It had been a long, long time since I’d fought with any musical accompaniment. Glory Girl had worn headphones for a little while, to fill the silence while she patrolled, and because she hadn’t been one to have a back and forth with the small fries she was taking down.
Mom had put a stop to that. Situational awareness was too important, she’d said.
Now, the music box chiming came from nowhere, and the dull heartbeat thud was a percussive element overlapping that. Other sounds creeped in, but it sounded like they were mostly aboveground. It didn’t quite come together as a complete musical piece, but that gave it more effect, not less.
Situational awareness was in full effect now.
“Don’t touch the walls,” I said, as we hurried down the storm drain’s tunnel. About two hundred feet ahead of us, there was a section that was open to the air, where the upper half of the drain hadn’t been laid in yet. The mist that Nursery’s power generated was coming in hard, rose-tinted and distorting the surroundings. Where it was heaviest, especially around that open air, it was rewriting things. Curved walls became hallways with straight walls perpendicular to floor. Water with a paper-thin sheet of ice atop it simply terminated, not flowing into the lower ground where there was no water. Just stopping.
“It’s not an illusion?” Parian asked.
“No. Localized reality overwrite. Reality works differently in her nursery-space. Don’t touch the walls, don’t touch the floor where it’s fully changed. And if we run into her, remember that area-effect powers don’t tend to work in the rewritten area.”
“I don’t know if my powers are area-effect,” Precipice said.
“Mine either,” Candy said.
“Let’s not fight her on her turf and hope we don’t have to test it. Parian, can your snake be a bridge where the effect is most intense?”
“Yeah. I can handle that… but I’m really wondering what happens if we touch the walls or floor?” Parian asked.
“Hopefully nothing. But I’ve read reports of bad things happening when people got stuck in her shaker effect when it’s most intense.”
I looked back at Candy and Aroa. “I don’t want to scare you guys.”
“Our daddy gave us fear for breakfast,” Candy said. “I was so young I’m not sure I would have even been in school then-”
“You would have. Definitely,” Chastity cut in.
“Okay, but I don’t remember much from those days, and I remember getting chocolate frosted fear bombs for breakfast-”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Aroa cut in.
“Stop interrupting! Sacrament! It’s metaphor!”
“It’s dumb,” Aroa said.
“What are you saying, and is it important?” I asked.
“Daddy made me scared when he wanted me to stay out of his room, he made me as happy as a little girl getting a puppy on Christmas morning when he needed me to clean up some baby barf tout de suite…”
My skin crawled.
“…I don’t remember much, but I remember those moments. Don’t look down on me,” the girl finished. She was still jogging along the side of the column, periodically slipping where the sloped wall on either side of the water was icier or slimy. Chastity was fully in the water, and whatever contention the sisters had, Chastity was there to support her younger sister and keep her from outright falling into the damp.
“Fine. As the power saturates a place, containers will fill with her power. If containers don’t exist, they’ll appear on their own. One thing that can happen is that you touch a wall and your hand goes through it like it would go through wet paper, and there’s something living on the other side.”
“Or the floor. You said we have to watch the floor,” Parian said.
“Yeah, but there isn’t much we can do about that,” I said. “The way powers tend to prioritize things, walls will be a problem before floors are.”
“How do you know that?” Parian asked.
“Studies,” I said. “PRT research. Classes. There’s a whole mess of research into why people like Shadow Stalker from our hometown didn’t fall through the floor to the planet’s core.”
Precipice was typing on his phone while using it for light. He aimed it at the floor, nearly tripping as he kicked a bit of ice crust on the top of the water that others hadn’t already broken up. Chastity caught him.
Before straightening, he aimed his phone at the ground. I could see that he’d modified it, with a chunk of what looked like battery with wire wrapped around it mounted on the top.
“Scanning?” I asked, quiet.
“Trying. I used Lookout’s numbers as a model. Our- that other tinker’s scanner we found earlier, I looked at that too. But it’s mostly noise, I don’t know how to use it yet.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said. “Walls are more intense than floor.”
“Good to know,” I said, my expression serious. I put a hand on Parian’s shoulder as I passed her. “It’s probably going to be a little while before we need to worry about stepping into a hole. Let’s get out of here before it’s a real problem.”
“Good plan,” she said.
I nodded. I flew ahead. As tense and borderline sick as I felt, my gorge not in my throat but definitely ready to go there, I felt a bit happy that my little bit of cape knowledge from a paper I’d skimmed years ago had been relevant and validated here.
Feeling sick with mixed feelings did provoke another thought.
“Candy talking about emotions is reminding me,” I said, fibbing about the source. “Precipice? We need to figure out how you’re handling your power in a fight. Friendly fire.”
“Last few times, it’s been a problem. Nothing big enough it’s changed the outcome, but it came close. Sorry to bring it up here, but-”
“But if you didn’t you might forget, or it might change things now. It’s fine.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“I can take my lumps. It’s about all I’m good for, a lot of the time.”
“You’ve got a lot of good points,” I said. “Don’t undersell yourself.”
“What’s the power?” Chastity asked.
“Shame and regret thing. I’ve been meaning to figure it out, so I’ve been trying to use it more often.”
The music box sounds were fading, but the thudding was heavier. I wasn’t sure how to interpret it, but there was enough of a distinction in play that I was pretty sure there was a pattern to be deciphered.
“You used it at the hospital,” Candy said.
“Yeah, on its lowest setting. I thought it might help make you guys go away,” he said. He was holding his phone up to the wall as he jogged by it, the top and bottom thirds of the screen filled with numbers, the middle section showing a graph. “Sorry.”
“Apologize when your power actually does something. You used that emotion power on us.”
“I’m trying to figure it out,” he said.
“Let’s stay focused,” I said. “We’re close to the hole, so keep your voices down.”
“Right,” Precipice said.
“We’ll figure your thing out,” I told Precipice. “When things are calmer.”
“I’m happy to help,” Chastity said.
“Uh, sure. Thank you,” he replied.
We edged closer to the place where the drain was empty. The mist was flowing down from the street above, and the entire area had changed. No ice, no water, just walls with peeling wallpaper, floor that might have been hardwood, and scattered children’s blocks.
Parian’s snake slithered past us, the knotted material sloshing through water and ice on its way to the area, then scraping against the floor, depositing moisture on the surface.
As we drew nearer, ready to move across it, the walls pressed in. They were wallpapered, but there wasn’t any wall behind the wallpaper. Something fat and wet like a tongue pressed in, moisture blotting out to color the surface as it bulged. The thudding from behind the walls was evident in how the fleshy bulge throbbed.
All with one singular heartbeat.
Foil had her rapier out, pointed at it but not penetrating, while the others hurried forward. Precipice was one of the last to cross. He held up his scanner, aimed at the bulge, then passed his hand between scanner and bulge. He startled a bit.
“Go,” I hissed the word.
He wasted no time.
The thudding from behind was mixed up with added impacts as Lord of Loss touched down somewhere not too far away.
We hurried down the drain tunnel, putting the effect behind us.
“Lord of Loss is close,” I whispered, as I floated to catch up with the group I saw Foil and Chastity look back at me. “Familiar with him?”
“Shapeshifting breaker,” Foil said. “Big, brutish.”
“Repeated motions are more effective,” I said.
“That’s always the case,” Chastity said. “Find what works and keep doing that.”
“It’s more the case for him, I assume,” Precipice said.
“He’s got size on his side too,” Chastity said.
Precipice turned his head, giving her a long look. Chastity’s face was barely visible, with none of the flashlights aimed directly at it, but I could see the smile.
“We’re close to the first building that we thought might be theirs,” Precipice said. “If we’re going aboveground, we should do it further down the street here. There might be a side tunnel.”
“Good,” I said. “Nice work, keeping an eye on that.”
“Lookout’s stuff, not mine,” he said.
“You did figure something out with your stuff, didn’t you?” I asked. “Your scanner picked something up.”
He turned to look at me. He nearly tripped a second later, but Chastity put a hand to his shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said. He raised his phone, and tapped the screen with his thumb. The feed of numbers and movement of the graph changed, changing from red on a black background to yellow, instead. He scrolled, and the readings went backward in time, flowing the opposite way, tinted green as they did.
“Means nothing to me,” I said.
“There’s something haptic in there. Sense-sharing, binding biology, not all that different from what I do with the tactile feedback pads.”
“The tongue in the wall infects you?” he asked, with a note of alarm in his voice.
“Oh my god,” Parian said.
“Yuck,” Candy said.
“Basically infection,” I said, trying to sound as casual as ‘infection’ warranted. “Sure.”
“She’s lying,” Candy said.
Fucking fucker emotion readers. The ones who weren’t Dean sucked. I shot Candy a look, and Precipice noticed.
“What the hell, Antares?” Precipice asked. “I need accurate info for my scans.”
“Fine. We’ll talk about it later. Your scans don’t matter until we get back to your workshop anyway, right? It’s not like you’re calibrating anything in the field.”
He was a grim kind of silent as he jogged along.
The tinkling music box chimes had come to an outright stop. The thudding persisted, but it was more general and dull than it had been. Less of a sound like someone banging against the walls, less of a heartbeat, and more of a distant pounding.
Not that we had walls here, per se. The storm drain was a concrete tube with iced-over water in the bottom tenth of it, and a whole lot of dirt and pavement in the area immediately around it.
“Assimilation?” Precipice asked.
“No,” I said. “Can we drop it? Let’s hide out, figure out what we’re doing, figure out which of the teams is being targeted, and then mobilize. Hopefully without ever having to deal with Nursery again.”
“Is it a lotophage thing? Pulling people into a specific, themed dream state?”
“Fuck me, Precipice,” I said. “You can’t let it go?”
“I’m stubborn. It’s the only thing I really have going for me. Knowing would help me interpret my scans. I can potentially use this!”
“Then, again, I’ll explain when we’re back at your workshop.”
Foil cleared her throat. “I’d like to know.”
“It would help to counter it,” Parian said.
I didn’t want to talk about it because it bothered me. I didn’t want to picture what it involved. That gorge was closer to being in my throat now, to the point it hurt to swallow.
“Not assimilate, not exactly infect. Not… whatever you just said.”
“Lotophage. Lotus Eaters? The Odyssey?” Precipice suggested.
“I never read the Odyssey. Only got what came up in adaptations,” I said. I paused. “Impregnate.”
“Uh what the fuck?” Precipice asked.
“That’s the theme,” I said. “Close to infect, really, but-”
“What the fuck?” he asked.
“I”m not good with the ick,” Foil said. “The Dolltown victims were almost too much for me. Parian knows. I’d always prefer riding Parian’s dolls instead of Bitch’s dogs.”
“Wouldn’t anyone?” I asked.
“Not Bitch. Not a few other people, believe it or not.”
“You asked, now you know,” I said. “We won’t let it get that far.”
“How far does it get, worst case?” Precipice asked.
“Surgery,” I said. “To stop the cycle. Get everything out of your system. But she doesn’t like taking things that far so she holds back, I think. Authorities came after her in her apartment at one point and one guy got it bad. She got away because people were trying to help him.”
“Fuck me,” Precipice said.
“Absolument,” Chastity added.
“I’m a little scared now, not going to lie,” Candy said.
“We’ll stay clear,” I said.
“We’re close to the house,” Precipice said. He pointed.
He paused, after pointing, then created a blade of silvery light.
“No,” he said. “Just realizing I’m an idiot. Just realized my blades shed more light than my phone.”
“Not idiotic,” I said. “There’s always a learning curve. And you’ve got more powers to figure out than most.”
Precipice led the way, venturing down a side-tunnel with a much steeper incline. There was no water or ice on the underside of the tunnel, which was a nice upside, but I did have to position myself to keep others from sliding or falling.
Precipice checked his phone, then looked back at me, his blade a hair away from the wall.
Quiet, I asked, “Chastity, can your body sense detect people?”
“Not much further away from arm’s reach,” Chastity whispered.
“Okay,” I said. “Candy, the lie sense, that doesn’t have any application here, figuring out if anyone’s above us?”
“She doesn’t have a lie sense,” Chastity said. “She has a hallucination power. We went over our powers.”
“I just called you a liar,” Candy said, gleefully. “You seemed a bit hesitant so I tried it, and it totally worked.”
Aroa put out a hand and Candy slapped it in a little high five.
I clenched a fist.
“Roll with it,” Foil said. “You won’t win, it’s not worth the fight. You can’t discipline them, you just… guide.”
Chastity was nodding, even though she was one of them.
“You got me,” I said.
“Yep,” Candy said.
“Emotion powers usually have some feedback aspect to them, or emotion reading.”
“Often,” she said. “Not me.”
“Okay. Because you said yours was emotionally charged hallucinations, if I remember right.”
“I have a certain amount of juice that refills over time. I can push it into people… can’t dodge it, can’t stop it. Makes you see, hear, feel, taste what you like most in the world, except it maps to everything. Makes you sick of it, really fast. If I push in a lot of juice then it’s a lot of seeing things and hearing things, tasting things and feeling things, and it takes forever to go away. By the time it does, you’ll never go back to liking that thing.”
“Or person,” Aroa said. “Or food, or experience.”
“Nathan wouldn’t let me play with his game consoles, said they weren’t for girls and girls should stick to fucking, having babies, cooking, and cleaning. I hit him with a full tank of juice because. For five days he was living his video games, and now, after, he can’t even look at a screen or touch a control, even for tv and tv remotes.”
“He can’t do much now,” Aroa said.
“That’s his own fault, and it’s not all me. But I don’t get to see whatever it is. I just know they’re juiced and I can tell where they are because I can feel the ‘juice’ while it’s stirring in someone else.”
“Which isn’t actually juice,” Chastity said. “Energy.”
“Yeah,” Candy said. “Alien too-much-happy stuff.”
“Don’t use a full tank on anyone here, okay? No matter how dire the situation is. No permanent effects,” I said.
“Can’t anyway. If I’m full up then I start brimming over and affecting people around me. I wouldn’t do that to my cousins or anyone like Chicken Little or Lookout,” Candy said. “I find people to dose.”
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t want to think too much about what that would look like. “You couldn’t push some juice up into the space above us and see if it hits anyone?”
“Good idea, but no.”
I pulled up the disc, then turned it on. The distortion wasn’t what it had been. Less bad. People were intact and moving. Both groups were in a hurry. The image distorted here and there, fluctuating.
My phone had no service. We checked with Precipice sending me a text. Again, there was too much distortion.
“Nursery’s effect is still here. I think that’s why we’re having trouble connecting to the rest of the world,” Precipice said.
“She was here earlier, then,” Foil said.
“Or close by.” I drew in a breath. “I can’t imagine them staying put here while the others are on the move. Three active teams converging on one point. Let’s get up there and see if there’s anything. It could be an empty house, the occupants could be out there looking for us. Let’s go Let’s make a hole and be ready for a fight.”
“Got it,” Precipice said.
The blade touched the wall. A square of silver light was marked out.
I punched it, Wretch active, then flew to the side.
It came down in pieces, the concrete pipe wall, then the gravel and compacted dirt above it. I could see the wood and plastic-covered insulation where the exterior wall of the house was.
I signaled, made sure the other heroes were with me, then flew forward, busting through. I moved quickly, as soon as I was through. To wall, then another wall, floor. Hallway, another room.
The place was occupied. I saw sleeping bags. I saw food. A pile of construction supplies had been made into a makeshift desk.
Footsteps behind me. Foil. Precipice was right by her, heading another direction, blades glowing in his hands.
We fanned out through the house. Empty.
Precipice, Foil and I found ourselves in an upstairs room that had most likely intended to be an office. We chose it not because it was central, but because it was undeniably Love Lost’s space.
On one of the desks, a series of bars, rods, and blades were arranged, laid out on paper with lines scratched out in something that looked halfway between an engineering blueprint and calligraphy. The layout made it clear what the assembled package would be. One of Love Lost’s claws. It looked like the claws were meant to extend into whips, which would go from razor thin to being fifty or a hundred ring-shaped razor segments compacted together into a covering over each finger.
There were computers, I noted. There were planners. I paged through one planner.
“Careful,” Foil said, as Precipice opened one laptop. “Tinker means traps.”
“It’s true,” I said.
“I can scan,” he said. “No guarantees, but it might turn up something.”
He slid the laptop closer to me, pulling out his phone. He attached the bulky scanner over the open socket where the camera had been torn out.
He swept it over the computer. I watched as he went over the entire room, periodically going back to Love Lost’s gauntlet. He typed something out, then held out the phone. It beeped as it swept over the gauntlet.
“How do you distinguish a trap from regular tech?” I asked.
“She’s working from a similar starting place to me,” Precipice said. “If I see something like what she makes, it should stand out like… a word in English in a jumble of random characters.”
“Traps can be mundane,” Foil said. She used a dart to penetrate a locked cabinet that was part of the desk, then stood as far away as possible, using her sword to open it.
She approached the area with the laptop. Precipice put out a hand.
He brought his phone to the computer. As he did, it beeped.
He rummaged for a bit before finding an attachment at the side. A fake side panel. When he pulled it away, needles spilled out. I wasn’t sure exactly how it was supposed to work, but it looked ominous. They were barbed.
“Oh,” Foil said.
“Seems like the kind of thing she would protect,” he said.
He gave the room a once-over. Foil fidgeted.
“Let us work here,” Precipice said. “You focus on downstairs. Take my phone? Check for traps. If it beeps, call me.”
I let the laptop Precipice had opened boot up. It showed a login screen.
“Password protected,” I said. “Do you have a hacking thing like Lookout does?”
“No,” Precipice said. “Try… Father’s daughter two-zero-closing parentheses-number-sign. Chevron instead of space, no apostrophe, capital F, capital D, capitalize all vowels.”
I typed it out.
I showed him. He nodded. I hit enter… and nothing.
“A checkered scarf for Ever. Capitalize each word, all vowels. No spaces this time-”
“Are you sure you don’t want to do this?”
“Let me finish the sweep. Try in the meantime, if that’s ok. Or leave it, and I’ll get to the computer.”
“I think this OS sends an alert to your phone if you get a certain number wrong.”
“She sets it to alert her phone if someone gets one wrong. It’s fine. If we pull her away from whatever she’s doing and get lost before she turns up, that’s good, right?”
He walked me through the next password.
The computer hung.
The OS came up. Immediately, I set to work. I brought up the wheel menu, went to the browser, and opened it up.
“There’s a password vault,” I said. “I need a single password to get things to auto-fill.”
Rain took over.
“I saw her on this computer in some of the dreams. Before our trigger. She still has it. She doesn’t look at her hands while typing, but I can feel what she types. After a couple of days of doing research with Erin and getting practice typing myself, it started clicking,” he said.
“Her muscles. Kind of. I could figure out what she was typing, the characters came into my head. She likes the long ones for things she wants to keep secure. The checkered scarf one is long, so this might be even longer. We could bring it with us instead of stumbling through.”
I pointed at the bottom-layer wheel. There was an icon.
“Location tracker. That can be worked around,” Precipice said. “Flip some switches, wrap it in tinfoil…”
“I’d feel better just not worrying about it,” I told him. “Can you?”
“I can try.”
He tried four variants, using no spaces, then chevrons instead of spaces, then moving on to another phrase.
While he worked, I checked the disc. The scenes were distorted, but it wasn’t as bad as before. I could make out figures reasonably well, enough to tell something from body language.
Yellow team was scrambling, but they didn’t look like they were running for their lives. Nobody limped, nobody was shouting, and when they came to a stop, they did so collectively. They would be the ones closest to Cradle, if things weren’t more mixed up than I was assuming. Tattletale was talking, and Chicken Little was nodding, hanging on her every word. They set to running again.
Red team was looking more stressed out, but they were doing less. They weren’t running. If anything, I imagined them hunkered down in a fortified area. Swansong turned her head to shout something.
The issue was that it was a thirty minute trip to get to either of the other groups, assuming my team drove. I could fly there in a shorter time. The question was what I could do to help in the now, that might help them enough that they could last another thirty minutes.
The password manager lit up. There was a list of everything the password manager had unlocked, except Love Lost used code or a shorthand only she understood. Leather, leash, quartz, catclaw, pitch, pigeon.
Quartz drew my attention, because it looked like there were six quartzes, running from Quartz00 to Quartz05.
I right-clicked it and found a ‘go to location’ option. I hit it.
The folder it took me to had a ‘read first’ file, describing the program it was meant to be used with. The six quartz files were six halves of encryption keys for six drives that were supposed to be plugged in.
I rummaged and I found them. A case beneath a set of screwdrivers. Opening it up, I saw a set of small storage drives, each in a brushed aluminum case, with a single cord laid out in the middle of the package, for connecting the drives to a computer.
That wasn’t what was especially important right now. I put it aside. Leather… family albums. Photos. I didn’t want to browse, this wasn’t a priority either, but I saw one photo highlighted because there was a preview in the sidebar. A red haired woman with a red haired daughter, an Asian man with a shaved head and a cigarette perched in his mouth. There were others of her with friends or family members. Of her on a beach. Of her in a uniform, receiving an award.
A real person. A person with a past. I shivered.
It bothered me more than it should have. I didn’t want to betray secret identities quite like this. But lives were at risk. People were crossing lines, chopping human beings to pieces and letting them suffer.
Leash was the location tracker. Having the admin password let me open it. While it was on, I could see where Love Lost’s other tech was. Her phone was on her person, and her person was… very close to Ashley’s group.
I sent a warning.
“We could pack up,” Precipice said. “Disable it.”
“It looks like disabling the location tracker means neither device knows where the other is. There’s no way to control it so we’re off but we can watch her.”
“Let me work a second more. There has to be something we can do to alleviate the pressure on the others,” I said.
“I trust you,” he said.
Catclaw: tinker notes, scans, files, images. Villain stuff. There were communiques there. Nothing we could use for the current situation.
Pitch. An online wallet. Thirteen thousand dollars sat in the account. A transaction list showed a long list of transactions with nothing identifying the recipients or reasons. Only amounts.
Just a matter of hours ago, sixty thousand had been moved from her account elsewhere. Twelve thousand to one account. Twenty-eight thousand to another. Ten thousand to one account, ten thousand to the same account the twenty-eight had gone to.
Each entry had a set of options by them.
I moused over, looked over my shoulder, and saw that Foil and Precipice were behind me looking over my shoulder.
“Yes?” I asked. “Any objection?”
“I don’t know if it’s going to do what you think it will,” Foil said. “But sure.”
I hit ‘contest’. A bubble came up with a list of options around the radial.
“Service not rendered,” I said, as I selected the option.
“You think it’s the mercenaries she paid for?” Precipice asked.
“And I’m guessing escrow,” I said. “To go through when the job is confirmed done.”
“That makes sense,” he said. He looked at the numbers. “Being a villain pays.”
“Considering it?” I asked, trying to sound casual, as tense as the overall situation was, as not-casual as the possibility of him turning to the wrong side might be.
“No,” he said. “It costs too.”
I went down the page and contested everything. I was twelve options down before I was redirected to another page.
“That might tie up her ability to act for a bit,” I said. “And maybe it’ll give mercenaries out there in the field second thoughts.”
“Scary,” Foil said. “I’m going to go check on Parian and the Heartbroken. I came up to tell you we already found cash and weapons.”
“Good,” I said, but she was already leaving. I looked at Precipice. “I have a guess what pigeon is.”
I opened it up.
An encrypted email client.
There were already three warnings in the inbox about the online wallet. I looked at the most recent exchanges.
“Ryan,” I said. I opened it.
A back and forth about mercenaries, apportioning cash. Who paid what ratio. Love Lost had done the fundraising, ‘Ryan’ was doing other things behind the scenes. A ‘Jonathan’ was mentioned in passing.
A lot of talk of ‘nights’. Whose night it was. A room. Precipice.
I looked over at Precipice.
“Yeah,” he said.
Communiques with Lord of Loss.
I am happy to do this level of work because I trust you. A job done is reputation. \ ._. /
Get the job done get the pay build rapport. (E >_<)E ~(L o L ~)
My thinker has a good feeling about this :->D
“Wow,” I whispered. “That’s more horrifying than Nursery’s power.”
“No kidding,” Precipice said.
Nursery was at least somewhat sane.
I sent Lord of Loss and Nursery messages. I had to check Love Lost’s typing style before crafting it.
JOB COMPLETE. PAY WITHHELD FOR NOW. WILL DISCUSS. VACATE LYME AS WARDENS ARE INVESTIGATING VILLAIN PRESENCE.
There was a pause.
If they called, demanding answers, then there wasn’t much we could do. But if they didn’t, it was a potential chance to take two capes out of the equation.
There were already two angry emails from mercenaries. One was Lionwing. The other was an encrypted handle. Apparently their accounts had been frozen by my interference with Love Lost’s.
That seemed like an oversight to me, but the economy was a fragile and nascent, and what they were working with looked like a system built upon layers of trust.
A third angry email. Contender. My enemy with his personalized, no-powers arena.
I paged through quickly. I had to go back a week to find it – the anti-parahuman group. Love Lost had correspondence with them, setting up a meeting. Twice, she asked them to meet in person, and she was rebuffed. They didn’t want to meet a dangerous parahuman, even if they were armed.
Which meant the Lyme center, the anti-parahumans having weapons, and a few other terms.
It meant Love Lost told them her objectives.
I HAVE TWO ENEMIES WHO NEED TO DIE.
BOTH PARAHUMANS. THEN I GO.
BORDER WORLD. WE ARE AT YOUR DISPOSAL IN
TIME OF NEED BUT WE DO NOT INTERFERE. I REST.
YOU KNOW MY STORY. WHEN THE FLAME OF MY REVENGE
BURNS OUT I REST.
“She can’t,” Precipice said. “I don’t see it. I can’t envision her if she isn’t brimming with rage.”
“Who’s the second parahuman who needs to die?” I asked.
Precipice shook his head, but he didn’t respond.
I scrolled down. From Driskey_Whinker@GIMELNET, a simple question:
How can we trust you will go?
THERE IS NOTHING I CAN SAY TO CONVINCE YOU.
YOU KNOW ME & MY FACE
THE CITY IS LOST ALREADY
IF YOU WANT IT YOU CAN HAVE IT
IF YOU WANT HELP I WILL GRANT IT AT ANY TIME
GIVE ME ARMS TO HOLD AND CLAIM MY CORNER. TO SECURE MY REST. I WILL GIVE AND I WILL GRANT IN EXCHANGE
ARMS, AMMUNITION, I SLIT TWO THROATS
THEN YOU ARE RID OF THE WORST OF US
“The city is lost,” I said. “She said this four days ago?”
Another message from ‘Driskey’.
Why do you think the city is lost? You sound mad.
MAD AND MADDENED. YES.
BUT MY PARTNER SNAG TRIES TO COMMUNICATE
HE IS FAR AWAY AND HE IS CLOSE. DEAD AND ALIVE
HE SHOUTS AT ME FROM THE BOTTOM OF A WELL FILLED WITH
THE POWER OF A DESTROYED ALIEN WORLD AND I HEAR ECHOES OF WHISPERS
HE SAYS THE CITY IS DOOMED AND HE TRIES TO EXPLAIN WHY AND
I KNOW IT IS TRUE
IS THIS MAD YOU CAN WORK WITH? WE MEET AND WE TALK. YOU BRING ALL THE SOLDIERS YOU WANT. I WILL GIVE YOU NO TROUBLE. THIS I GUARANTEE. PHONE ME.
That was all there was.
“Fuck me,” Precipice said.
“You’re saying that a lot.”
“Fuck a lot of this.”
Nothing I could use. No sign the anti-parahuman groups were in play – if they were, we’d have to deal with them.
But it was something.
I looked around and I found paper. I scribbled down a note.
“What are you doing?” Precipice asked.
“A note. We have her family photos on this computer. I know you and her are at odds. I know she’s threatened your life. But I don’t want to play it that way. Take illicit money? Screw up her deals with murderous mercenaries? Fine. But if she wants the photos, I’ll send them to her. They aren’t hostage. They aren’t part of a deal.”
There was a pause while I scribbled it out. Precipice was silent. I underlined ‘not hostage’ on my note.
“Is that okay?” I asked.
I penned out a final line. I said it out loud as I wrote it, “We want… to talk. Breakthrough.”
I underlined it. The willingness to talk, to communicate. If we couldn’t get there, then there was a very real possibility that Love Lost was on our shortlist of people to trap in an alternate world, not disclosing to anyone what we’d done with her.
Just… too angry. Too violent. Even in talking about rest, she talked about guns and claiming her corner. She talked about being mad. She thought she could take thugs like Sidepiece and Kitchen Sink and drag them off to a corner world, where they wouldn’t bother anyone, and she could wrangle them there?
I just… didn’t see it. We’d have to talk it over with others. Try talking to her first, to see if any middle ground was possible.
I closed the laptop and took the cords. There was a messenger bag that we could slide it into, along with the other things, including the storage drives. Precipice took the claw-whip framework that was meant to fit over a hand.
“It’s not set up with location detection?”
“Nothing my scanner sensed. Maybe there’s a ping it responds to, but for right now I think we’re okay to bring it. It’ll be useful.”
I nodded. I’d trust him in this. This thing with Love Lost, the cluster, and the dynamic, I knew he was well versed in it.
“Are we good to go?” I asked, as we headed down the stairs. I paused as I saw the cash that was gathered in bags. The pile covered a countertop that could have had three medium-sized microwaves set side by side. A mix of currencies.
There were, I noted, three traps. Two had the barbed needles. The other had something like a spring-coiled version of the claw-lash that Precipice had stolen. All three had been demolished. Foil’s power, it looked like, stabbed through and fusing to the internal components, before the shelf or drawer was removed.
“Fuck me, being a villain pays,” Precipice said.
“It really does,” Chastity said, winking at him.
“There are villains who build rep by doing something big,” I said. “Go after a big hero and win, pull off a major job. They have ups and downs, but the ups are big. The Undersiders are an example.”
“Fair,” Parian said. She was in the kitchen, rooting through cabinets. There were bricks of drugs wrapped in plastic, most no bigger than a clenched fist.
“Heartbreaker would be one of those,” Chastity said. She packed up the cash, filling bags. Precipice went to help her. “He had some low lows.”
“Yeah,” I answered. “The other kind of rep is the kind that comes with the record. Having done fifty jobs and not having any losses under your belt. Lord of Loss is one of those. He doesn’t take big jobs, but he doesn’t have anything he’s done that counts as a fuck up.”
“Why not make him fuck up?” Aroa asked.
“Because not everyone can make people do things, hon,” Chastity said. “We’re kind of unique because most of us can do that.”
“Some heroes specialize in that,” I told Aroa. “Mouse Protector was an early one that I think stuck in people’s memories. Ruining perfect records, humiliating villains, knocking them down a peg. Making their reputation the thing that gets hurt. She was a good one.”
“Dead?” Candy asked. I couldn’t even see where she was.
“Disappeared… for a good while. Turned out the Slaughterhouse Nine got her.”
“Love Lost has that reputation. She’s good,” Precipice said. “Commands more pay, I’m guessing.”
“Yeah. Are we taking all of this?”
“Free money,” Candy said, peering over the pile of cash to look at me. “And I finally get to try… cocaine?”
“Something opiate,” Chastity said. “The plastic isn’t like our plastic, either.”
“I get to try opium!”
I looked at Parian, who shook her head.
“Don’t take the bait,” she said. She was using a roll of cloth at her back as an overlarge arm, raising herself up, moving around, and checking cabinets. She was finding a good quantity of stuff that had been stored on top shelves, all the way at the back.
Taking the cash and taking the drugs was a way of gutting Love Lost’s revenue stream.
I backed off, pulling up the disc to check the status of the other groups.
Bodies in pieces. It still made my heart skip a beat.
It was… oddly intense, as far as distortion went. Why?
As the others worked, I held out my arm, the disc mounted on it like a buckler. The projected image of team yellow was visible over top, everyone drawn in miniature.
I floated back, and the distortion eased up a fraction. I could see where disparate pieces were drawing together into something more coherent, between flickers. I tried to find the place where the signal strength was best.
The others seemed okay, at least.
I heard a beep. Foil moved Precipice’s phone in front of cabinets, trying to figure out where the trap was.
“Careful,” Precipice said.
Foil raised her rapier, then pointed it at the cabinet. She let Precipice take his phone and move it around. When he’d confirmed her target was in the right location, she thrust her sword through.
Five spikes punched through the wood of the cabinet, each a foot long.
Foil’s sword shimmered slightly as she tugged it free. With a few short swipes up and down, left and right, she demolished the trap. Spikes that were four feet long tumbled to the counter, then the ground.
The cabinet was open. There was a miniature filing cabinet inside, partially damaged by the rapier’s swipes. While Chastity helped Foil take it down, Parian took the phone and started sweeping over the fridge.
I don’t think I’d be comfortable stealing food, I thought.
I was even less comfortable with the distortion.
“Is the distortion in this image not Nursery?” I asked. I indicated the projected images.
“I thought it was,” Precipice said.
I shook my head.
I moved the disc around more. This time, my aim was on finding the area with the most distortion.
A triangular closet beneath the stairs.
“Quiet!” I hissed.
All of the rustling and packing up stopped.
There it was. A dull thud. Like the heartbeat of someone catatonic, as large as the house.
Precipice raised a hand, touching his ear. I nodded.
He heard it too.
“Didn’t realize there was a closet there,” Foil said. “Suddenly glad I didn’t, because I might have opened it.”
“Is she here?” Candy whispered.
No mist, no rose color, no changes to the environment I could see.
“Can’t be,” I said, whispering so I wouldn’t disturb what was inside. “No, as near as I can figure, the chiming means she’s doing her work, setting her power into an area. The dull thuds mean the power’s there, active.”
I backed away from the closet.
“So long after she left?” Foil asked.
The door was shut. Nothing leaked out- no gas, no fluids.
“It’s sealed tight. The seal is keeping the power inside the containing space,” I said. “Don’t-”
The fridge door, ajar, opened with enough force that it banged into the wall. What lunged out was far larger than the space that contained it. A tongue but with elbows segmenting it. A length was covered in transparent skin, and the contents looked like a collection of babies, visible as shadows through a translucent skin.
Parian fended it off with cloth. It grabbed the cloth, then surged- not moving forward, but by growing new segments in a strategic way. It caught her around the face.
“No!” Foil shrieked. She leaped over the counter, rapier in hand. She was slower than Chastity.
Chastity’s hand glowed as she slapped the base of the tongue, close to the fridge. Nothing.
“It doesn’t feel anything!”
“Then get back!”
I flew in, keeping to the ceiling so I didn’t get in anyone’s way. Parian was pressed against the wall, her legs kicking, heels skidding against painted surface. Her cloth and hands found no purchase, pulling away loose tissues like layers of placental sac.
Foil’s weapon severed the creature. I caught Parian, one arm around her body, the other hand seizing her jaw, hard, because there had to be three hundred pounds of mass latched on, and if that fell to the ground in the wrong way, it would have snapped her neck.
Either way, the landing was violent enough that a trap in a cabinet we hadn’t yet reached snapped to life, punching spikes through a door.
My grip shifted to a two-handed grip on Parian’s head, fighting as the Nursery-beast flopped around violently, like a snake with its head cut off. It maintained its grip, and Parian’s body was arching under me, fighting violently.
I could have thrown up, just being near this, knowing what was happening. The fact I couldn’t bring myself to inhale or exhale, or to do anything except strain was maybe the only thing that kept me from vomiting.
Foil slashed the thing that was flopping around, cutting it in half, meaning I no longer had to worry about one wrong flop snapping Parian’s neck or tearing her head off.
I allowed myself to look. What had Foil been doing? Dealing with the stump that had been trying to crawl from the fridge. Rain had that now.
The task at hand changed. I made room for Rain as we gathered around Parian. It took two of us to pry it away from her face. Three to heave it back, to pull out the strings and knots of flesh that filled Parian’s nose and mouth.
At her ear, a tiny umbilical cord threaded to a calloused, quarter-sized lump of flesh with a nascent leg attached. At her nose, a hand was extended from a nostril, fingers twitching.
Parian’s fingers went to her throat. Gesturing. I couldn’t even see her eyes because her mask had been pulled ajar. I couldn’t use a hand to move, because I barely had a grip on the fleshy growth as it was.
Braided and branching umbilical cords. Parian gagged as Foil and I pulled.
“I can cut it,” Foil said.
“Don’t. What’s left inside will set root,” I told her.
The gagging got worse. Parian’s fingers at her own throat curled into claws, and the efforts to pull were getting harder.
There was blood. We were tearing her throat.
The grub we pulled out had to be four pounds. Proportioned like a baby.
The others came easier. A string, seemingly endless. The children apparently set to grow to size in turn, to emerge in a steady cycle. Once we had the three largest free, Parian could breathe again.
There was a heavy thud outside.
Lord of Loss.
The tiny hand at Parian’s nostril tried to maintain a grip before it was pulled backward, inside. Down through sinuses, to the back of her mouth, and out the mouth. One of the last parts to come out.
Parian flopped over, so her face was aimed at the ground. Foil held her, fumbling for a short bit of bandage from her belt that Parian could hold to her nose- blood was streaming out. Every breath came with gags.
She was breathing, but I could barely bring myself to.
“We’d better leave,” Aroa said, weirdly casual and disconnected.
“I can carry her,” I said.
Foil shook her head. She got in position, and with me giving her a helping hand, lifted up Parian, holding her in both hands.
Around us, the area was filling with the dusky rose gas. Intense, now. More than I’d seen it before.
She’d sensed us cutting it up.
Chastity and Precipice hefted bags. Money and drugs.
“Drop them if they slow us down,” I said.
We hurried to the back door. We stopped as Lord of Loss touched a limb of overlapping white strips down by the surface.
An impact marked him touching down there too. It was followed by him clawing at the door, pulling it free of the frame.
We backed away, past the closet door. Toward the center of the house.
“She’s not paying you, you know,” I said. “Matter of principle for a mercenary, not to work for free.”
He smiled, not giving me a response. Nothing in him faltered or showed any sign he was second guessing things. There was only resolve. Professionalism.
His parahuman allies, that were standing in the background? From Earth N? They would follow him. Nothing there would hesitate.
Nor Nursery, who stood in the background with the other soldiers. She stared at us from behind the holes in her cloth mask, and the music box plinked the most intense tune I’d heard of it, the dusky rose gas filling our neighborhood.