Five minutes to fly to Ashley’s place -now my apartment-, three or four minutes to get things. Six minutes to fly back against the headwind. I came back to the headquarters to find everything on fire.
Not literally on fire, but for all intents and purposes, everyone was in motion and being loud except the two people who weren’t really there. Costumes, hair, clothes, words. In making my proposal, I was throwing us to the wolves. I was trusting that we could do okay, come out the other side with the confidence of outside parties. The confidence of the city, who would be listening and rewatching things for days to come.
Everyone running around like they were on fire was… entirely fair. At least it wasn’t a grim silence, this time.
I had to be a pillar. I couldn’t get swept up in the chaos. I put my bag of the stuff I’d grabbed from Ashley’s place on a computer chair, and used a push of my foot to send it across the room, to the corner that was mine. I walked over, through the metaphorical fires that were igniting and being put out.
Natalie was hanging back, actually fairly near Chris’ usual nook. Looking stuff up on her phone, it seemed, or frantically communicating. Worry lines creased her forehead.
Ashley was with Chris, the two of them staring at a phone. Kenzie was beside them, facing the other direction as she typed away.
“I want you to wear the armor,” Tristan said, to nobody in particular, as he walked across the room.
An instant later, with some blurring and glowing eyes, he was Byron. “Your armor. I’m supposed to be you?”
Another shift. Tristan glanced at me. He drew in a breath, eyes unfocusing, one hand gesticulating as he paced toward his station in the headquarters, not even alongside words- he wasn’t speaking yet, but punctuating thoughts before he outlined them.
“Yeah. I can shift down, wearing my stripped-down costume, secondary armor and bodysuit, mask, present better for the cameras, it’s a bit of an effect, it’s almost like disarming, and it’s cool,” Tristan replied.
“It would be effective,” Ashley said.
“It would be scary people with powers using powers while at a public venue,” Sveta said.
“That’s a good point,” I said.
“It’s not even really using a power,” Tristan said, dismissive. He switched out.
“Natalie?” I asked.
She lifted her head, eyes wide, wider behind her glasses.
“Give us a civilian perspective? Someone does the transforming thing like Tristan and Byron do, in a tense but civil situation. How do you react?”
They changed and changed back to demonstrate.
“At a television studio? I wouldn’t mind, I don’t think,” Natalie said. “But I’m weird. There are a ton of things that bother me that other people treat as normal, and a ton of things I wouldn’t blink at things that annoy or freak out other people.”
“I respect that,” Chris said. “Yes, you have to find that nugget of you and cling to it. That stuff that makes you different.”
“It’s not anything fancy,” Natalie said. “I’m anxious about the stupidest stuff and I can get zen with routine work and chores. There are maybe three times in my life something horrible happened near me, and I kept my cool while other people were breaking down. That’s basically it.”
“Fancy enough,” Chris said.
“It’s really not,” Natalie replied.
“Nat, if you have Chris’ respect, take it and run. That’s better than a lot of us get,” Rain said.
“That’s not true,” Chris said. “I respect you guys, mostly. I think you’re obnoxious and wrong-headed, but you don’t suck at everything. If you did, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Okay. Keep swiping,” Ashley indicated the phone Chris held.
“I tell people I respect them and I get told to get back to the grunt work. People wonder why I’m the way I am,” Chris said.
Natalie frowned a bit at Chris, then seemed to remember something, going by the small look of surprise on her face. She snapped her attention to me.
“Oh, Victoria! We got the go-ahead from Ms. Kenzie Martin’s guardianship to have her on the show.”
“Good,” I said. “If you’re up for it, Kenzie?”
“Yeah. So long as I’ve got you guys.”
Tristan had said something. He switched.
Byron shook his head. “There three things here I have issues with. Your armor is heavy, and I’m not that strong. Why are you in the spotlight, when I’m supposed to get the extra hours tonight? And why? Really why is it so important I wear the armor?”
He switched back to Tristan. No immediate reply from the bolder brother, but Tristan’s hand was in motion, like an orchestral conductor with his stick. Flick, flick, stop- he met my eye, and there was a light in his eyes.
He was nervous and he was also wholly in his element, getting ready to face this.
I was going to say something, but I heard the others. Chris was being cranky, still on about the swiping. Ashley and Kenzie were talking to him. That was more of an immediate concern, as much as I worried about Tristan wanting to do this so badly he was willing to bulldoze over Byron.
“I’m going to get a repetitive stress injury if you don’t pick,” Chris said. He had a phone in hand, and he was swiping, swiping, swiping. “Kenzie’s putting something together to make it easier, so why not just wait two minutes and spare me the pain?”
“You’re not that weak,” Ashley said.
“I’m literally that weak,” Chris said. “I’m prone to just about everything, because of all the tiny flaws in how I’m put together.”
“Keep scrolling,” Ashley said.
Chris leaned back, his elbow shoving the dinner-plate sized disc that handled Kenzie’s lesser projections in the field. It moved toward the table’s edge, the lip of it extending over. “Oops.”
Kenzie’s head snapped up. Her eyes locked onto the disc. “If you knock that over, I’m going to hold you down and flash you so many times light comes out your butt.”
“Wording. Flash gun,” Chris said.
“Or I’ll use the eyehook and get inventive,” Kenzie said. She waved her hand and the eyehook that was draped over the end of her workstation made a limp shuffle forward. The combination of the weight of the hook on the end and the new position of the prehensile limb made it slide off the table, collapsing noisily in a heap on the ground.
“Nice,” Chris said.
“That was meant to be way more intimidating,” Kenzie said.
“We’ll work on that,” Ashley said.
Kenzie nodded, looking at Chris. “Keep scrolling.”
“Keep scrolling,” Ashley repeated.
“Uuggh. Maybe I should just say I’m coming, and I need to get ready, just so I don’t have to keep doing this.”
“Yeah, right,” Rain said. “Mr. Privacy is going to go up and put himself out there in front of millions.”
“I could hide my face with the projector.”
“You could, except they’re already taken. I’m using one for me so I don’t have to have my helmet on, and I’m bringing one so we can have Ashley come along.”
“You’re coming?” I asked Ashley.
“For Kenzie. Is it a problem?”
There were issues, but…
“You can tell me,” she said. “Tristan was against, Kenzie was for.”
“If she’s not going I don’t want to go,” Kenzie said.
“And…” I looked at Rain and Sveta, who were hanging back. “Where are you guys?”
“I’m obviously not going. I’m worried that if I comment or touch anything I’m going to make it worse,” Rain said. “I don’t know enough about this stuff.”
“I know just enough to say I’m worried-” Sveta said.
“Worried is a good way of putting it,” Rain cut in.
“-And I feel only dread,” Sveta finished. “Not about Ashley going. All of it.”
“We have to do something,” Kenzie said.
“I know. I even agree with Victoria. I trust her. I’m just worried this will be a disaster.”
“Agreed,” Rain said.
“You two are really on the same page, huh?” I asked. I unlocked my computer and checked the messages. While the page loaded, I began fishing things out of my bag. Makeup, a hot roller for my hair, hair stuff, a clothes brush…
“We’re the ones on the sideline for this,” Rain said. “Us two and Chris.”
“And Natalie,” Rain said.
Natalie nodded. “I’ll be at the studio, so I can monitor Kenzie, but please don’t put me on stage.”
“Absolutely won’t,” I said to her, before looking back to the pair of Rain and Sveta. “Your vote counts.”
“This is your thing. You and Tristan, you understand… PR,” Sveta said. “And I do want to learn, so I understand it for next time, but I trust your instincts more than I trust mine. I know almost nothing. You make the tie-breaking call on bringing Ashley.”
I nodded slowly. I didn’t want it to be me. It put me pretty squarely between multiple members of the group, and the fact that so many people were abstaining made it feel more like feelings would be hurt.
I looked at Ashley, and saw her with her chin held high. Kenzie practically bounced as she talked to her.
That was Kenzie’s happiness. In motion, restless and hard to restrain, words falling out of her mouth rapid-fire.
“Tristan,” I called out.
Byron switched. Tristan walked over to me, then asked, “What?”
“I’m thinking we should bring Ashley.”
“They’re going to shit-talk Kenzie,” Tristan said. “I’m going to have trouble not punching faces. Ashley will have a harder time.”
“She can’t hit people like this.”
“She can say something, though,” Tristan said.
“So can we. Worst case scenario, we blip her out, explain it away.”
Tristan drew in a breath.
“If it’s the two of us alone, it’s going to feel like we’re the PR team. They go after one of us, or they create an issue, and we’re done. Bring Kenzie in, it feels more personal. Bring someone like Ashley in, and I think we’ll shed the image of being the public relations branch of something bigger, because it’s easier to have an actual, natural back and forth.”
“Can’t bring Rain,” he said. “Not enough projectors, according to Kenz. Can’t bring Chris, because we want to win this PR battle. Sveta?”
“No,” Sveta said.
“Then Ashley. Fine, makes sense,” he said. He went back to what he was doing with his costume buckles and plates.
Sveta helped me by holding my bag while I fished past stray receipts, some paper, and finally got the last of the individual makeup things out.
“You don’t want to come on?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “I can’t do- that. The makeup, the hair. I don’t have the clothes for it. I’m toxic, too.”
“Toxic? No,” I said.
“Yes. The other Case Fifty-threes hate me. Every time I pop up in the news because people know I’m dating Weld, it gets bitter and nasty. For now I want to keep my head down.”
“We keep trying to talk and getting interrupted or distracted, especially about-” I stopped, glancing at Rain.
“I’ll get out of your hair,” Rain said.
“I didn’t mean to scare you off,” I said.
“S’alright. I might need to referee for Tristan and Byron.”
Rain half-walked, half-floated across the room, a camera periodically becoming visible at the edges where his head moved too much. Sure enough, Tristan and Byron were arguing.
“And- I really do want to spend time with you and cover all the bases, get one hundred percent caught up, and make sure there’s no stone unturned- of course, no touching any stones you want to leave alone.”
“You mentioned shopping once,” she murmured.
“I did,” I said, using my flight to make getting under the table to plug my hot roller into the wall. “I was under the impression you didn’t want to talk about any of that stuff.”
She leaned closer, nearly losing her grip as she seized a table edge so she could bend over better. “You’re an exception. You’re my friend. Tristan is pushier.”
“Got it,” I said. “We’ll do something. Get you clothes you like?”
“Something closer to hippie, surfer, bohemian styles?”
“I have no idea what those things are, but yes. Soon?” she sounded almost eager.
I’d been neglecting my friend, trying to juggle this everything thing. I felt bad.
“Soon. I promise.”
“Tell me what you’re doing, so I can learn some of it?”
“Absolutely,” I said. I saw a message pop up on my screen.
Advance Guard: if u want to bite that bullet for the rest of us, is ur funeral
Shortcut’s response, I was thinking it was Shortcut because I refused to believe it was anyone half-decent, was the latest in a long line of general agreement.
In the background, Tristan was in Rain’s company. Kenzie was switching up her costume colors, and Ashley was- I had to look twice. She and Kenzie had moved the camera away from the projected image of Ashley. Now the image was changing clothes and hairstyles.
The thing on the phone – had that been a game? A character customization menu, used to finalize her costume details and look for the projection?
“Your hair?” I heard Byron, incredulous. “So the real reason you’re pushing for me to wear this heavy-ass armor is because you don’t want helmet hair?”
I caught the dubious look I got from Sveta.
“We’ll get the wackiness out of the way now, talk strategy in the car.”
The look didn’t pass.
‘B-TV’. The building loomed above us as we got out of the car. It was me, Capricorn, Lookout, and, after a short delay for the camera and projector to boot up, Swansong in a dress that combined black and white. The dress had costume lines and straps that crossed over at the collarbone. Elegant, but short enough a dress that it could have been indecent.
Natalie climbed out of the car and stood off to the side. She pulled off her puffy jacket, throwing it back into the car, before locking it. Back to her more professional demeanor.
I’d read up on Buckner, the person who controlled over half the media we got in the city, and I didn’t get the parahuman vibe from him. Back in the day, the racist gang leader had turned out to be a businessman, outed as part of a massive break in the unwritten rules. Tattletale, naturally. But it had made sense. Max Anders had been a name that I’d been familiar with through my association with Dean, I’d seen him around three or four times in my visits to high society. He’d given me no overt clues, and yet I’d been entirely unsurprised.
Doing the cape thing in any meaningful capacity took too much effort. Being successful and being a cape? Possible. Max Anders, AKA Kaiser, AKA the CEO of Medhall, he’d done it. But there’d been something missing- I’d seen it in my mom, as she’d struck the balance of being a prosecutor and a heroine. When you lived two demanding lives then petty things had to be pared away, like levity or idle hobbies.
Buckner was a storm of multimedia, a finger in a hundred pies, and he spent a lot of time trying to promote and investigate side things. He went to concerts with new bands playing, sponsoring them, and had photos taken with him and the band on stage at the end of the night. Artists, actors, movie ideas…
Too inane to be a cape.
The building was glass panes in a grid of metal bars, tinted windows that caught the glare of the spotlights. There’d been a brief point in time when the city was under construction that the building would have been nice, taller than all of the rest that were going up around here, a visual break from the siding and brick that made up most buildings.
But that moment had been brief. Materials had been prepared and arranged in advance, and buildings had gone up fast once we’d had the labor.
Squat, ugly, nothing distinctive about it, now, except for the illumination and the people who milled around in it, getting their smoke breaks in, one or two with hands tucked into their armpits, until they needed to bring one up to the cigarette.
I wasn’t warm either. I looked at the others.
“Let’s go,” Capricorn said.
The lobby was brightly lit, organized in a way that would let whole crowds file in and out, or even stand comfortably around for a media or news event. The front desk was organized appropriately for that same purpose, set up like an island in the middle of open space, the ring of desk serving to fortify against and divert the ebb and flow of any crowd. Employees were dressed in uniforms that, like the very design of the B-TV building, would have looked fantastic in the right moment in time. As it was, the cheaper suits with vests beneath looked like the kinds of uniforms a movie theater employee would wear, with a jacket added.
Those were the employees that mobilized to approach us, to manage us. We’d called just before we arrived, and they were ready.
Three people for the five of us, but the security team at the other end of the room moved as we did.
My costume was clean, face made up in a way I normally wouldn’t bother with if I was going out in costume, my hair dressed up, with no braid, only the loosely spiraling tumble of hair over my shoulders, my hood pulled down over my forehead, the spikes of the hood’s ornamentation at my brow, working with the metal band that we’d worked into the white trim to keep the hood in position.
Lookout was in silver and dark gray, with an illuminated green at spots all around her costume, including the lenses of her mask. An eye icon was displayed in white against the dark green plate of the circular projector, which was worn on her chest. The eye shifted between three different configurations of lines and circles, an endless shuffling. Another plate was at her shoulder, smaller than the other, with wires running along her suit to it- power. That would be the projector that let us have Swansong with us.
She had her Eyehook, but it was in a discreet mode. No gun, no weapon, toolbelt reduced down to the essentials. While she walked toward the front of the group, the encasement around one of the buns of her hair opened up. The bun, a mechanical pupil surrounded by a green iris, started staring at me. She turned her head, glancing at me out of the corner of one eye, and I saw the slight skip in her step, alongside a small smile.
That would be the connection pad from Rain’s tech, repurposed so that she apparently now had an extra eyeball extending from the back of her head.
Televisions along the corridor were showing the ending of the show that preceded our segment. This would be the one where a mix of adults and younger people went over the news of the day. The dynamic was that the adults tried to do it seriously, while the kids teased, joked, interfered and played pranks.
We were led to a room not far from the studio where things were being shot. The room had various seats, a horizontal green band running along the walls, and several televisions. There were some others gathered. At a glance, matching to the kids who were on the television, it was the kid actors’ parents.
“We’ll be starting shortly,” the staff member in the cheap suit told us. “If you have to use the facilities, please let staff know so we can find you quickly if we need to get you on set.”
“Somehow this seems familiar,” Ashley said.
“If you need anything to eat or drink, there’s a fridge over there with a clipboard on top. Write down what you took on the clipboard so we know what to replace. Thank you, and we look forward to having you on the show!”
Bubbles and cheer. The adults in the room were trying to block out the sound of our interruption and follow the final segment on the show.
It would’ve been easy to be grumpy or dismissive. Instead, I put a smile on my face. “Thank you very much. Listen, do you have any tips?”
I pulled the hood of my costume back. The others were finding seats, except for Swansong, who stood at empty space between Lookout and I. “You watch these shows. I’d bet a box of pastries the staff watches, you talk with each other, and you complain about how every guest does it wrong. I’m nervous and this would help.”
“It would be bad manners for me to say.”
“I’m not asking you anything about employers, only about the guests.”
“Just as I wouldn’t tell anyone anything about you, now that you’re a guest in my care, I can’t speak about past or current guests.”
“Okay,” I said. “I can respect that.”
“We’re broadcasting on television and radio both. Be clear in how you speak, because a share of our followers are going to follow by audio only.”
“Good point. I didn’t have to deal with that the last time I was on a show.”
“It’s a different time. The panel segment that starts halfway through is where things get bad, if they get bad. That’s your segment, by the way. Keep an eye on H.K.”
“Hamza Kouri?” I asked.
“You know the show!”
I didn’t know the show. I’d done research to try and figure out what we were getting into. “Some.”
She went on, “Yes, he’s one of the panelists. If you’ve seen, you know sometimes he derails things, he always looks for his producer in the back of the room to get the go-ahead, or to make sure they have the clip while he’s asking a question, hoping they give an answer that contradicts the clip. It used to go over real well, but it doesn’t anymore. Once they find a schtick, they tend to overplay it or exaggerate it over time, and it’s not playing so well now. He asks the question or launches into the speech, and the moment there’s a weakness, he goes after it until someone makes him stop. He shouts people down, gets condescending. The majority of the audience doesn’t like it, so he’s supposed to be stopping.”
“He looks offscreen, then the trap? Or the rant?”
“Yes. Lynn likes jokes. Keep her laughing and the mood will stay good. John Combs is less predictable. He does his own research. If it’s good research he hits hard. If not… he’s anyone you might see on the street, but with a nice jacket.”
“I’ve got to go run more errands to get us all ready. I will be back to check on you before you go in.”
“Thank you… you didn’t tell me your name.”
One maybe-ally in this whole mess, a bit of information.
Ashley had one raised eyebrow on her face as she looked at me. Everyone else was focusing on the television screens.
“Ask someone for help, and they’re in your debt.”
“Not the other way around?”
“People want to be helpful,” I said.
“That might just be you.”
“It’s true of all of us. Helping us made her feel more important. It made her a part of things. People are grateful for that.”
“There’s no use in it for me,” she said. “I’m not the type to ask for help.”
“If you ever feel the need, remember that the other person is probably waiting for you to do it.”
She offered a dismissive sniff of the nose and shook her head.
The assorted parents were leaving the room, free to retrieve their children while the end credits rolled. Ads were playing on the one side of the screen.
Leaping from family-friendly news to something more controversial.
The door of the room with the green stripe opened. It was Gary Nieves who walked through. He was solidly built, his hair short and dyed to mask white hairs, his clothes rustic. With a wide waistband, he relied on suspenders to keep his pants up, and a tailored suit jacket to hide his suspenders.
“I had half of an hour of screen time allotted to me today. They called to let me know they’re bringing other people on. Now I have seven minutes. They want to leave room for us to debate and to let you say your piece.”
I smiled a little. “You brought her family into it, Mr. Nieves.”
“I would say she brought them into it by a campaign of extortion. They’re small, vulnerable people in a world with terrible giants that exploit or compound vulnerabilities.”
“A terrible giant,” Ashley said, her voice dry. She indicated Lookout, who was all of four-foot-ten and seventy five pounds.
Gary looked nettled.
“Hi,” Lookout said.
“I think I’ll wait elsewhere.”
“You should know my parents are not good people. If they sound sweet and convincing to you, they’re just messing with you. They’re really good at it. Kind of.”
“Excuse me,” he said.
“Um!” Lookout interrupted, with a loudness and urgency that seemed to catch him off guard.
“Um. This isn’t that easy for me, but would you like to see the proof?”
“You falsify evidence. Multiple sources, some ex-PRT, have confirmed this.”
“I can falsify video, because I’m a camera tinker. Falsifying audio is a lot harder. I’ve never been able to do it. Here.”
“I’m not-” he started.
The video began playing. Audio. A sound like a single clap, a book being closed. Then a crash. Dishes breaking. A man’s raised voice, muffled.
“April twenty first, first year,” Kenzie’s voice came through. “Meet my parents, Mr. Julien Martin and Mrs. Irene Martin. Episode three.”
“This is moronic,” Nieves said.
There were more impacts that could be heard over the audio from her phone. Footsteps. Even though they only existed on the phone, Lookout’s shoulders drew together a fraction.
“Kanzi,” Julien said. There were more distant crashes.
“I’m- I’m Kenzie now. Please, I-”
“Stop,” he said. “Stop talking, stop interfering, stop interjecting yourself into things.”
“I filled the dishwasher. To help out!”
“You filled it wrong, and coming home to find it done is a reminder that you’re here. Why are you here? Why come to us?”
“Because you kind of-” there was a pause, a horrendous crash like the whole dishwasher rack had been torn out. “You guys gave birth to me in the first place, and I wasn’t sure where to go.”
“Kanzi!” he raised his voice, angry now. “Stop talking back. You left. You told stories and we were sentenced probation, community service, classes, we spent time in jail.”
“I told the truth.”
“You left, and once we got past the legal hassles, things were better,” Julien’s voice came through. “We were happy. You- I have to imagine you were happier, wherever you ended up. Call it- I don’t know. We’re a bad fit, us two and you. Separating us was a good thing, the hell we went through with jail and court aside.”
“I’m in therapy now, I’ve worked on my stuff.”
“I don’t- I can hear your mother coming. This is- it’s so stressful, Kanzi. Every day is stressful.”
“Are you going to stop her? Stop this? Protect me?”
“Are you going to leave?”
“Then no. You’re going to keep being you, and she’s going to keep being her, and I wouldn’t survive ten days trying to get between-”
A bang, door against wall.
Then noises, sounds of struggle. The sharp slapping sound of fist against flesh.
Gary looked away from the phone Lookout was holding up.
“Look, please. Listen,” Lookout said.
The sound repeated. Three, four, five times. The arm that was holding up the phone wasn’t steady, and it drew a figure eight in the air with the phone, almost, to the point that if there was anything new happening on the screen, I doubted Gary would be able to track it with his eyes.
“You can falsify evidence,” Gary said. His voice was tense. “That’s a big part of today’s episode.”
The sounds continued, scuffling. More hits on flesh. Kenzie’s voice with each one, indistinct.
“Stop that,” Gary said. “Please and thank you. You made your point.”
“Has she?” I asked. “It’s pretty major for her to show you this.”
In front of me, Lookout shrugged, still holding up the phone. The sounds continued to play. She held her position like she was trying to stand still, but the waver in her hand failed her.
“It’s manipulative and it’s questionable!” Gary said, with an anger above that which was warranted.
In the face of that anger, Lookout backed up a bit. The phone dropped to her side. Video still played on the screen.
“I assume you’re going to try to get them to put this on the air?”
“No,” Lookout said. “I don’t really want it to be seen by millions of people. That’s not the me I want to be in front of that many people.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it,” Swansong said.
“For the last time, excuse me,” Gary said. “I would like to get my thoughts in order.”
“If you leave and you ignore this,” Swansong said, “Then you’re no more a man than Julien Martin. You’re worse. You’re the kind of person who empowers the Julien Martins of the world.”
He opened the door and walked through.
“Be sure to let them know where you’re going,” I said, after him. “They want to be able to find you as soon as they need you.”
He ignored me, walking away.
I walked over and closed the door.
“Dickbag,” Natalie said.
Why had I wanted to say that? Pettiness? To make sure he knew he wasn’t supposed to be walking away like that? To inject some civility, however backhanded, and ensure he knew we weren’t wholly bad guys?
I wasn’t sure. I looked over at Lookout, who was exchanging murmured words with Swansong. She walked over to Capricorn, who had been largely absent from the conversation.
He was staring up at the television screen. The show had started, our part wasn’t up for a bit, and he was following it with an almost unblinking stare, his jaw tense, fist clenched at one side.
“Capricorn?” I asked.
“I thought someone should watch, make sure we knew what we were going into,” Byron said, in a voice that was quieter and softer than his usual. “And if I looked away, I’d do something stupid.”
“Okay,” I said. “That makes a lot of sense.”
He looked at Lookout, who drew a step nearer, and reached out, hand on her shoulder. He pulled her close, until her helmet knocked against the armor at the side of his body, and he used one arm to hug her against the side of his body, tight.
She nodded, like she was answering a question.
The show was playing out with the narration of a true crime documentary. Laying out the facts. Kidnapped, tortured, no justice. It wasn’t Lookout’s case, but as images lined up, showing victims with faces blurred out, silhouettes identifiable as her parents appeared.
A part of me ached to check online, make sure that the sky wasn’t falling while we were tied up with this. We had too few people with far too little in the way of effective experience keeping an eye on things. Chris and Sveta were handling the organization.
That part of me didn’t have any motive force. I watched the episode, steeled myself. More words appeared on the screen. A golden flash. A silhouette.
The door opened, and Kaylar the staff guest organizer poked her head into the room.
“You’re on after the next commercial break,” she said. “Come on, hurry. Last chance to spruce up. Get your microphones.”
Microphones clipped to our belts, my own threaded up through my armor like I tended to do my earbuds, we made our way into the hallway. Swansong couldn’t wear one, so Lookout lagged behind, fiddling with her phone and periodically tapping at the projector plate. As Capricorn and Lookout caught up with me, I put a hand on Lookout’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. She put her hand over mine.
The hallway, mundane and ordinary, but for a high ceiling that extended up to the reflective glass above the front section of the building.
Then the studio. The energy of a few hundred people in their seats, all chatting as commercials played, the set, the music, the iffy curtains that kept us out of view until our reveal. People had spotted us and were pointing, leaning toward one another to whisper and to get a better peek.
There was a buzzer, a red light, and conversation stopped.
Televisions throughout the area and screens on various cameras all showed the episode resuming. A flash of gold, a silhouette, and then the word: Answers.
The distortion of voice and bass with our proximity to speakers made words almost unintelligible. A hand gave me a light push. Kaylar.
And I stepped past the curtain, into the studio, wearing my A- costume with my makeup at an A and my hair done to an A+. I stood tall and walked with confidence, my hand at Lookout’s shoulder.
Swansong, an image, not the real her, made her debut in a way. A++ in poise, and that counted for enough.
And Capricorn, Byron up to this point, turned into Tristan to ‘transform’, to drop armor helmet, and to be presentable. He’d done his hair differently, almost but not quite making the two sides of the parts into horn-like lengths, and he wore a mask that left his mouth free.
The hot lamps and spotlights of the studio left me momentarily blind.