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When we were children and we were feeling insecure, we clung to the powerful authority figures in our lives. Mine had just torn down an interior wall of a prison.
It would be so easy to stop fighting. I was walking into a headwind, swimming upstream, alienating myself from my friend, doubts welling up inside me. Somewhere in all of this, I’d almost killed someone I’d grown up with- and I had less apprehension or regret about that near-murder than I did about momentarily meeting Capricorn’s eyes, seeing him give me a small nod, as we flew and jogged forward.
We were the frontliners, each of us taking cover at different sides of the same hallway. Goddess walked down the center. She indicated one direction, and without words, Capricorn acted. Orange lights appeared in a swirl, and someone that was sprinting forward nearly stumbled into them. They scrambled back, ducking out of view.
Capricorn shouted a warning to them, and I barely heard it.
That I didn’t hear it told me a lot about how well I was processing things right now.
I could tell myself that for right now we would go after the one threat we felt unambiguous about, but thought and feeling both told me that I would feel just as wrong about betraying Goddess later on.
Goddess indicated my side. I pulsed out with my aura. I saw her react- and I heard the people who’d been approaching stop what they were doing, backing off.
I opened my mouth to apologize, and no words came out.
“Do it again,” Goddess’ voice cut through the noise.
Sure, I thought. I found my voice. “Yes.”
I hit her with my aura, soft at first, like a taste of fear in the mouth or a flash of something amazing in the eyes.
Her head moved, as if she was getting a sense for it. When I tapered it off, she moved her fingers in an almost absent beckoning gesture, like she wanted more.
She nodded all at once, definitive.
“It won’t affect me now,” she said.
I wasn’t in a good place, and I could recognize that the inexplicable gratitude that welled up in me at hearing that wasn’t good.
Focus, I thought.
We’d been in this building before. It was shaped like a plus sign, with the intersection in the center being the place we’d been held up, a heavily reinforced desk, including the gates we had to pass through. We’d entered from the one corridor, and the corridor opposite opened into the prison itself.
Opened more since Goddess had taken that wall out.
Our current issue was the corridors off to the sides. They were apparently for staff, and prison employees had retreated off to either side. I looked back at Goddess, who hadn’t advanced.
“Deal with it,” she said, without stepping forward.
She’d have her reasons.
On our past visit, I’d noted the shutters. The shutters were meant to be brought down from the other side, but…
Capricorn was crouched in the corner by the wall that framed the metal detector and gate. Just past that short wall was the corner and the left turn to the corridor where staff had retreated. Prison officers, security. People with guns. I got his attention, then indicated the shutters, moving my hand to emulate the shutter coming down.
He gave me a nod of confirmation. I saw orange lights start to move along the ceiling.
I was crouched by the same wall on my side of the hallway. Behind me, Sveta, Natalie and Lookout were all gathered against the wall. Lookout was ignoring the situation and focusing on her phone. Her primary goal right now was in keeping the Warden and his deputy from accessing any computers to start detonating ankle bombs. Her secondary goal would be to keep an eye on what was going on.
She looked laser-focused on her task. I felt less like a cape than I had on my first night out in costume.
“Tress,” Goddess said. “At the desk. Someone with a gun.”
I barely had time to turn my head before Tress had sent her arms forward. She grabbed the sides of the metal detector, then slingshotted herself through it, straight at the window of the desk. The scrape that followed was sharp, suggesting she’d scraped away some paint. The red light and the buzz of the metal detector was immediate, but she moved fast enough that it seemed like it followed too late.
I didn’t stay to watch. As off as I felt, I had to act. I flew up, hands and feet going up and back as I landed with my back to the ceiling, my extremities catching the impact and minimizing the sound. I flew while keeping as close to the ceiling as possible, cloth skimming across painted ceiling. I had a glimpse of the people in the hallway, crouched by short walls and benches like I’d been crouched by the wall. The shutter and its mechanism provided some limited cover. The fact that the fluorescent lights focused on lighting the lower half of the room more than they focused on covering the ceiling helped. If anyone saw me and reacted, they didn’t shoot.
The Wretch struck the locking mechanism, disappearing an instant after it had appeared-
A violent image, the Wretch visible to me like it had been in the hospital room, except ghostly, existing only in the form of streaked raindroplets and rain breaking against an invisible surface. And beyond it- Amy.
I worried I’d have to haul it shut. I didn’t. The shutter’s own weight brought it down, with my destruction of the mechanism serving much the same function as hauling down on any release lever or pressing any button would have. It was built like a garage door, but it was heavier, double or three times the thickness, and it was raucous, metal striking against the metal seat with a sound that would be heard next door. Most likely the intent.
Capricorn materialized his power, bringing down the other shutter, rock cracking as the metal moved and the individual slats bent. The impact wasn’t as much of a metal on metal sound as it came down to its housing. He glanced at my shutter, then stood straighter for a better view. Orange lights began to move along the shutters, covering each surface.
Sveta. I flew down to the window, to check that she was fine. She was already at the window, peeking out.
“It’s fine,” Goddess said.
I extended a hand for Sveta to take. Too late, as her prosthetic hands seized my wrist, I realized it was the burned one. It hurt, but I ignored it, pushing through it, as I helped pull her through. She found the positioning for her legs after they were through.
My arm buzzed and prickled with the pain even after Sveta let go.
Stupid mistake, and a mistake that bad could get us hurt. Focus, Victoria!
Goddess pushed down the additional barriers and barred walls that we would have had to be buzzed through. The group fell into step around her, the staff in the two side hallways effectively bunkered in. Capricorn made a gesture of his hand for effect. The orange motes became an additional wall of stone, flush against the metal shutters. It was very possible that it would make the shutters impossible to open until…
It was a cold shock to think about how we had to handle the after. We’d just interfered with law enforcement, and the law was supposed to be one of my go-tos.
Follow the law, if that wasn’t possible, do what was right. If that wasn’t possible, we were supposed to reach out.
If I set that law aside- and I didn’t want to, but the situation was complicated, then I had other laws. In the morass of doubts and concerns, I had to get centered and focus again. I needed to put the events of twenty minutes ago behind me. Now that we were here, I couldn’t be numb and unthinking like I’d been on the flight in.
Black and white text. Protocols. Rules to be followed. Take all of the feelings and bottle them up, except those warm feelings of Dean, that give those protocols and stark letters their life.
Challenging each other, being competitive and trying to get the higher score. Getting in actual arguments over it, where we were both pissy the next day. Making up. Dean telling me, as we cuddled, that competitive was hard for him, because his dad expected so much, and he could sense his father’s disappointment when he didn’t do his best. I’d had such a distinct mental picture of Dean’s dad standing in the doorway, because so often when I went over there with Dean, there would be that kind of distance. As if Dean and I being in one of their living rooms watching a show together meant the room was ours and his dad couldn’t or wouldn’t intrude. I’d been so able to imagine the disappointment and distance both.
My mind jumped from that to an image of Amy standing in a doorway in the same way. It-
My heart had already dropped. The warm memory was wiped away and replaced with a chilled, ugly feeling. I tried to reason my way through it, think around it.
It hadn’t been when Dean and I were cuddling, but we’d been together. Another time. Why had I connected that image to Amy? The distance? She hadn’t been disappointed- or, no. Maybe she had, but I hadn’t known it then.
The ugly feeling persisted.
Had I known? Had there been some glimmer of a suspicion?
It wasn’t a rhetorical question or a revelation. Just… a very real question, where both answers were bad in their own way.
The ugly feeling got worse, as I dwelt on it.
I couldn’t cling to that for strength, so long as other memories attached themselves. Both the times she’d been there when I was with Dean and the times she hadn’t been there when I’d been with him were mucked in together, muddled and muddied, shat on by her proximity to them. That he’d had to have known. That she could have saved him and she hadn’t.
I couldn’t. The kernel of love I felt for him was too hard to reach for.
Then- then the other direction. Reaching for that other direction meant getting close, meant walking through a corridor of memories and ignoring the person who kept on peering in through the windows and stood off to the side, punctuating so, so much of my early life.
What wasn’t hers?
In the hospital room, studying like I’d studied the master-stranger protocols. Being the powers geek with the patrol. Yes. It was an identity I could and had wrapped around myself like a security blanket.
Never hers. Untainted, but for a few intrusions looking in on Dean and I.
I wasn’t moving any faster, walking in line with the others, my jaw set, but I felt like I was.
There was another identity, one from another world that had never been hers. It was a world that’d had- it had had its problems, but it wasn’t hers. She’d defied it, as a matter of fact. Where I’d longed for it, thrown myself into that world, she’d run from it. She’d wanted love and acceptance from our family, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to join in.
I reached for my mask, where it lay at my upper thigh, the curvature of the mask making for a neat fit. I slipped it on, hooking it to the metalwork where my hood met my hairline, a band of chain going around the back, securing it in place. It clicked in a satisfying way.
I wore a face, my face, but it was cast in alloy, untouchable, unmoving.
My breath was warm against my face as we stepped beyond the corridor, through the wholly unnecessary if impressive opening Goddess had made.
The sky was so bright, and it was warm. There was only a sliver of sun, but after the darkness and the rain, the harsh coldness, the setting was eerie. Less of a crossing over to another Earth and more of a crossing over to another world.
And there were guards. The long distances and the open spaces with only chain link blocking off access meant that getting from A to B was more time consuming, and that was a dangerous thing when anyone with a gun had an open shot, often with next to nothing on the far side of us, the targets.
Capricorn began drawing out orange-red motes, clearly intending to give us some cover.
Goddess beat him to it. With a sweep of her arm, she used her telekinesis to carve a great furrow into the earth. Dust and dirt was sent flying, and there was a great opaque cloud. Again, in the moment I saw the earth react, before the dust cloud covered it, I saw the pattern by which Goddess’ telekinesis touched the world, like a hand used to push would leave a handprint. A line that zig-zagged out, back into itself, out. The first gunshots erupted, the sounds louder because they could skip off the flat ground like a stone could skip on water. Our group ducked down, and I put the Wretch out, shielding Sveta, Kenzie, and Natalie.
The dust was clearing, however. Goddess had pushed out the earth, and where it had piled up, it formed a loose general barrier, thick with stones.
Goddess’ head snapped around. She reached out, and part of her barrier exploded outward, stones and dirt flying.
“Don’t hurt them!” I said. My voice was almost drowned out by the follow-up strike. Something more localized. Taking out one person who was still after her, following the initial strike.
“Hurt- you hurt the guards?” Sveta asked.
“Maybe they were bad people,” Kenzie said. “Right?”
“Would you rather be shot by them?” Goddess asked, ignoring Kenzie.
“We have to live with the consequences after,” I said. “We can do this in a good way.”
“One moment,” she said. She paused.
I clenched my teeth, lips pressed together behind my mask.
Four hundred feet away, at one corner of a building, brick and glass shattered, a window and balcony coming to pieces. From what I could see of the follow-up, a series of blasts and destruction within the room she had targeted, she was removing the floor from the room.
“That-” I started.
“A moment,” she interrupted, firmer. Her focus was wholly on that spot. There was a pause. “One fucking moment.”
I remained silent, letting her do what she needed to do. She turned her head slowly, looking around.
“There was a sniper. There’s one more on the other side of the complex. They’re not taking a shot. They’re too far.”
With a finger, she indicated a building.
“Girls’ side,” Kenzie said.
“The men and women have fled. Retreating to a fortified position.”
“I could spot them on my phone,” Lookout offered, helpfully.
“No,” Goddess said. “It’s not a question. I’m saying it because I know it.”
“Oh, cool,” Lookout said.
Goddess indicated the nearest building on the boy’s side. “You’ll escort me. Teacher’s pawns are close, and they were picked to stop me.”
“Is that the plan?” I asked. “Visiting each building in turn? Rounding up the capes, dispatch the guards and anyone Teacher set up?”
“Why does it sound like you’re questioning me?”
I am Antares. I am a scholar of powers, I was born to capes and raised to be a cape. I-
I reached, grasping for the strength to push through my doubts. Me with my mom and dad. A weird scene, because I had been young, and I’d had a debate with my parents while we’d been out in costume, and I’d been thrown off balance.
I didn’t have time to replay the whole memory in my head.
“Yes,” I said. The fuller answer found me as I grasped the rest of the memory. The debate with my parents had thrown me off because they’d talked to me like equals, had considered my opinion valid, conceded points, or defended them. “You wanted people close to you who weren’t just yes men. It’s why you had- you had Amy, who you weren’t…”
I trailed off. Bringing up Amy had slowed my momentum. Trying to find a word to encapsulate this killed it.
“Aligning?” Lookout offered. “Inviting to the coolest cool kids club? Except we’re not all kids, um-”
“Aligning,” I said. “Thank you for the word, Lookout.”
“I did,” Goddess told me. She turned her head, looking for something. “I don’t like standing in this open field, when we don’t know what Teacher has prepared. We’ll walk to our destination.”
Capricorn created barriers to one side of us, as Goddess watched over her shoulder in the same direction. Natalie looked scared- it might have been the passing mention of a sniper.
“You wanted people who debate with you, offer differing points of view. You listened to Cryptid, so… is it okay if I bring up some points?”
“Cryptid may not be your best example, Antares,” Goddess said.
There was something ominous in her voice as she said it, even though she looked at me and smiled like there was almost a joke in there.
“I don’t understand.”
“He came to me with a form prepared to counter me. And that is, as far as I detected, only one of three levels of deception that boy was putting into practice. You don’t want to tell me that you’re following his suit.”
I wasn’t sure most members of the team weren’t shocked at that. Looks were exchanged. Of alarm, concern.
“But he’s helping you,” Lookout said.
“He is. He’s clever enough that I want to work with him. Antares, little Lookout, is a little more blunt about questioning me and making me wonder about her, and she already attacked one of my new lieutenants. Did you have an actual argument, Antares, or are we going to talk about him? Because if you didn’t have a problem to raise, I won’t be happy you questioned me.”
“Actual argument,” I said. It took me a half-second to refocus myself, taking my thoughts away from Chris and back into thinking like a cape, the kind of cape that could debate approaches with my parents. “The assistant warden of this prison is on our side, and he’s holding off on detonating the ankle bombs because Foresight convinced him. He’s presumably watching through surveillance cameras-”
“He is,” Lookout said, looking around. She sounded alarmed as she said, “Nobody said I should stop him from doing it.”
“It’s good,” I told her, reassuring. “It’s good. If you stopped him, he might start panicking and doubting Foresight. But if this group with a strange person in it starts assaulting his guards and collecting his prisoners…”
“He’s going to shit a brick, use that brick to break the glass, and hit the big red button that blows up those prisoners,” Capricorn supplied.
“Can you block him like you’re blocking the warden?” Goddess asked Lookout. “Don’t actually do it. I had a feeling as I asked.”
“I could,” Lookout said. “But it’d be hard. I’m already splitting my focus, and unless I want to shut off all power across the complex…”
“Leaving us in the dark,” Sveta murmured. Her pale face turned to look in the direction of the sun. No longer a sliver- it was a glow across the sky. The ‘slivers’ were now only the crimson-purple linings around some of the rare clouds at that end of the sky.
We’d reached the building. It was the same one the sniper had been in. It was less like a proper apartment building and more like six cargo containers organized so it was two side by side, another two stacked facing a different direction, and then two stacked at the top, with the original orientation. Staircases that led down or through were exposed.
Rain and Ashley’s buildings had four people per. This is a six. It’s almost like a threat rating, but the buildings with six have the easiest prisoners to manage.
We weren’t going inside just yet. Goddess was hesitating.
“I think I know why. If she does that then we become the bad guys,” I said. “Foresight will find out or think something’s going on- they have good thinkers. Right now they’re telling him that his staff and superiors are compromised, something dangerous is going on. He’s listening. We don’t want to give him a reason to think he’s being played.”
“Then we go after him. Tress, if I tell you to go to him and keep him quiet and cooperative, can you do that?”
“I don’t know if I’m that convincing.”
“You might not be, but a knife to the throat is,” Goddess said.
I saw Tress’ expression shift. Hesitation.
“Is anyone else capable?”
“I could try,” Lookout offered.
“You couldn’t be older than twelve, and I need better than try,” Goddess said. She looked in the direction of the entry-building. “Trouble’s coming. It feels like Teacher.”
“It might be,” Lookout said. “Let me look.”
She turned to her phone. I turned my focus to the immediate problem. We had to protect the leadership.
“If we grab everyone, they’ll panic and you’ll get nobody,” I said. “We told Foresight we’d reach out to our team members and their undercovers. They’ll let the guy in admin know. Let’s get our forces together.”
“Teacher realized he can’t get in,” Lookout reported. “He could’ve figured it out if he’d tried to make a portal a hundred feet in the air, but I guess he’s not that smart. Like, helloo…”
“He’s attacking the front door,” Goddess interrupted.
“Yes,” Lookout said. “I was getting around to that.”
“Our guys?” I asked.
“The teams we pulled together are going to be holding him off. Fume Hood, A.G., Auzure,” Lookout said. “And others.”
“They won’t succeed,” Goddess said. “I wouldn’t be aware of the imminent danger if he was going to be scared away.”
“Then tell them, Lookout,” I said. “Let’s not have them commit to a fight they can’t win.”
“I’ll tell them.”
“Get your people,” Goddess said. “Lookout and the unpowered girl stay with me. The rest of you- gather your forces. I don’t care how you do it, but do it fast. You know Teacher’s key players?”
“Yes,” Capricorn said.
“We’re doing what I did when I claimed my Earth. Start from the top. A prison warden has to be easier than a collection of world leaders. You can manage this? Remove Teacher’s pawns, that would give him control.”
“Would help,” Lookout said, her attention back on her phone. “I’m spending half my time keeping these guys hemmed in, now that they’ve split up. They’re gathering guards too.”
We don’t know what Teacher’s people are going to do. They could blow up everyone not on his shortlist, and that could include Ashley and Rain. It could include Crystalclear and Foresight’s other people. Or they might do something that isn’t using the ankle bombs.
“We can manage,” I said.
“Um, here,” Lookout said. She had her bag slung over her back, and she retrieved one of the projection discs. “It’s kind of broken since last time. But it has enough charge to draw lines. It’s hooked up to the computer at home, the surveillance-”
“Short version,” Goddess sounded testy.
“Points at people!” Lookout said.
“Good!” Capricorn answered her, before bumping her shoulder with one fist. She laughed in response, but we were already heading away. Further into the prison complex.
I did glance over my shoulder at Natalie though.
She’d been silent, quiet. What was she thinking or doing? Did she have a plan?
If she just looked after Lookout’s welfare, I would be happy. But there was a chance that wouldn’t be enough. There was a good chance that we needed more than that. Master-stranger protocols. We needed one level head in our group.
Fifty or sixty eyes were at windows, staring down at us. We were in the sixes, the buildings with six ‘apartments’ each, where the minimum risk prisoners were. There weren’t many. The fours were more numerous. More dangerous prisoners who were deemed cooperative enough to have full privileges.
Sveta, Capricorn and I jogged.
“Rain and Crystalclear first,” Capricorn said. The disc he held had lines extending from it, and some of those lines lit up.
“Yes,” I said.
“I can’t figure you out, Victoria,” Sveta murmured.
“Master-stranger protocols,” Capricorn said.
Sveta looked at him, “What?”
“Master-stranger,” I said. “We’re under the influence of a power. We can’t trust our own judgment.”
“And you’re on board with this, Capricorn?” she asked. “You’re okay with this?”
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
“Not like this!” she exclaimed, stopping in her tracks.
“Do you trust me?” he asked again. “Forgetting this specific situation, do you trust me?”
“It’s more nuanced than that.”
“Do you trust me?”
“Stop that. Don’t play your games with me, Capricorn.”
“Yes!” she shouted. There was a pause as she gathered her composure.
In that pause, the jeering and shouts from prisoners was audible. Catcalling, threats. Offers to get us money if we let them out.
“Most of the time,” Sveta added, more subdued.
“Do you trust Antares?”
“Most of the time,” Sveta said. She looked at me. “Yes.”
“Do you trust Weld?”
“What does Weld have to do with this?”
“The protocols we’re talking about are Ward and Protectorate protocols. If Weld was here he would be following the rules too. Do you trust Weld? Do you believe in the Weld fan club?”
“That is the most manipulative shit, Capricorn.”
“If you don’t answer with a resounding yes, I think I win.”
“Fuck you, no you don’t, and yes, of course I believe in my boyfriend, but bringing him up is a stretch.”
“Sometimes our feelings get screwed up. I’ve had to deal with it before,” I said. “You know that.”
“Yes,” Sveta said.
“The rules for the protocols are simple. We listen to the people we can be sure aren’t affected.”
“And you aren’t affected?”
“We’re all affected,” Capricorn said. “Me, my brother, Antares, the kids.”
“Only Natalie?” Sveta asked. “She didn’t say anything.”
“I think she thinks that if she’s quiet she could get an opportunity to make a phone call or reach out,” Capricorn said. “And I don’t think Goddess is that stupid, to let her.”
“I don’t know,” Sveta said.
“Trust us, trust in the rules Weld would have followed. Because they’re the guidelines of effective heroes.”
“Do the guidelines say how we handle this situation?” Sveta asked. “Teacher’s attacking, he’s focusing his efforts on the front door. Goddess is… she wants to fight him here, and we’re supposed to help her. This is going to become a battlefield, and…”
“And a single mistake could mean our friends lose their lives, or dangerous prisoners get free,” I finished.
“Or Teacher wins,” Capricorn said. “If he forces us into a retreat or captures us-”
There was a sharp whistle nearby that stood out from the lecherous ones one guy in particular seemed to be doing. I turned my head, searching for the source.
A prisoner, standing at a balcony, where he had to look around the corner and along the length of a building to see us. He was a black guy, with tattoos outlined across his face and arms that looked like they had been put on his skin with white-out. He pointed down, and he held up his hand.
I couldn’t tell if his thumb was out, at that distance, but it sure looked like he had all four fingers up.
I saluted him.
“We’ve got company. Officers, I’m guessing,” I said.
“We run, instead of fighting,” Capricorn decided. I nodded my agreement.
Capricorn created cover, orange motes tracing out walls, which appeared just as we reached them. I flew alongside, the Wretch active. What the walls didn’t cover, I hoped Capricorn’s setup would.
Which was fine, so long as we just had the one squadron of officers coming from around the back corner of the building. One squadron, one direction to watch, all good.
But there were others. We approached the building that Lookout’s compass was pointing us to, and I could see the broken window on the ground floor, with no less than four officers lined up along it, guns pointed out.
I had to push hard to fly out in front, my arms outstretched wide and Wretch stretched out wider. A momentary stop, working on the assumption the bullets would be accurate, turning to face one direction while flying the opposite, in an effort to confuse-
The Wretch caught a bullet. In the moment the Wretch was gone, so soon after that I imagined it would have been blocked by the Wretch had it been a tenth of a second faster, Sveta grabbed me by the cloth at the small of my back. She was already pulling herself to a destination, and in the process, she pulled me too.
I went high, because I could, and because I knew the people shooting at us wouldn’t be aiming that high with their initial battery. For a moment, I was kind of Sveta’s kite.
We didn’t get away unscathed. Each of those four officers fired off multiple shots. I saw bullets hit my teammates. I saw Capricorn fall in the wake of one shot.
Metal prosthetic body- not all that durable, with the lightweight metals. As Sveta collapsed into a heap, the three of us stopping at the base of one building. In the moment we passed through some of the light that reached down past the rectangle of a balcony, I could see the groove in Sveta’s body. It looked more like someone had buried a hatchet in her side than anything.
And Capricorn- he crawled to the base of the wall, sitting up, before twisting his leg around. It looked like his armor was up to snuff. Whatever it was made of was denser, and it hadn’t parted or let the bullet through when it had taken the grazing shot. Maybe a deflection, maybe a graze.
“All good?” I asked Sveta. “No damage?”
“Nothing I can tell,” she murmured. “Get me a patch? At my back, actually only a short distance from the damage done. I’ll try not to grab you.”
I found the patch. I had to fumble with it, finding the way it attached. There was a part that went inside the armor, inside the damaged portion-
Sveta grabbed it from within, pulling it flush against the armor. “I think I’ve got it. Thanks.”
Capricorn leaned out to peer around the corner. There was a gunshot, and he pulled his head back.
“Night vision goggles or something,” Capricorn said. He looked around. “It’s too dark for them to see me, normally.”
I glanced up at the sky. The sun had set. No light from above that wasn’t from the moon, and we weren’t near any cities. The only light pollution was from the prison complex.
“Guys who were behind us are going to catch up with us,” I said. “If I was willing to hurt these guys, I would.”
“Patched,” Sveta said. “So long as I don’t pick at the wires.”
Capricorn looked out. Another bullet made him pull his head in.
“Stop doing that, you’re making me nervous,” Sveta said.
“I guess our assistant warden isn’t telling all his men to stand down,” Capricorn said. “Antares, you’ve got-”
Something landed on the ground near us.
No, not just trash. An adult diaper. Used.
I craned my head up to look, saw a wide-mouthed, wild-haired face peering down, and took flight, flying up toward them.
They shrieked, and then slammed their balcony door closed.
I lowered myself to the ground. Capricorn had already dealt with the diaper, burying it in a pyramid of stone.
“Get my phone?” Capricorn asked. “I’m wearing gauntlets.”
He indicated where, and I reached for it.
He moved it to the edge of the building, so that only the camera peeked out, and looked at the screen. The night-vision mode wasn’t great, but even looking over Capricorn’s shoulder, I could see the general shape of the building.
I could also see the bright spots that were his sparks. He was using the camera to help place them.
I kept an eye out for our pursuers at our rear. In a prison complex that was inconsistently lit, we were now sitting in the shadows just beside the illumination that came down from diaper-man’s balcony light.
No, nothing was that easy. I could see the first hints of flashlights mounted on guns.
“Hey Lookout,” I murmured. “Since you’re messing around with power and systems, if you happened to want to throw these guys for a loop…”
The lights went out around the pursuers.
“Uh,” I said.
“Coincidence,” Sveta said.
“Blocking the window,” Capricorn whispered. “We blitz. Go in three, two, one!”
We rounded the corner. A wall of rock blocked the window.
The door near them opened. Sveta reached out, missed the knob, threw out another hand, and caught it. She shifted her stance and hauled the door shut.
A gun fired from within. The door handle came away.
Sveta, halfway to reeling her arm in, whipped it. It reversed direction, extending in the direction of the hole.
She grabbed someone or something on the other side and yanked. They collided with the edge of the opening door, which promptly slammed. It was only a moment later, and after seeing Sveta’s expression, that I remembered the height that the usual doorknob was at, and what she might have grabbed.
The guards shot out the hinges, and at that point, there was no keeping the door up. I flew to intercept, and as I saw their movements as they turned to track me, I shifted course, flying up. With the Wretch active, I hit the ceiling just above the door, where the light was.
We still have pursuers from behind.
“We’ve got two red lines from the compass!” Capricorn called out.
I flew back and away, so I’d have a second to think. I was in the middle of evasive maneuvers when a bullet hit the Wretch.
Changing course, I put myself close to the building, so the overhang above the door would provide some cover from the shooter.
They shot elsewhere.
“Stop shooting my body!” Sveta called out, arms up in front of her face.
I flew straight down. Wretch out, flat out, all out. A full speed descent, a downward swipe of the Wretch aimed at the concrete pad that the building was seated on.
The pad shattered. People all around me stumbled- shadowy silhouettes in more shadow.
I swung backhanded, aiming a punch with no enhanced strength active, but with my aura going from zero to ten.
A hand deflected my swing. The woman stepped in close, with an underhanded punch. The first hit my breastplate. The second, same hand, hit my side, where the breastplate didn’t protect me.
People were cowering, backing up, but this person didn’t flinch.
And the one with the gun wasn’t either. They brought their weapon around, aimed at my head.
I ducked right, relying on flight to keep me moving, when otherwise it would have been me landing on my side. At the same instant, Sveta had a grip on the gunman and pulled them away, hauling back on the torso, not the gun-arm. And, still also in the same moment, they fired.
With me moving one way, and Sveta pulling the gunman the other way, the bullet still clipped the edge of my mask just by the left eyehole. My head was twisted to the left, pain singing in my neck in a way that promised I’d ache tomorrow.
And the martial artist woman in the prison guard uniform was after me. Her body was a blur of grays and blacks against a black background, and I barely saw her leg come around. A kick aimed at my neck, while I was still reeling.
Teacher thrall, I realized. I brought the Wretch out. She kicked the Wretch, and the Wretch might have been lashing out or growing out in her direction, because I saw and felt her leg break.
She landed on the three intact limbs, centered herself, and then pounced at me.
“The hell?” another officer asked.
“You’ve got moles!” I shouted. “It’s why we’re here!”
The gunman was maneuvering to get a shot, his focus on Sveta again. The second teacher thrall. The night vision sniper Capricorn had remarked on wasn’t using night vision. They had something else going on, courtesy of Teacher’s gifts.
And they were dead inside enough that my emotion power wasn’t affecting them.
Capricorn closed the distance with the gunman. Sveta grabbed the pouncer.
The Wretch’s first hit was deflected, but only barely- the woman was hit hard enough that she was pulled from Sveta’s grip. She didn’t have a second leg to catch herself on, so she wobbled unsteadily as she dropped to a one-legged squat, put her hands out to either side, and then sprung forward at me yet again.
I ducked low, using flight to orient myself, and kicked out. She was ready for it, pulling her leg up out of the way- but the broken leg that dangled wasn’t so adroit. I’d kicked it, hard, and as dead as she was inside, she seemed to feel sufficient pain or shock. She landed hard across broken concrete.
“Hey! Stop!” one guard shouted.
Capricorn had been punching the gunman, his gauntleted fist coming back from what couldn’t have been the first hit, starting to move in for a third or fourth.
He stopped himself. When he let the guy fall, the guy fell limp, unconscious.
His head lowered, fists clenching.
“Can’t stop,” I said. “We’ve got more coming.”
There were others in the incoming squad. Capricorn looked down at the compass. I saw two more red lines.
Teachered people that Lookout had noted and marked in her system.
“Two of these guys are compromised too,” Capricorn said, more for the benefit of the other guards.
There was an eruption. The incoming squad was scattered, various members thrown in every theoretical direction.
Rain and Crystalclear leaped from a higher point. Rain stopped them mid-fall, then let them fall the rest of the way.
“We’re clear? I’m not going to blow up?” Rain asked.
“You’re clear,” I said, before raising my voice. “The rest of you who’re listening aren’t, by the way!”
“What the fuck!?” a guy on a balcony shouted down. “What’s going on!?”
We ignored him. My phone was buzzing, and the ‘compass’ that was the projector disc showing headings of various threats that surveillance had spotted was lighting up. One big magenta line, then another, and another. Red lines were converging.
“I’m really hoping we can close the portal if we need to,” I said, because I’m going to guess that those magenta lines are… bigger threats.”
“The people at the gates,” Sveta said. She was working on patching her body where she’d taken bullets. “Powered people.”
“No sweat. We’ve got the Lady in Blue,” Rain said, smiling.
“Yeahhhh,” Crystalclear said, sounding very unsure. “Hey, how are we feeling about that? Because things are looking odd to me here, cracks in places there shouldn’t be cracks.”
“We’re feeling master-stranger protocols?” I tried, with a note of hope, wincing a little at the same time.
“I’m not up to date on my protocols,” Crystalclear said.
“Things are screwed up,” Sveta said.
“Okay, it’s not just me then,” Crystalclear said, sounding relieved. I wasn’t sure he’d sound as relieved if he had the full story.
I pulled my phone free. My side hurt like a bitch where I’d been punched. Hit-in-the-organs hurt.
But that hurt was almost welcome. Hurt was part and parcel of wearing the costume, being in that zone of being a cape. It was me not being Victoria, for just a little while.
A different headspace. One of two safe refuges.
And… looking at my phone, I could see that I might need to tap the other- the powers scholar.
Kenzie had surveillance footage, looping between a few isolated clips because the people entering the prison now were destroying the cameras as they came across them, and one of those people was making cameras twist on their mounts to look away.
That would be Blindside. I was pretty sure that another one was Kingdom Come. The same guy I’d seen blow up… he must have reconstituted.
And they had a leader. These squads liked to have a big bad brute in charge, and these guys had picked one I knew well. Hometown brute, already growing in metal scales that punched through tattooed skin.
Fucking Lung. Fuck him.
They weren’t alone.
I showed Tristan and Sveta, before turning the camera around for Crystalclear and Rain to see.
As the focus shifted away, my vision remained on Capricorn. He’d wrapped up ‘cuffing’ the compass-marked threats. His hand was shaking, and he seemed to be trying to settle down. There was still blood on the gauntlet.
“Let’s get moving. We’ve got to get Swansong and whoever Foresight sent to that side.”
“Ah geez,” Crystalclear said.
“We can do this,” Capricorn said, with a courage and conviction that I one hundred percent did not believe rang true, after seeing his hand shake like that. He looked back at the guards that had backed off after hearing about the moles, as if for validation. “We’ve got this.”
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