My boots hit the snow-dusted ground. With the impact, I made the transition from being weightless and able to move myself in any direction at will to feeling gravity assert itself on me once more. I felt another weight, the kind one referred to when they spoke of heavy hearts, burdens, and social pressure.
Eight hours of intermittent snowfall hadn’t covered up all of the blood.
The fact that the ground was hard and had ice here and there made the footfalls seem that much heavier. Ice crunched and I could imagine boots coming down to crack stone. Even dirt, which should have absorbed impacts, allowed for audible footfalls in the relative silence. The only noise came from the wind and the light midday traffic, on a road that would take three or four minutes to walk to.
Foresight had sent four of their ten members to us. It might not have sounded like much, but they were good.
Brio had his standard look going, pirate and ninja combined, without any of the explicit signifiers of either, all with gold veins running through it. He was all presence, loping swagger, and casual competence. I’d seen him before in coat, eyepatch, and far too many belts, and seeing him now I realized that he’d been dressed casual then. He had more belts, including some strapped to his leg and arm, and every one of them had a use, keeping a small arsenal in place. His right hand and forearm were through the bars of a steel riot shield with a viewport like a Foresight logo, and his left hand rested on two weapons- index fingers extend out at the base of a gun, and the heel of his hand at a sword. His side of the riot shield had a decorated sawed-off shotgun fixed to it, pointed at the ground, and some ammunition strapped in.
Crystalclear was keeping Relay company. Crystalclear had updated his costume, and it looked good- the black of it made the quartz-like crystals that jutted from him look that much more distinct. The crystal growth was more exaggerated than before, but I was assuming the simplest explanation – that the crystal was better than skin and scalp being exposed to the cold.
Relay, meanwhile, was wearing a more ‘cloth’ costume, the long sleeves mostly separate from the body, a series of overlapping folds extending down his body to the ankles. There were a lot of gaps in the cloth, and through those gaps I could see the sheen of metal, form-fitting enough to be chainmail. Single spikes were visible here and there, when he moved in the right way- one at the gap where the sleeves would have met the shoulder, another at the blindfold, extending up the forehead, and another at the wrist, like a blade hidden up his sleeve. He was the ‘rescue’ combo-teleporter and long-distance communicator.
As they got closer to the scene, walking over from the road, Relay hung back, breaking away and ending the conversation with Crystalclear.
I expected Crystalclear to join Anelace, since the two had to be closer in age, but Crystalclear headed straight to Brio.
The stragglers were taking longer. They were less of a ‘march forward’ bunch. Recycler and his teammate Retouch were talking to the Major Malfunctions, and Fume Hood was tolerating a conversation with Sweet Justice.
I could have gone to that group, checked that they were okay, touched base, warned them about the details they might see. Especially with Finale in the group, it might have been warranted. At the same time, her teammates were with her, and I couldn’t see a good angle to approach and join the conversation without outright barging in.
That, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me to manage too much more. Having the heroes split over what to do had taken a bit out of me, as had the late night at the hospital. I needed a breather.
I’ll warn Finale before they see anything bad.
What are the odds that any those heroes who acted outraged over the treatment of the Navigators even visited the victims or the crime scene? Wayfarers excepted.
I felt petty and annoyed, and I wasn’t sure I trusted myself around the wide-eyed heroes.
I walked over to Anelace, instead. He watched me despite wearing a mask without eyeholes – only the white lines of an illustrated dagger on the side, the center of it marking the eye. His coat was form-fitting and shorter than Brio or Relay’s, showing just how narrow his waist was, and his costume bottoms were similarly slimming. A little edgy, being all black, but there was enough variation and decoration that it looked more like its own style than anything forced.
Maybe Ashley was rubbing off on me.
“Your team okay?” Anelace asked.
They were late, and he was asking diplomatically. “They had to pick up another teammate. Tress went to the hospital to ask some follow-up questions and get some answers from Scaffold, now that he’s talking. She knows the communication forms necessary to talk to Nailfarer and Slingstone.”
“I got Brio to request and pull some of the crime scene and medical photos,” Anelace said. “I was curious about the weapons used and the way the damage was done.”
“Personal interest?” I asked, my eyebrow raised.
“Never wanted it to be,” he said. “But powers don’t always give us what we want.”
“Fair,” I said. I could read between those lines easily enough. He was a thinker, and thinkers were especially prone to being pushed into the mental states or dilemmas they were in when they triggered. It made me curious, but I wasn’t about to push. Anelace had been decent to me. “What did you find out?”
“They traded off attacks in quick succession. You described it as a blitz.”
“Yeah. Surprise attack, all-in.”
“And the attackers swooped in. One hits, and before the person they hit is even finished reacting, the next hits. Coordinated.”
“That makes me think tinker or master minions. Or thinkers, even someone like Teacher.”
“Or Occam’s razor,” the guy with a blade theme said, “simplest solution and everything. They could be a team that has spent a lot of time fighting alongside one another.”
“I’m not sure on that. How many people are this strong, this experienced, and yet complete unknowns? I feel like we know enough general details that it would click and we’d snap our fingers and say it’s this team or that team.”
“Could be they aren’t from America.”
“True. Or Bet,” I said.
“Whoever they are, they’re coordinated but I think they might have individual personalities. The big guy with the claws tried to mercy kill Scaffold, maybe after the others in the group had walked away, but it didn’t work.”
“He didn’t like how far that went.”
“Seems not,” Anelace said.
“Good. Thank you. That little detail about the throat cut was bothering me, and this narrows things down. If there’s that kind of personality involved, it might rule out things like minions and tinker drones.”
I made a so-so gesture. “I think they have some personality. I could see this scene playing out as described. Either way, thank you. It’s a good interpretation of things.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
We stopped walking, or rather, he stopped before I did, because we were at the very edge of the scene now, and going further risked stepping on bloodstain.
I turned around, so I faced Anelace again. He was oriented with the bloody crime scene ahead of him, and I faced the distant road, as well as our straggling teams that were still heading to the site.
I saw the distant constellation of orange lights before I recognized the Kenzie van. A ditch lined the sides of the rural road, and the orange lights created a bridge for the car to pull off the road and drive straight onto the field.
“I’m less sure on this one,” he said, his eyes scanning the scene. “I saw some of the injuries. One of the attackers attacked from above. Blades or talons going straight down, getting caught on the flesh. Some weight was behind it, angle was too straight. I’m really curious about that one.”
“Weight behind it- a whole body’s worth? If someone flew and then came down without flight?”
“No,” Anelace said. “That much weight would have pushed the cut all the way down, or pulled the victim to the ground. They stopped themselves, or held themselves back.”
“Good,” I said. Did that mean high control? Or very low control, flapping wings? Did they not want to touch ground? “Trying to visualize that.”
“Can’t say more until I see more. It might mean there’s a fifth attacker in the ambush,” Anelace said. “You counted them by footprints?”
“Police did, with the heroes helping, yeah.”
“Yeah. This is bigger than the pictures suggested.”
I nodded. Worse in daylight. The darkness where the headlights didn’t shine had created a sense that the scene was smaller. It was possible the officers had parked on or over parts of the scene, now that I could see just how far the blood had been scattered.
“I don’t want to insult your teammate or your friends over there, but can these guys handle this? Your tinker is a kid, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “She’s the only one who can operate this camera, though. We talked it over, see if we can’t strike a balance. But she was insistent on doing it. She’s- she wants to help. She’s a hero at heart. Even when it’s not good for her.”
“All of us are insistent,” Anelace said. “And none of us would be here if we were concerned about the sacrifices involved. What about them?”
He indicated the collection of stragglers.
“The Major Malfunctions?”
“Recycler and his teammate too. The hooded woman- she was from the community center attack.”
“Fume Hood has other experience. Low-level, but a good few years of regular activity.”
“Good to know.”
“Major Malfunctions… new. But I know two of the three can handle themselves. Teacher threw an army at us, and they all held their own.”
“I think it was his B-listers, to be fair. He saved the real soldiers for the prison.”
“If you fought an army, take credit for fighting an army. Give them that credit. What about the eco heroes?”
“Recycler and Retouch are veterans in their own way. I’m less sure about them.”
I frowned, pausing to raise a hand in greeting as the van pulled up at the very edge of the scene. Byron had been driving, with Swansong of all people in the passenger seat. Precipice, Lookout, and Sveta got out of the back, with Precipice carrying the bulky time camera. Byron jogged over to help, switching to Tristan, who said something.
“I haven’t fought alongside them. That’s part of it. The other part is that Recycler and Retouch are from Dryad Project 3. Sponsored,” I said.
I gave Anelace a look.
“I heard of some incidents. I didn’t pay much attention there,” he admitted. “Other focuses, I was new to my powers, and I didn’t have any reason to investigate some group in another state with nothing to do with me.”
“Nah, it’s fine,” I said. “Most of it was covered up. It was a slow motion train wreck. It makes me wonder if I should assume they learned from the team’s mistakes or if they’ve become lasting casualties of them.”
“What kind of train wreck?”
I sighed. I didn’t want to be unfair, but I did want to paint a full picture. “I mean, they’re sponsored, not corporate, so they had someone paying the bills and all they had to do was hero. And they were pretty good at that. The sponsors? They started it off on the entire wrong foot. Way too much promotion and way too much money pushed into a team with self-imposed mission of saving the planet.”
“Not a bad mission, considering how we ended up.”
“That’s the issue. It wasn’t saving the planet from Endbringers or other threats. It was saving us from ourselves. Pollution, deforestation, ecology all things that have their validity… on Earth Aleph. People didn’t buy it. And if people aren’t buying, how do the sponsors get the money they invested back?”
“Bad management decisions, then.”
“Hired a bunch of bright, genuinely cool heroes, diverse, all good, but few of those heroes cared about the mission before they joined the team, some didn’t care after, and the ones who were really gung-ho got sidelined-”
I paused to indicate the pair.
Was it unfair to stress that the two were really hyped and serious about the ‘green’ thing, when we’d had bigger concerns? It was true, but I wasn’t sure, and I had no idea if it factored into their judgment or their ability to handle situations like this.
I shrugged. “The lack of care from sponsors and the hired-on heroes seemed pretty obvious to most. Then the team got on the wrong side of the Youth Guard, broke or toed the line of just about every damn rule in the book when it came to costumes, school, friendships, throwing kids into violent situations… Two pairs of parents were saying they hadn’t seen their kid in weeks.”
“That was the part I heard about.”
I smiled. “Yeah. And the shitty thing is they had some good heroes. Recycler and Retouch weren’t hip in a way that worked for Dryad Project Three, but they’re strong, they’re pretty capable with potential to place themselves in the public eye, and they’re earnest, which is really important.”
“Those two seem to have come out of the train wreck okay.”
I held my tongue, because there was some stuff that I’d heard third-hand. My mom had talked and had drinks with a woman from a costume company at one point a while back, not long before Leviathan. Tipsy, the woman had confided things that weren’t hers to share, and my mother had told me, because she’d thought I needed to know what to watch out for.
I didn’t want to continue the chain of rumor mongering when it came to stuff that was that personal. The names we chose and the costumes we wore were so important. On her move from the bench to the main team, Retouch had been given a new look. Makeover, name, no more time with her boyfriend. She’d been transformed from girly girl to athletic tomboy in image and told to play a role, say certain things.
At fourteen, just three months into that new position on the team and the life that came with it, she had torn out an entire fistful of her new short hairdo in the midst of a public meltdown and then retired from being a hero, indicating there was a lot more going on behind the scenes. Worse still, despite her voicing her retirement, she was pulled back in, mandated by contract, made to make appearances and attend events.
“Seems so,” I said.
“What happened in the end? Gold Morning?”
I shook my head. “Two members of the other serious or semi-serious members joined a villain eco-terrorist group. The team was barely staying afloat with money from sponsors, after a hundred fines from Youth Guard, court cases, more promotion and marketing, and then a reporter dropped an expose. The sponsor wasn’t a saint in the eco thing, with cover-ups. The heroes were a distraction.”
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Anelace said.
The time camera was set in place. We’d been outed on the time camera use when the police had come through. They’d written it into reports, and a few of the team leaders read the cliff notes on any and all reports, just like some patrolling heroes listened to the police scanners. They’d asked, and we’d told, as part of the attempt to get people on board.
Anelace’s voice interrupted me while I was in the midst of forming the thought that I should say goodbye and go warn the more innocent members of the various groups that things were about to get ugly.
“I wish you’d joined Foresight.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Thank you. Or- I’m not sure what to say to that. Came out of nowhere.”
“We’re talking about teams, and I’m seeing all these different teams. It’s important. Who we’re with.”
“Yeah,” I said. “One of the most important things.”
“You’re okay with them?”
Swansong was guarding Lookout, ensuring she sat with her back to the scene that was slowly unfolding. The lines of falling snow were dominant, blocking much of the view. Sveta made her way over to help, and bumped shoulders with Ashley as they formed a two-person wall to block Lookout’s view. They exchanged words, and they seemed at ease.
They were very, very different people, but they could talk, and they seemed to enjoy the moment. More than that, Sveta seemed to be in a reasonably good mood, considering the scene that was slowly being mapped out.
Tristan and Precipice were talking. Precipice -Rain- had transformed. I knew he still carried a lot. I wasn’t of the opinion that he should be freed of that burden. But he was helping, he was doing good, and if he ever worked off that burden, truly worked it off, then he deserved to be free of it.
Tristan was explaining, indicating the images. Red peeked through cutains of streamer-like tracks that the snowflakes had made. People hung on his words rather than the images, and that might have been merciful.
“I like them,” I said.
“Some good ones in there,” Anelace said.
“Are you angling at something there, Anelace? It feels like you’re talking around a subject.”
“Every time I say something I’m thinking about five responses I could make before I decide on one I’m not entirely satisfied with.”
“You want to join?”
He shook his head.
“Because the alternative is you’re going to say something really nice or really awful, and you’re working up the courage.”
“It’s not too nice or too bad, Antares. I was talking about keeping good company, and I think my team screwed up by not taking you when you interviewed. Everything you said when you were talking about your strengths and your vision was on point.”
“Thank you. But your teammates weren’t wrong. I wasn’t in a good place.”
“Better place now?”
I shrugged. “Much.”
“If you ever want company, patrolling, minor mission, surveillance-”
I turned my full focus to him, and he stopped talking.
“Yeah,” he said, terminating the prior thought, then before I could respond, he added, “It’s an open invite. You caught my attention when you showed up to a superhero job interview in business casual, and I’d like to get to know that person better, whether it’s a work relationship, friendship, or something more.”
I drew in a breath, pausing a second to try to formulate my thoughts.
He jumped in before I could, “No pressure. I know capes have hangups, I know we’re all busy, and we’re all still kind of mourning-”
Dean, I thought.
“-I won’t be offended if you say-”
I interrupted him, “I’ll be offended if you don’t let me get a word in.”
He made an amused sound, shifting his footing.
“Maybe,” I said. “I’m working through stuff, and like you say, I’m working on all of this.”
He nodded. He looked very at ease, all considered.
“Whatever I end up deciding, I’m flattered. And I think you’re a good guy.”
He looked away, studying the distant New Brockton and the portal that loomed above it.
“Earlier, you said I was dancing around things,” he said.
“I was. I don’t want to dance about this. It’s heavy and I know it might spoil the mood or fuck my chances, but there’s never going to be a time to mention it.”
“You’re not a good guy?” I asked. He was right, the mood had shifted a bit.
“I know a bit about the Asylum.”
I winced. Ah.
“My friend ended up there. I know ex-staff from the place, and through them I figured out some members of your team came from there. Lookout for a very short time, Tress for a long time, you. I can make an educated guess that the rest of your team came from there.”
I shook my head.
“Nah,” I said.
“I won’t talk about it, it’s safe info with me, even when I have a team that likes to pry. But I didn’t want to hold onto it and not let you know I knew.”
“How’s your friend now?” I asked.
“Gone. Long gone. Which is a mercy.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Open invite,” he said. “No pressure. I should go look after my team.”
“Same here,” I said. I gave him a light punch in the arm. Arm’s length, but physical contact. Safe as I could manage.
I had a lot of thoughts, but I suppressed them. I wasn’t sure he was my type, but he wasn’t a boundary pusher, except for bringing up the hospital, and I had mixed feelings about that. It raised my guard and it lowered walls at the same time.
All of the thoughts were cast in a weird, distorting shadow, because thinking about the hospital even in passing was putting me in a frame of mind where I could remember being the Wretch and having the recurring thought and feeling that I’d be alone for the rest of my life. The default way of thinking about myself and thinking about the possibility of doing anything with anyone were all switched over to that, because it had more weight than a hundred years spent like I was living now.
Not easy and not worth thinking about for now.
Sveta was smiling a bit as I caught up to her.
“No,” I said, pointing at her.
“I can’t tease you?”
“Maybe another day, when I’ve had more sleep.”
“You can tease me,” she said. She smiled wider. “I had a good night. I know you told Kenzie not to call me and you kept me out of the loop so Weld and I could catch up. I have mixed feelings about that-”
“-But the good feelings in that mix are very good.”
I gave her a hug.
“We figured something out,” she said. “It was nice.”
“I know I shouldn’t ask,” I said, “But I’m really wondering… how?”
She smiled and she didn’t give me an answer.
I knew that when Kenzie was happy, she bounced. When Ashley was especially pleased she had small smiles and she looked like she was queen of the world- brimming security and self worth. Tristan had a light in his eyes, and Byron came out of his shell. I’d never seen Rain happy, though-
That was a mental joke to myself. I’d seen insecurities and hangups that had tortured him for a long time just fall away.
Sveta in this moment was all of those things.
Seeing her happy made me just a tiny bit of all of those things.
I had moisture brimming in the corners of my eyes, seeing that. A pan- a cure all for the creeping sentiment that had come with the mention of the Asylum.
“Since when are you a crier?” she whispered.
I hugged her with one arm, tight, then shook her. “I thought you weren’t going to tease me.”
“Not about that. About this? Definitely.”
“Lookout,” I called out. “Rescue me from Sveta. Tell me how we’re doing.”
She called back with her answer, “I’m being asked to make this work without looking, which is dumb, and it’s slow as anything. That’s how I’m doing. How are you doing, Antares?”
I let go of Sveta, and she smiled as I pulled away. “Tired but hopeful. Last time you added extra batteries to speed it up, didn’t you, Lookout?”
“They’re attached. But there’s a ton of on and off snow that’s not going straight down or down at an angle, thank you giant portal over there, and that’s taking time to calculate and render. And every time the wind blows it moves snowflakes across the ground, which is all stuff I have to filter without looking at it. It’s dumb.”
“If I could unsee what I saw last night, I would,” I told Lookout.
“But when I get this done, you’re going to look, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Have to.”
“I have to look too! See? Same!”
Fume Hood and Crystalclear were talking off to one side. Catching up, it seemed. Past them, I saw the trio of Malfunctions with the duo of eco heroes and Sweet Justice. It looked like Caryatid was still shielding Finale from the worst of it.
“Victoriaaaaa,” Lookout complained.
“You’re in a mood, huh?” I asked.
“Because this! Because I miss my old workshop, and the living situation when I’m out of costume is so crowded and so annoying, and nobody pays much attention to me. And because this!”
She punched a button. A screen on the face of the box lit up, displaying a line drawn out by pixels, hot pink on an electric blue background. The line started normal, then doubled back, then traced a bizarre path, corkscrewing.
“That color scheme hurts my eyes to look at,” Swansong commented.
“It hurts my brain to think at,” Lookout said. “That’s a Witten particle flying around like a balloon with the end undone. Because life has to be hard, right? They don’t do that.”
“Witten?” I asked.
“Oh. In the past?”
“That’s got to be Vista.”
Lookout turned slowly, then stared up at me.
She turned back to the screen, brought her head back, and swung it at the flat face of the cube.
Swansong caught her head before it made contact. Her voice was low. “People are watching.”
“It mucks everything up. There’s a giant smear in the middle of it and it’s impossible to pick things out.”
“Work around it,” Swansong said, her voice still quiet. “As much as we don’t want it to be true, others define us by how we act when we’re at our lowest and our worst.”
“I’m not that low,” Lookout said, typing now. “I’m frustrated.”
“Frustration can bring you down as easily as any other sentiment,” Swansong said.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
“Do we have any time travelers here?”
“Pretty sure we don’t,” I answered.
“No way to go back in time and tell Vista to not smear my crime scene recreation? Why did she even do that?”
“Headlights, to shed some light on the scene.”
“There are other ways to do that!”
“Voice calm,” Swansong said, her own voice quiet and firm. “Even when angry, we restrain ourselves.”
“Do you, though? You kind of rant sometimes,” Lookout said.
“When was the last time?” Swansong asked.
“This morning,” I said. “You didn’t like how your clone pierced the teabag when she put it in your cup.”
“In her cup,” Swansong said. “She pierced the bag she was placing in her cup and then she gave it to me while taking my cup.”
“Scandalous,” Lookout said.
“Do you know how I know it was my cup? Because hers is chipped and scratched from top to bottom. I thought she forgot and gave her the benefit of a doubt, that cow abused that graciousness, and she did it with a smile.”
“You don’t need to tell me,” I said. “I heard the entire thing while I was getting out of the shower.”
“I apparently need to tell you because you didn’t get the full picture. That weakling has died eight times and it wasn’t enough to teach her any sense.”
“By that definition you died too,” Lookout said. She was back at work, sitting on a case, keyboard in lap, typing. Apparently she could hold a conversation and work at the same time.
“No. Death is the province of failures. Between the two of us, I am doing fine, and she is the failure and eternal disappointment. Do you know how I know?”
“You have a better fashion sense,” I said.
“No- Yes, but that isn’t the defining element. I know because I do not fuck up tea, and I wouldn’t connive to hide my shame and my failings as a parahuman being if I did.”
“Are things going to be okay if I step away?” I asked.
“Yes,” Lookout said. “I’m going to work around the smudge. Maybe we can get something from the edges.”
“Wasn’t what I was worried about,” I said.
“It’s fine,” Swansong said. “Worry about what my dear clone has coming to her.”
“Ooh,” I said, mock serious. “No tea? Oh, no treats with the tea?”
“Thin ice,” Swansong said, pointing a finger at me. “You’ll see who gets no treats.”
“I so want to sleep over sometime,” Lookout said.
I left them to that conversation.
Brio was walking through the storm of still images. Here and there, he would lean into things, squinting as he got in close – not that it was much use. Most of the figures were especially distorted and existed in continuum. I stopped at the edge.
“Technical difficulties?” he asked, as he emerged. He looked at Relay, who was off in the distance, then at Crystalclear, who nodded. Anelace, without looking, raised a hand in response to some message.
“Some difficulties. Sorry. I wanted this to be a better launching-off point.”
“We don’t have much to go on,” he said. “Anything we can get.”
“Did Crystalclear’s patrol of the area-”
A distant crack interrupted me.
It took me a second to place where the sound had come from. There weren’t many good places to choose, with so much flat ground around us, and it was really only the road that worked. My first impulse was that cars had collided. Even that they’d hit our parked cars, that had pulled off the road.
No. It was a gun.
Relay was way out in the field, and I could see the divot where the bullet had hit ground, sending dirt flying out to land on otherwise pristine snow.
I took to the air, trying to get a sense of the scene and what we were up against.
Relay teleported to where Brio had been. There was a moment where there was only a shimmer of light around Relay, who twisted, casting out an arm, pushing the shimmer out. Then Brio materialized at the head of the shimmer, fifteen feet away, bringing his shield up just in time to block another bullet.
There was a second’s pause, and then I felt the impact as the Wretch went down. I flew back at an angle and down, then changed direction before touching ground. I skimmed the ground, hoping that the humps of snow here and there would provide me some cover.
I saw a fence up ahead, barring my way, and headed straight for it.
Who were these guys? Guns, accurate fire at a distance- my first thought was March.
The Wretch hit the fence first, and I canceled it in the moment I noticed the contact. My gloved hands caught the fragments out of the air. Slats of wood with broken ends.
I paused, a shattered plank of wood in each hand, taking one second to grasp the situation and make sure that nobody was crossing the field and attacking the more vulnerable members of the group.
Not nearly enough people were standing, and people were gathered around some of the people who had crumpled to the ground. Some of my guys had gotten shot. Allies. Possibly my team.
Traffic had been stopped by two vehicles that had turned sideways to block both lanes. Dark figures I couldn’t make out were behind our cars. Our van. Using the vehicles for cover while they unloaded real munitions.
More blood on this already bloodstained field.
I took flight, straight up. The Wretch absorbed one shot. If there were others, I didn’t hear or see any sign of it.
I was coming straight back down, and if I had any say in things, it’d be their blood that would be shed on this field, not more of ours.