The guards escorted me to Sveta’s holding cell. The setup wasn’t so different than the room we’d met Citrine in- walls that looked like concrete, with high windows and textured glass that, I was assuming, let them look in from one side, while distorting our view looking at them from our side. Diagonal bars separated Sveta’s side of the cell from me, but the room was long, and two-thirds of it were devoted to Sveta’s side. Once I seated myself on the stool and a female guard stood between Sveta and I, the setup of the room made me feel like I was the prisoner in the cell.
Sveta’s hair had been combed with her fingers. She’d pulled on a prison-supplied tunic, keeping her shirt, but tying it around her waist, in a loose approximation of what the veteran prisoners had done. One of the sleeves had a bloodstain. Her arm had been bandaged where it had been cut, but even there, the way blood had soaked into the bandaging suggested a wound more like a piece had been taken out of her, shaped something like a cross between a jigsaw piece and a lightning bolt. She had no stool, only two worn mattresses and a pile of old clothing she’d left in one corner. A single hose that dangled to waist height stuck out of the wall, near a drain that I was guessing served double duty as shower and toilet.
She walked over to the wall and slumped down into a seating position by the bars there. I remained at the stool.
She studied me.
“Hi,” she said. “Are you okay?”
“As far as I can tell,” I said. “They’re watching and recording us?”
I made it a question, but it was a statement.
“Maybe. You look more done with this than I am.”
“Pretty much,” I said. “We’re guessing it won’t be much longer. Jeanne Wynn said she’d pull strings. I talked to Amy after I woke up-”
“Siblings are tough,” Sveta said, quiet, her eyes intense and searching as she studied me.
“All family is, in a sense,” I said. I suppressed a sigh and changed the subject, “We’re guessing it won’t be long. An hour at most, probably half that.”
“Educated guess or…?”
“Kenzie guess, really. We know Jeanne is quick.”
“We think it’s either going to be Natalie or someone else like Armstrong.”
Sveta looked a bit surprised. “Another Kenzie guess?”
I nodded. “We were thinking who we’d want to have there when we get out, worried family members, friends. Ashley thought Armstrong made sense, and the more we thought about it, we thought it was likely. He’d want to help if he could and he does have some clout, he knows Jeanne a bit.”
Sveta nodded, and her face relaxed a bit from the line of thinking alone.
Armstrong was the kind of guy who had that effect on people. He’d leaped from a position at the University to a position of being consultant to the early Boston PRT, then full-time staff, and ultimately director. He was responsible for rescuing Weld after Weld had been dropped off, an amnesiac with a head and part of a chest, left in a scrapyard. He’d treated Weld as the closest thing to family. He’d looked after the original Ashley, reaching out and trying to coax the supervillain into a position with the PRT. When Sveta had started dating Weld, he’d accepted her as readily as he’d accepted Weld, even going so far as to fund her prosthetic body.
He was someone who cared. Who looked for answers.
It hardly needed to be said, but Kenzie’s ‘guesses’ about timeline and Armstrong coming weren’t guesses. We’d been thinking about plans, about who we wanted to come and pick us up, and Ashley had suggested we ask Darlene and Candy to ask Armstrong to come for Sveta.
I had little doubt Ashley had wanted to see him too, but we had collectively glossed over that detail.
Once he’d caught up on the situation, Armstrong had reached out to the mayor Jeanne Wynn.
“Knowing it could be soon makes the waiting harder,” Sveta said. “Especially with everything else going on.”
“But I have you for company for the next five minutes,” she said.
“Makes me think of the hospital. A lot of moments where I wanted to make the most of our limited time together, but not knowing what to say.”
“We hung out so much we ran out of things to say. But having you around is nice, even if we aren’t talking every second.”
“Do you remember the drama when they rolled out that whole patient chat thing?” I asked.
“They regretted that about five minutes after turning it on,” Sveta said, smiling. “I think about half of the technical downtimes were to give hospital staff a chance to recover.”
“They eventually outsourced the management,” I said. “You were gone by then.”
The patient chat had been voice chat and instant messages for patients who couldn’t leave their rooms but who had access to computers or phones. There was more limited access for people like Sveta and I, who had needed more specialized interfaces for using keyboards. Pullable ball-tipped knobs for Sveta with a spaced out key arrangement, while I’d had the knobs unscrewed and removed, just using the spaced out keys.
Thinking about the events, schedule, and timeline reminded me that I hadn’t actually been in the hospital with Sveta for all that long. She’d left not all that long after I’d arrived.
“Did we ever look up what happened to Earl? Buzzer?” Sveta asked. “I know he was one of the real personalities in the patient chat. He graduated out, didn’t he?””
Earl had had an always-on power that produced an abrasive noise at volumes loud enough to cause permanent ear damage, audible from halfway across the city.
“Yeah. He met someone who could ‘eat’ powers. Drain the power gradually down over time, get stronger from it. They had a thing going, until it turned sketchy,” I said. “The eater got controlling.”
“Just something that happens when you put two people together, sometimes. He went back to the hospital, and then a few weeks later left to go work in a remote location, I think.”
“Hey, good for him,” Sveta said.
“Nicest person in a face to face conversation, but when it came to the online stuff he was a drama magnet.”
“Yeah. What about, uh, Keelee? She graduated out.”
“Yep. She remotely signed into patient chat a few times. Worked online at a call center.”
“Good for her.”
Keelee had regressed in age every time she’d used her time manipulation power. Weeks, months, and years regressed as she’d become a teenager, then a kid. The regression was fast to set in, and the only way to go the other way was real, actual, unwarped time.
I wouldn’t say it while Shin might be listening, but Keelee had joined a criminal group with the plan of defrauding a wealthy family in France. In a fit of unbelievable, unfathomable, possibly addiction-induced recklessness and stupidity, she’d intentionally de-aged herself to the apparent age of three years old, while maintaining all of her mental faculties. The idea had been to get adopted into the art-loving family after showcasing ‘natural’ artistic and musical talent she had learned from classes. A text-focused thinker in the crew to get her into the registries, a tinker on contract to make a few forged toys that doubled as communication devices so they could be her handler…
But the tinker had bailed because the job was an enterprise that would take years, and they were too impatient. The text thinker had bailed when the family had adopted a handsome three year old boy instead, who had showed zero ability with finger paint or music.
Leaving Keelee in her de-aged state, an absolute monster online. Offline, she’d complained constantly about wanting cigarettes, which the nurses refused to let her have, except on her birthday.
Gossip, talking about powers and patients, it made a good way to pass time while occupying the mind, because there had always been something going on, even while we’d been in limbo.
Sveta asked about Roos, AKA ‘Jacked’, who had surgically removed his own body parts to implant hypermuscular cyborg replacements, and did just fine for himself until he got hurt in a fight. He’d left the hospital after weeks, which had been enough time for the natural degradation of tinker stuff over time to ruin his implanted parts. With broken parts he hadn’t been able to collect materials or earn cash to buy the materials, couldn’t keep up with tinkering. His health had suffered, and he’d ended up at the Asylum, trying to get stable so he could get back on his feet, literally. I told her he’d passed. Even with the hospital’s help, he hadn’t bounced back.
There were ones who’d ‘graduated’, ones who’d left or outright escaped, and ones who would have stayed for a lifetime, had Gold Morning not cut those lifetimes short.
“I wish Armstrong had met some of them,” Sveta said. “He was always super interested in the weird cases, parahuman research, all that geek stuff. He’d love to collab with these guys, since they’re apparently fantastic at deciphering this stuff.”
“I might be interested, forgetting everything else,” I told her. Thinking about the ‘everything else’ put a bit of a damper on my mood, after the lighter conversation.
Lighter but not ‘light’. Even now, I was kind of strategizing, and I was pretty sure Sveta was picking up on what I was trying to do. Keeping things positive, highlighting that parahumans had issues too. Now we talked about positives.
I wasn’t lying, though. A big part of me wanted to work with anyone who could help decipher parahumans and powers, especially with what Amy had said. Everything on the line, cracks spreading, broken triggers on the scale of Dauntless happening in greater frequency and numbers.
Yes, they’d tried to hurt us or kill us. They were after our reputations, all for the sake of political points. They had a twisted view that we were in a separate box from everyone else, and we thus didn’t ‘count’ when it came to the terms of war or diplomacy.
In their eyes, killing one of us was worth thirty of their own dying. To wound all of us with something as fuzzy as temporarily detaining a group that had just been on television for causing issues? They viewed it as worth a possible diplomatic crisis. Miss Militia or Jeanne Wynn? Too high profile, too problematic. Us? We were more acceptable as targets.
And I wasn’t ruling out that Amy or Chris had said or done something.
There were a hundred things I wanted to talk to Sveta about, but we chattered instead, keeping up the lighter tone, talking around the elephants in the room, and tried to convey a positive image.
“I’m anxious to get back to the hero stuff,” Sveta said. “Help people, um, I know Weld isn’t waiting for me at home anymore or anything, but I do look up to him still.”
“Even if he is a bit dumb about stuff.”
“About relationship stuff. And he’s inexperienced, not dumb. So am I. But I want to live up to the standards he set. For him and for Armstrong.”
“Yeah. Do…” I started, hesitating. Sveta tilted her head to one side. “…Do you see yourself dating again? Finding a guy?”
“I want to find myself first. Then yes.”
“Cool. I’ll look forward to that.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to talk your ear off or obsess with stars in my eyes, like I did way back then?”
“Nah,” I said, my voice soft. “Nah, I like seeing you happy, and you were happy in those moments.”
“And happier when I met him, thanks to you. Happier when I met him again, after screwing up the first time, thanks to you. Happier when I went with him and got to go out into the world, thanks to you.”
I dropped my eyes to the floor. I supposed Weld had told her, that I’d had to convince him to go back and talk to her. That she needed the support.
“Sorry it didn’t work out.”
“No. I grew a ton as a person. I was such a kid back then. I’m glad, even if, even now, it hurts.”
She shifted position. Her head rested back against the wall, staring across the room at the wall while she asked, “Is it weird if I see myself with another Case Fifty-Three?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but it depends on rationale.”
“Just… a part of me still wants to belong to that. Fat chance, though, right? They’re not fans of me.”
“Some are, I’m sure.”
“You and Egg, huh?
Sveta made a face.
“In all seriousness, it’s cool. Knowing what you like.”
“I think I like it. It’s hard to say for sure. It might be me wanting to belong, like I said, and I’m misinterpreting that. I don’t think I do know what I like, only what I kind of expect or assume by default.”
Fuck, there was a lot to unpack there, but I didn’t have the energy to get into it.
“Don’t mind me,” Sveta sad. “Getting lost in my own head.”
“Nah, you’re fine,” I said.
“I hate this,” she said. “I hate all of this so much, and I know I have no right to complain, but it really sucks that I finally have a real body, a really good compromise between having a power and being normal, and we run into these guys, who are dead set on making me out to be a monster.”
“You know you aren’t though, you know?”
“I know but I don’t feel it,” she said. “My feelings are taking a while to catch up with things, and then this is dragging those feelings the opposite way. It’s fucking with me.”
“It ends soon,” I told her.
“Maybe. Sorry. I shouldn’t be complaining. Not when-”
I shifted position, scratching at and tugging on my ear.
“-there are so many bigger, realer things to worry about.”
“It’s big enough and real enough to you,” I told her. “It’s who you are. That’s massive.”
“Yeah. I don’t know why I put it that way.”
A good thirty seconds passed where we didn’t talk. The guard that stood by the bars looked a touch restless, which put me on edge, but that didn’t seem to be the prelude to anything. Nobody was audible in the hallway, and nothing came of the restlessness.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I was so anxious, when you got hurt. Then we didn’t get attention, and then when we did, it all went wrong. You’re really okay?”
“M and S protocol, but okay.”
I saw her eyebrows knit together for a second before she forced them apart. She clenched one hand, then rubbed it with her other hand, before tracing that hand up her arm to her wound. Her voice, though, remained casual, as she said, “That’s a pain.”
I shrugged. “Mark and Aunt Sarah.”
“Ugh, family,” she said.
“Yeah. Family,” I said, sighing.
Our tone remained casual. A few more names that anyone overhearing wouldn’t necessarily pick up on. Only the use of the word ‘protocol’ would stand out.
I could hear footsteps in the hallway.
Time was up already?
“I’ll help when I can, once we’re out of this,” Sveta said. “Mark and Sarah or no.”
“Yeah. We should be out soon, so just stay safe.”
“Yeah,” she said.
The door opened. More guards. My escort.
The prisoners in these cells got up to five minutes of company up to three times a day, never the same person more than once. Shin viewed the family unit as something to keep together, so the policy was meant to let kids visit parents and parents provide guidance to kids. There were cultural aspects in the midst of it all.
“Thanks for keeping me sane,” Sveta said.
“Likewise,” I told her.
The guards liked to manhandle us, to put hands on us and guide us, forcing us to move. I didn’t fight them on it, though I did flinch slightly as one suddenly brought a hand near my eye. It made him smirk, as he pushed on the back of my head, driving it forward and down, while two more shoved my back and shoulder, respectively.
Back toward the central complex of the prison. Toward hallways and faintly uneven floors, moisture and people milling about. Toward prisoners who would attack us and guards who would stand by or help.
Once I was through the doors and the doors were shut, I had no escort. I was left to rely on memory to navigate, and my thoughts felt as tender as the most damaged parts of my body did after a physio session. Every road was a dangerous one, that could provoke pain or surges of emotion, and I had to remain calm. One foot in front of the other, every second got us closer to that release.
Closer to the raid, leaping into a bad situation.
Ashley found me, falling into step next to me.
“She’s mostly fine,” I told her.
“No she isn’t,” she replied. Her face was drawn, tense. “Emergency.”
“This way,” she said.
She didn’t move her head, but she flicked her eyes up and over. With the special projection cameras removed from her eyes and her power not having seen recent use, her pupils were visible, and even her irises had some gray to them.
In another hallway, a child screamed. Another child screamed back. Then there was laughter between the two. When I turned my head to look, I saw one of the attackers from earlier in the day. A guy with the ragged cloth decoration marking him as a veteran prisoner.
A kid ran up to him, smashing face into stomach, wrapping arms around pelvis. She peered through a mop of messy black hair to look up at him, then over at me. No older than eight, and she wore the same veteran clothing as the guy I was assuming was her dad.
This fucking world.
The team was assembled in one of the back hallways. Ashley leaned over my way. “This is contested turf, but we need it. They aren’t pressing us hard yet, but if the day got longer, I think they might fight us for it.”
“Why do we need it?” I asked. It was furthest from the plaza, and moisture had settled in the lowest point, where there was probably supposed to be a drain, except it had clogged. I wasn’t sure why it was so in demand.
“We’re mostly out of camera sight here, and the one camera has water on the lens, courtesy of my brother. They don’t want us leaving unscathed and we need privacy if we’re going to do something about it,” Tristan said. He kicked a scrap of cloth too small to wrap around anything into the water. “They want Armstrong.”
“If we’d sent Natalie they might have gone after her, but Armstrong is worse for them, I think. Believes the opposite of what they do.”
“Start from the beginning,” I told him.
“Yosef’s faction, the hardline guys from the meeting, Kenzie says they’re pulling something, they want to stage an attack.”
Kenzie looked around, then slapped the wall. She blinked a few times. “Listened in on the phones, my team gave it to Miss Militia to translate, she got back to us while you were gone.”
“And they want to hurt Armstrong.”
Tristan answered while Kenzie fiddled. “They were trying to figure out what Sveta is capable of. They were talking about her before, but they figured out that she changed her body after one of their people called people she knew. They want to lead Armstrong to some place and kill him in a way that makes it look like Sveta did it. Then they can hold us indefinitely or execute us, they take out one of our side’s allies and big players, and they make the Founders and Coalition look bad.”
“Founders are Luis’s group, closest to Goddess’s old power structure.”
“And the Coalition are the guys who weren’t at the meeting,” Vista supplied. “Coalition and Founders manage this prison.”
Kenzie pulled her hand away from the wall. I saw the weapon she held, like a knife a foot long. She’d combined two of the projection lenses into a single long one. She looked around, then stuck it into the wall. I saw her squint one eye, then the other.
“They’re more or less on the same side when it comes to parahumans but they still compete and have big differences when it comes to other politics,” Ashley said. “And they’re new. When you look at gangs and governments, the newly established ones are the most insecure and reckless.”
“It isn’t how it should be, but it happens,” Rain said. “Even with the Fallen, a family would get too large, people would leave and try to set up shop elsewhere, filled with motivation and new ideas, and they’d make messes. I remember hearing about it.”
“Everywhere,” Ashley said. “Everyone, every time.”
“Almost every time,” Kenzie said.
“Do tell,” Ashley replied.
“I think the future Kingdom of Damsel will be flawless.”
“You’re sweet,” Ashley said. “But let’s focus.”
“Right. Poking my eye into the wall, and… this’ll work.”
“What are they rigged to do?” I asked.
“Give me a look on the other side, tap into phone lines, and boost signals for my tech. It’s still not great. Lots of dense stone wall.”
“Do we break through and intercept?” I asked. “It fucks a lot of things up.”
Kenzie talked while running a hand along the wall, “They’re stuck, trying to figure out what works as a way that is unequivocally Breakthrough murdering Armstrong, but in a way that doesn’t alert the Coalition or Founders that they’re up to something. If it was old Sveta they could strangle him. But it’s not and they don’t know how she works now, except that she’s made of ribbons, so they debated it for about three minutes. Now they’re talking about framing Rain- large clean cuts, framing Byron, except they’re confused about if he’s here, and framing Ashley-”
“Structural damage and big holes,” I said.
Kenzie nodded vigorously. “They’re unsure about convincingly doing all of those, which means it’s down to me, I don’t really do weapons, or you, Victoria.”
“Smashing him,” I said, my voice hollow.
“They’re getting the pieces in motion. The problem is, they aren’t going to bring him to us where we can stop them. They’re on the other side of big walls.”
I started to follow Kenzie, but Tristan put a hand on my shoulder. I looked at him.
“Do me a favor, stay put?” he asked.
I glanced at him, looked around, and then looked at the water. The murky pool near the blocked drain had a faint glimmer of light to it. Orange light.
“You’re sure?” I asked him.
Rain dropped to a crouch, dipping a gloved finger into the water. He began to sketch. A square, trapped inside a diamond, trapped inside a square. Four rooms set out along the exterior of the big square, for the various rooms at the outer edge of the prisoner area.
A map of the place. The square in the center was the plaza. The four exterior rooms included the shower area and the private dining room for the religious.
“That’s the best I can do,” Kenzie said. “My projection hairclip is modified to work as a camera and give us eyes on one of the hidden doors the guards can use to flood this area. Then I have one in-eye camera for me and one for one of you.”
Tristan stuck his toe in the water, boot scraping as he dragged a stone knife out into view, then stepped onto it. He was making more.
“We sneak out, get to where we can warn him,” Tristan said. “If they spot us we go offensive. Hit them before they can use their guns, break out.”
“Seems too dangerous,” I said. “All of us, some of us walking with a limp? We’d get seen, or we wouldn’t be able to find hiding places.”
“We can’t let him walk into a trap,” Ashley said.
“We won’t. But we divide our efforts,” I said. I closed my eyes for a second, thinking, shifting mental gears. This was more familiar territory. It made me think of working with my mom and dad.
Which reminded me that my mom had signaled a need for help. I interpreted it to mean that she needed a way out of Shin.
“Divide by?” Rain asked.
“Distract the guards. Start a small fire, or… something.”
Rain reached over and picked a knife out of the murky water, holding it so it was partially hidden. He held it in his lap so those of us who were close could see. “This?”
“That’s extreme,” I said.
“We need extreme,” Tristan said.
“Missy, Theo, please help me wrap my head around this.”
Vista shook her head. Her eyeliner had smudged overnight, outlining her eyes inconsistently with a blur of black that extended to one cheekbone, her hair was messy. “He’s like a dad to Weld, he’s important to Sveta. I feel like Gimel needs him.”
“And he came for us,” Ashley said.
“I’m not saying no,” I said. “But stabbing?”
“No,” Ashley said. She reached down. “Give?”
Rain passed the blade to her.
I glanced down. Kenzie was setting out little rocks and bits of debris on Rain’s map.
I stuck my toe out at the nearest rock.
“Three guards,” Kenzie said. “I don’t have enough bits. Two. Three. The big prayer room is the best way to go.”
“Rain, you come,” Ashley said. Her expression was a dark glower. She looked over our group. “Victoria.”
“Why us, specifically?” I asked.
“Because you two look the meanest next to me.”
“Wow,” I said. “I know I haven’t washed my hair with actual conditioner or shampoo, but-”
“But nothing. You had a shit day, you look drained, it works for our purposes. We don’t have time,” she said. “My instincts say this works.”
I looked at Rain, who nodded. I gave him a hand in standing and a hand in walking.
“Let him limp,” Ashley said. She sighed. “We’re trying to look like assholes, so don’t be nice to him. Connect the dots.”
“Mm,” I grunted, glancing at Rain again as Ashley started walking toward the plaza.
There was a family at the corner, nothing to do with the one guy who’d attacked us, who had a kid with him. It made me think of New Wave, because they included parents and children, uncles and aunts, and scattered relations, all with family resemblance. They favored green and black for their extra clothing, like they’d all been wearing those colors when arrested, and had doe brown hair that was as coarse-thick as any hair I’d seen on anyone white.
“These are the guys who run this hall,” Rain said. “Theo and I heard about them when we were asking questions last night. People had a hard time translating it. They live in the systems.”
“Prison family. Successive generations spent arrested.”
“Kind of. But it’s more complicated. It’s not just prison. It’s other services. Goddess elevated them to a certain status by making an office for those who were loyal and willing to do what she needed. Like private military. These guys and people like them signed right up. They’ll accept anything if it gets them a cot and hot food without them having to work. Military, Goddess’s task force, prison, some types of school…”
“Useful,” Ashley said.
“Kind of scary,” Rain observed.
“But useful. Scary and useful often go hand in hand,” Ashley said.
People squared shoulders and raised chins as they stared us down.
“Any of you speak English?” Ashley asked.
“Goddess’s tongue,” I added.
A boy with long hair said something in a foreign tongue. An adult offered a one-syllable response.
“I learned for school,” the boy said.
“We need a favor. We’ll buy,” Ashley said. “But we need it soon, no fuss.”
The boy translated.
Another one syllable response.
“Guards say you killed the Goddess in Blue.”
“She threw a building at us.”
The boy considered, translated, got a grunt of an answer, and then said, “Cost us.”
“If you want to drag out this conversation, we’ll go elsewhere.”
“If you want a favor, we’re the best.”
“Not Rafa?” Rain asked.
The boy wrinkled his nose. His parent nudged him, and he translated, catching the parent up on the last few exchanges.
The man made a face, momentarily disgusted.
“They put their dicks in dogs,” the boy said.
“They what?” Rain asked.
“Idiom,” I guessed. “I hope.”
“They make messes, fall over each other, drink. The only thing you can trust them to do is put their dicks in dogs. You don’t want them.”
“Then deal with us. We need a distraction,” Ashley said. “We’ll pay.”
She held out her hand, palm down, thumb tucked in. The boy reached out, and Ashley laid her hand atop his. The knife was there, hidden from view, and the boy felt it.
“Sharp,” she said. “There are more like it. That’s your pay. But you distract the guards, so we can do what we need to do.”
The boy translated, dropping his voice at the tail end.
The adult answered with the longest sentence yet.
“Dangerous. Burns the hand we want to keep warm,” the boy translated back for us.
“What do you want?” she asked, more tense, almost hostile. Time was running out if Armstrong was due to arrive and collect us.
The boy shrugged. “This.”
“You want security,” I said. “You want reliable. Comfort. Stability.”
I nodded, trying to figure him out. “What if you could come to Gimel? There are plenty of homes, we’re doing our best to provide food, and most of that is free. If you want stable… we could arrange that. Say… five people from your family.”
“Five… Ten if you abide by our rules,” I said, ninety percent sure they would. “You don’t kill anyone when you distract. You don’t kill anyone after.”
“Killing like this destroys you,” the boy said.
“Gets you executed,” Rain interpreted.
“If you hurt anyone it’s someone who deserves it,” I said.
“A man. He gave Goddess names of people who were educating their children alone so they would not learn Goddess Tongue in schools. Later he gave Coalition names of those who were loyal to Goddess. Some of ours. He’s a man of sick loyalty, always turning around. The prisons love him so they go easy.”
“Maybe,” I said.
The boy translated the conversation so far for his parent and other family members.
The adult responded.
“We’ll take that knife for your distraction. Put a blade through his tush so he won’t be able to hold his shit in.”
“Tush?” Rain asked.
“Rain,” Ashley said. “It’s not important.”
“Wrong word?” the boy asked.
Rain nodded, while I pressed, “No harm they can’t heal.”
The father said something.
“We could harm three,” the boy said. “Three to distract. All deserving. Sick loyalty, sick eyes, and a sick that lasts for generations. Two men and a woman.”
Rain touched my shoulder. I looked at him and he indicated the group.
They were agitated.
Armstrong was here.
“Don’t hurt them too much,” I said.
Rain added, “We can’t guarantee we’ll give the visas to any specific people. This is for your family as a whole.”
“Yes, of course. We’re happy here, but some of ours don’t have prison, hoping we don’t get punished so we can stay longer. Some don’t have anything. They’ll go.”
“They’ll be good?”
For a lot of lines, for a kid who wasn’t older than Kenzie, he wasn’t even asking his dad or translating. He just seemed to accept it as the rule or fact of their whole dynamic.
“When we signal,” I said. “You distract. Do it near the showers. Keep guards away from the, ah, prayer room?”
“Yeah,” Rain said. “The eating room?”
The boy said a word.
“That, yeah,” Rain said.
“And don’t tell,” I stressed. I figured it was a given, but not kidnapping and assaulting diplomatic envoys seemed like a given too, and Shin was way the fuck behind the learning curve on that one.
“Keep your deal and we keep our throats closed.”
Ashley reached out again. The boy reached to take the knife, discreetly putting it away. He began explaining to his family.
We walked back to our group.
“We have a distraction?” Tristan asked.
“Yes,” Ashley said. “It’s all about projecting the right image and asking the right people. They respect the powerful and naturally noble, and they respect fear.”
“Good enough,” Tristan said. “Who’s handling this? Staying hidden, doing something to signal our guy, get back without drawing alarm.”
“I’ll go,” Vista said.
“I’ll go too,” I said.
“You’re sure?” Tristan asked.
Kenzie was a kid, as useful as it would be, and we needed her to stay behind to tell the group what the guards could see and where they were. Tristan needed to stay to keep an eye on the knives he’d made. He prepped two more while we negotiated. When push came to shove, they’d stay in a place nobody and no cameras were watching and swap out, turning the weapons we’d given over into water. No evidence.
Theo would stay because he was too big and didn’t trust his stealth ability. Sveta was captured. Rain had a limp.
We wanted at least three, and Ashley did have some capabilities, she made a lot of noise, but if we were careful and kept her power use small, that would minimize the effect.
Three of us.
Kenzie bid me to bend down. I did, keeling with some use of my flight for stability.
The wicked multi-pronged thing appeared in her hand. She looked around to make sure the coast was clear, then extended it into my head. I could feel it, a glimmer of sensation, a blorb sort of feeling in the fluids of my eye, a sting of a tickle in cavities at the back.
Then my vision distorted, like I was looking through an inch of water, and clarified. I could see images and text. Outlines visible through walls, highlighting guards, cameras, and power lines. The field of view of each camera was plainly visible, and as I looked at a camera, I could see a crosshair focus on it. Staring at it for what I guessed to be two seconds snapped my view so I was looking through it.
Text at my peripheral vision remained as clear as day despite the fact I wasn’t focusing on it.
Candy, telling me she was working with me on this.
Telling me she’d relay Kenzie’s messages that couldn’t be conveyed through the camera.
Rain and Theo joining us, Vista, Ashley and I retreated to the area where the private eating partitions were set up during mealtime. For the time being, everything had been taken down and folded up. Despite space being a premium, people didn’t move mattresses or things into the large empty room.
We didn’t enter either, but that was because our destination was another wall, putting us close to the hallway with the least guards.
A flash of blue marked my peripheral vision, and I looked. I saw the distant silhouette. Armstrong. Another- Natalie.
Another figure, not the red of guards or the blue of our hostages, but a yellow-green, could be seen in their company. After second, more silhouettes appeared.
Cryptid. Silhouette one, the fastest one the system had recognized.
Crock o’Shit. Silhouette two. The lie detector from the prison raid.
Coalbelcher. Silhouette three. The heavyset man who’d been something of a crime boss on the men’s side of the prison.
It couldn’t be easy. I couldn’t trust Chris to play nice.
I nodded to the others.
Getting us our distraction.
The commotion drew hollers and alarms. Guards broke into runs, diverging from their paths at the tops of the wall to hop down or use ladders to descend into the prison. Some hurled canisters, producing gas.
We retreated back to our side, as the guards in our company thinned out. There were still some stationed at exits, but we didn’t need an exit.
Rain looked to me, and I nodded, touching the wall.
He produced a silver blade, and he stabbed into the surface. Not a line, but a hole from a thrust. He backed off, then struck the wall with his elbow. The silver flared, and the material of the hole broke, a thin crack.
Vista expanded it until it was large enough for us to enter.
We slipped through, into empty hallways.
-He’s changing-, the text in the corner of my vision told me.
I looked, and I saw Chris’s distant silhouette morphing. He was here to be their enforcer.
He broke into a run, and so did we.