It was dark as the boy and I stepped outside. It was a flipping of perspectives, in a way, that the city lights were going out and the tent villages off in the distance were lighting up with lamps and fires. The city had only a small fraction of the light it might have had in the old world when power rationing wasn’t in effect, only a tenth the normal number of apartments were lit up. Only the major roads had light, and that meant far less people were driving, which meant less head and tail lights.
It was cool out, not as cold as it had been last night, thankfully.
It was five minutes before Tempera met us at the door. She looked a little worn out, but then again, she’d gone to the hospital, gone home, come back to the hospital, and she was juggling something with the messy situation she’d talked to me about.
“Hi Victoria. Hi Sam.”
“Hi,” Sam said.
“On a scale of one to ten, how serious is your friend’s situation?”
“Uh. Six? She’s depressed, she’s scared, she doesn’t know how to use her power, and I can’t get near her to help her. She’s afraid people are going to take her away.”
“How immediate is the situation? Does she need help in the next five minutes, next hour, today? Is she or anyone else in danger?”
“She’s alive, but I’d like to get her help soon. She’s freaking out and I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m only asking like this because it’s an emergency, and since our talk on the phone it’s escalating. I’m going to take you to the Wardens headquarters, okay? I’m going that way already, I can walk you through the security and introduce you to some people, and they’ll have ideas on what to do with your friend. Sound good?”
“What’s the emergency?” I asked.
“Citizen labor is going nuts. They’re massing, pulling in some outside help, a lot of other angry and frustrated citizens. I don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s all hands on deck. Wardens are coordinating Advance Guard, Foresight, Shepherds, the Attendant and others. They’re even bringing in the PRTCJ capes, which haven’t exactly been advertised to the public.”
Crystal’s group. The situation was bad enough to open the can of worms that was capes serving as a military-adjunct force? In this climate, no less.
Tempera went on, “I and some of the other prospective Wardens are being asked to go with the Wardens proper, to handle things where they’re getting out of control offworld.”
“I recommended you, said you’d help, they’ve given a tentative a-ok on that. Things are expected to blow up when the city wakes up tomorrow, so it’s up to you if you want to help tonight or first thing tomorrow. I sent you the address?”
“I got it,” I said.
“I should go. Sam, with me.”
“Good luck,” I said. “Sorry to pass the ball like this.”
“It’s fine. Good luck to you too, Victoria.”
I checked my phone, waiting painful minutes for sites to load.
She’d said I could help tonight or tomorrow. That things would get bad starting tomorrow.
The news sites already had multiple headlines with the word ‘war’ followed by a question mark. And things were expected to get worse tomorrow?
No, I’d go tonight.
I’d fly, even. I messaged Crystal.
I let myself into Crystal’s apartment through the balcony, using the key Crystal had given me on the sliding glass door.
“I’m here,” I called out.
I was about to step from the living room to the hallway when a red-tinted forcefield appeared across the path, blocking my way.
“One moment!” Crystal called out.
I turned my back to the forcefield and leaned against it, my arms folded. “Can I talk to you from here?”
“The headlines are saying war,” I said. “And you’re being brought in.”
“Could go that way,” Crystal said. “It’s wonky. Two sides are butting heads and we’ve got another world that’s pretty upset.”
“I’ve only heard bits and pieces from some others and the news. Is it a strike?”
“Not a strike. I’m dressed now, you can come through,” Crystal said. The forcefield disappeared, and I used flight to keep from falling, turning myself around before walking down the hallway and around the bend to Crystal’s room.
Crystal had already been in costume and with her group when she’d been ordered to get ready and be at the location within half an hour. She was using the opportunity to help get me organized. She’d showered while waiting for me, she’d donned her costume, and she was combing wet hair now.
Her costume was white, with her usual symbol on it, the arrow pointing down and to the side, with a stream of lines flowing from the back of the arrow, over one shoulder. She wore a jacket with it, a near-black gray, given a faint magenta-red tint. ‘PRTCJ’ was printed on the back in big white letters. A lone stylized chevron was on the sleeve.
There were things to be said about it, about the militaristic tilt of the group, the way the PRT and the Protectorate had broken in such a way that the Wardens had sprung up from one large chunk of the image, presentation and ideals. Crystal’s parahuman miltary thing was crudely forged from another chunk of what the PRT had been: the PRT’s old laws, rules, and discipline. A military-esque force without a government to serve or a hard and fast system of law to back it up.
But it was Crystal’s call. Crystal’s thing. I held my tongue.
“My closet,” she said. “Black trash bags. Never throwing things away pays off. It’s one of the sample batches.”
The bags made the clothes easy to find, even in the jam-packed closet. The contents were hidden within the trash bags, the hooks of the hangers poking up and through. Crystal indicated the bed, and I laid them out, peeling the plastic back. White costumes without icons or decoration, a variety of cuts and styles.
It was a familiar range. Back in the day, companies had periodically reached out to New Wave, wanting to pitch their product and get us to use them for our costuming. Mom had handled those talks and periodically singled out a family member to send a bunch of proto-costumes to. Later she would nag us for feedback that she could send the companies.
I didn’t want to think about mom.
I focused on the costumes, with some attention paid to the situation at hand. The leotard cut was a ‘never ever’. The full-body suit was problematic because of how it resembled Scion’s, and I didn’t want to go there. Those were two I could eliminate right away. I pulled the black trash bags down over them and set them aside.
Crystal explained, “People have been noting how fast we got back on our feet, and how we have something reasonably stable in currency and economy. We kind of got our answer.”
“Yeah,” I said, before guessing, “powers?”
“I guess powers, probably,” she said.
I turned to look at Crystal. She was arranging her damp hair over her eye, a curved swoop that her hairband held in place. “Only probably?”
“This isn’t about powers,” she said. “But I wouldn’t rule them out. They helped and they may be part of this. The key thing is that a lot of the building materials and resources we used to get started came from other worlds.”
“As in our people working in other worlds or-” I paused as Crystal shook her head. “Or other, alternate civilizations. Shit. You don’t get anything of that scale for free. What did we have to give them in exchange?”
“I have no idea,” Crystal said. “I don’t think many people do. There are two major groups heading the reconstruction that might have an idea but they haven’t shared. One of those groups was the one who put out the trading dollar a few months after Gold Morning, now our de-facto regular dollar. Same group that’s now looking at moving up into the greater political arena.”
“And those two groups are the ones butting heads?” I asked.
“No, the two construction groups are banding together, kind of. The workers who have been doing the actual construction work seem to think they were promised a significant discount and first opportunity to buy the houses they’ve been building. They’ve been living in a tent village, working long weeks, miserable conditions.”
“And if they think they have dibs on the houses, the work must have been a labor of love. They’ll have a strong community too. If they didn’t kill each other working that hard in conditions that bad, they must be close.”
“Yes,” Crystal said. “One second, be right back.”
I glanced over the remaining outfits. Three more options. V-neck, long-sleeved, short skirt. Not bad, but very reminiscent of ‘Glory Girl’.
Round neck, low enough to have a touch of cleavage, short sleeves, and shorts that cut straight across the upper thigh. If any length were taken from them at all, they wouldn’t qualify as shorts anymore. Hard to pull off. I’d need to accessorize it and I wasn’t sure I could afford the time to dig for boots, belt, or other stuff I’d need, and still get filled in.
The last one had a high collar, a kind of truncated turtleneck, it was sleeveless, with leggings that ended in the mid-low calf. Not bad but not great, and again, I’d need accessories.
“The two construction groups are collaborating, banding together, the areas rezoned, contracts reworked. They say workers signed and agreed, and there are no longer ‘dibs’, as you put it.”
“For something that matters as much as home and shelter, with that many employees, you’d think someone would have read the contract thoroughly enough to figure that out.”
“I have no idea,” Crystal said.
“Sounds like someone’s not being honest.”
“Again, Victoria, I don’t know,” Crystal said, sounding a little exasperated. “I’m- we’re, if you’re coming, we’re not going there or being invited there to arbitrate or negotiate. We’re not solving that particular problem. We’re there to stand between the two sides, keep the peace.”
I glanced at her jacket. “Just following orders.”
“Following orders, keeping things simple, letting others handle things,” Crystal said. “Yeah.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
I picked up the second costume, with the low neck, short sleeves, and short leggings, and held it up against my front.
“Go for it,” she said. “You definitely need to dress that up.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m going to go get changed and see if I can find footwear. If you have a minute, could you find any belts?”
“Utility or regular?”
“Either or. I like the idea of utility more, I think, for how I think I’ll be dressing up.”
I stepped out of Crystal’s room, pulled the curtain closed by the balcony door and quickly stripped out of my top and the skirt. I picked both up and put them with my other clothes.
I experienced a brief moment of displaced emotion, as if my head and body were in Crystal’s apartment, and my heart was somewhere in the past. In an exposed, open area that wasn’t mine, wasn’t comfortable, where someone could happen to step in and see me exposed at any moment.
The latent feeling of the hospital room. Of being in the care home.
Pulling the costume on helped. Deep breaths, the pull of the zipper as it closed at my back and pulled material tight against my chest and stomach. I fixed the legs, checked for bunching and wrinkles, and deemed it satisfactory. Not perfect in the way a costume made explicitly for me would be, but satisfactory.
I dug in boxes. I’d packed my things with shoes and boots at the bottom, clothes on top.
“Belts,” Crystal said. I heard the clatter as the things were tossed onto the couch. “Masks. Armband.”
The bag rustled as it bounced off the couch and landed on the floor. the armband landed on the couch near the belts. A black band with the Gold Morning symbol on it.
“Good throws,” I said. Crystal was standing with her back to me. She’d tossed them over her shoulder. “You can turn around.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Don’t spend too much time. It’s late, it’s dark, people won’t care too much.”
“I won’t. Where does the other Earth and the war fit into this?” I asked. I pulled out a pair of white boots. Shoes meant for a costume might have worked better, but I tended to prefer boots for the fact that they stayed on better with hard landings, kicks, and rough falls. Fourteen year old Glory Girl had learned that lesson: it was terminally embarrassing to have a petty criminal watch as you flew over to your lost shoe and put it back on.
“The workers called a stop to all work. They’re holding the houses, equipment, and building materials hostage, with some suggestion they’ll destroy it all before they give up what they’re owed,” Crystal said. “The last big convoy of materials and trucks were from another Earth, and they’re part of what’s being held hostage. The delivery folk from Earth-K aren’t budging because they aren’t abandoning their delivery, even though they’ve been told they can go. The government from United States of K is getting upset because their people aren’t home, That’s where the murmurings of war are coming from. Workers aren’t conceding anything else, and construction groups aren’t either.”
“And our job is to make sure the stalemate stays stale and mate until people find a resolution,” I said, pulling on the boots.
“Or mitigate the damage if it gets ugly,” Crystal said.
I did up the straps, reached for the belts, all arranged around a metal ring, and found one I was satisfied with almost right away. Utility-belt style with small pouches. I tore open the bag of masks.
The masks were ones that were meant to be stuck to the face. Remove protective tape, stick to face like cosmetic band-aids. Not my favorite, but I got why they did it when they sent out sample packs. The glue would wear out quickly, and the real custom masks for long-term wear would then be ordered. Quality was fine, though. All in white, again, some with lenses.
I found one that fit around my eyes and covered my eyebrows, with white lenses, and held it up to make sure the white lenses didn’t obscure vision any. A faint halo when I looked at sources of illumination, but nothing too bad.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think you look more like you than I’ve seen you in a long time,” she said.
“Maybe I’m meant to wear a costume,” I said.
“Maybe,” she said. “But what I meant, cuz, is that from the moment you stepped into my bedroom, well before you put anything on, you looked more focused and grounded in reality than you have in a while.”
I drew in a deep breath, and glanced at the curtains. Being told I looked better reminded me that I hadn’t looked well before, which reminded me of why I hadn’t looked well, which in turn made me feel less better.
It was easier if I didn’t focus on it. “Thanks, I guess.”
“Whatever you were doing, I think you should do more of it.”
“I plan to. But for now, in the interest of time, since your formation is expecting you to hurry back, I just need to know if the mask makes me look like a dork.”
“It’s good,” Crystal said. She picked up one article of clothing that I’d put aside while digging for my boots. A plain white sweatshirt. “To cover up the road rash?”
I looked at my arms. I still had the raised red marks where I’d tumbled to the road.
“Or maybe not. It wouldn’t work with your forcefield,” she said.
It would, but I wasn’t about to explain that whole situation.
“No, actually, it could work,” I said. “Dress up the upper body some.”
She smiled, enthusiastic that I was playing along. “Exactly! I was thinking we could stick a quick heat-transfer design on this.”
The sweatshirt as part of my costume? It would be playing into that trend of working normal clothes into costumes. Fume Hood’s group had been big on that. A few of the villains in Lord of Loss’ group had, too, but some of that might have been them trying to fly under the radar before launching their plan.
The most significant trends in fashion and style were often a symptom of external factors. It was hard to get good costumes with where things were at. There was a desire, too, to appear more down to earth, to connect to the people, when sentiment was where it was at.
“Sure,” I said. I smiled. “That could work.”
“Question is, do you trust me to do it?” she asked, raising one hand and producing a fan of lasers from her fingertips, shooting at a forcefield she’d created. “Or do you want to wait for the iron to get hot?”
The battle lines were drawn, so to speak. At least it was quiet here, the forces gathering in anticipation of the coming day. At the center of this particular battlefield was a single tall building, lit from bottom floor to top, even in the evening, with the power rationing being what it was.
The masses of construction workers had clustered in groups, the largest mass of them arranged around three sides of the building, kept on the far side of the street by the emergency services and the capes. Surrounding one of the construction company’s headquarters.
Lights on poles, the lighting of the news crews talking to some key individuals, and the lights the workers were carrying served to illuminate that crowd.
From the bird’s eye view, we could see some of the construction sites around the area, each roughly illuminated by the lights within, that light contained by the fencing that surrounded each building in progress. Construction vehicles, people, and collections of things cast long shadows with the lights set where they were. Most had lookouts posted, keeping an eye out for trouble. A couple of those lookouts turned lights our way as we flew.
Laserdream and I touched ground.
“I’ve missed flying with you,” she said.
I smiled. My emotions were complicated enough in the moment that I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t trust my tone of voice or the words I might choose.
Easier to stick to the shallow, surface response. It was nice to be around my cousin, nice that she was happy.
We walked down the length of the street, the building on one side, the crowd of workers on the other. Walking helped to get my blood pumping and my body warmed up, where flying felt like it had frozen my blood and chilled me. My hands were cold, and I kept them jammed in the pockets of my sweatshirt.
“Laserdream. You’re cutting it close in getting back in a timely manner. Who’s this?” a cape in a jacket asked. He was a heavy guy with a very clean face, a gently curved visor covering his eyes and nose.
“Family,” Laserdream said. “There was a call for more help, she was invited by someone named, uh…”
“Tempera,” I said.
“Tempera. Right. We’re paying for the extra hands on deck?”
“We are,” the man said. “It’s not a lot.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
He looked skeptical.
“I can second the recommendation if it matters,” Laserdream said.
“It helps,” the guy said. “If she causes trouble, you know it’s your ass in the fire.”
“Understood, sir,” she said. “I’ve been doing patrols with her since before I could drive. I’d trust her with my life. I’m optimistic my ass will remain room temperature.”
“Don’t get smart. I don’t want her with the formation. If she wants in, she needs to apply and train.”
“She doesn’t-” Laserdream said, at the same time I said, “I don’t-”
Laserdream ceded to me.
“No disrespect intended,” I said. “That isn’t for me. But I get the gist of the situation, I’ll help keep the peace, I’ll follow any orders.”
“You going to be alright if I send you out to help fill in the gaps at the flanks?”
“It’s why I’m here,” I said.
“South side of the building,” he said, pointing. “Stand on the dotted line, try not to stare down the crowd or antagonize them. Be gentle if they get rowdy.”
“Can do,” I said.
“Should be quiet tonight,” he said. He turned to Laserdream as he said it, but glanced at me. Including us both in the statement. “This is one of three locations. The big demonstrations are supposed to start tomorrow, at another location. Tonight they’re mainly interested in holding their ground and organizing themselves. Holding a vigil, giving cameras something to record. Would be nice if they got over it or got bored before things get started tomorrow, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
That would be why Tempera had said I could call in the morning. The workers wanted time and media attention to give their side some weight before they really took action.
“Get yourself in position. I’ll send someone your way with some cups of coffee in a short while.”
“Alright,” I said.
The parahumans along the road to the south of the building were spaced out along the painted divider in the center of the street. One parahuman every fifteen or so feet. There were no barricades, only the lights on tripods, connected to battery packs, helping to illuminate most of the road. The ambient light from nearby buildings contributed.
The crowd was noisy, but it was a low, constant noise. Talk, conversation, the occasional raised voice. There wasn’t a car to be seen on the street.
I could remember what had happened to Fume Hood. I closed my eyes for a moment, and I put my forcefield up, leaving it up. It made me uncomfortable, but a bullet would be even worse on that score.
The capes down the street to my left were all wearing Advance Guard icons on their sleeves and costumes. The stylized man bearing the ‘greater-than’ shaped shield, charging forward. The color of the icon changed, depending on the costume’s color scheme, but it was always such that it stood out, yellow on a red and orange costume, or purple on a blue-green one. The thick bold lines of the icon’s design tended to flow into the cape’s individual icon or the rest of the costume, the shield’s lines or the diamond-shaped frame of the icon joining the line running down the seam of the sleeve or the lines running across the chest.
“Who are you with?” the guy standing to my left asked. He had a face plate, with the thick bold lines and angular edges that Advance Guard tended to have, and the ‘ears’ of the plate swept back to cover his ears, giving them a pointed, elfin cast. His bodysuit was designed to accent his slim frame, a two -piece jacket and legging combo, with a very pronounced zig-zag at the waist where the upper body met the lower body. There was a slight curl at the toes.
“I’m independent,” I said. “For now.”
“We’re Advance Guard,” he said. “I’m Spright.”
“I’m between names,” I said. “And between costumes. Don’t judge me too harshly.”
“Can I see the emblem?”
“Just a design, not an emblem,” I said, turning my back to him to show him the rush job we’d managed with the heat-transferred image, my sweatshirt lightly singed in places. It was a circle with lines intersecting it, almost like a sun, but with the lines running into the circle. The image was offset, so the lines were shorter to the left and top of the image. Crystal’s idea and design, and I’d had no objection.
“Between teams, between names, between costumes?”
“More or less sums it up,” I said. “If you need to call me anything, you can call me Victoria.”
“I’m honored, Victoria,” Spright said, bowing slightly. “I’m glad for the company. We might be here for a while.”
“We probably will,” I said.
“I see you’ve got the armband. You’ve been around for at least a few years. Do you have any war stories you can share?”
“Yes, a good few,” I said. And a lot I wouldn’t share.
“You’re experienced, huh?”
“A few years under my belt. A few years of semi-retirement.”
“I can tell you I’m very experienced,” he said, with a bit of humor in his voice.
I looked at him, one eyebrow arched.
“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” he said.
“Is that how we’re doing this?”
“Could be,” he said. “What I’m offering is long and thoroughly satisfying. Are you game?”
“Wow,” I said. I smiled despite myself, looking over the crowd instead of at Spright. “When they said Advance Guard rushes into things, they weren’t lying.”
“Once you get me going, I go all night. I might as well get started early.”
“With an audience, though?”
“I’ve got nothing to hide. I’d say they could join in, but I think that would get a little hectic.”
“It might just,” I said. “Would be nice to steer clear of hectic for a while.”
“I very much agree, Victoria Between-things,” Spright said. “You have to find a good fit, strike the right rhythm, the right pace. Once you’re comfortable, you might be able to vary it up some.”
The woman standing to the left of Spright said something that sounded an awful lot like, “Oh my god, Spright.”
I checked, but it didn’t look like the people on the sidewalk heard us. The buzz of conversation seemed to drown out our voices.
“Is he always like this?” I asked, raising my voice a bit.
“Yes,” Spright said.
“No,” she said. “I dare say you’ve inspired him. Unfortunately.”
Spright sounded almost energized by his teammate’s exasperation. “I’m intrigued more than inspired. I’d love to indulge in your, ahem, stories, Victoria with the stylish icon.”
“It’s not that great an icon,” I said. “Nice try, though. I appreciate it.”
“I wanted to work in the flattery somehow. There’s no shortage of things I could say, by the way, and I’m not messing around when I say that. I chose the icon because I do like it, and because when you say something nice about something like a girl’s hair or something else about their appearance, you tend to get that kneejerk resistance.”
“You do,” I said. For me, it’s for reasons other than the usual. It was a shame, but his moment of frankness had brought things home again. My tone of voice was audibly different even to myself as I said, “I’m flattered, Spright, really.”
“Aw darn. But?”
“But while I’d be happy to share a few stories, I’m not up for the other stuff you’re driving for. It’s just not where I’m at. Wouldn’t be fair to you. I’ve gotta figure myself out some, first.”
“I can respect that,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate the wit. You were pretty snappy with some of that.”
“Thanks for letting me try, I-” Spright stopped as the woman standing to his left made a sound effect with her mouth. I didn’t hear the preceding sound, but I heard her make a sound like a small crash with her mouth. Spright switched tacks to say, “I’ll throw things at you, Tandem.”
The woman laughed.
A moment later, another person joined us. A ripple in the road, and he appeared almost instantly out of the gloom. The cape I’d met early in the day the community center had been attacked, with the blades jutting from his costume.
He looked at me, sizing me up.
“Hi,” I said.
“Mmh,” he made a sound, not really a response. “Hey, Spright, swap places with me for a bit.”
The ‘mmh’ bugged me. “I’m enjoying his company.”
“She’s enjoying my company, Shortcut,” Spright said. “It’s a good night.”
“It’s going to be a long night,” Shortcut said. “I think I know her from the other day.”
He paused, glancing back at me.
“Yeah,” I said.
Shortcut turned back to talk to Spright, then paused, glancing back at me. “What’s that sound?”
I listened, and I heard it. Scratching.
Without trying to look too much like I was looking down, I looked down. My forcefield, invisible to everyone present, was scratching at the road.
I took flight, lifting myself up enough that the arms couldn’t reach the ground. About eight feet up. From the angle, as I saw the light hit the road at a different angle, I could see the shallow gouges.
The good humor from earlier was spoiled a little at that.
“Everything okay?” Spright asked.
“Yeah, just restless, bit of power quirkery,” I said. I realized the crowd had noticed me take flight, and the conversation had quieted a bit.
It was mildly surprising that, Spright’s flirting aside, nobody in a large collection of construction employees had called out to me.
I tested my luck, and used the opportunity to call out, “You guys doing okay!?”
“Bit cool out!” someone called back.
“Yeah!” I called back. “Better than the alternative, isn’t it?”
That got me a fairly mixed response.
“Shoulder to shoulder in the heat, stinking of sweat? You don’t want that!”
“We’re used to the smell of sweat, hon!” a woman called out. There were murmurs of agreement.
“Take care of yourselves, okay?”
There were a few murmured and unintelligible responses, but a more emotional cry of, “Give us our homes and we’ll be just fucking fine!” stood out. Some heads turned in that direction.
“It’s not up to us,” I said. “Save that energy for tomorrow, alright? We’re here to keep you safe and keep them safe.”
There were a few mumbled replies.
“Doesn’t help,” Shortcut said.
“I dunno,” I said. “Letting them know we’re not against them, we care about their well being? Reaching out and talking can’t hurt, can it?”
“I guess that’s why I’m here,” Shortcut said.
I looked his way.
“Reaching out and talking,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure there’s no hard feelings.”
“About you not getting into Advance Guard.”
I’d emailed, they’d sent a reply a couple of hours later saying no.
“I didn’t devote a lot of thought to it,” I said. “Sucks, but you guys have to do what you have to do. And so does everyone else, apparently. I’ll figure something out.”
“They didn’t tell you it was me?”
“No,” I said. I frowned.
“I told them to tell you no and to tell you it was me, and why.”
“Alright,” I said. “They just told me no.”
“Well fuck that. I thought you needed to know, what you did back there, it was shitty.”
“I realized after your face came up on some of the events about the Norfair community center incident. You went up against Lord of Loss?”
“I don’t see what the issue is,” I said.
“You happen to beat me to the scene, and then you use your secret identity, condescension and anti-parahuman shit to take me down a notch? And then you want a place on Advance Guard?”
“I happened to be there. I’m sorry, it was not my intention to come across that way.” I tried to help you out some.
“Yeah,” he said. “Right. I can guess what your intentions were.”
I was pretty darn confident my handling of the situation had been alright. I was inclined to chalk this one up to the guy having a screw loose or a few bundled up issues. It still bothered me, and it bothered me more that a nice conversation had been interrupted, and now this guy was apparently intent on keeping me company for the night, telling me how I was responsible for his problems and issues.
I pursed my lips, doing my best to filter what he was saying, tuning out what I could and responding where necessary, so he wouldn’t add me ignoring him to his list of grievances. He was talking about the community center now.
Voices were raised, a few shouts, both from capes at one of the other streets, and by people in the crowd. Phones were out.
It was almost a welcome interruption, in that solitary moment between the initial commotion and when I realized that it meant people were hurt.
I rotated myself in the air, looking, trying to figure out what had happened. I saw Crystal coming, and flew to meet her.
“Come!” she shouted, barely pausing as she flew. I joined her, wavering as air ripped past my forcefield, lopsided in a way I couldn’t quite detect, moving.
I disabled the forcefield, and in the doing, I could fly straighter, but I flew against cold wind, unprotected.
Crystal didn’t explain. It was left for me to see.
Our site had been quiet. At least one of the other places workers were congregating wasn’t. People were more spread out, and I suspected from their arrangement that some had crossed the street, approaching the building. There were more emergency vehicles, more capes, and there was a large clearing in the center of the crowd.
Eight people were gathered toward the center of that clearing, with more scattered across the more open area. Among them, several had eyes that glowed, or glows emanating from their mouths. Shapes I couldn’t quite make out moved around them. A power at work, like the outline of something that glowed slightly in the dark, too abstract to make out.
I watched as two people broke from the edge of the clearing and ran toward the center group. A man and a woman, holding hands.
It hit me like a blow to the head. An image in my mind’s eye, a feeling, a sense of something greater. Forgotten in the same instant it occurred. I dropped out of the air, and I caught myself a moment later. Crystal did much the same.
“Get back!” someone hollered.
A megaphone blared, “Get away from the center!”
The eight people were sixteen now, including the two that had run toward the center and some of the people that hadn’t retreated to the clearing’s edge. Eyes glowed, powers wreathed a few hands. A spike of power-generated material was stabbing skyward in front of a woman. A man had fallen to his knees, arms spread, and the ground was rippling around them.
People didn’t get away from the center. Realizing what was happening, or thinking they knew what was happening, others dashed toward the group, joining it.
“Get back,” Crystal said. “If we get knocked out-”
I retreated, looking for where the defending capes were. Lit by flashing, noiseless sirens, the capes were clustered not far from the building. They were getting organized.
“It’s a broken trigger,” I said.
“Is it?” Crystal asked.
I flew straight for the heroes on scene. I didn’t get the chance to hear two words out of the leader’s mouth before we were hit again. Every one of us winced and reacted as it hit us. Too brief to be a trigger vision, incomplete, fractured, it still made itself felt.
The sixteen had become thirty-two.