I could remember conversations that Gilpatrick and I had had, back with the patrol group. Gilpatrick had worked as a PRT squad leader, and he’d had his fair share of bad days. I’d had my bad days too. Even ignoring the obvious, I’d grown up in Brockton Bay. Gilpatrick had wanted to root out all of the ‘powers are cool’ types. To reduce the roster for his school-peripheral program down to a minimum, to the people who had to be there. Not every school had done the same.
A half dozen men and women and three dogs now rippled with enough muscle that their skin had split in places and they couldn’t move in straight lines. Their eyes were bloodshot and their throats produced noises like they were trying to scream while being strangled, and they hurled themselves against doors and windows. Inside, the members of the area’s patrol block were all gathered together, trying to barricade doors and windows. Lights moved wildly, because some were using flashlights and others were doing the work, and the way those lights didn’t hold steady told me everything about how they were coping.
Gilpatrick had tried to train his squaddies for a crisis. To paint pictures and mix up the drudge work with some degree of strategy. He’d run over the basics, had talked about chains of command, and had drilled the older students on worst case scenarios.
A squad of twenty trying to hold out against nine monsters that had once been ordinary people and animals, when any one of those monsters could rend all twenty individuals limb from limb? It worked as an example.
One of the smaller dogs fought to get past the others and get a piece of the action, black froth at the corners of its mouth as it lunged, tried to climb over and was hit with one elbow, flying ten feet.
It stopped making its strangled scream sounds as it recovered from the hit, then resumed its strangled scream sounds, I could see the jerky full body contractions and expansions as it worked at breathing.
It didn’t try going back at the main wall of people and animals, who were battering at the front of the building and threatening to pummel their way through the concrete. Instead, it circled around.
The smaller dog leaped through a window that wasn’t sufficiently barricaded, got halfway through, and scrabbled to get the rest of the way through. Putting my mask on, I flew after it.
People shot at the animal, and the shooting did nothing to slow it.
I collided with it, smashing it down into the floor, my forward momentum driving it across the floor. The Wretch hit it once before the forcefield flickered off. I flew up to the ceiling, back flat against the painted surface, as the dog scrabbled to get its limbs under it. The muscles hampered more than anything in the moment.
I used my aura, but it agitated the room more than it bothered the dog.
“Don’t shoot!” I called out. “Don’t waste your bullets!”
And you’ll hit me.
“What the hell are we supposed to do!?” a young woman shrieked at me. One guy in the background was audibly sobbing in his panic.
“Do you have an empty cell!?” This was supposed to be a jail.
I didn’t get a decisive answer, only a muddle of ten voices talking at once. The dog was back on its feet now, and the Wretch was active.
I’d fought mutant dogs before. Those had been a bit bigger, armor plated, with sharper edges, hooks, and decorations. This was… denser. It was the only way I could put it. I flew at its legs, expanding the Wretch out to knock its legs out from under it, then punted it across the floor.
“Which way are the cells!?” I barked the question like an order.
A hand pointed.
“But they’re full!”
“Get over there, move people to another cell, and get yourselves into that same cell if there isn’t an escape route! Leave me a door open!”
Some people headed that direction.
“You have thirty seconds!” I told them.
The dog didn’t even have all four legs under it when it hurled itself to one side. The wall partially caved in with the impact, and the dog fell to the ground, slick body sliding on laminated flooring. It was on its feet again before it finished sliding. I could see in the background that the patrol block members that hadn’t headed off to the cells were now backing up, or trying to hide behind cover. They’d been paralyzed by fear and now they were being punished for their fear by being stuck in the main room of the ground floor with me and a beast that I was barely keeping under control.
To my left, at the front door of the building, the drumming of fists against the door was causing the metal door to curve inward. It wouldn’t break, I was pretty sure- by the spiderwebbing of cracks around the frame, the pressure and the pounding would see the frame come out of the wall first.
To my right, the patrol students were down the hall, presumably at the cells, and from the sounds of it, they weren’t as organized as they could be.
I was being really fucking generous, giving them thirty seconds.
The beast made its strangled squeal at me. It lunged, and I didn’t retreat. Instead, I put my arm out for it to bite.
The Wretch expanded out from me, starting at the skin and unfolding into its true shape shortly after. The mutated dog didn’t catch me by the arm. My arm caught it by the inside of the mouth.
I used my flight, raising it up so it only had its back legs, and those legs were only barely touching the ground. Here and there it scratched the surface with claws and found some traction, jerking at me. I used my flight to correct.
Someone was aiming a gun at it while it was momentarily stuck in position.
“Don’t fucking shoot it,” I growled the words. “They’re bulletproof like this. You’ll just draw its attention to you.”
I had very little experience having the Wretch active and a living combatant who wouldn’t be torn to shreds by it. I flipped myself around, arm and Wretch still in its jaws, holding its mouth open enough that it couldn’t muster the strength to close its jaws and break my forcefield, and I wrapped my legs around the dog’s neck.
It was about as tall at the shoulder as a pony, but it was muscular, and the loose skin that had torn around the expanding muscle made getting any leverage hard, but the placement of the Wretch didn’t obstruct my freedom of movement or my ability to get my legs into place.
As it fought me, scrabbling and periodically losing its footing, I began to drag it into the hallway where the students had gone.
“Coming in!” I hollered the words. The dog responded to the holler with more struggling, which seemed to shake it more.
The jail cells were a dozen individual cages, each cage with a cot in the center and a cot against the wall, more bars and not walls separating one cell from the next. Most were so full that people were sitting on the ground, even in a time of crisis. Some hadn’t risen to their feet, reacting only as I came into view.
“We’re still moving people!”
“There’s a nearly empty cell at the back!” I retorted.
“Get them out! Get the way clear now!”
They obeyed. The proximity of the snarling, struggling dog was a good motivator. People who had been moving between cells with armed people directing them were now backing into one cell or the other. I had a glimpse of the two capes. B-listers. Etna and Crested, moving into a cell with others. Both of them had shackles that encased their hands entirely. Crested’s connected to his belt.
Doors were shut with bangs.
The length of the dog was an issue, because the door was too small for it, and as strong as I was, I didn’t have the leverage when it was this lively. I felt the Wretch’s grip slip, saw how the head moved. I knew if the forcefield broke that I wouldn’t get a good chance to use it again- the situation would be too chaotic.
The Wretch wasn’t helping, either. Hands and feet gripped and banged against bars and the floor.
No, if I was going to lose control, I’d do it on my terms. I shucked off the Wretch, and pulled my arm free in the moment before the jaws shut.
Feet on the ground. I struck out, activating the Wretch in time to land hits, trying to pummel and push to work it into the doorway.
Tristan. He came up behind me, gripping one of the dog’s legs, and threw his weight against it.
Sveta went over our heads, into the cell. She had an attachment on her suit, an arm with long slender fingers and a face shield. It made her lopsided, and the landing was harder than it might otherwise be, but it did give her leverage, as the hand gripped bars, tendrils gripped the cot, and the rest of her grabbed onto the dog, pulling it in while Tristan and I pushed.
We got the dog into the cell. Sveta got out before the dog could recover, with me catching her and helping her to maintain balance as she landed. The door banged shut.
The dog threw itself against the bars. I didn’t see any bending or distortion in the bars.
“Everyone okay?” I asked.
“Are you asking your team or-”
“You,” I said. “Prisoners, Patrol.”
“Pretty fucking freaked out,” someone else said. “What is this? That used to be one of the jail’s dogs.”
“They came after a team of heroes with the same setup and plan yesterday,” I answered. I turned around, looking at Etna and Crested, who were being given a wider berth by their new cellmates. “Past three days, things have been going a bit downhill.”
“A bit,” Tristan said. He rolled his shoulder, like it was sore.
“You alright, Capricorn? You’re not healed yet.” Rain was asking from the doorway that separated the lobby of the station from the hallway with the rows of cells.
“Yeah,” Tristan said, and it wasn’t clear if he was saying he was alright or if he was agreeing he wasn’t healed. “We needed some muscle.”
“We need you in one piece,” Sveta said.
Tristan pulled off his gauntlet, and shrugged a bit to create a gap he could reach his hand inside, between neck and armor. It came away rich with blood.
“Shit,” he said. He immediately switched out to Byron.
“Could really have used his power,” I said. “We’ll get you attention ASAP.”
“What’s going on?” a man asked. He approached the door of one cell. He had a goatee made more pronounced by a jutting chin, narrow eyes, and styled hair. By his outfit, which was a Patrol combat uniform that had been stripped down enough for regular wear, I had to assume he was an instructor.
“You’re Harris?” I asked.
“Were you here before or were you called in?”
“Called in. We arrived and it was chaos.”
“The staff at this jail must have been exposed to the power effect somehow,” I said.
“The food,” Rain said. “On the desks, everyone ate food from the same place.”
“Good eye,” Byron told him, head bowing a bit. He had to be anxious about his brother. And the constant pounding of fists on the front door. And the dog that was still struggling. Ineffectually, thankfully. “They would have had to give food to the dogs.”
“They probably did,” another boy said. He seemed young to me, which was odd when he was probably older than Rain and definitely older than Lookout. “There are four K-9s here. One for contraband, two for regular police work, and one for search and rescue. One of the regulars is pregnant with a litter, she wouldn’t get food.”
“You pay attention to that stuff, huh?” Sveta asked.
“I come here regularly on my shifts.”
I nodded. A clearer picture, now. We’d come in knowing the basics, though, and the basics hadn’t changed. The basics were bad.
I tried to compose my thoughts. “Then they might have intercepted or impersonated the delivery person. They transformed the staff into those things. Bulletproof tough and strong for as long as the effect lasts. They must have felt unwell, called for an ambulance, I’m guessing, and got as far as the ambulance before they started changing. No other reason for them to already be outdoors.”
“Is the ambulance staff okay?” a boy asked. “We saw them but we couldn’t get to them.”
“They were alive inside the rolled vehicle. Light injuries. I evacuated them,” Sveta said.
“Why?” Instructor Harris asked, his eyebrows knit together. “Why are they doing it like this?”
“To show dominance,” I answered. “To achieve their goals, which is to hurt the local law enforcement, and to break in, but the reason they’re doing it this way in particular is that they want to show their power.”
On the topic of dominance, even with the main power out and the only power being provided by an emergency generator, I could see how the cells had been divided into prisoner and patrol.
Instructor Harris seemed to notice too. He pulled out his keys. No prisoners moved to take him hostage or fight for those same keys. They were very still, if wide-eyed with alarm.
“You might want to stay,” I told him. “This is a waiting game. While you’re in those cells, you’ve got metal bars between you and the attackers. If we can wait out the transformations, things should settle down.”
“Will the front doors hold?” Instructor Harris asked.
I glanced at Rain. Rain shook his head.
“No,” I said.
Harris put key to lock. “Senior students, I’d really appreciate it if you were with me, but I’m not going to make you. Step forward.”
“I’ll help, whatever you need,” a prisoner said. He was a guy with hair down to his shoulderblades and a tapered beard that touched collarbone.
“Sorry,” Harris said. “I don’t know you.”
“You get credit for courage,” I said. “Good man.”
Byron entered the open front area of the station, stepped up onto a desk, and with his arms folded, began to create his motes of light.
“How much property damage can we get away with?” Rain asked.
“Construction is cheap. At the Lyme center, I drew the line at damaging people’s cars- it’s too personal, upsets people, sets them against capes. The power at the center, I uprooted the wiring, but even a threat of a brief blackout is… not as personal?”
“Speaking as someone who’s dealt with having no power for long stretches at a time, it might be more personal than you’re thinking.”
“I became less convinced of what I was saying before I finished saying it,” I said. “I don’t know, Precipice. If you’ve got to break stuff to save people, then that’s fine. I think those things out there are dangerous, and I don’t think people would hold it against us.”
“Don’t underestimate people’s ability to blame others,” Byron said.
“Yeah,” I said. We’re here right now, aren’t we? “You can put holes in the ceiling, Precipice. I think they’ll accept it.”
He looked around. The smaller length of arm that was attached to his elbow touched a nearby table. “I was thinking floor.”
“Go for it,” I told him.
I picked up a desk, sliding it over to where the damage was worst. After a moment’s consideration, I flipped it over, so the legs and struts were pointing up. It crashed as it landed there.
Sveta and others joined me.
“Why upside-down?” someone asked.
“They’re strong but they aren’t balanced or coordinated,” I said. “Tripping is better than putting something heavy in their way.”
“What are these blue lights?” a girl in a patrol uniform asked.
“A water gun,” Byron said.
“Are they safe to walk through?”
The pounding continued. I could see the spread of cracks.
This was going to be bad.
“Do these guys have a firehose, containment foam, nets? Anything like that?” I asked.
“No,” Instructor Harris said. He sounded pretty grim, and he looked anxious. More annoyingly, he wasn’t really helping.
“You sound pretty sure for someone who doesn’t work here,” Rain said.
“It’s the same building layout as the one we operate out of,” Harris answered. “Except instead of the cells we have a shower room.”
Made sense. Many of the buildings were prefabricated, arriving on trucks and put together like assemble-it-yourself furniture.
“Besides,” he said. “Water pressure here isn’t all that.”
“I wasn’t asking for the water. I was asking because it’d be tough for them to tear, and I could tie them up.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. He was watching the cracks expand. Concrete was coming out of the widening cracks in dribbles and tufts.
“Where were you a squaddie?” I asked, as I used a burst of my strength to send a desk skidding across the floor.
“I wasn’t,” he said. “I was admin in a PRT office. Beartown.”
A paper pusher? The distinction between an office and a department was a pretty big one. The office would be the kind of place that serviced a town like the one Ashley had come from. The department was the kind of place that served Brockton Bay, New York, and any other cities that were large enough or in dire need. There had been sixty-five or so at the time the world had ended.
So not just a paper pusher, but a paper pusher in a workplace that had twenty employees at most.
“How many capes?”
“Two of us, two of them.”
Correction: eight employees at most. Probably an office with three to five people in it. Fuck.
“I’m willing to follow orders if you want to lead,” I said.
“Are you?” he asked. He sounded slightly surprised.
“Yeah. But I really hope you want to and you’re able,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I don’t and I’m not.”
“Focus on your kids, then. Keep them in one piece. Some are freaking out,” I said.
The pounding continued. The dribbles were now more like brief waterfalls, contiguous along the long horizontal crack above the door. It was ready to fall.
Sveta used her modified arm, slender fingers on a feminine hand moving furniture to stack chairs in the cups formed by the struts and legs of desks. The arm was one piece of a greater project. She was strong, really, and her ability to pull and constrict was being leveraged into mechanical movement. The only difficulty was the lack of balance and how she had to brace most of the rest of her body.
Still, she seemed more happy with having a human limb writ large than she’d been with the tentacles.
Or content, if not quite happy.
I looked around. Side windows had been blocked with rock- Tristan’s work, before he’d joined me and helped at the cell. I could see the food wrappers and half-eaten dinners. The ones that were possibly laced.
I added more chairs to the mix, kicked over some garbage bins, and then stepped back.
The pounding was less sharp than before. The impacts were heavier.
They’d sensed or seen the movement and now they threw their bodies against the wall instead of punching or clawing at it.
“How long since you got the call?” I asked Harris.
The wall shifted, the scraping and crunching loud enough to drown out Harris’ reply.
The villains had attacked the Shepherds earlier in the day, and the transformation had lasted for longer than thirty minutes. They’d estimated close to an hour, after talking to the people who first sighted the changed people.
“If someone gets dosed somehow, we need to get them into a cell before they chage,” I said. “Harris?”
“We’ll try. They’re already sardines.”
“Better a sardine than dog food,” I answered him.
“It took a while to change,” Byron said.
“I’ve been reading up on tinker transformations and the kinds of drugs they make,” I replied. Again, there was an impact that shifted the whole wall. “They can change it up. Force a faster change, but weaker or less predictable. Or more side-effects for the victim.”
“Why are you reading up on tinker transformations?” Sveta asked.
“A topic for another time,” I told her. “Right now we need to focus on this. It occurs to me, now that I’m thinking about side effects, if this does wear off, we need to make sure they have medical care.”
Another impact. I could see where the cracked segment of wall stood apart from the rest of the wall now.
“Nobody shoots,” I ordered. “Save your bullets.”
The wall came out- I thought it would fall, but it remained suspended. Everyone in the room tensed. There was so much floor space where the desks had been. Our arena. If they got past that open space, then civilians were in danger.
“I’m gonna-” Rain said.
“Not the floor yet,” Byron said.
Rain created his blades. He flung them, and they hit the door, criss-crossing it.
It was a hulk of a man that came tearing through, stumbling when he broke through with more ease than expected. He was taller than normal, with arms like tree trunks, fingers lost in the mess of muscle, blood streaked his body and the rags he wore.
His stumble carried him into the mess of desk and chair legs. They caught his legs and feet and as easy as it was for him to get into it, it was hard to extract- hard to do it when barreling forward. He fell. Others were following after, and they ran into the same barrier.
Byron didn’t use his power.
The dogs came through, over the bodies of their kin. A straggler, heavy around the middle with a grossly distorted abdomen, followed through.
The dogs weren’t as hampered. They stepped on the people and they leaped, one landing a few feet from the desk Byron stood on.
“What are you waiting for?” Rain asked.
The dog reared up, muscular club-limbs raised high, ready to crush Byron.
He used his power. A geyser of water that could have carried cars away, aimed at the hole.
Two remained, catching on the tangle of furniture by accident or dumb effort. Sveta and I each went after one.
Getting them back outside only bought us time. Byron was drawing out more lights, and now Rain was slashing at the floor, the slashes forming ‘x’ shapes.
It didn’t take long for the attackers to bounce back.
“They’re bleeding a lot!” Rain shouted, as he backed up. “I think the effect is softening!”
A damn good thing he spotted that. If I’d hit them when they weren’t bulletproof tough it could have been a disaster.
Fucking irresponsible to do this like this.
But it didn’t feel like anyone was being responsible right now.
They came for us, and the first three that came barreling through with feet pounding on the floor of the lobby hit Rain’s trap. The ground shattered beneath their feet and they fell, chests and collarbones slamming into the edge of the hole.
I winced. I hoped they’d be okay. Too much strength without durability could be disastrous.
Byron followed up. A torrent of water, to slow them down, push them back, and to turn finer debris into mud.
The air was frigid, with moisture heavy in it.
This was a losing battle. They came at us so hard that there really was no way to even block a hit without causing them harm, we couldn’t even really redirect them.
“Keep destroying their footing!”
Rain did. My focus was on flying, on short bursts of strength to hit them and make them stagger into one another. If I could keep them in place long enough, they could tumble into traps.
Sveta wasn’t fighting, but she was managing the ones who’d fallen. If they started to climb out of the waist-deep holes, then she hauled on them or moved past them to push them back in. The water helped.
Ambient moisture in the air clung to my mask, the parts of my face the mask didn’t cover, and my hair, beading my costume. My breath fogged with the cold air that had flooded in. The others weren’t much better.
They didn’t stop, and the slow loss of their strength and durability was a really fucking slow one.
Rain was using his power again, and I was at the point where I could have snapped at him, cussing him out for catching me in the effect, except I would’ve felt shitty. I knew he was trying, and he was finding his effectiveness now. I even felt bad that I was thinking about shouting at him, but I suspected that was the power.
“I think we should have called for backup anyway,” Byron said.
I panted for breath. It was painful, with the air being as cold as it was. I shook my head.
“We could have tried.”
“They’ve got their hands full. It’s all stuff as bad as this,” I said.
A dog that was feigning injury sprung to its feet, leaping. I flew to intercept and hurled it down into the thickest grouping of enemies.
I could see the fight go out of them. Where they’d been incessant before, they paused, retreating. We were one hundred percent willing to let them, just for a chance to recover a bit ourselves.
They retreated further, then backed off, a third of them moving to one side, two thirds to another.
Past them, past the steaming air where the remaining warm air from indoors mingled with the winter air outside, I saw the culprits.
Bitter Pill. Medical mask only barely visible behind a scarf, white coat, and a short stick with a caduceus. She wore one of those packs that looked like a fanny pack, that was worn over one shoulder instead. Tinker stuff was attached to the strap.
Birdbrain. Bird mask, black coat, and a handgun in each hand, another gun at her back. She stood with back straight, beak pointing up- no indication she was using her eyes to view her environment.
I saw her gun-hand move. As she moved it left and right, it moved as a hand normally would. Up and down, it was nigh-instantaneous, with automatic tracking. Headshots every time. The way her head moved around like she was daydreaming or drugged and her hand moved with such precision was jarring.
Foggy Idea. He’d been in Hollow Point but he’d ducked out of the worst of the fighting. He was a kid, with Einstein hair dyed gray, and a mask that covered too much of the scalp behind the hairline, eyes too far down. It gave him a creepy, impish look, like he was emulating a baby’s proportions. His namesake fog seeped out from the collar and sleeves of his costume.
Bluestocking. Elegant, her trademark indigo blue stockings and opaque blue lenses in glasses stood out amid an otherwise gray ensemble.
A scent like really strong black licorice mixed with gasoline preceded their group. The mutated people and animals retreated further, heads down, bodies hunched over, subservient.
“Pill!” I raised my voice to be heard. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing!?”
“I want my teammates.”
Etna and Crested, back in the cells.
“I didn’t think Etna was yours,” I replied.
“Close enough,” Bitter Pill answered, her voice cool. “Now fuck off and get out of our way.”
“What are our odds?” Rain murmured. He was situated where he could be heard by Sveta, Byron and I.
“Birdbrain is the big threat. The muscle is second to that.”
“I’m flattered,” I heard Birdbrain’s ethereal voice.
“She’s halfway to being an all-or-nothing threat. Like Swansong with her blasts, but with aim.”
I saw Bluestocking turn her head, asking a question. Birdbrain answered, no doubt passing on what we were saying.
“You’re using that term wrong!” Bluestocking called out. “All-or-nothing isn’t right!”
Bitter Pill said something, annoyed. Too far away to be heard.
“If she aims she’s guaranteed a hit if her gun’s at the right point horizontally. Vertically, doesn’t matter. All-or-nothings are PRT terminology for anyone who’s strong enough that you can’t defend against their attack unless you defend against anything, can’t dodge unless you can dodge everything. She’s halfway there and that makes her a good enough shot we can’t afford to get in an engagement. Headshot every time.”
“I’m a game shooter,” Birdbrain said. “Even these days. Killing doesn’t interest me.”
“Game shooter?” I heard Harris behind me.
“Guns are verboten if you’re playing by the rules of cape fights. Unless you use your power on a gun to augment it, pack tinker guns, or you have a power that helps you not kill what you’re shooting.”
Foil had been all three at one point.
“The term applies, Blue. At least in part. She shoots, she kills,” I said, my voice pitched to carry. “Or…”
“I place the bullet to where it should take a month to heal,” Birdbrain said. “Don’t mess with us. Give us what we want.”
“I would have thought the brains of Hollow Point would have kept their noses out of this war that’s unfolding,” I said.
“All of the intel says the time is now,” Bluestocking said.
“Intel is one thing. Respectability? Common sense?”
“Are you trying to stall because you hope our steroid soldiers are going to return to normal?” Bitter Pill asked.
“Give us a second?” I asked. “We have to confer.”
Bluestocking jumped in, asking, “Leave us standing in the cold, too, why don’t you?”
A bit irritable.
“Can we win this?” Byron asked.
“Birdbrain is a massive threat, Pill has tricks up her sleeve, Foggy can distract and stupefy with his gas, and Bluestocking is a thinker of some kind.”
In the background, I saw Birdbrain nod to herself.
Was she aware she did that?
“The last couple of days have been back to back crisis management,” Byron said. “Yes, this is important. Keeping the bad guys locked up in jail, especially ones we locked up? All for that. But what does it mean tonight, when there’s another issue and we’re all hurt or out of gas?”
I could see Rain nodding. Better to say that I could see Precipice nodding. His mask hid his expression, but his added hands allowed for more gestures, which hinted at the emotions in play. Fidgety, one hand raising, then dropping.
Sveta wasn’t moving nearly as much. Even her tendrils weren’t that lively. She stared at the brains of Hollow Point, her expression hard.
They were exhausted.
“We give them what they want?” I asked.
“You sure?” Rain asked.
“They want two capes, fine. But we can negotiate.”
In the background, Birdbrain nodded again, said something. Reporting on what we were saying.
“What do you think, Mr. Harris?” Byron asked.
Mr. Harris stared at the villains much as Sveta did. In a way, it was like standing at the foot of a mountain and seeing just how daunting the ascent was going to be. There was such a gap to be closed, and getting there was going to be so hard.
Worse, this ‘mountain’ had no interest in making the process any easier. It was going to do whatever the fuck it wanted.
“I won’t stop you,” he said. “If I get asked why I let it happen, I’ll tell them it was the right thing to do. The way that gun moves unnerves me.”
“If we say no to this, we need to take a few hours off,” Sveta said. “Otherwise I feel like it’s going to end up the same way next time.”
I nodded. I wasn’t super happy about her mentioning that we were tired or taking a break to people who might pass that on to our enemies, but I wasn’t going to get on her case about it.
“Can we talk!?” I called out.
After they consulted, it was Bluestocking who approached, stepping over rubble. She had nice boots. Her approach made the creatures back off.
I floated closer.
What would happen if I decked her and knocked her out right now? If I took a hostage, and played as ugly and as dirty as they were playing right now?
Bitter Pill approached too, maybe because she wanted to say something. I looked back and met Harris’s eyes. Best to connect to the real authorities where possible.
Bluestocking and me, with Bitter Pill and Harris as our seconds, I guessed.
I looked at Bluestocking, and I saw- something in the way she held herself, and what I could see of eyes behind mostly opaque lenses, and in her eyebrows.
A familiar attitude. I wondered if I was comparing her to anyone I knew, but when I reached for it, I couldn’t place it.
It didn’t help that they stank. The smell I’d noted before was emanating from them in wafts, worse when they moved. It was, presumably, what was keeping the mutants docile.
“We’ll give you the two capes you want from the jail. With stipulations.”
“Which are?” Bluestocking asked. She looked pissed, by the way she set her mouth and folded her arms. Or was it resting bitch face?
Oh. There’d been a woman at my rehab who’d given me dirty looks. So that was the answer to my little mystery.
That tiny bit of closure was a note of success in a day that had been hard, bloody, and miserable in large part.
“Nobody gets hurt. If you have the ability, you need to return these people to normal now, with no injuries. You can’t take them with you.”
“They’ll be eighty-five percent healed up, unless you’ve punctured a vital organ or something,” Bitter Pill said.
“Not good enough. You can’t go after civilians.”
“Can and did,” Bitter Pill said.
Bluestocking didn’t agree, but argued the point instead, “Cops. Cops are fair game. So are the anti-cape soldiers.”
“We’re not anti-cape,” Harris said.
“And you can’t take them with you. They’re not your pawns.”
“Couldn’t if we wanted. They go dormant, that’s all,” Bitter Pill said. “No need to worry your little head over that one.”
“Fine. That’s stipulation one, you fix them,” I said. “Stipulation two, is you need to drop some money on this place. Make amends, give them what they need to rebuild.”
“Fuck that,” Bluestocking said.
“Stipulation three? Take a fucking break. Back off, don’t pick fights, don’t go after heroes, take three days and stop being complete dicks for that long.”
“We’d lose ground,” Bluestocking said. “Numbers, social map, demos, territory, ratios… No.”
“You’ll lose ground if some of you get broken bones,” I replied. “This is a way to do this without fighting. We benefit, you benefit, civilians can mend and repair.”
“You’re asking for way too much,” Bluestocking said.
“Heal the people you hurt, make amends for what you broke, and back off for three days. If you want to negotiate down on any of those parts, you can give us some intel on the people who opened fire on us two days ago.”
Bluestocking sniffed with amusement. “That passed under my nose before I thought to pay attention. I know some things, but… you hand those two over, we’ll give you the information. Nothing else.”
“-And that’s it,” she interrupted.
“Not good enough,” I said.
“Fucking deal with it.”
I turned slowly, looking up at Harris. He gave me a slight shrug and shake of the head. Resigned.
I didn’t want to let them win like this.
“Instructor Harris… stuff for Etna and Crested is on the Captain’s desk. Get them set up and bring them out?”
“Yeah,” he said, voice terse.
He jogged back.
“What’s it going to take to heal them?” I asked.
“I have the stuff. Healing. It should get them to ninety, ninety-five percent. They’ll be hungry. Good enough?” Bitter Pill asked, a condescending note in her voice, her gaze too casual and distracted.
“Good enough,” I told her.
Bluestocking added, “Small expenditure of resources. The fixing of this building when you did half the damage? No.”
“How do you know how much damage we did?” I asked.
She gave me a look, half glare, half disdain.
I hated being ignored, patronized, and looked down on. I’d triggered because it had been so oppressive. Now here she was, just pressing that button.
I consoled myself by telling myself that this was handled. Things were calm. We could still negotiate.
Maybe Bluestocking had some postcognitive powers. Past-reading, like the time camera had been able to do.
In the back, Birdbrain perked up. She raised her voice, alarmed. “Blue! Bitter!”
She was running now, catching up with our group. Bluestocking raised a hand, motioning for her to stop and stay back. She might have been thinking that this was already a two versus one discussion, and a third person would make it lopsided enough to stop being civil.
But then Birdbrain drew close enough that the alarm in her eyes was visible through the eyeholes of her bird mask.
“What did you do?” Bluestocking asked.
Bitter Pill seemed to connect before Bluestocking did, because she pushed past me, hurrying toward the building. I motioned for the others to back off and let her through.
The others followed, with Foggy Idea trailing behind. Birdbrain held out her guns, threatening anyone who threatened to attack while the thinker team was surrounded.
I flew to keep up. I had to be ready to protect Harris if-
He was already backing up, hands up, when the thinkers arrived at the door to the hallway. He’d dragged Crested from the cell and shoved the food that had been left on the captain’s desk into Crested’s face.
“Are you stupid?” Bitter Pill asked.
“Did you eat it?” Bluestocking asked.
“He ate enough,” Bitter Pill said, sounding pissed.
“Your call,” I told her. “You can travel with someone that’s going to go monster and either wreck everything or refuse to budge… or you can let them stay in this cell here. We’ll wait for our reinforcements, see if they come…”
“Shut up,” Bluestocking said.
“Or you can accept my terms, and we’ll keep this easy for you.”
There was a long pause.
My team was standing beside me. I could see Bitter Pill holding a bottle so the cap was between her index and middle fingers, ready to drop it.
I wondered if Sveta would be able to catch it.
She hadn’t let herself be surrounded without a trick up her sleeve. The question was whether she’d throw all sense to the wind and go with that, or if she’d take the other route.
It was Bluestocking who responded. “Reduced terms.”
“Let’s talk,” I said. “We give you passage with your prisoners, no fight, no hassle, we’ll hold them and turn them over… you fix the wounded, you pay-”
“-Not the full price. Two thousand.”
“Pretty paltry. Twenty thousand minimum.”
“They’re your teammates. You risked all of this for them. Are you now saying they aren’t worth ten thousand each?”
“We’re not teammates,” Etna said.
“You’ll fucking do a few jobs with us if we break you out, okay?” Bluestocking snarled.
“Okay,” Etna replied.
“Three day break from all activity,” I said.
“One day. Twenty thousand. We fix the injured. And you fucking pretend we don’t exist while we wait for the steroid soldier drug to run its course.”
I didn’t reply, letting the others take that in.
“Yeah, probably,” Byron said. I saw Sveta and Rain nod.
“Then fucking leave us alone, and if you try anything we’ll bring hell down on your heads,” Bluestocking said. “Bitter has stuff.”
“I do. For a rainy day.”
“It’s a fucking rainy day when-”
We backed off, leaving them to bicker.
Harris looked more resigned than victorious when he emerged. When I put out my hand, he gripped it firm.
The hole in the wall meant that the snow and moisture were getting in. The water that Byron had created had frozen so the very top layer formed a paper-thin sheet.
The members of the patrol squads emerged.
“We need help,” I told the instructor. “We need boots on the ground, not just heroes. It’s bad right now.”
“I’ll get my grads on board,” he said. “We’ll see what we can do.”
“We might need seniors too.”
“Seventeen and eighteen year olds? Older than some of us,” I said, indicating my group. “The city needs all the help it can get.”
“I’ll talk to parents. I can’t force anything.”
“And other instructors. Any friends or superiors you have.”
I saw him nod. He put a hand on my shoulder as he walked by, going over to talk to the most unhappy and stressed of his patrol block.
I grabbed a desk that had been tossed across the room and righted it, before sitting on it. Sveta plunked herself down beside me, her giant arm around behind my back and resting on the corner of the desk to my left.
I pulled out my phone, and immediately she pushed it down and away.
“No more,” she said.
I fought her, play-wrestling just a bit, and finally got the phone unlocked. I closed the chat I’d had open, asking for intel on this specific situation so we knew what we were getting into, and brought up the map.
The city, lit up by icons. Each icon had a brief bit of text, describing the situation and the report.
Incidents all over. Nine ongoing situations that didn’t have a team working on them, where the things were was bad enough the police didn’t have them under control, or where capes were involved, or both.
The city was on fire, metaphorically speaking, and we didn’t have what it took to put it out. When Kenzie had put the application together, she hadn’t seemed to expect that things would get this bad, because a lot of the text was unreadable or offscreen. Too much at once.
This time, when Sveta pushed my hand and my phone down, I let her.
“We need a break,” she said. “You need one.”
“I wanted to procrastinate,” I said. “I told myself that we’d wait until Swansong and Lookout are out of the hospital. Then Lookout ended up having to stay the extra day.”
“She’s out tonight.”
“I know. But… I had something to bring up and talk to the group about, and I needed time to digest it.”
“The files from Jeanne Wynn. You went to see Dragon, you got the files, and you found out something.”
“Mostly right,” I said. I gave the phone a shake, bringing it to her attention, the map still glowing with its bright yellow icons on a purple cityscape. “This seemed easier. A relative distraction from that something.”