Interlude 10.y

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The world greeted him with a chitter and a dozen spidery legs prying at his upper body and face.  Legs hooked onto teeth, where he had teeth, and onto gums, where the teeth were absent, bottom and top row, prying his jaw open until it cracked and he wasn’t sure it would close again.  It shoved its face between the legs, into his face and his mouth, and the texture of it was like wet sandpaper on cold, naked skin.

Its head narrowed, a spear or a wedge, and it tried to force its way into his mouth.  Its shell was like scales, oriented so that passage in should be easy, the grit of the sandpaper and the slant of the shells making entry smooth.  To go the opposite way was to have the sandpaper texture scrape and the scales catch.

It couldn’t enter, so it withdrew, and it gouged chunks out of him in the process.  It thrust in again, and he fought it now.  His hand -his only hand- dug for an opening, sliding across scale without finding gaps.  It tried to grasp the spider leg, and found it thorny.

His enemy pulled free again, and the slant of the scales resisted, design resisting the effort.  Scales caught on some of his only teeth and with the creature’s legs and body straining, pried them loose where they weren’t pried out altogether.

He fumbled, searching for eyes to gouge- and found a smooth, slightly convex surface, that small fingernails couldn’t scratch or find purchase on.  He fumbled again, his hand momentarily paralyzed as the creature fought its way forward again and caused him to nearly black out, and found the shoulder of the thing.  A mess of cords and tendons beneath a cupping of shell.  He tore, dug fingers in, and did what damage he could.

He fought a machine of a thing, all instinct, and it wasn’t a machine that learned.  It sought to continue doing what it was doing, but as it fought to open his mouth wide and shove itself within, it tried to use the leg that was now damaged, pulling and throwing its weight to one side.  It lurched, lost some of its hold, scrabbled to retake its prior position, and did it again.  Each time, it scraped, scales dug, legs scrabbled and scratched, and the part of it that he could damage was only in his reach for a second at most- a second where his vision doubled and everything was slick with moisture and fluids.  An acrid, chemical smell flooded his world.

He did enough damage to the shoulder that the limb hung on by a thread.  The shoulder was like a knot and the knot came free, so he started digging within.  To scrape for something vital, in a chest cavity larger around than his own, to scrape at connecting tissue that held shell plates together, and when that failed, to take handfuls of fluid from where they belonged and drag them out.

He found something that bound an upper half of his enemy to the lower half and held on, twisting and wrenching until it broke.  That gave him a chink in the armor that he could consistently use; a gap now ran between head and shoulder, opening and closing like gnashing teeth or two blades as the creature rocked and moved its body, but if he chanced to put his fingers or hands inside he could reach the parts that connected body to head.

His other arm was only a flipper, if it could be called that.  Too broad and rounded to be blade, too hard to be a fin, not long enough to be useful.  Its scrapes to find purchase on the ground beneath him were what told him that he wasn’t just lying there with a monster perched on top of him, but something monstrous lay beneath, dead, a staring and unmoving eye as large as his head staring up at the sky that was depositing so much of the moisture on the scene.

It took three tries to get at the neck-bundle.  The second try saw the two pieces of shell come together and slice at two of his smaller fingers on his hand.

In getting his hand on it and tearing, he killed the monster that had been fighting to get inside of him.  He felt it go still, its legs curling up, releasing his ruined mouth.

In the stillness, moisture splashing down around him, he became aware of other movements.  His eyes weren’t good, and it was hard to make out more than silhouettes in the dark.

There were ten more of the things he had fought, some twice the size.  There were other things.  Dead things like the one he laid on.  There was no ground, only a sea of hostility and death.

He laid there, aware that his fight was one of several he’d have to engage in.  His mouth was open and wouldn’t close and he was glad for it, because it could catch some of that moisture.

Survive, was the imperative.

The imperative gave him the strength to dismantle his attacker further, to work the gap open and to tear what he could free.  Already, another hostile thing was scratching idly at the body of the dead thing he laid on.  It might have been seeking entry.  It might have been seeking him.

Much of his enemy was hollow, the space occupied by fluids that were easily displaced or lost.  He tore what he could and worked his way inside, his hard nub of a limb doing some of the work.  His head was heavy, and following the imperative meant that he had to stop taking that meager water from the sky and put his head within.

It was not an easy fit, and it was one that took some effort.  The roles had been reversed, and it was him that sought ingress.  Him that had to retreat, then try again, fight and scrape away.

He worked most of himself within the shelled carapace, then stopped to rest.  He couldn’t close his mouth, but with his reaching tongue pressing things to the roof of his mouth, he could suckle and pressure.  Dangling bits of meat provided moisture, sustenance.

The world of scales and moisture around him shuddered, and he flipped over, fluids spilling into the cavity he occupied, then quickly draining out.  They tasted as before, chemical, acrid, filling his nose and coating the back of his throat with the smell, leaving his head pounding.

He’d been buried.  Ensconced within a borrowed shell, he couldn’t see the black-gray expanse of sky overhead anymore- only writhing and struggling scale, plant life, and the occasional twitching limb.

Survive.

He gathered his strength.  Time passed, and he remained alert for the scraping of the things like the one that had attacked him.  Now and again they prodded and crawled through the forest of living matter, but they didn’t bother him while he was shelled.

The world turned upside-down again.  Not to add more, but to separate.  There was more noise as they were separated further, and with blurry eyes, he watched while a massive figure brought a weapon down, severing the head of a living, writhing thing.  The action injured the shelled thing that had taken up residence inside, and the weapon killed that.

Through the gap, he watched as other shelled things made their way closer to the monstrous figure.  He watched as the figure stepped on the shelled thing, killing it, then killed another with the weapon- a blade on a pole.

It wasn’t that the figures were large, he realized, but that he was small.  They were covered in protection like he was, but it was made to fit their form, covering every part of them while moving easily.  His protection limited him as much as it walled off the outside world.  This was their world.

Small meant vulnerable.  Vulnerable meant that it was best to stay quiet.  Quiet while they killed.  Quiet when they struck him with the blade, not to kill, but to move.

The dead life and plants were put separate from the living, and the living was steadily killed or taken away.  He’d been taken from the dangerous writhing jungle to a dead one, of shells and smooth, cold scale.

The dead weren’t to be left alone.  Off to the side, a great light burned and consumed, fed regularly with plant life, and it reduced the dead to odors and tastes that made him salivate, before reducing them to char that made his face wrinkle.

He waited, watched, and listened to them communicate in grunting and sibilant sounds.  When the great light illuminated the transparent coverings in front of their heads, he could see their faces, see how those sounds were huffed out and mashed into shapes with lips like his own mangled lips, with teeth that were intact, and with tongues like the one that he used to suckle.

Survive, the imperative demanded.

He played dead, limiting himself to suckling for moisture and then chewing when he felt like he could move his jaw enough.  He watched, saw the pattern, and when he judged he’d waited as long as he could before that blade found its way under him and turned him into a blackness that made others drool, when he judged the way was clear, he pried himself free and crawled his way into the darkness, where plants pressed in on him from every direction.

“You don’t remember anything before your trigger?” Rain asked.  The guy was trying to look disarming, but there was scratch that traced the line of his eye socket and turned his lower eyelid black, just swollen enough to make the eye squint in a suspicious way.

Define ‘trigger’.

The rest of the group was paying attention to him now.  Eyes trying to get past the shell he’d erected around himself, see parts of him he wasn’t comfortable revealing.  He trusted Ashley’s cold, uninterested look more than he trusted Kenzie’s small smile and wide eyes.  He was glad for the eyepatch he wore, because it meant he didn’t see Kenzie staring and studying him.

“Nothing before,” Chris said, shrugging.  He wouldn’t tell them about the bonfire, the bugs, the quarantine crew.

“I don’t remember anything either,” Sveta said.  She was always quiet, trying to sound gentle and nonthreatening.  She said ‘sorry’ a lot, stared at the ground.  She went on, “But I dream.  I’ve tried to paint it, to take those fragments of dreams and put a puzzle together.”

“Do you dream, Chris?” the therapist asked.  Prodded.  Pried.

“No,” Chris said.  He had nightmares regularly, and even though he considered those ‘dreams’, he wouldn’t share that.  It was knowledge that could be used to trace his background.

He saw her scratch words onto the notebook that laid on her lap.  She avoided looking at him as she wrote.

“I dream,” Ashley said.  “Ms. Yamada told me that dreams may be important to parahumans.”

“Do you keep a dream diary?” Sveta asked.

And the conversation moved on.  Chris was aware of the therapist glancing at him more than she glanced at the others.  Her pen rested on the page by the note she’d made.

Second imperative: migrate.

Surviving meant eating, and eating gave him the strength to walk instead of crawling.  He was growing, and the rate of growth made his entire body hurt.

Eating meat was hard, because it required catching that meat, and eating enough vegetation to keep himself going required constant eating, which conflicted with the second imperative.

It also meant that he had to experiment with eating different things.  He’d eaten some shoots last night, and had spent his usual sleeping hours enduring stomach cramps and a forced evacuation of everything he’d eaten and then some.  Now he was delirious, thirsty, and having to stop because his stomach was contracting and cramping so badly.

He needed to keep moving, both because it was imperative and because he needed water and there wasn’t any here.

He found himself slowing, taking more breaks.  To do otherwise would have meant collapse, but stopping and not reaching water or destination meant death or-

Or nothing.  There was no alternative.

Five hundred breaths of walking.  Three hundred breaths of sitting, resting.

Then four hundred breaths of walking.  Four hundred breaths of sitting, resting.

Two hundred breaths to walk.  Six hundred breaths to sit.

All measured out.  Forward progress was the only option.  The weather was wet and cold and he felt like the warmth in him had died some time ago.  The plodding forward was monotonous – he no longer looked for danger or for food.  He breathed and he marched.  The breaths were even, in and out, and they were his clock.

Fifty breaths of walking- he had to stop, his stomach cramping.  He lost count of his breathing while gasping in pain.  He imagined it was close to a thousand.

A hundred breaths of walking.  A thousand breaths of rest.

A hundred breaths of walking.  A thousand breaths of rest.  He wanted to rest longer, and he couldn’t let himself.

A hundred breaths of walking, not toward his destination now.  His heart hammered in his chest as he took those hundred breaths and the steps that went with them, because he now knew the danger he faced.

He put himself in the most open space he could.  Predators would see him here, but if he didn’t choose this location, then the scavengers would get him.

He collapsed, and the exhaustion and pain that ran through him was enough that the feeling of hitting the dirt didn’t even reach his thoughts.

He faded in and out from there.  Cold and wet, then cold and dry.  Then movement.  Covered in a soft wrapping- too soft to be any protection.  His half-formed left hand gripped the material.

When he came to again, he felt better.  He felt nourished, and he felt rested.  There were few aches and pains, no longing for water.  He moved the material that covered him aside, and found a distance between the soft material he had been resting on and the ground below.

He landed, and he fell, but he made little noise.

Second imperative: migrate.

They caught him before he could get there.  People like the ones that had been killing and burning, but without the coverings that were the same color and material from head to foot.  Bigger people.

He struggled and fought, heard their utterances and knew no meaning in it.  He saw their kin- a long, long line of people all migrating in their own way.  To the wrong place.  People with belongings gathered, moving at a crawl, unwary of the hard-shelled things that traveled along hard surfaces, so close to them.

He tried twice more to get where he needed to be, and on the third try, two of the people decided to confine him, imprisoning him in a large shell, with soft material within.  This shell moved, and once he saw that it moved in the direction he needed to go, he relaxed.  When they stopped he pointed with his fist, insistent.  He knew the destination by heart, even though he knew so little else.

A deserted place, of shelters like the tents, only hard stone.  Some towered high, others were squat and low.

His destination was down stairs.  The grown ones with him tried to stop him, because now they were wary.  He fought his way free, and he ran.

Down the stairs.  A door, and a panel on the wall.  Each bump on the wall produced a note when pressed, and they had to be pressed in the right order.  It was imperative.

The door opened, and a world of manufactured concrete stood out before him.  There were more metal doors, more panels, but all the doors were open.  Shells and guts of metal, crystal-clear containers that housed fluids with things within.  Shells meant to be worn, now draped in a covering of gossamer, courtesy of the tiny shelled things that swarmed them.

The grown ones followed, and they looked scared.  They picked up their pace, to reach him before he could reach the chamber he needed.  They were just in time for the light.

A single light, focused on each of them, blinding, so they all covered their eyes.

When he looked, he saw that the light that shone on him had turned green.  The one that shone on them was the red of bodily fluid, of injury and pain.

He didn’t jump when there was a sound like there had been when people had been doing the killing.  A sharp cracking sound, as boot came down on blade, severing life.

No blade here- it was a series of narrower things, so fast they were invisible.  Both of the grown people collapsed.

He advanced, reaching the destination.  His hand mashed the raised markings there, and the markings depressed as the ones on the panel had.

Things lit up, and the face he saw on the other side of the clear glowing panel  was of a grown man, teeth crowded toward the front, hair brown and tousled into a mop, eyes wide in a dangerous way.  He moved like he was afraid, moving things, putting fluids in things, and making utterances in a quick, nervous way.

What he said didn’t matter.

Migration done.  He instinctively knew what he had to do.  The scene on the panel continued as he found everything that seemed familiar and made sure it was in place.  By the time he was done, the scene was repeating itself.  The same sounds, the same movement.

Third imperative: download.

Feelings were just chemicals in the body and the brain.  On the glowing panel that showed the repeating sequence of events, he could see some of those chemicals.  Running through clear artificial veins, or residing in cases and shells.

Metal tips pressed against his flesh until they pierced through.  He turned the segment, and chemicals flowed into his arm.  From his arm, they traveled through his body.  They were meant to evoke a specific situation, a specific instance.

Something slowly began to shift, his head pounding, and he understood what he was doing.  He understood the chemicals and he understood the machinery around him.  It came in waves, of increasing clarity.

The memories came after.  He could put names to what he was looking at.

He could remember the shape of the the moment he’d ‘triggered’ -the word ‘triggered’ popped into his head amid the stream of memories.  And he could remember everything that had come after.

He had a name for the person on the screen, now.  A name for himself.

PRT’s second most wanted, 2003.  Seventh most wanted if counting international threats.  He’d fought the PRT’s headliner team three times.  One win, two draws- he’d lost both those times, technically, but he’d gotten away, and he counted that as a draw.

Then they’d caught him, found him mid-experiment.  He’d been a prisoner in a regular prison, until they’d grown lax.

Then the Birdcage.  Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  Seven years of cameras and eyes watching his every move while he was contained.  He could imagine the fingers tapping on the glass.  Dragon handled the announcements, but he could imagine the other staff watching.  No one woman could do all of the watching.  A hundred eyes…

The memories were overwriting and overshadowing the creature he’d been, that had fought so fiercely and wrapped itself in the shell of one of Breed’s spawn.  He’d been dredged up along with them while, presumably, people had been looking for heroes in the wreckage after everything had gone wrong at the oil rig.

He reached out to touch the screen, feeling a kind of dread.  He didn’t want to be thatHim.  Himself.  He’d spent a long, long time not wanting to be himself, but now it was imperative.

As if responding to that thought, the man in the recording turned to face the screen, still talking, chattering.

Lab Rat.

“You lied to the group.”

Chris slumped back in his seat, staring at the therapist with his best ‘are you for real’ face.

“About a lot of things,” she added.

“You said I needed to do this.  You didn’t say how.”

“How are you doing this, then?  I’d love some insight on your approach.”

“I’m protecting myself.”

“I guessed that was the case.  Can you elaborate?”

He let out a long, belabored sigh.  People were so much more trouble than they were worth.

“Name a statement, anything I said, and I’ll explain why.”

“Your background.”

“It can be used to track me.  If they know where I came from, then they know who and what I am.  That matters to people.”

“You think certain people hold grudges?”

“I think certain populations hold grudges.  Riley Grace Davis, imprisoned and made to do work for your organization-”

“I’m not affiliated with them.”

Chris snorted.  “Whatever.  Tom Moss?  Dead.  They didn’t put much effort into investigating that one.  Ricario D’Alleva, imprisoned.  Akemi whatshername?  Imprisoned.”

“She seems reasonably free and happy by all reports I’ve seen.”

“Led around like a dog, watched constantly.”

“That strikes me as the kind of thing that you’re very conscious of.  Being watched, observed, manipulated.”

“Eh,” he said.  “If you haven’t picked up on that already, you don’t deserve your credentials.  Jamie Rinke, imprisoned.  Meadows?  Dead.  I can’t even remember which of the other Slaughterhouse or Class-S threats are alive still, but for most it’s because they’ve been dead or imprisoned for so long that we’ve mostly forgotten about them.  Which is my point.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re all over the place here.”

I mind,” Chris said, frowning.  He’d let himself get agitated.  “And I’m in one place.  These are the dangerous ones.  The ones they wanted to get rid of but couldn’t.  The lovely Ms. Webb?  Imprisoned-”

He saw her open her mouth, and quickly added, “-until released by Benjamin Terrell.  Who is public enemy number one, and I would guess is either going to die before the year is out or live to be two hundred.”

“Fair assertion.  He has a lot of resources at his disposal.”

“Speaking of?  Your Valkyrie?  Ms. Ciara?  Imprisoned.”

“You have a very loose definition of ‘imprisoned’, Chris.”

“Dog, leash.  Monitored, fretted over, limited in what she can do.  If they could have done better in locking her down I think they would have.”

“She’s free and she’s helping.  I think most have earned and are exercising their second chances, Chris, and she’s more evidence for my belief than evidence against.  Why are you so fixated on this?”

“It’s too dangerous to tell the truth!  Even if they forgave my past, they won’t overlook my potential.  Tinkers get kidnapped.  So I say I’m a Changer.”

“Why Changer?”

“Because it makes sense.  I can sell it.  I can fake it.  And because changers are second to last on the good ol’ PRT priority list.  Everything else being equal, changers get left alone while the thinkers and masters get gunned down first, tinkers are probably next in line if they can’t be disarmed, and then you get rid of the bog-standard break-shit types.  Changers come after all of that.”

“Which is why you lied about that,” she said, and he saw her take her note as she said it.  A mark on the paper, something to keep track of.  A continuing study of him.

“Survival is always going to be my first priority,” he said.  “The way I see it, half of the parahumans out there are doing it wrong.  They aren’t protecting themselves.  They aren’t making the right moves.  They aren’t optimizing, and optimizing has to start with staying alive and keeping from being exploited.  Which they are all really fucking bad at.”

“I have many patients who I wish were still alive right now.  I wouldn’t put it in quite those words, but… it’s a scary world.”

“It is, and those patients were idiots.  Your current sitting-in-a-circle ring of patients that you made me sit with?  Idiots.

She seemed exasperated now.  “We’re all doing our best.  Did you get anything at all out of the group session?”

Chris snorted.

“If you put a little bit more of yourself out there, then maybe you’d get more out of it.”

“I told them enough.  What did I say?  Tinker got me, experiments, abuse, fucking asshole kept me for a while.”

“You didn’t mention that the tinker was you, Chris.”

“Would’ve kind of given away the show, don’t you think?” he asked, as sarcastic as he could manage.

“I get the impression that when you came here, you were irritated,” the therapist said.  “You were already plotting how you would tell me you didn’t want to attend.  Yes?”

“Yes,” he said.  He smirked.  “I like the word plotting.  Fitting.”

“Can I negotiate with you?”

He shrugged.

“Keep attending, and-”

“Why?”

“Because I think there’s value in it.  I think if you give it time, it’ll be easier to talk and to share.”

He snorted again.  “You think that’s going to help?”

“With therapy?  Careful guidance and attention?  Yes.  I believe that.  But you have to want it.”

He reached into his pocket to pull out his phone.  Not nearly enough time had passed.

“Agree to this, and I’ll talk to the institution.  They can relax the disciplinary measures for your outbursts, give you access to your things, and give you the freedom to visit your workshop.  Provided, of course, that you keep it safe, sane, and sensible.”

His fingers drummed on the phone screen.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“I don’t need the institution.”

“You’re a young teenager with nowhere to live.”

“I’m a thirty-two year old man in a body that was meant to grow fast, not well.”

“It’s not quite that defined, Chris.  You seem to enjoy that it’s not defined, because if I approach you as a juvenile, you claim you’re a man.   If I approach you as if you were a man, you retreat to being the teenager.  Petulant, sarcastic, immature-”

“So flattering,” he said.

“And clever, independent, with varied interests.  A far cry from the person described in the write-up for Lab Rat.  A distinct, natural personality of its own.”

“We could debate it all session.  Oh wait!  We have!  Multiple times!

“By your choice.  I think you like that you resist labeling as one or the other.  A circular argument is safe ground to retreat to when you don’t want to discuss other things.”

He shook his head.

“When the institution isn’t upset with you, it’s not such a bad place to be, is it?”

“Noisy, chaotic, tons of test subjec- kids running around.”

“Not funny.”

“It sucks.”

“It has food, power, televisions, running water, internet-”

“Crap internet.”

“There are amenities.  I know your supervisors have remarked that you had fun playing video games with peers.”

Supervisors.  He felt a frustration well inside him.  People that tapped on the glass, peered in.  That thought they knew him.

“They are the furthest thing from being my peers.  I outclass them in every way.  They suck at the games, they can barely spell…”

“You had fun,” the therapist said, firm, like there was no room for disagreement.  “It’s easier, isn’t it?”

“…I definitely don’t need the group.”

“I picked members for the circle because you have common focuses.  I can see you perk up whenever tinker-related talk comes up.  Rain, Kenzie.  I know there are parallels between yourself and Ashley, that you aren’t the originals.”

“She’s a legitimate clone.  My predecessor got creative.”

“There are parallels, aren’t there?  If you talked to her about your dreams and she talked to you about hers, I think you could teach each other something about what’s going on and what you’re going through.”

“I’m still not going to share.  Weighing the values, I get more out of keeping it secret than sharing.”

“Optimizing?”

“Exactly.”

“And the side effects of your transformations, and your insistence on transforming yourself?  Is that optimizing too?”

He shook his head.  No snort, no laugh, no dismissal.  In a way, it was as grave a thing as talking about a family member dying.

Not that one more family member dying would have been such a bad thing in his case.

“That stuff’s for fun,” he told her.

The therapist offered no immediate response to that.  But her pen marked it down.  He wondered if she was doing that on purpose, to let him know she knew.

Cortisol, epinephrines, and noradrenaline flooded into his arm along with a mess of acetylcholines.

Third imperative: Download.

Every two to three days, depending on how long he could hold out, he ‘downloaded’.  Powers and agents, as the literature called them, had a way of connecting better to the hosts when the host was in alignment with the moment they triggered.  It was at this time that the agent performed its deepest study of the host, the context around the host, and all necessary things relating to the power.

With a specific feeling derived from a specific balance of neurotransmitters that he pumped into his system, his brain hooked up to a machine to read the various levels, he replicated the feelings of one specific length of time, then the moment that it all came to a head.

A slow ramp up- his finger adjusted the switch, slowly sliding it across the dusty, cracked terminal.  He watched the cortisol levels rise, felt them rise.  Stress.

He could visualize the scene clearly now.  It was the most intact of his memories.  He had been forbidden from entering his sister’s office, which had once been his dad’s workshop.  He’d entered.  He’d seen.  A few seconds of horror, which had sent him spiraling into self-destruction.  Bed wetting, smearing feces on the walls of the school bathroom, and picking fights without realizing why.  Anything to feel like he could make the world make tangible sense again.  Anything to get the image out of his head.

A teenage guy, lying on a table.  She’d removed the gag and the guy had managed a brief yelp before the plastic covered his mouth- part of a hose and tube assembly, connected to a canister.  The contents of the canister had been released, and they’d vented out explosively- so explosively that it erupted from the teenager’s nose, a thick foam.

He’d snorted, failing to get enough foam out to breathe.  He’d struggled, his back arching with the force of his desperate attempt to pull arm from restraint.  The arms had been injured, marked.  There were cuts with blue ink smeared into them and onto the skin around them.  His eyes had rolled back into his skull-

And the boy that would become Lab Rat had fled, feet stomping because he hadn’t thought to be quiet.  His sister didn’t follow or make any mention of what had happened.

He had broken down.  He had tried and failed to make sense of a scene that made none.  He had had nightmare after nightmare and he had sat with his brother and sister at the dining room table, eating the meal his sister had made and trying not to think about that scene and the role she had played in it.

Years later, he summoned the courage to tell his sister he knew.  He’d expected to find some strength in it, to disarm her.  Something.  All he had achieved was to allow her to be less careful about what she did, on those days she found a hitchhiker or homeless kid willing to follow her to her home.

He couldn’t tell anyone, because he was already the delinquent by that point.  She was the angel, the twenty-one year old who had taken custody of her two kid brothers, who put up with him when he’d acted out so much after their parents had died.

He adjusted dials.  More cortisol.  Heavy noradrenaline.  The moment of panic, the culmination-

The memories.  Everything had flowed from that point, and everything that had followed was now clearer.

Every two to three days, he inserted the needles, and he hit the switches.  Imperative.  Half of the rest of the day was spent both reeling and trapping small animals so the requisite hormones and neurotransmitters could be harvested.  Rats, ironically.

It was sheer ego, helped along by the panic of a very limited timespan, that had made the original demand this kind of adherence.  If there was going to be a legacy or an emergency out, then he needed to ensure that the process was repeated until the memories and personality were as close to real as possible.  Except they never could be.

So long as the imperative held, he couldn’t stray far from this bunker.

Chemicals.  He gathered what he could.

Six minutes to rig an extraction gun.

Ten minutes to extract from every animal in the shelter.  His hand was heavy on the top of the cat’s head.  The machine pumped at the back of its skull, extracting.  It died in bliss, which was better than most would get, the way this was going.

The inter-dimensional door opened nearby, and wind whistled in.  He made a face.

“You’re working so small,” String Theory taunted him.

With more force than necessary, he plugged his machine into another cat.  The machine bucked as it kicked in, nearly throwing the cat from the table.

“You’re not working at all.  We barely have time.”

“They found a way to give us time.  Time manipulators have been allotted to each of us.  If we can give a convincing elevator pitch.”

“Our reputations should be pitch enough,” he rasped the words.  In the lead-up to everyone getting out of the Birdcage, he’d spent far too long talking and negotiating, smoothing tensions and ensuring that if there was any hassle, it wouldn’t come from his block.

So long as he was a rat in someone else’s maze, he’d give them what they wanted and he’d get his cheese.

After… was after.  He just had to get there.  He had to get through the next day.

“What are you making?” String Theory asked, sticking her head between his elbow and his body.

He dug his elbow into her back, hard, and she squirmed her way out.

“Let me be your rubber duck,” she said.

“Shouldn’t you be building something impractically large?”

“I set my servos to build.  Tools in motion, engines heating up.  I’ll go back in… two minutes and thirty one seconds.  But I clearly need to make fun of you before then.  What can you even do with that?”

He had no plans.  Or rather, he had a hundred.  He’d spent seven years thinking about what he would do when he had a chance, a real chance that didn’t use food byproducts and what he extracted when he performed procedures on his cell block inmates.  The mentally ill, the suffering.  Take from one, give to another, level out serotonin, reduce aggressive urges.  Now and then their parahuman overseer would get upset at him for building up too much of a collection, demanding he dump it.  Until then, he had some freedom.

He kept a cell block of people quiet, when they were of types who had no reason to be quiet, and in exchange, they left him alone six days out of seven.  Another of the seven days was reserved for dealing with disputes and talking to other block leaders.

Now he was out, all of those notes in his head, and with a hundred ideas to pick from, he had no ideas.

Not that he’d tell this grinning runt of a woman.

“Better seen than heard.”

She smirked, and it was a really punchable smirk.  She slouched and rather than straighten up to smile at him, she twisted her head so her chin craned up, looking up at him with overlarge glasses and a forced smile on her face.

Somehow more irritating than if she’d been looking down at him.  Not that he would punch that punchable face.  Maybe in the right situation, he could do something more creative.  Take the right formula, the right form, and claw that face off.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said.  “Before I go… a bet.”

“What?”

“Which of us makes the biggest difference?”

“What are the stakes?” he asked.

“Existing,” she said.  Her watch beeped, and she turned around.  “Take me back to my lab.”

He watched her saunter off, through the portal that opened.  He could see the scale of what she was building, saw her turn to smirk at him in the moment before the portal closed.

He was left in the animal shelter, the lights dark.

This wouldn’t do.

He was thinking small and he hated that she was right almost as much as he hated her guts in general.  Yet however much he hated her and however much she claimed to detest him, they ended up together, over and over again.

This- it had been her saying goodbye.

Couldn’t think small.  Couldn’t let the runt win.

“Give me a portal in the ceiling… someplace bright.”

The portal opened.  A square of light that illuminated the interior of the shelter.  Animals shuffled in cages and kennels, their cries overlapping.

“So that worked,” he said, his voice a quiet rasp. “Give me a portal to… where the confiscated PRT tech ends up.”

The door opened.

He smiled.  “Stakes are bad enough you’re not even going to say no?”

It would be a start.

Ensuring he had the last laugh would be the next part of it.

It meant surviving.

Imperative: download.

It was instinct and preprogramming that forced his hand, that made the routine of the procedure something that he could stall but not stop.  No more than he could stop from sleeping.

Needle in, dials adjusted, fluids loaded.

Replicating a feeling, then experiencing everything that had flowed from that point.  The him that he’d been, small and stupid as it was, had been him.

Elephants were scared of rodents, or so the story went.  Dogs ate cats, cats ate rats, and rats scared the elephants that terrified everyone.

He knew he was put together weird, as though none of the pieces of his body fit with the other.  If anybody had ever really liked him, his little brother excepted, then they’d never let him know… and his little brother wasn’t around anymore.  The last victim of the so-called ‘angel’, his sister.

Now he was alone.  For a moment, there were only the eyes that watched him, waiting for him to ask for a portal.

He put on his coat, he gathered his crate and a backpack, both full of injectors, the housings procured by way of a portal to a medical supply company, and he grabbed the ball.  His emergency out, quickly cobbled together.

“Portal… to where the fighters who won’t be fighting at this next battlefield are.”

The doorway opened.  There were people gathered.  Some would be friends and allies of the people who were fighting front and center in a matter of minutes.

Quickly, he handed them out.  No time for explanations, and he knew he was untrustworthy enough by reputation and look that explanations wouldn’t help much.  If they wanted one, they could take one.

He’d get as many out as he could.  Maybe one would matter.  Maybe all of them would.

A rat could scare an elephant.  A thousand rats could kill one.

Heroes, villains.  Some stared at him.  He’d never taken off his Birdcage sweats, only put stuff on over it.

“What is it?” someone asked.  A girl in a gray horned mask with slanted eyes, a scarf, and a black bodysuit.

His voice was still a bit of a rasp.  “Wear it.  It activates when you’re hurt.  Maybe keeps you in the fight.  Makes you strong in a desperate moment.”

The girl tossed the small box up in the air, then caught it.  “Okay.”

He handed others to people nearby.

“Can I have one for my dog?” one of them asked.

He looked at the ‘dog’.  Grown large, monstrous, clearly some kind of growth effect in play.

He would have liked to study it.  He would have liked to see the interaction.  Would it fizzle?

It stirred up his tinker brain, and he had to suppress it.  He’d had some experience in suppressing those thoughts, in all his time in the Birdcage.

“Go nuts,” he said.

“Then I want some for other dogs.”

He pushed a handful into her hands.  She nodded, satisfied, and began putting them into the pockets of her baggy jacket.

He considered his next move, who he should approach next, thought twice, and dropped the crate.  “Find someone to hand these out.  I should be there.”

“You’re going huh?” the girl in the gray mask asked.  “You don’t need your badge things?”

“Injectors.  And this bag is full,” he said.  He patted the backpack.  “Give me a portal.  Last stand.”

The portal opened.  He could see the oil rig, and everyone assembled there.

So many strangers, and he didn’t necessarily like the people who weren’t strangers.

“Look after the people there,” the girl with the thing about dogs said.

“That’s the intention.”

That got him a nod.

He was greeted by a man in power armor he couldn’t place by name.  Quizzed.  Then he was handed an assortment of other things to hand out with the injectors.

String Theory, too, greeted him at the door.

“I’ve got you beat,” she said.

“A thousand rats can kill an elephant,” he said.

“What are you even talking about?  Did you snort something, to help you get through this?  I wouldn’t blame you.  I know you’re a coward at heart.”

His voice rasped, “That’s rich, coming from the runt of a woman who keeps her location secret and hides from the authorities while her weapons do the work remotely.  I know you’re not very bright, but put the pieces together.  It’s not a one man show.”

“One woman,” String Theory said.  She looked around.  “Sad, that Lustrum isn’t in earshot for that.  It would have got me points with her.”

“You’re so far into the negatives with her that it doesn’t matter.  We have eighty people with powers here.  Think for once.  I aim to multiply that power, or at least keep it in play.”

“You’re underestimating how big my gun is.  We’re not rats, you know.  We’re ants.  Little winged insects, buzzing around him.”

He handed out devices to the people who were taking the opportunity to file into the portal to the oil rig.  Armbands, earbuds, and injectors.

“My plan, my approach, it acknowledges that we’re ants.  The trick is to realize that because we’re ants, we can operate like termites.  We bring the building down, and we can kill your elephant.  All it takes is the right timing.”

“Termites aren’t ants,” he said.

“Same family, Rat.”

He shook his head slowly.

“When you’re dying, Rat, die knowing I win our bet.  I made a knockout punch, you made knick-knacks.”

He gave her a pat on the head as he passed her.  He knew she hated it.

Onto the platform, where things were mercifully quiet.

He handed out the armbands and earbuds as well as the injectors.  He wove his way through the crowd.

A girl with a bug costume.  Tinted lenses.  Either symbolic, given the recent conversation, or the universe mocking him.

He drew the equipment from his bag, then hesitated.  Something more fitting.  A bug in a box for the girl with the bug costume.  Maybe she would be more comfortable that way.

Imperative: Download.

It pressed on him.  The need to return to memories, refining them to perfection when the agent in his head would never provide a perfectly clear image.  He knew from those memories that he’d intentionally designed the system so he could only break the loop when he was ‘himself’ enough to figure out an escape.

Until then, a kind of torture.

He had other projects in the works, cobbled together from pieces of confiscated PRT tech in this emergency bunker.  As he succumbed to the imperative, dropping what he was doing to head to the station, to inject the needle and set up the emotional state that put him closest to his agent, he left a burner on.  A chemical burned.

Cortisol steadily cranked up, and his knowledge of what was coming made the stress worse.  Even the limiters that were supposed to adapt the incoming dosage to his current stress levels weren’t doing a lot to help.

He was mainlining stress while watching bubbles rise to the surface with an increasing intensity.

The glass detonated, and the contents sprayed across the room.  It aerosolized, and he inhaled it.

Twenty breaths.

The drug found its way into his system.  His cells multiplied, and they multiplied with a design in mind.  Other DNA took over his DNA, and with the change, the tinker knowledge dropped away.

He’d needed to make himself strong, and he’d needed to make himself angry.  Angry enough that it overrode the lesser imperatives.  Not so angry that it overrode the first imperative.

Muscles expanded, and skin stretched.  His hands became more like hooves as the fingers cloyed together.  His face, too, changed.

With fists, he destroyed.  His face was a blunt object as much as his hands were, and his body was simply muscle, and a vehicle for allowing him to smash.

Computer screens, the looped recordings.  Terminals.  Armor that he’d repurposed to scan body parts.  He destroyed, changed further as he drew in breath, panting, and destroyed more.

It was meditative, even freeing.

It was even more freeing as the effect faded, roughly twenty minutes in.  He gradually took his juvenile form again.  The machine was broken, the equipment lost, and even with his memories mostly intact, he’d had no idea if the imperative would still be in effect.  Would he be forced to build and rebuild endlessly?

He felt for it, and he felt nothing.  The only feeling was the pain from the spots all across his body where glass had dug in.  The change had helped to heal, but only partially.

Maybe when he was looking for artistic inspiration, he would do something similar to this form.  No need to tie things down, but if he was going to pretend to be a changer, it would be best to appear like someone who didn’t have all of the choices in the world.

Slowly, steadily, he packed up his things.  Then he set out on his journey to find where people had escaped to, if there were even any left.

I win, he finally allowed himself the thought.  He walked past the bodies of the couple that had taken it on themselves to see if the naked, malnourished boy that they’d found had any people he was so insistently trying to return to.  In the time he’d been here, the bodies had dried up.

Already, instincts were kicking in.  Another imperative.  He was much happier with this one.

Imperative four: Take action, and whatever it is we do, it needs to be big.

He found her crying.

Amelia Claire Lavere.  Marquis’ daughter.  Victoria’s sister.

The Rinke creation sprung to its feet as he drew near, prowling with long legs and a sleek, long body.  It brandished a box-cutter at him.

“Lab Rat,” Amelia said.  She sat up straight and wiped at her eyes.  “You followed me?”

Found you.

Already, he was changing back.  He’d timed his arrival, done one circuit around the area.

“Come.  Let me touch you,” she said, trying to sound steely and failing.  She was still very close to returning to sobs.

He allowed it.  He approached.  The Rinke creation leaped onto his leg, then up to his long neck, where it held the box cutter at an area where the blood pumped hardest.

The hand was warm, with his scaled body soaked with the freezing rain.

He’d called this piece of work ‘Fleeting Memory’.  Fast, thus the fleeting, and Memory because it reminded him of the time he’d been born.  Not reborn as Lab Rat- he’d told the others about that.  But when he’d been birthed onto a bed of scales and Breed’s bugs, dredged from the water beneath the oil rig.  This body was spindly legs and sleek writhing scale, holding the vague profile of a very narrow wolf.

Memory, too, because scent was tied to memory, and this form was a very good tracker.  Less good in the rain, but… good.

Amelia helped him transform faster, and as she did, she removed the compulsion that Goddess had laid on him.  As he lost his humanity, he wrapped the cloth sash around himself, concealing his manhood.  A length of it went over his head, to keep the rain off.  It didn’t really help.

As he fixed the position of everything, he adjusted the boxes that were tucked into pockets.

“How did you know it was me?” he asked.

“You shed.”

“Your power doesn’t work through hair.”

“Not well.  But that body didn’t have hair.  Besides, you resemble him.  You’re not him, though.”

He shrugged.

“What have you done to yourself?” she asked.

He was very aware of the distinction.  It wasn’t ‘what did he do to you’, referring to his creator.  It was what he had done to himself.

She was sharp.  Stupid, so very stupid when it came to some things.  But sharp in some things.

“I’ll let you in on that secret, if you let me ask you a few questions after,” he said.

“I’m not in a mood for riddles, Lab Rat.”

“They think I’m fighting to keep my humanity, while changes wreak havoc on me.”

“They being Victoria?”

“Them.”

“What’s the truth?”

“I can’t be rid of it soon enough,” he said.  “Every change pulls me further away from being this.”

“To become what?”

He reached into one of the pockets in the sash.  He’d told the others that he needed to carry equipment and drugs with him, in case his body started going to pieces.

Not so.

“This,” he held up a syringe, “Is Brooding Anger.  I scanned Nursery during the Fallen fight.  It would be interesting.”

She put out a finger.  He extruded a droplet, let it rest on her fingertip.

She shook it off, then wiped her finger on her clothes.

Fucking rude.  Still… bigger things.

“Maybe another,” he said.  He smiled.  “Maybe they’ll all get a turn.  I’ve collected a few, lurking near powerful capes.”

“What do you even want, Lab Rat?  I’m kind of- I’m dealing with shit.”

“You had a face to face with her, finally?  Despite everyone telling you that you shouldn’t?”

“I don’t understand it.  Or- I understand, I think.  I just don’t want to think about it at all.”

“I could give you something.  You could be mindless for a while.  Peaceful.”

She shook her head.  “I should feel like shit.  I just wish…”

Her face crumpled up.  She looked away, burying her face in a sleeve that draped over one gloved hand.

He looked away too.  Rainwater was streaming down, and it was cold.

He’d dealt with worse.  Lab Rat hadn’t, but he had.

“I told you something I never told that team,” he said.  “You said you’d answer my questions.”

“Lab Rat-”

“You thought you had an answer.  You’d help Goddess, she’d take power, you’d keep her from being a despot somehow, and as for Victoria…”

“Don’t.  No commentary.”

“You thought she’d be so glad to be rid of you that she’d forgive you?”

“Stop.”

“Goddess can’t lead.  She’s too dangerous.  She’s missing necessary tools because she never had to go through the hardship to acquire them.  Survival.  Having to work to get somewhere.  Having to learn things the hard way.”

“That ship has sailed, Lab Rat,” Amelia said.  “If she doesn’t take power, it’s going to be because someone worse beat her.  Teacher is in the running.”

“You said you’d answer my questions,” he said.

“I didn’t say anything like that.”

He shifted position, irritated.

“What questions?” she asked.  She looked tired and resigned, and even in the gloom her eyes were visibly red.

“Shin has a manufactured slave class, doesn’t it?”

“What?”

“She has a servant who can make armies.  Nothing behind the eyes, nothing between the ears.  They follow simple orders and they can use weapons.  Yes?”

“You want an army?”

“No,” he said.

Test subjects, not an army.

He saw the suspicion in her eyes.  Her hands clasped each other now.  She worked by touch- touching her hands together was alike another man resting his hand on the hilt of the knife he had holstered at his belt.  A security thing.

“Would you fight me?” he asked her.  “Would your father?”

“What are you doing, Lab Rat?  What do you want?”

“All I want is for you to do nothing.  She senses danger.  I’m… perpetual danger for her.  But she wants to keep me close.  She likes me.  She thinks she’s safe because she can beat me.  I’m just a changer.”

“And?”

“And when I take the form of Twisted Betrayal…” he said.  He drew a syringe from the case, and he held it out, producing a droplet.  She removed her glove to touch it once again.  “It’ll be a sightly different formula to the one she thinks she can handle.”

“And all you want is for me to do nothing?”

“Do it and I’ll fix this.  I will give you Victoria however you want her.  If you want to talk, I’ll get you there.  If you want to keep her forever-”

Amelia shook her head.

“-I can get you there,” he said, lowering his voice.

“I just want answers.  I need to think about what I’ll do for her.”

“I can give you answers,” he said.  The thirteen year old was gone for the time being.  “All I need…”

He repeated himself to lull her in.  He’d had to do it with the more vulnerable members of his cell block.

“Is nothing?” she asked.

“And if Goddess can’t rule Earth Shin, then you let me help you and your father.”

“And give you slaves?”

“Mindless drones.”

“And you want to be a monster?  And how is it you’re going to get Victoria-”

Her voice rose slightly as she talked, and she shook her head, as if the ‘no’ was already there and she was fighting her way to get to it.

“Amelia,” he interrupted, and his voice was rougher.  “Do you want me to act, here?  Don’t overthink it.  Do you want someone to step in?”

Again, the hands touched.  Insecure.

She nodded.

“I know where the last member of her cluster is.  I found her before I found you.  We had a chat.”

“Like the one you just had with me?”

“Don’t overthink it,” he said.  “Don’t signal anything to her.  Just… work with me.  Accept what comes and don’t get in the way.  Do you want me to give you something, so you seem less dangerous to her?”

“Can I trust what you give me?  I know some of what you’ve done.”

“If I hurt you, your father will have my head.  I’m eliminating problems, not creating them.”

Hands clasped together in front of her, she nodded.

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Polarize – 10.13

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The gunfire continued below me, and if there were any shots that passed through the air as they took aim at me, I didn’t hear them.  There was the noise of the wind rushing through and around the Wretch, faintly different from when it was brushing my skin and touching my ears.  A distortion, a whistle.

A plank in each hand, I raised my arms to my face, burying almost all of it in my arms, the crook of the elbows at my nose and mouth, the planks out and in line with my body.  I let the Wretch drop as I disappeared into the cloud cover and against the wind.

Cold, and worse because it was a moist cold.

I flew in a slight circle, dipping lower until I could see the general outline of things below.  There were tears in my eyes from the sting of the cold, but I could make out the truck, the way the cars had stopped, and the clearing by the tree with Kenzie’s van parked by it.

I shifted my grip on the planks, and then I let them fall.  Immediately, I flew horizontally, skimming the cloud line, still feeling the cold press in on me as if from every direction, grabbing at my body and reaching toward the bone.  My speed, moisture, wind and cold all compounded one another, and the snow that blew around me collected and bound to the surface.

I dove.  They came into view as I came down, what looked to be civilians or improvised soldiers in dark clothes, with what looked like used body armor.  Two people with masks, standing off to one side.  Not people I recognized.

One plank fell into the ditch.  Another struck the pavement and broke.  The plummeting objects made heads turn, which was my intent.  The black of my costume had collected a frosting of white that made it a little less obvious.

Anger sharpened my focus.  I didn’t use my aura as I landed, knee and one foot on the ground, hands helping to add some spring to the impact and reduce the noise.

It wasn’t enough to keep some of the people from seeing me.  That was where the sharper focus counted.  Two in front of me, one off to the left, two off to the right.

The lone guy to my left that had noticed me turned to his friend, who was leaning over the back of one vehicle, shooting.

My target.

Flight gave me speed and velocity that I wouldn’t have had while running.  The people in the middle and at the far right of the group turned weapons on me.  One fired and landed a hit in the moment before I threw myself at the guy on the left and put the unaware between them and myself.  One more gunshot among many.

No aura- them being off balance was good, but them being blindsided was better.  I had my choice of where to hit him, and I had to dismiss all of the training Gilpatrick had imparted.  A strike to the back of the neck, to the temple or throat could do too much harm.

The heel of my right hand met the right corner of the jaw, where it connected to the skull, the blow timed so my arm extended and added to the impact beyond just what my flight offered.  With speed, timing, and a target that was turning his head, I was ninety percent of the way to connecting it the way I’d wanted.

Ninety percent earned me a gristly feeling as my hand smashed the soft area between jaw and skull, pain in my hand and pain down my forearm with the force of the impact.

He collapsed on top of his friend, who’d been shooting and not paying nearly enough attention to the warning.

The guy to my right reacted.  I threw myself and my elbow at him.  I aimed for his jaw, hit his teeth instead.  I saw a moment of blood against grit teeth, saw him reacting by twisting his head around and reaching for a weapon shorter than the rifle he held, and hit him again  He wouldn’t simply stagger in pain and retaliate, this time.

Hurting people without the benefit of a forcefield hurt.  Every impact had its equal, opposite reaction.  I was hitting people hard, but that energy transmitted itself into my hand, into my elbow.

The guy who I’d hit first had fallen atop someone with a gun that wasn’t a rifle- or it was, but it was an automatic.  I punched him in the face as I threw myself on top of him, grabbing the weapon.  He fought me, wrestling with me over it, and I couldn’t afford to take the seconds to try and win.

I pushed out with my aura, and I saw his expression change- bewilderment, not fear.  He didn’t let go, though, and I had to turn to using the Wretch.

Just a burst of power, taking a moment of strength.  As far as I’d been able to tell, when I activated my forcefield, it came from me.  It hugged me, but only for the one tenth of a second that it was in contact with my skin and costume.  The trick was using it in the moments before it unfurled.  One instant of strength that could lift a car or punch through sheet metal.

I tore the rifle from his hands, then gave it back to him- one of my hands gripped the barrel, the other the stock, and I smashed the middle part into his face.

Couldn’t go forward without going into the firing line.  Couldn’t go back without the same issue.  People were turning on me, concerned with the immediate threat in their ranks.  I saw some backing away from the line of people that had formed alongside the parked cars, trying to get a clear shot, and I saw them get shoved or pulled aside.

Two capes.  A man and a woman, in dark costumes with utilitarian masks- hard white, covering mouth and nose, bridge of the nose, and the brow.  Both masks outlined the eye sockets but didn’t block peripheral vision.

She had a cloth scarf wound around her head and neck, white armor built into her gloves and an otherwise black uniform with body armor.  He had the same look, but no gloves, his hat was a simple beanie, and he had a neck warmer on.  His body armor had shoulder pads and bracers that extended over the back of his hands, and he carried a long-handled axe, like the kind emergency workers used to chop through doors.

I didn’t want to get involved with that.  Unable to go forward or back, unwilling to go up in case it exposed me to them, I decided to go the Manton route.  Powers came encoded with limitations, and the most common limitation that laymen and bottom-tier cape geeks associated with the term was that powers worked on inorganic things only, or they worked on organic things only.  The chief example of a hundred possibilities, but it was what I decided to use.

In brief: through.

I threw myself into the mob.

They would be my Manton protection.  With another burst of strength, using the rifle’s butt and my burned hand, I shoved at the non-cape woman in front of me so she would bowl into the people behind her, then grabbed the guy to my right and used another burst to throw him in the general direction of the two capes.  He landed near the guy with the axe, and the cape hopped over him before the flying man could collide with his shin.  When the cape landed, though, he didn’t have good footing that wasn’t stepping on the man that had fallen, he tried to step on snow, and he slipped to his hands and knees instead.

I kept the people around me, using strength to grab them, force them to stumble, and keep them between me and the capes.  I saw the guy getting up, while the woman was retreating, crouching low to the ground, and threw the next guy toward the masked guy.

Or I tried.  I extended my arm in the throw, and he jerked violently.  I saw gouges appear in his cheap, duct-taped body armor, close to the heart, and then his arm broke.  The break got worse, twisting-

I canceled the Wretch and let him fall.

The uneasy, unsure satisfaction that came with finding a way forward had its backlash, ten times the negative for any positive I might have found in it.

He hit the ground and fell against my leg, which added to the pressure and the lack of elbow room.  I used flight to keep myself upright, but people were pressing in, and I gave them a second’s pause with my aura.  It made them stop, staring, and little else.

Stop fighting me, Wretch.  Whatever you want, we can get it by working together.  Don’t fuck me on the fear.  Don’t fucking tear people apart when I have a cape I need to stop!

The Wretch had practically torn his arm off, I could see it as  I tried to handle stuff, and it distracted at a moment I needed my focus.

I’d hurt someone, fuck me.  Couldn’t do this- couldn’t escape without easily exposing myself.  I’d bought others a chance to breathe and I wasn’t sure it mattered.

Someone grabbed for the assault rifle I was holding in one hand, and I drew my free hand around to use the spikes that laid across the back of my hand.  With my hand in a fist, the spikes stuck out, and I could rake his hand.  Just enough harm to do what I needed and free myself, no more.

In the time it took me to do that, two more people had grabbed me.

I twisted, used a burst of strength to hurl them away, and flew up, aiming to put myself over the top of the car that they’d been using as shooting cover.

I had a glimpse of the masked woman with her hand raised.  She made a quick beckoning gesture and something in me went.

I hit the top of the vehicle I’d been meaning to go over.  A second had passed, I’d stopped flying, I’d dropped the Wretch and I’d let go of the gun I’d been using as a club.

Stupid, I thought.

People grabbed me.  I twisted away and tried to roll over the trunk of the vehicle to the far side, and I found myself as weak as a baby.

Fly.  I forced myself to fly, and it did take some forcing.  Not because my power was weak or gone, but because my head wasn’t all there.  My thoughts were as weak as my body.

I’d bought some time.  People on our side who had been pinned down by gunfire were getting closer.  Brio, Anelace.  I didn’t see Capricorn, Lookout, or Ashley, but I saw Rain, who was hanging back, a silver blade in hand that he wasn’t throwing.

The strength I’d lost was quickly returning.  My thoughts returned.  The sinking feeling that had started when I’d seen that people were gunned down and quintupled when I’d hurt the guy in the middle of the fighting lingered.

“Who are you!?” I called out.  “Why do this!?”

There was a bang at the back of the car.  I looked up just in time to see someone vaulting over.  The man with the mask, holding up someone’s bulletproof vest as a shield between him and the heroes.

I flew away, Wretch up, and I saw the world I was flying to go dark.  The ground beneath me illuminated, sweeping out like a ripple extending from the point of his landing.

My flight died, and I skidded to a landing, my still-frost-stiff costume skimming on a snow-slick road.

I tried to use flight to stand, then remembered I didn’t have it.  I climbed to my feet, wary.  The man tossed the shield aside, then rolled his head around, cracking his neck.

The cars were nearby, the ditch, the road beneath me.  But there was no wind, and I didn’t feel the cold anymore- cool air, but not cold.  The ground had a glow to it, like there were dim lights just beneath the snow.  That glow was more intense toward the edge of the circle.

A ring thirty feet in diameterand past those thirty feet, there was nothing.  Some of the cars and trucks had been cut apart, but the cut pieces still stood.

Not white, not black, not gray or anything neutral.  It made my head hurt to look at it and to think about it.

I panted for breath, feeling the lingering weakness from the woman’s power, and I could tell that the air here was thinner.  I’d experienced thinner air by flying especially high.

I couldn’t fly now.  I didn’t have my aura- I reached for it and found nothing there for me.

I felt a mix of emotions at that.

“Why?” I asked him.

“For Noontide and me?  Money.”

“Mercenaries.”

He nodded.  He tested and shifted his grip on the long-handled axe he carried.

“If you help anti-parahuman types like this, they’ll take advantage of your help now and then they’ll try to come after you later.  It’s what happened in Russia, when they tried to control the parahuman population.”

“I’ve been to Russia.  Contracted there.  I’ve seen it.  The before, the after, the attempts to make parahumans into military.  Each one assigned to a squad or special force.  Pit against each other.  There’s nothing you can tell me about that kind of reality I haven’t touched with all five senses.”

“These anti-parahuman guys-”

He scoffed, sharply enough to interrupt, the noise muffled by the mask that covered his lower face.  “If you’re saying that to try to bait me into revealing something about who hired me, save your breath.  You’re making yourself sound stupid.”

I felt more like myself as I tried to assess the situation.  I had to trust that my teammates and Foresight were handling things and keeping the gunmen from going on the offensive, now that the way was clear.  There was nothing I could do to break this effect.

“People who would hire you to go this far are going to turn on you.  I know the unwritten rules stopped applying over the last two years, but the behavior of people, from good people to the scummy sorts that would sign off on this?  That still applies.  It will always apply.”

“Are you finished?”

“That’s up to you,” I said, ducking my head a bit.  I needed to look smaller.  Less dangerous.  Talking was making me run out of breath, the thin air working its effect on me.  But talking was better than the alternative.  “Power nullification?”

“Everything nullification.  No powers, no outside help.  You, me, and the arena.”

I wanted to pace, to encourage him to do it too, to maintain an even distance between us.  It didn’t happen.  That kind of pressure and maneuvering required a roughly equivalent power.  I had to be something more than a twenty-one year old woman, unarmed, against a man five inches taller than me who was armed with an axe.

Maybe a Trump power, but I wasn’t betting anything on it.  I knew Trump powers tended to arise, though not always, when a person triggered in relation to power-based stressors.  I knew they tended to feel disconnected from humanity, much like breakers did, just like how movers reported being chronically restless or having trouble setting down roots.

Shaker power, yes.  Area or environment focused.  Changing the battlefield.  Shaker powers fell roughly in line with contextual or environmental threats.  They were mindful of those things, usually.  Context.  Environment.

“The city can’t take much more of this.  Don’t- can’t you see that if all of this goes to shit, there won’t be anything nice left for you to spend your money on?”

“It’s handled,” he said.  “I’d fret more about myself, if I was you.”

I wished I still had the assault rifle.  I’d let it slip from my fingers after ‘Noontide’ had knocked me out for a second.  I backed up a bit, reaching out to the side.  The bounds of the circle were like a solid wall.

While I focused on that, he was looking around, studying… the  cars?  Why?

I didn’t know what to expect here.

Slowly, he nodded, as if he’d assessed the situation.

I felt weirdly okay, de-powered.  My heart was pounding, but I felt focused, and all of the emotions that had surrounded things were gone.  It was as if the power effect cut me off from all the pains and suffering of the rest of the world.

The-

Rain.  There’d been no onset, and I was naturally resistant, but I’d felt the emotion creep over me.  Doubt, frustration, regret for my failings in the moment.

Was that why people hadn’t felt the fear aura in the same way?  Had Rain’s power diluted it or added some lavender into the mix, diluting the dark green?

He took a step forward, closing in on me, his axe in one hand.  As I ducked left, he moved to cut me off.  I headed the other direction, toward the cars he’d been looking at, and he took a step to the side, ready to block and take a swing if I tried it.

The cars that had concerned him – he’d been looking around them.  Was there a way through?  Through a window, past the boundary of this circle?  It didn’t feel like it made sense, but I looked anyway.

He took that opportunity to reach for something at his belt.

A canister of something.

I hurled myself at him.  I felt battered and sore and clean emotion ran through me as I threw myself into the jaws of the lion.

The ground was slippery.  I almost lost my footing as I ran.

I saw the axe move, brought back to swing, and kept one eye on the ground.  I couldn’t afford to lose traction in a key moment.  One of my feet touced on secure ground, in the track where tires had melted ice, the second following, landing further down that same line.  The third- it had to be where the Kenzie van or one of the other vehicles had turned off, because snow and ice had scattered and been pressed down.

He was watching as much as I was.  He timed his swing for when I closed the distance.  I could hear it cut through the air.  When I ducked, using my footing on still-clear ground to adjust my position and half-throw myself to one side, he brought the canister to his axe-hand.  As I scrambled to my feet, he spared a finger to pull the pin, and then let it tumble from his fingers, dropping to the ground at his feet.

“No outside factors.  Stuff like guns and explosives are a bad idea, so don’t think of surprising me with one.  The sound and shock has nowhere to go but inside you.  The circle probably thinks it makes it a level playing field,” he said.  “Your problem is gonna be that I don’t believe in level.  This is my arena.”

Something was hissing out, but I couldn’t see the vapor of it.  Invisible gas.

“Take your time, time I spend in here is time I don’t have to be out there, and my side’s winning,” he said, his eyes narrowed as he reached with his free hand to get into his neckwarmer.  He pulled out a tangle of tubes, with what looked like a pacifier sans bulb and a nose piece.

He began to put the breathing apparatus under his mask when I started forward again.

I’d fought big before.  I’d grown up roughhousing with Uncle Neil.  Manpower.

He took one swing as he backed up a step, in a way I would have called casual or lazy if it hadn’t been fast.  No aim in mind, timing didn’t matter, it just forced me to get clear and get away.  Keeping the distance between us while the gas accumulated.  It bought him the time to get the breathing apparatus on.  His thumb flicked something beneath the neckwarmer, and then he tucked it beneath his body armor.

I would have done something about the canister, but we were inside a confined space.

His weapon required reach.  It had been the case with Uncle Neil when I’d been twelve, when he’d been grown, strong, and capable of keeping me at arm’s length.

My goal was to get inside that reach.  I started forward, saw him react, ready to chop at me from the side.  I found good footing, and lunged for real this time, a second after the fact.

He swung from the side, aiming for my midsection, and I dove, going low.

His foot came out, stopping me as I skidded on the surface that made footing so difficult.  He shifted to a two-handed, overhead swing- and I went after his legs, tangling mine with his.

He’d expected that much, and shifted his footing, but he hadn’t watched his own footing as much as he’d watched me and mine.  There was just enough slip for me to get one foot to skid a short distance, to topple him.

I wasn’t willing to wait for him to get his bearings.  I used the spikes on the back of my glove like an ice climber might use an ice pick to get leverage while on a tough climb.  Burying them into his leg, possibly getting more armor and padding than I got leg, I was able to spin myself around, so my feet were pointed closer to his face.  I’d hoped to get a boot to his jaw, but he twisted away, his back flat on the ground.

He still had the axe.  He still had it in roughly an overhead position, and with his back flat on the ground, he was in a position to swing.  He brought it down and at me, and I brought my foot out, kicking at the hands, before the axe could come down.

It broke his grip and interrupted the swing before it could reach peak momentum.  It didn’t disarm him, though, which meant I didn’t have time.

It was a short, desperate scramble before I could leverage my way forward, bringing my face closer to his, while he grabbed me, trying to keep me in place so he could swing one-handed.  I spiked the grabbing hand, threw myself on top of him so my shoulder touched the bicep of his axe- arm and limited the ability to swing, then reached for the neckwarmer, tearing the tubes away with the reversed claws.  Tearing them away in a way that destroyed them.

It cost me.  He brought the axe down, but with my face being closer to his and the limited swing range, he couldn’t bring the blade down to make contact with me.

He did bring the metal end of the axe down.  The butt end had a spike on it, and the end glanced off my mask and caught me at the side of my head.  I felt the sharp crack of something hard touching bone without any cushion in between, and then there was blood in my eye.

I didn’t dare breathe.  He was strong, bigger, and my only benefit was that I had spikes on my gloves.  Even that was matched, because he had bracers with jutting bits at the front that hurt like hell when he jabbed me and hit me with them instead of with his hands.

I’d been going after faces for a reason.  If these people existed out there, anywhere in the city, I wanted them to be recognizable.  I wanted destroyed jaws, broken noses, and black eyes, if not claw marks or anything else.

Anger drove me.  The image of all those people lying on the bloodstained battlefield and what had happened to the Navigators was flashing through my head as I fought for what it took to keep going, keep hurting him.

He shifted, and he got one knee or one foot between myself and him.  I could feel the flex, and I knew he was going to kick me off him.  I couldn’t afford to let him.  I brought my hands down and hooked the spikes into the sides of his neck, closer to the spine than the front.  The action and my center of gravity brought my face close to his.  Blood dripped down from my scalp wound onto the white mask.

Each of his hands found my forearms, and struck my arms out and away from his neck.  I might have nicked him, but I didn’t take much flesh with the motion.  My center of gravity being what it was, with me on top of him, my face smashed into his.  The scalp wound shed blood straight into his eye.

His footing against my midsection shifted, one closer to my chest, and he kicked out, leveraging me away.

I hit road, and cold wind blew past me.  I took in half a lungful of air, and the air burned my nostrils, mouth, and throat.

There was noise all around me.  The circle was gone.  I started to rise to my feet, reaching for my flight, and more coughing overtook me.

Again, I felt something in me go.  Again, I blacked out, except it was longer than the one second this time.  No flight, no movement at all.  I came back to, took the start of a breath in, and again, I felt the burn.  Reflex actions.

Noontide.

“Victoria!” a voice.  “Behind you!”

It took all of my energy to turn to look behind me, the direction I’d felt everything go.  Noontide was in one of the vehicles, wheels spinning to find traction.

Then the sedan had its traction and it lunged.  It was aimed straight at me and at the ditch.  It lunged as it took over.

A hand grabbed me.  It was Sveta who pulled me clear.  With all the strength and energy Noontide had sapped from me, I wouldn’t have been able.

The car continued on its way, to where Tristan had made the  bridge that had let them cross the ditch and get to the crime scene.  It was only just reaching that bridge when bridge became water.  The sedan struck the edge of the ditch nose-on.  Airbags inside inflated.

“What are you doing!?” Sveta raised her voice.

I thought it was me.  Then I realized Rain’s effect was still in place.  The guilt, the easy switch to self-blame.

There were still people with guns.  Sveta held onto me and dragged us to cover.

Anelace was still in the midst of it.  He’d brought knives to a gunfight and he was winning.  There was a choreographed pace to how he fought, like he anticipated every bullet.  He fought to stay in close, to make it so one person that was fighting with him was a harder shot for everyone else.

“They have two rocket launchers, Victoria,” Sveta said.  “Saved for the hard targets.  They clipped Brio and they got the camera.”

I set my jaw, tried to summon the strength to move, and ended up coughing.  A bit more summoning and I managed to move, holding myself up.

“I’m trying to keep them from shooting, but they split up.  Help.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

No questions about whether I was okay.  There were more pressing concerns.

“One cape hiding in the traffic off to the side,” Sveta said, indicating with one hand.  “He’s a mover, made some of their injured disappear!”

Then she was gone, pulling herself away.

I had to assume the other person with the rocket launcher was at the opposite end of the crowd to the end that Sveta had headed to.  I wished I had a better sense of what was going on.  I wished I could see, with the stinging blood weeping from my scalp to my eye, beneath the metal of my mask.

With the chaos, people trying to get clear of Anelace and his knives, and the fact that everyone in the field was either shot or behind cover, there wasn’t as much focus on shooting anymore.  They were organizing.  Groups of this haphazard militia consolidated, forming ranks to protect key people and groups.  The capes didn’t count- nobody was going to help Noontide, but they were gathering around the two-man team with the rocket launcher.

The time I spent looking was time they spent noticing I existed.  Some raised rifles, handguns, and other weapons to point at me.  I flew for cover, one of the parked cars by the side of the road, close to the field.

Wretch still out, I put my hands on the car and I pushed.  Wheels resisted more than they skidded, the Wretch broke a window and tore at the metal, and I thought the vehicle might roll- too much.

A shift to one side helped- and the back end swung their way.  With that movement, the front end moved some too.  I’d hoped to ram them, disabling the majority, but instead they scattered.

“-clear!” I heard a voice.

The rocket launcher.

I flew, putting myself in the way of the rocket, Wretch active.

They fired.  Pulling the trigger when a target presented itself, instinct more than smarts.

It was loud, but the upper ends of the sound were dampened by the forcefield, making it sound more like a loud noise from a television that couldn’t be set to an ear-hurting volume.  Heat and fire rolled around the Wretch and surrounded me, and as the Wretch went down, the air exchanged that had been protected along with me mixed in violently with the hot air immediately beyond it.  My hair stirred and I was reminded of how much my mouth, nose, and scalp hurt.

The blast had been unexpectedly close to them, I was pretty sure.  Most of the people in that group were reeling now.

I used my power, intent on keeping them reeling.  My aura pushed out, and I saw the reactions on their faces.  Bewilderment.  Eyes wide.

Again, that mix of emotion?  That fear and regret could somehow mix into something else?

No… was it actually awe?  In a twisted, upside-down world, my powers warped, my enemies looked up to me and my allies feared me?  Was that how it worked?

No.  Only in this scenario.

Something was fucked up.  I kept the aura burning as I stalked closer.  None raised their weapons against me.

“Tell me who you are.  Who sent you?”

“We’re spear team two,” came the response from one wide-eyed woman.  “We’re with-”

“Tracy,” a man barked.  I loomed, using my flight to draw in closer.  He cowed, then said, “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.  Tell me.”

“Can’t,” he said.  “Can’t.”

“Teacher?” I asked.  I didn’t see a glimmer of recognition.  “Cheit?”

Nothing.  I saw the man clench his jaw, eyes unfocused as he stared into the sun that was my aura.  The clench and his stance suggested he’d found some grit, and it would take some arm twisting to get him to talk.

Arm-twisting.  I looked for the man I’d hurt, letting the Wretch nearly tear his arm off.  Gone already.

My head snapped around the other way as I heard the sound of the other rocket launcher going off.

It sailed toward the center mass of our team.  Ashley, one hand at her middle stood straight, putting herself in the path.  It was Byron who supported her to minimize the recoil.

She wasn’t directly in front, so she had to shoot off to the side.  She produced a blast and sustained it.  The blast caught the projectile, destroyed it, and ate the worst of the detonation.  Fire laced through the darkness and spilled out from gaps in licks and tongues.  People near her shied away.

Byron eased her to the ground, presumably in the same way he’d lifted her up.  The white of her costume looked half red with her own blood.

How had they shot?  Sveta-

Sveta was unconscious, with Noontide on the quick approach, a knife in each hand.  I took flight.

I passed by the glowing bubble where the guy I’d fought was presumably fighting Anelace, and I could see their blurry outlines within.  Hand to hand combat.

A bullet clipped the Wretch, and I dropped down low, still closing the distance.

Sveta roused, just in time to see Noontide moving her hand around, ready to use her power again.  I wasn’t close enough.

I saw Sveta’s neck thicken- unfurl.  A clasp had been undone.  Shorter tendrils reached out and seized Noontide’s face and arm.

“Don’t!” I called.

She turned her head to look at me, eyebrows knit together, eyes wide.  Scared.  Then Noontide moved, and the tendrils reacted.  The narrow ones cut into skin as they constricted.  Larger ones twisted and dug in.  The mask broke as tendrils stressed it.

I could see the wince on Sveta’s part at the sight, seeing what had just happened.

She let go of Noontide as quickly as she’d grabbed on.  The body slumped to the ground.

“Sveta!” I called out.

The agitation was bad enough that she couldn’t bring the tendrils together to cinch the neck-clasp back together.

“She’s fair game, okay!?   She and the guy with Anelace right now are killers for hire!  The non-capes aren’t!  They’re under the influence of something!”

I saw the nod, jerky.  She was still fighting it.

“Easy.  Bricks in a wall, remember?”

“I made the choice, Victoria,” Sveta said.  “I undid the clasp.”

“You defended yourself.  I talked to the other guy in this trio.  Trust me when I say it’s okay.  They’re fucked up, dangerous, and effective enough to exercise both of those other things to their full capacity.  Okay?”

I saw the agitation settle some.

“Trust me,” I said.  “I saw all of it.  I talked to him.  She would have left you no choice.”

The agitation settled more.  Sveta buckled the strands in.  Hands fixed her hair.

I glanced at the bubble.  It had popped – no noise, no fanfare.  The guy who’d fought me was backing up, clearly bloodied not just by me but by a number of knife slashes.  Anelace slumped against the side of a car instead of pursuing.

There were several others with guns in the vicinity.  Anelace didn’t budge as they approached.  I tensed, ready to act-

It didn’t matter.  In front of Sveta, Noontide’s body went up in smoke.  One by one, the people who’d been shooting at us began to disappear.  The retreating arena man.  Shooters.  Rocket launcher people.  The awed people that hadn’t picked up a gun or returned to being aggressive since I’d talked to them.

Leaving one- the teleporter, who apparently couldn’t teleport themselves.  I flew after them, but Crystalclear got to him first.  The guy, skinny with ‘troll’ hair in a gelled point above his head, thin beard and mustache, had something in his hand.

Sveta staggered to her feet.  I steadied her.  Together, we hurried to that scene.  One more person.

I pushed out with my aura.  The teleporter spooked in a visible way, and Crystalclear found enough of a grip to pry the guy’s hand open.  A capsule pill, that Crystalclear quickly stepped on.

“I couldn’t blast him while he was weaving through real people,” Crystalclear said.

“It’s okay,” I said.  I wasn’t sure it was.  There was so much about what had just happened that wasn’t okay.

I looked at Sveta, and I saw thin traces of crimson along one side of her face, forming little diamond shapes because different tendrils had slapped against it from different angles.

I touched my scalp.  Stitches would be needed.

“You got this?” I asked.

Crystalclear nodded, the crystals on his head catching the light with the movement.  “I’ll call for help.”

I flew, and I turned in the air as I did it, surveying.  The battlefield first- all traffic still stopped.  Civilians scared and scattered.  The attackers gone.  The cars that Foresight and our other heroes had come in had been trashed.  Rain’s projectiles had chopped up some of the enemy’s cover, forcing them into tighter places.

A surgical strike.  Capes who, as far as I could tell, had been hired with the role clearly in mind.  Weapons, tools.

Finale’s wail formed the bulk of the background noise.  I spared a glance, even though I didn’t want to see.  Her teammates were hurt, not dead.  They looked as concerned about her being upset than she was about them being shot, but they didn’t have a lot of strength to communicate to her when she was this loud.  I could see Recycle and Retouch peering around the wall Tristan had made, currently badly chipped from bullets.  They looked kind of shocked that things had stopped.

Guns were scattered around Brio, but he wasn’t the one who had used them.  Relay sat on the cold ground, staring up at the sky.  The weapons had been pulled from Brio’s person and used by Relay.  No efforts were made to stem Brio’s blood loss, no efforts made to watch his vitals or talk to him, and Relay had no ability to tend to others.  Maybe he told himself that they were all already getting help.  Maybe there was more to it.

The camera box was missing a good quarter of its components, because it had been hit by a rocket, or by the edge of the blast.  The box and the tree had been used as cover, even though the box wasn’t that large.  Fragments of Byron’s wall littered the area.

It meant someone could lie behind it and maybe not catch a bullet.  Swansong lay in the snow and dirt with her back to the others.

“How do I look in crimson?” she asked.

“Shitty,” I said, and my voice was rough from the gas.  “Don’t ever wear it again.”

She didn’t smile.  She pulled a hand away from her neck.

“Put that hand back,” I said, my voice hushed.  I pressed down on her hand with my own.  “It’s not bleeding as much as it could be.”

She didn’t respond or smile.  I approached the box, floating closer, and I saw Rain and Byron huddled over.

“Look after her?” Swansong asked.  “I don’t trust myself to get close.  I want to, make sure to tell her that.”

“She heard,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I stepped around the box and around Byron.

Rain had supplied fabric to form the improvised bandage.  Lookout wasn’t moving much, lying on a bed of Tristan’s power.

“Tristan caught a bullet,” Byron said, quiet.  “He should hold until we get to a hospital.  He’s in stasis where he is right now.  It didn’t hit any vitals.”

“Good to know,” I said, my voice tight.  “Hey Lookout.”

I saw her move her hands a bit.  Her face wasn’t visible with the mask she wore.

“What are you doing getting shot?” I said.  “I don’t advise it.”

“You got shot before,” Lookout responded, ghost-quiet.  “Arm.”

“I’m speaking from experience, aren’t I?” I asked.  “What do you say I fly you to a hospital?”

“What about Swansong?”

“Come on,” I said.  “Swansong’s tough.  You’re not.”

Lookout didn’t fight me as I scooped her up, Rain and Byron helping.

“Warn the team with Advance Guard and the Shepherds,” I told Rain and Byron.  “I think the people who attacked were compelled, under the influence, or something, and they weren’t team one.  The other team’s at risk.”

“They might not believe us,” Rain said.

“Try,” I said.  “You comfortable, Lookout?”

“As comfortable as I can be with two bullets in me,” she whispered.  “How was I the only one who got shot twice?  I’m a small target?”

I talked to her as I floated up.  “I’m going to need you to keep talking to me the entire way there.  It’s going to be how I know you’re still alert, okay?  Let me know if you get cold.”

“Oh kay,” she said, like it was two separate words.  “You have to ask me to do something I’m bad at, huh?”

“Talking a lot?”

“Yeah.  I’m joking.  I’m not very funny.  Blame the bullets.  Maybe one hit me in the funny bone.”

“Ha ha,” I said, without humor.

As I took flight, turning my body so I caught the wind and the eleven year old in my arms didn’t, I had a view of the bloodstained field.  I shifted my orientation and my grip, and set my eyes on the wound in the sky where the portal in Brockton Bay had been ripped open wide.

That would be the direction we were going.

Things had changed.  From a city of gold to a city of crimson.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you face to face, Victoria, and that you had to take a detour.  Other things are demanding our presence and focus.”

“Trust me,” I said.  “I totally get it.  Things are bad right now.”

I approached a window.  The streetlights were on, and the city beyond was dark.

Evening- no.  After dark.

“Can I ask how your team is doing?” Dragon asked.

“I’m too used to Lookout, because my first impulse is to be surprised that you didn’t look it up on hospital computers first.”

“Admitting that sort of thing gets you in trouble,” Dragon said, over the phone that I’d set to speaker.  “I asked because I wanted to hear it from you.”

I looked away from the window, and at the old computer with the round monitor and its slightly fishbowl screen.  Green text on a black background flew across the screen.  My device on the desk was more modern, with a red light flashing violently on the top as it accepted the data.

“In surgery, recovering, in for a third surgery, worrying, waiting in the dark, recovering, and… attending this meeting, I guess.  It’s a mess.”

“Hopefully things will level out.”

I shook my head.  “Advance Guard killed villains who had been hired to ambush that coalition.  Our warning got to them too late, that this looked set up.  It’s agitated things pretty badly- at least on our end there were some civilian witnesses.  There’s a lot of question marks.  People are scared.”

“I wish I could do more.  I’m being watched too carefully to intervene in subtle ways, and the only unsubtle help I could provide would be deploying my machines.  I don’t think that would calm the public.”

“No,” I said.  “Knowing someone’s out there who has our back is… really nice.  It’s appreciated.”

“It looks like we’re halfway done,” Dragon said.  “Then you can get back to looking after them.  I’m sorry that the timing is awkward.”

“This will be helpful for my looking after me, if nothing else,” I said.  I was so tired.  “Something to read on all the nights I’m not sleeping.”

I could see the files as they disappeared into my storage drive.  DEPT_26.fold, DEPT_27.fold, DEPT_28.fold.  Folded files that each supposedly contained the notes and pertinent details of major PRT departments.

“How much of this is redacted?” I asked.

“Some,” Dragon answered.  “Enough to protect identities of heroes.”

“And identities of villains?”

“Very few.  If you need access to something redacted, you can ask me.  We’ll discuss.  I imagine you’re thinking of Tattletale?”

“I wasn’t thinking of anyone particular.”

“She’s the one you have the most history with, who is most active and in opposition to you.”

I saw my reflection in the window as I turned my head to look out at the city.  I touched the stitches at my scalp.  “Is she?  Redacted, I mean.”

“No.  But if you did open that file, I’d wonder what your motivations were.”

“Answers, I guess.  Who she is.  Why she is the way she is,” I said.  “What she wants.  What the hell happened to my hometown.”

“In the eyes of Mrs. Wynn, you earned the right to know.  You bartered for the files, you get them.  In my eyes, our eyes, if I include Defiant, who is beside me right now, being in Mrs. Wynn’s favor isn’t necessarily a good thing, but we’re willing to extend the trust because you’re doing what you’re doing for good reasons.”

“Thank you.  And thank Defiant for me.  I appreciate the faith.”

“Done.  Be careful around Mrs. Wynn, Victoria,” Dragon said.

“I will.  I know.”

“We’re almost done.  I’m including some files I found in my backups.  I don’t know if Lookout kept track or managed those things, but it’s notes for her old work that she submitted to the PRT, and the specs from the testing division.”

“She was enough of an unknown for the testing division?”

“The director wanted to cover all the bases.”

“I hope she likes it,” I said.  “Getting shot’s a bit of a downer.  Having your friends get shot, allies die, your work destroyed, and the investigation stalled is pretty devastating too.  Missed our deadline.”

“I can’t tell if you’re still talking about Lookout,” Dragon said.

“Any word on the villain meeting?”

“It went as one might expect.  They’re angry.  If the culprits of the attacks last night and today are there, they’re in good company.”

“Or they’re fostering the dissent.  Any idea on who is taking point?  Where Tattletale stands?”

“On leadership, no.  Tattletale has declared herself neutral in this.  In the revenge, dominance, asserting of strength that the other villains are intent on.”

“Good for her,” I said.

“Not quite,” Dragon said.

A voice came through the speaker.  It took me only a second to realize who it was.

I’m still available for sale, but prices are tripling, because I have other things to focus on.  Normally I’d try to steer this ship, but if you guys want to set things on fire… have at it.”

What are the prices?

If you have to ask, Hock, you’re not in a position to pay.

Fuck.”

“Any takers?  Hands up so I know…”

I frowned.

“We don’t have visual, but we do know there were takers,” Dragon said.   “Cradle was one.  I know he’s a person of interest to your team.”

“Cradle and Love Lost are at odds, and Tattletale was telling us to help Love Lost.  Maybe she’s pulling something,” I said.  I made a face.  “Things get so much messier when she’s involved.”

“You’re not wrong,” Dragon said.

“Thank you for this,” I said.  I’d noticed the light had stopped blinking.

“Again, I’m sorry for the timing.  I know you’d rather be at the hospital.”

“No,” I said.  I looked out the window.  The person in my reflection looked more angry than weary.  “I’m so tired of hospitals.  A break is good.”

“What’s next?”

“Investigating.  We’re not done.  The deadline passed, but we still need to figure out who these guys are and how it factors in.  Advance Guard’s group is still out for blood, and others are following their path.  Turning into vigilantes more than they are heroes.”

“I can try talking to them.”

“If you think that’ll work.”

“Defiant is telling me he might try it.  He might be more on their wavelength.”

“Cool,” I said, feeling anything but cool.  I was feeling heartsick, if anything.  “I’m feeling like we should just cut through this Gordian knot.  Screw the secrecy, screw decorum.  Just… go after the masterminds.”

“Others have tried.  It’s trickier than it might seem.”

I sighed.

“On that subject,” Dragon said.  “My apologies for the awkward segue-”

I winced.  I knew that Dragon had invited me for a reason.  She had something she’d wanted to talk to me about that she couldn’t share over the lines.

“-I’m putting one last thing on that drive,” Dragon finished.

I saw it flash on the screen.  One line.  Another .fold file.  Neatly compressed.

Using the trackball,  I navigated to the file.  I selected it.

As the pages loaded in, I saw glimpses.

“Ah, you just opened it,” Dragon said.  “You can see why I couldn’t risk others seeing.”

Killed brother.  Murder charges…

Fallen, with relations to the McVeay…

Blackmail, individual already in compromising position sought counsel, but this message was intercepted…

“She said that if something happened to her, and if it looked like she might not return, then she wanted at least the truncated notes to go to appropriate people.  For your team and other things.  I tried to find people who would take on these cases and take appropriate steps.  Your Dr. Darnall was one.”

“He said no?”

“He said he couldn’t.  The team with your friends Weld, Sveta and Vista returned last night, and it doesn’t look like anyone in particular is still looking, or if they are, they aren’t broadcasting it.”

“It’s a bunch of staff that only matter to a narrow selection of people, and a few reformed monsters like Bonesaw and Nilbog.  It doesn’t compel people to put themselves out there,” I said.

“I cut down on the particulars.  Only a few points that, if you weren’t already aware of them, you should be.”

Suicidal ideation…

Potential bipolar diagnosis…

“I don’t know,” I said.

Pervasive feelings of betrayal, lack of trust, including in herself…

“I shouldn’t be looking at this,” I said.

The screen went black.

“You should,” Dragon said.

The screen came back.  A different page, closer to the end of the document.

Chris, I realized.  I read some of the general notes, clicked a button, and read another page.

Fuck,” I said.

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Polarize – 10.12

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My boots hit the snow-dusted ground.  With the impact, I made the transition from being weightless and able to move myself in any direction at will to feeling gravity assert itself on me once more.  I felt another weight, the kind one referred to when they spoke of heavy hearts, burdens, and social pressure.

Eight hours of intermittent snowfall hadn’t covered up all of the blood.

The fact that the ground was hard and had ice here and there made the footfalls seem that much heavier.  Ice crunched and I could imagine boots coming down to crack stone.  Even dirt, which should have absorbed impacts, allowed for audible footfalls in the relative silence.  The only noise came from the wind and the light midday traffic, on a road that would take three or four minutes to walk to.

Foresight had sent four of their ten members to us.  It might not have sounded like much, but they were good.

Brio had his standard look going, pirate and ninja combined, without any of the explicit signifiers of either, all with gold veins running through it.  He was all presence, loping swagger, and casual competence.  I’d seen him before in coat, eyepatch, and far too many belts, and seeing him now I realized that he’d been dressed casual then.  He had more belts, including some strapped to his leg and arm, and every one of them had a use, keeping a small arsenal in place.  His right hand and forearm were through the bars of a steel riot shield with a viewport like a Foresight logo, and his left hand rested on two weapons- index fingers extend out at the base of a gun, and the heel of his hand at a sword.  His side of the riot shield had a decorated sawed-off shotgun fixed to it, pointed at the ground, and some ammunition strapped in.

Crystalclear was keeping Relay company.  Crystalclear had updated his costume, and it looked good- the black of it made the quartz-like crystals that jutted from him look that much more distinct.  The crystal growth was more exaggerated than before, but I was assuming the simplest explanation – that the crystal was better than skin and scalp being exposed to the cold.

Relay, meanwhile, was wearing a more ‘cloth’ costume, the long sleeves mostly separate from the body, a series of overlapping folds extending down his body to the ankles.  There were a lot of gaps in the cloth, and through those gaps I could see the sheen of metal, form-fitting enough to be chainmail.  Single spikes were visible here and there, when he moved in the right way- one at the gap where the sleeves would have met the shoulder, another at the blindfold, extending up the forehead, and another at the wrist, like a blade hidden up his sleeve.  He was the ‘rescue’ combo-teleporter and long-distance communicator.

As they got closer to the scene, walking over from the road, Relay hung back, breaking away and ending the conversation with Crystalclear.

I expected Crystalclear to join Anelace, since the two had to be closer in age, but Crystalclear headed straight to Brio.

The stragglers were taking longer.  They were less of a ‘march forward’ bunch.  Recycler and his teammate Retouch were talking to the Major Malfunctions, and Fume Hood was tolerating a conversation with Sweet Justice.

I could have gone to that group, checked that they were okay, touched base, warned them about the details they might see.  Especially with Finale in the group, it might have been warranted.  At the same time, her teammates were with her, and I couldn’t see a good angle to approach and join the conversation without outright barging in.

That, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me to manage too much more.  Having the heroes split over what to do had taken a bit out of me, as had the late night at the hospital.  I needed a breather.

I’ll warn Finale before they see anything bad.

What are the odds that any those heroes who acted outraged over the treatment of the Navigators even visited the victims or the crime scene?  Wayfarers excepted.

I felt petty and annoyed, and I wasn’t sure I trusted myself around the wide-eyed heroes.

I walked over to Anelace, instead.  He watched me despite wearing a mask without eyeholes – only the white lines of an illustrated dagger on the side, the center of it marking the eye.  His coat  was form-fitting and shorter than Brio or Relay’s, showing just how narrow his waist was, and his costume bottoms were similarly slimming.  A little edgy, being all black, but there was enough variation and decoration that it looked more like its own style than anything forced.

Maybe Ashley was rubbing off on me.

“Your team okay?” Anelace asked.

They were late, and he was asking diplomatically.  “They had to pick up another teammate.  Tress went to the hospital to ask some follow-up questions and get some answers from Scaffold, now that he’s talking.  She knows the communication forms necessary to talk to Nailfarer and Slingstone.”

“I got Brio to request and pull some of the crime scene and medical photos,” Anelace said.  “I was curious about the weapons used and the way the damage was done.”

“Personal interest?” I asked, my eyebrow raised.

“Never wanted it to be,” he said.  “But powers don’t always give us what we want.”

“Fair,” I said.  I could read between those lines easily enough.  He was a thinker, and thinkers were especially prone to being pushed into the mental states or dilemmas they were in when they triggered.  It made me curious, but I wasn’t about to push.  Anelace had been decent to me.  “What did you find out?”

“They traded off attacks in quick succession.  You described it as a blitz.”

“Yeah.  Surprise attack, all-in.”

“And the attackers swooped in.  One hits, and before the person they hit is even finished reacting, the next hits.  Coordinated.”

“That makes me think tinker or master minions.  Or thinkers, even someone like Teacher.”

“Or Occam’s razor,” the guy with a blade theme said, “simplest solution and everything.  They could be a team that has spent a lot of time fighting alongside one another.”

“I’m not sure on that.  How many people are this strong, this experienced, and yet complete unknowns?  I feel like we know enough general details that it would click and we’d snap our fingers and say it’s this team or that team.”

“Could be they aren’t from America.”

“True.  Or Bet,” I said.

“Whoever they are, they’re coordinated but I think they might have individual personalities.  The big guy with the claws tried to mercy kill Scaffold, maybe after the others in the group had walked away, but it didn’t work.”

“He didn’t like how far that went.”

“Seems not,” Anelace said.

“Good.  Thank you.  That little detail about the throat cut was bothering me, and this narrows things down.  If there’s that kind of personality involved, it might rule out things like minions and tinker drones.”

“Teacher thralls?”

I made a so-so gesture.  “I think they have some personality.  I could see this scene playing out as described.  Either way, thank you.  It’s a good interpretation of things.”

“You’re welcome,” he said.

We stopped walking, or rather, he stopped before I did, because we were at the very edge of the scene now, and going further risked stepping on bloodstain.

I turned around, so I faced Anelace again.  He was oriented with the bloody crime scene ahead of him, and I faced the distant road, as well as our straggling teams that were still heading to the site.

I saw the distant constellation of orange lights before I recognized the Kenzie van.  A ditch lined the sides of the rural road, and the orange lights created a bridge for the car to pull off the road and drive straight onto the field.

“I’m less sure on this one,” he said, his eyes scanning the scene.  “I saw some of the injuries.  One of the attackers attacked from above.  Blades or talons going straight down, getting caught on the flesh.  Some weight was behind it, angle was too straight.  I’m really curious about that one.”

“Weight behind it- a whole body’s worth?  If someone flew and then came down without flight?”

“No,” Anelace said.  “That much weight would have pushed the cut all the way down, or pulled the victim to the ground.  They stopped themselves, or held themselves back.”

“Good,” I said.  Did that mean high control?  Or very low control, flapping wings?  Did they not want to touch ground?  “Trying to visualize that.”

“Can’t say more until I see more.  It might mean there’s a fifth attacker in the ambush,” Anelace said.  “You counted them by footprints?”

“Police did, with the heroes helping, yeah.”

“Yeah.  This is bigger than the pictures suggested.”

I nodded.  Worse in daylight.  The darkness where the headlights didn’t shine had created a sense that the scene was smaller.  It was possible the officers had parked on or over parts of the scene, now that I could see just how far the blood had been scattered.

“I don’t want to insult your teammate or your friends over there, but can these guys handle this?  Your tinker is a kid, isn’t she?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “She’s the only one who can operate this camera, though.  We talked it over, see if we can’t strike a balance.  But she was insistent on doing it.  She’s- she wants to help.  She’s a hero at heart.  Even when it’s not good for her.”

“All of us are insistent,” Anelace said.  “And none of us would be here if we were concerned about the sacrifices involved.  What about them?”

He indicated the collection of stragglers.

“The Major Malfunctions?”

“Recycler and his teammate too.  The hooded woman- she was from the community center attack.”

“Fume Hood has other experience.  Low-level, but a good few years of regular activity.”

“Good to know.”

“Major Malfunctions… new.  But I know two of the three can handle themselves.  Teacher threw an army at us, and they all held their own.”

“Respect.”

“I think it was his B-listers, to be fair.  He saved the real soldiers for the prison.”

“If you fought an army, take credit for fighting an army.  Give them that credit.  What about the eco heroes?”

“Recycler and Retouch are veterans in their own way.  I’m less sure about them.”

“Why?”

I frowned, pausing to raise a hand in greeting as the van pulled up at the very edge of the scene.  Byron had been driving, with Swansong of all people in the passenger seat.  Precipice, Lookout, and Sveta got out of the back, with Precipice carrying the bulky time camera.  Byron jogged over to help, switching to Tristan, who said something.

“I haven’t fought alongside them.  That’s part of it.  The other part is that  Recycler and Retouch are from Dryad Project 3.  Sponsored,” I said.

I gave Anelace a look.

“I heard of some incidents.  I didn’t pay much attention there,” he admitted.  “Other focuses, I was new to my powers, and I didn’t have any reason to investigate some group in another state with nothing to do with me.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” I said.  “Most of it was covered up.  It was a slow motion train wreck.  It makes me wonder if I should assume they learned from the team’s mistakes or if they’ve become lasting casualties of them.”

“What kind of train wreck?”

I sighed.  I didn’t want to be unfair, but I did want to paint a full picture.  “I mean, they’re sponsored, not corporate, so they had someone paying the bills and all they had to do was hero.  And they were pretty good at that.  The sponsors?   They started it off on the entire wrong foot.  Way too much promotion and way too much money pushed into a team with self-imposed mission of saving the planet.”

“Not a bad mission, considering how we ended up.”

“That’s the issue.  It wasn’t saving the planet from Endbringers or other threats.  It was saving us from ourselves.  Pollution, deforestation, ecology all things that have their validity… on Earth Aleph.  People didn’t buy it.  And if people aren’t buying, how do the sponsors get the money they invested back?”

“Bad management decisions, then.”

“Hired a bunch of bright, genuinely cool heroes, diverse, all good, but few of those heroes cared about the mission before they joined the team, some didn’t care after, and the ones who were really gung-ho got sidelined-”

I paused to indicate the pair.

“Ah ha.”

Was it unfair to stress that the two were really hyped and serious about the ‘green’ thing, when we’d had bigger concerns?  It was true, but I wasn’t sure, and I had no idea if it factored into their judgment or their ability to handle situations like this.

I shrugged.  “The lack of care from sponsors and the hired-on heroes seemed pretty obvious to most.  Then the team got on the wrong side of the Youth Guard, broke or toed the line of just about every damn rule in the book when it came to costumes, school, friendships, throwing kids into violent situations… Two pairs of parents were saying they hadn’t seen their kid in weeks.”

“That was the part I heard about.”

I smiled.  “Yeah.  And the shitty thing is they had some good heroes.  Recycler and Retouch weren’t hip in a way that worked for Dryad Project Three, but they’re strong, they’re pretty capable with potential to place themselves in the public eye, and they’re earnest, which is really important.”

“Those two seem to have come out of the train wreck okay.”

I held my tongue, because there was some stuff that I’d heard third-hand.  My mom had talked and had drinks with a woman from a costume company at one point a while back, not long before Leviathan.  Tipsy, the woman had confided things that weren’t hers to share, and my mother had told me, because she’d thought I needed to know what to watch out for.

I didn’t want to continue the chain of rumor mongering when it came to stuff that was that personal.  The names we chose and the costumes we wore were so important.  On her move from the bench to the main team, Retouch had been given a new look.  Makeover, name, no more time with her boyfriend.  She’d been transformed from girly girl to athletic tomboy in image and told to play a role, say certain things.

At fourteen, just three months into that new position on the team and the life that came with it, she had torn out an entire fistful of her new short hairdo in the midst of a public meltdown and then retired from being a hero, indicating there was a lot more going on behind the scenes.  Worse still, despite her voicing her retirement, she was pulled back in, mandated by contract, made to make appearances and attend events.

“Seems so,” I said.

“What happened in the end?  Gold Morning?”

I shook my head.  “Two members of the other serious or semi-serious members joined a villain eco-terrorist group.  The team was barely staying afloat with money from sponsors, after a hundred fines from Youth Guard, court cases, more promotion and marketing, and then a reporter dropped an expose.  The sponsor wasn’t a saint in the eco thing, with cover-ups.  The heroes were a distraction.”

“Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Anelace said.

I nodded.

The time camera was set in place.  We’d been outed on the time camera use when the police had come through.  They’d written it into reports, and a few of the team leaders read the cliff notes on any and all reports, just like some patrolling heroes listened to the police scanners.  They’d asked, and we’d told, as part of the attempt to get people on board.

Anelace’s voice interrupted me while I was in the midst of forming the thought that I should say goodbye and go warn the more innocent members of the various groups that things were about to get ugly.

“I wish you’d joined Foresight.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Thank you.  Or- I’m not sure what to say to that.  Came out of nowhere.”

“We’re talking about teams, and I’m seeing all these different teams.  It’s important.  Who we’re with.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “One of the most important things.”

“You’re okay with them?”

Swansong was guarding Lookout, ensuring she sat with her back to the scene that was slowly unfolding.  The lines of falling snow were dominant, blocking much of the view.  Sveta made her way over to help, and bumped shoulders with Ashley as they formed a two-person wall to block Lookout’s view.  They exchanged words, and they seemed at ease.

They were very, very different people, but they could talk, and they seemed to enjoy the moment.  More than that, Sveta seemed to be in a reasonably good mood, considering the scene that was slowly being mapped out.

Tristan and Precipice were talking.  Precipice -Rain- had transformed.  I knew he still carried a lot.  I wasn’t of the opinion that he should be freed of that burden.  But he was helping, he was doing good, and if he ever worked off that burden, truly worked it off, then he deserved to be free of it.

Tristan was explaining, indicating the images.  Red peeked through cutains of streamer-like tracks that the snowflakes had made.  People hung on his words rather than the images, and that might have been merciful.

“I like them,” I said.

“Some good ones in there,” Anelace said.

“Are you angling at something there, Anelace?  It feels like you’re talking around a subject.”

“Every time I say something I’m thinking about five responses I could make before I decide on one I’m not entirely satisfied with.”

“You want to join?”

He shook his head.

“Because the alternative is you’re going to say something really nice or really awful, and you’re working up the courage.”

“It’s not too nice or too bad, Antares.  I was talking about keeping good company, and I think my team screwed up by not taking you when you interviewed.  Everything you said when you were talking about your strengths and your vision was on point.”

“Thank you.  But your teammates weren’t wrong.  I wasn’t in a good place.”

“Better place now?”

I shrugged.  “Much.”

“If you ever want company, patrolling, minor mission, surveillance-”

I turned my full focus to him, and he stopped talking.

“Yeah,” he said, terminating the prior thought, then before I could respond, he added, “It’s an open invite.  You caught my attention when you showed up to a superhero job interview in business casual, and I’d like to get to know that person better, whether it’s a work relationship, friendship, or something more.”

I drew in a breath, pausing a second to try to formulate my thoughts.

He jumped in before I could, “No pressure.  I know capes have hangups, I know we’re all busy, and we’re all still kind of mourning-”

Dean, I thought.

“-I won’t be offended if you say-”

I interrupted him, “I’ll be offended if you don’t let me get a word in.”

He made an amused sound, shifting his footing.

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’m working through stuff, and like you say, I’m working on all of this.”

He nodded.  He looked very at ease, all considered.

“Whatever I end up deciding, I’m flattered.  And I think you’re a good guy.”

He looked away, studying the distant New Brockton and the portal that loomed above it.

“Earlier, you said I was dancing around things,” he said.

“You were.”

“I was.  I don’t want to dance about this.  It’s heavy and I know it might spoil the mood or fuck my chances, but there’s never going to be a time to mention it.”

“You’re not a good guy?” I asked.  He was right, the mood had shifted a bit.

“I know a bit about the Asylum.”

I winced.  Ah.

“My friend ended up there.  I know ex-staff from the place, and through them I figured out some members of your team came from there.  Lookout for a very short time, Tress for a long time, you.  I can make an educated guess that the rest of your team came from there.”

I shook my head.

“No?”

“Nah,” I said.

“I won’t talk about it, it’s safe info with me, even when I have a team that likes to pry.  But I didn’t want to hold onto it and not let you know I knew.”

“How’s your friend now?” I asked.

“Gone.  Long gone.  Which is a mercy.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Open invite,” he said.  “No pressure.  I should go look after my team.”

“Same here,” I said.  I gave him a light punch in the arm.  Arm’s length, but physical contact.  Safe as I could manage.

I had a lot of thoughts, but I suppressed them.  I wasn’t sure he was my type, but he wasn’t a boundary pusher, except for bringing up the hospital, and I had mixed feelings about that.  It raised my guard and it lowered walls at the same time.

All of the thoughts were cast in a weird, distorting shadow, because thinking about the hospital even in passing was putting me in a frame of mind where I could remember being the Wretch and having the recurring thought and feeling that I’d be alone for the rest of my life.  The default way of thinking about myself and thinking about the possibility of doing anything with anyone were all switched over to that, because it had more weight than a hundred years spent like I was living now.

Not easy and not worth thinking about for now.

Sveta was smiling a bit as I caught up to her.

“No,” I said, pointing at her.

“I can’t tease you?”

“Maybe another day, when I’ve had more sleep.”

“You can tease me,” she said.  She smiled wider.  “I had a good night.  I know you told Kenzie not to call me and you kept me out of the loop so Weld and I could catch up.  I have mixed feelings about that-”

“Me too.”

“-But the good feelings in that mix are very good.”

I gave her a hug.

“We figured something out,” she said.  “It was nice.”

“I know I shouldn’t ask,” I said, “But I’m really wondering… how?”

She smiled and she didn’t give me an answer.

I knew that when Kenzie was happy, she bounced.  When Ashley was especially pleased she had small smiles and she looked like she was queen of the world- brimming security and self worth.  Tristan had a light in his eyes, and Byron came out of his shell.  I’d never seen Rain happy, though-

That was a mental joke to myself.  I’d seen insecurities and hangups that had tortured him for a long time just fall away.

Sveta in this moment was all of those things.

Seeing her happy made me just a tiny bit of all of those things.

I had moisture brimming in the corners of my eyes, seeing that.  A pan- a cure all for the creeping sentiment that had come with the mention of the Asylum.

“Since when are you a crier?” she whispered.

I hugged her with one arm, tight, then shook her.  “I thought you weren’t going to tease me.”

“Not about that.  About this?  Definitely.”

“Lookout,” I called out.  “Rescue me from Sveta.  Tell me how we’re doing.”

She called back with her answer, “I’m being asked to make this work without looking, which is dumb, and it’s slow as anything.  That’s how I’m doing.  How are you doing, Antares?”

I let go of Sveta, and she smiled as I pulled away.  “Tired but hopeful.  Last time you added extra batteries to speed it up, didn’t you, Lookout?”

“They’re attached.  But there’s a ton of on and off snow that’s not going straight down or down at an angle, thank you giant portal over there, and that’s taking time to calculate and render.  And every time the wind blows it moves snowflakes across the ground, which is all stuff I have to filter without looking at it.  It’s dumb.”

“If I could unsee what I saw last night, I would,” I told Lookout.

“But when I get this done, you’re going to look, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.  Have to.”

“I have to look too!  See?  Same!”

Fume Hood and Crystalclear were talking off to one side.  Catching up, it seemed.  Past them, I saw the trio of Malfunctions with the duo of eco heroes and Sweet Justice.  It looked like Caryatid was still shielding Finale from the worst of it.

“Victoriaaaaa,” Lookout complained.

“You’re in a mood, huh?” I asked.

“Because this!  Because I miss my old workshop, and the living situation when I’m out of costume is so crowded and so annoying, and nobody pays much attention to me.  And because this!

She punched a button.  A screen on the face of the box lit up, displaying a line drawn out by pixels, hot pink on an electric blue background.  The line started normal, then doubled back, then traced a bizarre path, corkscrewing.

“That color scheme hurts my eyes to look at,” Swansong commented.

“It hurts my brain to think at,” Lookout said.  “That’s a Witten particle flying around like a balloon with the end undone.  Because life has to be hard, right?  They don’t do that.”

“Witten?” I asked.

“Gravity particle.”

Oh.  In the past?”

“Yup.”

“That’s got to be Vista.”

Lookout turned slowly, then stared up at me.

She turned back to the screen, brought her head back, and swung it at the flat face of the cube.

Swansong caught her head before it made contact.  Her voice was low.  “People are watching.”

“It mucks everything up.  There’s a giant smear in the middle of it and it’s impossible to pick things out.”

“Work around it,” Swansong said, her voice still quiet.  “As much as we don’t want it to be true, others define us by how we act when we’re at our lowest and our worst.”

“I’m not that low,” Lookout said, typing now.  “I’m frustrated.”

“Frustration can bring you down as easily as any other sentiment,” Swansong said.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“Do we have any time travelers here?”

“Pretty sure we don’t,” I answered.

“No way to go back in time and tell Vista to not smear my crime scene recreation?  Why did she even do that?”

“Headlights, to shed some light on the scene.”

“There are other ways to do that!”

“Voice calm,” Swansong said, her own voice quiet and firm.  “Even when angry, we restrain ourselves.”

“Do you, though?  You kind of rant sometimes,” Lookout said.

“When was the last time?” Swansong asked.

“This morning,” I said.  “You didn’t like how your clone pierced the teabag when she put it in your cup.”

“In her cup,” Swansong said.  “She pierced the bag she was placing in her cup and then she gave it to me while taking my cup.”

“Scandalous,” Lookout said.

“Do you know how I know it was my cup?  Because hers is chipped and scratched from top to bottom.  I thought she forgot and gave her the benefit of a doubt, that cow abused that graciousness, and she did it with a smile.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” I said.  “I heard the entire thing while I was getting out of the shower.”

“I apparently need to tell you because you didn’t get the full picture.  That weakling has died eight times and it wasn’t enough to teach her any sense.”

“By that definition you died too,” Lookout said.  She was back at work, sitting on a case, keyboard in lap, typing.  Apparently she could hold a conversation and work at the same time.

“No.  Death is the province of failures.  Between the two of us, I am doing fine, and she is the failure and eternal disappointment.  Do you know how I know?”

“You have a better fashion sense,” I said.

“No-  Yes, but that isn’t the defining element.  I know because I do not fuck up tea, and I wouldn’t connive to hide my shame and my failings as a parahuman being if I did.”

“Are things going to be okay if I step away?” I asked.

“Yes,” Lookout said.  “I’m going to work around the smudge.  Maybe we can get something from the edges.”

“Wasn’t what I was worried about,” I said.

“It’s fine,” Swansong said.  “Worry about what my dear clone has coming to her.”

“Ooh,” I said, mock serious.  “No tea?  Oh, no treats with the tea?”

“Thin ice,” Swansong said, pointing a finger at me.  “You’ll see who gets no treats.”

“I so want to sleep over sometime,” Lookout said.

I left them to that conversation.

Brio was walking through the storm of still images.  Here and there, he would lean into things, squinting as he got in close – not that it was much use.  Most of the figures were especially distorted and existed in continuum.  I stopped at the edge.

“Technical difficulties?” he asked, as he emerged.  He looked at Relay, who was off in the distance, then at Crystalclear, who nodded.  Anelace, without looking, raised a hand in response to some message.

“Some difficulties.  Sorry.  I wanted this to be a better launching-off point.”

“We don’t have much to go on,” he said.  “Anything we can get.”

“Did Crystalclear’s patrol of the area-”

A distant crack interrupted me.

It took me a second to place where the sound had come from.  There weren’t many good places to choose, with so much flat ground around us, and it was really only the road that worked.  My first impulse was that cars had collided.  Even that they’d hit our parked cars, that had pulled off the road.

No.  It was a gun.

Relay was way out in the field, and I could see the divot where the bullet had hit ground, sending dirt flying out to land on otherwise pristine snow.

I took to the air, trying to get a sense of the scene and what we were up against.

Relay teleported to where Brio had been.  There was a moment where there was only a shimmer of light around Relay, who twisted, casting out an arm, pushing the shimmer out.  Then Brio materialized at the head of the shimmer, fifteen feet away, bringing his shield up just in time to block another bullet.

There was a second’s pause, and then I felt the impact as the Wretch went down.  I flew back at an angle and down, then changed direction before touching ground.  I skimmed the ground, hoping that the humps of snow here and there would provide me some cover.

I saw a fence up ahead, barring my way, and headed straight for it.

Who were these guys?  Guns, accurate fire at a distance- my first thought was March.

The Wretch hit the fence first, and I canceled it in the moment I noticed the contact.  My gloved hands caught the fragments out of the air.  Slats of wood with broken ends.

I paused, a shattered plank of wood in each hand, taking one second to grasp the situation and make sure that nobody was crossing the field and attacking the more vulnerable members of the group.

Not nearly enough people were standing, and people were gathered around some of the people who had crumpled to the ground.  Some of my guys had gotten shot.  Allies.  Possibly my team.

Traffic had been stopped by two vehicles that had turned sideways to block both lanes.  Dark figures I couldn’t make out were behind our cars.  Our van.  Using the vehicles for cover while they unloaded real munitions.

More blood on this already bloodstained field.

I took flight, straight up.  The Wretch absorbed one shot.  If there were others, I didn’t hear or see any sign of it.

I was coming straight back down, and if I had any say in things, it’d be their blood that would be shed on this field, not more of ours.

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Polarize – 10.11

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“B.  Alright.  Which half?  Again.  Alright.  T, u-.  Alright.  Ambulance?  Ambush?  Ambush it is.  I’m going to write that down.”

My voice didn’t sound like mine, as I went through the steps.  Robotic, methodical, motivated rather than cheer.  No, cheer was the polar opposite of the emotion that touched my voice.  Harrowed fit better.   My finger shook as I moved it to the screen of my phone, to the point where I missed the ‘A’.

Beside me, Crystal rubbed my shoulder and back.  “Do you want me to take over?”

I shook my head.  Stubbornly, I backed out of the special characters bubble and returned to the keyboard.  I hit the ‘A’ with more deliberation.

I looked up from the screen.  A white cloth had been laid out in the emergency tent, between a plastic sheet and a stretcher.  A black outline marked a loose human form, and the parts that had been found and identified were laid out on the stretcher.  The area of the plastic sheet outside of that outlined figure was littered with rows and columns of unidentifiable segments that had been attributed to Nailfarer specifically.

“You didn’t see their faces?” I asked the segment of Nailfarer’s head.  Only one third of the head sat on the white cloth, but with the way Scaffold’s architecture had impaled his head, this was one of only two segments we had that possessed its sight and hearing.

There was so much hair attached to this segment of headIt would only be shoulder-length if everything were back the way it should be, but with this part of the head being so small, it seemed like a lot.

My question was answered with two belated blinks.

“You didn’t see their faces.  Did they touch you when they used their power?”

Three blinks.

“Unsure?  Alright.”  It would have been so useful to know if the power had involved touch.

“Why were you out here?” Crystal asked, jumping in.  “Did they invite you?”

“Hold on,” I said.

“Sure,” she said.

“Nailfarer.  Daiyu.  I asked these questions before and I’m going to ask again.  Do you want to keep going?”

Blink.  Yes.

“Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”

Another ‘yes’ blink.

“Alphabet?” I asked.  I swiped my phone, showing her the crude drawing- A-L on one side and M-Z on the other.

Blink, and after a moment’s delay, a movement of the eye, looking off to the left of the phone.

Without turning it around I swiped the phone left.  A-F and G-L.  Again, a look to her left, my right.  A-F.

“A, B, C- alright.”  I repeated the process, ignoring the commotion as people came into the tent.  “M, N, O-.  ‘Co’.   G-H-I-J-K-L-.  Cold?”

Blink.

“They set up heat lamps here, we’re getting you warmed up as best we can.  After this you’ll be moved to a hospital and you’ll be warmer-”

Two blinks.  ‘No’.

“You want the cold,” I said.

Blink.

“It might help if it numbs things,” Crystal said.

As I turned to look at Crystal, horrified, I almost missed seeing it.  I turned back to Nailfarer.  “Again?”

A blink.  Confirmation.

“One of us should go talk to someone in charge, then.  It might be the same for Scaffold and Slingstone.  Do you need a break?”

I shook my head.

“I’ll be right back,” Crystal said.  She flew to her feet instead of climbing to them.

I took a deep breath, before meeting Nailfarer’s eye.  “Do you want your head chilled too?”

Two blinks.  No.  Then there was a pause.  Three blinks followed.

“After?” I guessed.

One blink, slower than the ones before.

“After, then.  We’ll keep that eye of yours mobile and get the information to get these guys?”

The blink was firm, followed by eye contact as steady as anything she’d managed up to this point.

Outside, there was still a lot of commotion.  Many of the body parts had been found but not identified.  I was pretty sure that was what Slingstone was doing.

“Anything else you need?” I asked, putting my hand to the left, then I extended my right hand off to the side, “Or back to the questions?”

Questions.

“We can stop at any time.  Four blinks, I’ll know you’ve hit your limit.  Anything you can provide is useful, but if you need to back out, you don’t need to worry.   We have a tinker device we can try using.”

Two blinks for no.

“Do you have something to volunteer?” I asked.  I still didn’t recognize my own voice.  I was trying to sound gentle, but I worried I sounded like someone on the cusp of screaming or crying instead.  I extended the other hand.  “Or should I ask my questions?”

My questions.

“I’d like to rattle off some possibilities, is that okay?”

One blink for yes.

“You were out here when they attacked.  Did they bait you?”

Yes.

“Did they call?  Email?  Leave a message?  Message.  Through a messenger or courier?  Paper?  Electronic.  Electronic, alright.  You had a website, I think, was it through that?  Another website?  Yes, okay.  Parahumans Online?”

A message asking to meet with them, through Parahumans Online, baiting them here, where they were ambushed and taken apart, left alive and suffering.

I verified the information I had thus far, recapping it for her.  One blink for yes.

Information confirmed by our witness, I sent a message to all cape teams in our network, warning them to be careful of anything similar.  I added further instructions to warn any independent heroes they knew.

I left out the particulars of what had happened to the Navigators.

“The bait, was it anonymous?  A guest account?  Alright.  Were they posing as a fellow hero?  A person in need?  A villain?  Someone with information?”

One blink to confirm on ‘information’.

“Was it information on your enemies?  Allies?  The city?  Other Earths?” I asked.  Nothing.  “Do you want to spell it out?”

One blink, then three.  I got my phone out and set it back to the starting image in the gallery.  “Tell me what you need to say.”

C.  O…

“Cold?”

A yes.  I could see it in her eye, how it were more active, but there was a wildness to it.  Distracted.

“It’s getting worse?  The pain?”

A yes-blink.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.  I headed to the opening of the tent and flagged down a doctor.

The woman came inside.  She looked spooked.  Justifiably.

“Did Laserdream talk to you?”

“She’s talking to other doctors.”

“Nailfarer wants the heaters turned off- we’ll leave the one on by her head.  She’s anxious about it.”

“The cold-”

“Isn’t hurting her.  I don’t think the individual parts can even be truly damaged at this point.  But it’s uncomfortable, and she would prefer to be numb.  I get the impression drugs aren’t helping-”

The doctor shook her head.  “Localized to certain parts, as far as we can tell.”

“Can we?” I asked, indicating the heaters.

In the end, the answer was a ‘no’, but it wasn’t a fearful or malicious no.  They were wanting to load up the three victims and get them somewhere safe.  I made my arguments, and after the doctors consulted, they settled on using a collection of ice boxes.

As the ice boxes were used, I could see Nailfarer’s eye and the area around it shift and change, her face reacting in small ways.  When we’d found them, they had been paralyzed by the cold.  That was only part of it, however.  The parts that had been thawed could move, think more clearly, and felt the connections to the other parts elsewhere, but they didn’t always have the necessary parts.  Nailfarer didn’t have every muscle and nerve that would communicate to parts around her damaged tissue.

“Keep the head and the right hand out of the coolers,” one doctor said – not one I’d been communicating with.

“She’d prefer to have her hand in the cooler, I’m pretty sure,” I said.

“I want her to be able to signal and gesture to communicate.  The hand has some limited mobility.  If she needs something she can raise her hand.”

“I have a communication system, I can stay with her and interpret-”

“Just keep it out of the cooler,” the doctor said, brusque.  “Excuse me.”

I nodded, getting out of his way.

I looked around.  I saw Vista, standing off to one side, stoic.  Crystal was talking to the woman in charge and some doctors.  Golem and Cuff were with Slingshot.

The atmosphere was heavy.  It was an entirely separate and distinct feeling from the claustrophobic feeling that had settled in over the course of the last-

I checked my phone.

-the last thirty-five minutes.  It had only been thirty-five minutes?

“Are you comfortable enough?” I asked Nailfarer.

Three blinks.

“Not with the situation being what it is, obviously.  But is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”

Two blinks.

“Just let me know,” I said.  “I’m staying close.”

The fingers moved clumsily- not like a hand should.  One finger tapped hard against the metal pan it had been laid down on.

One tap equivalent to one blink?

Crystal wrapped up her conversation, with Golem, Cuff, and Vista in the general orbit of that meeting of paramedics and police.  The policewoman in charge was still organizing the grid-like search of the field and the area around the tree.

“Hey cuz,” Crystal said, sounding very tired.  Not just fatigue- she was heartsick.  “We should look at getting you home.”

“I’m going to stay with Nailfarer,” I said.  “I think we worked out our communication system pretty well.”

One sharp tap on the metal pan.  Cuff jumped.

“Yeah.  Pretty well,” I said, my heart breaking a little.

“This isn’t good for you,” Crystal said.

“Doesn’t matter.  They need someone to be their advocate.  Slingstone and Scaffold can’t talk?”

“Not much,” Vista said.  “Scaffold’s head is a mess, but he’s still alive somehow.  Slingstone broke down.  They tried to put him under and it seems to have worked.”

“Then I’m going to stay with these guys, see them to the hospital.  I’ll make sure they don’t need anything.”

“I can do that,” Crystal said.  “I know how your communication system works.  I did it with- I’ve done it before.”

I saw her glance at Vista.  Vista had some idea.  Golem and Cuff- not so much.

“You did it with me.  Yeah, I know.”

“Trust me?  Let me help.”

“You’re freezing, you just came back from a classified misson, and my dad is expecting you at your apartment.”

“I’ll warm up at the hospital, your dad is in the top one percent when it comes to understanding ‘we had a hero thing’ as an excuse, and I might have just come back from a warzone-”

Golem cleared his throat.

“You didn’t hear that.”

I shook my head.

“…But a classified mission is one thing.  You just picked fights with Teacher, Goddess, and Lung.

“Holy shit.  Lung?” Vista asked.

“Wow,” Golem said.

“And Goddess!” Crystal said, wheeling on them.  “And a guy who was in the Birdcage for very good reasons, who is now at the top of his game!  Major people.”

“Lung is major,” Golem said, defensive.

“Lung was major in our city!  These people are major on multiple inhabited worlds!”

“I didn’t fight Goddess or Teacher directly,” I said.

Crystal reached out and gripped me by the front of my coat, only a few inches away from having her hands around my neck.

“If you forced me to go home, I wouldn’t sleep a wink anyway,” I said, raising my eyes from her hands to make eye contact.  My voice had that harrowed quality to it again.  Robotic, more emotionally dead and hollow than emotional.  “I need to make sure they’re okay.  Go home.  See dad, sleep.  Relieve me in the morning, swing by and take over.”

“Then you sleep,” she said.

“Yes.  Then I get my team together, and we work on figuring this out.”

“You don’t have to get involved with it, Victoria,” she said.

“I can’t imagine a world where I’m not,” I answered.

Crystal folded her arms.  I folded mine, staring her down.

“There’s something else.  A complication.”

“I’ll need to find out eventually.”

“I would rather it was after you’d slept, digest what’s already happened.  Or better yet, walk away from this.”

I didn’t budge, staring her down.

“There were still pieces of Nailfarer missing, weren’t there?” Vista asked.

I set my jaw and nodded.

“They were seeing if they could find all the relevant pieces, put the people back together like a jigsaw,” Vista added.  “All three are still missing parts from the midsection.  Heart, one or both lungs, ribs, other vitals.  Slingstone couldn’t deal with it.”

“They took parts, so we can’t put them back together,” I concluded.

Vista nodded, her face grim, lips pressed together so hard they were white.

“Good to know,” I said.  “Complete and utter monsters, but… it fills out the picture.”

“You couldn’t sound less honest if you tried,” Crystal said, stabbing a finger at my chest.  “Filling out the picture.  Don’t pretend you’re objective about all of this.”

I looked away from her, and I saw her huff, annoyed.   I asked the others.  “You guys are going home then?”

“It was really nice to catch up some,” Vista said.  “I’m sorry it’s always sandwiched between horrible stuff.”

“We’ll meet up, do something easy.”

“Yeah, please.  And take care of yourself, big V, please?  If your cousin is worried then I’m worried.”

“We grew up in Brockton Bay,” Golem said.  “We can make it through this.”

I shook his offered hand.  I did appreciate the support.

Crazy to think he was Kaiser’s kid.

“…Even if it is fucking horrific,” he added.

“It is,” I said.  I wasn’t sure I trusted myself to say more, in case I got emotional.

I shook Cuff’s hand as well.

“Keep us updated,” she said, before she let go.  “This is going to haunt me.”

I squeezed her gauntlet in confirmation.

Vista began shaping the environment, pausing only to fix the cop car that hadn’t entirely receded to its original shape.  A shortcut back to their area of the city.

The doctor got out of the back as I got near.  She headed straight off to the other ambulances.  Slingstone and Scaffold.

I entered the ambulance, and I sat beside the fold-out tray with the various pieces of Nailfarer’s head on it.  The arm was on a metal tray, which in turn was on a non-slip material, which rested on the coolers.

“Whatever you need, Daiyu,” I told her, my voice low.  “Let me know.  I’m going with you to the hospital, and I’ll be with you for a while after.  I’m your advocate and your hands until we get something better in place for all three of you… If that’s okay.”

One blink to confirm.

“Can I touch your hand?” I asked, indicating with one hand, reaching, I stuck my other hand out the other way.  “Or not?  I don’t want to thaw you out any faster, if that makes it hurt.”

Her eye moved in the direction of ‘touch’.

It was like picking up a mannequin’s hand.  Cold, detached, strangely light.  I held her hand in mine, and felt it move, holding firm.

Three blinks to ask a question.  I used my left hand to fumble for my phone.  A little clumsier.  We worked through the alphabet, but it was quick with so many letters being at the start of lists.

T-E-A-M.

“Scaffold is insensate, I think.  They put Slingstone under for a while.  I think they would do the same for you if they thought they could.”

Blink blink.  ‘No’.

“You don’t want to.  You want to answer questions?”

Blink.

Such a fucking tough cookie. 

A paramedic came to the back of the ambulance.  He paused as he saw me.

“You’re coming?”

I nodded.

“You know her?”

“Getting to.”

The hand moved.  I held the wrist instead of the fingers, and held the hand up so the fingers wouldn’t be scraping and bumping againg the surface.  The hand was heavier than the length of arm it was attached to.

She shook so much- with effort, with stress, and probably with emotion.

One thumb partially extended, fingers drawn most of the way in.

“Good enough,” the paramedic said.

Someone else got in- another paramedic, while the guy who’d been at the back headed to the driver’s seat.

The guy sitting by Nailfarer seemed at a loss for what to do for her.  He busied himself making sure the coolers were secure.

“Where were we?” I asked.  The emotions I’d been repressing were getting to me, and my eyes were welling up.  It was either cry, or find myself in panic mode.  I didn’t fight the crying, instead focusing on my phone.  “By my notes, we left off while talking about what they used to bait you out.”

Blink.

Hard to breathe.

I blinked, and tears streaked down my cheek.  I turned to one side, holding up the phone at Nailfarer’s eye level.  Daiyu’s eye level.  It put the paramedic behind me, able to see the screen as I showed Nailfarer.  I hoped it meant he didn’t see the tears.

If he did, he didn’t say anything.

I was quiet as I let myself in.  The place was dark, but light was just beginning to stream in.

Ashley and Damsel had fallen asleep in the living room.  There were two wine glasses on the coffee table, a bottle of red wine, as well as a cutting board with a quarter of a baguette, some assorted meats and cheeses, and a number of vegetables – not terribly exotic, but supply lines and international farming wasn’t what it had been on Bet.  They hadn’t finished the vegetables, bread or meat, but there was a plate I was fairly sure had been set with chocolates.

Damsel had fallen asleep with her head in Ashley’s lap.  Ashley had pulled four or so throw-blankets over herself, trying to stay warmer, and slumped over to the side, head leaning on the arm-rest of the couch, feet pulled up and pressed into Damsel’s belly.  Clawed fingers draped off the side of the couch, curling up as much as they were able as they pressed against the floor.

The food had been sitting out for a while, but I didn’t really care.  I’d managed to keep my stomach for the worst of the evening, I’d endure whatever food poisoning gave me.  I hoped.

The baguette was a little stale, the cheeses tacky with the moisture that had leeched out.  The meat had a crispy quality at some of the edges, when it hadn’t been cooked.

I took what I could.  I thought I hadn’t made noise, but as I straightened, Ashley had her eyes open.  She hadn’t moved the rest of her an inch.

“How bad?” she asked.

“As bad as it gets without being S-class.”

“Endbringer class?”

“Basically.”

“You didn’t call us out.”

“Not that kind of bad.  I’ll explain tomorrow, best as I can.  For now, we keep our mouths shut.”

“Why?” Ashley asked.

Damsel had her eyes open now too.  She didn’t move either.

“Too dangerous.  It’s the kind of thing that blows up.  It has to wait until we have more information.”

“Nothing’s going to happen in the meantime?”

“I warned people to be wary.  All hero teams should be standing down, villains are holding off until a meeting tonight.”

“Then we have to do something before then.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m thinking I get three or four hours of sleep, then we wrangle the heroes.  Organize something, see what info we can dig up.”

“Then we annihilate them,” Damsel said, half asleep.   The blanket that Damsel had put over her legs was pricked with a blade-point, then moved so it covered her head, as she turned her face away from the window, still using Ashley’s thigh as a pillow.

“No annihilation yet,” Ashley replied.

“If you get around to it and you don’t send me an invitation, I’ll have to annihilate you instead.”

“Naturally,” Ashley said.  She put her head back and sighed in a way that looked like she was trying to get back to a place where she could fall asleep again.

I made my exit.  Back to my room, grabbing my bag and then simultaneously trying to juggle food and bag all at once.  Finding it too much, I checked nobody was looking, then altered my body’s orientation to be horizontal, placing the things across my belly and lap.  I swam-floated in the direction of my room and got myself set up there.

Computer, food, water.  I tore off a hunk of baguette with my teeth and ate it on its own.  Wood smoked, and flavorful enough that it was actually fine and enjoyable like that, even stale.  I booted up my computer.

The staler end of the baguette eaten and chewed, I tore off pieces and combined them with cheese and meat from my plate.

A message from the Wardens.  I’d sent something from the hospital, asking for details on the bait-message that had gone out to the Navigators.

My reply came from Dragon.

Finding the internet address the message had been sent through wasn’t the hardest thing in the world, though obfuscation had been used.  Dragon could do that.

But while she and I were talking, she wrote, she had two subjects she wanted to raise.  One was Jeanne Wynn’s pledge to me, that she would get me access to the files.  Dragon was her intermediary in that.

She was less keen to provide details on the other.  It was something that Dragon felt could only be discussed face to face.

The information.  Spell it out.  Trust.

Vista and Golem were in attendance along with Cinereal- and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad one.  On any other day, objective, I would have said she was the perfect person for the role.  She was serious, focused, and she had an angry edge to her, but always controlled.  Controlled anger was, in my opinion, perfect for the current crisis.  She had been a heavy hitter in Atlanta, which hosted a major arm of Watchdog, unusual in that she didn’t tend to leave her city, even for Endbringer fights, because her power was best if she stuck to one location.

But Cinereal was scary as shit.  She was almost scarier than Alexandria in pure attitude and disposition, and Alexandria had been the Protectorate’s enforcer, their scary woman in black and steel.  Cinereal had no steel and wore ash grey and white.  She had no spikes and no hard edges, no weapons in plain view.  It was the look on her face, upper half covered with a mask, and it was in how she held herself.

I could imagine all of the angriest, most fucked up corporate capes and Wards I’d run into over the course of my adolescence.  The kids who’d been angry and frustrated, got powers, joined a team, and got worse, not better.  I knew that they got second chances, they were coddled to, and inordinate resources were spent on them.

Seeing the natural resting bitch face, the posture, and the natural menace, I was pretty sure that Cinereal was one of the PRT’s success stories, when it came to transforming the tougher Wards into good heroes.  She’d never been meant to be a leader, much less of a major city like Atlanta, but her predecessors had died, she’d taken up the position by order of succession in a crisis, and I imagined nobody had been brave enough to ask her to leave the role, after.  To her credit, she’d never given them a reason.

Still, it was distracting that I felt so on guard against her.  She was as bad as Ashley when Ashley was touchy, but she didn’t rant.

I’d asked Vista to come and to corroborate, and to be our liaisons to the Wardens.  All of the other hero team leaders were here.  Brio from Foresight, Mayday from Advance Guard, and Moonsong from the Shepherds.

Smaller team leaders were present too.  Houndstooth, Recycler, Danger Ranger, Withdrawal and Caryatid, Lark and Dido, Cacophobic, and Sweet Justice were gathered.  Some had sat out.  I was glad that Super Magic Dream Parade had.

I had Swansong and Capricorn with me.  Capricorn sat while I stood, one of his hands casually resting on the laptop keyboard.  We were connected to Lookout.

It took a while for everyone to get settled.

“This shouldn’t leave this room until we’re all in agreement,” I said.  “I talked to the police deputy on the scene, and she thought it was sensible to be careful on this one.”

“The Navigators got hurt,” Mayday said.

I nodded.

“It was bad,” Danger Ranger said.

He was with the Wayfarers, and the Wayfarers were loosely connected to the Navigators.  They’d worked together on major missions, but Ranger and his team were usually okay to play things much more ‘street level’ than gunning for America-side groups of international gangs.  Nailfarer had wanted to reach out to him once things were settled.  Before she’d managed to fall asleep.

“Twelve hours ago,” I explained, “The Navigators were sent a message on Parahumans Online.  It was very targeted, telling them that there was a group of families that had been captured and held on a tinker vessel.  They’d escaped on Gold Morning and were looking to reconnect with their families.  For those of you who know the Navigators, this is like offering a million dollars to mercenaries or an international shipment of someone else’s supply to a drug lord.  It’s what they’re about.”

There were some nods.  Most knew this.  Withdrawal was sitting in a chair, his agility frame folded up, under  and around the chair so it had some spring to it, adjustable on the fly.  A notebook was pressed against his knee and he took notes as I talked.

“They used knowledge about the team to bait them, and when they attacked the Navigators, they hit hard.  All three members are in the hospital and we don’t know if they’ll recover.”

All faces in the room were deadly serious.  Cinereal, already and always serious, drummed her fingers.

Swansong spoke up, “This was either personal or it was meant to provoke.  The reason Antares is urging caution is that we can’t be baited by the provocation, and we can’t let emotions cloud our search for the personal.”

“Exactly,” I said.

“What did they do?” Mayday asked.

“They were taken to pieces,” I said.  “Cut, torn, dismembered, fingers removed, teeth scattered.  A power was used to preserve them before it happened.  They’re aware and feel every piece, they aren’t succumbing to exposure, sickness, or blood loss.”

“They were made immortal and chopped up?” Moonsong asked, her eyes wide behind her mask.

“Chopping would have been tidy,” Swansong said.  “Pieces were torn off.”

“I’ve talked to Slingstone and Nailfarer,” I said.  “They both said that they were attacked by multiple individuals.  They were hit hard enough and fast enough that by the time the power use came into play, they weren’t able to discern any particulars.  One attacker was large, with a frame like a bear, either Changer, minion, drone, or Case-53.  Another was more precise.”

I hit keys on the keyboard, showing images that the cops had taken, as well as a few that Crystal had spotted with her keen eyesight.  It started with the footprints, the shovel, streaks of blood to show how far the spray had traveled, and gradually got to the full show- pictures taken of the gore.

“Dragon identified the source of two messages that went out last night,” I said.  “The first was to the Navigators.  The second to Super Magic Dream Parade, shortly after.”

“They’re absent,” Cinereal noted.  “Are they scared?”

“They’re fearless,” Lark said.

“They’re staying in a secure location.  They apparently don’t check Parahumans Online often.  They found both the warning email and the message on PHO this morning, on waking up,” I explained.  “The bait was a query about a magazine shoot.”

“The first issue of the revitalized Nippon Dirge,” Tristan noted.

I nodded.  “Both came from a library terminal in Boston.  They bounced the connection across the city, using a non-tinker hack, and by the time we traced it back to the original source, they had cleared security cameras and other footage from nearby locations.  We couldn’t look back and try to trace their steps or search out anything weird.”

“It’s possible they have some connection to government, or to part of the city’s infrastructure,” Tristan said.  “They knew the servers they were working with, the library, the library terminals, and they came prepared.  Dragon said she didn’t see any signs of attempted and failed intrusion that had the same signatures or style.  Either they jumped from amateur hour to professional or they got it right the first time.  Getting it right the first time requires powers or foreknowledge and familiarity.”

“You’re ignoring the obvious clue,” Moonsong said.

“The power they used?” I asked.

“How many powers are there that fit that crime scene, with the victims left alive?” she challenged.

“The Graeae Twins, under March.  Bitter Pill is a theoretical possibility.  Bonesaw would be a possibility.”

“Your sister,” Lark said.  “Sorry to bring it up, but if we’re covering all the bases…”

“She’s being monitored carefully,” Cinereal said.  “For now she’s playing nice and organizing a balance with Shin’s governments, to get food to Gimel to help us get through the winter.  For now.”

“She can manipulate biology.  She could create a body double with identical DNA to her,” Lark said.

“She could make something close, but not identical,” I said.  In trying to sound controlled I might have sounded pissed.  I tried to dial it back, explaining, “Manton rule.  If she gave something her own DNA or something close enough to it, she wouldn’t be able to affect what she was creating.”

“My point stands,” Lark said.  “She could create something that looks like her and then slip through.”

Swansong snorted.  Her tone was all venom as she told him, “She could make pigs fly, but I’m not going to start carrying an umbrella yet.  Baseless speculation doesn’t get us anywhere.”

“Conceded,” Lark said, folding one leg over the other, placing his hands together on one knee.  He wore a heavier suit than he had for our last meeting, but the expense of it was clear in how neat the creases were.  His open-book-slash-bird mask with the bookspine beak dipped.

“We’re sure we have an eye on her,” Cinereal said.

Had she said it like she was saying it to me?  Huh.

“Thank you,” I said.

“There’s one more possibility,” Tristan said.  “But I don’t think it narrows anything down.  The power fits perfectly for what we’re dealing with.”

“Who?” Danger Ranger asked.

“Barcode,” Tristan said.  “They have someone who can take you to pieces without risking death.”

“That sounds pretty fucking narrowed down to me,” Danger Ranger said.  “You didn’t bring this up before?”

“They’re mercenaries,” Tristan said.  “If we want to figure out their reasoning, it starts and stops with the money.  We’d have to get them, then get them to tell us who hired them, and they don’t do that.  They set up contingencies.”

“Barcode, March’s Graeae twins, or…”

“Tinkers,” I said.

“Broad,” she said.

“Tinkers are the most complicated factor, in narrowing down who we’re after.  Even if we recognize a power, we have to remember that tinkers can scan a parahuman power and adapt their tech to replicate or use an aspect of that power.  They can share gear or steal ideas, which can functionally be like scanning.  We have to be careful, second guess ourselves.  ‘A tinker emulated it’ is just one possibility.”

“It sounds like you’re walking back what you said when you wanted to get everyone on board,” Houndstooth said.

“Which part?” I asked.

“Being strong,” Houndstooth said.  “Doing this in a decisive, organized way.”

“You talked about disappearing capes,” Moonsong added her voice to things.

I couldn’t deny it.  “I did.  Both things may be necessary.  Strength and having a way to eliminate the worst offenders from the equation.”

“Now you’re quibbling.  We can’t ever be sure because it might be a tinker, or it might be… what?”

“Frame job,” Swansong said.

Moonsong shook her head.  “Not good enough.  You said you wanted to limiting this serious step to dealing with the worst of the worst.”

“Yes,” I said.  “And we should.

“Except this looks like the worst to me, and it feels like we’re getting a little wobbly when it comes to the follow-through.  Making excuses before we even start hunting them.”

“If this is provocative, we can’t snap up the bait.  If this is personal and done this smart at the same time, then we have to be smarter and cooler-headed.”

“They took some of our own to pieces,” Mayday said.  “I’ve seen teammates die.  I’ve seen what happens when heroes aren’t firm enough.  We just set them running with our first day of organized hero work.  They’re running to the same places.”

“They are meeting tonight.  But if we come to a decision and coordinate in a calm, effective way, we can get out ahead of whatever they decide to do,” I said.

“The prisoner’s dilemma,” Brio said.  “Isn’t it?  If we play a soft hand and the villains go hard, more of us are going to end up like the Navigators.  If we go hard and the villains play soft-”

“We’ve dealt with the problem,” Mayday cut in.

“We’ve eliminated the wrong people,” Brio said.  “I’d rather end up like the Navigators than send an innocent man to… wherever we’re disposing of the worst people.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“You didn’t see how they were,” Danger Ranger said.  “How bad it was.”

“We investigate this thoroughly,” Brio said.  “That’s my vote.  I trust my team to stand behind it.”

For a few moments, the retorts and the people trying to speak over one another made understanding any one person impossible.  Team captains and leaders rose from their seats.

Enough,” I said.

The word wasn’t enough.  It did stop some people, but those people were more on Breakthrough’s side than on the other one.  More respectful than angry.

The overlapping voices continued for a second, until the people deferred, allowing one voice to take the lead.

“Investigations are about time,” Mayday said.

“We have a time camera.  We have thinkers.  We’re flexible.”

“We go after possible suspects, we put the word on the street,” Mayday said.  “We round them up and take action to discourage and scare them before the villains meet and decide that they want to protect and encourage the lunatics who did this.”

“Please tell me that there’s a thinker in the room who can tell us decisively that this is a bad idea,” I said.

There wasn’t.

“Speaking for Advance Guard, we’re on your team.  We’re still willing to be on the network and make it work, if you’ll have us.  The only point of contention here is this particular point of policy,” Mayday said.  “I’ve seen too many of my Wards and Protectorate capes suffer and die.  I can’t abide by it any more.  Not a good team like the Navigators.”

“Give us six hours to gather information and figure out where we stand,” I said.  “Make the villain meeting the deadline.  Sweep up the possible culprits while they’re on their way in.”

“We’ll have this done in six hours,” he said.

Moonsong was with him.  Maybe the only time the Shepherds and Advance Guard had ended up on the same page.  A part of me wondered if she’d be taking the opposite tack if Tristan were on the other side of the argument.

Kings of the Hill.  Too closely linked to Mayday, they were friends and they were of like mind.

And of course the Wayfarers.  Friends of the Navigators.  This was both personal and emotional.

All rose and prepared to go, ready to begin the hunt.

“Mayday,” I said.

He stopped.

“We’ll keep you in network, but you have to keep the details about the Navigators secret.  If it gets out, it might encourage others.  It’ll scare the public, it’ll disturb the peace, and it’ll cloud any investigation we do.”

He only gave us a nod.

When those teams left, Foresight, the Wardens, and the miscellaneous minor teams like the Major Malfunctions remained.

“We have to be neutral in this,” Vista said.

“We’ll see,” Cinereal said.  “I’d rather both approaches get all the support they can.”

I nodded.

“Only way we course correct here is if we get out ahead of it.  We investigate before they disappear someone undeserving in their own way,” Tristan said.  “Yeah?”

I drew in a deep breath and sighed.  I conceded, “Yeah.”

“Well, then.  Game on, motherfuckers,” Tristan said.

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Polarize – 10.10

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“Bluuuuurggh,” Crystal said, as we left the station.

“Blurgh,” I responded.  “Cold enough for you?”

“It was seventy-four degrees out where we were stationed!  What is this?  Why can’t it be warm all the time everywhere?”

I smiled- not just because Crystal was being silly, but because I could see the crowd filtering out of the station.  I was pretty used to the looks a cape got in public, and Weld, Laserdream and I were all costumed or known capes.  It was pretty obvious when I compared the attention we got from some compared to the lone individuals who didn’t give half as many shits.

The latter group had either worked closely with capes for a long time, or they were capes themselves.

“So,” Crystal said.  “How you been, cuz?  Because I can’t help but notice that you went and hurt your other arm.  Hand.  Whatever.”

“We ran into a parahuman who burns powers.  Sets forcefields and auras on fire.  That was a thing.  And Lung was there.  I don’t suppose you had any access to Gimel news?  TV?”

She shook her head.  Her expression was nearly blank, but her eyebrows were up toward the center, creating a line of wrinkle on her forehead.

“Don’t make that face.”

She reached up and adjusted her hair a bit, so the part that swooped down over one half of her forehead and one eye now covered the eyebrows and some of her other eye.  Still making the face, just hiding it.

I elbowed her while she was still adjusting, and her hair came loose of the hairband.

“It was a thing.  Goddess against Teacher.  Gimel caught in the middle.  Monokeros, you know her?  She was a thing a while back.”

She took a second, bending over so her hair draped down, so she could then comb it with her fingers and arrange it, before fixing her hairband into place to lock its position.  A single finger helped adjust the curve of hair to where it tucked behind her ear.

She straightened, and then gave me a serious look.  “You know what you sound like right now, right?  But it wasn’t a dream!  It was a place!  And this guy was there, and her, and him, they were all there!  But they couldn’t have been, Auntie Em!”

Crystal put her hands to her cheeks as she finished it.

“I wish it was a dream,” I said.  “It was a mess.  I’ll fill you in on it later.”

Great.

“Or not.  You could find out by browsing the web-”

“Blegh, internet.”

“-finding a video of our tv appearance-”

She perked up.  “Oh hey!  That’s good!  Neat!”

“Not good,” Sveta commented.  “Necessary, but not pretty.”

“Oh no,” Crystal said.  She’d gone from excited to crestfallen in a second.  Even borderline horrified.  “Because ‘necessary‘ always means good things.  We just finished a stint of necessary.”

“They were pulling a media hit job on one of our team members,” I said.

“Who is they?  What group, or what show?”

“No idea and Hardboil.  On Lookout.”

Crystal made a face.  “Even if it was them, why wasn’t it pretty?  You’re supposed to be good at this stuff, cuz!  And you have Capricorn!  He’s done media appearances before, and he’s good at it!”

Someone looked him up, I thought.

“Sorry to butt in,” Sveta said.  “Didn’t mean to get you in trouble, Victoria.”

“No,” Crystal said.  “No, you’re fine.  You can butt in all you like.  You’re as good as family.”

Sveta blinked.

Weld put one arm around her.  “I heard about the TV show.  The prison.”

“It’s nice to know they keep you in the loop,” Crystal said, sticking out her tongue at him.

“Leave that group of yours and join the Wardens.  We’ll take care of you,” Weld said.

“Tempting,” she said.  “Prison?”

“It was one thing among… a lot of things,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re not too badly hurt,” Weld said.

“Somewhat traumatized, but we’re mostly fine,” Sveta said, hugging him back.  “We lost a teammate.  Cryptid.  Not- not dead.  But he left.”

She’d stumbled over her words in her haste to clarify that ‘lost’ wasn’t dead.

It put me in mind of the Leviathan attack.  ‘Losses’.  The word had haunted me for a while, until other moments and things had taken over.  Such a horribly ambiguous word.

“Half of you didn’t have names when I left,” Crystal reminded us.

“One of the younger two.  Not the camera tinker.  Our changer.”

“I vaguely recall.  I might be sharper if it wasn’t nearly midnight.”

“It’s past midnight,” Sveta said.

“Fucking time zones.  So you were on television and you fucked it up-”

I elbowed her again.  “It wasn’t great from a PR standpoint, but we did what we needed to.  Got heroes on our side, saved Lookout from being the focus.”

“Fine.  Conceded.  But you fought our hometown dragon boy and lost, judging by that burn-”

“Won.  I did pretty fucking awesome, actually.”

“You won against Lung.  Right.  Really helping your case, here, Miss ‘this wasn’t a fever dream’.”

I moved to elbow her again, and hit a square of forcefield.

“Fought Teacher, fought Goddess.  I have a hundred texts from Aunt Carol, who was no doubt trying to see if she could reach me and use me to steer you back on course-”

“No comment,” I said.

“And twenty texts from your dad, who was interpreting Auntie C’s actions or crisis managing.”

“Fair bit of crisis managing, I think.  I saw Amy,” I murmured to Crystal.

“Oh,” she said, and the levity where she’d been making fun of how hectic we’d been and complaining in good fun was all gone.  “How was that?”

A very careful, neutral question.

“Not well.  She left.”

“Left…?”

“Gimel.  She and Marquis left to take a leadership role in another Earth.  With Cryptid.”

Crystal nodded.  “Your dad said Marquis was active on Earth N.  It would make sense for him to take a firmer hand, go to Earth N-”

I was shaking my head.  Sveta added a, “No,” for good measure.

“Another uninhabited Earth, using the skills he learned, then.”

“Inhabited,” Sveta said.  “Shin.”

Crystal’s uncovered eye bugged out.  “That’s Goddess’.”

“Was.  Amy, Marquis, Cryptid now.”

“We don’t know how far they’re going with it,” Sveta added.

Crystal didn’t have a retort for once.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “That’s a mess that’s going to have to be dealt with sometime, but not today.  As shitty as it is to say, it’s a load off my mind that she’s not here.”

“I don’t think it’s shitty,” Sveta said.  “You’ve been more at ease since all that.”

I shrugged and gave Sveta a smile.  I turned more attention to Weld, who was apparently pretty content holding his girlfriend, his attention half on us and half on the crowd.  He saw me looking.

“Vista.”

I perked up, looking.

“She’s just talking to her dad now.  She was with her mom earlier, and her parents can’t stand to be in the same place at the same time.”

“And even when she sees each of them separately, it’s about who she saw first, who she saw longest…  I guess that’s not better?”

Vista was out of costume.  She looked so different.  Her hair wasn’t straight, she had eyeliner on, and she had a fair number of freckles – more than usual.  No waterproof makeup covering it up and changing her complexion, nose, and brow shape either.  There wasn’t a trace of the old green and blue of her costume in her outfit, either.  She wore a black sweatshirt over maroon scrubs that might have been medical scrubs, and wore a jacket and scarf over that.  Given her age, she would be pretending to be part of the medical block student group.  Helping out with supplies and first-aid for special credit?

Whatever the excuse or story was, she looked just enough like someone with a job that it didn’t draw attention, and the job wasn’t one that got in the way of her personal identity.

It sucked to see that her dad was showing so very little joy at seeing her, though.

She looked our way and I gave her a little wave.  I didn’t want to break her cover, but-

-But apparently that was excuse enough for her to break away from her dad.  She hurried off, and not toward us.  She nudged some other people, and they headed our way.

These people- not familiar to me.  I was left trying to guess who they were.  A guy and a girl.

Browbeat?  Couldn’t and wouldn’t be Chariot.  Too young to be Trainwreck.  He looked military-esque, but he was also… sturdy.  Not so fat, tall, or muscular in a way that I could point to any one of the things being responsible for my estimation of him, but a fair bit of all of those things.  His choice of clothes didn’t work against that, either.  Beanie, a leather jacket that was less fashion and more the kind of thing a blue collar worker bought if he expected to work outside, jeans that weren’t slim-fit or even regular fit, and heavy boots.

And he looked wholly comfortable in all of it.

His lady friend was a stark contrast.  She wore a white wrap coat with gray fur trim and a silver chain extending along the front like a piece of jewelry that had been built into the coat.  There were other decorative elements at the wrists.  Black jeans, and gray suede boots that I could hear as they tapped on the ice and road.  Her hair was in a ponytail, but I could see wisps of black hair escaping.  It was rare to see hair that fine and that black.

“Hi big V, hi Crystal,” Missy said, after she had dragged them along enough.  She was still fairly petite, though far less than she once had been, obviously, but it stood out with the company she kept, especially the guy.  It didn’t help that the two were so straight-backed, and Missy was hunched over against the cold.

I hugged her.  She smiled as she broke the hug.  “Hi Missy.”

“You can call me whatever.  This is, uh, Theo and Ava.  I just realized I didn’t ask first about identities.”

I put out my hand to shake theirs.  Theo accepted first.

“Glory Girl, hi,” Theo said.  “I was a fan when I was a kid.  Laserdream, wow.”

“I think I win,” Crystal whispered.  She threw up a forcefield, expecting a jab that I didn’t bother to deliver.

“I’m Golem,” he said.  “And I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know the name.”

“I know the name,” I said.

“I know too,” Sveta said.  “But if I said how, you’d think I was weird.”

“Weird why?” Theo asked.

“If I said J.Y., would that mean anything to you?  Staff?”

“Yyyes?”

“She was one of a very small number of people who looked after me.  So when she said she went to a town, I looked up the teams there.”

“Ahh,” Theo said.  He wrinkled his nose.  “Not too weird.”

“I’ll settle for that,” Sveta said.

“Cuff,” Ava introduced herself to me and Sveta.  At Sveta’s handshake, she extended a look down.  “That’s quite a hand… shake.”

“You’re the Chicago Wards,” Sveta said, matching Ava’s tone of intrigued surprise.

“When a lot of people make that connection, they’ll add something to it,” Ava said.  “Chicago Wards, Weaver’s team.  Or Chicago Wards, the people from the New Delhi video.”

I shook my head.  “Chicago Wards, did what few teams besides New York were doing and organized a roster with a strategy.”

“That was in the New Delhi video,” Ava said.  “I’m pretty sure.”

“If it was, it was something you guys were doing before the video, before Weaver, and I was paying attention back then.”

“Well, on behalf of Tecton, I’m touched,” Ava said.

“It’s tough.  Damned by association, like Brockton Bay and the Undersiders,” Missy said.  “Theo’s from Brockton Bay originally.”

“When did you get out?” I asked.

“Around the time the Slaughterhouse Nine arrived.”

“Good move,” Crystal said.

“I like getting together with all of the old Brockton Bay people,” Vista said.  She huffed breath into her hands, then adjusted her scarf.  When it didn’t adjust the way she wanted it to, she warped its dimensions.  “Feels like I’m putting a puzzle back together.  Everyone always has questions they never got to get answers to, you know?  Except Rachel Lindt’s one of the people I keep meeting up with, and she’s not a question and answer kind of person.”

“Tattletale’s the one I keep running into,” I muttered.  “She is a question and answer kind of person, and it sucks.”

Vista smiled.  “Doesn’t it?  I tried to reach out, get her in on the reuniting thing.  Offered my hand in friendship, and she went straight for the jugular.  She seems happy being a villain.  Same type as Shadow Stalker, I think.”

I shrugged.  There were a hundred things I could say to that, and figuring Tattletale out was something I could see a whole lot of merit in, if Vista ever wanted to get together and compare notes, do what she was talking about and getting answers.  But that felt like a whole-day thing to unpack and figure out.  Not a well-past-midnight thing.

But on the surface?  I’d known Shadow Stalker briefly, and she had been kind of nice to be around when she’d had reason to be nice.  I could believe that Tattletale was the same.  But I knew just how shitty they could be when upset- Shadow Stalker broke faces, and Tattletale destroyed psyches.  Shadow Stalker stuck relentlessly to a path and as shitty as she was at her core, however easily or excellently she could be a villain, she valued being a vigilante-type, and from what I knew about her, that wouldn’t change, however she was tempted.  Being a vigilante served her ends, it served her ego, and it validated her at her core.

Tattletale had helped the city and in some twisted world where the chips had fallen down differently, she could have been a hero.  There was a distinction, even, that she cared about shit that wasn’t herself a lot more than Shadow Stalker ever had.  But being a villain served her ends, it served her ego, and it validated her at her core.

The others were chatting.  Talking about the travel.  Vista looked happy, and Sveta seemed very content.

Amusing to see that Theo was just a little bigger than Weld in physical dimensions.  Weld was usually the heavyweight in the room.  He still was, by a wide margin, but someone squinting their eyes wouldn’t have known it.

“Do you guys want to go somewhere warmer?” Crystal asked.  “I bet we could find a place willing to serve us drinks-”

“I’m still too young,” Vista said.

“Coffee then?  Anyone?”

I saw Sveta and Weld exchange a look.

“I’m looking forward to getting home,” Weld said.  “Getting warm.”

“The cold bothers you?” Ava asked.  “I didn’t think much did.”

“Slows me down,” Weld said.  “A little stiff in the joints.”

“Let’s get you home to a heated mattress.  I got everything out that we set up last winter, tested it, made sure there were no shorts in the wiring,” Sveta said, breaking away from the hug, taking one of Weld’s hands in hers and swaying a bit.  “Some heated blankets with metal plates, music.”

Please.  You’ve got to catch me up on what I missed.”

“I’ve been saving stuff, mister,” Sveta said.  “As requested.  Doing what little I can to look after you.”

Weld pulled his fist close to his chest, and with Sveta holding onto it with both hands, drew her close enough that he could put his other arm around her.  He looked to Crystal. “Drinks another time.”

“Another time for sure.  When’s your birthday, Missy?”

“Not soon.  May fifteenth.  But I’ll be eighteen then.”

“Let’s do a Brockton Bay reunion then.”

“We’ll take you for a first drink,” Crystal said.

“That sounds nice.  I know this is a weird question, but what would you think if I invited Rachel Lindt?”

“Do you think she’d accept?” Theo asked.

“I don’t know.  She might only swing by if I bribe her.  But I think it would be important if we could show her that we don’t have it in for her.”

Missy looked at me as she said the last bit.

“You’re vouching for her?”

“Yeah.  And Miss Militia would too.”

“Then sure.”

Missy smiled.

Sveta and Weld said their goodbyes.

“I am catching a ride with… someone,” Vista said.  “Procrastinating on that decision.  No coffee for me.  I’m just glad I get to say hi.”

“I wanted to say,” Theo said.  “Victoria, uh… thank you?”

“For what?”

“This is a weird thing to bring up.  But back when I was just in my first year of High School, you went after the gangs pretty hard.”

I winced.

“The Empire in particular?”

“I regret how I went about that,” I said.

“You shouldn’t,” he said.  “You know how you can be raised one way, and you don’t second guess it until you have a reason to?”

I thought of Rain.  I nodded.

“I was raised by those guys,” he said.  “I don’t know how much I believed, but I went along with it for a while, because I was still in that kid state of mind, where you think if you don’t get something and the adults act like they do, they’re probably right?”

“Sure,” I said.  “I think I can relate to that.”

“I remember when one guy, Thor, no powers, he just changed his name from something lame like Lester, he got carted back with a few broken bones.”

“You were that close to their operations?” I asked.  I connected two thoughts.  His power- “You’re second gen.  Allfather?  Or would you rather not say?”

“I don’t mind saying.  Nah, not Allfather, that would have been weird.  Kaiser and Heith.”

“Oh yeah.  I guess I pictured the older guy having a kid instead of the… twenty year old, I guess?  Thereabouts?”

“Yeah.  Thereabouts.”

“Sorry, I’m getting nerdy and… inaccurate.”

“Very inaccurate,” Crystal said.

“It’s late,” I said.  “Sorry.  You were saying?”

“The guy came back hurt and I was happy about it.  Fucker deserved it.  Realizing I was happy wasn’t when I realized I didn’t like the Empire.  But it was step seven or eight in ten steps?  I don’t know how I would have ended up if I hadn’t had that.  If I’d missed a step or two or three.”

I nodded.

“Some of them ended up in the Shepherds, y’know?” he asked.

“Yeah.  That came up at one point.  I haven’t run into them yet, but I did have a run in with the Shepherds.”

“I remember you geeking out one time,” Crystal said.  “Remember?  You were telling me all about how Masters have interpersonal problems and Shakers have issues feeling secure-”

“Ahem,” Vista said.

“-and tinkers dwell…”

“You got shakers wrong,” I pointed out.  My phone was buzzing in my pocket, so I pulled it out, without looking at it.  “What are you getting at?”

“Maybe.  I’m starting to think you’ve got a Brute thing going, Victoria.  Because you have run-ins with everyone and crash through everything.  Everything.”

I rolled my eyes.  I checked my phone.  Kenzie.

“Gotta take this,” I said.

“Yeah, you know I got your goat.”

I waited until I was mostly out of earshot to answer.  “I’m here.”

Kenzie’s voice came across with both enthusiasm and a slight hush, like she didn’t want to wake up someone nearby.  “Hi.  Sorry to call so late, but I see you’re still at the station, and something came up.”

I looked around for the camera.

“Seven and a half o’clock, if the station entrance is twelve.”

I turned myself around, looked, and spotted it.

“What happened?”

“Okay, so um, first of all, Tattletale was peeking in.  I tried to say hi, open a dialogue, and she went dark.  But I thought you should know.”

“Watching us?  Okay.”

“Watching everyone, I think.  The camera wasn’t too interested in us, and when it looked like it was, I thought I’d do the digital handshake.  I might’ve stepped in sooner but I was changing for bed and brushing my teeth.”

“You need to go to sleep sooner.”

“I know!  But I wanted to organize my stuff, take apart my broken camera and sort the components away, and I got carried away.”

“What’s the other thing?”

“Dead bodies.  Heroes from your tracking program.”

I found myself holding my breath.  “Who?”

I didn’t want to hear.  I didn’t want to know.

“Slingstone, Nailfarer and Scaffold.”

“Navigators.  That’s not far from Brockton Bay.  Tell me where.”

“I can give you coordinates.  I’ll send it to you and you can click the link to have it go up as a flag on your map exec.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m glad to help.  Um, and Victoria?”

The tone suggested she was preparing to deliver more bad news.

“Hit me with it.”

“There’s chatter on the lines.  Villains know it happened, and they seem split on what they’re going to do about it.”

“The game.  I know it doesn’t count for much these days, but… there are rules we all follow.”

“That’s the chatter.  Some like the decisive action.  Some hate it.  They’re calling a halt to all activity for now and they’re going to hold a meeting tomorrow to figure out how to handle this.  Whether they allow it.”

Or encourage it.  We need to figure out how -we- handle this.

“Thanks, Kenzie.  But you should really be in bed.”

“This is important.  I was going to ask if I should stay up.  I can be comms.”

“How long would it take you to get a message out to all the teams?”

“A minute.”

“Tell them to stand down.  If the villains are going quiet, it should be fine.”

“Can I say it’s an emergency?”

“Yeah.  Might be good.  Have someone who’s awake double-check what you wrote before you mass-send.  Not Sveta.  Let her have her night with Weld.”

“Got it.”

I rejoined the others.

“You look serious,” Crystal said.

“Some capes got killed.  Heroes.  We were trying to interconnect, share information, figure out a way to deal with the villains, now that the prison is gone.”

She cleared her throat.  “Gone?”

I sighed.

“I’ll come.”

“You just got back from-”

“From classified,” she said.  “I’ll come.”

She wasn’t the only one who wanted to.

We were close to Brockton Bay, and a part of me had hoped we’d run into Senior Trooper Littlejohn again.  I’d at least established some rapport with him.

Police cars had been stopped around the site, and though the sirens were off, the lights did flash.  The scattered parts were lit up with the stark glare of headlights from one side and strobing red and blue from another.

It was only thanks to Vista that the truck could keep pace with Crystal and I.  We’d arrived on the scene as a group.  I was out of costume, because I hadn’t really planned to get into any trouble.  I floated, so I was an obvious cape, but that was it.  The others had changed.

To a horror scene.  People butchered.  Cops standing by and trying to stay warm while the wind whipped aggressively past us, some techs were pacing the field, planting little yellow flags by each piece of a body, and the lights being almost solely from the cars made the scene an isolated image on a page otherwise painted black.

What did it say, that of Vista, of Laserdream, of Golem, Cuff, and I, we’d seen bad enough things that an unrecognizable assortment of human parts wasn’t enough to shake us?

“Who’s in charge?” I asked.

Fingers pointed.

I floated over, so my feet wouldn’t contaminate the scene.  A new face, a new set of expectations and prejudices to wrangle.

“Can we look?”

She seemed to take her time considering, until Golem flashed his Wardens badge.

“Be my guest,” the woman said.  “We’re taking our photos and our notes, but this looks like costume on costume crime.  We’re not equipped for it.”

“They were heroes.  These ones were good guys who saved lives,” I said.  “They worked with the system, they worked with police.”

“I’m sympathetic, I really am,” she said.  “But we’re not equipped.”

I was left kind of speechless.  A shift in the light drew my attention- Vista was enlarging the car headlights, and it looked like she was bending the beams, illuminating the scene.

“I’ll put it back before we go,” she told the officer driving the car.

No response.

The Navigators had passed through Hollow Point briefly.  They’d been just far enough away that we hadn’t had much more cause to interact with them.  Too small, too narrow in their focus.

Nailfarer had a weird name, but it was based in legend, and she’d been candid in interviews about why.  She had talked about her trigger event at a time when such things had been discouraged.  Her parents and aunt had boarded a ship to America, convinced by shady individuals that it was by legitimate channels.  Mock tests, mock papers, and fair amounts of money.  They had boarded a ship and then been shuttled into a cargo container.  One of several.

She and her family members had been let out to work the ship or provide services to the crew.  They were slated to be slaves, and this was a beginning to their new lives.  She saw her oldest family members die, heard from others that they’d been thrown overboard.  She’d seen younger family members die too – alive but dead inside.

She’d gained powers, she’d fought, and she’d lost against sheer numbers.  She’d been beaten into submission and made to serve for three months as an enforcer before fighting her way out.

For ten years, she’d been a hero.  Her name more a reference to where she came from than her ability to turn dead tissues into doors.

Fuck,” I said, as I looked over the scene.  She’d been torn into fifty pieces.  Some were in the branches of a tree above, now brightly illuminated after Vista had adjusted the light.

“Found a murder weapon,” Golem said.  “Shovel, wooden handle.  It’s buried.”

Police officers jogged over to investigate.

Didn’t narrow things down, I was pretty sure.  Nothing jumped to mind.

Slingstone… he hadn’t been as cavalier about his background.  He’d gone after the big guys.  He was ex-Haven and hadn’t been open about why, and he’d dodged the Shepherds, presumably being close-mouthed about his decision there.  He was ‘boring’ by how he looked on paper.  A blaster, a single shot at a time, softball sized ‘stones’.  They flew in straight lines at high velocities and were really, really good at breaking through and shattering the inorganic, including armor.

But he’d fought Endbringers, traveling overseas to do it.  A year before Leviathan had hit Brockton Bay, Slingstone had been hurt in an Endbringer fight, and he’d taken a break.  He’d resumed activities just in time for the world to end.

The individual pieces of his body were mixed in with Nailfarer’s and Scaffold’s.  Streaks of blood suggested the directions by which they’d been thrown.

Multiple sizes of footprint suggested that members of the team had waded through the gore of the first one to die… or that there had been multiple attackers.

“Cuff, do you have any metal?  I need a chunk you don’t care about,” Laserdream said.

Cuff tossed something to her.

The team hadn’t been much of a cape against cape group.  They’d focused more on mundane gangs and criminal organizations, with Slingstone being the one to go up against Endbringers and challenge the powered enforcers.

In a lot of ways, they’d been closer to police than capes.  They’d been offered positions in the Guild, an international organization rooted in Canada, very cause-driven and mission-focused.  They’d turned it down, allegedly because it was still too much about image, and they just wanted to work.

Who or what came after you, and why?

The location was important.  That I’d been pretty fucking close to here in the last twenty-four hours was important.  I knew it was bad to decide who the culprit was before all the evidence came in, but Love Lost’s group had members who were willing and able to do something this savage, and she wasn’t situated that far away.

March’s group could blow people to smithereens and take people to pieces, and they’d been close, earlier in the day.

“Victoria,” Laserdream said.

I flew over in her direction.  Below her, Scaffold was more intact than the rest.  Head and torso were impaled on the mangled architecture that he’d created with his power.  His parts were strewn about as the others were, red and glistening.

Created and altered building layouts.  Slide a wall this way, raise up a wall where there was none.  Trapdoors and cover as it was needed.

General use wall and forcefield powers, as I understood it, came about most often from trigger events that involved ambient, environmental threats to people or things the trigger victim wanted to protect.

Aunt Sarah had it as a power.  So did Crystal.  So had Eric.

Me and my mom?  Not so much.

Well, I had something closer to my cousins than anything, now.  It had changed.  I couldn’t quite allow myself to think it counted.

Scaffold had been in a bad place and wanted to protect someone from the place or situation.  Probably.  He’d dedicated his life to going up against gangs and criminal organizations, though he’d been alone in the group in being as vocal as he’d been about corrupt governments, police departments, hero groups, and school administrations.  He’d been the original reason the Guild had reached out; they liked causes.

Laserdream had Cuff’s piece of metal set in a bowl of forcefield, and was firing a laser at it.  The metal glowed white hot, and she had her hands cupped around it with the one middle finger pointed more in than the others, to supply the laser.

“The cuts,” Laserdream said.  “Those are claw marks.”

I flew closer to see, while she floated above, warming her hands with a grim look on her face.

“I know your eyes aren’t as good as my one eye, but I see footprints, Victoria.”

“Point?”

She provided a thin beam, laser pointer style, to indicate.

These footprints weren’t human.  Long and two-toed, pressing deep into the frozen ground like the source was heavy.

“Minion?” I asked.

“Could be.  Could be, um, do you remember mentioning that Prancer was bringing in some Case-fifty-threes to screw with Sveta?”

“It’s possible.  A bit of a reach- they didn’t come to the Fallen raid and I think they left.”

The shovel.  One had had a shovel.  Sveta had mentioned her, but hadn’t mentioned if she’d lived.

I winced.  Cross that bridge when we came to it.

Scaffold had been lifted up, and thrown down onto his namesake construction.  Had he been clawed before or after?  If it was before, then this had been for the drama of it, to create a show.  If it was after, it suggested something personal, retaliating or expressing anger in a futile way.

One claw swipe had practically severed head from upper body.

Finished off?  Given a merciful death?

I saw how red the blood of the wound was.

I looked at the cops, many hunkering inside their cars or by the doors, trying to stay warm.  At Crystal, who was holding her hands above the heated metal.

“How long has the scene been like this?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard by the woman in charge.

“We arrived half an hour ago.”

The blood was too red.  It hadn’t frozen.  Snow had collected on it, but it hadn’t frozen.

Shit,” I said, with enough vehemence that just about everyone stopped in their tracks.

I flew straight to Scaffold.  I put my hand over his mouth.

No breath, but I could feel the warmth.

At the wound in the neck- there, I could feel the breath.

I touched his face, and I wiped the snow away from the eyes.

“Hey!”  This from the woman in charge.

I ignored her.  My eyes were fixed on him.  Scaffold, half his stomach, one arm, and everything below the waist missing, his jaw unhinged, crushed his eyes closed, then opened them.  His eyes met mine, wavering like he couldn’t really see me half the time.

“We need medical attention!” I shouted.  “He’s alive!”

Oh no, I thought.  He’s alive, and he has no power that’s anything like that.

He had no right or ability to be alive, which meant-

Horror surged through me as I flew over the field.  People were rushing to Scaffold, and I was rushing to find a piece of meat that I could recognize.

A quarter of a human head, a fragment of mask clinging to it by stubbornness and the stickiness of gore more than by mechanics.  A single eye.

I turned it, so the eye faced the headlight.  The pupil narrowed.

“They’re all alive!” I shouted.  “It might be every piece!”

They’d been hanging back, everything happening slowly, sticking together for numbers against a parahuman threat, and to provide light.  Now they were acting, everyone in motion.  Nobody with any idea what to do.

The woman in charge had to shout at people who were heading to the bushes to throw up, because pieces had been strewn so far and wide across the field that there might be some in the bushes.

When she was done shouting, and when most people had their orders or had decided they’d be useless, the woman was left leaning against the hood of her car, hands in her pockets, her eyes wide.

“They said something was off,” she muttered.  “I figured powers, right?”

I pressed my lips closed, watching.  At this stage I wasn’t sure what to do that wouldn’t put me in the way.

“What do I even do?” she asked.

“We see if we can put them back together, or if we can give them mercy,” I said.

“I meant… this is going to be a nightmare, with everything that’s already going on.”

I could picture Love Lost’s group.  I remembered Sidepiece’s words about the state of the itinerant villain.

“Don’t tell anyone anything yet.  Get your guys to keep quiet,”  I said, my voice low and quiet.  I met her eyes, incredulous eyes, and then I explained just why it was necessary.

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Interlude 10.x

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A space heater hummed by her feet while her eyes stared at a glowing screen.  The room had gone dark as half of the streetlights turned off outside to conserve power, and though the one lamp and computer screen were now insufficient to light the space she didn’t rise from her chair or look away from the screen.

Her hand crushed a plastic chemical packet, activating it.  She rolled it between her hands as it warmed up.  Fingerless gloves so she could type and a chemical hand warmer helped her hands, the space heater warmed her feet, a blanket warming her legs, and she liked to imagine her power warmed her head.  The rest of her was cold.

The person who had the camera would be colder, she knew.  She still wished whoever had built this place had been more mindful of insulation.

Most of the mega-city was asleep, but if she imagined the screen was a window that she could open and walk through, then there was a small festival happening just twenty feet away.

People were standing in groups, parents with kids working their way past clusters of friends to get closer to the front.  The space was sterile, with black and white tile along the halls that had been sourced from the same places that cut-and-paste bathrooms all across the mega-city used and blue-bright fluorescent lights on the ceiling and walls.  The floors were white resin, but were caked with grime and salt.

Grime and salt, past knowledge that sixty-seven thousand people pass through in one day, scheduling, past knowledge of staff, knowledge of attention to detail in security; floor cleaners are mechanical, work-

“No,” Tattletale interrupted her power, not taking her eyes off of the scene.  “Don’t need that.”

Her head pounded softly, making her very aware of her heart rate and the flow of blood through her brain, as if the ‘no’ had been a hard physical strike to her forehead.

Things here were just a little harder.  There was no stock of snacks, her headache pills were in a leather carry-on bag, not that they helped much, and nothing was where it should be.  The heights of chair and desk were limited, the screens limited to that of her laptop and the monitor she had had packed, and her emergency server for her computer was all the way back at home.

March had been gunning for her.  The attack had been a virtual guarantee, and with her own power and March being who she was, the risk had been that March would blow up half of New Brockton.  She’d done similar things in past altercations.  The fucking nightmare.

Retreating meant being strong as a group, protecting New Brockton, and ensuring they couldn’t be picked off one by one.

Which meant that Tattletale and the rest of the Undersiders, Rachel excepted, were here in Faultline’s territory.  Blocks of an out-of-the-way coastal city that had been put up in anticipation of a rush to get property, with the company going bankrupt after people had been warned to stay away.  Plumbing so faulty that there were rooms the water ran down the wall from ceiling to floor, no insulation in many buildings, and, as was the case with many ghost towns, the lack of residents had meant that businesses opted out of setting up, and without amenities and businesses, the residents had become even more scarce.

Faultline was laundering mercenary money through the area, and was inadvertently revitalizing portions of it.  The boom of people needing to get out of tents and into warm places helped.

Tattletale moved the chemical hand warmer, sandwiching it between her hand and the mouse while she used the keyboard to check different sites and scenes.

Trading Dollar rose 2.1%, rose 1% yesterday, past knowledge that New Dollars are under attack; currency market stabilizing.
Level of stabilization, consistency of rises, actors in this field include Number Man, Dido, Semiramis, and Little Midas; one unknown actor is engaged in this playing field-

Her lips mouthed the word ‘no’.  Police scanner?

Series of riots and other incidents in Providence, police pulled from the Boston area, area is behind in shelter, resources-

“I can draw my own conclusions on that one.  People have nothing, it’s cold, they’re bitter and scared,” she whispered.  She switched back to the video feed.

Level of apparent excitement, staff movements, knowledge of usual schedules, weather-

Don’t need it to be exact, she thought, pushing that thought into the jumble of details and knowledge.

–; More than twelve minutes, less than twenty minutes.

There were other things.  News.  Status of Class-S threats…

Sleeper; active
Machine Army; 4.83% growth since last check, active
Endbringers; one dormant, one active, others dead or unknown locations.

Active Endbringer.  She zeroed in on that.  A few mouse clicks brought her to a site that tracked the Simurgh.

The activity was only a renewed cluster of sightings.  Not an attack.  The Simurgh was somewhere near Bet’s Indonesia.  Not flying as she’d once done, either.  Floating around.  Facilities and factories in the area had been repurposed into accommodations.  People in the area were hunkered down, enduring life on new Bet instead of moving on to new places, leaning on some risky non-tinker tech advances.  Going the sci-fi route in tackling what Bet was going through.  Those same people were responsible for the flurry of reports about the Simurgh, which had led to her being flagged ‘active’.

As if it had just happened, Tattletale pictured the mental image of the Simurgh just past a window, floating like she dangled from a noose, a moment so close to the end of the world…

Rex.

Rex; dead.

The lights in her room flicked on.

Foil.

“Lily.  How nice of you,” Tattletale said, before spinning her chair to face the door, hands clasped together.  The dramatic effect was lessened by the heating packet she held between them.

“Why are you sitting in the dark at this hour?”  Lily asked.  She leaned against the doorframe.  She was wearing an oversized T-shirt, black with a sabertooth tiger leaping out of a rectangular frame that helped to give the image three dimensions.  She had pyjama bottoms and slippers, to boot.

Sleep clothes, length of pyjama pants strings, choice of t-shirt color and size; gained weight, 5-10 pounds
Gained weight, 5-10 pounds, athletic disposition; unusual, other causes are in play.
Gained weight, comfort, relative ease, wearing girlfriend’s design; leading a more relaxed, domestic life.
Gained weight, isn’t out on patrol, is at ease; out of the habit of cape stuff, carries out general duties, bodyguarding, engages for regular incidents.
Leading more relaxed, domestic life; is happy.

She doesn’t look happy.  March?

At relative ease but not happy, history of past relationship with Tattletale-self; strongly dislikes Tattletale-self.

Still.  Still dislikes Tattletale-self.  Me.

A series of fleeting thoughts and connections, flying through and into her mind in eyeblinks.

Scarcely missing a beat, she answered, “Conserving power.  Shutting out the rest of the world to limit information intake.  Monitor as good as mine, doesn’t strain anything to look at it in the dark.”

Tattletale smiled.  Lily didn’t smile back.

“Do you want me to turn the lights off, then?” Lily asked.

“Leave it.  Someone else might notice and flick them on again.  Not that I don’t appreciate the little gesture.”

Not a gesture.

“Okay,” Lily said.  She didn’t leave.

She wants something.

No shit, Sherlock.

“How are your legs?”

Tattletale raised her feet, closing one eye slightly in a wince.  “Ninety percent better.  Turns out taking untested, black market drugs have their merits.”

“Bitter Pill?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s mercenary.  Doesn’t give anything for free, calls in favors and calls hard.”

“You know her, huh?”

“Reached out to her after Sabah and I ran into a kid in a bad place.  Kid’s powers didn’t do anything to fix their body issues, and really complicated conventional methods to fix it.  We thought Bitter Pill could do something.”

“Too expensive?”

“Is your power telling you that?”

Common sense.  Bitter Pill did temporary work, but that work could be a lot of things.  The only ways it would work were to pay for regular doses over the long term, or pay for her to drop everything and research something long-term.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.

“She’s dangerous.  We’re pretty sure she was looking to get the kid in a position where they were taking regular doses.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“And get a kind of control over him.  Fucked up, and it says a lot that she was willing.  There was so little to be gained.  With you?”

“I get it.  I know how she is, and there’s no need for warnings.  Yeah, sure, she’s demanding and she’s really hungry to gain some ground right now, but I like having legs.”

“Your funeral.”

Dismissive, word associations: death, endings, ceremony; strongly dislikes Tattletale-self.

“No need to apologize or anything,” Tattletale said, leaning back, checking her computer screen.  Nothing had happened yet.  “Not like I took two bullets because of your whole psychotic rabbit girl thing.  Imp lost an arm.”

“We’re hoping we can get it back,” Lily said, before sighing.  “We’re all nervous, but you seem fine.  I was hoping you knew something we didn’t, and you could reassure us.”

“Huh,” Tattletale said.  She turned herself around.  There was a quick protocol for it.  One keystroke pinged all of her teams.  She saw the messages come in.  Each of them got a text, if they were on phones or undercover, and buzzed in a certain way on walkie-talkies if they weren’t.  One by one, a long column of circles in a table switched over from yellow to green.

Response times; fine.
#1 responding slower than before, has anger issues, sleep issues; post-

Tattletale shook her head.

“Problem?” Lily asked.

“Mild headache.  Let me see…”

She sent a message to Fish.  He was handling the active surveillance of March’s group.  The faint icon appeared, indicating that he was typing.  She turned back to the screen, pretending to look at it while she considered what her power gave her.

March behavior history, current team response times, current movements of capes, March’s connections to others; March is recruiting and preparing right now.  Will sleep in after a late night of work.

She turned the idea around in her head.  Not as instantaneous as the flicker-fire of information flowing through her head as fast as she could think it, because it meant paying attention to what pieces of information were provoking each output.  Something smaller, using only some segments of information, see how that changed the result…

March behavior history, current team response times; March is stalking, closing in.

Okay…

March behavior history, is stalking and closing in, our current precautions and help from Faultline; March is stalking, trying to close in.  Lacks resources to succeed within six hours.

Another tack, playing with different segments of information…

March behavior history, her connections to other groups; March is out recruiting right now.

Fish had his response.  March’s group wasn’t nearby.  They were out on the road.

“We’re fine,” Tattletale said.  “Tell Sabah she can sleep easy.  If she is out there and closing in, she won’t manage it anytime soon.”

“Thank you,” Lily said.

“It’s what I do.”

“Good night, Lisa.”

“Good night.”

Lily was slow in stepping away from the door.  Meandering.  Tattletale raised an eyebrow, so the expression was already on her face by the time Lily turned to face her again.

“I am sorry,” Lily said.  “That you got pulled into this.”

Says she is sorry, halting words, phrasing ‘I am’; lying.
Lying, says she is sorry, halting words, phrasing; connotations of ‘you owe us this’.  Believes that Parian’s criminal activities are Undersider’s fault.
Is factor in mild but persistent resentment of Tattletale-self.

“It’s fine,” Tattletale said, shrugging it off.

“I appreciate this.”

The information started to come in, taking apart the words.  Tattletale shook her head, denying and dismissing the information as she did it.

“It’s what friends do,” Tattletale said, though Lily had already left.

She turned back to the screen.

The train had arrived.  Soldiers returning from deployment.  Capes wore civilian uniforms and casual clothes, and blended into the crowd.  Her power identified the ones familiar to her, that she might not have otherwise recognized with their masks off or the obscuring details between the camera and the returning people.

Cinereal
Weld
Golem
Tallboy
Laserdream
Rocketround
Typhlosis
Vista
Stank Bank

That last one was someone she had tracked before Gold Morning.  She would have changed her name now that she was a hero.  She wouldn’t be one of the players in the financial scene, that was propping up the Trading Dollar, but still worth keeping an eye out.

She warmed her hands with the packet and got her feet warm where they’d been pointed away from the space heater for the duration of her conversation with Lily.

She would watch this to see what information she could glean, check some more things, communicate with her teams, and then go to sleep.  Under the covers, she would be warm.  Whoever had made this apartment had skimped on insulation, but Faultline hadn’t ignored the luxuries like good beds and blankets.  Even the one on Tattletale’s lap now was comfortably warm for how thin it was.

Tempting, to imagine going to bed.  To disconnect.

She watched Victoria Dallon weave through the crowd.  People had parted as Weld reached the crowd.  Avoiding the monstrous case-53.  Victoria and a Garotte with flesh instead of armor moved into the gap the part had made.

The video had no sound, but Tattletale could parse it.

Garotte, body language, clearly nervous; says, ‘it’s just a hologram’
Weld, smiling; says ‘you look good.  wow’

The awkward pause lingered after.

Ten feet of distance between them, awkwardness, timing; a divide.  Emotional distance.

What did it say that she wanted them to fail?  What did it mean, and where did that feeling come from?  Was it strategic, that it would get them off her back for a little while, make them a little weaker?

Her power supplied nothing, and she wouldn’t have trusted it if it had.

The distance between Garotte and Weld closed.  Garotte said something.

Garotte, cognizant of nearby people and watching eyes; ‘I’m so glad you’re okay.’
Weld, smiling; ‘I’m indestructible.’
Garotte responding, closing distance to keep the conversation private; ‘I know that isn’t true’ followed by another sentence segment; ‘Your body is tough but your heart can break.’
Weld’s silence, head moving; looking at the hologram
Garotte, Hand at one elbow, standing askew; ‘It’s not a problem, covering up my differences?’
Weld, taken aback, shaking his head; ‘no’.

Tattletale watched as the pair drew close enough to touch one another.  She watched Weld kiss Garotte.

Victoria, a short distance away, was smiling.  Her cousin was close to her, exaggerating how dead she was on her feet.

Capes tired, soldiers tired, moderate casualties, no major figures lost…

She started tallying up the observations, her attention on other things in the scene.

Victoria Dallon hugged her cousin.  They talked, and Tattletale kept her focus on the details of the scene.  The reason she’d wanted to tune in, had a man on the ground, camera ready.  These fleeting moments where people were together provided the clearest image of what was happening offworld.  Places utterly disconnected from the world and dimension she inhabited.

If she’d anticipated this, set up more infrastructure, if she’d hammered it all out-

Victoria and Garotte passed by the camera, distracting her.  Sveta was talking to Weld, all excitement, animated.  The ice had been broken.

So easily formed after a short time away, Tattletale thought.

The scene gave her a glimpse of Weld’s face.

Fondness.

Back to business.  All information pulling together…

Mood, tempo, body language individual and collective, differences between cape and civilian; war.  Fighting humans; foreign humans, divide marked between them and intervening Warden and paramilitary arms; Warlords.

War involving African warlords, mood, tempo, body language, and everything else; war won, with casualties.  Situation unresolved.

Crowd thinning out; Train empty.
Train empty, capes seen; Valkyrie gone

Valkyrie gone, past knowledge that Valkyrie is ignoring Gimel for reasons, past knowledge that Valkyrie’s reasons include high-level threat, stronger, more numerous, past knowledge that Valkyrie feels small against this threat;
Valkyrie alive.  Scouting, procrastinating.

The screen showed a message.  Her cameraman, wanting to know what he should do.  She sent him instructions to follow the crowd outside, getting as much footage of the group as possible.  This was intel on capes she didn’t get a chance to interact with much, it was intel on the situation, on the public mood, on the struggling authority that managed the Wardens and subsidiary teams…

She yawned.

The man with the camera had followed the crowd to the area outside the station.  He watched the crowd and in the doing he watched Weld and Garotte, Victoria and Laserdream.  Vista had approached the group.

The camera went black.  It was a good thing the lights had been flicked on, because the room would have been plunged into darkness with the screen off.

Her heart pounded.  She was left to wonder if it was one of the breakers, the computer plugged into a different switch than the lights of her temporary accommodations.

Lights on the computer blinked.  It wasn’t a power outage.

She was halfway to the mouse when the screen lit up.  Pink against a black background.  An emoticon, with hearts for eyes and a dash for the mouth.

The face disappeared, turning into a single ‘hi!’.  Tattletale’s power kicked in, but it was one of the rare instances where she was faster than the blink-of-an-eye power.  She hit the big red button.

This time, the power did go.  Everything from monitors to computers went black, the entire system thudding audibly as everything came simultaneously to a halt.

Is there danger?  Kid’s behavior, past knowledge of her misdeeds, past knowledge of her conversation style; the first thing she did was say hi.

Fucking tinkers.

Fucking kid.

Tattletale rose from her seat, wincing at the pain in her legs.  When she moved, it was with one hand on a nearby table or piece of furniture, to steady herself.

Her phone had died with the press of the big red button.

In the darkness, the stream of everything now cut off, no means of communicating with her squads or contacts, and no means of seeing what was going on out there, she had only her thoughts.

Her first thought was that she should take every single piece of tech she had in her room here, drop it into the dumpster, and set the contents alight.  She might have, if her legs had been fully healed, and if it wasn’t so late that it would draw attention from Faultline.

She’d been on the opposite side of too many hackers and tinkers to not have taken precautions.  Some of those precautions were at home, like the emergency server.

Epeios had been the reason for the emergency server.  He’d been a friend once, or he had pretended to be, and she had let him pretend.  He’d found a way onto her computer, forcing her to find a means of stopping a computer tinker with resources from looking at her stuff.

The emergency server was four feet tall and four feet deep, only two feet wide.  Too large to pack, too niche in use.  It was where she stored her notes too comprehensive for the regular systems and too complex for her own brain to wrestle with on a long-term basis.  It worked by creating millions of deceptive copies, forgeries, and variations on documents, and then randomly shuffling her files into it.

Epeios had been baffled, had hired thinkers to try and decode, predict, or surveil her means of picking the true files from the false ones.  There wasn’t one.  The only means was to use her power.  To intuit her way through a thousand haystacks.

She had other resources.  Other jury-rigged traps and tools.  Some were still packed.

She would have to get her stuff and set up her security, verify there was no virus in a closed system… ugh.  The kid could probably set up a virus to take a snapshot and communicate by cell lines or ambient electricity.

Her power bar doubled as a signal detector.  If there was activity on any of the connected systems, it would sound an alarm.

No, nothing to do but go to sleep.  The other issues could be tackled later.

She climbed into the bed that Faultline had offered her.  A luxurious bed with fine blankets in a shitty apartment.  The bed was wide enough for three people to sleep in comfortably.

Her head pounded as she lay her head down.

Her hands and feet weren’t even that warm, but in the core of her chest, she felt numb.

She was so tired, so tired.  But as the hours ticked on, all she could do was digest the information she’d collected, plan, and remain aware of how dark and cold the room was.

This?  This was alright.

She leaned on her cane, walking with her bodyguards flanking her.  More mercenaries were inside nearby buildings, looking out for trouble.  Bryce was on a rooftop with Jaw and Bitters.  If March decided to come at them by plane or helicopter, then Bryce would get an education in the use of surface to air missiles.

Snuff was in her orbit, following up the rear of the group, maintaining a conversation with one of Faultline’s non-case-53 dorks.  Faultline followed the larger group from even further back.  Keeping an eye on everything.

Probably staring holes in the back of my head, Tattletale mused.

Faultline position, history, current situation; wary concern, especially of the kids.

The kids.  Samuel and Chastity were herding the monsters.  Samuel had a muscular arm draped around his shoulders, which he didn’t seem to mind at all, focusing more on the intellectual, emotional challenge of keeping the twelve to fifteen crowd from being at each other’s throats.  Juliette, the recently renamed Roman, and Aroa.  Coldblooded, hot blooded, and sadistic, respectively.

If she was ever asked to pick a ‘best guess of X kills Y’ pair, choosing from members of the expanded Undersiders and staff, then she really had to narrow it down to something like Rachel and Siemens, Foil and Kirby, Juliette and Roman, or Roman and Juliette.

While Samuel had his hands full with that, The unfortunately named Chastity flirting with the youngest soldiers while tasked with keeping the younger Heartbroken in line.  Flor, Nicholas, Amias, Candy, and Darlene.

For every last one of them, she could picture Alec in at least one moment or scene, doing or saying something that fit that one Heartbroken so well.  A look on his face, a thing he had said.

The feral under-twelves were fanning out, and Chicken Little was in their sights.  He looked back at Tattletale, nervous.

“Don’t look at me,” Tattletale told him.  There was a part of the sidewalk that dipped, causing her foot to have to travel a short distance further, which meant her legs had to adjust her weight.  She winced at the adjustment, the pain driving through each of her legs like a phantom movement of the bullet through the tissues.  “You wanted to go out in the field, Chicken Little?  Show us what you’re made of.”

“We could take him apart,” Juliette said.  “Drumstick, thigh, gizzard, the gross leftover bits that get processed and put in chicken nugs.”

“I’d rather keep my gross leftover bits where they belong,” Chicken Little said.

“You’re showing weakness, Chicken Little,” Samuel called out.  “I told you not to do that if you want to hang around these guys.”

“I want to hang,” Chicken Little said.  “They’re cool when they’re cool, but-”

“But if you act scared then you’re in for it.”

Flor cackled, edging closer as the assembled group walked to where the vehicles were parked.  She glanced back at Chastity, checking that her babysitter was still focused on one of the soldiers.

Tattletale watched that with some wary interest as well.  If the soldier couldn’t stay focused…

“If I stay put then they’re going to get me.”

“Figure it out,” Samuel said.  “Do it fast, because you actually are in danger now.”

“Um,” Chicken Little said.  “Chastity.  Help.”

Chastity didn’t take her eyes off the soldier she was talking to.  He at least had the grace to notice something was up and draw his gun, holding it low.

“What the hell are you doing, Chicken?” Roman asked.

“I’m asking for help.  I know what I’m made of and some of that is someone who asks for help when he needs it.”

“Soft,” one of the little ones taunted, as they moved closer, encircling him.

Birds were congregating nearby.  Tattletale felt wistful, seeing it.

A group of crows cawed, with others taking up the cry.  It slowed some of the young ones, but Nicholas and Amias weren’t that into this particular game.

“You, soldier,” Samuel said.  “For the kid’s sake, you’re going to need to draw your gun.  If I give the signal, shoot the kid I point at.  Only if I give the signal.  If you fuck this up, all the rest of us will come after you.”

There, in the midst of the game.  That was when Samuel most looked like Alec had.  He was the most like Alec anyway, years younger than Alec had been, with longer blond hair in the classic ‘naturally wild’ Vasil look, but he had a similar face, a similar way of standing.  Alec twisting the knife and enjoying it, despite his usual cold nature.  That was what Samuel was doing here.

The soldier closest to Chicken Little looked back at Tattletale.

She nodded.

Flor, who was in the top two for most likely to get shot, if anyone had to, didn’t even seem to care.  She looked at Samuel, then grinned, eyes wide, all teeth showing, except for the gap where one was missing.  She gave the soldier the same look.

The collection of birds drew nearer, moving in a blob.  No control, no ability to move them and sense through them at the same time, and the senses are limited.

Too slow, too careful.

All at once, Flor, Candy and Darlene broke into runs.  Coordinating with Darlene’s power, no doubt.  The soldier Samuel had told to be ready to shoot had his weapon drawn but not pointed, and with no signal given, Chicken Little ran for it, and the scene was eerie to see, with people who were just now spotting the kids at play reacting with amusement.

Reminding Tattletale that she really wanted all of her team members to spend some time around the Heartbroken, so they would know it was rarely a laughing matter.

The birds were on their way, swooping in low.  They didn’t reach Chicken Little before Candy and Darlene did.

They bowled him over and began kissing his mask.  The birds that had been flying in now scattered.

‘Kissing tag’ with Heartbroken.  Which was not without its danger, because Flor, among many other things.

Flor looked ready to just jump on top of the heap of three kids.  Chastity, barely looking, flicked out her bullwhip, catching Flor by the neck.

Nothing to do with Chastity’s powers.  She really liked whips, was all.  She set to reeling Flor in, pulling the whip’s length in by handfuls.  Flor tried to free her neck, helped by the fact that it had encircled part of her jacket collar, and shed herself of the length of leather, stumbling as she came free.

The whip cracked out again, striking her in the rear end.  Even through layers of petticoat, winter dress, and a wool jacket that hung down low enough to be a barrier, Flor yelped.

Surprise, not pain.

The commotion had slowed the procession down.  People stepped in and freed Chicken Little from the two girls that pinned him.

“Jerks,” Chicken Little said, huffing and brushing himself off.  “Making me look bad.”

“I think you look nice,” Candy said, sounding sweet as anything.

It was Darlene who looked crestfallen by how upset Chicken Little was.  The girl wore bold lipstick despite being Aiden’s age, and it was that lipstick that marked his mask over and over places, even as he tried to look noble and normal.

Seventeen kisses to Candy’s nine.

I really don’t care.

“Can I make it up to you?” Darlene asked.

Chicken Little shrugged.  Sullen.  Darlene’s shoulders fell a fraction.

She likes him.  Childhood crush.

Tattletale sighed.

Chicken Little continued trying to make himself look presentable, not aware of the lipstick am.  He shook himself off and threw his hands out to the side as part of the end of the motion.  The birds that circled in the air above squawked, cried out, and scattered.

Presentation and flourish were one of the safest things Tattletale could train him in.  But he did need other lessons.

“You could have backed out, called it off,” Samuel said.  “You knew it was kissing tag?”

“Yeh,” Chicken Little answered.

“You know Tattletale set rules.  No powers-”

“Only the mask, only if I’m game, I can call it off any time-”

“And you didn’t?  And here I thought I scared you.  Are you tougher than you pretend to be, Chicken L?”

“No,” Aroa said, snorting.  “Not that brave.”

“Or were you smart enough to know it was a game?”

“That was a game?” the soldier that had been tasked with killing a child asked.  He looked between Samuel and Tattletale.

“Test,” Samuel said, sounding dismissive.

“No, I didn’t figure it out,” Chicken Little admitted.  “You did scare me.”

“Not badly enough that you backed off.”

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to show weakness,” Chicken Little said, defensive.

Defensive, as if it was all his fault.  But Tattletale met Samuel’s eyes, and she saw Chastity’s smirk.

Yeah, it wasn’t on him.  They were sending mixed messages.

Mixed messages weren’t the worst thing in the world.  If push came to shove and that kid found himself in a serious fight, there’d be more mixed messages than this.  The trick was making sure that they were teaching him to deal with them, not putting those mixed messages in his head.

It left a sour taste in her mouth, all the same.

She could see moments, expressions, and recall feelings that reminded her of Alec.  Here and there, there were ones that annoyed her, made her cringe as she thought of them.  Times Alec had embarrassed her, preyed on her pride, or mocked her and made her lose her cool.

This bad feeling was similar to that.  But it wasn’t Alec she thought of, as she looked at Chicken Little and regretted how she’d done this.

Her legs were at ninety-five percent, but that five percent was adding up.  The vehicles that were delivering them and their stuff were just pulling down the road now, navigating an urban area that had been built into a rolling landscape, instead of waiting for the landscape to be flattened or managed in any real way.

Every move she was making right now cost something, and these trucks had not been cheap.  She wasn’t making any real money for as long as she wasn’t in New Brockton, but she couldn’t go to New Brockton because March was circling that area.

And all the while, the local power structure was shifting.  That was their next stop, but they would have to be careful.

“Wait,” Chicken Little said.  “Something’s- what the what is in that truck down there?”

Tattletale smiled.

“Tattletale?” he asked.

“Come on.  Walk with me.  Snuff comes, but let us have our talk.”

“Yes ma’am,” Snuff said.

She left behind a scene where Faultline was hanging back, bewildered at a scene that Tattletale continued to call a ‘good day’.  Samuel was physically putting himself between Juliet and Roman, Chastity had cowed Flor into an approximation of obedience and in the process had managed to scare away the soldier she had been flirting with earlier.

They walked past the line of trucks that were pulling over at the side of the one-way road.  Drivers were getting out at the left side of the street, but the right side was just for Chicken Little, Tattletale, and her cane.

“Are you okay?” Chicken Little asked her.

“Uh huh.  Gettin’ by.  But March is going to realize I bounced back fairly quickly.  She’ll realize the resources I have and she’ll hurt me worse next time.  Be ready for that.”

“I’ll protect you.”

Tattletale smiled.  “No you fucking won’t.  You get somewhere safe.  Just don’t panic.  Be ready for it to happen.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’m going to bring you along,” she said.

She saw his eyes widen.

“But-”

“Tell me now if you’re not ready.”

“I failed my test.  I got scared and I was too slow.”

“You lost to the Heartbroken.  Samuel wanted to see what you were made of, I didn’t say no.  Maybe that’s not fair, maybe his idea of a good test is screwed up because the asshole that spawned him was flinging him into situations against capes and cops before he could even read.  Most of the rest of them are like that.  They were cannon fodder, they were punching bags, they were slaves to make and bring food… nothing about that was healthy or good for anything except making them very, very dangerous.”

“I like some of them,” Chicken Little said, pronouncing ‘some of them’ with a mumble that turned it into ‘sumblum’.

“And some of them like you.  Which makes them more dangerous, if anything.”

“Why are you doing this?” he asked.

“Why?”

“Why look after me?  You don’t seem to like anyone, you’re busy, but you make the time for me.  You- in this truck?”  He pointed down at the truck parked near the end.  A slightly different make than the longer trucks with storage containers in the backs.  Most of the storage containers were set up as armories and quarters.  A moving base, so they could relocate whenever March drew near.  After, it would be a way to set up her mercenaries in any location.

“You have lipstick on your mask,” she pointed out.

He checked the coast was clear, turning his back to the trucks, pulled off the mask, and turned it around so he could look at the front.  Hard, round, circular, with two back dots for eyes, a red crest at the upper center, and a small beak.  Covered in red kiss prints of various degrees of fadedness.

The redness in his face crept to his ears.

“We’re showing up with numbers,” she said.  “You’ll be one member of a crowd, and so long as we have the Heartbroken bolstering our numbers, we’ll be looking pretty strong.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” he said.  “Also, I don’t know how to clean this.  I don’t want to smudge my sleeve with lipstick.”

She drew a tissue from her inner jacket pocket and handed it over.

“Thank you.  Please answer my question.”

“Why you?”

“Yeah.”

“I could say you remind me of Taylor.”

“Imp says I’m nothing like Taylor was.  Foil and Parian said something similar.”

“I wouldn’t say nothing like.  You’re careful.”

Aiden looked up at her, one gloved hand still rubbing the tissue in circles on the mask.  “Didn’t she… never ever act careful?  Whenever they tell me stories it’s always Taylor got hurt or Taylor threw herself into a crazy situation.”

“You caught me,” she said.  She smiled.  “No.  Not that kind of careful.”

“I don’t get it.”

She smiled.

“Are you bullshitting me?”

“I could tell you now, or I could offer you a trade, my little chicken.”

“What trade?” he asked.  At least he sounded suspicious.

“If you agree to think on it and then give me your best answer, I’ll open the back of this truck now and show you my birthday present to you.”

“You forgot my birthday.”

“Four month belated birthday.”

“Isn’t it six months?”  He started counting on his fingers.  “September, August…”

She pulled her hand back away from the handle at the back of, the truck, moving it in fits and starts as he went from August to July, July to June…

He stopped, looking up at her with the mask in one hand.  She smiled down at him.

“Four months, yeah,” he said.

At least he was learning wit and a good poker face.

She opened the back of the truck.  He had to climb up onto the back bumper and up to see over the ledge and into the truck proper.  As he climbed, she stuck her cane out, giving him a bit of a push where he needed it.  Sure enough, he almost fell backward once he saw.  Only the cane at the center of his back kept him from tipping back.

He stared in quiet amazement.

It was good, having people around.  Even the people she was used to were more alive as the group was more complete.  It was tempting in a dangerous way, to know that a crisis brought everyone together, and she could so very easily, consciously or not, play her role in creating them.

Not that there was any need now.  Even beyond March, they had other concerns.

“We’ll be taking the lead truck.  You’ll want to get yourself tidy, look over your costume.  Make sure you look good,” she told him.

He nodded, not taking his eyes away.  The question he’d asked was long forgotten.

“The sky is definitely going to fall,” he said.

This wasn’t a moot.  It wasn’t a Somer’s Rock, and it wasn’t a gathering of world powers in the dark room.

Chaos.  Concern.

No.  She had to give the white hats more credit than that.  There was a note of fear here.  Fear of heroes and fear of the expanded Undersiders.  She’d wanted to show strength and in doing so, she’d made a mistake.  Too much strength.

Villains had assembled in Sherwood Span.  The area was sparse, spread out.  Some buildings were in construction, but it looked like that had stopped.  Mostly it was scattered houses.

The major players were notably absent, though Tattletale was keeping an eye on the spies.

A disorganized mob consisting of two- and three-person gangs, solo operators, mercenaries, the blacklisters that fought over internet rankings, the burglars, kidnappers, the enforcers and killers.  A handful were notable in their own way, like Little Midas.

They’d all gathered out in the middle of an open space that could have been a plaza, a parking lot, or a market space in the summer months.  Now it was covered in snow.  It was cold and there had to be a dozen places across Sherwood Span where people could gather, but nobody wanted to be the one to wuss out, so they stood in the cold, ankle or calf deep in snow.

The wounds in her legs made her think of Bitter Pill.  She looked for the woman and found her off to the side, talking to Bluestocking.  Blue had been hurt in the Fallen raid.  It looked like she was back in action.

Seeing Tattletale looking, Bluestocking gave her the finger, along with the dirtiest of dirty looks.

Few were quite as bold as that.

She leaned over to Snuff, and she bid for him to bend down.  In his ear, she whispered, “Tell the others to scatter.”

“Scatter?”

“Our individual cells, sub-groups.  Heartbroken in one group, our guys in another.  Our mercs can hang out as their own group.  Send Foil and Parian off on their own.  Faultline should be close but not with us.  We’re too big a mob and everyone’s staring.”

Snuff communicated the message.  Where they’d been an army, her forces dissolved.

Everyone disconnects.

They’re more comfortable like this.

The interjection of her power was the kind of thing she was trying to be alert about.  The times it chose to jump in, the things it said, and the idea, as old as Gold Morning, that the alien behind it was looking to shape and encourage certain behaviors.

It’s all so much easier when I’m out using my powers instead of working from my terminal.  Less headaches, less interjections.

A steady, low level thing, that had ground her down for years now.

She was aware that sending her mercenaries away left her with very, very little.  Men she was paying, who weren’t technically hers.  Even the most loyal of them would leave when the pay stopped.

Snuff made his way to her side.  She was paying him, but he had other motivations.  He was after her, and not in the romantic sense.  No, he knew her too well for that.  She’d come to terms with the fact that her lack of interest in the romance or the physical stuff wasn’t because of one excuse or the other.  She was pretty sure it wasn’t because her power preferred her this way.  It was just her.

No, Snuff wanted her for the status.  She had a place in the city and in the cape dynamic, and he was cementing a role as her enforcer and bodyguard.

She had him, but there would be no long chats, no exchange of birthday presents, ironic or otherwise.  He was with her only in a sense.

Aiden?  Chicken Little was behind her, and his mask turned her way as she looked back to check.

The Eagle of Haast was with him.  Delivered from another world, it was thirty-nine pounds of prehistoric bird with eight and a half feet of wingspan.  Her belated birthday present to him.  Other birds collected nearby, including a raven on Chicken Little’s shoulder.

He was with her, but he hadn’t even struck puberty yet.

And Kirby.  On the surface, he was indistinguishable from the mercenaries.  He wore and carried the same gear.  Coil’s man- she’d kept more than a few of those.  Among them was an excellent sniper team, qualified leaders, experts in various fields, and two cape hunters that had earned their name stalking and killing capes for kill order money.

Kirby wasn’t like those others.  He was always apart, always keeping his head down, because everyone hated his guts enough that they would take the slightest of excuses.  He’d gone from military court to release on a technicality, straight to Coil’s employ, where he’d worked as a manservant.  Driving, running errands, and keeping all of Coil’s secrets.

Now he kept Tattletale’s.  The arrangement was more or less the same.  As all of the mercenaries shuffled off, he remained where he was.

This wasn’t Prancer’s deal.  This wasn’t an alliance.  An alliance would never work.  Capes in large groups tended to tear each other apart.

This wasn’t that, and if it had looked like it was going to be, she wouldn’t have attended.

March hadn’t arrived, she noted.  Her power fooled her there- she’d been eighty percent certain.  Was March up to something?

She would have asked her power for input, but she was conserving it- had been since the group had gathered and moved out, ready to board the trucks and head to this… gathering.  She’d wanted to have everything available for when she saw this.

Gathering was the wrong word.  A riot without the riotous action?

“I don’t give two cents about what you’re all doing,” Little Midas intoned, his voice loud.  He was obese enough that he had a team to carry him, his mask and armor gold, shaped to cover his prodigious belly and face.  “This is irritating I’m going to stop holding back.”

‘This is irritating’; couched emotion.  Recently had a big loss.  Asset forfeiture.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll end them,” Little Midas said.  “Then it won’t.”

“It’s going to calm down on its own.  If you guys have any sense-” Tattletale tried.

But her words were drowned out.  Angrier, louder voices.

A little more riotous now.

The current situation wasn’t all that different from the way it had been with the PRT.  There were heroes, there were villains.  One would fight the other.  Most would go through the revolving door, unless they committed an egregious act or fell down a slippery slope and found themselves at the bottom with an enemy clear in their memory.

Breakthrough was one such concern.  She had struck a deal with them, and how that deal was treated would tell her a lot.  Hopefully that would be in time  Hopefully

The words and noises were escalating in volume.  The tranquil scene of a snowy, flat field was disturbed, the furthest thing from tranquil.

The frustrations being spoken of now were bottled up ones.  They were being afraid one’s home wouldn’t stand for more than a few years, that the winter was already proving to be an utter bitch, and they’d had barely a day of proper snow.

She caught the word ‘kill’, and she didn’t pursue it with her power.

With two years of relative low consequences now over, the petty villains were facing a return to something like that old status quo under the PRT.  A firmer response, real consequences for the worst offenders.  It had been inevitable, guaranteed to happen if society rebuilt on any level.  Tattletale had expected it a year from now, and she’d been wrong.

But of course, to this population of small villains who hadn’t thrown their lot in with the Red Queen, Teacher, or other warlords, this return to order was now intolerable, the response anger.  This wasn’t a tidy group, not an organization like Prancer’s.  Only a hundred or so capes who seemed to agree on nothing at all except that it was looking like a time to start getting mean, to draw blood and scare off the heroes.

It wouldn’t be that simple, of course, but blood would be shed.

She’d hoped to steer it if it came to this, but she had to wait for the loudest voices to grow hoarse.  She was losing optimism by the second.  She’d come at this from the wrong idea of what it was going to be.

She looked back at Chicken Little.

When she had brought him under her wing, she’d told herself she would do it right.  She would help him, save him and save him from himself, if she had to.

She was zero for two.  If she couldn’t get it right and save him, at least, then what?

A hard thing to say to his face.  In some ways, he was doing so well.  In others, she worried.

In this situation, she worried.  A careful retreat might be needed, to avoid being at the fringes of a firefight or any violence.

She was so tired.

Tired of fighting her shard.  Tired of managing.

She kept an eye out for Chicken Little, and an eye out for some of the Heartbroken.  She met Foil’s eyes, and Foil folded her arms.

Scared.

Parian-

Out of her element.  Against this.  No halfway, no negotiation.

March, monsters in her own ranks, monsters over the next horizon.  There was the balance of things, trying to do her part to keep the city upright.  The pain in her legs, the years of not wanting anyone romantically but feeling like so much of her day was empty, no matter how much she did.  She was worn out in the face of everything that she needed to do.

Quietly, she came to a resolution.

This anger that threatened to stoke the worst fears of the anti-parahumans, and empower and vindicate the do-gooders?  She would let it happen.  It was an inevitability in response to an inevitability.

She had moves to make elsewhere.

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Polarize – 10.9

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Sveta was out of her armor, and her tendrils flicked out with enough force to crack ice and send the hard crust of snow flying overhead.  As she approached, one of her tendrils whipped out and caught me, seizing my forcefield.

It let go a moment later.  Forceful as the grab had been, it hadn’t disrupted the field.

“Sorry!”

“My fault for getting too close!  Keep it up!” I called out.

In the gloom, even with the snow reflecting ambient light up, and with Sveta’s face being pale, it was still hard to make her out.  She was more easily detected by the loose ring of whipped-up snow and flecks of ice than by anything else.  I could judge the maximum range of her tendrils and look at the ring to estimate the center of it.  The origin point.

I floated, keeping one careful eye on the ring while my eyes scanned the snow.  It wasn’t easy to find what I was looking for.  Holes that animals had dug, depressions, and shadows cast by distant objects all looked the same.

As a group, we’d fanned out, moving over the field, the road a hundred feet to my left, the streetlights casting a yellow pallor over the field.

“We might have to call it quits!” Tristan shouted.

“If you’re going to wimp out, switch to Byron!  The cold doesn’t bother him!”  Rain.

“I’m switching to him, but it’s not because I’m wimping out!  He might have seen something, and he deserves a turn!”

“Yeah!  Sure!”

“Also, just saying, he’s got the crampons on his boots, and I’ve got the boots for running indoors!  He’s better equipped for the snow!”

“Sure!”

“Stop saying that!”  Tristan called out.

“We need to meet Spright too!” I called out.  “It’s about time.  Five more minutes!”

“It’s no big!”  Kenzie.  “I don’t want anyone getting cold!  We could go now, really!”

“We’re going to find it.”  Ashley, in a firm statement that I could only barely hear.

Sveta continued her patrol, edging closer to me.  I ceded the ground to her, flying up and back.  I could see a crop-circle style swathe that had been cut through the field in her wake.

I was rooting for her, really.  With her going to this much effort, the recent spell of frustration, and her needing to feel included, I wanted her to score a win doing what she was good at.

I looked skyward for a moment.  Snow was falling, which wasn’t helping our efforts.  High above, the barely visible clouds were clashing with one another.  We weren’t even that close to any portals.  I was glad to have the Wretch encapsulating me, keeping the worst of the wind off.  It made the cold something more insidious and subtle, than a blast that left me drained.

My phone buzzed in my pocket.  With gloves on, I fished it free.  Spright with a meeting place.

I didn’t respond right away, holding the phone in both hands instead.  My eyes scanned the terrain.  If I were all business, I’d have said time was up, that we should give up and meet our allies.

I glanced over at the section of field where Sveta was tearing things up.  Reaching, groping, finding a small tree to grab, or just standing herself up on some tendrils while reaching out with others.  A herky-jerky progress across snow with grass and rocks jutting out from it.

I crossed two numb fingers, looked down to look at the snow below me and tried to tell holes from rocks and shadows.

We were making the Advance Guard guys wait, but some things were more important.

“Found it!” Rain called out.

The tendrils stopped the thousand-flag-grab attempt.  There was only stillness, the dark tendrils invisible against a dark backdrop, the shape that was Sveta’s head too camouflaged and small to see.

Well.  Rain needed some wins too.

I floated over to Sveta as she returned to her body, which was sitting on a rock, the front and back halves of her torso hanging apart, a gap marking the divide.  I waited, quiet so that she wouldn’t be spooked and lash out, her coat folded over my arm.

Her arms and legs shifted slightly as she found grips on wires and the loop-pulls.  The handles, for lack of a better word.  She was still working her way back in when she looked up at me.  “Sorry I yanked you.  Did I hurt you?”

“No.  Forcefield, not me.”

“Good,” she said.  She pulled the two halves of her torso together, craning her head around to keep tendrils from getting pinched.  Clasped could be heard from the inside, and then her prosthetic hands reached up to do up more mundane clasps on either side of the neck.  “I was pretty sure.  My head plays tricks on me sometimes, and I am just a bit numb.”

She eased her way to her feet, moving slowly, periodically thumping around in her body as she lashed out within the confines of the suit.  and rearranged herself.

“It’s been a long day and a long night,” I said.

“Is it that obvious that I’m tired?” she asked.  She stood straight, and she lifted her chin to encircle her neck with a band of metal that had been hanging loose around the collar.  Metal clicked as it cinched tight.  She did the same with another band, closer to her neck.  Binding all of the tendrils into a ‘neck’ that was one solid cord.

I steadied her with one hand and held her coat so she could slide her arms into the sleeves.  “You wouldn’t be the only one that’s tired and cold.  But I think we’re doing okay tonight.”

“Don’t jinx it.  Weld and Crystal are supposed to get back late tonight, and if you keep talking like that then something’s going to get in the way of our reunion.”

“Mm, yeah.  Not sure what Crystal is going to say.  Knowing her, she’ll just go straight to sleep.”

“I’m looking forward to sleep,” Sveta said.  “Half of me wants to see Weld and talk for a straight week, and the other half wants to say nothing at all, to avoid overwhelming him.  Go back to the apartment, and curl up in bed.  Make myself a pillow nest on his chest and have him do this thing he does where he puts his hand at the back of my head, tendrils and stuff through his fingers, and puts that gentle pressure down on me.  Pushing me into the pillows and his chest with the weight of his hand.”

“You put way more effort into describing one of those things.  It sounds like you have a preference.”

Sveta smiled.  “I’ve been thinking about it lately.  But doesn’t it sound bad if I don’t want to talk to my boyfriend after not seeing him for a while?”

“You want to be close to him.  That’s, ah, I envy you having that to look forward to.”

“It’s weird to picture someone envying me.”

“Nah,” I said.  I bumped her shoulder with mine as we trudged over in the direction of the main group.  “Weld’s one of the truly good good guys.  And so are you, for the record.”

She shook her head.

“So are you,” I said, for emphasis.  “And you two deserve each other in the best way.  If you’re stuck on what to do, you could let him take the lead on how to reunite,” I said.  “If it was hard or ugly where he was, he might want to just cuddle instead of getting super into it.”

Sveta gave me a one-armed hug.

“I wanted to ask,” she said.

“What?”

“Ashley.  She showed me the lockpicking thing.  Was that because you said something to her?”

“No,” I said.

“Was it because… I hate to ask, even.  I shouldn’t ask.  Benefit of a doubt, right?”

“Did Kenzie listen in and share with Ashley?”

Sveta made a face.

“I think that was just Ashley.”

Sveta nodded.

The others were huddled.  Rain blew on his hands for warmth, then clasped them together, before folding them inside another pair of hands that stuck out of his sleeves.  Ashley didn’t look dressed sensibly for the weather, but as far as I could tell her hands didn’t get cold, and she was putting on a brave face, her back straight, hands in her pockets.  Her nose and ears looked visibly red in the gloom, though, and I strongly suspected she would be annoyed at the fact.

Byron was fine, of course, entirely in his element, and Kenzie had the stuff with her to dress for the weather.  She had the camera that Rain had found clasped in her gloved hands.  It looked like Byron was trying to free a bit of fabric from a sharp bit of metal without damaging the glove too much.

“How’s the camera?” I asked.

“Broken in six different and major ways.  But it’s nice to have the parts.  Makes fixing it way faster.”

“That’s good,” Sveta said.

Kenzie nodded.

“Spright wants to meet,” I said, showing them my phone- more to just indicate the glowing screen than to hold it out for them to see the text messages.  “If anyone wants to opt out, go home, warm up, recharge for tomorrow, build stuff, I don’t think anyone’s going to hold it against them.  Having some people who are a little more refreshed at the start of tomorrow could be good.”

The statement earned me some blank stares.

“I heard the emphasis on building stuff,” Kenzie said.  “You don’t have to shoo me away or anything.”

“I’m not.  I’m just offering an out,” I said.  “For a lot of us, this conversation could be personal or difficult.”

Rain made a sound, creaky and low in his throat, as if he was chewing on the idea.  “It’s because it’s personal and difficult that some of us have to show.”

“Then let’s go talk to Sidepiece and Disjoint,” I said.

“Fuck you,” Sidepiece said, turning to Swansong.  “The short hair looks good, hon, but you looked way better in black and fuck you.”

“The white is growing on me,” Ashley said.

“Is the ‘fuck you’ growing on you too?  Go fuck yourself with the business end of a broken bottle, yeah?” Sidepiece retorted.  She turned to Rain, “And while I’m at it, fuck you, kid killer.  You think she didn’t mention that detail?  I hope you shared with your team.”

“I did, actually,” Rain said.

“Did you share all the gory details, kid killer?  Did you tell them about her having to watch her daughter’s face get cracked open on a table every time it’s her night?”

“Yeah.  I explained some of that pretty early on.”

“Then fuck you, that’s secret identity shit, you asshole.  You act like you’re all for the rules and then you share that stuff?  Fuck you.”

“I left out the details pertinent to-”

“Then fuck you for leaving out details and not owning up to every last bit of it!” Sidepiece said.

“Fuck me either way, huh?” Rain asked, his voice quiet.

“No,” Sidepiece said.  “No, no, no.  Fuck you one particular way, okay?  Take the narrow end of the broken bottle I told her to fuck herself with, stick your narrower pecker into it, and break the neck off while you’re inside it.  Then fuck it.

“There’s a kid here,” Sveta said.

“Fuck her!  Fuck that surveillance state fucking tinker bullshit unblinking creepiness!”

“I think she’s pissed,” Capricorn said.

“Fuck you!  Fuck off!”

“I don’t think this is going anywhere,” Shortcut said.  “We’re not going to get anything useful here.”

“Waiting on a text,” I murmured.

“You really like making us wait,” he said.  “You let your guys go and now you want to benefit off of our catches?  Do you think we’re going to go home and let you take the credit?”

“They totally do,” Disjoint said.

“Shut up!” Shortcut barked.

“That’s not what we’re doing,” Capricorn said.  Byron.

“I guess I’m supposed to take your word for it?” Shortcut said.

“Shortcut,” Spright said.  “People don’t like capes right now.  Who are we supposed to be getting credit from?”

“Everyone,” Shortcut said.

I kept my mouth shut for the moment.  On my phone’s screen, Nat had left me with only an ‘asking around’.

Our group was assembled in a garage, for lack of a better word.  It was more like a shack, with sliding barn doors and a way through wide enough for a car to drive in and park, with the doors closing in front and behind.  The gas, tools, and other things had been carted away by whoever operated the place during the daylight hours.  The space was oil-stained concrete floor and thin wooden walls, the only decoration a table that was a wooden door and four planks for legs, and a pile of engine parts in the corner that clearly violated the rules that had been put up on the wall.

Sidepiece and Disjoint were by the wooden table.  Disjoint had a loop of something connecting him to the flimsy plank leg of the table.  Sidepiece had her hands cuffed behind her head.  She wore her partial, phantom-of-the-opera face mask, white with a ragged edge that had been beaded with what looked like red nail polish, to look like blood, black hair covering the part of her face that her mask didn’t.  She was curvy, except everything between the ribcage and the pelvis had been picked clean- her stuffed polyester coat covered most of that up, but blood stained the belt-line of her jeans.

Disjoint, meanwhile, was black, with a ‘blindfold’ band of white across his eyes, a mask at the bottom half of his face, meeting with the line of white facepaint.  More bands encircled his arms, not touching the spaces which were decorated with tattoos.  He wore a costume top,  and regular black jeans.  His coat had been removed by Spright and Shortcut before we’d come, and it had the same lines painted on the sleeves.

“I’m saying everyone counts when it comes to getting credit.  Because rep matters,” Shortcut added.  “Stupid fucking kids join them because they have the rep and we don’t.  Because they seem ‘cool’.”

“Damn fucking straight,” Sidepiece commented.  “I’d tell you to fuck yourself too, but you already did, wearing that fucking awful, uncooool costume.”

She drew out the word, with vocal fry amped up and it sounded like she was belching it.

Leaning against the wall, her arms folded, Swansong looked away to hide her smile.  Despite herself, Sidepiece smirked.  She corrected the smirk and spat onto the floor.

“This costume is focus group tested, moron,” Shortcut said.  He reached up and flicked one of the circular discs that seemed to intersect his costume, like Halloween knife-headband combination that kids could pay a dollar for, to make it look like the knife was stuck through their heads.

“So were the Jeep Rockaybe, the Roundphone, and the second Iron Giant movie, so good for you, you’re in shit company,” Sidepiece retorted.

“You’re not going to win this one,” Swansong said.  “Not if you get into a knock-down, drag-out back and forth.  You’ll lose.”

“I agree,” Spright said.

“Fuck that,” Shortcut answered.

“I will kick over this chessboard, shit on it, and I will strut like the pigeon I am!” Sidepiece said.

Ashley pointed at Sidepiece with both index fingers, as if to say ‘that right there’.

“And fuck you all!” Sidepiece added.

“You’re giving me a headache,” Disjoint said.  The table wobbled as he brought his head back to rest against the leg.  “Can you turn down the volume two clicks, ‘piece?”

“Aw, I’m sorry baby,” Sidepiece said.  She stuck her foot out in the direction of his foot.

Shortcut’s weapon came down, embedding itself in the concrete between the two feet.

“What the fuck?” Sidepiece reacted, going straight back to a maxed out volume knob with the ‘what’ and bringing it to a near-whisper by the end of the ‘fuck’.  “You almost took my toes off.”

“No touching.”

Still no response on my phone.  I knew it was a lot to ask, shooting questions Natalie’s way, but in our recent contact, she’d asked that we continue to loop her in.  I’d brought up where we were, and now she was phoning around.

Well, couldn’t hurt to try asking.  Maybe one of the two would answer.

“Why did Love Lost want the guns?” I asked.

“To shoot shit?”

“I said this was a waste of time ten minutes ago,” Shortcut said.  “I think I’m right.”

“You are so right,” Disjoint said.

I bit my tongue.

“She’s dealing with an anti-parahuman group,” I said.  “How does that make sense?”

“Pretty sketchy,” Sidepiece said.  “I wasn’t about that.  Stayed home, diddled my boyfriend.”

“Don’t say diddled,” Capricorn said.  Tristan, this time.

“Sketchy and it doesn’t make sense,” I echoed her words.

“It’s sketchy.  That’s all.  It makes plenty of sense, even if I don’t agree with it.  And no, I’m not sharing no details, so go fuck yourselves.  I don’t love what Love does all the time, but I respect her enough to keep my gob shut or otherwise occupied while she’s doing the shit I disagree with.”

“Sounds like a compromise,” Swansong said.  “I thought you didn’t believe in compromise, only conquering?”

“Fuck you!  I also believe in fucking class, which is why I gave your skinny white derriere the benefit of a doubt.  It’s why I’m behind Love all the way.”

“You’re white too,” Capricorn observed.

“And I have an ass.”

“Betrayal and undercover action is fair in the game, Sidepiece,” Swansong said.  “But the guns aren’t supposed to be part of it.  You know that.”

“The game’s done, Damsel.  The game got fucked backwards when the world ended.  And you, doing this?  You’re fucking it worse.”

“How does that make sense?” I asked.

“Coming after us?  Look at what’s happening everywhere!  Fucking heroes banding together under the Wardens?  You’ve got the four teams that nobody really cares about, some corporates, some mercs who are the only ones I could maybe respect.  You assholes.  And then the villains.  Everyone under one banner, and the ones who aren’t signing up with Brattletale, Goddess, Teacher or the evil Mayor?  What do you think happens to them?  To us?”

Her toe moved, indicating Disjoint and herself.  Shortcut’s weapon moved in reaction to the toe moving.

“Us,” I said.

“Fucking you!  Fucking heroes!  Leaving us no choice  but to band together with the top tier organized crime.  They’re the groups that know who to put where and how to stay out of your sight or keep their people out of the way.  And the rest of us get picked off.  You wanna fuck us?  Then you perpetuate a survival of the unfucked!

“I did miss you,” Swansong commented.

“Well fuck you, it’s your own fault you don’t get any of this for company.”

Sidepiece wiggled on the spot.  Shortcut moved his polearm in a warning.

“I missed your brain and your wit.  That belongs to Disjoint,” Swansong.

This belongs to me.”

“I stand corrected.”

Spright cleared his throat.  “Let’s get back on track.”

Looking at Shortcut, I could see that his face was visibly red.  He was that steamed.  I would have suggested he take a breather, but I was pretty sure that if I did, he’d be pointing that weapon of his at me.

He didn’t like the digressions.  Which meant he was falling one hundred percent into Sidepiece’s trap.  After being warned about it.

“I want a lawyer before we go any further,” Sidepiece said.  “Oh wait, they’re all dead.  The fucking world ended.  So let us fucking have our fun and kick some ass and go focus on the stuff that actually matters.”

“You’ve killed people,” Capricorn said.

“Allegedly.  And in this alleged situation I might have tossed a bit of spinal sheath into a moving vehicle and allegedly killed a bunch of people who got high off of my drugs that I’d already paid for.  They tried to give me seven tenths of what I ordered and tried to pass it off as all the tenths.  Allegedly.  They didn’t deserve to draw breath.”

“I didn’t think you used,” Swansong said.

“Only a bit, and never my own supply.  But I’ll sell if people want.  It’s more samaritan shit than what you fucks are pulling right now.  Letting some poor, hurting people numb the pain for a while.”

“Allegedly,” Disjoint said.

Allegedly,” Sidepiece added.

“Those aren’t magic words that absolve you of guilt,” Rain said.

While they chattered, I checked my phone and I saw the series of replies- I hadn’t noticed the buzz.

Natalie (Lawyer):
I asked people about taking in s.piece or joint.
There is no room.  Jails over capacity.  Homes and apartments in populated areas being used as temporary accommodations.
Do not want minor villains unless lasting injury or murder AND ironclad evidence that can rush them thru system.
Gang leader yes s.piece or joint is a no.
Sorry.

I got the attention of the others and showed them.  Capricorn and Sveta first, then Spright and Ashley.

Jesus.  This was Wild West shit.  It just kept getting worse.

“News?” Sidepiece asked.

I beckoned for Rain to come, and I showed him.

“What am I missing?” Sidepiece asked.

She wasn’t even shouting or swearing as much now, but her voice.  The vocal fry, the weird enunciation, like every word was trying to grab attention?  It was giving me a headache, like Disjoint had complained about.

I typed out a message in the text box, while Rain was beside me.  I let him read it, then showed Spright.

Confirmation from both.

“Sidepiece,” I said.

“Fuck you.”

“You’re kind of right.”

“Fuck y- of course I am.  About everything.  And fuck yourself.”

“What you said about the gangs?  People picking off the ones who aren’t folding themselves into organized crime?”

“You’re amping it up to a hundred today, based on what I heard.  You heroes.”

“You were right,” I repeated myself.  “The reality is that when we showed up at the Center tonight, it was because we wanted to communicate with Love Lost.”

“Love doesn’t really talk, you know that right?”

“How does that even work?” Spright asked.

“If it’s important, she writes it down, prints it out, and hands it out.  Game plan.  If it’s not, why say it?  We know she’s all class and she’s professional as shit.  If she says jump we jump and it works out.”

“So far,” Swansong said.

“Oh go fuck yourself.  You can’t even talk.  She beat you and scared you off.  That’s why you’re talking to me and D.J., you got lucky and you got us after you rolled our car off the road and I sprained my lower back.”

“You don’t have a lower back.”

“Fuck you.”

“We came to talk to Love Lost,” I said.  “Because we have it on good authority that Cradle is likely to take March’s offer.”

“Offer?”

“I’m willing to bet Love Lost got the same offer.  She’ll know what it means.”

“Not if you don’t tell her, and she’s not going to accept a meeting with you assholes.”

“When we said we were bringing you here to talk, we meant it.  We’re letting you go,” I said.

“Bullshit.  Trying to soften me and D.J. up.”

“We wanted to get a message to Love Lost.  You’re going to take it to her,” I said.

I saw Shortcut stand a little taller.  Behind his mask, his eyes went wide, intense.

Yeah, this was never going to go over well with him.  I’d left him out of the loop as I’d filled in the others, and Spright had too.  I felt pretty validated that Spright was tacitly agreeing with me here.

“If you want to stir shit up or make this harder than it needs to be, then we could just send the most cooperative of you two.  Or try leaving a message with one of your crooked cops.”

Sensible cops-”

“Allegedly,” Disjoint added.

“You keep using that wrong,” Lookout said, almost plaintive.  “Stop.”

“Am I allegedly using it wrong?”

“Yes!”

Sidepiece leaned back.  “We’re talking sensible alleged cops who recognize that the only towns that have a shot at making it are ones with protectors.  And not pussy focus-tested superheroes or asshole freaks like you all, either.  Actual make-your-enemies-go-away protectors.”

“Allegedly,” Disjoint said, again.  Lookout crossed her arms, trying to look tough.

A-guaranteed-ly, ackshully,” Sidepiece said, with a dangerous tone. “It’s what we’re about.  There can be no allegedly about if we’re going to grant any protection there.”

“Take our message to her,” I said.  “No guns.  No ground to air lightning cannons.  Keep it simple.  But right now, you’re right, there’s bigger fish to fry.  She should keep her head down, be careful about how she’s treating those enemies.  Cradle might be after her.”

“She’s not the head-down type, you know.”

“Her funeral, then.  The authorities do want her.  But for now we want to avoid disaster.  Cradle coming after her and winning would be a disaster.  She’ll know why.”

“Uh huh.  What’s the catch here?  Trading us for info on the new recruits?”

“You’re not a priority,” I said.  I wasn’t even lying as I said it.  If I had my way they’d be a priority, but I wasn’t about to get my way.  The courts were falling behind.  Or they had Fallen behind- the overburdened system had become most noticeable when the compound had been raided.  “This is about information and it’s about keeping the peace.  We know Love Lost is after Precipice.  We know what March is doing.  But if she’s willing to back off, so will we.”

“She doesn’t back off,” Sidepiece said.  “Don’t want to jeopardize my being freed, but I’d be disrespecting her if I pretended she might.”

“It’s fine.  We’re making the offer regardless.  I’d rather crack down on the masterminds and big threats.”

“While siccing other teams on all the fodder and bottom feeders?”

“They’ll do what they do.  We’re just… organizing better.”

“Fuck that.”

Spright bent down.  He undid cuffs, freeing Sidepiece’s hands from behind her head, and Disjoint’s limbs were uncuffed.  We’d cuffed ankle to ankle and ankle to table leg.  The hands had been cuffed in a way that kept them in view.  There wasn’t anything he could do that was faster than the spear-tip at the head of the halberd could be.

The two were freed, and they climbed to their feet.  The shitty table nearly broke as Sidepiece leaned on it to stand up.

“You’re really letting us go?”

“We’re letting them go?” Shortcut asked.  More red faced and pissed off than before.

“Never let it be said I never do anything nice for you,” Swansong said.

“You can still go fuck yourself,” Sidepiece answered, venom in her voice.  “But you can leave the bottle out of it.”

“How gracious.”

“Yeah, huh?  I’m a sweetheart like that,” Sidepiece said.  “This isn’t a head-game?  No tricks?”

“Go,” Spright said.

“No tricks,” I said.

“The creepy camera girl didn’t put trackers on us?”

“No.  My stuff is broken, thanks to you guys-”

“Don’t give the enemy information,” Swansong gently admonished.

“-and I don’t need trackers to know everything you do.  I kind of wish I didn’t know everything you do.”

“Creepy as shit little kid,” Sidepiece said.

Capricorn pulled the sliding door open.  The battered vehicle that Sidepiece and Disjoint had been driving before being intercepted was parked out in the snow, ice and snow covering the various windows.  Cold air blasted into a space that had only been tolerably warm because we’d had so many people inside it.  Now with the door open, it was cold again.

“What the fuck?” Shortcut asked Spright.  I imagined he thought he was being quiet about it, but he was naturally abrasive and loud enough that everyone could hear.

“Why?” Lookout asked.  “Why are we letting them go?  Because if I was actually supposed to put trackers on them, I didn’t.”

“They don’t have room for minor villains,” Capricorn said.

“They aren’t minor,” Shortcut said.

I actually agreed with him.  Places, times, and groups where the more violent enforcers had been active in the last two years had seen more than a few people die.  Some had been blatant – but only a few of the people responsible for those blatant deaths were still around.  Nailbiter was a major one.  A lot more of the deaths had been ambiguous.

Beast of Burden had been active in some out of the way spots, and in the wake of his demise, little things were turning up.  Deaths that had been missed in the midst of a lethally harsh winter.

Well, a winter like any ordinary one, but it had been a winter we hadn’t been equipped to deal with.  And in places that Beast of Burden and his gang had been throwing their weight around, taking protection money, an awful lot of people had gone out in the cold and died there.

Was it Disjoint and Sidepiece?  There was no telling.  Nailbiter was a killer, and her way of killing people left enough of a trail that if we got her we’d be able to send her straight through to a jail… where nobody would be able to hold her.

Which meant that if we got her, we’d check with the authorities, sketchy as the woman at the top might be, and with some luck Nailbiter would cease to be a concern.

I didn’t love it, but I was really hard-pressed to think of a better solution.

“We’re going,” Spright said.  He produced his grapple-tendrils, floated up into the air a bit, and the air began to ripple around him.

Off to the side, I saw Sveta scowl.  I rarely saw her outright scowl.

“Thanks for this,” I told Spright.  “Sorry it wasn’t for much.”

“Not very forthcoming.  Some hints on how they’re operating.  Motivation.  Gives us ideas on how to take them down next time.”

“We’ll compile our notes and share,” I said.

“Sounds good.”

I shook hands with Spright, and then we watched as the two of them took off.  They skated away, leaving ripples behind them, Spright using tendrils to haul himself forward.

“I can’t stand him,” Sveta said.

“I hear you,” I said.

“Stealing my power without asking and then being better at it than me?”

I nodded.  I took her hand and gave it a light shake.

“I can’t help but notice that we’re making deals with Tattletale, and we’re making deals with Love Lost,” Rain asked.

“They’re not really deals,” Tristan said.  “They’re pretty hollow.  We say we’ll leave Tattletale alone unless she does something that deserves being brought in.”

“Which means nothing,” Ashley said.  “Why would she accept?”

I flexed my hand.  The cold was making the burned and bandaged skin sore.  I was overdue for a debriding.

When I spoke, I was staring out at the distant city.  “She accepts because she wants to know that she can do what she’s currently doing without being brought in by us.  And maybe she gets an edge if someone else brings her in and she mentions the deal.  Makes us look bad.  But it’s worth it, to get the information, flawed as it might be.  She probably had other strategies in mind.”

“Or she’s high on painkillers and her head is fuzzy,” Sveta said.

“Or that.”

“And this?” Rain asked.

“Laying groundwork for later,” I said.  “I want to keep an eye on things now.  The pressure is ramping up as the hero teams organize, and I’m really curious to see how Love Lost, Tattletale, and March all react to the current state of things.”

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Polarize – 10.8

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We were on a villain’s turf and I was getting a sense of what that meant, as I marked face after face that now seemed serious and focused enough that they seemed to grasp what was going on.

A pair of officers in uniform had been keeping the peace in the place, patrolling and watching out for trouble, telling the occasional person to go outside to smoke, or grilling twenty-somethings about what they were drinking.  Now, for lack of a better way of putting it, they were standing guard, both a set distance from Love Lost’s meeting with the anti-parahuman guys.

They weren’t watching Love Lost, but they were watching the anti-parahuman group.  One stood in the middle of a walkway, which meant that a group of people who were getting up from a table had to walk the long way around, instead of cutting right past the talk in progress.

There were others I was less sure about.  A pair of people like the guy who’d butted in and asked about ‘Blood Atoll’ were milling around now, with an aura like they owned the place… or like they were working for the person who did.

“In the game we were playing,” Rain said.  “I don’t think we got to it, but there’s a second stage, right?  The monster?”

“We talked about it briefly,” I said.  “I didn’t pick up on all of it.  I figured I’d learn by doing, or let you guys do it.”

“I was always more of the gamer,” Sveta said.

I nodded.

“We’re managing our little town, nine by nine grid, then the monster strikes,” Rain explained.  Even wearing a projection, his expression was problematically serious.  He glanced at Love Lost, emphasizing what he was talking about.  I worried that she would see him and see something in that expression.  Fortunately, she sat so we were two couches away, her left shoulder pointed at us, her face only visible from the side.  She sat so her platform heel was propped up on the table’s edge.

“Sure.  The monster,” I said.

“We have to account for where the monster was, and where it was poised to act.”

“While K gets an obnoxious number of points,” Sveta said.  “Elbow him for me.”

I elbowed Rain.  He looked at Sveta, who was smiling a bit, and forced a smile onto his own face, the projected image translating it.

“Accounting for things like, say, the monster having its claw around the station?”

“Yeah?” Rain asked.

With my eyes, I indicated the pair of officers.

Beside me, Sveta reached for a chip.  She took one in her fingers, and in the course of moving her hand toward her mouth, accidentally snapped it in two, the pieces landing in my lap.

I picked up the larger fragments of chip, popping one into my mouth.

“Hey.”

I held up the other half of the broken chip between two fingers, while Rain took over at the laptop, nudging my hand aside so he could do his thing.

“Give,” Sveta said.

I popped the half of chip into her mouth.

“Thank you.”

“Station in its clutches.  Right.  That’s… a danger.  Lots of points to be lost,” Rain said.

“Already lost points, as I see it,” I answered.  “Foregone conclusion, before we even started playing today.”

Rain’s knee bobbed up and down.  “I might need to take a walk soon, get some air.”

Which translated to him potentially needing to make a run for it.  Though if it came to that, I wasn’t sure he really had any good options.  Sveta and I were mobile.  Tristan, Ashley, and Kenzie were closer to an escape route.  Rain, though?  We’d have to cover for Rain.

“If you go, we’ll watch your stuff,” I murmured.  I leaned back, shifting the chips over so they sat between Sveta and me.  “Make sure you’re covered.”

“Thanks,” Rain said.

So much of this was hidden behind veneers and translations.  The signals we were using, the language, the false faces.

Nailbiter, roving and investigating as she roved, wandered off to one side, where she joined a group of the tent city thugs.  I didn’t really have a better term for them – the people who’d been in the tent cities for long enough that they’d seemed to adapt to the new environments.  Almost like homeless people, almost like survivalists, but with a mean edge.

She seemed to know them, and after speaking with them for ten or twenty seconds, they got up and started fanning out, searching.

Love Lost looked very relaxed, her coat removed and folded over the back of the couch, while she talked with anti-parahuman people at the next couch over.  It was clear they weren’t very keen on her, but they weren’t cussing at her or acting on their apparent dislike.  What they were feeling seemed to stop at frowns and perpetual scowls.

Above, Kenzie, Ashley, and Tristan were talking, while leaning over the railing.  They were doing their own surveillance.

“Where did we leave off before the game ran out of battery?” I asked.  “Monster due to arrive?”

“Arrived just as,” Rain said.

“Station in its clutches, and… house in clutches.”

“Yep,” he said.  “You nailed it.”

He’d watched what Nailbiter was doing too.  Good.

What else was there?  There were other icons for other fixtures of the area.  A town hall, drawn like an old Washington capitol building, flag above it?  I had to assume it was co-opted, but it wasn’t relevant here.  A hospital?  No medical needs.

Business?  Not here.  But I saw a couple of the library’s staff at the fringes, standing by the public access computers, watching the lounge and the active meeting more than they were watching the library.  A matter of fifteen or so feet from our couch, I could see one burly guy with a shaved head, folded arms, tattoos, and a librarian’s apron on.  I wasn’t sure why the library staff had aprons, exactly, but it was so.  The guy looked very menacing while wearing a denim-blue apron with a book embossed on the chest, a small notebook in the pocket.

Standing guard, like the police were doing.  There hadn’t been any apparent communication.

“Business?” I asked.

“Is there business in that quadrant?”

“I dunno.  Maybe a bookstore?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I get you now.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Question is… what do you do if things have gone that far?  Panic?”

“Stay out of our game monster’s way,” Sveta said.

“AKA: panic,” Rain said.

“Staying out of the way is prudent, not panic,” I said.  “Panic is dangerous in its own right, and it leads to mistakes.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

Nailbiter’s squad of tent city thugs were still making their way across the floor.  One walked down the aisle beside us, and I tried to act nonchalant.  Rain and Sveta seemed to do okay too, because the guy passed by without incident.

Across the lounge, past a sea of couches shaped like quarter-arcs and quarter-circle tables, I saw Nailbiter continuing her own investigation.  A teenager had her hand over her head, drawing out a line with an extended finger.

Talking about Sveta’s whip.

They had to know we were here, now.

The discussion was ongoing, and we didn’t have ears on it.  We had no surveillance tech that really sufficed, now, no camera overhead that could detect sound waves or however the ‘sound camera’ worked.  We had to operate by context, reading body language while trying not to look too obvious.

The problem was, Love Lost seemed utterly unbothered.  Cool, calm, collected.  Steely, even.  I could look at the apparent leader or negotiator of the anti-parahuman group, a woman with very black eyebrows, blonde cornrows at either side of her head and a thicker braid along the top, and I could see her frustration, but without a good read on Love Lost, I was only seeing one side of the conversation.

Seeing Love Lost just as frustrated would suggest they weren’t finding a common ground.  Seeing her possessed of her usual calm would have suggested she had the upper hand in whatever they were negotiating.

There was something in this situation that made me envision the situation at the time I’d left Brockton Bay.  A feral lunatic at the fringes, driving her dogs to attack civilians.  Others seizing their own territories, capturing the locals, capturing the police, capturing businesses.

I’d been fighting to correct that.  I’d had a lot of issues, then.  The pain of losing Dean, of losing Uncle Neil and Eric.  Dad being sick.  I’d been a little brute of a Brute-class cape, and I wasn’t sure if any of those things had been on their way to getting better.  But my city had been changing around me, and before I could do anything about it, the Slaughterhouse Nine had appeared.

This?  It reminded me of that scenario.  The slow, subtle capture happening behind the scenes.  Being on a villain’s turf and getting a dawning sense of what that meant.

I got my phone out and typed a message to Shortcut and Spright, keeping an eye out to make sure nobody was looking over my shoulder.

Me:
She’s on scene here.  Meeting with another group, all unpowered.  Our cameras and some of our communications are out.  She knows we’re here.  Has pawns in police, civvies, and library as guards or underlings.  Two of her capes at her HQ, one in parking lot.  Others in our area.  Stand by.

I showed Sveta, then Rain.  I got a nod of confirmation, then sent it.

Love Lost was reacting to something.  She shook her head, then put her arms out, draping them along the back of the couch.  With her coat off, she wore a long-sleeved sweater, and I could see the equipment along her arms, beneath the sleeves.  It looked like the blonde braid-cornrow woman did too.  Her head rested against the back of the couch for a moment, and she looked up.

Tristan, Kenzie, and Ashley were doing their best to look nonchalant.  Love Lost didn’t seem to pick up on anything, turning her attention to Colt instead.

Colt sat on the corner of the couch, one foot on the ground.  She was doing the talking, but with her position relative to ours, and the fact the couch was a quarter-circle in shape, her back was to us.  I could only hope the others were following what she was doing.

Love Lost turned her head the other way, apparently distracted, and looked at Nailbiter.  The outstretched hand to her right moved, fingers curling like she was making a claw-shape with each, simultaneously cracking her knuckles.

Or making a beckoning gesture.

“She saw them,” I said.

“Did she?” Sveta asked.

I looked up at the group.  Tristan looked down at me, and I opened my eyes wider.

A second later, Tristan, Ashley, and Kenzie were stepping away from the railing, heading down the corridor to the other half of the building.

“We should go,” Rain said.

“Don’t hurry or look rushed,” I said.

Rain nodded.

We packed up our stuff, getting our coats on- only Sveta didn’t have to, because she hadn’t taken her quilted-pattern long coat off before sitting down.

There were police, civilians, and business owners keeping an eye out for trouble.  A good number of them were watching us, as Nailbiter reached Love Lost’s couch.

I wasn’t sure if Love Lost said something or if some other signal was transmitted.  If it was a statement, it was one or two words.  Nailbiter stood straighter, made a gesture, and then stalked off in the direction of the ground-floor corridor to the other side of the Lyme Center.

Tristan’s group on the second floor, passing through the center of the hourglass-shaped building.  Nailbiter and her growing collection of people a floor below, a few steps behind.  If the layout on the far side was like the layout on our side, then this group could and would easily intercept the others as they reached the bottom of any staircase.

I used my phone to send a warning to Tristan:

Me:
Inc.

I got my reply:

Tristan:
go

Go, not come?

Okay.

Nobody was coming after us as we headed to the door.  It seemed like a lot of the people who were undercover henchmen for Love Lost were responding to the threat, giving chase to the other half of our group.

“Are we meeting up with the others?” Sveta asked, managing to sound ninety-five percent casual.

“They’ll catch up,” I said.  “They’ll send a message if they need it.”

I wished I could be more sure.  I wished it was easier to wrap my head around just what we were dealing with here.  I’d compared it to the situation in Brockton Bay, but was this more of a Hellhound thing, where people were in danger, being controlled by fear?  A Regent thing, where the villain backed up local infrastructure because he benefited from it, but was otherwise as much a player in conflict and strife as any interloper?

A ‘Tattletale’ thing, where drugs and crime had been treated like hunters being handed out hunting licenses?  X allowed per week in her territory during the warlord phase?  X in Brockton Bay and New Brockton, after things had settled?  Technically not as bad as we’d once had, but worse in so many other ways, because it represented giving up on better?  Halving the number of overdoses, but then giving up on reducing it further, because changing things meant having to work past her artificial rule of law, or waiting for a villain with too much on her plate to find the time to talk about it and implement the changes?

Hearing anecdotes and seeing evidence that the crime rate was slowly getting worse, that drugs were more and more of a thing, and wondering if she was losing her handle on it all or if it was intentional on her part.  Wondering and not being able to ever know for certain.

Things couldn’t work that way.

Love Lost… I had no idea where she fit on the spectrum, but I detested so much of what Tattletale represented, and I had a hard time believing Love Lost would be any better.  Ex-law enforcement or no.

The air was cold as we exited Lyme Center and emerged into the parking lot.  Nobody followed, nobody seemed to pay us much mind.  It was Tristan, Kenzie, and Ashley who were evading Nailbiter right now.

“We’ll distract,” I said.  “See if we can’t pull some attention away from the others, or make them lose out if they don’t.”

“What’s the strategy?” Rain asked.

“I’m thinking… the moment there was trouble, they probably made a call to Disjoint and Sidepiece.  Probably a few others.”

“Not Kitchen Sink or Hookline,” Rain said.  “They’re on Love Lost’s shitlist right now, going after a kid.”

“I’m going to put Spright and Shortcut on Sidepiece.  Us?  Let’s look for that truck they were driving, with the tinker gun on it.”

“I like that.  Fan out and find it?  Covered truck?” Sveta asked.

“Yeah,” I said, drawing my phone out of my pocket.  Beside me, Sveta motioned, and Rain nodded.

Signals exchanged, Sveta headed left.  Rain headed right.

The parking lot was dirt, the individual spaces marked out with lines of yellow-painted stones, some of which had been kicked around or moved by the passage of tires.  With the ice and the snow, the dirt was hard, and as packed as it had been, it had still been disturbed, then left to freeze disturbed.  Every step was a hazard for the ankles.  It slowed Sveta down in a visible way.  Rain had a slight benefit from his power to steady himself.

I had my flying, but I couldn’t be too obvious.  I waited for a car to pull out of a space, before I resumed walking, my flight only partially on, keeping my step lighter.

Me:
Villain reinforce probably approaching Lyme Center from 1:00/NNE
Disjoint guy, white, skinny disconnects and teleports body parts
Sidepiece, girl, white, curvy, hurls explosive chunks of her flesh.  V. dangerous.
May be driving patchwork hatchback or walking.

No messages from Tristan’s group yet.

I got my reply from our reinforcements:

AG:
We know who they are what they do

That would be Shortcut, presumably.

I focused on looking for the tinker.  He’d blasted our camera.  A gun that big couldn’t be easy to put together.  It was a weakness of tinkers, that they could lose their stuff and they’d be that much weaker.  Things got broken.  There was wear and tear.  There was a need for upkeep.

Kenzie’s current status emphasized that much.  So capable, but so capable of being knocked down a few pegs, with an arduous recovery if she was.

I heard a whistle.

Yeah.  A large truck, with a covered back?  Easy to spot.  It hadn’t taken long.

Sveta and I found Rain.  And we rounded a group of cars that had been parked haphazardly, where yellow stones had been partially buried by early snowfall.  The truck had been parked at the back of the lot.  The tinker was inside the cab, letting the engine run, presumably to stay warm.

“I’m thinking… let’s not give him a chance to reach for any weapons,” I murmured.  “You deal with Tinkers by denying them access to their stuff.”

“I could pull him out through the window,” Sveta said.  “I don’t want to cut him up though.  Sorry.”

“Car windows don’t break like that,” Rain said.  “But they don’t break that easily if you punch them or hit them with a baseball bat, either.  Let me set up, you follow up.  One two punch.”

“One two three,” I said.  “Let me get in position, then we go.”

That got me a pair of nods.

I hurried forward, ducking down beside a car.  I looked back in the direction of the Lyme Center, worrying a bit about the others.

We’d trust them for now.

I gave the other two a nod.

Rain created a silver crescent, holding it in his hands.  He was far enough back that I couldn’t hear him, but I saw him mouthing the words.

He flung the blade.  It slammed into the door of the truck, drawing out a glowing silver line.

In the dark, Sveta’s hands were hard to see.  One seized the car door, tugging.  The other followed a second later, reaching through the gap in the same second it appeared.

The guy had his seatbelt on, and that delayed things for a second.  I saw him scrabble, reaching for something.  Then Sveta had him, tugging him away and beneath the seatbelt- his feet got caught and he slipped back, head moving in the direction of the ground, while his feet were on and near the seat.

She got another hand on him, and when she tugged on him this time, he moved at a velocity that kept his head from scraping against frozen dirt.

I was there to catch him.  My aura blasted him while he was in transit.  I was ready to slap or catch a weapon out of his hands, but he was unarmed.

Sveta pulled him close, her feet skidded on hard, icy ground, and she nearly toppled, taking the guy to the ground with her.  Rain caught her, his body behind hers, then produced a silver blade, holding it to the guy’s throat.

The flannel shirt tinker wore a mask, soft fabric, bright blue lenses, a spike extending over his head.  The fabric stopped where his facial hair began, but the look just really didn’t work.  It rarely did, unless the beard was magnificent.

I could see him huffing for breath.  The emotion blast had been to put him more off balance, and to mess up his coordination in case he had a weapon as Sveta pulled him close.

I left them to it and headed to the truck.

“Be careful of traps,” Rain called out to me.

“Will do,” I said.  “Thanks.  Costumes on.”

I double-tapped the sun badge I wore.  The projection around me fell away.  I pulled my two segments of breastplate from my bag, where they protected my laptop, and set them in place.

Behind me, Sveta had dropped the human shape, and wore a mask.  Rain had donned his circuitboard mask.

I hoped the other group was doing okay.

The truck still hummed with activity, the heaters blasting out warm air that steamed up the windows.

There were a bag fast food, a cell phone, and a sketchbook on the divider between the seats, and what looked like a laser rifle was resting with its butt-end on the floor in front of the passenger seat, the length resting against the seat itself.  The weapon he’d been reaching for.

No apparent traps, no wires, no ominous noises.  I reached for the cell phone and picked it up.  No trap, no shock.

The phone was at the lock screen.  The sketchpad- I flipped through.  Tinker notes.

I could confiscate that.  Set him back a bit.  If he wanted to work with villains, especially villains who’d been noted for hurting people?  Killing?  He could lose some ground, suffer a bit for it.

I walked around the truck, heading for the covered back.  Let’s see this gun.

I didn’t get that far.  I heard a strained grunt, and I turned around.

Rain had collapsed, and Sveta had caught him.

The tinker’s right arm had a band around it, encircling the bicep.  Everything past the band was electricity, in the rough shape of a human limb.

I flew to them.

He reached out with the electric arm, touching Sveta.  I saw Rain jerk, while Sveta seemed to endure it.

“Doesn’t work!” she grunted out the words through clenched teeth.  She let Rain slump to the ground and reached out, catching the guy by the one still-human wrist.

A metal band flared at his left arm, the electricity melting the fabric of his coat around the ring, and taking the sleeve with it, as arm became more electricity.  Her hand slipped away.

Immediately, she was reaching again.  This time seizing him by the neck.

He had a collar on.  As the collar flared, his head dissolved into a localized storm of electricity, the ‘forks’ of electricity serving as hair, something flatter and more interconnected for the mask.  Where the lenses had been a bold electric blue before, they were now two dark ovals against the backdrop of frothing energy.

Where energy arced from one of the rings to the other, it traced lines across his body and turned flesh to this alternate state.

Using tech to go breaker.

A shame that his head was breaker-state, because this time, me using my aura didn’t even make him flinch.

I brought out the Wretch, as he ducked around me.  His arms were longer like this, and as he swung one in my general direction, he came into contact with the Wretch.

I saw sparks and arcs highlight the Wretch’s general shape, just for an instant.  I saw him see it.

He reached out, checking the coast was clear, and again, came into contact with an outstretched arm of the Wretch.  Again, highlighting its shape, and that it had moved.

His belt flashed, electricity crackling in a ring around his midsection.  Then his legs were gone- he was a torso with a head of electricity, two lash-like limbs, and a tail of lightning, floating in the air.  The electricity that crackled along his chest and stomach left flesh temporarily phased out in its wake.  I could see veins against a backdrop of bright lights tracing similar forking lines.  I could see raw, red flesh where the ethereal lightning form cut through physical meat.

He changed direction instead of trying to go through me and toward the Lyme Center.  His movements were more unpredictable now, faster.  He didn’t fly or teleport, but arced, bouncing off of a car, then lunging toward his own vehicle.  I flew after, Wretch up.

Heading for his big gun?

For the gun in the passenger seat?

He chose the latter, lunging toward the open truck door.  His movements stuttered, as he darted fifteen to fifty feet ahead, stopped, reoriented himself, then lunged forward again.

It took three such movements to get himself to the truck.  Faster as an energy breaker than I was as a flier.

With lightning hands, he held his laser rifle.  He twisted around, weapon in his arms-

A silver blade flew past him.  Rain’s crescent of light didn’t touch the arm of energy.  It did cross the body of the weapon.

The guy aimed at me, then fired.

Sparks showered, geysering out through the line of silver.  Lightning jumped out, wild and white, tracing along the ground with no apparent rhyme or reason.

Rain was still on the ground, but he was already creating his next silver blade, ready to throw it if needed.  The tinker threw his broken rifle aside, then headed directly for the Center.  I flew to intercept, and he threw himself at the ground, bouncing off of a frozen puddle and toward the same block of cars we’d used for cover.

I positioned myself to keep him from going over, ready to move to either side if he tried to go around.

He went through.  I could see the arcs of energy crackling around the bones of the car he slammed into, as he conducted himself through it.  He leaped out and into the next car, chaining his way through.

“Sveta!” I called out.

He emerged from the far end of the block, stopping to orient himself again, looking around.  He turned to stare at me with those black ovals, then darted for the cars nearest the front door of the Center, Sveta hot on his heels.

She was faster for short distances and when traveling where there were handholds.  In this environment, though, I could see how she was regularly going for a grip on something and slipping off, or taking a second longer to slide to a stop and be able to reach out again.

Even with that, she was faster than me.  She collided with him, and even though he was ninety percent energy, he reacted, conducting along her metal body, and he sprawled with her.

He was faster to recover.  No arms and legs to manage.

“Anything that conducts!” I shouted.

Which would hamper and slow him down, but didn’t stop him from making progress.

“Tress!” Rain hollered her name.  “Here!”

Having to stop and reach for whatever he was offering or throwing her way slowed her down.  I passed her, chasing the guy down.

With Sveta’s extended arms and what looked like folded metal blades in each hand, Sveta made the tinker’s form distend, stretching out as it automatically clung to the metal, then snapped back in a way that seemed difficult for him.

He twisted around, using his lighting hands to seize the blades.  The pair engaged in a brief tug-of-war, which I interrupted by diving at him, Wretch active.  He flashed in the instant before I made contact.

The Wretch’s hands and feet stabbed into the earth, cracking the frozen ground.

He’d darted away, letting go of the blades.  Sveta swung again, and he dodged, moving further away.

Further away, but still making incremental progress toward the front doors.  The truck had been parked in the far corner of the parking lot, as large as the parking lot of any mall I’d been to, and he was four-fifths of the way to his destination.  There was a real risk that Love Lost would see the flashes or hear the noise and respond.

The primary danger, though, was that if he feinted one way and moved another, it might mean he could reach the doors and pass through, surrounding himself with a few hundred hostages, and a dozen more escape routes.

He was functionally a breaker, and I had a limited sense of what worked and didn’t work for breakers.    I’d met and talked with Velocity, and I’d met and talked with Shadow Stalker.  I’d read up on others.

He was also a tinker, and I had some idea of the tools that served against tinkers.  Not that I’d fought many before Gold Morning.  Leet and Bakuda, really, and Bakuda only in that I’d been trying to evacuate people from a series of tinker bombs going off.  She had been nowhere nearby.

Still, the others needed the distraction.

Sveta caught him, swinging the blades through his electric body.  It bought me a few seconds to look, as I flew down, putting myself between the tinker and the cars.

Cars- I couldn’t use them as weapons.  Because destroying people’s property in a lower-stakes encounter like this would do more harm than good, because I wouldn’t hit him anyway.  He was too fast, too on guard for it.

The road was dirt, but dirt wasn’t useful.

The building itself?  No.  If things got that far, he was out of reach.

I could see the artificial speed bump in the road.  A hump of dirt, painted yellow.

My eye fixed on that.  Yellow paint where the dirt sloped up against sidewalk, to mark the rise, to let people know to watch their step, and-

I retreated, flying over the cars.  The tinker broke away from Sveta, saw me heading one way, and started to take the long way around, the front door in his sights.

I dove for the ground, and I had the Wretch dig its hands into the earth.  I couldn’t rely on it to do as I wanted, but I could do something else.  Faced with a second me that reached out and lashed out mindlessly, I could deny it, I could allow it to work…

Or I could at least make it lash out in a predictable way.  I could lean on the fact that the Wretch outlasted a sustained hurt better than it outlasted a sudden, sharp kind of hurt.

I spun.  Each outstretched arm swiped at the earth.  A sustained battering, spread out across the Wretch’s limbs.

I carved my way a few feet into the ground near the speed bump, drove my hand into the fissure that cracked the hard earth there, and found my prize.

The tinker had escaped Sveta, and he had escaped Rain.  He found his orientation, and he lunged.

I lunged too.  Wretch active, I tore the flexible pipe out of the ground, flying along it, so the Wretch skimmed along its length, raising it up.   The hump wasn’t just a speed bump, but earth covering the pipe that had been set in a shallow trench and then covered.  Water or power to the Lyme Center.

A tripwire for my quarry.

The tinker grazed the pipe, and the tinker conducted across it, stretching out ten or fifteen feet to the left, and an equal distance to the right.  I knew Shadow Stalker had trouble with electricity running through walls, with rain and even things as simple as smoke thick in the air.  I knew Velocity had his own issues, a reduced ability to affect the world, to the point that mundane obstacles and barriers like closed doors could hamper him.  Other breakers had their difficulties.  The uncommon hazards.

I dropped the Wretch, which let me easily drop the pipe.  While he was disoriented, I was free to fly in.  I smacked into his midpoint, and the Wretch helped to scatter him again.

Inside the building, the power flickered and died.  All was black for a long moment, the only real light was cast by the tinker.

I reached out and the Wretch found a grip at one of the arm-rings.  I let the Wretch break it, and the tinker’s arm snapped back into reality, with ripple effects of real-self tinker appearing across his body.

He dropped to his knees, in apparent surrender.  I remained stock still.

“We should go!” Sveta called out.  “Rain’s already going!”

To my left, the lights were coming back on.  A backup generator had come on, or the break in power had been a temporary disruption in the line more than an outright shutdown.  I could see Love Lost on her feet.  The claws had dropped out of one of her sleeves, a wire and rod framework that tipped each finger with a two-inch claw.  Her other hand was pressing the mouthgear down over the lower half of her face.

We should go.

It was good that Rain was getting out of here.  It was harder for him to move.

We backtracked, moving faster than Love Lost could easily chase.  Back to the truck, where the engine was still running.  Rain was approaching it.

Byron, Swansong and Lookout were there.  Lookout was in costume, and wore a jacket and pads along her legs, along with her bodysuit.  Swansong looked like she should be cold, but wasn’t.

“Love Lost is coming,” I said.

“We outnumber her,” Ashley said.

“Not if she has half this settlement working for her,” I said.  “Let’s disable the gun and regroup.”

“I can blast it,” Rain said.  “Except it could blow up, apparently.”

“Let me,” Lookout said.  “A gun like this has to have targeting, and I can work with targeting.”

“I have tinker notes,” I said.

“Give it to Rain.  Let him look.  I’ll fiddle.”

“You have forty-five seconds,” I said.

“Got it!”

Swansong lifted her up onto the truck bed.

I turned to Byron.  “You guys good?”

“We ducked into a store.  My brother swapped out for me, Swansong and Lookout switched looks, since they’re wearing the disguise pendants.  Nailbiter passed right by us.  Trick was getting out without looking suspicious.”

“Good,” I said.

“Tristan’s idea,” he said.  “Electricity tinker?”

“Something like that.”

“Lookout!” Rain said.  “Found the pages.  Here’s targeting.”

She reached down as he reached up, passing her the book.

A glowing screen illuminated the pane of her helmet as she leaned over it.

“We’re good!” she declared.  “But this isn’t our last stop.”

“We can’t dawdle,” Swansong said.

“Remember what I said about guns?” Lookout asked.

“Guns?” I asked.

“Come on!”

We hurried in the direction she’d pointed.

“I think I got a read on what they were saying,” Lookout said.  “On the surface, this was a weapons deal.  They’re providing Love Lost’s group with guns and other weapons.  She’s supposed to help them when they demand it.  Any target they name.  If Love Lost wins, then it’s good.  If she loses, then it’s another cape out of the picture.  Right?”

“Makes some sense,” I said.  “I’d have a hard time believing that’s the full picture.”

“They were getting pissy because she was saying some targets were off limits.  Well, she wasn’t saying much of anything.”

“Colt was,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  She huffed for breath.  She wasn’t out of shape, but she wasn’t a runner either, and we were far enough out at the edges of the parking lot that the lot hadn’t been fully cleared of snow or debris.  Just a little more effort for those putting boot to muck, especially when she had shorter legs.

Sveta, at least, seemed to be doing okay.  She was still holding the two folded bits of metal.

I checked to see if the coast was clear, and I saw Love Lost.  She stood on the hood of a car, back straight, hair and coat moving in the wind.  Not chasing, not using her power.  Just staring.

No Nailbiter at her side.  Her tinker was a little worse for wear, and her reinforcements hadn’t yet arrived.

“Here!  These sedans,” Lookout said.

A person stepped out from between the cars, hand at his waist, reaching for a gun.

He saw the size of our group, and he raised both his hands instead of drawing his weapon.

“You’re with them?” I asked.

“Fuck you,” he said.

He’s with them.

Byron took the guy by the shoulder, leading him to the side, where he was made to kneel on the frozen ground, hands at his side.  Byron divested the guy of his weapons.  A knife and a gun.

“How did you know it was these?” I asked Lookout.

“Because I was keeping an eye out for trouble using the Center’s surveillance before it all went hinky.  We saw the anti parahuman dorks show up, except we didn’t know it was them then.  These are their cars.”

“Tail ends are low to the ground,” Rain said.  “Heavy weight in the rears.  Did they bring the weapons with?”

“Fuck you,” the guy said.

“If you’re going to be mad, be mad at yourselves,” Swansong said.  “Your laziness.”

“That’s a good eye, Precipice,” Byron said.  “Can we check?  Tear it open, Vic?”

“No, don’t break it.  You could damage the contents,” Swansong said.  “Sveta.  Pick it.”

“I don’t know how to pick locks.”

“Do you know what raking is?  You should be capable.”

Sveta frowned.

“Come.  I’ll show you.”

In the distance, Love Lost only watched.  I saw her clench her claw.  Nailbiter had appeared, standing behind her, and I saw the electric flicker around the tinker, who was wholly human again.  It was broken gear that was crackling.

They didn’t attack or approach.

“This is the cheap and dirty way of opening a lock,” Swansong said.  “You want to jostle the pins.  Go back and forth, as soon as you feel them, pop them up.  Keep pressure so the lock is turning-”

“Already doing that,” Sveta said.  her hand was removed, and tendrils were groping at and around the lock.  “I have to use my smallest tendrils, which are also the shortest, which is awkward-”

The trunk popped open.  I saw the surprise on Sveta’s face.

Inside, packed in cases with foam inserts separating them, rows of weapons.  Not Gimel or Bet weapons, at a glance, or at least, not from any country I was aware of.  The script was blocky, and it looked like it had been stamped on.

“Taking photos,” Lookout said, tapping the side of her helmet.

“How did you know how to lockpick?” Byron asked, quiet.  “You couldn’t when you were a villain.”

“I study,” Swansong said.  “It’s the kind of thing I watch before bed.”

“It’s cool,” Sveta said, and her smile seemed genuine.  “It’s neat to know I can do that.  Thank you.”

“Mm hmm.”

The enmity, the frustration- it didn’t seem as bad now.  It helped to have other focuses.  Three nondescript cars with trunks packed with munitions, instead of jealous relationships.

I picked out some samples- things we could show others, as well as a slip of paper and a lid.  I held all three.

I met Swansong’s eyes.  I jerked my head a hair toward the trunk.

Everyone stepped back as she reached forward.  Her power licked out, and it bucked and kicked, flaring to its full range as it twisted, tore, and annihilated everything in the car from back windshield to bumper, including some of the rear tires.

She did the same for the other two cars.  We opened each, and then we destroyed the contents.

When I looked back, Love Lost and her retinue were gone.

“She’s gone,” Byron observed.

“No,” Rain said.  “It’s not over.  She wouldn’t leave things the way they are now.  Her losing, especially to me.

“There’s something more going on,” I said.  “Something she’s doing, people she’s working with.”

“Yeah, probably,” Rain said.  “But I’m more concerned that she’s so willing to back off now.  She wouldn’t back off.  Not unless she was absolutely sure she could do something meaningful soon.”

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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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