I had badly neglected my locker. I had an office, so my locker in the changing room was more for the things I didn’t use much at all.
Bag. The backpack was light, but it only had the nonperishables in it. I’d done a few patrols for Gilpatrick over the winter, visiting some of the settlements that were a little further afield, while many of the students were taking Christmas off. I’d also used it for my fitness test.
I set it on the table in the center of the room. Something to weigh when I was done getting outfitted. For now, I just needed it out of my locker. The bag took up the bottom half, the armor took up the upper half.
Outfit change. I couldn’t go out in a skirt and body armor. I had some self respect. The pants in my locker were part of an emergency change of clothes, heavier fabric intended for winter and trips to Bet when the weather was bad.
I hadn’t put the pants through the wash since having to shovel snow over the winter, but I hadn’t worn them much either. There was still salt crusting the heels, white against black fabric. I walked over to the sink and rinsed the worst of the salt off, then rolled up the cuffs a bit so I wouldn’t have wet pants slapping against my ankle.
I kicked off my shoes and hiked up the pants so they were under my skirt, then unfastened the skirt.
“Victoria,” Gilpatrick said, behind me, a deep male voice in the girl’s change room. I jumped a little. “Are you free to talk?”
I turned my head. There wasn’t a door to the girl’s changing room, but there was a solid wall blocking the view. I could see the edge of Gilpatrick’s arm – he stood with his back to the wall and the changing room.
Camisola was in the room too, unpacking and repacking her kits for her bag. She met my eyes.
“I’ll step out,” she said.
“Thank you, Cami,” Gilpatrick said. I pulled my shoes back on and laced them as Cami left the room.
Belt. Holster. I threaded the belt through my belt loops, careful to position the holster.
Cami was apparently out of earshot, because Gil spoke again. “Thank you, Victoria.”
“Give me Jasper,” I said. “For my squad.”
“Jasper?” he asked. “Why?”
Well, that said a lot, didn’t it?
“Because I’m paranoid,” I said. Paranoid on more than one front, but I wouldn’t tell Gilpatrick that. I had suspicions and his willingness to give me Jasper would tell me things. “Is anyone else standing outside the door?”
“This conversation is just you and me.”
“Okay. I know Jasper, and I’m honestly more worried about the attitudes of the people you gave me than I am about the protest or whatever it is people are going to pull with Bad Apple.”
“Jasper’s attitude isn’t great.”
“Jasper is a joker and he can be immature, but he can give that five pounds of gun speech because he believes it. He’s in this because he thinks capes are cool, not because he’s pissed. Give me one person I know will agree with me.”
“I kind of need every senior I can get. But I’ll give you that.”
I bit my lip, thinking as I worked the combination of the safe at the topmost section of my locker. I pulled out the pistol and holstered it. I kept my hand there, reminding myself of the weapon’s weight as I tried to figure out how to word my question, and if I wanted to ask it.
“Then how about you take some of the angry ones? The new guys you were giving me.”
“That was a quick assessment.”
I gathered the pistol magazines and slotted them into the pouch, before setting to attaching the pouch to my leg and belt. “I don’t want them. I don’t want to get some people from elsewhere with their own habits and ways of doing things, and have to train them on top of doing this thing.”
“Take them, Victoria,” Gilpatrick said. “They came with good recommendations, they know their stuff, and if it does wind up being a protest, you’ll want the extra bodies. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter.”
“Things are never that simple, Gil,” I said.
“Take them,” he said, firm.
“You owe me for this,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
Armor. I pulled my vest from the bottom of the locker. I saved it for last because once it was on, I wouldn’t be able to bend down or move as easily. The old name and number was still visible by the impression that had been made in the armor when it had been punched in and painted on. The steel-wool scrubbing I’d given it hadn’t erased the whole impression.
I didn’t know who Cameron was or where they’d ended up, but I wore their armor now. I tucked the papers in between my chest and the armor, where the straps would help keep them in place.
I spoke, “It’s a cushy job, I get to geek out and show off, and I like my office and the access I get to the portal, I don’t want to take that for granted, but you owe me a few already. This is one more.”
“I know,” he said. “I’ll make it up to you. I’ve got to run. Kids to torture. I’ll send Jasper your way.”
“Alright,” I said. “Do I need my full pack?”
“No,” he said. “No, I wouldn’t do that to you. Full pack is a torment I reserve for the newbies.”
I was glad to put my bag back in the locker. I heard Gilpatrick walking away, raising his voice to shout orders.
I used fingernails to comb my hair back, then began braiding it. I had to look in the mirror to make sure I’d gotten all of the stray strands.
Hi me, I thought, as I made eye contact.
How to describe that feeling? Something resembling relief and a sinking feeling at the same time. It was a small feeling but still one that I would carry with me for the rest of the day. That day would be a little bit worse because of the moment, but it would feel more stable for the reminder, too.
I had a good two years of experience to draw from, in figuring that out.
I’d stopped braiding my hair, I realized, and I’d started holding my breath without realizing it. I exhaled, closed the safe, spun the dial, closed the locker, and walked out onto the floor of the building, resuming the braiding of my hair.
Forward. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Moving on with the day.
I caught up with Jasper as he joined the group.
“I’m driving, apparently,” Jasper said, wangling the keys in front of me. “And keeping you company. Gilpatrick explained the situation.”
“Good,” I said. I pointed in the direction of the bus. We started walking.
“You’re friends?” one of the new guys asked.
Still braiding, I looked over at Jasper. “Enhh.”
“You can tell she’s really diplomatic,” Jasper said.
“Work friends, kind of?” I said.
“We don’t hang out,” Jasper said. “I’m not sure what we’d do if we did. We don’t have anything in common.”
“We got stuck together for jobs and errands enough times we became familiar with each other,” I said. “We get on okay. Jasper’s cool. Just don’t ask him about the tattoo.”
“Tattoo?” someone asked.
“I’ll explain when we’re driving,” Jasper said, smiling.
We reached the bus. It wasn’t pretty. A half-size school bus, rust had been mostly scrubbed away and it had received a paint job in black with white sides. The emergency exit at the back had been redone so it was the main way in and out, and a passenger seat had been added at the front. There was an area for supplies and bags to be stowed between the wheels at the right side.
I wrapped my braid around itself a few times, and tied it there in a slightly messy bun-coil, then climbed up to the passenger seat. The seniors climbed into the back. There were a few faces I recognized but couldn’t name, a dozen more that I didn’t recognize and definitely couldn’t name. I could tell that they were from elsewhere by the fact that the armor they’d brought with them had been painted black, rather than have the white letters scrubbed away. Twenty-four in all.
Jasper took the driver’s seat, starting up the bus immediately.
Even parked in the shade, even in September, the heat was such that the seats were uncomfortably hot. I’d thought about removing my armor once my hands were free, and carrying it by hand, but I decided to keep it on for the extra buffer.
Didn’t do anything to spare my ass from the warm faux-leather seat. I didn’t like being aware of my body to that extent.
“Where to?” Jasper asked, rescuing me from my thoughts.
“Norwalk-Fairfield span,” I said.
“Rural, isn’t that?” Jasper asked.
“Last I heard.”
Jasper had to almost stand up to get the perspective to see through the open back of the bus. He reversed out of the lot and took us onto the road.
“Maybe you guys can answer. What’s the deal with stretches and spans?” one of the new guys asked.
I turned sideways in my seat, looking back. Now that I was sitting and looking back at them, they were older, I noted. Seventeen at a minimum. “You guys are from one of the denser parts of the city?”
“New York Central. Near the Bet-Gimel portal,” a girl said.
One of the two big ones, then. We’d bled into the areas surrounding the portals. Brockton Bay had been the first, but we’d had a few in a few major cities and New York was a big one. The cluster of settlements around the portals in the northeastern US and people’s desire to have ready access to that cluster and the resources, community, information and security it afforded had played a big part in the megalopolis forming.
One blob around New York, one blob around the New Brockton settlement, clusters south of New Brockton, near what would or should be Boston, and everything had spread out or extended from there, mostly hugging the coast and connecting to one another.
I explained, “We’ve got these long narrow bands of mingled city and agriculture connecting the primary settlement points, to the point it’s hard to say where one thing starts and the other ends. And instead of building five big houses they’d rather build an apartment building that hosts twenty, which makes things fuzzy with the distinctions of urban and rural. So we get the ever-expanding megalopolis blob and we can’t figure out what to call it, even though it’s already this monster.”
Our progress out of the city center was slow. Construction. Endless construction. Jasper seemed happy to be driving, even at a crawl.
“Yeah,” the first guy spoke.
“In terms of the bands that rope everything in together, we go by the cities and locations that were there beforehand. If you look at where Norwalk would be on a map, that’s the name for the region we’re heading to. If it’s east-west it’s a span. If it’s north-south it’s a stretch. But it’s all a part of the city.”
“What if it’s both?” someone asked.
“Then it’s neither,” Jasper said. “You just give it a name.”
“More accurately, you try to give it a name and end up in a heated, months-long debate about what to call the area, with way too many emotions tied up into things,” I said.
The guy from right behind me said, “I don’t see why we can’t just give the individual areas names like they used to have. If it’s close to Norwalk, then we call it fucking Norwalk.”
“Hey,” I said. I gave a stern look to the guy who’d said it. “Swearing’s fine, but not if you’re getting heated. We’re chatting, not getting up in arms.”
“Right. Sorry,” the guy said. He didn’t look particularly sorry.
We picked up speed as we pulled onto a street with less construction. With the back of the bus open and the windows on either side of Jasper and me rolled all the way down, the wind whipped through the bus. The city smelled like dust, drywall, and hot pavement.
I dangled one arm out the window, moving my fingers and feeling the air moving against them.
“It gets complicated,” I said. “Geography’s slightly different, they’re hardly checking longitude and latitude exactly when we settle in one place or another. They’re doing what the surroundings allow. Means the Norwalk we’re going to might actually be between two places, or off to one side.”
Jasper chimed in, “I always remember the Norwalk-Fairfield span because it’s close to the portal for Earth N. N for Norwalk.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess that works.”
“I’ve got a question for you, though,” he said.
“You want to talk about your tattoo idea.”
“Yes,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Do what you want.”
He turned his head so he could talk to the back of the bus while watching the road. “We’re doing the squad thing, right? And a lot of us are doing this with the idea we’ll police the capes, or help them out.”
“Police them, mostly,” a guy said.
“Opinions vary,” Jasper said, “But I don’t want to get sidetracked. What I’m thinking is, what’s better than a good callsign? We have nicknames to call each other. The trouble is getting a good one to stick.”
“Opinions on what a good callsign is are going to vary,” I said.
“Quiet you,” Jasper said. “You and I have talked about this and I’ve determined you have no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to this. You know the cape stuff, sure, but you clearly don’t get this.”
“You want to decide your own callsign?” the girl from the back asked.
“Jester,” Jasper said. “And I swear, if people don’t start using it, I’m going to make it happen by getting a tattoo of a jester and ‘fool’ written beneath it, right on my bicep.”
The protests, naturally, started rolling in from the rest of the bus. He couldn’t decide his own callsign, why would he have it say fool if he wanted the callsign to be Jester, why even have it be Jester?
I tuned it out, sticking my head out the window. Jasper tried to sell the rest of the bus on his idea and was very thoroughly shot down. In this, at least, all was right with the world. It was a bad idea. Forty year-old Jasper didn’t need to live with the mistakes of seventeen year-old Jasper.
We drove past skyscrapers paneled in gold-tinted glass. Solar glass, it was supposed to be called. We drove past parks with the same rough-edged slice of nature that touched the schoolyard back at the high school. We drove past a lot of construction, and we were lucky that it didn’t slow us down much.
I’d heard my name. I was broken from my reverie. How long had we been driving now? The city was seemingly unending and I didn’t recognize the landmarks enough to nail anything down.
Victoria Dallon. I looked at myself in the bus’ side view mirror.
“What was that?” Jasper asked, while I remained silent.
“Name sounds familiar,” the voice said, from the back. It sounded almost smug, knowing. “Can’t quite place it.”
“That so?” Jasper asked. “Maybe keep it to yourself, then.”
“Is that how this is?”
“I think it’s how everything is,” Jasper said. “Not just this. When you’re bringing up the past, whoever you’re talking to, there are two likely possibilities. First, it’s good, and we miss the shit out of it, or, second, it’s bad and why would you bring up the bad except to be a tool?”
“It could be important,” the guy said. “It’s good to know who or what we’re dealing with.”
“Could be,” Jasper said. “But I can tell you this. Gil trusts her. I trust her. If you want to know who you’re dealing with, why don’t you start by taking our cue?”
There was no response from the back.
“Otherwise, if you’re not going to listen to us,” Jasper said, “why are you on our bus?”
Again, no response.
Then, belated, one of the others uttered a quiet, “Leave it.”
Not aimed at Jasper. My detractor had been about to say something, I took it, and he’d been told to be quiet. Not the best result, but it seemed to end the line of questioning.
I wondered if there was something nice I could do for Jasper, for sparing me having to handle that.
I fished the papers out from my vest, smoothing them against my lap. I glanced out the window. The city had thinned out, and I could see farms and tent cities further out.
We had to be pretty close to our destination now.
I twisted around in my seat again, looking at the people in the back. I could tell by the way one of them held himself, shoulders square, eye contact forced, that he’d been the one to speak out against me. He studied me like he would an opponent.
I addressed them, “When we get there, we stay together. We’ll have a quick chat with the people in charge, all together. If the police have orders for us, those are the orders we follow. If not, I’ll tell you guys to get to work. You head to the crowd, and you say hi.”
“Mingle. Show your faces, let people know we’re around. Ask how they’re doing. What do they think? Look for anyone antsy, especially anyone antsy that we’re there. Don’t engage if there’s trouble. Let the police know and let me know, and we’ll figure it out.”
“I like looping through the crowds,” Jasper said. “We did that once or twice, when Gilpatrick was calling the shots, last year. People don’t see the face or the hair, only the uniform. If you loop back, it looks like there are more of us than there are.”
“Give them second thoughts?” the girl from the back asked.
“Something like that,” Jasper said.
I wrapped up. “When we get settled and things are going to start, we’ll be keeping eyes out or standing guard, probably. We regroup before then, we’ll figure out what’s up, and see where we’re needed.”
I saw people nod, then turned around in my seat.
“Which street?” Jasper asked.
“I think that’s it down there,” he said.
There were still a lot of tents and cubicle houses hereabouts, it seemed. On the southern side of the main road, to our left, we had apartment buildings, stores, and something that looked like a brand spanking new swathe of city. On the other side, it was more construction, tents, farm, and the houses that weren’t real houses- more like mock houses made of panels that had been bolted together, like overlarge tents with hard exteriors.
We turned away from the main road, into the deeper section of the city. The community center was made of stone, had a squat clock tower situated on top, and looked stately, even with the tall buildings surrounding it, many at least as tall as the community center was. A patch of park with a fountain sat squarely in front of it.
School was just getting out, it seemed. Students were streaming through the area. They walked through and along the road to the point that we couldn’t get very close. Many heads turned our way, curious.
Jasper found a parking space a block away from the center, and parked there. Our people climbed out the back while Jasper and I got organized at the front.
“Jasper,” I said.
“Special orders for me?”
“When and if the rest of them are going through the crowd, stay near the front door. If anyone gets nervous and ducks out, it might be something.”
“Should I follow?”
“Probably not. Keep an eye out, let me know if anything happens.”
“And why is this a secret from the others?”
Because I didn’t trust the others. They’d been foisted on me, they had clear attitudes, and I was worried that if push came to shove, they might let a troublemaker go if it meant fucking with the capes.
“Paranoia,” I said. I started to climb out of my seat. “Thanks for the backup back there. Jester.”
Jasper grinned as my face fell.
“I’m sorry, but it sounds bad,” I said. “I can’t make this a thing.”
“It sounds bad when you’re saying it as if someone’s pulling your fingernails out while you’re talking.”
“They might as well be,” I said.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s cool.”
“It’s against everything I stand for,” I said. I climbed down from my seat.
“It’s great,” Jasper said, from the other side of the bus. He tossed the keys into the air and caught them.
Some of the others were pulling on the armor they’d left off while sitting on the bus. Once we were set, we moved as a group toward the town hall.
The fact that the community center was actually in the center of this neighborhood meant that the foot traffic was heavy. A lot of it was moving around the crowd that had formed. A lot of people with signs, but a lot of young and eager eyes. Kids aged ten to seventeen, all fresh from their first day of school, genuinely interested in their fledgling hero team.
No police parked outside, at a glance. No barricades, either.
Inside, it was standing room only. Cheap plastic chairs were arranged in rows and columns, and there were many places where parent and young child shared chairs.
I saw some people up at the front perk up at our appearance, and the crowd parted to let us through.
I identified a woman with gray and black hair and a gray suit-dress that the other people up at the front seemed to be standing around. I approached her.
“You’re in charge?” I asked.
“I’m the closest thing to someone in charge. District representative,” she said. “We don’t have a group like yours here. You’re all so young.”
I kept still, not letting my emotions show. I felt the sinking feeling again, without the relief, and without the steadiness that I got from seeing myself in the mirror.
Not a big thing. It was like treading water and a hand on my forehead pushing me down, before pulling away. Surfacing again, finding my equilibrium, realizing how tired I was as I resumed treading water.
I was very aware of the eyes on us.
“Do you have more outside?” the representative asked.
“More… of us?” I asked, finding my composure again.
“No. No we don’t have more outside.”
She looked spooked. More spooked after my ‘no’.
“I can’t help but notice that you have no police presence at all,” I said.
“We have some, but not many. It’s the way it is in Norfair span.”
“Norfair,” I said, noting the coined name. “It’s not really a presence, is it?”
“No,” she said. “We didn’t expect this many naysayers. With this many, they had to have come from outside the community.”
The crowd in the room with us looked eager and happy enough. A few frowns, but rare. Had it been just this, overlapping conversations, anticipation, bright eyes and parents with kids, maybe a few people ready to raise some pointed questions if given the opportunity, then all would have been well.
It wasn’t just them. The protesters outside were audible, even with stone walls between us and them. Two angry voices outside, for every one quiet, polite person inside.
I didn’t like how much this was stacking up against us. The police not having much presence, the controversy, the number of protesters.
Paranoia again, that I couldn’t help but wonder about the recruits I’d been given. Forced to take, as it had turned out.
Too many things together.
“I think we should talk to the capes,” I said.
“Please,” the district rep said.
She led us into the back room, just behind where the de-facto stage was. The team of heroes was there, anxious, waiting to be announced and to step out in front of the crowd.
Four of them. Their costumes were close to being clothing, but had just enough stylization to make them something more. The masks and face-coverings helped to make them more cape-like.
Fume Hood did have a hood, as part of a green hooded coat she wore. Fans were built into the coat, only partially disguised, each of them much like the ones that were built into the back of a computer, and they made her coat, hair, and hood flap.
There was a man in a deep purple tank top and skinny pants with glass jutting from his skin at the elbows and hands, his upper face only a craggy mass of glass or jewel-like shards sticking out of flesh, just beautiful enough to not be macabre.
A man about my age slouched in a chair, looking dejected. He had something that looked like small shields over the back of each hand, three large scimitar-like blades jutting from the back of each shield like they were oversize claws. He wore a top that showed his muscular stomach, with shorts that reached his knees. A two-part icon was displayed on chest and belt buckle.
The last was a woman in overalls, muscular, with hair shorter than most of the boys in my troupe, something that looked like thick paint slashed across her eyes and nose, and covering her arms up to the elbows. The paint was black at the very edges, where it was thinner, but pure white elsewhere. Her eyes were black from corner to corner.
“Great,” the woman with the paint said, sarcastic. “Just what we needed.”
“We’re here to help,” I said.
“We might need it,” Fume Hood said.
“Do you know who’s after you?” I asked. “Or what’s going on?”
She shook her head.
“I might be being paranoid, but this feels off,” I said.
“A lot of little things,” Fume Hood said. “Crystalclear’s getting a bad vibe.”
I nodded. I looked at the man with the glass chunks where his nose, eyes, brow and scalp should be.
“Have you considered canceling the event?” I asked.
“We were actively debating it before you came in,” the man in purple said. “We’re split.”
“Can we break the tie?” I asked.
They exchanged glances.
The painted woman scowled, “You can.”
The man with the claws stood abruptly, shoving his chair to the ground in the process, before stalking off.
“Okay,” the painted woman said, again. She looked at the district rep. “We’re sorry. Can you have them disperse? Tell the protesters they win.”
The rep nodded, hurrying from the room to where the people were seated.
“Death knell for our group,” the painted woman said.
“Maybe. Probably,” Fume said. She looked at Crystalclear. “Feeling better?”
“No,” he said.
Fume nodded at that.
“Would you stick around?” Crystalclear addressed us. “I wouldn’t mind the backup, if you’re here to help, and I have the sense this is going to get worse before it gets better.”
“Gut feeling sense or… power sense?” I asked.
I could hear the commotion as people started to leave. I could hear the complaining. Even before he answered, my gut feeling sense was that he wasn’t wrong.
“The latter,” Crystalclear said, corroborating.