Kenzie sprinted toward the wall, and took a flying kick at it. The wall broke, split at a diagonal, the upper half sliding down the split until the corner stabbed the ground. Kenzie backed up swiftly before the section of wall toppled and fell to the ground.
“I’m clearly the strongest member of the team,” she said.
“You’re the lamest,” Chris said.
“Can I try it again?” Kenzie asked, ignoring Chris. “Rain?”
“Be careful,” Sveta said.
“I will. I want to test stuff. Can I try it again?”
Rain stood from the rock he was sitting on, and held one hand out to the side. The silver-white blade he created had a slight crescent shape to it. He swung his arm and threw it, for lack of a better word. It traced an arc, more a boomerang in flight than an arrow or thrown weapon, and cut deep into the wall that Tristan had left as a permanent fixture. A silver-white line was left along the length of the wall.
Kenzie raised her flash gun, and she shot the wall. Nothing happened.
She approached the wall, and she had her eyehook snake out from where it was attached to her belt, pincers open, slapping against the wall. She pushed with the eyehook.
“Hurry,” Rain said.
Kenzie continued using the eyehook to push, to no avail. She moved the hook around to the wall’s edge, grabbed the length of the eyehook, and pulled, adding her strength to the mechanical arm’s.
Stone slid easily against stone, and the wall was pulled down, cleanly cut where the silver line had been drawn.
“I could do this all day,” Kenzie said.
“It’s not a bad power,” I said.
“I never said it was bad,” Rain said. He sat back down. “It’s mediocre. On certain days, it’s a little better.”
“Better how? Size, speed, effectiveness, number you can throw?”
“All of the above, except maybe effectiveness. And duration, I’d say. Ten, twenty percent increase, if I had to guess.”
“How long after I shoot stuff the line lasts.”
I turned to my laptop and I started typing that up.
“Not effectiveness?” Kenzie asked, as she rejoined us. She had her phone out and walked without looking where she was going.
Sveta and Tristan were having a conversation off to one side, Ashley had gone back to the library to use the washroom, which had freed Kenzie to rejoin us, and Chris was getting dressed again while under the cover of the giant-size shorts.
“It’s kind of one thing or the other,” Rain said. “Either it breaks or it doesn’t.”
“I’m looking at the data from my eyehook,” Kenzie said. “It didn’t work with your power until after I started helping it. Twenty point two pounds of force total, that’s nine point one six kilograms, and then the break happened. What if it’s easier to break things when your power is better?”
“It could be,” Rain said.
“It’s good thinking,” I said.
Kenzie nodded, eyes still on her phone, and said, “Can you throw another?”
“More tests?” Rain asked.
“No. Breaking stuff like this is a ton of fun,” Kenzie said.
Rain stood, looked around, and then created another blade of silver-white light. He threw it at the half-stick Chris had left impaled in the hillside. The blade passed through the dead-tree stick, leaving a white line in it a good few feet above the ground, and continued forward as two separate segments flying in parallel, with a narrow gap in the middle. One hit a tree, and the other hit the ground.
Kenzie ran off, handing her phone to her eyehook.
“What happens if you hit a person?” I asked.
“I tried on livestock, a goat. Silver line.”
“The goat ran off, jumped up onto a tractor tire, then jumped down. The impact as she jumped down was what did it. Clean cut.”
“Possibly over twenty pounds of force in that impact?”
“I guess,” Rain said.
Kenzie had reached the rod and found the silver line was higher than she could reach. She began rolling a nearby rock closer, to give herself a leg up.
Chris, barefoot, wearing his t-shirt and shorts, broke into a sprint. As Kenzie climbed up onto the rock, Chris threw himself at the rod, hard, body-checking it. It broke in two at the silver line, the top half toppling.
Kenzie made the kind of high-pitched noise only a prepubescent girl could, and drew her flash gun. She began shooting Chris repeatedly, while he rolled in the grass, laughing, arms around his face.
“What happens when you hit the ground?” I asked.
“Not much, most of the time. I guess you get a fissure, but it doesn’t really do much, because the line is so clean.”
“Kenzie!” I called out.
She stopped shooting Chris and turned to look.
“Stomp on the line on the ground? I’m curious!”
She ran off, leaving Chris where he was.
“Can you explain the schedule, then? The powers wax and wane?”
“Sorry, if I’m grilling you a little too much. I’m trying to get my head around this.”
“I see them in my dreams. I never get a good night’s sleep, never dream normally. Just… them. And they see me. We take turns, and when my turn comes up, I get a bit of a power up.”
“That’s how you knew Snag’s description, before you knew his name.”
Off in the distance, Kenzie stomped on the silver line in the grass. There was a bit of dust, and some grass stalks fell, but I didn’t see anything else. She looked at us and shrugged.
“Every five days, I get my turn, and I’m a little bit stronger. There are other times I’m stronger, but it’s complicated.”
“Every five? There’s four others?”
“Three others,” Rain said.
“The day in the rotation after me, it’s a blank space. My running theory is that there was a fifth member of the cluster, but they died before the powers set in. Free power-up, goes to someone random. Doesn’t always line up with our power, so on those days, I can sometimes have more tinker power, or more mover power, more emotion power. A taste of what I could be.”
“Once every twenty days, on average.”
“Never lining up with my days,” he said. He sighed. “Through the dreams I’ve seen them unmasked and they’ve seen me. They hate me and I’m not overly fond of them. They’re always there, every night, and it’s pretty obvious how much they despise me. It’s where Tristan and I have that shared experience, kind of.”
“People you can’t get away from,” I said.
“You’re talking about your cluster?” Tristan asked, joining the conversation. Sveta was behind him.
Tristan sat down on the rock beside Rain. I scooted over so Sveta could sit beside me.
“These people want you dead? How likely is it they go forward with this hit?”
“Ninety-nine point eight percent likely,” Rain said.
“What’s the point two?” Sveta asked.
“They all die or get arrested before they get around to it,” Rain said.
“You seem pretty cavalier about traveling into the city,” I said. “You caught a train today?”
“Yeah,” Rain said. “Again, it’s the dreams, I can pick up a little, and I can throw them off a little. The thing about being outnumbered in this situation is that I have a lot of opportunities to pick up details. One clue from any of them can help a lot.”
“The woman is injured, and Snag wants to repair the arm you trashed. That buys me a few days. So, uh, thank you.”
“The third one won’t come after you alone?”
“He’s a guy, a little older than me. Glasses. He’s the person with the tinker power. I haven’t picked up much about him, but he doesn’t interact with people much. Less than Snag or the woman, and Snag is an asshole and the woman is mute, so that should tell you something.”
“There’s an advantage in that,” Tristan said. “If they aren’t socially adroit and you are-”
“I’m not,” Rain said.
“You’re better off than they are and that counts for something,” Tristan said.
“They have money and resources, and that more than makes up for it,” Rain said. He looked at me. “We’re suspicious they hired Tattletale to track me down.”
“Ah,” I said. I thought about that. “I honestly can’t think of someone worse to have on your trail.”
“She’s good enough to take over a city and get away with it,” Rain said.
“That’s not even it,” I said. “She destroys people.”
“Are we talking about group members behind their backs?” Kenzie asked, as she joined us.
“No,” Tristan said. “We’re talking Tattletale.”
Over near the staff that had been made with the dead tree, Chris was lying in the grass, arms and legs spread, staring up at the sky.
“He’s okay?” I asked.
“He’s fine,” Kenzie said.
As if responding, Chris chuckled to himself, lying in the grass near the base of the hill.
“The Undersiders took over Brockton Bay, and they did it with Tattletale on point for most of it. I’m not a hundred percent sure on any of this, but you can look at the events in the city starting with her taking power. Bank robbery, Undersiders succeed, they run into the Wards, me, and my sister. Tattletale insinuates knowledge of my sister’s deepest secrets, and mine. My sister goes off the deep end. ABB are provoked following an arrest of their leader and an interaction with the Undersiders, with Tattletale. They’re toppled with a concerted effort on the part of the villains, with intel passed to the heroes by the villains.”
“By Tattletale,” Tristan said.
“In large part. Empire Eighty-Eight get outed, secret identities revealed. Undersiders are the focus of the blame, and a number of people die in the ensuing rampage. Weeks and months of violence and chaos in Brockton Bay feed into the Endbringer attack on the city. Half of my family died because of that.”
“I’m so sorry,” Sveta said.
I reached out for her hand and gave it a waggle. “It should be noted that in the hospital after the attack, Tattletale talked to the leaders of various hero teams about Leviathan’s strengths and weaknesses. Info that was then used to beat down Behemoth enough to let Scion finish him off.”
“That could be a coincidence,” Rain said.
He didn’t say it in a dismissive way. He said it like he was a little scared, and he wanted something to cling to.
I wanted to drive reality home, though. Better to scare him and have him alive than the alternative.
“Possibly. But I’m more inclined to see her as a force multiplier or a kind of thinker version of what you do with your power, creating weak points for others to capitalize on. We see a lot of these coincidences. After the Endbringer, the Slaughterhouse Nine visit and do a hell of a lot of damage, but they also lose several key members. The weaknesses of several key members are revealed and the members are removed.”
“You might want to go easy on talking about those guys when Ashley gets back,” Kenzie said.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s just one data point in a series. The last remaining mastermind of the city falls, Coil. The PRT directors die. Twice, in quick succession. Weaknesses are targeted and capitalized on. Alexandria dies in Brockton Bay, at the hands of a girl who had apparently wanted to be a hero, but who was converted to the villains’ side. Flechette, a hero, a minor friend of mine? Apparently converted. Accord edges into the Undersiders’ turf. He dies when the Behemoth fight happens. What do you think happens with his resources and power? Because I’m betting it’s the same as what happened with Coil’s.”
“And now she runs one of the major settlement points,” Rain said. He still sounded spooked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t have all of the information, but she got to that point by being one of the masterminds and playing the game well. She was aggressive when the city was vulnerable and she was passive when it wasn’t. The moment Gold Morning came around, I get the impression she mobilized hard, she was ready to expand and capitalize on the situation with more of that aggression. Again, I’m not 100% on all of that. But I can say with reasonable confidence that she’s one of the most dangerous, capable people on Gimel.”
“What am I supposed to do, then?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Sveta elbowed me. “You have to give him more than that. You can’t scare him and not give him something.”
“Please,” Rain said.
I thought for a few seconds.
“She bleeds,” I said. “She gets tired, and she looked really fucking tired when I saw her. She has a lot on her plate, and I don’t think you’re a primary focus. Which is good. You don’t want to be her primary focus, because people who are tend to end up in pieces, one way or another.”
“Alright,” Rain said, sounding anything but.
“She…” I started. I bit my tongue.
“What?” Tristan asked.
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions. I don’t want to give you the wrong impressions, either.”
“Any impressions help,” Tristan said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But what she said when I talked to her, the way she wanted to make herself out to be one of the good guys, bringing good things to others…”
“Oh,” Kenzie said. She fiddled with her phone.
“It doesn’t necessarily jibe with her working with people who are out for blood and murder. She seems to want to be a very low-key villain or even a Robin-Hood type desperado while simultaneously leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, or she wants to portray herself as such,” I said.
“I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way,” Kenzie’s phone said, in Tattletale’s voice.
“Yeah, that’s it, thank you,” I said. Kenzie gave me a thumbs up. I felt a bit of the heebie-jeebies at having heard Tattletale’s voice without being braced for it. It took me a moment to gather my thoughts before I added, “It makes me wonder what she would say if she were told that Snag and the other two were out for your head.”
“She could be full of shit,” Sveta said.
“She could be,” I admitted. “Trouble of dealing with masterminds is you can’t ever know.”
“Makes me think,” Tristan said. “We really should have that talk about our group’s game plan.”
“We can’t have that talk without Ashley,” Kenzie said.
“Or Chris,” Sveta said.
Kenzie turned to look at Chris, before giving us a very unenthused, “Yeah.”
“Pretty quick turnaround on your opinion of Chris,” I said.
“It’s not turned around. It’s a love-hate relationship,” Kenzie said. “Sometimes I really like him and sometimes I really don’t. Right now is one of those times I really don’t. I was having fun.”
“There will be other times you can fool around with my power, and with others,” Rain said.
“Yeah,” Kenzie said. She looked at Rain and smiled. “We’re gonna help you with your thing.”
A bit of a non-sequitur, but I wasn’t going to draw attention to it. “Do you want to call Ashley or see what’s holding her up? If she’s not up to having this conversation, that’s okay too.”
“I’ll call her,” Kenzie said, hopping up from her seat. She wandered off, her eyehook holding her phone to her ear.
“I’ll get Chris,” Sveta said.
As Sveta vacated the space on the bench to my left, I turned to the laptop to my right. I typed up a few things about Rain’s power, then paged up and down some to look at the entries for the individual powers. There was a lot more to write up before I had an actual outline I could pitch to the Wardens. If they were even interested in working with the overarching cape community on that level.
I hoped they were. The villains had a lot of advantages, from the fact they often had the initiative to the fact that their work often made money, and the fact that the chaos and damage they wrought often created more opportunities, henchmen, and money for them. Heroes who did well, conversely, often put themselves out of work.
One of the few advantages our side had was that the heroes tended to work together. If we did it right, we walked away with allies. I had people like Gilpatrick, Crystal, and Mrs. Yamada.
“How’s Erin?” Tristan asked.
“She’s good. She’s applying for jobs today. We’re in an awkward spot for it, though, not many locations, a lot of people around our age want those jobs, and it’s a long drive in to get to work. I think those places open at six. It might mean waking up at four to get to work on time.”
Sveta dragged Chris to the collection of rocks, benches, and seats. Chris climbed up to his seat, sitting on the rock Kenzie had been using. I was pretty clear he was still blind, from the way he stared off into space.
“There are times I don’t get to sleep until four,” Chris said, talking to the open air.
“That’s not good,” Sveta said. “Don’t do that.”
“It’s a chance to be independent,” Tristan said. “If she can get the job. She gives off a good impression, so I can imagine it happening.”
“Yeah,” Rain said.
“Who is she?” I asked. “Can I ask?”
“Just a friend,” Rain said. “I’ve always grown up in the middle of nowhere, so when my family was getting settled after Gold Morning, we saw all the incentives they were offering to people willing to get a headstart on agriculture and it seemed natural, you know?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Erin’s parents were kind of the opposite. City people through and through, something in them broke after Gold Morning. They couldn’t bring themselves to join the rat race again, I think. They were given the option for the simple life and they took it. Erin got dragged with.”
“And you connected.”
“She was having a hard time, because y’know, she stands out when a lot of people are hurt and angry and looking to lash out. She went looking for a hiding place and she stumbled on my workshop. She’s been a real help, from before I even had the therapy, helping me get figured out, listening to me, helping me research. I… don’t really know what she gets out of the deal, from me.”
“I can think of a few things she gets from you,” Tristan said.
“I appreciate you saying that, I’m not sure I see it though,” Rain said.
I saw Kenzie react to Ashley’s appearance before I saw Ashley. She made her way up the less sloped side of the hill, holding a pair of water bottles.
“Having a friend with powers is pretty neat,” I said to Rain.
“Yeah. For sure,” he said.
“And while I don’t know you that well, you seem very thoughtful.”
“And there’s the brooding, mysterious part of it,” Kenzie said. “Girls like that. You and Chris are similar like that.”
“I see,” Rain said. He frowned a bit.
“I’m picturing the expression on your face,” Chris said, before laughing.
“How long’s he going to be blind?” I asked.
“Could be ten minutes, could be an hour or two,” Kenzie said, as she skip-walked over to sit down at Ashley’s side as Ashley took her seat.
An hour or two?
“You got anywhere to be, Chris?” I asked.
“No family, nobody that cares that much,” he said. “I’m one of the lost boys, living in the institution.”
“I know what that’s like,” Kenzie said. “The institution. It’s not fun.”
“Personally? I don’t give a shit, and they don’t give a shit about me, I could disappear tomorrow and nobody would blink.”
“We’d blink,” Kenzie said.
“You would,” Chris said. “But you’re lame like that.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your situation,” I said.
“It’s fine,” Chris said, with emphasis, still staring off into space. Blindly, he rummaged in one pocket, pulling out a plastic kit. “It’s- it’s freeing. All I care about is that I eat three square meals, since nourishment matters for my power, and having a place to sleep. Strip away everything else, and it’s all any of us want.”
“Some of us want people to keep close to us,” Kenzie said.
“Not me,” Chris said. He opened the kit and drew out a pair of pliers.
“Your opinions may change as you hit puberty,” Tristan said.
“I’m already started on that, I’m not going to go into any details, and I really don’t think my feelings are going to change,” Chris replied. He seemed to reconsider, then said, “I really hope they don’t.”
I glanced at Ashley. She’d been quiet since sitting down. The last time I’d reached out hadn’t ended well. Was I supposed to ignore her now, leave her alone while she wound herself down?
“How about we talk about your idea, Tristan?” I asked.
“It’s getting later in the afternoon,” Sveta said. “And Kenzie has dinner with her parents. It would be good to get it out of the way.”
“I can skip it if I have to,” Kenzie said.
“You shouldn’t,” I said.
Tristan shifted position, metal sliding against smooth stone. “The plan. We’ve only got the broad strokes worked out, so if you want to help hammer it out, Victoria, it would really help.”
“Protecting Rain in the coming weeks is essential. My starting point for thinking about this plan was thinking how we might cover all the bases we want to cover. We need to keep the older members of the group free enough to help Rain with whatever he needs help with. Kenzie wants to do something integral to the group, and while she can help keep an eye out, it’s easy for her to take too much of a backseat role.”
“Am I taking a frontseat role then?”
“I’m- not exactly. There’s a lot about this that’s counterintuitive. My first instinct is to think, hey, I want to make money, I want to be out there doing things. But that leaves us open to interference and distraction. So… what if we go covert?”
“Covert?” I asked.
“Nobody knows Ashley is on the side of the good guys for the time being. She’s really good at the villainous persona and atmosphere.”
“Thank you,” Ashley said.
“And then there’s Chris, who can be monstrous, appear, disappear, then show up again as someone or something else.”
I glanced at Chris. Chris had two sets of pliers in his mouth. He was readjusting his braces.
“The masterminds and the organizations are masterminding and getting organized. Hollow Point is one example of that, and Tattletale’s degree of involvement, that’s another example. I didn’t get the impression Tattletale was really aware that we were a team, so I think this works.”
“Take all things mastermind with a grain of salt,” I said.
“Of course,” Tristan said, quickly enough that I wondered if he’d bothered with that grain of salt. “Okay, so what if we do like- actually, it’s like Victoria was saying a few minutes ago, about creating and capitalizing on weak points-”
“She was telling us more about Tattletale,” Kenzie told Ashley.
“Yeah,” Tristan said. “Look, no rush, we do this slow and careful. We put you guys out there, Ashley and Chris can plant cameras, Kenzie handles backend, we gather all the data we can, and we find out what the masterminds are doing and where the organizations are most vulnerable.”
“Then we hit them,” Ashley said.
“Maybe,” Tristan said. “Maybe. We assess the situation, we maybe even spread disinformation, and then we have discussions, involving other cape teams, maybe. If it seems doable, we hit them. We have a lot going for us if we want to blitz the enemy or ruin a plan in progress. When it’s time to make our play, we can do big, we can hit hard, and we can move fast. If it doesn’t seem doable, we sell the info to another cape team.”
“I like that you’re thinking about the money,” I said. “How do you sustain things if you’re going ahead and handling the mission on your own?”
“I’m thinking we don’t,” Tristan said. “I’m not wanting to set up a headquarters, we wouldn’t necessarily have employees or staff, we can figure something out for costume.”
“It’s a long, hard road to gather that kind of intel and then act on it at just the right time. It’s a test of patience,” I said. “That patience gets tested further when your pockets are empty.”
“I hear you,” Tristan said. “It helps some that we have a lot of people here who are subsidized or not entirely out on their own. Kenzie gets money from her parents, Chris has his meals and shelter through the institution.
“I think we have an advantage there,” Sveta said, quiet. “Because the thing that defines us, and I don’t think it defined the Irregulars like this, and it didn’t define the Wards, like Weld described them… we all need to be out there. We need this. That makes us stick it out.”
There were nods around the group. Even Chris. The heads that weren’t nodding were smiling, like Ashley’s, or looking very serious in a way that made me sure they were in agreement, like Rain was.
I allowed myself to nod as well.
“Okay,” I said. “I might be able to make some recommendations about funding, so you won’t be too starved. If you think you can gather intel that others might be interested in, I can talk to other teams on your behalf, or I can point you in the right direction if you want to handle that yourselves. You’d tell them you have the capacity to get intel. You may or may not want first dibs on these villains, but whatever happens, if they’ll pay a token amount, you’ll give up the info. It serves a double purpose if you set it up as a dead man’s switch. Worst comes to worst, the authorities get an email letting them know what you were up to and who you were up against.”
“They’d pay for that, you think?” Rain asked. “Even if it’s us saying we’re taking first dibs, but we’ll give the info anyway?”
“I think it could be sold to them,” I said. “Information comes at a premium, and every single team out there is wanting as clear a picture of where things stand as possible.”
“I do my thing, Chris does his thing, Kenzie does her thing,” Ashley said. “Sveta, Tristan and I help Rain in the meantime. When we have the intel, we hit them. Take out key players, interfere with a key part of their business, and we leave them ruined.”
“We maybe hit them,” Tristan said, with emphasis on ‘maybe’.
“If we spend the time to get that far, you’ll be itching to see it the rest of the way through,” Ashley said.
“And then what?” I asked, before they could get in an argument.
“Let’s assume it’s a success, or you hand off the intel. What follows?”
“Depends on a lot of factors,” Tristan said. “We could take another piece of data collected on the way and jump off from there, or we don’t just take money, and we go to another team and we trade intel for intel. They tell us if they’ve got more tough nuts or tricky areas to tackle, and we use that as our next starting point.”
“What are you thinking?” Tristan asked.
“I… admit this makes a lot of sense. It may be harder than you’re picturing. Masterminds cover their asses, organizations have a lot of tools at their disposal.”
“If we get six pieces of a twenty-piece puzzle and we realize we can’t take things any further, we can still sell that intel,” Tristan said.
“Absolutely,’ I said. “I’m trying to think about how that plays out in the long-term.”
“I don’t know,” Tristan said. “There’s the stuff I just said, but I was mostly thinking about the next few steps. I’d rather make calls based on the now and adapt later, depending on what comes up.”
“That’s fair,” I said. “I’m trying to be mindful of consequences, these days. You’d be making enemies, once people realized what you were doing and the role you’d played. If you’re not careful, Ashley and Chris as background observers are cards you can only play a few times, in a limited fashion.”
“You can play me eight times,” Chris said, pulling the pliers out of his mouth, “After that they’ll probably catch on.”
“If you don’t change your head that much, then they’ll catch on sooner than that,” Tristan said.
“On that topic, I’m not sure I like Chris being out in the field like that,” Sveta said.
“I’m fine,” Chris said. “I can handle that much.”
“I’m thinking Chris gets involved as a distraction. A few minutes at a time, a monster shows up, overturns the status quo. The kind of thing we do once every two weeks or once a month.”
“Yeah. I’m good with that,” Chris said.
“I like it,” Rain said. “I hate that I’m a burden at this stage.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Kenzie said. She reached out to give Rain a pat on the knee with her eyehook. “We’re all burdens in our own screwed up ways.”
My expression might have betrayed something, because Tristan looked my way.
“Yea or nay?” he asked.
“It reminds me of the Las Vegas capes,” I said. “And a bit of Watchdog.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Tristan asked.
Las Vegas had been damned effective, as had Watchdog. But where Las Vegas had been a subtle, careful player with a few questionable, mysterious individuals in their ranks making the most of their backgrounds and skills, much like this team in disposition and direction, they’d also been a team that had turned villain at a critical time. Watchdog had been careful and scrupulous, making measured moves with the best intel and agents they had at their disposal, and Watchdog hadn’t survived Gold Morning as an organization.
Those were the only two data points I had, for teams like this. Corruption and annihilation.
I couldn’t say for sure that it was a bad thing, but I couldn’t say it was a good thing either.
“It’s a thing,” I said.