Polarize – 10.7

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Video played on our laptop, a cartoon animation of a beautiful woman with black skin, dreadlocks, yellow stick-on nails, and a canary yellow boa in a tropical paradise.  A skinny guy with rings of tribal tattoos on his arm and ‘DJ’ on his bicep sat with his arm around a curvy young woman in a bikini, with sharks tattooed at her sides.

Every character was stylized, to the point it could be hard to keep track.

“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing at a guy in the background.  “Were we introduced to him?”

“We saw him in the background earlier.  He was putting the gun on the jeep,” Rain said.  Rain wore the trinket at his neck, which changed his appearance to the scruffier, dark-haired alternate look.  He sat with a similarly disguised Sveta and me on a curved couch, his boots resting on his bag, which was on the quarter-circle shaped table in front of us.  The couch and table setup were one of twenty-five, each arranged so it was a rotation from nearby tables and couches, placed in the lounge area of a larger building.

The building was something of a hybrid: a dining hall, library, social area, and market all in one.  At this end of the greater building, the smells and noise of the food court were muted by an intervening bottleneck.  On the floors above, I could see the bookshelves of the library.  Individual chairs, beanbags, and study nooks were up there, away from the light conversation of the lounge floor.

Twenty-five tables on the ground floor, a crowd, and then two floors of library on three sides, a wall of thick glass on the fourth side.  Circular lights high above us glowed blue, pumping out the UV light.

This was Lyme Center.  When the last winter had rolled around, things had been bad.  Suicides had peaked as the winter went long, and isolation had been a part of that.  Being cold and hungry was one thing.  Being cold, hungry, and alone?  The inorganic way that so much of the Megalopolis had sprung up had led to whole groups and clusters of people in isolated pockets being left with no contact with other people.  There had been places where people could gather that had been crammed with those seeking human contact from dawn until well after dark, and there had been places where there just hadn’t been anywhere to go and talk to other human beings that weren’t neighbors.

Lyme had been a tent city a month ago, and past the big windows of Lyme Center the construction was continuing well past sundown.  Snow, bright yellow construction vehicles, and dark skeletons of pre-fabricated buildings being put together.  No plumbing, not in the original sense, just fat tubes set into ditches just deep enough that gravel and dirt could be piled over top and packed down.

“What show?” a guy asked, leaning over the back of the couch.  He looked twenty-five or so, and from his jacket and the bag he had slung over his shoulder, he had the look of a tent-city denizen who hadn’t quite let his guard down.

Not so different from a homeless person who kept everything they valued within arm’s reach.

“Blood Atoll,” Sveta said, adjusting her headphones so the one wasn’t covering her left ear.

“Never heard of it.  Seeing people in bikinis is making me wish I was someplace warmer, I’m not sure I could stand to watch that.”

Rain chuckled.

“Is it good?”

“We’re not far enough in to know,” Rain said.  He hit the pause button.  The scene had the woman with the boa looming over ‘Parker’, the youngest person in the house.

“I’m dying for something to watch.  Is it in the catalogue?”

“Offworld French animation,” Rain said.  “It might go in the catalogue if we can figure out how to convert the video file types.”

“That’s always a nightmare.  But if you upload it straight, it can be emulated.”

I leaned back, “We talked to a few people about it and got different answers each time.  Some people don’t like how messy it gets.  If it sucks it might not even be worth the hassle.”

“Odd animation.  Rotoscope?”

“Yeah,” I said.

An icon was flashing yellow on the laptop.  Rain cycled out of the window and into another one.  A simple video game, with two towns, each with a nine by nine grid on it, each icon on the grid having a series of buildings.  Hospital, house, farm, carpenter’s, and police.

Rain centered the laptop across his knees, clicked on the house, cycling through images until a frowning old lady appeared, peering over the little fence.  A series of red ‘-100’ and ‘-200’ popped up in neighboring zones.

Above the other town, a face like the one I’d seen drawn on Kenzie’s whiteboard popped up – a circular face with only eyes and mouth, brown skinned, black hair parted with two buns, contained within a speech balloon.  Her eyes closed into half-circles, mouth wide in a smile that took up half of the circle.  A thumbs-up icon followed.

I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I followed the logic of the coding system, but Rain seemed to.  I could get the general sense of it though.  In the other town, there was a police officer shouting at someone outside of the police station, curse words in the speech balloon.

I pointed at it.  “She’s okay?  No points lost?”

“Random event,” Rain said.  “They’re fine.  She’s still ahead by… seven quintillion points.  Literally.”

I looked over my shoulder.  There were police officers and people in patrol uniforms wandering Lyme Center.  The nooks and reading areas were regularly visited.

In ‘our’ town, the police were just walking around their one-ninth of the grid.

The guy who had been watching our screen over our shoulders walked away.  Rain finished typing out a message, fixed the orientation of the laptop, and resumed the video.  He leaned back and took the ear bud from my hand, sitting closer as he put it in.

On the screen, ‘Parker’ was throwing a fit.  The woman with the boa took it unflinching, until the first few objects were scooped up from the nearby cabinet and thrown.

We had two audio jacks plugged into the laptop.  Sveta had a hair of headphones.  Since I was sharing the ear-buds with Rain, I had audio only in the one ear, which was fine with me, since it let me keep an ear on our surroundings.

In my right ear, Parker’s swears matched up with the subtitles on the screen.

“Shit,” Sveta said, with a serious expression on the face she wore as camouflage.

The thrown objects marked the point it stopped being a teenager’s tantrum and became something else.  The lady with the boa gripped the edge of the counter, staring Parker down.  Others stood from their seats.

Fuck you and suck on frozen shit, you act like you’re all that, but you’re a mess!  I can’t believe I actually looked up to you for a minute there!’

‘She gave you a place to live.’  This from D.J..

‘She gave me fucking slavery!  I joined up to have fun!  I wanted to drink and fucking actually do shit and instead I’m your bitch!  I’m done!’ 

‘You can always leave,’ the girl with the shark tattoos running from armpit to waist said.  ‘We won’t get in your way.’

‘Nicky might,’ D.J. said.

‘Nicky isn’t here,’ Shark girl said.  ‘If you’re gonna leave, now’s good.’

Parker swayed on the spot, as if leaning hard enough to one side could be the motivation to go.  She looked at the woman with the feather boa and then immediately looked away.  ‘Can I collect my pay?’

The woman with the feather boa shook her head slowly.

‘If you leave, you leave all the money you’ve earned on the table,’ D.J. said.

Parker became visibly agitated at that.

“Walk away,” Sveta murmured under her breath.

Parker didn’t.

“Do we intervene?” Sveta asked, quiet.

“What we’re watching is out of date,” I said.  “We’re… six minutes behind on the broadcast, because we keep pausing.”

We were only free to pause because the other group was staying current.  Rain skipped ahead, catching us up.  Visual glitches muddled the screen.  As it resolved, the squares and blocks of text falling away, Parker could be seen in the kitchen, cleaning up, downcast.

Rain flipped backward a bit, giving us one-frame glimpses of the outcome.  Parker subdued, resuming her work in the kitchen.  A few seconds before, we had Parker with a stricken expression on her face.  A moment before that, ‘Nicky’ was at the door.

Played in the right order, ‘Nicky’ had come back, and the fight had gone out of Parker.

Of course, Parker was just a superimposed image.  Nicky wasn’t a tanned blonde with cornrows at either side of her face.  D.J. wasn’t a surfer dude, the girl with the shark bite tattoos wasn’t his side chick, and the woman with the boa wasn’t the silent leader of the group of pirates.

Love Lost had settled here in Lyme.  We had some surveillance, but positioning ourselves was a task.  Ninety percent of everything that wasn’t part of the old tent city was under construction.  The other ten percent was like this – crowded, patrolled, and potentially monitored by moles and agents in league to Love Lost.

We’d tried to set up and operate out of the van, where our supplies were in easy reach and our team was together.  We’d struggled to find a parking spot in the happy medium between being close enough to Love Lost to act, and far enough away to avoid attention.  Within two minutes, we’d had police knocking on the door of the van.  Every spot was pre-claimed or, as we’d been told, subject to the whims of the construction teams that were moving large amounts of material through.

Our attempt to get out of the van and set up somewhere as a team had been similarly stymied.  With that, and after seeing just how closely monitored and claustrophobic the emerging community was here in Lyme, I was prepared to give Love Lost some credit.

She’d either been insanely lucky to stumble onto a location like this, or she’d had the sense to find it.  I was betting on the latter.

Our only options had seemed to be setting up in the next area over, with a twenty minute travel time to get here if we needed to do something, or setting up close and dealing with constant hassle, with civilians peering over our shoulder and potentially reporting back to Love Lost.

Except Kenzie had had an idea.  Old programs.  One to superimpose images, and another that let her tech put the game together based on a description.  We’d watched for ten minutes before the game popped up in a mostly working fashion.

“What do we know about her?” I asked.  I reached forward and hit the arrow keys, since there wasn’t a lot happening on-screen.  I stopped when we had an image on the woman with the canary feather boa on screen.

“Heavy question,” Rain said.  “She’s angry, but I think most people picked up on that.”

“Silent,” Sveta said.

“Nearly silent,” Rain agreed, nodding.  “She was law enforcement.  Detective, I’m pretty sure.  I saw a flashback where she won an award, her daughter was in the audience.  So I think she was a pretty good one.  I remember, uh, another flashback, she had a child, but her child died.  Was killed.  Senselessly.”

The sentences were more fragmented as he went.  I saw him clench his fist, white-knuckled, before wrapping his other hand around it and cracking the knuckles manually, his eyes on the screen.

“And she turned into a… pirate?” I asked, mindful that people might overhear.  “Using all of that expert knowledge from her past life?”

“Something like that,” Rain said.  “The vicious anger is a running theme.  Anger at the criminals, anger at her ex.  She drank.  She seems to avoid it now, which I find a bit surprising.”

“How was she with her child?” Sveta asked.

Rain resumed the video, then skipped forward and backward a bit, looking.

It was a point we’d paused the video before, when the guy with the overloaded pack had interrupted.  The woman with the canary feather boa looming over ‘Parker’.  With the scene, someone’s voice from the background was represented on screen with the subtitles.  ‘…don’t want to step into the ring here, Colt honey.’

As the word ‘Colt’ came through the earbud, it was auto-changed to Parker on the screen, in the subtitles.  Colt was the kid from Cedar Point who had been roped into joining Prancer’s group as a henchman.  She’d apparently been there when Kenzie’s place had been raided and Natalie had been hurt.

Rain seemed to want the image to stand for itself.  Our painted-over picture showed Love Lost leaning forward, staring down Colt.  No words, only intimidation.

“Angry?” I suggested.

“Messy, I guess,” Rain said.  “Does it matter how she was with her kid?  Because I think she loved her child with all her being.  Doesn’t that count for something?”

Sveta frowned.  “I’m so tired of dealing with parents like K’s, Vic’s, and now this mess.”

“I can’t really comment,” Rain’s voice had dropped, almost like he was falling away, but his gaze was intently fixed on the face on the screen.  “Nobody deserves to go through what she went through.  What she’s going through, every minute of every day.  She’s carrying that now, while she’s dealing with, uh, Parker.”

“Do you need to sit this one out?” I asked.

“Before, I had pretty strong feelings, but I could think about the big picture.  Now that I’m closer, the feelings are bigger, and I think the feelings are winning.  Ask me again later?”

I nodded.

That didn’t make the situation any easier.  If Rain sat this one out, then we had Sveta and I as part of this group, and Swansong, Capricorn, and Lookout as part of the other group.

Love Lost had more capes than that, and she was entrenched in this area.  This was her turf.

We could call others in, but they would face the same problem we did.  There weren’t any good places for capes to lurk.  Set up too far away, and response times would suffer.  Get too close, and they could be spotted.

I had my phone.  It wasn’t camouflaged like the feed on the laptop was, but I was reasonably sure that whatever I browsed would be dismissed as idle reading, provided I scrolled past images quickly enough.

I sent a message to Advance Guard.  They had some people with mobility who could swoop in.

The icon on the screen flashed, indicating that the ‘game’ had updated.

It was the little Kenzie face in the speech balloon, with no smile.  Eyes wide.  An Ashley face was laughing with a hand in front of the mouth, the ‘ha ha ha’ floating away.  Tristan’s face popped up, green and barfing a thin stream that pooled on the roof of the building below the speech bubble.

Rain went back to the video feed and caught us up to the present, where a faint arrow indicated what the other team was watching.

‘…between my teeth and cheek.  For an hour, hunh?  Whaddyasay?’  Sidepiece.

‘Why’d you have to say teeth like that?  Teeth are ten kinds of fuck no.’  D.J.

‘Not even a nibble?’

‘Never a nibble!  Never!’

‘I’ve known people who liked being nibbled on and nipped.’

‘You know fucked up people, Side.’

‘What if I tucked it somewhere safe and warm instead, hmmm?  We could go catch a movie, and then I’ll give it back.  How fun would that be?’

On the screen, Sidepiece cozied up to D.J.  He seemed to accept the cozying, but said, ‘Safe and warm for you is an inch from nitroglycerin for me.’

Sidepiece made a sound that was about fifty percent snort, forty percent nasal snort overlapping the first, and ten percent laugh.

‘I’m attached to it,’ D.J. said.

‘Detach it.  I want it to play with for a while.  We could have so much fun.’

On the other window, Kenzie was marked as away, a candy emote over her head.  Going to get snacks, while Sidepiece and D.J. potentially got R-rated?  Tristan was with her.

Rain hit a key and the subtitles disappeared.  I saw him glance back and looked out of the corner of my eye.  A guy in a uniform that could have been a security guard or cop was standing off to the side, looking in our direction.

‘You’ll lose it.’

‘Nuh uh.’

‘I’ve seen you lose your keys, your favorite top-‘

‘That shit was stolen, no fair.’

‘-your phone, twice, your banking card-‘

‘I was really drunk when I lost the card.’

‘-your pancreas.’

‘Grows back!’

‘Slowly!’

‘But it grows back!  And I didn’t lose it exactly, okay!?  I had a snowfort pile going, y’know?’

‘What the fuck is a snowfort pile?’

‘What the kids do with snowballs, all stacked up neat and ready to throw?  And then the ground shook and rattled the table, and it all blew.  Ovaries are such cluster-fuckers, all loaded up with those eggs.  I did pretty fuckin’ good finding as many of the pieces as I did.’

‘You lose shit, Side.  Admit it!’

‘No!  I had reasons and other shit going on!  I’m not going to get carelessly drunk if you give me a toy to play with!’

‘That’s what you do every day!  Toys and drugs and drunk!’

The two started play wrestling on the couch in their… I wasn’t sure if it was a headquarters or home.  The tropical overlay did mask some essential details.  There was a key to make the overlay drop away, but that risked letting bystanders see the feed.

Spright and Shortcut were on their way.  Shortcut wasn’t my first choice, but I wasn’t about to look this horse in the mouth.

Colt was in the next room, though she might as well have been in the same room as the frisky pair, because the wall that separated kitchen from the living room space had a massive window in it that things could be passed through.

Love Lost was moving.  On the screen, the lady with the feather boa was pulling on a light jacket.  The camera zoomed in as she slid something up her sleeves, attaching it to her wrists.

Claws.

“Going to battle,” I said.

Rain used his feet to pick up his bag, dropped it a bit, then got it on the second try, passing it to his hands.

Love Lost snapped her fingers.  All activity on the ground floor stopped – which amounted to ‘Parker’, Sidepiece as the girl with the shark-bite tattoos, and D.J..

“Do you need us?” Sidepiece asked.

Love Lost indicated Colt.

“We’re going out?” Colt asked.

“Yeah,” Nicky said, as she came down the stairs.  She grabbed her own top and hat.  “It’s a meeting.  Bring everything.”

“So long as it’s not washing dishes,” Colt said, sullen.

The scene on the screen shifted, the camera pulling away.  It gave us an overhead view of the ‘Blood Atoll’ – a ring of beach with a pirate bay contained within.  Other lenses on the camera began to pull up scenes and things of interest.  One dominant picture was of the jeep beside Love Lost’s headquarters.  A machine gun was mounted on top, covered with a tarp, an x-ray image showing the loose position of the gun.

I looked around to make sure nobody was staring at our screen, and reached over for the key combination, checking with Rain and Sveta that I was good to go.  They did their own check before nodding.

Just a second.

The Atoll became Lyme, the dirt from where ground had been flattened out forming the ring around the exterior, construction ongoing, the layout of boat and beach became building and snow layered over dirt and rock.

The jeep with the machine gun was now a truck, and instead of a machine gun, it was something tinker-made.  The tinker leaned against the side of the vehicle, smoking.  He did wear a mask, soft with goggles built in, a spike of metal extending from the connecting piece between the two goggles, up the forehead, and arcing back over the head, giving a silver line to the part in his greasy, copper-colored hair.  The mask didn’t cover his throat, and I could see the hair there, almost an unbroken line from neck to collarbone to chest hair.  He wore a heavy flannel shirt, a workman’s jacket, winterized work gloves, and jeans.  Low-key as tinkers went.

Other scenes showed our position.  The hourglass-shaped Lyme Center had Kenzie, Swansong, and Tristan in the noisier area.  On the other side of the bottleneck was us, marked with tinted dots.  Yellow-white for me, green-blue for Sveta, and dark red for Rain.

Love Lost, Colt, and Nailbiter stepped outside, Nailbiter distorting into her narrow form to stab the upper half of her body into the backseat before the seat was even moved forward to let people back there.  Her lower body was withdrawn in, narrowing and disappearing into the space.  Colt climbed in normally, before pulling the seat back to its normal position to let Love Lost in.

There were graphical glitches as the program struggled to come up with ways to coordinate the very different vehicle types.

The tinker drove, with Love Lost in the front seat.

“We could intercept,” Sveta whispered, leaning in close.  Rain leaned in to hear, and we had a huddle.

“Against an unknown gun?  The four of them?” Rain whispered back.

“We have two Advance Guard guys on the way,” I whispered.  “Spright and Shortcut.”

“Ew.” Sveta made a face.  “Not my favorite person.”

“They’re quick enough to get involved when we need involved,” I said.  Rather than use the laptop, I pulled out my phone.  Time to make sure everyone was in the loop.

Tracking Love Lost’s group to unspecified meeting.  They’re armed for a fight.  Known violence in records, two of the four people en route are on our list of major threats to the city.  AG sending two to assist.  I punched the short description of our activities into my phone and sent the message.

Database back at headquarters notified.  We were in the system, and other heroes knew what we were doing.

Capricorn, Lookout, and Swansong were ready.

Spright and Shortcut were at the very edges of Lyme.

Two more bases to cover.  The first went into a much cruder queue.  The icon switched rapidly between ‘sending’, ‘sent’, ‘queued’, and then ‘read’.

We got a message back.  ‘What are their names’.  No question mark.

Nailbiter and Love Lost.

‘Not going to say no.  Be safe – Nat.’

My eyebrows went up.  Was she back?  Or did she decide to get involved?

The second to last wasn’t as smooth.  The ‘loading’ symbol played over the final bar, which was simply labeled ‘Wardens’.  The option grayed out, a line struck through it.  Then it shifted.  A crown icon.

A crown for a monarch?  An emperor?  It was uncomfortable, but I doubted Kenzie had put that much thought into things.

Doubly uncomfortable that they knew what we were doing now.

Citrine or one of her employees sent their reply.  Permission given.  Good, to meet the self-imposed requirement of a thumbs-up from the higher-ups.  Negative, on so many levels, that the higher-ups were who they were.

“The others want to meet up.  They’re heading our way, since we’re closer to the car,” Rain said.

“They’re packed up and moving already,” I said.

“All energy and forward momentum.”  Rain smiled.

“What do you think?” I asked him.  “Any doubts?”

He didn’t have an immediate response for me.

“It’s okay to say no.”

“I’m-” Rain started.  A group of people walked right behind the couch, one of them holding a bag that brushed Rain’s head.  Sveta’s head craned around a bit more than a head should, studying the people.  She dismissed them as normal.

“I’m thinking of how Ashley apparently backed off, the other night.  She said she didn’t want to do the one thing, she knew she was bad at it and it was bad for her.”

“Yeah.”

“I respect that.  I’d want to do that if I was more sure about anything.  I’m pretty sure the three of us that are left are going to kill each other.”  The last few words were whispered.

“But?” I asked.

“But I also feel pretty sure that if I don’t stop her, she’s going to hurt other people.  I know her pretty well by now.”

The other three members of the group were at the second floor stage, looking down.  They started the walk around to the stairs.

“Should we pack up?” Rain asked, hand on the lid of the laptop.

“Wait,” Sveta said.  “Look.”

It was the cartoon overlay of things, showing the truck.  Heading to the Lyme Center.

At the back of the truck, the roof and side had been slid away, revealing the gun within.  The gun was lighting up, crackling with electricity, and slowly swiveling.  Aiming at the camera.

My head snapped around to Lookout.  She was at the top of the stairs, oblivious.  I raised a hand, trying to get her attention.

“Shit,” Rain said.

She was too enamored with Ashley, chattering up a storm.  Tristan had a hand out to make sure she wasn’t going to fall down the stairs, but he wasn’t looking at us either.

Phone out, I started to type.  I knew it would be too slow.

“Powers?” I whispered.

Rain shook his head.  At the same time, Sveta stood up.  Her fingers, appearing like skin with the projector image that was on her, fumbled for and found her anchor necklace.  She worked at the dial on the back.

“Sveta?” I asked.

“Please work,” she said, one hand gripping the wrist of her other arm.

The hand of that arm flickered and moved in a slightly out-of-sync way, before closing into a fist.

Above Sveta, I saw a line flash out, briefly appearing.  One tendril, loosed to reach out.  Aimed not at any person, but at- at the metal of the railing closest to our heads.  It struck with a force that made a sharp ‘tang’ noise, followed by a duller echo of the same sound.

Anyone that had looked or seen would have seen just the briefest instance of the tendril going out and in- and it looked like she’d arced it well overhead, using the cloak and prevention of her necklace’s setting.

Nobody was shouting ‘parahuman, parahuman, danger!’ – there were no shrieks.  Only people on the stairwell and near the railing who looked concerned, like the metal might fail as something came loose.

And we had the group’s attention.  I indicated the laptop, and Lookout whipped out her phone.

Quick enough to see, too late to do anything.

The lights in the Lyme Center flickered and dimmed for a moment.  The laptop we’d been using went black.  From the look of Lookout’s reaction, she’d just lost her phone.

She’d have lost her last good flying camera, too.

People were still reacting to the sudden motion and the sound.  Slowly, they settled, looking a little less at ease than before.  Heads periodically looked skyward,  as if assuming that some wire or cable had ripped loose and then been reeled in.

No eyes on us.

“Relax,” I said.  “Take it easy.  We draw more attention to ourselves by freaking out.”

Lookout, on the stairs, was clearly upset, all but stamping her feet in impotent anger.

“She has an emotion sense,” Rain said.  “If she comes here, she’ll sense our emotions.”

“All the more reason to relax, take it easy,” I said.  “Everyone here is a bit emotional.”

“I can guarantee you that I’m in the top two percent here.  I have some pretty strong regrets when it comes to how things happened.”

There was no more way to tell how far away Love Lost was.  The camera and laptop were dead.

The other three were still near the top of the stairs.  I motioned for them to hang back, and then turned my eyes and my attention to the tunnel that led from the second floor of this half of the hourglass-shaped Center to the second floor of the other half.

Make sure you have an escape route.

We had our stuff packed and ready to go, the escape routes in mind.  Above us and to our left, Kenzie, Tristan, and a disguised Ashley were leaning against the railing, looking out over the lounge and social area.  The center of the hourglass and the passage to the other side were right behind them.

Love Lost arrived in civilian clothes.  Her tinker had stayed behind.  She wore a coat with a velvety texture, ankle-length and tailored to fit her figure, drawing in at the waist and then drawing in slightly from the hips.  Her winter boots had platform heels, and I could see traces of metal along the boots.  Claws ready to deploy.

I had snacks in my bag that I’d saved in case we’d ended up doing an outdoor stakeout or surveillance from the van.  I found a bag of chips and opened it, sharing out the contents.

“What are you doing?” Sveta asked.

“Acting normal,” I said.  “Don’t stare.”

Rain bit down on a chip.

Love Lost, Colt, and Nailbiter were weaving their way across the floor.  Love Lost whispered something to Nailbiter, with Colt in earshot.  Immediately, the other two started peering over the crowd more intently.

They knew we were here.  They’d planned for the camera- no doubt because they knew how we’d operated in Cedar Point.  She’d studied what we brought to the table and recruited a counter to Lookout.

Does a detective’s awareness of their environment and an emotion-senser’s ability let her pick us out from a crowd with any effectiveness?

I was trusting no, extrapolating from how Dean had described things.  I was trusting that if it came down to it and she did see us, then they wouldn’t try too hard to get us.  This was their territory, and as much as they seemed willing to shit where they ate, I had to assume that they wouldn’t slaughter the people in their own neck of the woods.

“Why is this working?” Rain asked.

“Emotional soup.  There might be enough people here that feel just as awful as you do.”

“Really.”

I looked out over the crowd.  “Only takes five or six.”

Love Lost found the people she wanted to talk to.  It was maybe the biggest collection of people in the lounge area.  With twenty-five seats, they had members of their group split across five or six.  Right beneath Kenzie, Tristan, and Ashley, who peered down from the second floor railing.  It might have been the third floor on another building’s layout, but this center had been built tall, open, and grand, so it might feel less claustrophobic in the midst of a harsh, hungry winter.

The anti-parahuman citizens having a face to face meeting with Love Lost.  Pretty clear that they knew what she was, because they seemed pretty stone-faced until Colt arrived, acting as an interpreter or representative.

“They might have faced the facts and realized where they stand,” I murmured, before turning my eyes back to my chip bag.  “They’re anti-parahuman, but there’s a limit to what humans can do.  They might be hiring help.”

Love Lost took a seat.  Colt was doing the talking, of course.  Nailbiter hung back.  The enforcer in this situation.

“Why?” Rain asked.  “Something big?”

“I’m focused less on what and more on who,” I whispered.  “What the hell would they be up to, that they’re hiring the parahumans they hate so much, and they’re hiring the most violent and reckless of them?”

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Polarize – 10.6

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“You threatened her and she forced your hand?  This is why you can’t play games with dangerous lunatics,” I said.

“I can.  It’s doable,” Tattletale answered me, leaning back in her seat, sticking her tongue into her cheek so it poked out.  “Doesn’t always work out.”

“The issue is when others suffer because of the games you’re playing,” I said.

“Here we go.  Sanctimonious heroes being sanctimonious,” she said.  She rolled her head back, heaving out a sigh.

“I’m not arguing for morals, Tattletale.  I’m arguing for sanity.”

“Yeah.  That’s overrated too.”

Was it possible to respect the fact that she’d been capable enough to take over and keep a city, and yet have zero respect for her as a person?

I knew she prioritized sanity – or she prioritized stability.  She’d gone into laborious depth about how she was working to those ends when we’d first met in New Brockton.  But now, because she was hurt or because she was petty, she shrugged it off and pretended it didn’t matter.  Tongue in cheek, joking, but still so tone-deaf.

“What else do we need to know?” Rain asked, stepping up because I hadn’t followed up.  A small part of me had been content to let the awkward comment hang.

Tattletale sat up straighter.  She saw her henchman coming, carrying a tiny paper cup like the sort used for ketchup in fast food places and a regular paper cup for water.  She took both, drawing out the pause before she gave her response.  “You, Precipice, need to make a decision when it comes to March.”

“I picked up on that.”

“I’ve had to deal with her more than a few times, because that’s the price of having Foil with us.  As a professional she is efficient, dangerous, and dramatic.  She’ll almost always be in the right position, she’ll almost always hit, and she’ll almost always kill whatever she hits, provided she wants to.  Her underlings support her well.  She combines that professional effectiveness with being petty, unhinged, and lopsided in her focus in non-professional things, and lets the two things bleed into each other.”

Gee, I wonder what it would be like to talk to someone like that, Tattletale, I thought.  There might have been something in the look I gave Tattletale, because she rolled her eyes slightly.

“Unhinged in person, still dangerous,” Rain said.

“I’ve had to deal with some incredible pains in the ass in the course of my villainous career,” Tattletale said.  “Some were on my team.  March?  She ranks up there.  Trust that I know what I’m talking about when I’m telling you this stuff.”

“Sure,” Rain said.

“My advice?  The thing you need to know?  If I were in your shoes, with the same relationship to that bunny-eared train wreck, I’d suck it up, say goodbye to your little team of damaged, overzealous heroes, and join March’s group.”

“No way, that doesn’t make any sense at all,” Lookout said.

“It really doesn’t,” Rain said.

She doesn’t make sense.  She’s this fixated on Foil, and Foil has barely interacted with her.  She actually did you a huge favor, Precipice, getting involved when she did, providing sanctuary, and saving you from the Mathers witch.  You owe her and if you give her an excuse, throwing that debt you owe in her face and ignoring her?  You will become her focus.”

“Is this your power talking or is it just you?” I asked Tattletale.

“Both.  It’s always both, and anyone who tells you it’s one or the other is lying to your face.  The powers always tie in.”

“If everything you’re saying is true, it seems like it’d be more dangerous to stick with her,” Rain said.

I respected the ‘if everything you’re saying is true’ part.  It showed he wasn’t getting sucked into Tattletale’s vortex.

“Hon, she hunted down and recruited the Graeae twins for a Foil-related reason.  I’m certain of that.  Let your imagination run wild as to why.  Think of the most sketchy of the ‘kiss’ applications of that power, I’m sure Victoria can come up with something if your imagination fails you.  Then think of the most sketchy ‘kill’ application.  Start with how she can functionally keep Foil alive forever.  Then combine the two ideas.  That’s when she likes Foil.  If you cross her, Precipice, then she won’t like you.”

Victoria can help you come up with something.  The words went past barbed to being something else.  Bitter, even monstrously ugly if I considered that she’d been there when I’d been eaten alive by acid, and she knew what had happened after.  She hadn’t been able to resist getting the dig in, for cleverness’s sake.

Chris had been the same, when I’d first met him.  Jessica had warned him.

No wonder that she was alone at a time she was this hurt.  There was no friend at her side to make sure she was okay or to get her her medications.

Dwelling on that was easier than dwelling on the words themselves.  Things were just a little bit less ‘turn around and she could be there’ than they had been in recent weeks, but nothing was fixed.

Rain leaned back- he was still at the foot of the long staircase to the high-ceilinged basement area, and leaning back meant resting his tailbone against the end of the post that was the railing.  He didn’t talk, and with his mask on, his expression was hard to read.

“I can’t help but feel you have ulterior motives for approaching this this way,” I said.  “What was it you said about having multiple reasons for everything you do?  That’s how you have to operate at your level, isn’t it?”

“It would be, but maybe I’m not in charge of New Brockton while March is on the warpath, and maybe I’m operating on two fewer cylinders.”

Her hands gently touched her knees, indicating the injured legs.

“‘Maybe’ is such a weak word, and you used it twice,” Swansong said.  “Be straight with us.”

“I’m being remarkably straight, considering you came here of your own accord and possibly led March to me – we’re going to find out soon,” she said.  She winced.  “I should have asked for more pain meds.  I did have multiple motives, yes.  I’ll be straight: when you do what I do, you end up playing games of chess with other masterminds, and that’s its own thing, but you also end up playing five simultaneous games of chess with lesser players.  March doing what she’s doing has forced me to stand up and take my eyes off the boards.  If you want to be on top of this, you need to be on top of that.”

“Watching chessboards?” Swansong asked.

“No.  The moment I had to stand up and walk away, they got to make their moves, knowing I couldn’t respond.  Big plans can unravel.”

“Your plans,” I said.  “You’ll have to give us more details if we’re supposed to think that your plans are our priority.”

“Ashley knows how a sudden void in the criminal structure can shift the landscape.  If I’m not there to supply key information or resources, then others will.  People will move into New Brockton, and they won’t be as nice as I am.  Other people are going to move outward.  This will have ripple effects, and when a city is held together with yellow duct tape, ripples can rip.”

“You want to use us to protect your position?” I asked.

Tattletale sighed loudly.  “I didn’t invite you to come here.  If you want my opinion, you want to use yourselves to protect my position.  You want to protect the status quo, keep things sane, as you put it.  You brought up how I aimed to do multiple things at once.  Apply that to yourselves.”

“You think we aren’t?” Swansong asked.

“We’re in the middle of other things, and this plays into it,” I said.

“I know what you’re in the middle of, and you know I know.  You’re organizing the heroes, sharing information, making sure that the city still has a way to deal with the real threats, when thrown-together prisons don’t have what it takes.  How well do you think that’s going to go over when you take the initial steps and then the crime rate jumps three hundred percent?”

“And clearly the answer is to throw our lot in with yours and help you,” I said.

Tattletale put both hands on the seat, lifting up her upper body a fraction so she could adjust how her ass rested on the seat’s surface, her face momentarily screwing up.  She eased herself back down.  “Clearly it’s going to happen whether you help me or not.  But if you work with me on this, then I’ll point you in the right direction, so you can work against the ripples.  You can get ahead of this problem.”

“And we finally see what she’s after,” I murmured, keeping my voice barely audible.

“It’s not the worst deal in the world,” Sveta murmured back.  “It’s sharing info, which we wanted.  And we know she’s good.”

“It’s sharing select info,” I kept my voice quiet.  “If a police chief has his officers focus on majority-black neighborhoods, those officers end up acting in support of someone else’s bias.  If we target specific criminals that Tattletale points out for us, what does that mean?”

“It means we get some easy catches,” Rain whispered.  “We’re not locking ourselves into anything.”

“It’s not that simple or easy,” I murmured.  At a normal, louder volume, I addressed Tattletale, “It can’t be you listing them one by one and us picking them off.  You give us the information, we decide what to do with it.”

“It’ll take me a bit to pull together.  I can do that, with one caveat.”

“Caveat?” I asked.

“What does Caveat mean?” Lookout whispered Ashley.

“Stipulation.”

“Rule?” Lookout whispered.

“It’s a condition, a drawback,” Tattletale said.  “I’m going to give you that full list, that’s fine.  Known locations, associations, some details on powers.  You’ll have it as soon as I’ve finished typing, and you can distribute it to your team.  But.”

She placed emphasis on the ‘but’.

“The caveat,” I said.

“I’m going to give you all one very strong suggestion for who you specifically go after first.  Take it as motivated or me serving my interests if you want.  You can think it over for the next few days, ask a thinker to double check, whatever, you’ll find it really isn’t.  It’s just sensible.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Love Lost.”

Why?” Ashley asked.

“Because if March tells Cradle the quote-unquote ‘secret’ to taking over the cluster, Cradle has two options.  One is to go after Precipice, who is expecting it, with an organized group at his back. The other is to eliminate Love Lost and co-opt that power.”

“She has a team at her back,” Ashley said.

“Disorganized and reveling in that disorganization.  And Cradle can get close enough to bypass that team and stab her in the back.  Her team is also violent and swiftly rising to the top of the public’s most wanted list.  They’re just high profile enough to grab attention, they’re striking from a visual standpoint, they’re noisy, they cause property damage, and they’re vaguely reminiscent of the old Slaughterhouse Nine.  People want them gone.”

“And getting them gone wins us points with the people?” Byron asked.

Tattletale shrugged.

“What’s the secret?” Rain asked.  “You said you told people.  How are the Lady in Blue and March breaking the balance of their clusters?”

Tattletale smiled.  “I could ask for a favor or payment for this information.”

“I’m going to find out somehow,” Rain said.

“You might find out because Cradle or Love Lost use it on you.  Knowing helps you to avoid it.”

“Tattletale,” I said.  “If we’re helping you by taking out your potential rivals and leaving you alone, you can throw Precipice a bone.”

“When I first met your team, Vicky, I commented on Precipice and how I don’t think he’s a great person.  Cradle is twisted up inside in a way I’d need a whole lot more time to wrap my head around.  Love Lost is an emotional wound so open that the contents pour out to people nearby.  And Snag is dead.  All thanks to him.  Through his inaction, he condemned people to die.  Children died.”

“You act outraged, you have morals, but sufficient money, favors, and-or necessity let you put that outrage and those morals aside?” Sveta asked.  “That doesn’t seem right.”

“Are you trying to convince me not to help him?”

“I had to face down people like that once.  At least have the decency not to act.  Do the victims that much respect,” Sveta said.

“It’s the other way around, Sveta.  Tress.  Garotte.  I am bothered.  I don’t trust him.  I’ve seen his type before.  If I’m going to give a teenager of that particular type access to a whole new level of parahuman power, I need to double check things.”

“Then why ask about money or favors?” Rain asked.

“Cauldron sold vials with powers in them.  They created things like Sveta, Weld, Gregor and Whippersnap on their way to making those vials.  The vials were expensive.  Why, when they had a man like the Number Man working for them?  He could conjure money from thin air.”

She’d named a few of the other case fifty-threes.  I looked- Gregor and Shamrock had long since moved on.  Faultline seemed okay leaving just the mercenaries who were hanging around the area to watch us.

“Why?” Tattletale asked again, for emphasis, her right eyebrow piqued.

“It limited things to the people who really wanted the powers,” Sveta said.

“Yes, but it also ensured that the people who got the powers respected the impact of it.  If your team is willing to pay my price, then I know they’ll walk away from that payment just a bit more mindful.  Every time the pocketbook smarts, you should think of him.”

“How much?” I asked.

Tattletale paused.  Her eyes searched me.  “Not money.  You seem fairly confident you can pay.  That’s interesting.  Do you have a sponsorship?”

“What do you want, Tattletale?”

“I’d ask for access to your information network-”

“No.”

“No,” she said.  She nodded.  “I want a ‘get out of jail free’ card.”

No,” I said.

“Let me clarify.  You have a way of imprisoning the parahumans we all need gone.  ‘Disappearing’ them.  Fine.  Undersiders are exempt.”

“Scared?” Swansong asked.

“Yeah, a bit,” Tattletale said.  “Vicky has a grudge, and I wouldn’t one hundred percent put it past her, in a theoretical future where this worked you streamlined the process, and you had me at a disadvantage.  Frankly, the idea of teenagers being the ones to arrest, judge, and condemn should scare anyone.  And yes- let me interrupt you before you get started or figure out if you’ll say something.  I know you’re not making all those decisions.  I know you have lawyers and you’re talking to the city.  I also know who some of those lawyers are and the kind of people we have running the city right now.”

That last line was punctuated by a serious look Sveta’s way.

I saw Sveta nod slightly.

Tattletale continued, “It’s still scary.  I want exemption for my people.  If we help you here, you don’t do that to us.”

“We don’t do it to you?” I asked.  I thought for a second.  Most of the Undersiders could go in a regular jail.  In a theoretical universe where the villain team that took over a city was well and truly arrested.  Take Rachel away from her dogs, put Imp in a sealed cell with the right kind of monitoring, put Tattletale in jail and limit her human contact, limit Parian’s access to materials…

I looked at the others.  Byron nodded slightly, then switched out to Tristan, a nod.

“Can’t guarantee that another team won’t push for it,” I said.  “You meet us halfway.  Stay out of the kind of trouble that makes people want to ‘disappear’ you.”

“Okay,” she said.  “You have twins and a clone on your team.  You should know how shards map things out.”

“You’re talking about agents?  And they use DNA.”

“The Corona and the tendril of shard-ness that the shard extends to the person are kind of the real-time location tracking.  It’s as if they’ve got a hand on your shoulder, and if you travel halfway across the world, their hand still on your shoulder, they have an intuitive sense of where you are.  With some exceptions and special cases in there.  But the DNA?  That’s the bar-code for the verification check.”

“I’m supposed to put my DNA inside them?” Rain asked.

I looked at Sveta, who was next to me, raising a hand to draw her attention to the line.  She only nodded solemnly.

“That sounds way more kiss than kill,” Tristan said.

“Huh?” Rain asked.

“I’m pretty sure Rain doesn’t like boys that much,” Lookout said.

“Oh, ugh,” Rain said.  He looked at Tristan.  “Um, not ugh because boy-boy, but because Cradle.”

“I get it.”

“Also, pretty sure Love Lost is twice as old as I am.”

“I can’t believe I got Capricorn’s line before Precipice did,” Lookout said.

Tattletale butted in, “You’re getting ahead of yourselves, little miss precocious especially, you’re about three years too early to be getting that.”

“Two years maybe,” Lookout said.

“Whatever.  Back to the subject at hand.  Step one is confusing the signal,” Tattletale said.  “Location?  Close proximity, for a long period of time.  Think staying within arm’s reach for days, even weeks.  Probably with no interruptions, breaks, or time apart.”

“The Lady in Blue got one member of her cluster back and the transfer was immediate,” I said.

“Signal was already confused.  The means of transferring power were already established.  When shards kick down doors, through second triggers, some trump effects, whatever, the doors never go back to the way they were.”

“So step one is kidnapping someone and keeping them close for a long time,” Rain said.

“I can see why Foil wasn’t interested,” I said.  “Sleeping next to March for a long while?”

Tattletale smiled.  “Step two?  DNA.  When they check their paperwork and see that one person has four different powers, they check the bar-code.  You want them to get the wrong ones and kick down the doors.  The go-to method seems to be a blood transfusion.  That’s if you’re lucky enough to be compatible.  If you’re not, then you can try doing the Bathory thing, go full cannibal, you can try other things to confuse the signal like borrowing skin or other tissues, or you can be patient, and hope the signal confusion occurs without you going that far, though by the time you’ve spent weeks with someone like that, you might be ready to end it and wrap yourself in their skin, bathe in their blood instead.”

“Jesus,” Tristan said.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Helps if you leave the other guy weak as part of what you’re doing.  Means they can’t fight it, they dwindle, and you grow comparably.”

I nodded.

“I don’t think I could do that to them,” Rain said.

“No, probably not,” Tattletale said.  “But they might be willing to do it to you, and now you know what to look out for.”

“Thank you,” Rain said.

“Don’t thank me.  Just don’t throw me in that alternate dimension of yours and lock the door behind you.  And unless there’s something more pressing… let me get my Russian nesting doll back.  These gunshot wounds hurt enough that I’m willing to dilute my existence down and kind of not exist.”

There wasn’t anything more pressing.  We all had food for thought, and we had things to do.  We left her be.

It was like a weight came off my shoulders, leaving an underground meeting with Tattletale, even though it had been a brightly-lit, high-ceilinged base of operations.

The snow was swirling around us, and the air was cold, but it was a refreshing cold.  Below, with heaters going and a winterized costume on, I’d been a touch on the warm side.  Now I was finding a happy middle ground.  I’d probably find myself on the cold side when the light sweat chilled, but for now I was happy enough.

Our breath fogged around us, with Sveta as the exception.

“Gregor had to go somewhere.  Do we have a pen and paper?” Sveta asked.  “I’d like to leave him my contact information.”

“I’ve got some,” Lookout said.  “My scratch pad for tinker ideas.  Give me a second.”

Lookout rummaged and then took dictation.  The others joined me, leaning against a bike rack that wouldn’t see much use for another few months.  Tristan in his Capricorn armor, Rain, and Swansong.

“Deal with the devil,” I said.

“As the resident expert on devils, I don’t think she’s a devil,” Rain said.

“You’re the resident expert on a lot of things,” Tristan said.

“Yeah?  I fucking earned it,” Rain said, without any hostility in his voice.  “And before you get annoyed with me for going easy on her, Victoria-”

“I’m not ann-”

He didn’t stop talking, despite my interruption.  “-I’m also the resident expert on shitty human beings.  And I don’t think she’s a great person.  But she’s trying in her own way.”

“You’re an expert on that too, hm?” Swansong asked.

“I’m- aren’t we all?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Difference is, I’ve never known her to apologize or acknowledge the things she did.”

Sveta joined us.  Kenzie had run off.

I had my concerns about that- Kenzie ducking out of sight into a hive of villainy and mercenary tendencies.  We’d talked very recently about how tinkers were prime targets for that sort of predation, being used for their powers.

Sveta seemed to notice.  “She ran off as soon as I said I was done, sorry.”

I nodded.

“What do we think?” Sveta asked.

I looked in the direction of the stairwell.  “What she said about the power dynamic?  I can believe most of it.  Location and DNA?  It fits with things we’ve seen before.”

“Things like Byron and Tristan,” Sveta said.  “Proximity.”

“And twins and clones,” Tristan added.  “Same barcode.”

Swansong nodded.

“You said most,” Rain said.

“Who?” Sveta asked.

“Victoria.  She said she could believe most of it.”

“She said the process works best if the person being drained is weakened.  Bled out, skinned…”

“You don’t think so?” Tristan asked.

“I think it makes sense if you don’t think about it.  I also think that powers tend to target the disadvantaged.  Victims.  Trigger events target them.  Second triggers do.  When your power fluctuates because you’re in a mindset aligned to your trigger?  It’s rewarding that mentality.”

“Tattletale misled?” Sveta asked.

“Or she was wrong,” Tristan said.  “How sure are you, Vic?”

I had to think about it.  “Fifty percent.”

“That’s not helpful,” Sveta chided me.  “That’s the opposite of helpful.”

“If we ever find ourselves in a position to consider doing that, we should be aware of the risk.  Weakening one person risks a second trigger, and it might work the opposite way.”

“Great,” Rain said.

“There’s an upside!” Sveta said, encouraging.  “If they get you… you kind of have a chance, whatever they do?”

Rain snorted.

From the stairwell, Lookout emerged.  She had Chicken Little with her, as well as Whippersnap and the lace girl.  I could see the defensive body language in the two case fifty-threes.  Whippersnap folded his arms, while the lace girl stepped a bit behind him.  Her hand found Whippersnap’s.

“…shot a target and all of the smashed-up bullets came out looking like birds,” Chicken Little said.

“That’s crazy.  But you know, that’s a trick of the eye sometimes.  Like when you look at a cloud and it looks like something?  I remember when I was really young, in those good old days when you were automatically friends with whoever was the same age?”

“Yeah,” Chicken Little said.  “I remember those days.”

“Yeah!  So we were pulling bits of concrete away from this ruined wall with cracks running through it, and every single piece had a pattern in the broken side that looked like a face.  That’s the effect I’m talking about.  I experimented with it, when I was working on my cameras.”

“I think I have one of the bullets in my pocket.  It’s sharp so it’s sometimes useful.  Here.”

Chicken Little reached into the front pocket of the coat that had been built into his costume- it had tails at the back like an old fashioned coat, but the tails had a feather-like cut to them, like a bird’s folded wings.  His mask was full-face, with beady black eyes set fairly low, in a way that made the forehead and the crest at the top stand out more.

He produced a bullet, like a soft slug pried out of a wall or floor, or out of a bullet-proof vest.  Sure enough, it had broken up into a shape that looked a hell of a lot like a robin in flight, the splits separating head from wing and wing from tail.

“Oh wow.  That really does look like a bird.”

“So do all the others.  If I catch her going to the range again I’ll see if she can do another.”

“Or other things,” Lookout said.

“Oh yeah!  Like an elephant!  I like elephants.”

“Imagine if you controlled elephants.  That’d be nuts.”

“I couldn’t, though.  They’d get hurt and that would suck.  Aunt Rachel’s dogs get hurt or die a lot and it sucks.”

“Aunt Rachel?”

“Bitch, or Hellhound, but she doesn’t have a secret identity, obviously-”

“Nonono, obviously.  Yes, I know her name and everything, I get it.  I just blanked.”

“Chicken,” Whippersnap said.  “We should let them go.  They’re waiting and they have things to do.”

With eyes that bulged out, each looking like there was too much moisture inside them, to the point they weren’t quite round anymore, he still managed to glare.

“Okay,” Chicken Little said.

“You’re lucky that you have people around your age to hang out with here,” Kenzie said.

“Maybe you could come here and hang out sometime, and-”

There were noises of protest, muted and not, from more than a few corners.  Whippersnap was louder.  Sveta, Ashley and I were at different places on the spectrum of dissuading and the more logical pointing out of issues.

“-or not,” Chicken Little said.

“Security issues,” Whippersnap said.  “And we’ve heard enough about her to know she’s a walking infosec breach.”

I really liked how the young teen was using words like ‘infosec’.  The company we keep.

A bummer, that Kenzie couldn’t meet up with a potential friend.

“Maybe neutral territory,” I said.

Whippersnap’s focus seemed to remain primarily on Sveta.

“What’s your name?”

Swansong, addressing the lace girl.

“Does it matter?” Whippersnap asked.  “What do you care?”

Swansong shrugged.  “I just like the dress.  It’s pretty, and I’m a fan of the style.”

As if to indicate, Swansong’s fingers brushed against her own skirt.  White fabric, like the lace girl seemed to be covered in.  Swansong only had a bit of lace, though.

The lace girl nodded, lips set into a firm line behind her veil.  Her hands looked like they’d been covered in gloves, then had the lace pattern punched in repeatedly, passing through glove and flesh both.  Most of her looked that way, and the parts that didn’t just had extra layers, with only hints of it.

“When a case fifty-three can’t choose their appearance, pointing out even the parts you like about how they ended up can be disconcerting,” Sveta murmured.

“Sorry then,” Swansong said.

“I did make it myself,” the lace girl said.  “Most of it.  Thank you for liking it.  I’m Chantilly.”

“Swansong.”

Chantilly smiled slightly.

Whippersnap shielded her with his body, as if we had guns and she was in danger.  He looked at Chicken.  “Come on.  You should go downstairs.  You’re a target too.  Tilly, let’s go.”

I saw Lookout start to take a step forward, then stop herself, rocking back on her heels.  I put a hand on her shoulder.

“Hold on,” Swansong said.

The trio stopped.

“Do any of you want to share emails, phones?  So you can see about the meeting on neutral ground?”

Chantilly shook her head, quickly.

“I will,” Chicken Little said.

I could see Whippersnap’s active impatience, as Chicken Little wrote down a number or email on Lookout’s scratch pad.

As soon as he was done, he was ushered away along with Chantilly, Whippersnap continuing to be protective, shielding the lace girl from us as if from a physical danger.

“I know your rules say you can’t ask or push contact on people,” Swansong said.

Lookout nodded.  “I wanted to so badly.”

“It’s good you made a friend.  That looked like a good conversation.”

“I didn’t talk too much?  Or say anything weird?”

“Nah,” Tristan said, from the side.  He looked at me.  “We should go.”

I nodded.  “Things to do.”

The snow continued to fall, done its frenzied dance higher above, where our proximity to various portals and the weather they stirred up made the snow travel in wild courses.

“How do you feel about going after your friends?” Tristan asked.

“Friends?” Rain asked.

“Swansong, going after the members of Love Lost.  If that’s what we end up doing.”

“It’ll be nice to see them again.  Nicer to show them what I’m made of.”

“That simple, huh?”

“Not simple, but I like where I am.”

“I like where you are too,” Lookout said.  “And I like that Chantilly liked you too.  The white dress comes with its upsides, huh?”

The conversation continued.  Tristan asking Lookout if she had a map, so we could find her family’s van.  She had a tracking chip inside it.  Because of course.

Tristan swapped out for Byron, because Rain had asked a question, and I heard my name, a ‘Vicky’ tossed into it – a question aimed at Byron.  On answering, Byron swapped out, and Tristan said something about how quick that had been.

My focus was more on Sveta, who was staring off down a side street.

“Sveta,” Tristan said.

“Hm?”

“What do you think?  Love Lost?”

“We can.  We’ve fought a lot of them before.”

“Tonight, you think?  Or do we plan more?”

“I’m fine with whatever.  Weld gets back super late.  Crystal too?”

I nodded.

“It would be nice to tell him we scored a big win.”

“Tonight then,” Tristan said.

“Okay,” Sveta said.  She looked off to the side again.

“See something?” I asked.  I saw the mild surprise on her face.  Before she could answer, I said.  “Come on.  We’ll check it out.  If we’re being followed, it’s important to know.”

“Do you need help?” Swansong asked.

I shook my head.  “Stay put, or go to the van and wait there.  Keep an eye out.”

At the nod, I took Sveta’s hand, and I pulled her along with.  She used her tendrils, reaching out and grabbing things, hauling herself further down the way.

Once she was on a rooftop, she waited for me.

I looked back at the others, who were smaller in this new perspective.

“Come on.  We’ll loop around.”

“I didn’t see anything.”

I brought her along with.  She gripped my arm and in the doing she held my injured hand.

We stopped on another rooftop.

“I thought we could use a break,” I said.  “Get away.”

I saw her expression shift slightly.  The slip, the facade going back up.

“I’m sorry that sucked.  Whippersnap.  Chantilly.”

“I barely knew him.  He was a kid in the group.  But he was supposed to be like a brother to me.  Like how he said brother Gregor.”

I nodded.  “Yeah.”

“He was supposed to be mine, not possessive or anything… but they’re the only family I get and I don’t get to have them.”

The facade slipped away.

“And Chantilly, yeah.”

“Yeah!  Fuck!” Sveta said, angry.

“Fuck,” she said, sad.

I hugged her, and she buried her face in the crook of my neck, mumbling now that she was talking into cloth.  “She wears a white dress and that gets her points with Chantilly, but I’m the outsider?  I’m the odd one out?  What the fuck.”

Yep.  Better that the anger get out now than in a release of bottled-up feelings.  Especially when we were going up against an emotion manipulator.

I had tears in my own eyes, now, just listening.

“And she shows off her hands?  I’m happy for her, I really am, I’m not that much of a bitch that I wouldn’t be, really.  I’m sorry.”

“You’re not a bitch at all,” I said.

“But she’s smug and showing off about how they’re practically indistinguishable from regular ones and what the fuck!”

There was a thud at her chest, then a thousand more.  A hundred fists striking against the shell, the inside of the cage, protesting, unleashing pent-up feelings.  It was only my grip around her shoulders that kept her upright.

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Polarize – 10.5

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“Oh no,” Swansong said, her voice deadpan.  “It’s the fuzz.”

“Oh no!” Lookout echoed Swansong, her voice anything but deadpan.  “Are we in trouble?  What do we say?  What do I do?”

The cop cars were pulling into the truck stop from the highway.  They saw the scene and slowed down.  Two cars, each with two cops.  Since identifying March’s group, we’d been moving the scene around a bit to investigate and see if we could work out any details.  The plan had been to leave in another minute or two, after Lookout’s data had saved.

“Start by calming down,” Sveta said.  “We’re good guys.”

“I’ve had serious talks with police officers nine times, and it went bad seven of those times,” Lookout said, her eyes fixed on the cop car.

The officers had come to a complete stop at a point before the concrete barrier properly started.  It gave them the ability to hop in their cars and turn off onto the highway.  They emerged.

“Can you take down the images?” I asked.  “The cops seem intimidated.”

“Not without losing the data.  Do we want to lose the data?”

Split second decision: get shot or lose the data?

“Keep the data,” I said.

“What if you dim it?” Rain suggested.  “Make it look fake.”

“That I can do.  Opacity down.  Doing it.  Please don’t make me talk to the cops.  It always turns out bad.”

All around us, the images of Tattletale’s group, Faultline’s trio and March’s multi-cluster shifted tint and became see-through.

I raised a hand, holding it over my head as I walked toward the officers.  Capricorn followed, while the rest of the group hung back a bit.

“Hi guys!” Capricorn called out.  Tristan.  “We’re on your side!”

The cops didn’t relax.  We continued to approach until one older officer who had his gun drawn raised it a fraction.  Not quite pointing at us, but if we approached another few steps, then it might well be.  A good thirty feet of distance separated us from them.

“What the hell is all this?” the older officer asked.

Tristan turned his head to look, his hands still out to his sides.  “We’re heroes.  We were trying to track down some rivals, used some power stuff to see if we could see what they were doing at their last reported location, here, and found this.”

“It’s a bit of a mess that we’re trying to puzzle out,” Capricorn said.

The younger guy by the old officer’s side turned around, taking it all in.  His back to us as he looked over in the direction of March’s truck, he used the most innocent of tones as he said, “You were the ones on television a few nights ago.”

“We were,” I answered him.  “I remember talking about how we wanted to share information and enforce cooperation.  If you want, we can give you a tour of this scene, catch you up.”

“No thanks,” the old guy said.  He looked at the younger cop that I presumed was his partner.  “They’re heroes?”

“Yeah.”

He broke his stance, no longer ready to drop into a firing position, gun no longer almost pointed at us.  He didn’t put it away, though.

“You were part of the prison thing too,” the young guy said.

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.

The old guy took a step to the side, leaning in close to his buddy.  He asked a question under his breath, clearly not intended to be heard by the pair of us.

I caught ‘clown’ in the middle.  It was answered with a half smile and half-shrug.

Ass-clowns.  Great.

“One of the reasons we went on the show was to force some hands, flush some birds out of the bushes,” Capricorn said.  “The people who pulled the prison breakout were the birds.”

“Tried something, you failed, and the rest of us suffer?” the old guy asked.  There was an edge to his voice.  “And here you are, trying something else?”

“We succeeded,” I said.  “Birds flushed out, birds stopped or temporarily neutered.  The problem is, the way things are right now, we stop two big villains, and there are two more in the shadows, ready to step out and take advantage of the situation.  We’re poised on a crumbling ledge, and we’re… trying to keep it all upright.”

“I’m not one for the poetics,” the old guy said, staring across the distance at me.  The other two cops seemed to think the situation wasn’t escalating, and were walking over to the March multi-cluster hologram, investigating.  “Birds and crumbling ledges.”

“You’re not giving her a fair shake,” Capricorn said, “Officer…?”

“Senior Trooper Littlejohn.”

“Sir,” Capricorn said, “With my last team, I did some ride-alongs with officers.  I heard their frustrations again and again.  I know it’s a thing: whether you’re a paramedic trying to stay ahead of a drug epidemic, a trooper or senior trooper trying to deal with gangs, or hell, a teacher trying to save young minds, you run into the futility of it all, it’s the same.  Score a win today, and tomorrow it can seem as if nothing changed.”

The old guy was quiet.  The young guy looked over his shoulder, his attention divided between us and the still images.

Capricorn, sensing he wasn’t going to get an answer, added, “Don’t do to us what I’m betting hundreds of people have done to you.  Don’t tell us we didn’t make a difference when you weren’t there to see.”

Littlejohn didn’t respond for a second.  He did look at his partner, who shrugged, unsmiling.

“Sure.  I won’t tell you,” Littlejohn said.

Nicely, neatly ambiguous, as responses went.

“Over there,” I said, indicating Tattletale’s group.  “Undersiders.  Took over Brockton Bay.  They were running New Brockton.  They did some scummy stuff, they helped save the world.  It’s complicated.”

“That’s her, huh?  Tattletale in the flesh?” the younger officer asked.  “We keep hearing her name.”

“Tattletale, but it’s only a… very advanced simulation of a scene from last night.  Hologram.  Beside her are mercenaries from Palanquin.”

“Don’t know them,” the young officer stated.

“You have to get into murky waters to get a good answer there,” I said.  “June twentieth, twenty-eleven.  The day that the PRT broke.  An event in Brockton Bay.  Everything classified, but there was a mass exodus of heroes from the Protectorate and Wards program.  It was the day the portal appeared in Brockton Bay.”

I looked over at the horizon.  The portal had warped, distorting, and New Brockton had been cleaved in half.  A slice of sky that was different from the rest.

“And?” Littlejohn asked.

“Palanquin started traveling the world, opening portals for buyers.  They have ties to the Undersiders, not necessarily friendly ties.  But they’re tied into it all.”

“And the third group?” Littlejohn asked.

I was so tempted to say ‘ass-clowns’, to borrow his phrasing from earlier.  I gave it a fifty-fifty on either winning him over or souring the dialogue, based on my read of him.  Not good enough odds.

“Can’t say for sure, but they seem to be the people who are stepping in to fill a recent void, picking up where the last set of troublemakers left off.  We were figuring it out when you came,” I said.

“Always something, huh?” Littlejohn directed the question at Capricorn.  “I never took the ‘capes’ seriously.   Endbringers seemed too far away.  It was too many masks and nicknames to keep track of, all kid stuff.   Then, y’know.  All at once, it was all too serious.”

I nodded, pushing thoughts out of my head and trying to maintain a poker face.  The ‘all at once’ for me wasn’t the one he was thinking of.

“Yeah.  I don’t blame you.  When this stuff is great, it’s goofy,” Capricorn said.  “When it’s bad, it’s bad enough you don’t want to talk about it.  Most of the time, it’s like I said before.  We’re trying to improve things a bit at a time, even when it looks like it’s not getting us anywhere.”

Littlejohn turned his head and whistled for attention.  The two officers who had wandered off returned to us.

“Nimmons, move the cars to block off the stop.  Park them both so it looks neat and calm.   Be ready to move if a truck needs to roll in.  Alves?  Up on that concrete barrier.  Keep an eye on traffic, keep it moving.  You could try holding onto a notebook, act like you’re taking down license plate numbers of the ones who are moving too slow.”

They listened and obeyed without objection.

“We got called in because something was up.  Reason we’re staying is that it’s a truck stop, and you’re not trucks, you’re obstructing,” Littlejohn told us.

“We can be gone in a minute,” I said.

“If you need to look around more, then do that, just don’t take too long doing it.  If these loons are the next ass-clowns in line to cause trouble, it’s better we get them before they’ve figured out which way is up.”

It’s a little more complicated than thatThey’ve figured out a lot more than which way is up.

“Sounds good,” I said.  “Thank you, sir.”

“Explain some of this to me as you go.  I should know more than I do.”

“Absolutely,” I said.  “Geez, where to start?”

“Why does this all look wrong to me?  Doesn’t look like it meshes together.”

“It doesn’t,” I said, as we walked back toward the rest of the group.  “It’s the puzzle we were trying to put together: what goes where.  We can ask Lookout- she’s running the simulation.  We froze a few key scenes that we worked out.”

“Show me?  These are people from my city, apparently.”

“They were.  We were in the middle of trying to figure out if they’re leaving because someone worse scared them away, or if they left to go protect some people elsewhere.  Lookout!  Scene one!?”

The scene around us shifted.  The moment where Tattletale was mid-meeting with Faultline, Chicken Little and the Heartbroken sitting on the front of the parked cars, where headlights illuminated the light snow.  Trails marked where snow clumps had been rolled against the ground to form snowballs.  They had been stacked into miniature snowmen.  Chicken Little had two birds in the snow on either side of what looked like a failed snow-bird, the outstretched wings having crumbled under their own weight.

I pointed at that, then spun around to point at the other end.  The headlights of March’s vehicle were sweeping into the lot as it pulled in, but March wasn’t waiting that long.  She sat in the open window of the car, leaning over the hood with a rifle in her hands.  The frozen scene had captured the muzzle flash.  Even from a distance, there was something in March’s eye- she wore her mask so it covered half of her face, her left eye peering through the right eyehole of the mask.  The adjustment of the mask freed her to look down the rifle’s scope.

“Page us through slowly?” I asked Lookout.  No need to raise my voice now that we were closer.

A matter of ten feet from us, the image of Tattletale had shifted, and was mid-reaction, the bullet having connected.  A bullet to the back of the thigh.  The other thigh had a fresh wound on it.  The reason there hadn’t been more blood on the snow was that most of the gore had hit the side and interior of the car.  The only thing that kept Tattletale from going straight to the ground was Snuff’s grip on her arm.

“Eliminating the competition?”

“Honestly?  Probably not.  But depending on how this works out, she might as well be.  It’s just going to be someone crazier and more dangerous than the one who dresses up as a march hare and shoots with kids in the line of fire.”

“Costumed kids.  Heartbroken, I think?”

“Yeah.  Heartbroken and Chicken Little.  But kids are supposed to be off-limits.  You go easy.”

Littlejohn nodded.

There was a scene between this one and the first one we’d started to piece together.  Shamrock opening fire.  Gregor slinging a blob of slime.  Snuff was practically throwing Tattletale into the vehicle while his power blocked out an area in front of him.  Not as much of a dark blob as we’d originally thought- that had been the overlapping of multiple effects.

“Shamrock shot one of March’s people.  March’s person immediately reacts, lashes out-  Lookout?”

We caught the scene from earlier.  Dismemberment.  The kids now on their way to the vehicles.  March had been disarmed by Shamrock’s shot, the rifle broken at the wooden base just a half-inch from March’s hand, but March had other people leaning out the windows and over the vehicle.

“Who’s the bridge troll?”

The question came from Littlejohn’s partner.  He indicated Gregor the Snail, who was shielding some of the Heartbroken kids with his body as they got into one of the Undersider’s vehicles.  He was wearing full costume, and his body visibly steamed, though the projection didn’t catch all of the steam, making it look cut off or jagged in places.

“That’s Gregor,” Sveta said.  “From my very limited exposure to him and everything I’ve heard, he’s apparently a gentleman.”

“He’s wearing a fishnet shirt in minus-something weather.  Doesn’t seem gentlemanly to be around kids like that.”

“They don’t seem to mind,” Sveta said.

“I’m a kid and I don’t mind.  He looks huggable.”

“I like it,” Swansong said.  “Dark, bold.”

Littlejohn’s partner scoffed a bit.

“And they’re kids who hang out with supervillains,” I pointed out.  “Heartbroken and Tattletale’s protege.  Playing in the snow while the adults talk is probably as kid-like as things get for them.  I don’t think fishnets are even on their radar.”

“The one with the bird mask is the protege?” Littlejohn asked me.  I nodded my confirmation.

“Maybe he likes it,” Sveta said.

“You can relax,” Littlejohn’s partner said.  “You’re making more of a deal of it than I meant to say.”

“His wife probably likes it,” Sveta said, indicating Shamrock.

“No shit?” Littlejohn’s partner asked.  “I kind of hate him now.”

“Funny thing is, I think you could say that to his face, and he would just accept it,” Sveta said.  “I think we should stop here before I get pissed off.”

Woah there,” Littlejohn’s partner replied.

“Let’s end it,” I said, and I said it quiet, where only Littlejohn and Capricorn could hear.

“Troy,” Littlejohn said.

‘Troy’ stopped, going silent, and looking at his partner.

“Head on over to the other end, near the cars.  See if you can’t spot anything about the truck the attacker is driving, or the people inside.”

Troy seemed eminently unbothered as he shrugged one shoulder, heading over to the truck.  I found myself wishing he’d looked more annoyed or hurt about being sent away.

Sveta would be annoyed and hurt.  I knew that much.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Tell me more about this,” he said.  “Who are these people?”

He’d indicated Imp.  In the last scene we’d pieced together, Imp had an arm that replaced the one that had been torn away.  The new arm was a different skin tone and had a bad bullet wound.

I was starting to explain when Lookout showed something on her phone to Ashley, then to others.  I trailed off, motioning for her to show me and Littlejohn.

“I got enough detail to map it out.  We have license plate and vehicle serial numbers on the frame of the vehicle.”

“Whose?” I asked.

“Faultline,” Lookout said.

“I could check databases,” Senior Trooper Littlejohn told us.

“I think I’ve got it already,” Lookout said.

“But thank you,” I added.  “Listen, we were pursuing a lead when we got this far.  This is your territory.  Do you want to take jurisdiction over this scene?  Use of weapons, cape stuff?”

Fuck no,” Littlejohn said.

“It’s okay if we handle it?”

“Probably not.  Except this looks like a steaming pile of mess, and I want no part of it.  You want to own this?”

“We can’t pin them for a crime, but we can try to keep this from becoming a string of incidents, and we can keep you in the loop.”

“We’re going to go talk to Palanquin?” Sveta asked, and she wasn’t quite able to hide her excitement.

Tristan leaned back, a phone pressed to his ear.  His helmet was in his lap.

I saw his eyebrows go up as the person on the other end answered.

“We’re not new clients,” he said.  “We’re parked a block away from you.  We’d like to approach, talk, see if we can’t both help each other.”

The phone dropped from his ear.

“They hang up?” Rain asked.

Tristan shook his head.  “They’re checking.”

A voice on the other end cheeped through the phone’s speaker.  Tristan raised it to his ear.

“How did we find you?” he asked.

“We followed Tattletale’s path to the bus stop.  There was camera footage that had the license plate on it.”

Tristan repeated it, then covered the mouth-part with his hand to repeat,  “There were no cameras at the location.  They checked.  Do we tell them?”

“We have very good cameras,” Swansong said.

“We have good cameras,” Tristan said.  “We’re not trying to be ominous here.  We want to talk and get ahead of whatever is going on.”

A pause.

“Yeah.  We’re Breakthrough.”

Tristan glanced at me, then put the phone down.  “We can approach.”

“Can we get a camera in the air?” I asked Lookout.

“Yep!  I’ve got just the one!”

She pulled the football-sized flying camera out of the case she’d been resting her feet on.

“Is that ‘just the one’ because it’s special, or because it’s your last one?” Rain asked.

“Both!  It’s both.”

Sveta opened the door.  Rain and Swansong were putting their masks on.  Circuit-board face, with circuits cutting fissure-like zig-zags, gloves doing much the same, all black, with lines that glowed dully with a red light from within.  A slight change from before.  A hooded costume top covered his hair, which wasn’t new.

Using three arms, he slung a satchel-bag over his shoulder as he hopped down onto snow-wet road.

The Palanquin mercenaries were organized in a line along the front of one nice, modern looking building, looking like professionals with how they held themselves, though it was a very different thing from the hired mercenaries we’d seen around Tattletale.

Faultline, Gregor, Shamrock, a thinner-than-realistically-possible Case-53, and a woman I didn’t recognize, with bangs cut straight across her forehead.

I’d expected the lines of no-man’s-land to be drawn out as they had with the police visiting the scene.  Instead, Sveta just kept walking.

I could see Faultline’s entire lineup tense at that, that the line was so flagrantly being breached.

Then the recognition from Gregor.

He strode forward, and though he wasn’t much taller than an average guy, he still picked Sveta up, hugging her in a way that had her feet dangling.

No man’s land effectively shrunk.  There weren’t twenty feet of distance, but instead it was us standing close enough that we could talk normally, not so close that our two large groups became a huddle.

Faultline had updated her costume, I noted.  Tinkertech.  Tinkertech from outside one’s own team was generally very expensive, because it was temperamental, and there was only one person who could soothe that temper or fix it if anything went wrong.  Yet none of her people looked like tinkers.

As soon as she was out of Gregor’s arms, Sveta hugged Shamrock.

“I take it you vouch for them, Gregor?”

“I vouch for Sveta.”

“And I vouch for them,” Sveta said.

“Not quite that easy,” Faultline answered.  “We’re on a job, we have clients to safeguard.  But Gregor likes you, Sveta, and I trust Gregor with my life.  We’re going to move, because being out in the open exposes us to danger.  We walk with your team in single file.  You’ll come with us, no fast movements, no tricks, no powers, and nothing finds its way to your hands.  We’ll also need to search you.”

I glanced at Capricorn, only to see that the armor had a blue tint.  Tristan had backed off for reasons unclear to me.

“Okay,” I said.

“Whippersnap, could you check them?  Please stay still.  Arms up, feet spread.”

I raised my arms, holding them apart.

Whippersnap was the literally broomstick-thin Case-53 with skin stretched too tight across a half-width skull, large, juicy eyes bulging out of eye sockets to either side, to the point that it looked like he could literally look backwards.  The eyes were slow to move, scraping against the sockets, but they moved almost constantly.

He was at my side with an audible noise on arrival.  With a disconcerting speed, his hands touched and lightly slapped me, starting at my collar and hood, then working down.

It felt more invasive than an ordinary strip search, because it was so fast and thorough I felt like I was being laid bare.

He was a speedster, but he looked and felt a damn sight like a bio-speedster.  There were breaker speedsters like Velocity, who shifted into an alternate state to access reality on a different level, there were ones who had a great deal of propulsion, ones that manipulated the environment, and then there were the ones who just had biology that alien – usually through changer powers.

“Hi Whippersnap,” Sveta said, as I was left alone, the full search moving to Byron, for a full search of Byron’s armor.

With a sound like a whipcrack, Whippersnap moved faster, closing the distance between himself and Sveta.  The sound had come from him extending an arm, pointing at her.

“I’d like to put all of the bad stuff behind us,” Sveta said.

“Tch.”

“Is this going to be a problem, Whipper?” Faultline asked.

“Neh,” Whippersnap replied.

He took only another twenty seconds to search the rest of the team before stopping at Sveta.  “Can’t search her without dying.”

“I vouched for her,” Gregor said.

“You could cork her with a mucus plug,” Whippersnap said.  “Seal that suit closed.”

“I will not do that, I’m sorry.”

“Real nice, Whipper,” Sveta said.

“I’m being nice,” Whippersnap said, his voice a hiss.  I could see veins stand out through the too-tight skin.  Cords and muscles bulged at the corners of his jaw.  “I could have said no vouch, anti-vouch.  You betrayed my team.  But I am new, but out of respect for Brother Gregor and the boss, I’m quiet for now.  I am a professional.”

“We can talk at the next chance we get,” Gregor said.  “For now, Faultline, any feelings?”

“No plug or sealing her into her suit.  Follow, before we’re out of time,” Faultline said.  “Stick to my rules.  Be good.  March has enhanced accuracy and advanced timing.”

“Like Flechette,” I said.  I winced.  “Foil.”

“Different.  Timing is her main power.  Situational, big-picture.  Operation-level.”

“She was good on the small scale too,” I said, following Faultline.  “Is that stronger because she used what she told us about?  The thing that let Goddess take all the power?”

“No comment, not on that,” Faultline said.

We were walking now, not into the nice building that they’d gathered by, but down side streets.  This was not a car area.  It was hilly, with a lot of single-lane roads, and two rivers cutting through it that bottlenecked existing traffic across a finite number of bridges.  It was nice, in a quaint, quiet way, no noise of trains or boats tooting their horns.

If I hadn’t been able to fly, I might have taken issue with the fact that everything in this area seemed uphill or downhill.

Faultline went on, “I can’t elaborate because It’s pertinent to my client’s needs and focuses, and it’s for her to share.  What you need to know is that March is someone with near-perfect accuracy, timing isn’t a consideration, and yes, these two things are linked when you’re talking about shooting at moving targets.  She knows how to use a sniper rifle.  What’s more dangerous is that when she sets things in motion, she has a sense of what’s going to end up where.”

“In a timing sense?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“My old nemesis,” Lookout muttered.  “Time in the day.  Timestamps.  Recording by clocks and timers.  It’s madness.”

“It waits for no man,” Swansong said.

“The jerk.

“What makes us safe now?” I asked, raising my voice just a bit to drown out the background chatter.  “I assume we’re safe now.”

“We took measures, but they’re time-limited, which is why we’re walking to a confidential but safe place instead of talking any more out in the open.”

“We’ll follow your rules, help keep to your time limit,” Byron’s voice was soft.

Rain, meanwhile, was absolutely quiet at this point.  I wanted to ask questions, but I didn’t want to complicate things with the already tense, no-nonsense vibe that Faultline was presenting.

She was a decent mercenary.  This was her in her professional mode.

“-Newter?” I heard the tail end of Sveta’s question to Gregor.  She was leaning into him hard, like she sometimes did with me, unaware of her own particulars of movement or balance when she wasn’t managing it all herself.  “Or Scrub?”

“It is best if I do not share our team’s strengths and weaknesses.  Not without more thought.  I am sorry, little cousin.”

“I understand.  I really do.  Maybe it’s better that I don’t know.  Sorry.”

“It is better you do not know.”

“Don’t say it like that,” Shamrock said.

“This way,” Faultline said.

The street  had a corner, and past a lip of concrete preventing any errant cars from going down, there was a set of stairs leading down to a street further down the way.

We took those stairs, circled around one building, and then headed down another set of stairs to what looked like a basement area.

A headquarters.  The stairs went down a long way, enough to leave the space expansive enough for ceilings at twice the usual height.

We were led down to the base of the stairs, before Faultline instructed us, “Wait.”

We did, settling in to lean against walls.  Sveta was talking to Shamrock and Gregor.  Shamrock was saying something about places she’d visited or seen- possibly related to Sveta talking about her summer with Weld.

Whippersnap had wandered off, except wandered was the wrong word, because it implied meandering.  Saying he’d run off was wrong too, because it implied running away.

Well, maybe that was right.  It just didn’t seem quite appropriate.

Rain and Byron were talking, and Rain used all four arms as he gestured unconsciously- no, he was gesturing to illustrate what he was saying about weapons, and what he’d need to do to use them well.

“Lookout,” I said, lowering my voice.

“Yes?”

“How is that camera of yours in the sky doing?”

“It’s fine,” she said.  She pulled out her phone, and she showed both Swansong and me, then Rain, who was leaning over.  “Looking down.  Nothing strange.”

An overhead view of the area.

“Anyone that could be following?”

“None.  If they followed, it was with a power.”

“If they followed,” the woman with the bangs said, “They won’t give you a chance.  March will shoot, she will maim you if she wants to maim you, and she will kill you if she wants to kill.”

“What dialed March up to eleven?” Rain asked.

“A combination of things.  She’s excitable, and someone excited her.”

Faultline returned, alone.  There were two more mercenaries with her.  “Situation blue.”

“Medical emergency?” I asked.  “The hospital code?”

“What?  No,” she told me.  Then, not to me, she said, “I’ll leave it to you to interpret.”

“Good,” the woman with the severe bangs said.  “Excuse me.”

She walked away from the group and across the room.  As she did, her body started to come apart in ribbons.  As the ribbons came away, they revealed someone beneath.

The ribbons came together, forming a complete, different person, and then opened up once more.  Another person beneath.

So it went.  Each layer was something of a close relation with the one before it.  By the time she was on her fourth layer down, the first woman had recovered enough to get up and walk away.

The fourth layer down, as it happened, was Tattletale.  Two of her bodyguards seized her before her weight could come to rest on the legs that still had bloody bandages on them.  She was moved to a chair, and made a face as she sat down.

The rest of us remained gathered in the lobby.

“Gotta stick your nose in, huh, Vicky?”

“Trying to stay on top of things,” I said.  “What did you do?”

“That’s a pretty aggressive way of looking at it, Vicky,” Byron said.

“It wasn’t entirely me,” Tattletale said.

Of course.

I saw Whippersnap again, keeping company with a Case-53 of the same age, just a bit younger than Sveta.  The girl was her overly elaborate lace dress and veil- the lace was her skin and the skin had a million intricate holes in it, with just a hint of red around the largest ones, where they looked deep in enough to see past tissues and look at raw flesh.

“She’s been recruiting,” Tattletale said.  “Capricorn, you know Paris.  Most of the recruits are singular actors from multiple clusters.  Most, it turns out, are being brought in by a promise.  She tells them that she knows how to leech power, as Goddess did.  If they join her, she will tell them, after they’ve helped her achieve her goals.  If they don’t, she tells one of their cluster-mates.  With me so far?”

“She made that offer to me,” Rain said.  “But I think she ran into trouble.  Of the two who are still alive, one won’t work with her, and the other is filled with too much rage to cooperate with anyone.  They just want me dead.”

“Precipice, she’s making the offer to Cradle.  After Snag?  If you don’t reach out and take her offer, she’s going to give Cradle that knowledge.  You can see where your hands are tied, don’t you?”

Rain’s mechanical hands strained a bit, metal on metal, as he clenched his four fists.

“Yeah, all four of them, there you go.  She used that, gathered some people, and she made it clear she wanted Foil.  That’s where I came in.”

“How do we know it’s not a bluff?” Swansong interrupted.

“She has proof, kind of,” Rain said.

“Because, Swansong, she was a member of a cluster of three.  Timing, accuracy, and Foil’s trademark weapon enhancement.  March found and drained their cluster’s third.”

“She’s very strong compared to Flechette, now, and that’s her proof,” Rain said.

“Goddess dying answered a few lingering questions she had, things which were holding her back,” Tattletale said.  She turned around, and flagged down a mercenary.  “Painkillers.  Something not too addictive, thank you.”

She turned back our way and sighed.

“What did you do?” I asked, again.

“She went after my teammate, and I told her that if she didn’t stop, I would take away her bargaining chip.  I’d figured it out myself, I would tell key members of the different multi-triggers- the enemies of her new ‘recruits’, if you will, how the draining works.”

“And?”

“She thought I was bluffing, and I wasn’t.”

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Polarize – 10.4

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I had been trying to build connections for weeks now.   It had started at Hollow Point, inviting teams to come in, putting ideas like taking credit second to letting other people have their share of the glory.  We had shared and asked for favors, and that we had asked wasn’t that bad a thing, because people tended to like helping, and they felt stronger in knowing they could call in a chit and have some extra powers on their sides.

We’d put our necks on the line for the Fallen fight.  Some ups, some downs.  We had earned some nods by getting ahead of the portal thing and keeping it from being quite as bad as it would have otherwise been.  We’d done the neck-to-line thing again by going on television.  Then the prison.

None of it had gone perfectly.  Three team members lost along the way, two partially recovered.  Raised eyebrows and questions about the television program.  Others had questions about the prison thing, but they weren’t going so far as to ask those questions and we weren’t offering details.

Now?  Consolidation.  Reinforcing our team’s ties to one another was only one part of the consolidation.  Reaching out to other teams and doing something more formal with our relationships to them was the other half of it.

I stood in the center of the open floor of our headquarters, surrounded by whiteboards that were littered with notes and personal details.  My arms were folded, my still-burned and bandaged hand resting against my bicep, where the bullet had passed through.  My costume top was in the laundry, so I only wore a sleeveless black undershirt with my costume bottoms.

My eyes were on a projected screen on the wall.  Most projector images didn’t really have black as a thing, which meant they didn’t work so well in areas with lots of windows or light.  Kenzie’s cameras projected black, making the text distinct.

Three names, white text on the black background: ‘Mapwright (AG)’, ‘Gong (AG)’, and ‘Bullhorn (IV)’.

Chris’s old whiteboard was in the back corner, furthest from Kenzie’s workstation, across from the bathroom and by the technical front door of the headquarters that we never used, because we always came and went from the fire escape, if we weren’t using the building’s laundry unit or heading into the basement to flip the breakers if Kenzie didn’t stagger out the startup processes of her tech enough.  It wasn’t Chris’ whiteboard anymore.  Byron had taken it over.

Icons blinked on the screen.  I could have gone to the computer and used the mouse to click one, or tried my hand at the voice recognition program and asked the computer nicely.  One icon to bring up a map and show where in the city this was happening.  Another to bring up pertinent details on each of the people – many ‘details’ were blank, filling in only as fast as people found time to spare.  There would still be some misinformation.

I left it alone, my attention split three ways, between looking around the headquarters, watching the unchanging text on the screen, and hoping.  It was nine in the morning, hardly prime time for villainy.

The text on the screen changed, so quickly it almost tricked my eyes.  Two new lines.  ‘Assist: Withdrawal (MjMf)’, ‘Assist: Finale (MjMf)’.

“Hey guys,” I whispered the words.  I was alone in the headquarters, but saying it at full volume felt like it would have been an entirely different thing.

I hadn’t expected them.  I hadn’t known if anyone at all would show up, but them least of all.

In a way, I almost felt like the Major Malfunctions wanted what I wanted more than anyone else.  Breakthrough had their own diverse needs and wants.  They had since the beginning.  My parents and my mom in particular?  Way off in left field there.  The big teams had their ideological divides, with strong views on how everything should be handled, not just the cape stuff.  Most of the little teams had their own individual focuses.

The Major Malfunctions wanted to help.  They wanted to work with others.  They wanted to get up to speed.  That they were involved made just about every emotion I was feeling go up two notches on the dials.  My hands gripped my upper arms.

“Come on,” I whispered.

Again, the screen change.  I’d been staring at it for so long that the text lingered in my vision after the point it had disappeared.

Two man Advance Guard patrol against independent villain Bullhorn, Major Malfunctions assisting for goodwill.  Capture and arrest, custody pending.

I punched the air.  “Yes!”

Two weeks of lead-in for this.  The fight hadn’t been a hard one.  Gong might have been able to handle it on his own.  Advance Guard might have intentionally gone out early to pick a fight they knew they could win, which skewed the results.

We’d told other teams that we’d have our system online this morning, and Kenzie had set it up to go online at ten.  Advance Guard had multiple members out on patrol at the time the imaginary starting pistol had fired.

That was just who they were.

But it was a win.  So long as I didn’t look too much into it, investigating the particulars of the fight, how the public tied into it, whether there was property damage, it was a clean, cooperative, perfect win.

I would, of course.  I’d get the details further down the line.  This was an experiment, and it would be for nothing if I closed my eyes to everything that took away from my desired result.

I flew across the room to make a note on my whiteboard, because I would’ve been risking a Kenzie-like happy skip or bouncy walk if I was using my feet to travel.

Already, another Advance Guard team was reporting to the network that they were entering an area with known villains.  Spright and Flapper against Eclipse Arc.

To them, being first and being on top were things that mattered.  I wasn’t going to complain.

My skin prickled with goosebumps as the door to the fire escape opened, cold air flooding the space.  Alternate-identity Rain and Tristan.  They both set to kicking snow from their boots and shoes, respectively.

“Did I miss the start?” Tristan asked.  “Did we win?”

To him, being first and being on top were things that mattered.  I smiled.

“You missed it, and we won.  Advance Guard, Majors assisting.  Bullhorn.”

“That sounds one-sided,” Rain said.

“That’s part of the idea,” I said, turning to look at the screen.  Spright and Flapper had already retreated from the scene.  They were putting out a call for assistance.  If they hadn’t been way out on the end of the city closer to Brockton Bay, I might have flown out.

I went to my computer and opened the page, adding in details on the fly because it looked like people were looking up the particulars.  Eclipse Arc were serious, as villains went.  Good costumes, good powers.  There were ‘heroes’ out there who got themselves labeled Vigilantes because they crossed lines or shrugged off law and convention in their pursuit of the bad guys.  Eclipse Arc were the opposite, a pair of villains walking a ‘Robin Hood’ line where they really only preyed on those who deserved it.  They supported convention rather than flouting it, tending to go after villains where possible, and among those villains, going after those that had broken the unwritten rules first.

They were big time enough to warrant being a serious target of heroes, but by walking the line they did, they made it very easy for others to gloss over them or leave them alone in favor of other targets.  Too big for Prancer’s old group of B-list villains, too small to be important.  Too villainous to be worth reaching out to, too noble to be a target people could feel especially good about dealing with.

Except the unwritten rules had broken down and Eclipse Arc were out being assholes, robbing people who didn’t deserve it.  Hopefully Advance Guard would steer them back onto their old path.

“Are you going?” Tristan asked.

“They’re closer to Boston.  No.  The fight will be over before I was out the door.”

Rain walked up until he was beside me, double-tapping and removing the necklace that powered his identity, and setting the backpack with its heavy battery onto the table by the door as the second ‘skin’ fell away.  Now his ordinary scruffy self, he ran fingers through his snow-damp hair.  Odd, to see him with no visible scrapes or scuffs, no lines under his eyes.  He looked simultaneously younger and older.  He also, I noted, had a bit of stubble, and it wasn’t sixteen year old wannabe stubble.  His jacket was lighter than the weather warranted, but he wore multiple layers- a mix of clothes I’d seen him in before and new ones.  He met my eyes.

“You look less tired than before,” I said.

“I’m really tired,” he said.  “Always am.  The daylight hours aren’t as harrowing now, but the dreams haven’t stopped, won’t stop.  Love Lost was restless last night.  Angrier for some reason.  I honestly wouldn’t be shocked to see her gang on that screen.”

I looked at the screen.  A few new encounters had appeared.  Eclipse Arc had apparently run for it, and somehow Spright and Flapper and two members of the Lone Wolf Pack hadn’t been able to give chase.  I’d have to know more before I chalked it up as a draw or as a win.

“Is it going okay?” Rain asked.  “I know Kenz was upset that she was going to be away and offline when this test run went online.”

“Tech-wise, I think we’re okay.  The map wasn’t working that smoothly when I last looked, and the surveillance options are just showing black screens.  I don’t want to touch it in case it’s more tinker than tech.  In terms of our early encounters and victories…”

Four patrols were active.  In addition to that, one non-parahuman incident of crime had been foiled, Eclipse Arc had been scared away, and Bullhorn was now in the hands of the authorities.

“We should be out there,” Tristan said.  He’d taken off his coat and shoes and now carried his luggage bag of armor.  “It’s going to look bad if we’re absent.”

“Soon,” I said.  “If we went out now, it would be a fishing expedition.”

“Fishing is fine,” Tristan said.

“We can do more later, when we’re organized,” I said.  I floated over to my keyboard and opened my image folder.  Images from last night.

Our IT person was both eleven and a tinker, so things had a way of getting weird or inconsistent if she wasn’t around and keeping everything upright.  I tried my hand at using the ‘second monitor’ function with her temporary projector box, and was glad to see it worked.

The images were surveillance images of Tattletale and her gang.  Their group was gathered by the back of Tattletale’s rented vehicle with the trunk open – on the one side, guarding the open trunk, it was Tattletale, Imp, the crowd of Heartbroken kids, Chicken Little, and Tattletale’s bodyguard Snuff.

They were with a group of ten people who were standing as a loosely organized group.  For most of the ten, there was something in pose and posture that made it absolutely clear what their backgrounds were.  Feet were planted a certain distance apart, many had arms folded or behind their backs, their backs ramrod straight.  Most were exceedingly fit, or had the builds of people who had once been exceedingly fit and had slipped one way or the other with Gimel’s food stores and quality being what it was.  A lot of them looked like they shopped at the same stores, but a few broke the mold.

The pictures I’d saved didn’t include the image that we’d gotten of the trunk’s contents before Chicken Little’s birds had chased Kenzie’s one working camera drone away.  A plastic tote of guns, heavy enough that the back end of the truck had been heavy- Rain’s note.

Tattletale had fled Brockton Bay with the other Brockton-Bay Undersiders, namely Imp and Imp’s gang, they’d stopped at one place to regroup and wait for the stragglers, and then had immediately set to getting themselves prepared.  Hired mercenaries, bought not with cash, but with a store of weapons.  From there, they’d met up with Parian and Foil, retiring for the night, all packing up together in a manufacturing area for Parian’s clothing line.

They weren’t bad clothes, either.  I had a sweatshirt dress with a watercolor-style image of Brockton Bay on the front that was by her, and another regular t-shirt with the watercolor image in negative, on a black fabric.  She had similar designs for most of the major cities.  I’d bought some out of a kind of solidarity, and because they were actually kinda nice.

“Question is, what is she up to today?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah.  That’s a question,” I said.

In my images, I’d omitted the shots where Tattletale had been making repeated and pointed looks at cameras and other surveillance.  She knew, fine.  I’d known she would know from the time she’d caught Kenzie’s camera tracking our conversation while it was a mere speck in the sky.

There was still nothing she could do about it.  We could keep tabs on her, and all she could really do was have Chicken Little send birds flying after our cameras.  I suspected it annoyed her, but that was fine by me.  She was on our turf now.

Things might get harder if she decided to have Foil take shots at the cameras, but sending that kind of projectile flying out over a populated area didn’t seem like the kind of thing the Flechette or Lily I’d known would do.

“Another win,” Tristan’s voice pulled me away from my musings.

“Parahuman or civilian?” I asked, walking back to the pair.

“Non-powered.  The Grower’s Court?” Tristan asked.

“Sounds vaguely familiar.”

“Farming collective kind of like what the Fallen had,” Rain said.  “They decided they wanted to keep everything they grew, they didn’t want to pay taxes or give a share to the city, didn’t want anything from the city-”

“-Ignoring that the city gave them the seeds, machinery, and tools, built the roads, and provided material for the homes.” Tristan said.

“Sure,” Rain said.  “Yeah, I guess so, didn’t hear that end of it, but it’d have to be the case, right?”

“It was,” Tristan said.

“Them deciding to hoard was a thing last spring, after the long winter.  They holed up, everyone with a rifle, and city eventually said it wasn’t worth it.  Then this summer, in the middle of a lot of the craziness, they blocked off a section of road, raided a truck, and took the stuff back to the Grower’s Court.”

“And?” I asked.

“And a month and a half later, the Shepherds got enough people behind them to deal with it,” Rain said.

“They’re civilians, but that’s a win that might go in the papers,” Tristan said.  A smile crept across his face.  “We could reach out to the papers.  Promote what we’re doing.”

“Shepherd’s win, their choice what to do with it.  But you could let them know.”

“Uh, Rain can.  While Moonsong is in charge, I’m leaving the Shepherds alone,” Tristan said.  “In the meantime, I’ll get changed, and we’ll plan to go after your nemesis, instead?”

“No on both counts,” I said.

“No?” Tristan asked, hefting his bag, stepping toward the bathroom.  “There’s a sign on the door that says ‘death’, with really awesome drawing of a skull.”

I heard a shout of greeting from within the bathroom.

“Sveta’s in there,” I said.  “She wanted to rinse off and clean her stuff..  She’ll be out soon.  Like I said, no on both counts.  No changing, and no, we aren’t going after Tattletale.”

“You’re paying attention to her.”

“Damn fucking straight I am,” I said.  “She’s not someone you ignore, but she’s not someone we pick a fight with either.  That’s a whole two squads of trained soldiers that are trading off shifts to support and guard her team around the clock.  She also has twice as many parahumans on her team as we have on the full Breakthrough roster, if we pretend Chris is still on the team and we include Damsel.”

“She’s not, you know,” Rain said.  “Damsel won’t join.”

“She’s tertiary.  If someone comes after Breakthrough as a whole, they’ll have to account for her.”

Rain seemed to consider that.  “Yeah, sure.”

“We’re not going after Tattletale.  The Undersiders held their own for years.  We can’t pick a fight with that.”

“We can try,” Tristan said.  “Get some people together.”

“Nah,” I said.  I thought about it.  “Fuck no.  There are other ways.”

Kenzie was done with her classes.  Ashley was through with her appointments.  I felt bad that we’d dragged them straight from that into an extended road trip.

Kenzie had her parents’ van, black, sleek, and sturdy enough to carry what she could bring from her workshop.  Some of the components that we’d strapped into place were serving as desks, Rain and Sveta leaning over papers as they sketched out loose ideas.  Ashley was in the back, sitting opposite me, while Kenzie sat next to her with her feet propped up on a case, laptop on her lap in a way that let them both see the screen.  Here and there, the remnants of lunches and snacks from the fill-up station littered the area.

Byron drove, because he was just a bit more secure driving on ice than Tristan was.  I had the passenger seat, though I was twisted around to watch the others.  My own laptop sat closed on my lap, still warm from when I’d had it on.  I didn’t have a power cable that plugged into the car, and that last twenty percent of battery was more valuable than having an easy way to fill the time.

Listening to the idle chatter was kind of nice on its own.  Sveta and Rain collaborating.

“What kind of scale?”

“Um, I have to lift it with my own strength, right?  Not that big.  Not giant mech big.”

“Good.  Because I don’t have the materials for a giant Svetamech.”

“Mecha-Sveta!” Kenzie chirped.

“I’m already mecha-Sveta.”

“Double size?  Triple?” Rain asked.

“I had a friend who was larger than usual when I was with the Irregulars.  The square cube law is a thing, isn’t it?”

“Less a thing if you’re working with tinkertech.  It’s part of why mechs are doable.  Double sounds like an okay starting point, though.  How do you want to sketch this out?”

“What if we start really broad-stroke, and do this?”

“That’s calligraphy broad-stroke.  Really broad-stroke.

“For the shape.  See?  Top-heavy, hourglass…”

Ashley talking to Kenzie in a quiet voice.

“They went into my room.  They went through my things.  Some were tinker things, but I don’t think they realized.”

“Off with their heads.”

“I wish I could take their heads off.  I don’t usually get mad, but I had a nice house and a nice workshop, and now I have to be there, and the people who should be protecting my things when I’m not there aren’t.”

“If you can’t take their heads, why not scare them?”

Ashley,” I used a warning tone.

They seemed to leave it at that.

In the distance, past a light but constant snowfall that was stirred into violent flurries by the existence of nearby portals, I could see the skyline of the New Brockton area of the city.  Intervening buildings spoiled the view a bit, as did the mountain range to the west of the area.

“Didn’t you tell Tristan that you thought the Undersiders would win in a fight?”

“In a fight?” I asked.  “I don’t know.  I don’t think it ever comes straight down to a fight, though.  There’s other stuff.  Information, misinformation, money, resources, having reinforcements, and protecting yourself.  Those are the things that decide a fight before it even happens, or that cause horrible, long-term damage to you or places you care about, in a win-the-fight, lose-the-war way.”

“Things our team isn’t great at,” Byron said.

“They’re better than us at it, but they were at this for six years.  It’s where they specialize and it’s where they’ve been developing their skills and abilities since Kenzie was half the age she is now.  Robbing casinos, stealing tech patents to ransom back, robbing stores and flying under the radar the entire time.  Then they recruited a new member to kidnap that thinker I mentioned before, and sparked off two wars with parahuman gangs while using her, another local crime-boss thinker, and Tattletale to get enough of an edge and come out consistently ahead.  Some people think the Endbringer attack was because of all that conflict.”

“Jesus,” Byron said.

“That’s pretty darn close to what Weld described,” Sveta said, behind me.

“In fairness, we did compare notes and sit in on some of the same meetings,” I said.

“Fair,” Sveta said.

I turned back to Byron.  “That was only the start of it.  They’re villains, and while I’m talking fairness?  They aren’t.  They don’t play fair.  Tristan suggested picking a fight, and I think it’s a bad idea, because we could get every hero in our coalition to go after them and the Undersiders might find a way to make the fight unfair in their favor.”

“The reason I brought it up is that I have to wonder if we’ve collectively lost it, because as strong as they are, they ran.  We’re heading towards what they ran from.”

“We won’t enter the New Brockton area specifically,” I said.  “How are we doing on your end, Kenzie?”

“I’m still getting the occasional blip.  We’re on the right road.”

“What if we get this far and there’s nothing?” Sveta asked.

“Then we spent some time driving around and talking.  But going by what Kenz reported with the timeline-”

“They went somewhere,” Kenzie said.

I opened my laptop.

9:41 PM, two vehicles with Undersiders inside are seen at the New Brockton area limits, leaving.

9:55 PM, two more vehicles are tracked leaving.

10:24 PM, all four vehicles are seen moving together.  Judging by speed limits and where they are spotted, they were not traveling for the full duration. 

“Tell us when we’re close,” I said.

“Oh, we’re close.  Five more minutes.”

“Gear up,” I said, folding up my laptop, sliding it between the seat and drink holder.

I had washed and laundered my costume, but my costume was fabric with decorations that Weld had fashioned for me before he’d left, a higher quality than nearly anything I could have had made for a reasonable cost.  I’d removed the pieces to wash it all, and there were still some to replace on the costume.  My hood had a thin length of metal running through the edge of the hood to keep it from slumping off to one side, and I did have to thread that through.

Two minutes of work, to do that, don the ten finger- and thumb-rings that had spikes sweeping back, resting against the backs of my hands, and fix the decorations at my shoulders so they were straight, connecting them to the armor, because designing the costume so the metal hung off the cloth would have had it pull down and drape weird.

The van pulled to a stop.  We all opened our respective doors.

A truck rest stop.  Dirt road, shoulder-high concrete barriers to guide any errant or out of control trucks, and a fair amount of open space.  There were a pair of portable toilets with bright yellow sides in the corner, and a diner-style restaurant a two minute walk away, but as I turned to Kenzie and pointed at the diner, she shook her head.

“Did she con us?” Sveta asked.

I held out a hand, telling them to stay put, and then I floated up and over the battlefield.  It was still early afternoon, and the light was good.  I could see where boots had scuffed the frost-hard dirt, and I could see spots of blood.

“Blood,” I reported.

“Truck stop?  I bet guys bleed here all the time,” Rain said.

“More blood,” I pointed out.  I indicated points on the ground.  “Something hard hit the ground here.  Hard enough to break the frozen ground.  And… a blast.”

“Blast?”

“Come on, take a look for yourselves.  I wanted to keep the ground reasonably pristine for a first-look, in case there was anything.  No need now- I’m pretty sure some trucks came through today.”

The group fanned out, searching the perimeter.  Once they got far enough, I showed them where the ground had been gouged by something.  The gouging clustered in areas.

“I found bullet casings,” Ashley said.  She’d veered furthest from the group.  Way off to the side, where the dirt gave way to the still-new, pavement of the highway, she’d found the casings.  Bending down, long skirt blowing against her bare calves, she used a finger to prod one casing.

“Careful you don’t taint the evidence,” Rain said.  “Victoria’s right.”

Ashley stood straight, her chin rising in that imperious way.  She approached Rain at a slow walk.

“Hee,” Kenzie made a happy sound.

“I’m missing something,” Rain said.

Ashley nodded, holding up a hand.

“I’m… fuck.  I’m the prosthetics tinker, and I forgot about your hands.  You have no fingerprints, no skin oil.”

“There we go,” she said, smiling.  Her left shoulder brushed his as she walked past him, then brushed against his shoulderblades as she walked around behind him.

“That is the fucking smuggest I’ve seen you, Ashley,” Tristan said.  He and Byron had apparently swapped out to share notes as they’d done their own walk of the scene.  “That’s cat with the canary smug.”

“Nuh uh!  She’s not smug, she’s happy.”

“Same thing,” Ashley said.  “I’m happy my hands are this good.”

“Food particles, though?” Rain asked, turning around to face her, a little obstinate now.  “We just ate, and we didn’t wash our hands.”

Ashley let her power flicker around her hands, making a sound like a snarl as it washed over the prosthetic limb.  “I cleaned it earlier.”

Rain sighed.  “You win.”

“As it should be.”

One vehicle with a crate of guns, to later be used to purchase or barter for the services of mercenaries.  depending on timing, the Undersiders would have had two vehicles worth of people here, or they would have had four.

Assuming they were running, the attackers would have come from the northeast.  The Undersiders would have been fleeing the southwest.  The bullet casing came from the Undersider’s end of the scene.

“I think we’re ready,” I said.  “we should get going before we get in trouble for camping out at a truck stop.”

“Awesome!” Kenzie said.  She drew her phone, then selected the program.

The van bucked visibly as the machinery in the back kicked to life.

“I was able to speed things up just a bit, because having everything in the van meant I was able to bring extra batteries, and I could box it up a bit.”

“Box it up?” Sveta asked.

“I do two things.  Like a tinker who does jets and does, I dunno, radiation.  They can make jets or they can make radiation, but radiation-powered jets are their best work.  For me, it’s cameras and boxes.  Box-cameras are best.”

“Inconveniently sized boxes,” Rain said.

“I made this camera inconveniently big for regular carrying.  Let’s give this a shot.”

“Let’s be careful not to put images in the middle of the highway,” I said, indicating the cars that were flying past us on the other side of the concrete barrier.

“Done.”

The past-camera kicked into life.  All around us, the space began to fill out with dots of color.  If she was going to be aware of when we watched her in the present, we would shift our focus from her to her past.

The snow did make things more difficult, each flake becoming a lone thread, with threads joining together into an opaque curtain that marked the wild commonalities in how the air moved, reacting to the passage of cars on the other side of the divider, and the constant outflow from the portal.

Then, much as they’d started to appear and get drawn out, the snowflakes were undone, each trail disappearing one by one.  All of the rest of the images started to come together, each one a caterpillar, a long blur that traced the paths the individuals had traveled.  The passage of vehicles were like the strokes of fat, crude brushes that crossed out whole sections of the picture.

“I’ve got some data on the Undersiders already,” Kenzie said.  “We can narrow this down.  I’ll pick some images to lock down by the points in space.”

Tattletale was first.  At the Southwestern end of the clearing.  Ducking down.  She was wearing a coat and earmuffs, alongside her mask and costume.  Slowly, the figure right behind her began to fill in.  Snuff, standing right behind her, shielding her with his body, one hand extended toward the source of whatever he was shielding her from.

The car was next, filling in.  Door open, as Tattletale ducked inside.

All around us, figures were appearing.  The kids with dense black waves and curls of hair, most dressed in black, all with masks of their own.  Heartbroken.

Imp, stumbling as she tried to shield the kids.  One of her arms was gone.

“Any loose arms, Kenz?”

“Weapons?”

I pointed at Imp.

“Eew.  I’ll try searching for it.  Can’t be too hard to find.”

The rest of the group was so quiet that it was almost grim.  There were so many people.

Not far from the Undersiders, with an armored vehicle of their own, three people.  The shooter responsible for the gun casing, a man, and a woman.

The red-haired shooter would be Shamrock.  The man was Gregor.  The woman, though she wasn’t fully drawn yet, and though her dark costume was concealing enough to muddy things further, was likely Faultline.

How desperate were you, that you went to her?  I thought, looking at the image of a retreating Tattletale.  The Undersiders had met with the Palanquin mercenaries, despite the fact that Tattletale’s feud with Faultline was common knowledge.  I’d heard it had something to do with Tattletale getting beaten out by Faultline on an early job, and then never really getting an opportunity to even the score after.  I wasn’t sure if that had been pure speculation from Crystal.

“Getting a whole lot of mess while I’m looking for the arm.  Hold on,” Kenzie said.  “Lots of power effects to fill in, and they’re messier than people.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “This is really good, Kenz.”

I saw her bob her head in an excited way, pacing around as she held up her phone.  Here and there, she erased progress or shifted something so it was loading a figure at a different point.

This wasn’t a moment in time.  It was well over a dozen things being captured at critical moments.

At Snuff’s left hand, a black-gray blob, taller than he was, the air distorting at the edges.

At one point in the ground, a plume of dirt and pavement.

In the air, Imp’s arm.  A silvery thread connected to it, and that silvery thread traced its way to the attackers.

“Sorry,” I whispered, whispering because it was a kind of tacit acknowledgement that she couldn’t and wouldn’t hear me.

I did feel sympathy, but I didn’t feel bad, exactly.  They’d brought a mess down on their own heads somehow.  They’d made enemies and they’d answered for it.  I had no idea what we’d do or how we would handle it if it came down to it.  I couldn’t see us standing by and letting cape fights happen, but it didn’t feel right to take the Undersiders’ side either.

Or maybe…

“Sveta,” I said.

“Mmm?” she asked.  She was standing near the still images of Faultline’s crew.

“The Undersiders played a part in saving the world?”

“Yeah,” she said.

Still didn’t feel right to intervene on their behalf, but by the rules, at least, by the unwritten laws?  Maybe.

Uuuuuuuugh.

Snow blew around us.  I was aware of cars on the road that had slowed to see what we were doing.  Standing in the middle of a firefight that made no logistical sense, as each piece of the puzzle was frozen at a different time and place than the others.  Powers were flying, bullets in the air, people mid-motion, and none of it jibed.  Jibing would have to be puzzled out in another way at another place.  That was if there were clues to be gathered there.

“It’s going to be another few minutes.  These people are all packed in together, and I can do things like take a snapshot of EM levels, or brainwaves, or DNA, but I keep getting cross-signals.  I’m having trouble pulling them apart.  But we will!  We will figure out who you all are, mysterious attackers!”

“I know who one of them is,” Tristan said.

“We know them,” Rain said.

“You- you saw enough details to do a visual?  You must have a power if you did, because my onboard camera isn’t getting a good lock.”

“Not a power,” Rain said.  “Passing familiarity.”

“Do tell,” Ashley said.

“That right there?” he indicated the people who were gathered as a mass.  “That’s messy because it’s a cluster.  And right beside it?”

“What?” Kenzie asked.

“Another cluster,” Rain said.

“There’s another,” Tristan said.  He indicated the gouges in the ground with the earth spewing from them.  “I know this one.  He wasn’t at the Fallen fight, but there’s some old history.”

“Paris?” Rain asked, his head snapping around.

Tristan nodded.  “Or one of his cluster.  But that silhouette looks right.”

“Oh,” Kenzie said, hurrying to type out a word on her phone.  She aimed at the center of the back, and an image flickered across the spaces she was aiming at, its head trying fifty different orientations before finding something suitable.  “Then this is-”

“March,” I said, an instant before the image of her ‘hare’ mask and the brimmed hat with the masks’ ears poking out the front came into solid, crystal-clear focus.

“She recruited,” Ashley observed.

Yeah,” Rain said.

“She didn’t try to recruit you?” Sveta asked.

“I was in jail.  Maybe she tried?”

The Undersiders hadn’t gone running to Parian and Foil for refuge.  Or maybe they had, but it wasn’t necessarily the primary focus.  They’d gone there to protect them.

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Polarize – 10.3

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“Back!” Kenzie announced.  “Incoming, clear a space!”

I exchanged glances with some of the others.  Sveta.  Ashley.  Tristan.  Rain.  An unfinished, sensitive topic still hung over our heads.

“Back with a shitload of tacos,” Tristan observed.  “Brain fuel for a tinker brain?”

“No, geez.  I don’t think I could eat all of this without exploding all over the place.  I thought I’d get extra and share,” Kenzie said, as she set the tray down, lifted it up, leaving a second tray on the table, then set it down beside the empty tray.  She began dividing stuff evenly across the two trays, taking extra care with drinks.

“I’m not complaining,” Tristan said.  “Let me pay you back for what I eat.”

“You don’t have to.  I have a stipend, and we’re getting some money now.”

“You’re a tinker.  You’re probably paying for your stuff out of pocket.  Paying you back means we’re keeping it fair for the team.”

“M’kay, won’t complain,” Kenzie said.  She worked her way into the space between the two Ashleys.  “What are you guys talking about?”

I met our Ashley’s eyes.  She nodded just a fraction.

This wouldn’t be easy.

“Chris,” I said.

“Oh,” Kenzie said.  I could see her register that- no hurt on her expression, only a quirk of an eyebrow.  She flashed a smile at me, before lifting her taco with its hard, blood-red shell to her mouth, taking a big enough bite that her expression was unreadable.

It might have been fascinating if it hadn’t sucked so much to see.

“We’re going straight to that?” Tristan asked me.

Kenzie held up a hand until she’d finished chewing and swallowing.  “To what?  Chris?  Why not?  Because I’m here?”

“Here’s the deal about us talking about it when you’re not here, Kenz,” I said.  “We don’t want to leave you out, and I want to minimize the secrets we’re keeping, but this is tricky.  So we touch base with each other.  We ask each other how best to do this kind of thing.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  She took another bite, turning her head sideways.  Before biting, she said, “I got you iced tea, by the way.  I dented the lid.”

Deflection after deflection.  The bite of food, pointing out the iced tea.  Would Sveta register that Kenzie was off?  Would Rain?  Tristan?  Erin?

I leaned over.  Out of the drinks she’d balanced across the tray, the plastic lids had little buttons that could be depressed to show what type of drink it was.  I grabbed the iced tea and didn’t think too hard about how Kenzie might know it was my go-to drink.  I’d think on it later.

“We checked with each other before bringing it up.  Just like you guys probably talked about how you wanted to keep Amy’s involvement with Goddess a secret at first, because it would have been awkward and unnecessary.”

Kenzie nodded.

“That was fine for me.  We wanted to figure out if it was fine for you.  It needs to be talked about.  Is that okay?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Gotta talk about it.  One hundred percent.  So long as we’re fair.  I know he did something weird and betray-y the other night, but I think he would have had to have good reasons.”

“He’s always kept things close to the chest,” I said.

“He had a lot of secrets,” Tristan said.  “But when someone like him tells you who they are, believe them.  He told us what motivated him.  He wanted to dive head-first into the intense, powerful cape stuff.  He was grumpy about being left out of the visit to the W.H.Q., and he was perfectly happy to be in the midst of the Fallen thing.  Now he’s maneuvered to be in the midst of the Earth-Shin thing.”

“I don’t like that interpretation,” Kenzie said.

“Why not?  It’s fair,” Tristan asked.

“Because it makes it seem like he schemed his way through it all.  Isn’t it better to give him the benefit of a doubt and be wrong, than to not and be one hundred percent worse than we could pretend he is?”

“Honestly, I like giving him the benefit of a doubt,” Rain said.  “I know how shitty it can be to not get it.”

“I’m not painting him as the bad guy here,” Tristan said.  “Okay?  There’s no need for doubts or benefits of the doubt.  I’m laying out basic facts.  This is what he always wanted, and this is what he was open about, and it’s what he ended up doing, apparently.  Going to where the powers are.”

“The reason I don’t like it is that if you put it that way, it sounds like we were only a means to an end, and I refuse to believe that.”

“That-” Tristan started.  I moved my hand, indicating for him to stop.

“Let’s take five,” I said.

“Sure.  Sorry Kenz.”

“It’s fine,” Kenzie said, with a shrug.

I’d been able to see Tristan starting to get riled up for a debate.  I’d seen it a couple of times before, and my gut feeling was that when it came to facts against feelings, and the facts came from someone as convicted and die-hard as Tristan, the feelings from, well, Kenzie?  There was no way it would end well.

Others were taking food from the tray.  I waited until people had made their choices, then took a wrap.

Erin and Rain ducked out, heading to one of the other vendors.  A burger place had just opened for lunch.  ‘Patty’s Patties’.  That took me back – if I had to go back to earliest memories, then fuck, one of my five or ten earliest memories of Amy was from a family trip – would have had to have been, since the franchise wasn’t in Brockton Bay.  She had been outright weeping because she’d been so bothered by the decorations around Patty’s – whole herds of tiny cartoon cows marching off assembly-line style through the process of getting carved up and served, then dining on burgers.

Sure enough, the cartoon design had been updated to something more clean around the edges, but right beside the store’s sign was a cartoon cow with knife and fork, disembodied upper body floating over the pelvis and legs, a slice cleanly removed from its middle.  Because of the design, it had no expression, only vertical lines for eyes and two circles inside an oval for the nose.

Of all the things to survive the end of the world.

Rain ventured partway back, with Erin hanging closer to the counter.  Order put in, and he was close enough to listen in while waiting.

Kenzie took another bite of her food then sniffled once, before reaching for a napkin.  She dabbed at the corner of one eye, then wiped at her nose.

“Kenz,” Sveta said.  “You okay?”

“This taco is really, really spicy.  I had no idea,” Kenzie said, her voice distorted by the spice.  She made a small cough, then thumped her fist down on the table.

“It really is,” Tristan said.

Reconciliation?  Middle ground by way of hell tacos?

“I was worried you were really upset,” Sveta told Kenzie.

“I don’t get weepy,” Kenzie said.  “I am slightly annoyed.  Chris had a hard time with people, but he showed he cared in other ways.  He cared about my stuff, he listened to me blab on about my work when others would run away.  He always was up-front about calling things out the way he saw them.  That’s how he cared.  Even when things got nasty, he’d usually step in and pull it back to say something nice after taking it too far.  He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t care.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Damsel-Ashley said.

“Don’t you start.  You didn’t even know him,” Kenzie said, jabbing her partially-eaten taco at the projected Ashley to her left.  “When he was nice he was so nice.  So clever and thoughtful.  There was something in there, that he had to keep protected and secret.”

“She’s not wrong.  I’ve told you that you have to watch out for people like that,” our Ashley said.  “When someone treats you badly nine times out of ten, and treat you really nice the rest of the time, that means they’re bad for you.  It’s easy to fake being nice the one time out of ten.”

“He wasn’t nice only one time out of ten, okay?  Please and thank you,” Kenzie said.  “He was the first friend I ever made that was close to my own age, who stayed with me more than a couple of weeks.  He listened to me geek out and watched stuff or read stuff because I mentioned it.  He’s one of only a couple of people I ever knew who understood what it was like to be one hundred percent lonely.”

“One hundred percent lonely?” Sveta asked.  “I think  a lot of people have experienced that.”

“I don’t know exactly how to put it.  A bunch of people here probably get it, or they got a taste of it,” Kenzie said.  “You don’t get powers unless you don’t have anyone to turn to, or something?  But there’s a difference between being totally alone the once and being totally, one hundred percent alone because that’s the way things are, or it’s the way you are, and it’s a pattern.  And because it’s a pattern you’ll probably be this alone again in five years or ten years.  It’s a loneliness that’s lonelier because there’s no way it can get better.”

“I think you’d be surprised how others relate to that,” Sveta said.

“I guess so,” Kenzie said.  “I haven’t thought that much about it.”

“I hope you know that pattern ended here,” our Ashley said.  “I’m with you.”

“Except you  promised me that and you went to jail,” Kenzie said.  She stopped herself, then smiled at Ashley.  “Sorry to say it like that.  You did stay in touch but you did go to jail too.”

I saw Ashley digest that, then nod.

“Um.  Anyway, that pattern?  There’s more to it.  Chris gets it, I think.  He welcomes it, encourages it.  We’re different because I don’t want it, but he and I have that common ground.  We’ve both nosedived into big projects that you can only really do if you don’t do anything else, and we can talk about those things.  That was a me and him thing.”

“Hobbies?” Rain asked.

“‘Hobbies’ feels like too much a group thing.  Anyway, I was talking with him about it not all that long ago, especially over the summer when there wasn’t school, and I remember thinking it would be so nice to do that for a long time.  It made so much sense because we had that common ground, right?  I kind of fell in love with that idea and I fell in love with him at the same time.  Not regular love, it was a bit different this time.  Maybe crush-love.”

Ah.  So that was what she’d been getting at.

“Aw, hon,” Erin said.  She’d returned a minute ago, and I hadn’t noticed.

“He said no, by the way,” Kenzie added.  “He said we’d never get along and he’s right.”

“Can I squeeze in there?” I asked Damsel.

She stepped back from the table.  I slid across, and took the seat beside Kenzie, putting my arm around her.  She leaned into me hard.

“There’s a possibility he needs help,” I said.  “I know you guys got the basics from him in group.  Normally we’d want him to share it on his own, as he feels free, but he obviously can’t do that now.  I don’t know his background, but I think we need to make sure we all have the information.”

“You want his story?” Tristan asked.  He leaned back into the cheap food-court seat.

“Please.”

All around us, the seats were empty.  The only people were way off to either side, in the spaces where lines would form, walking to the food stalls, where skeleton crews were working.

“I guess since I’m one of the people who knew him best, I’ll cover this?” Rain asked.

Tristan shook his head.  “It’s tricky.  He’s dropped contradicting details.  I think when he did tell us stuff, he changed particulars around.  Keep in mind there might be some misleading details in this.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Something like that.  I think to hide particulars about the people he had to kill on the way.”

“Multiple people?” I asked.

“His first memory, the way he explained it in group, is that he was changing back from one of his other forms.  It was a dangerous form, and a third party was reactivating him.”

“Reactivating him?”

“Yeah.  Keeping him in a loop of changing into a senseless, dangerous form, letting it start to lapse, and then getting him back in that form by giving him a new target or something before he had his senses again.  For a while.  A while.”

“Why?”

“This is where we have to read between the lines,” Rain said.  “He does really interesting things with biology, and apparently it’s things that outside parties can use.  He creates extra mass and stores it elsewhere, he has tissues that heal quickly, he has natural weapons, and he can have materials in his biology that are as durable as a steel alloy.  He dropped a hint once.  That it was a tinker that sold him or rented him out so others could study his power, or a tinker enclave that kept it all in-house.  I don’t know.”

“He talked about brain scans,” Tristan said.  “Also the feeding- the forced reactivation I mentioned before.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “The initial change or manifestation of powers- I won’t call it triggering because I don’t think he remembers triggering, it broke his brain.  He doesn’t have much in the way of old memories.  He might have tried to survive on his own for a bit, but he got caught and used by third parties.”

“He never fully recovered?” I asked.

“Nah,” Rain said.  “But he was working on it.”

“There was a girl from my hometown who got caught and used for her power.  I missed the chance to be there when she got out, and I never got to talk to her,” I said.  “I hope she ended up okay.”

“It might be happening a lot more than we imagine,” Tristan said.  “Resources are scarce, the wealth divide is pretty nuts.  Some people got lucky, like Byron and me, we had stuff from back home we were able to salvage and sell in lots, and a lot of that got spent on, uh, insurance.  Most others started on the ground floor, wealth reset to zero, and people like some of these monsters out there, they hate being on an even playing field.  They’d prey on others if it meant an advantage.”

I took a bite of my neglected wrap, thinking.

“Does he want revenge?” our Ashley asked.

“He never gave me that impression,” Rain said.

Tristan drummed his fingers on the table.  “We should keep an eye and an ear out for creeps like that.  The kind of people who would traffic in changers for their power, catch tinkers like that girl from your town, Victoria.”

“She was a thinker, but yeah.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Maybe we can get some answers in retrospect.  Figure out how to deal with him if we cross paths again.  Give him some peace of mind, if it’s eating at him, or get a better idea of who he is and where he came from.”

“Seems risky to pick up prisoners like that,” Sveta said.  “Prisoners trigger or second trigger.  Or escape.  Chris escaped.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “Thing is, money?  If you have it, it’s easier to make it.  If you have more of it than most people, then your money will grow faster than most people’s.  Right?”

“Meaning that if we wanted to keep an eye out for people who might know what happened, we might keep an eye out for people with money,” Sveta said.  “Or a lot of resources.  Like Mortari.”

Jeanne Wynn and her assistant.  Citrine and the Number Man.

“Or Teacher,” I added.

“Which kind of dovetails into what we were talking about before,” Sveta said.  “If- is that okay to bring up?”

“Yeah,” I said.  Let’s minimize the secrets.

People were paying attention, finishing off their meals if they’d been doing a lion’s share of the talking, as Kenzie and Tristan had, or picking at their fries and sides, if they’d been mostly quiet.

“Let’s talk about shifting gears,” I said.

“Shifting gears how?” Rain asked.

Foresight.  Shepherds.  Advance Guard.  The three biggest teams that acted as teams.  The Wardens might have counted, but the Wardens weren’t present, and I wasn’t sure they were a team by definition.

There were smaller teams too.  The Major Malfunctions.  The Lone Wolf Pack.  Paint Fumes.  Super Magic Dream Parade.  The Keepers of Peace.  Green and Bear It.  The Homonculus Three.  The High Road.  The Fifth Brigade.

This had started out with just a discussion with Foresight.  We’d cooperated the most in the past.  They’d been there when Amy had left with the prison population.

From there, it had been a question of selling things to the Shepherds, led by Moonsong, who had her doubts about Tristan, and to Advance Guard, who had their doubts about me.

Once we had the big teams on board, it had been a question of figuring out who would accept, and who would refuse.  The Major Malfunctions were easy.  Eager, looking to help.  Others?

Others were scared.

These guys, who were approaching to stand in front of me and the rest of Breakthrough, looked scared.

The leader was hardest to read, because his bodysuit was skintight, capped off with a helmet that hugged his head, an opaque black visor covering his face.  The decoration was also the wiring that connected his nervous system to the enormous portal that he wore on his back, the size of a pair of motorcycles.  It was only by the device’s hovering capability that he was able to venture indoors with it, though the pack  did scrape up against the sides of any door he passed through.  A young teammate of his had a tall, musclebound brute projection around and above her, carrying the weapon that went with the portal.  The third member of the group wore a bodysuit that was so heavily decorated that the theme was lost in the jumble, all whites, reds, blues, and oranges, with some revolving segments.  The mask looked like a door knocker, complete with a heavy metal ring.

“This is ominous,” Accession said.  The machine at his back whirred, as if reacting to his emotions.

I held out the pamphlet we’d put together.  One for every team.

“You’re a mercenary group,” I said.  “Heroes for hire.  You take bids for the most pressing jobs and you do your best to achieve them.  If you fail, you refund.  Right?”

“Right.  We have a pretty decent track record, considering the difficulty of some of these jobs.”

“I would like to improve that track record,” I said.  “You’re a tinker, right?  You didn’t get the tech from someone else?  I know some tinkers do that to stay out of trouble.”

“It’s my tech.”

“Page seven,” I said.

The representative members of the other teams were all gathered, listening and waiting.

“Tinker notes,” Accesssion said.  He twisted around to show his teammates.

“Doesn’t mean anything to me,” Mamori said.

“It’s nice,” Accession said.  “But you wouldn’t have everyone here if you wanted to trade tinker work.”

“If you think that’s something you can use, you can have it, courtesy of Lookout here.  You can also have a turn at looking at the tinkertech of every person here.  If you get on board, agree to some rules, you can get an edge.”

“We make okay money.  This is stuff I can buy,” Accession said.  “I can get it without selling my soul.”

“No soul required,” I said.  “Only cooperation and information.  We’ve already set up an infrastructure, some loose jurisdictions.  We’ve grouped teams by who they’re willing to work with and the ground rules they’re willing to follow.  If you’re violent vigilantes, fine.  So long as you’re working for the good guys.  We’ll pair you with the other violent ones and we’ll leave you to it as long as you aren’t crossing any critical lines.”

“We’re not violent,” Accession said.

“No.  But if you’re willing to shoulder your share of the city, we’ll pair you up with people you can get along with.”

“Other mercenaries?”

“No.  Mercenaries are competition,” Tristan spoke up.  “Volunteers.  Selfless guy heroes who are willing to lend their help to ensure a job is completed all the way.”

I glanced at Withdrawal, who was standing off to one side, glowing teal tonight, not pink.  He’d welcome the chance to get some experience, to help out good guys.  Hopefully we could get him contacts.

“What’s the catch?” Accession asked.

“If you arrest any of the massive scumbags?  Anyone on our lists?  Let us interrogate and disappear them.”

“Disappear?”

“One of our teams has the means of imprisoning them indefinitely.  Reasonably safe, reasonably humane.  But we’re not sharing.  The more people know, the more they can figure out how to break ’em out or try to capture them like they did with the parahuman prison outside of Greenwich.”

“That’s it?”

“We also require information,” Swansong said.  She raised her chin a fraction.  She was alone- Damsel was back at the apartment.  The lingering influence from her other half still seemed pretty darn apparent.  There was more of the imperiousness I’d seen in our initial interactions.

I added my voice to hers.  “We’re reconstructing old case files and databases.  We’ll need something at regular intervals.  It can be old information on current threats, it can be secondhand information, bought from others here and contributed with your own hand.  You will have access to these files and databases.”

Swansong added, “You will briefly lose access and other benefits of signing if you provide incorrect information.  You’ll permanently lose access and benefits if you provide misinformation.”

She was good at sounding intimidating, at least.  I’d have had to use my aura to achieve the same effect.

“Can we look this over?” Accession asked.  “Talk it over as a team, discuss with our manager?”

“That would be a good idea,” I said.

The floor of our headquarters had a Capricorn-created pad of flat ground near the door.  From my altercation with Amy.  The building felt smaller than it once had, and I wasn’t sure if it was because she had been here, instilling a claustrophobic effect.

We’d reached out to every team that would listen.  We’d used the teams that had been willing or interested to get others to the table.  Hours of meetings, of handing over packages where rules and tech were outlined.  Erin had been in the back with Rain, printing out and binding the next pamphlet so it would be ready for the next people to come in.

Formalizing deals we’d made in abstract before.

It was done.  We were tired, and some of us still had our shopping with us from earlier in the day.  Others, myself included, had been weathering the initial storm, re-forging connections.

“There’s not much I can do with my stuff broken,” Lookout said.  She undid clasps on her helmet and pulled it off- the helmet itself had been re-styled, doing away with the buns.  Even with more allowance in the helmet’s shape to let her hair hang free, it now stuck to her face and scalp with sweat.

“Whatever you can do is great,” I said.

Sveta looked anxious as she passed me, making her way to her station where her things were.

“And I should get back to the institution before it’s too late.  They might not care much where I am, but-”

“Curfew,” I said.

“You know, I’d be safer at my old place.  I have surveillance over there.  I’d just need to find some conventional weapons I could hook up to that surveillance.”

“I think that sounds like a dangerous way to deal with more home intruders.  For now, let’s just endure.  Let’s get online, make sure we have the sites up so people can contribute info.”

“We don’t have the crazy power outages we were having before,” Rain said.

Tristan was taking off his armor.  “It could be because the Wardens are coming home.  That means Weld and Crystal.”

The computers were booting.  One cube was by the desk, but the other was back in Kenzie’s old workshop, at her parent’s house.  The cube lit up and began humming.

There was a clatter as Rain moved a box of his spare parts.  Traps, blades, mechanisms and housings for his arms.

We were home again.

“Connecting,” Kenzie said.

The laptops were booted, the screens online.  Without the projector system in action, we were limited to the real, actual screens.

“Overlaying to satellite image of the area.”

On the largest screen, a map appeared, just large enough to have the New York district in its bottom left and Brockton Bay in the top right.  Icons with their own abbreviations worked into them were scattered across the city, many flowing from the same general point.

“Good for now, but before we stumble onto anything too sensitive, we need to put the unwritten rules protocol in place.”

“I can’t promise it’s going to work perfectly,” Kenzie protested.

“It’s okay.”

She hit a key, and the screen went dark.

We’d brought Foresight on first.  Foresight had thinkers, and their thinkers could read people for trouble.  We’d scanned all of the heroes coming in, and we, through tags on the pamphlets and tags surreptitiously placed on people, had established a way to track movements for the next few hours.

The screen slowly illuminated again.  The map was back, but the moving dots and labels were gone.

“We should get you back for curfew,” I said.  “Can we leave the computers running and come back to this in the morning?”

“I might stay,” Sveta said.  “You’re coming back, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“We’ll hang out, get sorted.”

“Sure,” I said.  I smiled.

“Aw, I want a sleepover.”

“There won’t be any sleeping here, Kenz,” I told her.

She sighed.

She was still mock-pouting a bit a minute later when her hand went up, finger pointing at one of her screens.

One circle with initials was back on the screen.  It flashed periodically to draw attention.

Accession, or one of his subordinates.

Kenzie hurried to the computer keyboard, and began hitting keys.

The images that came back were blurry, monochrome.  Taken from discreet omnidirectional cameras in the notebooks.

“This one was flagged for us because the camera recognized money,” Kenzie said.  She tapped the screen.

Accession.  He was meeting with someone.  Young, female, with a coat worn over a bodysuit, a mask on her face that blurred the shadows around eye socket and brow into a singular black blob.  The cash sat on a table, the face of the bills barely visible, obscured by the pale band that encircled each bundle.

“They’re mercenaries,” Tristan said.  “Cash is the norm.”

“Yeah, but if you’re a heroic mercenary, you don’t get paid in bricks of cash,” I said.  “You crowdfund or you get paid by legitimate channels.”

I knew the silhouette pretty well.

“Besides.  Look at that person there.  We know her.”

People turned their heads, striving to get a better view of a two-tone picture.

“We wanted to traffic in information.  Were we baiting her?” Rain asked.

“No, not really,” I said.  “Where is she having this meeting?”

“In the city,” Kenzie said.  “Coffee shop.”

“No sound?”

She shook her head.

“Tattletale’s in play,” I announced, for those who hadn’t seen or recognized the blurry face yet.  “Always has to make the hard things harder, doesn’t she?”

Kenzie hit other keys, moving around the snapshot to see different angles and mark light and shadow.  Breakthrough was gathered, shoulder to shoulder, leaning toward the screen.

“Nothing else that’s useful,” Kenzie said.  “That blur might be Chicken Little.”

“You can’t enhance-enhance-enhance?” Rain asked.

Kenzie shook her head.  “My tech isn’t all that right now.”

We broke away.  I saw one or two people rubbing their hands together and blowing on them.  It was an issue with the rushed constructions, that so many lacked good insulation.  The snow was coming down outside, and the snow would insulate some, if I remembered right, but I was pretty sure it would have to be a lot of snow.

We’ll have to buy heaters, I thought.  I wonder if Tattletale is comfortable where she is, or if there’s a reason she’s this far from home.

“I can take more pictures, but it’s going to burn out the tracker by the third or fourth,” Kenzie said.  “Also, it might cause radios or walkie-talkies to sneeze.”

“Sneezing is a funny way of putting it,” Rain said.  “If we’re laying low and keeping an eye on things from here until we’re needed, I need a project.  You’re okay, Ash?”

“I’m fine,” Ashley said.  “No sparks, no twitches, the fingers move like they should.”

“Sveta?”

“Oh.  The tentacles?”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Do you want something similar?  I can adapt.  Obviously, I’m limited.”

I was silent, watching the monitors.  One with the map, the single blinking icon, moving slowly across the map.  Another with the two-tone snapshot of Tattletale meeting Accession.

“Not tentacles,” Sveta told Rain.  “What about… something more human?”

“I might have ideas.  They’re going to have to wait.  The powers are rolling out randomly, ebb and flow, and Cradle got most of them last night.  I’m working with baseline Rain tinkertech.”

“I’m not in a rush,” Sveta said.

“I’ll come up with something.  For now I’m going to work on arms for myself, but I haven’t forgotten.”

“It’s okay, whatever you do, I’m fine.  I’m grateful.”

I watched as the dot continued moving.  Faster this time.  Car?

Dog?

“Let’s wait and see where she stops,” I decided.

Kenzie was packed up.  The others were settling down, breaking into the weeks-old snacks we’d stockpiled, and unwinding from the day.

Erin was keeping to the background, but when she wasn’t staying quiet while we conducted team business, I could see how animated she was, and how she smiled.  I could see, too, how Rain was almost revitalized.  He had courage now, opinions, almost a new man.  Some of that ‘new man’ veered into jumping to assumptions about what Sveta would want, but that was manageable.

I could see it in Ashley, with her clothes obtained.  Her hands were working.  She was free.  There remained a question about what would happen in the future, but for now, things were good there.

It was Kenzie that was hurting.  Sveta needed help.

I’d come here to be a coach and I wanted to guide.  I’d come to help the city and I wanted to do that.  To pull things together.

As I kept an eye on the others, I kept an eye on the icon.  I saw it stop, and I saw it remain stopped for several minutes.

“One more snapshot, while she still has the pamphlet,” I said.  “Then we take you back to your place, Kenz.”

One more snapshot.  She hit the key.

It was Chicken Little, face close to the camera, making a silly face directly at the lens, cheeks sucked in between teeth, lips puckered.

“Of course,” Tristan said.  “Of course.”

She was on to us already?

“Come on,” I said, biting back my disappointment.  I’d hoped to have a slight edge in this.  “Let’s get you to bed, Kenz.”

She didn’t budge from her seat.  She reached out, and she hit the arrow keys.

Slowly, the view panned.  It was an omni-directional image, and the image could turn away from Chicken Little’s face.

“Do we know what’s at that address?” Sveta asked.

Kenzie kept the key held down while navigating with her mouse.  “Hotel.”

Hotel.

The camera panned.  Chicken Little wasn’t the only kid there.  There were others.  Younger girls and boys, most with dark, curly hair.  All with masks and costumes.

Bags.

And finally, her back partially turned, Tattletale talking to another woman, who might have been Bitch or might have been Foil- only a sliver of the woman was visible.

“She brought troops,” Tristan said.

“Heartbroken,” I said.  “And luggage.  They’ve left the New Brockton area.”

“Were they driven out?”

I had trouble imagining another reason for them to be gone.  New Brockton was their territory.  They’d put everything into it for years and now they’d left it?  What had happened there, or what was happening here that was pulling them together?

Worrying to imagine, that my old enemies might be cornered or desperate.

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Polarize – 10.2

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“Here,” Kenzie said.  She held out her hand, and I took the little gift.

I turned it over in my hands, as Kenzie skipped over to Sveta, to pass Sveta something similar.  A hair-clip.  Mine was sun-shaped.  Sveta’s was a sea-shell spiral.  The others were walking and talking, as we all headed into the mall.

“I thought since you guys are sort of recognizable, you might want to keep things subtle.  Yours isn’t very fancy, but it should change up your look a bit, like we did for the others.  Sveta, you should take one of these packs.  I gave one to Rain, and I’m carrying one for the Ashleys.”

“A pack?”

“We’ll go to the bathroom so you can change serptish- surveillish-”

“Surreptitiously?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I’ll give you something, or I’ll give it to Victoria, and you can stay close to Victoria.”

“Okay,” Sveta said, leaning on me

“You aren’t overworking yourself?” I asked.

“Only a tiny bit.  These are easy, it’s tech I already had.  The issue was getting somewhere I could work on it in peace, now that I’m at the institution.  I ended up going to the headquarters.”

“Alone?” Sveta asked.

“Yeah.  Turns out I can do what Chris did, leave and nobody asks questions.  Part of it is that they think I’m a good student and I’m obedient so it’s okay.”

“Yeah, that’s… not Chris,” I said.

“No, I know.  He was creepy-scary when he wanted to be.  I’m creepily good-nice.  Same thing in the end.  It just feels kind of lonely, you know?  Bathroom’s this way.”

“I can see it being lonely, yeah,” I said.

“I’m really missing him.  That’s part of it.  The other part is realizing that there’s so much you can get away with because most adults are so busy trying to live their lives and deal with a group of kids that one kid doesn’t matter.  I think I’d be happier if I couldn’t get to my workshop at all because they were paying a lot of attention to me.”

“I can see that,” I said.

“It would be more happiness for a very short time,” Swansong said.  “Then it might feel hollow.  I’m glad that your work means we can spend time together like this.”

Kenzie nodded, excited and sudden.  “Right!?”

Silent, I pushed the door to the unisex bathroom open, holding it for the others.  Rain, Byron, and Erin hung back in the mall’s concourse while the rest of us went in.

There were people inside, a husband and wife with a baby that they were wholly focused on, taking up three sinks between them.  I hung back until they were gone, as the Ashleys headed to the sinks furthest from the door, standing side by side as they peered at their reflections.

I hoped that Damsel wouldn’t be a bad influence on Swansong.

The parents left and most of the stalls were left empty.  Only one stall to watch for, and we could situate ourselves where we weren’t overheard.

“There’s a dial built into it, you might have to tilt it to see,” Kenzie instructed.  “That controls the scope of it.  I would have liked to have two dials, because you can do an awful lot of exploration with two dials.  Double-tap the surface to turn it on.  Oh, let me help you!”

Kenzie helped Sveta with the hair clip.  I took the moment to figure out my sun-shaped device.  The dial required my fingernail to adjust.  I double-tapped it to turn it on, and my world was swallowed up by a faint checkerboard haze, a transparent screen falling into place around my head and hands, where skin and hair were visible.  The haze snapped out of existence as the device seemed to figure out where my eyes were, creating eyehole-shaped gaps in the screen, while instead creating greater-than and less-than blurs of shadow to frame my eyes.

A moment later, the checkerboard and the shapes were gone.  My skin tone changed along my hands, my fingernails now artificially painted.  In the mirror, I could see hair with darker roots and brighter highlights, twisty as if every lock or length had been wound tightly around a pencil or pen, not treated with heat, but guided in shape all the same.  The eyes that looked back at me seemed more open.

“I went through online videos and for each pin I picked out fifty people who looked similar enough to each of the people I’d be giving pins to, then averaged it out.  When the average was too close to you guys, I pushed it out away from the norm.”

It was so close to being me, to the point that I could believe someone could get a witness description of me and think this face fit the bill, and it was wholly not me at the same time.  I changed my expression in the mirror, seeing how the face moved.  Moving the hand with the pin one way and moving my face another created a brief visual distortion, like what happened when trying to take a panoramic picture that included something moving.

Reminiscent of things, enough that it got my heart rate going.

“And- yeah, Victoria, you don’t want to do that.  It helps if you actually wear the hair clip, duh.  You shouldn’t run into problems if you do.  And Sveta, I put together two options, but I’m not sure how well option two will work.  I didn’t have you with me to try it and test it, so I had to guess, based on things.  Let’s try smooth.”

“Smooth?” Sveta asked.

“I made this one a necklace.  Here.  Bend down and I’ll put it on.”

Sveta bent down, leaning hard into the sink for balance as she did.  As Kenzie fiddled, Sveta looked up at me, her eyes searching my face.

“There.  Double-tap.”

Sveta did, moving her whole hand to tap, instead of moving fingers as someone else might.

As had happened to me, the white-black checkerboard pattern overlaid her, loose and hovering over her skin.  It slowly moved to the appropriate surfaces, and then settled.  The change was minor, but it was because Sveta was bundled up in a huge coat.  Her face had more skin tone, the features less different from her usual face than my current face was from mine.  Her hands looked normal.  She stared down at them.

“Maybe take that off, so we can be sure,” Kenzie said, poking at Sveta’s coat.

When Sveta nodded, I helped her out of the coat, folding it over my arm.  The necklace took a second to adapt, the checkerboard wrapping around her arms and hands.

When the checkerboard map was settled, it became skin.  Flesh, from shoulder to fingertip, tattooed heavily down the arms in a design similar to the forest green backgrounds with orange animals that Sveta had painted onto her arms.  Unlike the paint, however, they’d faded out as any year-old tattoo might.

“Can you move your hands around?  I’m wondering if the smoothing works.”

Sveta turned her hands over, looking at the palms.  She didn’t move her hands.

“Svettaaaaa,” Kenzie said.  She gave Sveta a bit of a push.  “Come on!  I want to know if this worked.”

“Oh.  Okay.  What did you want?”

“Move your hands.  Do stuff.”

Sveta did.  The movements of her hands didn’t have the mechanical quality.

“I did that for Ashley Black, and I thought I’d do it for you too.  I just wanted to see- I’m going to take your hands…”

Kenzie reached out, grabbed Sveta’s hands, and them moved them around.  There was a clear disconnection between where Kenzie’s hands were and the slow, almost dream-like way that the images of Sveta’s hands moved.

“Yeah.  I worried about that.  It’d look weird if you picked something up or if someone moved the map around.  Next time!  Here, let me change it.  Bend down.”

Sveta obeyed.  Again, she looked up at me, while Kenzie used her fingernails to turn the tiny dial at the underside of the clip.

“I have other tattoo maps loaded into my phone, if you’re interested.  Um, just off the top of my head, lotus flowers, pink and green, and um, watercolor birds and branches… skulls and roses?  Do you feel like a badass?  Or I can get rid of the tattoos.”

“It’s skulls and roses or nothing, as I see it,” Ashley Black said, from the other sink.

“This is good,” Sveta said, and her voice was small.

I looked over my shoulder at the Ashleys, raising an eyebrow.

“I know this is a super minor project that probably doesn’t matter much at all, but I was still worried about how it would turn out, because a lot of what I do is I get really good images, but then when I do stuff like projections, I’m trying to find use-sensitive ways of printing those images.  It’s like those super old fashioned cameras that would spit out a photo as soon as you took it, but I’m spitting all over you.  I had to find videos with a really good coverage of certain body parts, so what I ended up doing was setting up cameras to scan for those and-”

“Kenz,” our Ashley said, interrupting.  The interruption might have been rude, but the reality was that Kenzie kind of mandated them when she got going, because she pressed on and she left no gaps.

“Yeah?”

“If you get caught up in this, we’ll spend the entire shopping trip in here, fiddling with your tech.”

“Oh!  Oh, shoot, I imagined this taking twenty seconds in my head.  How long has it been?”

“Not twenty seconds,” our Ashley replied.  “Come on.  Let’s leave them to it.  I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing with my costume.”

“Let Sveta and I hit one or two stores,” I said.  “We’ll loop over and catch up with you?  If there’s anything you want a Victoria opinion on, have them hold it at the counter and we’ll go back.”

“Do they do that?”

“That is a thing they should be willing to do, yes,” I said.  Not much retail experience.

“You can tell me how I’m supposed to wear a costume with a dress built in, when the temperature is below freezing.”

“I can try,” I said.  I glanced at Sveta, who was now staring into the mirror.  “You might have to wear leggings.”

She made a face, then looked at Kenzie.

“I can do a thing, don’t worry,” Kenzie said.  “I’m going to have to invest in better battery packs though.  Speaking of-”

She fished in her bag, then came out with a satchel.  It was barely bigger than a fanny pack, but it looked like it had a double-size brick in it.

“Wear, or have Victoria carry it and stay close.  It’ll keep things charged, so you don’t burn out at an awkward time.”

“I’ll carry it.”  I reached out and took it.  It had to weigh twenty pounds.

“Bye!”

“Bye, Kenz,” I said.

The door banged closed.

Sveta and I stood at our individual sinks, looking in the mirrors.

I wasn’t Victoria Dallon.  I’d been Victoria Dallon of that Dallon family since I’d been born.  Famous enough to be recognized even when visiting Boston or Portland, not famous enough to be a true celebrity outside of my hometown.  At school and during events, even in my sports, I’d always been the daughter of superheroes.  Things had eased up after Victoria Dallon had ‘died’, but even after, in hospitals and in the Patrol, I’d still had the looks, the remarks.

In a way I’d liked it, I’d embraced it, but…

I wore a mask to be a civilian, and I felt the lifting of a burden I hadn’t realized was there.

The door opened, and a middle-aged guy entered the bathroom.  He didn’t spare us a glance as he hurried to his stall.  No double-check of a look for Sveta.

What I was experiencing couldn’t be a tenth of what Sveta might be feeling.

She dragged her fingers along the length of her arm, and there was a slight distortion- slight enough that I might have explained it away as skin stretching on contact.  I saw her turn her arm around, examining elbow, then craning her head around to try to get a better look at the shape of her shoulder.

In the midst of it, she seemed to get a glimpse of me, and I could see that moment where the spell broke, she didn’t recognize the person standing next to her, and then realization set in.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s perfectly okay.”

“I’ve got you holding everything.  My coat, the bag with- was it a battery?  Let me take some of that.”

“Here.  Take the coat.”

She nodded.  When she took the coat, it was to hug the mass of damp polyester  against her front, both arms wrapped around it.  One of her hands pulled away, the wrist still holding the cloth in place, and her eyes fell on the moving fingers.  Without the ‘smooth’ setting, they moved like her prosthetic fingers did- a subtle difference.

“Super minor project that doesn’t matter much, she said?”

She bit her lip, nodding.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’ve got a glimmer of that same feeling.  And I think we should take that feeling and run with it.”

“Run how?”

“You and I are two completely different, unrelated people, with none of the baggage and history, none of the current worries, and all of the great taste.”

“I’m not sure I have taste.”

“I think you do,” I said.  I reached out for her arm, and my finger touched the hard surface, while appearing to depress the skin that was being projected there.  The tattoo was there, with bold outlines and flat colors.  “You’re an artist.  Come on.  First stop is winter stuff.”

She let me lead her out of the bathroom and into the mall concourse.  Kenzie and the Ashleys were already gone, but Rain and Erin were at a kiosk where books and movie DVDs were set up on revolving stands, each of them with some candy and a drink.  Rain seemed oblivious to us as we passed them, but Erin managed to get it after double take, before shooting us a thumbs up.  Rain said something to Byron, who was deeper inside the kiosk.

“You don’t get cold, right?” I asked.

“Not as much.  I kind of get brain freeze, but I have to be pretty cold for that.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah.  Once I get it, I have to warm up the rest of the way to get rid of it.  But no, cold doesn’t usually bother me much.”

“That lets us be more flexible, then.  Thrift store?”

“I was thinking I’d be willing to buy a nice coat if I’m going to be wearing it outside the next few months.”

“We’ll keep that in mind as an option, but, as sad as it is, a lot of people sold their extra things when money was tight, and the thrift stores are currently a gold mine.”

“Okay.”

“You seem to gravitate toward the hippie, bohemian, surfer style?  Flowy, cascading, loose, long, printed or patterned?”

“I guess?  I had to pick a few things that I liked, after I got a body, I rushed my choices because I was shopping with Weld and I didn’t want to keep him forever, so I just went with stuff, half of it was stuff he liked.  Then when I get new clothes, I get clothes that fit with what I already have.”

“But do you like it?”

“I do.  I’m just worried I’m letting something that happened almost by accident become my style, and I don’t know better.”

“I’m sure there are lots of pieces of art where someone’s been painting, they make a mistake and in the process of adapting to it, they find something better.”

“Yeah.”

“We’ll dig around.  Try new things, see what works.”

Sveta nodded.

The collection of coats was eclectic.  I found bomber jackets, including ones with pads at the elbows- definite no from Sveta.  There were jackets covered in patches.

“I kind of like that, except it’s someone else’s patches and story, and I don’t like the jacket style.”

“And it’s a jacket, not a coat, which you could get away with, theoretically-”

“Except it’d draw attention if I did.”

We broke apart, each of us searching different racks.  I pulled out a long coat, with a material like suede, with shaggy fur around the collar, down the front, and around the end of the sleeves, seams standing out in relief.

There was a coat that would run ramrod straight from armpit to knee, with a tidy, neat folded collar in what might have been described as preppy if the rest of the coat wasn’t so un-preppy, and a bold blue curlicue along the hem and down one sleeve.  The fabric was blue that faded to an almost acid-wash blue-green toward the parts the curlicues were.  There was something grunge and something fantastical about it.

Sveta hadn’t picked anything out.

“Not enthused?” I asked.

“I’m not finding anything.  And you’ve already found two things?”

I showed her.

“Oh, wow.”

“Good?  Bad?”

“Really, really good.  I could see buying either of those and being happy.  How did you even find it?  I’m sorry, but there wasn’t anything like that over here.”

“I’m betting there was something, maybe you second guessed it, or you were looking for something specific, and your eye passed over it because it wasn’t what you were looking for.”

I passed her the two coats I’d found, and I went to the rack she’d been browsing.  Women’s coats, sorted by size.

It wasn’t as good of a series of racks, but the sunk-cost fallacy kicked in, and I found myself pressing on.

“Number three,” I said.  I pulled out a wool coat, cut like a trench coat, but with even more flare at the bottom.  The coat was predominantly gray, but was defined by an arrangement of quilted patchwork, the dense wool coming in overlapping squares and rectangles of different, bold blues and greens, with an isolated yellow-green gradient taking up a sixth of the coat starting at one shoulder.

“It’s pretty out there.”

“It is,” I admitted.  “It’s also very you.”

“I like it the most, I think,” she said.  She reached out, dragging fingers down the front of it.  Prosthetic fingers, I had to remind myself- it was less a test of the softness of the fabric and more of a… I couldn’t be sure.  “I don’t know.  Would you wear it?”

“No,” I said.

“Never?”

Probably not.”

“Okay then.”

“But I’m me,” I said.  “I know what I like.  I think you wouldn’t feel at home in your clothes if you borrowed my wardrobe for a day.  This suits you, I think.  Try it on?”

She tried on each of the coats in turn.  I could see the indecision, but prodding wasn’t too successful in getting her to open up.

It didn’t help that she was as distracted as she was with the appearance of her arms and face.

“We’ll put it on hold, try another store, see what the high-end options look like,” I said.

That got me a nod, a small smile that I couldn’t read.

“Sweaters and scarves?” I asked.

The nod was more enthusiastic, this time.

“If I’m bossing you around, you can tell me to quit it.”

“I like you bossing me around,” she said.  “I’m happy, even if I can’t seem to pick anything.”

“Good,” I said.  “You hunt over here, I hunt over there?”

The hunt was easier when it came to sweaters.  Looser so they would be easier to pull on, or layered, often long in the body, to the point that they reached the hips or qualified as dresses.  She found an electric blue turtleneck she liked.  Scarves allowed for more color and patterns.

The more clothes we found, the more I could see the reticence break.  She was smiling, less caught up in the distraction of her hands and arms, and more focused on the hunt for clothes.

The winter coat somehow remained as a sticking point.

I tried on a couple of sweaters of my own while she changed in the next booth over.

“Ah,” I heard her.

“Problem?”

“Not a problem.  I’m not sure there’s a word for this kind of disappointment and relief.”

“Uh?”

“Come in.”

I finished pulling off my sweater, meeting strange eyes in the mirror as I pushed the changing room door open, and visited Sveta in the next booth.

She was topless, sweater and the shirt beneath pulled free.  The projected skin that draped over her arms, shoulders, neck, and collarbone extended down to the area that would be her cleavage.  It stopped there, with a ‘v’ shaped wedge of flesh that terminated between two undefined metal breasts.

“On a level, I’m really relieved that Kenzie didn’t give me any details here-” she said, gesturing at that area.  “That would be ten kinds of concerning and weird.”

“Agreed.  Based on what she said, she could have left her computer to run and collect information.”

“A part of me hoped, you know?” Sveta asked, almost plaintive.  “and that part of me is really disappointed.  It’s even more disappointed because there’s no way I could ask.  Because it’s creepy, concerning, and weird to ask an eleven year old to search through videos to make a complete body.

She stuck a leg out, hiking up her skirt.  The projection ended mid-thigh.

“Come on,” I said.  “Let’s go talk where we won’t be overheard.”

She nodded, gathering her things to get fully dressed again.  We went to the cash, and Sveta bought next to everything we had picked out, the coats excepted.

Burdened with bags, we headed to the front door.  The snow was keeping most people indoors, but in the space between the two sets of doors, it was warm and quiet.  The air circulation was a steady thrum.

“Can I talk to you, without the thing?” Sveta asked.  “Talking about personal stuff to a stranger’s face feels weird.”

I reached up, found the pin, and double-tapped it.

Taking off the mask.

Sveta, bags in one hand, kept one hand at her shirt collar, prosthetic fingers near the projected collarbone.  She didn’t switch to her old self.

“Feeling incomplete?” I asked.

“My boyfriend is coming home as soon as things wrap up at the front lines.  Crystal should be too.”

“Yeah.  It sounds like it wrapped up, but they’re doing cleanup, which is ominous.”

“Ominous, yeah.  But they’re coming back and… I like him, I love him.  I want to make him happy, and whether it’s cooking or, um, other things, I can’t seem to ever make it happen.  He doesn’t taste because everything’s muted.  He only really likes music, but I can’t sing.  I can’t do the other things because I don’t have a body.”

“There are things you can do for him that aren’t sensory.”

“I try, but there’s something about making food for someone I love and seeing them go for seconds that would make me feel like I have something to give.  And I want to give myself to him and have him go for seconds for that, too.”

“Does he feel?”

“Dulled feelings.  But even if I got past that, Vicky, I don’t know guys.  I can use my tendrils and squeeze hard enough to bite into the metal and deform it, but I don’t think he’d like that.”

“I wouldn’t do that.  Not without communicating a lot beforehand, and during.  Probably after.”

“He’s a red-blooded guy, Vicky.  He likes women.  With the relationship he and I have now, I feel like his kid sister sometimes.”

“I don’t think you’re his kid sister, Sveta.”

“Aren’t I, though?  We’re close but we don’t do anything.  I’m half mad scientist and half clown when it comes to the kitchen stuff, because I’m trying to find something that works for him, but I’m not getting any wins there.  He does have to help me with some things, even though I’ve gotten more independent.”

“There’s more to it than that, though,” I said.  I suspected it was futile, because Sveta was letting something out that she’d bottled for a while.

“He’s coming back and I’ve seen how he gets after he has the hard missions.  Tired, but not in a way that he lets me see, and he hinted that this was a bad one.  What if he comes back and he has to do his part to take care of kid sister Sveta, and what if he says he’s too tired for that?  He’s given me so many good days, and I’m not sure I’ve ever given him one.

“Not the vacation trip, hunting for your homeland?”

“That was for me, though.”

“He seemed pleased as punch to see us reuniting at the group meeting.”

“Again, that’s me.  If I could just- if I could make something and have it taste good or new or interesting to him, then that would be happiness originating from him, his thing.  A breakthrough for him.  If I had a full body that I could show him, that looked right, if nothing else, maybe that could be nice for him.  There’s supposed to be equity and I don’t think I’m holding up my end.”

“Sveta- no.”

“No?”

“Not equity.  What you want is balance.”

“Same thing.”

“No.  Equity, to me, feels like a transaction.  One for me?  One for you.  I give you something, you owe me something?  With balance, it’s about… I hate matching and folding socks.  He hates cleaning the bathroom.  So I’ll always do the bathroom and he’ll always have the socks folded.”

“Okay.  But even there, what am I giving him?”

“It could be that it’s really, really important for him to have a friendly, loving face to come back to.  I- I kind of feel like I’m betraying Dean by saying this, but I think one thing he taught me was that guys  tend to be more disconnected than girls.  Girls more often have support networks, or they can use the network they have more than guys can use their networks.  Guys like Dean or Weld?  I’m not sure they ever really have a shoulder to cry on.  I mean literally cry.  Except sometimes a girl they’re close with.”

“Did Dean?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Only a couple of times… still feels like a betrayal, confessing that.  Which is maybe the problem or mindset that feeds into why they can so rarely do it.”

“We could change the topic.”

“No, it’s just that maybe that’s what Weld needs.  Love, trust, caring, sharing, and that intimacy that isn’t only about mashing stuff together.  It can be about being someone’s shoulder.”

“And the other stuff?”

“You can only keep trying with the cooking.  I don’t know if I have any advice to give when it comes to bedroom stuff-”

“What advice would you give me if I had a real body, like this?”

“Communicate, set expectations, communicate.  The first time will be embarrassingly bad.  If it’s the right person, then that doesn’t matter.”

“Yeah.  I think he’s the right person.”

“Sveta,” I said.  I reached out and touched her arm.  My fingertips hit hard surface before they hit the skin that was projected.  I gave her arm a slight waggle.  “We have a bit of cash flow.  We have contacts.  We’re in a position that matters.  I wouldn’t rule out options.  You could pursue other options like Capricorn is.”

“In group, Tristan talked about how he’s lost hope.  I don’t know if he’s pursuing any more.  We chase these bright lights that our powers give us, but in reality, Scion was just the glowy ball on the forehead of an angler fish- so much bigger and more vicious than he appeared to be, and he was strong, before.  The problems we’re dealing with are the same.  Two people stuck in one body.  One person stuck in a monstrous body.  A bunch of powers being shared around and tossed together.  They aren’t small or insignificant, really.  But they’re nothing compared to the massive, powerful engines that are behind them.  They’re decoys, the pinkie toes of giants.”

Outside, the snow was blowing harder.  There wasn’t much traffic.

I built on her statement.  No use denying it.  “There were people who had good glimpses and who remembered them, after Gold Morning.  Mountain sized, island sized.  Maybe continent-spanning.”

“And they’re like computers.  They’re limited but they aren’t stupid.”

I shook my head.  “Not stupid, but not genius either.  It’s a specific kind of intelligence and focus.  They make mistakes or miscalculate.  There are capes who do nothing wrong who get screwed over by their power-”

“Ashley.  Me.  Chris, maybe.”

“And capes who, if the agent had more sense, wouldn’t have been allowed to operate like they did.  Khepri.  Though Khepri was a special case.”

“You know the story about Khepri?”

“I heard from Amy,” I said.

In the instant, still feeling the glow from seeing Sveta enjoy shopping earlier, and even feeling okay as I tried to talk a friend through a tough relationship snarl, I’d let Amy’s name slip without the snarl of negative thoughts that usually accompanied it.

They did follow after, though they didn’t take root.  I gathered my thoughts again.  “They are intimidating enemies, but they aren’t perfect.  If you want this, and I think you do, then maybe it’s worth going down that road.”

“Beating our powers?  The agents?”

“Yeah,” I said, and my voice was quiet.  An older man came in through the one door, entering the mall.  The warm air rushed out, the higher pressure in between the sets of double doors serving to force the cold air out.  When the old man was gone, the other set of doors closed behind him, I continued, “Yeah.  I’m getting tired of being out of control.  I’m tired of being surprised.  I’m tired of the betrayals, big and little, from family and teammates.”

Sveta nodded emphatically, her expression serious, lips pressed together into a line.

“Not just being out of control, but being controlled.  I just- no way can I tolerate that.  Not Valefor, not Amy, not Mama Mathers, not Kingdom Come, in your case, not Goddess.  Before the prison attack brought things to a standstill, we were building something.  Based on some of the emails I’ve skimmed, we can mostly pick up where we left off.”

“You could talk to the team about this,” Sveta said.  “You’re bringing it up with me, first.  Like you did with your forcefield.”

I nodded.

“Why?”

“To gauge.  How far do you want to go with this?  It’s weird, but I know what the others want by now.  You… I get the impression that you could find one or two key things or key answers and you could be truly happy.  You have the second coolest boyfriend ever, you’re beautiful, you’re artistic, you’re compassionate, and you could hold your own in any team.”

“You might be overselling me.”

“But if someone could wave a magic wand and grant you one wish… you’d be okay, wouldn’t you?  You could settle down and be happy?”

“One thing?  There are things on the side I care about.  Um, beyond my own issue, I care about the Case Fifty-Threes.  I kind of want to find out where I came from.”

“But if you had a magic wand with one wish, those are things you could still handle, right?  You could donate to charities or support an organization.  You could travel on your own, once things settled down.”

“I might have too much of the hero bug in me to stop altogether,” Sveta said.  She leaned into me, her head resting on my shoulder.

“Good to know, then,” I said.  “The reason I ask, and the reason I’m asking you first, is I wanted to know how far you’d be willing to go?”

“In what way?” she asked.

I tried to articulate it, and then settled for shaking my head.

“That’s not an answer.”

“We left Monokeros in that alternate Earth.  We put her in a hole she could get out of, and… she’s in a prison without people or exits.  She’ll finish off the food there and then she’ll have to hunt or forage.  It’s a stopgap, until we have another alternative.  Except Tristan lied and said she was dead.  He lied and said she was dead, knowing full well that if he was called out on the lie or discovered for it, we’d lose the funding, files, and other things Mortari had promised us for our cooperation.”

Sveta nodded.

“Do we do that again?  With more people?  Keeping in mind that it’s a world where we don’t have a place to send them, and building that kind of a place is so intensive a project that it might be years before we’re there.”

“We didn’t start at the shallow end and work our way forward,” Sveta said.  “Gimel went straight to the deep end.”

“Absolutely,” I said.  “And some of the worst bad guys ended up leaving for Shin.  But there are a lot of others here.  We have resources, we have contacts.  How hard do we go after them?  How hard do we go after answers?  Between the cases, the systems like Rain’s cluster or the Lady in Blue co-opting her cluster, all of that and the broken triggers… we might have to start paying attention to the elephant in the room.”

“The agents.”

I nodded.

“Do I have to answer right away?” Sveta asked.

“No, absolutely not,” I said.  “But in a short while we’ll be back at the hero stuff.  I want to have a game plan.”

“You had other things you wanted too.  No secrets, no lies.”

“If we shift or narrow our focus, we might not be able to afford either.”

Sveta nodded.  I saw her eyes search my face.

I raised my eyebrows.

“I’ll think about it.  I might talk things over with Weld, if that’s okay.”

“Okay.”

“Thank you for talking this out with me,” she said.  “I still have, like, a hundred awkward questions about boys.  I know you’re not an expert-”

“I had a long-term relationship.  I’ve earned my stripes.”

“Okay, but one guy, and he was easy mode because he could read your emotions.”

“That’s hard mode, Sveta.  In a lot of ways, it’s hard mode.  Capes don’t get easy mode.”

“Touche.”

“Pick on me for inexperience after you’ve asked me a question I can’t answer,” I said.  “Until then, let me have this bit of pride.”

“Okay,” Sveta said, smiling a little.  “You hold onto that pride.  It’s mostly deserved.”

“Mostly?” I asked, smiling.

She reached up, hesitant with the motions of her arm.  She tapped a metal finger twice against the hairclip I wore by my temple.

“While that girl who just left the room holds onto her pride, you, strange person, promised me that you’d find me a coat, or that we’d go back to get one of the other ones.”

“I did,” I said.  “It might not be a good idea to split me into too many personalities.  I’ve already got enough going on.”

“Maybe,” Sveta said.  But she took my wrist and she gave me a tug.  I didn’t fight, instead catching her at my right side with my arm around her back.  Supporting her and half-hugging her at the same time.

Back into the mall, toward a nicer store.  I could one hundred percent get why Sveta had wanted to shop in a place like this, to get something that lasted, and that had that extra degree of craftsmanship.  Part of the reason I’d had her go to the thrift store with me first, though, had been to get her in the mindset of thinking about possibilities, so she would pick something fitting to her style, even here where things were more in line with one another.

The coat she and I ended up agreeing on as most suited for her wasn’t one I would have worn myself.  It was a heavy coat, but worn more like a poncho, top-heavy and Cashmere.  A good base to work off of, worn with a nice scarf or nice boots.

“I believe my coworker told you before, our apologies, but we do not allow children in this store.”

I turned around.  The Ashleys and Kenzie were on their way in.

“This child is the best behaved child you’ve ever met,” our Ashley said.  “I’m a customer, you need customers.  Don’t be stupid.”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” the manager said.

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “If you take my bag and take my hair clip, you can talk with Ashley, and I’ll go find Erin and the boys.”

“Hang close enough for us to watch out for you,” our Ashley said.  She was keeping an eye on Damsel, who was browsing dresses.

“Got it,” Kenzie said, bouncing on the spot before heading to the front of the store, hands clasped behind her back.

“We stopped in here earlier, I found some things I liked.  Do you want to give a final verdict?” our Ashley asked me.

“Sure,” I said.  We passed by a shelf with thermal clothing, and I grabbed a good few packs of it.  For wearing under the costume.  Ostensibly my reason for being here.

There was a jacket, too, that was form-fitting and sleek enough that I was pretty sure I could wear it under my costume.

Ashley’s selection of dresses were more for events than for casual wear, but they were good.  A halter cocktail dress with an angry flare of white feathers at the collar, a slimmer dress that almost completely covered one leg, while leaving the other bare.  All in whites, or white with black or gray decorative elements.

“It’s an aggressively crisp, put-together look.  Are you willing and able to dress the rest of yourself up to match?”

“Naturally.”

“Then go for it.”

“No condemnations?  No calls for more color?”

“Nah,” I said.  “I know what you’re capable of.”

“That I could take your head clean off your shoulders if needed?”

“More like I know you can live up to a style this severe.”

“Um,” Sveta said.  “Sorry to jump in.”

“We forgot about your coat.  Do you want to buy it?”

“I thought about it, and I think I’m going to go to the other store for the patchwork one.”

I smiled.

“Don’t be smug,” she said.  “I’m taking Kenz.”

She took her battery pack too.  Leaving me with the Ashleys and their battery pack, just heavy enough to be obnoxious.

I gathered up the dresses we’d liked, and took them to the counter.  The Ashleys were holograms, so they couldn’t carry, and one of my hands was burned.

“Only reason I’m going to condemn someone for what they’re wearing is if it’s offensive or if it’s clear they could do better.  The first gets the hero in me acting up-”

“Terrible, terrible,” Damsel said.

“-and the second is going to make the inner coach in me antsy.  Nothing quite so infuriating as being witness to someone doing something just slightly wrong or a lot wrong, regularly.”

“I feel that way about almost everyone, doing anything,” Ashley said.

I looked back over my shoulder, toward the store where Sveta and Kenzie had gone.  I could see them at the counter, the dress draped over the end of it.

“They’re good.  I like them,” Ashley said.

“Is she okay?” I asked.  “Kenzie?”

“No,” Ashley said.  “She’s almost as bad as when I first met her.  Better in some ways, but in others…”

She didn’t finish the sentence.  I wondered if she was expecting her twin to finish it.

“We’ll keep an eye out,” I promised.

“Please.”

Sveta and Kenzie emerged, Sveta now wearing the jacket.  She flickered slightly as Kenzie bolted ahead to where the Ashleys and I were.

“Rain went to the food court,” Kenzie said.

“Are you surveilling Rain?” Sveta asked, mock stern.

“No.  I saw him walk that way,” Kenzie said.  “No, I’m kidding.  Yes, he has my tech on him and I’m keeping an eye on that tech, so I know kind of where he is.  But I’m keeping an eye on my tech, not on him, specifically.”

Ashley gave me a sideways look.

“I saw that, Ashley Swan.  Don’t do that.”

I put my hand on Kenzie’s head, wobbling it left and right before pulling her closer, so my hand was on her far shoulder, her other shoulder against my side.  Sveta was on the other side of me, looking as pleased as punch with her coat, her other coat and bags held under her other arm.

Erin, Byron, and Rain were gathered in the empty food court.  Some of the stalls were only just now opening or re-opening.

More distracting was the lingering decorations and setup from an event that might have happened a day ago.  It looked like this spot had been a gathering place for one of the big anti-parahuman groups.  They hadn’t properly discarded of their signs or messaging, with much of it left stacked or leaning against a wall in the corner, along with some black trash bags.

“Jesus,” Byron said, as we drew closer.  He added some Spanish words I didn’t know.  “That’s a lot of stuff.”

“Because they’re doing it right,” Erin said.   She sat on a table, her feet on the stool next to the one Rain was seated on.  He looked a little worn out.

“I got a few t-shirts, some other shirts, some socks and underwear, and a pair of jeans, and I thought that was a lot,” Byron said.

“Did you get costume related- nevermind.  You don’t need thermal underwear.”

“Not really.  Got a pack for Tristan.”

“And Rain?” I asked.

“We got stuff for Rain,” Erin said. “We would have got more, but we decided to take a break.”

“Turns out malls make me pretty ridiculously anxious,” Rain said.  “Stupid.”

“We all have our hangups,” Byron said.

As a group, we got ourselves sorted across two sets of tables.  Bags were deposited in the middle section.

“Are we keeping this light and fun, or do we talk about more serious things?” Sveta asked.

I kept my mouth shut.  I was up for either, but I didn’t want to steer things too much.

“Hard to keep it light with that hanging over our heads,” Byron said, indicating the anti-parahuman signage.

“Well, to be fair, they’re right,” Rain said.  “Parahumans suck.  We do crummy things.  There are scary ones out there.”

“We could talk business now, then go back to fun, if you guys think you can do that,” Sveta suggested, almost hopeful.

“Are we eating?” Kenzie asked.

“I’m eating right now,” Damsel said, sitting at the furthest seat away, in our cluster of two tables.  “Tea and sandwiches.”

“If you’re hungry, we can eat,” I said.

“I’m going to go get a taco or a wrap,” Kenzie said, heading to the place apparently dubbed ‘Hell Taco’.

“Business it is,” Byron said.  “I’ll swap out to Trist, as he has more to say.  If nobody’s looking?”

Nobody was.

The change was subtle, as Tristan was wearing a black coat, same as Byron.  Tristan punched Rain lightly in one shoulder, and Rain gave him a half-hearted smile in response.

“While the munchkin is getting her food, is there anything we need to talk about, that isn’t for her ears?” Tristan asked.

“That’s the first place your mind goes?” I asked.

“I thought I’d bring it up.  Kenzie’s away for a few minutes.  Is there anything we need to work out?”

“Chris is gone, she’s bummed and not at her best, so we watch out for her and we watch her,” I said.

“Succinctly put,” Tristan said.  “Are you swinging by the institution at some point to check on her?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Are we going to talk about Chris?” Ashley asked.

“Hard to do until we have more information,” I said.

“Okay,” Ashley said.  “You’re going to have files, right?  From Mortari.”

“Not on Chris, I don’t think.  But yes.”

“Alright,” Ashley said.  “Then do we warn people?  Have we informed the institution that was looking after him that they may need to change things around?”

“If he’s in Shin, he’s in Shin,” I said.  “And there’s not much use warning people, except for the Wardens, and they already know.”

“It doesn’t feel good enough,” Ashley said.

“You’re bothered by this,” Rain observed.

Yes.  And I’m bothered in a way I don’t want to pass on to Kenzie.  I’m glad to be talking about this now.  This is serious, and it’s related to us.”

“It’s a kid running off because Victoria’s sister is his best bet to get healthy.  He’s no more a concern than any of the many, many prisoners that were here that just got dumped on that world,” Tristan said.  “Except he’s young and stubborn, and he’s kind of our responsibility, as you said.”

“You think this?” Ashley asked.   She leaned back.  “This is… group consensus?”

“What are you saying?” I asked.

“Is it?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Shave off the serial numbers, and that’s essentially my take.  It’s serious, don’t get me wrong, but… there’s a lot of serious going on.  Why?

“Your sister is powerful,” she said.  “I’m sorry to bring this up, but it’s important.”

“She is,” I said.

“Do you think she’s going to do something to his power?” Tristan asked.

Fuck.  Ick.

“No,” Ashley said, clearly annoyed.

“Go easy, Tristan,” Sveta said.

No,” Ashley said, again, louder.  All eyes went to her.  “What I think, and I’m saying this as someone who pays attention to power, authority, and leadership, I was listening as they talked at the end, before they left.  Amy made her announcement, remember?”

There were some nods around the table.  Rain murmured something to Erin, clarifying.

“Do you remember at the end?” Ashley asked.  “She turned to him, and she asked him, ‘Was that alright?’ or something like that.”

“Something like that,” Tristan said.

I felt uncomfortable in a way that didn’t necessarily have to do with Amy’s involvement.

“I would stake my reputation on this,” our Ashley said.  The other Ashley was nodding slightly, as if already acknowledging or corroborating.  “The tone, the timing?  She asked him because she is subordinate.”

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Polarize – 10.1

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“It’s hard to know where to draw the line sometimes,” Sveta confessed.

We were standing at the crosswalk.  We’d just met near the station, hugged, and were heading down toward the city core.  I’d just come from my physical therapy for my arm and having a doctor look at the burn on my arm, and I had the buzz of the recent exercise, the endorphins from the pain, all on top of the feeling of being freshly showered and toweled off.

No costume- only a sweater, jeans, boots, and a gray wool coat with overly elaborate buckles.  I did have my bag with me, but I wasn’t packing the costume inside.  No equipment, but with the buzz, clean feeling, and endorphins, I had all of the emotional armor and preparation I could pull together for seeing family.

Snow fell lazily around us, but the vehicles on the road and their hot exhaust were generating just enough heat to keep the streets wet but clear snow and ice.   The sidewalks where pedestrians weren’t active were getting covered by a layer that sat just over top of the ice that lingered from the on-and-off freezing rain of the past two days, adding to its slickness.  Sveta’s hair, my hair, and our coats were dusted with snowflakes.

“Sveta,” I said, giving my friend a careful look, trying to think of how I could diplomatically phrase my response, “You have better lines than most people I know, and most people I know are superheroes.  What the fuck are you talking about?”

“With you,” she said.  “Sorry.  I don’t know when to stop myself or when to keep going, because I haven’t had a lot of friends over the years.  I’m not good with friend dilemmas.”

“Ah,” I said.  I paused.  “I didn’t want to put you in the middle of a dilemma.  Whatever it is.”

Sveta squeezed my arm.  She was leaning on me for balance, as her body wasn’t quite in perfect working order and the sidewalks were slick.  “It’s not a thing you did.  Um.  Sorry, I don’t want to get too deep into it, which is part of it.  I don’t want to bum you out.”

“We can talk.  I trust you.”

“It’s more-” she started.  The light changed, and after a second, we started forward.  “We’ve seen each other at our worst, right?  On the baddest of bad days, when we just needed a shoulder, we helped each other out.”

I nodded.

“And I know where you come from.  I knew and believed what you were saying when you brought up your sister.”

“Yeah.  You backed me up when I didn’t trust myself to say anything to her.”

“Even with that, I don’t know where that line is.  People have their boundaries, usually, and they draw them out behind them through a hundred signals, some really subtle, and some obvious.  And yours is… very hard to identify until I’m in contact with it or you’re already in that very bad place.  All of us are actually pretty bad about it, but yours is especially tricky because I care a shitton about you.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “I won’t argue that.  Thank you.  I’ve actually been thinking about that, actually.  How the team is dealing, the past couple of days, post-Prison.”

“Turning on the heaters, turning on the televisions and radios, and watching the news with a dull, sick feeling.”

“…Can’t argue the sick feeling either.  But we seem to be doing reasonably well,” I said.  “Not great, but that wasn’t a situation that was going to be great for anyone.  I think we’re getting distracted.”

“A mass breakout of the emergency prison, mind control, your sister showing up and her leaving with Chris?  Yeah, distracting.  But go on.”

“I’m thinking about how we deal and how we adapt.  The lines, the boundaries and the secrets.  Jessica wanted me to look after the team, and… Chris happened.”

“You can’t blame yourself for failing to help someone who actively resisted help,” Sveta said.  “You tried.  You showed up at his place, asked his guardian some questions about how he was doing, and she responded with worry?  He blew up, and I think he blew up because he wanted to keep you from looking further.  And it worked.  Whatever he had going on, he somehow decided we weren’t the answer.  He heard what you had to say about your sister, and he still went with her.  Fuck him.”

I was trying to be tough, but something in that final combination of words tested my resolve.  Maybe it was the emphatic ‘fuck’, so close to the mention of her.

I’d deal.  I had to, because it tied into what I wanted to push forward to the group.

“We’ve done that thing a lot of teams end up doing,” I said.  “We had that one tough fight.  That one scenario where we’re outmatched or we go up against the person who tests or breaks convention.  For my family it might have been Marquis.  For the Major Malfunctions, it might have been turning up for a routine surveillance job and getting a literal army of mind controlled thralls teleporting into their neighborhood.”

“Going through hell and making it out the other side with the team.”

“Yeah.  For varying definitions of hell and ‘making it’.  We’ve had our trial by fire.  We have our first real loss after losing Chris.  All of us have had cause or reason to reveal some deeper stuff.”

“You especially.”

I shrugged the shoulder she was leaning on.  “I don’t know.  All I’m saying is… we might have to shift how we do this.  We’ve protected and defended each other having secrets.  We had that ‘it’s complicated’ card that we could always pull.  It might be time to stop that.  To have no more secrets.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Yeah.  But if we can’t trust each other-”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Sveta interrupted.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I’m anxious about the team, and it’s been worse since… everything those two nights.  Not just Chris, but getting a live-action roleplay, complete with all of the feelings of betrayal, as you end up acting like my enemy?”

I could hear the anxiety in her voice at that last line.  I gave her a jostle, before shifting my grip to put my arm around her shoulders.  She leaned her head against my shoulder, in a way that might have made walking hard if she’d had an ordinary body and balance.

She continued, “It would be nice to not have to wonder as much.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “We do this thing where we prove we have the chops because we can win fights, but the group gets a little shakier where things are already shaky.  I’m not omitting myself from that, either.  I want to have the chops and not be so shaky when doing it.”

“Yes.  Absolutely yes,” Sveta said.  She lifted her head up from my shoulder.  “Speaking of shaky…”

She pointed at our destination.

We’re here.

“Yeah,” I acknowledged her.

“Hey,” she injected fake cheer into her voice.  “Upside!  Teeny-tiny upside.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You get to watch them eat crow.”

I sighed.  I shook my head.

“No?”

I shook my head.

The office building was packed.  There was a lobby, and I saw two young employees sitting on the floor, papers around them.  Overall, given the hour of the attack, the issue with the portals had done far more damage to real estate than it had done to the population.  As people had resumed work, they’d needed to go somewhere, and this was one such somewhere.  A building that now overflowed with people.

I craned my head a bit before spotting my mom.  My dad was a short distance away, and he’d at least tossed the athletic-fit sports clothes in favor of something nicer, like a thirty year old guy might wear out to dinner.  He wasn’t thirty, but I’d take what I could get.

Someone had pointed us out, because he turned to look, my mom following, once she noticed him looking.

Neither smiled.

It had been two days since the prison breakout.  One day to recuperate and lick our wounds.  Medical care for me and Rain, prosthetic body fixes for Sveta.  Rain, Ashley and Damsel had needed to get some baseline things squared away with their sentences.

Needed, but hadn’t gotten.  It was a big, ominous question mark floating over their heads now.

One day for that.  One day to catch our breath after that.  Because recuperating and healing was work.  The second day served to let us ground ourselves again.  Kenzie had maintained contact with people online, but as part of our unofficial, unspoken ‘taking care of ourselves’ day, it made sense that she would take care of herself by reaching out.

This was our day three.  Our day to consolidate.  I’d been talking about that from a distant, logical perspective, new rules, approaches, or policies, but I would have to tackle the more emotional, vague perspective later.

And, in another kind of ‘consolidation’, of focusing on bonds and promises and all the things that tied us together, I’d have to deal with a team of a much different sort.  The sort that virtually everyone was born into.

“You didn’t answer your emails,” my mom scolded me.

Right out of the gates.

“I answered some.  If I didn’t answer any, I wouldn’t be here.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’m glad you were willing to meet,” my dad said.  “Hi Sveta.  It’s so good to see you again.”

“I love the coat,” my mom said.

“It’s borrowed, actually,” Sveta said.  Her coat was one of my spares, for when I’d had to spend long durations outside during my stint at the Patrol, during the winter that I’d lost fifteen pounds and had suddenly found the cold very much affected me.  Bulky and nondescript- not a coat that one would ‘love’.  Moms.

“Do you want to go somewhere private to talk?” I asked.

“This way,” my mom said.

She led us outside, then down the street.  “This is the cafe we visit when we have to have more private meetings.  The board rooms at the office were converted into more offices.  It’s quiet here.”

Quiet was one way of putting it.  Typically in the late morning, delis like this could be counted on to be transitioning from breakfast to lunch, with a few people having extended brunches.  There was one other couple in the place.

We found a booth and sat.

“I know you probably have questions,” I said.

“We’ve heard a lot about what happened,” my mom said.  “The bullet points.  That includes your sister, though, she isn’t mentioned much.”

“She wasn’t there much,” I said.  Why was this so hard?  “The Lady in Blue had a danger sense, and my sister was so nonthreatening that she didn’t trip it.  She didn’t do anything until it was ninety-five percent over.  Then she was the final five percent.”

“We heard about that,” my dad said.  “She sent us a message before disappearing to Earth Shin.”

“And?” I asked.

“She says she can do more good there.  You wanted her to leave and to give you space and she’s doing that,” he said.

My mom leaned forward over the table.  “She was optimistic she could play a part in repairing human-cape relationships and use her power as a bargaining chip to broker peace and better relationships between Shin and Gimel.”

“Ah,” I said.

My dad chimed in, “Being as objective as I can, she’s doing something good.  She knows we’re in for a hard winter, and if she can promise peace and stability in exchange for some surplus food being sent our way?  It could save an incredible number of lives.  Millions.  And she’s doing it while giving you your space.”

“Space?  Two nights ago she tried to catch me by surprise and touch me.  It was a meeting she requested that set off all of the worst events of that night.  I’m supposed to smile and accept all of that?”

“It’s not an all-in-one package, Vicky,” my dad said.  “We can celebrate the good things while working on the bad.”

I shook my head.  Frustration was getting the better of me, despite my earlier resolve.

“If I can-” Sveta jumped in.  “I know this is a family matter, and I’m not family.”

“You’re close enough,” my dad said.

I could see Sveta was a little taken aback by that.  Enough that she lost whatever it was that she had planned on saying.

He went on, “You looked after Victoria when she was in the hospital.  I’m so grateful that you were there for her in times we couldn’t be.  If you ever wanted a place to go for a holiday, if you wanted a say or a vote, I think you earned it.”

“Well said,” I said to my dad.

“Stop,” Sveta said, flustered.  “You’re making it hard to think.”

I leaned back in my seat.

“Mr. and Mrs. Dallon.  I understand that Amy can do an incredible amount of good, if she puts her mind to it.  If it were Vicky in that position, I would trust her to do it.  But it’s not Vicky.”

“You know Vicky well,” my mom said.  “You haven’t had the same exposure to Amy.  She had years of helping people under her belt before she broke down.  In the face of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“I know Vicky but I’ve seen Amy’s work.  Can we try a thought experiment?  If you don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind,” my mom said.

“Pretend that we had the same timeline, starting from now.  Something like three years of her helping people, a tremendous amount of help.  Giving her all-”

“Burning out,” I said.

“Burning out, yes,” Sveta added my bit.  “Feeling pressured, feeling desperate.  Pretend it was three years of that, and then she comes face to face with a monster.  And she breaks down again.  What if she ends up repeating the cycle, and she repeats it while seven point three billion people are at her mercy?  What then?”

It was all I could do to just keep my mouth shut and stay at the table.  I didn’t like pretending, even though I’d tried to put it out of mind.

“That’s entirely unfair,” my mom said.

“Why?” Sveta asked, her eyes wide.  “We all relapse when it comes to our bad behaviors, and when dealing with someone like her, we have to use past experience to judge how she might act in the future.  If that sounds unfair, keep in mind, that’s how I deal with thinking about myself.”

“People change,” my mom said, giving each word its own emphasis.

“People change, but if you knew someone who negligently discharged a handgun, if their core behavior hadn’t changed, would you really trust them around children with a gun?”

“It would depend on context, and your definition of core behavior.  I know you mean well, Sveta, but there is so much more to this.”

Sveta shook her head.  She tried to tap a metal finger on the table, but the hand kind of splatted out instead.  She didn’t seem to mind or pay much notice.  “Keep in mind that it’s not just one child at stake here.  Seven point three billion people, that’s how many kids?”

“Roughly twenty-five percent,” I said.  “One point eight billion kids.”

“One point eight billion kids.  We haven’t seen that she’s changed,” Sveta said.

Carol shook her head.  “There’s more at play than core behavior patterns.  If that person had a support network keeping a close eye on them, when they hadn’t before?  Caring parents and a sister?  If she proved willing to listen to outside input, including a therapist?”

“She wasn’t listening the other night,” I said.

“To be frank, young lady,” my mother said.  “You were under the influence of a power.”

“To be frank, mom, she was fucking why!”

“Quiet now,” my mom said, all composure.  Her voice was infuriatingly calm.  “There are other people in the room.”

She had a slight smile on her face as I sat back, reeling myself in.

That seething fury found its way into my voice as I kept the rest of my words level.  “I wasn’t under the influence when she was meeting up with a tyrant in the weeks leading up to the prison breakout.  Not Marquis, by the way.  She’s hanging out with him too, but I’m going to assume we’re conveniently ignoring that-”

“Let’s,” my mom said.

“She’s keeping the company of some pretty scummy people.  She has a fucking miniature devil on her shoulder, like some villain from a feature length kid’s animation.  That’s where she’s at in the past and present.  Future?  We weren’t under the influence after the tyrant was killed, when she said ‘flock to me, villains, come and submit to my control, we’re going to Shin to take power!’ ”

“That doesn’t sound great, and it was left out of the call,” my dad said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s not the exact wording, but it’s-”

“It was close to that,” Sveta volunteered.

“It was close,” I finished my sentence, echoing her.

“Past, she was overworked and we failed her,” my mom said, her voice stern.  “All of us failed her.  Present, she’s alone except for the company of those villains because she’s scared to maintain contact with us.  She’s scrabbling for support structures, and she seems to be maintaining good standards and goals.  That’s commendable.  Future?  That’s up to us.  People are defined by the supports they have around them.  If we don’t give her something to come back to, then she’s going to stay with them.  Her perspective will skew, because all perspectives warp when there’s nobody around to help keep them straight.  Don’t use the past-present-future framing of argument on me when I taught it to you.”

“Somehow, in all of this, we aren’t holding her accountable for her own actions?” I asked.  “Because I kind of remember this dynamic of a teenage girl bouncing around and being passed around to wherever she could be useful until she passed briefly into some ugly Slaughterhouse Nine hands and lost it.  Lost it with casualties in the process.  Me.  Herself.  But also me.  Then she gets to fucking act like herself for one singularly stupid, horrifying-”

I choked on my words, too pissed to form a sentence.

“One act,” Sveta said.

“Or chain of acts.  Or one act that sets her on a road where her choices are all bad.  I don’t know.  But she still chose,” I said.  “And she had opportunities later, and she made more bad choices.  Ones with casualties.”

I heard my mom sigh.  The restaurant was so quiet, the city outside even quieter than usual because the cold weather meant people weren’t venturing out as much, it was crunch time at the various jobs around here, and it was still a bit too early for lunch breaks.  The light snow had its faint effect on the sound of the outside world.

It was so easy to imagine we were all in this place, and there was nobody else in the universe.

My mom spoke, “If Amy took it upon herself to touch villains and alter the broken reward cycles, if Amy wanted to give them a conscience, or if Amy wanted to fix whatever was broken in their physiology that made them aggressive, I’m not about to say no.  If there’s any risk to the-”

I dropped my eyes to the table.  The ‘Amy’ refrain was endless and the song was one I didn’t want to hear.  Amy, Amy, Amy, Amy.  It was like a rock against my skull.  Not necessarily enough to penetrate with the first blow, but chipping away, giving me a headache, and so fucking crude, stupid, and raw.

And, worse, it was a refrain that echoed my mentality those two years ago.  Amy.  Amy.  Amy.  I need her, I want her.  It had been my mind for all that time.

Sveta touched my arm, rubbing it.  A bit of physical reality to bring me back to the moment.  I nodded to a question unasked.

“-thinkers will be able to detect it,” Carol said.

Sveta cut in, “I don’t care what your views are on how villains are treated, except, I’m sorry, but maybe I do, wow, and no.  Or your willingness to put civilians in the hands of your other daughter, who has blood red tattooed on those hands for a reason, which is more wow.  I’m sorry, but what-”

“Sveta,” my mom interrupted her.  “I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for-”

“-and I don’t care,” Sveta said, more intense, talking over my mom now. “I don’t care, I don’t care.  You’re sitting a few feet from your daughter who spent years with an altered mind because of Amy, and you’re talking about how you’d be perfectly okay with Amy altering brains left and right?  I’m sorry, whatWhat?

“It’s the matter at hand, Sveta.  It may well be happening as we speak.  We have to figure out how we respond to it.”

“Mom the fuck up!  That’s how you respond to it!” Sveta raised her voice.  That turned heads at the other end of the diner.

“I’m trying,” my mom said, sounding as pissed as I’d heard her in a while.

“You’re trying to help one daughter who might be beyond help, and you’re fucking up with the daughter who needs it.”

“Stop,” my dad said.  “Let’s end this here?  We’re not getting anywhere, and I think we’re talking past each other.”

You barely talked.  You let mom talk and you nodded here and there to show you were listening and taking it in… and you didn’t say yes or no or judge.

“…and Victoria looks like she needs a break.”

Well, at least he paid attention to me in the midst of it.

“If we step away without actually communicating, then it’s going to be a long time before we talk to her again, she’ll get ideas in her head, and communicating next time will be that much harder.”

“We end this here,” my dad told her.  “No debate.  We’re probably bothering the diner’s owners.”

My mom looked over at him with the most unimpressed look.  When I rose to my feet, my dad did too, and Sveta started on the process of extricating herself from the booth.

My dad and I offered her a hand, each of us taking one hand.  She accepted without complaint.  My mom remained in her seat, leaning back, one arm extended all the way forward, five fingernails resting against the surface of the booth’s table.

I was so ready to go.  It struck me only now that we’d been sitting in the booth and nobody had come to take our orders.  Maybe we’d scared them off with the latent hostility and argument.

“Let’s go meet the others,” Sveta said.

The others.  Oh.  I turned back toward my mom, and put my bag down.  “Can I ask about Natalie?”

My mom smiled, and she acted like we hadn’t just had a heated exchange of words.  “She’s well.  Healing from that chest wound while spending some time away with a friend.”

“When is she back?” Sveta asked.

“She said she would be gone for two days, and she told me that yesterday.  She would have emailed you.”

“She probably did, but it would have been lost in the tide of feedback and questions we’re getting.”

“I remember those moments.  Use them.  People ask and approach because they’re interested.  You want that interest.”

“Not today,” I said.  “Today is the day we consolidate.”

“Is today a special event?” my dad asked.

“Only that it’s been too long since we’ve done it,” I said, “And we really fucking need it.”

“Damn straight,” Sveta said.

“Can I give you something to pass on to Natalie?” I asked my mom.

“Of course.”

I put my bag down and fished inside.  “A bit of a thank-you for looking after Lookout and an apology for her having to put up with us while we were mind controlled.  She did well.”

“I have an eye for exceptional people, Victoria,” my mom said.

“You do.”

I handed over the package, gift wrapped as best as I’d been able with the supplies I’d had.

“Stay in touch?” my dad asked.

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled, looking at my mom, who still sat with her arm out, her other hand resting on the tidy little package.

“I can’t keep doing this,” I said.  “Sticking my hand into the fire and getting burned.”

“We’ll talk, okay?  You and me?” my dad asked.

I shrugged.  My mom looked annoyed at that offer from my dad.

Irreconcilable differences, really.  There wasn’t a good way to handle this.

“You know where I am,” he said.

We said our muted goodbyes.  The door of the diner closed behind Sveta and I, and we stepped into the cold.  My breath fogged.  Sveta’s didn’t.

“The good news is that my dad extended an invite to Christmas, if you want company.”

“Ha ha.”

“Come on,” I told her.  “Let’s go find our teammates.”

The snow was whipping around us as we returned to the main street.  I could see a guy across the road, smoking a cigarette while he leaned against a store window.    He watched the snow not with wonder, but the opposite- a lack of light in his eyes.

People would die as the weather got colder.  But that would be then.  The future was in the future, and that future had an Amy-shaped shadow somewhere across it.  The past was misery.

The present?  Today?  I could focus on today.  We would consolidate.

All together.  Strength and knowledge.

They’d already departed the train when we arrived.  I’d figured the talk with my parents would be intense and problematic, but I hadn’t expected it to be long.

It was Byron with a guy with shaggy black hair and scraggly facial hair, and Erin, all sitting on the railings at the top of the stairwell.  Erin gave me a wave.

Kenzie was bundled up, with pink earmuffs, hair not done up in buns, but parted, the vast majority of her hair at one side of her face, along her temple and cheek.  She had a black coat, with a nice looking flannel scarf, pink and black – more bundling than was necessary for the weather.

Behind her, two women were talking- thin, both in feminine clothing.  One had tan skin and light clothes, with a pixie cut, and the other had long black hair, matching clothes, and pale skin.

She spotted us, and she sprinted, running down icy steps, barely touching the railing.

“Careful!” Sveta called out.

Kenzie reached the bottom stair and threw herself at us, arms wide so one arm caught me and the other caught Sveta.  Sveta slipped and, despite my efforts, ended up on the ground.

“Sorry!”

“It’s okay.  I’m glad to see you too,” Sveta said.  She made her way back to her feet, then parted ways with me, seizing the railing and heading up toward Erin.

“See my work?  I thought we’d need to protect identities,” Kenzie said, looking up at me, her chin touching my stomach.  “So I made people projection things.  It keeps your body type so you can still see what clothes look like, without it getting wonky.”

“That sounds work intensive.”

The guy with shaggy black hair would be Rain then.  The two girls would be Ashley and Damsel.

“It was.  It is.  But I couldn’t sleep anyhow, and I thought I’d do something productive while I lay in bed.  And then it became a habit, I’d work until I fell asleep at my desk or until I got tired.  Now working on this project makes me tired.  How are you?”

“I’m okay.  Tough conversation with my parents.  My mom, specifically.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  She broke the hug.  “I’m so happy everyone’s here.”

“Speaking of,” I said.  I lowered my voice a bit.  “Was there a rule you told me about hugging?”

“Oh.  Um…”

“Listen,” I said, and I lowered my voice even more.  “I don’t want to be the bad guy-”

“You aren’t.”

“-or make you feel like I’m not happy to see you either.  But if you had a rule about hugging, then we should keep to that rule, okay?  At least until we hear different.”

“Okay.”

“Do you have other rules?” I asked.

“Yeah.  A bunch.”

“Are you following them?”

I saw her look around, like there was a way out.  I didn’t want to trap her or act like my mom, but… if this was deemed important then it was important.

Part of consolidating like I wanted to meant avoiding the lies.  It meant sticking to the rules and keeping things from getting shaky around the foundations.

I had my own shake.  But Kenzie was especially shaky.  Especially now.

“Come on.  Let’s make this a good team day.  We deserve one,” I told her.

She nodded with twice the energy that was necessary, no smile on her face.   I reached for her shoulder, to guide her on the way up steps with ice on them, and she seized my hand in hers instead.  Quick as a camera flash.

“You’re here,” the long-haired Ashley said.  “After leaving us standing around in the cold for as long as you did, you really should buy us something.  Tribute.”

Okay, that was Damsel then.  Hair length matched.  Easy.

“It’s a joke,” the other said.  “You might have guessed, but we’re not really here.  We’re sitting at the apartment, wrapped in blankets.  We have cups of cider beside us, and a plate of those gourmet chocolates and biscuits on the coffee table.”

“That’s not fair,” I said.  I looked down at Kenzie.  “That’s not fair at all.”

“Do you know what’s better?” Damsel asked.  “When we go buy our clothes, they’ll fit perfectly.

“I scanned them for measurements, head to toe,” Kenzie said.

“That’s not fair at all,” I said.  “That they get to stay at home with blankets and treats, and they get to go shopping?”

“Having our cake and eating it too,” Damsel said.  She touched fingers to her lips and made a smacking kiss sound.

“If it’s any consolation,” the guy with the shaggy black hair said.  Rain, obviously enough.  “I’m here for real and I’m freezing my butt off.”

“You’re in good company,” Erin said, her arms wrapped around her body and tucked into the opening of her jacket, her body hunched over.  She gave Rain a sidelong glance.  “I feel weirdly disloyal, hanging out with this random guy with black hair and chin scruff.”

“I’m way cooler than that guy,” Rain-in-disguise said.

“Nuh uh,” Erin responded.

Inch over half a foot, Rain, and put your arm around her, I thought.  Warm her up.

“It might help with the butt freeze if you weren’t sitting on a cold metal railing,” Sveta said.

Rain hopped down, straightened with a stretch, and then shook his head.  “Yeah, no, that’s not better.  Let’s get where it’s warm.”

“Let’s,” Erin said.

Byron, a little off to the side, was smiling, perfectly content in the twenty-three degree weather.

“Let’s go,” I said.  “And let’s talk mission plan.”

“Is this a mission now?” Rain asked.

“Only if it keeps us organized.  We’re splitting up, but I want to touch base, especially before any big purchases.  That’s partially so we don’t lose track of each other.  And also because I’m really, really curious what some of you are after.  As far as split-up teams go, I’m with Sveta, because I owe her and we’re ridiculously overdue for this.”

“Yes,” Sveta said.

“I’m with the boys,” Erin said.  “They wanted help because they’re hopeless.”

“And I’ve got the best two people to keep me company,” Kenzie said.

“Perfect,” I said. “We have practical reasons for this and those reasons include updating our costumes for the winter.  You do that, we can dip into the team funds, consciences clear.  Within reason.”

There were nods all around.

“Let’s stay out of trouble,” I said.

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Gleaming – Interlude 9

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The tower extended from the floor of the valley to the stratosphere, a gleaming testimony to the power of patience, persistence, and inhuman nature.

Most would have expected the structure to be sealed, or for the layers of overlapping metal along its exterior to be welded to one another.  It wasn’t the case here.  The entire facility was channeling heat, air, and atmosphere up, while it channeled the lack of those things down, and the design of the facility caught the air in the same way the curvatures of an airplane’s wings did. The edges of the tower seemed to glow, even, because of the air that ran concurrent with the fanned-out plates that stabbed upward, concentrating atmosphere and heat around the tower exterior, as well as its interior.

High above, where the sky was transitioning from the light blue of day to the near-black of night, the peak of the tower was topped with a diffuse, flower-like bloom of the lighter blue.  The exhaust or output.  The peak was so high as to be invisible, but the venting wasn’t.

As though it had stabbed through the perimeter between sky and space, and the wound bled a light blue.

It roared, because the vacuum it gathered in its squat base drew in atmosphere and air.  It screamed, because the very design of the facility defied physics, and the alien metals that formed the panels that caught the air or channeled ambient heat upwards were still bound by some laws of physics.

Bound and tortured for their disobedience, she thought.

“I don’t think that’s going to help you.”

She turned toward the voice, arching one eyebrow.

“Sorry to break the spell.  I meant your helmet,” the guy said.  He had a costume, more sleek than most.  The mask around the eyes was hard, but the back was flexible, tied in a knot at the back of the head, the two lengths of fabric loose and billowing in the strong influx of wind the tower generated.  The costume was a similar mix of hard segments flowing naturally into loose, flowing fabric, all red with gold trim.  She couldn’t help but see double when she looked at him, and his double was badly wounded, his costume torn.

She decided she would call him the wounded man.

She was holding her helmet in both hands.  It was crafted of another alien metal, different from the tower’s sweeping, overlapping panels, and had elaborate wings at the sides, sleek and pointed back.  She couldn’t remember when she’d taken it off.

In reverence, as someone would when approaching a holy place?  No.  She wasn’t reverent.  Her god was dead.

She had wanted a better look at the monster that loomed before her, a beast that screamed, roared, and made the sky bleed.

Glines, the Switch-Thrower, she thought.

The shadow manifested to her left, as if it was stepping in from another room, its feet still planted firmly on the ground.  Young.  He folded his arms, and in the shroud of his indistinct form, the lines between costume and flesh were blurry.  He could have been a reptile, covered in thick layers, with sleek, broad bands.

“Hi,” the wounded man said.

Glines gave him a small nod of acknowledgement, before turning his full focus to the tower.

Valkyrie could have asked the shadow a question, but she didn’t.  She let him study the distant tower, and she turned her attention to the hero who had noted her helmet.  One finger tapped the metal, producing a sharp sound.  “These things are more important than you would think.”

The wounded man smiled.  “No offense, Valkyrie, but I don’t think that, whatever it is, is going to bop you on the head.  If it does, that bit of metal won’t change the outcome.”

The man in costume was nervous, she realized.  He’d been here for at least a day- she looked back in the direction of the camp, where tarps and tents were erected, positioned where they could watch the tower, still far enough away that it would take twenty or thirty minutes of driving a conventional vehicle to get close.  At least a day that he’d endured the roaring, the screaming, and watched as the Earth’s oxygen was slowly and steadily pumped away into oblivion, to no seeming point or goal.

“I don’t think it’s about to strike me across the head,” she said.  And this is still important, for other reasons.

“You know what it is, then?”

She shook her head slowly, turning her attention briefly to Glines, who was still studying the thing.

“No,” she admitted.

“Uh huh.  That’s reassuring,” the wounded man said.

The helmet was heavy in her hands, and it felt even heavier as she shifted it to one hand, so her other hand was free to adjust her hair, pushing it out of her face.

It was possible that events could have unfolded in such a way that the masks and helmets weren’t necessary.  But some of the first capes, including Vikare, who had worn a costume very similar to her own, had wanted to protect their identities.

Somewhere along the line, the masks and helmets had become synonymous with identity.

With her hair sufficiently adjusted and pushed out of the way, she set the helmet down on her own head.  Anchor-heavy.

“You look so calm,” the wounded man said.  “You’re not freaked?”

She raised a hand, holding it flat.  The only tremor or movement was because of the wind, as air flooded in the direction of the vacuum-driven vortex the vacuum at the tower’s base.  She was calm.

“No,” she said.  She unfurled her decorative wings, then wrapped them around herself for warmth.  She stood straighter, chin raised.  Her heartbeat was much as it always was.  If her breathing was any different from usual, it was because the tower was stealing the air.  “I’m not especially worried.”

“Some of the guys called it a space elevator.  Which, you know, super cool, except it’s clearly not helping us, and it has defenses to keep us out.”

“No,” Glines said.  “Not a space elevator.”

“Jesus, they talk?” the wounded man asked.

“What is it?” Valkyrie asked her shadow.

“A gun.  That’s the barrel,” Glines said.  He extended his arm to indicate the length of the tower.

“What the son of all fucks would they need a gun that big for?” the wounded man asked.

“Dunno,” Glines said.  “But I don’t think the target was important.  If I were making a gun that big to deal with a specific enemy, I would have paid attention to targeting.  Any attention at all.”

“The target could be so large that targeting doesn’t matter,” Valkyrie said.  “If it filled half of the sky as it made its approach?”

“Uhhh,” the wounded man said.  “That’s a thing?”

Glines, though, was nodding.  “No need to worry about aim if you’re aiming at the broad side of a barn?  Dunno.  Maybe.  But if you were building a gun to shoot the side of a barn, wouldn’t you want enough firepower to hurt the barn?”

“You would.”

“Uhh, please tell me this sky-filling enemy is hypothetical.”

Valkyrie shook her head.  “It’s real.  But it’s not an enemy we need to worry about again.  When they came the last time, they left markers, to ensure none of their kind wasted effort coming to the same places.  To go against that procedure and habit would run contrary to their entire being.  It won’t happen.”

“You said these guys are building a giant gun to shoot at things on that scale, and this is the gun.”

“No,” Glines said.  “I don’t blame you for getting caught up in the attention-grabbing details, but we didn’t say for sure that this is meant to shoot at anything.  The ammo they’re using isn’t sufficient to hurt anything that big.  The ammo is the point.”

“What’s the ammo?” the wounded man asked.

“Explain,” Valkyrie said.

“The air.”

“Someone built a fucking thirty-one mile long airgun?”

“Technically, I guess,” Glines said.  “Less technically, it shoots all of the air.  Each shot is one earth’s worth of atmosphere, gathered up into a ball and superheated.”

The wounded man was silent, his eyes wide.

“One shot, and Earth whatever this is is emptied in about two seconds, everything dies well before it can suffocate, with the sudden atmospheric and pressure shift.    The next shot empties the adjacent earth, probably.”

“Earth Bet,” Valkyrie said.

“Sure.  Home, huh?” the shadow asked.

Valkyrie nodded.

“Then the next closest earth, or a share of all the connected earths.  Enough to do widespread damage.”

The wounded man sat down heavily on the grass-less hillside.

“You said the ammunition was the point.”

“The best analogy I can think of is the idea we had of putting all garbage on a rocket and shooting it into space, so we don’t have to have landfills.  This guy is shooting in the same way.”

“Disposing of atmospheres,” Valkyrie said the thought aloud.  “That helps.  Thank you.”

“No prob.  That’s really all I’ve got.  Oh, and if you’re going up, you want to go up through the tower, not outside of it.  Most defense is aimed at protecting against external attack.”

“Thank you.”  She dismissed the shadow with a thought.

Do you need anything? she thought, pushing the thought into the space where the shadows lived.

No, came the distant reply.

I’ll get to you soon.

I don’t mind.  I was never very good at asking authorities for help.  I got patient.

Why?” the wounded man asked.

“I intend to find out.  Will you walk with me?”

The wounded man nodded, falling into step beside her.  Behind them, the tower continued to bleed out atmosphere, screaming the cry of a hundred thousand metal panels straining to their limits, roaring with the rush of wind and internal tinker technology.

He was the first to say anything, “We’ve got sixteen parahumans and twenty non-parahuman staff at the camp here.  Nerves are shot, morale is nil.  Nine of them got seriously injured trying to investigate.  I need to know what to tell them.  Telling them that a team of tinkers or whoever are aiming to shoot all of the earths’ air into space isn’t going to fly.”

“Tell them nothing except that their job is done.  My team will handle it.  If I can’t resolve this, there won’t be anything your coalition can do.  Eat the good food you were rationing out, drink.  The more you consume, the less you need to take back.”

The wounded man nodded, but he looked worried.  He hurried forward to get to the gate and hold it open for her.

The main tent was a gathering place and a dining hall both.  People were gathered out front and at tables within.  Out front was fine, with only a few oddities, like a handful of people in costume standing up as she approached.

Within the mess tent was a different story.  The tension in the room was palpable.  The capes on duty took up three quarters of the tent, sitting at their tables or standing nearby.  Cards and some of the food from the were scattered across the surfaces.  There wasn’t a buzz of conversation, and there was a noticeable gap between the people at the three tables and the denizens of the last table, furthest from the tent’s opening.

Silent stares accompanied her on her way to the far table, aimed at her from both sides.

The people at the far table were hers.  Not hostile, but not necessarily talkers, either.  They wore uniforms with a fair degree of cohesiveness running through them, but they were more united by the masks they wore.

A woman with striking tattoos around the eyes, in black, red, and yellow, the colors too solid and bright for an actual tattoo.  She had been one of the heroes that had come after Valkyrie, back when Valkyrie had been Glaistig Uaine.  Glaistig Uaine had broken the woman until she was only barely on the cusp of life, and then pulled the woman’s soul from her body.

A skinny man with no hair on his skeletally gaunt head.  She remembered him having hair when she had watched him die.  A goon in the Birdcage who had made a mutinous bid for power and lost.  He had been turned away by each cell block leader in turn before venturing into the depths of the Birdcage, where prisoners too dangerous for a cell block had been put.  He hadn’t survived his first run-in.

A handsome black man had a mark on his face, akin to vitiligo, but not quite the albino white that came with vitiligo.  A loose representation of a skull, drawn on his face in a lighter brown.

There were others.  Some had more extreme touches than others.  A consequence of how information was stored.  Longer-term storage reduced things down more, put information such as what people wore on their skin into the same categories as the skin itself.

And there was no storage longer-term than death.

“Cleo, Naja Haje.  Voltrage, Third Execution.  Edgeless, Forward Facing.”

The capes in question stood.  Cleo’s eyes glistened with opaque teal-green moisture, the fluids leaking out and weeping regularly, the brilliant color a striking contrast against her olive brown skin.  Where she dabbed with the corner of her sleeve and napkins, the fabric was bleached or eaten away entirely.  She wore extra layers, including a scarf to keep her hair out of her face, a shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket, possibly just to have the extra fabric, and possibly because she had other physiological issues.

The sad fact was that they weren’t Valkyrie’s.  She didn’t know them, beyond what she’d seen the last time she’d had them.  She couldn’t know their needs.

Voltrage was a recent piece of work, pale, with paler, drier hair than he’d had in his first life, a perpetually angry expression marked with arched brows and a pointed beard.  He was skinny, his shoulders especially bony, collarbone sticking out a bit more than was natural.  He’d ripped the sleeves off of the sweatshirt he’d been given, but had later donned a white long-sleeved shirt.

Edgeless was older, unfortunately bearing more of a mask than a face, a consequence of a lack of personality in life- which was why she’d made him one of the first she experimented with.  Dull in many senses of the word, he was big, bearing a combination of muscle and fat, and he obeyed orders.

“What about the rest of us?” Milk asked.  She was the heroine with the too-bright-to-be-tattoos marks on her face.

“Stay.  Do you need anything?  You’ve been fed?  You’re entertained?”

“We’re telling each other stories for entertainment,” Milk said.

Valkyrie looked at the other tables.  There were cards there.  Not at this table.

To ask or demand would be a power play.  She wasn’t interested in that.

Waggish, Twelfth of the Fabricators.

The shadow appeared, short, with dirty, blemish-covered skin everywhere but his face, where he’d once worn a mask.  The face was frozen in a serene smile, blemish-free.

Waggish had to hop up onto the bench to reach the things on the table.  He snatched up a piece of trash, then reached for another.  Some people nearby began sliding him things.

With two hands that were disproportionately large for his small frame, Waggish pressed the collected debris in between his hands.  There was an acrid, burning smell as it reconsolidated.  She could see the power work in the movements in the air.

Waggish set two decks of cards down on the table, holding one up for her to see.  Custom card faces, the upper left and bottom right of each card featuring a minimalist illustration of someone from around the table.

“If we don’t return in three hours, assume we’re dead or trapped.  Use thinkers if you can, verify our status, then mount a rescue or leave, as you see fit.”

“Understood,” Milk said.  She had already picked up one of the two decks, fanning it out so people could see.  She plucked one free and held it out.  Milk’s own.  “Thank you for the cards, Valkyrie.  And can you tell whatshisname thank you for not going the cliche route and making me a hearts card?”

“He heard,” Valkyrie said.  She glanced at the three she had picked out, then started toward the door.  They fell in step behind her.

Nobody else in the mess tent spoke.  Except for the idle chatter from the table she had just supplied with the cards, discussing rules and bets, the only noises were the buzz of the lighting that had been rigged up at the top of the tent, the flap of the wind against the taunt tent fabric, and the distant screeching and roaring of the colossal gun barrel.

“Cleo, stay safe.  Voltrage, Edgeless, clear the way once we’re inside.  There are traps.”

“Tinker?” Voltrage asked.

“Tinker, at the very least.”

Her phone buzzed at the side of her utility belt, where pouches and pockets were hidden by the armor that covered her upper body.

Dialback.

The specter appeared.

“My phone,” she said.

“The Wardens,” Dialback said.  “They said their thinkers read the situation here as critical, and want to know if there is any news.”

“What they want is good news.  Let them know I’m busy, and that we’ll contact them shortly with that good news.”

“They’ve complained in the past about my use of my power to communicate.  It reads as slightly corrupted, and trips flags.”

“Then ignore them,” she said.  She waited for the rebuttal, then dismissed the shadow.

Mushroom, Leadletter, Esclavage, Knallen.

The four shadows appeared in a half circle behind her.  Cleo, trailing behind, found herself right between Leadletter and Esclavage.

The burly Mushroom exhaled a dot of light, which flew forward.  It traveled the quarter-mile to the base of the tower, hit the closest thing the base of the tower had to a door, and blew it wide open.  Valkyrie could feel the rush of the wind from the blast.  Leadletter opened fire, drawing her guns and shooting at the fragments of door and frame that still hung on, to exaggerated effect.

Esclavage couldn’t act until they were closer.  The leather-bound villainess produced bands of metal from her wrists, each studded with spikes.  She wrapped the bands around pieces of rubble, and then flung them to one side.

Turrets began to spring out of the side of the tower, while drones began to emerge from the hole in the front.  Some of the drones set to repairing, while yet others advanced, weapons leveled at the group.  There was laser fire.

She had a functional team working in concert.  Voltrage’s electromagnetics caught the incoming fire, redistributing energy and stopping bullets.  Edgeless simply tanked the shots, while providing some loose cover for Valkyrie and Cleo with his power.

“What am I doing?” Cleo asked.  She tensed as weapon fire struck the dirt a foot and a half to her right.

“You’re here if I need you.”

There was a rolling explosion, as Knallen used her own power.  Waves of the defensive and repair drones were obliterated, hot scrap metal scattered at the corner where the edge of the tower met flat ground, and along the interior floor, where they’d been sent flying back through the open door.

Inside, there was vacuum, which the group had to fight past, using handholds and powers.  They reached the stairs and climbed up a floor before air was available again.

The interior was hollow, with complete floors at set, clearly planned intervals.  A staircase ran up the side of the tower, while a vortex of airless void plunged down the middle, as if the lack of air was a force unto itself, filling the bottom floor as air was forced out.

The waves of defensive drones were apparently endless, minimal in their design, with only two or four legs and a basic weapon each, sometimes with their ‘brain’ circuitry or batteries exposed, and often with some of the alien metal used in the tower’s construction as extra armor.

What was the distance they’d said?  Thirty-one miles?  Then this was an ascent that could require them to travel for thirty one miles up.

With drones every step of the way.  Ten or twenty on every flight of stairs, and the firepower she’d brought to bear with Knallen and Mushroom threatened to destroy stairs, making the climb more dangerous.

She dismissed them.  Two others.  Thirty-Eight and Gobsmack.  Thirty-Eight almost immediately matched up with Leadletter, the pair of them shooting in concert, trading off drone executions.

An uphill battle, in a sense.  Edgeless took the lead, not out of any specific intent, but because he was the only one who didn’t need to slow down, as he pounded the villains with soft, doughy hands that could batter but which could easily struggle to finish even a lowly drone off.

Voltrage, however, could collect debris and absorb incoming fire, letting his electromagnetic shield charge up, and then release it all in a burst that wiped out a whole flight or two of drones.

One flight clear.  Four hundred and thirty more.

She dismissed Esclavage the Rack, and called up Goose Down.  A supportive ex-heroine who could buoy the team.  She would climb four hundred stories on her own, if she had to, but the shattered remnants of drones threatened to sprain ankles or cause people to fall.

With the lift Goose Down provided, they moved faster.  With a bit of time, they got better at dispatching the drones.  The things were fragile and stupid, prone to repeating the same behavior without learning from the destroyed drones.  The feint and kick combination that worked against one worked against another.

Beyond the stairwell, she could see daylight and the rush of the heated, condensed air along the tower exterior, being swept up and channeled by the design of the tower.

Zappatore the Underminer.

The shadows she’d already called out felt the appearance of the fifth of their kind.  They would feel a fraction weaker and slower.  The net loss was much greater, but she did have Cleo, Voltrage, and Edgeless.

“Bombs?” she asked.  “Traps?  I don’t want the tower to self-destruct when we’re at the top.”

Guarderò

Grazie,” she replied, in her accented Italian.

The drones were numerous enough that they could come down the walls, now, or fall between stairs and land on stairs below, with just enough surviving the fall to be a problem as they attacked from the rear.  Cleo threw a knife at one, knocking it over.  Three more appeared at that same step a moment later.

It was bad enough that Voltrage wasn’t able to release his shield, because the incoming fire was too incessant.  The group would be riddled with holes in the one second it took him to regroup and bring his shield back into place.  As it was, the lightning barrier rippled to the point it was hard to see past it.

Niente qui.  Vai su?” Zappatore asked.

“Up,” she replied.  “Be ready, Voltrage.  The moment we stop.”

Away with Thirty-Eight the Eye.  She called on Yonder, the Gatherer.

Yonder needed to gather power.  When they did, it was to gather everyone in a bubble of air.  Beyond that bubble, the electromagnetic shield kept most of the enemies at bay.

The bubble lifted the group, with a suddenness that made the stomach lurch.  They flew up ten stories, and then they stopped.  The bubble caught them again, as Yonder prepared to move them again – a good thing, given the mile-long drop beneath them.

Here, undisturbed, the walls were so covered in the blinking lights of drones that a human couldn’t put a hand flat against the wall without touching one of those lights.  At least one light to each drone, no drone any larger than a medium sized dog, many as small as a gourd.

Voltrage released his power.  Electricity and the stored accumulation of bullets and other weaponry was flung out in every direction.  It crackled against railings and against the machinery inlaid in the interior walls.

“Sideways,” she instructed.

The air bubble floated over to the wall, and the assembled group was deposited on the stairs against that wall.

Already, there were more drones making their way down to fill the void.  It was getting hard to breathe, because the burned electronics smell, the ozone, and the burned air from the laser fire the drones output was so noxious.

“Oh my god,” Cleo whispered.

Zappatore shook his head.

“Take us up further,” Valkyrie ordered.  “Or this will take forever.”

Forever.  Even with shortcuts taken, it took half an hour for them to reach the point in the tower where an attack had been made by heroes looking to halt construction.  The tower, barrel, space elevator had nearly collapsed, but enough infrastructure had been at the top to hold it up until repairs could be made.  She could see the scars, and the effect it had on the air running along the exterior.

Up another hundred stories.  Her people were getting tired, so she tapped other resources.  Diaspora served to turn drones against one another, while masking the group’s presence.  Mudstreaked slowed the drones down, turning nearby surfaces into goop the finer or less nuanced legs couldn’t work with.

But there was no substitute for good violence, at least sometimes.  In the absence of the gunners and mass-destruction capes, the drones soon pressed in, until they were up against the electromagnetic field again.  Voltrage was getting tired.

“This is worse than the fucking world ending!” Voltrage screamed the words, amid pants for breath.  Where his hair had stood on end before, sweat now slicked it close to his scalp.

“No it isn’t,” Valkyrie answered him, her voice nearly lost in the chaos.

“What can I do!?” Cleo shouted.

Valkyrie wasn’t able to answer, because the noise rose.  Yonder was signaling that he was ready for another air bubble.

Up another hundred stories.  Zappatore signaled for the group to go back down another ten stories, because he had identified the collection channels, which captured particulate matter and carbon from the air, for the purposes of making materials.  Centrifuges were sorting that material by atomic weight.

Voltrage seemed happy to destroy something that wasn’t replaced a moment later.  The debris flew into the airless vortex right down the middle of the tower, and was cast straight down.

The air was getting thinner as they ascended.  Yonder’s air manipulation turned toward ensuring the group had enough to breathe.

The final twelve floors.  Machinery tore free of the walls- robots, loaded to bear with higher-end weapons, and covered from head to toe in the hardest armor this structure seemed able to provide.  Cleo’s thrown knife and slip of paper seemed to glance off.  Voltrage’s power rocked the military robots, but it didn’t damage them.

Edgeless threw himself into the fray, pummeling.  Alone, the muscle-bound brute was able to keep two of the robots from turning their weapons on the group, though he couldn’t stop them.

Valkyrie added her own strength to the affair, unfurling the living wings that one of her creations had attached to her costume, then drawing her weapon.

Her blade plunged into the first robot’s head, and as she pulled it free, she used the force of the blade coming free to sink it into the neck of another robot.

Relentless, dangerous, but ultimately lacking in imagination.

She had an idea of what she was up against by the time her squadron reached the workshop floor.  Drones were adding layers to the wall, gathering hot metal in beads, that they laid into gaps as the workshop floor rotated above.  With the continual rotation, gaps were exposed, and the platform steadily ascended.

She pushed the door open.

Not a conclave of mad tinkers.  No lesser Endbringer.

The man was small and broken.  Tinker technology riddled his body, not as a cyborg might do, but as an invasive organization would.  As a tree shifted its branches to work around an unmoving object like a fence or hydrant, the man’s body had worked around the technology.

His belly faced the sky, and he was almost naked, but for the catheters and other tubes that festooned his nethers, much as they did nose, ears, and heart.  He was moved as a quadruped moved, arms extending back as far as they would go, following the limping gait of the greater construct.

There were shackles that were clearly bolted to bone, the flesh angry around where the bolts had gone in, and some of those shackles served as places for tech to hang off of, including clusters of miniature arms and manipulating devices.

He or it was gathered around what looked like a motherboard, one arm hooked into a complex array of wires that stretched taut or ran between walls and from ceiling to floor.  The small arms and tools handled the finest details, like soldering spots on a computer board, the rigging of wires helped make the larger movements almost instantaneous, and the tinkertech festooned hands covered the remainder.

A human eye watched them as the body worked.  He called for no drones, drew no weapons.  Still, Valkyrie knew she had to be careful.

The entire body tensed.  The man’s body arched, belly reaching toward the ceiling, and then he gagged.  With choking coughs and a smell of burned flesh, he deposited white hot metal onto the floor of his lab.  Mechanical hands slid it across the floor.

The Scholar, Valkyrie thought, before she even properly looked.  Scion had been the warrior, but he hadn’t been alone.

The Scholar was long gone, but the fragments that had made her her were still out there.  There were some with a more malicious design, intent on breaking their hosts.  Specific, dangerous hosts.

It was hard to divorce her line of thinking from the way she’d used to think, faced with one of the dangerous ones.

She wasn’t worried, she wasn’t afraid, and she hadn’t been for the entirety of the climb.  Stressed, yes, but only that.

Now… pity.  The man’s back was arching again.  Valves in the tangle of catheters and other tubes were switching.  It wasn’t urine that was vented out, but something colorless and cloudy.  Long after it had finished venting, the man spasmed and twitched as much as he was able.  His legs and arms were moved without his permission, dragging him here and there so the other limbs and parts could work.

Turned into his own workshop, his resource supply, and apparently provided all the care the agent could provide that would keep him alive.

A tinkertech tower, thirty-one miles tall, created by one monster of the most inhuman nature.  Past a certain point, he would have created things like the resource collection vats, that distilled carbon from air.  He would have automated the creation of drones.

“Cleo.”

Cleo stepped forward.  “This is why you wanted me?”

“Whoever or whatever it was, if they were angry enough to aimlessly destroy worlds, they needed to be put down.”

Cleo nodded.  She drew a knife from beneath one layer of clothing, tested its weight in one hand, then spat on the blade.  She threw it at the man, the blade sinking in where neck met shoulder.

Flesh almost immediately began to die, turning black.  The tinkertech set to work, gathering resources, kits of regenerative bio-agent, making injections, and excising damaged flesh, all at the same time.

The poison was faster.

Valkyrie waited, listening and watching.

There.

The broken man.  She could identify him now, see the power he was given.

When she created him as a shade, he was a man again, without the technology hanging off of him.  He did stand with a hunched back, knees close together while feet were planted further apart, knobby-kneed.  Even like this, existence seemed to be painful for him.  Lingering psychic effects.

“How long were you working on this?”

“Ah,” he made a noise.

“You don’t have to answer, idle curiosity only.”

“Three years of preparation.  Two years of work,” the broken man answered.

“Were there failsafes or traps built in?”

He nodded.

“Show my people,” she said.  She called up the Mad Bomber and The Man Who Stands Atop.  “Explain to them.  Disable it.”

The broken man nodded again.

“Broken trigger?” Cleo asked, dabbing at one eye.  She had cuts on the side of her face, but they were small and shallow.

“No.  Nothing broken.”

The group was left to recuperate, the tinkers working on disabling the tower before anything untoward could happen.

As she waited, standing silent, her helmet removed and resting on the edge of a desk beside her, she reached out to Dialback, where he had a position deep inside her.

Phone?

The Wardens need help with things, and they’re worried about your silence.

Tell them I’m fine.  What do they need help with?

The Simurgh, was the reply.

Almost instinctively, another spirit deep inside her shifted, agitated.  Eidolon.  David.  The man’s battery was nearly spent, and the cost of replenishing it was high.

Stirred to life by the mere mention of his long-time opponent.

“That,” she said the words aloud, feeling the weight of them, “Would be the opening act of a tragedy.”

Heads in the area turned her way, curious at how she’d suddenly started speaking to nobody.  She waved them off.

They agree, came the response.  The Wardens don’t want you engaging with the Simurgh.  But they need help covering other crises and targets while they focus on her.  They know you’re tired, but-

I’ll go, she answered.

The effect fluctuated, barely visible in how it distorted the air.  When looking at any person or thing closely enough, the light distorted around the very outline of that person, shining brighter or appearing darker than it was.  This was like that outline, wrapped around a wide area.

People in very drab clothing were gathered as a mass nearby, wary enough that they huddled together, parents gripping their children to keep them from approaching or getting too inquisitive.

Two people had gone inside the effect, fallen, and couldn’t get up.  Attempts to rescue with tools had failed.

Shadows bubbled forth, emerging just enough to use powers or prod at the edges of the effect.

This Earth had diverged a hundred years ago.  It was very lightly settled, and even there, it was largely by accident.  Disease had hit just a touch harder during some critical years, and the population had floundered.

Now she appeared before these people as something akin to an angel.

“Time,” came the answer, from a member of her greater entourage.  “Slowed time.  It’s easier to enter the field than to exit.  The fit barely notice, but the sick and elderly can’t push out.”

She had a wide collection of shadows at her beck and call, and a strong squadron of other capes supporting her otherwise.

It was a question of finding the right ones.  At least here, there shouldn’t be any wounds to tend, nothing to delay her.

This was better than a mercy kill, tinkertech left unattended, a power run rampant.

She had other work to do.  There was a source to this effect.

She walked away from the scene, listening and watching.  Two of her servants followed as bodyguards.  Milk was one.  Cleo was another.

“Ma’am,” someone called over.

She motioned for her bodyguards to stay where they were.  She approached the woman, an elderly matriarch.

“Yes?”

“What can you say?” the woman asked.

“A small fragment of a… very mighty creature, that died two years ago.  It touched this place,” Valkyrie said.  “Did you see golden light in this world, two years ago?  Followed by devastation.”

“We heard it struck on the far side of the ocean here.”

Valkyrie nodded.  “That was him.  A piece of him fell.  Like a drop of blood, but he was complex and intricate enough that a single drop of blood could be a living, wanting thing on its own.  That droplet could be divided even further, and each division would be a life unto itself.”

“Like gods of myth.”

“A very small piece touched here, and it found root.  The effect is slowing time.  It grows with every passing day, little by little.”

“Is there anything that can be done?”

“Yes.  You can come if you want.  I can’t promise it will be pretty or easy.”

“I should, shouldn’t I?  I’m in charge here.”

Valkyrie walked through the quiet town, one metaphorical ear to the ground.  The woman walked beside her, and the two bodyguards walked a distance behind them, talking to one another.

The old woman looked back.  “Uncanny in appearance.”

The words were accompanied by a visible shiver.

“Touched by specks of blood, which found root in them.”

“As I heard it, the Wardens that we broke bread and cracked drink with were the same.”

“They did a good job of explaining things, then.”

They weren’t so uncanny, Ma’am,” the old lady said.

“These ones…” Valkyrie started, searching for the words.  “They died, and I brought them back, with some help.  In exchange for this life, they’ve agreed to provide me with assistance.  Some strangeness is to be expected.”

In another circumstance, they might have been the worst or most alarming words to say.

Here, the old woman seemed to take it as matter-of-fact.  What was a resurrection, when an active attack from an apparent god and visitors from another world were only two years fresh in one’s memory?

“Here,” Valkyrie said.  “I feel them over here.”

The path was a circuitous one around a house, knocking and getting permission to enter, and finding nobody else within.

It was only when Valkyrie and the now-impatient old woman stepped out onto the porch that Valkyrie had reason to pause.

Machinavelli.

The specter took form.

“No traps,” she instructed.  Then she pointed at the porch.  “We’ll want to put it back the way we found it, or better.”

Machinavelli nodded, mechanical mask switching between modes each time the head stopped moving.

Nails were pulled free and boards were uprooted.   In a matter of seconds, the porch was in its constituent pieces.

Beneath it all, matted and wet, was a large dog, breathing hard.  She could view it with a kind of double vision, and she saw the rush of images, the flickering, and a collection of impossibly tall people with the faces scrubbed away.

“I’m sorry, girl,” she murmured.

“The dog?” the old woman asked.

“Things aren’t as they should be.  Power fit for beings of myth are falling here and there like litter.  Sometimes it dissipates.  Other times it swells.”

“And other times it finds it’s root?” the old woman asked.

“This beast is the cause of your mysterious deaths and incidents.  It couldn’t know what it was doing.”

“The massacres?”

“I would guess it trapped prey by accident, and driven to the edge by hunger, it ate pieces of the accidental victims.”

“I see.”

Valkyrie had to pick her way through the foundations of the porch, with concrete settings for pillars- the pieces that couldn’t be uprooted.  She knelt by the dog.

She could tell almost immediately.  “Too far gone.  Even if it wasn’t, it’s incapable of using the power it has.  More would die.”

Settling down, sitting in the mud, she coaxed the dog closer.  Stroking it, she spoke to it in a soft voice, keeping her awareness tuned for any power use or flickering from the animal.

“If I could conscience it, I would bring you with me, brave girl.  How scared you must have been.”

The tone was more important than the words.  She lapsed into her native tongue, and the dog seemed to like the sound of those words better.

With her awareness of powers, she studied the dog as thoroughly as she could manage.

The dog was fast asleep when Valkyrie snapped its neck.  She could feel a tension release over the entire area, as the ravelings of time came undone.

The ones that had been slain by this accident of nature wouldn’t be coming back, either way.

The mess was tidied up, a means of communication established, and farewells said.

She actually used her phone this time, rather than relying on an intermediary.

“Chevalier.”

“It’s Valkyrie.  I found the culprit.”

“They’re not blaming us?  We’re their new neighbors, they have reason to be squirrely.”

“No blame.  They thanked us and invited us back.”

“That’s a relief.  Thank you, Valkyrie.”

“Chevalier.  It was a dog.”

“Pardon?”

“A dog with powers.  I tried to feel around it, see why or how.  I looked at the moment of the trigger.  The poor beast had a refrain of human words running through its head at a critical time, and the agent was damaged enough to try meshing with the animal, sick and diseased as it was.”

“How much do we need to worry about this?”

“One in a million chance.  But it’s a chance, and that chance may grow.”

“I see.”

“It’s handled.  I killed it.”

“Damn,” Chevalier said.  The disappointment was so palpable she could have laughed, if it weren’t over a dead animal.

“Take my word for it, Chevalier.  Whatever fun you might imagine a dog with powers to be, it would be the opposite in reality.”

“You think I’d imagine it to be fun, Valkyrie?”

“I think you have the traits of the best of little boys and the greatest of men, Chevalier, with courage to spare besides.  I can imagine the thought crossing your mind.”

There was an amused sound on the phone.  Then, more somber, he said, “It’s shit to have to put a dog down.  I’m sorry, Valkyrie.”

“It’s our mission.”

“Staying sane and on the level is part of that mission, so we don’t betray what we stand for.  That means acknowledging the shittiness of it.  You hear me?”

“I hear and understand,” she said.

“It also means taking a break.  Return to the city.  Rest, unwind.  You’ve fought an army of ghosts, staved off a potential world-ender with the atmosphere gun, hunted down and dealt with an exponential class-S threat that had gone exponential, you had a week off where you were supposed to be resting, but you decided to hunt down the breaker assassin instead, and you went straight from that to this, a dog with powers.”

“This was easy,” she said.  “A touch sad, but easy.  You were dealing with the Simurgh.”

“She was restless but we can’t figure out what she was actually doing.  It was scary but it was easy, as you put it.  You can’t keep going like this.  Why don’t you go back to the city and relax?  Sit around in your comfortable clothes and watch movies.  Go hang out with friends- I know you have a standing invitation from an old friend of mine.”

I’ve never watched movies, that I can remember.

I’ve never ‘hung out’ with friends.

And the city…

“I’ll think about relaxing,” she said.  “But I’m fairly certain I’ll come to the same conclusion I have before.  That I need to do this.”

“Valkyrie,” he said, voice stern.

“I’m fairly sure I’m older than you, Chevalier.  Don’t talk down to me.  I need to do this.  To help, to make up for past acts, and to gather the resources and contacts to attend to my flock.”

“Your flock.  I thought you had to stop.”

She looked back in the direction of Milk, who was talking to Edgeless.

“I did.  I want to find a way forward, regardless.”  She seized on the word like it had a deeper meaning, a power to it she could draw on.  “Regardless!  If I were to put my needs aside, I believe the rest of the world needs me to do this.  Too many of these incidents are ones only I have the ability to handle.”

“I could refuse to give you any information.”

“You could.  You won’t.  You and Legend work through injury and sickness, exhaustion and mild insanity.  You’ll let me do the same, because you recognize the need.”

He was silent on the other end of the phone.

“Is there something you need for me to handle, Chevalier?”

“There was a prison breakout in the city.  Frankly, we could use some eyes on that situation until things settle down for sure.  Shin is… stuff’s happening, Valkyrie.”

“I halfway suspect that you’re telling me that out of connivance, Chevalier.  Has the job corrupted you so quickly?”

“I am many things, but I’m not conniving.”

“To get me into the city, for a task where there is nothing meaningful to do, leaving me nothing to do but rest?”

“I have a very hard time imagining that there would be nothing to do there.”

“Something else, Chevalier.  Send me somewhere else.”

“They’re going to forget what you look like.  I think they’re already talking about you like you’re a myth or a memory.”

Something else.  Please.”

“The battlefront, then.  The Tyrant Kings.”

Africa, Bet.

“I’ll go.  Cote D’Ivoire for headquarters?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll contact you when I’m there.”

“Good luck.  I may see you and your ‘flock’ there.”

He hung up.  She put the phone away.

Her ‘flock’ was waiting for instructions.

“Everyone on duty is on rest mode.  Head back home, relax.  Everyone at rest is with me.  Prepare for war.”

Clouds of silvery poison gas rolled across black sand.  Soldiers in gas masks ran up a hill and slid down the other side, to where rocks provided some cover.

Valkyrie walked through the poison gas, protected by shadows that had granted her boons before fading away.  Her eyes teared up slightly, but that might have been the silicate dust rather than the chemical weapons.

Her flock was in step behind her, their feet scuffing in the fine sand.  Her shadows were likewise in step, but they made no sound, left no tracks.  They had their own boons, but some had decided to wear the gas masks regardless.  They wore no uniforms, but there was a commonality that tied them together, because their clothes had all come from the same stores at the same stops, or because they’d all come so close to the foot of the mountain that was her power and then they’d come back.

Subdued, but not submissive.  Quieter, not quieted.

Each and all of them remembered dying.  Many remembered dying at her hands.  It was a select few of those that she had brought into her flock.

Nineteen individuals, favoring the young and disciplined, the powerful, and the needy.

Then she’d been forced to stop.  The umber horse Disaster had reared her ugly head and made her imminent presence known.

The soldiers that had gone down the slope were none the wiser.  Valkyrie approached within fifteen paces of them, then raised her rifle.

It was only right that she kill, when expecting it of her soldiers.  She knew which of her flock would kill and which might aim just off to the side, so they could claim loyalty and let their consciences rest easy.

She had brought the killers and capturers.

The skirmish that followed was quick and brutal.  They were matched in numbers, but Valkyrie’s number included ten parahumans, eight being members of her flock, and six shadows, the power shared out among them to allow for greater number, intimidation and distraction, at the cost of less raw ability.

The opposing group was twelve or so Europeans who had hired themselves out as mercenaries.  Scum who enjoyed hurting people, pillaging, and looting to the extent that they were staying on Bet for it.  Staying despite dwindling food and climate, health risks and diminishing numbers.

Scum with powers.  She scanned her eyes over the glimmers.  Images of violence and pain.  For five individuals in the group, the images were closely mirrored.

One of the groups that had figured out how to create triggers.

She identified the powers as best as she could, by looking at the glimmers and identifying the agents by name and title.

The Solemn Child.  A tall, broad shouldered man with a red sash.  She aimed to take fire, and someone on the enemy side raised a wall.

“Shoot the one in red first!” she ordered.

The man could undo powers.  Given a moment’s opportunity, he could undo hers, and her power wouldn’t be the same again.

There was a small measure of satisfaction as she watched the man die, the top of his head removed as it poked over cover.  She avoided collecting him, leaving his power where it lay.

As others died, one by one, her own side holding firm while the enemy dwindled, she inhaled and exhaled steadily.  Calm in the storm, in the endless thunder of more than thirty weapons going off.  Then twenty weapons.

Her hand was steady, her aim true.

She had her rifle in one hand and a shield in the other, and she held her ground, shield out in front.  When there was a pause, she brought her rifle around, firing off a series of shots.  A bullet came close enough to touch her costume, though it left her untouched.

One of her shadows was being cheeky, letting them get that close.  She felt no fear.  Her flock protected her, and her shadows warded off the harm.

One power remained on the enemy’s side.  She saw the glimmer, and she drew out her power, bringing her shadows closer, raising them into the air as floating images, fully clear.

If he aimed at me and shot me in the heart, if the shadows I’ve instructed to protect me move too slowly, I could die right here.

The glimmer proved to be truth when the man raised himself up, surrounded by a storm of black sand.  Painfully bright slices of light lunged out of the ground and closed around him, with more sprouting out of the ground to make approaching him difficult.

Of the sixteen powered individuals with her, none seemed able to break or disrupt the shell.  The prism slowly rotated, its pointed tip aimed at the horizon.  As it moved to the side, the ground under it was made jagged with razor slices of light.

If he got away with this message, it could mean the local warlord was alerted about what he was up against.  Not disaster, but it could mean that the captives in the warlord’s possession could become hostages or negotiation fodder.  Better that he didn’t know what was taking out his forces and forcing him to keep his armies closer and closer to home.

He can’t get away.

I want to fly, she thought.  A shadow lurking within her responded, and it lifted her up.

The crystal jolted into motion, going from zero to two hundred miles an hour in an instant.  She only barely intercepted it, her fingers grazing the surface, bending painfully and burning at the brush with the light.

But she made contact with something.  She held onto that something with her power.

He flew away, and a part of him stayed behind.  He made it a few hundred feet before the power quit on him.

His body tumbled into the sand, the gas mask coming loose.  He didn’t reach for it, scramble, or gasp in pain at the poison he was inhaling.

For all intents and purposes, he was in her grip.  She’d taken his life the moment she’d made contact.

She let that glimmer of life and the simulacrum of power and personality settle into being.  A shadow.

“I need you to tell me where the captives from the raids in Rome are being kept,” she said.

The shadow shook its head.

“Tell me what you know about the people who can create the triggering moments.”

She saw and felt the surprise.  He knew something.

Again, a head shake.

“You’ll realize your position soon,” she said.  She looked to the parahuman that had come with her group.  “Any others?”

The woman shook her head.

As they prepared to leave the area, walking through the sand and checking the bodies for any identification, Valkyrie plotted a course that took them past the body of her shadow.  She made sure that he saw the corpse and the face.

This is what you have wrought, she thought.  But we will return to Gimel, that land of second chances, and you may, given time, have yours, as I had mine.

There were other squads, roving a village that had been evacuated in advance.  Motley groups, they used chemical weapons to make fighting back in response impossible, then roved through the vulnerable areas, where the only ones alive were gasping for breath.

Three more squads.  There were more parahumans among them, but it was closer to conventional, with the normal soldiers outnumbering the parahuman auxiliary.  She didn’t collect the fallen.

Valkyrie’s group had two captives, bound and firmly sealed with powers, and those captives took the bulk of the preparation time as they prepared to leave, figuring out how to carry them out.  Once the job was done, the group organized, powers were gifted and shared out, and they flew as a squadron, so close to the water that their toes could trail on the surface and the spray of mist both drenched and concealed them.

She breathed air with no traces of poison in it, and she felt faint anxiety.

She drew nearer to the Warden’s base in Cote D’Ivoire and that distant anxiety drew nearer by equal measure.

On the horizon, a fan of blue-white lasers rained down on a territory.  It was Legend who had arrived, not Chevalier.

The portal to Gimel loomed as the centerpiece of their destination, well before they were able to set their feet down on solid ground again.  People scattered, with places to go, showers to take to get poison off, and minor wounds to tend to.

The city needed help, but she couldn’t do anything to help it.  She could do this, ensuring that no one person would amass the power or the army necessary to seize a portal, this portal, and come through to raid the one lucrative settlement on Gimel.  They would have to bring boats through, but there were boats here.

There were too many human rights abuses, too many cities worth of people being prevented from leaving.  There were pockets like this all over, and as winter approached, things looked grimmer and grimmer.

“Did it go okay?” one of the capes on duty asked.  A PRTCJ uniform.

“It went fine,” Valkyrie answered.  “No casualties.  Some captives.  We’ll get information on the powers they’ve been using.  I have the spirit of one, and I think he’ll tell me what he knows soon.”

“Wow.  That’s pretty crazy creepy,” the PRTCJ officer said.

“Perhaps,” Valkyrie replied.  “Excuse me.  I need to rinse off the poison before the adaptations fade.”

As she walked away, she could hear a whispered exchange between the PRTCJ officers.

“You can’t just call them creepy when they’re Valkyrie, Crystal.”

“Oh, just stole a soul, gonna interrogate it, nothing wrong about that.”

Valkyrie paused.

“Oh, shit,” the not-Crystal PRTCJ officer replied, before ducking away.

“Don’t just run and… hi again, Valkyrie,” PRTCJ officer Crystal said.

“You don’t like it?  You’ve been on the front lines here, in the northwestern American states, and in Russia.  You’ve seen what we’re up against.  We need information.”

“I don’t like it,” Crystal said.

“It will be more lives saved in the long run.”

“It’s capturing someone’s very essence.  It’s deeply, deeply uncomfortable.  If you’re capturing guys on our side with permission and bringing them back like I’ve seen, I’m okay with that.  Otherwise, I’m not cool with it.  I’m not going to shoot you or fight you or anything, but… not cool.”

“I’ve had at least one of these conversations every day for the past few months,” Valkyrie said.  “Different points, different particulars.  I have people telling me to take time off, but this– this is what wearies me.”

“Am I wrong?  What am I missing?”

“You might be right.  I just find that having the question constantly put before me is… it’s hard.  If I hadn’t taken his life and automatically drawn him into me, he would have notified key people, and we would have lost the element of surprise.  Many more would have suffered and died.”

“I don’t believe in the ends justifying the means, sorry.  I think once you start thinking that way, you stop looking for those hard-to-spot answers.  But I’m a flying blaster girl.  Pew pew.  It’s shitty of me to judge you when I got the easy, awesome power, and you got the power with the built-in moral dilemmas.”

Valkyrie smiled.  “I’ll think carefully before I press him.  Can I ask, before we part ways?  A fiddly question.”

“Surrre,” Crystal responded, drawing out the sound in a hesitant way.

“Why ‘Crystal’?  Your power doesn’t match, as far as I can see.”

“I… I could be a flying shoot-crystals girl, for all you know,” Crystal said, almost defiant now.

“But you aren’t.  If it’s an issue, I can leave you alone.”

“No.  It’s not an issue.  It’s just weird you know.  Crystal is my name, Valkyrie.  My birth name.  It’s not a secret.”

“Of course.  Of course.  I feel stupid now.”

“Nah,” Crystal said, smiling a bit.

There was a small sort of rescue as Legend dropped out of the sky, spotted Valkyrie, and then flew over.

“Suddenly very intimidated,” Crystal said.  “Wow.  Hi.  I’m going to… walk away.”

“You’ve been doing good work, Laserdream,” Legend said.  “Take care of yourself.”

Mute, Crystal nodded, before flying off.

Legend sighed.

“I have one captive.  My team has two more,” Valkyrie said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Legend said.

“What doesn’t?”

“The warlord of this area is surrendering.  We still need to see how the politics fall down, but they think the army will return to its prior state, and they’ll serve the state, not the challenging party.  There’ll be some tidying up to be done, but they will protect the portal.”

“We’re done?” she asked.

There was that faint anxious feeling again.  The fear.

“The Wardens?  No, the Wardens aren’t done.  But we are.  They don’t need people who can level armies or subdue errant nation-states.  They need attention, resources, time, and a careful eye.  We can keep things tidy here with a skeleton crew,” he answered.

“And turn our attention to other things.”

“For this specific moment, Valkyrie?” Legend asked, “There’s nothing.  The monsters are quiet or dealt with, the armies are hunkering down for the cold weather, the unrestrained power effects seem to be restrained and quarantined for now.  There is only the city, which is seeing its first snow, just days after freezing rain.  They’re trying to find their equilibrium, and they’re counting on our help.”

She pressed her lips together.

“I know you don’t want to take a break, Chev told me, but I assure you… there’s a lot of work to be done there.  It won’t be a break.”

“I think…” she started.  She saw his eyebrows go up.  “If things are quiet everywhere else, I may take that vacation I’ve been told about.”

His eyes searched her face, looking for the lie or the catch.  “Hard to imagine.  It would be healthy if you did.”

I have errands to run, she thought.  If there are no monsters to slay, warlords to oust or towers to topple, there are still things that need attention.

“I’ll leave my flock with you,” she said.

A week.

A weeks of searching, of flying through worlds with only her shadows for company and assistance.  Of finding the meat and vegetables for her own meals, including tubers and edible roots found in nature that were dim substitutes for things found on supermarket shelves.  Her shadows prepared and cooked the meals while she rested.

A week.  A week, a day, and four hours, and she found the first settlement.  Shattered buildings had been repurposed.  Graves were laid out at the far side of a field.  Water, food, and shelter seemed to be secured.

There were cheers and cries of excitement as they saw her.  An eerie feeling, given that they were people from the city.  The Megalopolis.

And the questions.  They came one after another.  They wanted to know what had happened.  The portals had expanded and then things had connected.  People had been cast through, but they wanted to know why.  They wanted to know about the city, and if the city was okay.

She felt as impatient as she ever had and she forced herself to answer in as patient and measured a way as she could.

It might have taken ten or fifteen minutes before there was a break in the conversation long enough for her to ask her own question.

“The Wardens?  Did their headquarters come through here?”

“Yes, actually,” came the response, from a younger member of the group.

But that answer was less of an answer than the exchange of glances, the silence from the people who had been so talkative a short while ago.

A finger pointed the way, and Valkyrie flew in that direction, buoyed by shadows.

Had the two sites switched, the remnants of the Warden’s headquarters serving the hundreds who had come through on the other site, the remnants of the one or two apartment buildings lying on their side for the patch of people situated here, it might have seemed more fitting.

She released the shadow that was allowing her to fly, and stepped to the edge of the Wardens’ site.

Riley was here.  So was Rinke.

There was a thinker who had been kept in isolation, because he found stimuli to be too much, and there were five members of the Warden’s office.

Again, she was pulled into conversation, when she only wanted to ask.  Questions about the state of things, and that sing-song rhythm that Rinke and Riley could pull her into, where they played off of one another and seemed so natural, in a world that felt so hollow, shadowy and unnatural.  A siren call.

Because they were Rinke and Riley, it took even longer for the gap in the conversation to happen.  After twenty minutes, Valkyrie couldn’t effectively interrupt.  Rinke wasn’t making goblins, he was making homonculi, and he felt that was an important distinction, because they didn’t have personalities and they existed purely for labor.  Riley had questions and answers and she’d been experimenting to figure out options.  Rinke had things to say about being king or not being king.

But Jessica appeared, knees and hands grimy from gardening or farming on the small scale, and Valkyrie abandoned the conversation, quite likely offending the king-who-wasn’t.

“Ciara,” Jessica greeted her, smiling wide.  “You found us.”

Ciara nodded.  Emotions welled up, but she managed to keep them from overflowing.

“I’ve only had the chance to seriously look for a week,” Ciara admitted.

“A week you’ve been away from the city?”

Ciara nodded.

“Still keeping your distance, I see.  Venturing this far away from home when you could be there?”

It was meant to be joking, light, observation, not admonishment.  But Ciara wasn’t used to showing weakness.

The tower and the atmosphere gun.  The Simurgh.  The power effects betraying convention.  Broken triggers.  Ghosts.  Tinker devices left unattended.  Chemical weapons.  Mutants.  War.  Being hated or treated as alien or creepy everywhere she went.  Being judged for tending to her flock.  Being judged for failing her flock.

She could deal with that.  She could stand tall and she could face it down.  They were comfortable unknowns and question marks.

“The city.  We’ve talked about it.  Why I’m… staying comfortably away,” Ciara said.

“The biggest threat,” Jessica said.

“The biggest threat.  Yeah.  I’m terrified, Jessica.”

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Gleaming – Interlude 9.z

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Day Zero

As soon as the words left Tristan’s mouth, he regretted them.  He saw the looks on the faces of his teammates, and the magnitude of what he had just done hit home.

“Liar,” Moonsong said.

Tristan had dealt with his share of adrenaline before, but in this moment, he wasn’t sure if he felt the adrenaline from the fight bottoming out or if he felt the adrenaline of this moment ramping up to a ridiculous extreme.  The system shock, the shock of being called out, and the tension of the moment made him tremble.

“No.  You’re lying!”

“Easy, Moon,” Figurehead said.  He reached out and she pushed his hand away.

There were tears welling in her eyes, and he couldn’t even call them crocodile tears this time, because there were tears forming in his own eyes.

If he changed back now-

No.

The line had been crossed.  If he took it back now, it wouldn’t change the fact that Byron would know.  Byron would start thinking about what to do.

Tribute was filling others in.  Steamwheel was mostly out of costume, wearing only her mask.  Her suit had been disintegrated, hadn’t it?

Furcate stood off to the side, staring.

That hurt.  It threw him.

He couldn’t tell Furcate, he realized.  They’d never been someone he could really talk with, but they’d been an ally.  He couldn’t tell Nate.  He couldn’t tell anyone.

Figurehead dropped to one knee, hand clapping down on the metal of Tristan’s armor.  The half-hug and supporting touch was walled off by thick, elaborately decorated metal, to the point he could barely feel it.

“Tristan,” Moonsong hissed his name.  He could feel his heart stop.  “Look me in the eyes.”

Tristan reached up, fumbling as he tried to pull off a helmet he had put on and taken off a hundred times.  His movements were so ineffectual that Figurehead helped, and Tristan accepted without complaint.

There were no bystanders, and the group was clustered in close.

He looked her in the eyes.

“He was my brother,” Tristan said.  “I love him, but- he’s not in here anymore.”

His vision momentarily blurred as a tear covered the surface of one eye.  He rubbed it away.  She didn’t rub anything away, letting moisture streak her cheeks beneath her mask, dark with makeup.  He saw her expression – anger dominated it, and that anger terrified him.

Every survival instinct he had meshed with that quiet horror, seizing him.  He pushed it to his expression, raw and unfiltered.

He had no idea what to do, and he let her see it.

The anger faltered.

“Try again,” she said.  “Please?”

If he released Byron now, what would happen?  They would both live in fear.

He could imagine the scenarios.  Even the pair of them being out would be a hell of dread and mortal worry.

He tried to convince himself, to step to the edge of the cliff he was was expected to jump from.  For his entire life, he’d made the jumps.

He couldn’t.

“I can’t,” he said.

Coiffure rose to her feet, ginger in her movements, and walked over to Moonsong to hug her.  That was good.   Coiffure was good.  Naturally kind, heroic, and cool.  Moonsong had her shitty side, but he didn’t want her to suffer.  He especially didn’t want her to suffer alone.  Nobody deserved that.

Byron.

“Tribute,” Figurehead said, interrupting Tristan’s thought.  “Call the bosses.  Call everyone.”

Everyone.

Something in that word crystallized the horror in Tristan.  He shivered involuntarily.  Everyone.  The team, the staff, students and teachers, other teams.  Hell, there was the girl at the pasta bar just down the street from Reach’s headquarters, who was clench for By, bringing her A-game for flirting.  She’d been visibly devastated when they’d come in with Brianna.  Byron hadn’t noticed that she’d taken their drinks, but hadn’t been around the rest of the night.

Teenager stuff, in the best and worst way.  Tristan would have brought attention to it, but what good would it have done?  Byron would have accused him of being underhanded and trying to undermine the relationship with Brianna.  What would the pasta bar girl think now?  What would she say?  What would anyone say?

Family.  The thought made Tristan go cold.

“Breathe,” Figurehead said.  “Okay?  We’ve got you.”

Tristan nodded.

Their cousins.  Their aunts and uncles.  The old ladies at the church.

Everyone was so many people.

“Deep breath, Capricorn,” Figurehead said.  “You didn’t actually breathe when I told you to, you just nodded at me.”

Tristan drew in a deep breath.

They would ask.  Everyone would ask.

The thought had crystallized and he was getting his head around the shape and the scale of it.

“They’re coming,” Tribute said, a phone still held to his ear.  “Mr. Vaughn and the rest of the staff.  They want to know if we need emergency services.”

“Coiffure?” Figurehead asked.

Coiffure shook her head.  Her hair was still limp, trailing on the ground.

“No, then.  Nothing-” Figurehead started.  “There’s nothing we can do.”

There was a commotion.  His first thought was Moonsong.  It wasn’t.  Furcate, clawed costume shoes with metal decoration scuffed against the road-top.

Furcate bodily collided with Tristan.  Their arms wrapped around him in a hug.  Again, as it had with Figurehead’s half-hug of support, the armor prevented Tristan from feeling the body contact.

Furcate moved their mask, pulling it so it sat sideways.  The side of their head pressed against Tristan’s.

“I’m so sorry,” Furcate whispered.

The words shook him.  Everything seemed to.

“Me too,” he murmured the words.  They were honest  ones.

He would have to explain to everyone.  He would need… explanations.  Expressions.  Tones of voice.  He couldn’t act.  Acting could be seen through.  He knew that.

It required something else.  Tapping into real feelings and letting them show, as he had before.

Baring his soul, when he wasn’t sure he could bear to.

He was lost in thought, and he didn’t even realize that Furcate was stroking his head until they stopped.  Cars were pulling up, navigating the potholes and other damage from Paris’ bombardment.

Mr. Vaughn had a driver, which he normally reserved for events and for emergencies.  It let him get in the car immediately, getting ready in the back while the driver focused on the road.  A touch of makeup, a change into nicer clothes, and preliminary phone calls.

Oh, this probably counted as an emergency.

Tristan accepted a hand in getting to his feet.  He had the support of most of the team, Moonsong excepted, but Coiffure was looking after her, and she needed looking after.

He’d never, even after his trigger event, ever felt any emotion quite so terrible as what twisted in his midsection.

“Do you want me to handle it?” Figurehead asked.

Tristan shook his head.  “No.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” Tristan said.  The words felt overly mechanical in his mouth, at odds with what he was feeling inside.  He had to insist, because he couldn’t imagine coming to terms with any crisis by letting others handle it.

Head on.

He had to take on the issue starting with the man at the top.  If he could sway Mr. Vaughn, then others would follow.

The issue was with swaying Mr. Vaughn.  The guy wasn’t stupid.

“Something happened to Byron?” Mr. Vaughn asked.  “Are you okay, Tristan?”

“I’m not hurt,” Tristan reported.

“You didn’t tell him?” Figurehead asked.  The question disoriented Tristan, until he realized it was aimed at Tribute.

“Tribute explained it,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “I wanted to hear it from you all.”

He looked so grave, so serious.

Which wasn’t to say Tristan wasn’t also.  He’d always related to Mr. Vaughn; Tristan had even imagined that if Byron hadn’t fucking strangled him and if they hadn’t gotten powers, he might have ended up in a similar position, doing similar work.

“Sir,” Tristan started.

“No need for anything fancy, Capricorn,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Tell me what happened, if you can.”

A conspiracy to start.  They weren’t even explicitly supposed to be here.  He had raised the subject of going after Paris again with Mr. Vaughn, and he had been given unofficial, deniable permission.

“We were scouting areas where we knew Paris might turn up.  From our research, we know some of his patterns,” Tristan said, his voice still mechanical, hollow.  “It was strict recon.  His reconnaissance got us before ours got him.”

A conspiracy.  Mr. Vaughn knew part of it was a lie, but he wouldn’t press.  Reach would get in trouble with the likes of the Youth Guard if it sanctioned minors going after professional killers, as much as it wanted the credit for arrests.  The rest of the team knew that part or all of it was a lie, but they didn’t want to get in trouble with Mr. Vaughn or Reach.

Both sides would want to keep this quiet for selfish reasons.  Both sides would want to go to Tristan if they needed to keep the story straight, which would let him control the story.

“Byron got killed,” Furcate said.

“It was Paris that did this?”

“Later into the fight.  He started hitting a lot harder.  He had a trick, shooting giant nails like cannon blasts.  Byron and I were in sync for a lot of the fight, and then we weren’t.  I don’t know if he got disoriented, but he stayed a second too long.  I can’t change.”

“Don’t you dare blame him,” Moonsong was heated.

“Calm down.  It’s okay,” Coiffure shushed.

“I blame-” Tristan started.  His voice quavered, and he had to steel himself.  “I blame myself.  I should have pushed to run.”

“You utter asshole,” Moonsong said.

“Come on, Song,” Coiffure said.  “Let’s- we won’t say anything we regret.”

Moonsong shook her head.

“Capricorn,” Mr Vaughn said.  He put hands on either of Tristan’s pauldrons, the elaborate ram’s head armor panels at Tristan’s shoulders.  A light shake communicated the touch through the armor.  “Why don’t you get in my car?  We’ll talk privately there.  Dr. Wall is waiting at the office, I’ve called your parents, and they’re on their way.”

“And Paris?” Steamwheel asked.

“Paris,” Mr. Vaughn said, and his voice hardened.  “We’ll call the PRT.  We’ll let other teams know too.  He crossed a line.  Intentionally?”

Tristan hesitated.  Paris- Paris had been in the back of his mind as he’d made the decision.  He’d known Paris would come up and the community’s way of dealing with Paris would change.

Thinking about it rationally, though-

He thought of Nate, miserable and vulnerable in the hospital room.  Of Furcate getting hurt.  Of the innumerable people who Paris might have interacted with in his day to day.  The ‘little’ acts of hate.

“Intentional,” Tristan lied.

Mr. Vaughn nodded, his expression grim; none of the usual professional warmth was visible.

“We’ll talk things over in the car, Capricorn.  I’ll walk you through everything.  Everyone else, there are cars if you want a ride.  It may be best, in case he comes back this way.  All team activities, missions, and events are canceled until further notice.  We’ll pull in the adult capes that we have on the roam and on commission.”

The effects kept on rippling out.

Tristan listened for a second more, realized he wasn’t really registering what was being said, and climbed into the car, closing the door behind him.

Present

The car door opened.  Two people got out.  Mayor Wynn and her assistant.

The rain still fell.  Tristan wished he had Byron’s cold immunity, because he was starting to feel it.  He had talked to the only person in charge of the prison who hadn’t been compromised, and he had talked to the hero groups.

Nothing set in stone.  They were uncertain, and they wanted to talk among themselves.  There was always a chance that things could go awry if the wrong voice was forceful enough at a time others were uncertain.  Some would be waiting to see how this went.

“Jeanne Wynn.  Citrine,” Victoria’s voice was quiet.

“And the Number Man,” Sveta added.  “Cauldron.”

Tristan blinked.  That was a name he hadn’t heard in a long time.  “I’ve heard that name.  The Number Man, I mean.”

“Supervillain banker,” Sveta murmured.  “He bankrolled almost half of the villainous groups on Earth Bet, serving a secondary role as a broker, protector and distributor of funds, launderer.  He was an assassin, acting as one arm of the ‘bogeyman of the cape world’ group.  The Irregulars were keeping track of him for a while.”

Tristan looked at the assistant more closely.  Not quite nerdy enough to be nerd chic, the man had a nice belt buckle, wore a peacoat and narrow slacks, with a muted plaid shirt beneath the coat.  Strong chin with a cleft, boring hair.

No, not nerd chic, but he wore clothes that fit him damn near perfectly, helped by the athletic body beneath the clothes.  When most guys didn’t wear clothes that fit them, even fairly nondescript clothes worn well could draw the eye.  Tristan had always had a thing for dorky guys with shells that he could then crack open.

And then there was Wynn.  Citrine.  Her clothes were nicer than Kurt’s.  The kind that wasn’t available on Gimel, unless people were willing to pay a premium for otherwise premium clothes from elsewhere.  There were different tiers of ‘premium’, too.  Stuff like a rash guard or nice pair of pants were expensive enough that they needed three to five days of construction work to pay for them.  For a nice sheer top with a pattern on it in what looked like gold leaf?  Admitting that he knew next to nothing about women’s clothing, he felt like it was a special case where barter was necessary, because Earth Gimel’s currency was still in uncertain territories.

Tristan tried to remain still and calm as he recalled all of the little details.  Tattletale had dished on these guys, and so had Barcode.  Victoria had talked about Citrine before, and the Number Man… well, he was a myth.

“That is one way to tie up a loose end,” Citrine noted, her attention on the body that had yet to be touched.

“Tying up this loose end may have created a hundred more,” Tristan said.

“As is always the case,” Citrine said.  She extended a hand.  “You would be Capricorn?”

He pulled off his gauntlet and shook her hand firmly.  “Yes.  Pleased to meet you.”

“I’m Mayor Jeanne Wynn.  Good solid handshake there, Capricorn.”

“Ah, you too.”

“Thank you.  I was raised by someone who would break a bone in my hand if my handshake was anything except perfect.”

“I’m… sorry?”

“He was the best thing for me at the time,” she said.  “Sometimes we need a bit of decisive, pointed violence.”

Her hand indicated Goddess’ corpse.  A pair of black birds flew down to feast, maybe ravens – they were large enough.  An officer waved it off.

The awkward share had been a lead-in to bringing up that topic.  There was something callous about that.  Jesus.  She wasn’t even pretending not to be a villain.

“Antares,” Citrine said, greeting the group.  “Rain o’ Fire, Swansong, Ashley Stillons, Lookout.  Natalie Matteson.  And, of course, Tress.  Sveta Karelia.”

“I hope you don’t mind,” the Number Man said.  “I took the liberty of looking up your information.  I remember the fact we didn’t know it was a point of contention last time.”

“It wasn’t a question of courtesy,” Sveta said.  “I didn’t want you to look it up.  I wanted you to know it.”

“Then I’m sorry,” he said.

“I don’t think you’re capable of feeling anything, let alone remorse.  You don’t do what you’ve done if you have any remorse.”

“Not often,” the Number Man said.  “Remorse is a funny thing.  The mark it promises to leave can so easily be drowned out by the need we feel in the moment.”

“I think there’s an element of choice in that,” Victoria said.  “Pretending there’s no choice and that it’s a force of nature sounds dangerously close to a justification.”

“If the strength of our needs justified anything, there wouldn’t be any remorse.  If we were all capable of accurate self-assessment.  If.”

Sveta spoke up again, audible through the reinforced ball that contained her.  “I can’t escape the idea that if you were capable of accurate self-assessment, Kurt, you would have offed yourself politely years ago.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Opinion.  I don’t think I’m capable of assessing you and coming to any fair judgment, I’m biased.  You know, on account of how you turned me into a monster.”

Tristan met Jeanne Wynn’s eyes.

“What are you here for?” he asked her.

“Answers.”

“I don’t get the impression you’d buy any bullshit or white lies,” Tristan said.

“It would have to be very good lying.  If I think you’re trying to pull one over on me, then I’m going to walk away, and I’ll get my information elsewhere.”

“If we’re honest and upfront, then that should count for something,” Tristan said.  “Something beyond what we deserve for being experimented on, gotta give Sveta and Weld a nod here, and for being the ones to stick our necks out on this.  Too many people held back.  You, the Wardens, Tattletale.  You were scared.”

“Not in the way you think.  You want to make demands?”

“We want many of the same things you do,” he said.  He let some latent frustration seep into his voice.  “And I swear, if you take us for granted, we’ll leave right now.  If you don’t think we will, you should be the one to walk away, because you did pledge to do it if I lied to your face.”

Citrine looked at The Number Man, then back to Tristan.  “What do you want?”

“Cauldron studied powers.  I want everything possible that you have on Case Fifty-Threes and on Case Seventies.  If you have any clever ideas on undoing the damage, reserved for your high-end clients, you provide it.”

That got him a few surprised looks from his team.  Antares folded her arms, eyebrows raised.  Sveta was looking up at him.

“Alright,” Citrine said.

“Alright what?”

“Power research documentation from several governments.  You may need translators.  Our own field notes.  There’s no reason to keep them in our back pocket.  PRT power testing notes from all known Case Fifty-Threes and Seventies.”

“Can-” Victoria started.  She looked at Tristan.

“Go ahead,” he said, shrugging.

“Can we get all PRT files?” Victoria asked.  “My collection has massive holes in it, and I know the Wardens feel the loss.”

“Aren’t you greedy?” Citrine said.  “I can provide the means, not the ends.”

“That’s fine.  As long as I know they’re out there somewhere.”

“They are.  I’ll point you to a server and give you the tools to access it.  Distribute the information as you see fit.”

“In terms of mutual goals, we need backup from the city,” Tristan said.  “I know it’s politically inconvenient, but we’re catching the worst of it on every front.  The public, resources, information, lack of connections to people in power, the danger and the chaos.”

“We’re already making plans to elevate the other teams.  The Wardens haven’t been in a position to be a public face or a middleman since the portal disaster.  We can provide information when we provide it to the other teams, we’ll encourage the law enforcement and parahuman patrols to cooperate with you, insofar as the mayor can do that.  Will that be all?”

She asked that last question like she was hinting that her patience was wearing thin.

“So long as you don’t throw us under the bus,” Tristan said.  “Yeah.”

“Fill me in.”

“I’ve massaged things with the assistant Warden.  I explained the sequence of events, and he was reassured by Foresight’s counsel at the scariest moments in the night.  He’s on our side, except for the sheer number of prisoners they just lost.  He’s scared.  He needs reassurance.”

“He just lost his job,” Victoria said.  “He’s worried he’s going to be painted as the villain or made out to be the scapegoat.”

“Understood.”

“We caught wind of the plot when we traced Cheit’s people and they turned out to be Teacher’s.  He was responsible for the attack on the portals and for the attack on this prison.  It didn’t feel like he went all-out, even if he did it smart.  He wanted the prison sealed off so he could collect everyone within, and we think he wanted Goddess with them.  She slipped the trap.”

“The collection process is using Mama Mathers and Scapegoat,” Rain volunteered.

“We know that much.  He’s made several oblique attacks on key capes.”

“If he’s using the portals, I have a way to mess with him.  I could make devices,” Lookout said.

“It could help.  Keeping certain individuals out of his reach, for one thing.  Thank you.”

“You’re-”

“No,” Tristan interrupted Lookout.  “Not for free.”

“If you’re trying to look better in front of your team by driving a hard bargain, you should know that there are limits, Capricorn.”

“I’m not driving a hard bargain or trying to look better,” Tristan said, his voice rising.  “We drove.  We looked good.  We put on a damn good performance out there, all considered.”

“We talked it over as a team,” Victoria said.  “We agreed we’re willing to cooperate with you.  So far, we’re only asking for information and cooperation.”

“You talked about that when you appeared on television.”

“Things are coming apart at the seams.  We’ve got something resembling a needle, you’ve got thread.  Can we please cooperate?” Victoria asked.  “Even Sveta agreed it was necessary.”

Citrine drew in a breath.  “I’ll help so long as it doesn’t hurt elsewhere.  We’re interested in the devices that could block off Teacher’s portals.  What do you want?”

“A pony?” Lookout asked.

Tristan felt a twinge of alarm.  Kenzie being happy and laughing was all well and good, and even a joke where wasn’t out of place, but it seemed uncharacteristically young for Lookout, and when he paired that with the Cryptid betrayal…

He’d have to talk to Victoria, Sveta, Rain, and Swansong later.

Lookout laughed a little, “No sorry, I’m kidding.  Um.”

“Funds,” Swansong suggested, as serious as Lookout was being silly.  “Materials.”

“You have a person named The Number Man,” Tristan added.

“Funds.  Easy enough,” Citrine said.  “But the pony comment is a good opportunity for me to gracefully segue-”

“Oh no,” Lookout said.  “Did I do something?”

Again, just slightly off.  He didn’t consider himself a Kenzie whisperer like Ashley and Victoria seemed to be, but… he wanted to talk it over with them.

“On the topic of things little girls dream of, not a pony, but a unicorn.”

“Monokeros,” Victoria said.

“You know her.  We’re interested.  We’ll barter, if need be.”

“She’s a monster,” Victoria said.

“We can keep a leash on her.”

“A lot of people seem to think that,” Sveta said.  “Goddess did.  Teacher might have.”

“We’re confident.”

“And we’re sorry,” Tristan said.  He shrugged, and then he lied, “We had to put a permanent end to her.”

Monokeros was still in the hole.  The last they’d seen, as they’d collected Kingdom Come and Blindside, Monokeros had been trying to stack things high enough to reach the lip.  When they’d left the prison dimension, Lookout had confirmed everyone was out, re-keyed the exit portal behind them.

The lie threatened to end the bargaining, to make Citrine walk away, to cost them the notes, the PRT files, the funds.

“Noted,” Citrine said.

If she’d noticed the lie -Tristan was fairly confident she would have had to read another member of the team to see it- she gave no indication.

One less loose end to deal with.

“Let’s talk sequence of events,” Citrine said.  “Tell me what happened.”

“What happened and what we told the Warden differed,” Tristan said.  “We thought it best to paint a picture that the mass control was briefer and more fragile than it was.  It will sit better with the public.  Breakthrough, by our narrative, was captured later and broke free more decisively.”

My narrative.

“Is that a problem?” Victoria asked.

“No,” Citrine said.  “Walk me through it.”

Victoria handled the talking, focused on a task in a way that helped to pull her out of the mire, even as her body language was nervous and defensive.

Tristan looked over at Goddess.  More scavenger birds were clustering close to the body.  It looked like the medical examiner was at least preparing to collect it now.

Byron had compared Goddess to him earlier.  It wasn’t wrong.  Her fatal flaw wasn’t so different from his own.

Like a vehicle with no ability to reverse course.  The only difference is that I was given a chance to turn around.  You turned around just in time to get disemboweled.

Day Two

This would get easier, right?  Couldn’t he harden his heart?

Mama sobbed.  Both of her hands clutched his right hand, gripping it tight enough that it might have done damage if he hadn’t had that tiny boost of power.  He could hear the pain, and he felt like it was killing him.

“We should go, Anita,” Papa said.  “We’ll be at the hotel.  We’ll see him tomorrow morning.”

“Come, Tristan,” Mama said.  “Come to the hotel.  There’s a cot.”

Tristan didn’t know what to say to that.

Papa was the savior.  “He has had his fill of us, Anita.  He’s grown used to his independence and he needs his own space and privacy to grieve, and- I want my space to grieve with you and nobody else.”

Mama released Tristan’s hand and pulled him into a hug.  The gesture made his own tears fall free, just when he’d thought he’d run out.

“Eat, drink.  Meet with your friends.  We will meet in the morning and talk about the funeral.”

Tristan’s breath caught in his throat as he opened his mouth to respond.  He saw something similar in his mother’s face.

Papa cupped the side of Tristan’s face in one hand.

“Mr. Vaughn offered to handle things,” Tristan said.

“We will do this as a family,” Papa said.  His gaze lingered a moment too long, too hard.

That in itself almost took the air out of Tristan’s lungs.  He swallowed hard.

Does he suspect?

“Tomorrow morning,” Tristan said.  He dreaded it already.

He stood in the doorway to his room as he watched his parents walk away, raising a hand in a small wave each time they looked back his way.

Two days.  Two days and not one minute to himself.

‘Himself’.  ‘Independence’.

He knew why.  They were concerned about him, about what he might do while he grieved.

He shut the door.

From the moment the door closed, it took about ten or fifteen minutes for him to pull himself together.

“Byron,” he whispered.  “I had to.”

For Byron, it could easily be the first moment that he knew for sure that this was Tristan’s doing, and not a mistake or a glitch with the power.

Tristan crossed the room.  On the bulletin board, amid notes from Tristan to Byron and Byron to Tristan, there were pictures.

He pulled one free, not removing the tack first.  A bit of the picture tore.  It was a small photo- smaller than standard.  A young Byron was standing with a clear pout on his face, arms folded.  He’d dyed his hair green, and standing beside him was a younger Tristan, hair a bright red.  Where Byron had been pouting, young Tristan was grinning wide, posing by flexing his arms, tiny muscles standing out.

They’d been eleven.  Byron had dyed his hair and Tristan had followed suit, and he’d done a better job with the bleach job prior to applying the dye.  Byron had not been impressed with Tristan.

“I had to,” Tristan said, to the photo and to his silent company.  “We were both- we were going to pieces.  I was miserable, losing weight.  I know you noticed I couldn’t sleep.”

He wanted to hit something and keep hitting it until he couldn’t move anymore, but he was so tired he couldn’t bring himself to move.  He wanted to party and yet at the same time he couldn’t imagine spending more time around people.

More time around people while being completely, utterly alone.  Completely and utterly by his own doing.

“And you…” he continued to whisper, out of a concern for bugs, because he wasn’t willing to rule anything out, not when the stakes were this high.  “The self harm, By?  The repeated, escalating self harm, starting with the pen?  I’ll assume that was self-harm and not you trying to hurt me.  But it was scary, By.  One of us was going to lose it eventually.  Do something stupid.  The way you were going, I wasn’t sure you were going to last the rest of the year.”

No rebuttal.  Only the exaggerated pout, skinny arms folded.

Out of a desire for words, for anything, he turned the photo over, hoping for a caption or note.

Nothing.

“I was thinking about it.  I was thinking that maybe you were thinking about it.  As you got close to Moonsong, I couldn’t help but worry that you were thinking more and more about the future.  What you would have to do to have that future you wanted.  House, white picket fence, dog, wife, and kids with really high chance of getting manipulative bitch genes?”

He paused.

“Sorry,” he amended his statement.  “But I was thinking it and our thoughts are all we really have to ourselves.  I don’t know what you were thinking, but you were getting more and more controlling.  You were strategically taking out things I value.  It’s hard to convince myself there’s not an endgame, and that we’re not in a cold war race to see who can find a plausible way out first.”

He pulled off his shirt, pausing halfway to dab at his eyes with the fabric.  He pulled it off the rest of the way, balled it up, and threw it into the hamper.  Nothing but net.

There was no joy in that small thing.  Only an oppressive feeling, crushing down on his chest.

“I saw Furcate kill their other self during the first Paris fight.  It put the seed in my head.  I tried to shake it, but I couldn’t.  By the second fight, I wasn’t planning anything.  I thought about what the scenario might look like.  I might have helped it along subconsciously.  Then, in the middle of everything, I saw things line up.  Nobody had visibility.  Paris was… probably the best person to take the fall, because he’s scum…”

Please understand.

“It was an impulse.  It was maybe my one and only chance, ever.  A massive choice, my existence on the line.”

He smoothed out a wrinkle in the photo.

“I can’t take it back,” he said.  “Because if you weren’t thinking about how to take one hundred percent control before, you have to be doing it now.  It was about survival for me, and I’ve made it about survival for you, doing this.”

He looked at the bulletin board, organized into two sides.  The things common to the both of them ran down the middle.  The picture he held was among those things.

He touched papers on Byron’s side, as if he could find a line that matched up with what he wanted and needed to hear.

The silence weighed on him, condemning.  No response from the photo.

He felt an irrational kind of anger at that.  Slowly and methodically, motions out of tune with the flare of anger, he began removing tacks.  Byron’s reminder about an I.O.U. for a movie choice on movie night fluttered to the table.  Tristan’s hand struck it hard, the impact loud.  Pinning it down.  Both the violence of the motion and the noise had surprised even him.

He resumed work.  One by one, he removed notes from Byron’s side.

“If it’s down to one of us surviving, I’ve got to side with me.”

Day Twenty-Four

“You’re really up for this, Capricorn?” Coiffure asked.

“I need this,” Tristan said.

“Alright,” she said.  She smiled.  She was wearing her training costume, the same general shape, but without the bells, whistles, and decorations- what Steamwheel called ‘tinsel’, the zig-zags of metal that stood out on the bodysuits.

Tristan didn’t have a bodysuit.  His armor was all metal, all decorated.  He strapped his armor on, setting everything in place in its proper order.

There was a ritual to it, and he liked the ritual.  There were days that were rituals, each meal a single step in a larger pattern with a long-term purpose.  Each point of hygiene.  The phone calls to the parents on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Others came in, finding their seats at the end of the room opposite the door.  Most had snacks from the vending machine.  Steamwheel, Figurehead, Tribute, Furcate.

“Sparring?” Figurehead asked.

“Figuring out where my head is at.  The fans are starting to ask where Capricorn is.”

“I’ve been wondering that myself,” Moonsong said.

Tristan’s heart skipped a beat.

“You took on a role as team leader.  We got used to you in that role,” Moonsong said.  She was keeping Coiffure’s kid brother company, the two of them eating the same candy.  She paused beside Tristan as she crossed the room, reaching out to lay a hand on his arm.  Her smile was an encouraging one.  “Let’s get you back on your feet.”

Tristan nodded.

Moonsong headed over to the benches.  Coiffure’s little brother sat between Moonsong and Furcate.

“Slow motion to open, speed up?” Coiffure asked.

“Sure,” Tristan said, smiling before he pulled his helmet on.

Crimson motes.  They appeared freely and after his expectations that he would be badly out of practice, the ease with which they moved caught him off guard.

Coiffure produced a hair whip, freeing a flail -chain and spiked head- from her silver mane.  The chain was lengthy and the hair itself long enough and strong enough to produce a lazy whipping motion.  Tristan ducked beneath, though it was swung so high it would have barely grazed his helmet.

The little brother cheered for blood.  Probably the most enthusiasm for cape stuff that Tristan had seen out of him.

It was typical for the team to warm up with a back and forth, speeding up as they went.  Because it was a back and forth, it was his turn.

He materialized his rock, aware that there was no other form to swap to.  Wherever he placed it, that was where it would be.

Coiffure’s hair-flail slammed noisily against floorboards as hair went limp.  The sound echoed through the empty arena.

Spikes, jagged, like pyramid-shaped triangles drawn out long, some connected as one triangle after another to form the angular breaks where the lines had drawn curves.  Some were connected in chains of three and four.  All black, with crimson material visible through gaps, where one connected to another or wedded the spikes to a surface.

“That might be harder to sell to the design team,” Coiffure said.

Tristan couldn’t respond, his throat tight.  Of course it changed.

“Holy shit,” Tribute said.  He hopped down from his seat, approaching one near him.

Tristan felt it.  “Trib!  Back!”

Tribute reacted, stepping back.  Moonsong used her power, and Tribute’s backward step became a bound.

The chain of spikes moved- the red bonds acting like muscle, the black spikes rigid, spearing, stabbing, and scraping at floorboard.

All through the arena, the spikes moved, scratching, reaching, stabbing in the direction of people they couldn’t reach.

Coiffure destroyed one, swinging out with her flail.  The one she hit on the backward swing survived the hit, then stabbed down, pinning the chain to the floor.  It yanked, pulling Coiffure closer to another spike.

Tristan kicked it.  With the damage that was already done, a firm kick with a metal boot destroyed the spike, breaking it away from the ground.

He did what he could, but it was really the team that stepped up.  Tribute gave strength, Steamwheel had a gauntlet in her backpack, and Figurehead scanned with his ‘first impressions’ figuring before wading into the fray.

Tristan fled the room.  Down the hall, past the staff offices.  Into his own room.

He gasped for breath and he couldn’t find it.  He’d practiced techniques, but this- this was something beyond.

For just an instant, he’d been left to wonder if the intelligence behind those things was By, somewhere in there, gone mad enough he’d hurt his old friends.

Tristan looked across the room, trying to keep his breathing straight.  All of Byron’s things were packed away into a single box, slid into a corner.  Moonsong had taken some, on a night she’d visited to chat and reminisce.

A gasp of a laugh escaped.  There were moments they were almost friends.

There was a knock at the door.  Tristan looked up, and he saw K, mask off.

“It changed based on our relationship to each other,” Tristan said.  “I did- I did something.”

“No.  That was your power, and powers can be cruel.”

“I- it’s my fault.”

“No.  Sometimes the powers do this.  Sometimes I don’t get any good Furcates for weeks on end.”

“It’s not-” Tristan started.

What was he supposed to say?  Any words he uttered, any proof he gave, it would be as good as sealing his own fate, and it would devastate K.

Could he hurt them that badly?

Irrationally, he knew the right thing to do, but with the small sorts of pain he would inflict so clear in front of his face, looking at him with worry, he couldn’t bring himself to say it any more clearly.

K unwrapped a candy.  “Open.”

He opened his mouth.  He made a face as he tasted it.  “Lemon?  I thought we got you onto something else.”

“We all need something to fall back to,” K said.  “When we lose track of ourselves.  If we run into a tie and we’re supposed to decide among ourselves, we have a fourth number we track.  Physical health, mental health, girl-ness, and the tiebreaker.”

“The candy?”

“Reminds me of the woman who raised me,” K said, sucking on the candy  “If I ever don’t like it or I don’t feel reminded of those days, I’m not me.”

“I don’t have anything like that.”

“Not Nate?”

“Not- no.  I like him, but…”

But I killed the person I was supposed to fall back to.

Day 57

He panted for breath.  In all of the fantasies, he hadn’t ever imagined it being quite this sweaty.

He didn’t even have his breath before Nate was kissing him again, pushing him down against the bed.  His hand ran through the thin line of Nate’s chest hair.  Nate smelled so good.  No products really dominated, there wasn’t a heavy sweat smell.  It was just Nate.

Tristan broke the kiss, panting for breath again.  Nate leaned in to kiss him again, and Tristan had to pull his head back.  “I’m out of breath.  Give me a second.  What got into you?”

“I missed you.”  Nate’s fingers stroked Tristan’s hair.

Those words made Tristan choke up just a bit, which didn’t help with the fact that he’d barely had a chance to breathe.

Nate bit his lip, then reached down for the button of Tristan’s jeans.

A reversal of months ago.

Tristan helped with the removal of the jeans.  He kicked them off.

The moment was very still.  He felt Nate’s hand.

Nate leaned in close, kissing him.  The hand moved to Tristan’s neck, instead.

“Sorry,” Tristan said, as the kiss broke.

“No pressure.”

“I can’t.”

“No worries,” Nate said.  “It’s been a har- a tough few months.”

“It doesn’t feel right, I think.  That’s why-”

“Shh.  What would feel right?”

“It sounds lame, but… can we just hold each other?”

“Anytime,” Nate whispered, stroking Tristan’s hair.  “Always.”

Day 60

Tristan knocked.

“Tristan!  Come in.  Please.  Sit.”

Tristan obeyed, entering Dr. Wall’s office, shutting the door firmly behind him, then seating himself on the couch.  Such a cliche, that there was an actual couch.

“I know we didn’t make an appointment.”

“My door is always open, provided I’m not already talking to someone.”

Tristan nodded.  The fingers on his right hand trembled.  He seized them with the fingers of his left, and the nervousness seemed to multiply.  His two clasped hands trembled together.  He unclasped them, and he smoothed down the lap of his pants before gripping his knees.

“What’s on your mind, Tristan?”

“Everything,” Tristan said.

“Well, that will only take about ten billion years to the twelfth power to get through.  Do you have the secret of immortality?  Or do you want to narrow it down some?”

It was said in a joking tone, but Tristan didn’t feel much like laughing.

“I did it,” Tristan said.  He looked at the therapist.

“What?”

“I killed my brother.”

Dr. Wall nodded.

“Maybe you misheard me?  I said-”

“I heard what you said.  I’ve been expecting this visit for a while.”

Tristan shivered, whole-body.

“Survivor’s guilt, Tristan.  It plays tricks on our minds.  We replay scenes over and over again, imagining things with a different emphasis, or we exaggerate details.  I’m honestly shocked that it took you two months to come here and say this.  I’d even say it’s a mark of extreme emotional stability.”

Tristan laughed, incredulous.  “What?  No.  No, I’m anything but emotionally stable right now.  I’m saying I killed my brother.  Deliberately.”

The smile fell from Dr. Wall’s face.  With it, Tristan’s heart plummeted down to where his balls were.  He’d expected this.

“Okay,” Dr. Wall said.  “Serious talk.  That’s a lot of weight to be carrying on your shoulders.”

Tristan was silent.

“How long have you been wanting to come here and say this?”

“I’ve been thinking about it for a month.”

Dr. Wall nodded.

“I almost told Furcate.”

“It’s probably for the best that you didn’t.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He laughed, and it sounded fake to his own ears.  “Yeah.  There’s… there’s preparations to be done beforehand.”

“Preparations?”

“I can’t- he’s in here.  He’s been in here for two months.  I can let him out, but not before I’ve done something to ensure that it’s not going to get switched around, with me stuck inside for forever.  I need to write letters, I was thinking-”

“Tristan,” Dr. Wall said.

Tristan swallowed.  His head was shaking.

“You’re a promising hero,” Dr. Wall told him, his voice level and soothing.  “And you’re clearly in a bad place.  Anyone would start to fantasize after being so close to their sibling at the time of death.”

“It’s not a fantasy,” Tristan said, hands jittery, head jittery, legs jittery.  He thought he might punch Dr. Wall, and he knew what a disaster that would be.  He’d need cooperation to write the letters, ensure he was protected when he let Byron out.

“You’re a promising hero with a lucrative career with Team Reach ahead of them.  I can tell you that nearly every hero that I’ve worked with has gone through a dark period.  Their minds play tricks on them, they replay memories in their heads until the footage becomes distorted, and honestly, we don’t love talking about it, but the powers play their role.  Yours recently changed.  You’ve been adapting, doing okay in the field with the new power.  We’re hoping it will change again.”

Tristan didn’t have a response.

“You don’t like the new power, I know.”

“No.”

“You’re still mourning your brother’s passing.”

“Yes.  No- it’s not that he passed.”

“Listen,” Dr. Wall said, voice firm.  “Anyone in your circumstance would want a magic bullet cure to what ails them.  When people aren’t coping or are finding their way to coping, they construct fantasies.  In yours, if this is a fantasy, you get your brother back, you have a resolution to a memory that would haunt anyone, and you can punish yourself for a situation what your unconscious is telling you is your fault.”

Tristan stared down at his hands.

“I can’t imagine anything more tragic than getting your parent’s hopes up, getting your own hopes up,  bringing controversy to the team and your teammates, and potentially letting word get out that would give Paris an escape clause in his court proceedings for your brother’s murder… only for nothing to come of it, a trick your grief has played on your brain.”

Tristan shook his head.  “Except I could let him out now.”

A noise made Tristan’s head turn.  He was jumpy.

“Could you?” Dr. Wall asked.

“What?”

“Could you let him out right now?”

Could he?  He’d shied away from that part of his power for so long he worried it had atrophied.  It was hard to even think about it with all of the compounded dread, each day worse than the last.  To think about doing it without the protection of a pre-existing deal, a promise from powerful people?

“Guess not,” Dr. Wall said.

Tristan shook his head.  “I can, but I need precautions first.  I screwed this up so fucking badly.  I got rid of him, but he takes up more of my day, my thoughts and my routines now than when I gave him half of my time!”

“Sit down, Tristan,” the therapist said.

He’d stood up, and he didn’t realize it.  He stood on the spot, the mechanical instructions for sitting himself down momentarily blank and blacked out.

He didn’t sit.

“If what you said were true, there isn’t a binding contract we could devise that would supercede the criminal charges.  We can’t give you a magic contract that would protect you.  You would likely see some form of punishment, including removal from the team.  The team would no doubt be devastated.  We both know Byron threatened to go to the media in the past, when he was concerned with your behavior.  He would do it in the future.”

Tristan shook his head, eyes on the floor.

“Yes?”

Tristan stopped shaking his head.

“He would.”

“Maybe.”

“We know he would, it’s a pattern we’ve seen before.”

“Yeah.”

“There’s a lot we need to talk about, and a lot of work we need to do, but we can get you to a better place, where this is well behind you.”

Deeply uncomfortable, Tristan started to turn away.  “I’m gonna-”

“I think you should stay.”

“I’m going to go,” Tristan said.

“You have a bright, brilliant future ahead of you, Tristan.  Talk to me or talk to someone here at Reach before you do anything.  We’re on your side.  You’re not alone.”

Not alone.  He’d felt so alone for so long, even the words were a comfort.

He shrugged, then turned to the door.

It was ajar.  He’d closed it on entering and now it was open.

He shut it behind him as he stepped into the hallway, pushing to make sure it couldn’t just pop open.  Belatedly, he realized he hadn’t said a farewell to Dr. Wall.

It didn’t matter.  Fear stabbed him in the gut as he looked around, checking around the corner.

When?  When he’d shouted?

He’d heard a clicking noise earlier.  Who was it?  What did they hear?

Fear gripped his heart.  If he didn’t own this?  If he didn’t release Byron with all safeguards in place?  They might condemn him.

A trickle of sweat ran down the side of his face as he looked around.  Nobody was in the exercise area, and why would an eavesdropper go straight there?  No staff in the nearby offices.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Who?

Nobody was here.  It was part of why he’d gone to Dr. Wall.

There was a distant noise.  He jogged in its direction.

Moonsong.  He felt his blood run cold.  The light streaked down the hallway, illuminating the colorful tiles.

“Hey,” Moonsong said.  “I didn’t know anyone else was around.  Do you want something?”

She indicated the vending machine.

He stared at her.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

She offered him a sympathetic look.  “I don’t feel okay a lot of the time either.  I know we haven’t always gotten along, but if you ever wanted… to talk, or whatever.  Go do something, reminisce, I’m okay with that.”

He shook his head, then realized how it might be taken.  “No thanks.  Not right now.”

“Take care of yourself, Tristan.”

“You too,” he said.

They parted ways.  She went outside.  He went to his room.

The television’s channel zero-zero was to the surveillance cameras.  He found Moonsong and watched for a minute.  She seemed normal.

Seemed wasn’t good enough.

He pulled his old laptop out from beneath the bed, coated in dust and hair, and put it into his backpack.  Not a Reach laptop.  Those might be monitored.  He couldn’t use the Reach internet connection either.  He’d go to a coffee shop or library.

Insurance.  He’d need insurance.

Day 72

Helicopters cut through the air.  Searchlights illuminated a squat industrial building.  The light had a blue tinge, the building itself was terracotta.

Figurehead gave the orders.  “We go in quiet.  We move as Steamwheel orders from comms.  Twelve gifted kids on a special trip with their study group, one teacher, and one guy with a weapon and a whole lot of anger.”

Figurehead used a stick to draw in the dirt.  An overhead map, with the layout.  He placed bits of gravel down to represent the kids, and then put down a quarter.  He tapped the quarter.  “Shooter.”

“Why us and not the police?” Tristan asked.

“Because when they sent a PRT hero in covertly, he blacked out.  Same as what happens to anyone with powers is near anyone who gets powers.  Given that the situation isn’t resolved, we have to assume it was the shooter.”

“Alright,” Tristan said.  He looked at the others.  He saw smiles and nods.

It took a minute before all instructions were given.  Tristan was careful.

They probably talked it over beforehand, Tristan thought.

“Go go go!” Figurehead hissed the words.  The entire group, Steamwheel excepted, ran down the slope and along the shadowy area where the fence-mounted lights didn’t reach. They reached the fence, and Coiffure cut the fence with her hair.

Figurehead likes to fall back on the playbook.  When making up a crime, have the details be ones you already know.

He went with the group, and then they began splitting up, fanning through the building.

They asked each other if they’d talked about this one in front of me.  They must have agreed that they didn’t.

They forgot that I’ve gotten drunk with most members of the team.  I remember other people’s drunk stories.

Students on a field trip, during the day, not the evening.  One person taking them and their teachers hostage.  One of the kids triggered.

It was a training exercise or a trap.  The trap made more sense.

The moment the group had fanned out enough that Tristan wasn’t in sight of anyone, he took a detour.  Down to the basement.  Personal cell out.

Backup.  His insurance.

The intensity of the moment made the sick feeling faint and ethereal.  The trap meant they suspected.  If he could just distract, maybe things could go back to normal.

He had four names on his contact list.  Three were local.  Two fit for this situation.  Bazilizk, ‘z’s instead of ‘s’s, and Throttle.

In the dark, the glow of the screen was painfully bright.  He saw the first message pop up, and then the second.

He felt calmer than he’d imagined he would.  As if everything going as wrong as possible meant he had nothing to worry about.

He’d already laid groundwork.  The fourth name on his list was a tinker, one capable of behavior modification with needles.  He’d already planted evidence around his room, changed his schedule.

If they really did suspect him because he’d been acting strangely, he could use that, create reasonable doubt.

The alternative to that was losing his Mama and Papa.  It was losing Reach, Furcate, Figurehead, Coiffure, Tribute.  It was losing everything.

Still, he felt calm.

Twenty minutes passed.  Then thirty.  There was no commotion.  There were no gunshots or powers used.  He heard people pass by, and he knew they were looking for him.

Come on.

Another minute passed.  His screen glowed.

They were here.  The insurance.

He texted them his location in the building.

They’d give him an out, an excuse, and time, all of which were things he needed.  He’d get away, then he’d figure out his next steps.

The sick feeling was bad enough he thought he might throw up.  The costume and the armor helped, more than anything.  A wall between him and the rest of the world.

“Are we going out the way we came in?” Bazilizk asked, his voice a whisper cutting through the dark.

Tristan turned.  “Is there a better way out?”

“Not really.  Usually people don’t hire me unless they want someone to die, and going out that way will be quiet,” Bazilizk hissed.

Bazilizk was as tall as Paris, but had very broad shoulders, with elaborate decoration at the face, hands, and feet.

Throttle was more unassuming, a guy with tousled hair, a helmet that looked like wood wound around a stump, gaps left for the eyes.  His clothing was mundane and ragged, and he carried a rope.

He would be Tristan’s excuse.

“They’re expecting me to run.  They may cut us off.  If that route works, it works.  Just be prepared for an incident.  You remember the outline?”

“You want plausible deniability.  We make it look like you’re captured.”

“Yeah.”

“Do I kill anyone?” Bazilizk asked.

“No,” Tristan said.  “Not unless-”

He imagined the tables being turned.  Losing his mind as Byron lived his life.  Moonsong and the white picket fence, and the two kids with creepy Moonsong personalities.

“Not unless absolutely necessary.  No.  Scratch that- just… let’s just get out of here.”

“I want an answer,” Bazilizk stated.  “I don’t like gray areas or unclear jobs.”

Tristan thought for a long second.

It felt wrong, that Bazilizk would be that insistent.  But everything felt wrong nowadays.  Everything felt like a trap, a statement left unfinished.  Hollow.

It was as if he was playing a slow, careful game of chess, moving his pieces while only guessing as to the state of the other side of the board.

Were they even playing?  Or playing at a high level?  Could he make a decisive move, or confuse his opponent?

What they never showed in the movies was that these games that masterminds played went with stomach-churning degrees of stress and consecutive nights without a wink of sleep.  Performance faltered.  All it took was one mistake.

“No deaths, no killing.  Lead the way.”

“I’d better make it look like I caught you,” Throttle said.  “It also makes it easier to make a fast escape if I have my rope on you.”

Strangulation and fast movement, and he’d gone with Throttle.  The rope and ‘throttle’ name didn’t mesh, but the guy was supposedly competent.

“I’ll do without for now.  Just lead the way.  I’m the one paying you two.”

He saw the hesitation.

He ran.  Crimson motes painted the area around him, providing dim illumination.  Spikes like razor-tipped insect legs manifested just as he passed them.

Throttle wasn’t fast.  Or if he was, he wasn’t using his speed.

Bazilizk, fortunately, wasn’t using his killing sight.

His mercenaries had been bought out by someone else, and he knew who that someone was.

He had to get away.  Boots tromped on hard floor.  He didn’t get tired, even running in armor heavier than any medieval knight might wear, but there wasn’t much he could do about the noise.

Like an array of stylized drum beats, boot struck hard ground, metal armor rose up, settled with a series of metal on metal sounds, rose up, settled.  His heart hammered in a loose accompaniment.

Until his foot came down, and he went too far up in response.

Moonsong.

Silver strands barred his path.  Coiffure.

And then there were the others.  An entire hallway was blocked by Steamwheel’s mech.

And behind him- he couldn’t do anything except draw out spikes, buy himself a few seconds more of existence.  Just a few seconds.

Throttle reached him.  The rope, now a hangman’s noose, went around his neck.

Through that rope, he felt a power seize him.

Motes appeared, and he didn’t summon them.  His hand moved, and he hadn’t moved it.

“Ahhuh,” he made a sound, involuntary.

“Can you do it?” Moonsong asked.

Before Throttle could figure out how to make it happen, Tristan used his power, and he shifted out, slipping into the void within Byron.

Because, whatever else happened, however narrow the margin, he wanted to be able to tell himself he managed it in the end.

“I’m sorry it took so long, Boo,” Moonsong’s whisper cut through the dark, anguished.

Byron’s answering scream tore through the throat he and Tristan shared.

Tristan’s cut through nothing.  Limited to a dark void.

Present

Tristan was patient.  It was Byron’s turn.

Irony of ironies.  Barcode hadn’t brought their cape to test for brainwashing.

“All clear.”

“Thank you,” Byron said.  He reached into a pocket.

I have it.

Byron swapped out.  Tristan reached beneath his armor for an envelope, then handed it over.

There was something of a relief in the fact that they’d established something of an income stream.  The Number Man would fund them.  They’d answer the favor with cooperation, a continued supply of information, and some of Lookout’s devices.

Without that income stream, this would have been harder to sustain over the long term.  Especially with the dropping dollar.

“Gonna count.  Give me a minute.”

“Sure,” Tristan said.  He leaned back against a wall.  The Barcode hitmen walked over to where the light was stronger, and tore open the envelope to begin counting the contents.

“By,” Tristan murmured.  “I was thinking about… everything that happened, two years ago.  Been thinking about it a lot tonight.”

He swapped out.

“Mind whammies always bring up those days.  Dark feelings,” Byron said.  Swap.

Tristan, as soon as he had control, replied, “I don’t think you’ve ever given me a straight answer about why.”

Swap.

“I’ve given you answers, Tristan,” Byron’s voice was so quiet it was barely audible.

Swap.  Each finished statement was followed by one.

“Not satisfying ones.  Why?  Why didn’t you push for harsher punishment?  Why… let me go?  Why not press charges?  They wanted to arrest me for attempting to murder you.  If it hadn’t gotten snagged in the courts, interrupted by Gold Morning…”

“Your time in jail is my time in jail.  I don’t think you’re going to do it again.”

“Not with this.  Barcode.  Prevention.”

“This was always more for your sake than for mine, Tristan.”

“Is your punishment going to be you being frustratingly vague for the rest of the time we’re stuck together?”

Byron shook their head.  “You punished yourself enough.  I don’t want to dwell in that time, so I’m letting it go.  I forgive you, little brother.”

“Little?  Don’t be that fucking cliche, By.  Minutes.

“I thought it’d get your goat.”

“Uuugh.  Torture, torture.  How is it that we get along best when everything’s gone most thoroughly to shit?  Gold Morning and we reconcile.  You decide to give me this weird pseudo-forgiveness.  Tonight, prison breakout, mind control, and we have a nice chat.”

Tristan swapped.  There was a moment of thought before Byron shrugged their shoulders, then switched back.

“So vague,” Tristan grumbled.

“It’s not pseudo-forgiveness, Tristan.  I have days when I’m angry and days I’m not dealing at all.  You know I have nightmares, I freak out.  But that doesn’t make it pseudo.  It’s forgiveness, little brother.  I might have hated actually going to church, but that doesn’t mean I hated the lessons.”

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be that easy.”

“It’s not, Trist.  Let it go before I change my mind, you know?  It’s an ongoing work, but it’s a work I do for me as much as I do it for you.  So… take it without arguing.”

Byron switched to Tristan.

Tristan didn’t argue.

“We’re good,” The barcode guy said.  “We’ll see you soon, then?  Unless you need something else?”

Tristan paused.

“What?” the guy asked.

“I was thinking we might be able to do business… but I need to talk it over with my brother, first.”

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Gleaming – 9.15

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We had enemies here.  We had put Monokeros in an extended time out, and there was nothing saying that any of our enemies here could decide to do the same thing to us, or worse.  There were Fallen, tertiary members of Prancer’s group, old Birdcage villains like Monokeros who could be a danger to anyone, and any number of ex-prisoners who might have unkind views when it came to heroes.

The rain wasn’t as intense or driving as it had been before, but it was still a factor, still freezing most things.  Prisoners were using forcefields to shield themselves, because they didn’t have jackets, and the prison uniforms, while warm, weren’t outdoor clothes.  The ground was hard with frost and ice, except for where the passage of dozens of feet warmed it and turned it into mud.

I glanced at Goddess’ makeshift platform.  The portal that led from Gimel to the interim world had been set on a hill with some lesser structures on it, the land leveled out.  The platform was a large rock that had been cleaved in half, forming a flat sheet of rock with a crisp edge that would dull with a few more winters and rainy seasons.  I could see the top half in pieces further down the slope, now serving as seats or perches for various capes in Goddess’ battle line.  The rain traced a loose fractal pattern as it wicked off of Goddess’ bubble of telekinesis.

On that platform, beside Goddess, I spotted Amy, and I immediately looked away.  On the train with Tristan and Ashley, weeks ago, I’d seen Presley out of the corner of my eye and it had reminded me of Amy.  That had been enough to fuck with my mood and my head.  Now she was here for real, not for the first time tonight.

In the corner of my eye.

Keeping her in the back of my mind weighed on me.  Keeping her out of mind meant I was unpleasantly surprised when she came up.  I could rationalize and reassure myself, and those reassurances about her character and the girl I’d grown up with fell to pieces when I thought about how she had repeatedly breached my boundaries.  When she’d used her power on me in the first place – if only that, I could have maybe forgiven.  When she’d used it on me a second time, following my explicit no, because I’d been scared and I’d been dissolving alive?  When she had repeatedly, constantly showed up despite my express wishes?

There was a kind of fear where the heart raced.  There was anticipatory fear where the heart pounded, a singular body-jarring thud at what felt like a slower rate, though it wasn’t.

My chest felt as though everything had seized up, and I couldn’t feel my own heartbeat in my own chest.

Enemies.  Thinking about enemies was easier than thinking about… whatever Amy was.

Lung stood at the furthest end of the makeshift stage from Goddess, tattooed arms folded.  Someone had picked up his mask for him, and he now wore it.  The metal had dark mud still caked in some of the creases. and from the angle of his head, he was watching me with eyes that still glowed.  He didn’t look pleased with his immediate company, which included Seir, and he didn’t look pleased with me, either.

To wait, take a detour, get medical care, or go straight to Goddess?

Straight to Goddess meant getting past the Fallen, and ‘past the Fallen’ could never be a thing that occurred without incident.

Straight to Lung, angry as he was.

Straight to Goddess, who we would have to tell about Monokeros.

Straight to Cryptid, who wouldn’t look me in the eye.

Straight to Amy, who stood at the edge of that stage, lurking in the corner of my eye, not looking at me.  Going out of her way not to look at me.  That didn’t make it better.

Crystalclear’s voice interrupted my thoughts.  I’d forgotten I was with the group.  “I’m going to go see if they’ll let me talk to Ratcatcher.  I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on her.”

“Or a crystal.  Keeping a crystal on her,” Lookout said.

Crystalclear smiled.  “Yeah, I guess.  Can you keep an eye out for Fume Hood, Antares?”

“I will,” I said.  I floated a little higher, so I could see over just a few more heads in the crowd.

Crystalclear jogged off, costume boots tromping in the mud and the puddles that had formed on frozen dirt.

“I miss my gear already,” Lookout said.  “I feel blind.  I can’t believe I didn’t get any readings from him.”

Blind was right.  It was still dark, even with the light of powers and the lanterns and freestanding lights that had been brought over from the prison.  The storm above didn’t make it any better, diffusing the glow of all of the electric lighting.

“What’s broken?” Rain asked.

“Everything’s a little broken, or it’s moist.  Half of it won’t work at all, diagnostics and reboots aren’t helping, and the other half doesn’t work well anymore.  Water between lenses, balances and tolerances are off, uuugh.  My phone doesn’t work, my flash gun is a fifty-fifty about if it’s gonna work, and my other stuff is on the blink, cutting out.”

“I know the feeling.  I miss my body,” Sveta said.

“Oh, gosh, sorry!  Here I am complaining, and-”

“It’s okay.  It’s fine,” Sveta said.  There was a smile on her face, and her voice was light.  “Complain all you want.”

“You’ll fix it,” Swansong said.  “You’ll both be fine.”

I turned to face the group and observe, glad to have my back to the stage.  Freezing rain pattered on my hood.

Lookout shook her head.  “I’ll fix some of it!  Some.  Some is broken forever.  The broken-forever stuff is like my easier, cheaper work, like my mask, and less cheap stuff like my projector disc, but still, that’s a lot of work, and I don’t have my regular workshop anymore, so it’s harder to find the time and get stuff done.”

“You might have a workshop where we end up,” Rain said.  “We don’t know where we’re going from here.  Maybe we all end up with a small country to run.”

“That caught your attention, huh?” I asked.

“I-” he started.  “I’ve kind of always fantasized about having a place of my own.  Even my fantasies don’t ever get nearly that big, but it’s easier to imagine because I’ve imagined smaller scale versions of it.  Give me a cabin or a quaint house with a good size backyard and I’ll be content.”

Standards, Rain,” Swansong said.  “Think mansion or tower.  You need room for servants.”

“Uh,” Rain said.

“Cute young men in elegant black uniforms who run to obey when you snap your fingers,” Damsel said.  Two claws clacked together.

“And young women,” Swansong said.

Damsel arched an eyebrow, “You think so?  Are you more worldly now, or is this a strategy?  Distracting male visitors?”

Swansong shook her head.  “We’re talking about Rain.  Rain would want women, I imagine.”

“You say imagine, but I cannot imagine Rain in a manor with maids,” Byron said.  “Sorry, Rain.”

“No.  I’m grateful you pay enough attention to know I’m not a maid guy, if anything.”

“It would be maids and a singular manservant.  A Jeeves type, if you will,” Swansong said.  “If you’re to go that route-”

“I’m really not going to.”

“-it’s a good idea to have a same-sex servant who has the right sensibilities when it comes to your hygiene, fashion, and other needs.”

“I don’t want any servants at all.  I’m saying my standards are perfectly good where they are.  A house just big enough for me.  A whole country is an interesting thought exercise, but if Goddess wanted me to run a country, I’d still lean toward having a small house, and no servants.  Servants rub me the wrong way, after some of what I saw growing up.”

Swansong made a disappointed ‘tsk’ sound.

“Um, so, hm… you wouldn’t want a Jeeves, that makes sense,” Lookout said, before her tone of voice changed to a maximum unsubtle, “What about an- um, a you-know-who?  Wouldn’t you want room for at least one more person in your cabin?  Even as a maybe?”

“You-know-who and I haven’t talked enough lately,” Rain said.  He paused.  “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever really imagined myself having both a house and someone I really care about as part of the same scene.  Well, once, but… that was special circumstances, and it wasn’t a happy sort of special.”

“Now I’m curious.” Byron said.

“I’ll tell you and Tristan later, I guess.  Anyhow, I wonder if it’s because it felt like even that was asking too much.”

“Set your standards as high as you can,” Swansong said, while Damsel nodded beside her.  “Then live up to them.”

“If I set my expectations low, then me being in prison is tolerable.  Things sucked before, and the only thing I wanted was out.  I got what I wanted and I’m happy about that.  I am- was actually genuinely reasonably okay with being here.”

“And now we’re free,” Swansong said.  She looked around.  “Or something.”

Something.

They were talking about future and dreams, and all I could think about was the uncertainty before us.

Either the Chris thing was all in my head, or they hadn’t been looking at the right times to see it.

“We need to get through this first,” Sveta said.

Thank you, Sveta, for saying it.

She went on, “Look at Goddess.  She’s tense.  Teacher isn’t done, and we still have enemies out there.”

“We have enemies in here,” I said, my voice quieter.  “And that’s something we need to be careful of.”

Rain looked over his shoulders.  Lung’s end of the stage was closest to us, and the Fallen were closest to Lung.  They didn’t have much of a ‘tribe’, exactly- the other gangs that they’d roped into their circle to defend against the good guys were too low-level to contribute much to the prison population.  Dealers and bikers.  It meant that they were mostly limited to a gathering of ex-Teacher followers.

“I don’t think they’ll start anything.  You’ve gotta have balls and be stupid to pick a fight when the rest of the crowd could come after you, or if Goddess could get upset.  Shitty as he is, I don’t think Seir is that stupid and that brave.”

The Fallen weren’t my only concern.  I looked at Cryptid, who was still transforming.  More feathers now.  It was a form that looked pretty much exactly like his earlier shape.  The twisted-up wingless bird with the hooked beak, and a neck that looked broken, head dangling.  The point of the beak grazed skin where feathers were pushing through, more spearlike than featherlike as they were slick with moisture, and where the beak grazed, it left a line of oozing blood.

“What’s Cryptid’s form there?” I asked.

“No idea,” Sveta answered me.  Others shook their heads.

“He likes birds for the grieving-sad-pensive-thinking realm of things,” Lookout said.

“I’ve never seen him change,” Rain said, observing.  “And he’s changed a few times today.  Twice earlier in the day, before anything even happened, then to this bird form, he changed later towhatever he was just a few minutes ago, with the ridge of cysts… and now back to this?  Did he-”

Rain stopped mid-question, looking at me.

“Did he get help from Amy?” I asked.  The word sounded wrong in my mouth.  “Panacea?  I don’t know.”

“He might hurt tomorrow,” Byron said.

“Maybe,” I agreed.  It might have sounded callous to say it out loud, but the pain he’d suffer tomorrow was the least of my concerns.  Every time I looked his way, I was trying to find some eye contact, some signal, anything that would suggest he was working with the group.  I felt like I was seeing the opposite dynamic at play.

I saw him limp up behind Amy, the head swung like a pendulum, and he had to catch it with a talon-hand to keep it from hitting Amy.  Amy said something to him.

My skin crawled.

“Lookout,” I said.

“Yes?”

“I know you hate being left behind, but-”

“No,” she said.

“It would make it easier to gloss over the Monokeros thing if you were with Natalie and not front-and-center in front of Goddess,” I said.  Not my only reason.

“No,” she said.  “I don’t want to split up.”

“Even if staying with the group in the short term means Goddess might get worried again, assigning you another babysitter?”

“Even if,” Lookout said.

I found myself a bit at a loss for words.  I could argue logic, but this wasn’t borne of logic.

My issue wasn’t borne of logic either.  Half of the reason I wanted Lookout to hang back was because I didn’t like how Cryptid was acting.  If he was in a bad place, if he was thinking about hurting himself to try and do something, or if he really wasn’t part of Breakthrough anymore, then I didn’t want Lookout in the midst of it.

“She should come,” Sveta said.

“It’s best if we stay together,” Lookout said, sounding solemn and sincere.  “But thank you for thinking about me.”

“Can I call in a favor?” I asked.  I made a rectangle with my index fingers and thumbs.  “Or use the it’s complicated card?  Let me do this, let me explain later?  I have a gut feeling about this.”

“I have a heart feeling about this,” Lookout said, stubborn.

It couldn’t be easy.

“Antares,” Swansong said.  “She stood up to Monokeros.  She’s strong.”

“I know.  I’m not disputing that.”

“She stood up to Monokeros because she’s worked really hard with dealing with obsessive and overwhelming feelings,” Swansong said, her voice quiet.  “And because she really wants to stay with the group.  She wants the group together.”

I bit my tongue.

I looked over my shoulder at Chris.  He still stood by Amy, growing taller and taller, the feathers filling in the space to the point that barely any skin showed, and the skin that did show had large goosebump-like growths on it that indicated the feathers pushing through.

Amy had her tattooed hands clasped in front of her, Dot on her shoulder.  Amy’s hood had been pulled up and to the side, used by Dot for warmth.  Goddess’ power kept them protected from the rain.

The group being together or not together was the problem.

“Stay close to Swansong and Damsel.  Keep that emotional training in mind.  This might be a tough situation.”

“Got it,” Lookout said.

I nodded to myself.

Fuck.

I ran fingers through my hair to fix it, then adjusted my grip on Sveta’s prosthetic body to ensure it sat squarely on my shoulder.

Of course the Fallen stepped into our way.

“Rain-man,” Seir drawled the words.  “We were talking about you.  I’m hurt you didn’t come say hi earlier.”

“Yeah, well, didn’t see the point,” Rain said.

“Respect is the point, Rain-man,” Seir replied.  “We’re not people you want as enemies.”

“I don’t want the Fallen as friends either,” Rain said.  “The respect thing is already decided.  You don’t deserve any.”

The heavyset man smirked.

“We have business with Goddess,” I said, before Seir could answer.  It was, in a passive way, my way of backing Rain up.  More voices in the conversation made it hard to retort, to cut Rain down, and I wasn’t sure Rain was the best guy when it came to wordplay and coming off as intimidating with words alone.

“The lady says she doesn’t want any hassle.  If we let just anyone up there, then everyone’s going to want to come by, say how they can be useful, try to elbow their way in.”

“It’s important,” I said, “And it won’t take long.”

It was Tristan who added his voice to mine.  “Refuse us access and you can be the one to explain why she didn’t get the information she needed.”

When had they switched?

“The drowned rat in gold armor can fly, can’t she?  She goes alone.”

Me?  I could, but-

“We’re sticking together, Seir,” I said.  “I don’t think you were even assigned this job.  You’re trying to make yourself important, pretending to be a gatekeeper.”

“Do you really want to test me, little girl?” he asked.  He locked eyes with me.  “Rain-man, you should tell these ignorant fools to think twice about what they’re doing.”

“Why would I do that, Tim?”

“Because, Rain, you’d better believe we know where your slut friend lives.”

Tristan put a hand at Rain’s shoulder, as if to stop him from advancing.  Rain wasn’t quite the type to charge forward to swing a punch, though.

“Some expert advice for ya.  If you have one person you want to keep in line, Rain, then it doesn’t work if you hit ’em, take a belt to ’em, stick their head in a water barrel.  Takes forever.  But if you get them as a pair, sisters, mother daughter, man and his wife, boy and the girl that will forever be too good for his useless self, it’s easy.  Tell the first one that if they don’t listen you’ll hit the second.  Tell the second that if they don’t listen, you’ll hurt the first.  Takes no time at all to break the both of them.”

“I think the fact that you have to do that makes you all look pretty fucking pathetic, Seir,” Rain said.

“You call me pathetic, I call you the same thing,” Seir said, and his voice was a growl.  “Difference between us is that in a matter of hours, you’re going to be on your knees, sniveling and begging for us to stop hurting the girl.  Could be that you’re there, could be that you’re on the phone.  I won’t even ask, and you’ll still be begging to take back any insult you said about me.  That’s how that is.  And the other way around?  There is nothing you can say or do that will change my mind about how shit you are.”

His words were followed up by some shuffling movements and chuckles from the four or five Fallen and assorted others that were keeping him company.

Rain started forward.  Tristan’s hand was still at his shoulder, and it might have been what stopped him from doing something regrettable.  Tristan became Byron, and Byron leaned in to say something to Rain.

“Can I shoot him?” Lookout asked.

“No,” I said.

“Can I?” Damsel asked.

I thought about it for a second.  “No.”

“What’s going on here, now?”

Another person joining the conversation, with a retinue at their backs.  Coalbelcher.  He’d found clothes, and now wore a heavy jacket with a hood, zipped up all the way, a ball cap and jeans.  I had no idea how he’d found anything that fit him, but he’d managed.  A bit of black drool extended from the corner of his mouth to his chin.  He was of a similar frame to Seir, but a little more put together, now.

Family,” Seir said it like it was an epithet.  “A boy not respecting his betters.”

I saw Coalbelcher’s eyes.  He was crude in dress, in speaking style, and in apparent intent, but there was calculation going on there, as he assessed the situation here.  He hadn’t earned his position as top man on the guy’s side of the prison by pure luck.

“Tell you what, Tim,” Coalbelcher said.  “Let me talk to ’em.  Consider it a stipulation.”

“Stipulation?” Rain asked.

“We still don’t know what’s happening next,” Coalbelcher said, “But they need to shore up numbers, and then there’s me and my people, all without a place to go.”

“You’re joining them,” I said.

“Maybe.  Depends.  If our empress there is giving us each a territory of our own, doesn’t make sense to.  But if she’s grouping us together, could be we join in.  Work with.”

“Bad idea,” Rain said.

“We can hold our own,” Coalbelcher said.  “But I won’t be lowest of the low.  I go in as an equal, and I bring six powered boys from the prison and one powered son with me, in exchange.”

“You want to be a brother of the family so you can tell me to back off and let you talk to these pukes?” Seir asked.  “Seems like a waste.”

“Sure, it’s fine,” Coalbelcher said.  “We have a pre-existing relationship.”

Seir shrugged.  He gave one of his guys a push on the shoulder, and they walked off.  They were still close enough to get in our way if they wanted, not necessarily in earshot.

“You kind of disappointed me, Coal,” I said.

Disappointed?  Must be we got our wires crossed.”

His higher voice had a wry, mocking tone as a baseline, as if everything he said was sarcastic.  It was hard to tell if he was serious about the wires getting crossed.

“Maybe I was too subtle,” I said.

“You said you wanted me to do for her what you did for me.”

“And?” I asked.

“And you got me out.  Or close enough.  Now I’m really out, I’m bristling for a fight.  It’s all good.  Won’t deny that.  Did I misinterpret your intent?”

“No.  You read that right.  Except she’s still there, with the other civilians.  You didn’t get her out.”

“Natalie?” Lookout asked.  She looked up at me, head craning back.

I nodded.

On the stage above, Goddess was walking toward us.  Half of her attention was on the horizon.

“I let her go.  She got away for a bit.  Then they caught her.  I can’t keep letting her-”

He stopped as Goddess came within earshot.  All voices in the vicinity stopped outright or went quiet.  Even the rain was silent, bouncing off of the telekinesis.

Amy stood at the other end of the stage, framed by Cryptid’s black feathers, his rear legs to her left, one of his front legs planted on the ground to her right, head dangling so that his beak was near her elbow.

Couldn’t get rid of her.

“I can’t seem to be rid of you,” Goddess said.

The weird alignment of thoughts threw me for a momentary mental loop.  “Sorry?”

“This meeting,” Goddess said, indicating Coalbelcher and the rest of us with an extended finger- Seir fucked off just enough that he was too far away to be included in the group.  “Two groups that concern me.  Where the fuck is Monokeros?”

She wasn’t just tense.  She was pissed and tense.

“She pulled a knife on Lookout.  It was over the top and unwarranted,” I told her.  “We put her in time out.  Two of Teacher’s thralls are in there with her, Blindside and Kingdom Come.  You should get them, carefully, and get Monokeros if you absolutely have to, but I really recommend keeping her there.”

“I will be retrieving her, but it’ll have to wait, there are other concerns,” Goddess said.  “My danger sense is emanating from your group, from you in particular.  It’s identifying Coalbelcher and his group in a similar way.  Tell me why.”

“I don’t know why,” I told her.

“We may just be those types of people,” Sveta said, her voice slightly muffled.  “A little closer to being dangerous than average.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said.

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Lookout asked Goddess.  “You know, if you give me a computer, I can gather information, or I can pull up records on people you have here, see if we can find the right tool in the toolbox for your particular problems.”

“You’re among my problems, according to my danger sense,” Goddess said, her voice hard.  “Teacher has more coming.  Not an army this time, but a trap.”

“Mama Mathers?” Rain asked.

“Yes.  I won’t put my hand into that bear trap.  We meet strength with subtlety and subtlety with strength.  Coalbelcher?  I’ll have you as part of the army that sweeps over that part of the city.  Destroy everything, and destroy her with it.”

“I can do that.”

“Work with Seir and Knock Knock.  Keep them in line.  Do this and I’ll reward you.”

“I’ll get everyone organized.”

“Be ready to move quickly.  The Wardens may choose that time to attack.  Once we know she’s gone, you’ll fold back, and catch the Wardens by the rear.  Immobilize, don’t kill.”

“I’m not much of a killer,” Coalbelcher said.  “I’m not much of an immobilizer either.”

“If you can’t do it, I’ll ask someone else.”

“I can do it.  Let me find people.  I think I know someone who can move large groups.”

“I assigned one to Knock Knock,” Goddess said.  “City Slicker.”

“That’s the one I was thinking of.  We’ll get it done,” Coalbelcher said.

Goddess didn’t respond, didn’t change in expression, or move her head or hands.  She stared at Coalbelcher, and he shifted his weight a little, before raising his heavy chin, emulating a soldier standing at attention, if a soldier could be of the greasy, drooling-black, baseball cap sort.

“You have a choice, Coalbelcher.  My power is telling me there’s something about you that I should be wary of.”

“I have no idea what you mean.  You’re promising power, fame, fortune, a territory of my own, and a slice of normal pie after two years of living in this shithole we slapped together here?  I’m all about that.  I’m yours, I’m loyal.”

“Perhaps,” she said.  She turned her head, found someone, and indicated for them to come.

It was Crock o’ Shit.  The lie-detector.  The tattoos of scales on her arms were standing out slightly in relief.

“Say it again.  That you’re loyal, and that I don’t need to worry about you.”

“I’m loyal.  You don’t need to worry about me.”

Crock o’ Shit nodded.  “He’s fine.”

“He doesn’t feel fine,” Goddess said.  “If something happens, Coalbelcher, if something occurs to you, a thought that you haven’t fully formed, a memory that surfaces, an idea you’re not quite ready to have yet, consider it very carefully.  It may matter more than you think, and your entire fate hinges on the decision you make.”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied, his voice nasally.  He horked up something and spat it off to the side.  The spit was like a gunshot, silent but bullet-quick and violent, with a chunky black splatter that smoked visibly.  His voice was slightly less nasal as he finished, “I’ll think carefully.”

She dismissed Coalbelcher with a sweep of the hand.

“I’m in alignment,” I said.  “We all are, in Breakthrough, Natalie excepted.”

“Natalie?”

“Our lawyer, the civilian.”

She looked mildly annoyed that Natalie had even been brought up in that context.  She glanced at Crock.

“They’re fine,” Crock o’ Shit said.

“They feel like an ambient danger,” Goddess said.  “Stay where I can see you, Breakthrough.”

“You should know, we disabled the ankle-bombs,” I said.  “Your army should be safe.”

“Mm,” Goddess made a noise, not even a full word.  I could see a sheen of sweat, where hair was sticking to her head near her temple.  More sweat shone at the back of her neck.

“Are you okay?” Sveta asked.

“This was easier the first time,” Goddess said.  “A decision I made as a teenager, to take over, solve all of the problems.  Eternal youth, through my cocoon man, beauty, endless wealth and power.  It was fine.”

“It sounds great,” Lookout said.

“Then it was all taken away.  Each and every one of my enemies expects me to take it back, which forces me to do just that, because a third of them would eliminate me, a third would enslave me to use me, and another third would castrate me and take… everything vital to me.  All of my power.  That castration wouldn’t guarantee I’m saved from the first two groups.”

We were silent.

“I feel it.  My danger sense makes me aware of the proportions, and how close they each loom.”

“Do you want a hug?” Lookout asked.

“I want my enemies crushed and gone,” Goddess said.  “Be ready to assist in the fighting if they get this far.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

“The Wardens will strike in a matter of minutes.  They’re partially protected from me, so timing will be critical.  Teacher will also time his attack, delivering the Mathers woman, in the hopes I stick my hand into the trap.  Be ready.  Maybe you could die in the fighting and simplify things.”

“If it helps, then sure!” Lookout said.

“I’d rather not,” I said, putting a hand on Lookout’s shoulder.

“I was joking,” Lookout said.

“Mm,” Goddess said.  She fixed her hair and her collar- I wasn’t sure why, since she could look like anything and nobody here would mind, and then she lifted herself off the ground.

Wardens inbound.

“I hope it’s not Weld with the Wardens,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” Sveta replied, voice soft.

“Or Vista, or Miss Militia… or anyone,” I said.  I grit my teeth.  “Are you guys ready?”

“I don’t have stuff,” Lookout said.  “Maybe if there’s a computer somewhere nearby, I can track things in the city, or do a quick repair of my phone.”

“We’ll check inside,” I said.  “Capricorn, Rain, Swansong, Damsel, you guys handle the front line?”

“Leave me Sveta and the prosthetic body?  I’ll see what I can do to get things working,” Rain said.

“Please,” Sveta said.

“No promises,” Rain said.

“So after I made a big deal about not wanting to split up, we’re splitting up?” Lookout asked.

I frowned.

“Sorry to be needy,” she said.  “I just, you know, heh, I’m a bit weird after the whole ‘tear your throat out’ thing.”

“You’re a bit weird always,” Rain said.  “But so are the rest of us, so you’re in good company.”

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  “Listen, it’s okay, I”ll manage something somehow, I’ll get stuff fixed, and I’ll have a neat trick.  Maybe I can supercharge my light gun and we can blind an entire attacking force.  Then-”

“Lookout,” I interrupted her.  “We’re short on time.  Let me go get a computer from the entrance building.  I will bring you tech.  Good?”

“Good,” Lookout said, breathless.

Good.

I took off.

We were fighting the Wardens, now.  We were fighting Mama Mathers.  Us against the world, and it didn’t feel triumphant.  It felt like we were up against the whole fucking world.  Multiple worlds.

I was spooked, and I wasn’t happy.  I didn’t like this, even as I could take it as necessary.  We didn’t have a choice, just as Goddess hadn’t.

I saw Crystalclear with Fume Hood.  I dropped to the ground.  One foot slipped in mud, the other hit ice-hard soil.

“Five second recap,” I said.  “Wardens are coming, be ready to fight.  Teacher’s bringing in the big guns, one is Mama Mathers.  If she doesn’t come from the city, it’s going to be up to all of us to deal with what she does, capture and kill her despite the insanity effect.”

Crystalclear made a face.  He’d be vulnerable.

“Five second response,” he said.  “They wouldn’t let me talk to Ratcatcher, but she seems healthy, if irritable.  I tried to check on your lawyer, but again-”

“No contact,” I said.  “I’m getting a computer and then I’ll be back.”

“Good luck!”

Natalie.  I flew toward the building, finding Natalie while I was on my way.  Lights were few and far between, so the entire group of staff was huddled beneath a lip of rock, one light shared by a hundred people.  Natalie was fairly close to the front, near the assistant warden, her fingers pressed together and to her mouth for warmth.

Nothing I could do.  I’d tried to create an opportunity.

Ratcatcher was easier to find again, since she was mounted on one of the trucks in a group that was being used to produce light, headlights cutting through the mist of freezing rain, people’s breath, and people’s body heat.

She saw me, and then she looked away, the rain-soggy cone of her paper mask making the direction she was facing abundantly clear.  Similar to what I’d seen with Cryptid, with Chris.

A rebuke?

No, this wasn’t a rebuke.  I saw the nose move as she angled her head to check where I was in the sky, looking askew at me, then the nose moved again.

Pointing.  A staff building.

I changed direction.

She’d done something before getting caught.  What?  I didn’t even know her power for sure.  Rodent control?  It was supposed to be thinker.

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected.  My heart had been frozen in my chest for what felt like fifteen or twenty minutes, and now it pounded.  The building interior was dark, with many lights burned out or broken, and the contents of offices, of trash cans, and the papers that had topped desks were now strewn everywhere.

“Hello!?” I called out.

She’d been in the tunnel, and she’d run.  She’d gone through the vents and… she’d come here?  A small building with offices and files.

Chairs, a bench, plants.  No animals to be seen- no rodents.

I shivered.

Paperwork, file folders, filing cabinets, with drawers pulled out and thrown into walls with enough force to make dents and holes.  Nothing about or in the dents or holes, that I could see.

More benches for sitting and waiting, with metal loops embedded in the walls for prisoners to be handcuffed to.  Paperwork, more paperwork, another potted plant, a vending machine that had been raided, the chips and candies that hadn’t been eaten now piled on the ground beneath the shattered glass pane.  A few feet away, there was blood.  Not from the vending machine.

The blood was part of a trail of splatters leading to a dead guard, one of the metal loops for handcuffing prisoners now embedded in his chest cavity.  I felt for a pulse, and I knew there wasn’t one.

My heart pounded harder than before, feeling the lack of a pulse.

What could he have told me?

I reached the end of the hallway, found the stairs, and flew in a zig-zag to navigate the flights.  The building only had two floors, and the damage to the second was negligible, nothing strewn around, most offices locked.

I shivered a bit more.

Lookout was expecting me to deliver a computer.  I was- I was chasing a vague hint from a girl in a paper mask, if it could even be called a hint.

“Hello!?” I called out, again.

Back down to the first floor.  I stared down the length of it.

She’d left the tunnel, and she’d done what?

She’d been caught, just like Natalie.  She’d caused enough of a fuss that they’d tied her up, despite the fact that she was aligned.

Was she aligned?

The tainted food- the drugged food.

Natalie had had her bound hands pressed to her mouth.  Had she been warming her breath, or had I caught a glimpse of something in the way of a message?

They’d crossed paths, met, collaborated.

I flew down the hallway.  The stuff from the vending machine.  Bags of chip that were half air and half chip.  Boxes of candy.  Many were damaged.  Some were dirty, in a way that could have meant they’d been walked on.

I held the candies, and I hesitated.  It was hard to convince myself to.  It felt disloyal.

Master-stranger protocols.  I imagined Natalie with her fingers to her mouth, like it was a mimed order.  Driven by an impulse, feeling like I was potentially about to take poison, I took the most dirty, most damaged package, opened a hole wider, and then tipped a few of the gummy candies back into my mouth.

In the distance, it sounded like Goddess was tearing a mountain out of the ground.

I chewed, tasting the chemicals and preservatives of the candy, something I’d never been a huge fan of, and… it tasted delicious.

I swallowed, turning my head toward the ceiling in the process, and I closed my eyes.

Was it just candy?

A part of me wanted it to be.  A part of me wanted an excuse to feel less uneasy.  The conflict was brewing and- and good people were going to get hurt.  Goddess was-

-fucked in the head.

Fuck her.

Fuck this.

I hope your fucking danger sense is making your head spin, Lady in Blue.

I grabbed the other candies and chips, favoring the broken bags.  When my hands were full, I speared them on the spikes of my costume.

Style be damned.

How had they managed it?  The building had been collapsed.

Rats.  Mice.

It might have been Natalie who gave Ratcatcher the direction, Ratcatcher who did the lifting.  Had they known they were going to be caught, and laid this as a trap?  Something that anyone coming through might pick up and share?

Coalbelcher would’ve been near Natalie, if he’d been protecting her or watching out for her as part of the deal.  Had he taken some candy?  Had he eaten some, or did he have it saved for later?  Was that why Goddess didn’t like her sense of him?  I could see him being loyal but not aligned, or aligned but carrying tainted candy.  More the former, since he didn’t seem the type to save something for later.

I reached the first large group, near the interim portal.

“Chips or candy?” I asked.

“What?”

“There’s a big fight brewing,” I said.  “We need to get energy up, and there’s not much food.  Do you want chips?  Candy?”

“Chips, fuck yeah,” a guy said.

Share,” I said, with emphasis.

With luck, he’d have one or two, it would kick in, and he’d start sharing out of spite.

I sure was.

Another group.  It might have been Auzure, though it wasn’t members I recognized.  They’d come to help defend the portal and stall for time.

I just threw them the candy.  The woman who caught it saluted.

“Share!” I said.

Goddess should be getting pinged pretty hard right now, if this is working like I hope.

Another hero group.  I tossed them two small bags of chips.

Hopefully it got us another set of non-Goddessed allies.

There was a chance that some of this wasn’t treated.

I just had to hope that most or some of it was.  We were picking a massive fight.

A small gang of criminals.  I threw them something, and I didn’t wait for a response.

Rain streamed down around me, drumming against my costume, loud against the plastic of the chip bags and the bags and boxes that had the candy.

I saw my team.

“No computer?” Lookout asked.  “Were they all broken?”

“Something better,” I said.  I tossed her a bag of candy, then tossed another to Rain.

“Uh,” Rain said.  “The sentiment’s appreciated but…”

“Eat.  Energy,” I said.

“Mind trading, Kenz?” Rain asked.

“You don’t like grape?”

“Not this type, no,” he said.

“Only because I like you,” she said.

I felt like my heart was beating so fast it would give everything away.  I focused on the distance.

“It’s bad,” Byron said.  “You can’t see it right this second, but she’s altering landscapes.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I heard.”

There was another blast.  Another sound like a mountain was being uprooted.  The ground shook, and this time my feet were touching it to really feel the impact.

Not a mountain- a building, with some foundations.  I saw it move.  From a distance, it seemed to move very slowly.  I knew that it would be moving at a dangerous speed if one was actually at the scene.

Kenzie, her mask still open so her eyes, nose and mouth were visible, her face otherwise enclosed by the helmet, looked up at me.  I raised an eyebrow, and saw her nod slightly.

“Ash.  Want grape gummies?”

“That sounds atrocious.”

“Atrocious in the best way,” Kenzie said.

Swansong took two.  Damsel did the same.  I watched as the candy was shared around.  Kenzie cracked Sveta’s ball open to give her some.

“Nice fashion,” Swansong told me, indicating the packages that had yet to be delivered, speared to my shoulder.  “I prefer less colorful accessories.”

There were few enough that I could pluck them free.  I held the assorted packages in two hands.

“Ahh,” Swansong said.  She met my eyes.  “Good candy.”

“How the heck did you find this?” Lookout asked.

“Others did the legwork,” I said.  Relief surged through me.

“Guys!” Sveta shouted.

The momentary peace was disturbed.

One of the buildings in the distance had changed trajectory.  Two stories of apartment building flew end over end as it soared toward us, shedding a stream of concrete fragments.

“Look out!” I shouted, at the top of my lungs.

I put my arms out, and I flew.  I caught Lookout and Swansong, and Lookout had Sveta.  I almost had a grip on Damsel, but she slipped free, moving her hands to avoid slashing my hand and arm open rather than cling.  My flight was uneven, and my burdens heavy and awkward enough that I didn’t feel confident flying up.

Tristan and Rain were running, trying to get clear.

It was already so dark, the night so chaotic, that I couldn’t fully process what happened as it hit.  The casualties, the devastation, whether other teams had been caught in it.  The rush of air threw me off course, and my grip on my team members was broken.  Everyone rolled, tumbled, or otherwise sprawled.  Damsel used her power to shoot at the incoming projectile.

I could see most of the team.

I’d dropped the candies.  If only I’d kept them on my armor.

The Lady in Blue.  It had been her, reacting to danger sense, hurling a building.

Now I could see her, flying toward us.

She landed, shaking her head as she did.

The dust seemed like too little for the impact and the size of the chunk of building.  It might have been the rain, or the darkness obscuring some of it.

I could see Lung.  Other teams, people I had definitely not given candy to, were converging on our location, supporting the Lady in Blue.

I could see Amy, in the background.  She did nothing to help.  She was silent, passive.  A ghost to haunt me.

My costume shifted around me.  The Lady in Blue lifted me into the air by my costume.

Not all people who could affect inorganic things only could do that.  Sometimes just being adjacent to something organic made it hard to manipulate inorganic materials.

I fought with my flight.  She held me firm.  I activated the Wretch, then deactivated it as soon as I saw that Lookout was too close, just below me.

One by one, she plucked up the members of Breakthrough.

Her head turned.  Dirt and mud sprayed sky-high as she used her power.  Dealing with another attacker.  Someone I’d given candy to?

The dirt and mud hadn’t even finished raining down when she used her power again.  I saw the shape of him, leaping to one side.  He was more visible in the cloud of dirt, rain and mud than he was ordinarily.

Black feathers on black background.

I could feel the dim impulse that she pushed out.  The punctuation mark.  The power to control.

He moved faster.

I felt it again.  This time, he dropped to all fours.

“Harder!” Crock o’ Shit shouted, from the sidelines.  “You almost had him!”

The Lady in Blue used her power again, more forcefully than before.

Cryptid leaped.

I saw the moment of hesitation, the moment of realization that there was nothing inorganic on him to grab.  She ripped up the earth instead.  He was thrown into the air, lost in the flurry of mud.

I used my power, hard.  To distract, to break her focus.

Appearing sooner than should have been possible, Cryptid was right next to her.  The ground broke under his feet, point blank this time.

It didn’t go any further than the cracking of ground.  Cryptid’s talons found the Lady in Blue’s midsection.  He tore her open, sternum to pelvis, and his talons hooked into vital organs.  He pulled them free, and all of the strength went out of her.

For how much damage had been done, it took four or five surprising seconds before her power canceled out.  We dropped out of the air, and I flew to catch Lookout before she could land too awkwardly.

All around us, people were shuffling closer.

Amy was among them.

Cryptid was at the center, his broken neck twisted around, his head dangling.  His beak was like a curved blade, gleaming in the rain, pointed at the small of his back.

I could see what that was supposed to mean, now.

Crock o’ Shit hadn’t been telling the truth.  Goddess’ power hadn’t almost worked.  Crock had been among the people I’d given candy to, just before I’d reunited with the group.

Fitting.

I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the irony.

“Chris,” Lookout said.

Cryptid looked at her, then seized his head.  He moved it side to side.  Shaking it in a ‘no’.

“Did Amy do this?” I asked.

“I didn’t do anything,” Amy’s voice cut through the dark and the patter of rain.  “Organized.  Struck a deal.”

I swallowed hard.  “Deal?”

She wouldn’t look me in the eyes.  “Everyone!”

I couldn’t remember her shouting.  She’d never been one to do it.

“Everyone!  You have a choice!  We are going to Earth Shin!  We are going to be an authority!”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak.

Sveta did it for me.  “Amy!”

Amy shook her head, glancing at Sveta.  “There will be rules!  This means submitting to my power!  It will not be as Goddess’ was!  You’ll follow a code of laws, you’ll maintain control and peace, and you’ll protect populations.  You’ll be reasonably good!  Or you can stay here.  You’ll be freer, but you’ll also be a target for heroes!”

She planned this.

I looked at Cryptid.

She planned this with him.

Dot was perched on her shoulders, clearly excited, but Amy’s expression was impossible to read.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

She met my eyes.

She looked almost angry as she looked away.  As if she had the fucking right.

“Come with us or stay.  It’s your choice,” she said.  She looked at Cryptid.  “Is that okay?”

Cryptid seized his head, and moved it in a ‘yes’ motion.

Amy’s expression was both angry and sad as she surveyed everything.  Freezing rain streaked down her hood, and her breath fogged.

She met my eyes.

“Red Queen,” Lookout said, under her breath.  “Dot called her that.”

My skin crawled.

The Red Queen started to walk away.  Cryptid was at her side.

Some prisoners were fairly quick to leave to follow.  Ones who knew her from the Birdcage?  With them went followers, and once a critical amount had left, a majority followed.  Only the heroes really stayed.

Only rubble dust, and mud, now.  Scarcely any lights on this hillside.

“What?  Chris?”  Lookout asked.  She giggled, sounding uncertain and Swansong pulled her into a hug, so Lookout’s face was buried in Swansong’s side.  It would have been a full-body hug if Lookout hadn’t been hugging the orb.

What just happened?

Others were arriving now.  Natalie was with the prison staff.  Ratcatcher was with Crystalclear and Fume Hood.  They seemed to be free of the influence of the Lady in Blue.

Who had been practically torn in half, now lying ten feet away from me.  After seeing my- seeing Amy like that, the grisly scene was somehow one of the least shocking things in the midst of all of this.

“He was just waiting for an opening?” Rain asked.

“Shh.”  Swansong.

The assistant warden drew closer.  We’d been some of the people on point through all of this.  He wanted answers.

I didn’t have any.  Amy?

“We need to- to do something about this,” I said.

“Are you up for it?” Byron asked.

I shook my head.  Images of Amy and the sounds of her voice were weighing on my mind, interrupting half of my thoughts.

I reached out for Sveta’s ball.  Lookout handed it over.

“Sorry,” I told Sveta.  I hugged the ball tight.  “Sorry.”

I felt her forehead thunk against the side of the orb.

“Okay,” Byron said.  “I’m officially passing the baton… we both know you’re good at this part.”

He blurred.  Once I realized what he was saying, a second or so later than I should have, I could understand it.

I nodded.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He started striding toward the assistant warden. Without turning to face us, he intoned the words. “Damage control.”

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