Our group was splitting up, each person assigned a task. Sveta attended to the outcast-types, and Kenzie was even communicating with a group online, while Chris looked over her shoulder. Rain or Ashley would sign off on the messages before they were sent, just to head off the worst issues.
I found myself wincing a bit at the possibilities- each of those four had their issues. Tristan had seemed confident that they’d balance each other out. I wasn’t so confident, but I’d held my tongue. It was one group they were communicating with, and it was better to know sooner than later if there was a communication issue with those four members of Breakthrough.
My destination was a tent city. Most in the tent cities had already departed for more secure accommodations, but new people were coming in regularly, and there was a stubborn holdout. As I flew over, I could see the efforts that were being made to patch the problem. Rigid black sheets of insulation were being laid against the sides of tents with yellow fabric, tents were being moved together and connected, and equipment was being brought in- truckloads of what might have been heaters or furnaces.
It was like a game of musical chairs, but the winners moved on to the next room, new people filed in from outside, and the end of the game loomed closer with every passing day. Whoever was in these particular seats come winter was going to have a rough time of it. Tents weren’t houses and this area was going to be as bleak as fuck when the snow and food shortages came full swing.
Overhead, the sky was overcast with heavy black clouds, sunlight cracking through. The movement of air through portals was generating the flow to keep the clouds rolling, the cracks appearing and disappearing, casting down slices of light before they closed up again.
The landmark I was looking for was a building that looked like a cube. Trucks were parked around it, getting their fuel from large drums. Rather than construction uniforms, the workers were wearing civilian gear, with only vests to mark them as anything different.
I dropped out of the sky, landing on the ‘road’, where the passage of trucks and feet had worn away the grass. A gap in the clouds overhead provided a gap for the light to shine through, sweeping over the area. Had I seen that light in a movie, I might have imagined it was an alien spacecraft or a rapturing sweeping up people. This, though, it was aimless. The people weren’t carried up and away, here.
I spotted the teen Major Malfunctions before they spotted me. I took a second to take stock. Two girls and a boy, ranging from sixteen to eighteen years of age.
The oldest or tallest member of the group was a girl with a dress-like costume that hugged her body, extending all the way to the ground. I’d come across some of the individual pieces of clothing she’d used to put her costume together in my browsing of stores and magazines- and they weren’t clothes I would’ve looked at and thought ‘costume’. A dress in charcoal gray that hugged the body and legs down to a taper at the ankles, exploding into a poof of rolling yellow fabric around the feet. She might have bought two of the dresses, because the same ruffles had been borrowed from elsewhere to form the voluminous sleeves with their own yellow explosions of fabric. Her hands poked through those explosions, clad in black gloves.
The dress was worn over a turtleneck, which went with a ski mask that covered eye sockets, nose, ears, and chin. In effect, fabric covered her from just below her eye level to the ground. Yellow-orange eye makeup, bold slashes of black for the eyebrows and nicely done black hair completed the look.
The guy was the tinker of the group, it looked like- and it was good they had one, given the ‘malfunction’ part of the group’s name. He would have been between the two girls in height, except for his suit. I hesitated to call it power armor, exactly. Power armor implied armor that was heavy enough that it needed machine power to move- remove that power and the tinker was stuck. The stuck part probably held true, but this guy had no armor.
No, if I had to come up with a term for this guy, I would have called it an agility frame. It didn’t thicken his body, but stretched it out, with an mechanical extension adding two feet to his legs, long mechanical gloves that started at his wrists extending the arms much the same way, and a lightweight set of bars and discs providing the bare minimum of strength to hoist what looked like a syringe filled with maybe ten gallons of pink fluid. The syringe’s needle wasn’t the only mount at the front of the fluid’s case, and various other tools or attachments surrounded the front end of the cylinder, all in metal of varying shades, glosses, and textures.
The frame was made on a budget, given how the spray paint had settled on different pieces in different ways, and it was almost buckling between the guy’s lean weight and the weight of the cylinder, to the point that the line of mechanical foot to calf to thigh formed a curve, not a straight line. His mask was a simple one, a circular plate of metal with eyeholes cut out, worn over a hood of something rubbery that clung to his head. The eyes glowed pink.
The girl with the dress so narrow it seemed to bind her ankles together and the frame that threatened to snap explosively under its own weight made me anxious. The third member of the group, at least, seemed a little bit more sane. She wore a flat-top cap with a brim that overshadowed a simple domino mask, her auburn hair was wild, and her costume was a cute variation on a military outfit, all in glittery baby blue and a fabric with some stretch. I suspected it was something like a dance uniform for a particular number or event that had then been claimed from thrift. A stylized music note sat on her breast and the front of her cap where badges or medals might otherwise be.
Which wasn’t to say it wasn’t cute or cohesive. These guys had apparently spent years without much luck on the villain hunting front, but they’d at least spent the time to find costumes that were pretty darn good for the slapdash sort. That her costume was simple and effective was a point for her, in particular.
She was laughing a lot as she talked to the others – and there was something about the timbre of her laugh that made me wonder. A very kid laugh.
People had noticed my arrival, and as caught up as the three were in their own discussion, they caught on that others were looking at me.
The youngest one jogged over. The oldest moved by sliding herself along the ground- like a chess piece might move, or flight that couldn’t lift her off the ground.
And the frame- it was last to start moving my way, but first to arrive, by only a second or two. It lurched, lunging a few steps, putting one leg out forward, letting the leg telescope somewhat with springs clearly at work as suspension absorbed the frame’s full weight, wobbling like it might give way. The entire body swayed and shifted to compensate as pink liquid sloshed in the oversized syringe while it proceeded to lurch into motion again.
It made me nervous, on a few fronts, because I couldn’t shake the impression that one of those feet would bend too far, snap, and all of the tense springs within would shotgun out to impale bystanders. Because he moved like he was in attack mode, and I was the one intruding on their turf.
“Hi!” the sixteen-ish year old girl with the cap said. “I’m Finale.”
“Hi Finale,” I said, “I’m Victoria, or you can call me Antares. Either way is fine.”
“That’s Withdrawal,” she said, indicating the guy. “And that’s Caryatid. We’re the Major Malfunctions.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. I extended a hand for her to shake, and she clasped it in two of her own, giving it a firm shake.
Withdrawal had to shuffle the syringe over to one shoulder, balancing it precariously there while he extended a mechanical hand across the four foot gap between him and my hand. Caryatid was more formal, less unusual, giving me a firm shake.
“Thank you for coming this far out,” Caryatid said, sounding very normal for how rigid and aristocratic her outfit was.
“It’s not an issue,” I said. “I can fly, so getting here is pretty painless.”
“I’m jealous,” Finale said. “Flying.”
There was something so guileless about the statement that I was left short on responses. I smiled at her and was about to respond when Withdrawal beat me to it.
“Do you remember what we talked about, when it comes to powers and where they come from?” he asked.
“Yes,” Finale said, with more severity than necessary. “They usually come from bad days, and sometimes other people’s powers aren’t as good as they seem from…”
“From a distance,” he finished.
“That’s a good thing to keep in mind,” I said, smiling. “In my case, though, it’s not a problem. I like flying.”
She smiled and gave me a thumbs up.
“How is the team network coming along?” Withdrawal asked. He swung the syringe-cylinder around, resting it on one shoulder, before setting his free hand on Finale’s shoulder.
“People are reporting their movements. Already had a couple of people ask where others were patrolling and adjust their routes. Someone called in to ask if we knew anything about a certain villain. I knew off the top of my head.”
“A bit of a band-aid, to make up for the Wardens being gone?” Caryatid asked.
“Maybe. That’s not the end goal, though,” I said. “The Wardens and Protectorate were sponges, trying to soak up everything they could. We want to empower.”
“A lot of people are feeling powerless right now,” Caryatid said, looking out in the direction of the nearest hole in reality.
“Can we help?” Withdrawal asked.
“How are you guys with stakeouts?”
“Never done one,” Withdrawal said, “But we haven’t done a lot that’s practical. Caryatid should be pretty good with that, though.”
“How so?” I asked.
“I switch modes,” Caryatid said. “My other form can only move with my power, and is indestructible with enhanced awareness while still.”
“A breaker form?” I asked.
“I don’t really keep track of the terms,” she said. “I looked online once and it seemed like everyone was a breaker.”
“Almost everyone is, if you want to be super technical,” I said. “But that’s power geek talk. If I’m thinking of the same sites you are, it’s because the template that was copied for individual cape bios had ‘breaker’ included in it by accident.”
Finale turned around, looking up at Withdrawal. He leaned down, murmuring, “I’ll explain after.”
“Can you show me?” I asked Caryatid.
She slid a couple of feet to one side, looked around to make sure the coast was clear, and then swept one arm in front of her, bowing slightly. The change was subtle- the lines of her dress became a flow, the parts that clung to her rotated, and the rolls of yellow fabric at the sleeve and around the feet began rising and falling, crashing out around her like waves. Her hair did much the same, rolling, flowing, taking on motion.
Her face was the biggest change- it looked like butterfly wings, endlessly unfolding, like a multifacted book with pages constantly turning, merging into hairline and the flow of rolls, locks, and loops of hair.
The movement that defined every inch of her slowed, then creaked to a halt. Waves and loops became hard crags, with faint sounds like stones scraping against one another. Instead of the pages or wings of her face unfolding, they began folding like origami or a glacier, a construction forming around her head, first around the eyes, telescoping, then moving away from the eyes to the ears, with a kind of conscious focus.
“Yeah, that’s Breaker” I said. To Finale, I said, “Breakers are one of the labels we use for people with powers. She changes to this special mode this to use her powers, or to use them at their best. Breakers will often want to be careful what costumes they pick, because it becomes a part of the form they take. It looks like Caryatid realized that.”
“Breakers are complicated, so a lot of people got confused online. That’s what I was talking about earlier,” I said. “Even the people who came up with the system got a bit confused at first. The important thing is that Caryatid seems to have figured it out.”
“Cary’s smart like that,” Finale said. She walked over to Caryatid, stepping on a rigid crag of dress hem to get close enough to give her teammate a one-armed hug.
Caryatid’s arm moved very slowly, deliberately, with a break in the rigidity and a resumption of motion that rippled out to the rest of her, based on how much she moved her arm.
“If you’re confused about any of it, I’ll explain after,” Withdrawal said, again, his voice muffled slightly by his mask.
“I think I got it,” Finale said, with a smile. She gave Caryatid another hug before hopping down. Behind her, her teammate resumed a more mortal form, everything about her relaxing and transitioning to its regular variant.
I was secretly glad that my lesson had gotten across okay. I would’ve felt a bit put out as a power geek if my best attempt at a simple, clear explanation had fallen flat.
I thought for a second, then said, “One person doing surveillance might be tough. Do you need to sleep or eat while in that state? Any long-term consequences?”
“I don’t need to eat like that. I’ve never tried to stay up all night,” Caryatid’s voice had a note of surprise and idle interest, like it had never occurred to her.
I wasn’t sure how it had never occurred to her in six years, but this team seemed to have its own wavelength. That was fine- we’d have to adapt to wavelengths.
“If you do, be careful,” I said. “Go easy on yourself, test the waters carefully. Sleep is important, and replacing your sleep with your power could leave you feeling mentally off.”
“I will,” she replied, “Thank you for the warning.”
“It might be best to switch off with your team if you do any long stints.”
“I’ll switch off with Withdrawal,” she said. “If there’s trouble, Finale has our backs.”
“One hundred percent,” Finale said.
I pulled out my phone and scrolled. I found the ‘mugshot’, for lack of a better word. A grim looking man with his forehead very clearly divided where the front of it transitioned to the sides of his head. He might have looked like some renditions of Frankenstein’s monster, but he had a mustache with zero whimsy to it, just a brush on the upper lip.
“This is the person you’ll be keeping an eye on. The people who attacked the stations might be working with him, or they might be looking to force him to do what they want. I’ll send you the details, along with his schedule. Keep an eye out, discreetly if possible. If there’s weird activity around him, pay attention to that. Maybe he’s already being watched by someone else. If he sneaks out at night or goes to meet people, we want to know who. Get all the information you can. Pictures, license plates, addresses.”
“Bit of a problem,” Caryatid said. “I can’t hold bring phones or cameras with me. They get chewed up by my form.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Withdrawal told her. To me, he said, “We’ll do it. You can count on us.”
The conviction and determination caught me off guard. “This isn’t paid work, I want to make sure you know.”
“I know,” he said. “We know. We want to help.”
“If this works out, then we’ll owe you a favor,” I said.
“I don’t even know what we’d do with a favor,” he said. “Just give us a chance to get put on the map. We’ll show the world how awesome Finale is.”
“No, don’t.” Finale was suddenly self conscious. “I’m lame and stupid.”
“No,” Caryatid said. “No, Finale.”
“But I am.”
“We’ll talk it out,” Caryatid said, gentle and firm. “But we’ll do it away from company. If you’ll excuse us?”
“Of course,” I said.
They walked away, talking. I waited, my hands clasped behind my back. When Finale gave me a look over one shoulder, I smiled. It got me a smile back.
“We got in touch online. All of us got our powers young- it was Caryatid and me at first. Finale a year later. We had different names then, obviously,” Withdrawal said.
“We were fine, got along great, she was a bit immature when we were ten, eleven, twelve, but we grew up and she… didn’t. Not mentally.”
“Because of her power?”
He was startled by that, and the sudden shift in position forced one of his legs to take on additional strain. It wobbled precariously, metal straining on each flex to the extent that I could hear it creak and pop.
“That’s a thing?” he asked, once he’d found his stability.
Geez. These guys needed to take a powers 101 class.
“Could be,” I said. “I guess it doesn’t make sense as a thing powers would do. Powers tend to steer clear of the suicidal, the helpless, the invalid, or people who are limited. I wouldn’t rule it out one hundred percent, but I wouldn’t blame the power either.”
He nodded. There was a pause, and then he collapsed into a sitting position, the glass cylinder with its fluid resting on the ground, the syringe point stabbing skyward. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“Just a bad roll of the dice,” he said, quiet. “I’d take a bullet for either of them. They deserve better than this, but we spent so long doing nothing at all that getting started became more and more… huge. We got here and we ended up in the tents, and it let us dip our toes in the water.”
“Did your powers or side effects act up when you were idle?” I asked.
“That’s a thing?”
“Can be. Not all the time, not even most of the time, despite conventional wisdom. But it comes up.”
“That explains shit,” he said. “Oh god. Why isn’t there a manual or website that walks us through all of this?”
“There was. It was called the PRT.”
“Couldn’t go to them. Cary lost her brother when she was young. Her family got split up. We were like siblings, us three, we only had each other, really. We’d go from one of our towns to the other, to check on family and friends, but we were the only ones who always had each other’s backs. We were worried we’d get taken away from home or broken up, like how her family got broken up. They reached out a few times, but-”
He stopped there. He shook his head.
“I’m sorry it was such a hard road.”
“The answers mean a lot,” he said. “That favor I was supposed to ask of you, I think you did it. Or- almost. I have more questions. After we help, maybe you can give us some answers, as the favor?”
“I can give you some without it being a big favor,” I said. “I like talking about powers and figuring this stuff out. But for today, I think, there are things to get squared away. I have other people to talk to like your group.”
“Why face to face?”
“Because there are some things that you can only see face to face, like how genuine someone is or if they’re interested in the mission.”
“We’re interested,” he said, with barely a breath’s span between my statement ending and his starting.
“I know. Yes. And besides that, there’s a need to establish a connection. A website that you visit a few times a day to log your activities, an email exchange, they’re things that are hard to keep up with after the novelty wears off. Someone who you see face to face? It’s harder to ignore them.”
“Establishing trust,” he said.
I landed with more force than was necessary as I returned to the headquarters. My feet rang on the metal slats of the fire escape, announcing my arrival.
“Where are we?” I asked, as I let myself in.
“Auzure is in. They’ll send people whenever they aren’t actively doing a job,” Tristan said. “Money takes priority, Lark says, because he thinks that if he can’t get money, he can’t keep his team running, and it’s a long-term loss. If we start paying him then he’ll give us priority, even if others are offering a bit more. I think the numbers he gave were two hundred dollars a day from us, three hundred from the next guy, he’ll help us out.”
“Can we pay him in New Dollars?” I asked.
I scowled. Then I blinked, looking at Tristan. “I thought it was Byron’s turn.”
“I was antsy, I begged. I owe him time later, now. He thinks this is important. We were talking about money, Sveta talked to Weld and Weld talked to his bosses. They’re going to see what they can funnel our way. It won’t be a ton, but it’s going to cover rent.”
I looked around the room. The two members of our group who were in jail were present, as were Tristan, obviously, and Kenzie.
“Out. We messaged him to come back.”
“Stuck around with the people she was talking to. Ratcatcher and others Ratcatcher has talked to. They got to talking and she wanted to keep chatting. She’s on her way back, but she was a good ways away.”
“That’s good. Rapport,” I said.
“It is. Except,” Tristan said. He made except its own statement, with emphasis, glancing at Rain.
“Except I caught Crystalclear during morning yard,” Rain said. “We got caught up. Everything was foggy before, and we’re getting a clearer view now. We found Goddess.”
“Found?” I asked, my interest piqued.
Kenzie opened up a screen, projecting it onto the one wall. It was her overhead camera, in an area where the sky was much darker, the light that peeked through much briefer. The wind blew at people’s jackets and hair, whipping it.
“It’s a replay,” Kenzie said.
The camera fixed on one individual. A woman, blonde, wearing a light blue jacket with a white fur ruff collar. She walked with her hands in her pockets, head down.
As the replay continued, a few droplets of moisture collected on the lens of the camera. It blinked them away. Each time she raised her head or the wind blew her hair out of her face, the camera took snapshots. The various shots of the woman’s face appeared off to the side, organized into rows and columns by some system I didn’t recognize.
“Crystalclear is in the prison undercover,” Rain said. “Once I confirmed I knew you, he talked to his superiors, and they reached out to us. One subset of the Wardens.”
“They’re letting us know, but we’re not supposed to tell the other teams we’re working with,” Tristan said.
The scene continued, the woman entering a store. The scene skipped ahead to when she was making her exit, now with a bag in hand.
“Why lead a mundane life when you’re that powerful?” Tristan asked.
The camera zoomed in on the bag, shifting through vision modes, each shift suggesting something about the outlines of what was in the bag. Food, it looked like. Regular Earth-Gimel groceries.
When the camera pulled back to get a better view of her, she was staring up at it.
“Good bye,” Kenzie said.
The hand that was holding the groceries twitched, fingers going from a curled position to straight-out. The image shattered- all glitches, artifacts, violent flickering, and the brief audio of a clatter.
“Broken into a million and a half pieces,” Kenzie said. “It hurts to lose it.”
“She knows we’re looking at her?” I asked.
“She doesn’t care,” Ashley said.
“She doesn’t,” Rain said. “Foresight and the Wardens have been keeping tabs on major players. They knew she was interested in the prison- she didn’t make any secrets about it. Her underlings have been ringing in regularly. That interest of hers was reason enough to watch her. She sees them watching and scares them off, just like she disintegrated the camera. She doesn’t change her routine outside of that. She doesn’t use powers, they don’t think, unless it’s in situations like that just now, and at one point she went for a swim.”
“Why is the swim noteworthy?”
“Because she swam three hundred and sixty miles without coming up for air,” Rain said.
“She flew underwater,” Ashley said. “It’s evasive action, ducking out of sight, going where a lot of cameras and some thinker powers can’t.”
The still images gathered together, then the individual variances served to help it form a three-dimensional map. The representation of the head faced the camera, and then began rotating slowly.
Tristan spoke, “We’ve got people keeping an eye out for the zealots that are operating around the prison, Auzure is keeping an eye on the prison medical, Sveta’s guys will track some key guards, now the Major Malfunctions- who did we give them?”
“I gave them the response team leader,” I said. “If things get bad and the anklets don’t work, his people are the ones who suit up and go in. If the anklets do work, he’s one of two people who sign off on pulling the trigger.”
“Good to have eyes on him, then. We’ll get more teams in on this later this afternoon.”
“She’s weaponizing the second chance,” Ashley said.
“Weaponizing?” Rain asked.
“Walking among us. Disappearing into the crowd. She’s gathering people, and she’s being subtle about it. She’s too important to go completely unnoticed, but she’s doing something here. She does have minions, she’s just telling them to stay away.”
“Because keeping her allies close would draw too much attention. This way, it’s ambiguous. It’s really hard to take issue with someone who’s living in an apartment and buying groceries,” I voiced my thoughts aloud.
“We’re just glossing over the fact she took over a planet,” Tristan said.
Images popped up. They were odd angles, some forced. Surveillance camera footage of the street. Someone’s photograph that they had put online, which had her in the background.
“This is all I’m able to find right now,” Kenzie said.
“We have thinkers we can turn to the task,” Tristan said. “Contacts. Foresight is offering to help.”
The screen was practically on fire with the lines that showed connections, ten or more flickering through every second, brute-forcing their way through possible renditions.
More images popped up. Someone’s dash-mounted camera caught her on the street.
“Let’s make sure we have some resources,” I said. “We have the greenlist. It might be worth seeing if anyone could help us if she goes rogue or if she tries to collect people by force.”
“Power nullifiers?” Tristan asked. “Thinkers? Masters?”
“Let me do that, then.”
Chris let himself in. His eyes immediately went to the wall.
“Kenzie,” Ashley said. “Can you do me a favor?”
“The moment she destroyed the camera. Can you go back to that?”
“I can go back to that place in things, yeah.”
The image on the wall shifted. Back to the scene where the Lady in Blue had her groceries.
The scene moved around by increments, as the camera hovered, swaying in the wind.
“That doesn’t do me much good. Send it to my laptop?”
“Oh. I forgot you weren’t really there. Now I miss you.”
“I’m here talking with you. It’s as good as we’re going to get for now. Focus in on the face?”
Kenzie did, doing the same with the image on the wall for our benefit as well.
Anger, a flash of it, disdainful.
“Scared,” Ashley said. “And not of the camera.”
“I don’t see it,” I said.
“I can almost see it,” Chris said.
“You’ve seen the footage?” I asked.
“Before you got back. I went out to make sure I’m free and clear if something happens this afternoon.”
That soon? We’re not ready.
There were still people to organize, we needed to find people who might be able to deal with this woman, get them on board, and then coordinate them. If none of us could go, then the hit team we recruited would have to. Beyond that, what? Civilians? Men and women with guns against an invincible woman who could telekinetically smash a camera from a quarter-mile away?
All of which ignored the zealots. They weren’t invincible, far from it, but they were invisible.
We had no idea of knowing when this could all come to a head.
I heard the squeak of whiteboard marker and I looked.
Tristan was at my board where I’d listed the ‘green’ capes and teams. The same ones we’d just recruited.
A black ‘x’ here.
A black ‘x’ there.
By my mom and dad, even. A black ‘x’.
“Cap-” I started. But he was talking to the phone that was pressed to one ear.
He finished. Everyone was watching him as he put the phone down. When he slashed out the black ‘x’ by the Kings of the Hill, it was more dramatic, messier, angrier.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We’re being undercut,” Tristan answered. “It’s going to be a thing tonight, but these teams and people-”
He stabbed the board.
“They’ve got an ear to the ground. A group is talking about Lookout, and they’re pushing it to the public later. They don’t want to deal with us until we get this handled.”