The gunfire continued below me, and if there were any shots that passed through the air as they took aim at me, I didn’t hear them. There was the noise of the wind rushing through and around the Wretch, faintly different from when it was brushing my skin and touching my ears. A distortion, a whistle.
A plank in each hand, I raised my arms to my face, burying almost all of it in my arms, the crook of the elbows at my nose and mouth, the planks out and in line with my body. I let the Wretch drop as I disappeared into the cloud cover and against the wind.
Cold, and worse because it was a moist cold.
I flew in a slight circle, dipping lower until I could see the general outline of things below. There were tears in my eyes from the sting of the cold, but I could make out the truck, the way the cars had stopped, and the clearing by the tree with Kenzie’s van parked by it.
I shifted my grip on the planks, and then I let them fall. Immediately, I flew horizontally, skimming the cloud line, still feeling the cold press in on me as if from every direction, grabbing at my body and reaching toward the bone. My speed, moisture, wind and cold all compounded one another, and the snow that blew around me collected and bound to the surface.
I dove. They came into view as I came down, what looked to be civilians or improvised soldiers in dark clothes, with what looked like used body armor. Two people with masks, standing off to one side. Not people I recognized.
One plank fell into the ditch. Another struck the pavement and broke. The plummeting objects made heads turn, which was my intent. The black of my costume had collected a frosting of white that made it a little less obvious.
Anger sharpened my focus. I didn’t use my aura as I landed, knee and one foot on the ground, hands helping to add some spring to the impact and reduce the noise.
It wasn’t enough to keep some of the people from seeing me. That was where the sharper focus counted. Two in front of me, one off to the left, two off to the right.
The lone guy to my left that had noticed me turned to his friend, who was leaning over the back of one vehicle, shooting.
Flight gave me speed and velocity that I wouldn’t have had while running. The people in the middle and at the far right of the group turned weapons on me. One fired and landed a hit in the moment before I threw myself at the guy on the left and put the unaware between them and myself. One more gunshot among many.
No aura- them being off balance was good, but them being blindsided was better. I had my choice of where to hit him, and I had to dismiss all of the training Gilpatrick had imparted. A strike to the back of the neck, to the temple or throat could do too much harm.
The heel of my right hand met the right corner of the jaw, where it connected to the skull, the blow timed so my arm extended and added to the impact beyond just what my flight offered. With speed, timing, and a target that was turning his head, I was ninety percent of the way to connecting it the way I’d wanted.
Ninety percent earned me a gristly feeling as my hand smashed the soft area between jaw and skull, pain in my hand and pain down my forearm with the force of the impact.
He collapsed on top of his friend, who’d been shooting and not paying nearly enough attention to the warning.
The guy to my right reacted. I threw myself and my elbow at him. I aimed for his jaw, hit his teeth instead. I saw a moment of blood against grit teeth, saw him reacting by twisting his head around and reaching for a weapon shorter than the rifle he held, and hit him again He wouldn’t simply stagger in pain and retaliate, this time.
Hurting people without the benefit of a forcefield hurt. Every impact had its equal, opposite reaction. I was hitting people hard, but that energy transmitted itself into my hand, into my elbow.
The guy who I’d hit first had fallen atop someone with a gun that wasn’t a rifle- or it was, but it was an automatic. I punched him in the face as I threw myself on top of him, grabbing the weapon. He fought me, wrestling with me over it, and I couldn’t afford to take the seconds to try and win.
I pushed out with my aura, and I saw his expression change- bewilderment, not fear. He didn’t let go, though, and I had to turn to using the Wretch.
Just a burst of power, taking a moment of strength. As far as I’d been able to tell, when I activated my forcefield, it came from me. It hugged me, but only for the one tenth of a second that it was in contact with my skin and costume. The trick was using it in the moments before it unfurled. One instant of strength that could lift a car or punch through sheet metal.
I tore the rifle from his hands, then gave it back to him- one of my hands gripped the barrel, the other the stock, and I smashed the middle part into his face.
Couldn’t go forward without going into the firing line. Couldn’t go back without the same issue. People were turning on me, concerned with the immediate threat in their ranks. I saw some backing away from the line of people that had formed alongside the parked cars, trying to get a clear shot, and I saw them get shoved or pulled aside.
Two capes. A man and a woman, in dark costumes with utilitarian masks- hard white, covering mouth and nose, bridge of the nose, and the brow. Both masks outlined the eye sockets but didn’t block peripheral vision.
She had a cloth scarf wound around her head and neck, white armor built into her gloves and an otherwise black uniform with body armor. He had the same look, but no gloves, his hat was a simple beanie, and he had a neck warmer on. His body armor had shoulder pads and bracers that extended over the back of his hands, and he carried a long-handled axe, like the kind emergency workers used to chop through doors.
I didn’t want to get involved with that. Unable to go forward or back, unwilling to go up in case it exposed me to them, I decided to go the Manton route. Powers came encoded with limitations, and the most common limitation that laymen and bottom-tier cape geeks associated with the term was that powers worked on inorganic things only, or they worked on organic things only. The chief example of a hundred possibilities, but it was what I decided to use.
In brief: through.
I threw myself into the mob.
They would be my Manton protection. With another burst of strength, using the rifle’s butt and my burned hand, I shoved at the non-cape woman in front of me so she would bowl into the people behind her, then grabbed the guy to my right and used another burst to throw him in the general direction of the two capes. He landed near the guy with the axe, and the cape hopped over him before the flying man could collide with his shin. When the cape landed, though, he didn’t have good footing that wasn’t stepping on the man that had fallen, he tried to step on snow, and he slipped to his hands and knees instead.
I kept the people around me, using strength to grab them, force them to stumble, and keep them between me and the capes. I saw the guy getting up, while the woman was retreating, crouching low to the ground, and threw the next guy toward the masked guy.
Or I tried. I extended my arm in the throw, and he jerked violently. I saw gouges appear in his cheap, duct-taped body armor, close to the heart, and then his arm broke. The break got worse, twisting-
I canceled the Wretch and let him fall.
The uneasy, unsure satisfaction that came with finding a way forward had its backlash, ten times the negative for any positive I might have found in it.
He hit the ground and fell against my leg, which added to the pressure and the lack of elbow room. I used flight to keep myself upright, but people were pressing in, and I gave them a second’s pause with my aura. It made them stop, staring, and little else.
Stop fighting me, Wretch. Whatever you want, we can get it by working together. Don’t fuck me on the fear. Don’t fucking tear people apart when I have a cape I need to stop!
The Wretch had practically torn his arm off, I could see it as I tried to handle stuff, and it distracted at a moment I needed my focus.
I’d hurt someone, fuck me. Couldn’t do this- couldn’t escape without easily exposing myself. I’d bought others a chance to breathe and I wasn’t sure it mattered.
Someone grabbed for the assault rifle I was holding in one hand, and I drew my free hand around to use the spikes that laid across the back of my hand. With my hand in a fist, the spikes stuck out, and I could rake his hand. Just enough harm to do what I needed and free myself, no more.
In the time it took me to do that, two more people had grabbed me.
I twisted, used a burst of strength to hurl them away, and flew up, aiming to put myself over the top of the car that they’d been using as shooting cover.
I had a glimpse of the masked woman with her hand raised. She made a quick beckoning gesture and something in me went.
I hit the top of the vehicle I’d been meaning to go over. A second had passed, I’d stopped flying, I’d dropped the Wretch and I’d let go of the gun I’d been using as a club.
Stupid, I thought.
People grabbed me. I twisted away and tried to roll over the trunk of the vehicle to the far side, and I found myself as weak as a baby.
Fly. I forced myself to fly, and it did take some forcing. Not because my power was weak or gone, but because my head wasn’t all there. My thoughts were as weak as my body.
I’d bought some time. People on our side who had been pinned down by gunfire were getting closer. Brio, Anelace. I didn’t see Capricorn, Lookout, or Ashley, but I saw Rain, who was hanging back, a silver blade in hand that he wasn’t throwing.
The strength I’d lost was quickly returning. My thoughts returned. The sinking feeling that had started when I’d seen that people were gunned down and quintupled when I’d hurt the guy in the middle of the fighting lingered.
“Who are you!?” I called out. “Why do this!?”
There was a bang at the back of the car. I looked up just in time to see someone vaulting over. The man with the mask, holding up someone’s bulletproof vest as a shield between him and the heroes.
I flew away, Wretch up, and I saw the world I was flying to go dark. The ground beneath me illuminated, sweeping out like a ripple extending from the point of his landing.
My flight died, and I skidded to a landing, my still-frost-stiff costume skimming on a snow-slick road.
I tried to use flight to stand, then remembered I didn’t have it. I climbed to my feet, wary. The man tossed the shield aside, then rolled his head around, cracking his neck.
The cars were nearby, the ditch, the road beneath me. But there was no wind, and I didn’t feel the cold anymore- cool air, but not cold. The ground had a glow to it, like there were dim lights just beneath the snow. That glow was more intense toward the edge of the circle.
A ring thirty feet in diameterand past those thirty feet, there was nothing. Some of the cars and trucks had been cut apart, but the cut pieces still stood.
Not white, not black, not gray or anything neutral. It made my head hurt to look at it and to think about it.
I panted for breath, feeling the lingering weakness from the woman’s power, and I could tell that the air here was thinner. I’d experienced thinner air by flying especially high.
I couldn’t fly now. I didn’t have my aura- I reached for it and found nothing there for me.
I felt a mix of emotions at that.
“Why?” I asked him.
“For Noontide and me? Money.”
He nodded. He tested and shifted his grip on the long-handled axe he carried.
“If you help anti-parahuman types like this, they’ll take advantage of your help now and then they’ll try to come after you later. It’s what happened in Russia, when they tried to control the parahuman population.”
“I’ve been to Russia. Contracted there. I’ve seen it. The before, the after, the attempts to make parahumans into military. Each one assigned to a squad or special force. Pit against each other. There’s nothing you can tell me about that kind of reality I haven’t touched with all five senses.”
“These anti-parahuman guys-”
He scoffed, sharply enough to interrupt, the noise muffled by the mask that covered his lower face. “If you’re saying that to try to bait me into revealing something about who hired me, save your breath. You’re making yourself sound stupid.”
I felt more like myself as I tried to assess the situation. I had to trust that my teammates and Foresight were handling things and keeping the gunmen from going on the offensive, now that the way was clear. There was nothing I could do to break this effect.
“People who would hire you to go this far are going to turn on you. I know the unwritten rules stopped applying over the last two years, but the behavior of people, from good people to the scummy sorts that would sign off on this? That still applies. It will always apply.”
“Are you finished?”
“That’s up to you,” I said, ducking my head a bit. I needed to look smaller. Less dangerous. Talking was making me run out of breath, the thin air working its effect on me. But talking was better than the alternative. “Power nullification?”
“Everything nullification. No powers, no outside help. You, me, and the arena.”
I wanted to pace, to encourage him to do it too, to maintain an even distance between us. It didn’t happen. That kind of pressure and maneuvering required a roughly equivalent power. I had to be something more than a twenty-one year old woman, unarmed, against a man five inches taller than me who was armed with an axe.
Maybe a Trump power, but I wasn’t betting anything on it. I knew Trump powers tended to arise, though not always, when a person triggered in relation to power-based stressors. I knew they tended to feel disconnected from humanity, much like breakers did, just like how movers reported being chronically restless or having trouble setting down roots.
Shaker power, yes. Area or environment focused. Changing the battlefield. Shaker powers fell roughly in line with contextual or environmental threats. They were mindful of those things, usually. Context. Environment.
“The city can’t take much more of this. Don’t- can’t you see that if all of this goes to shit, there won’t be anything nice left for you to spend your money on?”
“It’s handled,” he said. “I’d fret more about myself, if I was you.”
I wished I still had the assault rifle. I’d let it slip from my fingers after ‘Noontide’ had knocked me out for a second. I backed up a bit, reaching out to the side. The bounds of the circle were like a solid wall.
While I focused on that, he was looking around, studying… the cars? Why?
I didn’t know what to expect here.
Slowly, he nodded, as if he’d assessed the situation.
I felt weirdly okay, de-powered. My heart was pounding, but I felt focused, and all of the emotions that had surrounded things were gone. It was as if the power effect cut me off from all the pains and suffering of the rest of the world.
Rain. There’d been no onset, and I was naturally resistant, but I’d felt the emotion creep over me. Doubt, frustration, regret for my failings in the moment.
Was that why people hadn’t felt the fear aura in the same way? Had Rain’s power diluted it or added some lavender into the mix, diluting the dark green?
He took a step forward, closing in on me, his axe in one hand. As I ducked left, he moved to cut me off. I headed the other direction, toward the cars he’d been looking at, and he took a step to the side, ready to block and take a swing if I tried it.
The cars that had concerned him – he’d been looking around them. Was there a way through? Through a window, past the boundary of this circle? It didn’t feel like it made sense, but I looked anyway.
He took that opportunity to reach for something at his belt.
A canister of something.
I hurled myself at him. I felt battered and sore and clean emotion ran through me as I threw myself into the jaws of the lion.
The ground was slippery. I almost lost my footing as I ran.
I saw the axe move, brought back to swing, and kept one eye on the ground. I couldn’t afford to lose traction in a key moment. One of my feet touced on secure ground, in the track where tires had melted ice, the second following, landing further down that same line. The third- it had to be where the Kenzie van or one of the other vehicles had turned off, because snow and ice had scattered and been pressed down.
He was watching as much as I was. He timed his swing for when I closed the distance. I could hear it cut through the air. When I ducked, using my footing on still-clear ground to adjust my position and half-throw myself to one side, he brought the canister to his axe-hand. As I scrambled to my feet, he spared a finger to pull the pin, and then let it tumble from his fingers, dropping to the ground at his feet.
“No outside factors. Stuff like guns and explosives are a bad idea, so don’t think of surprising me with one. The sound and shock has nowhere to go but inside you. The circle probably thinks it makes it a level playing field,” he said. “Your problem is gonna be that I don’t believe in level. This is my arena.”
Something was hissing out, but I couldn’t see the vapor of it. Invisible gas.
“Take your time, time I spend in here is time I don’t have to be out there, and my side’s winning,” he said, his eyes narrowed as he reached with his free hand to get into his neckwarmer. He pulled out a tangle of tubes, with what looked like a pacifier sans bulb and a nose piece.
He began to put the breathing apparatus under his mask when I started forward again.
I’d fought big before. I’d grown up roughhousing with Uncle Neil. Manpower.
He took one swing as he backed up a step, in a way I would have called casual or lazy if it hadn’t been fast. No aim in mind, timing didn’t matter, it just forced me to get clear and get away. Keeping the distance between us while the gas accumulated. It bought him the time to get the breathing apparatus on. His thumb flicked something beneath the neckwarmer, and then he tucked it beneath his body armor.
I would have done something about the canister, but we were inside a confined space.
His weapon required reach. It had been the case with Uncle Neil when I’d been twelve, when he’d been grown, strong, and capable of keeping me at arm’s length.
My goal was to get inside that reach. I started forward, saw him react, ready to chop at me from the side. I found good footing, and lunged for real this time, a second after the fact.
He swung from the side, aiming for my midsection, and I dove, going low.
His foot came out, stopping me as I skidded on the surface that made footing so difficult. He shifted to a two-handed, overhead swing- and I went after his legs, tangling mine with his.
He’d expected that much, and shifted his footing, but he hadn’t watched his own footing as much as he’d watched me and mine. There was just enough slip for me to get one foot to skid a short distance, to topple him.
I wasn’t willing to wait for him to get his bearings. I used the spikes on the back of my glove like an ice climber might use an ice pick to get leverage while on a tough climb. Burying them into his leg, possibly getting more armor and padding than I got leg, I was able to spin myself around, so my feet were pointed closer to his face. I’d hoped to get a boot to his jaw, but he twisted away, his back flat on the ground.
He still had the axe. He still had it in roughly an overhead position, and with his back flat on the ground, he was in a position to swing. He brought it down and at me, and I brought my foot out, kicking at the hands, before the axe could come down.
It broke his grip and interrupted the swing before it could reach peak momentum. It didn’t disarm him, though, which meant I didn’t have time.
It was a short, desperate scramble before I could leverage my way forward, bringing my face closer to his, while he grabbed me, trying to keep me in place so he could swing one-handed. I spiked the grabbing hand, threw myself on top of him so my shoulder touched the bicep of his axe- arm and limited the ability to swing, then reached for the neckwarmer, tearing the tubes away with the reversed claws. Tearing them away in a way that destroyed them.
It cost me. He brought the axe down, but with my face being closer to his and the limited swing range, he couldn’t bring the blade down to make contact with me.
He did bring the metal end of the axe down. The butt end had a spike on it, and the end glanced off my mask and caught me at the side of my head. I felt the sharp crack of something hard touching bone without any cushion in between, and then there was blood in my eye.
I didn’t dare breathe. He was strong, bigger, and my only benefit was that I had spikes on my gloves. Even that was matched, because he had bracers with jutting bits at the front that hurt like hell when he jabbed me and hit me with them instead of with his hands.
I’d been going after faces for a reason. If these people existed out there, anywhere in the city, I wanted them to be recognizable. I wanted destroyed jaws, broken noses, and black eyes, if not claw marks or anything else.
Anger drove me. The image of all those people lying on the bloodstained battlefield and what had happened to the Navigators was flashing through my head as I fought for what it took to keep going, keep hurting him.
He shifted, and he got one knee or one foot between myself and him. I could feel the flex, and I knew he was going to kick me off him. I couldn’t afford to let him. I brought my hands down and hooked the spikes into the sides of his neck, closer to the spine than the front. The action and my center of gravity brought my face close to his. Blood dripped down from my scalp wound onto the white mask.
Each of his hands found my forearms, and struck my arms out and away from his neck. I might have nicked him, but I didn’t take much flesh with the motion. My center of gravity being what it was, with me on top of him, my face smashed into his. The scalp wound shed blood straight into his eye.
His footing against my midsection shifted, one closer to my chest, and he kicked out, leveraging me away.
I hit road, and cold wind blew past me. I took in half a lungful of air, and the air burned my nostrils, mouth, and throat.
There was noise all around me. The circle was gone. I started to rise to my feet, reaching for my flight, and more coughing overtook me.
Again, I felt something in me go. Again, I blacked out, except it was longer than the one second this time. No flight, no movement at all. I came back to, took the start of a breath in, and again, I felt the burn. Reflex actions.
“Victoria!” a voice. “Behind you!”
It took all of my energy to turn to look behind me, the direction I’d felt everything go. Noontide was in one of the vehicles, wheels spinning to find traction.
Then the sedan had its traction and it lunged. It was aimed straight at me and at the ditch. It lunged as it took over.
A hand grabbed me. It was Sveta who pulled me clear. With all the strength and energy Noontide had sapped from me, I wouldn’t have been able.
The car continued on its way, to where Tristan had made the bridge that had let them cross the ditch and get to the crime scene. It was only just reaching that bridge when bridge became water. The sedan struck the edge of the ditch nose-on. Airbags inside inflated.
“What are you doing!?” Sveta raised her voice.
I thought it was me. Then I realized Rain’s effect was still in place. The guilt, the easy switch to self-blame.
There were still people with guns. Sveta held onto me and dragged us to cover.
Anelace was still in the midst of it. He’d brought knives to a gunfight and he was winning. There was a choreographed pace to how he fought, like he anticipated every bullet. He fought to stay in close, to make it so one person that was fighting with him was a harder shot for everyone else.
“They have two rocket launchers, Victoria,” Sveta said. “Saved for the hard targets. They clipped Brio and they got the camera.”
I set my jaw, tried to summon the strength to move, and ended up coughing. A bit more summoning and I managed to move, holding myself up.
“I’m trying to keep them from shooting, but they split up. Help.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
No questions about whether I was okay. There were more pressing concerns.
“One cape hiding in the traffic off to the side,” Sveta said, indicating with one hand. “He’s a mover, made some of their injured disappear!”
Then she was gone, pulling herself away.
I had to assume the other person with the rocket launcher was at the opposite end of the crowd to the end that Sveta had headed to. I wished I had a better sense of what was going on. I wished I could see, with the stinging blood weeping from my scalp to my eye, beneath the metal of my mask.
With the chaos, people trying to get clear of Anelace and his knives, and the fact that everyone in the field was either shot or behind cover, there wasn’t as much focus on shooting anymore. They were organizing. Groups of this haphazard militia consolidated, forming ranks to protect key people and groups. The capes didn’t count- nobody was going to help Noontide, but they were gathering around the two-man team with the rocket launcher.
The time I spent looking was time they spent noticing I existed. Some raised rifles, handguns, and other weapons to point at me. I flew for cover, one of the parked cars by the side of the road, close to the field.
Wretch still out, I put my hands on the car and I pushed. Wheels resisted more than they skidded, the Wretch broke a window and tore at the metal, and I thought the vehicle might roll- too much.
A shift to one side helped- and the back end swung their way. With that movement, the front end moved some too. I’d hoped to ram them, disabling the majority, but instead they scattered.
“-clear!” I heard a voice.
The rocket launcher.
I flew, putting myself in the way of the rocket, Wretch active.
They fired. Pulling the trigger when a target presented itself, instinct more than smarts.
It was loud, but the upper ends of the sound were dampened by the forcefield, making it sound more like a loud noise from a television that couldn’t be set to an ear-hurting volume. Heat and fire rolled around the Wretch and surrounded me, and as the Wretch went down, the air exchanged that had been protected along with me mixed in violently with the hot air immediately beyond it. My hair stirred and I was reminded of how much my mouth, nose, and scalp hurt.
The blast had been unexpectedly close to them, I was pretty sure. Most of the people in that group were reeling now.
I used my power, intent on keeping them reeling. My aura pushed out, and I saw the reactions on their faces. Bewilderment. Eyes wide.
Again, that mix of emotion? That fear and regret could somehow mix into something else?
No… was it actually awe? In a twisted, upside-down world, my powers warped, my enemies looked up to me and my allies feared me? Was that how it worked?
No. Only in this scenario.
Something was fucked up. I kept the aura burning as I stalked closer. None raised their weapons against me.
“Tell me who you are. Who sent you?”
“We’re spear team two,” came the response from one wide-eyed woman. “We’re with-”
“Tracy,” a man barked. I loomed, using my flight to draw in closer. He cowed, then said, “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Tell me.”
“Can’t,” he said. “Can’t.”
“Teacher?” I asked. I didn’t see a glimmer of recognition. “Cheit?”
Nothing. I saw the man clench his jaw, eyes unfocused as he stared into the sun that was my aura. The clench and his stance suggested he’d found some grit, and it would take some arm twisting to get him to talk.
Arm-twisting. I looked for the man I’d hurt, letting the Wretch nearly tear his arm off. Gone already.
My head snapped around the other way as I heard the sound of the other rocket launcher going off.
It sailed toward the center mass of our team. Ashley, one hand at her middle stood straight, putting herself in the path. It was Byron who supported her to minimize the recoil.
She wasn’t directly in front, so she had to shoot off to the side. She produced a blast and sustained it. The blast caught the projectile, destroyed it, and ate the worst of the detonation. Fire laced through the darkness and spilled out from gaps in licks and tongues. People near her shied away.
Byron eased her to the ground, presumably in the same way he’d lifted her up. The white of her costume looked half red with her own blood.
How had they shot? Sveta-
Sveta was unconscious, with Noontide on the quick approach, a knife in each hand. I took flight.
I passed by the glowing bubble where the guy I’d fought was presumably fighting Anelace, and I could see their blurry outlines within. Hand to hand combat.
A bullet clipped the Wretch, and I dropped down low, still closing the distance.
Sveta roused, just in time to see Noontide moving her hand around, ready to use her power again. I wasn’t close enough.
I saw Sveta’s neck thicken- unfurl. A clasp had been undone. Shorter tendrils reached out and seized Noontide’s face and arm.
“Don’t!” I called.
She turned her head to look at me, eyebrows knit together, eyes wide. Scared. Then Noontide moved, and the tendrils reacted. The narrow ones cut into skin as they constricted. Larger ones twisted and dug in. The mask broke as tendrils stressed it.
I could see the wince on Sveta’s part at the sight, seeing what had just happened.
She let go of Noontide as quickly as she’d grabbed on. The body slumped to the ground.
“Sveta!” I called out.
The agitation was bad enough that she couldn’t bring the tendrils together to cinch the neck-clasp back together.
“She’s fair game, okay!? She and the guy with Anelace right now are killers for hire! The non-capes aren’t! They’re under the influence of something!”
I saw the nod, jerky. She was still fighting it.
“Easy. Bricks in a wall, remember?”
“I made the choice, Victoria,” Sveta said. “I undid the clasp.”
“You defended yourself. I talked to the other guy in this trio. Trust me when I say it’s okay. They’re fucked up, dangerous, and effective enough to exercise both of those other things to their full capacity. Okay?”
I saw the agitation settle some.
“Trust me,” I said. “I saw all of it. I talked to him. She would have left you no choice.”
The agitation settled more. Sveta buckled the strands in. Hands fixed her hair.
I glanced at the bubble. It had popped – no noise, no fanfare. The guy who’d fought me was backing up, clearly bloodied not just by me but by a number of knife slashes. Anelace slumped against the side of a car instead of pursuing.
There were several others with guns in the vicinity. Anelace didn’t budge as they approached. I tensed, ready to act-
It didn’t matter. In front of Sveta, Noontide’s body went up in smoke. One by one, the people who’d been shooting at us began to disappear. The retreating arena man. Shooters. Rocket launcher people. The awed people that hadn’t picked up a gun or returned to being aggressive since I’d talked to them.
Leaving one- the teleporter, who apparently couldn’t teleport themselves. I flew after them, but Crystalclear got to him first. The guy, skinny with ‘troll’ hair in a gelled point above his head, thin beard and mustache, had something in his hand.
Sveta staggered to her feet. I steadied her. Together, we hurried to that scene. One more person.
I pushed out with my aura. The teleporter spooked in a visible way, and Crystalclear found enough of a grip to pry the guy’s hand open. A capsule pill, that Crystalclear quickly stepped on.
“I couldn’t blast him while he was weaving through real people,” Crystalclear said.
“It’s okay,” I said. I wasn’t sure it was. There was so much about what had just happened that wasn’t okay.
I looked at Sveta, and I saw thin traces of crimson along one side of her face, forming little diamond shapes because different tendrils had slapped against it from different angles.
I touched my scalp. Stitches would be needed.
“You got this?” I asked.
Crystalclear nodded, the crystals on his head catching the light with the movement. “I’ll call for help.”
I flew, and I turned in the air as I did it, surveying. The battlefield first- all traffic still stopped. Civilians scared and scattered. The attackers gone. The cars that Foresight and our other heroes had come in had been trashed. Rain’s projectiles had chopped up some of the enemy’s cover, forcing them into tighter places.
A surgical strike. Capes who, as far as I could tell, had been hired with the role clearly in mind. Weapons, tools.
Finale’s wail formed the bulk of the background noise. I spared a glance, even though I didn’t want to see. Her teammates were hurt, not dead. They looked as concerned about her being upset than she was about them being shot, but they didn’t have a lot of strength to communicate to her when she was this loud. I could see Recycle and Retouch peering around the wall Tristan had made, currently badly chipped from bullets. They looked kind of shocked that things had stopped.
Guns were scattered around Brio, but he wasn’t the one who had used them. Relay sat on the cold ground, staring up at the sky. The weapons had been pulled from Brio’s person and used by Relay. No efforts were made to stem Brio’s blood loss, no efforts made to watch his vitals or talk to him, and Relay had no ability to tend to others. Maybe he told himself that they were all already getting help. Maybe there was more to it.
The camera box was missing a good quarter of its components, because it had been hit by a rocket, or by the edge of the blast. The box and the tree had been used as cover, even though the box wasn’t that large. Fragments of Byron’s wall littered the area.
It meant someone could lie behind it and maybe not catch a bullet. Swansong lay in the snow and dirt with her back to the others.
“How do I look in crimson?” she asked.
“Shitty,” I said, and my voice was rough from the gas. “Don’t ever wear it again.”
She didn’t smile. She pulled a hand away from her neck.
“Put that hand back,” I said, my voice hushed. I pressed down on her hand with my own. “It’s not bleeding as much as it could be.”
She didn’t respond or smile. I approached the box, floating closer, and I saw Rain and Byron huddled over.
“Look after her?” Swansong asked. “I don’t trust myself to get close. I want to, make sure to tell her that.”
“She heard,” Rain said.
“Yeah,” I said. I stepped around the box and around Byron.
Rain had supplied fabric to form the improvised bandage. Lookout wasn’t moving much, lying on a bed of Tristan’s power.
“Tristan caught a bullet,” Byron said, quiet. “He should hold until we get to a hospital. He’s in stasis where he is right now. It didn’t hit any vitals.”
“Good to know,” I said, my voice tight. “Hey Lookout.”
I saw her move her hands a bit. Her face wasn’t visible with the mask she wore.
“What are you doing getting shot?” I said. “I don’t advise it.”
“You got shot before,” Lookout responded, ghost-quiet. “Arm.”
“I’m speaking from experience, aren’t I?” I asked. “What do you say I fly you to a hospital?”
“What about Swansong?”
“Come on,” I said. “Swansong’s tough. You’re not.”
Lookout didn’t fight me as I scooped her up, Rain and Byron helping.
“Warn the team with Advance Guard and the Shepherds,” I told Rain and Byron. “I think the people who attacked were compelled, under the influence, or something, and they weren’t team one. The other team’s at risk.”
“They might not believe us,” Rain said.
“Try,” I said. “You comfortable, Lookout?”
“As comfortable as I can be with two bullets in me,” she whispered. “How was I the only one who got shot twice? I’m a small target?”
I talked to her as I floated up. “I’m going to need you to keep talking to me the entire way there. It’s going to be how I know you’re still alert, okay? Let me know if you get cold.”
“Oh kay,” she said, like it was two separate words. “You have to ask me to do something I’m bad at, huh?”
“Talking a lot?”
“Yeah. I’m joking. I’m not very funny. Blame the bullets. Maybe one hit me in the funny bone.”
“Ha ha,” I said, without humor.
As I took flight, turning my body so I caught the wind and the eleven year old in my arms didn’t, I had a view of the bloodstained field. I shifted my orientation and my grip, and set my eyes on the wound in the sky where the portal in Brockton Bay had been ripped open wide.
That would be the direction we were going.
Things had changed. From a city of gold to a city of crimson.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you face to face, Victoria, and that you had to take a detour. Other things are demanding our presence and focus.”
“Trust me,” I said. “I totally get it. Things are bad right now.”
I approached a window. The streetlights were on, and the city beyond was dark.
Evening- no. After dark.
“Can I ask how your team is doing?” Dragon asked.
“I’m too used to Lookout, because my first impulse is to be surprised that you didn’t look it up on hospital computers first.”
“Admitting that sort of thing gets you in trouble,” Dragon said, over the phone that I’d set to speaker. “I asked because I wanted to hear it from you.”
I looked away from the window, and at the old computer with the round monitor and its slightly fishbowl screen. Green text on a black background flew across the screen. My device on the desk was more modern, with a red light flashing violently on the top as it accepted the data.
“In surgery, recovering, in for a third surgery, worrying, waiting in the dark, recovering, and… attending this meeting, I guess. It’s a mess.”
“Hopefully things will level out.”
I shook my head. “Advance Guard killed villains who had been hired to ambush that coalition. Our warning got to them too late, that this looked set up. It’s agitated things pretty badly- at least on our end there were some civilian witnesses. There’s a lot of question marks. People are scared.”
“I wish I could do more. I’m being watched too carefully to intervene in subtle ways, and the only unsubtle help I could provide would be deploying my machines. I don’t think that would calm the public.”
“No,” I said. “Knowing someone’s out there who has our back is… really nice. It’s appreciated.”
“It looks like we’re halfway done,” Dragon said. “Then you can get back to looking after them. I’m sorry that the timing is awkward.”
“This will be helpful for my looking after me, if nothing else,” I said. I was so tired. “Something to read on all the nights I’m not sleeping.”
I could see the files as they disappeared into my storage drive. DEPT_26.fold, DEPT_27.fold, DEPT_28.fold. Folded files that each supposedly contained the notes and pertinent details of major PRT departments.
“How much of this is redacted?” I asked.
“Some,” Dragon answered. “Enough to protect identities of heroes.”
“And identities of villains?”
“Very few. If you need access to something redacted, you can ask me. We’ll discuss. I imagine you’re thinking of Tattletale?”
“I wasn’t thinking of anyone particular.”
“She’s the one you have the most history with, who is most active and in opposition to you.”
I saw my reflection in the window as I turned my head to look out at the city. I touched the stitches at my scalp. “Is she? Redacted, I mean.”
“No. But if you did open that file, I’d wonder what your motivations were.”
“Answers, I guess. Who she is. Why she is the way she is,” I said. “What she wants. What the hell happened to my hometown.”
“In the eyes of Mrs. Wynn, you earned the right to know. You bartered for the files, you get them. In my eyes, our eyes, if I include Defiant, who is beside me right now, being in Mrs. Wynn’s favor isn’t necessarily a good thing, but we’re willing to extend the trust because you’re doing what you’re doing for good reasons.”
“Thank you. And thank Defiant for me. I appreciate the faith.”
“Done. Be careful around Mrs. Wynn, Victoria,” Dragon said.
“I will. I know.”
“We’re almost done. I’m including some files I found in my backups. I don’t know if Lookout kept track or managed those things, but it’s notes for her old work that she submitted to the PRT, and the specs from the testing division.”
“She was enough of an unknown for the testing division?”
“The director wanted to cover all the bases.”
“I hope she likes it,” I said. “Getting shot’s a bit of a downer. Having your friends get shot, allies die, your work destroyed, and the investigation stalled is pretty devastating too. Missed our deadline.”
“I can’t tell if you’re still talking about Lookout,” Dragon said.
“Any word on the villain meeting?”
“It went as one might expect. They’re angry. If the culprits of the attacks last night and today are there, they’re in good company.”
“Or they’re fostering the dissent. Any idea on who is taking point? Where Tattletale stands?”
“On leadership, no. Tattletale has declared herself neutral in this. In the revenge, dominance, asserting of strength that the other villains are intent on.”
“Good for her,” I said.
“Not quite,” Dragon said.
A voice came through the speaker. It took me only a second to realize who it was.
“I’m still available for sale, but prices are tripling, because I have other things to focus on. Normally I’d try to steer this ship, but if you guys want to set things on fire… have at it.”
“What are the prices?”
“If you have to ask, Hock, you’re not in a position to pay.”
“Any takers? Hands up so I know…”
“We don’t have visual, but we do know there were takers,” Dragon said. “Cradle was one. I know he’s a person of interest to your team.”
“Cradle and Love Lost are at odds, and Tattletale was telling us to help Love Lost. Maybe she’s pulling something,” I said. I made a face. “Things get so much messier when she’s involved.”
“You’re not wrong,” Dragon said.
“Thank you for this,” I said. I’d noticed the light had stopped blinking.
“Again, I’m sorry for the timing. I know you’d rather be at the hospital.”
“No,” I said. I looked out the window. The person in my reflection looked more angry than weary. “I’m so tired of hospitals. A break is good.”
“Investigating. We’re not done. The deadline passed, but we still need to figure out who these guys are and how it factors in. Advance Guard’s group is still out for blood, and others are following their path. Turning into vigilantes more than they are heroes.”
“I can try talking to them.”
“If you think that’ll work.”
“Defiant is telling me he might try it. He might be more on their wavelength.”
“Cool,” I said, feeling anything but cool. I was feeling heartsick, if anything. “I’m feeling like we should just cut through this Gordian knot. Screw the secrecy, screw decorum. Just… go after the masterminds.”
“Others have tried. It’s trickier than it might seem.”
“On that subject,” Dragon said. “My apologies for the awkward segue-”
I winced. I knew that Dragon had invited me for a reason. She had something she’d wanted to talk to me about that she couldn’t share over the lines.
“-I’m putting one last thing on that drive,” Dragon finished.
I saw it flash on the screen. One line. Another .fold file. Neatly compressed.
Using the trackball, I navigated to the file. I selected it.
As the pages loaded in, I saw glimpses.
“Ah, you just opened it,” Dragon said. “You can see why I couldn’t risk others seeing.”
Killed brother. Murder charges…
Fallen, with relations to the McVeay…
Blackmail, individual already in compromising position sought counsel, but this message was intercepted…
“She said that if something happened to her, and if it looked like she might not return, then she wanted at least the truncated notes to go to appropriate people. For your team and other things. I tried to find people who would take on these cases and take appropriate steps. Your Dr. Darnall was one.”
“He said no?”
“He said he couldn’t. The team with your friends Weld, Sveta and Vista returned last night, and it doesn’t look like anyone in particular is still looking, or if they are, they aren’t broadcasting it.”
“It’s a bunch of staff that only matter to a narrow selection of people, and a few reformed monsters like Bonesaw and Nilbog. It doesn’t compel people to put themselves out there,” I said.
“I cut down on the particulars. Only a few points that, if you weren’t already aware of them, you should be.”
Potential bipolar diagnosis…
“I don’t know,” I said.
Pervasive feelings of betrayal, lack of trust, including in herself…
“I shouldn’t be looking at this,” I said.
The screen went black.
“You should,” Dragon said.
The screen came back. A different page, closer to the end of the document.
Chris, I realized. I read some of the general notes, clicked a button, and read another page.
“Fuck,” I said.