Beacon – 8.12

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The television studio had been flipped on its head for the time being.  The hosts were quiet, the audience was loud with chatter, and the stage wasn’t so bright with the lights on above the audience.  We weren’t the focus and we could breathe and we were simultaneously under an immense pressure- not trying to find the flow of things and steer with it, but caught with nothing to keep us afloat, the waters rushing away to gather strength for the incoming wave.

It would have been easier if the show had continued.  Instead, monitors intended more for the hosts showed the ad break and a countdown until we were live again.

Lynn, Hamza and John Combs were all talking together, with two members of the studio staff leaning in close.  The audience talked about what they’d heard.

Ninety seconds.

“Are you doing okay?” I asked Lookout, my hand over my microphone.

She nodded, doing the same with her microphone.  “The pressure’s off me, right?”

“They’ll return to it, probably,” Capricorn said.  He leaned one forearm across on one knee, his weight shifted hard to the right- he sat at the leftmost end of our row of four chairs, so he had to work to get in close enough to talk to us and not be overheard.  “They prepared for a show with your family as an example scenario.  Right now, they’re looking for a way to right their ship, and that stuff they prepared is a tool at their disposal.”

“Ugh,” Kenzie said.

“It’s not the end of the world if it happens,” I said.  “It sucks, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want anyone attacking you.  But we planned for it, we have a strategy, there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”

She nodded.

“Let’s think other approaches.  Do they hit any of us on credibility?” I asked.  “Me keeping my powers covert in Patrol block?”

“Weak,” Capricorn said.

“Maybe.  They just need to cast doubt,” I said.  I eyed the timer on the monitors.  Two minutes, twenty-one seconds.

“It’s weak doubt.  Capes keep identities secret.  You have a reason for doing it,” Capricorn said.

“Okay.  Who else do they target?  Bait one of us into talking, then attack them?”

“Mute my microphone,” Swansong told Lookout.

“Done.”

“If they choose me, I deflect.  I’m only here in spirit,” Swansong said, with a slight smile on her face.  “I’m one of several clones.”

“Good,” I said.  I glanced at the countdown.  I put a casual smile on my face, in case the audience was fixated on me.  Best to look confident.  “Capricorn?”

“I’m vulnerable.  Not so much credibility as… dark.  Going back to my murder charge.  Making me out to be a bad guy.”

“We talked about that, briefly.  I would have liked actual details, so I can back you up, but…”

“But my brother wants it left in the past,” Capricorn said.  “If it comes up, I’ll deal with it.”

“Don’t hand them the ball,” I told him.  “Morality, that stuff, don’t bring it up, they’ll use it to launch into the topic.”

Capricorn nodded.

I looked at the clock.  One minute, fifteen seconds.

“Attacks on us miss the point,” Swansong said.  “They could do worse?”

“How?” Lookout asked.

“They could make us leave.”

Kicking us out during the ad break?  My initial thought was that it would fail.  On rumination, though… what would we even do?  They had the platform, and we hadn’t had a good chance to lay out what we wanted to say.  They’d cut to ad break shortly after my pronouncements about Gold Morning.

If we were ejected… it’d be a complete and utter mess.  Point missed.  They’d get raised eyebrows, but we would be the group that had put out some problematic info and then left before owning it or taking the time to defend ourselves.

Swansong nodded, more or less in tune with my line of thought.  It would be bad.

“Shit,” Capricorn said.  “Let’s hope it’s too late for that.”

The lights around the audience went dark.  Little boxes mounted above and in front of the audience glowed yellow, a word illuminated in the sudden gloom.  On the televisions, the countdown was in the final twenty seconds, as an ad for a show on the same network played.

Only seconds.  They couldn’t kick us out if there were only five seconds left.

Kaylar, our friendly assistant in the cheap suit from earlier, practically skipped as she left the conversation with the hosts.  My heart skipped a beat.

How would we handle this?  Did we stay despite being asked to leave?

Three seconds.  Two.  One.  The audience went quiet.  The lights and focus were on us, but the wave of response hadn’t hit yet.

The monitors shifted to the show’s logo.  ‘Hard Boil’.   ‘TV-B’.  Staff hurried away from their huddle with the hosts, glancing at Kaylar.

On the monitors, they segued straight to a video recap.

We weren’t on screen.

“Guys,” Kaylar said.  “Just doing my job here.”

“Hi,” I said.

Her job was either to tell us we had to vacate, or-

“Are you doing alright?  Do you need anything?  Water?”

We shook our heads.

“It’s going well so far.  Keep it up!”

With that, she was gone, fleeing the stage before the focus came back to us.  She’d occupied our attention in the moments the clip was playing on the screen.  Silhouettes of a couple, the lighting from behind enough to show the very edges of their hair, heads, necks, and shoulders, but hide their faces and identifying details.  Julien and Irene.

“…always difficult,” Julien said.  “She told the teachers stories.  Babysitters too.”

“We sent her to camps.  Things after school, what was it?  Piano?  Art?  Computers?”

“Yeah.  Soccer, but she wasn’t one for sports, especially team sports.  She didn’t make friends at any of the classes or camps.  Never brought anyone home from school.  We gave up on taking her to those after a while.  She wasn’t getting anything out of it.”

I looked over at Lookout.  She glanced up at me and smiled.

I gave her shoulder a rub.

John Combs’ voice could be heard, interviewing the pair as part of the pre-recorded clip playing for the audience.  “I’ve wondered whether people know, even before it happens.  Were these parahumans quiet, strange, or aggressive?  Did you think she might be different back then?”

“Quiet and strange.  I never thought about powers or that she might be the kind of person who gets them, but it makes sense in retrospect.”

“If we’d suspected, we would have done things differently when she found us again.  The last we’d heard she was in the hands of the authorities, then the world ended, and with no warning she appeared in front of us.”

“Spinning more stories for people who were overwhelmed trying to assign people houses and work.”

“And the video manipulation.  That was our first hint that something was wrong.”

I leaned over to Lookout and whispered, “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about what they did?”

“I’d really rather not,” she whispered back.  “Not on television, in front of everyone.”

“-false videos?” John was asking, in the clip.

“Putting us in scenes where we weren’t, making it look like we committed crimes,” Julien responded.  “A preteen girl, she found us and she trapped us.”

“She trapped them,” John said.  His actual voice, and not the clip.  On the monitors, he stared into the cameras, his face severe.  His expression changed, a slight smile.  “And we’re back.”

Lights gave the go-ahead for the audience to applaud.  Cameras moved, slowly turning to keep us centered in the shots.  The clapping had more energy than it had had when we’d made our appearance.  When Gary had made his.

“Now, that clip was recorded yesterday, and obviously we didn’t know about this big story you would be giving us all tonight.  It’s impressive and monumental if true, we will get back to it.  But first, can we talk about Lookout?  What’s your reaction on seeing that?”

“Um.  That’s tricky,” Lookout stumbled.

“Enraged,” Swansong said, her voice cold.

“That’s a strong word,” Hamza retorted.

“It’s a good word,” Lookout said.  “Um, and thank you for caring, Swansong.  I got tired of being enraged or feeling much of anything about what my parents do, a long time ago.  I don’t really try to understand them.”

“A breakdown in communication?” Hamza asked.  “A lack of appropriate emotion, be it shame or empathy, can suggest certain labels.”

“Those labels you’re implying don’t apply to kids,” I said.  “Let’s get real here.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do tonight,” Lynn said, all enthusiasm and verve. “Getting real.  We’re getting answers- about what happened on Gold Morning.  And as part of that, I want to know what it’s really like, to live with a parahuman?  Sometimes we hear from… what’s the term?  Cape wives?  And cape husbands, I suppose.  Legend had one.”

“As the slang goes online, even the men are ‘cape wives’,” I said.  “But I don’t think that’s important.”

“Amen to that,” Capricorn said.

“There’s no cape parent, is there?” Lynn asked, glossing past us.  “They don’t have a voice.”

Hamza’s heavy voice cut in, following up and speaking over Capricorn’s response.  “There isn’t a guidebook, and there’s definitely no guide for what happens when the child gains incredible power and flips the script on the parent, seizing authority, asserting control, deciding how the parent lives their lives.  What they can wear, what’s served for dinner, the chores…”

“My parents are finally where they belong,” Lookout said.  “They’re in jail.”

“With,” I added, interjecting in much the way Hamza had, “the courts fully aware that Lookout can manipulate video.  At a time when they were processing dozens of Fallen and pushing other cases off to the side, they had witness testimony, video footage and past records, and they decided it was best to incarcerate.  Despite being overloaded.  Make of that what you will.”

“But we can’t know,” Hamza said.

“The decks are stacked,” Gary said.  “Victoria’s sister was in the Birdcage for good reason- now she’s free.  Capricorn was facing trial, with proceedings benched indefinitely, until the end of the world erased all records.  There are members of the Slaughterhouse Nine who are alive and free.”

“There were no records, no facilities, and there was no organization.  By necessity, it was treated as a second chance for everyone.”

Bullshit,” Gary retorted.

Lynn cleared her throat.

“Bull,” Gary said.

“It’s not bull.  That was the reality,” Capricorn said.  “There are multiple criminals out there that I helped put away who are free now.  they’re out there and I have to worry about them.”

“Same here,” I said.

“Me too,” Lookout said.  “I was more behind the scenes though, and the Wards kept me away from big stuff, so it’s less obvious I played a role in getting anyone arrested.”

“It’s bull because the second chances aren’t being evenly distributed.  Two parents are arrested based on their past records, as you said earlier.  New, possibly falsified evidence, witnesses who may or may not be biased, and past records.  No wiping the slate clean there.”

“The slates aren’t wiped clean,” Capricorn said.

I tensed.   I was worried about them delving more aggressively into Capricorn’s backstory, if he got more moral-focused and put his jaw out for the return smack.  The way we were discussing things, there were a half-dozen mysteries surrounding us.  Who we were, what we’d done.  Delving into any of the mysteries would satisfy the audience, and we didn’t want them chewing on that.

He seemed to notice I’d tensed, and didn’t elaborate.

“What are they, then?  It seems one sided,” Lynn said.

“The past still exists,” Swansong picked up the slack.  “We look past it until there’s a reason to bring it up.  If you screw up, you lose your second chance, and it’s fair game again.”

Gary shook his head.  “We give this pass even to a walking, talking, potentially unhinged bioweapon?  Allowed to go free.  Come on, Victoria.  How do you feel about that?  You should know as well as anyone what your sister is capable of.  One person, who could singlehandedly wipe out Earth Gimel.  Or, if she so chose, the whole population of an alternate Earth.”

“I know as well as anyone what she’s capable of,” I said.  I felt too aware of where I was, the amount of air in my lungs, the beat of my heart.  I felt overwarm for the first time, the stagelamps overhead hot as they shined on me.  “I grew up with her.”

“You grew up with her and you parted ways with her.  You no longer communicate,” Gary said.

“I don’t know why you’re all so obsessed over her,” I said.  My voice sounded too breathy, as I tried to sound casual or dismissive and ended up with a voice that sounded hollow instead.

“She put you in the hospital-” John Combs said.

“We’ve gone over this.”

“-and you needed special facilities,” he continued.  “Because she went to the Birdcage, the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center, and she left you with eight arms, ten hands, three heads with one additional face that had no head or skull to go with it, two-”

I used my aura, hard, and I wasn’t sure it was purely by reflex.  It was the closest thing I had at hand to slapping him across the face.

In the doing, I hit my team, and from the sounds of it, I hit the audience.

I was keenly aware of the silence that followed.  Of the noises from the audience that had been affected.  Lookout’s eyes were wide behind the mask she wore on her fake, projected face.

Gary spoke, “That, for the benefit of our audience-”

“Please be quiet for a second,” I said, my head lowered a fraction.

“-was a power use.  Antares has the ability to project emotions, and she just gave everyone here, including our audience, a moment of abject terror.”

“How dare you?” Hamza barked.

“How dare you?” Capricorn retorted.  “Opening up someone’s old wounds and getting affronted when they react?”

“How dare you? Hamza barked, again.  He puffed up, chest expanding, and glanced over his shoulder at the staff in the background.

No.  This was all wrong.  This was everything I didn’t want to happen.

“You wanted to get real?” I asked, looking at Lynn.

I was drowned out.  Hamza was blustering, saying something.  The audience was getting louder.

Lynn looked right past me as she turned to the camera.  “We may have to take a short break.”

I stood from my seat.  It was another aggressive power move, like using the aura had been.  It got attention, and it threatened.  Swansong stood from her chair too, moving oddly as the projection failed to transition between two poses perfectly.  From grace to glitch and back to grace.

Capricorn, meanwhile, leaned forward, not quite standing, his hands out, urging the hosts to stay seated.  The look he gave me was worried.  Only Gary stood, backing away, almost afraid.

In the background, some people were leaving their seats, filing out through the door.  Only five or six, but a camera swiveled a hundred and eighty degrees, focusing on their departure.  Footage for the show, no doubt.

I had the stage, for better or worse.

“You wanted to get real, Lynn?” I asked.

“That was our intention.  It sounds threatening when you say it like that.”

“That was never my intention.  It was always my goal to share information, to inform.  I taught with the Patrol block, I joined this team to teach and counsel, and I wanted- want Breakthrough to be about sharing information and informing, among hero teams.”

“Among hero teams?  I notice you don’t mention the civilian heroes, like police,” Gary said.  He hadn’t sat down again or approached his chair.  He looked like he could bolt at any moment.  That nervousness communicated itself to the audience.

“They’ve got their hands full,” I said.  “If they want information, I’ll gladly give it to them, but I’m not going to put more on their plate just yet.  Give us a week or three to iron out the wrinkles and get organized.  That way, any of the issues that come up with any new venture don’t become their issues.”

“How generous of you,” Gary said.

I didn’t dignify that with an answer.  I looked at the hosts who were still seated.  “Real?”

“It still sounds threatening,” Lynn said.

“Do you know where powers come from, Lynn?”

John answered, not Lynn.  “We know where you say they come from.  Scion.  The story about what he is and where he comes from has come up here and there, but it been from people who sound like crackpots, it sounds even more crackpot on its own, and the credible people have been silent.”

“Are you saying I’m not one of the credible people?”

“We’ll definitely have to look into it and verify with outside sources, to make sure you aren’t giving us a tall tale as a distraction,” he replied, measuring out his response with a care that would ensure that anyone who could put one and one together would know he was saying ‘yes’.

“The good guys will back it up,” I said.  “Scion is a fragment of something bigger.  We killed it.  Its partner- gone.  Based on what we know, they left a trail that ensures their kind won’t be coming after them.  All we have to do is manage the fallout.  And that’s not easy.  Things they set up are unraveling, that’s why we’re getting the broken triggers.”

“The disasters, people getting powers and dying immediately?” Lynn asked.

“Taking other people with them,” Hamza said.

“Yes.”

“And he gave you dangerous impulses, so you aren’t in control of your actions?” Gary asked, his voice dripping with doubt.  “You’re not to blame.”

“Scholars have known or theorized about that for a decade.  It’s not a secret, and it’s not a free pass.  As you guys said, my so-called sister hospitalized me.  I’m not forgiving or forgetting, I’m not giving her a pass.  A person destroyed me and I’m not going to bang my drum and demand they see the inside of a prison.”

My voice was raw with emotion, rancor both for my sister and for the people who were making me talk about her.  It wasn’t the image I wanted to convey, but given a choice between silence and speaking on this, I was going to favor the latter.

“We can’t afford to dwell that heavily on the past.  I’m trying to focus on the present moments and on the days ahead.  We can’t make it if we let fear rule us.”

“Amen,” Capricorn said.

“You make it very easy to fear you,” Gary said.  “You don’t give us many reasons to trust you.”

“You don’t give us much reason to trust you,” Swansong said, barely audible behind me.  “If you can’t help us, stay out of our way and let us do what we need to.”

I wanted to correct that, to reject it.

I let it stand.

“When I asked if you knew where powers came from, I meant on the personal level.  How did Lookout end up with powers?  How did I?  You were asking the question when you talked to her parents.”  My voice was very level as I spoke.

“There are theories,” John said.  “The Triumvirate released a book that seemed to confirm the most popular.”

“That it took an event,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Good or bad?” I asked.

“That was the idea.  The greatest and strongest came from good events.  The lowly and the monstrous came from the violent, ugly moments.”

“It’s prettied up,” I said.  “The part about good things giving powers.  That’s not true, that’s the old government trying to keep kids from trying to force it, like your two people in black raincoats that you mentioned earlier.”

“They did get powers.”

“Long after,” I said.  “You can’t make them happen because if you think it’s a possibility, you aren’t low enough or desperate enough.  You can’t force others to get powers or governments would have whole battalions of people with abilities.”

Had to keep kids from hurting themselves, even if it made it harder to maintain the thrust of my little speech here.

“You wanted real?  There it is.  Powers and where they come from.  Millions are watching and millions are on the same page as us.  Scion?  Something set him off, I don’t know the particulars, but he wanted to wipe us out, parahuman and human both.  We fought like hell and I lost family members in that fighting.  He was everything that was wrong with parahumans, and we beat him, and maybe his influence on some of the worst of us has loosened.  Maybe.”

“Nilbog was quiet, almost civilized.  Bonesaw was helping, with careful monitoring because we’re not idiots,” Swansong said.

“The remaining Endbringers are quiet,” Capricorn said.

“We have our problems,” I said.  “We have big issues, really.  But we can’t add the issues of yesterday to them, and we can’t… we can’t do this.  We can’t manufacture issues.  We’re going to organize, and we’re going to help each other.”

“We’ll answer other questions,” Capricorn said.  “But not tonight.  We have things to do.  We’re out there.  We’re not hard to reach.  If you’re news, government, finance, if you’re a cape and you don’t know what the heck you’re doing, reach out.  We’ll do what we can.  Resources allowing, and we’re getting those resources in place.”

“You’re talking like you’re done, but we still have half of a show left,” Lynn said.

Was I?  Were we?

I was.  We were.

“You brought up the arm thing,” Lookout said.  “And her hospital stay.  It was scummy.  I think we’re leaving, yeah.”

She’d checked with us before the ‘yeah’.

Yeah.

We’d wondered what would happen if they’d kicked us off the show and tried to take control of the narrative.  Without planning it among one another, we’d arrived on the same page about how we’d handle this.

“You can talk about Lookout’s case, Capricorn’s, and Swansong’s, or you can dredge up Mayday’s history.  Time and the courts will tell.  In the meantime, we have work to do.”

“The same applies to Lookout’s family,” Gary Nieves said.  “They haven’t been tried or convicted by the court.”

“We’ll trust the process,” I said.

“So will I,” Gary said.

We left the hot illumination of the set, into the dimly lit side area, beneath the staring, hostile eyes of the crowd in their seats.

The mention of the Wretch on national television had felt like the moment the wave had connected.  It hadn’t been.  That was just for me, my own misshapen boat on uneven, dark waters.

There was always going to be the backlash.  Hostility, blame.  Breakthrough being the faces of the enemy, for those who wanted to blame parahumans and make them out to be the people standing between the refugees of Gimel and a better future.

That backlash was always going to be hardest at first.  The people who watched that show were the people who were receptive to it.  We’d left the set -it hadn’t been going anywhere good- and they’d had another fifteen minutes of discussion and pre-recorded footage before ending prematurely.

The messages were rolling in from online, people finding us and then passing it on to their friends or whatever communities they belonged to.  There was a lot of vitriol.

“You can tell yourself that it’s going to be worse when it’s new, the people who are going to back us have to catch on that something’s going on, catch up, and then find their own voices,” I said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

In the time it had taken me to say that, seven messages had come up.  In the subject lines alone, two had profanity.  The other five weren’t exactly roses and sparkles, either.

“But… this is pretty disheartening.”

“It is,” Sveta said.  “Speaking from experience… the best thing you can do is look away.”

I watched as more messages came in.  Sixteen in ten seconds.  That was cheating, though.  Five were the same guy.  Subject line: Fuck.  Subject line: Yourselves.  Subject line: With.  Subject line: A.  Subject line: Rake.

“I have to wonder at the mechanics of that,” Rain said.  He wasn’t next to me, but stood by Tristan’s laptop.  He wasn’t looking at that either, but if he was here in the headquarters at eight o’clock at night, that meant the real him was in his cell, a laptop in front of him.  He could see the same email feed.

“You could weaponize it,” Chris said.

“I don’t mind rake man,” Ashley said.  “That’s a fire that burns hot and for a short time.”

“It’s a fire that burns stupid,” I said.

I saw her smile.

There were other messages, though.  One more email came in.  It was longer, with five times the filesize of even the larger of the others.

In Rain’s court, a girl had read her letter to him, giving him her forgiveness.  It had been thoughtful, meaningful, personal, giving and possibly life-altering.  This email was almost the inverse of that.

A woman had lost her son and she poured grief onto the page like water flowed from a waterfall.  It was feeling rather than thought, raw, and disconnected from us, our actions, and who we were.  It was purely and wholly selfish.

Jessica Yamada had once asked me to write letters.  They hadn’t been letters I was meant to send or give, but ones that let me figure out the sizes and shapes of some of the individual wounds, so I could work on them.

This was that, but it had been sent.  The room was quiet and I imagined everyone was either lost in thought or busy reading, taking it in.  It was long.

A lot of hurt.  A lot of blame.

“Just look away?”  Sveta asked.

It was hard.  It was being stuck on train tracks and seeing the onrushing train, being told not to flinch at the impact or pay too much attention to the train.  There was nothing we could do about it in this moment, so we were supposed to let it roll us over, damage us.

The same window that gave us a view of the train or of the damage was the window I had to look through to see if there was help coming.  If it was worth it.

I closed my laptop.

“I was talking with Fume Hood and the Malfunctions,” Sveta said.  “The Malfunctions started their stakeout and realized they didn’t bring food.  It was a whole thing.”

“They’re okay?”

“I sent someone their way.”

“And Fume Hood?”

“She’s fine.  She was with the Malfunctions for a bit, then went her separate way, keeping tabs on someone from our A-list of concerns.  She’s been at this for a while, hasn’t she?”

“Yeah.  At least six years, maybe eight.”

I could see Kenzie’s computer screens at the front.  She was talking with Ashley, reading the messages without a glimmer of a smile on her face.  If anything, she looked energized by Ashley being there, her chatter punctuated by brief statements from our ex-villainess.

Emails with bold text to signify they were unread.  The labels along the right side of each email were color coded.  Too many were white.  Unknowns.  Anonymous people.

Chris… doing his own thing.  Too hard to read.  His stuff was all packed up and he was ready to go back and retire for the night, just as soon as he was sure nothing big was happening.  Goddess, attacks, riots.

There was a large enough subsection of the population that resented us and enough stirred up by this to spark a riot.

Byron and Rain were the best people to watch, if I wanted to check the reception.  If I wasn’t following the list and immersing myself in that flow of resentment and toxicity, then I could at least watch their faces and see if there was a note of interest anywhere, a spark of hope or light as someone said something in support.

“Did we make a bad impression?” I asked Sveta.  “I thought we looked good on stage.”

“You intimidated,” she said.

“I tried to cover as best as I could, once my power leaked out.”

“Wresting control of the situation.”

“Was that wrong?”

“In some of their eyes, you’re a monster,” Sveta said.  “Anything you do is wrong, somehow.  For others… it was their show.  You threw your weight around, took over the discussion.”

“If we let them have the control, it was going to end in disaster.”

“Oh, for sure,” she said.  “But you took over, and that’s what they’re afraid of, I think.  They’re upset.”

I could see the message inboxes on Kenzie’s screen scrolling as new messages came in.  White labels.  No change in Byron or Rain’s expressions.

“You’re right,” I told Sveta.  “I like that perspective.”

My phone buzzed in my pocket.  I was still wearing my costume, the breastplate left off, and my phone sat against my belly.  I was conscious of how alien my skin felt, and how unusual the clothes felt against my skin.   On a low level, I didn’t feel quite like me.  It had been a while since that had been the case.

If tonight continued along those lines, that dissonant feeling persisting, I’d probably need to find an excuse to get out, fly, and hit something.

“Are you going to answer?” Sveta asked.

It was my mom and dad.

I answered, putting the phone to my ear.  Too much trouble to fish out the earbud and cord from my other pocket.

“Mom,” I said.

“And me,” my dad said.  “Saw you on TV.”

“And?”  I closed my eyes, listening to his voice.  I did miss him, hurt feelings aside.  It helped to hear a voice I’d known for all my life when I didn’t feel very me.

“And people are going to be mad.  But in our corner, we’ve talked with this team we’ve been palling around with.  Not everyone’s here, but… unless a strong voice comes out of nowhere tomorrow morning, you can count us in.  Any negatives that came up are outweighed by the positives.  You guys have backgrounds?  Unresolved trials?  That can be argued down.  We’re doing the second chance thing, and people believe you when you say you want to share information and organize.”

“They’re in,” I said.  I covered the phone with one hand, felt a twinge of pain in my upper arm where the bullet wound still wasn’t one hundred percent.  “My mom and dad’s team are back on board.”

I saw the eyes of others light up.  Sveta’s was among them.

They’d been a bit down too, awash in the sea of hostility.

“Yes, we’re in,” my mother was the one who answered.  “Good job fighting for what you want.  It didn’t look easy.”

“Thank you.”

My dad added, “Knowing your sister, she’s probably going to take the excuse to reach out.”

“It would be generous of you to at least not push her away too quickly, too violently,” my mother said.

“Mom.”

“Carol,” my dad said, his tone identical to mine.

“She was put out in front of millions of people because you chose to step in front of the cameras.  That’s all I’m saying.  I hope you’ll be kind to each other if you happen to end up communicating.”

I drew in a deep breath.  “Thank you for talking to your team for me.”

“I suppose that’s you saying you’re done with this conversation.  I’ll let you go,” my mom said.

I hung up.

“A response from Mayday through his intermediary, while you were talking,” Byron said.  “It’s hard to decipher.  A tentative yes?  He doesn’t seem sure.  It might have been a mix-up in communication.”

I saw Kenzie do a fist-pump.

“Better than nothing,” Rain said.  “It’s movement in the direction we want.”

I opened my laptop to check.  For a guy with authority and personality, Mayday’s response didn’t seem to have much direction, with all of the qualifiers he’d added.

“He was in the last episode,” Sveta said.

“Of Hard Boil?  Yeah,” I said.  “Questioning competency, organization, the PRT, getting into the Echidna event in Brockton Bay, the allegations about the Protectorate.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “He’s sticking his neck out.”

“We’ll pay him back.  We’re already drawing off heat, they weren’t done with him, because they left some threads hanging.  His tie to Kenzie, for example.  Something for a later episode, maybe, maybe the conclusion episode.  We’ll divert attention and deflect from him.  Over the next couple of days, if any stations want us, we’ll give them interviews or information.  Up their ratings so Hard Boil can sink a bit.”

Sveta nodded.  “That’s time taken away from bigger crises.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Absolutely.  But it’d be one person at a time, and if we mess with their ratings so soon after they had to end a show early… might knock them down a peg or distract from Mayday.”

Sveta smiled.  “Might.”

“Might.”

More messages were rolling in.  Another team.  Shorewatch was back, the latest move in their routine approaching and retreating.

And so much anger, so much hate.  Nine negative messages for every positive, but at least there were positives.

And, so quick I almost missed it, a name flew by, one among three messages that came in all at once.

“Guys,” Chris said.  Fastest on the draw when it came to computers.  I was still double checking the name.

A name.  One of the enemy.

Goddess.

“Shit,” I heard Sveta mutter.

“I still don’t like her title,” Ashley said, her attention on the screen.

I read the message.  One word:

Meet?

Shit.  I set my teeth.

We’d put ourselves out there, and now we were on her radar.  Probably.  The others were agitated, their screens open to the one word message, all of its foreboding.  The person we were investigating and tracking was reaching out.  It could have been a threat, an ambush, a ruse.

“Victoria,” Sveta said.

I met her eyes.

“That thing, earlier today?  The suspicious thing?”

The others weren’t talking anymore.

“That was Goddess?” I asked.  “I asked if it was relevant to what we were doing, and you said no.”

“It was no,” Sveta said.  “We had other, immediate concerns, and she- she wasn’t one.”

I frowned.

“Can you bring it up, Kenz?” Sveta asked.

“Are you sure?” Kenzie asked.

“We have to, I think.  We can’t put it off or hide it.  It’s going to come up.”

I could put the pieces together before the image appeared on the screen, and it was still a slap in the face.  Still an impact that caught me off guard.

A scene, caught through a window.  Goddess, eating lunch in Earth Gimel.  Somewhere not too far from where she and her portal were situated.  If it were that alone, it would have been unremarkable, except maybe remarkable because of the clarity of the shot.

Amy Claire Dallon was in the scene, along with what might have been a pet squirrel, lurking within her sleeve, biting into her sandwich while Goddess sat across from her, holding a sandwich off to the side, her finger stabbing at the table.

I was about to open my mouth to say something, or to ask, but Kenzie seemed to read my mind.

More images.  Amy, her face covered in freckles from scalp to chin, hair tied back, long sleeves mercifully covering her arms and hands to the knuckles, she was wearing a different outfit.  Three outfits.

Another image.  Four outfits.  That squirrel wasn’t a squirrel, whatever the hell it was.

It was good that they’d kept it from me.  I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else and deal with this.  It was good they’d warned me now.

But ‘good’ on both ends still left a horrible pit in my stomach.

“It’s unavoidable,” I said, half of my meaning intended to follow Sveta’s last statement.  Half for myself, to warn the me of the present day of what was coming.

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