“Warm up the car,” Tattletale said, over the phone. “Plug in the booster seat and cage.”
“Booster seat?” I asked. “Who?”
“You want to ride with?” she asked, more like she was replying with light annoyance or incredulity than she was offering.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Half-size cage, slot it into the middle. Thanks,” she said over the phone. She hung up, and rather than answer my initial question, she walked across the junior team’s headquarters and knocked on the frame to the office.
Kenzie was lying on Chicken Little’s desk, legs bent at the knees so they hung over the front and side of the desk, her head not that far from Chicken Little, while she held a projected panel up. Chicken Little sat in his chair, chicken in his lap, and Darlene sat on the desk next to him, one foot resting on the edge of his chair. All three twisted their heads around to look at Tattletale.
“We want to rent Chicken,” Tattletale said. “With the supporting team in a supporting, stay-at-home role.”
“You’re taking him?” Darlene asked.
“It’s good, it’s a job,” Kenzie said, without lifting her head up off the table.
“Okay,” Chicken Little said. “Let me get ready.”
“Don’t say yes yet,” Kenzie said. “Parameters? Guidelines? What’s the job, how long? How intensive? How dangerous? What tools should we expect to employ, and what does it cost us to employ them? Then what do we get paid, based on all of that?”
Good questions, I thought. The sort I’d told her to be ready to answer.
Tattletale rolled her eyes, clearly annoyed. The end of the roll saw her eyes looking at me, for some reason.
“Okay, what she said,” Chicken Little told Tattletale.
“The job is to accompany us. Might use your birds. Strict fact-finding mission,” Tattletale told him. “Talk to your team to get answers once or twice. Low intensity. Darlene can take a fifteen minute bathroom break to fuss over herself if she wants, it’s that mild a job.”
“That’s- don’t go and say that,” Darlene said.
“One of us on desk duty to go and get the other if we need it, if we’re not using microphones?” Kenzie asked. Her legs kicked where they dangled over the edge of the desk.
“Yes. Low danger,” Tattletale said. “I hope it’s low danger. Tools? Bring two raptors.”
“And the Haast Eagle?” Chicken Little asked.
“That you called Chicken Large, told all the other kids about, and expected I wouldn’t hear about? Too big, too dramatic for what we’re doing.”
“I’ll have him fly with, give him a chance to stretch his wings, if that’s okay,” Chicken Little said, getting a short nod in response. “Okay. That’s good.”
“For pay, let’s say… seven hundred.”
“Too low,” Darlene said. “For a day’s work-”
“Day’s half over.”
“Tying up all three of us-”
“To a small degree. We don’t really need you two, so you can decorate, play that singing game you’re too embarrassed to play when anyone else is around-”
Darlene huffed, annoyed.
“-or sit in his chair and spin in circles until he’s back if you want. You’re not that tied up.”
“Don’t sit in my chair,” Chicken Little told Darlene. “We can get you a good spinning chair if you want.”
“I wouldn’t- I don’t,” Darlene said, huffing more, and looking a little sullen. “Even if I would, we’re going to be linked up and my spinning around could distract him. One thousand.”
“Whatever,” Tattletale said. “Seven hundred, but that includes a thirty percent discount because we’ll take a route to stop and get Roadkill.”
“Yes!” Chicken Little exclaimed.
“What’s roadkill?” Darlene and Kenzie asked, almost simultaneous.
“Roadkill BBQ, it’s a restaurant. It’s so good, I’ve been wanting to bring some to you guys. It’s so worth the discount we’d be giving,” Chicken Little said. “I’ve asked Tattletale and Imp once a day for weeks because I loved it and I want you guys to try it too.”
“That’s sweet,” Kenzie said. There was no smile on her face, as she laid across the top of the desk, hands folded across her stomach, her head turning now and then to look at whoever was speaking, eyes large. At the same time, though, her legs kicked more than they had been, heels banging slightly against the heavy wood of the desk. She looked up at Darlene. “Thinking about us. What a good guy.”
“It’s really good,” Chicken Little said. “One of my favorite meals I’ve ever had and my favorite since after Gold Morning.”
“It’s manipulative of Tattletale, trying to get us to lose out on three hundred dollars,” Darlene was a little quieter, like her resistance was crumbling. “Just to get some dinner?”
“Say yes. Please.” Chicken Little said. “Roadkill is worth three hundred dollars.”
“For three hundred dollars we could pay someone to go pick some up and bring it here,” Darlene said. “And still have some left over.”
“Hey,” I said. “Kudos, Dar. Good thinking.”
Tattletale gave me another eye roll.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me. We want to train them to negotiate well. It’s part of guiding them.”
Darlene added, more for Chicken Little and Kenzie’s benefit than mine, “I grew up with more brothers and sisters than I could really keep track of and we had to negotiate and fight over everything. Sometimes with powered older siblings or with our moms, too.”
“It’s good. Thinking outside of the box instead of getting zoomed-in on the back-and-forth,” I said.
She smiled more. Kenzie reached up and over her own head to give Darlene a pat on the back.
Tattletale looked a little exasperated, her expression and tone like she was considering me one of the children to be managed instead of a partner in this. “If you want me to pay a thousand-”
“Us to pay a thousand,” I said. Partners.
“Obviously,” Tattletale said. “We’re going to want to get our money’s worth. But if you want to relax a little, then you can have a dinner date-”
Darlene’s eyes narrowed, the others seemed unfazed.
“-with your friends, and we’ll relax our expectations accordingly.”
“Yes?” Chicken Little asked. He poked Darlene in the side of the stomach. “Please?”
Darlene looked down at Kenzie, who nodded her head in an exaggerated way.
“…Okay,” Darlene said. “But make it seven fifty, and we’ll knock fifty bucks off to give you your seven hundred if Antares bullies Tattletale some more. Find an excuse to give her a noogie or a wet willie or something. Take her down a peg because she’s getting annoying and rude.”
A little resentful of the jabs and teasing Tattletale had fit into the debate, apparently. Darlene had gone from heated and annoyed to sullen to pushing back against Tattletale on the price point, and now, having said that, seemed much more at ease. Very quick to adjust on an emotional front.
“Deal, I’ll see what I can do,” I said. Because anything that reinforced a healthy pushback against Tattletale was a good thing.
Tattletale suppressed a sigh, and gestured. “Come on, then. Up and at ’em, Chicken.”
“Earbuds,” Kenzie said, handing off some devices to Chicken Little. “Sound should be better, but we’ll see.”
“I’ll call Imp and get the sign-off,” Darlene said.
“I’m here,” Tattletale said.
“You’re hiring us,” Darlene said. “Rules are that if Undersiders hire us then we ask Breakthrough if the job’s okay, and if Breakthrough hires us then we ask Undersiders if it sounds good. And if it’s not either of you guys then we can ask anyone, or we ask both groups if it’s serious.”
“Good rules,” I said.
Darlene nodded. “But since you’re both hiring us then we should ask someone who isn’t involved.”
“I like that,” I said.
“Shaving years off my life,” Tattletale muttered.
“Good,” Darlene muttered back, as she brought her phone to her ear.
“Be nice to Tattletale,” Chicken Little said.
“Okay,” Darlene said, before turning her head slightly, eyes narrowing at Tattletale.
Tattletale did an exaggerated eye-narrowing of her own.
Chicken Little was out of his seat, handing off his chicken to Darlene. He already wore his mask, which was the dinner-plate round mask with round black lenses for eyes and a little cone on the lower face for the beak, a ‘cockscomb’ extension at the top that arced back and over the top of his forehead to join his fauxhawk. He had his red and white coat with the tailfeather ‘tails’ at the back and the pinion cut around the sleeves. He kicked off chicken-styled slippers and slid his feet into sneakers with blades worked into the exterior design, three over the toe and spurs at the back, in a ‘talon’ design.
Once the shoes were laced up, he put his hand through a stylized falconer’s glove, opened a cage, and had two hawks perch on his arm. Between the large glove and the weight of the birds, it looked like his skinny arm had trouble holding them up.
He turned to look at Darlene, who was talking on the phone, no longer sitting on the desk, but walking away from the desk so as not to be overheard.
She gave the thumbs up.
Chicken Little hit switches, and his office went dark, shutters whirring as they closed it off from the remainder of the office.
“Because noise,” Kenzie explained for me, as she ducked under the shutter. “The squawking and chirping gets kind of crazy sometimes.”
“You good?” I asked her.
She nodded. “Very.”
She had a stray lock of kinky hair that had pulled free of the pin. I used a finger to poke it back into place. “We’ll see if we can time the Roadkill thing so I can bring some to Swansong, and you can have a long-distance dinner together.”
“Please. And short-distance dinner sometime this week? Can I come over sometime?”
“If your guardians at the institution say okay,” I said.
She stepped forward, giving me a sudden, very unexpected hug. Her forehead hit my breastplate with the enthusiasm of the movement, and both Darlene and Chicken Little’s heads snapped over to look at us in that moment.
I put my arms down, forearm and hands across her shoulderblades. I murmured, “I thought you had rules.”
“I’m getting sloppy,” she said. “It’s bad, I know.”
“Okay,” I said, not sure what to make of that. “Careful.”
She nodded, hugged me tighter for a second, then broke the hug, bouncing over to Darlene’s side.
Tattletale, Chicken Little and I made our way downstairs, and into the parking garage that was attached to the building. Snuff was standing by the car, which was running, engine idling.
The hawks went into a cage that was apparently built across the middle section of the backseat, dividing the two sides. Tattletale took the passenger seat, and Snuff got behind the wheel. I ended up sitting behind him, because of how the door of the cage opened behind Tattletale’s and where the booster seat was fit into the car.
“What are we fact-finding?” Chicken Little asked, as he strapped in.
“Turn off your earbud?” I asked. “I don’t want to loop in Lookout just yet. For her protection.”
Chicken Little hesitated, then turned it off.
“Thanks,” I said. “And Snuff?”
“We can trust him,” Tattletale said.
“You didn’t use him when we had the thing three weeks ago.”
“She used me,” Snuff said.
“I used him,” Tattletale said. “I had questions, then I verified, and I put him on duty looking after some secondary interests and projects, because I wasn’t as sure I could trust the mercenaries I put on those projects. Sometimes you need a good ally to keep the tent from falling down while you hammer in the stakes.”
“My things are off, my team isn’t listening. What’s going on?” Chicken Little asked.
“A group of people are trying to be sneaky,” Tattletale said. “Framing others, planting really convincing evidence. Possibly for a bigger play further down the line. Possibly to sow discord or create divisions within groups. It would be like if someone pretended to be you and sent nasty messages to the Heartbroken, so you’d never get invited to Aunt Rachel’s again, or if they were planting evidence on your computers now so they could mess up your team and allll the other teams a year from now.”
“Okay,” Chicken Little said.
The discourse was interesting from a certain angle. That it felt like Tattletale talked down to Chicken Little, except she had a tone like she was talking down to anyone, normally. Just… more here.
I felt like I approached Kenzie as more of an adult and expected her to keep up, and she was sharp enough to do that, with only occasional steering. Based on what she’d told me and shown me, she’d been clever even before triggering. It wasn’t a tinker thing.
Tatteltale continued, “We know of one case. My power tells me we should expect others. Our first stop’s going to be Foresight. Who they targeted, why, and how is going to tell us a lot.”
“You think it’s inevitable they targeted Foresight?” I asked.
“Eighty percent sure they would. If it’s about controlling information, then they’re obvious. If it’s about power and going after bigger teams, then Foresight’s a good target there too. If they didn’t target Foresight, then it’s probably a focus on smaller teams, which suggests subversion.”
“I have a good working relationship with Anelace,” I said. “We could ask him and see what he’s willing to share or hint at, without us spelling anything out just yet.”
“This is all secret?” Chicken Little asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “The more people know about it, the higher the chance that the people who’re responsible react or use emergency measures. Right now we just want a sense of what we’re dealing with.”
“Okay,” he said. “So you haven’t told Precipice and the others?”
“No,” I said. Thinking about my team and what would unfold if the character assassination went any further than it already had was a dark thought, tempered by how Chicken Little had phrased the question. “Thinking about Precipice?”
“He’s cool. We talked at the hospital when we all visited Lookout.”
I smiled. “He doubts himself a lot, you know? He’s had a rough go of it.”
“All of us have,” Chicken Little said. He leaned back, resting one arm on the top of the cage with the eerily still and quiet hawks in it. “But some of us, like the younger Heartbroken and Lookout and I, we had stuff happen so long ago that we don’t remember it, you know?”
“Is that what Lookout said?”
“I kinda just figured.”
I nodded. I wouldn’t out her or correct him, especially with a strange mercenary and manipulative thinker in the driver’s and passenger’s seat, respectively.
“We don’t remember it all but a lot of the time it messes us up. Feelings get mixed up, swapped around, or we have something quirky. For me, it’s dreams. For some of the heartbroken, it’s like wires get crossed.”
“Good way of putting it,” I said. “And there’s the scope of the agent-parahuman relationship, right?”
“I don’t know about that.”
“The way it was explained to me in courses I took, the earlier you get your power, the less defenses you have. You don’t know how to work with it or make it do exactly what it wants, so… the power has more room to make you change or adapt instead.”
“That makes a lot of sense,” Chicken Little said. “And it’s like if a chicken grows up in a coop that’s too small, it ends up deformed. Or if a tree grows into a fence and it gets warped and there’s metal in the wood. We have something big occupying this space-”
He tapped his forehead.
“-and grow around that thing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I like those analogies. Perfect.”
“Did Precipice have powers for a long time?”
“No,” I said. “Last year.”
“I have more experience than him,” Chicken Little said. “That’s funny.”
“He made knives for fun he said,” Chicken Little said. “And even hand-made bear traps from scrap, once. Like Biter and Bite-size have for their masks, but weaponized. That was before he was a tinker.”
“I think he spent a long while without T.V. or internet. Not even that many books to read. So he kept his hands busy.”
“Given the situation, he could have done worse,” Tattletale added, in what probably passed for a compliment, coming from her.
“Situation?” Chicken Little asked.
“That’s for him to share if he wants,” I said. “You might already know parts of it-”
“He does,” Tattletale said.
“-but maybe I’ll send him with Lookout for one of the drop-offs, and you guys can catch up.”
Chicken Little nodded, enthusiastic.
The chatter continued as Snuff pulled onto the highway, picking up speed.
Foresight had good aesthetic running through it. Cursive-style loops and sweeping lines in white ran across glossy black panes that decorated the walls, those scripts gathering together for specific signs, symbols, and images. The places where those decorative panes weren’t set up were naturally eye-catching through their absence.
Brio’s portrait had been hung in one of those absent places. It wasn’t the only hung portrait.
There were areas where plants were on shelves, the vegetation draping down, but the tinted lighting made the green plants look nearly black. With the way they hung and crawled against the wall, the black was against a backdrop of white, above panels with more tangled cursive, or against light panels inset into the wall. A dose of nature, but focused on exaggerating the abnormal.
The ‘visitors’ area was surrounded by a gallery of images of each of the team’s heroes. Each image was larger than life, floor to ceiling, each figure made even larger by the fact that a given image only captured a portion of them, at least half of their body residing outside of the frame. A picture of Effervescent, a pale image against a pitch black background, hair falling around her shoulders, the colorful nature of her costume desaturated in a way that fit with the hallway’s scheme while still hinting that she had the most colorful costume on the team.
After Effervescent on the left side was a picture of Anelace, a black-costumed figure against a stark white background, the white of the mask with the black cursive scrawling of the dagger on the eyepatch standing out, given the composition. Then a picture of Crystalclear, crystals and skin white and light against a black background, respectively.
So it alternated, on both sides of the hall.
Anelace and Countenance stepped into view, the two of them talking well before they were in my earshot.
Anelace put out his hand to shake. I shook it. Effervescent didn’t offer me anything, and I didn’t push. Honestly, as bad as things might’ve gone, I was pretty content with being set up against these two. Anelace and I had gotten along for a while now, he was an attractive guy, going by his fitness, and he’d made some attempts at inviting me on dates, including one at a crime scene.
Effervescent was one of the thinkers who had rejected me when I’d applied to join Foresight, after the community center, before Jessica’s therapy group.
“Checking out the competition?” Anelace asked.
“I don’t see us as competing,” I told him. “We’re all on the same side.”
“Including the Undersiders?” Effervescent asked.
“They’re parked outside,” Anelace clarified. The remark got a look from Effervescent. She might have wanted to try to trap me in a lie or omission.
“We’re pursuing a joint project,” I said. “Or I am. I needed someone with her particular skills.”
“Thinker skills?” Anelace asked.
“We have thinker skills,” Effervescent said. “You could have come to us.”
“There’s another joint project where we’re collaborating,” I said. “Lookout got hurt a few too many times in too short a timeframe. We decided it was best to get her out of that situation before any institutional crackdown. During the whole Cradlemarch mess, we ran into the Undersiders and she got along with a few of the kids in Undersider orbit. Lookout is pursuing a team with them. It puts Undersiders and Breakthrough in irregular contact.”
Effervescent folded her arms, tilting her head slightly as she looked at Anelace.
“If it works, it works,” Anelace told me.
“The kid’s hers?” Effervescent asked.
“Chicken Little. One of Lookout’s teammates. We hired them to keep it fair and we’re using it as an opportunity to train them, teach them what to look for. A simple, minor mission.”
“I still have a hard time getting a read on you,” Effervescent said. “But there’s more to this, isn’t there?”
“There’s always more to a situation,” Anelace said. “When you get information, you get three-quarters of the information at best. When you dig again, you get three-quarters of what’s left, but things shuffle, change, and adapt in the meantime. A problem bloats, a person develops in response to whatever you’re adjusting…”
“And I’m not interested in high-level back-and-forth over the philosophy of information gathering,” Effervescent said. For a colorful personality, she was kind of pissy. “Is there something more to it, Antares?”
“Yes,” I said. I paused. “I can’t really get into it. I want to look into some stuff, and I want to ask for you to give me the benefit of a doubt here, because I can’t explain it all. I’ve gone toe to toe with some of the tough contenders these past couple of months. I’m hoping that counts for something.”
They exchanged a look. Anelace had his arms folded, and I saw his fingers lift away from his arm, two extended.
“I’d have to ask Count,” Effervescent said. “What do I tell him, ‘lace?”
“What can you tell us?” Anelace asked me.
“You have options,” I answered. “I can tell you nothing, it’s the least complicated option. I investigate, and at some point, ideally tonight, I get an answer and I fill you in with all the rest of the teams.”
“What’s the drawback?” Effervescent asked.
“That it’s not a safe option,” I told. “It’s the least complicated. The safe option is that I lie to you. What I tell you lets you know what to watch out for, but it doesn’t get into the problematic stuff.”
“And if you tell us?”
“Option three is I tell one of you, and they join me for the next short while, while we dig through this.”
“We’re tied up,” Anelace said. “Stuff to do, can’t take a sabbatical.”
“What are the consequences if you tell us outright?” Effervescent asked.
“I haven’t gotten into this with my own team, and I know them. I don’t know most of Foresight. I need to diagnose the problem before I can diagnose the consequences, but I can tell you it’d be bad.”
Effervescent nodded. She looked at Anelace again.
“I like option two,” he said. “The lie. It tells us the most and I think safety is the best priority.”
“Going by her judgment.”
“Yeah,” Anelace said. “What’s your read?”
“Seems genuine, as far as I can tell. I say go ahead.”
“Not running it by the boss?” I asked.
“Countenance is busy, and he trusts us. Trusts me,” Effervescent said. “And as far as ‘lace goes, he trusts me to keep tabs on and find ‘lace if he goes missing.”
I raised an eyebrow at Anelace, which I could only do because I wasn’t wearing my mask.
“I had a thing a little while ago, when the team was new,” Anelace said. “We were supposed to be paired up for jobs. I dodged Effy. Effy caught me with, ah, the reason for the dodging.”
“A rooftop liaison with a villain or villainess?” I asked. “You don’t have to answer.”
“A villainess would have been easier than the liaison ended up being.”
“That’s actually true,” ‘Effy’ said.
“And I feel bad.”
Anelace laughed a bit. “Good enough. You want to tell us your convenient lie here in the front hall of our HQ, or step away somewhere?”
“Outside? Tattletale can chime in, fill in the blanks.”
I saw them exchange looks.
“Believe me,” I said. “I know. Every doubt, every suspicion. I get it. I know one hundred percent. But I think including her helps all of us.”
“Alright,” ‘Effy’ said. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Anelace said.
We made our way outside. Anelace held the door for Effervescent and me.
“Fuck me,” Effervescent said. “That’s a big-ass bird.”
Tattletale was outside the car, leaning against the side. Chicken Little was sitting on the trunk, while his eagle was perched in a tree above him, devouring one of the twenty crows that occupied other branches. His hawks were out of the middle-seat birdcage and rested on his shoulder and glove, respectively.
Snuff was a good fifty feet away, his hood pulled up to show a jaw with no chisel to it, covered in stubble. He was smoking with enough intensity that a cloud surrounded him.
“I recognize him. Snuff,” Anelace observed, as we got closer to Tattletale.
“Is it a problem?” Tattletale asked.
“He was a murderer for hire.”
“He was. Pre-amnesty,” Tattletale said. “You didn’t answer my question. Is it a problem?”
“No,” Anelace said. “You let him hang around with a kid?”
“I hang around with who I want to hang out with,” Chicken Little said. “Right big guy?”
The giant eagle made a sound that made me think it wasn’t doing so hot. Loud, but the furthest thing from fierce.
“We’ll work on that,” Chicken Little said. “Eagles have the worst screeches. What about you two?”
The hawks screeched, the one on his arm flapping its wings without taking off. Several of us winced at the sound.
“Bothering the neighbors,” Effervescent said. She indicated the street. Lots with businesses ran into lots with houses with no rhyme or reason. I was put in mind of the eclectic mix of dentists, doctors, pharmacies, convenience stores, clothing stores and houses one could find in a typical Chinese-American part of town, but this was just regular town.
“Oh, sorry. I can see why you’d be worried,” Chicken Little said.
“I’m not worried. I’m saying literally they’re bothered. I’m aware.”
Chicken Little ducked his head down a little. “I thought it was cool.”
“It was,” Effervescent said. “But cool has a time and place.”
“As I see it, if you’re trying for ‘cool’ you’re doing it wrong,” Anelace said.
Chicken Little huffed, sitting up straighter, looking like he was going to start an argument. Tattletale reached out, and the hawk on Chicken Little’s glove flapped violently, turning its beak her way.
“Huh? What? Did you want something?”
“To get your attention. Let us talk business, listen and learn, alright?”
Chicken Little huffed again, but he nodded.
“Clandestine business you apparently can’t tell us straight,” Anelace said, to Tattletale.
“Essentially,” she said. She turned my way as she said it.
“We’re going to tell them a lie that serves as an analogy,” I told Tattletale.
“Your call,” she said.
“Consider this a, uh, poaching job,” I said. “One group trying to steal members from another. A group of people are out there looking for easy targets. My feeling, and I’m not sure if Tattletale agrees, is that this was something aimed at new members of the team and at fringe members.”
“They’re breaking up teams and looking to recruit them once they’re gone?” Anelace asked. After a pause, where he saw my expression, he added, “In this hypothetical or somewhat relatable situation.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Has the recruiting already happened?” Effervescent asked. “Do we look at people who’ve left for cryptic reasons and joined some specific team, or-”
“No,” I said. “We’re not there yet.”
“And you’re prying,” Tattletale said. “I think we’re using this rough outline of the situation to avoid spelling it out exactly. Which would make it bad form if you pried.”
“Okay,” Effervescent said. “You don’t want us prying why, exactly?”
“Because there’s a lot of potential misinformation flying around, and if someone else starts following up or trying to cover their asses, we lose the ability to follow the trail,” Tattletale said.
“That too,” I said. “It’s where we need your trust.”
“No recruiting happening yet, but some splintering of teams or targeting of vulnerable people,” Effervescent said.
Tattletale rolled her head back. “You’re prying. You stopped for all of five seconds and you’re prying again. As a professional pryer, I’m in actual pain here.”
“You tell me not to pry and then you tempt me with a line like that,” ‘Effy’ said.
“Do you have anyone?” I asked, aiming to interrupt. “Do you know anyone who fits this bill? It could be recent, could be just starting. New or fringe member, is my guess, but someone where there were recent revelations or some initial grumblings, or anything weird that has you or your group distancing yourself from them.”
Anelace and Effervescent exchanged looks.
“Who?” Tattletale asked.
“It’s not that cut and dry,” Anelace said.
“That’s why we’re digging into it,” Tattletale said.
“It’s why I brought Tattletale in. She can figure out what isn’t that cut and dry,” I said.
“Who?” Tattletale asked, in the next breath.
“Two of ours,” Anelace said. “Kind of ours. We were looking at recruiting, with the shift in the amount of work we’re doing and the ground we’re having to cover. We have a lot of thinkers and we got to know some others through duties like watching the portal or sitting in on diplomatic meetings.”
Right. Crystalclear had mentioned doing those duties. Keeping an eye on people coming in through the portals, keeping an eye out for stowaways, for trouble, for criminals. Many of the Thinkers had worked in groups to make sure they covered enough bases. Weeding out problems before they entered the city and disappeared into the maze of lost people trying to figure out what their identity on this new world looked like.
“And you recruited two of them?” I asked.
“Ratcatcher and Big Picture,” Anelace said. “We didn’t get to the recruitment part. We had a branding department working with Ratcatcher to see if we couldn’t Foresight-up her costume, get the right design while keeping her look. Big Picture was starting to look into it, Countenance invited him on some patrols, and he went with. Getting a feel for things.”
“And it went sour,” Tattletale said. She looked more lively and interested than I’d seen her in… maybe ever.
“Yeah. Sour’s a way to put it,” Anelace said.
“Don’t get carried away,” Effervescent said. “Because I really don’t think this is a setup.”
“You don’t?” I asked.
“They confessed,” she said. “Big Picture confessed, one hundred percent, no objection, was fine with leaving. No fuzz, my read on it was clear.”
“And Ratcatcher was fuzzy,” Tattletale said. “Because…”
Anelace answered, “Because it’s Ratcatcher. I don’t know if you’ve met her, but when she’s quiet she’s like a toddler with a fork in their hand, inching toward a light socket.”
“She’s going to hurt herself?” Chicken Little asked, speaking up for the first time in a bit.
“Exactly,” Anelace said.
“Or burn the house down,” Effervescent said.
“Oh. Wow,” Chicken Little said.
“When she’s not quiet she’s… fuck, I’m usually good with words,” Anelace snapped his fingers a few times.
“A fire hose on full blast with nobody to man it,” Effervescent said.
“Messy, all over the place, unpredictable, supposedly useful in a crisis, but-”
“If you have to explain it it’s not a good analogy,” Anelace said.
“I’m pretty happy with it,” Effervescent said. “Even if I want to explain it.”
“Can you explain the situations? What happened with them?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Anelace said. “Big-”
“No,” Effervescent interrupted.
There was an awkward pause.
“Doesn’t feel right,” Effervescent said. “Even if we think there might be a reason to look into it more, it’s dishing drama and that’s the sort of thing that’s between them and our team.”
Effervescent added, “But you can talk to them and ask them. If they say the same thing, let them know we say it’s fine. You’re… independently investigating, in case something bigger is going on.”
“Can you point us in their direction?” I asked.
“I’ll text you,” Anelace said. “Unless you want to meet up on a rooftop somewhere, Antares? A little more ‘cape’ than hanging around on a street.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Slim maybe, if I’m being honest. But I appreciate the trust.”
“Sure,” he said.
“We appreciate you not talking about this to anyone that wasn’t standing here at this meeting,” Tattletale said.
“Hint taken,” Anelace said.
Tattletale whistled to get Snuff’s attention. The guy whipped up what looked like a miniature black hole, sucking up all the smoke and, by the looks of it, vacuuming up a lot of the other particulate, mess, and the light dusting of snow from his hood and the coarse, thick black sweater he wore.
“Talk to you later,” Anelace said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
Snuff started up the car, and we pulled away from the street with the Foresight headquarters.
“You’re aware of what the rooftop meeting means, right?” Tattletale asked.
“I’m aware,” I said, trying to not give Tattletale a tell as she watched me in the rear-view mirror. There were a lot of complicated feelings surrounding that. Anelace wasn’t my type in some ways, but I ran the risk of having a type so narrow that only one deceased person fit the bill, and there were a few more obstacles in between me, him, and that eventuality.
For now, I was content to shift into neutral and coast through this as casually and shallowly as possible. It was flattering, Anelace had a nice build, with a tight-fitting suit to showcase it, he was a hero, and as awful as he was with timing he had some decency to him. So long as I didn’t dwell, I could just enjoy the vague idea, try to adj-
“Wait, what’s this?” Chicken Little asked, interrupting my thoughts. “Secret meanings?”
“He wants to take Antares out on a date,” Tattletale said, taking me from the shallow-casual dip into the pool of romantic notions and pushing my head beneath the waters. “It’s like saying ‘do you want to come in for coffee’? It’s not about the coffee.”
“This is, for the record, very awkward,” I said.
“Blame the guy who propositioned you with a bunch of colleagues, an old nemeses, and a kid hanging around.”
“No, no,” I said. “I’m happy blaming you, Tattletale.”
“Of course you are.”
“And it can mean just meeting to hang out and catch up.”
“That’s true, and that fact is the only reason I didn’t drag my fingernails down my cheeks from the cringeyness of it,” Tattletale said. “But I know and you know what he wants.”
I floundered mentally while Tattletale pushed my metaphorical self into the deepest corner of the pool. At least she hadn’t called me Glory Hole.
“Tattletale knows stuff,” Chicken Little said.
“Unfortunately,” Tattletale said. “Not a mental picture I wanted.”
“Unfortunately. Agreed, yeah,” I echoed Tattletale. “Can we change the subject?”
My phone booped. A message from Anelace. The same stylized image that was on the wall of Foresight was his avatar in phonespace. He had the address.
“Twenty-second and Blockgreen. It’s not far.”
“Heard,” Snuff said. “Twenty-second and Blockgreen.”
“Um,” Chicken Little said. “I know we changed the subject…”
He trailed off, not continuing.
“It’s fine,” I said, regretting it as I said it.
“You can do better,” he said. “Anelace said something like how you can’t be cool if you’re trying to be cool and that seems like a douchey thing to say.”
Snuff sniggered in the front seat.
“How do you be cool if you don’t start out cool? It’s like it’s the privilege of the cool-by-default and nobody else is allowed to try for coolness.”
“I think you’re good, Chicken,” I said. “The Heartbroken and Lookout think you’re cool.”
“Actually, I wanted to talk about Lookout, because I’m a little unsure about some stuff.”
“We can do that.”
“But before that, I wanted to say that Anelace guy talks about being cool but I was sitting there thinking his costume and his team’s costumes are trying way too hard to be edgy.”
“Amen,” Snuff muttered.
“See?” Chicken Little said, with an almost plaintive edge to his voice, as though he was pleading for people to get it at the same time nobody in the vehicle was disagreeing with him.
“Edgy, as Swansong would put it, is something you live up to.”
“Of course she’d say that,” Tattletale muttered.
“Then he should buy you flowers or chocolate and not embarrass you in front of people, so he can live up to it,” Chicken Little said.
“And we’re here,” Snuff said. “Which is a shame, because I was enjoying this.”
“I’m glad someone’s having fun,” I told him.
Out of the car. I showed Tattletale the phone, and looked around for the building number. By the time I turned around, she was pointing at it.
“Get your birds,” Tattletale told Chicken Little. “If and when we use them, they should be used nonlethally.”
“They’re hawks. And an eagle-”
“Don’t use the eagle. That will kill.”
“So will the hawks! They’re awesome killing machines! They have feet like fistfuls of knives!”
“And this is practice and training,” Tattletale said. “Nonlethal. Hang back with Snuff. If I whistle, cross the street, come to me, obey.”
“I’m the customer, right?”
“Half the customer,” Chicken Little said. He turned to me, and even though I couldn’t see his face, I could tell he was hopeful.
Like the divorced parent thing again. When one parent said no…
“What she says.”
His shoulders drooped.
Tattletale and I crossed the street, which was busy enough she had to time her crossing to slip between traffic. I ended up flying over.
We reached the front door. I wondered if we were breaching some rule of secret identities. Then I saw that the glass panel by the buzzer had slips of stained, coarse, post-Gold Morning paper where each resident had handwritten their own names. Everything was laid out in neat print except for one, which just said ‘Rats’.
The building didn’t look nice, which made me wonder just how the other residents felt about it.
I hit the buzzer.
Cars whizzed this way and that down the street. One had a bad muffler, and roared. Too many lacked the tires, I was sure, to handle the light coating of ice, snow, and moisture on the road.
“What?” I asked. When I looked, she was leaning against the railing.
“She’s ducking out the back window. You should really hurry,” Tattletale told me. “You might be able to fly, but she knows the hiding places.”
Chicken Little and Snuff were hurrying across the road.
“Waiting,” Tattletale said. She made a face. “She’s faster than me, what am I going to do?”
I took off. Up and around the building, dodging a frozen clothesline someone hadn’t bothered or cared enough to bring in.
I saw Ratcatcher, and she saw me.
She was quick, faster than I would have been on foot, and wore a sweatshirt, pyjama bottoms, boots, and her mask with its crooked nose. Her hair was a mess, to the point I was pretty sure she’d been in bed when I’d buzzed in, despite the fact it had to be one or two in the afternoon now.
She leaped to another building and caught the fire escape, and then she leaped down, catching hold of an air conditioner. Bare handed, freezing cold metal. She let go with one hand and caught a rat that was tracing her own route, following her. She placed it on her messy hair and then reasserted her grip on the air conditioner.
She leaped from air conditioner to window, landing on the frame. I shifted direction, and in the time it took me to reach her, she opened the window and slipped inside. The window shut behind her.
I stopped short of entering, because there were enough people in the hallway and I didn’t trust myself to not hurt anyone by barreling through. I watched her route and flew around.
At the next window, I saw her round a corner. I traced her route again, watching through a bedroom window as she let herself into an unlocked apartment, looked through a kitchen window to see her head into the next room.
Back out into the hallway. I opened the window and entered.
She was quick enough that I almost missed what happened while I hauled the window open. Only the fact the hatch in the wall was held open for a second to let one of her pet rats follow her in let me know. It clanged shut. I flew to it, and I opened it.
By the smell, it was the building’s chute to the dumpster.
I flew back out the window, tapping it firmly with my foot so it would close, and flew around.
She’d put some distance between us. She’d exited the chute and the dumpster at the bottom of it, and I saw her entering a building.
Two hawks swooped down, snatching up the rats that followed behind her.
There was a pause, with her holding the door open, the door blocking my view. Then the crooked nose of her mask extended out and up, as she tracked the disappearance of her pets.
About two seconds later, while I approached with arms up to show I wasn’t a threat, the thought connected.
Tattletale had invited Chicken Little for a reason. This reason. She’d guessed Ratcatcher was one of the fringe candidates, and she’d brought the bird master to go after the rats.
Non-lethally, she’d stressed.
She was going to be so insufferably pleased with herself, that it all came together like it did.
Ratcatcher didn’t look down, her eyes on the sky. At the corner of the building, Chicken Little was jogging, Snuff huffing as he followed.
“We can bring them back,” I said. “They’re unharmed. Or they should be.”
She didn’t look away.
“All we want to know is what happened with you and Foresight.”
“You’re not going to arretht me for the other thtuff?”
I shook my head. Then I paused. “What other stuff? Should we?”
“We just care about the failed recruitment for now. What happened, that you didn’t get recruited by Foresight?” I asked.
“It thtarted with me getting pith drunk,” she said. “Thent thome textth to my new both.”
“The thorta textth you don’t want your grandmama to thee.”
“Do you remember sending these texts?” I asked her.