It was Sveta who said it, not Rain. “If they go inside, we’re going to lose track of what they’re saying.”
“Have they said anything yet?” I asked.
“No,” Rain said. “The woman doesn’t talk so it would be a one-sided conversation. If they’re here, they’re here for something. I want to know what.”
“Anything you guys do risks blowing your surveillance,” I said. “You might gain more information if you leave it alone. Just saying.”
“I might miss something vital,” Rain said.
“You might,” I said. “It’s really up to you guys. If you need help, I’ll back you up.”
Tristan walked forward, and half-sat on the desk, head turned so he could keep one eye on the image. “Hypothetically, if we did act on this, what would we be doing? Picking a fight?”
“We could,” Ashley said. “Rain said they were injured and needed maintenance. It would be timely, it would keep them injured and out of the picture.”
“On their turf?” Tristan asked. “With who knows how many villains in the immediate area?”
“And it would blow our surveillance, like Victoria said,” Sveta said.
“You’ve been quiet on why they’re after you, Rain,” Chris said. “You never talked about your trigger event.”
“As a rule, it’s not good to ask people about their trigger events,” Sveta said.
“As a rule,” Chris said, “It’s vital information about who we’re fighting and why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
“Chris,” Sveta said.
“Sveta,” Chris said. “Detach from your emotions, focus more on their emotions. Are they passionate? Driven? Is it personal? If any or all of the above are true, it changes the rules of how they act. They might act even if they are injured or needing to do some maintenance.”
“People don’t act by rules,” Tristan said.
“Some people do,” Chris said. “Byron does, or did, based on what you said. They might. But we need more of what Rain knows about who and what they are and where they come from to know that.”
Kenzie turned around in her seat. “I was just telling Victoria I didn’t like the idea of her prying into my past or where I come from. It would feel pretty gross and unfair if we pushed Rain to do it now, when he obviously doesn’t want to.”
“Hypocritical might be the word you’re looking for,” I said.
“I’m learning so many words today,” Kenzie said.
“Putting all that aside, is there any way to listen in, if they went inside?” Rain asked. “They’re a block away from where Prancer went before. If they go there, what can we do?”
“I could rig something,” Kenzie said. “But it would be fragile and iffy.”
“I can’t help but notice we’re changing the subject,” Chris said.
“Look. Just- I need this,” Rain said. “I’ve told Tristan everything and I’ve told Sveta some of it. If Tristan thinks it needs to be said, he can say it. He’s more objective. But I really want to know what they might say, I want to start making preparations now.”
“I’ve been keeping my mouth shut,” Tristan said. “I’m in a weird place, knowing what I do, not wanting to betray a friend. I feel like if I said anything at all, even if the reasons were good, it would still be betraying Rain.”
“I can take apart things,” Kenzie said. “Kludge it together for an emergency thing. It won’t take long but we’d need Sveta to hurry over there to plant it and that’ll take a few minutes. If that’s what we’re doing. I don’t want to break my things down if we’re not doing this, though. ”
“I’m probably going to regret saying this, but I’ll stand up for Kenzie,” Chris said. “It’s going to be shitty if she starts taking apart good work so she can get it done in time, and then Rain doesn’t hold up his end any. That’s not fair and it’s going to lead to resentment.”
“I don’t care about fair,” Kenzie said. “But thank you, Chris.”
“Don’t thank me.”
“I’m going to anyway. It means a lot.”
“No it doesn’t. I just don’t want the headaches,” Chris said. “And Rain is being the biggest headache on the team. Maybe except for me, but I don’t have anyone trying to kill me and I’m not really asking for anything, so I think I can get away with it.”
Rain ran his fingers through his hair, turned and took a step to one side, like he was going to walk away or pace, and then stopped, because he couldn’t take his attention off the screen.
Tristan was in a hard place, knowing what he did but having a friendship on the line, Sveta maybe wasn’t as much of a friend to Rain but she was also more sensitive and kind, and she didn’t know as much. Rain didn’t really have other allies in the group he could turn to. Certainly not Ashley. Not Chris. Kenzie just wanted to know if she should get started building her thing.
Somehow, he ended up looking at me. He looked spooked.
“If Kenzie builds the thing, I can fly over and plant it,” I said. “I don’t mind showing my face there, it fits with the plan, there’s a lower risk of the surveillance operation getting discovered, it works.”
Rain nodded, tense.
“But I do think Chris may be right. If the group is extending a hand to you and you’re not extending trust back, that may not be fair. You should share something.”
“Okay,” Rain said.
Kenzie spun around. She grabbed one of her flying eyes and pried open the side, pulling out a black rectangle. She swapped it with a spare.
“It’s personal,” Rain said. “It’s emotional. Not helped by the dreams, by the possible personality bleed across the cluster. Some things I’ve caught lately made me think there might be some.”
I listened, my expression still, arms folded, mostly watching what Kenzie did while Rain talked. I was going to have to deploy this thing.
Kenzie popped open the jewelry case with the camera she’d put in Ashley’s eye, then tore off the section under the lens. She flicked at parts with her fingers to get them spinning and then held onto others, unscrewing them in the process.
“They blame me, for the events around the trigger. I’ve told Sveta all of this. The dreams are biased, selective, cherry picking from my perceptions. They make me out to be more of a bad guy than I am.”
“I don’t think you’re a bad guy at all,” Tristan said.
“I’m not a good guy either. And maybe that’s because of the bleed coming the other way. I feel like a completely different person than I was then. And I know – I think Snag is too. I’ve seen his perspective and his dreams, and he’s willing to murder now? Maybe the agent took half of my anger from back then and divided it among them, aiming it back at me.”
“What happened?” Ashley asked.
“I fucked up. I had a chance to save them and I didn’t,” Rain said.
I looked away from where Kenzie was spinning things to screw in the eye-camera beneath the major lens of the flying eye, looked at Rain, and saw how miserable he was.
“How does Erin fit in?” Sveta asked.
“She doesn’t. She knows the story but she hasn’t seen the dreams. I think if she saw the dreams like the three members of the cluster did, she’d hate me too. But she doesn’t.”
“And ‘of 5?'” Chris asked.
I turned my head.
“My username, online,” Rain explained. “I don’t know what happened to the fifth. It’s complicated. I can think of a few people it might be. People that didn’t make it.”
Kenzie turned around. The camera looked worse for wear. I realized it was the nice one, with the adaptive camouflage or whatever it was. Panels were missing and wires exposed. She beckoned me to approach. I did.
“Put the lens side against the wall or the roof. There’s a plunger on the side here, you see?”
In a groove along the side, normally meant to aid in aerodynamics or something, the metal rod ran flush with the body.
“I see,” I said. I looked at the screen. They’d walked past the place where Prancer had gone inside.
“Put it up against the surface, then slowly, super slowly push that in. There’s no resistance built in, so you could push it in in half a second if you weren’t careful.”
“What would happen?”
“We’d lose it. That’s four days worth of work and the eye camera is six days worth of work, and some of those parts were hard to get. Please don’t push it in fast.”
“How slow do I depress it?”
“Um. Take, like, a minute, to get it from here to here, if you can. Be ready to stop if I tell you to.”
“How are we communicating?”
“Phone?” Kenzie asked.
“Phone,” I said. “Got it.”
I checked I had my phone with me, that it had battery, and then got my earbuds, plugging them into the phone and then putting one into my ear. I collected the football-sized camera.
“Give me something to eat?” I asked. “Granola bar or something?”
Chris walked over to his bag, fished for something, and then tossed me a bag of chips. I caught it, then caught the paper-wrapped meal he threw my way. I put everything into a bag. My mask, computer and notebook were in the bag already, which was good.
“It’s not kiss-kill,” Rain said. “Or, like Victoria said a few days ago, it’s kiss-kill with good cover. I’m weaker than them, and the dreams give them a reason to hate me.”
“I’m good to go?” I asked.
“I think so. Thanks for doing this,” Sveta said.
I gave her a pat on the shoulder as I passed.
“Thank you,” Rain said, with sincerity.
I was at the door when Tristan said, “Might not need the camera after all.”
I looked back.
They hadn’t gone indoors. They were in a parking lot. A group of people was standing around a van. They had masks on.
“I’m still going to go,” I said. “We don’t know where they’ll go or what they’ll do. Patch me in somehow?”
“I’ll video call you,” Kenzie said. “We’ll talk to you and you can look at your phone to see what’s happening.”
“Okay,” I said. “That works. That’s going to do a number on my monthly limit. I might have to get an unlimited plan.”
“They don’t have any of those anymore, not after the end of the world,” Kenzie said. “I checked. And they get peeved at me when I borrow anything, so I have to be really careful with my cameras and junk.”
I could have responded, but I didn’t want to get stuck in a conversation. I let myself outside, then flew from the top of the fire escape.
Might have to have a conversation with the big hero teams to see if they have any options, I thought. It would be nice to have the fancy earbuds that the Wards used to have, or just a special phone plan that let us handle higher-bandwidth operations.
My phone rang in my ear, startling me even though I’d expected it. I thumbed at my phone to answer it. Rather than any of the others, it was the audio from Kenzie’s camera, observing the interaction between Snag and the group in the parking lot.
“…Snag. This is Love Lost,” Snag said. Recognizable enough. His voice was a deep growl. That was his ordinary voice, it seemed.
“Love Lost? Shouldn’t it be No Love Lost?”
There was a brief pause.
“She doesn’t talk,” Snag said.
“That might make negotiations hard.”
“We’ll be fine,” Snag said. “I’ll cover things.”
“Your friend isn’t coming? Cradle?”
Cradle was the potential third, then.
“He isn’t. Just me, just her.”
“I’m Secondhand, this is Last Minute, Final Hour, and End of Days.”
Still flying, I pulled my phone from my pocket, being careful not to drop it. I hated using my phone while airborne. It was so easy to let my guard down.
“Your name doesn’t match,” Snag said.
“I don’t mind,” Secondhand said.
I could see the image on my phone. I made the reel gesture to zoom in on the one I wasn’t familiar with. Tall, with an elongated face and head, bald, with an elaborate waxed mustache, and round sunglasses. He wore suspenders over a shirt that was rolled up to the elbows. The arms crossed over his chest were muscled. A bit of a steampunk vibe, even though his clothes weren’t that old fashioned.
The time manipulators had another teammate, then.
“You wanted to meet. Here we are,” Secondhand said.
“We’re similar in how we approach things,” Snag said. “Maybe we can trade, teach each other something.”
“Maybe,” Secondhand said. “Sounds good.”
“Maybe the deal’s lopsided in your favor, but you give us a hand when we need it.”
“Ah, I thought that was coming. We heard you were recruiting.”
“Mm hmm,” Snag made the sound, and it came off more like growl than agreement.
“The more the merrier?” another member of the Speedrunner’s group asked. It might have been End of Days.
“The more the merrier,” Snag repeated, sounding the furthest thing from merry.
“Why don’t you take a look and tell us what this means to you?” Secondhand asked.
There was a pause. I looked at my phone. The back door of the van opened. Snag approached, with the woman -Love Lost?- hanging a bit back. She had curved claws at her fingertips and thumb, with a thin framework of rods and bands at the back of her hands to keep those claws in place. She had more glittering around her feet and ankle. A mask covered her lower face.
“Victoria?” Sveta asked, through the phone.
“What’s up?” I asked, holding the phone to my ear, so I could use the mouthpiece there.
“Kenzie’s handling the camera and things. I’m hanging back, Tristan’s close. We’ll be your people, mostly. Can you tell us anything about the Speedrunners?”
I was glad I’d checked my books and notes.
“Seattle. B-list villains, but that’s partially because Seattle was setting a really high bar around the time they were active,” I said. “Partially. They’re time manipulators, but complicated by the fact that they have at least one tinker in the group. It could be that they’re all tinkers. A family thing like how forcefields run in my family.”
“They don’t look like family,” I heard a voice. It might have been Chris, or Rain speaking with a funny tone. Probably Chris.
“That’s what they’re talking about sharing, then,” I heard Tristan. “Tinker know-how.”
“Probably. Um. Each of them has a power, but they augment that by having tinker stuff they wear. Secondhand can cover a lot of ground really fast, but can’t affect anyone or do much while he’s doing it. Can’t hurt you, can’t move stuff, can’t set traps. But we already talked briefly about him earlier. He’s the one doing regular sweeps of the area, looking for trouble. The tinker stuff he wears reduces the strain on his body and lets him operate like that for longer. And it means that when he pops out of that mode, he does it with a boom. It gives him some offensive ability.”
“That doesn’t feel B-list,” Tristan said.
“I’ll get to that momentarily. I’m doing these guys out of order. Final Hour, he has a targeted slow. One target at a time, if he’s aware of them, he can slow them, as an ongoing thing. He can swap it with a moment’s notice. Tinker gear applies other effects to slowed targets. Makes it so being slow also crushes you and makes it hard to breathe, or chills you. Makes it so he can target a friend and make it so they fall slow, and reduce the impact of their landings. He had a thing which screwed with-”
“This works,” Snag’s growl interrupted me. “I could do something with this, if I had time to study it. I could use the engines you’ve got here to make emotion effects I channel through my tech last longer, or prolong battery life.”
“Good,” Secondhand said.
A pause. A metal on metal sound.
“What’s she saying?” Secondhand asked.
“Love Lost likes that. She thinks she could do something with it. Right? Yeah.”
“Alright. Doesn’t tell me much,” Secondhand said. “How about you show us something?”
“It’s damaged, but you should get the picture,” Snag said.
I checked the phone. He was using one of his overlong, mechanical arms to pull off his other arm, holding it out by gripping it at the midpoint, the shoulder near End of Days and the hand near Secondhand.
It was my first clean look at the whole group of Speedrunners, as Kenzie zoomed in the camera.
Secondhand was fairly normal in build, with goggles and a flat-top cap. He managed to not look old-fashioned.
Last Minute was shorter, stout, with a lot of muscle and fat both. His gadgets hung from a high-tech belt.
Final Hour was more muscular, with tech wrapped around one of his arms, ending in a blunt design that resembled a brass hairdryer, with red smoke pouring from the fans and vents along its length. Aside from the brass helmet he wore, which covered his entire head the armor covered only half of his body.
End of Days, well, I’d already gotten a look at him. He wore a mask that wrapped around his head in a broad band, from eyebrow to cheekbone, with the black sunglasses on top of that, but it was hard to imagine how he’d be less recognizable when his facial shape, lack of hair, and mustache were all so apparent.
“Keep going,” Tristan said.
Where had I been? Final Hour, right. “He could attach an EMP thing to his slow that slightly hampered powers, made machinery grind to a halt. All through this oversized thing he wore that covered his arm and hand.”
“He’s wearing it now,” Sveta said.
“Okay, right, can’t see while I’ve got the phone to my ear. Foresight said they were using Final Hour to mask their business dealings. He was their heavy hitter and he might still be. I was thinking he might be using the EMP thing or something like it to keep people from looking in.”
“I hope they don’t use it,” Kenzie said.
“Probably wouldn’t work outdoors,” I said. “Last Minute moves things backward in time. Emphasis on things. Not people. Carries an assortment of tinker boomerangs, bombs, weapons. If Secondhand didn’t have the tinker-ish name, and if there wasn’t a chance they were all lesser tinkers, I’d say Last Minute was a contender for the team’s tinker, with his arsenal.”
“What’s the catch, or what’s the tinker component?” Tristan asked.
“From what little I remember, his gadgets don’t act the same when moving in reverse, or it has added functionality while being reversed.”
“Fuck me,” someone said. I thought I heard someone else groan, too.
“Yeah. Boomerangs fly a different path, or split apart so one version carries forward and one retraces its path,” I said. “That sort of thing.”
I’d slowed while flying, and now I stopped. I didn’t want to enter the territory and draw attention when it wasn’t quite time. I had a sense of what Birdbrain and Braindead did, and there was a risk Secondhand would do a patrol when the meeting concluded, to see what their potential business partners were doing.
I settled on a roof, walking as I landed, then stopping to stand on the corner of the roof. Cedar Point was on the other side of the water, on a peninsula across from me.
“End of Days?” Tristan asked.
“I don’t have a clue,” I said. “Nothing about name or appearance stands out to me.”
“Fuck,” I heard a voice. Rain, I was guessing.
“Why are they B-list?” Tristan asked. Not the first time he’d touched on that.
“Because the tinker stuff is limited. The batteries take time to charge,” I said. “When they were active in Seattle, they had something like twenty days between the jobs they pulled, and they had weaknesses. The batteries ran out if engagements were prolonged and once that happens they lose a lot of their muscle.”
“They might have recruited End of Days to cover that weakness,” Tristan said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s not out of the question.”
The Speedrunners took longer to examine Snag’s arm than Snag had taken to examine whatever they’d shown him. I watched through my phone, grieved a bit for my monthly limits, and waited.
On the screen, Love Lost stepped away from the meeting, walking down the length of the parking lot. She stood with her back to the group, hands at her sides, fingers and claws spread.
“I like her,” Ashley said. “Good style. It’s going to be a shame to smash her face in.”
“If we engage her,” Sveta said. “If we even go that far.”
“Of course,” Ashley said.
“What’s she doing?” I asked, more to myself than to the group.
It took a few more seconds, but someone walked down the street. A woman with a purple hood and antlers.
“Love Lost saw her coming,” Tristan said.
“Sensed,” I corrected.
“The woman- Love Lost, she has the emotion aspect of the power,” Rain said. “Maybe it includes some emotion sense. Detecting people.”
“If so, I’m glad I didn’t just drop in nearby,” I said.
Velvet said something. The camera didn’t catch it.
“Sorry!” Kenzie said. “Sorry! I didn’t have the sound camera turned that way. It’s finnicky.”
“Don’t turn it toward those two, stay focused on Snag’s group,” Tristan said. “Velvet’s already walking away.”
“It was brief,” Rain said. “I think she’s just checking on things, making sure it’s all peaceful.”
Love Lost rejoined the group.
“What did the queen of Hollow Point want?” Secondhand asked.
Love Lost was silent.
“Are you done with my arm?” Snag asked.
“Oh, yes. Go ahead.”
“I have a question, and it’s one I’d regret not asking,” Secondhand said. “Who are you with?”
“With?” Snag asked. “Ourselves.”
“I’ll elaborate. We’ve got a few cliques forming already. Bitter Pill in charge of the brains, watching, listening, planning the longer-term plays. Not necessarily here, mind you. Could be jobs elsewhere.”
“Beast of Burden in charge of the hostiles, the ex-cons, ex-birdcage, ex-covert military, ex-cage fighters. The ones who are good or even eager when it comes to hurting people.”
Snag commented, “We’ve had conversations with a few of them already. Beast of Burden included. We’re looking for people who are good or even eager to deliver the hurt.”
“Great. We’ll keep that in mind. Final clique worth talking about, you’ve got Prancer in charge of the organization side of things. The diplomacy, recruitment, and a lot of the lower-key, ongoing business.”
“And I don’t think we’re going to divide up into factions and end up fighting each other. I say clique because like attracts like and sooner or later, you’ll get pulled into one of the major groups. Each serving a role.”
“We’re our own group,” Snag said. “We don’t care what clique you belong to. You want access to our stuff to study and see what you can learn?”
“We’d have to talk about it among ourselves, but I think we’re leaning that way.”
I looked at the phone, as the Speedrunners exchanged looks.
“Yeah,” Secondhand said, after assessing the others. “Let’s assume we’re good to go forward with this, but we won’t set anything in stone until my friends and I have had a conversation.
“Preliminary offer: we pay you fifteen thousand dollars, and we give you access to our tech for study,” Snag said. “You give us access to your tech, and you lend us a hand when the time comes.”
“For this job you’re planning?”
“If you want to discuss it, I can invite others who’ve pledged to help. We’ll discuss in one of Prancer’s venues.”
“Maybe. We’d have to talk it over. What timeline?”
“Soon,” Snag said. “Anything more should wait for the discussion.”
“Hard to say. I don’t want to tell you something and have it reach the wrong ears, and there are a lot of wrong ears.”
“Give us some idea.”
“Eight or nine young people with powers, is our best guess. Mostly teenagers. We don’t know who else, or what the exact number of adult capes, allies, or other resources they might have. Teenagers are easiest to track, because they move more.”
Someone spoke, and I had to view my phone to check who it was. Last Minute. “Hard to say? That sounds easy to say. A minimum of eight or nine people with powers is difficult.”
“With the recruitment we’re planning, we’ll outnumber them three to one,” Snag said, in his characteristic growl.
“You’re talking people with powers? Not mooks, not henchmen?”
“People with powers. All going well, we’ll have them outnumbered three to one even if they call in help.”
“Pulled from Cedar Point?”
“Pulled from many places. We have a thinker contact and that contact is calling in friends. This contact and their friends are capes with names you’ve heard of, that everyone has heard of. We have Lord of Loss committed to the job. We have one or two others of similar caliber who may or may not participate, but who will contribute meaningful resources if they don’t show up personally.”
“You don’t do things by half measures,” Secondhand said.
“We don’t believe in half measures,” Snag said. “In the bigger job, or in our deal with you. Tech for tech, fifteen thousand for the job, but I’d like the two things bundled together. We establish a working relationship and even a mutual dependency before the job starts.”
“A reason for people to second guess themselves before wondering if they can drop away at the last minute and they won’t be missed because the crowd is big enough. It was known to happen at events like Endbringer fights, before Gold Morning.”
“Speaking for myself, not having consulted the group…”
“I don’t mind that approach. We’d have to discuss the money. Spread across a four person team, it doesn’t amount to that much.”
“When I did the community center job…” Snag started. He paused, letting the statement hang.
“You did it with stipulations and expectations. Stipulations handled, expectations met,” Secondhand said. “We’re aware.”
“That counts for something,” Last Minute said. “It needed doing, and it was done well.”
“Trust that we intend to do this well,” Snag said. “The three of us have spent a year steadily working toward this. If you want more money, we could discuss it. We’d want references to justify it, a guarantee you’ll earn your keep.”
“I think we could manage that. Instead of money, though…”
“Cradle. He’s your best tinker?”
“He can be.”
“Maybe you sweeten the pot. Include his work.”
“That can be arranged. You give us your references and recommendations in exchange.”
“Alright. I like the sound of that. We’ll talk.”
“Good,” Snag said.
Secondhand put out a hand. Snag reached out with his giant mechanical hand, enclosing it around Secondhand’s hand and forearm.
They all shook hands. Snag’s giant mechanical hand made for a peculiar image as it met Final Hour’s hair-dryer stub of a limb and the two shook.
When steampunk-ish End of Days gingerly took Love Lost’s clawed hand in his bare hand, he bent down, kissing the back of it. With her back to the camera, it was impossible to see her reaction.
The Speedrunners split up into two groups, two getting into an older car, and two getting into the van with the tech in the back.
Snag and Love Lost walked back the way they came. Love Lost turned her head to watch as the cars pulled out of the parking lot and then drove past the pair of them. The camera that was perched on the edge of the building slowly turned to follow the pair.
As the camera zoomed in, the sound clarifying, the metal noises of Snag’s hands periodically touching the road and Love Lost’s claws clicking were very audible.
Kenzie must have changed something, because the sound faded into the background.
“Good?” Snag asked.
Love Lost gave him a singular nod.
“They’re good to have. Versatile, and it’s good to have that tech. I can think of ten things I could do with that.”
“You’re good for the meeting at the pub?”
A final nod.
“Pub,” I heard Tristan say. “Kenzie? Do we deploy Victoria?”
“I have an address. Only pub in Cedar Point, I think. Across the street from where Prancer went inside.”
I brought the phone up to my face. “Love Lost might be able to sense people, and there’s Birdbrain and Braindead to account for.”
“It’s up to you, Victoria,” Tristan said. “But it would really, really help if we could get more of this kind of exchange.”
I stepped off the roof, realized that someone was standing on the sidewalk on the far side of the street, staring at me, and saw the alarm on their faces. I gave them my best heroic salute as I started flying instead of falling from the roof of the two-story building.
“Ashley and Rain are kind of quiet,” I said, to the phone.
“I don’t like phones, where I can’t see faces or reactions,” Ashley said. “I’m fine. This is good.”
“I’m not so fine,” Rain said.
Right. I’d maybe talk to him after, or encourage him to reach out to Yamada. Even better, he could get around to making that call to the hero teams.
But for now, going into enemy territory, I needed to look after myself and the mission. I now needed to make prompt decisions for things that I’d hoped I’d have a few days or weeks to think about.
“Radio silence unless it’s an emergency, or you need to tell me to stop deploying the camera, Kenzie,” I said.
I heard a faint ‘boop’.
No assistance, now. Just me and my intel. I put the white mask on.
Primary concerns: Braindead and Birdbrain. Clairvoyants both.
Braindead was a tactical thinker, who could designate a set area in three dimensions, setting out a rectangular prism where he sensed everything in the area. He could cover a small town with his power and have a general awareness of everything that happened in that town, but if he designated a smaller area, he got more clarity, more attention of simultaneous things at once, and he was aware of stats. Non-numerical values for abstract things like physical wellness, martial combat capacity, and run speed, for everyone in the area. Smaller area, more and more accurate stats.
The drawback was that he was a twenty-something guy that spent an awful lot of time sitting in a chair with a diaper on, drooling, mumbling, and feeling acutely uncomfortable. When his power was active, and for a time after, he was unable to act on his knowledge himself, or even to effectively defend himself. He had been on the side of the good guys, once, which was why his power information was such common knowledge. Something had changed or snapped.
I flew just over the rooftops. It wasn’t me flying at a height where I could pull my phone out, because there was a very real chance I could fly into something like a power line or chimney.
Braindead’s power operated in three dimensions. X, Y, Z. A set area of north, south, east, west, up, and down. If he wanted all of the stats and information, and if he wanted to minimize the other drawbacks of his power, like the recovery time, up and down were often the variable he could sacrifice. He could cover an area three city blocks wide along the west-east axis and three city blocks long along the north-south axis, while only covering six to ten feet of up and down.
Against Braindead alone, flying high and sticking to rooftops was a really safe bet, to stay out of his realm of awareness.
Against Birdbrain, that was a weakness. Birdbrain was a tactical clairvoyant of a complementary stripe to Braindead. Top-down clairvoyant awareness, much like if Kenzie operated solely through tinker eyes-in-the-sky pointed straight down. She also had thinker powers of another sort, worked into the main clairvoyant power, but she wasn’t an ex-hero, and the information wasn’t in files.
She was really good with a gun, highly mobile, and thus she was very good at defending Braindead while he was incapacitated.
If I stuck to rooftops, Birdbrain would detect me quickly. If I went to the ground, I’d be in Braindead’s realm.
I flew under things when I could, just to try to throw Birdbrain for a loop. It took me a second to orient myself and find the buildings I was looking for, even when I knew they were part of the downtown strip.
No sign of Snag or Love Lost. They were already inside, I hoped. With luck, I would be able to get the camera online shortly.
I set down on the roof, my forcefield down, and put my bag down in the corner of the roof, against the raised lip.
Fully aware that it was very likely that an eye in the sky was watching my every move, I used my body to block the view of the bag’s contents, and pulled the camera out, placing it against the corner, where the bag would shield it. I got my notebook out, opened it to an empty page, and put it across the corner of the roof, before pulling out the chips and what turned out to be curry in a pita wrap.
Curry in a pita was not a mix I’d run into before, but I wasn’t going to complain. I put the wrap on my notebook, weighing it down, and the chips by my bag, against the ledge of the roof.
My backpack shielded most of the camera from view, the notebook’s placement shielded any view of it from above.
I had to take it slow. I sat on the roof, leaning against the ledge, opened the bag, and adjusted the plunger. I reached into the bag, and discovered they weren’t chips, but a salted pork rind thing.
I ate a few, penned down some general observations of the neighborhood, and then adjusted the plunger slightly downward, as part of the process of reaching down to fish for another mouthful of overly-salted pork things.
It took maybe a minute and a half to two minutes, because of the regular pauses here and there. I heard the ‘boop’ through my phone, took that as my signal, and pulled my phone out to cancel the call, being sure to keep it at an angle where someone watching from above me couldn’t see the phone’s face or display.
I was nervous, remaining where I was. Every moment I was here, I was guarding the camera, the camera was presumably filming, and we were getting information.
Every moment I was here, I was being watched. My forcefield was down, because having it up risked it damaging the roof, building, or the camera. The locals were getting time to figure out what to do with me.
We wanted to stir the hornet’s nest, to keep it stirred to exhaust resources and keep them from being particularly effective villains. Those same hornets could sting.
I ate some of Chris’ curry in a pita, just to look like I was on a typical stakeout or patrol, and I wished I’d brought a drink. I took notes, with an eye to graffiti and symbols, to names and sayings. Things I could look up later, to see if I could divine any other names or personalities that had settled in Cedar Point.
It was maybe five minutes in total before they decided they were uncomfortable with me being where I was. Across the street, a big guy in costume emerged. Blond haired, a metal mask with fur on it, and a combination of metal and what looked like horn or natural armor plates on a brown costume. His gauntlets looked menacing, with fur, metal, and studs.
He looked pretty B-list, all in all.
He beckoned for me to come. I wondered if I should gather my bag.
I decided to take a risk, leaving it where it was. I flew down to the street below.
“I’m Moose,” he said. “You’re unwelcome.”
“The last time I came, you guys called Tattletale. She told me to get lost.”
“Yup,” Moose said.
“To me, hearing that, I’m inclined to think I should show up more,” I said.
“Ahh, nope,” he said. “No, I think you’ve got the wrong inclination there, Glory Girl.”
I shrugged. “What can you do, Moose?”
“What I’m going to do, Glory Girl, is I’m going to tell you how this is going to go down.”
“Do tell,” I said.
“Two brutes, like you and me, heavy hitters, we’re liable to have a brawl. I’ll avoid breaking anything breakable because I have an investment in Hollow Point here. You’ll avoid breaking stuff because you’re one of the good guys. You don’t want that bad PR.”
“Makes sense,” I said.
“We’ll have a really polite knock-down brawl, as such things go, and you’ll trounce me.”
“I’ll trounce you?”
“I said I’d tell you how this was going to go, and I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to go.”
“Thinker power?” I asked.
“Only thinker power I got is decently good common sense,” Moose said.
“So you’ll trounce me. Thoroughly. You’ll embarrass me, even. Not because you’re a girl and I’m a guy, but because you’re strong and you have more experience, and because fighting someone who flies is a massive bother.”
“You could surrender.”
“Can’t. Invested in this place. But there’s more to it, Glory Girl.”
“Not my name anymore, by the way.”
“Oh, really? Sorry about that.”
“I don’t have another to give you, not yet, but I thought I’d let you know.”
“If you’re going to stay, I gotta fight you and I gotta get trounced.”
“That’s a shame,” I said.
“But there’s more to it. I’m pulling from that common sense, now. You’ll trounce me, I’ll be embarrassed, and in the time it takes for that to happen, others are going to show up. They won’t interfere, but they’ll stand around and they’ll be ready to fight you if you’re insistent on staying. You’ll be outnumbered and they won’t be inclined to play fair, except that they’ll let you leave if you’re willing to leave.”
“Which I will.”
“Good to hear. Except… can we just skip straight to the part where you leave? I don’t want to be embarrassed and you don’t want to run scared from a group of menacing looking capes.”
“I’m supposed to run scared from you instead, Moose?”
“You can knock me around as you make your exit, if you’d like.”
“Really?” I asked, a little incredulous.
“This isn’t a trap?”
I used my flight, and rose up off the ground. He didn’t react.
I flew at him, forcefield up, fist out.
He met my fist with his, moving faster than I’d expected. The shockwave from the impact knocked me back and up into the air. I righted myself and hovered on the spot, ten or so feet off the ground.
The shockwave was weird. Intense, and focused. There was more to that Brute power.
“I can’t embarrass myself too badly,” he said. “There’s an audience.”
In the window of the pub, Snag had risen to his feet. Love Lost was sitting, still, watching through the window. There were a handful of others.
I met Snag’s eyes momentarily, and tried to look a little surprised.
Then I flew at Moose again. I pushed out with my aura.
His reaction to the fear and awe was to strike out, a solid punch, not a reckless one like most would throw reactively. I didn’t follow the awe with an attack, and I was glad I hadn’t, because the chances were good that I would’ve been hit.
Instead, I used his momentary bewilderment to fly over his head, because it was easy to do, it required him to turn around. Better yet, it involved a lot of readjustment of footing and balance, at the same time he was recovering from the emotional hit.
Watching, waiting, feeling more like the warrior monk as I used this approach, I tried to identify the time his footing was still off, his awareness of me imperfect, and I dove, striking him with one foot in the collarbone.
In the process, the wretch decided to strike out too. It hit him across the face, knocking the mask off. I saw blood, and the tracks of fingernails.
He fell, and he sat there, his head turned away from me, one gauntlet-covered hand moving to his face.
“You okay?” I asked, flying up and looking away. I didn’t want to be accused of peering beneath the mask.
“I’ll mend,” he said.
I didn’t wait, and I didn’t look back. Back to my notebook, to my bag and book and Chris’ meal. I packed it up, collecting the camera.
When I’d crossed the water and reached the edge of the neighborhood where the hideout was, I called the others.
“Thanks for that, Victoria,” Sveta said.
“How’d we do?”
“We didn’t get the very start and we didn’t get what would’ve been the end, but we got some, and I think everyone’s happy with that,” she said. “You okay?”
“Come back. We’ll talk, and you can see what we got.”
I flew back. I didn’t fly in a straight line, being mindful of any possible pursuers, and I flew lower to the ground as I drew closer to the building where the place we were renting was. I landed at the edge of the lot and walked to the fire escape.
Ashley, Sveta, Kenzie and Chris were all present. They were watching a distorted and monochrome image of the inside of the pub, projected on the wall.
I noted the absence of Tristan and Rain.
“He ran,” Ashley said, her voice low.
“He got spooked,” she said. “Tristan went after him.”
“To reassure,” Sveta said.
Chris reached past Kenzie to hit keys on the keyboard. The image on the projector screen changed.
“You suck at that,” Kenzie said, elbowing him. “Here.”
The image was distorted, as if viewing something underwater, with a film of grime on the lens. The sound, however, was only slightly muted.
“You really want this kid to suffer.”
“We want him to face a fate worse than death,” Snag said. “But we can’t have that and have him dead at the same time, and we need him dead. If he suffers as much as possible along the way to that conclusion, we’ll be satisfied.”
“If you’re paying, we can satisf-”
The message cut off as Kenzie hit a key. She looked back at me, shooting me what might’ve been an attempt at a reassuring smile. Not so reassuring.
“We’ll figure something out,” I said, to myself as much as them.