Ward is the second work in the Parahumans series, and reading Worm first is strongly recommended. A lot of this won’t make sense otherwise and if you do find yourself a fan of the universe, the spoilers in Ward will affect the reading of the other work.
Ward is not recommended for young or sensitive readers.
It was a second chance for humanity as a whole, and they’d gone and screwed it up from the start by coloring the city gold, of all colors.
The skyline was a half-and-half mix of skyscrapers and buildings in progress. The latter were skeletons of tall buildings in the process of being filled in and put together, and hazard signs, tarps, the materials that made up the countless cranes and the painted letters on steel girders were all in bright yellows. The completed skyscrapers were paneled with mirrored or reflective glass that were tinted in that same hue. All put together, the light that bounced off of the city and reached skyward gave the clouds linings that were gold, not silver.
It was such a fucking shame that it had to be the case, intentional or not.
My phone was buzzing with texts. I pulled it from my skirt pocket and looked while I walked.
Parental Unit 1:
BBQ tonight with everyone
Can you come?
I glanced around to make sure I wasn’t going to walk into anyone, then stepped off the sidewalk, into a gap between two display windows that bowed out and forward. In front of me, an assortment of people walked. People in business clothes walked briskly, while some elderly people meandered. A whole herd of kids were hurrying off to school.
I typed out my reply.
That’s short notice
Parental Unit 1:
Michael is swinging by
There has been talk of everyone getting together.
It seemed worth trying to arrange
If you can’t come that’s ok I understand
If I didn’t come, would be because of work. New semester & lots to do. Might come very late
Parental Unit 1:
Spur of moment thing that is almost pulled together
Only missing you
Not to guilt you ha ha
Ha ha. She never liked using shorthand like ‘lol’.
No. No guilt at all, mom.
Parental Unit 1:
Come if you can
Will save you dessert just in case
My typed reply was interrupted by a crash. The stride of every person on the sidewalk in front of me and every person on the other side of the street was interrupted, as they stopped, heads turning.
I put the phone away, the message half finished. The impact had been at the nearest intersection, where a smaller road cut through one of the downtown areas. I had to push through the bystanders closest to the scene to get there, and I could hear the victim’s wail of distress before I was halfway through.
A car accident. There were no injuries, and I couldn’t see blood. Nothing suggested that anyone had died. Not that anyone would have guessed by the sounds the man was making.
A teenager stood outside her car, the front corner and passenger-side mirror trashed. She’d hit one of the pillars that lined the street.
An older man was doubled over, but he was on the far side of the pillar, not a location that suggested he could have been hit. He was elderly, with gray hair that still had color in it. Two people had already drawn close to him, supporting him while he knelt, rocking slightly in place. The sound he made was the heartbroken, strained sound that people made when they couldn’t even draw in a full breath.
Such shitty, shitty bad luck, that he’d been here when the collision happened.
‘Pillar’ was the wrong word, but the right word felt wrong. ‘Monument’ implied something huge, but it was barely taller than I was, maybe three feet across at the base, tapering to two feet across at the top. Plaques were recessed into three of the four faces – the fourth had come free and fallen after the collision. Each plaque bore an etching of a face, a name, a date of birth, a date of death, a message.
I looked down the length of the one-lane road. There were as many pillars as there were trees, and there were a lot of trees, enough that the sunlight that peeked past them was dappled. This pillar was one of what had to be over a thousand that had been set throughout the city by now, punctuating quaint streets and surrounding parks. Places that were nice.
They were part of an initiative by an independent cape, a hero turned rogue, helping out.
There could easily be a thousand more of these pillars before the year was over, that number repeated every year thereafter, and if that work continued for another fifty or a hundred years, there wouldn’t be a pillar for one percent of the people we’d lost. Not even if ‘we’ were just the people who hailed from the northeastern U.S..
The girl who’d been driving the car had a thousand-yard stare as she faced down the small crowd. She looked like she’d just hit a real person and reality was sinking in.
The wailing stopped. People were consoling the old man, some shooting hard looks at the girl who didn’t seem to be registering much of anything.
“Hey,” I called out.
She didn’t seem to register that I was talking to her, as she stared at the lower portion of the pillar that had crumbled, stone chunks broken away, cracks webbing across the surface.
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
She nodded, said, “I’m so sorry.”
The old man looked up at her.
People in the crowd were staring, apparently angry on the old man’s behalf. One hapless teenager and thirty or forty very upset people.
“Listen,” I told her. “Stay close by, okay? I’m sure someone in the crowd there is calling for help-”
Someone in the crowd raised a hand to get my attention. They had a phone to their ear.
“-They’re calling for help. They’ll be here shortly. Don’t go anywhere, you can explain what happened, alright?”
That seemed to get through to her. She nodded again, retreating to her car, apparently to sit in the front seat. Good. That was handled.
Until she stopped at the door, turned around, and addressed the old man and the crowd, “I’m really goddamn sorry I broke your thing.”
The grieving man rose to his feet, stepping forward at the same time. He pulled away from the supporting hands of the people around him, his face contorting.
I stepped in his way, my arm out. He pushed forward, and I caught him in a half-hug with one arm, stopping him. He reached out and tried to push me aside, and I caught his arm.
He was a guy, but he was an elderly guy. It wasn’t much of a contest. The moment he met resistance, he sagged, and I did what I could to keep him from outright collapsing as he slowly sank to his knees again, sobbing openly.
I took the opportunity to turn him a fraction so he wouldn’t be looking at the girl or the pillar as he knelt there.
In the background, that girl seemed to flounder in shock, useless, not sure what to do with herself in the face of this moment of violent grief. She looked at me, but I didn’t want to say anything that might agitate the man I was dealing with. She looked to the crowd, and she saw only angry stares.
I wasn’t sure what she’d seen, if it was a motion from someone, a particular emotion on a particular face, but she found the reason to get moving again, getting into the car, slamming the door behind her. The man I was holding jumped at the sound.
The man stopped resisting altogether. It had been a fast enough change in attitude that I had to wonder at what he would have done if I hadn’t intervened. Shouted in her face? Grabbed her? Would he have lashed out and struck the girl? If he would’ve gone so far as to use violence, would it have been relentless, requiring people to pull him off, or would he have stopped the moment he was interrupted?
I gradually relaxed my hold on him.
The crowd, too, seemed to realize that the situation had mostly de-escalated. The girl was in her car, the old man wasn’t an apparent danger to himself or others so long as I was here. That was enough for the assembled group to start breaking up.
I stepped back, hands partially raised in case he started forward again, and to enable me to act if he seemed like he might fall. I couldn’t just say the pillar would get fixed, or that things would be okay. The old man hadn’t shed tears for the pillar.
I didn’t want to say ‘sorry’, and echo the kid in the car.
I almost asked if there was anyone I could call. I stopped myself when I realized the answer could be no.
“How about we get away from here?” I asked, keeping my voice soft. “We can go grab a coffee or tea, and you and I can talk.”
The man looked at me, as if just now realizing there was a person right next to him.
“It’s got to be better than violence,” I said.
“I don’t – I’m not violent,” he said, sounding very small.
The heads of the crowd turned in reaction to something outside my field of view, and the old man’s head turned as well.
Behind me, it seemed. A man in costume. It was a good outfit, too, more in the dollars that had been put into it than in terms of looks, but that was personal opinion. Partial discs of metal seemed to intersect his body, forming a look where he looked like a blender caught mid-whirl, axe blades and metal rings jutting from his breastplate, armguards, leg armor, and even his face, with blades running along one brow and cheekbone to frame one eye.
There were heavier blades at his hands and feet, such that it looked like he shouldn’t be able to walk or even stand without difficulty. As it was, he had one end of his long-handled axe resting on the ground, the length of it bowing beneath his weight as he perched on it, one arm outstretched to one side, hand gripping the head. He was crouching on the thing while it rested at a diagonal, in a way that looked like he’d wipe out if the end of the weapon lost traction on the roadtop.
Fuck me. Not what we needed right now.
The old man started to stand. I helped him.
“Can I do anything to help?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Minor accident, we’re just waiting for cops to come and assess things, take numbers.”
I was barely done speaking when someone in the crowd said, “We don’t need you.”
I watched him glance over the small crowd, looking for the person who had spoken. He kept looking out for the speaker as he told us, “There’s some police on their way. With all the reconstruction and the lower priority, they’re trying to get through the traffic right now.”
“That’s good to know,” I said. “Thank you.”
He nodded. He looked deeply disturbed by the one comment he’d heard. I caught a glimpse of the emblem on his sleeve. A badge, not a personal symbol or icon, but part of the team he belonged to. Advance Guard. They were a team with an agenda to push. The world had ended, and they were pushing hard for a better and different tomorrow.
I could respect that.
I could also cringe inwardly at the fact that our superhero here was implicitly sporting a ‘move forward’ ideology when that was the last thing this old man probably wanted to hear with a freshly reopened emotional wound. Time and place. Unfortunately, because of the team emblem the cape had on his breast- a stylized figure holding a shield shaped like a greater-than symbol, the guy represented that ideology every time, in every place.
He walked over to the car, still watching the crowd, and he exchanged a few words with the girl in the driver’s seat. I was glad for that, at least. I had my hands full with the old guy and nobody else was stepping up to do it.
The cape stepped away from the car, looked at me and the old man. “He’s okay?”
“The pillar. It’s for his-” I started, looking at the plate on the pillar for a clue.
“Son. My son,” the man said.
“My condolences,” the hero said.
The man tensed. They were words that made it worse, not better, somehow.
“Go,” someone in the crowd said. A different person than the last. “We’re fine.”
The people that had been splintering away were holding position now. I could see the hostility. The summer heat was holding out through the start of September, making things just a little more uncomfortable, tempers a little shorter.
“Yeah,” the hero said, more to himself.
It put me in mind of a scene from the history books and the grainy old news footage of an event from the mid-80s. Back in the day, when the superheroes could be counted on the fingers of both hands, there had been a riot over a sports match. The anger and chaos had outweighed the respect the rioters had for the hero that had stepped in. Someone had struck out with a blunt object and hit the hero. He’d died before he reached the hospital. We’d called him the second cape after Scion, but he might well have been the first, after all.
Did I think that would happen here? No. Too small a group, the emotions were different, there wasn’t enough chaos.
Still, the general setpieces were here. The barely restrained emotion. The lack of care. The ill-timed intervention of the man in costume. The lack of respect in particular was in play. For Vikare, it had been because so many people hadn’t truly believed the powers were real, and he had apparently held back to avoid scaring people.
For this cape from Advance Guard, it was the opposite. He’d gone all out, we’d gone all out. Capes still hadn’t been able to stop the world from ending.
We were back at the beginning in so many ways.
“Yeah,” the hero said again. He seemed to wrestle with what he was going to say next before deciding on, “I’m going to go.”
I wanted there to be people in the crowd who spoke up. I wanted there to be other things besides this sentiment of hostility and rejection. For this guy and for all the rest of us. Were there any people who wanted to say something positive?
Nobody. Or if there was anyone, they were afraid to speak out against the herd. I didn’t want to leave it like this.
“Nice response time,” I said.
He turned my way and raised an eyebrow.
“You showed up quick. It was impressive.”
He nodded, studying me as if trying to find the catch. “It’s what I do.”
I wanted to say something more, but I didn’t want to push my luck. It would have been nice if he’d been less dismissive when I was throwing him a bone.
“Take care,” he said. “Cops are on their way. I’ll go let them know what’s up.”
“Thanks,” I said. “You take care too.”
He stepped down from the pole of his battleaxe and set foot on the road. Pavement splashed as if he’d stepped in a puddle. More splashed and rippled as he moved his axe in a circle around him.
When he took a step and moved, it was faster than I could track. I could see the splash that followed behind, a cresting wave that quickly settled, leaving only a faint wavy pattern in the road as it dissipated.
I’d spoken against the herd. I tried not to pay too much attention to them or give them any excuse to push back against me, instead turning my attention to the old man.
“I’m offering tea or coffee, my treat. We can talk it out, or talk about something else entirely,” I told him. “As soon as the police are done.”
He still looked like he was carrying that fresh pain, in expression and posture. He flinched some as he looked at his son’s memorial pillar. He gave the girl in the car a hard look, then seemed to let the anger out, sagging.
She was in the driver’s seat, both hands and forehead on the wheel.
“No,” he said. “You’ll have some place to be. I shouldn’t keep you more than I have. I’ll be fine.”
“Work,” I said. “They wouldn’t fire me, especially if I explained. I’d get in trouble, maybe, but I wouldn’t mind much. Job is… a seven out of ten fit.”
“Seventy percent is a lot better than some are getting,” the man said. “Keep that job. I’ll manage now.”
I glanced at the girl in the car. She had barely moved.
“You’ll leave her alone?” I asked.
The old man heaved out a sigh.
“She’s a kid who made a stupid mistake,” I said, in case he was trying to come to a decision. “You don’t have to forgive her, but you can’t go and hurt her or anything.”
“I wouldn’t have…” he said, and he didn’t finish the sentence. Because he might have, or because he didn’t know what he wouldn’t have done.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s good.”
“Go. Work. Don’t let me keep you,” he said. “I’ll be straight with the police there.”
“I’ll stick around for the cops and then duck out.”
The police cars had appeared at the edge of the block, but with traffic on the narrow road slowed by the girl’s car, they’d stopped there. The cars couldn’t progress, but the police were getting out.
One officer went to talk to the girl, another to the old man. I waited around a minute, then gave a statement and my info.
As in most things having to do with law or bureaucracy, it took longer than it should have, for a relatively simple process. I hurried to the high school once they were done with me, and I arrived rather late.
We still weren’t at the point where we had nice lawns and yards. This schoolyard was no exception. We had grass and fields, yes, but it was coarse and the ground beneath wasn’t usually landscaped. The area was large with large trees left untouched in the corners, chain link fence separating the field from the roads on two sides, the grade school formed the third boundary to the west, and the high school formed the fourth boundary to the north. The ground was uneven, more hilly than flat, and there were still large stones here and there, and a seemingly out of place play structure for the grade schoolers.
It was an odd thing. So often, nature was transplanted into a city, and it was new and inauthentic, made overly neat. Trees, lawns, flowers. Here, the nature was rough and unpolished, the city itself new and somewhat artificial in how overly tidy it was, untouched by time or elements.
A sports field in the middle section separated the grade schoolers’ area from the theater. It was a stage in the old Roman style, slabs of stone set into the ground like stairs, stepping down as they got closer to the stage, where the platform sat.
Hundreds of students had gathered on the stone seats, and more stood around the top edge of the theater, watching and listening. They were our survivors, our next generation. Not so different from the crowd I’d had to deflect earlier. A third of them still wore the very simple clothes that were handed out with supplies in the tent cities. Some had even taken to strategically ripping and dressing up those clothes. I didn’t fault them for it. It was hot.
A speaker carried the voice to those of us on the top edge.
The teachers of the school were on the stage, but they weren’t speaking. It was a series of community leaders and volunteers instead.
“…And I make that a guarantee to you,” a man in an orange vest was saying. “If you take those credentials, bring good shoes and work clothes, and if you don’t screw around, you can walk into any lot and you can be working within the hour and get your pay by that day’s end. Good pay. You can do whatever you want, after school, but you’ll always have this as a fallback, you’ll have the security of being able to walk into a lot and have a job waiting for you. We can always use more hands.”
Not enough seats at this school either. High school was and might well continue to be a half-day thing. The people on the stage were telling the kids their other options for the other half of the day.
I spotted Gilpatrick on the stage. He wore a black t-shirt and gray pants with boots, and in the summer heat he was sweating a fair amount. He had no hair on his head, but he had a five o’clock shadow well before five o’clock, bushy eyebrows and thick hair on thick forearms. Everyone else looked like they were trying to make their best pitch, in dressing nice and wearing smiles. Gilpatrick looked like he was trying to scare his prospects away.
Some of the non-prospects were standing around the upper edge, looking down at the new students and the stage. Most were senior students who’d picked what they’d do with their half-days last year, now waiting to induct the others. Some were siblings of those seniors, or younger friends. Others were like me, miscellaneous staff for miscellaneous roles.
I joined them.
“We wondered if you’d bailed,” Jasper said. He was very much a teenager, with acne, thin chin-hair and black hair that had had product in it, that had turned spiky from sweat.
“Delayed by a car accident.”
“Everyone’s okay?” he asked.
“Yep.” Insofar as anyone is okay. “Has Gil done his five pounds of gun thing? I was kind of looking forward to it, it’s so corny.”
“I think he’s saving it for the deeper explanation later. He mostly talked about how he was going to make it his objective to make people quit, he isn’t going to pay anyone, job prospects suck, he’s going to make people march in the heat and the cold for miles while carrying unreasonable burdens. The ‘five pounds’ speech isn’t bad, you know. It gets through to the kids,” Jasper said. For all that he was defending the speech, he smirked a bit.
“It gets through to most,” Cubs said. He was a big guy, tall, broad-shouldered, fit, with his hair cut short. He thought for a second and then amended his statement, “some.”
“Us,” Jasper said.
“Guess so, yeah,” Cubs said.
I didn’t miss the glance he shot at the girl at the far end of our little sub-group. Cami wore an expression I might have termed ‘resting angry face’. Perpetually pissed.
All three of them, and many other members of the group besides, were dressed in similar shades as Gilpatrick. Blacks and grays.
“I’m going to duck into my office,” I said. “I want to check my email and make sure it’s nice and neat if anyone stops in.”
“Only a short bit before we migrate over,” Cubs said. “One more speaker.”
“I’ll let Gilpatrick know you’re there,” Jasper said. He extended a fist. I rolled my eyes and instead of tapping it with my own, pushed it away. Jasper smiled.
My destination wasn’t in the high school, but was across the street. It was an open building with a partial second floor. The main floor was hardwood, with mats folded and piled up at the side. A few more senior students were already there- some were just entering or leaving the showers. It seemed like a good idea for cooling down, but I didn’t have the time.
I waved at some of the seniors in passing and headed up the stairs. The stairwell ran up one wall, unbounded by barriers, so it offered a view of everything below.
My office was the closest thing I had to a home, in this world. It was narrow and long, with a bookshelf at the right wall, a desk, computer and chair. Some boxes were piled up in the corners.
The bookshelf was my accomplishment. My fingers ran along the spines of books and other texts. Many of the works were collections of articles or official documents, bound by hand with a three-hole punch, rings, and patience.
Parahuman science. University textbooks, old workbooks with notes- not all mine. There were important articles, copied to plain text and printed out, with a lean toward the sciences, the nuances, the big revelations and reveals.
Official files. Classification documents. Then there were the notes for case one, case fifteen, case thirty-two, case fifty-three, case ninety. The ‘cases’ were the events the PRT had deemed of interest. Riddles both solved and unsolved. My collection there was incomplete, but some were official enough to be confidential, and I’d never had that access. Others were closed, the mystery deemed nonexistent or something to be folded into popular knowledge.
I had other files. There were names on those files. Whittler, Bilious, King Crow were some of the many on the shelf I’d deemed ‘independents’. For teams, there were ones like the Ambassadors, Green Tea, N.N., Ossuary, Empire Eighty-Eight, and the Clans. I’d made it a priority to collect those. I worried we might need them.
On the bottom shelf, I had my magazines. Costumes Under Clothes, Gleam, Heroines, Masque, Shine On. Some of the boxes in the corner had my latest haul. Much of it would be duplicates. Maybe I’d give some of them out to seniors.
I could still smell a faint mildewy smell, and promised myself I’d identify the source when I had time. I’d left the window open, and the weather was warm, which was helping. A lot of this was what I’d salvaged from the office back home; I’d retrieved it from boxes and filing cabinets and hauled it here over a dozen trips. I’d rigged up tarps to keep the water off that corner of the house, but some of that moisture had been coming up from below. I would have to find the source of the smell and transcribe the text before throwing it out.
Maybe I could get Gilpatrick to get a kid who needed punishing to do it for me.
Information was too important. Even if that information was from the glossy, superficial magazines about superheroines that had been pitched to girls just like me eight to ten years ago.
Faint smells aside, I could draw in a deep breath and feel muscles from shoulder to calf relax. This was more of that seventy percent part of the seventy percent fit where the job suited me.
That thirty percent, though. I wouldn’t stay here forever. I hoped. It had been a thing that I’d hoped would look good on my college applications. That hadn’t worked.
I could hear the commotion as the mob of kids started coming in downstairs.
I walked over to my computer and booted it up. It booted up instantly, but the connection to the internet took a while. I opened a notebook and began searching through it.
I found the name before the internet succeeded in connecting. I closed the conversation from the day prior and waited for the internet before composing an email.
Subject: Damaged pillar
I was a bystander when a car crashed into a pillar on Small St, near Basil Ave. Thought I’d let you know it’s damaged. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help or any info I can provide.
Thanks for what you do.
I sent it, then stood, walking to the window. I didn’t have much of a view- mostly the side of a building and a bit of the alley. If I stuck my head out the window, I could see a sliver of the school and some of the street. Students were milling around, some undecided on where they were going.
My computer chimed.
Subject: Re: Damaged Pillar
I already heard. Advance Guard were on the scene and let me know. Will have it fixed tomorrow. Thanks.
That would be fixed soon then. I thought the things were an eyesore, really, but people clearly felt like they were important.
I was caught up in checking recent events online when there was a knock on the door.
“Shouldn’t you be handing out guns to kids?” I asked. “Or giving a hard-assed speech that sends them running?”
“I wish,” he said. “Can’t give them guns until later. Give me a week, we’ll see how many of them I can get rid of. Can you show your face downstairs for me, so they know who to look for?”
“Sure,” I said. “Let me get organized and I’ll be right there.”
He didn’t step out of the doorway. His arms remained folded, and he had paper in one of his hands, held where I might not notice it.
“…Actually,” he said.
“No,” I said. I gave him a stern look. “No. Don’t ‘actually’ me. Please.”
“Do you know anything about Fume Hood?”
I raised one eyebrow, keeping that stern look otherwise in place. “Fume Hood? No.”
“She apparently went by another name, a while back. Poison Apple?”
“Then I do know stuff. She went by Bad Apple,” I said. “And a few other Nom De Pommes. I know some of her story. She was controversial.”
“She’s a hero now,” he said. “She’s getting announced as one member of a new team today.”
I nodded slowly, taking that in. “That could be bad.”
“It’s looking like it will be,” Gilpatrick said. He revealed the papers. “Can you brief my seniors? Fill them in on who she is?”
“That I can do,” I said. I approached him and took the papers.
He didn’t let go of them. He opened his mouth.
“No,” I said.
“I’ve got too many new kids,” he said.
“My hands are full. I don’t have enough seniors to manage them all. I don’t want this to be fun or even tolerable and that requires more supervision.”
I let go of the paper, backing up. “No.”
“I won’t force you,” he said. “People connected the new heroine Fume Hood to her old persona. They’re upset. Enough that they’re hiring people to kick up a fuss, and we don’t know just who or what’s going to happen.”
I thought of the people who’d been in the crowd when the pillar had been hit. I could picture it.
“Just that they’re hiring people?” I asked.
“From one of the more distant settlements. Police know and are taking precautions, hero teams have been notified, but it’s messy.”
“Messy how?” I asked.
“Jurisdictions. Our apple heroine is on a new team, announcing themselves in a new jurisdiction…”
“…It makes them look bad if they accept outside help or have other teams elbowing in on their big first day.”
“Something like that,” he said. “Apple girl is getting a lot of serious hate thrown her way online. If you can tell us anything about how she might react to this situation, or anything else, that’d help.”
“That I can do.”
He went on, “And if you could captain a squad of some new guys I’ve got from another school, let me know if they’re decent and trustworthy, and just do a bit of standing guard, giving advice and information to the officers at the scene, it would be a massive help.”
I gave Gilpatrick my best angry glare, hands on my hips.
“I won’t force you,” he said. “Superiors are pressuring me to handle this. If you say no then I’ll figure something else out.”
“You know I’m taking it easy with all this stuff. I told you on day one I wouldn’t be one of your patrolers. I’m only here to dispense some advice.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’m not frontline. I can’t be frontline.”
“You’re a natural leader,” he said.
I shook my head.
“I really didn’t want to use Jasper. He was joking about my speech, so I’m going to make him deliver it to the recruits,” he said.
I smiled, despite myself. That would be partially my fault, for reminding Jasper.
“Can you do the briefing, at least?” Gilpatrick asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I dropped my hands from my hips. “She really called herself Fume Hood?”
“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said. “I don’t take many of the names seriously. This doesn’t seem much worse.”
“It’s really terrible,” I said. “A heroine calling herself a hood? As in a gangster?”
“I think she has an actual hood as part of her costume.”
“I really hope so,” I said. I sighed and looked at my shelves. “Give me a second to review files? I’ll be right downstairs.”
“Just one second,” he said. “I’m going to have Jasper start with the recruits. Try to be done before I send them scurrying off.”
I checked the papers. Forum transcripts, some intercepted emails, some notes on Fume Hood.
I had a folder on my shelf. Notes from home. She was from Boston, among other places. Itinerant.
There were a lot of newspaper articles. She’d drawn a lot of attention once. Everyone was supposed to be getting a second chance, and it seemed that people’s memories were long enough that she wasn’t necessarily getting hers.
I gathered everything together, and I headed downstairs.
Jasper was in front of an assembly of roughly a hundred kids. Boys and girls. Not all were ninth graders, new to high school. Some would be refugees, their educations interrupted by the rather massive inconvenience of the world ending.
“…mostly long treks into the middle of nowhere to deliver supplies or check on things. If we’re lucky, we get a car. It’s not glamorous. Seriously. Run away,” he was saying. He spotted me coming down the stairs, and a smile crossed his face. “Once you’ve been with us for two years, you get one of these embarrassments and you have to be seen in public with them-”
He held up a gun with slide back and magazine removed, a bright red bike lock threaded through the bottom of the gun and out the top.
Jasper went on, “And you’ll be expected to clean it as well as the gun you use on the range. You’ll have to treat it like a real, loaded gun. That means you pretend it’s loaded, you don’t aim it at anything or anyone you wouldn’t want to destroy, you never leave it unattended, and so on. We’ll drill it into your skull and frankly, we’re really hoping you make a mistake so we can kick you to the curb.”
The other senior students were dressed in their uniforms now. Black clothes with some body armor worn over them, and the body armor was recognizable. In places, flakes of the letters and symbols that had once been stenciled onto the armor panels in white were still visible, having survived the steel wool and turpentine scrub. PRT issue, salvaged.
When they’d been trying to figure out what to do with the high school kids when there weren’t enough schools and seats for all of them, some idiot in the administration had come up with this. Some teenagers could go help on farms, some could get trained in construction, some would work, the ones who could keep their grades up enough could take afternoon classes too, and so on. There were sports teams and clubs. Finally, there was the patrol group. Us.
Maybe it wasn’t fair to blame it on an idiot in charge. Maybe it was inevitable. Some wanted to feel like they had power, when the capes had dropped the ball. Some wanted answers. We talked and ran errands pertaining to power stuff. Some of the kids might go on to police, investigate, or study the power stuff, as more informed police officers. Possibly.
This was the thirty percent I didn’t like. The question mark. The places this could lead, theoretically. Places we were already starting to edge toward, slowly but surely.
“Less than five pounds of gun, if you even have a gun,” Jasper said, holding up the gun with the bike lock threaded through it. He caught my eye as he said it and he had a gleam in his eye. “Fifteen pounds of armor. It’ll be twenty-five pounds of armor if you’re with us for the long haul. These backpacks? They’re heavy. They’re miserable. Twenty-five pounds strapped to you. Food, water, first aid, tools.”
He holstered his gun and lifted up the bag with two hands, grunting a bit.
“Pay attention to those ratios. Twenty-five pounds of stuff to support and help…”
He dropped the bag and gave it a pat.
“…A good bit of protection…”
He rapped knuckles against the armor he wore on his chest.
“…And possibly a bit of offense.”
He tapped the gun where it was in its holster, the bike lock draped down and resting against his leg
Gilpatrick stepped up beside Jasper. “Good.”
“Thank you sir.”
“Students, if you’ll turn around to see the young lady on the stairs…”
The students did.
“…She’s our resident cape expert. If you’re sticking with us here in patrol block, if her door is open, you can go ask her questions. She knows her stuff. If you’re not sticking with us and her door is open, you can go ask her questions and we’ll let you cut to the head of the line. You’ll find her office upstairs and to the left.”
I hadn’t heard that part before. Priority to people who weren’t part of the club. I smiled.
We had more kids than we wanted or could use, even though we didn’t pay any wages until they’d been with us at least a year, and we did everything we could to keep them miserable. Powers were compelling. Too many had reasons for wanting to be here.
An unfortunate share of the students were here because they were angry. Because the patrol block had been started up by some ex-PRT folk and Gilpatrick’s speech aside, a lot of people looked at the armor, looked at the guns, looked at how we touched on the power stuff and the portals, and connected the dots.
“You want to go brief my seniors?” he asked me, from the far end of the room, over the heads of hundreds of new students.
I gave him a mock salute, then finished descending the stairs, joining the seniors while he resumed outlining things for the new kids. I motioned to the door, indicating for the group to follow.
A few of them were new, Gilpatrick had said. I didn’t like how angry or naturally resentful some of them looked. Cami was among them.
“New team is having its grand unveiling at one of the community centers,” I said. “One member is Fume Hood. She was a B-list villain, once upon a time. She’s what we term itinerant. Wandered from city to city, looking for opportunities or teams to join. Petty robbery, grand larceny, mischief, vandalism, criminal mercenary work. A lot of the time she was one of the low-rate hangers-on in a group that a bigger villain would hire to pull a bigger job. You could even call her a professional distraction. She started when she was sixteen, stopped at twenty-four or so. She’d be twenty-nine now.”
They were listening intently, even the new guys. That was good.
“As a villain, she went by Bad Apple, Poison Apple, Pomme De Sang, probably called herself Applesauce, I don’t even know. I guess she wanted to corner the market on apple-related names so nobody would have something similar. She spent a lot of time palling around with a biotinker called Blasto. She kept going back to him to pair up. Might have been boyfriend-girlfriend, even. That ended when the Slaughterhouse Nine passed through Boston. We don’t know what happened to Blasto, but we can guess it wasn’t good. Poison Apple got a little reckless after that, even though she hadn’t met up with him in over a year at that point.”
I opened my folder and found one of the articles. I laid it against the front of the folder and held it out so they could read it.
“She pulled together a group of some old teammates and new teenage villains and pulled a shopping spree, hit a mall and took what they wanted. Heroes showed up, they ran.”
“Miscarriage,” one of the new people in the group said, reading from the article.
“Poison Apple makes globes in her hands. One of the tricks she can pull with them is send them flying off in straight lines. They explode on contact with hard surfaces, just enough oomph to knock you to the ground, and they create clouds of gas or splashes of liquid poison. Usually enough to make you nauseous, a little bit feeble, more if you touch the poison in its liquid form. Nonlethal and mostly nonviolent, most of the time. Except this time, a pregnant lady was caught in the gas, or in the explosion. She lost her baby, and it became a thing in the media. Poison Apple turned herself in, partially because of the backlash she’d generated. She was serving time for pled down charges of assault and battery when Gold Morning came around,” I said.
A couple of the angry faces in the group looked a little angrier.
“She did her time,” I said. “She made a mistake, she paid for it as much as she was able. We don’t have enough good jails and so she’s free, and it looks like she’s trying to do good. That’s pretty decent, really. She’s not the enemy here.”
“Isn’t she?” someone asked. Their name might have been James. They’d been around last year.
“The threat is the people targeting her. They’ve recruited help. We don’t know how much, but the intel Gilpatrick gave me said money changed hands. You guys know the basics when it comes to capes, you can inform the cops if something comes up, you know her story, and you’ll be a few more people in uniform keeping the peace and giving protesters a little more reason to hang back. If it gets bad, any real danger, you back off.”
There were a few nods.
There were also a few looks on a handful of faces that made me concerned. Too heated, or too cold. They weren’t the majority, but I wasn’t sure the majority was on Fume Hood’s side, either.
It put me in mind of the crowd and the broken pillar. If it was just this, I might have been able to let it lie. I could have accepted that the students here were among the angriest and most invested in the grittier side of the cape stuff. That it was just them.
Except it wasn’t. The old man, the girl who couldn’t drive, the crowd there and the response to the visiting cape… there was so much emotion bound up in things, I couldn’t trust that this was an isolated thing.
I couldn’t stand by and let this be the new normal, without any opposing voices. Even if my voice was a badly biased one.
With the climate, both general and even the fact that it was hot and tempers would be short, it would be so easy for us to see another Vikare.
I glanced over my shoulder and through the door. I saw Gilpatrick with Jasper and the kids.
Damn it, Gilpatrick.
“I’ll come with you,” I decided. “We’ll do our part to keep people organized and keep the peace.”
What did it say about the state of things, if I was increasingly the voice of restraint and reason?
I turned my attention back to the squad.
“For those of you who’ve just joined us, my name is Victoria Dallon, and I’ll be your squad captain today.”