This was the point in time that I would have liked to be able to take to the skies. Information was important, and if I didn’t have surveillance cameras, I would have been pretty content with a bird’s eye view of the scene.
I clenched one fist, cracking my knuckles, before wrapping my other hand around it, cracking them again for good measure.
I turned to look at the people from the patrol. “Set up around the building. Watch what’s going on outside, stay in touch, report anything unusual. Jasper? Hang back.”
The others turned to go, some looking back at the capes one last time before leaving. Interest, other things.
“Can’t hurt,” the painted lady said.
“I’m Victoria,” I said. “That’s Jasper. I know Fume Hood from the notes we got, and I caught Crystalclear’s name.”
“Longscratch is the one who just left,” the painted lady said. “I’m Tempera.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Good to meet you. Crystalclear, can you fill me in on your power? What are you getting?”
“I see through everything,” Crystalclear said, tapping the chunk of crystal that stood out from the lower edge of his eye socket. “As if everything was crystal. I’ve learned there’s a lot of nuance to it. A little bit of seeing into the past, a little bit of seeing into the future, a little bit of a sense of people’s focus.”
“He has a blaster power too,” Tempera said. “Goes through walls and the ground. Synergy.”
“I really hope it doesn’t come to actually using that. Right now, I’m more interested in how this points to possible trouble in the future,” I said.
“Uh,” Crystalclear said. He looked around. “It’s hard to explain because it’s not a sense anyone else has. Say I was looking at a wall. It looks like a chunk of clear glass and the light catches at the edges and corners and they’re highlighted.”
My eye roved over the room. It was reminiscent of a teacher’s lounge, but it had less of an emphasis on the lounging. Coffee cups sat on windowsills and there were places where furniture had been stacked once, and the furniture had been moved out into the open room at the front of the building, where all the people were or had been seated. Glass cases with model buildings had been brought inside and carefully stacked against the wall. A long table that might have served as a conference table was folded up in one corner.
I tried to imagine it like Crystalclear was describing it. A sketch in three dimensions, only the lines visible. “I follow you so far.”
“The edges of walls and floor are usually clear, crisp, and closer to white. Solid objects don’t change, so there’s no reason for that to change. It’s blurred. Blue tinted.”
“Future sight,” Tempera added. “Past-sight is red, future-sight is blue. Like the doppler.”
Crystalclear went on, “In the future, that wall vibrates. Similar effect with people, but they move around more. I see you all as streaks, shifting around, white-edged where you’re resting in present. There is refraction and some fractures around people’s heads, representing focus and kind of thinking.”
“That gets blueshifted redshifted?” I asked. “It’s not displayed as color?”
Crystalclear nodded his head. It was a motion made more weighty by the heavy growth at the top of his head. “Not as color. It’s… edges to the light around them, sharpness and softness, distortions like how you can look at a glass of water with a straw in it and the straw isn’t straight, or you see multiple straws. The worst breaks in focus look like grooves or outright breaks. A lot of people here are going to be distorted soon. Or were. They’re leaving and they’re clearing up.”
His head turned as he focused on things on the other sides of the walls.
“What about, say, Jasper?” I asked.
“Hey,” Jasper said. “Use yourself as an example.”
Crystalclear looked at Jasper. “Hard to say. Whatever it is, it’s small or it’s distant.”
Crystalclear glanced over at Tempetera and Fume Hood. “Not just him either. It doesn’t give me much to work with.”
He turned his attention to me.
I cut right to asking my next question, before he could comment. “Do you see the direction of it? Anything big and blue that’s suggesting a major thing coming in sometime in the future? One section of the building that gets hit harder?”
He shook his head. “I’d have to see it before I saw how things were around it, and even then there’s nuance.”
“You’re thinking of a parahuman or weapon?” Tempera asked.
“I have no idea,” I said. “If I was a civilian with an issue, and I was going after capes, I’d go big or I wouldn’t try at all. If we’re talking something that shakes this whole community center… bomb? Parahumans are definitely possible, except I’m not sure how using parahumans squares with the sentiment toward parahumans.”
Fume Hood spoke up from the background. “Set us against each other, they benefit either way.”
“Could be,” I said. I paused. “As soon as the crowd has dispersed enough, I want to get you guys clear of here. Do you have a decent mover power to use?”
“Longscratch does,” Tempera said.
“Not a mass mover power, is it?” I asked. At the negation, I turned to Jasper. “Can you bring the bus close? If the crowd is thinning out, you should be able to pull right up to the door. Take someone with you, if we’re delayed, do like I discussed earlier. Keep an eye out.”
Jasper saluted, turning to go.
The bus wasn’t elegant, but hopefully it would take us away from vulnerable civilians or areas.
“How is Longscratch?” Tempera asked Crystalclear.
“He’s fine. Stalked off. He’s keeping an eye out for trouble,” Crystalclear said. He pointed up and off to one side. On an upper floor, it seemed, or on the roof.
“That’s how he is. I won’t bother him. I’ll go talk to the district representative, instead, if that’s alright,” Tempera said, looking my way.
“If the coast is clear,” I said.
“Most people have cleared out of the main hall,” Crystalclear said. “The ones who are hanging back seem like the types to be doing it for good reason. Parents with kids, teenagers hoping to get a glimpse of the heroes they came to see.”
“That’s positive,” Tempera said. “I’ll give them a glimpse then. Thank you, Victoria.”
“I’m going to get a glass of water and get my head straight,” Fume Hood said. “I’ll catch up with the rest of you in a minute.”
“Don’t go running off,” Tempera said. “Get your water, take a minute, but come back after. I don’t want you to throw yourselves to the wolves.”
“I won’t,” Fume Hood said.
“Or whatever variant on that plan you might be thinking. I can see you trying to lead the enemy way from us,” Tempera said.
“I won’t,” Fume Hood said, annoyed.
“It wouldn’t work anyway,” Crystalclear added.
“Your future sight telling you that?” Fume Hood asked, her annoyance becoming something more bitter.
“I don’t see the future like that. You know that. But I do know that they’re mad at all of us. Our fortunes are intertwined, and their hate is- it’s not very targeted.”
“Not hate,” I said.
They looked my way.
“It’s easy to see it as hate, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” I said. “It’s not that. It’s blame.”
“Blame,” Fume Hood said.
“I don’t think it’s a reflection on you. Humanity is hurt. It’s hurt in a way that makes it a little bit animal. Reactive. They’re snapping at any target that presents itself, because the hurt is fresh. They’re taking that hurt and they’re looking for anyone they can put it onto. You…”
I trailed off.
“We presented ourselves,” Tempera said.
“Not in a bad way,” I said. “This isn’t your fault.”
“I’ll get my water,” Fume Hood said, curt. She didn’t wait for a response, heading into the adjacent room, further from the front of the building.
Once Fume Hood was gone, Tempera nudged Crystalclear. “Keep an eye on them?”
Tempera gave me a nod before stepping out the door.
“Is Fume Hood going to be okay?” I asked.
“Who knows?” he asked.
“Trouble still isn’t imminent?”
Crystalclear shook his head. “At least fifteen minutes off. I’m thinking we should go get a better vantage point, see if I can’t spot any troublemakers.”
“Watch out for my guys,” I said.
“Watch out for what?”
I glanced at the door. “Blame.”
“Got it,” he said. “I shouldn’t stick my neck out or draw attention to myself, then?”
“Not unless I’m there.”
“And where will you be?” he asked.
I looked at the other door. The one Fume Hood had taken. “I was thinking I’d get a glass of water. Unless you think that would be overstepping.”
He looked in the direction Fume Hood had gone. His voice was soft as he said, “I have no fucking idea.”
“I’ll catch up with you,” I said, clapping a hand on his shoulder in passing.
The area adjacent to the conference room was a kitchen, set up with multiple stovetops and long counters. Catering-focused, at a glance. The stoves were of different makes and models. Scavenged.
Fume Hood was standing by the sink, a glass of water in hand. She looked at me, her eyes barely visible with the surrounding mask and the overhanging hood.
“Can I grab some water? The bus ride was warm, even with the windows rolled down.”
She filled a glass, then slid it along the counter to me, so it met me halfway as I made my approach.
“What was the plan?” I asked.
“Corporate? Sponsored? Ideology-driven? There are a lot of those nowadays. Move forward, rebuild, hold to the past, unity in strength, religion…”
“No ideology,” she said. “No sponsorship. No business partnerships. I’m not even sure what we would have done about the money.”
“That can be hard,” I said. I drank my water.
“It wasn’t supposed to be easy.”
I finished my water, then approached the sink to get more. Fume Hood turned around, leaning against the counter just beside me.
She said, “It was community focused. Serving the area, hometown heroes like the old days. I thought of it as community service, in more than one way.”
“I like that,” I said.
She shrugged. “I’m not sure if there’s anything to like about it.”
“It’s a good idea. It sounds positive. Maybe it’s worth trying again later.”
“It won’t come together again like this later. Tempera is pretty good at this whole thing, and she needs to do the cape stuff, so she’ll find a team to join. Crystalclear will get poached because decent thinker powers are in demand. Longscratch… I don’t know why he’s even here. Tempera suggested it to him, for some reason, he accepted for some reason. He’s upset it fell apart. Next time, he’ll just say no. He’ll steer clear so he doesn’t have reason to get upset again.”
“Mover psychology?” I asked.
“I don’t know about that stuff. I just know he’s a weird mix of wants and needs and he’s really cool when things are good and he’s impossible to understand when they aren’t. Which they aren’t.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be sorry if you knew,” she said. She stood taller, stretching a bit. She tossed the empty glass between her hands. “It’s my fault.”
“You orchestrated this?” I asked.
“I hurt a pregnant lady and she lost her child and I don’t even feel that bad about it,” Fume Hood said. “I turned myself in, but it was because people thought I’d become a PR problem for capes in general. I’d run out of friends and places to run to. It seemed like the only way to get things to cool down.”
The glass smacked against each of her hands as she tossed it back and forth.
I drank my water, still watching her.
“I’m pissed,” she said. “People are making such a big deal over this, and I can’t bring myself to see it their way. It was an accident. I told the civilians to sit and stay put, and this stupid-”
She stopped there, clenching her fist.
Fume Hood continued, “-stupid fucking woman. She ran right to where I was shooting out a display window, gets knocked on her ass, breathes in the gas.”
“I wonder what she was thinking,” I said.
“I’ve wondered that every day since. I’m mostly caught between thinking she wanted to get hurt and lose the baby, it was so blatant, or that she thought the broken display window was an escape route, even though there were others she could have run for,” Fume Hood said. “I was so pissed. I shouted at people to take her outside and get her some fresh air, even though I knew it made everything harder with the robbery. They’d contact authorities, we’d have to protect ourselves, whatever. I thought I was pretty fair. She got medical attention and shit.”
“Could have been worse,” I said.
“I shouldn’t have pulled that robbery at the mall. I know that. But it’s not one of my big regrets. Her being a stupid fucking idiot isn’t one of them either, obviously.”
“You turned yourself in after that.”
“The heat got too much, like I said. And- and I was tired, you know?”
Her voice had cracked on the ‘tired’.
She sounded tired now.
“It had been years, trying to get by. A lot of it was fun. The drugs, the robberies and mercenary work, the adventure, new places and really interesting people. Some shitty people, lots of scary people, but they were always interesting. Capes are interesting in a way you probably wouldn’t get if you didn’t know any for real.”
“I grew up with capes,” I said.
She stopped passing the glass from hand to hand, holding it in both instead. “Did you? Huh.”
I shrugged. My glass was empty. I put it on the counter and, finger on the inside, spun it in a circle, the bottom rattling on the metal countertop.
She continued, “Well, all I know is, the crime stuff started to feel like work. The drugs stopped feeling like they were a plus and started feeling like they were something I had to do. I was never addicted, I never craved it, I never had withdrawal after. This analogy I’ve been thinking of is it’s like I had to go to the bathroom every half hour and who wants to do that, you know? Who wants to keep interrupting their day for something they aren’t even enjoying anymore?”
“No idea,” I said. “But I can see what you’re saying.”
“The cool people started dropping away. A couple dead, others just stopped being cool. High people are really boring to be around. So like a genius, I thought hey, let’s just go to prison. I made a deal. I wanted a bit of an education, training at some job or another, safety, I didn’t want to be stuck in there too long.”
“How’d it work out?”
“Deal worked out fine. Judge agreed, heroes agreed, it was one less parahuman on the streets that people were really upset about. Jail isn’t fun, but it was what I needed, I think.”
“Shows character, I think,” I said. “Realizing where you were at, where you were headed, and changing course.”
“I don’t have character,” Fume Hood said. “It was selfish and self-centered. It was me, me, me, I’m bored, I’m done with the drugs, I’m scared of being caught by angry people, I want this deal, I want some education. I don’t and I never cared about that pregnant idiot.”
She met my eyes as she said that last bit.
I spun the glass on the countertop again. “The community service hero stuff?”
“Me, me, me,” she said, her voice quiet. “I thought it gave me the best chance of dodging any lingering heat. Ha.”
I took my finger away from the glass. It spun in a circle before settling with a rattle.
“I don’t buy it,” I said.
She shrugged, tossing the glass into the air, catching it.
“You said before that you have real regrets,” I said. “And you can call yourself selfish, but I think the dots connect here. Your reasons, your regrets.”
She tossed the glass into the air, caught it.
She did it a few more times.
“We should go,” she said. “Check on the others. Do our part.”
“We should,” I said.
The water from the faucet we’d used deposited a fat droplet on the metal bottom of the large sink, producing a hollow sound. Neither of us budged.
“I got friends into the soft drugs and I egged them on instead of stopping them when they got themselves into the harder stuff. I regret that, I turned myself in for that, even though I was supposed to be serving the punishment for the pregnant woman. For other stuff, more on that level. I turned myself in for the” -she took a deep breath, as if to signify magnitude- “years of being a low to mid tier nusiance. For being tiresome. And because I was tired of it.”
“I’m not a priest,” I said. “I don’t have the power to say some words and absolve you. It’s up to society to decide how angry they are and how they come to terms with it. It’s up to you to decide how willing you are to face your deeds. When it comes to me… I can say I respect a lot of what you’re saying. I definitely think you should own up more to what you did to that woman, stop calling her stupid. It’s not a point in your favor.”
Fume Hood nodded.
“Honestly,” I said, “I really like the community hero idea. I’d really like you to try it again, after a bit. For that to be your way of working through it all, from influencing your friends to hurting that woman. We’re dealing with blame, not hate, and blame finds a place to roost eventually. There has to be another shot at making this happen.”
“Blame seems like too small a word for what Crystal was saying.”
“Blame can be big,” I said. “Blame has led to the ruin of nations.”
She nodded. “That sort of helps, actually.”
“I’m glad to have sort of helped.”
“Blame can become something else, given time, can’t it?” she asked.
“It can,” I admitted. “I’m spooked at the idea it will. For now, just… be a hero,” I said. “Don’t walk away from this sort of thing for good.”
“You guys keep saying stuff to me, like, don’t run off, don’t sacrifice yourself, be a hero, as if it’s implied I’ve got ideas I haven’t said out loud.”
“You’re a self-described shitty person and an ex-villain. We’re not allowed to be suspicious?” I asked.
That got a half-smile out of her.
“Come on,” I said. “I’m getting worried about my guys and I’ll get yelled at by my boss if I leave them to their own devices for too long.”
“This is your thing, then?” she asked. She followed me as I left, setting her glass next to where I’d left mine. “You joined the junior-PRT to convince shitty people to be less shitty?”
“On the most basic level, I got into this because capes are what I know,” I said.
“Because you grew up with them.”
“Yeah, but keep that under the lid for now,” I said. “I’m not broadcasting it to the world.”
I pushed the door open, stepping back into the now-empty conference room. “I want to help. I could have helped with construction or farming or whatever else, but like I said-”
“Capes are what you know.”
“Yeah. I knew so many great people and I don’t know if all of them made it, but I want to be in a position to help them through whatever comes next. I want to figure things out, because the lack of answers is what fucks us over, and fucks them over. I want to talk to people like you, if you happen to be on the fence, so maybe you land on the side where you’re more likely to help out those really cool, great people.”
“I thought you junior-PRT kids were all about training so you can go after the monsters.”
She’d created a hard green sphere, the size of a billiard ball. She tossed it between her hands as she had the glass. It smacked against each palm.
I answered her, “Don’t get me wrong, but I have pretty strong feelings when it comes to the monsters. I’m pretty far from being okay with them.”
She gave me a sidelong glance while opening the door to the main room.
“But I don’t think you’re one of them,” I said. “Sorry, but you’re safe from me.”
She threw the ball to the right, but instead of smacking into her palm, it curved in the air, orbiting her hand in a long ellipse as a moon might a planet.
“What a relief,” she said. She was smiling a bit more, now.
The smile faltered a bit more as we faced the situation at hand.
Some of the police had come inside. My guys were standing near the windows, looking out. Some were talking to the police.
A share of the crowd had remained behind. Community leaders, possibly.
Fume Hood hung back as I approached them all.
“You’re in charge?” a police officer asked. He had a mustache. It bothered me, because I’d never really got mustaches, barring the truly awesome ones. This was lip decoration, bristly and at odds with how his hair was combed back and close to his head.
“Yessir. I’m Victoria, I take my orders from Instructor Gilpatrick at Wayfair High School.”
“They said you told them to follow our orders?”
“Or to keep a lookout for trouble. There’s still people here? Is there a problem?”
“No,” the officer said. He sighed. “I don’t know what to do with them. Yours or with the others. Situation seems to be resolving itself, but the teenagers in uniform are insisting it isn’t.”
“The capes say it isn’t,” I said. “I’d believe them.”
“Huh,” he said.
I took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, while the officer took a look around at the situation.
“Haven’t you talked to them?” I asked. “The capes?”
“A little bit,” he said. “Not recently. I don’t really know how.”
“They’re people,” I said. “Capable people who want to help.”
“They’ve got the eye thing, and the masks. One doesn’t have eyes at all,” he said. “He has these crystals. He pulled one out of the top of his head earlier, and it made a wet sound. It was in so deep it should’ve been inside his brain.”
“They’re people,” I said, again.
“It’s disconcerting,” the man said.
I wanted to say things to that, but I bit my tongue. I could hardly criticize when I’d been talking to Fume Hood.
I’d just- I’d really hoped for better.
“If you need me to be a liason, let me know,” I said. He didn’t give me an immediate response, so I called out to the squaddies. “Get back from the windows, guys! The working theory is a bomb, heavy impact, cape power, or something like an earthquake, and you don’t want your nose pressed against the glass when it comes!”
They shuffled back.
“Bomb?” the officer asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Can you get everyone here clear of danger?”
“To somewhere inside or further outside?”
I looked around. Crystalclear and the others hadn’t come to find us, so I was left to imagine the danger wasn’t super imminent. Inside posed risks.
I didn’t like making the calls, but I said, “Outside, but hurry it up. If there’s any remaining crowd outside, get them further back or get them to go.”
“Alright,” he said. “Makes sense.”
He whistled for the attention of his people and the crowd that had gathered closer to the front door.
While he handled that, I looked at the others, “Where’s Jasper?”
“Still out there. He has Mar and Landon with him. The crowd is in their way.”
I hurried to approach the window. I could hear a commotion behind me, as others entered the room, but my focus was on the commotion outside. My view was briefly blocked by the cops and the people they were leading outside and across the street to our left, away from both the building and the lingering protesters.
“Victoria,” Crystalclear said, behind me. He was with a small few members of the community center staff, including the district rep, and he had Longscratch and Tempera with him.
He would be here because trouble was imminent.
“How soon?” I asked.
“Two impacts in a couple of minutes. Six or seven.”
Two. Six or seven minutes gave us a window to act.
I watched the scene in progress through the window. Jasper wouldn’t make it to the front door in two or three minutes. Some of the protest had dispersed, but a lot of it had spread out from the square of grass, sidewalks, fountain and trees just in front of the community center, dotting the streets. A share of them occupied the street Jasper needed to come down to reach us, and a lot of them had their back to him. He honked, not for the first time, and one of them gave him the finger.
“I’m going to help Jasper out, get us our bus so we can drive out of here without being mobbed,” I said. “Is there a side door?”
Crystalclear pointed at what would have been the south side of the building, to my left.
“Go there, stay clear of windows. Protect my people, keep them clear of danger. The moment there’s real trouble, they’re just high schoolers and should be treated as such. High schoolers- you guys protect Fume Hood. Protect the capes. Be good.”
“Do you need help?” Tempera asked.
She couldn’t help. She would cause more problems than she fixed, being in costume.
No. I shook my head, heading to the front door.
Was this an emergency? Yes.
Did I like using my power? No.
I marched toward the bus, glaring at the first person in my way. I activated my aura.
“Move,” I said, and I pushed out with my power. Heads turned, noticing. Maybe they would put their finger on why they’d noticed. Maybe not. I was nudging, here.
I could see the man’s reaction. He took a partial step back.
I stepped it up a notch, not with more use of my power, but by raising the volume of my voice. “Out of the way!”
He got out of the way. That and me drawing nearer made it easier for the next person to come through.
“Bus!” I called out to Jasper. “Get moving! Side door to the right of the building! South side!”
People looking back at the bus and back to me had more pressure to deal with. That was easier. They got clear of the bus’ path.
The one who had given Jasper the finger, though, he had just a little bit more to prove. I put my hands on him. I pushed him, and he resisted.
I pushed him with my aura, small, closer to center, a pulse of intimidation just for him, to break his posture and resolve. My hands pushed him the rest of the way. He landed on his ass.
He wasn’t wholly out of the way, but Jasper was able to drive up on the sidewalk. His door was open and the stairs leading up to his seat were there. I hopped up, grabbing the bar that the driver used to climb into the seat, hanging off the side.
“Things okay?” he asked.
“They’re about to be not okay,” I said. “We’ve got four or five minutes, probably. I want to be gone by-”
Jasper’s two passengers, Mar and Landon, were at the window behind Jasper’s seat. They were looking out and over my shoulder.
I turned to look. In the crowd, a man was standing there, shuddering. People were backing away from him.
He wore a black hooded sweatshirt and black pants, and he stood so the hood hid his face. His arms were at his side, vibrating. Head, arms, body and legs all moved like he had a paint shaker wedged up his ass, moving more violently by the second.
Building up to something.
“Take cover!” I shouted the words.
Some people did. They ran, they sprinted for mailboxes, for trees. But it was too open an area for everyone to find something.
I threw up my personal forcefield, shielding Jasper, my arm out toward the windows the other two were looking at.
The man in the crowd exploded, showering the crowd with chunks of bone, flesh, and a mist of blood. More than should have been contained in a human body. Some of the windows in the bus had cracked, and my forcefield was down.
The people over the square of grass, around the fountain, on the sidewalks and the streets surrounding the explosion all stood, calm.
Streaked with blood, they looked around, every single head turning left, then turning right. All in unison.
“Drive,” I said.
Jasper stomped on the gas.
Further up the street, the cops that had been evacuating people from the building and across the road were standing near the street. They’d been touched by the gore-explosion, and now they were drawing their guns.
“Don’t hit them!”
“I’m not going to hit them!” Jasper called out, swerving so the side and then the rear of the bus was between us and them.
It hadn’t been five or six minutes yet. It couldn’t have been. The building hadn’t been hit yet.
I climbed up higher, standing on the headrest of Jasper’s seat to reach a higher point on the bus, looking over the roof.
The worst possible location.
An eighteen wheeled logging truck was coming down the road. The front had been reinforced with metal braces. It was coming from the direction of the water, only four hundred or so feet of road between the waterline they’d started near and the community center, but it was going full speed, straight for the side door.
“Fuck me.” Jasper’s voice.
Even if Crystalclear saw-
“Hit it!” I called out.
“What? Are you insane?”
“Hit it! The others are waiting on the other side of the door!”
I scrambled to get in position.
“Trusting you,” Jasper said, and the bus picked up speed.
You shouldn’t, I thought.
I had one partial glimpse of the inside of the truck.
And then the impact.