Our applause was like most of the applause at a golf match- far from uproarious, provided by expectation, not by free will. All light was reserved for the stage; four fifths of the expansive room was dark. The audience were nebulous shapes, an audience manager with her back to us keeping everything in order. The audience was easy to lose track of, as the lights were directed our way, a brightness I had to look past.
The three hosts were standing in the center of the stage, in front of the arrangement of table and chairs. A woman at the front of this particular triumvirate- Lynn Chess. Black hair in a bun, bangs straight across the forehead, black suit jacket, a light blue silky top that cut straight across her cleavage, black skirt. She would have looked severe, if it weren’t for her expression and the animation in her eyes, a smile natural on her lips. The face of the group.
With the applause dying down, I could hear her talking. We didn’t have the benefit of speakers, and she didn’t do the talk-show thing of waiting for the applause to die down, gesturing and smiling all the while.
“Breakthrough is an up and coming team, credited with identifying the threat to the inter-world portals and helping to save one of them…”
Hamza Kouri and John Combs walked behind Lynn to greet us while Lynn talked.
Hamza was a big guy, maybe eighty pounds heavier than Gary Nieves, bald at the top with hair only at the sides and back of his head, a thick beard and thick eyebrows that were shot through with white. Dark brown spots flecked already deep brown, damaged skin. I would have taken him for homeless, going by the skin, hair, and the natural angry-at-the-world glower, but his clothes were nice, tailored well to his frame.
He shook Capricorn’s hand, leaning in close to say something, one or two words.
“…Tonight, for those of you catching up, is the second episode of our series looking at the rogues, heroes, and villains of the city, and the dynamic that all of us are having to adjust to…”
Hamza shook my hand, clasping it in both of his, leaning in close enough that I could smell cigars. An expensive habit to have, after the end of the world, when supply was next to nil. He was barely audible. “Good to have you.”
“Thanks for having us,” I murmured back, offering a smile.
Lynn continued, “…talked about duty, about law, and the shifts in attitude that seemed to surround our heroes in the years just before Gold Morning…”
Hamza, where he’d bent over me and Capricorn, stood very straight and stuck his hand down at an angle for Lookout. She shook it, her hand disappearing in his. She tugged, and he bent down, and she said something, while pointing at Swansong.
I shook John Combs’ hand. He was a good looking guy, clean shaven, black hair styled down to the strand, button-up shirt with no tie worn under a suit jacket. When I glanced down at his hand to shake it, I saw his shoes. Earth Bet shoes, like Hamza’s cigars. His grip was aggressively firm, but he actually smiled as he murmured a pleasantry.
“…Tonight, our focus shifts to the present, and how the authorities are handling this, if they’re handling it at all. Today we’re focusing on the question marks. Our investigative reporters brought three cases to our attention. A pair of killers in black raincoats. A husband and wife are held hostage by a family member that was taken into PRT custody years ago. An actual, literal warlord rules over a disconnected section of the city, and it’s not the only one,” Lynn said. Her eyes lit up. “One of the alleged culprits is with us tonight.”
I raised an eyebrow at that.
John had wrapped up the handshakes. He touched Lynn’s arm as he moved back to center, joining Hamza. “Joining us again at our table tonight, we have the recent candidate and contender for the city’s first run at Mayor, and an outspoken, authoritative voice when it comes to figuring out where the costumed fit into things. Mr. Gary Nieves.”
The woman who was managing the audience gave the signal, arms in movement as she encouraged. They applauded. More applause than we got.
Gary Nieves approached. To my eyes, he was a touch red in the face, but I wasn’t sure if that would translate to the cameras.
We were indicated to take our seats, while the hosts greeted Gary Nieves. The arrangement of chairs and table were an ‘L’ shape, the short leg being an arrangement of four puffy chairs, the long leg being a single table. They faced the audience, while we faced them.
Cameras were moving, tracking our every movement. I smiled, keenly aware of my hair, my expression, and my body language. I was aware of the others’ body language and expressions, where visible.
I saw Tristan hesitate a moment, then step away from the chairs. Toward Gary Nieves. Wearing a smile that conveyed I had full confidence in Capricorn, I followed him with less-than-full confidence. Past the three hosts, to Gary Nieves.
As the hosts finished with Gary, Tristan reached him, hand extended to shake. Cameras moved to follow the exchange, and I could see the fraction-of-a-second hesitation in Gary.
He didn’t want to shake Tristan’s hand? Fear? Or optics in the eyes of the audience?
He couldn’t refuse without looking like the bad guy, so he did accept the shake. With no helmet on, only a mask around the upper half of his face, Tristan was free to flash him a winning smile.
As Tristan turned away, Gary shook the hand he’d used to shake Tristan’s, not so much like it was gross, but like Tristan had hurt him. I could see the hitch in Tristan’s stride as he spotted it at the last second before turning completely away. He met my eyes.
I was pretty sure I could tell from his expression that he hadn’t squeezed Gary’s hand. It was a power play to make us look bad, in exchange for a power play intended to toy with Gary’s optics. A fine distinction, to discern if Tristan was resentful because of lingering feelings from Gary and Lookout a few minutes ago, or if it was because he’d just been played.
Then we were walking in opposite directions. Tristan walked to the chairs. I walked over to Gary to shake his hand. I leaned in closer when I did have his grip. I murmured. “Going to pretend like I squeezed your hand too hard, Mr. Nieves?”
There was no smile, no change in expression, only a firm shake. I smiled at him.
The others were seated as I strode over to the chairs. We’d picked good people for this, and all of us came across as confident, and our team looked genuinely good. Even Lookout, who had the most reason to be nervous, gave nothing away.
I knew she was good at pretending things were okay. The tell was in what she did, action-wise. We’d have to be mindful.
Tristan had taken the seat closest to the table. The next seat, mine, was empty, followed by Lookout and Swansong at the end.
Conversely, at the table, Hamza was the closest to us, followed by John, Lynn, and then Gary Nieves at the end. Given the description I’d gotten of Hamza, and my surface assessment from the segments of show I’d watched to research, Hamza was a bad pairing to put so close to Tristan. They were both too prone to butt heads.
This show was a very specific kind of machine. I’d seen fragments of it before, and it hadn’t been the kind of show that I enjoyed. Investigative journalism leading into segments with the panel, exploring what was uncovered. It was too aggressive a show, leaving me uneasy and tired- and I didn’t watch television to be uneasy and tired.
I’d also studied two episodes, my finger hammering the ‘skip 5 seconds ahead’ key at times to get to the next scene, where I could let it play at normal speed, see the tone, read the expressions, and see how the guest or topic were handled. It looked like they always had the initial segment, setting the tone with an easy to understand story. Then the guests, or the expert like our Gary Nieves here would get a chance to say their piece. A slow roll, getting the audience used to things, and then the steady pressure, like they were interrogating a witness, looking for cracks or discrepancies. John liked to create them, Hamza liked to attack them, and Lynn managed the tone. However things ended up in the end, the audience would often find one of the three personalities hosting this show to be a rough approximate of their own feelings on the matter, even though all three were on the same general wavelength.
They feigned being something between a friendly talk show and a more intellectual panel show, but if they had an excuse, things tended to devolve into the attack dog dynamic. Like the personalities, the show’s identity was nebulous enough that a given viewer could claim it was any one of the three things- friendly, intellectual, or aggressive problem solving.
For them, success meant sticking to their gameplan. On our end, doing this right meant avoiding any sign of weakness, reinforcing ourselves and each other, and holding on to the card up our sleeve- the promise of information. We had the advantage of knowing how they’d operate.
“Team Breakthrough,” Hamza said. “Or is it only Breakthrough?”
“Either is fine,” Tristan said.
“And do you want me to introduce you, or will you introduce yourselves?”
“I’m Capricorn,” Tristan said. “This is-”
“Victoria,” I said. I pulled my hood down, trying not to mess up my hair in the process. “Antares in costume.”
“And you wear no mask,” Lynn said. “You use your name freely? That’s interesting.”
“No mask,” I said. “I never had the benefit of a secret identity.”
Lookout was removing her own helmet. When she lowered it, I saw that her face wasn’t her usual.
“I’m Lookout,” she said. “I do have a secret identity, so I’m camouflaging my face a bit.”
“That’s perfectly fine,” Lynn said. “Thank you for coming on, Lookout. I know this must all be intimidating.”
“It’s funny, lights and cameras don’t bother me much,” Lookout said.
Lynn tittered. “Cameras being your power, of course.”
Lookout smiled. “Yep.”
“And your fourth member would be-”
“Swansong,” Swansong said. She sat comfortably in her seat, one leg folded over the other. “I’m only here in spirit.”
“Only here in spirit? That’s odd,” Hamza said, with an inflection on ‘odd’.
“She’s sort of like a teddy bear I brought with me for security, except I’m too grown up for that,” Lookout said. “So I brought someone cooler than a stuffed animal.”
“I’m glad I’m cooler than a stuffed animal,” Swansong said.
“I’m surprised you came in costumes,” John told us. “I imagined suits and masks.”
Not an angle of attack or criticism I’d anticipated. It made sense, in a way. Delegitimize, disarm, call reasonable and natural things into question.
“That would have bad implications,” I said. “The aesthetic you’re talking about is a popular villain thing. Ambassadors in Boston, Dark Society down the East coast, there was a group of weapons dealers called the Brokers… And of course the Elite who were the biggest American villain gang. The exception on the hero side would be the Suits, and even they had costumes for serious events where they needed the extra pockets, armor, and everything else.”
“So interesting,” Lynn said. “This is all the sort of thing you have to consider.”
“We wouldn’t want to borrow from the Suits’ look either,” Tristan added. “The members of their team who weren’t the first casualties of Gold Morning were some of the bravest fighters. We respect them too much to plagiarize.”
Good. Gold Morning. We’d get there sooner or later, and making it something we were talking about would make it feel less like a cold splash of water in the audience’s faces.
It didn’t change that we had to manage Lookout’s situation and her family.
I was alright with Capricorn taking the lead on this thus far. He’d been following the opening segment of the show while we’d been facing down Gary.
“I’m sure our guests are wondering who you are,” Lynn said, leaning onto the table. “Breakthrough is relatively new to the scene.”
“As a team, yes,” Tristan said. “As individuals? All of us here have a few years under our belts.”
“Tell us about that,” Lynn said.
Gary was staring us down. He didn’t look happy. Minutes spent on us and on small talk here were minutes he couldn’t do his thing. Good.
I answered so Tristan didn’t have to. “Speaking for myself, I was born to a family of heroes. My mom, dad, sister, my two cousins, two uncles, aunt, all had powers. I grew up with it. My boyfriend was a hero. Being a hero was my life, past, present, and future.”
“Was?” Hamza asked.
“Ah. That point in time was a past life, and a different me,” I said. “A majority of the people I just listed are dead or gone. Some died fighting in Gold Morning. Some died prior. Some… left.”
“You’re referring to your sister, who went to the Birdcage,” John Combs said.
Asshole. I wanted to say something to that, and I couldn’t. But was this his plan? To just drop things like this on us until something cracked?
“I was thinking of my uncle,” I lied. “His partner was killed because of our lack of secret identities. I think he couldn’t stay after that.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Lynn said.
There was strategy in play. To anticipate that they would go on the offensive, and to disarm and lay groundwork first. Paint a picture of who we were, then use that pictured ground as terrain we could fortify.
Hammering in that the other hero teams were doing good work, solidarity, being sure to express that we wanted to be heroes. All were meant to cut off avenues of attack.
Still, I couldn’t ignore the sister remark.
“Thank you. I was young, but it was hard at the time. A tragedy. My sister too. We’d just lost almost half of our family, the Slaughterhouse Nine showed up. She broke down. She went to the Birdcage because she didn’t trust herself.”
It was as kind of a response as I could come up with. I felt a creeping sort of dread with the notion that she might be looking, watching, reading something into this, maybe even showing up unexpectedly.
“And you went to the hospital at the same time. That’s hard,” John Combs said. “She’s free of the Birdcage now, of course. All of them are.”
He went straight to the hospital. Asshole. He had to know about the Wretch- the one I’d been, not the one I carried with me every day, now.
“You seem very interested in that one family member of mine.”
“She did go to the Birdcage. That’s for only a select few,” John Combs said.
“John and I were talking about this earlier.” Hamza’s voice was deep, and he was slower with his words, like he could somehow leave us less words and time in the process. “The Birdcage was emptied out on Gold Morning, so there would be more firepower out there. Your sister was among those released. Those are threats that are active in the city now. Do you feel safe, knowing this?”
It was hard to find words,because they were taking this angle. Tristan looked at me like he was checking to see that I was okay, ready to jump in.
I beat him to it. I didn’t want to look weak in front of an audience. I couldn’t afford for myself to see me as that weak. “I feel like I want to do everything I can to help others feel safe.”
“Amen,” Tristan said.
“People don’t feel safe,” Gary Nieves said. “If that’s your goal, you’re failing.”
“We’re still starting out,” Swansong said.
“But you’ve been heroes for some time, by your own admission,” Gary said.
“I can tell you I was out there in construction, helping to build shelters,” Tristan said. “Victoria was out there in the patrol block, using what she knows about villains to keep people safe. Swansong was getting care because she wasn’t in one piece, but she was helping authorities with research on powers.”
“And then we have Lookout,” John Combs stated. There was weight to the sentence.
Tristan had walked into that one.
“Hi,” Lookout said. “Mostly school for me.”
“More than school, as the allegations go,” John said.
Hamza didn’t give us a chance to respond before adding his own commentary. “When we started looking into the story with Lookout’s family, you all told us you wanted to come onto the show, to argue your teammate’s side.”
“I hope it doesn’t come down to arguing, Mr. Kouri,” Capricorn said.
“When we decided on Breakthrough’s direction, the goal was to communicate, it’s why we’re here,” I said. “We just want to make sure everyone has as much information as possible.
Hamza was ready with an answer, voice angry. “And for our audience out there, let’s not lose sight of who ‘we’ is supposed to represent, when you talk about your group. Two murderers, sitting here.”
“That’s not right,” Lookout said.
“The information is out there. Team Reach. The junior member Capricorn was arrested on accusations of murder, by his own teammates, no less. We called one of them earlier tonight to corroborate the facts.”
“Hey,” Lookout said.
“Hamza,” I said, my voice firm. “If you’ll-”
“Let me finish,” he said. “Swansong’s presence her raises an interesting question. She bears a startling resemblance to not one, but two murderers who are supposed to be in lockup right now. I have to worry about how many there are. We also have a little girl who was terrorizing her parents with threats of extortion,and then yourself, a heroine who didn’t save her hometown, didn’t save her boyfriend, didn’t save her many family members who were killed during the various major incidents, and who couldn’t or wouldn’t stop her sister from, as you put it, breaking down, putting lives at risk. I do my research, Victoria.”
I drew in a breath. The faint noise of audience was enough to take the oxygen out of that breath. I tried not to let it throw me. This was fine. Expected. Just… more of a gut punch than anticipated. I needed-
Hamza interrupted my thoughts. “I could believe that Lookout, this child here, wasn’t to blame, if this is the company she’s been made to keep.”
“That’s not fair,” Lookout said, and her voice was almost lost in the noise of the crowd. The audience manager was motioning for them to shush, and a red light flared near the ceiling. I imagined it was an order to shut the fuck up.
The noise level made it hard to jump in with a rebuttal.
It was a bit of a reversal of the dynamic I’d observed with the show. Three different show identities, between its face as a friendly talk show, an intellectual panel of experts, and a pit for enemies to be targeted and torn up.
“You named a lot of points. Would you like to name one or two of your favorites for us to address?” I asked.
“The point is that you, as a group, and parahumans, as a collective, are deeply flawed and unhealthy,” Gary Nieves said. “Two children in black raincoats conduct a ritual with peers that were chained to a radiator and a bed, respectively. Through this ritual, they get powers.”
“That is not how you get powers,” I said.
That got me a few raised eyebrows.
“Metaphorically, then? They seemed to believe it worked for them.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Parahumans are taking on positions of leadership- many corner worlds, many of the refugee groups outside of America, and many of the roaming factions are controlled by parahumans. We already know of one whole Earth which is under the sway of a parahuman and her court. I can tell you that as someone who has had to deal with parahumans from the fringes, every single one I’ve met has deep-seated problems.”
Tristan had to twist to get a good look at Gary. His head bent at an angle, getting close to the points of golden spikes at my shoulder, in his attempt to see the man. “This was after Gold Morning?”
“Most that I met were after, yes.”
“Then that isn’t a fair assessment. Everyone‘s suffering and dealing with deep-seated problems these days.”
Lynn offered a one-note laugh. “That’s a point, sad as it is.”
She smiled and laughed while calling it sad. It was disconcerting, taken in stride with the fact that she was working with Hamza and John to undermine us, but in a softer, harder-to-tackle way.
Leaning forward on his elbows, Gary made a fist and then clenched the fist in his other hand. His voice was low as he said, “The idea that we might have a leader who has political or economic power, these deep seated problems, and a power? An ability that sets them apart from the rest of us? That’s a complete and utter nightmare, and it’s one we’ve seen in play countless times over the years.”
“And so you attack us?” I asked. “The answer to solving this problem lies in collaborating, sharing information, and mutual understanding, not in attacking.”
“The goal isn’t to attack you,” Gary said. “We would like to use you -a team that is on the surface very presentable and helpful- as a broader illustration.”
It was Swansong who replied. “You wanted to use Lookout as your illustration. She’s example number two out of three. You’re attacking a kid.”
“We’re focusing on a parahuman of interest. That she’s younger than some doesn’t matter if she has immense power.”
“I make cameras and boxes,” Lookout said. “People keep acting like I’m something special.”
“You are special, Lookout,” I said. “But it’s only because you work way too damn hard for your own good.”
“The allegations are that she terrorized her parents, controlling every aspect of their lives for over a year,” Hamza said.
“And?” I asked.
Shit, there went civility.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Why does it matter, Mr. Kouri? What do you want that you aren’t getting?”
“Consequences,” he said, his voice hard. Lookout shrunk back into her seat.
Swansong’s voice was soft, compared to her usual, and softer still in contrast to Hamza Kouri’s aggressive tone, “Victoria discovered the problem recently. Within the hour, she was talking to authorities. Authorities know the details. They chose to arrest the parents and leave Lookout with a city-appointed guardian. Consequences were meted out.”
“Based on the say-so of a girl who can falsify her own evidence. She’s altering her own face right now,” Gary said.
He’d already tried this. I answered, “It was a decision made by people who have access to all of the evidence. All of it, including paperwork she didn’t have access to. I’m sorry, but no. You can’t smile and say it’s fine that she’s protecting her identity one minute, then use it as a point against her the next. And it’s a special sort of unkind to pretend there’s something wrong with protecting identities when I just told you what the consequences are, less than ten minutes ago. I’ve lost a family member.”
“That’s not what I was saying.”
“You’re attacking us on the grounds that we’re too unreliable, too dangerous,” I said. “But you’re taking allegations as fact and then running away with it. Lookout, once we realized what was going on, was removed from the unhealthy dynamic. Her parents are in custody and she’s safe in the hands of the City. The court cases I’m aware of are in progress, but yeah, sometimes when you’re dealing with monsters, lives are lost. The courts will arbitrate.”
“If they have untainted information,” Gary Nieves said.
“You wanted to be mayor,” Swansong said. “Yet you can’t trust your own city’s information? What would you have done if you won? Would you have second guessed every one of their decisions, until you were ousted, retired, or resigned?”
“Let’s not be hostile,” Lynn said.
“I would have second guessed the ones involving parahumans who can distort reality or records.”
“They do good work,” Tristan said. “Police, patrol block, courts, fire, medical, they’re doing the best they can, given the circumstance. Admirable, considering circumstances. And I’ll tell you this- we’re going to give our all to do our own share. That’s what gets us through the colder months.”
“That’s a heavy topic of its own,” John said.
“It’s imminent,” Tristan said. “A month or two. You want to focus on a twelve year old girl?”
Nieves leaned forward. “If traffic is limited, doors are closed, and this girl has the ability to get inside homes, steal or kill, and get away, hiding her evidence trail, yes. So long as the monsters are among us, yes.”
Hamza was nodding along. The other two weren’t disagreeing.
“I’m not going to say it’s all perfect,” I told them. “But I’m going to try to spell out how I see this. It’s going to involve sharing some stuff that others haven’t talked about. About powers. And about Gold Morning.”
I could see the audience shift at that. My heart beat faster.
“We could just walk away,” Swansong said. “If they want to condemn us, let them. But we don’t owe them this, and some of it is going to come down on our heads.”
I shook my head.
“Okay,” she said.
“I grew up into powers,” I told the people at the table. I could see expressions of concern. “I’ve been studying them for a while. I studied enough to know that there were huge gaps in our knowledge and those gaps were barely closing with every passing year. Where did powers come from? How do we get them? Now we know. Gold Morning wasn’t just destruction. It was answers.”
“And you didn’t share,” John Combs said.
“For decades, people who told about other major secrets were visited by a bogeyman who targeted capes. It was someone who could kill or disappear the invincible, outsmart the masterminds, and survive things that would kill or stop just about anything. Whatever they planned to talk about would be mended shortly.”
“Yeah,” Tristan said. “Then Gold Morning happened. There were people here and there who talked about it, but most stayed quiet. Pressure from other groups, and most of the ones with a podium to talk about it had the sense to stay quiet, because the bogeyman would act on this kind of thing.
Thank you for the reminder, Tristan, I thought.
Lookout’s hand went over mine on my armrest, squeezing.
“We had glimpses through Scion’s eyes, when our powers manifested or when certain effects came into play. During these times, we saw things as he saw them. It includes millions of fragments raining down on us, invisible to the naked eye. Each of those fragments… a power. We were made to forget, but when Gold Morning happened, we were able to remember. He stopped caring so much about perfection, and he became something else entirely. Not that he was ever human.”
“What was he? An alien? A demon?” Gary Nieves asked.
“He was an alien from another reality, more distant from us than Gimel is from Bet, as best as we can tell,” I said. “He moved between realities like we walk through doorways. Something went wrong with what he was trying to set up, and he lost his partner.”
“He had a partner? There’s another one of these out there?”
“Dead in the crash landing, we think,” I said.
“What’s the point, then? Or was that broken up in this crash too?” John asked.
“To experiment with what we’re given. To be open and vulnerable for effective study.”
“A real justification about why you’re all so screwed up?” Gary asked.
“That’s-” I started. I was aware of all of the eyes on me. I smiled. “No. Because we have definite proof to the contrary.”
“That you’re not all screwed up, with some alien god as an excuse??”
“Some of us, probably,” I said. “But the reality is that Scion, the strongest of us, who used powers to generate himself a body and who gave himself a set of powers that none of the rest of us could touch…. we beat him. We were nudged here and there to take part in his games, to fight amongst ourselves we were given powers and limited in ways that didn’t let us even try to hurt him. He was insurmountable and we… surmounted.”
“We won,” Tristan said. “If you have any doubts about how we were ‘programmed’, look to the scholars for answers. It’s subtle if it’s there at all. Focus instead on the fact that when it all came down to it, we concentrated our efforts, looking past petty squabbles. It took a nameless cape to grab us all and drag people from every corner of reality to reinforce. That cape tried to keep us, but when we broke free, we kept fighting him, and we fought as one.”
I nodded at that.
A nameless cape. Taylor Hebert. Skitter. A bug controller from my hometown.
We were too spooked at the idea that we might draw her attention and start that whole engine back into motion to mention her by name.
Best to leave it alone.
“We won,” Swansong said. “We defeated the embodiment of that impulse. We can and will defeat it in ourselves.”
I could see it in the audience and in the hosts of the B-TV evening show. A split, even a fissure, running through them. In the gloom past the bright lights, there were people who might’ve been grateful, yes, but there were many who were angry.
There was always going to be a backlash, the band-aid ripped off, the hurts reawakened.