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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…”
“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.”
“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.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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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