Our witness didn’t accompany us upstairs.
The building was narrow, joined to its neighbors, elegant but very freshly hewn, with interior brickwork that hadn’t yet had time to accumulate grime, floorboards that had been cut and lacquered less than two years ago, with no wear and tear to scratch or test that lacquer. Above all, it was a relatively narrow, small space for a superhero headquarters. Five stories tall, but it felt like it was half a floor wide.
Much of our group had gathered at the landing in the stairwell, halfway between floors. Breakthrough minus our human element, Vista, and Weld. Golem had gone on ahead to open the door. Projected lines and rectangles were visible from the stairwell.
“Oh, Victoria, you should know most of the rest of my team is here,” Kenzie said, and her head turned so fast that the blur of altered facial features and details didn’t keep up. “Chicken Little is here. Candy’s gone, but Candy’s on another project with Chastity and Amias.”
“Is it really a ‘project’ if she’s having a puppy day with her Aunt Rachel?” Vista asked.
“Shhhh!” Kenzie shushed her.
“It sounds top priority to me,” Tristan said. “We should all have puppy days.”
“Shhhh, stop. I’m trying to be professional here!”
“Professional,” I said. “Okay, you’re networked in?”
“I’ve been networked in by touch,” Kenzie said, responding very quickly and with a renewed effort, like she’d taken half of a breath and jumped straight to an explanation in her eagerness to play along. “We decided it’s important that if any of us are alone we should be connected to the others. Tinkers get kidnapped, especially valuable ones, and this is like a ‘find your lost phone’ thing, right?”
“Find your lost Lookout,” Tristan commented, smiling.
“Exactly,” Kenzie said, and I had the impression she was ignoring his amusement. “But I just switched on cameras and audio too. Cameras are working well but the audio’s not great. Ugh. Oh! Chicken Little just waved hi. I think he waved because the audio’s bad.”
“Hi Chicken,” Rain said, raising a hand.
“I figured I should let you know, you know, professionally. Like when you want to let the other person in a phone call know they’re on speakerphone.”
“Got it,” Weld said. “We’ll watch what we say and do.”
The headquarters wasn’t up and running, and part of the reason was that it needed facilities. We made our way up the second set of stairs to the second floor. Golem faced down a hallway of white lines and see-through floating two-dimensional squares, reached out, and touched a floating square, turning it ninety degrees.
As we stepped out of the hallway, a bunch of lines extended down the hallway, to targeting reticules that appeared around our heads and faces. I saw a flash of the characters for ‘Antares’, not written out and floating in space, but constructed out of rectangles and slashes that were arranged down the length of the hallway so that they only lined up to form words from my specific perspective.
“Aughh, distractions,” Golem said. He moved a floating panel.
The entire hallway flashed red, and every square and line received an outline of a larger, bolder red.
“Oops,” Vista said. “Don’t panic.”
“Shut up,” Golem said.
“Nothing like a threat of dimensional collapse to wake you up in the morning,” Vista added.
“What? The only dimensional collapse I’m at risk of is from you.”
“There’s a chance of one, I have to admit,” Kenzie said. “But there are so many zeroes after the decimal point that I think we’re safe. The chance of being struck by lightning and bitten by a shark and having a vending machine fall on you all at once is probably higher.”
“This is really distracting,” Golem said.
“I should take notes,” Kenzie muttered. She made a writing motion with her hand, paused, then started writing in the air. “Seeing people use my tech is a good thing to study.”
I noticed that her pupils were red.
“Red eyes?” I asked.
“I commented on that,” Ashley said.
“Yep,” Kenzie said, absently. “Yeah. We were thinking about a costume look, and red lenses and eyes were a part of it.”
“If not black, then monochrome,” Ashley said. “And if not monochrome, red works.”
“I like red,” Tristan said. “My costume, my power…”
“Green here,” Vista said. “Red is associated with too many bad memories. Green is like, ‘life here’.”
Sveta stuck out her arm. Vista smiled, reaching out to move the arm to get a better look.
“For the recod, red is stressing me out,” Golem said. He touched lines, moving them into a row. “We can’t have a twelve-character password, with numbers, letters, and symbols?”
“Three dimensional space has so many more permutations, which makes it really hard to hack, even with your usual hacky tinker device,” Kenzie said. “And I really wanted a hallway with lasers that you could duck and weave through.”
“You can laser-dance through this mess?” Weld asked.
“You have to be able to,” Vista said. “If you screw up right at the end, then you have to get out of there before the space collapses in around you.”
“Stop saying that,” Golem said. “I know you’re messing with my head to get me to screw up in front of everyone.”
“Theoretically you can laser-dance it,” Kenzie said, and her eyes glinted as she looked up at Weld, a mischievous look without a smile. She lowered her voice to a whisper, “It looks possible, if you have the right powers. But it’s not really. You get to the end and you end up standing in just the right place for the security apparatus to gun you down. Think you’re clever? Bam, shrapnel to the knees.”
“You can’t tell people that,” I said. “That’s the kind of thing that gets spread around.”
“But it’s fun,” Kenzie said.
“Not fun,” Golem muttered. “Stressful.”
Golem advanced down the hallway, moving things with a bit more confidence as he got going.
He reached the end. The lines fell away. Ordinary hallway. A portal ripped its way open at the end.
Kenzie moved her hands, bringing up a fresh panel, and shut down the portal. We walked down the hallway.
“Vista makes fun, but she keeps scraping by,” Weld said. “She tried to cheat too, last night. Used her power. Immediate fail-state. We had people come from upstairs and downstairs, weapons ready.”
“Perfect,” Kenzie said. “Drills and testing the security is useful, especially if it’s people we trust who are poking and prodding at the limits. My investment is protected.”
Her ‘investment’ was a cube that stood taller than she did, nestled in a side room in the second floor, perched so it rested precariously on a corner. It was onyx, with irregular panels of chrome metal that looked mirror-reflective, with edges that looked like they’d been torn rather than cut.
I hung out in the hallway with others while she did her routine maintenance, watching through the door.
Sveta settled in next to me. I bumped her shoulder with mine, and saw her smile, though she didn’t look my way.
“We need something like this for our headquarters,” Tristan said. “Something that makes it so that if someone tricky turns up, they’re faced with something so daunting the people who work there hate it, they pack up and go away.”
“If you’re paying I can try it,” Kenzie said. “But I’ve got a lot on my plate. At least it’d be easier the second time. Less time needed to figure stuff out.”
“Not lasers,” Ashley said.
“Wrought iron spike portcullises and pendulum blades?” I asked. “Can you make a dart trap sufficiently elegant?”
“Portcullises and pendulum blades would be tacky. You’re better than that, Antares,” Ashley said. “Pick one or the other, and yes, you can make a dart trap elegant. You need to have a particular shape, so it looks attractive even when half of it is buried in the wall.”
“I’m curious. What kind of shape?” Tristan asked. He created a orange mote that floated just past her fingertip, and moved it as she moved her finger.
I looked around, to check they weren’t doing the equivalent of playing with a lighter around smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. But the security system was disabled.
The hallway of projected images was a password that was unique to each individual, requiring a set arrangement of elements every few feet. The apparatus was sensitive to dimensional fluctuations and energy levels, and using the wrong powers in the vicinity either triggered an alert or, if the intrusion was imminent enough, opened a tear between worlds beneath the cube, so it would drop through into another world.
“Dragon poked at this?” Kenzie asked.
“Defiant did,” Golem said.
“Okay. Leaving him some notes. And one of our, uh, what did we agree we’d call them…?”
Kenzie trailed off.
“Finish your sentences,” Ashley said. “If you don’t focus you’ll spend more and more time zoning out.”
“Um. Supervising agents! Yes. She says the payment came through, so, um, I’m releasing the last few locks. Full access. If they want to copy it then they can, though I think they know enough to do it anyway, they’re at least being polite.”
“I’ll let people know,” Golem said.
“Thank you. We’re good. Everything works. One panel slightly misaligned where they took it off and put it back on, which is why we have the flaring at the edges and the noisiness of the portals,” Kenzie said, still fixated on what she was doing. “I left them some notes about that.”
“All of this from a camera tinker,” Weld remarked.
“I’m a dual-field tinker. I was almost starting fresh after we finished up the whole thing and I got started with my new team, after a week of disasters ruined most of my tech. I had some startup money, and I thought I’d make something that people really want. And what we all really want is security and access. Two weeks of hard work, scans of multiple portal technologies and keys we got from the bad guys, scans of portals and some other related stuff, and we have a cube that opens up paths between worlds.”
“We’re happy to have it,” Weld said.
She said it like it was her idea, but Breakthrough had had some input, and we’d supplied the bulk of the cash for materials to get her started. I only thought about it because Tattletale had hinted that her role had been more important somehow, saying she supplied the protection and transportation while Kenzie went to get her scans, but … I wasn’t going to play that game. Like two sets of parents bickering over who paid for what for a wedding.
Just… enjoy the damn wedding. Or in our case, our ominous black cube that tore open holes between realities.
By making something sought-after that served as a solution to a half-dozen major problems at once, she’d been able to multiply her start-up cash.
“Where are we going?” Kenzie asked. “Do I check on the paired cube?”
“Proper HQ,” Tristan said. “Yeah.”
“Does anyone else want to try the hallway?” Kenzie asked.
“Me,” Rain said, surprising me a bit.
“Got it, good, go for it. Back to the stairs, try not stopping or slowing down if you can. It’s okay if you fail.”
The hallway lit up again.
Rain strode down the hallway, hands moving, touching things without perfect confidence, then moving them more firmly once he figured out how to grasp or push them.
He made it to the end, when the thing immediately jumped to red oulines around the white projections, black around the red, and then the lights in the hallway shutting off.
“Oooooh,” Vista said. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything!” Rain protested, in the dark. “I did that right!”
“You wrote down your password,” Kenzie said. She was briefly illuminated as lines and squares appeared around her. The lights came back on and the portal opened, less rough at the edges and not as violent a sound. There was daylight on the other side.
“I saved it as something I could pull up with my mask in an emergency,” he said.
“And if the cube can look at your mask’s memory and see the image files you have on there, then so can people who want to break in. They’d have to be your exact height and frame, with the same fingerprints inside any gloves you’re wearing, if you’re wearing any, and the same retina scan, and-”
“It would have to be me,” Rain interrupted.
“Yeah. The idea is they’d have to be you and they’d have to know what you know when it comes to the password and they’d have to meet some of the other context checks, which is complicated and messy to get into, but you know, don’t shake up your schedule too much on any day you’re paying a routine visit, or send messages to people you don’t normally talk to, or-”
“I get it,” Rain said.
“I’m changing your password. Hang back and wait until everyone’s passed through, it’ll flash the images in front of you. Everyone else, masks and helmets on, or flip your projections on.”
As she talked, red dots appeared around her face. I would have thought Capricorn was using his power, except his dots were more orange-red, and these motes of light expanded into discs, while white and black crept around Kenzie’s face and head to form the helmet’s design. She didn’t have her hair in buns, but the helmet projection seemed to assume she did, and covered up the lower ends of kinky hair that was parted and set in place with a combination of hairband and hairclip. Her costume gradually covered her body too. There were places the clothes extended beyond the projection, and those places were blurry, like bad artifacting from video compression, but it worked for the most part.
Sveta had a mask that curled at the edges, tendril-like. Not much of a change, and kind of pointless, but we’d decided to focus a bit more on formality. She’d liked designing it with me. Rain had his old costume at least for today, with a slightly updated tech-style mask that encapsulated more of the sides of his head, a serrated kind of edge around the perimeter, almost like it was damaged, but in a sculpted way that wouldn’t look cheap.
Tristan’s armor was recently repaired and updated. The changes were minor, with a focus more on the application of layered washes. A dark wash had filled in the grooves and made the designs in the armor pop more, while a red wash gave the armor more of a tint. It was the kind of thing that was easy to miss.
We passed through.
The building we were exiting was small and somewhat narrow, and as of right now it was largely understaffed. This was the real headquarters. A building still under construction that would be impressive when finished, despite the fact it wasn’t being made to impress in the same way the old Wardens headquarters had been.
The real impressiveness came from the two Dragon craft that were set in close proximity to the building, one on a hill off to our right, and another-
I floated a bit as I turned one-hundred-and-eighty degrees around. It loomed over the portal, weapons bristling.
“Welcome to the bunker,” Weld said.
There were times when security or fortification suggested confidence, strength, or power. That you had money to spend on the extra security. That you were unassailable, untouchable. I suspected it was the atmosphere the Wardens wanted to cultivate, by the time they were done. I could even understand the logic, that a fault in security at the earliest juncture could be the flaw that they paid for later down the line.
But I didn’t feel like this was confidence. I didn’t feel like that the logic drove this more than the feelings did.
The grass was dusted white, and the sky was gray, and the building was poured concrete, making for a fairly grim picture, prefab walls and the spikes of metal that the walls were being fit to, holes in the walls matched to the spikes and then lowered down, where they would click into place. The expansive lower floor was already mostly done, with clear glass walls giving us a view of the interior and everything else was being built around it while people worked. Yellow slashes of paint on the ground delineated construction zones where it was dangerous to be, and people navigated them. For how much there was going on, it was fairly quiet. Only the hum of idling engines, and the creaks of cranes, the periodic crunch as two pieces of building fit together.
Inside, there were a few scattered members of the four big hero teams amid Wardens and a fair few regular people who were covering jobs ranging from construction to doing paperwork while standing beside desks without chairs.
Kenzie saw Dragon and started sprinting forward.
“Lookout,” I said.
“Stay in sight.”
She looked between me and Swansong, and Swansong nodded.
“You don’t trust them?”
I would have made a face at how undiplomatic it was to ask that question when we had Wardens in our little group here. I remained stoic. “I think I’ll worry about you in any new situation.”
She groaned. With the excited run forward and now this, she wasn’t really holding that firmly to the professionalism thing.
“Technically you’re contracted out, and we’re partnering with your team. Part of our end of the deal is to guard you.”
“Got it,” she said. “I know you have things to do. Will someone be my escort?”
Sveta and Tristan agreed at the same time.
We decided to go over as a group, since it was more or less in the right direction. Delaying the task at hand. While we walked, Sveta and Tristan agreed they’d watch Kenzie together. Sveta no doubt wanted to because it meant spending more time around Weld, and Tristan… Tristan was harder to say, but he seemed to fit in well amid this general level of hectic energy, hustle, bustle, and cape aesthetic. I could imagine him working at a place like this for a full day, ongoing construction included, and not being any worse off.
There was a command center in one corner, with Dragon and Defiant standing by a wall of monitors. Multiple consoles and desks were arranged in a haphazard quarter-circle around that wall of monitors. Each person with a task.
Lookout went straight there, accompanied by Capricorn and Sveta. Weld and Golem followed them.
Rain slowed in his pace as we passed the corner where stuff was piled up but still not organized for a branding or costume maintenance department, one I suspected would be relegated to an upper floor. There were concept sketches, color swatches, textile swatches, and framed pictures of collected images I wouldn’t have been surprised to see at a tattoo shop- but they weren’t for tattoos. Or at least I hoped nobody was tattooing on their costumes.
“Foresight did promise us help with updating costuming. We never got a chance because we were so busy,” I told him.
Rain turned my way.
“For your mask, I sort of like that. Second frame of images, middle top. It’s hard to pull off in a lot of costumes, but if you’re doing the glowing mask symbol…”
He held up his phone. I looked over his shoulder as he took a picture of it, confirming he had the right image.
“Isn’t that too busy?” Rain asked.
“What?” I asked him.
“With the circuit board look?” Rain asked.
“No. Instead of. The circuit board look is…” I tried to find a way to be diplomatic and struggled.
“Puerile,” Swansong said.
“Huh,” Rain said. “I’ve been kicked in the ribs and it didn’t get to me as much as hearing that one word. I don’t even know what that means, exactly.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s puerile,” I said. “It’s… it’s like stripes. You can make it work, but it’s most often going to be something you work with or build on. Less what you want for a mask unless you want to play it up.”
“Huh. This is going way over my head. But it’s sure great to know I’ve had a stupid costume all this while.”
“Not stupid,” I said.
“Basic,” Vista volunteered.
Rain turned around, looking around until he spotted Capricorn, Lookout, and Sveta. “I think, uh, I’m going to go over that way. Leave you guys to it.”
“You’re fine,” I said. “A lot of costumes are miserable. You’re better than average.”
“I like how you weigh that. There’s a lot of suck out there, so the average is lower than I’d think?”
“You’re better than average,” I stressed. “And we can do better still.”
“Sure,” he said. He held up the phone, the image there. “This? What color?”
“Silver. And if you can do eyeholes or the general shape of eyes, that’d be great.”
The image was of a fissure or crack, like what one might see spiderwebbing across concrete.
He fiddled with his phone and the image.
“You don’t have to do it now,” I said.
“I have three people I respect telling me I’m not cutting it, and we have this talk coming… I’m going to be self conscious now.”
“Walk,” Swansong said, taking hold of his shoulder. “Let’s go. We’ll give you a look that matches what you have inside.”
“Why do I feel like I’m being insulted?” Rain asked.
“You’re not,” Swansong said. “You’ve showed muster. The mask may be puerile, but masks can be changed, but what can’t be changed is you’ll always know you had something sterner inside you when it counted. Humiliation may be the worst thing-”
“This is the worst thing now?” Rain asked, looking to Vista, as if for help. “Humiliation?”
“Even small humiliations,” Swansong amended.
“Okay, well, great. I’ll walk.”
“Walk and change what you want to change,” Ashley said. “Fiddle with your phone, upload to your mask, do what you’re going to do. I’ll steer you. I’ve done it enough times while walking with Lookout. Not that I need to do it with her anymore.”
“No?” I asked.
“New mask features, when she’s wearing her mask. She can watch what she’s working on while another set of lenses watch the road, another set watch behind her. There’s no need for a guiding hand.”
Our path took us down the side of the hill the Dragon craft was perched on. Its head followed us as we walked, which was ominous.
“How long until this kicks off?” I asked.
Ashley tossed a stone decorative dart into the air, catching it, then threw again, as we worked our way down the path and around the hill. Her other hand remained on Rain’s shoulder, holding him steady as he set foot on a rocky spot. He kept half of an eye on his phone.
The building had been built and set up a little faster than the ground floor of the ‘bunker’. It was built with two hallways, each lined with cells that looked to be glass or plexiglass with steel framing and wire mesh laid into the transparent material. There was room for maybe twenty prisoners, but walls had been folded back and things stowed to the side in compact form. It meant the four prisoners on the side we could see had cells with no adjoining cells. They were perpetually watched from two or three sides by capes and officers.
These would be people being held for processing or questioning. To a degree, the restraints and watching wasn’t as necessary as they might otherwise be. There were a lot of capes present on this world, and the only way out was both guarded and required the right means of getting the portal open.
Through the clear exterior wall at the front of the building, with only slight blurring because of the wiring, I could see Love Lost. She was bound with arms in a modified black straightjacket with ‘Villain’ down the right arm and at the left thigh where the skirt of it hung down, a hoop of a collar very loose around her neck, to the point there were a good three inches separating it from contact at any point. A simpler, stainless steel version of the molded mask that had covered her face, with no decoration except for a blinking light right around where the right corner of her mouth would be, and a hole where the left corner would be. A plastic table sat to her right, with a few things on it, one of which was a plastic shake bottle with a straw built into it.
She leaned forward to find the straw and maneuvered her head to slide the straw into the hole in her mask. Whatever she was drinking, it looked thick, and creamy-green.
Gundeck and Solarstare were sitting where they could monitor her.
“Did you talk to them last night?” I asked.
“No,” Rain said. “No. My night, and then we were all there. Cradle, Love Lost, and Colt. I tried to talk and nobody was really up for it. Cradle didn’t move from where he woke up. Love Lost paced and ignored me. Colt made small talk but only if I pushed for it. If I didn’t push there was silence, and I didn’t push. The tokens dropped and nobody really bothered with them.”
“Has it been like this every night?”
“No. There were times I talked more with Colt. There was a time where she didn’t even seem to get it, like none of this mattered or she didn’t realize how much trouble she was in. She talked to me until Love Lost got annoyed with her. Then she seemed to clue in, about a week ago, did this silence thing. When she talked to me again, it was to ask me to talk to her parents and see if they’d go to her trial.”
“I thought I saw them,” I remarked.
“Yeah,” Rain said. “They went. But what can they really do except go? And Colt got a bad outcome yesterday and… I don’t know how things will be today.”
“And Love Lost?”
“Doesn’t talk. But there was a time a bit ago when she looked at me.”
“Looked?” Vista asked.
“Looked. Head to toe, like she finally saw me and not some nebulous enemy.”
“Want to give it a shot?” I asked.
“No,” he said. He pointed. “But first…”
He hit a button on his phone.
The mask he wore changed, replacing the inlaid image of the circuit with a fissure with a silver glow shining through from beneath. His eyes were small and narrow.
“Bigger eyes,” I advised. “Without eyelashes or anything else, just showing what you’d normally see with eyelids in the way, it looks too narrow.”
“Sinister,” Vista said.
“And not in the good way,” Swansong advised.
“You guys are harsh,” he said.
“Here,” Vista said. She manipulated the dimensions of the eyes, glancing at Swansong and I as she adjusted, looking for input.
Swansong wanted more of a slant, but I opted for something more open and friendly.
Rain took a photo of his own face, then adjusted the settings.
From where we’d stood, we hadn’t had a good view. Our target cell was a little further back.
Colt was in the other hallway, one of three junior prisoners, and she had been separated from Love Lost by a hard, opaque wall that divided the building in half. She had a similar collar, as well as bracelets that were actually fit to her wrists. No straightjacket, no mask, just a faded sweatshirt and sweatpants, both printed with ‘Villain’.
I only recognized one of the heroes. Stonewall, with a fellow hero keeping him company. Stonewall had stone armor, which he wore even while sitting and eating. It was stylish and looked heavy as fuck. The kind of protection that didn’t make him look insecure. The kid had a skintight two-tone costume with a stylized leaf emblem on the front, and a jacket that didn’t match, that suggested he wasn’t suited up for the colder weather. I hoped the Wardens would look after him.
“You should run along, Reed,” Stonewall said. “Good talk.”
“I guess, and yeah, good talk. Thank you, sir.”
“There’s no telling what’s going to be classified,” Stonewall said.
“Yeah,” was the response.
Rain walked over to the cell, and Colt rose to her feet to stand across from him.
Stonewall got up, chair creaking, and walked down the hallway a little ways. He gave Vista a pat on the shoulder as he passed her.
“Was that Reed the Second?” I asked, before he was out of earshot.
“Third,” Stonewall said. “I don’t think it’s a lucky name to take, but they hear he was one of the first Wards and they feel an attachment to the name.”
Stonewall walked on, footsteps heavy enough to make the building’s floor shake. A pen on a desk spun slightly on its fulcrum point.
Rain drew in a deep breath and sighed.
“Yeah, invisible walls,” Colt said. “I go from one cell to another. You won, you’re free.”
“I- no,” Rain said. “I don’t feel that free.”
“Enjoy it,” Colt said. “It’s better.”
A bit of a non sequitur, like she wasn’t listening to anyone but herself.
“I need to do more. Not to make up for what I did- I don’t think I could, but… there’s an obligation,” Rain said.
“I don’t think she has the slightest clue what you mean,” Swansong said, quiet.
“Pretty,” Colt said. “I liked you, you know. I thought you were cool. You had good stories, and you were someone I kind of wanted to be like.”
“Thank you. I liked you too.”
Rather than interject, I remained quiet. I was very curious if the use of ‘past tense’ had anything to do with perceived betrayals or upsets.
Colt shrugged, glancing at Rain. “I do get it, you know. Obligations suck.”
“You’re proving my point, if that’s how you sum it up,” Swansong said.
“Maybe give me a chance to get through to her?” Rain asked.
“You’ve had twenty-one nights,” Swansong said.
“Less of those nights than you’d think.”
“You’re a little scary, you know,” Colt said, to Swansong. “Unpredictable, but I was happy to stay in the background and listen in.”
“Thank you,” Ashley said.
Colt seemed satisfied with that exchange. She looked at Rain. “I lost my court case. Guilty. Sentence T.B.D.”
Was she drugged? In shock?
“I was there. Back row, with some of my teammates,” Rain said.
“They stuck us here, Cradle was here too, for a little while, but they wrapped up his court stuff faster. They had him in a blindfold and a straightjacket, I think like they did with Love Lost.”
“Mask for the lower face, no blindfold,” Rain said.
“Why are we here?” Colt asked. “Why here specifically? The view is nicer than any prison… I can see the outdoors, the wind. They treat me okay, but… I’m really confused.”
“Your lawyer should have explained it,” I said. I hoped I wasn’t intruding.
“He did. Three times. But the first time I didn’t realize it was important, the second time there was a lot of stuff going on and he sounded exasperated. The third time I had just heard the ‘guilty’ from the jurors, there was commotion, people were shouting, and then I got pulled away. Even if it was quiet, I’m not sure I would have got it. They showed the photos in the morning and it was all these body parts and all this blood. They read this testimony and I could barely hear anything for most of the rest of the day… I felt so sick with stress and I could only hear the sound of my own heartbeat and blood in my ears.”
“They’re keeping you here while they decide what to do with you,” Rain said. “You could go to a jail, if they find room, or we could look into alternative options. If you want to get a good result, now would be a really good time to tell them something useful.”
“Anything about Love Lost or her henchpeople we didn’t catch. Anything about a greater plan,” I said.
Colt shrugged. She looked lost, miserable, and lost, in that order.
“Alternatives,” she said, nearly at the point of being inaudible, like she was just catching up.
“What?” Rain asked.
“Alternative options? If I’m not useful and there’s no room in prison, what happens? Is it like… a firing squad? You wouldn’t actually.”
“No,” Rain said. “Sending you away.”
“My parents wanted to send me away. Either I helped the family business or I went away to a strict school. They have some of those now. And I talked to my cousin who got sent there, that’s where my parents got the idea from, and she said there aren’t any regulations, so they beat you, withhold food, make you run laps. Cold water for showers only.”
“They were trying to scare you,” Swansong said. “I’ve told you this.”
“I thought about it. I’m not sure. My cousin talked about menstrual products, said the girls were never given enough. But they weren’t allowed to use too much toilet paper either. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you think of right away, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“If anything, it might have been a real shortage,” I said. “If she attended over winter.”
“None of this really feels real?” Colt said, very quickly, her voice keyed up in an odd way, like she was trying to wake someone up. “What happened yesterday with court doesn’t even feel like it was yesterday. And the only answers I get from people are vague.”
She sounded half the age she was.
“Did the people here drug you?” Rain asked, going straight to the same possibility I’d guessed at.
Colt shook her head. “I’m being sent away, and I don’t even know what that means.”
I cleared my throat, to let others know I was about to launch into an explanation. “We send you through a portal. We give you everything you need to survive, and the ability to use your powers. At scheduled times, we check on you. But those times may get more spaced out, if you settle in, if you’re healthy and safe. That’s if they decide on that. If we decide on it. Then when your sentence is done, we pick you up again, assess you, figure out if you’re able or ready to rejoin society. Hopefully by then we have the tools to handle it.”
“I think you’d still be in the dream room,” Rain said. “I’d see you every night, and if you had an emergency, I could send help.”
“I’m getting kind of panicky,” Colt said. “What can I do?”
“Talk,” Swansong said.
“I don’t have anything to say. They didn’t fill me in. They offered to let me go and I think now maybe they meant it, because I didn’t know all that much that was useful, and I wouldn’t talk.”
“Can you think back to what they said? Did Nailbiter have a location she liked vacationing in or visiting? Did anyone talk about family?”
Colt shook her head. “I can’t go home?”
She didn’t even seem to get it. Was the disconnect because of something more abstract? Her power?
“You collaborated in chopping people up,” Swansong said. “In chopping me up. You broke a cardinal rule and spilled your guts to the arresting officers and capes, they used that in the trial.”
“Anything about the Kronos titan?”
“No. I think that was a surprise. But I wasn’t really paying attention when it came up. Its hard to picture it as a real thing instead of some joke or story. Did he kill many people?”
“He hasn’t budged,” Rain said. “But the Simurgh is on a corner world right now and she flew to him. She’s staying on his shoulder, in that world.”
“He’s a living portal,” I said. “Except instead of passing things through doors into other versions of Earth or into distant places, it’s just… Dauntless energy coming through the portal, feeding into him. We had to clear a good long distance around him because apparently portals act to broadcast, scramble, or act as a lens when it comes to power signals. Possibly including hers.”
“You played a part in making a hell of a mess,” Vista said. “Some friends and acquaintances of ours got killed and hurt.”
“Let me help then,” Colt said, and when she stared into my visor there was a clarity that hadn’t been there before, like she had focused on me for the first time. Kind of like Rain had explained Love Lost doing, but without a year of being ignored or seen as a monster as lead-up.
Seeing someone as a monster. I made note of that stray thought. It was easier to relate to him if I put things in those terms.
“Information is the only help you can give.”
“Can I fight? Because I don’t know anything. I can- can I do volunteer service? Join the heroes?”
“The Navigators were chopped up by people you helped and supported,” I said. “They flew under the radar as a hero group before, but when we all heard what happened and realized there wasn’t a single bad thing we could say about the Navigators, that they’d only ever done good, that made it that much worse. People are resentful.”
“I could join you? You could give me a chance.”
I didn’t move. I waited, while Rain remained very still.
Rain shook his head a small fraction, but he didn’t say anything.
“No,” I said, so he didn’t have to. He had to see her every night, and if he was the one to refuse her, then her anger might find root and fester over nightly recurrences.
“But Damsel of Distress likes me, and I know you guys have committed crimes.”
“It’s Swansong, not Damsel,” Swansong said.
“Punishments pending,” Rain said.
“Pend mine! I don’t know how to… I don’t know, build a house with a pile of wooden slats, or cook, or hunt or fish. I’ll die.”
“We’re more resilient than you think,” Swansong said.
“What if- I can talk to the doctors I talked to earlier? They asked questions about my health, and questions about depression and anxiety, and… what if I give different answers? They couldn’t send me away then.”
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” I said. “You can’t change the answers you already gave.”
There was clarity in her fear, because somehow things were finally setting in. Her responses were a little bit quicker, more like she was actually listening to what others said.
“The judge gave sentencing guidelines,” I said. “Three and a half years. There’s a very real chance we don’t take the extreme measures, but it’s up to the capes to decide, because it’s the capes that are dealing with parahuman containment right now. If we don’t send you out to this other world for three and a half years, we put you in juvenile prison for three and a half years, and you wear a kit like you’re wearing right now to keep you from turning Breaker.”
“I don’t want to go to prison either.”
Rain slammed a hand against the glass barrier. Colt jumped like she’d been the one hit. The other two prisoners in the hallway jeered.
“Careful,” Stonewall said, his voice carrying.
Colt stared at Rain, who stared at her, his fist still resting against the glass. The glass was uncracked, but his mask had the stylized one running across it, through the one eye and up to the top corner.
“Let it go, Rain,” I said.
He pulled away, turned his back.
“I never really gave you a hard time about it,” Colt said.
He didn’t look at her.
“What you did. I could’ve hated you like they did, but I didn’t. I tried to be civil, I listened when you talked, mostly. I know I did some bad stuff, but so did you. If you get punishment pending, and you get to try to show you’re decent in the meantime, then why can’t I? Because it’s fucking personal?”
She almost sounded like the girl I’d first seen over Kenzie’s surveillance video, yelling at her mom, siding with Nailbiter, running away to go join the villains.
“I have remorse,” Rain said, half-turning. “I’ve tried to recognize what I did. To show that with my actions every step of the way.”
“How long did it fucking take you to get there? Because I’m not getting the chance.”
Rain turned away, and walked away.
About two steps. He stopped.
“Are you trying?” Swansong asked.
“Was he, after three weeks? Because I heard Cradle talk about some of it, when he was talking about the info he got on your team, and about Precipice specifically. It didn’t sound like it.”
Rain clenched a fist in front of him, then put it in his other hand, cracking the knuckles audibly through his gloves. He was stiff.
“Your choice,” Swansong said, as she walked up to Rain, their arms touching, her chin high. She was quiet as she said it. “Do you want to help her?”
“I thought we could be allies at first,” Rain said. “But now I think I despise her. She acts like we’re the same, but… she didn’t grow up like I did. She had a life I would’ve loved to have. I didn’t get a choice in how to think until it was almost too late, and I made the wrong choice, not to help those people. She-”
“-didn’t take enough opportunities to think for herself, maybe,” I said. “And this is how she ended up.”
Again, he cracked knuckles.
“I’m not advising you either way.”
“Not in the slightest?” he asked.
“I feel like helping her, because she’s vulnerable and lost but that’s not- not a good basis to act on. I don’t think she’d be easy to deal with. I do think if we give her any kind of pass or help, we could have her as a pest or problem to deal with a month from now. Given past history, keep that in mind. You know her best.”
“I feel like I don’t know her at all.”
“You have more data points than us,” I said.
“Data points,” Swansong muttered. “Geek.”
I elbowed her.
“How?” Rain asked, turning to look at Swansong. “To help her?”
“Colt,” Swansong said, raising her voice to be heard, as we’d walked a short distance away. “You have odd dreams. Stranger than any of the others.”
“Yeah,” Colt said. “Every time it’s my night, it’s a different slant of everyone else’s dreams, depending on my mood or how I push it. Like Cradle pushes it. Except I’m a bit better than him at it.”
“That’s a bargaining chip,” Swansong said, and she said it to Rain, but Colt immediately moved to the corner of her cell that was closest to us. “You can sell or barter that knowledge.”
“Capes and dreams have unusual relationships,” I said. “It’s worth looking into.”
“That’s because… dreams are something they don’t get,” Colt said. “They don’t have enough data or reference points for them. It’s why when they move on, they’ll want a lot of information about dreams and dreaming. It’s why things slip through the cracks in dreams, or get weird, or are spaces where they can manipulate things more.”
“You study this?” I asked.
“I… get it,” Colt said.
Because Breakers and reality warpers were often closest to their agents, maybe. Because this particular cluster was built around dreams and dreaming. And because dreams brought things even closer still.
“Lookout mentioned Chicken Little seeing something in his dreams,” Swansong said. She shrugged with one shoulder.
It wasn’t much to go on, but we were dealing with monolithic forces hidden away in inaccessible locations. They gave us power and they ruined us. And whatever structure was there or wasn’t there, whatever organization was missing in how they balanced against one another, that power and that ruin was being doled out in disastrous proportions. In broken triggers and in Dauntlesses.
With what Colt was saying, it was possible there was an area where the barrier between power and person wasn’t just thin, but was something we could get past, and that area was the unconscious dream. That was our door to the machinery we wanted to operate, fix, or even dismantle.
“Let’s go,” Rain said.
“Hey!” Colt shouted.
“Quiet,” Stonewall boomed.
“We’ll be in touch,” Rain told Colt, without turning around.
Vista caught up with us, after a few exchanged words with Stonewall. Space warped to give her something of a catch-up.
“Hey Vic,” Vista said. “You know powers, right? You studied this stuff to death.”
“Some,” I said. “Thinking about dreams?”
She shook her head. “No. Thinking about… altered mental states. Is it possible that she’s not all there because of her power?”
I sighed. “Crossed my mind. Happens a lot with Breakers.”
“You could mention it, to help her.”
“Another possibility,” I said. “But she said she had doctors check her over. So the question is… was one of those doctors someone who was qualified to evaluate her mentally? And if so, were they qualified to know about parahumans and all the messes they can bring to the table?”
There wasn’t an immediate answer to my question.
There was a pretty clear one, though.
Capricorn, Kenzie, and Sveta were gathered together.
Jessica Yamada. Their therapist.
Swansong and Rain approached her. I hung back.
The others had received emails, telling them she was safe and she would touch base shortly. I hadn’t. My number had, as I’d discovered the night I heard she was back, been blocked. I’d been able to call her with Juliette’s number but not my own.
Dr. Darnall said he knew what the reason was, but had declined to share. He’d told me to be patient.
I gave them their space, feeling hurt and a little bewildered. I headed over to the corner with the concept art and the fashion, the various pieces in progress, to distract myself, at the very least.
The winter was going to get colder, and a double layer wouldn’t be enough.
The group was spaced out. Some closer to Jessica than others. Swansong hung back, and by her body language, stiff and regal, I knew she was anxious.
Sveta was as happy as I’d seen her in a few weeks.
I couldn’t intrude.
There was a stylized coat, heavy, with some built in protection- not a lot, but in dense material and slats of metal running between layers. Not a cape, but long enough it could look like one. I tried it on as much as I could without putting it over the spikes at my shoulder. I’d have to move those.
Did I want it for what it gave me, or for what it kept away?
Sveta’s voice. Which was followed by Jessica’s.
I saw her meet my eyes- or she looked at my mask, which didn’t have eyes.
“I’m going to talk to the group,” Jessica said. “Do you mind waiting?”
Which was telling me not me without telling me it directly.
She at least looked apologetic.
“Can we talk after?” I asked.
I didn’t miss the hesitation on her part.
I did something wrong. I failed her. She wants to see the damage before she talks to me.
“After,” she said. “Alright.”