Fear.

It wasn’t a new look.  It had been there from the time she’d entered his room, and it had gotten worse every time she’d opened a door, knowing he was there.  The statements she’d tried, to make it sound like they were on the same wavelength.  Over and over they’d had the opposite effect.

“Andrea,” Keith said.  “What do you have on your plate?”

“Nothing big.”

Kenzie’s teeth chattered.

“Could I get you to do me a massive favor?  I need Kenzie dropped off at school.”

“I think I can do that.”

“I’ll get you the address.”

She watched him leave the room, and she saw the look in his eyes.  He was gone.  She might see him again or talk to him again, she could get every detail, read every instant message, see every webpage he visited, but he would never be her dad again.

Every point of light in the room flared, a kaleidoscope, a lens flare across her field of vision.  Even the edges of the desks where the sunlight drew highlights on glossy black finish became impossibly bright.

The images sorted, and she saw world turned upside-down, with land instead of sky and vice versa.  The land looked like food coloring did when dropped into water, but it was solid and stable.

The parts of the world closest to her were inhabited, marked with messes of glass and machinery that stuck to surfaces and walls.  The institution, the infrastructure, the weight of the army- all, when she zoomed far enough back, were part of a singular monolith of a gravity that sucked all energy from her, leaving her gasping.

“You alright?” Andrea asked.

Kenzie shook her head.

“Come on, baby,” Andrea said.  “Let’s get you where you belong.”

“Home?” she asked.  “Or- my foster home?”

Andrea looked back at Keith, and Keith nodded.

The elevator was distracting.  The gold watch on Andrea’s wrist- it had a crystal display.  Energy, light, lenses, geometry- everything had a meaning and that meaning was like the safety in numbers.

She wanted to ask a thousand things about Keith and Antonio and she bit her tongue instead.  Something was wrong.  She’d been broken to begin with and something had outright cracked.

Andrea dropped her off at the new foster house, and Kenzie hurried inside without a word.

She almost hyperventilated, as she went straight to her room.

Her phone.  She pulled it out, slammed the door behind her, and went to her bed.

In the background, she could hear Andrea talking to her foster mom.

She found her bag, and she dug the card out of her bag.  only one temporary tattoo left, and a business card with a number on it.

She called, head bowed, phone pressed to her ear so hard it hurt.

“This is Aerobat.”

“This is… you held my hand.  You gave me your card.  Please help me.”

Before I use this power to do something I regret even more.

“I didn’t want to do something I regretted,” Kenzie echoed the line of thought from the memory, that seemed so vivid as she stared at the diorama.  “Which, you know, I did do.  I got lonely or scared, and I tried to get in touch.  I scared them more, which is why no faces.  They don’t want me simulating them or using them in pictures.  I figure it’s the least I could do.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“The funny thing is, you know, I’m mostly better.  I’ve been working on things.  I have a hard time with boundaries but I can learn some good basic rules to stick to and I stick to them really hard.  I’m figuring out the team, I love you guys, I’m kicking ass, I’ve got some great projects on the go.”

It would just make her start crying like a baby, and she needed to get Victoria on her side, make sure that the wrong things weren’t said and that things didn’t get out of control with the group.

If she could just explain her side, Victoria would see, and then things could go back to normal.

Just like going to see Keith at work had been a way to just show him he cared, to reconnect, and then have things be like they’d used to be.

Or how saying just the right things to the therapist would make that whole incident go away.

Kenzie smiled.

“Is that the end of the slides?”

Kenzie clicked, even though she didn’t want to see.  She smiled at the scene.

It was Keith and Antonio.  Antonio had given her a gift.  A bag with pink on it, because he hated that she, like so many other foster kids, were packing her things up in black garbage bags.

A goodbye, before she left for San Diego.

“They-” she started.  Her voice cracked.  “Um.  They have two kids now.  A boy and a girl, nine and thirteen.  Foster kids that they adopted.  They made it through Gold Morning.  They’re out there somewhere, and I don’t look too hard.”

“Oh, Kenz.”

Kenzie’s legs kicked.  She smiled at Victoria.

Victoria froze, staring.

Had she slipped?  Kenzie tried to think if she’d said or done the wrong thing.

“Kenzie-” Victoria said.  “Kenz, that’s got to be the worst thing in the world.”

“There are lots of horrible things in the world,” Kenzie said.  She looked down, smiling.  “It’s not my favorite thing, though.”

“Then why are you smiling when you’re talking about something so upsetting?”

Kenzie started to answer, then stopped.  Too easy to be flippant.

She needed Victoria on her side.  That meant being honest.

“I always smile when I’m upset or bothered,” Kenzie answered.  She swallowed hard.  “That’s just how I am.  It’s easier than crying, it doesn’t bother people as much.”

“What do you do when you’re happy?”

“I don’t smile, I guess,” Kenzie said.

Victoria seemed momentarily lost for words.  She was, no doubt, recalling a hundred past events.

“But!” Kenzie bounced a bit in on her stool.  “But I have my parents back!  And I know you’re going to say stuff.  I get it.  It’s weird.  They’re a little messed up.”

“It’s a lot messed up.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  “Yes, but –but– I have this entirely under control.”

“I have a hard time believing that.”

“I’ve had it under control for over a year now.  I went looking for family and I found them.  They pretended at first that they didn’t know who I was, but the people in charge of the gates had some good ways to quickly check stuff.”

“Powers?”

“Something like that.  I was more focused on other stuff, like the family reunion.  Anyway, I came to live with them, they had to take care of me because I’m their daughter, and they were pissed.  When they’re pissed, they do stupid, stupid things, and I got those stupid things on camera.”

“You subjected yourself to abuse to get blackmail material?  Please tell me nobody else knew about this and condoned it.”

“Nobody else knew about this and condoned it.  Mostly they just think my parents are scared.  They did their thing and told my parents to be good or else, but they don’t know about the video footage I got.  I originally planned to get two week’s worth, but I didn’t have the guts.  I ended up making it five days of footage of them, and I’ve gotten more since.”

Victoria leaned checked that the parents were still at the table, then spoke in a low voice, “You know police aren’t really able to prosecute much, right?”

“They’d prosecute some of this stuff.”

Victoria drew in a deep breath.

Kenzie cut in.  “I know what you’re going to say!  Really truly, it’s not that bad.  I showed them the recordings and I told them they could go to jail or they could live with me and follow my very fair, very sane rules.  They can quit at any time.  If I die and it looks suspicious, the recordings get released and their lives are over.”

“Kenzie,” Victoria said, and now she sounded horrified.  “You can’t do that.”

“But isn’t rehabilitation the main thing we’re trying to do?  Isn’t that the whole freaking point?  This is better than prison, because it’s targeted.  They’re like a dog that was spoiled rotten and doesn’t know how to be loyal or good, and a dog that was kicked and beaten a lot, that’s learning to be nice to people again.  They love each other too, and I think that matters.”

“Kenzie-”

“They’re mostly there!  They are.  They just hate my guts.  They hope I’m going to die.  They’re way more rehabilitated than they would be if they were anywhere else, and if the badness in them seeps out aimed at me every once in  while, and they try to give me a mild case of lead poisoning, I’m okay with that.”

“No,” Victoria said.  “No, no, and fucking- fuck no.”

“It’s what we do!  We put ourselves on the line and we fix the bad guys!”

No,” Victoria said.  “The moment you get a concussion, you’re going to be vulnerable to them trying something.  Or whatever.  It’s- there’s no way this is healthy for you.  Living like this, watching over your shoulder, you’re going to utterly destroy yourself.”

Kenzie swallowed, and then she said, “I’m doing okay so far.”

Victoria shook her head.  “You can’t live like this.  You can’t live that close to people that ugly, and not be affected by it.  It’ll eat you alive.  We’ve got to get you out of this house.”

Kenzie looked down, then looked back toward the door, where her family was on the other side.

“Then I don’t know what to do,” she said.  “Help?”

“Absolutely,” Victoria said.  “I’m going to call some people.  You- call Ashley.  She’s one of your favorite people, right, and she gets this?  She figured stuff out or she had guesses.”

“She got a lot of it.”

“We’ll figure this out,” Victoria said.  “And I’m not going anywhere.”

Kenzie nodded, her expression solemn.

“Can I give you a hug, or-”

More than anything, Kenzie wanted one, even a one-armed hug.

But Victoria was a friend and the rules were that she didn’t hug friends.  That threatened to cross boundaries.

“No,” Kenzie said.  And she wished with all her might that Victoria would hug her anyway, because that wouldn’t break the rules if Kenzie wasn’t the one doing it.  It would make things feel so much better.

There was no hug.  Victoria listened when she said no.

Victoria got out her phone.  Kenzie got hers, checking on her parents on her way to dialing the number.  Ashley.

Ashley picked up on the other end, “How bad was it?”

A goofy grin crept across Kenzie’s face, that she couldn’t wipe away or get rid of, for what felt like minutes.

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Torch – 7.10

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I stepped out of the bathroom at the Gimel-side G-N station, doing my best to manage two bags.  One bag had my armor, and the other had some of Kenzie’s stuff.  It took some hunting to find her.

There were plenty of trees around the station, a side effect of the city being put down as fast as trees and rock could be cleared away.  To have a very green look, all that needed to be done was to leave a slice of land and root structures intact.  Kenzie had situated herself at the base of the tree nearest the entrance.  She had her phone out, held in front of her.

She waved as I approached, her phone still held out.

“She’s back,” she said, to the phone.  “We’re going to catch our train soon, so I might have to lose the phone or we might drop the connection because the cell networks are bad lately.”

“You said the bad networks might be because of enemy action,” I heard a male voice through the tinny speaker.

“Yeah,” she said.  She patted the grass beside her.  I set the bags down and sat.

Ashley and Rain were on the other end of the video call.  Ashley was offscreen, but her hands were onscreen.

“How are you?” Rain asked me.

“I’ve had better days, but we got info.  This call is secure?”

“Oh yeah,” Kenzie said.

“Our resident, full-time tinker said you’d be better to explain the paper you found, Victoria,” Rain said.

“If it’s no trouble,” Kenzie said.

“I had a look at the paper.  The prison is a focus.  From what Kingdom Come said, they’re paying close attention to places where capes gather in large numbers.  The prison where you guys are is one focus.  Goddess is another, maybe because she has a lot of capes in her immediate orbit.  The other big teams  are another one.”

“Not us, because we’re not big or important,” Kenzie said.

“…Yeah,” I said.  “I would be interested in seeing how that changed or their angle for approaching us, if things reached a different point.”

“Feeling ambitious?  Is Capricorn rubbing off on you?” Rain asked.  “Or-”

“Did I?” Ashley’s voice came across the phone, closer to the microphone on their end.

“Don’t say did,” Kenzie said.  “Not like it’s over with.  You’re not gone, you’re just there.  You could even help us.”

“We’ll help however we can,” Rain said.  There was a pause, and the camera shifted as someone moved.  It might have been Ashley holding the phone on the far end, or it could have been a movement that jostled the table the phone sat on.  Rain added a quieter, “Yeah.  I think we’d be glad to help.  It’s the boredom that’s worst, and this sounds good.”

“We’ll get back to you with more information and direction, then,” I said.  Kenzie nodded.  “You guys are okay?”

“As okay as I could be,” Rain said.  “The talk at the tribunal helped a bit.  They’re letting me have some basic tools, Ashley can come, and I get a chance to work on her hands.”

“I appreciate it,” Ashley said.

“Four of us live in my building,” Rain said.  “We each have exits on a different face of the building, so we don’t cross paths as much, but walls are thin and people are bored.  There’s a lot of talk.”

“I have a roommate,” Ashley said.  “You could call her family.  Having her around helps some, but it also hurts some.”

“That’s family,” I said.

“Yup,” Kenzie said.

“I suppose so,” Rain added.

“If these updates to my hands work at all, I shouldn’t be so reliant on her,” Ashley said.  “Patience has a way of wearing thin.”

“Yours or hers?” I asked.

“Same thing,” she said.

“Uh, right,” Rain said.  “Hey, if we’re helping out, what is it we’re doing?”

“Watch out for anything suspicious,” I said.  “Anyone who seems to show too much interest in the way things work.”

“That could be anyone,” Rain said.  “Us, even.  It’s an odd setup, everyone wants to know more as soon as they’re here.”

“Odd how?” I asked.

“That would be us, right now,” Rain said.  “It’s a town, almost.  Every building is its own set of cells.  Wide roads separating things, longer walks between facilities that matter.”

Ashley added, “They spread us out so that if one person blows something up or uses a power, they can’t affect more than a building or two at a time.  Eight parahumans at most.”

“And they have the countermeasures.  The ankle attachment,” I said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “A lot of security is offsite.  Everything is scheduled, so we don’t have too many of us in one place at one time.  Officers have guns, remotes for the bombs we’re wearing and access to security cameras stationed at irregular intervals with irregular schedules.”

“I hear security cameras and my imagination goes wild,” Kenzie said.

“Be careful about fooling around,” Ashley’s voice was almost that of a parent.  Warning, guiding.  “If you make a mistake, it reflects on us.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.  Her expression was serious.  “I don’t want that.  I want you out of there already.  Both of you.”

“It will take time.  You can call in the meantime,” Ashley said.

Kenzie smiled.

“Any thoughts, Victoria?” Rain asked.

“What I’m hearing,” I spoke slowly as I thought things through mid-sentence, “Is that for any dangerous person or group to influence the prison population, it would be hard to reach enough people.”

“They would have to be staff,” Rain said.

I nodded slowly.  “It’s possible, and it fits better with the picture we have. It’s also pretty worrying, if true.”

“We’ll look,” Ashley said.  “It’s easier, because we see staff more often than we see other prisoners.”

“Let me know if you need anything,” Kenzie said.  “I’m at your disposal.”

“I need you to not do too much,” Ashley said.

“I’m not.  School is handled, I’m ahead in most of my classes, which is easy since it’s only half days, and I’m more or less getting enough sleep.”

“Take it easy.  Step away from the tinkering, be a kid.  Run in circles in a field or whatever it is kids do,” Ashley said.

“Running in circles in a field?  How long was it since you were a kid, Ashley?” I asked.

“A long time,” she said.  “I didn’t get to enjoy my childhood as much as I wanted, and I can’t remember those days very easily.  I don’t want one of my favorite people to make the same mistake I did.”

“You’re one of my favorite people too,” Kenzie said.

“Powers have a way of taking over, and tinker powers like yours, Kenzie, they’re especially bad for it.”

Rain’s voice was a touch testy as he said, “I like how you’re saying that while I’m on hour… holy, it’s been two and a half hours that I’ve been working on your hands here.”

“Shh,” Ashley said.

“Rubbing that salt into the wound.  I’m kidding.  It’s nice to do something practical.”

He sounded so easygoing, considering his incarceration.  Ashley, meanwhile, seemed a bit subdued.

“And familiar faces,” Ashley said.  She looked at the phone’s camera, locking eyes with us.  “I’m glad you called, Kenzie.”

“Just so you know, I am going to take a break from the tinkering tonight.  Victoria’s coming over for dinner.  We’re having pasta, we’ll talk with my parents, who seem to really like her, my mom especially, and I can show her my workshop with everything I’ve been doing.”

I didn’t miss the pause after, or the looks exchanged between Rain and Ashley on the tiny phone screen.

Bells chimed in the distance as the gates closed in anticipation of the train coming in.

“Keep your expectations low,” Ashley said.

Kenzie heaved out a sigh.  “Okay.”

“It’s good if Victoria is visiting,” Ashley said.  “More of us should have been doing that.  I would have come over before, if it was doable.”

“You intimidate my parents and they don’t want you over, so yeah, not doable.  Really really, it doesn’t need to be a ‘should’ thing,” Kenzie said.  “And you all have your own expectations and ideas going in that makes it awkward.”

“Is there anything I need to worry about?” I asked Ashley and Rain.  I picked up the bags, slinging them over the one shoulder.

Seee?” Kenzie cut in, bringing the phone closer to her face.  “You two are making it awkward.  She’s worried.”

“Wondering if I need to be worried, actually.”

“You’re fine if it’s you, Victoria,” Rain said.

“Yeah, she’s fine,” Kenzie said.  She shook her head and smiled.  “I’m having a friend over.  It’s not a big deal.”

“It’s a big deal to you, for one thing,” Ashley said.

“Because I never used to get to have friends over, not because there’s any need to be worried, geez!  My mom’s a good cook, I have stuff I want to show off, and-”

“She’s not your mom, and that’s not your dad.”

We’d been making our way to the front door of the train station when Ashley said it.  Kenzie stopped in her tracks.

“Ah man,” Rain said, in the background.

People walked past us to enter the station.  While Kenzie and I stood still, the crowd moved on.  The train pulled into the station, noisy as it approached, muffled somewhat as it passed indoors.  It drowned out everything and brought all conversation to a halt.

Kenzie hit a button on her phone, and held it to her ear, her back to me.

There were a dozen things I wanted to say or do, and I held my tongue.  There was still the train ride, and it would only frustrate if I interrupted a conversation now.

“Ashley-” she said.  “Ashley, ugh, let me talk, okay?  Because I have a train to catch.  You’re wrong, you’re lying, and I’m really bothered you’re lying.  I’m really tired of this.  That was rude.”

A pause.

“Yeah, well, I love you a lot but I don’t like you a lot right now.  I’m going to hang up.  Hm?  Yeah.  Okay.  Fine.”

She hung up, spun in a half circle to face me, and smiled.  “Sorry.  She wants you to call her at the end of the night, if possible.  She says she spent some time in Earth N at one point, getting the lay of the land, she can give tips on who’s there.”

“I will.  Kenzie, I have a lot of questions,” I said.

“Can we not make a big deal of this?” she asked.  “There’s the train to catch, and I meant what I said about not wanting you to be prejudiced or anything.”

“Catching the train?  Sure,” I said.  “We can do that, and I can come over.  I won’t break my word like that.  I just… want to make sure I’m not missing anything vital.”

“I’m safe, you’re safe.  My parents are safe, and they are my parents, just to make that clear.  I have pictures of them holding me while I’m a baby.  I don’t have any runaway tinkerings, there won’t be any captives in the basement, nobody’s going to die or get maimed.  There’s nothing ‘vital’.  Can we just go?”

I nodded.

We walked to the train, joining the tail end of the short line of people that still hadn’t boarded.

“We all have weird or broken families,” Kenzie said.  “Rain doesn’t have any family he gets along with.  Ashley doesn’t have anyone except her twin.”

“Twin?”

“Kind of.  Her roommate, now.  Sveta only has Weld, Chris doesn’t have anyone, Tristan and his parents don’t talk and he only gets to see them because he goes to Church with them.  Byron has it easier but it’s still awkward.  You’ve got family business I’m not going to poke my nose in.”

“Thank you.”

“So it leaves Byron and me with mostly normal families.  I can say the word ‘family’ and half the people in the group get a teeny-tiny surly or sad look on their face and the other half get an ‘oh no’ look.”

“Which one am I?” I asked.

“Depends on the day, but you’re a tie-breaker a lot of the time, so that’s fine.  What I’m saying is everyone has these ideas going in, some of which are outright wrong, like Ashley’s, and something as simple and basic as dinner with family and it becomes this big thing.”

We boarded the train.

“What am I even supposed to do in this situation, Kenz?”

“Do what you were going to do.  I know you checked up on Chris and he didn’t like that, and this is you checking up on me.  Difference is, I’m okay with that, I’m even happy you care.  Just don’t- don’t go in with the wrong ideas.  Because that’s not fair.”

I considered that for a moment.  I saw her looking up at me with large eyes, kinky, glossy hair in two balls close to the base of her neck.

No judgment.  I gave her a nod, and she practically skipped at the confirmation, like the moment gave her a boost that accelerated her, saw her moving ahead in the aisle to a possible seating location.

We took up one set of four chairs, each of us taking two seats, depositing our bags and things in the empty seats.  Kenzie looked around a few times before putting down her helmet and cloaking device, the visuals distorting as the cloaking adjusted to the change in orientation.  The seat-bottom briefly disappeared as the camouflage took hold, Kenzie tapped the cloaked cloaking device, and it returned to normal.

“It’s not a long trip,” she said.  “We’re going to the next station.”

“I know,” I said.  “Then, in the interest of finding something to talk about that won’t take too long, how’s school?”

Maybe not the right subject for a short conversation.  The reality was that Kenzie was a teacher’s pet, and I actually really liked school and studying, with some hope of studying in the future, if I could get into classes.  Despite the ten year age difference between us, it was a pretty decent back and forth.

“What kind of projects?” she asked, as the train came to a stop.  The station beyond the window was a temporary one.

“With parahuman studies?  A lot of it is theory and extrapolating from what little we know.  I’m really eager to see how the classes change in the future, since we know different things than we did four years ago.”

“I don’t think I’d want to study that stuff,” Kenzie said.  “I think it’s super cool, don’t think I’m a jerk for pooh-poohing what you like.”

“Not at all.”

“But I don’t know what I’d want to do.  It seems very far off.”

“You’re in fifth grade.  You’ve got seven years before you have to make any decisions.”

“Seven years.  There’s part of me that wants to be an adult already and there’s another part of me that really, really doesn’t.”

We were stepping off the train.  Not many got off at the temporary station in Norwalk, and we had some privacy.

“Why don’t you?” I asked.  “Is it the idea of having romantic feelings being uncomfortable?  You mentioned that once.”

“See, it’s funny you ask that, because I mentioned it in group once.  Ashley asked the opposite question.  She asked why I would want to.  Chris asked something similar to you.  He wanted to know why I wouldn’t want to grow up.”

“And?”

“And I don’t know,” she said.  She smiled.  “Both have issues, being here, being grown up.  I think I’d like to fix things and figure myself out, and get most of the way to being better over the next few years.”

“It’s a good goal.”

The conversation carried on for a bit, Kenzie walking on the concrete barrier between lawns and road, heel touching toe, arms out to the side.  Periodically, she’d poke me in my uninjured arm as she used me to catch her balance again.

The wind was the prime culprit in her losing her balance.  The portal loomed above us, the sky on the far side now overcast, with clouds seeping in through like they might through a crack in glass.

Many houses had been vacated, or had signs on the lawns.  There weren’t many cars on the road or in driveways for what should have been a settled residential area.

A nice residential area.  When so many houses across the city and especially in Earth N were prefabricated or rushed out, the houses here were three stories, with built-in garages.  Driveways were often brick laid out in patterns.  Things marked it as different from the Earth I’d grown up in.  Lawns were transplanted from the landscape that had been here prior to the houses going up, or the existing material hadn’t been removed.  The ground was uneven, rough, with dense weeds often overtaking or replacing grass.  Where trees stood on many lawns, the trees were older, less cultivated, with stubborn and jumbled root systems and gnarled branches.  Many had burls.

The veins of gold and yellow ran through much of it, too.  The middle and sides of the road were marked with serrated lines of yellow triangles.  The area didn’t have a dense assortment of streetlights, and I imagined the triangles were meant to catch headlights in the dark, so drivers would see three dotted yellow lines marking the bounds of the road.

Fences, trees near the road, rocks at the corners of property and other potential obstacles had their own dashes of yellow paint, stickers, or ribbons.

Kenzie’s house was steel gray, consisting of three sections, with only the rightmost having a third story- and it had a garage below that taller section.  The roof was peaked over the front door but sloped toward the front, everywhere else.  The windows were large, modern, with stained glass in frames hanging in between many of the windows and the curtains.  Clear glass, gray-black tinted glass, and rose pink.  Two cars in the driveway, with one being the van that Kenzie had used in the past to transport her tinker stuff.

She had a key hanging from a chain at her neck, and used it to let us in.

The walls were eggplant, and it somehow didn’t look terrible.  Monochrome art and art that was mostly monochrome with really bold yellows and oranges to catch the eye ran through the entire foyer, with more pictures going up the wall in parallel with the stairs.  I could smell Italian spices and I could hear a volatile hiss of steam from the kitchen as meat cooked.

“I’m home!”

Her mother appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, apron on, color matched to the slate walls and blue decor of the kitchen I could see behind her.  She used a tea towel to dry her hands.

“Victoria.  It’s so nice to have a guest.  We don’t get the opportunity that often, because we have a tinker in the house, who doesn’t always clean up after herself.”

“Mommmmm.”

Irene pursed her lips together, before giving me a bit of a smile.  “Everything went well today?”

“Reasonably well,” I said.  I pulled my bag around.  “I wanted to bring wine, but it wasn’t doable since we thought we might get into a fight.  I brought chocolate.”

“Chocolate is always welcome,” Irene said.  She took the box.  “Ooh, very nice, thank you.  It’s good to hear it went well.  I’m curious about who our neighbors just past that portal are.”

“I’ve met them and I’m still not sure who they are,” I said.  “I could tell you later.”

“At dinner, maybe,” She said, smiling.  “How are you, Kenzie?”

“I’m good, thank you for asking,” Kenzie said.  “Dinner smells amazing.”

“Which reminds me!  Victoria, are you hungry?  I’m trying to decide how much pasta and garlic bread to make.”

“I’m ravenous, actually.  Errands took a while today and I didn’t get the chance to eat lunch.”

“Perfect.”

Kenzie spoke up.  “I don’t eat a lot, and I’m pretty regular about not eating a lot.  My mom got fed up with asking me because the answer was always the same-”

Kenzie’s hands squeezed her middle, pressing her shirt against it, showing how narrow she was.   She looked at me, then saw the bags I was holding.  “Oh!  Put that down somewhere.”

“You can put things down in the corner of the living room,” Irene Martin said.

The living room was more a lavender than an eggplant,with dense white carpet and nice looking furniture.  The lighter shade of the room worked with the way the light flowed into it.  At one corner of the room, a tarp had been laid out.  An easel was on the tarp, a wooden rack of paints set beside it.

A collection of gears and bits of glass were arranged on one half of the coffee table, on a newspaper.  The paper, gears and glass were dusty.

“Mom’s art,” Kenzie said, indicating the easel.  “She’s terrible at a lot of the artsy stuff until she gets practice in, and then she’s really talented.”

“That’s not nice to say, that I’m terrible,” Irene said, from behind us.

“It’s true, though!  You’re really, really good at stuff when you learn it.  You’re an amazing cook, you had some awesome stained glass art, before, I remember it.  It was better than what you have in the windows now.”

“That was a long, long time ago,” Irene said.  “I’m surprised you remember it.”

Kenzie nodded, energetic.

“I’m not a proper artist,” her mom said, as she looked past us to the painting.  “I don’t have my own ideas, I spin off on other people’s.  Besides, I have no patience to stick it out.”

The painting was in shades of indigo through to midnight blue, three old women clawing at each other in efforts to reach for the sky, expressions contorted.  It wasn’t complete, with one old woman with a shawl over her head left undone, face left as only a midnight blue oval, hands left similarly undefined.

“You painted that?”

“I was.  It’s not done.”

“It’s really good.”

“Thank you,” she said.  She put a hand on my shoulder.  “I’ll get back to it someday.  Do you need anything?”

I shook my head at the offer.

“Julien is out to pick up some ingredients I forgot.  He’ll be back in a few minutes.  Why don’t you give Victoria a tour, Kenzie?  We’ll talk over dinner.  I’m interested to pick your brain and learn more about what you’re doing.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

Kenzie led me up the stairs to the top floor.  Black and white photos showed Julien and Irene together.  Here and there, there would be one of Kenzie.

“I’ll show you my room!”

Irene was an interior decorator, if I remembered right.  I was left with the feeling that the house was being presented as a kind of showcase, more than it was a lived-in place.  The wall colors were striking, the artwork eye-catching to a distracting degree, with bright reds and yellows in otherwise muted rooms, and the style was unerringly consistent across the rooms I’d seen.  I felt like being in this house for too long might give me a headache.

“Bathroom, if you need it,” Kenzie said.  “My dad’s study.  He sometimes goes in there to smoke with the fan blowing it out the window, but it stinks so we keep the door closed.  My parent’s room is at the end of the hall, and this is my room.”

Every room thus far had been cool blues and purples with monochrome flooring, artwork, and tiles, a few points of colorful definition aside.  Kenzie’s room was unpainted, the walls plastered with art.  Her bed was made in a way that made me think she’d done it herself, rather than have either parent do it, and there were two desks and one bookshelf, all strewn with papers and pieces of things.  Plastic bins held a few dozen random pieces of electronics each.

I could smell the food cooking downstairs.  I was ravenous.

“You said you moved around a lot.  Is it nice to have a place to stay and make your own?” I asked.

“It so is,” she said, bouncing on the spot.  “Team poster.  There I am.”

It was a poster of the Baltimore PRT.  Mayday was on it, though he wasn’t in the leader position; he took the second position of the line that formed where each adult member of the team stood behind the right shoulder of the person in front.  The Wards were a numerous bunch, not as organized as the Protectorate, with some sitting or crouching in front of the lined-up heroes, others gathered on perches behind the members of the group at the rear and far right of the line.

I could see Kenzie.  She looked tiny, a singular lens dominating her mask.  Her arms were very skinny, and her hands were buried in gauntlets that made each hand look the size of her head, each with a lens on the back.  “There you are, as Optics.  With camera hands?”

“I called them mugshots.  They weren’t very good and they never let me use them outside of training.  If you squint, you can see my flash gun.”

“I can.  That’s really cool,” I said.  “The old team.”

“I miss them.  There’s Avian, Stungun, Keychain, Blush, and there’s Houndstooth.  And that’s Mayday, you see, and Turtleshell, Aerobat… and some I never even got to have conversations with.  They were always busy.”

“I recognize a lot of those names,” I said.  “It’s a good poster.  You managed to find it after everything happened?”

“My mom and dad paid to have people get stuff from the house, but the poster didn’t make it.  There was a picture in a magazine they kept, though.  I took it and blew it up.  It’s not as sharp and details are misplaced where I enhanced the quality a bunch of times and the computer guessed wrong, but it’s pretty good.”

“There are a few things I wish I’d been able to salvage,” I said.  “Others I managed to get.  A poster.”

“I got this, too.  It’s not the original, but it was in the background of a picture on a memory card, and the program kept the lettering from on the frame.”

I had to walk around her shelf of plastic tubs to see.  Alone on one empty space of wall was a picture frame with a very thick frame, the actual picture so small I could have put my hand flat against the glass and covered it.  It was Irene, not as expertly put together, but very tired, with a swaddled Kenzie in her arms.  The picture wasn’t black and white, like so many family and individual pictures in the house, and thick letters spelled out the name ‘KANZI’ below the image.

“Kanzi?”

“My name.  I never liked having to explain it.  I’d always have to spell it out.”

“I like it,” I said.  “But I like Kenzie too.”

She nodded in a very aggressive, overly done way, before leading me around the room.  “More old team stuff, see?  I had an Optics trading card.”

“A swipe card,” I said.

“Yes!  You know about swipe cards!  That’s cool.”

“Can I?”

“Yes, for sure.”

She seemed happy, enthusiastic.  The card was framed, but the frame was attached to the wall with a string, and it could be flipped around to show the back.  The stats were on it, along with the ability.  People who played on console would have the cards at hand, being able to swipe the card like one might a credit or debit card, summoning an ally or generating an effect.

“I was a support card.  Not a lot of people used me because I couldn’t be summoned into a fight,” Kenzie said.  “Kind of a bummer.”

Amy had been a support card for that game, I was pretty sure.  The effect had been downplayed a lot, but her card had still been popular, because there weren’t that many heals.  Most of what I knew had come from Dean, Chris, and Dennis talking.  Gallant, Kid Win, and Clockblocker.

“I have one too,” I said.  “Mine wasn’t anything special, despite my being popular-ish at the time.”

“That’s so cool.  Let me see, I think I have other stuff.  Old merch that I found.  It’s so hard, with the world ending and everything.”

She rummaged.  I looked at the other wall decoration.

Group therapy seating chart.  Kenzie connected to Sveta and Chris.  Chris to Damsel, Damsel to Rain, Rain to Tristan, Tristan to Sveta, forming a circle.

There were notes.  Between Ashley and Rain was ‘hands’ and ‘not rich’.  Between Rain and Tristan were ‘regret’ and ‘teenage boys’.  Between Tristan and Sveta was ‘Weld’ and ‘hero’, and so it went.  Other notes cluttered margins, seemingly more about groups of three or group therapy in general, with topics of past discussions in tiny scribbled font and hatch marks or symbols here and there.

The note that caught my eye was Chris and Ashley.  There was ‘dark’, ‘switch places?’ and then a question mark by note I couldn’t make out without bringing my face closer to the paper.

Yamada said they have a lot they can talk about but what?  Doesn’t say.

“My seating chart!” Kenzie said, with an energy and suddenness that made me jump.  “Don’t get me started.  Really truly don’t, because I could talk forever about the group, and I want to talk about other stuff.”

“I won’t, don’t worry.”

“I have other merch that was from a bag of plastic things that was the size of my head.  They were selling each bag for twenty bucks, when before it would have been, like, four.  I wanted Baltimore PRT stuff.  I found mine!”

It was a plastic disc with an image embossed onto it, the kind of thing that might have dropped out of one of the glass cases with a quarter and a crank from outside grocery stores and mall entrances.  Optics.  There was one for Houndstooth, and one for a cape I didn’t recognize in the slightest.

“It’s great that you were able to find mementos like that,” I said.  I held up Optics to tilt the disc and let the light and shadow hit it in a way that made the lines clearer.  “I wish I had more of these sorts of things.”

“They were good days?” Kenzie asked.

I nodded.  “I have regrets about things I didn’t pay enough attention to, but they were good days.”

“I think it’s pretty important to hold onto the memories.  Oh!  That’s a great reason for me to show you this!”

And then she was off, through the door with only a half-second glance to check I was following.  When I wasn’t fast enough behind her, she reappeared in the door, all excitement.

“Lead the way,” I said.

So far, not too bad.  She was a kid.

I glanced back at the room, which didn’t match the rest of the house at all, and closed the door behind me before following.

Kenzie waited at a door that led from the front hall to the garage.

“My workshop,” she said.  “Don’t trip on any wires or things could get messy.  Too many things you could knock over if you were stumbling around in the dark.”

It was, as garages went, pretty standard.  Concrete floor, wood, exposed wiring.  Tinkertech was spaced out through the garage, with a table housing most of the completed works, another with tools and what looked like the project of the now, and two large cubes, one of which I recognized as the projector box.

“Teleportation project, discontinued,” she said.  She had her phone out and in hand, screen illuminated, and waved it in the general direction of one box which looked like a cube shaped egg had cracked, revealing the internals, which featured a vague, foot-long approximation of a human skeleton in it, if the skeleton was made of metal boxes and electronics.  “There’s the time camera, you know that one.”

“I do,” I said.  I noted that it was open and in pieces.  “You’re updating it?”

“Fixing.  Maintaining.  Stuff breaks down constantly so it takes more time.”

I had to ask.  “You’re not working too hard?”

“Bed by eleven,” she said, confidently.  “I don’t always sleep when I’m in bed, but I’m still in bed by eleven.”

“The sleeping is the important part,” I said.

“Catching the bad guys and kicking enough ass that we get famous and everyone loves us is important,” she said.  “Nobody says, gee Kenzie, you went to bed so nicely two months ago.  They say wow, you built a camera that can see someone’s innermost desires.  How much do I have to pay you to keep mine quiet?”

There was a gleam of mischief in her eyes when I looked her way.  She looked down, checking her phone.

“What’s your usual asking price for staying quiet?”

“Oh, it depends on how horrendous it is, but it’s not usually about money.  Big burly guy has a secret dream of being a ballerina?  I’ll go easy.  I’ll tell him he needs to give me a hug and go take a dancing lesson, pursue that beautiful dream.  If he’s stubborn or scared then I’ll make him take me out for a frozen treat once a week instead, use those opportunities to turn the screws on him.”

“Is that how it works?” I asked.

She played at being serious as she looked down at her phone, tapping some keys.  “Yep.  If it’s a less beautiful innermost desire, like, I don’t know, skinning people, then I’d set the price at ten million dollars or something.  Then I’d turn them in anyway.”

“Eminently reasonable,” I said.  I bent down by the table, noting the various lenses and segments of metal with holes in them.  There were computer chips that had been cannibalized, and others that had been rebuilt into Frankenstein abominations.  “Where do you get the money for these parts?”

“Parents,” she said.  “Some scavenging.  There was a while where people were getting really bad computers that had been scavenged from Earth Bet and cleaned up, except a lot of those computers were total garbage.  Every garbage day I could go out with a wagon and get at least two.”

I nodded.  I couldn’t really parse the logic of some of the layout, organization, or what had actually been built.  At a certain point, stuff ceased to become computer chips and became three dimensional arrangements of pins.  There was one that used magnets to suspend a part in between three other chips.

“I’m joking, by the way, about the desire camera.  I tried that and it didn’t really work.  I’d need a ton of scans to even know where to start.”

“I figured,” I said.

This is the camera I’m working on for Tristan and Byron,” she said.  She gave a box a pat.  Whatever was inside, it was a pale energy that licked the clear lens.  “It’s missing stuff.  ”

“Out of curiosity, what sort of thing would that see, besides them?”

“No idea.  But if I can figure it out, I think I can leap from it to other things.  It might open doors, if i can just figure out how to see into the keyhole.  What those doors look like really depends on what Byron and Tristan are.”

“At my apartment, I have papers on stuff like where the physical bodies of breakers go when they’re in breaker mode, or offloaded consciousnesses in nonstandard brains.  I’m not sure if any of it would help in terms of inspiring tech, but maybe it could help you make some educated guesses.”

“That’d be amazing.  I don’t know if I’d understand it all.  Could you explain what I don’t get?”

“I’d love to,” I said.  “Really, I enjoy the heck out of that stuff, and I’d love to try teaching it.”

“Awesome,” she said.  She nodded, all energy and hasty nods as she was ready to jump straight to the next thing.  She had her phone out, setting it on the table next to her, and she gave it a spin, so it twirled in a circle for a moment.  “I want to help them.”

“Me too.  I want to help a lot of people.”

The phone stopped.  Kenzie angled her head, staring at the screen.

“Something up?” I asked.  How awkward would it be to come all the way here, only for us to get pulled away for cape duties or to help one of the others?  Kenzie’s family seemed strict, and they might look poorly on a change in plans.

Still staring down at the screen, she said, “Upstairs, I said something about memories and mementos.  This…”

She gave a box beside her a pat.  It was as tall as she was, but narrow.  A pillar, more than anything.

“Is my diary.”

“Your diary?”

She looked away from the phone, giving me another hurried nod, her eyes wide.  “Basically.”

“That’s bigger than your time camera.”

“It’s kind of like the projector box, but it’s more purposeful,” she said.  She pulled a shoebox from the shelf and put it on the table.  The thing was half-filled with what looked like the kind of memory stick that was plugged into a computer to give it more random access memory.  She fished around and pulled one out.

“See?  I take this, and stick it in, make sure it’s on, and…”

The box lit up.  Images filled the room.

The group therapy meeting.  Rain’s hair was a bit shorter than it had been when I’d met him.

My gaze lingered on Jessica, who stood at the edge of the scene.  I felt a pang, seeing her face.

“Each card has notches, see?” she asked.  She held up a card, showing me where there were dabs of paint at regular intervals.  Pink, purple, pink, red, black, pink.  Baby blue, yellow, red, yellow, blank, baby blue, yellow, red, purple.  “Each is a scene.”

She cycled through the group therapy session.  Much of the focus seemed to be on Kenzie and Sveta.

“That’s a lot of diary entries,” I observed.  A shoebox half filled with cards, each card only a little longer and thinner than a lighter.

“Well, I’m cheating, kind of,” she said.  “Some of it’s the past, but some is the future.  Stuff I dream of or fantasize.  It’s nicer to have it visual like this than to just have it be random, thoughts-racing wonderings, you know?”

“Dreams?” I asked.

“Um.  So like this one, if I click forward a few times…”

Sveta and Kenzie talking, hanging out, more talks, Sveta looking upset, Kenzie giving Sveta a hug.  Then Kenzie, Weld, and Sveta together in a domestic scene, Kenzie sitting on a couch with a blanket around her.

“Those last few didn’t actually happen,” she said.

“How do you keep track?” I asked.

“Color codes.  It’s pretty intuitive for me, but I came up with it, so I don’t know.  Hmm…”

She plugged another in, and hit the button on the top a few times before the first images had even snapped into existence.

Her and Mayday, Mayday’s hand on her shoulder.

Kenzie stood beside her projected image and looked up at Mayday.  I walked around to look.

“Realistic.”

“Yup.”

“Did you tell Mrs. Yamada about this?”

“Oh,” Kenzie said, looking surprised.  “Um.”

“You didn’t.”

“I mentioned that I was keeping a diary, and I was trying to put my dreams and hopes down in a more tangible way.  I just… didn’t mention that it was visual.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I worried she might make me stop, and I don’t want to.  This is a nice thing to do when I’m feeling down.”

I walked past her, looking at more of the scene.  She clicked through it, stopping at an image of herself as Optics, the lenses on the gauntlets glowing bright.  Her costume was torn, the lens on her mask broken, and she was bleeding.

“It’s kind of stupid, isn’t it?” she asked.  “I save everyone, and then things are finally okay.  The weirdness between me and others stops.”

“I don’t think that’s stupid,” I said.  “You don’t have to show me, you know.  If you want to keep it private-”

“I don’t really believe in privacy,” she said.  “There’s a lot in that box, if you want to look at any.”

I walked over to the shoebox, peering inside.

“Um, maybe skip the ones with hot pink, unless you really, really want to.  I’m still figuring that stuff out.”

“No hot pink, got it,” I said.  I looked, trying to think of how to put my thoughts into words.  She was showing me this for a reason.

I pulled out a card.  “Red?”

“Hurt.”

“Purple?”

“Action scene.  Put it in.”

“I’d feel awkward.  If this is your diary, it’s too personal.”

“I’m an open book,” she said.  “Put it in.  I can’t remember what that one is.”

I popped out the one that was slotted into the top of the machine, and put the other in.

Kenzie crashing onto pavement, heels of her hands scraping, face distorted.  An older boy stood behind her, black with a a shaved head and a school uniform on.

“The lighter side of this is, I had to make a lot of funny faces before I got some expressions right.”

“Bully?” I asked.

“Yep.  I had a hard time with other students in Baltimore.  Mostly because I’m weird and kind of really broken.”

I clicked through.  Kenzie fighting back.

“Didn’t happen.  I wondered what would happen if I did that.”

Another scene.  Kenzie at the office, in front of school administrators.

“That did happen.  I got in so much trouble even when I didn’t do anything except try not to get shoved around.  I didn’t hit back that often.”

Another scene.

Kenzie and the boy hugging, while a school administrator stood by with arms folded, looking grim.

“I saw that happen on TV, and I wondered.  Best case scenario, if that happened?  We hug, we make up, find common ground, and they protect me.  I like that one.  It’s simple, almost maybe kind of believable, isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But someone who’d push around a girl a year or two younger than them can’t be very nice.  I feel like you deserve better than that.”

She shrugged.  “Thank you for saying so.  It feels… like a relief, almost, to see these and go back to them now and then.  Like I can make sense of everything if I can recreate it and look back on it.”

“Does it feel like things don’t make sense?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said.  “Put another one in?”

“It feels invasive,” I said.

“I’m okay with that,” she said.  “All’s fair, when I do it to others.  Quid pro pro.”

I picked out one card, turning it over.  “I asked earlier about resources, and it looks like you ran out at some point.”

“Huh?”

“I might be reading this label wrong, but it looks like you have a lot of cards where there are gaps or breaks between the color dabs, so you have two sets of scenes on one card.”

“That’s not right,” she said.  She approached, reaching for the card.  She took it.  “Yeah, no, you got it wrong.  White’s a color, it’s just easy to miss against the white label background.”

“Ahh,” I said.

“You can figure it out if you know what the labels mean.  Yellow, purple, red, red, white, baby blue, green.  Purple is action, red is pain, right?  I went over that.  White is an ending, baby blue is me being younger.  Green is happy.  So in this scene, I probably get in a fight, I get hurt, and then I die.  Then I’m reborn or reincarnated.  There’s a lot of colors, so it gets confusing.”

I blinked a few times, taking that in, rereading the colors to verify the meaning.

She smiled, pushing the card into my hand.  “Put it in.  We’ll see if I’m right.”

I closed my hand around both the card and her hand.  “Did Jessica know about that, too?”

“We talked about it.  Not that I made realistic images or anything, but that I was exploring that stuff.”

I nodded.  “Are you okay now?”

“I’m happy about the Lookout thing, and the team is mostly together.  I miss Ashley and Rain.”

“Are you putting white dabs of paint on chips these days?”

“No, and even if I felt like it, there’s no time,” she said.  “There’s other, exciting things to do.  It’s really okay.”

“What if…” I said.  “-what if I told you to tell me the kinds of things you’re working on, when you’re doing projects like this?  You could tell me if you made anything with white dabs on the label.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “What about pink paint?”

I saw that light of mischief in her eyes.

I scrunched up my nose.  “Hand holding?”

Kissing,” she whispered.

“Yeah.  I’ll give you advice when you get there,” I said.

“Sometime between a few years from now and never,” she said.  She ran a hand along the top of her projector box.  “Okay.  I can tell you stuff.”

“Perfect,” I said.  I put the chip back in the box, then poked through it.  “It’s a lot.  How long do these take to put together?”

“Fifteen minutes, maybe,” she said.  “Half an hour if I’m doing something like watching television while I work on it.”

“Fifteen minutes per chip, or fifteen minutes per-”

“Per scene,” she said.  “It’s meditative.  I have other stuff, like some chat bots that put out friendly messages in response to the right trigger phrases, and I’ve been trying to befriend some birds and things in the neighborhood, but that’s been less satisfying lately.”

“Seems like it’s all variations on the same theme,” I said.

“It’s-”

She stopped talking at the sound of a knock on the door.

It was Julien.

“Can you set the table?” he asked.

“Yeah, for sure,” she said.  She turned back to me, “I want to show you preliminary stuff after dinner.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” I said.  I followed her out of the garage and into the hallway.  “Hi, Mr. Martin.”

“It’s good you could come,” he said.  “How’s the arm?”

“Sore, but I’d put up with the pain just to have it out of a sling and be able to use my arm.  The only reason I don’t is that I’m pretty sure it would cause long term damage and slow the healing.”

“Follow those doctor’s orders,” Irene said.

“That’s the plan,” I said.

In Julien’s face, I could very much see what I sometimes described as a solemn expression on Kenzie, but it was his default expression, and it read more like the dignified and not-cheerful part of being solemn, while I tended to interpret Kenzie’s expression as a deep sincerity.

Was that unfair?  Maybe it was a bad read, one way or the other, and father and daughter were more similar than that.

She’s not your mom, and that’s not your dad.  I remembered Ashley’s words.  I’d promised to set aside judgment, and give Kenzie’s family a fair shake.  There were things that were weird, but sometimes people were weird.

Weird, that the only pictures I’d seen of her were of her being held as a baby and her in the last year or so.  Weird but not unheard of, when so many people had lost homes or possessions on Gold Morning and in the months following.

“How’s the work, Mr. Martin?” I asked.  “Things must be hectic.”

“Things are a nightmare,” he said.  “Vacancies, a shift in population, trying to sell properties only for the power to be off when people are visiting.  Has there been any news about who did it or how?”

“We know how.  When it comes to the who, we’ve been closing in a bit.”

“How ‘we’ is this?” Irene asked, stirring red sauce with a spatula.

“Actually, it’s very ‘we’.  Our team has been making headway.  Kenzie has been a massive part of that.”

“Thank you,” Kenzie said, perfunctory.  She offered me a tight smile as she set out napkins, forks and knives.

“I’m not surprised,” Julien said.  “She’s something.”

“Penne with spicy Italian sausage and  tomato-basil pasta sauce,” Irene announced.  “Julien?”

Julien took the plate.  “You’ll have to tell us what happened with this- what do they call them?  Corner worlds?”

“Corner worlds.  We went out this afternoon.  We had a chat with Lord of Loss, Marquis, and a few others.  It was, as those things go, pretty friendly.”

“Some unfriendliness, but that was mostly from locals,” Kenzie said.

“Definitely,” I said.  “Anti-cape sentiment.  It’s bubbling beneath the surface.”

“I’ve heard it,” Julien said.  He took another plate, setting it on the table.  “I don’t join in.  It would backfire if I did and it came out I have one for a daughter.”

“And, you know, it’s kind of wrong, huh?” Kenzie asked.

“Sit,” Julien said.

“Huh?  Huh?”

“Don’t be a pest.  Sit.  Table’s almost set.”

I sat.  Kenzie went to get a jug of water and a jug of something else, bringing them to the table.

“It smells amazing,” I said.  “Can’t wait.”

“My mom’s a great cook,” Kenzie said.

“Now, if I remember right…” Irene said.  “You’re from a family of parahumans?”

“Tough topic, no-go,” Kenzie said, as she put salt and pepper shakers on the table.

“No-go,” Irene said.  “School?  Work?”

“Between both, but I studied Parahumans before Gold Morning.”

“And she worked on Patrol block,” Kenzie said.  “Capes and portal stuff.”

Irene laughed a bit.  “It starts and ends with the powers with you.”

“It does.  I’ll admit that.”

“It’s all so dangerous, isn’t it?” Julien asked.

Dad.

“Sorry.  I said I wouldn’t, and then I brought it up,” he said.

I took one chair.  Irene sat across from me, with Julien beside her.

Kenzie didn’t sit, instead picking up her plate.

“Kenzie?” I asked.

“Do me a favor?  Don’t make a big deal of it?”

“Of-?”

She took her dad’s plate, and set it where hers had been.  Her own plate went in front of her dad.

His expression changed.  Solemn and grim both.

“Eat your own dinner,” her mother said.

Kenzie marched around her dad, situating herself between both parents, and picked up her dad’s plate.  She deposited most of the contents on her mom’s plate, with pasta, sausage, and red sauce spilling over onto her mother’s lap.

Her mom pulled her hands away, her face screwing up for a moment before she forced it back to something almost normal.  She didn’t touch or wipe at the food.

“Kenzie,” I said, standing.

Sit.  Please.  It’s just family weirdness, okay?”

“This doesn’t seem okay at all.  What’s going on?”

The fork scraped against the plate as she distributed food and stirred it up.  Her meal was mixed into her mom’s, some of her mom’s meal shoveled onto her father’s plate.  There was a fair bit of mess.

Irene started to stand, getting in my way of getting to Kenzie in the process.  Kenzie almost yipped out out a, “No.”  There wasn’t a better word for the tone.

“You shouldn’t tell us what to do,” Irene said.  She grew more incensed, impassioned.  Her fingers gripped the table’s edge.  “You need to eat your own dinner.”

“It’s done.  It’s not worth fighting, ‘rene,” Julien said.  He looked almost defeated.  He touched his wife’s arm, and she stopped.  He stroked it, and she sat down, still clearly seething.

Not that Julien was calm.  His jaw was tense.

Kenzie scraped more, metal on ceramic, before setting the plates in position.

I rounded the table.  I took hold of Kenzie’s wrist before she could do more.  “Stop.”

Kenzie looked at me and shot me a grin, “Just- they weren’t supposed to embarrass me tonight.  They were supposed to be normal and this was supposed to be nice.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

She reached into her pocket for her phone, hitting a button before tossing it to me.  “Caught ’em.  Always do.”

It was a camera feed.  It showed kitchen.  I walked into the camera’s zone, where pasta and sauce had been prepared, then looked for the camera’s source.

The face of one cabinet, painted blue, no bumps, no dots, no markings.  It was smooth to the touch.

“Then eat what you were going to serve me,” Kenzie said.  “You can get up from the table when you’ve eaten it or when Victoria’s left.”

Neither of her parents moved or touched their utensils.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” Kenzie said.

“What did they do?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter.  Our food’s fine,” she said.  She picked up a fork and stabbed a piece of pasta on my plate.  “We should eat.”

“No, Kenz,” I said.  “We need to talk about this.”

“You said you were hungry, and she really is a good cook,” she said.

“I lost my appetite,” I said, my voice soft.  I wasn’t lying, either.  The gnawing of hunger had become a pit in my gut instead.

She set her fork down with force.  “Okay.”

“Can I get more of an explanation?  This isn’t okay at all.”

“In the garage?” she asked.

I nodded.  “Okay.”

She pushed her chair away from the table in a way that pushed the table toward her parents.  She started to walk toward the garage, my hand on her shoulder to guide her and support her, and then she stopped.  She turned toward the two, who were stone still, eyes downcast.

“This was supposed to be a nice dinner, and it was just, what, you invited her here because you thought I’d be distracted?” she laughed, one note, smiled wide.  “I’m never going to be distracted.  I’m always watching, okay?  So stop.  Be better.

Neither adult moved or spoke.  Irene visibly seethed, nostrils flaring.

Kenzie stepped into the garage, me right behind her.  She kicked a plastic bin of nails, and sent the contents flying across the garage.

“I’m sorry my parents are such fucking embarrassments,” she said, before slamming the garage door.

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Torch – 7.9

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“Capricorn, Antares, Tress, Cryptid, and Lookout,” Lord of Loss made the introductions.  “This is Nursery, Marquis, Spruce, and Carnassial.”

“Or Carn,” the guy with the toothy bandanna said.  “Not Carnie.”

“Ah, name pronunciations,” Marquis said.  “I admire those that can reinvent themselves.”

He met my eyes again.  Capricorn, too, gave me a glance.

What was I supposed to say or do?  Was it better to walk away?  Could I afford that weakness?

I hated doubting myself.  I hated when the questions and anxiety seeped in.  What was supposed to be me moving away from being the overconfident, violent heroine and toward something more measured was twisted by the doubts.  It took the same dynamic and same decisions but made them into a loss of confidence and strength, in favor of self-compromise and hesitation.

“Is there a bit of history or something here?” Carn asked.

My head turned, eyes widening.  How was I supposed to answer that?  How did I frame in one answer something I couldn’t frame in hours of wrestling with my interpretation of things, alone?

“A minor conflict of interest,” Lord of Loss said, “It’s handled.”

The ‘handled’ thing was a point I tripped on.

He wasn’t talking about Marquis and I.  The focus was on Capricorn and the three men who had walked away.

“You invited me into your inner circle,” Carn said.  “I get that, I’m glad .  I think we’ve rewarded your trust with good work.”

“You have,” Lord of Loss said.

“Is there a past history between you and this group?  How does that impact the Ferrymen?”

“The only immediate conflict of interest with this team is to do with the community center attack that Nursery and I participated in.  Antares.  She and I both feel this isn’t a problem.  We can do business.”

I was very aware of the way Marquis was watching me.  He’d seen how I’d reacted when I thought our relationship had come up.  Damn it.

Capricorn spoke up, “There isn’t any connection between me and Lord of Loss, aside from us knowing some of the same people.”

“Our community of powers is a small world,” Nursery said.  “Incestuous.”

“I feel the need to speak up,” Marquis said.

No.  You asshole.

“Another conflict of interest.  I don’t think it should change anything, but I also have something of a connection to Antares.”

“What kind?” Nursery asked.

“A family connection,” Marquis said.

My mouth opened, but the words took a second longer.  Lord of Loss took the opportunity to talk over my nonexistent words, “I didn’t know that.”

I used the words I hadn’t been able to find, trying to stay measured when I felt anything but.  “I wouldn’t say family.  We’re related, and even that is a forced use of the term.”

“Panacea is my daughter.  She is also your sister.  The distinction between relations and family is one of weight.  Good or bad, she has an important place in our hearts.”

“Shit,” I heard Capricorn, barely audible.

“She’s my adopted sister,” I said.  I was one hundred percent aware of how petty it seemed to seize on ‘adopted’, and how I was doing the exact same thing that had left me utterly enraged in the past when others had done it.  “I’m not focusing on the adoption because she wasn’t family.  I’m trying to make it clear that you and I aren’t that connected.  There’s an additional half-step of separation.”

“We’re connected through shared association with one meaningful person.  I don’t want to mislead my colleagues.”

I grit my teeth for a second.  More and more, it felt like I was having to measure out or calculate my words.  It was the handling of something volatile in the same way the building of a sensitive bomb might be.  One mistake, and things would get messy.

Careful, avoid the disaster, keep it simple with your eye on the objective.  “No disrespect intended, Marquis, but you weren’t in our lives when she-”

Don’t fuck it up now, Victoria, I thought, as emotions got in the way of words.  Don’t show weakness, don’t snap.

“-and I grew up together.  I haven’t been a part of her life since you entered the picture.  You and I aren’t connected in any… what did you say?  Impactful way?”

“Important,” Marquis said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’ll concede the point.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I was proud, but not of winning the argument, because it was a petty argument in a way.  I was proud of getting through it.  It was the kind of pride I couldn’t really explain to anyone, even Sveta.

Maybe Dr. Darnall.

Marquis turned to Lord of Loss.  “Her family was the group that put me in the Birdcage for thirteen years, four months.  No hard feelings- that was the risk I took.  They took it on themselves to raise my daughter, part of that being my suggestion.  I do have hard feelings, it’s to do with how they raised her.  She wasn’t happy.”

Pride was gone.  Heavy feelings seeped in and swelled inside me.

“No,” I said.  I wanted this conversation to be done with.  “She wasn’t.”

“But,” Marquis said.  “She sang your praises, Antares, as much as she was able to speak of any of it.  She loved you and she felt loved.”

“I don’t… disagree,” I said, my voice tight, “But is this relevant?”

“It’s relevant,” Marquis said it with an assured confidence.  “You were or are her family and that mattered.  I feel I owe you a debt, especially considering the nightmarish way things ended.”

It was a gut punch to hear that.  There was no armor or means of really defending against it.  I couldn’t come up with words, and as I stood there, taking that in, I thought I might fly away.

Sveta touched my arm, and I hesitated in flying.  Through that moment of hesitation, the flying became harder to do because I couldn’t explain why I was leaving now, instead of a moment ago.

The team was hearing this.

I stayed put, brought my arm up to the arm in the sling to a position where I was effectively folding my arms, and nodded.

“I mention this,” Marquis said, and he was facing Lord of Loss as he said it, “Because I am biased.  I might not have a vote or anything resembling one in this arrangement of convenience we have, but I would consider it a favor if we could extend every courtesy to Antares and her team.”

“Your soft favors are more effective than the hard promises and oaths, Marquis,” Lord of Loss said.

“I have no idea what you mean,” Marquis said.  “I always keep my promises and oaths.”

“It’s when there are unclear words and rules that are open to interpretation that you’re most comfortable and most dangerous,” Lord of Loss said.  “We don’t know Breakthrough or what they want.  You want to ask for this kind of favor now?”

Marquis offered a half-smile, the point of mustache at one corner of his mouth rising.  “Yes.”

“Annoyingly open ended,” Lord of Loss said.  “Fine.  Talk to me, Breakthrough.”

Capricorn glanced at me, then asked, “How well do you know the people in your territory?”

“It depends on who and where,” Lord of Loss said.

“Is every cape or criminal here working for you?” Tristan asked.

“No,” Lord of Loss said.  “Why?”

“We heard you controlled Earth N.  It’s common knowledge.”

“I do control it.  We have three medium-sized towns and several small areas we’re occupying.  I know the people there.  These satellite areas are focused on a combination of farming, fishing, foraging, and lumber, with strictly temporary accommodation.  When the seasons are inappropriate for the work being done, or the resource industries falter because there are greener pastures elsewhere, we rent out the cabins.”

“To capes and criminals?” Capricorn asked.

“It would be a very brave and adventurous person who used the money they could spend on an apartment in Norwalk or Fairfield to rent a small cabin here instead.  We’re a whole other world away, and the retreats put the people staying there a good distance from conveniences and necessities.”

“People come here to hide,” Capricorn said.  “You facilitate that.”

“Some people want their privacy.  In the late fall, winter, and early spring, these cabins serve no purpose and offer little connection to society.  We tapped a market that wanted that isolation.”

“Stuff like tinkers building things?” Lookout asked.

“Perhaps.  Are you here about errant tinkers?” Lord of Loss asked.

“We’re here because people may be using Earth N as a staging ground for their activities,” Capricorn said.

“That would be the nature of the arrangement,” Lord of Loss said.  “We keep an eye out for anything that would bring too much trouble down on Earth N.  We intervene in cases of serious weapons, intent to do harm to members of Earth N, kidnap victims being taken to one of the retreats for holding.”

“What about intent to do harm to anyone outside of Earth N?” I asked.  “Would you catch that?”

“We have powers available to us that could see that kind of intent, if in the right time and place.”

“What about other times and places?” Capricorn asked.  “How much of an eye are you keeping on them?”

“Very little,” Lord of Loss said.  “I’m going to be honest, as part of Marquis’ open-ended request.  We have other things we do.  The retreats?   They aren’t valuable, it’s not worth excessive time, it’s not worth excessive manpower, and being too careful would ruin the point of those retreats.”

“The fact that a hero team is knocking on our door and asking about things suggests it might be important,” Marquis said.

He looked so much like her.  The eyes, the hair, the mouth.  The shoulders.

“True,” Lord of Loss admitted.  He seated his large armored form on the ground, one hand behind him to prop himself up.  “It’s not an everyday thing.”

Sveta, Capricorn, Lookout and I exchanged looks.  Cryptid was being very still and tense, his clothes occasionally moving a fraction when the wind blew strong.

I thought of the sports team.  Was the woman’s inability to work because she was busy or was it something else?  “These retreats, they have internet?  Is there cell service?”

“It’s out more often than not.  It’s easier to travel into the Norfair span and use facilities there than it is to rely on what the cabins offer.  The service is up for one or two hours a day, and it’s restricted at those times.”

“It was better, but that was before,” Nursery said.  “The attacks have been knocking out services.  The city has had outages.”

“Amen,” Lookout said.

Cryptid nodded.

“You said attacks?” I asked. “These aren’t accidents or poorly laid groundwork breaking down?”

Sveta added, “Some people were suggesting the outages were malicious, but the people in charge have been quiet.  If there are any arrests, they aren’t telling anyone about them.”

“It’s very malicious,” Nursery said.  “Enemies of Gimel know they can’t pick a fight.  Our population is small, but the number of capes scares them off.  They know where Gimel is vulnerable.”

I had some idea, too.  I’d thought about how much damage the outages, communication loss and disruption of both work and supply had done, especially with the timing.

The colder months were coming.  We were already in a bad spot, but if infrastructure was stressed or disabled… the costs and loss of labor would have an immense impact.

“This is the war.  We’re being attacked,” I said.

“Undermined,” Nursery said.

They were going after the weak points, hitting them again and again, so the cracks would fan out.  Something would give.

“Can you give us the details on these attacks so we can confirm that ourselves?” Capricorn asked.  “There might be a lead we can chase.”

“Possibly, but not now,” Nursery said.  “I have to talk to people before I share our sources, and some don’t like your team very much.  It may take convincing.”

Capricorn nodded.

Nursery had been tied into Prancer’s group by some fashion.  There would be some upset people.

“Are these the same people we’re after?” Sveta asked me.  “It’s similar M.O.s.  They’re hurting us by attacking the city.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “If so, they have an uncanny ability to hide their activities and hit the city where it hurts.”

“These people,” Lord of Loss said.  “Am I right in guessing you’re after the culprits of the portal attacks?”

Damn it.  It wasn’t a hard conclusion to draw, but it put us in an awkward spot.

“Yes,” Capricorn said.  “Yeah, you’re right.”

I really hoped Lord of Loss and his trusted people weren’t on the enemy’s side, or we’d tipped them off, and they were now covering every base.

Capricorn nodded.  “We have reasons to believe you weren’t directly involved.  One of those reasons is that we have pictures with their faces.”

“You’ll recognize one,” I said.

He held out his hand in Lookout’s direction.  She gave him a phone, the screen glowing.

Capricorn found what he was looking for.  “These are the ones we have so far.”

The others approached Marquis, who took the phone and held it in a position where most of the others could see it.  I hung back a bit.

It was unnerving.  I didn’t trust myself like this.

“That looks like Kingdom Come,” Nursery observed.  “That’s the one I’m meant to recognize?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That was my thought.  You’ve worked with him.  Can you point us in his general direction?”

“No.  He didn’t share much.  Not location, not what he’s doing now that the community center is done.  I saw him four times at one place where villains meet, and he turned down five jobs in that span of time.  He’s picky about picking jobs that don’t weigh on his sense of morality.”

One thing that I’d picked up from familial osmosis was that routines were a trap.  If Kingdom Come spent long periods of time in a place like a drinking establishment, and if he always attended the same church on set dates, then that was something we could use to track him down.

Knowing his routine was a win.  I wished we had more.

“You have no idea where he lived?” I asked.

“No.  I had the impression it was outside of Gimel, but not Earth N.  He attended church daily.”

“He wasn’t Fallen?” Capricorn asked.

She shook her head.  “I don’t know.  He didn’t give me that impression.  No tattoos, no drugs, no vulgarity.  His faith seemed genuine, and I’ve known a lot of faithful over the years.  I think I could tell if he was Fallen.”

If it was only that easy, I thought.  Some broadcast what they were, but others, like Scapegoat?  It was a surprise.

That made me think.

“Do you think,” I said, “That he could sympathize with the Fallen?  Not being a member, but helping and communicating with them?”

“He likes leading people to good things or the right path.  He could have done that with the Fallen, thinking they needed saving and shepherding.”

“And he would then work with them, share information?”

“I don’t know,” Nursery said.  “He was decent.”

“Aside from taking over crowds and attacking community centers,” I said.

“He did it because he thought it was just and right.”

“And because of the money,” Lord of Loss said.  “He asked for pay in New Dollars, if that helps.”

“Anything else?” Capricorn asked.  “Any information about him could help us.”

Lord of Loss shook his head.  “I’ll pass on anything I think of.  I can find you online?”

“I’m easy to find,” Capricorn said.  “Email or phone.”

Lord of Loss nodded.  He reached down for the phone that Marquis held, and then gestured with a finger as long as my forearm, the digit wrapped in the same bands of metal as the rest of him.

“I can’t help but notice the lack of costumes on these images,” Carn said.  “These are civilian identities.”

“Composites,” Lookout said.  “Three dimensional models pulled from other places.  They’re best-guesses.”

I was so glad she didn’t elaborate.  I glanced at Cryptid, and saw his hand move slightly.  It was as if he’d read my mind; he was ready to shut Lookout up if need be.

“These images are all we have.  These guys will strike again,” Capricorn said.  “We need to stop that from happening.  Some bending of the rules against people willing to act on this major a scale makes sense.”

“The civilian identities matter.  You can’t go after people in their civilian guises,” Carn said.

“No matter what they’ve done?” Capricorn asked.  “That’s dangerous and ridiculous.  They tore holes in reality.  A lot of people died.”

“Find another way if you want my help,” Carn said.  “Sorry, Lord of Loss, Marquis, I can’t support this.”

“Step away, then,” Lord of Loss said.  “Stay in sight.  No phone calls.”

“I’ve lost your trust so easily?” Carn asked.

“My trust isn’t the question,” Lord of Loss said.  “Theirs is.  I trust you enough, but I can’t have their mistrust for you or yours for them disturb business.”

Carn hesitated.  Narrowed eyes swept over all of us.  He walked off a distance, to one of the large rocks in a front lawn that served as a roost.  He sat on it, not facing us.

“I know this woman with the glasses and black hair,” Lord of Loss said.  “She was popular with several of the people who had cabins in the same area.  Usually they kept to themselves and wanted their isolation, but she ran poker games twice a week and most attended.”

“That’s a potential list of people who could have ties to her and the greater operation,” I said.

“One that exists entirely in my head.  I won’t give you that list.  I’ll call and inquire myself,” Lord of Loss said.

“That would help,” Capricorn said.

It helped, but it left me less sure of Lord of Loss and of this stage in things.

“The investigation hasn’t moved forward, has it?” Marquis asked.

“We made some significant progress sharing information just now,” Capricorn said.

“I didn’t mean here.  I meant media, government, and courts,” Marquis said.  “Any progress?  Answers from those in power?”

I  shook my head.  “No news.  They aren’t naming culprits, which is weird.  People need that closure.”

“Pay attention to that,” Marquis said.

He said that, and I felt a chill as the sound of his voice echoed with memory.

On the battlefield after Gold Morning.  Amy.  My traitorous, mutilated heart had soared on recognizing her.

She’d veered between cultivated confidence and being distraught.  I hadn’t recognized any of the faces she’d shown me.  I didn’t recognize the voices.

Here, I could match Amy’s voice from back then.  I recognized the cadence, and the confidence.

She’d picked it up from being around Marquis.

I’d claimed there was no real connection and now it was harder to defend that claim.  It was a stupid, mindless link between past and present, and I still felt chilled.

I couldn’t even remember what he’d said just now, or the conversation before it.

I was saved from embarrassing myself only by Lord of Loss stating, “That one arrived last night and hasn’t left today.  They’ve been here for a little while.”

He was indicating the phone with the pictures, which Marquis was holding up for him to look down on.

Capricorn took a step forward.  “Which?  May I approach?”

He got a wave of the hand, giving the permission, and approached, finding a position to see between Marquis and Lord of Loss.  For our benefit, he said, “The woman with black hair.  She was a leader for this particular cell.”

“She rented one of the retreats,” Lord of Loss said.  “We take note when capes and people with money enter or leave the station.  She was one.”

“That would be my focus,” Spruce said.  “If you have questions, I can answer them.”

“You set up and manage the security cameras?” Lookout asked.

“Among other things.”

“I see.  Hmm, um,” Lookout said.  “It’s good you’re trying.  I’ve got your footage, and my computers back home are looking it over.  It looks like she left yesterday at the usual time, but her bag looks bigger.  She might have packed up.”

“She might not have packed up everything,” Sveta said.

I imagined my imminent move to Ashley’s apartment.  “Yeah.  It’s hard to get everything.  The other possibility is that she’s up to something.”

“More use of Earth N as a staging ground,” Capricorn said.

It was an unnecessary dig, but one I could sympathize with.  In exchange for a small profit, the warlord of Earth N had given some horrendous people even more horrendous elbow room to do their work.

I frowned.  “Lord of Loss, do you have any idea what her powers are?”

“Powers?  No.  We paid attention to her because she had money.”

“She might have a minor mutation,” Sveta said.  “She always wears sunglasses.  It’s a good clue someone has powers, if they’re covering something up.”

“It also applies to the power-affected,” Marquis said.

Was that a dig?  I had no idea, and I hated that I was even asking myself, instead of ignoring it.  Fuck me.

“The problem is, whoever or whatever she is, powers we don’t know are dangerous,” Sveta said.  “We risk tipping them off.  There’s a chance she could come back.”

“If we ignore it, she might find out we visited through rumors,” Capricorn said.  “That could be enough for her to run for it.  I say we go now.  It gives us a chance to be on her heels.”

“I agree with Capricorn.  But only if Lord of Loss is willing to let us step in,” I said.

“Good answer,” Lord of Loss said.  His tone had changed slightly.  More serious.

“It impacts your business, having us there and poking around” I said.  “I understand that, but they attacked all of us, when they did what they did.”

“Back at the community center.  When the gun went off and Miss Fume Hood was shot, I struck a deal with you,” Lord of Loss said.

“We let each other go, so I could help her,” I said.  “You asked me to tell people you weren’t responsible.”

“Our goal was to capture, hold, and release.  Killing wasn’t the intent.  You held up your end of the deal, you made that clear.”

“I tried my best.  I didn’t have as much clout as I would have liked, being the person who was hiding her powers.  I told my boss it was important, and he handled it.”

“It was enough,” he said.  “Thank you.  And in thanks, continuing this trend of cooperation, in exchange for information and images you’ve shared, and because of Marquis’ goodwill, you can investigate.  I have trucks.”

It didn’t take long for us to get moving, after Lookout picked up her stuff.  Lord of Loss had cars and trucks.  Capricorn ended up in the driver’s seat again.  Marquis had Spruce as a chauffeur.  Lord of Loss changed into a flier.

I thought about flying myself, but I defaulted once again to sticking with the group.

I took a seat in the back.  The truck had a trailer attached at the back, and Cryptid seated himself in it.  The little window at the rear of the truck was left open, so Cryptid’s head wasn’t that far from us.

The first minute or so of driving was painful.  The silence dragged.

I didn’t know what to say.

No, maybe I did.

“Marquis gives me the impression he’s the real person in charge, here,” I said.  “With Lord of Loss as the decoy king.”

“I kind of got that vibe too,” Sveta said.

“Aw, I keep missing stuff,” Lookout said.

Capricorn was silent, but he was more focused on driving.

“It’s little things you learn to watch out for,” Sveta said.  “This is more of a feeling thing than it is logic.  We don’t have any evidence.”

“Ah huh,” Lookout said.

Sveta was sitting in the front seat. She turned her head around one-hundred and eighty degrees, tilting her body to one side so she could look past the headrest.  I gave her my most convincing smile.

Her arm released, forearm and hand dropping between the two front seats.  Tendrils bent, and her hand moved up to the seat beside me, reaching for my hand.

I took it and gave it a bit of a waggle.

Twenty minutes of driving through nowhere, with only a bit of flattened grass where cars had passed over.  Cryptid reverted back to being Chris, relying on his cloaking and the fact we were facing forward and he was behind us to maintain his modesty.  Were the roads busier or if Marquis was driving behind us, it might have been more awkward.

“If you don’t want to do the thing tonight because you’re tired or upset or something, it’s okay,” Lookout said.  “It’s not that important.”

I didn’t want to.  I was exhausted.

“I’ll come,” I said.  “Unless something happens in the next hour.  It’s important.”

Marquis’ car slowed down.  We came to a stop on a hill with the cars leaning at almost a forty-five degree angle.  It felt like they would roll down the hill with one good push.

Not that I was thinking of petty, stupid violence as a way of releasing pent-up stress.

Marquis.  He stepped out of his car, Spruce at the other side.  Marquis was disheveled in a way that looked very calculated, and it was made all the more pointed by Spruce’s neatness.

The hill had woods on the other side, and the woods served as a barrier to give us a view of the cabin, while not letting anyone in the cabin get a view of us.

No guarantee it was empty.

“Lookout, can you give us a scan?” Capricorn asked.

“Not really a scan.  I can do a camera shot aimed at some special kinds of interpretation.”

“That works.  Whatever you got.”

She rummaged for a bit.  She had her bag at her back, cloaked, and she had stuff in her belt, with all its little pouches.  She found what she was looking for, aimed it, and took some pictures, adjusting various dials.

Her phone had the images.  Capricorn looked at them first, Sveta looking over his shoulder.  Then he showed Chris and I, starting with the better pictures.  Dark, with blurs where the grass caught the light, a vaguely human-shaped blur within the building.  Low to the ground, as if the person was sleeping on the floor.

Another shot, with more darkness, the grass wasn’t even visible, with only some faint striations running through it.  The power line that ran along the forest floor and up to the cabins glowed, and the electronics within.  There was a computer on the desk.  There was more on the wall and a great deal hooked up to the door.

Several came out all white.

“What are these?” Sveta asked.

“Tests.  Ignore them.  It’s the kind of thing I’m trying to figure out for secret project six-dash-nine, for our teammates.”

“Heat and electric resolutions are good,” I said, looking at the last few images.  One looked hyper-detailed, many more were fuzzy.  Another had fog rolling through it, that didn’t exist in reality.

“Can we get another heat pic, Lookout?” Capricorn asked.

“One second.  Lots of dials to adjust.”

I was very conscious of Marquis’ presence nearby.  It was as bad as seeing Presley on the train had been.  Someone reminiscent of Amy lurking in the corner of my vision.

He’d been fair, he’d been fine.  He’d explained my background without asking, but he’d also offered a favor.  Did I trust him?  No.

Did that list of pluses and minuses account for a net negative, to warrant how much I hated him?  Could I explain why I hated him?

He was, in a way, reminiscent of everything that had gone wrong with Amy.  Duplicity, villainy, the fact he breached my boundaries simply by being here when I didn’t want him to be, and that he’d stayed despite the conflict of interest, when the Ferrymen had left.

The others had some sense of what had happened now.  I’d shared hints, but I hadn’t spelled it out.

I would have to explain the Wretch.

Maybe if I went to Dr. Darnall.

“Victoria,” Capricorn called out.  There was a note of urgency.  “Sveta!”

“What?”

“Go!  He’s dying!”

“Door’s electrified!” Lookout shouted.

I flew.  Sveta was right behind me, struggling for a lack of good things to grab beyond the field of green.

I offered her my hand.

Just the force of her pulling made my sling wound hurt.  I could have asked Marquis for help, and yet there was no way I would.

I broke through the electrified door.  Sveta was right behind me, launching through the gap between myself and the top of the door.

A man, bloody, bearded, with a mullet and glasses.  He had a tattoo on his arm and I couldn’t see it because he was bleeding so much.

There were liters of blood on the ground and he didn’t have many to spare.  His head moved as I flew over to him, and his eyes were unfocused.

“My name is Kingdom Come,” he said.  “Help this man and help me.”

“What’s going on?” Sveta asked.

“He’s controlled,” I said.  “We’re going to help you, okay, Kingdom.  Stop struggling, you’re making it worse.”

“Can’t hear you,” he said.  “Can’t really see.  If I’d known you were coming, I wouldn’t have done this.”

“Help,” I said.  “Towels, by the bed.”

There were towels in the corner of the cabin.  Sveta grabbed them and I began using them to staunch the bleeding.  It wasn’t enough.

“They left the body like this, punishing me because I wasn’t being fast enough.  I couldn’t bear to sit here and feel a body starve to death, can’t disconnect my power from victims like this.  They won’t let me.  I pulled until the wires did enough damage.  If I’d just waited twenty minutes…”

“Stay strong,” I said.  “Stick this out.”

“Can’t hear you,” he said, sounding far away.  “I feel like I lose a little piece of me every time one of these bodies gets discarded.”

The wires were in the way.  I reached out, activating my forcefield for just a moment, so I could wrench them, tearing them from where they’d been lashed.  A floorboard broke to my right.

It was easier when the wires were removed, but there were some that were acting as tourniquets.  It was hard to know which was which, so I focused on the ones that were scraping bone.

The others arrived.  Marquis, Cryptid in camouflaged human form, Lookout and Capricorn.  No Lord of Loss- he was too big for the room.

It was Marquis who rushed to the dying man’s side.  I felt an anxious stab in my chest as I saw the angle of his head, the way he tied his hair back and secured it with a loop of bone.  His expression, which looked entirely as serious as the situation warranted, yet seemed lacking in something- in light.

I saw her in it.

His tools were cruder, but they were tools.  He helped Sveta cut the wires, and then began to work on the open wounds, sealing them in complex bone encasements.

“They’re using me,” the bleeding man said.  “They got me.  I’m a way of passing messages between dimensions, and a tool, a weapon.”

Marquis redoubled his efforts.

I looked away, acutely uncomfortable, then stood, because looking away wasn’t enough.

I’d done what I could, and my presence by the man only made it harder to give care.  I kept an eye out for where I could jump in, grabbed one or two things to hand them over- like the scissors on the desk.

The man went on, and I tried to focus on the words.  “The war is a distraction.  It pulls us away from the city and away from things that matter.  They’re after all the groupings of capes.   The big teams, the places capes rally.  They want Goddess, and they’re going to go after her when they’re strong enough.”

“Who are they?” I asked.  “Is it the same people who attacked the portal?  Earth Cheit?”

“Can’t hear.”

“Cheit!” I raised my voice.

“Not Cheit.  That’s- distraction.  Ah.”

There was a pause so long I thought the man had died and Kingdom Come had gone.

Cryptid was now giving his assistance on the medical front.  He seemed to know more than I do when it came to that.

I glanced at the desk.  Everything was missing, shredded.

I opened drawers, found nothing.

When we left with our victim, I doubted I’d get to come back and investigate.  Not tomorrow.  Stuff would change.  Lord of Loss or Marquis would do their own investigation, or use someone like Spruce.

Between the cabin wall and the board at the far right of the desk, was a shitton of dust, with some discarded tissues and food particles.

I used the wretch and shoved the desk away from the wall by a foot.  Nothing hidden in the debris.  I moved the desk back.

“Let me know if you need help,” I said.

“No need.  He might just live,” Marquis said.  “We’ll need to get him to a hospital soon.”

“Do you need me to fly him?” I asked.

“Better to have him in a truck with me and one of our doctors beside him,” Marquis said.  “If he springs a leak mid-flight, he’ll be gone.”

It was hard to focus on him.  I was glad he was helping and I dreaded that he was here.  He was one step removed from her, and my head wasn’t in a rational place.

Books.  My bookshelf had been my refuge, and this place had some of its own.

Most of the books had been damaged or abused by the the transition from Bet to Gimel to N, presumably.  They showed age in the same way a heavy smoker might be forty but look sixty.

There were empty shelves on the far left bookshelf, but no dust on the shelf.  I checked, and I found something similar to what I’d seen by the desk at the back.  Dust, garbage… and papers.  I seized papers.

Some financial things.  Some medical.

And one that the woman probably would have wanted to bring with her.  I read the banner at the top of the paper.  I was discreet in folding it and pocketing it without Marquis noticing, before continuing my search.

“We’re here with the truck!” a man shouted from outside.

I offered my one-handed assistance in helping Marquis, Spruce, Cryptid and Capricorn get the man outside without jostling him too much.  We got him into the back of the truck, and Marquis’ people piled in.

The chaos of the moment meant chaos in the moments that followed.  Lord of Loss was sterner than he had been, ordering his own people inside.  It was blood shed on his territory, and the man that had been captured, controlled as a Kingdom Come proxy and left to die had apparently been a citizen.

For our efforts to save him, we got a thank you and an implied suggestion that we make our way back to the station.

Sveta was using a small brush to get blood out of the joints of her costume.  Lookout was with Capricorn and Cryptid.

She hadn’t been inside the cabin, but she must have been at an angle to see what was going on.  A lot of blood and a lot of open wounds and ugliness.  Even with the Fallen camp, we’d kept her clear of a lot of it.

I put my hand on her shoulder.  She looked up at me, solemn.

“You good?”

She smiled and nodded.

“Found this,” I said.  I showed her the paper I’d saved.

She processed it, then realized its meaning.  I saw her eyes widen.

I handed it to the others in turn.

It was my only prize, really.  The other things had been receipts, that I’d left for the others to find.

The name on the banner along the top of the page was the same name as the remote prison for capes that they’d sent Ashley and Rain to.  On the sheet itself, it had been patient numbers, a few months out of date.  Some had been highlighted.

The prison was an area of focus for this clandestine group, and we had people already there.

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Torch – 7.8

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The arrival of Chris’ train at the G-N portal station had Kenzie running off to go get him.  The initial wave of trucks and cargo from the train began to flow from the station and out into Earth N.  I’d seen the process before, but it had been as part of the Patrol block, and I’d usually had duties, or I’d been a part of the convoy.

Sveta sat on the hill, while Tristan stood near me.  There were other people sitting around the slope or hanging around in the shade of the station, but we were mostly clear of eavesdroppers.  It was a question of waiting for a few people to walk away before speaking.

“Chris and I had a disagreement,” I said.  I watched the trucks go.

“I was wondering why you looked pissed,” Tristan said.  “I didn’t want to say anything.”

“He didn’t like that I showed up unannounced.”

“I’ve run into that,” Tristan said.  “He complains if we turn up unannounced, he complains if we don’t invite him to stuff like our group’s visit to the Wardens’ headquarters, when we were asking about hiring a lawyer and sounding people out on Hollow Point.  I think he likes complaining.”

It bummed me out a bit that Cedar Point’s name hadn’t survived, with all we’d done.

“It wasn’t complaining.  He was pissed,” I said.  “I’m telling you guys so you know.  He might be bothered enough to bring it up.”

“How pissed was he?” Tristan asked.  “Scale of one to ten?”

“Pissed enough to weaponize things I told the group in confidence.  Seven?”

“Okay,” Tristan said.  “Did you get the rage vibe from him?  Do we need to disinvite him from the meeting with Lord of Loss?”

“That’s- no,” I said.  “My first instinct is no, we don’t, but I don’t want to go by first instincts only.  The situation made it hard to tell if it was lingering rage, and… the more I try to find words, the less sure I am about disinviting him.”

Sveta was quiet, “It sets a bad precedent.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Shutting people out, and I don’t think he’d forgive it very easily.  I could have handled it better, but Chris isn’t the sort of person I really ‘get’.  I feel like every time I find out something more, I just have more questions.”

“I think if you asked him,” Sveta said.  “He’d say you don’t need to get him or get answers.  You should just respect his boundaries and let him do what he wants.”

“People in his day to day are scared of him,” I said.  “Teachers, kids.  I need some answers, just to make sure I’m not standing around doing nothing while missing something important or dangerous.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She looked up at me, and said with grave sincerity, “I totally, one hundred percent get that.”

“You’re thinking about the Irregulars?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  “It gives me the worst feeling, when I look back on things in retrospect.  So many stupid things we should have paid attention to.  So many.  We let a lot of things slide because we were worried about how it would change the tone of things, and because of friendship, or what we thought was friendship.  I’d rather see people get upset now than have it all go wrong later.”

“Yeah.  We’ve talked about that,” Tristan said.  Then, like he was remembering I was there, he turned to me.  “Both of our teams capsized.  We’ve done the whole thing before, where you go out, get drunk, and rant about the past-”

“No we didn’t,” Sveta said.

“Let me finish.  We did it without the drinking part, I mean.”

“Oh.  Yeah,” Sveta said.  “I guess.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “A good rant can be healthy.  Get it out.”

“We’ve done that.  The drunken bemoaning of existence, without being drunk,” she said.

“I wasn’t able to talk,” I said.

“Still.  You worked that keyboard.”

I shrugged.

“I’m trying to be balanced about this,” she said.  “I made this mistake once, and I don’t want to be blind, but I feel like pushing too hard or prying might make things break down, and that doesn’t make it better.  I’m not going to say you’re doing it wrong, Victoria.”

“I don’t know if I’m doing it right.”

“Yeah.  But… you do what feels right, because I don’t know if I’m doing it right either.  I want to help people stay together.  That means protecting each other, being supportive, that’s my priority.  We have to know each other, that’s part of it, and it’s the part where I don’t necessarily sympathize with Chris.”

“I don’t want to repeat my error from earlier and pry,” I said, checking to see if Kenzie and Chris were coming.  “But… has he talked about his background?  His deal?”

“No,” Tristan said, at the same time Sveta shook her head.

“Some,” Sveta said, “But hypotheticals.  He’s real about the stuff like the center he’s living at now, and his health issues, his power, but even that’s…”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

“He doesn’t leave you very sure about it,” I said.

Sveta nodded.  “I’m not going to pry or dig, but I am going to pay attention.  Not just talking about Chris, for the record.”

“I’m not good at that,” Tristan said.  “I hear you two.  I get it, we made a mistake with Ashley.  That hard conversation with Rain took far too long, he left, and he didn’t really reconnect until the whole thing with the Fallen camp ended… and he went straight from there to jail, pretty much.  Ashley… I felt like utter shit, sitting there in the pre-court thing, knowing we put her in that position.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Definitely.  Especially when I helped set her up to do it and then made her turn herself in, too.”

“She turned herself in herself,” I said.  “She went to the patrol block.”

Sveta shrugged.

“I get it,” Tristan said, repeating himself.  “We have to watch out that it doesn’t happen again- that’s why you’re talking about this stuff, right, Victoria?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “A part of it.  I think it’s what Jessica wanted from me.”

“So I’m not good at that,” Tristan said, repeating himself.  His fist smacked down into the flat of his palm.  “I want to chase the parts where we click as a team.  We had a few of those good moments.  If we have more, that could be where the walls come down, or where the team members who don’t click.”

“You’re reminding me of Kenzie’s seating chart,” Sveta said.

“Seating?” I asked.

“Figuring out the group relationships,” Sveta said, smiling.  “It started out normal, having to do with who sat where in the group therapy session, but she kept working on it.”

“It looked like a tinker blueprint at one point.  Mrs. Yamada ended up banning the chart and the topic of the chart from the room,” Tristan said.  “If you ever need to distract her from something, you can mention the chart.  She’ll talk about it until someone stops her.”

“She’s not a dog you distract with a toy,” I said.

“No, but-” Tristan said.  His head turned.  “Ey!  Taking your time!”

Chris and Kenzie were approaching, as part of a loose crowd of sixty or so people.  Most of those people wore work clothes.

“We had to wait for trucks and stuff to unload,” Kenzie said.  She wore a navy gingham dress with a folded white collar, and a heart hairpin I’d seen before.

“If you wanted me to show up sooner, you should have sent your messenger sooner,” Chris said.  “You were talking about me?”

“I mentioned we’d argued,” I said.  “That led to talks about group dynamics.”

“What?” Kenzie asked.  “Argue?”

“Did you mention that you threatened to kill me, or do worse?” Chris asked.

What?” Kenzie asked.

“No,” I said.  “Because I didn’t.  I said the kind of thing you were talking about-”

I stopped myself.

“Go on,” he said.

“Can I bring this up here?  Do you want to rehash this with these guys here, or do you want to let this be?”

“Go on.  I really want to hear how you justify it,” he said.

“Going to Bonesaw for help before you went to me, out of spite?  That’s the kind of thing that gets you killed or worse.”

He stared at me.

“I can’t remember how I worded it, but that was not what I meant.  I’m sorry, if it came across that way.  I’ve hurt people badly enough to risk killing them, like Valefor, but I don’t set out to kill.  I- I definitely don’t set out to do worse than kill people.  That’s not me.”

He continued to stare, until Kenzie elbowed him.

“Don’t do that,” he told her.

“Say something to her.”

“I’m not cool with you showing up.”

Chrisss,” Kenzie said.

He glared at me.  She elbowed him again.

“Stop, Kenz.  And I believe you,” he told me.  “I buy it.  That in no way is me being okay with you showing up.  I’m still ticked.”

“That’s fine,” I said.

“You and I can talk about it after,” Tristan said.  “You’ve had a few times where you were incommunicado.  We had to do something.”

“I could do a phone thing,” Kenzie said.

“You’re doing too many things,” I told Kenzie.

“It’s important that we can stay in touch, though,” she said.

“There’s got to be a simpler answer or policy than you going the extra mile every time,” Tristan said.  “Chris, your phone isn’t working at all?  Was it an outage?”

Chris shrugged.  “It wasn’t charged.  I was stressed, so I went out last night, went to the middle of nowhere, changed to Quiet Awe.  I put on some music and lounged, tried to shut out the world.  I spent too long like that, changed back by accident, went straight back to that form.  Came back at one in the morning, probably, power was off, I couldn’t charge it.”

I met Sveta’s eyes.  Quiet Awe didn’t sound like a derivation of anger.

“We’ll figure something out,” Tristan said.

“Alright.  Are we changing here?” Chris asked.

“We’ll go down into the town, find a spot, and then change out,” Tristan said.  “We’ll stand out less, and there won’t be as many cameras as there are here at the station.”

I turned my head to look.  Kenzie pointed at two.

“Don’t point at them,” Chris admonished her.

“They’re so shoddy it’s barely worth calling them cameras.  I’m scrambling our faces so they can’t track our secret identities.”

“We’ve got two team members without secret identities,” Chris said, looking at Sveta and I.  “And Tristan looks so much like a hero out of costume that it doesn’t fool anyone.”

“No I don’t,” Tristan said.

“You look like Legend probably did when he was a teen, except light brown with a modern haircut.”

“I don’t-” Tristan started.  He stopped as the last few passengers of the train and the people who were picking them up emerged.  As the crowd fanned out, they approached the point they might be in earshot.

“You know it’s true,” Chris said.

“Whatever.  Let’s disappear into this crowd and find a place to change.”

“I’ll try to scramble recording devices pointed our way,” Kenzie said.

The road down to the settlement proper was a bit sloped, so I gave Sveta my good arm to help her keep her footing.

Earth N was not a very populated Earth.  This settlement and the surrounding area were more or less it, with a few stations at key points around the globe, harvesting the most accessible resources that lined up with what we knew about from other Earths.

But with roughly one hundred and fifty thousand people settled on this world, ninety percent of them within twenty-five miles of the portal, it didn’t take much clout to control it.  Lord of Loss and his clique managed that.

Things weren’t as nice as they were in the megalopolis.  Roofs were often corrugated steel.  I saw houses with additions that were plywood with plastic tacked to them.  Others were best described as cabins.  It marked a stark contrast from a city where vast quantities of materials had apparently been arranged and even brought to key locations before Gold Morning.

The stores were basic, and any design beyond the bare bones had clearly been tacked on after the fact.  A long lineup outside of a larger building made me think of a soup kitchen or other kind of rationing.

There were two people with visible injuries in the loose crowd that we’d joined.  People from the train station.  They were young, they might have been friends, and one sported a black eye, while the other had a cut on his cheek that extended to his ear.  The injuries hadn’t seen enough attention- left to heal with the weight of the skin pulling the injury open, it would scar into an open line.

Both those two and roughly half of the remainder looked like they were denizens of Earth N.  Their clothes and hair reflected the same standards and ideas that the buildings did.  A lot was being done with very little, and that little was already a bit worn around the edges, strained by hard living and a lack of infrastructure.  I saw clothes which were clearly less than two years old, yet worn.  I imagined they had been washed with hard scrubbing in water outdoors.

“Fresh air,” Kenzie said.  She drew in a deep breath.  “It’s so nice.”

“It’s not like we don’t have fresh air in our neighborhoods,” Chris said.  “There’s barely been an opportunity to screw anything up.”

“It’s still nice.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed.  I’d been here before, but it had been in the winter, and I barely recognized the place now.  I’d seen other places like it, and it had always felt strained and desperate.

Sveta squeezed my arm.  I looked past her to Tristan, and I saw that he was indicating a route.  Off the road, into the midst of houses and high fences.

We found a spot where the fences met in a broad ‘v’ shape, not really in full view of anyone standing at the main road looking down our way.  Tristan and I put down our bags.  Kenzie began unrolling the sleeves of her costume from beneath her dress to her ankles, kicking off the shoes she wore over her costume footies.

“I’ll wait,” Chris said.  “I’ll use this spot when you’ve vacated.”

“I can leave you a cloaking thing, if you’re worried about dropping trou in public,” Kenzie said.  She messed with her phone, and the cloaking dropped away from the bag she wore at her back.  Her helmet hung from the outside of the bag, her gloves stuffed inside it.

“Sure,” Chris said.  “So long as you can’t watch me through it.”

“Stop saying that!  I wouldn’t!”

I put my breastplate on, strapping the two individual halves, which were curved out so I could bend over without it being too rigid.  The upper twenty-five percent of the armor was already attached to the upper half, needing only to be pressed against my collarbones and the inside of each shoulder.  The front corner of my hood that might have clipped up beneath my chin hung over most of that band of armor.

The spiked attachments on hood, sleeve, the center-front of the breastplate, and at either side of my boots were last.

I had only one good arm, which meant that I was only about as fast as Tristan putting on his whole set of armor, and I was only doing my armor and decorations over top of the costume-ish outfit.

“What form are you doing, Chris?” Kenzie asked.

“Strained Peace,” Chris said.

Strained peas?  As in baby food?” Kenzie asked.

“You know how blind people can train their minds to emphasize their hearing?” Chris asked.  “Well, you’ve done the opposite.  You’ve stared so much at your cameras and screens that your ears stopped working.”

“Ha ha,” she said.

“Made worse by you being a dolt.”

Kenzie smiled.  “So harsh.  Is peace on the awe or happiness line?”

“Happiness,” Chris said.

“Why ‘strained’?” I asked.

Chris shot me a hostile look.

I didn’t press, leaving him be.  I finished sorting out the straps of my sling and thought about getting a cape that would cover the one arm.

I hadn’t ever really loved full capes, though.

“Strained is a modifier for forms, it goes around the circle with Repressed Anger, Tense Acceptance, Paralyzed Fear, Stifled Disgust, yadda yadda,” Chris said.  He took Kenzie’s cloaking device.  “All of which are the bases but with faster reactions and movements in a pinch, like I’m made of elastic bands that are all taut, ready to release, or I’m a gun with a trigger that needs only a light touch to fire.”

“That’s not a good thing,” Capricorn said.

“It’s fine.  Faster action, lower stamina, lower strength, more durability.  Changes the abilities that manifest.  Strained Peace doesn’t really have much in the way of special features, so there isn’t a trigger to pull.”

“Why choose it then?” Sveta asked.  She’d attached the last of her stylized additions to her exterior.  They’d been painted, much as she had, but it was the same mandala-style effect, where some hadn’t been filled it, and the absence looked like a conscious choice.

“Because we don’t want a fight and peace works for that,” he said, and the easygoing tone from before was gone. “I need to get it out of the way, it works.  Trust me when I say it works out.”

Sveta put up her hands in surrender.

“We’ll give you a minute,” Capricorn said.  He stuffed everyone’s bags into the big gym bag.

“I’ll hold that,” Chris said.

“Sure,” Tristan said.

Chris held up the tinker device Kenzie had given him, and hit the button.  The camouflage effect crept over him.

The guy with the black eye from the crowd was hanging out at the front of a store, talking to two others, and he saw us as we emerged from the residential side road.  He wasn’t the only one who seemed to notice, but he was the most blatant about his reaction.  Instant hostility.  A glare.

Even the low-level hubbub of the street and the workers on the street changed, conversations dropping in volume, others stopping talking to see why.

“Wow,” I said, under my breath.  I kept my back straight, my apparent confidence up.  It would not be a good look if we gave the wrong impression and Lord of Loss’ town picked a fight with us before our meeting.

“I remember times like this with the Irregulars,” Sveta said.  “Especially when we turned up without warning.  Except you guys aren’t Case Fifty-Threes.”

“Bit of a gut punch,” Capricorn said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

“I’d say we get out of here, but we can’t bail on C,” Capricorn murmured.  “I feel like this is going to become something.”

“Anyone noticing the injuries?” I asked.

The one with the shiner was the most obvious and the closest to us.  The silence on the main street had drawn a few people outside, and it had brought others from side areas and streets.  A dozen of them had their wounds.  Arms and face more than legs.  Some skinned knees.

Defensive wounds.

Looksee raised her hand, giving the crowd of stone-faced glares a little wave.

“Easy does it,” Sveta said.

Looksee dropped her hand.

Then, because the last thing we needed was a monster showing up, Chris materialized, dropping the cloak.

The indulgence form had apparently been derived from the happiness line, as far as I understood things.  There were similarities.  The form was tall, but where the other one had been broad in the gut, shaped like a teardrop with a tiny head and thick elephantine limbs, this one was… shrouded.  What I thought was a shawl at first was loose skin with no pigment, draped in a fashion that resembled a hooded robe.  Hair and a whisp of what should have been a beard hung down, long and growing as I watched, the length of hair and the hood hiding his face, even though he loomed a foot or two above the tallest person present.  The long, narrow limbs and frame within that shroud were gaunt, and stood tense with muscles strained and tendons standing out.  By the way the joints came together and the weight of the skin shroud, it was forced into a permanent crouch, hands bent in and back toward the body, head bent and turned toward the ground.

The teardrop shape remained, but it was well hidden.

“Looks good,” Looksee said.

It was something.  But Chris’ ‘peace’ form had raised the local tensions to a palpable degree.

A long finger with a raw nail bed instead of a fingernail reached down into the dirt of the road, scratching out two words.  The red nail bed had grit caked in it when the finger came away.

Where to?

“We’re supposed to head east from the camp,” I said.

“He said it was a ten minute walk away, past a hill,” Capricorn said.

‘Peace’ Chris turned his head slowly, until he looked down on Capricorn.

I could imagine his expression, were he normal.  The unimpressed glare.  This form lacked in stamina, he’d said.

“What were you going to do?” Capricorn asked.  “Not change?”

The ‘peace’ form turned to look in the direction we were supposed to go.

The robe billowed out slightly, puffing.  The form’s head seemed to lack a mouth, or even any clear features besides maybe eyes and the waves of brown hair that hung in front, but something in the midst of the shroud had served for the exhalation.

I could have flown, but as I’d observed a few days ago, flying had a way of disconnecting me from things.  I floated alongside the group.

“You saw the injuries?” Capricorn asked, when we were a little ways away, walking along dirt and grass with rocks at irregular intervals.  Up to a point, trees had been cut down to use for the building of the settlement on this side of the G-N portal.  Past that point, the woods were dense.  From the looks of it, we wouldn’t necessarily get that far out.

“Defensive,” I said.

“Soldiers?” he asked.

“Soldiers would have run off to tell their bosses,” I said.  “Made a phone call, even texted.  They didn’t.  They didn’t run, they didn’t care enough to challenge or confront us.”

“Are they not locals then?” Sveta asked.

“They’re local.  The clothes,” I said.  “They fight, but they’re not soldiers.”

“Lord of Loss might have a situation going on,” Capricorn said.  “It could be tied to our suspicions.  Another faction in his territory.”

“If it is tied to it, he can’t not know about it,” I said.

“It’s times like this that I feel really dumb,” Looksee said.  “I don’t pay much attention to any of that stuff.  Um.  But someone did make a call, though.”

“What call?” Capricorn asked.

“Uh, from the city to one of the local towers,” Looksee said.  She pointed off into the distance, where something I’d thought was a tree stood out against the sky.  “This is unfamiliar ground so I don’t know where call went after the tower got it.”

“Probably someone calling Lord of Loss to let us know we turned up,” I said.

“Or, if the portal attackers are really here, they’re passing on word,” Sveta murmured.

“Looksee, You mentioned the cameras at the station,” I said.  “Did you tap into them?”

“I did, but it wasn’t me being sneaky, I swear.  I was bored, because Mr. Peaceful here was being so slow and we were waiting so long.

Chris moved, skin billowing around him as he dropped into a crouch with a jerky snap, then moved forward with another, until his face was a few feet from Looksee’s.

She barely flinched.  “Yeah.  You were slowwww.”

He straightened, standing taller than he had been before turning away.

Looksee reached out to pat his leg.

“The cameras?” I asked.

“I was curious about them because they looked analog and low rez, and I was wondering if they were trying to be clever and hiding something fancier.  Nope.  They’re just crummy cameras that were out of date when I was in diapers.”

Chris turned her way.

“Can’t talk, huh?  Bet you had a line,” she said.  To me, she said, “Four-eighty-p, black and white, record to tapes in the station that have zero security.  They write over the old tape after an hour and a half.”

“Can you use them?” I asked.  “Keep an eye out for anyone running for it while our backs are turned?”

Looksee nodded.

“Good,” I said.

We reached the top of the hill.  The wind was cool as it blew past us.  The sky above was blue, the sun shining, but it didn’t penetrate the ambient cold air.  At most, I just felt cooler when we were in areas of shadow, like the side street and beneath the buildings.

The area was a dozen buildings framing a kind of cul-de-sac, where a lot of people had gathered on the road.  More uniformity to the materials and construction than we’d seen in the last spot.  No road ran from it to elsewhere- there was only the road to it, as if it was a defined endpoint.

There was a nicer house at the far end.  I could guess who lived there.

The response to our arrival at Lord of Loss’ site was as cold as the send-off from the portal station had been.  Every step of the way, things caught my attention.

A lot more injuries.  More defensive wounds.  The injured were corralled, kept in groups with capes or intact soldiers in front of, behind, and to either side of each group.  They kept their eyes down.

We walked down the hill.

Nursery and Lord of Loss were standing at the path leading between the manor and the dirt road.  Lord of Loss was in his human form, massive.  There were a lot of people standing to either side of the path we had to travel to reach them, and he wasn’t walking forward to meet us halfway.

“Be careful,” Sveta murmured.

Capes aplenty.  I recognized a few.  Bitter Pill was one.  No Prancer, and none of the hyperviolent capes I’d come to think of as being the red-tagged, like the old capes on the parahuman online site who’d had the ‘do not approach’ banners across their profile.

Not that anyone here looked friendly.

Several in dark clothes with loose threads and designs bleached into them, like fishbones and snakes.  Teenagers, at a guess.  They stood opposite a couple in white armor with crisp black designs painted on them.  That armor hadn’t seen a fight in recent memory.  Moons and astrological symbols.

Three men were staring us down.  They wore simpler costumes with maximized utility between the belts, pouches, and bandoleers they’d strapped on.  As I walked past, I realized that they weren’t focused on me, on Chris, or Looksee.

Sveta was between me and Capricorn.  They were looking at her or him.

Not her, I realized, as I saw past the eye-slit in Capricorn’s helmet and saw his sharp focus on those same men.  Sveta didn’t seem to notice them.

Okay.

We walked further.  We were effectively surrounded, because the people we’d left behind us were free to come at us from behind, and there were plenty to either side of us.

Lord of Loss raised his hand, indicating for us to stop.  We stopped, and Chris immediately dropped into a sitting position, hunching over.

A hundred feet still separated us.  A man stepped out of the crowd to our right, bearded, with parted hair, a hard mask and crisp clothing- a button-up shirt that was rolled up to the elbows, and a vest.  He walked with his hands clasped behind his back.

“Any guns?” he asked.

“Flash gun,” Looksee said.  “Nonlethal.”

“Would you set it down on the ground?” he asked.  “It’s symbolic.”

She looked at us for confirmation, got a nod from Capricorn, and then drew the gun and set it down on the dirt road.  A little too fast a draw- in another situation, that kind of recklessness might have provoked a reaction.

“I’d like to use my power to search you,” he said.  He held up his hand, and a shape manifested in his palm, swelling to take the form of something that looked like an origami onion, the layers folding back and into themselves.  “I would sweep it over you and become aware of anything on your persons.”

“No effect?” Capricorn asked.

“No,” the man said.

“I’m fine,” Capricorn said.

“No objection,” I said.

“I’m pretty much all armor,” Sveta said.  “It contains me.”

“That’s fine.  Can I look?”

She nodded.

“I’ve got more stuff,” Looksee said.  “I can put it on the ground.”

“Please.”

She began unloading.  The heart hairpin, phone, batteries, the eyehook, the projector disc.

“And you?” the bearded cape asked Chris.

Chris shook his head.

Kenzie put a pair of the little boxes like the ones she’d used to hack the keypad lock on the ground.

“I must insist.  I could do a physical, full body search if you wanted,” the bearded man said.  “You would have to adjust your robe.”

“It’s skin,” Capricorn said.

“Ah.  So it is.”

Lord of Loss and the parahumans of Earth N were patiently waiting while we were investigated by this man.

Dangerous territory indeed.  If they took issue with us, we wouldn’t have a great shot.  We’d been promised safety, but promises were thin, and at least a few people here could have grudges against us.

“I must insist I be allowed to search you.  I’m circumspect.  I’ll only tell Lord of Loss what he needs to know.  What I want is for this to go smoothly.”

Chris hesitated.

What the hell were you doing, Chris?

Chris nodded, giving his assent.  He stooped down lower, head bent.

The origami onion unfolded into a whirling frame of lines and flat planes.  Where it passed over Chris’ leg, the leg on dirt, the dirt settled, flatting down, like there was a gravity or space warping effect in play.

Meanwhile, Looksee was putting a pair of pens, a few marble-sized metal spheres, and a glass case with what looked like three memory cards inside it down on the ground.

The man with the beard and parted hair walked behind Chris, the effect sweeping up and down Chris’ back.  He searched Chris’ midsection.

“There we are.  I see the shape of things, now,” the man with the parted hair murmured.  His eyes were alive behind the hard ivory-white mask.  “I can extend you a measure of trust, I think.  Do us a favor and stay still.  Give us no reason to be concerned.”

Chris was still for a moment, before nodding slowly.

The man moved from Chris to Looksee.  The process was faster- a quick up and down.

From Looksee to me.  I felt my costume rustle against my skin as it swept over me, my hood moved.  The effect passed.

Then Sveta.  He made no remark or comment before moving on to Capricorn.

Capricorn barely paid attention to the power that was sweeping over him.  He was focused wholly on the three men that had been staring at him earlier.  They’d moved from their position, approaching Lord of Loss, and were now leaning close, exchanging words at a low volume.  Nursery had stepped away to give the three and Lord of Loss some measure of privacy.

“Good.  Leave your things where they are and remain still,” the man said.  “Do you have a name?”

“Beg pardon?” Capricorn asked.  He tore his eyes away from the three men and Lord of Loss, all of whom were looking at us.

“A name.  So I can announce you.”

The three men stepped back and walked away, in the direction of the side of the largest house.

“Oh, um, oh Jesus,” Capricorn said.  “No.  We’ve been putting it off for forever, it’d be easier if you asked us to go pick a fight with Goddess or something.”

“We’re not asking for that,” the man said.

“You want our cape names, or group, or-”

“All of the above,” the man with the parted hair said.  “It matters.  This is a place where formality, titles, and roles matter.  The name you choose is important.”

“Can you give us a moment?” Capricorn asked.

“I can,” the man said.  He glanced back at Lord of Loss, then over at the crowd.  No statement to any grand effect, but the point was clear.  This was a large crowd and it would be poor form to keep them waiting.  “I’ll be waiting.  Signal me when you’re ready, and then announce yourselves.”

“Talk to me,” Capricorn said, before the man was even gone.  “Fast.”

“We have you and Looksee hammered out,” Sveta said.

“No,” Looksee said.  “Um.  I’ll be Lookout.  Change me to Lookout, as an inside joke, because of what he said, after the Fallen thing.”

“Lookout?” Capricorn asked.

Beside Lookout, Chris was clasping his hands together, head tilting high with hair falling across his face, like he was praying.  He reached out and gave Lookout a pat on the helmet.

“A bit dark but I’m not going to complain with the time constraint,” Capricorn said.  “Lookout.  Right.  Me, you.  Sveta?”

Sveta said a single word in Russian.  “It wasn’t my first choice, but Weld told me if I didn’t choose, someone would choose for me.  I guess our hands are being forced.  Tress.  Because it sounds pretty, at least.  But call me Sveta when it’s not official.”

Capricorn turned to Chris.

The word was already on the dirt, scratched out.  Cryptid.

No surprise.  It had been the last thing I’d seen on the whiteboard in the hideout, before we’d moved everything out.

They looked at me.

“I’m breaking every single rule,” I said.  “Because it’s a name that needs an explanation, and you’re not supposed to do that.  There’s no time to spell it out.”

“I don’t care,” Capricorn said.  “Out with it.”

“Antares,” I said.

“The heart of the scorpion?” he asked.  When I arched an eyebrow, he said, “I pay attention to stars, and I looked up some when you mentioned you were thinking in that direction.  That wasn’t on my top twenty.”

I nodded.  I had reasons and explanations, but we didn’t have the time, as I’d said.

“I’m not about to complain,” he said.  “Team name.”

“We talked about Defense Mechanism,” Lookout said.

“We said it was too tinkery,” Sveta said.

“I’m not complaining,” Lookout said.  “But I get it.”

“And we’re not very ‘defense’ oriented,” Capricorn said.  “Calling us ‘defense’ when I’m the only defender is like going with mechanism when you’re the only tinker.”

“It’s a little on the nose, by the way,” I said.

“Anything else?” Capricorn asked.

“When we were talking about names in that conversation where Defense Mechanism came up, we mentioned one, and it might be too on the nose, but Swansong liked it,” Lookout said.  “She’s not here right now, but it might be nice if she got a say, and it suits Rain, which would be nice.”

“What was it?” I asked.

“Breakthrough.”

There was a silence.  Capricorn had his arms folded.  The others were quiet.

“At this point, it’s better than no name,” Capricorn said.

“It works with the original focus of cracking the tougher nuts,” I said.

Sveta nodded.

“Let’s do that,” Capricorn said.  He drew in a deep breath and sighed, before turning to face Lord of Loss.  Capricorn gave a nod to the man.

Lord of Loss extended a hand, palm up.  An invitation.

“Team Breakthrough.  Capricorn, Tress, Antares, Lookout, and Cryptid.  We’re here to talk about the state of things, and to see about sharing information.”

Technically, we came to find out about the attack on the portals, but we can’t say that outright.

“Lord of Loss, leader of Earth N,” the man with the parted hair said.  “We welcome you.”

Lord of Loss’ body language was magnanimous, hands spread.  He seemed warm, even, for a giant in ragged armor.  He approached at a walk.  “I’m sorry for the mess.  Things have been chaotic.  I recognize the heroine from the community center.  Antares?”

“Yes.”

“We did that to try and get ahead of what we’re seeing today, serving up a scapegoat.  We had a riot two days ago, because we weren’t able to get out ahead of things or give the masses another sacrifice.”

“It shouldn’t be about sacrifices,” I said.

“It all comes down to blood and bread,” he said.  “With snowfall only fifty or so days from now, we don’t have the bread.  Will the community center and its outcome be a problem?”

I shook my head.  “Not especially.”

“Good,” he said.  “What brought you here, Breakthrough?”

“Can we talk about that alone?  Our team and you?” Capricorn asked.

“I don’t know all of your powers, and I won’t call in any of the expensive favors needed to get that information.  You keep your five.  I’ll keep four I trust.  Fair?”

Capricorn glanced at Sveta, then me.  He gave Lord of Loss a nod.

Lord of Loss selected his people.  The others were dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Nursery had an updated costume, I noted.  It was fitted to her slender frame, a curved golden band at her belly highlighting the slight bump.  She stayed.

Oddly, it wasn’t the professional looking man or woman in the white armor with the sharp designs that were tapped for his retinue here.  He turned to the group of teenagers with the bleached animal designs.  One was asked to stay, a boy with fangs bleached into the black fabric of the bandanna that covered his lower face.

The man with the parted hair, too, stayed.  I thought it might be because he was Lord of Loss’ lieutenant.

He wasn’t.  Lord of Loss turned toward the house behind him, paused, then beckoned.  Another cape stepped out, walking down the dirt path, and joined us.  Most of the others in the area were gone by the time he reached us.  The one with the parted hair stood just behind him, as Nursery and the fang kid stood at either side of Lord of Loss.

Tall, with long brown hair that passed his shoulders, carefully cultivated facial hair, and reading glasses that he looked over most of the time.  He had a billowing shirt that ninety nine percent of people wouldn’t be able to pull off, and tight black jeans tucked into boots.  His fingers had a lot of rings, and another ring hung from a simple leather cord at his neck.

Marquis.  Amy’s bio-dad.  He met my eyes and smiled.

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