There was no way to process the series of collisions that followed me hurling myself down between the logging truck and the school bus. My focus was on deflecting the impact, clawing at the logging truck with everything I had to try to put it off course, before the bus made contact and hopefully moved it further. As the two vehicles came together, I extended my whole body, trying to push them apart in a way that would keep the collision from being the head-on sort that might kill Jasper.
In no particular order, the school bus hit the logging truck, the logging truck hit the school bus and the wall, and I, my forcefields down, hit the ground rolling.
I came to a stop and lay where I was, face down. I felt the sting of the scrapes where I’d come into contact with the road, and waited for the real pain to start. I wanted to know where the real damage was before I moved the wrong part and made it worse. My ears rang from the sharp noises and impacts. Playing dead helped, too, because the villains were rousing, opening the door of the truck cab, glass tinkling down to the street below.
“What the hell?” someone asked. They were younger- probably teenager. I couldn’t pinpoint if they were male or female.
“Are you okay?” a deeper voice asked. The nature of the voice made me think brute. “Any injuries?”
“I think I have whiplash,” the teenager said. “I wasn’t expecting that. What the hell?”
“You were intercepted before impact. It looks like teenagers in uniform. With a bus.”
“I can see that,” the teenager said.
“You missed the side door you were supposed to drive through.”
“I can see that too,” the teenager said.
“I can’t tell what you’re looking at, Blindside. Let me know if you need help. Snag?”
“I’m fine,” was the response, a rasp. I heard metal creak.
“Your arm isn’t,” the teenager said. They would be Blindside, going by what the Brute had said.
I heard the sound of someone hopping down to land on the street, not all that far away from me. Metal struck the road shortly after.
I only saw a glimpse of him. Work boots, a long coat that hung down low enough that it almost looked like his legs were only two feet long, and arms long enough that his wrists made contact with the ground. The hands rested flat on the road, fingers splayed. He wore gauntlets.
I wanted to see something more than just his feet, but as I started to raise my eyes, looking through the hair that had come loose from my braid, my eyes were forced down, until they were staring at the road. I heard the scrape of another person’s feet as they climbed down from the truck to the street.
“My fucking neck,” Blindside said. The person in question.
Try as I might, I couldn’t look at them. My eyes and head refused to cooperate and do what was necessary to put them in my field of vision.
“Don’t complain,” said the Brute.
“You weren’t on the truck. You don’t get to tell me what I can or can’t complain about. Fuck, I wasn’t expecting that hit. Did both K.C. and Nursery fuck up?”
“The timing was wrong,” a woman said. Nursery, I assumed.
There were so many of them. The Brute, Snag, Blindside, Nursery, and K.C.- I really hoped that K.C. was the mass-master I’d seen in the crowd. If they weren’t, then there were six of them in total. Six and the crowd that the exploding parahuman had control of.
We had four capes on the inside, me, and a bunch of high schoolers, some of whom had guns. None of whom, cape or student, that I wanted involved in this conflict.
The five or six attacking capes wouldn’t be attacking like this if they weren’t sure they could win.
“Don’t be stupid,” Snag said, his voice a rough growl, volume raised.
He wasn’t talking to me. He was directing that at Jasper and the other two.
Drive away, I thought, willing Jasper to think the same. Be okay, drive away. Leave me.
I heard the chugging of the bus, the battered engine protesting as the vehicle started to reverse, pulling away.
At the edge of my Blindside-limited field of vision, Snag’s metal, long-fingered hand lifted from the ground. He leaped toward the bus without making the movements necessary to jump. I didn’t want to move my head and risk being seen just to see him land, but I heard the metal-on-metal sound, the impact of a heavy body on the hood.
Every set of eyes, mine excepted, had to be on him and the retreating bus. It was an opening, and it was an opening our side opted to use. The side door of the building opened without a sound. Fume Hood and Crystalclear were in the doorway.
Crystalclear threw a chunk of crystal at the ground, and the chunk passed through without sound or apparent impact. Fume Hood had six green orbs with her, all around her hand. She sent one out in the direction of the bus, then, a moment later, sent a second. Both exploded, off to one side.
Crystalclear’s shot passed through walls. Tempera had let me know that. Apparently, it needed to pass through walls, or the ground in this case. He’d thrown it into the ground, and a moment after Fume had released her two shots, both landing, Crystalclear’s shot emerged from the ground, an explosion of vapor, glass splinters, and fragments of road.
One of the villains, the Brute, only laughed.
Fume Hood paused, her four orbs around her hand. Her head was turned so she could only see me with one eye- Blindside’s power was limiting them there.
Through the hair that had fallen over my face, I could see Fume Hood look at me. Making eye contact.
I couldn’t see the villains, so I knew the action was risky. I had to hope they were more focused on her than on me.
I raised my head up and motioned for her to go, moving one hand, swiping my fingers toward her.
The pattern was much the same as with her first shot. One shot, then firing the remaining three all at once. One to gauge how it would fly, then the rest to deliver the hit.
They slammed the door shut, just before the three near-simultaneous explosions. The detonations were small and sharp, and produced a wind that blew my hair away from my face. I held my breath.
The Brute laughed again.
I really didn’t want to pick a fight with four capes at once. The bus was gone, the door was shut.
“This is going to slow us down,” the Brute said.
“You don’t have to sound so happy about it,” Blindside said.
The Brute chuckled, and climbed down from the roof of the truck, and in the doing, he put himself between me and Blindside. It blocked my view of Blindside, and it gave me a chance to get a glimpse of him. The ground smoked around where his boots touched pavement, and the smoke solidified into formations that looked like branches and twists of metal, all in an ashen white-grey. His entire body was made of the stuff, as if he wore armor made of white-grey bandages made solid and immobile by resin, all of the ends curling up and away from him in horns or branches.
I knew him, even just seeing his legs. Or I knew of him, to be precise. Yeah, based on what I knew of Fume Hood’s group, they might be outclassed.
The big guy was the Lord of Loss. There were two ways a cape could go with a name like that. The most obvious was to fuck up just once, and forever after have people wondering out loud what he was thinking, taking a name like that. Being called a loser.
The other way was to succeed and ascend the name, to take that name and make it a title. The Lord of Loss had managed that.
He had been one of the villains in a big city on the West coast, and now he was one of the villains running a settlement on one of the corner worlds. Was it Earth-N? Not far from here, if it was. He wasn’t top tier, as capes went, but he was A-list.
He was a Brute with Breaker flavor. He cloaked himself in abstract forms, with a set selection. I knew one resembled a bird, which he would have been using to fly alongside the truck. He was versatile, big, strong, and his breaker power multiplied his efforts over time. That multiplication played into how he flew, how he grew, and back before Gold Morning, a few occasions where he’d been able to slug away at a bank vault until he’d torn it open, or even drag a smaller vault away with him.
He turned his attention toward me, turning around and approaching me as the others backed away from the cloud of gas. My chin jerked toward my chest as Blindside stepped out to the side, back in my field of view.
I would’ve rather had just about anyone else step close enough for me to get my hands on them. It had to be the guy I couldn’t take out of the fight.
“Miss,” Lord of Loss said. “Are you injured?”
I couldn’t pretend to be unconscious- I’d just moved because of Blindside. I settled for an inarticulate, small moan.
Lord of Loss knelt beside me. “Can you walk?”
I shook my head, keeping the movement small.
“Is it because your back is hurt? Can you feel my hand, here?” he asked.
I felt his hand touch my knee.
I nodded, again, small. I screwed up my face, feigning more pain than I was in.
I didn’t like this. I didn’t like being so close to the guy, I didn’t like the scrutiny, the eyes on me, the attention. I didn’t like being treated like I was an invalid. I didn’t like suppressing my forcefield and aura.
I didn’t like being still.
It was easier to keep my composure if I was moving, doing.
“Blindside,” Lord of Loss said. “Watch her.”
“You were always going to be the lookout, with Kingdom Come helping. We stick to the plan. We’re going in, we’ll get our target, you’ll be the lookout, and you’ll look out for this junior soldier while you’re at it.”
“Pain in the ass.”
“Plans change,” Lord of Loss said. “You’ll learn that sooner or later. Our clients hired us to capture an ex-villain who made a bystander lose her child. I don’t think they’d be pleased if we let another bystander get hurt while we carry out the task.”
“Yeah, no, I get it. Just go. Let’s get this over with.”
“Keep an eye out for the vehicle with the other soldiers. They drove in Kingdom’s direction. If they can’t get through or around, they might come back.”
“I get it. It’s fine. Go. I can handle my shit.”
My eyes had closed, because it kept my head from being jerked around as Blindside kept compelling me to move to avoid seeing them, but I could tell when Lord of Loss moved away, as the bulk of his body ceased blocking the light of the sun above us.
“Snag,” Lord of Loss said. “Any injury?”
I heard a cough. “No.”
“Then go with Nursery,” Lord of Loss said. He paused. “Kingdom Come?”
“It’s time. Move in,” Lord of Loss said. “I can’t go inside, so I’ll take the roof, I’ll watch the other sides of the building, and do what I can to help.”
I cracked my eyes open. Nursery and Snag were walking up to the door. Lord of Loss was breaking into pieces, his arms spreading out as the wispy smoke formed into the ‘feathers’ of his wings. He wasn’t fast at all as he started to flap, lifting off the ground.
That would be the downside of his breaker power. It let him hit harder every time he hit something, and that included the beats of wing against air, but it took time.
Still, it let him move in the direction of the roof. He paused, circling, as Snag raised one long arm and pushed at the door. White paint leaked around the doorframe.
“This would be why I’m here,” Nursery said, her voice soft. She began humming, and it was a lullaby sort of hum.
A music box sort of chiming joined the humming.
“Fuck that shit,” Blindside said. I was the closest person to them as they stood somewhere near me. I lay near the butt end of the eighteen wheeler, which had its nose in the wall of the building. Nursery and Snag were at the door. I wasn’t sure if Blindside was talking to me.
The humming seemed to be picked up elsewhere, and the music box noises intensified, with new notes and a higher tempo. The area near the door blurred. It was a window into another world, what had to be a pocket dimension, but for the most part it seemed unsure if it was our world or the pocket world.
An indoor setting, at a glance. Beds and walls that didn’t line up with things in our world.
I felt Blindside’s hand on my neck. They felt for my pulse.
“Asshole is invincible, and so he doesn’t even think to get your gun from you. You’re lying on it,” Blindside said. “If I roll you onto your back, will it kill you?”
It was a question I’d heard variants of before, in a tone I’d heard before. A tone from someone that didn’t really care about me.
We’re going to roll you over now and check for sores. Is that alright?
We’re going to wash you now. Can you try to move this arm?
Can I get you anything? Would you like water, or something to eat?
Condescending, caring more about themselves, feigning concern or consideration. They just wanted to get on with their day. Even the ones that did care lost patience sometimes. Stubborn, aggressive people like me made it easy to lose patience.
I made myself be calm. I exhaled slowly, and the exhalation came out as a shudder. It wasn’t because I was hurt, but because the memories were close to the surface.
Blindside eased me onto my back, then I felt them touch my gun.
My eyes snapped open. My arm lashed out, one swing, mindful that they were probably just a fragile human being.
I didn’t make contact. Muscles in my arm wrenched, seized, and cramped as the entire arm locked up, just in time to keep me from touching them.
“Aha,” Blindside said.
I felt them grip my gun hard. My initial fumble to grab the gun ran into the same problem. My hand hit an imaginary wall.
The gun had a buckle keeping it in the hip holster. They hadn’t undone the buckle, and they weren’t able to pull the gun free before I jumped up to my feet, backing a short distance away. The hand pulled free.
I still couldn’t see them. My head was turned to one side, I had a glare on my face, and I walked slowly, keeping track of them by keeping them at the very edge of my field of view.
I imagined I looked a little feral, pacing as I was, trying to track them with my other senses, being unable to make eye contact.
I moved my hand experimentally. I hit the wall.
I couldn’t point at them, then. I couldn’t hit them, based on my earlier issue.
“What do they feed you shits?” Blindside asked. “You get thrown from a bus mid-impact and you have it in you to pull this? I’m impressed.”
The dreamy blur was disappearing, the way in closing behind Nursery and Snag. The background humming and chiming was fading.
I hoped the others were retreating, finding a place in the building they could hunker down until help came.
“Listen,” Blindside said. “I don’t want trouble. I don’t want to hurt a civilian. I’m keeping to the rules. Lie down, put your hands on your head, let me take the gun. I’ll give it back when I’m done.”
“You’re going to kidnap Fume Hood. I can’t stand by and let that happen.”
“You can’t do anything about it,” Blindside said. “We’re going to borrow them, then we’ll be on our way.”
“Borrow? You’re giving her back after? Unharmed?”
“Yep. Mostly unharmed. The woman who lost her kid wants to have words with her. Shout at her, make her feel bad. She and some others paid a lot of money to make it happen. Then we drop her back off somewhere near here and drive off.”
“For that, you drive a truck into a building and traumatize a crowd?”
“Intel said we were good to hit the building there, use that as our entry point. Scaring her was part of the deal, so was fucking her over,” Blindside said. “Stirring up the crowd, it doesn’t affect us much. We live in one of the corners. For her, it keeps her from finding any success.”
“For the sake of the woman who lost her child?”
“And she’s personally going to shout at Fume Hood there?”
“Fume Hood, Bad Apple, Horse Apple, Apple Cider, whatever you want to call her. Yeah.”
I nodded slowly.
“Just lie down. Let it be. Give up the gun, stop fighting, we do our cape shit and you carry on with your day. Police are under our control, nearest capes are half an hour away. This is the way it is sometimes.”
“The files I got when I accepted this job said the woman in question died,” I said. “The pregnant lady who lost her child.”
I nodded, my eyes still fixed on the ground, as close to Blindside as I could get. If they moved into my field of vision, a forced movement of my eye and head would let me know.
“At Gold Morning. Her home address was one of the cities hit hard. No sign of her after the fact. Authorities investigated when the word about this attack first came up. Which leads me to think you’re lying through your teeth.”
“People visit family, go out of town for work, have stays in the hospital… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people who narrowly dodged being in the wrong place at that one critical time.”
“Stop,” I said. “I caught you in one lie, let’s leave it at that.”
Blindside fell silent.
I heard a scuff. My head turned-was allowed to turn- as Blindside moved around to my side. I backed away a few paces.
I heard Blindside stop moving.
“Change your stance,” Blindside said.
“Your head is turned as far to the right as it can go. If I move to your right, the reflex is going to be to move your head further right. You could snap your neck. You’d probably close your eyes first, but I’d rather not risk it.”
I obliged, shifting where my shoulders were, so my left shoulder pointed at them. I was aware that it made it easier to circle behind me.
“And raise your chin a bit.”
“Why?” I asked.
I heard the sound of Blindside moving too late. I reached out to block or catch the incoming attack, and hit the wall where I couldn’t move my arm too far toward them.
Something swung at an angle that avoided my arm. I brought my forcefield up just in time for the thing to hit me on the chin. An uppercut with a blunt instrument that should have broken my jaw.
Before Blindside could recover or figure out what had happened, I went on the offense. I couldn’t hit them with my hand, I couldn’t point at them, but if I swung my hand at them, elbow jutting out-
I felt muscles seize, locking up. Blindside caught my arm, pushing me in the direction I’d already been going, and shoved me to the ground. Martial art.
The blunt instrument-I saw the tip of a metal bat- struck down toward my shin.
It rebounded off of the forcefield as the field came back. The metal sang.
“Ah fucking hah,” Blindside said. “Fuck me. You’re a cape.”
I lurched to my feet, putting some distance between myself and them.
Elbows didn’t work either.
The muscles in my arm and shoulder twitched with the lingering strain or sprain that had gone with the interruption.
I backed away until my forcefield came back up. I drew in a deep breath.
“You’re full of surprises,” Blindside said.
I undid a buckle and pulled my armored vest over my head in one smooth motion.
“That’s not very surprising though,” they said. “I can see where you’re going with this. I’ve been at this a few years. Some of the workarounds and tricks are getting old by now.”
I shifted my grip so I held the vest by the shoulder.
“The bus is back. Are they capes in disguise too?”
The bus was back? I couldn’t see without looking past Blindside, and I didn’t want to lose my bearings.
They were watching then?
Well, I imagined Blindside made it hard to watch.
I swung, using the vest as a bludgeon. My arm stopped, but the vest continued.
I felt hands against my back, gripping the back of my top. Another move, Judo or Aikido, stepping into arm’s reach, too close for the vest to hit me, trusting their power to keep my arm from hitting them, and throwing me to the ground.
I used my forcefield, and I used its strength to arrest the movement, stopping myself. A bit of my flight.
With Blindside directly behind me, I drew my gun, and I turned to the right this time, swinging out with gun in hand.
“Nope,” Blindside said. “That won’t-”
I dropped the vest, my hand going to my ear, and I fired the instant my arm stopped moving. I shot the stone wall of the community center eight times.
The volume of it was such that I only barely heard Blindside’s exclamation of pain. My ears rang- but the gun had to have been right next to the villain mercenary’s ear.
This was how I operated. Even if I was trying not to be too blatant with others watching. I was trying to consider more before I acted and took this route, moderating myself.
Shock. Shake them on a sensory level.
I stooped low to pick up the vest, then swung it as I had before. Blindside stumbled forward, much as they had before, into my reach, both forearms pressing against my back.
I’d had to moderate my aura, back at the hospital. My mood darkened even thinking about that time, much as it had darkened when I saw myself in the mirror and remembered what I had been.
It took all I had to not let that darkness affect how I handled the aura. I’d told myself, so many times, I wanted to be better. Regrets weren’t worth anything if I didn’t let them drive me to do it better in the future.
For two months my aura had been one of the only real communication tools that I had, that didn’t require rounds of blinking and interpretation, or fumbling at a special keyboard with hands that didn’t map to how my brain thought my body should move. I’d had some practice with the nuance of it.
Blindside was pressing against my back, and my aura was stronger the closer people were to me. I controlled the aura’s expression to keep it small and more concentrated.
Awe. Catch them on an emotional level.
Blindside stumbled back.
I spun around in the other direction, and bludgeoned them with the weight of my vest, using it like a flail. They bounced off of the logging truck and collapsed.
Destroy was my usual third step. I hoped I’d held back enough. I’d wanted to disable only, but it was hard to know my own strength.
“You conscious?” I asked the villain. My own voice sounded far away, distorted, hard to hear over the ringing.
I should have heard any response. I didn’t. Silence.
Blindside’s power didn’t let me check their condition, visually or otherwise.
I bent over them, fumbling, tracing their outline with the back of my hand, and finding walls even there, somehow. I found their head, medium length hair, and tried to press the back of my hand against their ear. My arm muscles seized.
I tried to use my knuckles to get into the ear, since I couldn’t use my fingertips without pointing or driving them toward Blindside, and I still hit the wall.
Blindside had been using something to communicate with others. If it was a walkie-talkie, phone, or earpiece, it wasn’t anywhere I could access it. Blindside’s power protected them.
The movement in the corner of my eye caught me off guard. The bus. The front corner was badly damaged, but it was chugging along somehow. I hadn’t heard it approaching. Where the paint had been black, it had broken away, revealing some of the bright yellow paint that it had once had, when it had been a school bus.
Jasper was waving his arm out the window, pointing. I could hear his shouts, but the words were muted.
The villains would have heard the shots.
I looked up, and I saw Lord of Loss at the roof’s edge. He’d turned himself into something resembling a tree. A static emplacement, less able to move, but with roots that would extend into the building and secure his position so he could leverage his full strength.
He was growing by the second, smoke billowing out and solidifying into branching points. He might just have the reach to hit us down on the street level, big as he was.
There were two entry points that weren’t windows. Two courses of action stood out to me. The first was to simply fly to a window, abandon Jasper. I’d lose my job, but I would have to trust they would leave and be safe while I did what I could to help Fume Hood.
But I had something I wanted to ask.
I motioned for them to come, to hurry.
There were two doors into the building that I knew about. The front door was no doubt seized by the mind-controlled army. The side door had been painted. I wasn’t sure I wanted to tear my way in and find out that the paint was a problem.
I didn’t want to charge in, only to find that they were securing their retreat. They’d be looking for trouble coming from either of the entrances after hearing the shots.
There might have been a third way in.
I ran toward the nose of the eighteen wheeled logging truck, and I climbed over the nose of it. It had collided with the wall, and it had done some damage.
Reaching up, I pulled at the damaged part overhead, and I leveraged the strength my forcefield provided to tear it away. I pushed at another part, widening the gap.
The bus parked so its nose was tucked into the corner between the nose of the logging truck and the wall. Jasper, Mar, and Landon climbed out of the bus.
“Are you okay?” Jasper asked.
I liked that it was the first thing he’d asked. Gilpatrick’s five pound of gun speech taken to heart. Less than five pounds of weaponry, more than fifteen pounds of protection, twenty five pounds of support and problem solving. Jasper’s first thoughts were on the latter. Those were supposed to be the priorities, the ratios.
“A bit of road rash,” I said, examining my arms. “Too much adrenaline to feel the pain.”
Shadows shifted. Lord of Loss had decided to detach from the roof, and was pulling himself together enough to start climbing down.
“Come on,” I said.
We ducked in through the gap, into a staff washroom. I couldn’t see the source of the water, but it pooled on the floor below. We passed through the door and into the hallway.
“So you’re a cape,” Mar said. He’d been the kid who’d sat behind me on the bus and made smug insinuations about my name and background.
I gave him a dark look. It looked like Landon was on his side.
“You’ve got blood on your upper lip,” Mar said. “It looks like you’ve got a mustache.”
“Fuck off, Mar,” Jasper said.
I rubbed at my upper lip with the side of my hand, looking back to make sure Lord of Loss hadn’t followed us.
I could hear the humming and the music box. Upstairs somewhere. I could hear people in the building.
“Jasper,” I said.
“I have to ask. How much of this is setup?”
“Setup?” Mar asked, incredulous.
“I know I sound paranoid,” I said. “I know if there’s a scenario or something, it’s probably against the rules to ask or answer, but I need the honest truth here, no bullshit.”
“You sound really fucking paranoid,” Mar said. “Holy fuck, you capes are screwed up in the head.”
“Shut up, Mar,” Jasper said.
“Just answer, please,” I said, my eyes fixed on the end of the hallway, watching for the mind-controlled soldiers. “Gilpatrick set me up with a bunch of new soldiers I don’t know that he can somehow vouch for, he insisted on them, and he sent me into a situation that was liable to get messy. It doesn’t make sense unless I somehow imagine I’m being set up to fail.”
“Fuck me,” Mar said.
“It’s not really setup,” Jasper said. “Gilpatrick explained before I left.”
I nodded to myself.
“They wanted to make sure you could be trusted. They thought they’d stick you with some objective observers for three, four routine jobs, make sure you stuck to the rules, grade you, leave it at that.”
Objective. I looked at Mar.
“And if I didn’t accept the job? If I’d told Gilpatrick I didn’t want to do this patrol?”
“He really thought you would,” Jasper said. “He told me that. He was a bit stuck, caught between superiors saying he had to make you or he couldn’t keep you on, and thinking you wouldn’t. Then you said yes.”
I frowned. One impulse. One spur-of-the-moment decision.
Cause and effect. Every time I acted on impulse, bad things happened. Some of the worst things had happened. People around me got hurt. I got hurt. Two years in the hospital.
It was so much of why I’d wanted to slow down.
“I’m pretty fucking glad you said yes,” Jasper said. “If it had been me in charge here I’m pretty sure most of us would be dead already.”
I exhaled. Deep breaths. I couldn’t fall into the mindset of dwelling on the past.
“You’re a good guy, Jasper.”
“I try,” he said.
I paused, thinking for a moment, listening to the noises elsewhere in the building.
I glanced at Landon and Mar.
“I’m a good guy too,” Mar said.
“Stay put,” I said, firm.
“You’re going alone?” Jasper asked.
“Yeah. Just find a corner of the building to hole up in. Hide, be safe.”
There was a balance to be struck. I wanted to think I’d reasoned this through, as much as I could with the time constraint, the enemy no doubt closing in on the capes. It was too risky to bring these guys with.
“Stay,” I said. “Be safe.”
I sprinted off, raising my forcefield for good measure.
I entered the kitchen by another door. Where I’d talked with Fume Hood.
Something exploded overhead.
I looked up.
Vapor, shards of crystal.
A moment later, there were two more small explosions, one after another, in a line.
Crystal clear, Crystalclear.
Not alone, then. I hurried in the direction indicated.