“The Wardens are cooperating with seven major cape teams and, last I checked, ten minor teams. We are not a monolithic entity. We are not an authority. We are not the bad guys, Julia.”
I rummaged through a cabinet. My life was in boxes, from my clothes to my hair and skin stuff to my files. If it were that alone, it would have been tolerable. I’d tried using logic and going to the most common sense places. Not in or among the dirty dishes, not in the various jars and vases of spoons and spatulas on the counter, not behind or under something. I’d checked the other rooms in the apartment.
“People are worried. You have Legend as a second in command, and memories aren’t so short that we don’t remember the Alexandria fiasco.”
I moved methodically through the kitchen, left to right, while the television played on a low volume.
“I can tell you this: all we want to do is help. We want to find the right capes for the major crises and we want to equip the teams out there with information and resources. “
“That’s admirable, but-“
“No, wait, hold on, Julia. You told me when you asked me to have a chat with you on camera that you wanted to have a conversation. Let me say this.”
I looked at the little TV in the corner of the kitchen.
“…that people are going to draw on what they know to fill the blanks, when they don’t have enough information. I understand that the closest parallel that many Americans draw to the Wardens is the PRT. Give us time to make our impression and show how we operate,” Chevalier said.
“Would you not say there are quite a few of those blanks when it comes to your organization?” the reporter asked.
“I accepted this interview because I want to fill some of those blanks.”
“Are you an open book, then?”
My eyebrows went up. That was dirty pool from reporter Julia. There was no way that question wouldn’t be followed by something that Chevalier couldn’t or wouldn’t want to answer, cornering him.
“Some of those blanks,” Chevalier said, stressing the ‘some’. “We’re still figuring things out, we’re still finding our footing and we’re negotiating a comfortable and healthy position with the public, the various teams under our umbrella, teams that aren’t under our umbrella, and the authorities. The lack of answers and the number of blanks isn’t me being evasive or underhanded. It’s that the Wardens and society as a whole have a lot of figuring out to do.”
He was good at what he did, and he did a lot. I wished I was in a position to study what he was saying and how he was fielding the questions, but I had more hunting to do.
I went back to the drawers I’d already checked, pulling out the cutlery drawer enough that I could check the back, behind the tray that held the forks and knives. I was too used to drawers having a mechanism that stopped them once they were pulled out to their limit, and I’d expected it to be longer, which led to me pulling the drawer straight out of its housing.
I only barely caught it, sticking my knee out under it and moving my hands to grab the sides. The cutlery rattled loudly, with a few miscellaneous cheese and holiday themed knives clattering to the floor.
“…would you say about the rumors circulating around Valkyrie, then?”
I put the drawer on the countertop, collected the fallen knives, and sorted through the contents, lifting up the tray to make sure nothing had fallen beneath. No luck.
I tried to put the drawer back, failed a few times before realizing that the construction wasn’t especially sturdy, and that the back end had pulled a bit loose. I fixed it, then resumed trying to put it back inside the hole it was meant for.
There was the saying: affordable, nice, or safe and sane. Pick one. It was a chronic problem with the speed they were trying to get buildings and houses up. Shoddy construction, rush jobs, cut corners, mistakes, and general ugliness were pretty normal. I was hopeful that in a little while we might be able to get to a point where it was ‘pick two’ instead of ‘pick one’, but we had a ways to go.
I tried to squeeze the end together where two pieces didn’t quite meet and simultaneously push it in with my stomach. It refused to slide in.
“What are you doing to my kitchen?”
Crystal was in the doorway, her hair a mess. She wore an oversized t-shirt and pyjama shorts, and she still looked half asleep.
“Did I wake you?” I asked.
“Uh huh,” she said, sleepy. “Don’t tell me you’re a morning person. That would be a problem.”
“I’m not. I’m a person who fell asleep early last night-”
“Almost right after eating. Yep. And now you’re up, showered, dressed, and you’re dismantling my kitchen. For reasons.”
“I woke up and thought I’d keep my normal work routine while I figure out what I’m doing.”
“Renovating my kitchen?”
“I’m trying to find scissors,” I said. “I’d settle for a sharp knife.”
Crystal smiled wide, her eyes still sleepy. She grabbed a glass from a cabinet, and she half-walked, half-floated across the kitchen.
“Don’t laugh,” I said.
“You’re such a cliche,” she said, as she passed me on her way to the sink. “Oh my god, Victoria. You’re that person with super strength that trashes everything she touches.”
“Just help me,” I said.
She reached over and helped me hold the drawer together. As it slid into the confines of the front of the counter, the framing held it together where the drawer’s own construction wouldn’t.
“I wasn’t using my super strength, for the record,” I said.
“Yeah. I’ve done that with the drawers before, I’m just making fun of you. It’s a funny image, to walk into the kitchen and see that.”
“Ah ha,” I said. “Then can I make fun of you for having two big jars of spatulas, whisks, spaghetti scoops, having two food processors-”
“One was a gift.”
“-And no scissors or shears anywhere I can find? I’d settle for a sharp knife. You have those steak knives, but they look nice and I don’t want to use them for the wrong thing and ruin them.”
She reached across the counter to get the package of bacon, holding it up. It was inside a hard plastic tupperware-like container with a small black and white label stuck to it. A mark stamped on it had it sourced from another world. Even without the mark, the pricetag might have given it away.
“Thought I’d treat you to breakfast,” I said. “Went for a walk to get some stuff.”
Still appearing half asleep, she moved one hand, creating a deep red forcefield behind the bacon, then she produced a thin laser from her fingertip, slicing off the end of the package.
She handed the bacon to me, open end up.
“You don’t have scissors?”
She shook her head, smiling.
I sighed, picking up the bowl where I’d already mixed the dry ingredients. “Fruit crepes, bacon on the side?”
“Sounds amazing,” she said, leaning against the counter, eyes mostly closed.
“You look beat,” I said.
“It was pretty unforgiving, being there. I timed everything so I could unwind starting with the barbecue, and unwinding didn’t happen.”
I nodded. “Sorry.”
“That’s not on you.”
“I’m still sorry it happened.”
“You slept okay though?”
“I slept a solid ten hours. I just… started sleeping at six thirty or something. Then I woke up, I started thinking, and I decided to be productive. I’m talking to some teams today.”
“If you want me to put a good word in with my guys, I’d be happy to.”
“I don’t want to do the quasi-military cape thing,” I said. “A little bit too intense.”
“Yeah,” Crystal said. “I’m so physically tired, two days out, that I’m not sure I would be standing if I couldn’t fly.”
I looked down at the ground. Her feet were barely touching the ground.
It wasn’t the physical intensity that worried me. It was the mental and emotional cost. It was the fact that when it came to the military and the military-like stuff, the trend was to beat the individual into shape. Organization, conformity.
I couldn’t take much more of the harsh lessons on identity or the forced redefining of the self.
“I’m just waking up, so forgive me if I got something wrong, but did you already find a place?”
I shook my head.
“You took the sheets off the couch.”
I looked over at the living room. There were boxes stacked around, and only half were mine.
“You said you might have friends over at some point, I thought it’d be weird if you had to navigate around my stuff, so I moved it out of the way.”
“Okay,” she said. She paused. “I’m tired, so I want to make sure I say this right.”
I went to the fridge to get the fruit stuff I’d already prepared.
“I don’t care,” she said. “First of all, I know I have a lot of stuff. You know I have a lot of stuff.”
I looked at the stuff around the kitchen and adjacent living room. It was a bit messy, to the point counter space and table space was occupied.
“Just- I really don’t care if you add your stuff to it. I like my places feeling lived in. Some of the stuff is a friend’s, and they’ll take it when they get set up. Some is mom and dad’s. Some is yours, and that’s fine. That leads me to my second point. I want you to be here. I want you to feel comfortable.”
“I know my couch isn’t much, but you need a place that you can kick your shoes off and leave them where they are.”
I might have mentioned that I wasn’t quite that personality type, but I held my tongue. I understood the sentiment, what she wanted.
“I want you to have a place that’s yours, Vic.”
“I’ll start by asking this: why not be independent?”
Foresight had a strong aesthetic running through their costumes. Primary among those things was a mask or helmet design where each of the members of the team lacked eyeholes. Helmets with opaque visors, masks without eyes. The aesthetic involved lots of paneled body armor and loose fabric elsewhere, with iconography worked into the panels. It made me think of ninjas from movies, with the mix of lightweight costumes and armor, but without the Eastern style.
Their team symbol was a stylized eye, sans pupil, with a wildly exaggerated ‘4’ struck out in bold lines that extended well past the curved lines of the eye.
I was wearing my best civilian clothes. I’d opted to leave the mask off. I sat in a chair. Two of them sat in chairs in the office, and another two stood at the side.
I gave my answer. “If I’m being entirely honest, independent doesn’t pay unless you’re really good. At the risk of sounding arrogant, in another time and place, I think I could scrape by because I do have that experience, I have the knowledge, and I can hold my own.”
“You don’t think you could do it now?” Countenance asked. He was the second in command and the highest ranking team member in the room. His outfit was heavier and draped more than the others, both in how the cloth hung loose and how the armor panels were connected so they dangled from the piece above. The Foresight icon was in the center of his mask, like a cyclopean eye.
“I know who Foresight is and how you operate,” I said. “I know you want to move forward, you’re interested in helping the little guys, tackling the right issues, and take decisive, needed action in a calculated, smart way.”
“You read our webpage.”
“I’ve been following Foresight since it started,” I said. “Whatever answer you give me today, I’ll be following you guys from here on out, because I think it’s important to know the lay of the land. Which goes back to what I was saying. Being calculated, being smart. I’ve been watching and researching you guys, and I’m sure you have the mentality where, from the time I reached out about an interview, you were looking me up and asking questions. Which means you heard about the incident at the Norfair community center.”
“Yes. We talked to your reference about it. I imagine he talked to you?”
“He didn’t, but he’s busy and this interview happened on short notice,” I said. “Everything that unfolded there and a lot of what I see elsewhere, it suggests that it would be really hard to make it as an independent. Too many want to blame parahumans for what happened, and both independents and fledgling teams are easily targeted. Established teams absorb and diffuse that impact. That aside, being part of a team, cooperating, having the information and sharing that information, it’s too crucial. That’s why I’m not going independent, given the chance. I want to help build something.”
Countenance nodded. He reached over to his friend, who handed over the paperwork he’d been reading. He looked down. “Your reference sang your praises.”
“He’s a great guy. I really respect what he’s trying to do with something as tricky as the patrol block.”
“Our problem, when it comes to assessing any candidate, is that each person we add to our teams is added strength, added power, but they’re also a possible set of complications. It forces us to strike a balance. We’re smaller than many of our peers because we’re selective. We want to make sure anyone we add will be a good fit, with minimal complications.”
“I reached out to Foresight first, to you, because I like how you do things. It’s what and who I want to be.”
“Then my next question to you would be what you think is going to happen next,” Countenance said.
“What I think is going to happen? I think trouble is incoming. We see hints of it, the out-of-control triggers, we hear about some scary monsters and then the big names go and try to handle it, then we have other circumstances where the big names are running off to go handle things that they don’t tell anyone about. I think those situations might be worse than the monsters. So far, Gimel is untouched by the worst of it. We’ve been on top of things. But sooner or later, something is going to hit us that we aren’t prepared for and can’t neatly handle.”
“What do you think happens then?”
“I think it depends a lot on us having the right information and tools.”
Beside Countenance, Anelace was nodding. Anelace was a young guy, his costume the opposite of Countenance’s in how it was tighter-fitting, his mask bearing a dark gray dagger illustration on the right side of the white surface in the same exaggerated style the ‘4’ was drawn on the emblem on his chest. The knotted area where hilt, blade, and the two prongs of the guard all met was located where one of his eyes would be.
“You said you know how we operate?”
“Support work with the megalopolis and police, patrols and events for the day to day. Several times a week you make calculated, strategic strikes on priority targets. It’s like what the Wardens are doing with the big, scary threats, but you’re more city-focused than whatever’s going on outside of Gimel. A lot of your members go on to work with them, which is why you have openings.”
“She does her research,” Anelace said.
“She does,” Countenance said. He said it in a way that suggested he was admitting it, almost reluctant.
My heart sank.
I looked over my shoulder. The two at the side of the room were Effervescent and Relay.
Effervescent was an emotion manipulator with an emphasis on stunning people. Relay was capable of some complex moves with teleportation I wasn’t sure I had a grasp on, most of which seemed to amount to them teleporting to where others were, shunting that person to a random position elsewhere, and he also had some ability to communicate without words, both sending and receiving.
“Can I ask?” I asked.
“Ask?” Countenance asked me.
I indicated the pair. “I get the impression they’re communicating something to you, and you sound like you’re winding up to tell me no. Both took some shifts at the portals, watching the refugees as they came in to make sure there was no trouble, which makes me think they’re thinkers, they read people, and they’re reading me.”
Countenance turned his head to fix the cyclopean, drawn eye on the pair.
“I can’t get a consistent read on you emotionally,” Effervescent said. “It’s repressed.”
“My long-time boyfriend was an emotion manipulator. He had a hard time getting a read on me too,” I said.
“I’m better than most when it comes to getting reads,” Effervescent said. “No offense, but it’s what isn’t as repressed that concerns me.”
“Enough you’d say no,” Countenance said.
“My read was fine. Minimal secondary noise.”
“Sorry,” Countenance said. “For reading you without permission. It’d be a point in your favor that you caught on, but-”
“But you have to put stock in what the others say. No hard feelings,” I said. I made myself smile as I stood from my seat. Countenance stood too. He shook my hand. “I’ll see you around, I hope we can work together then.”
“I hope so too. Good luck,” Countenance said.
“Let me get the door for you,” Anelace said. He jumped to his feet and opened the door for me. His voice was quiet as he said. “Sorry to see you go.”
The thinkers would have noticed that.
I wondered what Effervescent and Relay would be reporting about my emotional state as I left.
I stood from my seat in the waiting room.
The cape had a costume that looked like a suit, metallic silver fabric, with a black dress shirt underneath. His mask consisted of two panels that met and ran down the center of his face, creating an almost beak-like profile with how the two sides swept along the sides of his face and back. Not bird-like, but as if his entire head was the beak. The hair I could make out above the ‘v’ where the mask parted was longer and heavily styled.
It reminded me of the Ambassadors from Boston, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have worn suits as ostentatious as this, nor such a dramatic full-face mask.
“You didn’t come in costume?” he asked. He sounded surprised.
“I’m pre-identity adjustment,” I said, caught in trying to find my footing with my rehearsed explanation as I simultaneously crossed to where he was to shake his hand. “Moving on from the identity and methodology I had as a teenage heroine. I’m a blank slate, and there’s a lot of room to adjust my brand moving forward.”
“Are you ex-Protectorate?” he asked. “I might have missed that if it was in your application.”
“No. Ex-Ward, but only very briefly.”
“I only ask because you went straight to the term ‘brand’. I’m used to hearing it from people who were in the PRT and people from other corporate teams. I know I read your file and there was no mention of a corporate background. I’m Lark. You’ll meet Dido soon, all going well.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Lark.”
“My office is this way, if you’ll join me,” he said. He briefly touched the small of my back to guide me in the direction his other hand was indicating.
I was bothered by the contact. Unsolicited touching, the presumed closeness, and the fact it was a hot day, my back was damp from the walk and he would have felt that.
It was such an unnecessary thing and it made both of us uncomfortable.
“Brockton Bay,” he said.
“Yes. From birth to Endbringer and immediate aftermath.”
“A mom and pop small town team?”
“Aunt and uncle and cousins too,” I said. “Extended family. They passed the fifteen year mark with just donations and small events. I think that counts for something.”
“It’s better than what Dido and I have managed, but give us time. We have five parahumans on the team, and we’re already in the black when it comes to the business end of things.”
“I spent most of my childhood watching my mom balance the books, I did the events, the photoshoots, the merchandising as a PRT-acknowledged team. I have something of a sense of what you’re probably going for.”
“Ah, the merchandising. I think I have your PRT trading card from that time period in a binder in my office.”
I smiled. “Which one? I had one that was holographic, which you could swipe through the controller for the video game to have me as a polygon-rendered helper, and the higher quality one that had the bio on the back.”
“I think it was the second one. My office is through this door.”
I took a seat opposite the glass-top desk while he closed the door. He undid the button in his suit jacket before sitting down.
“Typically those of us at Auzure like to work with new parahumans,” he said. “They’re easier to brand. When we work with capes with a history, we like that history to be a strong one.”
“I think you get the best of both worlds with me,” I said. “Most people assumed I was dead when everything happened in Brockton Bay, and nobody corrected that misunderstanding. If you do dig up information about me, a lot of it is strong.”
“I think that’s where we run into problems,” he said. “A lot of your history and presence is tied into your family’s group identity. ‘Glory Girl’ isn’t famous beyond a certain range. Hometown heroine, yes, with some people in Boston and New York who might know of you, but not famous.”
“Then consider me new. Untainted by the past.”
“I would, but we use things we term perception turns, or just turns.”
“I know the term,” I said.
“I like that you do. Branding, turns. You do seem to know what you’re getting into here. When we’re tracking someone’s marketability, we map out the turns. You’re fine, nothing exceptional, for most of your career, with an upturn if you count your disappearance, after the Slaughterhouse Nine.”
I took a deep breath, then nodded.
“But if we include your family, there’s a lot of baggage.”
“You could say that,” I said.
“Downturn, death of Fleur. Downturn, times when New Wave was subsisting, but not in the eyes of the media.”
“Four adolescents and two couples, there were weeks where school or work took priority. That got better as my cousins and I got older.”
“Cousins… and your sister?” he asked.
I felt the shock like it was cold water.
He continued, “I think if it were up to the turns and the background alone, it would have to be a no. At the time you should have been drawing the most attention, given your age and potential, you… died, as you put it. You were gone for the two years before Gold Morning.”
“Yes,” I said.
“We’re offering cape services for the reconstruction, with Spell offering some massive assistance with the agriculture. It’s a big part of what’s driving us to the front pages, giving us some upturn in the most general sense, for public perception. What we really want is the human angle, something where we could have an attractive young lady like yourself in a photo op, or your sister-”
“No,” I said.
“Her and the right person in a photograph? If you two paired up, Auzure could make you big.”
I winced, and I stood from my seat.
They hadn’t accepted the interview to get me for me. I was just a stepping stone to the person they really wanted.
“Thank you for your time,” I said.
I managed to restrain myself from slamming the door on the way out.
“Thanks for meeting us out here,” Whorl said. He didn’t shake my hand, but instead reached out to clasp my wrist. I clasped his.
“Not a problem,” I said. I looked up at the structure that had been erected around the portal. It cast a shadow. “It’s nice to be in the shade, with a decent breeze.”
Whorl wore a blue mask with a white border around the eyes and outermost edge, and his costume was a ‘preppy’ bodysuit, complete with a folded collar, like a polo shirt, a narrow belt, and leggings. His icon was large on his chest, a circle with angled spokes at the edges. He had an armband with the gold morning symbol on it, but the colors were the blue and white of his costume.
He grinned, showing off white teeth. “You should have been here at noon. It was brutal.”
“The people weren’t too irritable, with the heat?”
All around us, people were coming through the portal, forming lines. There were buildings to the left and right of the street that people were heading into, to get the instructions and things necessary to start their lives in Gimel.
“I think they were happy for it,” Whorl said. “I’ve been going back and forth, and it’s miserable on the other side.”
“I just realized I got us started on a conversation about the weather,” I said.
“I’m kind of a weather manipulator, not really, but it’s fun to say. Talking about the weather happens more than you’d think, when it comes to me,” he said.
Again, that smile with those very white teeth.
“I read up on you online,” I said.
“Ah, did you? Should I be flattered or worried that I’ve been stalked?”
I was reminded of the segment on television, the reporter trying to corner Chevalier by getting him to claim a certain attitude.
“It’s not stalking,” I said. “I’m doing my homework, is all.”
I had to admit, the preppy look with the wide shoulders, narrow waist, clean cut and nicely taken care of, it appealed to me, and it had always. Not that I was even remotely thinking of actually moving forward with a relationship.
“I’m probably going to have to duck out and handle some minor crisis or another, but stick around and don’t disappear on me, we’ll find the time and figure out if we can place you with the Attendant.”
“That’d be great.”
“If I get caught up in something, find one of the others. Chat with them, they’ll tell you what they think of the team.”
There were a few other capes distributed across the crowd. It was interesting how people seemed so keen on them, even approaching them, happy to see them. The sentiment of blame hadn’t gripped the refugees here.
A teenager with a moon design on her mask and dress-like costume.
I saw a humanoid mech the size of a car, with a glass tank for the ‘body’, something large and fishlike within the tank. The mech sat on its ass, feet sticking out, and children were crowding around to tap the glass and climb on the feet. The tinker, as I took it, was the one sitting on the suit’s shoulder. Another cape was standing on the end of a rod, three stories above the ground, the end of the rod stuck into the side of the building. He looked stern as he looked down at the scene, his arms folded, until someone waved up at him and he waved back.
“Is that the whole team?”
“Not even close. With the teams merging, we’re taking on a lot of others. We’ll be breaking up into three sub-teams later, but all with the same name and brand.”
“I don’t know if I’m hurting my chances saying this, but I’m kind of crossing my fingers you guys are going with the Shepherd’s name and brand, but the Attendant’s approach.”
Whorl smiled again. “We might be.”
“I like the approach,” I said.
“How do you interpret it?”
“Giving people security. Moving slowly, with measured steps, informed by the lessons of the past. You guys seem pretty focused on taking and holding territories, improving neighborhoods. After what happened at the Norfair community center, I think giving people time to get used to capes again is key.”
“I think it might be,” Whorl said.
Above, the cape that was standing on the end of the horizontal pole whistled. As we looked up, he pointed.
“That’s my cue,” Whorl said. “No pun intended. I’ll be right back.”
Whorl headed toward the building that the people were filing out of, moving at a light jog, with a fog-like nimbus building at his shoulders and arms.
I looked at the various capes, debating my options. I worried that flying up to say hello to the one at the end of the pole would spook him and make him fall from his roost, and I wasn’t that keen on flying.
That left two options. The tinker or the teenage girl with the moon iconography.
I made my way toward the girl, because she had less people around her. The crowd was a bit of a tide I had to work against.
“Stuck?” I heard a voice.
I turned my head. It was a man with tattoos, a cleft chin and eyes that looked like he was perpetually squinting, even in the shade of the gate that housed the Bet-Gimel portal. He was talking to a couple.
“It’s a big decision. We’re not farmers.”
“It’s hard, getting started again,” the guy with the tattoos said. “The tent cities are rough, while you wait for an available apartment. You can work your ass off, earn fake ‘dollars’ that might not have value in a few weeks or months, you sweat, you hurt, and everyone around you is doing the same. Stinks, when everyone’s working that hard and getting only a few minutes to shower.”
“We’ve heard of things like that.”
“If you want another option, we’ve got a settlement at Canaan. Small city, even. Or a big town. We’ve got extra rooms, food, and dangerously strong alcohol. We’re still trying to figure that out.”
I heard the rustle of papers.
“Canaan?” I asked.
“Yes. Have you been?”
“I’ve heard stories,” I said. I turned to the couple, “I’m ninety percent sure the Canaan area is Fallen territory. Outskirts of the megalopolis.”
“We’re not really holding fast to all of that anymore,” the guy with the tattoos said. “We said the world would end, we tried to draw attention to it, the world ended, we were right. Now we make the best of things.”
“That seems like a pretty skewed take,” I said.
He rolled his eyes as he looked away from me. He turned back to the couple. “You have the directions. Easy to catch a bus to New Haven, catch another bus to the Hartford Stretch. Go to the address, we almost always have someone with a ride waiting there for the buses, to drive you into Canaan. The hard work has been done, it’s easier, it’s more fun, and there’s actual community. It’s one of the things that’s strangely missing from most parts in this city. You’ll notice that.”
“Maybe,” the guy from the couple said. “I’ll keep this.”
“McVeay, Crowley, or Mathers?” I asked.
The guy shot me an annoyed look. “What?”
“Which family branch were or are you?” I asked. I turned to the couple. “Three branches, each loosely themed after one of the Endbringers. There was a nascent fourth in twenty-thirteen that was based on one or all of the other three, but I missed the memo on that.”
“Crowley,” the guy said. “We were the jackasses.”
“McVeays were the ultra-religious, more violent ones, loosely themed after Behemoth,” I said. “Mathers were the ones themed after the Simurgh. They’re still around too, they did a lot of the kidnappings of kids and capes, with intent to force marriages. Then you have the Crowleys, who were a little bit more than jackasses. Stirring panic, scaring people, violence.”
“To draw attention to the imminent end of the world,” the guy with the tattoos said. “Do you want us to apologize for trying to get people’s attention and failing? Or should we not have tried? We were right.”
“Is there a problem?”
A woman’s voice. I thought it was the girl with the moons on her costume. It wasn’t. Another woman with tattoos, with friends. One of the tattoos was of a bat-winged schlong. Another was of a cartoon character I didn’t recognize getting spit-roasted, in the metal pole, open fire sense.
She had others, but I couldn’t see enough of them to tell what they were. I could guess they were similarly tasteful. Her top was tied at the sternum, exposing ribs and stomach.
“Just a bit of one,” I said. “You guys are openly recruiting from this crowd here?”
“Recruiting is an strange way to put it,” the guy with the tattoos said.
I looked at the couple. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Free rent, free food, drinks, company?”
“Cheap rent,” the woman with the tattoos said. “A lot of people stay just long enough to make some extra money while commuting to Hartford and paying rent to us.”
“All we ask is that people who decide to go make sure to tell people that hey, we aren’t assholes,” the tattooed guy said.
“We aren’t assholes!” the burly guys who were keeping the woman company cheered in near-unison.
“Which Crowley is in charge?” I asked.
“Hey, bitch,” the woman said. “Just move on. Fuck off.”
The cheering had drawn attention. The teenage girl with the moons on her costume approached, ducking beneath one of the burly guy’s arms. She spotted me, saw that last exchange, and drew close to me, putting one hand on my shoulder.
“You’re the one Whorl was talking to?” she asked.
“Take it from me, it’s not worth it. Come on.”
The guy with the tattoos smirked.
“You know they’re recruiting here, right?” I asked.
“We know,” she said. “We’ve drawn attention to it. We were told to keep out of it, so long as they behave.”
She put pressure on my shoulder, urging me to move. I took one step back.
I didn’t want to let this go. I would have more regrets if I walked away.
“Which Crowley?” I asked. “There were three brothers and one sister, last I heard.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the tattooed guy said.
“Eldest brother was a murderer, got ousted from the family for that, back in twenty-eleven, when the Fallen were still minor. But around the time their numbers swelled in twenty-twelve, early twenty-thirteen, he got accepted back, head of the Crowley branch. He killed two of his own family members after that. I think that matters a lot, since if he’s in charge, you can’t really call yourselves mere jackasses.”
There were a few more faces appearing in the crowd. Unfriendly.
The girl with the moon design leaned in close, murmuring in my ear, “They have someone with powers in the crowd. They send people out to fish for recruits, and if there’s trouble, they have these reinforcements summoned into the middle of the crowd and they’ll shout you down.”
“Okay,” I said. “Middle brother and the sister were pretty skeevy too. They didn’t kidnap anyone directly, but they networked with the other families, gave shelter to some McVeays who needed to duck the attention of the law, and they traded a few of their family members for some of the kidnapped minors and capes the Mathers family had. I’d be concerned about going to that camp.”
“The little brother,” the guy with the tattoos said.
“The party animal,” I said.
“That’s what we’re about!” were the shouts. There was more of a raucous response from the other reinforcements. Cries and shouts of ‘party’. People throughout the crowd were looking.
“He’ll try to steal your girlfriend before he makes you welcome!” I had to raise my voice to be heard. The people who were pushing forward made it harder for me to see the couple. “It’s not worth it. You can look him up at a library. Jake Crowley! Four wives, all half his age!”
There were shouts and bellows of denial, a few swears directed my way. One ‘cunt’, from someone close enough to have punched me if he’d felt the desire.
“Throw away the paper,” I called out. “It’s not worth it!”
With the press of bodies, I didn’t see the paper get thrown away. But I saw the guy hugging his girlfriend closer, I saw the fractional nod.
That was all I got. The moon girl pushed me harder, and I allowed myself to be pushed this time.
I walked backward out of the crowd, looking at the group. They were still making a lot of noise.
Whorl was waiting for me as I made my exit from the thicker part of the crowd. The mech tinker was standing on the head of his suit, now, and the suit was standing too, which gave him a decent vantage point overlooking everything.
“It’s going to take an hour before they settle down,” Whorl said. “What was that about?”
“Fallen recruiters,” I said.
“I know that much.”
“I wanted to make sure the people they were talking to knew,” I said. “Told them who the family was, how they operated, who the leader was.”
“You think they listened?” Moon girl asked.
“They might have,” I said. “I didn’t get the impression I was going to start a riot, so I thought I’d be okay trying.”
“Nah,” Whorl said, “Your impression was fine. No riot. They know to keep their hands to themselves, and just to be loud. They stick to the rules so they can keep coming back. We were told to let them, which sucks, but we have to work with the authorities.”
“I told her that,” Moon girl said. “That we were supposed to leave it be.”
“Before or after she stirred them up?”
“Before,” I answered for her. “I knew, I went ahead anyway.”
“I knew it would probably cost me my spot on the team,” I said.
Whorl nodded slowly.
“But if it stops one person from going over to that town of theirs… I guess it’s worth it.”
“It might have worked,” Whorl said, “But they’ve got the reinforcements, they’ll double down. They’ll try harder, make up for it.”
“You guys are all about learning from the mistakes of the past,” I said. “Paying respect to the casualties. You have to know they can’t be allowed to get a foothold. They’re too monstrous, and the people they’re going after are too vulnerable.”
“They have a foothold already,” he said. “We’re the guys who failed to stop the end of the world, and they’re the ones who were right about it. To some people that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter that they’re scumbags or that they’re dangerous. Not everyone, but even one out of every thirty is a lot.”
“We should go calm things down,” Moon girl said.
“Yeah,” Whorl said. “Distract the people from the tattooed hooligans.”
“Good luck with that,” I said.
“Take care, Victoria. Keep fighting the good fight, whatever you end up doing.”
I gave him a casual salute, two fingers of one hand touching my brow.
I braced myself, both in balance and emotionally, then took to the air, moving slowly. I raised myself up to the same level as the guy at the end of the pole, staying within his field of vision so I wouldn’t surprise him.
They were using the powers to teleport people in. I couldn’t see where the fade-in happened or where the teleportation destination was, but as the crowd shuffled, there were more of the people with tattoos, trashy people, and people that didn’t look like refugees.
The guy on the end of the pole pointed. I moved closer to him, and followed the line of his arm and finger to see.
A man with a daughter, sitting on a blanket at the base of a fence.
“The girl or the man?” I asked.
“The man. He’s the one bringing them in. Keeps the kid close as a shield, in case someone catches on. Different kids, some days.”
“I think every day of going over there and taking him out of the picture. Letting him know I know.”
“Wouldn’t be worth it,” I said.
The noises of the crowd of Fallen increased, a fresh chant. Heads were turning and people were smiling, because they didn’t know, and positivity and high energy meant a lot when they were as tired and despondent as they were. Some would have spent a long time waiting for their chance to come through.
A dangerous and vulnerable thing, to have no place to go.