“Can anyone do us a big favor?” Kenzie asked, distracted. “We need someone to walk over to Theo and Rain and tell them that the surveillance state is our friend.”
“Tell me where they are and why I’m telling them that and I will,” Byron said.
It was the small hours of the morning, and for the most part the only light was the ambient glow of city lights finding their way into the prison center through the glass roof. The building’s heat led to some of the snow and ice on that glass to find its way in through cracks, precipitating a series of steady trickles and drips. All of us, for the most part, had found places to settle in, but few of us slept.
The place lacked proper rooms, and it had the feeling of a labyrinth. A central plaza was set in the middle, while showers, bathrooms, and one room with a purpose I hadn’t yet figured out were set around the perimeter. A lot of the walls were paths for guards and guards only, and a lot of the hallways had thick glass windows with guards on the other side, with gaps and apertures for guards to fire through. A lot of the hallways, ours included, had a faint four or five degree incline – not so much it was impossible to settle, but enough that it was hard to rest easy without feeling like we’d roll down the hall.
Byron was in prison clothes now. Tristan hadn’t wanted to keep his brother in reserve as the hours crept forward, and so we’d had to find an excuse to swap them out. Laundry was handed out on a requirement basis, and after some confusing discussion and pantomime we’d requisitioned an outfit. The twin that was swapped out wore the armor, which made the swapping something that had to happen in a bathroom stall.
“They’re in the courtyard, southeast corner. I think they’re trying to follow the rules but they’re not quite in the camera’s range. I would bet if they stay in a blind spot like that the guards are going to harass them.”
“And we want to stay where the cameras can watch us,” Byron said. He looked up at the cameras in our hallway. “Got it.”
He pulled himself to his feet and walked off.
“Agents in hallway to our left and middle,” Kenzie said, sticking an arm out to indicate the hallways. “I can’t say for sure that they’re going to be problems but-”
“But we take the right hallway to get to the central courtyard and there isn’t going to be a problem for sure.”
“Yep. Pretty sure.”
Stay in sight, stay clearly under the cameras we were in a position to manipulate, and be model prisoners. That was the game, the charade. It was a game we could cheat at in small ways. Kenzie was a big factor in that, with an eye on the same cameras the guards used.
For all the world, it looked like she was sharing a cot with Ashley, Ashley sitting against the wall, Kenzie lying down with a thin pillow propped up against Ashley’s thigh, which she used as a pillow. Kenzie’s hands were motionless, folded across her stomach. But as Byron left on his mission, Kenzie began humming dissonantly. Tinkering in another way.
“Hmm hm, mm-mm-mm, hmmmm… Mm-wah, hmm…”
There was no musicality, it even bordered on anti-music.
“Kenzie, you’re cute and all,” Vista said, and her voice had a burr of tiredness in it. She trudged over to the cot Byron had been sitting on and plunked herself down. “But you are going to get shanked if you keep that up.”
Kenzie tittered. “Don’t make me laugh, you’ll make me mess up the sequence.”
“Does it have to be done tonight?” Vista asked.
“No. I can finish programming tomorrow,” Kenzie said. She turned onto her side, eyes pointed the way of Ashley’s knee, then twisted around almost to face the opposite direction to look up at Ashley, “You okay? Your leg isn’t falling asleep?”
“You’re fine,” Ashley said.
“Darlene’s throwing me off with the sequences anyway. She’s staying up tonight to keep an eye out in case I need emergency help or hands elsewhere. She’s giggling because both Candy and Chicken are snoring. It’s like dueling banjos, but snorty. She’s trying so hard to not laugh so much she wakes them up.”
“You stay connected while you’re asleep?” I asked.
“Sometimes! The first time we did it, Darlene fell asleep by accident, so there was nobody to cancel it, unless we wanted to wake her up on purpose. Then that was the same night someone, I’m not gonna say who, they had a nightmare. Really spooky when it happened, because you’re paralyzed while you’re asleep, but you’ll jerk and twitch and your heart rate goes up and stuff. So I thwacked my hand against my bedside table to wake everyone up. A little too hard. It still hurts a bit.”
“Might be a little too much, if you’re always connected,” I said.
“Maybe. But it’s kind of nice having company when falling asleep, you know? It’s only been good dreams ever since. I can feel them breathing and it makes it easier for me to breathe when it’s dark and I start thinking about spooky stuff.”
“Do you have trouble breathing?” I asked. “Panic attacks?”
“Not actual trouble. But everything feels heavier, you know?”
I digested that. The pressure of the twilight hours. “I know. Is it the cape stuff that’s getting to you?”
“No, nah. Cape stuff is fun. Spooky stuff is when I’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling, and I start thinking about what if I never figure it out, you know? What if I’m never better and I spend the rest of my life pushing people away, and every morning and every night I wake up without a family, and every Christmas it’s just me buying myself a present. Always just me, you know, smiling smiling smiling, trying to keep busy making Christmas treats for the needy for Church events and still doing tinker stuff too because that’s going to be in my life forever…”
Her voice was taking on a wobbly cadence like she was finally drifting off to sleep.
“You’ll have me,” Ashley said. “It’s hard to get rid of me.”
“Yeah, but…” Kenzie said. It took her a while to summon up the thoughts. It seemed like fatigue more than anything. “…People go away. They die. So I think of you and I feel better, but then I think what if something happens, and I feel worse again. Then I start thinking… better tinker. If I make better stuff I can protect all of you.”
“I’ve died a bunch of times and I’m still here.”
“Yeah. But don’t want to stretch that until it snaps,” Kenzie mumbled. “Mm. Don’t let me fall asleep. I need to keep an eye out.”
“You need to sleep. We’ll manage.”
“It’s unfair, you know. Because being around you all like this and networking into the others through Darlene, Aiden sleeping in a cot in Darlene’s room and Candy sleeping in a beanbag chair in her room… is when I feel the least like I’m going to end up alone and I feel the most like I can sleep easy… but I should watch for trouble, I shouldn’t sleep.”
“You should. Shh,” Ashley said. “Rest.”
Kenzie twisted around, curling up closer and wrapping her arms around Ashley’s thigh, where Ashley sat cross-legged next to her. She squeezed and smushed her face tight against Ashley’s leg.
“Chicken has a snot bubble in his left nostril. It’s clicking rapid-fire every time he breathes out,” Kenzie said. “There needs to be a camera that captures moments like that, and all of the feelings around that moment.”
“Go to sleep,” I said. “We’ll see if you snore and put a smile on Darlene’s face.”
As I said it, I saw some people walking through the hallway in the dark. They paused as they saw us.
Six, seven people. Men and women, all silhouettes in the dark. People came in wearing whatever clothes they had that were allowed, and those clothes were a kind of status symbol. People inevitably had to start wearing the shitty prison uniforms after a time, and so that marked a kind of veteran status. But the people who were veterans and had any kind of clout or standing were those who’d migrated into wearing the prison uniforms but had other clothing worn as part of their outfit, the more tattered the better.
Shirts with patterns had sleeves tied together and were worn around the shoulder or waist. Dresses torn up and wound around hair or worn as wide hoods that extended from shoulder, over the head, to shoulder.
Beyond that, there were stages of quality. One man with a frayed basket-weave mesh of two cloth types, worn as a scarf. A woman with a complex five-part braid to her shawl seemed to be the one in charge. Colors seemed to signify gangs or group affiliation.
We had settled down in an area of the prison the gangs seemed to stay away from, because the conditions weren’t great-it was cold enough there was a puddle of water in the corner with hints of ice at the edges- and because it was under the cameras. A couple of older women and two family groups were set up in this spot.
“If you hug my leg that tight, you’re going to cut off the circulation,” Ashley told Kenzie.
But the kid was already asleep. Ashley seemed to make peace with it.
“The first time I met her, I found her really hard to get used to,” Vista said.
“Kenzie?” I asked.
“Mm. It took me a while to realize why. Wasn’t anything to do with her. It’s that she’s the opposite of me, back when I was a hero her age.”
The gang hadn’t moved. They stood in the hall, staring us down.
“I look back and I wish I’d tried harder to be a kid. Have friends my own age, crushes my own age instead of crushing on an older boy. I wish I’d leaned on people more.”
“To be fair, he was crush-worthy.”
Vista made an amused sound.
Ashley turned her gaze my way. She hadn’t used her power on herself recently, and with the apparatus out of her eyes and in Rain’s possession, she didn’t have her pupils erased or her smoke effect. Her eyes looked almost normal. In the dim, I could see her eyes move between me and the gang.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding slightly. “Yeah.”
Ashley nodded. She’d just wanted to make sure I was aware.
Did they want to intimidate us? Were they keeping track to see if we all fell asleep at the same time?
“This thing about them sharing bodies or whatever?”
“They feel what the others feel.”
“Yeah. That’s a little weird and creepy.”
“Yeah,” I said, I laughed softly, keeping my voice down to avoid disturbing anyone. “Absolutely. But it’s complicated.”
“Keeps her mind off of the idea of a lonely Christmas,” Vista said.
“That too,” I said. “We’ll talk to her about it.”
“I don’t want to begrudge her anything she needs or wants,” Ashley said. “Even if it’s ‘bad’.”
She made air-quotes as she said it. When she lowered her hand, it rested on top of Kenzie’s head.
“Bad is bad,” I said. “But I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing.”
“If her path to happiness means weirdness, or blackmailing her parents, or staying up late tinkering, then I’ll support that,” Ashley said. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it does require those things. But if it did or if it does in the future, I wouldn’t necessarily stand in her way.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
Byron, Rain, and Theo came back, walking down the hall. They didn’t slow down as they got closer to the gang.
I thought about my options. How hard I could hit people, how fast I could move with flying without betraying that I was using powers. I stood and stretched, so I’d be ready. Vista pushed herself up from a position where she was sort of lounging to a proper sit.
Looking at all of us, the gang leader with the shawl braid nudged her lieutenant. Without a word exchanged, the gang broke up, a good portion of them walking off in the direction of the showers.
It wouldn’t stay that easy.
I’d had Kenzie reach out to Citrine, and Citrine would apply a bit of pressure. The Wardens would surely do the same. Hopefully.
That gave us a clock, a period of time where we needed to play by their rules and avoid getting caught in their traps. We could give them no video evidence, nothing that could be cut out of context, and no excuses. If we did, then they would move for harsh punishment.
Kenzie had confirmed they didn’t have audio. They did have video. They kept tabs on us with soldiers, and with her eyes on the camera, she’d confirmed that some prisoners had entered the facility, possibly from another similar building, some of them were like the gang leader with the braided scarf, arriving dressed and acting like veterans with some clout.
And, Kenzie had observed, using the cameras, that these people had gone straight from the entryway, a different one than we’d used, to find us. Now they remained in our periphery.
They would adapt. As the clock ran down, they’d be more willing to force an imperfect conclusion over a perfect one.
I sat back down on my cot, being careful not to disturb Sveta, who was sleeping. Beneath the two blankets she’d draped over herself, her body had partially disassembled, shoulder and ribcage dissolving into straps so she could more easily lie ‘flat’ on the angled hallway.
Byron looked over at Vista, who had stolen his mattress, and then started to look for another.
“A lot of the other mattresses are damp or cold,” Vista told him.
“Then you keep that one. I can endure the cold and the wet with my power.”
“Don’t be dumb, Byron,” she told him.
I watched him hem and haw for a second.
“Not dumb,” he said. “Just…”
“Complicated,” Rain volunteered.
“Come, sit. We can talk about it,” Vista said. “Or say the word and I’ll find another spot.”
He walked over, and he sat.
Rain and Theo found their own cots. If Rain was bothered by the quality of his mattress, he didn’t comment. He’d carried his issued blanket with him and draped it over himself without much of a care.
Golem, meanwhile, just sat.
“What are the rules or boundaries?” Vista asked.
“What?” Byron asked.
“Like, just for the sake of argument, if you were to start seeing a girl, what are the rules of engagement?”
I turned to look at Vista, my eyes widening. She ignored me.
“I’m not sure I would. I don’t think it’s fair to the girl. Too many hurdles, too much baggage.”
“We all have baggage. We could all die at any time, that’s life as a cape. Put those things together and if we wait to get over our baggage we’re liable to end up dead before we get anywhere.”
Morbid pick up line there, Vista.
“True. It’s still messy, if you ignore all of that. If we expect to die sometime soon, we don’t want the meantime to be full of angst and anger, right?”
“Right, so we talk. Negotiate. Where are we at, Byron? If a girl says she likes you, what does it take, what’s off the table?”
“I could make an educated guess, but I dunno. I thought I had a good idea of it before and then things all went wrong. Couldn’t go to third base, probably not even second. I’d hesitate before even kissing, and if the line’s drawn there…”
“Doesn’t feel much like a relationship,” Vista said.
“No. Which isn’t fair to the girl.”
“Your kid teammate over there was talking a bit about finding her way to a less lonely place. Protecting those close to her, having people she’s connected to while she sleeps.”
“They’re doing it while they sleep?” Byron asked, alarmed, leaning forward to get a better view of Kenzie. “Is that just because of this whole thing, or-”
“Focus. Focus,” Vista said, pushing him back down to a sitting position. “Can’t do anything about it.”
“Uh huh,” he said.
Vista had pushed him down, and she didn’t move her hand from his chest.
“I think you’re cool. I like the words that come out of your mouth when you talk. And I think Tristan’s really neat too, I think he’s fun and he’s good company. If you want to try to figure out what you and me look like, and if Tristan was cool with it, I’d want to try. You, me, Tristan, and what I imagine are a lot of rules and boundaries that keep things peaceful.”
“Did you talk to my team to figure out how to approach this?”
“Nope. I mean, some preliminary fact checking, seeing if there were any things to watch out for. They gave me the twenty-words-or-less on your ex.”
“They’re pretty restrictive,” Byron said. “The rules.”
“Sure. But we’ve talked a bunch of times now and I like you more each time. I think I’d rather try you and me with all that stuff in the way than hang back and wait for some other sexy black knight type to turn up. I worry there’s not enough time to wait for perfect.”
“I’m a blue knight more than a black knight.”
“Ehhh. Broody and introspective with a dark background?”
“Yeah, maybe. Conceded. Feels like I’m being called evil though.”
“You can be a dark knight without being evil. Trust me, if you were evil, it would be a total turn-off. Speaking of turn-offs, you were supposed to pay more attention to when I called you sexy.”
“That’s… harder to navigate.”
“Yeah. Just say you feel flattered.”
“I do. Really.”
“You can add something to the end, Mr. Taciturn. Like, ‘especially when it comes from a beautiful young lady such as yourself’.”
“You have no idea,” Byron said.
“That’s a good answer,” she said, her voice soft. “So, uh, that’s me. Now you do your thing, brood on it for a while-”
“Brood sounds so negative.”
“Introspect on it. Digest. See how you feel about it. Talk to Tristan, see how he feels about it. Tristan, you can talk to me if you want. If any of you have any concerns or doubts or if you want to let me down easy, just say it’s too complicated or there’s too much going on. I’ll understand.”
“Doesn’t feel very organic.”
“Nope,” Vista said. “But it’s what we get. Now I’m going to go find another cot, or I’ll be super self conscious.”
“Nah,” Byron said, getting to his feet before she could. “Easier for me to get comfortable elsewhere than it is for you. Let me be the gentleman, as a way of thanking you for being cool. I’m not good at this whole thing, but it kind of made my week.”
Vista hugged her knees. “It making your week makes my month. So there, take that.”
Byron, wearing insulated footie costume feet and sandals, padded his way over to other mattresses, to find one that was unoccupied and in decent enough condition.
Vista, for her part, let herself tip over, until she lay on the mattress, and pulled the blanket over herself. She saw me looking and winked.
She did end up slipping off into dreamland, not too long after that. Byron wasn’t in a great position to watch both ends of the hallway, and Rain was reclining with intent to sleep, apparently having worked it out with Theo, so it more or less left Theo and I to maintain watch.
Into the small hours of sunrise, and the light of dawn on an alien Earth.
The dawn brought breakfast, and the plaza was loosely organized with people in line, with guards milling through. The crowd was dense enough that there wasn’t a place to stand where we could extend our arms fully to each side, and that was a problem.
Our ability to eat was on the line.
“Not enough cameras here,” Kenzie observed. “They use the guards more.”
The press of bodies would have made identifying incidents hard with the cameras.
It was hard to find a way through the crowd that didn’t put us in a position to get shivved, and I wasn’t ruling that possibility out.
It didn’t look like not eating was a possibility either. Each person who picked up a bowl to get food had a bracelet put on them.
“Rain and I found some English-speaking prisoners last night,” Theo said. Even without his armor, Golem was a big guy, and big was useful when we wanted people to get out of our way and give us a bit of space. It wasn’t enough to give us a clear route, though.
“They were nice enough,” Rain said. “But I think they didn’t realize who or what we are.”
One of the people in line went to get their food, bowl out. The person checked their bracelet, ready to slip another on, then grabbed hold of their wrist, holding it up as much as they could while leaning over the serving table.
Guards came and seized the prisoner. There was no struggle, no resistance.
“Want to know something crazy?” Theo asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Hit me with it.”
“They want it. This thing with the meal? They stretch it out, so you’re hungry, you have to wait in line, you have to push, pull, shove, or you get the shitty food that’s left over when everyone else has eaten, all the chunks gone, and only the broth remaining. So you do what you can to balance not causing trouble with getting your food, and bam, they check your bracelet, you won the lottery. Guards grab you, drag you off, and take you into the administration building.”
“Punish you,” Rain added.
“And they want it,” Theo said. “Most people in line here, they’re hoping for it.”
“Explain that one for me,” Vista said. I didn’t miss the fact that Vista and Tristan were hanging out. Everyone had gone to the showers on waking up and while inside the stall Byron had changed to Tristan, Tristan had set the armor aside, changed back to Byron, who’d put it on, then they’d changed back to Tristan for good. There wasn’t any structure here, so they could do the same thing whenever they needed to swap.
He’d gone straight to Vista to talk. Last night, eavesdropping hadn’t really been a choice, my only other option had been to stop standing guard and keeping an ear out for trouble, and that didn’t make sense.
“Sentences aren’t really sentences in terms of time,” Theo said. “The Coalition and the other major civilized nations hate the idea of long sentences and stays in prison, they think it’s barbaric, so they make the stays short, unpredictable, and the punishments harsh. Getting dragged off means you get punished, yeah, but it also kind of acts like a chance to prove yourself and have a kind of parole hearing in front of ten randomly chosen citizens, where a lot of the time if you give the right answers you get released.”
“The part that got me,” Rain said, “Was that once you’re out, your debt to society is paid.”
“There’s a bloodthirst to the punishment,” Theo said. “I won’t deny that. It took my breath away, just hearing it from the prisoners. But here, at least, they want to knock out your defenses and natural resistance.”
“And brainwash you,” Rain said.
“Yeah,” Theo said. “Basically. I would not say I’d rather come here than go to a prison on Earth, if I’d done something wrong, but… wouldn’t say I’d rather go to a prison on Earth either.”
“The ‘rebuilding’ is supposed to be according to strict rules and shit,” Rain said. “Revise and uncover coping mechanisms, perspectives, toxic relationships… really big focus on the rehabilitation part. I’m really not sure how I feel about it. The idea of going and within a year or three being done? Being allowed to re-enter society? That sounds good enough that I could see myself looking past the brainwashing.”
“Poor Rain,” Ashley said, putting a hand on Rain’s shoulder. “The last few brainwashings really did a number on him.”
“Fuck, don’t scare me like that,” Rain said.
The thought of brainwashing led to me thinking about the hospital room. I tried to divorce my thoughts from it, and found myself looking at Sveta.
More than a few of us had been brainwashed or affected mentally. Rain, legitimately. Ashley, through powers and programming. Sveta, through Cauldron. Me, through Amy. Kenzie had maybe perpetrated it, if blackmail and manipulation of her parents counted.
It looked like one in eight or one in nine people were being pulled out of line. To be punished, reconditioned. I saw a family two parents with kids leading their kids by the hands.
That wasn’t really my focus though. Supposedly we were safe. We weren’t supposed to be punished.
My focus was in the crowd.
I looked for the telltale pieces of clothing that weren’t light gray or brown. Different colors of cloth were woven together to create clashing patterns, and those caught the eye. But there were places where long hair was braided or woven with cloth, and that caught the eye in the same way. There were pieces of clothing that had multiple patterns and texture that nearly matched, which made them stand out less.
I wanted to fly, to see over this crowd. But we had been rendered almost powerless, by politics and not by any interference.
“We should eat,” I said.
“We have to. If we don’t the guards drag us off and give us a hard time,” Rain said.
“Good to know. Good research.”
Into the crowd. Our formation was a battle formation, two people watching our flanks, two up front, two at the sides. Our most vulnerable member was in the middle.
Guards moved through the crowd, jostling people, pausing to question or check them.
A whole group of people walked in row and column, the crowd parting, as they carried covered bowls to the large room I’d observed before. I’d had a glimpse of the space as I walked to the showers earlier – it was now partitioned off into sub-rooms. Apparently there was a sub-group of people who viewed eating in public or eating communally to be the equivalent of taking a shit in the company of friends. Curtain partitions and a mutual expectation to eat in total silence allowed them their privacy.
I saw gang members with prison uniforms and accessories fashioned of old clothes in the midst of the crowd. One guy, huge, with cloth wrapped around his hands like a kickboxer might do. A woman with a strip of material with a tight knot at the end had been stopped by guards. As we passed, she and the guards she was talking to looked at us.
“Group of weirdos just hit the edge of the crowd at our seven,” Kenzie said.
“Weirdos? Be more specific,” Rain said, turning to look.
“All dressed in black, bright bandannas. Camera quality isn’t great.”
“Yeah,” Rain said.
“And guards,” Ashley said.
The heads-up was late, because the guards were moving through some of the densest parts of the crowd. They passed that part of the crowd and set their sights on us.
Kenzie discreetly passed something up to her neck, before popping something else into her mouth. She turned to Rain, motioning toward his sleeves.
Only another moment or two before they were here-
Rain pulled it out, fumbled with it for a second, too long-
Kenzie reached out, pushing the pronged apparatus into Rain’s midsection. It was set to phase through, but Rain winced like it hurt. Sveta took the other from Kenzie’s hand, and passed it under her top.
Guards forced us apart, proceeding with a pat-down. They were young, no older than Tristan, and their expressions were hard, their hands rougher.
Checking us over quickly.
It was a mistake to think the guards and security cameras were enough. The same woman with the braided shawl from last night stepped out of the crowd.
I’d expected a shiv. Something prison-issue that had been honed to a point. Failing that, I expected a flail or weighted object.
Not so. She flung out an arm in our direction, and something lemon-shaped, metal, and the size of a golf ball came our way, a thread or wire attached.
I reached out to swat at the tiny lemon, ready to use my power, timing the Wretch with the swat, and then reconsidered- power use, could I get away with it?
I could. I would have, but my hesitation threw off my timing, and I was a hair too late. The projectile whipped around my hand, carrying the wire with it. She pulled, and almost all of the skin between the middle three knuckles of my left hand and my wrist was pulled away, wrinkling up around the backs of my fingers, bound in wire.
Fuck, did it ever hurt. I dropped to my knees, looked back at the guards- and saw the one who had been closest to me stepping back.
She flicked out her other hand, an identical projectile, and it was set to fly around my head. I could bring one arm up, but it would circle around, catch me at one side of the face.
It curved in the air, ready to whip around, and then sailed straight, instead, cutting the guard’s forearm instead. He barked out words in a language I didn’t understand.
Unfazed, barely seeming to realize that anything fucky was happening, she just hauled back on the wire, dragging the length of it up my hand, past the knuckles at the base of my fingers, and up to the first knuckle of my index and middle fingers, skin coming off like someone had taken a potato peeler to it.
Theo pulled his shirt off and threw it over the wire before trying to grab it.
I saw him run his fingertips along the edge of the wire, fiercely enough to make them bleed. I saw some slack appear, as the woman who held the wire-
His fingernails, passing through the wire to lacerate the part of her hand it rested against.
Theo’s efforts individually might not have been effective or very visible, but they gave me some slack to work with, and they did get the attention of someone nearby, the guy with the basket-weave scarf around his neck. Almost Theo’s size, he barreled out of the crowd and kicked Theo hard in the side of the stomach, sending Theo sprawling into the wire, causing me and the woman with the braided shawl to fall in his direction, as he fell on the wire. The wire came free, mostly because it had finished its journey, starting at the base of my wrist and scraping its way up to fingertip. The pain was blinding, and I was dimly aware I’d lost two fingernails along with a good bit of skin.
They said swearing had an anaesthetic effect, making pain easier to handle. I couldn’t bring myself to worm a word, but I managed to make a noise that anyone, in any language, would interpret as something between scream and invective.
Guards barked words in their language, grabbing and pushing to keep my teammates from helping. More guards came, only adding to the obstruction, but they didn’t step into the midst of this.
The woman started to reel in her weapons, and I stepped forward, planting my foot on the threads and the wad of my skin that had come off, probably with fingernails attached. She stepped back, dropping threads, and turned her body away, almost a fencer’s pose. To hide what she was doing with her right hand.
People had backed away enough I had a moment. I stooped down, using my good hand to scoop up Theo’s shirt. She threw another of those lemon golf ball yoyos with thread spooling out, and I used the Wretch, defending myself just enough that the thread would be glance off, be pushed away by the Wretch’s expansion.
A second later, I canceled it, throwing the shirt up and letting it catch on the wire.
I grabbed the cloth and the wire, and used the Wretch to ensure my grip was secure and that the wire wouldn’t cut through cloth and into my hand.
I wasn’t sure what happened next, as I tried to throw it down so I could step on it and make reeling it in hard. It could have been the Wretch, reaching out with another hand and tugging. It could have been the way she had the wires arranged for easy deployment. But it cut her.
She didn’t scream, didn’t yelp, just immediately fell to her knees. Wire had sliced through her hand from between middle and ring finger to the middle of the palm, with a visible gap.
The pain from the back of my hand made it hard to stand up straight, and hard to take a deep breath. Every breeze across that area where skin had been flensed away made me want to scream again, or to vomit.
Broad fucking daylight, how many witnesses? And someone in black clothes with a red loop of cloth at the neck made a run past Sveta, cutting her with a blade, and went straight for Tristan. Tristan leaped back, groped for an empty bowl, and the man who held the bowl handed it over.
The guy with the knife had skin that looked like the equivalent of hair bleached blonde, too white, damaged, and uneven to be entirely normal. He made two swings and Tristan held the bowl so it surrounded his fist, punching at the knife swings to deflect them with the wood. He saw an opening and hopped forward, kicking the attacker in the gut.
The guy with the knife came at Tristan again. Tristan stood ready, bowl in hand, and the guard who had been searching him earlier gave him a kick from behind, putting him off balance. The knife slash extended from the side of the wrist to elbow.
Someone stepped out of the crowd, toward Tristan.
The guard intoned a single word in another language.
I didn’t need to guess what it was. It was easy enough to tell, as Tristan took one step away from the conflict and toward the crowd, like he hoped to escape this.
People closed ranks. Men stepped in front of women. Rain tried to circle around behind the guy with the knife, only for someone in the crowd to grab him, throw him to one side, and kick him in the hip. He rolled onto his back as a couple of people stepped closer to him. A mob.
I saw a glimmer of silver at his fingertips. He dismissed it before it took any form. It could have been mistaken for a trick of light through the snowy glass ceiling above the plaza.
Rain’s attempt to stand saw him wince, dropping to one knee. People looked ready to deliver another kick if he got close enough, but he couldn’t get closer to the knife wielder. Without his powers available, he remained where he was, one hand at his hip.
Every last one of them against us.
Because we were parahumans.
Fuck. Goals. What did they want?
They wanted to frame us. They wanted an excuse to force the issue with their trade deal. To get their people into our city, where they’d have their own kind of influence.
Vista backed away as the guard who had been holding her lost his grip on her arm. Toward Tristan, a little closer to the guy with the knife.
What had I said to Ashley, back on the train? Every little bit mattered. Every ally made, every reinforcement of positive expectations. It counted toward a greater something.
Here, that something wasn’t in play. Here, a small, powerful group led by a small, powerful person had frittered away any and all currency they had with the public, turning to force instead.
Every time a parahuman pulled out a gun because it was easier, or crossed lines, or went after families, or threw away all pretense of showmanship to go hard at the efficient, rational route, they were edging us collectively toward this.
Could we win, if we went all out? Probably. But would that lead us to a world we wanted to live in?
Needed to find a way out, when surrounded by hundreds who hated us on principle. By authority and institution that had no reason to take it easy or to tell the truth.
“We stopped Goddess, damn it,” I said, through pants for breath.
“We stopped her!” Tristan raised his voice, far louder than I was. “Any of you speak English? Tell them!”
Nobody translated for us.
Too angry. Too riled up. This wasn’t a prison like I was used to seeing on television or in movies, but it was a prison with its own pressures and influences. People needed an outlet, after months or years of having their lives on hold.
They needed blood. Punishment.
“Vista,” I said.
“Mm?” she responded with a sound, not a word.
“They want us to bleed.”
The guy with the knife came after her.
“Fuck it,” Vista said.
The guy tripped, his foot finding no traction, and he sprawled. Vista walked up to him, stepped on the back of his neck on her way to step onto the wrist of the hand that held the knife.
She drove her heel down, grinding the back of the hand until the knife was released. A good old prison shiv, instead of some razor wire bola bullshit.
“You want blood?” she asked, turning to face the crowd.
The guards didn’t look impressed, and looked wholly ready to come after her.
She cut the back of her hand, a single slash.
“How’s that? Satisfied? Is this what you want?” she asked, raising her voice. “Blood? These guys gave you enough blood when they put their lives on the line to stop your tyrant!”
Someone in the crowd translated this time.
Vista grabbed the blade and snapped it off. I suspected she had used her power to thin it enough it would easily break. She threw the blade to one side and the handle to the other.
Ashley wasn’t too bloody, but she hadn’t really fought, except to drop to the ground, a guy looming over her, her eyes narrowed at him. Kenzie had a bloody nose. Sveta had been cut, and the wound around the cut was zipper-flesh, her new ribbons, no longer meeting around the injury. But it was a small cut.
Tristan and I had the worst injuries, objectively.
We’d cheated some, using powers, but not in such a way that they could easily point fingers at any of it. Not in a way that -I glanced around, looking for cameras, and failed to find any- would play badly in video form.
No, they’d wanted us to bleed and we’d bled.
I saw heads turn, I saw expressions change. People peeled away, moving toward the breakfast serving area, and in their push to get further from us and this scene, they barely left breathing room for one another. The clearing expanded around us and the perpetrators who hadn’t yet backed off. Some guards, some prisoners.
The reason the heads had turned, though…
On one of the raised walls overlooking the plaza, my sister looked down at my injured self.
“What do you want?” Sveta asked her, because I didn’t have the breath. Pain lowered my defenses, this scene kicked what lay behind those defenses in the tits.
“I’m supposed to look after you, keep an eye out for trouble.”
“Fuck you,” Sveta said.
“Yeah,” Amy said. She sounded disappointed.
I tried my best to ignore her, turning my attention to the mess on the floor. Wire lay limp on the ground, and mixed in with it was some general debris, food slop that had dripped from bowls, dust made moist and collected into tiny amounts of mud with the tromp of feet and more of the food, and the blood spatters from our various injuries. Globs of blood dripped from the back of my hand.
“I’ll testify I saw this happen, you did nothing but defend yourselves.”
“That would be appreciated,” Theo said.
I found what I was looking for, tangled in wire. My skin. Only one fingernail attached at one corner, where the finger skin had folded in and stuck all together.
I did not like my flesh being where it wasn’t supposed to be, especially while hearing that voice.
Amy spoke down to us from her perch on the wall. “Citrine is here. She heard about you guys being arrested and she’s working on it. Wardens obviously know too, but they’re wrapped up in a new crisis or something. What do you say we get you cleaned up and see you guys to the visitor center? I’ll crisis manage in the meantime.”
A dozen wretched feelings stirred within me, and combined with the pain and revulsion of the detached bit of flesh, and the stress of all of this, I spat up a mouthful of bile.
“Sure,” she said. “That-”
I spat off to one side to clear my mouth of the remainder of it.
“Sorry,” I said, not to Amy, but to my team. “How’s it, Tristan?”
“Definitely need stitches,” he said, keeping a wary eye on the wall.
“I walked into a guard’s elbow, that’s all.”
Sveta made a face. Her arm took wounds in a strange way.
Theo had been lacerated when he fell against the wire shirtless. Almost as bad as Tristan’s cut. Vista had the cut on her hand.
“Let’s get looked after,” I said. The ‘uk’ part of ‘looked’ almost saw me vomit from purely reactionary factors again. “Go see Citrine.”
“Can we get medical attention?” Ashley asked one guard. She still knelt on the ground, still wore that tense expression.
The guard pointed. Same direction as the showers.
He had been a participant, but hadn’t been one to actively kick or shove, except whatever he’d done to handle Ashley.
There were worse people to follow.
We headed toward the showers and the medical area that lay beyond. Some of us supported others. Sveta held the bridge of Kenzie’s nose. Theo leaned on me. Rain leaned on Ashley, limping. Our priorities were to get help for Tristan and Theo. Or Theo, at the very least, if we could manufacture a situation to swap Tristan out.
“We do this for Gimel. If anyone isn’t comfortable pushing forward with this, if you’re scared or if you need out, we could-”
God, I hated to say it.
“-Ask for some strings to be pulled, favors called in,” I finished.
Even with my offer, nobody seemed especially intent on escaping or going. They knew the importance of getting those supplies for Gimel. Even if it meant enduring a gauntlet.
We’d have to be more careful. If the Wardens were busy, most likely with Teacher, we were largely alone in this. We had us, we had Kenzie’s group, we had Undersiders, maybe, and we had Citrine, who we were about to chat with.
Again, I looked up at the perch, absent my sister. She’d disappeared around the time I’d puked. Just… walked away. The opposite of help.
But there was no reassurance in her being gone, definitely no reassurance in her being here. I wouldn’t even be reassured, I worried, by escaping this place and leaving Shin well behind me. She’d proven she could pull me in if the right crisis was manufactured. This, in so many ways, was her world.
The only peace I could be sure of would be to remove her from it, to remove her from Gimel. Something permanent.
I hoped with every last iota of my being that the Wardens would be intact enough after the Teacher raid to make a level-headed call on the subject of Amy. I certainly didn’t trust myself or my team to make that unbiased call, not after this.