We were on a villain’s turf and I was getting a sense of what that meant, as I marked face after face that now seemed serious and focused enough that they seemed to grasp what was going on.
A pair of officers in uniform had been keeping the peace in the place, patrolling and watching out for trouble, telling the occasional person to go outside to smoke, or grilling twenty-somethings about what they were drinking. Now, for lack of a better way of putting it, they were standing guard, both a set distance from Love Lost’s meeting with the anti-parahuman guys.
They weren’t watching Love Lost, but they were watching the anti-parahuman group. One stood in the middle of a walkway, which meant that a group of people who were getting up from a table had to walk the long way around, instead of cutting right past the talk in progress.
There were others I was less sure about. A pair of people like the guy who’d butted in and asked about ‘Blood Atoll’ were milling around now, with an aura like they owned the place… or like they were working for the person who did.
“In the game we were playing,” Rain said. “I don’t think we got to it, but there’s a second stage, right? The monster?”
“We talked about it briefly,” I said. “I didn’t pick up on all of it. I figured I’d learn by doing, or let you guys do it.”
“I was always more of the gamer,” Sveta said.
“We’re managing our little town, nine by nine grid, then the monster strikes,” Rain explained. Even wearing a projection, his expression was problematically serious. He glanced at Love Lost, emphasizing what he was talking about. I worried that she would see him and see something in that expression. Fortunately, she sat so we were two couches away, her left shoulder pointed at us, her face only visible from the side. She sat so her platform heel was propped up on the table’s edge.
“Sure. The monster,” I said.
“We have to account for where the monster was, and where it was poised to act.”
“While K gets an obnoxious number of points,” Sveta said. “Elbow him for me.”
I elbowed Rain. He looked at Sveta, who was smiling a bit, and forced a smile onto his own face, the projected image translating it.
“Accounting for things like, say, the monster having its claw around the station?”
“Yeah?” Rain asked.
With my eyes, I indicated the pair of officers.
Beside me, Sveta reached for a chip. She took one in her fingers, and in the course of moving her hand toward her mouth, accidentally snapped it in two, the pieces landing in my lap.
I picked up the larger fragments of chip, popping one into my mouth.
I held up the other half of the broken chip between two fingers, while Rain took over at the laptop, nudging my hand aside so he could do his thing.
“Give,” Sveta said.
I popped the half of chip into her mouth.
“Station in its clutches. Right. That’s… a danger. Lots of points to be lost,” Rain said.
“Already lost points, as I see it,” I answered. “Foregone conclusion, before we even started playing today.”
Rain’s knee bobbed up and down. “I might need to take a walk soon, get some air.”
Which translated to him potentially needing to make a run for it. Though if it came to that, I wasn’t sure he really had any good options. Sveta and I were mobile. Tristan, Ashley, and Kenzie were closer to an escape route. Rain, though? We’d have to cover for Rain.
“If you go, we’ll watch your stuff,” I murmured. I leaned back, shifting the chips over so they sat between Sveta and me. “Make sure you’re covered.”
“Thanks,” Rain said.
So much of this was hidden behind veneers and translations. The signals we were using, the language, the false faces.
Nailbiter, roving and investigating as she roved, wandered off to one side, where she joined a group of the tent city thugs. I didn’t really have a better term for them – the people who’d been in the tent cities for long enough that they’d seemed to adapt to the new environments. Almost like homeless people, almost like survivalists, but with a mean edge.
She seemed to know them, and after speaking with them for ten or twenty seconds, they got up and started fanning out, searching.
Love Lost looked very relaxed, her coat removed and folded over the back of the couch, while she talked with anti-parahuman people at the next couch over. It was clear they weren’t very keen on her, but they weren’t cussing at her or acting on their apparent dislike. What they were feeling seemed to stop at frowns and perpetual scowls.
Above, Kenzie, Ashley, and Tristan were talking, while leaning over the railing. They were doing their own surveillance.
“Where did we leave off before the game ran out of battery?” I asked. “Monster due to arrive?”
“Arrived just as,” Rain said.
“Station in its clutches, and… house in clutches.”
“Yep,” he said. “You nailed it.”
He’d watched what Nailbiter was doing too. Good.
What else was there? There were other icons for other fixtures of the area. A town hall, drawn like an old Washington capitol building, flag above it? I had to assume it was co-opted, but it wasn’t relevant here. A hospital? No medical needs.
Business? Not here. But I saw a couple of the library’s staff at the fringes, standing by the public access computers, watching the lounge and the active meeting more than they were watching the library. A matter of fifteen or so feet from our couch, I could see one burly guy with a shaved head, folded arms, tattoos, and a librarian’s apron on. I wasn’t sure why the library staff had aprons, exactly, but it was so. The guy looked very menacing while wearing a denim-blue apron with a book embossed on the chest, a small notebook in the pocket.
Standing guard, like the police were doing. There hadn’t been any apparent communication.
“Business?” I asked.
“Is there business in that quadrant?”
“I dunno. Maybe a bookstore?” I asked.
“Yeah. I get you now. I wouldn’t be surprised. Question is… what do you do if things have gone that far? Panic?”
“Stay out of our game monster’s way,” Sveta said.
“AKA: panic,” Rain said.
“Staying out of the way is prudent, not panic,” I said. “Panic is dangerous in its own right, and it leads to mistakes.”
“Yeah,” Rain said.
Nailbiter’s squad of tent city thugs were still making their way across the floor. One walked down the aisle beside us, and I tried to act nonchalant. Rain and Sveta seemed to do okay too, because the guy passed by without incident.
Across the lounge, past a sea of couches shaped like quarter-arcs and quarter-circle tables, I saw Nailbiter continuing her own investigation. A teenager had her hand over her head, drawing out a line with an extended finger.
Talking about Sveta’s whip.
They had to know we were here, now.
The discussion was ongoing, and we didn’t have ears on it. We had no surveillance tech that really sufficed, now, no camera overhead that could detect sound waves or however the ‘sound camera’ worked. We had to operate by context, reading body language while trying not to look too obvious.
The problem was, Love Lost seemed utterly unbothered. Cool, calm, collected. Steely, even. I could look at the apparent leader or negotiator of the anti-parahuman group, a woman with very black eyebrows, blonde cornrows at either side of her head and a thicker braid along the top, and I could see her frustration, but without a good read on Love Lost, I was only seeing one side of the conversation.
Seeing Love Lost just as frustrated would suggest they weren’t finding a common ground. Seeing her possessed of her usual calm would have suggested she had the upper hand in whatever they were negotiating.
There was something in this situation that made me envision the situation at the time I’d left Brockton Bay. A feral lunatic at the fringes, driving her dogs to attack civilians. Others seizing their own territories, capturing the locals, capturing the police, capturing businesses.
I’d been fighting to correct that. I’d had a lot of issues, then. The pain of losing Dean, of losing Uncle Neil and Eric. Dad being sick. I’d been a little brute of a Brute-class cape, and I wasn’t sure if any of those things had been on their way to getting better. But my city had been changing around me, and before I could do anything about it, the Slaughterhouse Nine had appeared.
This? It reminded me of that scenario. The slow, subtle capture happening behind the scenes. Being on a villain’s turf and getting a dawning sense of what that meant.
I got my phone out and typed a message to Shortcut and Spright, keeping an eye out to make sure nobody was looking over my shoulder.
She’s on scene here. Meeting with another group, all unpowered. Our cameras and some of our communications are out. She knows we’re here. Has pawns in police, civvies, and library as guards or underlings. Two of her capes at her HQ, one in parking lot. Others in our area. Stand by.
I showed Sveta, then Rain. I got a nod of confirmation, then sent it.
Love Lost was reacting to something. She shook her head, then put her arms out, draping them along the back of the couch. With her coat off, she wore a long-sleeved sweater, and I could see the equipment along her arms, beneath the sleeves. It looked like the blonde braid-cornrow woman did too. Her head rested against the back of the couch for a moment, and she looked up.
Tristan, Kenzie, and Ashley were doing their best to look nonchalant. Love Lost didn’t seem to pick up on anything, turning her attention to Colt instead.
Colt sat on the corner of the couch, one foot on the ground. She was doing the talking, but with her position relative to ours, and the fact the couch was a quarter-circle in shape, her back was to us. I could only hope the others were following what she was doing.
Love Lost turned her head the other way, apparently distracted, and looked at Nailbiter. The outstretched hand to her right moved, fingers curling like she was making a claw-shape with each, simultaneously cracking her knuckles.
Or making a beckoning gesture.
“She saw them,” I said.
“Did she?” Sveta asked.
I looked up at the group. Tristan looked down at me, and I opened my eyes wider.
A second later, Tristan, Ashley, and Kenzie were stepping away from the railing, heading down the corridor to the other half of the building.
“We should go,” Rain said.
“Don’t hurry or look rushed,” I said.
We packed up our stuff, getting our coats on- only Sveta didn’t have to, because she hadn’t taken her quilted-pattern long coat off before sitting down.
There were police, civilians, and business owners keeping an eye out for trouble. A good number of them were watching us, as Nailbiter reached Love Lost’s couch.
I wasn’t sure if Love Lost said something or if some other signal was transmitted. If it was a statement, it was one or two words. Nailbiter stood straighter, made a gesture, and then stalked off in the direction of the ground-floor corridor to the other side of the Lyme Center.
Tristan’s group on the second floor, passing through the center of the hourglass-shaped building. Nailbiter and her growing collection of people a floor below, a few steps behind. If the layout on the far side was like the layout on our side, then this group could and would easily intercept the others as they reached the bottom of any staircase.
I used my phone to send a warning to Tristan:
I got my reply:
Go, not come?
Nobody was coming after us as we headed to the door. It seemed like a lot of the people who were undercover henchmen for Love Lost were responding to the threat, giving chase to the other half of our group.
“Are we meeting up with the others?” Sveta asked, managing to sound ninety-five percent casual.
“They’ll catch up,” I said. “They’ll send a message if they need it.”
I wished I could be more sure. I wished it was easier to wrap my head around just what we were dealing with here. I’d compared it to the situation in Brockton Bay, but was this more of a Hellhound thing, where people were in danger, being controlled by fear? A Regent thing, where the villain backed up local infrastructure because he benefited from it, but was otherwise as much a player in conflict and strife as any interloper?
A ‘Tattletale’ thing, where drugs and crime had been treated like hunters being handed out hunting licenses? X allowed per week in her territory during the warlord phase? X in Brockton Bay and New Brockton, after things had settled? Technically not as bad as we’d once had, but worse in so many other ways, because it represented giving up on better? Halving the number of overdoses, but then giving up on reducing it further, because changing things meant having to work past her artificial rule of law, or waiting for a villain with too much on her plate to find the time to talk about it and implement the changes?
Hearing anecdotes and seeing evidence that the crime rate was slowly getting worse, that drugs were more and more of a thing, and wondering if she was losing her handle on it all or if it was intentional on her part. Wondering and not being able to ever know for certain.
Things couldn’t work that way.
Love Lost… I had no idea where she fit on the spectrum, but I detested so much of what Tattletale represented, and I had a hard time believing Love Lost would be any better. Ex-law enforcement or no.
The air was cold as we exited Lyme Center and emerged into the parking lot. Nobody followed, nobody seemed to pay us much mind. It was Tristan, Kenzie, and Ashley who were evading Nailbiter right now.
“We’ll distract,” I said. “See if we can’t pull some attention away from the others, or make them lose out if they don’t.”
“What’s the strategy?” Rain asked.
“I’m thinking… the moment there was trouble, they probably made a call to Disjoint and Sidepiece. Probably a few others.”
“Not Kitchen Sink or Hookline,” Rain said. “They’re on Love Lost’s shitlist right now, going after a kid.”
“I’m going to put Spright and Shortcut on Sidepiece. Us? Let’s look for that truck they were driving, with the tinker gun on it.”
“I like that. Fan out and find it? Covered truck?” Sveta asked.
“Yeah,” I said, drawing my phone out of my pocket. Beside me, Sveta motioned, and Rain nodded.
Signals exchanged, Sveta headed left. Rain headed right.
The parking lot was dirt, the individual spaces marked out with lines of yellow-painted stones, some of which had been kicked around or moved by the passage of tires. With the ice and the snow, the dirt was hard, and as packed as it had been, it had still been disturbed, then left to freeze disturbed. Every step was a hazard for the ankles. It slowed Sveta down in a visible way. Rain had a slight benefit from his power to steady himself.
I had my flying, but I couldn’t be too obvious. I waited for a car to pull out of a space, before I resumed walking, my flight only partially on, keeping my step lighter.
Villain reinforce probably approaching Lyme Center from 1:00/NNE
Disjoint guy, white, skinny disconnects and teleports body parts
Sidepiece, girl, white, curvy, hurls explosive chunks of her flesh. V. dangerous.
May be driving patchwork hatchback or walking.
No messages from Tristan’s group yet.
I got my reply from our reinforcements:
We know who they are what they do
That would be Shortcut, presumably.
I focused on looking for the tinker. He’d blasted our camera. A gun that big couldn’t be easy to put together. It was a weakness of tinkers, that they could lose their stuff and they’d be that much weaker. Things got broken. There was wear and tear. There was a need for upkeep.
Kenzie’s current status emphasized that much. So capable, but so capable of being knocked down a few pegs, with an arduous recovery if she was.
I heard a whistle.
Yeah. A large truck, with a covered back? Easy to spot. It hadn’t taken long.
Sveta and I found Rain. And we rounded a group of cars that had been parked haphazardly, where yellow stones had been partially buried by early snowfall. The truck had been parked at the back of the lot. The tinker was inside the cab, letting the engine run, presumably to stay warm.
“I’m thinking… let’s not give him a chance to reach for any weapons,” I murmured. “You deal with Tinkers by denying them access to their stuff.”
“I could pull him out through the window,” Sveta said. “I don’t want to cut him up though. Sorry.”
“Car windows don’t break like that,” Rain said. “But they don’t break that easily if you punch them or hit them with a baseball bat, either. Let me set up, you follow up. One two punch.”
“One two three,” I said. “Let me get in position, then we go.”
That got me a pair of nods.
I hurried forward, ducking down beside a car. I looked back in the direction of the Lyme Center, worrying a bit about the others.
We’d trust them for now.
I gave the other two a nod.
Rain created a silver crescent, holding it in his hands. He was far enough back that I couldn’t hear him, but I saw him mouthing the words.
He flung the blade. It slammed into the door of the truck, drawing out a glowing silver line.
In the dark, Sveta’s hands were hard to see. One seized the car door, tugging. The other followed a second later, reaching through the gap in the same second it appeared.
The guy had his seatbelt on, and that delayed things for a second. I saw him scrabble, reaching for something. Then Sveta had him, tugging him away and beneath the seatbelt- his feet got caught and he slipped back, head moving in the direction of the ground, while his feet were on and near the seat.
She got another hand on him, and when she tugged on him this time, he moved at a velocity that kept his head from scraping against frozen dirt.
I was there to catch him. My aura blasted him while he was in transit. I was ready to slap or catch a weapon out of his hands, but he was unarmed.
Sveta pulled him close, her feet skidded on hard, icy ground, and she nearly toppled, taking the guy to the ground with her. Rain caught her, his body behind hers, then produced a silver blade, holding it to the guy’s throat.
The flannel shirt tinker wore a mask, soft fabric, bright blue lenses, a spike extending over his head. The fabric stopped where his facial hair began, but the look just really didn’t work. It rarely did, unless the beard was magnificent.
I could see him huffing for breath. The emotion blast had been to put him more off balance, and to mess up his coordination in case he had a weapon as Sveta pulled him close.
I left them to it and headed to the truck.
“Be careful of traps,” Rain called out to me.
“Will do,” I said. “Thanks. Costumes on.”
I double-tapped the sun badge I wore. The projection around me fell away. I pulled my two segments of breastplate from my bag, where they protected my laptop, and set them in place.
Behind me, Sveta had dropped the human shape, and wore a mask. Rain had donned his circuitboard mask.
I hoped the other group was doing okay.
The truck still hummed with activity, the heaters blasting out warm air that steamed up the windows.
There were a bag fast food, a cell phone, and a sketchbook on the divider between the seats, and what looked like a laser rifle was resting with its butt-end on the floor in front of the passenger seat, the length resting against the seat itself. The weapon he’d been reaching for.
No apparent traps, no wires, no ominous noises. I reached for the cell phone and picked it up. No trap, no shock.
The phone was at the lock screen. The sketchpad- I flipped through. Tinker notes.
I could confiscate that. Set him back a bit. If he wanted to work with villains, especially villains who’d been noted for hurting people? Killing? He could lose some ground, suffer a bit for it.
I walked around the truck, heading for the covered back. Let’s see this gun.
I didn’t get that far. I heard a strained grunt, and I turned around.
Rain had collapsed, and Sveta had caught him.
The tinker’s right arm had a band around it, encircling the bicep. Everything past the band was electricity, in the rough shape of a human limb.
I flew to them.
He reached out with the electric arm, touching Sveta. I saw Rain jerk, while Sveta seemed to endure it.
“Doesn’t work!” she grunted out the words through clenched teeth. She let Rain slump to the ground and reached out, catching the guy by the one still-human wrist.
A metal band flared at his left arm, the electricity melting the fabric of his coat around the ring, and taking the sleeve with it, as arm became more electricity. Her hand slipped away.
Immediately, she was reaching again. This time seizing him by the neck.
He had a collar on. As the collar flared, his head dissolved into a localized storm of electricity, the ‘forks’ of electricity serving as hair, something flatter and more interconnected for the mask. Where the lenses had been a bold electric blue before, they were now two dark ovals against the backdrop of frothing energy.
Where energy arced from one of the rings to the other, it traced lines across his body and turned flesh to this alternate state.
Using tech to go breaker.
A shame that his head was breaker-state, because this time, me using my aura didn’t even make him flinch.
I brought out the Wretch, as he ducked around me. His arms were longer like this, and as he swung one in my general direction, he came into contact with the Wretch.
I saw sparks and arcs highlight the Wretch’s general shape, just for an instant. I saw him see it.
He reached out, checking the coast was clear, and again, came into contact with an outstretched arm of the Wretch. Again, highlighting its shape, and that it had moved.
His belt flashed, electricity crackling in a ring around his midsection. Then his legs were gone- he was a torso with a head of electricity, two lash-like limbs, and a tail of lightning, floating in the air. The electricity that crackled along his chest and stomach left flesh temporarily phased out in its wake. I could see veins against a backdrop of bright lights tracing similar forking lines. I could see raw, red flesh where the ethereal lightning form cut through physical meat.
He changed direction instead of trying to go through me and toward the Lyme Center. His movements were more unpredictable now, faster. He didn’t fly or teleport, but arced, bouncing off of a car, then lunging toward his own vehicle. I flew after, Wretch up.
Heading for his big gun?
For the gun in the passenger seat?
He chose the latter, lunging toward the open truck door. His movements stuttered, as he darted fifteen to fifty feet ahead, stopped, reoriented himself, then lunged forward again.
It took three such movements to get himself to the truck. Faster as an energy breaker than I was as a flier.
With lightning hands, he held his laser rifle. He twisted around, weapon in his arms-
A silver blade flew past him. Rain’s crescent of light didn’t touch the arm of energy. It did cross the body of the weapon.
The guy aimed at me, then fired.
Sparks showered, geysering out through the line of silver. Lightning jumped out, wild and white, tracing along the ground with no apparent rhyme or reason.
Rain was still on the ground, but he was already creating his next silver blade, ready to throw it if needed. The tinker threw his broken rifle aside, then headed directly for the Center. I flew to intercept, and he threw himself at the ground, bouncing off of a frozen puddle and toward the same block of cars we’d used for cover.
I positioned myself to keep him from going over, ready to move to either side if he tried to go around.
He went through. I could see the arcs of energy crackling around the bones of the car he slammed into, as he conducted himself through it. He leaped out and into the next car, chaining his way through.
“Sveta!” I called out.
He emerged from the far end of the block, stopping to orient himself again, looking around. He turned to stare at me with those black ovals, then darted for the cars nearest the front door of the Center, Sveta hot on his heels.
She was faster for short distances and when traveling where there were handholds. In this environment, though, I could see how she was regularly going for a grip on something and slipping off, or taking a second longer to slide to a stop and be able to reach out again.
Even with that, she was faster than me. She collided with him, and even though he was ninety percent energy, he reacted, conducting along her metal body, and he sprawled with her.
He was faster to recover. No arms and legs to manage.
“Anything that conducts!” I shouted.
Which would hamper and slow him down, but didn’t stop him from making progress.
“Tress!” Rain hollered her name. “Here!”
Having to stop and reach for whatever he was offering or throwing her way slowed her down. I passed her, chasing the guy down.
With Sveta’s extended arms and what looked like folded metal blades in each hand, Sveta made the tinker’s form distend, stretching out as it automatically clung to the metal, then snapped back in a way that seemed difficult for him.
He twisted around, using his lighting hands to seize the blades. The pair engaged in a brief tug-of-war, which I interrupted by diving at him, Wretch active. He flashed in the instant before I made contact.
The Wretch’s hands and feet stabbed into the earth, cracking the frozen ground.
He’d darted away, letting go of the blades. Sveta swung again, and he dodged, moving further away.
Further away, but still making incremental progress toward the front doors. The truck had been parked in the far corner of the parking lot, as large as the parking lot of any mall I’d been to, and he was four-fifths of the way to his destination. There was a real risk that Love Lost would see the flashes or hear the noise and respond.
The primary danger, though, was that if he feinted one way and moved another, it might mean he could reach the doors and pass through, surrounding himself with a few hundred hostages, and a dozen more escape routes.
He was functionally a breaker, and I had a limited sense of what worked and didn’t work for breakers. I’d met and talked with Velocity, and I’d met and talked with Shadow Stalker. I’d read up on others.
He was also a tinker, and I had some idea of the tools that served against tinkers. Not that I’d fought many before Gold Morning. Leet and Bakuda, really, and Bakuda only in that I’d been trying to evacuate people from a series of tinker bombs going off. She had been nowhere nearby.
Still, the others needed the distraction.
Sveta caught him, swinging the blades through his electric body. It bought me a few seconds to look, as I flew down, putting myself between the tinker and the cars.
Cars- I couldn’t use them as weapons. Because destroying people’s property in a lower-stakes encounter like this would do more harm than good, because I wouldn’t hit him anyway. He was too fast, too on guard for it.
The road was dirt, but dirt wasn’t useful.
The building itself? No. If things got that far, he was out of reach.
I could see the artificial speed bump in the road. A hump of dirt, painted yellow.
My eye fixed on that. Yellow paint where the dirt sloped up against sidewalk, to mark the rise, to let people know to watch their step, and-
I retreated, flying over the cars. The tinker broke away from Sveta, saw me heading one way, and started to take the long way around, the front door in his sights.
I dove for the ground, and I had the Wretch dig its hands into the earth. I couldn’t rely on it to do as I wanted, but I could do something else. Faced with a second me that reached out and lashed out mindlessly, I could deny it, I could allow it to work…
Or I could at least make it lash out in a predictable way. I could lean on the fact that the Wretch outlasted a sustained hurt better than it outlasted a sudden, sharp kind of hurt.
I spun. Each outstretched arm swiped at the earth. A sustained battering, spread out across the Wretch’s limbs.
I carved my way a few feet into the ground near the speed bump, drove my hand into the fissure that cracked the hard earth there, and found my prize.
The tinker had escaped Sveta, and he had escaped Rain. He found his orientation, and he lunged.
I lunged too. Wretch active, I tore the flexible pipe out of the ground, flying along it, so the Wretch skimmed along its length, raising it up. The hump wasn’t just a speed bump, but earth covering the pipe that had been set in a shallow trench and then covered. Water or power to the Lyme Center.
A tripwire for my quarry.
The tinker grazed the pipe, and the tinker conducted across it, stretching out ten or fifteen feet to the left, and an equal distance to the right. I knew Shadow Stalker had trouble with electricity running through walls, with rain and even things as simple as smoke thick in the air. I knew Velocity had his own issues, a reduced ability to affect the world, to the point that mundane obstacles and barriers like closed doors could hamper him. Other breakers had their difficulties. The uncommon hazards.
I dropped the Wretch, which let me easily drop the pipe. While he was disoriented, I was free to fly in. I smacked into his midpoint, and the Wretch helped to scatter him again.
Inside the building, the power flickered and died. All was black for a long moment, the only real light was cast by the tinker.
I reached out and the Wretch found a grip at one of the arm-rings. I let the Wretch break it, and the tinker’s arm snapped back into reality, with ripple effects of real-self tinker appearing across his body.
He dropped to his knees, in apparent surrender. I remained stock still.
“We should go!” Sveta called out. “Rain’s already going!”
To my left, the lights were coming back on. A backup generator had come on, or the break in power had been a temporary disruption in the line more than an outright shutdown. I could see Love Lost on her feet. The claws had dropped out of one of her sleeves, a wire and rod framework that tipped each finger with a two-inch claw. Her other hand was pressing the mouthgear down over the lower half of her face.
We should go.
It was good that Rain was getting out of here. It was harder for him to move.
We backtracked, moving faster than Love Lost could easily chase. Back to the truck, where the engine was still running. Rain was approaching it.
Byron, Swansong and Lookout were there. Lookout was in costume, and wore a jacket and pads along her legs, along with her bodysuit. Swansong looked like she should be cold, but wasn’t.
“Love Lost is coming,” I said.
“We outnumber her,” Ashley said.
“Not if she has half this settlement working for her,” I said. “Let’s disable the gun and regroup.”
“I can blast it,” Rain said. “Except it could blow up, apparently.”
“Let me,” Lookout said. “A gun like this has to have targeting, and I can work with targeting.”
“I have tinker notes,” I said.
“Give it to Rain. Let him look. I’ll fiddle.”
“You have forty-five seconds,” I said.
Swansong lifted her up onto the truck bed.
I turned to Byron. “You guys good?”
“We ducked into a store. My brother swapped out for me, Swansong and Lookout switched looks, since they’re wearing the disguise pendants. Nailbiter passed right by us. Trick was getting out without looking suspicious.”
“Good,” I said.
“Tristan’s idea,” he said. “Electricity tinker?”
“Something like that.”
“Lookout!” Rain said. “Found the pages. Here’s targeting.”
She reached down as he reached up, passing her the book.
A glowing screen illuminated the pane of her helmet as she leaned over it.
“We’re good!” she declared. “But this isn’t our last stop.”
“We can’t dawdle,” Swansong said.
“Remember what I said about guns?” Lookout asked.
“Guns?” I asked.
We hurried in the direction she’d pointed.
“I think I got a read on what they were saying,” Lookout said. “On the surface, this was a weapons deal. They’re providing Love Lost’s group with guns and other weapons. She’s supposed to help them when they demand it. Any target they name. If Love Lost wins, then it’s good. If she loses, then it’s another cape out of the picture. Right?”
“Makes some sense,” I said. “I’d have a hard time believing that’s the full picture.”
“They were getting pissy because she was saying some targets were off limits. Well, she wasn’t saying much of anything.”
“Colt was,” Ashley said.
“Yeah,” Lookout said. She huffed for breath. She wasn’t out of shape, but she wasn’t a runner either, and we were far enough out at the edges of the parking lot that the lot hadn’t been fully cleared of snow or debris. Just a little more effort for those putting boot to muck, especially when she had shorter legs.
Sveta, at least, seemed to be doing okay. She was still holding the two folded bits of metal.
I checked to see if the coast was clear, and I saw Love Lost. She stood on the hood of a car, back straight, hair and coat moving in the wind. Not chasing, not using her power. Just staring.
No Nailbiter at her side. Her tinker was a little worse for wear, and her reinforcements hadn’t yet arrived.
“Here! These sedans,” Lookout said.
A person stepped out from between the cars, hand at his waist, reaching for a gun.
He saw the size of our group, and he raised both his hands instead of drawing his weapon.
“You’re with them?” I asked.
“Fuck you,” he said.
He’s with them.
Byron took the guy by the shoulder, leading him to the side, where he was made to kneel on the frozen ground, hands at his side. Byron divested the guy of his weapons. A knife and a gun.
“How did you know it was these?” I asked Lookout.
“Because I was keeping an eye out for trouble using the Center’s surveillance before it all went hinky. We saw the anti parahuman dorks show up, except we didn’t know it was them then. These are their cars.”
“Tail ends are low to the ground,” Rain said. “Heavy weight in the rears. Did they bring the weapons with?”
“Fuck you,” the guy said.
“If you’re going to be mad, be mad at yourselves,” Swansong said. “Your laziness.”
“That’s a good eye, Precipice,” Byron said. “Can we check? Tear it open, Vic?”
“No, don’t break it. You could damage the contents,” Swansong said. “Sveta. Pick it.”
“I don’t know how to pick locks.”
“Do you know what raking is? You should be capable.”
“Come. I’ll show you.”
In the distance, Love Lost only watched. I saw her clench her claw. Nailbiter had appeared, standing behind her, and I saw the electric flicker around the tinker, who was wholly human again. It was broken gear that was crackling.
They didn’t attack or approach.
“This is the cheap and dirty way of opening a lock,” Swansong said. “You want to jostle the pins. Go back and forth, as soon as you feel them, pop them up. Keep pressure so the lock is turning-”
“Already doing that,” Sveta said. her hand was removed, and tendrils were groping at and around the lock. “I have to use my smallest tendrils, which are also the shortest, which is awkward-”
The trunk popped open. I saw the surprise on Sveta’s face.
Inside, packed in cases with foam inserts separating them, rows of weapons. Not Gimel or Bet weapons, at a glance, or at least, not from any country I was aware of. The script was blocky, and it looked like it had been stamped on.
“Taking photos,” Lookout said, tapping the side of her helmet.
“How did you know how to lockpick?” Byron asked, quiet. “You couldn’t when you were a villain.”
“I study,” Swansong said. “It’s the kind of thing I watch before bed.”
“It’s cool,” Sveta said, and her smile seemed genuine. “It’s neat to know I can do that. Thank you.”
The enmity, the frustration- it didn’t seem as bad now. It helped to have other focuses. Three nondescript cars with trunks packed with munitions, instead of jealous relationships.
I picked out some samples- things we could show others, as well as a slip of paper and a lid. I held all three.
I met Swansong’s eyes. I jerked my head a hair toward the trunk.
Everyone stepped back as she reached forward. Her power licked out, and it bucked and kicked, flaring to its full range as it twisted, tore, and annihilated everything in the car from back windshield to bumper, including some of the rear tires.
She did the same for the other two cars. We opened each, and then we destroyed the contents.
When I looked back, Love Lost and her retinue were gone.
“She’s gone,” Byron observed.
“No,” Rain said. “It’s not over. She wouldn’t leave things the way they are now. Her losing, especially to me.”
“There’s something more going on,” I said. “Something she’s doing, people she’s working with.”
“Yeah, probably,” Rain said. “But I’m more concerned that she’s so willing to back off now. She wouldn’t back off. Not unless she was absolutely sure she could do something meaningful soon.”