“You’d think someone who was regressed two years in age to be a teenager again would at least try not to be such a stereotypical teen.”
“What?” I asked. I looked up from my phone, which I was holding so Sveta could read it. She was moving more fluidly to get in a position to read over my shoulder.
“You’re zoomed in on your phone like it’s the only thing in the world,” Tattletale said. “You’re as bad as the Heartbroken.”
“Are you lonely, Tattletale?” Sveta asked. “Sitting up in the passenger seat with only your henchman for company? Were you bored?”
“Ha,” Tattletale replied.
I could have connected to what she’d said better if it weren’t for the fifty individual crises I was keeping on the back burner, the five on the front burner, my attempts to keep Sveta’s mind occupied with practical things.
That, and the fact that mentioning the age regression reminded me of Amy which set my brain to red alert, sirens flashing and emergency doors closing. These days, getting back from that state was a little easier, but it was still a couple of seconds of added bewilderment and alarm, and a mental reset button that forced me to start from zero in figuring out what the hell she meant.
Of course, she probably knew she was doing it.
“I see you set the communications blackout for everyone, but you’re not abiding by it yourself.”
“Phones come equipped with features that let you make a call to emergency services even if the phone bill isn’t paid, phone doesn’t have an I.D. chip, whatever, and phones come with features that let authorities force phones to boot and bypass settings if there’s an Endbringer attack. Dragon is messaging me,” I said.
“She’s simultaneously worrying about whether I’ve gone off the deep end, suggesting everyone go to maximum alert, and worrying there might be something to what I’m saying, in which case she’d have to worry about watching her back.”
“A communication blackout really hurts the local heroes’ ability to function,” Sveta added.
“What’s her wording?” Tattletale asked.
“Start with her wondering about watching her back.”
I cycled my way up to find it, then cleared my throat. “If this were true, I’d have to devote resources to validating, scanning, and damage control.”
“Interesting order,” Tattletale said.
“To what she has to do. It’s not scanning, validating, and damage control. Why?”
“You suck at rhetorical questions,” Sveta said. “How are we supposed to know?”
“It’s not a rhetorical question,” Tattletale answered, exasperated. “I’m asking my power. And my power says Dragon’s not prioritizing finding the questionable character assassination stuff because she has the stuff. At least two incidents she looked up and found since it was brought to her attention. Or she’s a culprit that already knew because she did it, but I’d say the odds are very low.”
I leaned back, my thumb working to find my place at the bottom of the chat while I ruminated. “That takes time, to find out and then look. Unless it’s obvious-”
“It doesn’t take time if you’re Dragon,” Tattletale said. “She, you know, bzzt. Overclocked.”
She put a finger to her head as she said that last word.
“She hacked her brain?” I asked, my eyebrows going up.
“You are exactly right,” Tattletale said, smiling. “Defiant did too, from another angle.”
Armsmaster. That was jarring to think about.
“Scary,” Sveta said. “I feel like the brain should be sacrosanct.”
“It’s really scary,” Tattletale answered. “Once you get a look at who she really is… let’s just say that part of the reason I’m more or less ruling her out as a culprit is that she wouldn’t need to be subtle. If she wanted to do this, she’d do it blatantly and she’d succeed.”
“Oookay, Tattletale,” I said. “Dealing with more than enough paranoia already. Dragon’s given us no reason to doubt her.”
“I’m not saying we should doubt her. I’m saying we should shit ourselves if and when the day arrives that we do. For now, I’d put all my chips on Dragon being alright. She’s weighing not trusting you, which is entirely understandable, with two more incidents that probably just popped up recently. Our player is ramping up, getting more schemes into play. Not so much it seems like too much, but distractions.”
“I worked with a loose team that was working with Tattletale, around Gold Morning,” Sveta told me. “Having her working from an investigating or planning role like this is kind of like those candidates for class president you see in movies, who promise soda pop in the fountains and shorter school days for everyone. They deliver on these really thinly justified ideas when they shouldn’t.”
“That’s a good analogy,” Tattletale answered. “Except you’re outing yourself as someone who didn’t go to school or spend nearly enough time around ordinary people, because you call it ‘soda pop’ like a nineteen fifties character, not even ‘pop’ like a midwesterner, but-”
“Get bent, Tattletale,” Sveta said, interrupting.
“Leave her alone,” I added. “Read the room and learn to be nice when it matters.”
Tattletale looked at her driver, eyes wide.
“Don’t look at me,” Snuff said. “I’m doing my job and staying out of trouble while I do it.”
“I’m outnumbered two against one,” Tattletale said.
“That’s what happens when you’re a jackass,” Sveta said.
Tattletale slumped back into her seat, head bumping against her window. Sveta, at the same time, was sitting behind Tattletale, and looked out her own window, creating a kind of maximum distance between them, insofar as it was possible in this confined space.
Sveta was coping better than I’d imagined, and I had to wonder how much of that was an extension of the personal control she’d honed with her sessions with Rain. She didn’t look happy, for one thing: the lines of her face were different. She’d turned much of her emotion into being very ready to call Tattletale on her shit. Provided Tattletale didn’t retaliate or take it too hard, it seemed like a pretty reasonable outlet, if there had to be any outlet at all.
I checked my phone again. No more messages from Dragon. The last message she’d left me could theoretically be a sign-off.
Tattletale talked while looking out the front window, drawing out her sentence, as if she was trying to reset the flow of the conversation, “The reason I’m concerned about you being on your phone is that you just ran off to intervene in a crisis. If the emergency communications work this way, then it’s theoretically possible to use them to send weaponized messages and distract you again.”
“If it’s a crisis like what just happened, doesn’t it make sense that I’d want to be on top of it?”
“If they’re watching us closely, they might decide to unload now because they know you’ll see it. If you had put the phone away and obeyed your own communications blackout, they’d hold that back.”
“Or they’re mounting a general offensive and they’ll release it anyway, hoping to break up our support network. If that happens, we come back from what we’re doing here and find everything on fire.”
“We don’t want that,” Sveta said. “I’m saying that as someone who was on fire and feels the sting pretty- completely and constantly.”
I reached out for her hand, gripping it in mine, giving it a squeeze, then waggling it.
“You don’t have to do the shakey-shake thing,” Sveta murmured. “Rain gave me hands with a full tactile range.”
I gave her another waggle. I caught the faintest smile on her face before Tattletale’s voice pulled my attention away.
“Look. The situation’s bad, it’s getting worse, based on the hint from Dragon. The best thing we can do is cut right past all the mess and go for the heart of the issue. Put the phone away,” Tattletale said. “You’re clinging to it out of brute-classification tendencies and I’ve got to tell you, this isn’t a situation you smash or take head on.”
I could have argued, but I didn’t. It was possible Tattletale was stressed, from how exasperated she was being. I held down the power button and let the phone go black.
“Good,” Tattletale said. She was in the front seat, her head turned to look the opposite direction. She was using her power to identify what I was doing. Obnoxious. “Fill me in, how did your deal with Bluestocking and the Mayor go?”
“Why?” I asked.
“So defensive. I’m not trying to get secret info here-”
“It’s between them and us.”
“-I’m trying to figure out the particulars of the situation we’re walking into.”
“Why would that matter to what we’re doing?”
“I’ll tell you if you tell me,” Tattletale said.
We were in a car, and the landmarks or geographical changes I could make out were limited to what I could see out the window. Narrow slices of world. I wasn’t sure I recognized this area, but I could guess.
“We’re going to Earth N?”
Tattletale didn’t answer, but Snuff glanced at her.
“You might as well be the bigger person and tell her. She’s going to figure it out,” Sveta said.
“Original deal we struck in the heat of the moment was that I’d negotiate a preferable trade setup for the Earth N settlement with the Mayor. If I didn’t follow through she’d get to borrow a member of Breakthrough for six months. I went to the mayor, struck some compromises, and got Bluestocking some of what she wanted. She wasn’t flailing her arms around and crying out ‘penalty clause’.”
“We’re good to go, then?” Tattletale asked.
“I feel like walking into her territory with her providing favors or oversight might be an excuse for her to bring it up. I think I’d have been happier pretending she didn’t exist for a while, let the deal disappear into distant memory.”
“Well, that sucks, because I reached out to the people who matter and this was their preferred neutral ground. If we need a referee, Bluestocking’s that.”
“We’re close to the station. Which way in?” Snuff asked. “We parking?”
“No. Car and truck entrance,” Tattletale replied. “Right road.”
“Got it,” Snuff said, taking the off-road.
“That’s usually closed,” I remarked. “Has been since the portal incidents. They’ve stepped up security.”
Tattletale snorted. “Welcome to the big leagues, kiddo. Paying to be able to drive your own truck in is worth it, if it means you don’t have to ask for a ride or worry about the danger posed by whoever is escorting you.”
The station was at the end of the road, and we were approaching by an angle I hadn’t seen it from. There was a gate, and people stood on either side of it. In the warmer months, when the portals had been open to service, this would have been how the trucks of construction material would have come in, along with any vehicles anyone was attached to.
“This is Big Picture’s contact?” Sveta asked.
“Contacts. There are a few people I keep tabs on because they have a lot of sway over the city and even things that aren’t the city. I break this down into categories. Threats, cultural, financial, information, and powers. Some people are influencers for reasons that don’t tie directly into their abilities, like Dido from Auzure and her effect on finances.”
Auzure. I felt a bit slimy at the thought. When I’d hunted for a position in a team, they’d been nice up until they let slip that what they really wanted was my sister. We’d worked with them in passing since, mostly at arm’s length.
“Dido? She does fine. Her team makes money,” I said.
“The team makes money. Lark manages money well. But Dido is a disaster waiting to happen when cold hard cash or theoretical cash are involved. there’s a reason they keep the team small and the growth slow and steady. She’s like an alcoholic with a wine cellar.”
“You said it was more than an ordinary disaster,” Sveta said.
“Everyone would feel it, at least a little,” Tattletale said. “There’s at least a subconscious reason she named herself after the woman who threw fortunes away in history and myth.”
“At least a few of those times were ruses,” Sveta said.
“People tend to have reasons for doing dumb things,” Tattletale said.
“That feels like pretty obscure mythology,” I remarked to Sveta. “Knowing those were ruses?”
“Dido marries Pygmallion, and the mythological Pygmallion is the guy who made and married a living statue. I related,” Sveta said. A sad look passed over her face.
Ah. The statue, the boy made of metals.
“That’s pretty out there, for stuff to be researching,” I said, trying to keep the conversation normal and light.
“Uh huh. I spent a long time looking for cape names and costume ideas, when Breakthrough was new. I’m so, so glad I didn’t go with Galataea or anything Weld-related.”
“I wouldn’t have let you,” I said.
She squeezed my hand, and her eyes dropped to look at where her Rain-made prosthetic hand with its not-quite-right skin clasped my gloved hand.
“Bright spots in a dark day,” she murmured. “I can feel this.”
“You good to do this?” I asked. “Mission in enemy territory?”
I looked out the window as we emerged into light.
The road in through the station had passed through the series of turnstiles that would lock and block away the majority of the fumes when any vehicles passed through.
We were out of the station now, passing by more guards and some idle capes I recognized from three weeks ago. Inhabitants of the Earth N corner world. We traced the top portion of an ‘S’ curve in doing so, carrying on north.
No Etna among the idle capes, as it happened.
Thinking about Etna made me think about violence and death, even though I’d gone reasonably easy on her. She’d just been a face or a mask to latch onto, like an annoying, ostentatious song in my head. The thought led to my mom, and my dad, who had gone with her. Neither had returned from Earth Shin.
Thinking about family got me thinking about Sveta, and about Kenzie and Kenzie’s family, or lack thereof, and about Kenzie’s new pseudo-family in her new team… and Chicken Little’s issues with her. In a perfect world I’d talk to Jessica about that, but Jessica wasn’t talking to me.
Tattletale cleared her throat.
At least this time she didn’t disrupt my thoughts with a pointed reminder of the worst possible things. It made it easier to align my thoughts, as Snuff drove us along the dirt road, up past buildings and toward the peak of a hill.
“We were talking about Dido,” I said. “Right.”
“Dido doesn’t matter, and we don’t have time for a full briefing. I can fill you in as necessary,” Tattletale said. “If you’re listening and not wallowing. Are you going to focus while we’re inside?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Game face. Don’t kill anyone, both of you.”
I let the statement pass without commentary, and I put my mask on.
“If I kill someone it’s probably going to be someone close to me. Probably you,” Sveta answered. When Tattletale twisted around to look at her, Sveta smiled. “But I won’t. I’m… controlled.”
She put her own mask on. A standard mask that covered nose, surrounded eye sockets, and covered the brows, but with twirls and hooks and decorative elements branching out and following the curve of her face. It was dramatic and artistic and whimsical, and it didn’t match the look in her eyes.
At the top of the hill, a fair distance from the settlement, there was a lodge nestled in the trees. Signboards were propped up and hanging on the wall by the door.
“Swansong mentioned this place,” Sveta said. “The Lodge.”
“I ended up screwing these guys over once or twice. They aren’t happy, so we play nice,” Tattletale said.
“Are you capable?” Sveta asked.
“We’re going to see. There’s a step by step process here. Be patient. Your relationship with Bluestocking will help.”
Snuff pulled into an empty parking space in a corner of the lot without any vehicles. Gravel had been raked out and the light snow filtered in between the pieces.
We got out of the vehicle.
“How intimidating do we want to be?” I asked.
“Don’t put that aura of yours on full blast, don’t crack any skulls.”
“There’s whole lot of options before that point,” I said.
“How about you let me take point. Don’t overshadow me, that’s the line you don’t want to cross. If you’re not sure about something, take my cue or look to Snuff.”
“This is feeling less like a partnership.”
Tattletale sighed. “You can stand shoulder to shoulder with me if that makes your ego feel better.”
“The concern isn’t ego,” I told her. “It’s falling into the trap of being your status pieces like Bluestocking wanted us to be.”
“You don’t want to be my bitch?”
“You’ve got enough bitch for the three of us,” Sveta muttered.
Tattletale smirked. “You sure, Tress? Because while I understand you’re having a sucky day, you’re definitely bringing a lot onboard.”
Sveta glanced at me. I wondered if it was to check, to ask if she should step down.
“It’s fine,” Tattletale waved it off. “It’s fun. Antares, you can walk in beside me if it makes your ego feel better. Shall we? Yes? Yes?”
I nodded. But Tattletale’s second yes was a lingering one, awaiting confirmation. Because Sveta.
“I wish I’d changed,” Sveta said. “Redone my paint on my arms and neck.”
She touched the collar that gave her neck the appearance of being a neck rather than a tangle of tendrils, painted on either side. From a distance it would have looked like vivid tattoos.
Wracked with doubts, a little off kilter. Still more together than I would’ve been.
“You look good. The art’s good. The dress is pretty,” I said.
“It doesn’t match the seriousness of what we’re doing,” she murmured. “And I don’t feel very colorful right now.”
I gave her a one-armed hug, my forehead touching hers.
“Come on,” I said. “We get through this, figure out this crisis, then we see if Swansong will let you borrow a suitably colorless dress.”
That got a smile out of Sveta. “The horror. So not my style.”
“You’re thinking about style, hey. Step up from before our shopping trip.”
Tattletale rolled her eyes, opened the door, and walked in first, ignoring her offer to walk in together.
Being casual and confident was a kind of presentation on its own, when faced with a dangerous environment. It started with being a kid on her first patrol, standing tall and not looking afraid as she passed through dark, crime-ridden streets. It played into our stepping inside, me and Tattletale first, then Sveta and Snuff. A spacious dining area, with high ceiling and a kitchen setup in the direct center with a chimney reaching up to the roof, built around a stone stove with wood burning within. A stairwell off to our left seemed to lead upstairs.
Scattered villains were within. I saw Cleat and Crested. Vulturehawk was in the corner, alone, and focused in on Sveta the moment he saw her.
Nursery was here, too, sitting with a pregnant teenage girl who wasn’t in costume. Maybe a local. Her back was to us.
Bluestocking was sitting with Bitter Pill at the kitchen, and she stood. With a motion of her hand, she bid some of their enforcers to pat us down.
I’d always felt this little ritual was really dumb when I saw it. When powers were involved, weapons barely seemed to factor in. I undid the strap on my armor and pulled it away from my upper body, while the burly guy used the back of his hand at my armpits, then the top of my chest, the underside, my stomach, and then between my shoulderblades and the small of my back. He did my legs, then straightened.
Maybe it was a power thing. Subjecting us to this.
“You don’t usually come here,” Bluestocking observed. “You go to the tea shop?”
“I go where there’s business. Are they here?”
“They are. They’re waiting.”
Tattletale, Snuff, and I turned to look as the guy moved from me to Sveta. I strapped my breastplate back into place as I watched with something between bemusement and sympathy.
Fingers closed around cloth, finding that the only shape being maintained was a combination of wire frame and tendrils. Past the arms and shoulders, there really wasn’t much at all, and his attempt to find something to investigate saw him getting grabbed through the cloth more than he found purchase on anything.
Gentle grabs. He didn’t scream in agony. There was only bewilderment on his face.
Sveta’s expression was almost the inverse of my own, yet didn’t make me feel bad- there was no humor in her expression, it was stock still as she frowned at the man, but… I could see how she stood a little taller as she watched him work through it, her eyebrows moving slightly closer together as she focused intently to manage her control.
The guy turned toward his boss, helpless.
“It’s fine. Go sit down,” Bluestocking said. “Visitors, Tattletale, you may go upstairs. I have to check my paperwork, I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Tattletale and I walked beside one another as we ascended the stairs. Most eyes in the place watched us as we made our way up. Nursery turned to look, saw us, and waved. Not a wave for Tattletale, apparently.
She was like a bully from high school who met up with a victim years later and talked like they were old friends. Just… didn’t connect.
“The last time I was here was when I was hiring those guys,” Tattletale said. “The community center thing.”
I set my jaw, nodding.
“The clairvoyants we were using dropped off the map, but it was in service of a bigger picture.”
“Comforting,” I said, sarcastic.
“That’s great,” Sveta said. “I’m sure Cauldron thought the same thing.”
“Cauldron kind of saved the world, Tress.”
“Cauldron kind of doesn’t get to lay claim to saving the world when they created ten thousand problems and solved one. We don’t know if we would have been able to do it if they hadn’t caused the messes they had. If Gray Boy hadn’t killed heroes, if Eidolon hadn’t broken the Protectorate and Wards…”
“A discussion for another time.”
“Mm hmm. I look forward to it,” Sveta said.
Tattletale stopped in her tracks, putting out a hand to stop me.
“What’s going on?” I asked. The four of us were on the landing, nobody was on the stairs above us or below.
“Stop at the top of the stairs. Look natural,” Tattletale murmured. “We can talk, just know it’s a bit of a bear trap.”
“There are rules and expectations. This is a floor for meetings and private conversations. You don’t come here without invitation and you need the go-ahead to cross the room, unless you’re really trusted or too big to fuck with. If you don’t meet the standards, then anyone who has a problem with you can say you were listening in, and you’re out.”
“And people have a problem with you?” I asked.
“Imagine,” Sveta murmured.
“Let up, Sveta. I get it. And yes. A problem with me and a problem with you. Bluestocking doesn’t adore you, and she didn’t warn you for a reason.”
“Okay,” I said.
Tattletale indicated with her hand, and we made our way up the last set of stairs. With the height of the ceiling in the space downstairs, the second floor was closer to being where the third floor would be in another building.
Upstairs, things were nicer. Maple planks for the floor, trimmed with what might have been walnut. The lights were dimmer, each table had a small window beside it, with lamps for illumination after hours. A bar in the corner was backlit so the light shone through the various colored bottles. Behind the bar was a man in his sixties with deep black skin and a white beard, no hair on the top of his head, but trimmed hair at the sides and back. An earring glinted in one ear.
I recognized him and I had no idea where from. I felt like he was placed into the same mental drawer as the Slaughterhouse Nine, somehow, but however much I rummaged and tried to put a mask to the face, I couldn’t.
Which was ridiculous, because he was gray haired and gray haired parahumans weren’t a thing.
“Who?” Sveta asked.
“Table in the corner,” Tattletale said.
The most noticeable person at the table in the corner was a man with a prodigious belly, wrapped in golden armor. His mask was modeled off of what could have been a Greek statue, beard included, the eyes not visible past the dark eyeholes. His servant was cutting his sandwich into pieces. He looked loud, aggressive, and obnoxious.
Opposite the man was a woman with a stone mask so fine that there was no gap between stone and skin- it could have been latex. It made her face look like it was part statue. Her skin was a dark olive, her hair long, black, and wavy, and she wore a lot of ornamentation with snakes, primarily ouroboros imagery- the snake eating its own tail as a circlet, as a bangle at one arm, and at one leg. Her costume was stone ornamentation with fine cloth draping from it. Gray and jade as a color scheme, down to the contact lenses she wore.
Prancer was the last of them. His hair was combed back, but it was wild and brown locks of hair peeled away or mingled with the antlers built into his mask. He slouched a little, and he engaged with the man more than the woman.
“Fill us in?” I asked. “These are people you’ve studied and followed? We know Prancer.”
“The woman is Semiramis. Named herself after the first queen of Babylon or some shit like that. Dido might have named herself after someone who chucked a shitton of treasure in the ocean, but Semiramis named herself after the person who invented eunuchs as an institutionalized thing. That tidbit comes courtesy of Imp, by the way, and it fits perfectly, because this woman used to be as vicious as salt rubbed into a wound.”
“I’ve never heard of her.”
“Semiramis was second-in-command to a warlord and arms trafficker in Southern Europe, northern Africa. Held her position while waiting for her boss to die, and he finally kicked the bucket on Gold Morning. She took over, and now she’s a player behind the scenes. I mentioned the categories these people cover. For her, she’s a player when it comes to culture and cash.”
“Player how?” I asked.
“Music production, film, online media, games, some sports but not many, but what she does is a kind of slavery, getting people into her media empire and then keeping them in. Gets them in legitimately, then pulls a turning back the clock thing. Reverse their age, let them return to a point where they’re in their prime, actresses can stay in their early twenties forever, gamers can keep their reflexes, singers can keep the voice. All wholly voluntary… but they lose the memories of the time they undo.”
“Ahhh,” I said. “And if they were thinking about leaving…”
“They’d lose that desire to leave along with the year or so of memories. But she does what she does carefully. Always with witnesses. Always with benefits of a doubt. She combines that with turning ahead the clock, not for people but for things. Speeding up constructions, if they’re outlined well enough, and she’s one of the few parahumans who seem like they can do that without any apparent issues. She’s thriving right now, and she’s in a position where she can cancel a contract or pull strings and tens of thousands of jobs would be affected, or a market sector would change. She has celebrities and people under her thumb who she could tell to say something or start a war on the internet and make life really hard for someone.”
“That’s a little close to our situation,” Sveta commented.
“It’s close but no cigar. Her P.R. attack is a cudgel. With our situation we’re talking… tasteless poison.”
“Big guy is Little Midas. He’s a warmonger and a financial player. If you’ve noticed the uptick in the number of mercenaries around…”
“Yep. This is the kind of thing the Wardens, Undersiders, and others in my circles are trying to keep under control, while you’re focused on the more visible, surface-level crime. Little Midas tried to take over some corner worlds and as luck would have it, he failed. He went from funding his lieutenants to making it very easy for criminal mercenaries to be criminal mercenaries. Making up work for them to do, ensuring they have resources, ensuring they have a place to go back to. His power helps him make the money to make it possible. See the lieutenants?”
I did. Behind Little Midas were heroes who didn’t look like they were big players or planners. Behind Semiramis were a woman in her mid twenties in a blouse and slacks, and a guy in a suit with a beard oiled to a point. The two ate while looking at the same tablet computer.
“It’s quiet,” Sveta observed.
It was quiet. Aside from the occasional clink of utensil on plate, or the knock of a cup on the wood of a table, most of the conversation in the room was respectfully hushed. Little Midas might have been the loudest person present. Even if he hadn’t said a word in his inappropriately loud voice, he would have been audible, because he wore armor casually, and the gestures he made with every other statement made his armor clack against the table or the bench he sat on.
“If I was alone with Snuff, we wouldn’t have gotten this far. The fact you struck a deal with Blue and there’s some knowledge about it gives us a little bit of protection. Having a lot of deals in play provides more protection. Can’t knock someone off if people will think you kill anyone who you contract with. The protection helps too. Little Midas would sic his people on us and take his chances, and most of the people up on the second floor would side with him. He has too much clout.”
“How many enemies did you make?” I asked.
“Enough,” Tattletale said, her eyes scanning the room.
That was the end of that thread of conversation.
The curious old bartender stayed where he was, and it seemed like Tattletale was very right about movement through the room being a careful thing. When Midas raised a hand and then waved a mostly empty beer glass around, the bartender clanked glasses audibly, and knocked glass audibly against counter. A signal to people that he was coming by. The tone of conversation shifted, people drawing quiet as he passed within earshot.
The beer was delivered, and he took more orders on a clipboard before returning to his station. Tap tap, he knocked clipboard against the edge of the table, before returning.
The silence or adjusted tones that seemed to surround him as he walked by only added to my curiosity about him.
Sveta wasn’t focused on the room, but on the outside, I saw. I nudged her arm, giving her hand the briefest squeeze, and she turned my way to give me a small, sad smile.
“What you’re thinking, I don’t recommend it,” Tattletale said.
“Thinking?” Sveta asked.
“You’re thinking about Bluestocking’s deal with Victoria. That, if someone had to come stay here, it could be you. It would be nice to get away, have a fresh start. Fresh air-”
“No,” Sveta said.
“It crossed your mind.”
“Only barely,” Sveta said. “But being around shitty villains would suck, so my thoughts immediately went to going out on my own, living by the shore. But I can’t do that either. I need sessions to reinforce control, because now that I have it, I can’t give it up. I need technical help. Being disabled doesn’t give me the freedoms everyone else would enjoy. It’s not an option.”
“It’s not an option in the first place. I had teammates do that. It’s lousy. For them and for everyone else. That’s all I wanted to say.”
“Vista says Rachel is doing well where she is,” I noted.
“Her? I suppose,” Tattletale said. “But hush hush. Blue’s due to show up.”
I turned to look at the stairwell. No sound, no sign.
As I started to turn back, I saw movement- light from below cast a shadow against the wall by the landing of the stairs. Bluestocking rounded the bend in the stairs and came up. White puffy blouse, corset at the stomach and waist flowing into a stylized Victorian-style sweeping dress with a slit up both sides, to showcase the indigo blue stockings. Opaque glasses of a similar tint glinted as she pushed them up her nose. A long cigarette holder was tucked into a strap at one of her arms, cigarette absent. It was a decent look, spoiled by the fact that her face at rest made it look like she’d just caught the faintest whiff of something dead.
“I’m doing you a favor, mediating this,” Bluestocking said.
I met Tattletale’s eyes. See?
“You got your trade deal,” I told her.
“We got a trade deal with the city.”
“You asked for the moon and-”
“And we got a big rock. It’s fine. But before you play any games with me or my tribe, you should know I can always say you didn’t deal fair. That means any informants or contacts clam up when it comes to you, your team, and any heroes you call friends. Things get harder in other ways. You wouldn’t be allowed through the portal.”
“Noted,” I said. “I’ve got enough to do that you’re not really a concern right now. We’ll do our thing, you focus on getting through the winter, don’t give us a reason to come after you, and we won’t come after you.”
“And do yourselves a favor while you’re at it, and don’t harbor people-butchers,” Sveta said.
“Extenuating circumstances,” Bluestocking said, smiling slightly, enjoying the ‘get out of jail free’ card Prancer had provided far too much. “This way.”
Bluestocking led the way, with Tattletale and I walking side by side, Snuff and Sveta in the wings.
“Tattletale!” Little Midas boomed. “You dared show your face. You know Nero.”
“I’m aware of him,” Tattletale said. “The Teapot Emperor.”
The man in the seat behind Midas clenched one hand. He had a gladiator-style helmet, tunic, and armor, with a coat draped across his lap.
“And you know Snake-eater and Whistler,” Midas said, lowering his voice.
The other two people near ‘Nero’ shifted position.
“I don’t, actually. Nice to meet you, Snake-eater, Whistler. Semiramis, good to see you.”
Semiramis didn’t move a millimeter, as she stared Tattletale down.
“Prancer,” I said, before Tattletale could handle all of the introductions. “Still around, I see.”
“I was invited. We’re getting settled elsewhere,” Prancer said.
“We’re managing. A few weeks into building and organizing, and we’re getting to the point where we have creature comforts again.”
“If you call the eighteen year old keeping you company in your cabin a ‘creature’, sure,” Midas said, chortling at his own line.
“Company and a comfort. As I see it, we’re all creatures, we all have our needs, and I’m still mourning Velvet in my own way,” Prancer said. “But thank you, Little Midas, for bringing that up and reminding me. Let’s change the subject. How are you, Antares?”
“Some headaches. Ones we’re hoping you can help us with.”
“Straight to business?”
I shrugged one shoulder.
“Information costs,” Semiramis said.
“If my gut is right, and it always is, you’ll think this is worthwhile,” Tattletale said.
“My servants didn’t carry me all this way for nothing,” Little Midas said. He moved his hand, touching the table, then holding his hand out beside the table, level with the tabletop. Another table materialized, the material a glossy black, like obsidian or onyx, the particulars of the table identical to the one he’d just touched.
“Gracious,” Tattletale said. “I’m sure you wouldn’t act like a child on the playground and disappear it when we’re leaning on it.”
Little Midas chuckled.
A warning for the rest of us as much as it was a pre-emptive move to keep him from doing just that.
We collected chairs from empty tables nearby and gathered, Tattletale, Sveta and I each taking a side. Snuff stood a short distance away, arms folded.
“You hired Big Picture to join Foresight, Little Midas,” Tattletale said. “Semiramis provided the intelligence to put him in the right place at the right time to join.”
“Harsh accusations,” Prancer murmured.
“We’ve been investigating this for the last little while,” I said, “and these are things we already know. Can we skip the pretense?”
“No,” Semiramis said. “Pretense is important. You have to exchange a few parries before the fight can really start.”
“Or you can sweeten the deal and give some evidence about how this meeting is supposed to be worth it,” Prancer said.
“There’s a conspiracy at work,” Tattletale said. “And one of you was bit by it without realizing it.”
“Then it can’t be that bad,” Midas said.
“It will be. Every move they’ve made so far has had at least two targets. Every move they’ve made so far has worked on a level. Big Picture didn’t get placed in Foresight because someone got in the way. They also, I think, targeted you.”
“You think this why?” Semiramis asked.
“Because it’s a pattern, and I don’t see the move against Big Picture hurting Foresight in any way. Which means it’s bouncing back at you, most likely. Attacks against heroes is something I get, but if we confirm they’re against you and which of you they’re against, then that hints at their motivations.”
“And I’m here because why?” Prancer asked.
“Because you’re the most networked while being the least complicated, just like Antares here is well networked with heroes while not being so enmeshed in the upper echelons that I need to worry about moving heaven and earth. That and she found this out before I did.”
A nice way of putting it.
Tattletale motioned for a folded card that was on the table, and Prancer slid it over her way. A drink list, by the look of it. She raised her hand and motioned to the man behind the bar. She held up fingers. Three, two, zero -a circle made with her full hand-, three.
The man nodded, and began preparing.
I addressed Semiramis, “You want to know this if it’s being used on you. It’s going to come across as minor and questionable, but it’s going to feel impactful, and once they get going they aren’t going to stop with the one.”
“What are we looking for?” she asked.
I leaned forward. “Look for the consequences. People at the fringes of your organization who pulled away recently. Then identify the wedge. It’s going to be communication by some digital medium, something you find or casually come across. Authenticity of the message won’t be provable, but it won’t be disprovable either. In this case, we have a sense of what the Wedge is or where it comes from. It’ll relate to Big Picture.”
“Okay,” Semiramis said. “You’re right. No need for payment for my help. This is critical.”
“You already know exactly what happened, don’t you?” Tattletale asked.
“I already knew,” Semiramis said. “It bothered me. If you have more information, you can have mine.”
“Your media monsters,” Prancer said. He glanced at Sveta. “Is that offensive?”
“Your whatevers,” Prancer corrected.
Semiramis leaned back, fingernails with detailed jade decoration on then tapping the table’s surface. “Before Gold Morning happened, the PRT was trying to normalize the… what do you call them over here?”
“Case fifty-threes,” Sveta said.
“What term did you use?” Sveta asked.
“Their names,” Semiramis said. “They’re clients and products both, and both should be treated with care. There were three. Engel, Egg, and Scraping. The idea was that they would join me. An artist with ties to Big Picture and a history of working with case fifty-threes would join us, but to produce a video feature. We wanted to continue what the PRT of America was doing before things abruptly terminated. Engel, Egg, and Scraping in media. Big Picture didn’t get into Foresight, a letter about why found its way to my three would-be clients. They became uncomfortable and canceled their contracts.”
“Why did you want Big Picture in Foresight?” Tattletale asked.
“I did not say I did.”
“What do you know about them?” I asked Sveta.
“Engel is a community leader. She’s beautiful, inside and out, very opinionated. Not a big fan of me. She’s… I’m not sure I feel comfortable saying more about things personal to her. She had difficulties. She got help. She would be my second pick to be a movie star, but I wouldn’t want her to do so if it’s with the photographer I’m thinking of. From what she says she’s avoided the worst of all of that kind of mess. Egg is a kid. They were around for the attack on Cauldron, as of Gold Morning. Scraping I don’t know.”
“Scraping isn’t a case fifty-three,” Tattletale said.
“Then that’s why I don’t know them.”
“You know more than you’re letting on,” Tattletale said, to Semiramis.
“I need more if I’m going to give more.”
“And I’m barely involved, apparently,” Little Midas said.
“No,” Tattletale said. “You work with mercenaries. You farm them out. You work with people that include the ones downstairs. Those people targeted the Navigators three and a half weeks ago. They butchered them at the client’s behest. Familiar?”
“That does not mean I’m involved.”
“When they made that attack, they lured the Navigators out with carefully crafted messages. I think that was a first draft of this particular kind of attack. It worked. It passed muster. It leaned on deep and specific knowledge of the team and their deeper desires.”
This wasn’t a sudden thing.
“No comment,” Little Midas said. He made a small, pleased sound, moving the beard portion of his helmet to drink some beer and giving me a view of a smug smile surrounded by facial hair that had been pressed out of shape by the helm.
“-Unless you give us more,” Semiramis said.
She really wants more.
“We could talk about their other moves,” I said. I can share what they did with me.
“No,” she said.
“You have this ouroboros design in your costume,” Tattletale remarked. “It all ties back into itself. You poked a bear and you lost three possible underlings.”
“Actors and actress,” Semiramis said. “I don’t like losing. I’m a builder, I lay groundwork, I gather loyal people, and I reward them to keep them loyal. Oftentimes the work is a grind. I bite my tongue and work and I make my way toward my goal of having an empire. Something cleaner than what I used to be. It’s rare that I’m passionate about a project, and then don’t get to see the fruits of that labor. Give me my revenge, bring my three actors back to me, or tell me something else I need to know.”
I heard the clink of glass. Conversation across the upper floor changed. The old man approached. Our conversation paused.
Tattletale had her phone out. For a second, I thought she’d breached the communications blackout. Then I saw it was a note-taking application.
“Was there a nude scene?” Sveta asked. “Sorry, that’s a random question.”
“Yes,” Semiramis said. “A sex scene. But it was Engel who was interested in it.”
“Years ago… a kiss between a Case Fifty-Three and a human. Today… perhaps more.”
“She’s too innocent,” Sveta said. “She doesn’t get it.”
“Yes. But that can be good,” Semiramis said. “Innocence, optimism.”
Tattletale slid the phone over to Sveta as the bartender set her drink down. It was small and smelled like mint.
Sveta typed out her response, not as slow as she might’ve been, considering how unpracticed she was. She knew her way around a regular keyboard, and that helped.
She passed it back to Tattletale.
“Okay,” Tattletale said. “Engel went to Teacher for help with mental issues having to do with her power and physiology.”
“Hey,” Sveta said, looking legitimately pissed.
“She just said she didn’t want to share Engel’s private business.”
Tattletale continued on, ignoring our protests, her eyes alert. “-And Egg knew his way around Cauldron. They talked, they shared information, and they knew things between them. Big Picture was sent to Foresight because they’re the best information gatherers. Teacher… wanted to ensure nobody was too hot on his trail. So he blew it up. Surgical strike. This is looking a lot like Teacher, with some resources behind him.”
“Yes,” Semiramis said, not sounding pleased. “I know this. I would say you need to tell me things I don’t know to get me to share information, but you seem dead set on digging on your own. Perhaps… we should tell you goodbye, and minimize how much you dig until you’re ready to deal.”
“This is why nobody likes you, Tattletale,” Sveta said. “Everyone at this table is annoyed, now.”
“I’m fine,” Little Midas said, at the same time Nero at the next table cleared his throat. “This is amusing.”
“Basically, anyway. One less person at this table, another at the next table over.”
“It’s fine,” Tattletale said. She indicated Semiramis. “She still wants to know more. How. If it’s salvageable. What she can do to protect herself. It’s why she sent Big Picture to Foresight in the first place. She wants to build and she wants to know the lay of the land. Teacher’s the biggest unknown.”
“You may be underestimating my spitefulness,” Semiramis told Tattletale.
“I’m exactly estimating it,” Tattletale said. She leaned back, put down her phone, and picked up her drink. Settling in for a game of chicken.
I reached out, putting my hand on top of the drink. I eased it and her hand back to the table.
All the talk of cases. Case Twelve. I turned to the Old Man. I’d thought of him in the same way I thought of sinister and ominous things in the background, like the Slaughterhouse Nine. The Nine had even been a series of cases, with Siberian’s attack on the Triumvirate as case one.
“What?” Tattletale asked.
“The first parahumans appeared starting in 1984,” I murmured. “Parahumans tend to trigger between ages eight and thirty, give or take a few years for the edge cases. In the nineties, there was talk and rumor of a gang leader gaining a lot of ground, once upon a time. The first thought was that he was a parahuman. He wasn’t. His uncle was. The man slipped away.”
A few heads turned.
“Given his age, he’d have triggered around thirty two, thirty-three years of age. That was roughly thirty years ago. The portrait matches.”
“You know this how?” Prancer asked.
“She collects old case files,” Sveta said.
Little Midas tapped Snake-eater on the shoulder. The man stood from the cushioned bench he sat on. Not even facing us, the man at the bar raised his hands in surrender.
“Not putting up a fight?” Snake-eater asked.
“Too old to run. Never one to fight.”
“Do we need to worry about what he’s capable of?” Prancer asked.
“Have you had anything to eat or drink here?”
“Then the damage is done,” I said. “You’ll live, don’t worry.”
“I’ve eaten and had a drink on a past visit,” Tattletale said. She tugged on her drink. “I’m good to go, right?”
I kept her from lifting it, my hand still over the top. “You probably don’t want to.”
She leaned back, letting go of the glass. “I have a headache.”
“You wouldn’t if you didn’t use your power for a hundred small ‘looking cool’ moments in the car,” Sveta murmured.
“Five at most,” Tattletale said.
“Explain this,” Semiramis told me, stern. “Explain him.”
“He’s the secret weapon the top people here were joking about,” Prancer said. He smiled. “Marquis, before he left. Lord of Loss before he was arrested-”
“He was released, but he’s being monitored,” Little Midas said.
“All the same. Loss tried to make sly remarks while they were a little too lubricated to be clever… this was worthwhile.”
“I know they talked about things. I want specifics,” Semiramis said.
“And you get your answers when you give us the details we need, open and fairly,” I told her.