It was a problem with his team, that they all moved at different speeds.
People were pressing in, getting aggressive. And it was getting worse, not better. There were ten people holding the line, only a couple of them capes, and they really needed twenty or thirty.
He set his foot down, and the boot-prong stabbed through snow, found ice, and got some traction there. The frame ran up his spine, down his limbs, and extended out past his hands and feet, each extension something between a disabled runner’s prosthetic foot and a pogo stick. He sank down as the full weight of his body and combined gear came down, metal straining, mechanism sinking into mechanism.
The fluid cell at his chest powered the suit’s movements so he could bring his limbs around in time, with a thrust that made him feel like he had little rockets attached to elbow, knee, ankle, and wrist, pushing his hands in the same directions he moved them, pushing the metal that he’d shaved down in weight by the gram. That same fluid cell pulled him into the ground, driving titanium compression springs he’d lubricated with his ‘red juice’ folded into themselves in a way that defied conventional physics, storing up potential energy. Every step was a tiny lurching feeling as everything gave more than his gut felt like it should, even as his tinker brain told him it was fine. The finer adjustments were made by way of Nitinol-strand muscles; a shift in posture, position, and weight using memory metal as fine as spiderwebs, safely ensconced within metal shells.
The sensation of rising and falling with each bounding step was made more dreamlike by the unintentional illusion he’d crafted for himself. The fluid cell generated heat through chemical reaction. That heat ran through the frame, drawing in cold outside air and pushing it out through his suit. Warmed air flowed between fabric and skin, a sensation of wind at all times, out of sync with his movements.
Catch up, he willed his team. I don’t want to do this alone.
I can’t be alone again.
The foot that had come down a moment ago now unfolded with the force of a gunshot, nearly silent. Nearly, because his goggles were unnecessarily registering the tremor at his R-0-1 connector at his shoulder, and his L-1 at his other arm. Unnecessary because he could feel it. He’d lost weight, or he’d worn this frame over his jacket enough to crush the sleeve down in size. At those points where things weren’t fine tuned enough, metal rattled against his bicep and shoulder like someone was shaking a cage.
The people were doing their own shaking and rattling. They pushed against the ‘line’, where Patrol and a scattered few capes stood behind waist-high wooden barricades. The barricades scraped and shuffled, back ends digging into snow. One picked up briefly, tipping back because there was enough forward pressure and enough snow at the base of the feet that there was nowhere else to go. A cape put his foot on it and slammed it back down into position.
Withdrawal didn’t even know how to handle this. His whole thing was movement, and this demanded the opposite of that.
To look at him from a distance, he bounded more forward than up, but he still bounded, moving through the air in loose, acrobatic leaps.
It looked easy, or lazy. It wasn’t. In his head, he kept track of a hundred little things. Driving a car was hands on the wheel, foot ready to hit the clutch, gas, or brake. Sometimes a shift of gears, but always four wheels on the road. Fat, rubber tires that struck the necessary balance in making enough contact with the road. Treads.
His frame touched the ground with one limb at a time. The point of contact as wide across as three fingers pressed together, and the total weight of him, his frame, and his current fluid dispenser, the pill popper, amounted to two hundred and sixty six point one-three-four pounds. Even the weight of the snow that had settled on his helmet and in the seams of his frame mattered.
In a car, one had to check the mirrors every couple of seconds, be aware of the environment. In the frame, moving like this, he had to be aware of everything in that one second at a time where a limb-extension prong was in contact with the ground.
And one didn’t tend to drive a car one hundred miles an hour through a residential area. One didn’t tend to have to look up, out of concern for wires strung between buildings, or overhanging construction cranes, or, well, anything.
Two feet together, a two-footed leap this time. He was aware of how far behind his team was, as he jumped to the edge of the fray.
He kicked up a plume of snow as he skidded to a stop, a pink and red bodysuit with gleaming silver apparatus extending from the limbs. He’d chosen a friendly pink for the round lenses that covered his eyes, the face plates that settled over parts of his face assembled so the seam offered something in the way of a disarming smile. The pill popper was a one-hundred pound column topped with a construction that resembled his helmet, a reading on the sleek black bar-display running along the side told him he had 8/9 shots remaining. Not that he was likely to lose track. He was dumb, he thought, but he could count to eight.
He really hoped he didn’t need those eight shots.
These were civilians.
There were another four or so heroes around, helping to form a defensive guard around the processing area. The area was a mess, as far as he could tell, and even though he hadn’t been around for long, he couldn’t help but feel responsible for that. He knew, rationally, that he wasn’t, but he was supposed to be here to fix things, they weren’t fixed, and he couldn’t come away from that simple equation without feeling like he’d dropped the ball.
He put himself in the way of a group of people who had been pushing past Patrol uniforms, butt-end of his popper crunching into snow and ice, arm out. It gave people cause to stop in their tracks, and the teenagers and twenty-somethings in black winter wear with body armor and helmets used the opportunity to regain some control over that group. Others elsewhere on the line started to push through, climbing over the simple wooden barricade.
“Can we talk it out?” he asked.
It was a man with a midday five-o’clock shadow who replied, spit and frozen breath flying from his mouth as he shouted, “Fuck you! We’ve been trying to talk to you all for weeks, months, and nobody listens!”
“I haven’t been active that long. Can we try starting now?” he asked.
Someone threw something. Before he saw what it was, he brought his popper out, hand sliding along the length of it as he held it out to bar the projectile’s path.
A metal lunchbox, sailing toward a cape’s head. It cracked open on impact with the side of his popper and the contents fell onto the heads of the protesters below.
The cries and anger seemed more like he’d been the one to instigate it, to throw the lunchbox, dumping the contents on the heads below.
No room for talking.
Refugees were going to Cheit. Or that was the idea. Just about everything had been turned on its head. Some citizens were deciding that this was where they wanted to take a stand, other citizens weren’t moving smoothly or following instructions when it came to the evacuation into Cheit, the government seemed to have conflicting ideas on how to handle everything that came up, and on top of it all, there was cape stuff. Some incident in Cheit, Kronos starting to move, and some attack from Shin had all caused alarm and delays, which had made every single existing problem worse. Apparently not just here. They’d had more capes in the area twenty minutes ago.
His team had been patrolling, looking out for traffic problems or bandits preying on the convoy. The heroes had decided to call them in for this. They needed more, and he worried they needed better. He’d jumped into this life with both feet first, after so many years doing nothing, and he’d come out the other side with some injuries and way too many scares. He didn’t feel ready.
His team was only just now arriving at the scene. Fume Hood, Finale about ten paces behind. Caryatid twenty paces behind Finale.
Traffic had stopped, the influx of new refugees stalled, and Cheit’s people stood at the entryway to the station, keeping their distance.
“You can’t control us!” a middle-aged woman shouted. Someone was trying to get her to stay still and stay put, holding her wrists, but she was fighting. “You put powers in charge of the city, you override our police force, you shut down and attack civil protests and assemblies!”
“You shove us into tents in the wintertime while powers get houses, you make us wait a year before we get four walls to call our own, and then you make us move!”
“We just want you to be safe, we want to help,” Withdrawal said.
He was drowned out.
“I was in the tent cities with you!” he called out. “I was there, helping, keeping people safe!”
He wasn’t sure anyone could even hear him. He wasn’t sure anyone was listening enough to even try hearing him.
Someone else threw something. He couldn’t move in time to stop them. Fume Hood and Finale arrived, but Finale looked too spooked to know what to do. She made a finger-gun, visibly biting her lip, which was exposed in the gap between scarf and mask. Her eyes roved over the crowd.
“Fin!” he called out to her to get her attention. He shook his head.
Finale backed off, doing nothing more than raising her voice to call out, “Calm down! Please!”
Fume Hood had her orbs. Each the size of a fist, they spun in an orbit around her outstretched hand, which she held out, palm facing the crowd. A shield of sorts, to ward off the crowd. It worked. It made a good scene, her hood and little cape fluttering with the heated fan hidden at her back.
And Caryatid finally arrived. Stoic, unflinching, invulnerable, immovable. Far better for holding the line than he was.
Keeping a crowd of people from running past checkpoints and border security. Things were at a standstill already, but if this went tits-up and the line was breached, it would bog things down for at least an hour. Everyone would need to be cleared out and backed up, everyone mid-processing would have to start over. Otherwise there was a risk of stowaways.
He’d already seen something similar, when patrolling the tent cities and observing people making their late arrivals from Earth B to Earth G.
Someone hit Caryatid with a weapon. She was in her breaker form, so it did nothing.
“Don’t do that!” Finale called out. “Why would you do that!?”
“Can you capes back off? Make room?” one of the Patrol called out.
Withdrawal checked. There were more people in Patrol uniforms arriving. Some with shields.
“You’re agitating the situation by being here,” a Patrol uniform said. “The intent is appreciated.”
“We were asked to help,” Withdrawal replied.
“What help!?” someone nearby shouted, almost in the uniform’s face. “Where were they while we were in the tent cities!?”
“We were!” Withdrawal protested. “We’re the exact wrong capes to be complaining about that to! We were there every day and every night!”
“You’re poison!” a boy Withdrawal’s age shouted.
The officer wasn’t wrong. This wasn’t helping. He looked over at Fume Hood and saw her nod.
He made room for people to step in. Fume Hood made more orbs, spreading them out to create a perimeter of whirling spheres to ward people off from passing through, then pulled them back as the Patrol uniforms stepped in.
Gotta take care of Carrie. He picked his footing carefully, so he wouldn’t stumble or get in the way of anyone, moving through the growing crowd of people in black winterwear and armor. He stuck the pillar-like pill popper into the ground just next to Caryatid.
“We’re backing off,” he said, reaching down to lay the end of the ‘J’ shaped length of metal at the back of his hand across Caryatid’s shoulder.
He wasn’t imposing like someone in heavy armor was. He was tall, his reach was long, and he carried a heavy ‘weapon’, and he used this to try to draw attention. Carrie was vulnerable while out of her breaker form, and she couldn’t really move easily while in it. It was very all-or-nothing.
This way, he could shield her a bit from anything thrown, draw attention, and give her cover to return to human form and make her retreat.
“Stay close?” someone in uniform asked.
“Okay,” Fume Hood said.
The other heroes were backing off too.
Withdrawal’s pill popper crunched as he set it down on ice and snow, leaning it against the concrete ledge. It started to slide in Finale’s direction, and he put his arm out to stop it. The tool was bigger than she was.
She looked so scared.
She didn’t have the constitution for this. She didn’t have the constitution for not-this, when the long, quiet stretch without anything to do had seen her power start to act up and trigger from even unintended sounds and triggers. He hadn’t connected the dots on that until Antares had brought it up.
“You okay?” he asked Caryatid.
She nodded. “I’m fine, but-”
She subtly indicated Finale. Withdrawal nodded.
Calming her down was their priority right now.
“Brr,” Caryatid said, rubbing her arms. “You need me for anything?”
He shook his head. “I’ll manage things.”
She used her power again, adopting her statue-like state, her face perpetually unfolding. She’d have no concerns about the cold like that.
“Fin,” he said.
Finale turned wide eyes his way.
“Get settled. Like we did at the stakeouts. They’ve got this,” he said, with more assurance than he actually felt. I don’t think anyone has this. Nobody’s been on top of things for a while now.
Finale leaned against the wall beside him. He looked away from the crowd for the first time, noting that the ‘wall’ was a concrete pad that the building had been placed on. Some work still remained to be done to incorporate the pad into the surroundings. He climbed up on top of it, keeping his popper in reach of his frame-extended arm.
He settled into a crouch, perched on the ledge, and thumbs flipped at knobs and catches, adjusting the frame around his body. It ran up his spine and down each limb, with limb extensions past the hands and feet. The effect of the adjustment was to freeze parts of the frame, relax other parts, and set it up so…
No, not quite. A supporting strut at his back remained rigid.
…Like this, then?…
He leaned back, stretched out his legs a bit, finding footholds further down, the back of the frame gave a bit, like a recliner might.
Catches T3, T7, L2, R2, W4-6, E4-6. Lock W7+ all the way down, same for E, he told himself. If trouble started, he’d have to flick them before leaping into a fight. It’d take three seconds, but relaxing the constraints and turning his frame into a recliner meant he could sit here like this forever.
Not that it would be forever. He could see the ongoing situation they’d been kicked out of. Twenty people in black uniforms, no capes, and it still looked like they were one mistake away from letting a portion of the crowd through. People cutting in line, people wanting to complain. People who saw the violence and numbers and wanted to voice their own concerns.
People, above all, who hated capes. Who resented them or resented their failures.
Cheit had their own processing, with papers to hand out, literature, a volunteer to be assigned to each family. They were more organized, but even they were in disarray.
He had to put his hand out to catch the pill popper- Finale had bumped into it as she climbed up onto the concrete pad that this tall building had been mounted on. He leaned as far back as he could, frame creaking, to look up at his friend, viewing her upside-down.
Finale smiled, looking a bit mischievous and a bit guilty. She dropped to a crouch with enough speed that he thought she might crash into him, put a hand on him to steady herself, and then used a gloved finger to wipe snow off of his goggles.
“Thank you,” he said. “What are you doing?”
She was so bad at lying.
“Don’t flip any of my switches, okay?”
“Really don’t. I know like… remember that time I said don’t turn the tap water on, because the water was bad in the house, and I was going to be taking a shower in the next room. Then you turned the tap water on to be funny?”
“I’m really sorry. I thought it would get cold if I turned the cold water tap on. I didn’t think it would get hot.”
“This is more important than that. I need to be ready, in case that-” He pointed at the refugees who had left cars, or who hadn’t even come from cars. People who were hostile and kicking up a fuss. Fume Hood was over there with one of the Patrol captains who weren’t holding the lines. “-becomes an incident. If you flip my switches or mess with anything, it might mean something doesn’t move like it should and then I might get hurt. Not even as a joke.”
Caryatid looked his way. He couldn’t see her face.
“You warm enough?” he asked, softer.
“Mostly,” Finale said.
Caryatid stood off to the side in her breaker form. Her face unfolded like an open book, with pages appearing and constantly turning to wrap around the sides of her head, blending in with her tumble of black hair, which was doing something similar, if subtler. Her hands were the same, surrounded in orange-yellow floofs that unfolded in a similar way.
It was a relief when Fume Hood rejoined them.
“Do me a favor?” Fume Hood asked. “Look at my fan? I keep smelling burning, and I’m worried I’m going to go up in flames.”
Withdrawal had to unhitch a few things so he was free to lean a bit out of the frame and work. Fume Hood had a heated fan at her back, in a much smaller version of the heating system he had. She’d already had the fan as part of her costume and attaching the heater had been a pretty minor thing to do. When she’d grabbed a jacket to wear with her costume in the colder weather, they’d had to do minor alterations so the fan fit. The hooded mantle of green cloth that hung from shoulders down to mid-torso hid most of it.
Her hand went to her stomach as she bent over to give him more access to her back.
“To pay me back, give me one of your orbs when I’m done,” he said. “I want to compare some stuff to my pill popper.”
“Sure,” she said. “We’re still in a yellow-rated zone?”
“Should be,” he said. He checked on his phone while unscrewing the housing that held the fan in place. A bit of lint, it seemed. Toasty lint. Nothing that would ignite to the point of setting her costume on fire.
“In the meantime, can you share some stories from the old days?” Finale asked, from her position on the ledge behind him. She leaned on his frame, which he’d partially detached from, causing the metal to squeak.
“War stories,” Withdrawal said. “Gotta call them war stories, to sound cool.”
“War stories,” Finale said.
“I might be running out of war stories,” Fume Hood said.
“I’ve told the one about my stint with Smokey? I would’ve been Bad Apple then.”
“Noo,” Finale said.
“Yes,” Withdrawal said. Then he frowned. His goggles had indicators at the edges – symbols more than words, because he was a bit slower with words than he would’ve liked. The light that appeared was the equivalent of a ‘check engine’ light. Fluid core? Heating? It appeared and additional displays appeared at a rate that made him think he was the one on fire, not Fume Hood.
Was something wrong? He could feel the heat prickling his skin inside his costume.
He didn’t have time to delve into it. Across the street, the line of people from the Patrol was losing out to the small crowd of fifty or so people. Some people who were waiting in the line of evacuees had gotten out of their car, pushing their way forward to yell- apparently about the delays and how the officers were more focused on this than getting things moving again.
When ‘this’ was what was keeping things tied up. Here and in just about every other place.
The added bodies meant the officers weren’t ready enough. Capes who had been hanging back sprung to action. People had broken through, and now they scattered, some going for things to throw. Others just trying to run, like they could get past twenty staff and everyone at the Cheit side of things, escape through, and have an apartment waiting for them.
If that was even their goal.
Withdrawal sheathed the tool he’d been using on Fume Hood’s fan, as Fume Hood ran forward, creating her orbs without throwing them. He started to lean back into his suit, and then decided he didn’t trust it. He put his right arm through the sleeve, strapped it in, flicked R-2 to lock, tightened R-0-1 for good measure-
A nervous looking guy -the same guy his own age who had been shouting at him from the crowd- pulled a gun. He spun around, pointing it at capes, citizens from Cheit who were here to help.
“You don’t even regret your place in all of this!” the boy shouted. “You’ll do the same things tomorrow you’ve been doing for years! You’re actual poison!”
Withdrawal hefted his pill popper, holding onto his frame with his hand and foot positioning as much as the straps of it did their end of the work.
Too heavy. Alarm indicators appeared at his goggle’s edge.
“Cary!” he grunted.
Caryatid, who had been starting to move forward, looked at him, then jumped forward.
She went statue-still and immovable, her arm out, to hold up the end of the popper. He leveraged it, aiming-
The head at the top of the pill popper opened its mouth, and it had a punch of an impact as it spat out its shot. A ‘pill’ the size of a football. Modeled after Fume Hood’s power.
He pulled the second trigger. The pill detonated with enough force to knock the kid over, so he landed on his hands, gun below him. A wet crimson mist filled the air.
Crimson was the wrong choice, in retrospect. It looked uglier than it was, like he’d detonated the kid and turned him into a gory mist. A casualty of his categorization system. Red was for compression lube, tech fluid for getting tight things into containers smaller than they were. It was the only fluid he’d trusted to play nice with the cracks in reality he’d recorded.
The kid didn’t get to his feet. He flipped over onto his back, and aimed between his knees. At the closest target- now a member of the Patrol who was running up.
Squinting past the paint-thick red chemical that covered him, he wasted no time in pulling the trigger.
The gun jammed. The Patrol uniform jumped on top of him.
The tiny detonation flicked the gun out of the teenager’s hand, knocking it into the air. A diagonal shimmer of blue air swatted the gun into a snowbank.
Withdrawal breathed a sigh of relief. He kept the popper trained on the kid until he saw the gun had been taken away, the handcuffs put on. From the looks of it, the fall had shoved the gun into the ground, which would have warped its shape a bit with the compression lube all over things, contributing to the jam.
He set the Pill Popper down. Seven out of nine shots remaining. “Thank you, Cary.”
“That was cool,” Caryatid said, as she dropped her breaker form.
“Yeah,” he said. He watched the ongoing skirmish, but it seemed to have stopped just as much as it started. Some people had gotten out of cars, though, joining the crowd that stood behind the line of barricades, watching. One or two had phones out.
Twisting around, he looked up at Finale, who looked guilty. He checked his indicators. Things were settling down.
“Finale,” he said, trying to be gentle. “Did you do something?”
“I didn’t flip any switches,” she said.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing,” she said. Still terrible at lying.
“I-” he started, then decided knowing was more important than anything else. “I promise I won’t get mad. Just show me what you did?”
The kid was screaming. Still spewing invective.
Moving cautiously, like she thought he would get mad, Finale brought her gloves to the back of his suit, resting them on top of the two main exhaust ports. Warming them with the rush of heated air and blocking ninety-five percent of the air flow. She bit her lip.
Moving just as cautiously,using the one arm he still had sleeved into the frame, he poked at her hands, moving them an inch away from the vent.
“That close is fine. But don’t cover them.”
“Is it still warm, like that?”
She nodded, biting her lip.
“I’m stupid fond of you, you know that, right?”
She nodded. No more lip bite. “I’m sorry I’m a fuckup.”
“Fuck you!” the kid screamed. “What are you even doing!? What have you even been doing all this time!? You’re making things worse!”
It was the wrong words, in the wrong moment, when flashes of light danced around his vision, which was tinted a rose shade with the goggles he wore. His skin was slick with sweat from the heating issue, prickling still, his heartbeat hammering from the scare. The screaming and shouts in the distance.
It was the stars aligning in a way that delivered the words home. From an angry kid’s mouth to Withdrawal’s heart.
It took a nudge from Caryatid to get him moving again, make him realize he’d gone silent. A glance from her toward Finale reminded him what he’d been saying.
“You’re not a fuckup. Don’t worry.”
Caryatid laid a hand on his knee.
“What’s wrong?” Fume Hood asked, as she rejoined them. “Spooked? Guns do that. Especially for me”
So hard to put into words.
“Not spooked. Meh,” he said, while feeling far from ‘meh’. He looked at the continuing ruckus. “War stories, I guess.”
“I didn’t think we had any,” Finale said.
“This is one of the ones all of us have,” he said. He looked back at Finale, but expecting her to connect the dots on something that vague was a bit unfair.
He’d told his team bits and pieces before, but… He told them now.
“Fuck you, you fucking fuck.”
The words, like sound and even things as inoffensive as the feeling of the hospital sheets against his skin, were pain. Distilled fucking pain. He was slick with sweat, hospital gown sticking to him. His hair, half-shaved, half long enough to stick to his nose, dyed, was in his eyes, and he couldn’t even muster the effort to fix it.
When he looked up, he saw his mother, dressed in the kind of clothes she would normally have worn to bed, her face flushed, her hair a mess.
“What are you even doing?” she harangued him, her voice shrill and drilling into his skull. “What have you even been up to, these past few months?”
Whenever he moved his eyes, the shadows in the dimly lit hospital wing danced, looking more like dark things scampering this way and that. Look left, and it was wolves and biting squirrel things darting to his right, causing panic to leap in his chest. Look right, and a vague humanoid shadow lunged left. He searched, squinting when even the dim lights viewed through a curtain of eyelashes were searing lasers drilling past his eyeballs to his brain, and found that humanoid shadow- a doorway.
But if he looked at it too long, it distorted, ballooning like a funhouse image. Movements at the corner of his eye took on that insidious, darting-around kind of edge, and he found himself unable to distinguish between the spots in his vision, already tortured by the glare of the lights, and images his brain told him he was seeing. Faces that could have been ghosts or monsters.
“You disappear for months at a time? I get a call from the police about you, and you have drugs? Alcohol? Cigarettes? I have you for a few days, and then you’re gone again. How many times has that happened? More months I don’t hear a thing about you? What have you even been up to?”
His mother’s face, which he wasn’t fond of by any measure to begin with, looked unfairly monstrous in that fleeting moment his eye movements moved her from left to right and back again.
She clapped her hands in his face, hard. He pulled back, wincing from the pain of the noise and the feeling of blood pounding in his ears.
“You almost died, you stupid shit,” she hissed.
The fear wouldn’t go away, his own heartbeat wouldn’t slow down.
“It’s D.T., in case you didn’t know. They’ve done what they could, but I hear it’s still going to be a few days of hell,” his mother told him. She leaned close and he could smell the stink of her. His face contorted as he twisted to get away from her. She grabbed his face and made him look at her, her face inches from his. That edge of hallucinations or whatever it was made her features twist. “Good.”
She let go of him. He looked away, staring at a wall. Part of it because a blank wall was safest to look at when every shadow was something threatening. Part of it was that he hated her.
“A fucking twelve year old alcoholic. One for the fucking record books.”
He heard her leave, and it was only then that he allowed himself to moan, to shed tears.
He hated her. He hated the stink of her and her filthy house. He hated the clothes he was forced to wear because she only got him hand-me-downs, sometimes with t-shirts cut for girls, or shirts with holes in them he could put his finger through. Because she didn’t want to try at anything. She was happy for them to live with next to nothing because anything else required work, and he was expected to accept that. A house that shook when she banged her boyfriends. Noisy at night when she had friends over. But she neglected him and she neglected herself.
He fumbled with the I.V., panic surging in his chest when he realized he couldn’t get it out of his arm. Blood welled around the metal bit as he pulled. He wanted out. He needed out.
It was a matter of survival.
She’d called it a pattern. It was. Not the pattern she’d thought it was.
He drank because of her. Because being around her was unbearable, because he needed to numb the feelings of hate and resentment or he went crazy. To lubricate the days and get to that point where the past and the memory of her was a background haze. He’d hang with other kids on the street, there was a boy he liked that he’d kissed. He’d dull everything and find his footing, stop drinking so much, stop smoking as much. Just enough to fit in.
And the first time, he’d started to straighten out, look for a way to go back to school without going back to his school, and the cops had picked him up and taken him home.
So he’d gone back to drinking. Stolen drinks, then running away, then scrounging up money and using the rooftop garden by the old pool to try fermenting drinks with the teenagers. Back to numbing and lubricating and gliding through days until weeks had passed and he got bored. Tried to put a life together again…
And the second time, a year ago, he’d experienced this. Hell. He’d been so fucked up by the end of it he’d had to go home.
Once he was home, back in the hate, he’d turned to drink again.
An endless spiral.
He was now certain he’d die before he got old enough to get away.
Panic and fear at his own certain demise ran through him, sweat running down him in little streams. He pulled against the cords that bound his arm, the sheets that pinned his legs, and he screamed, a noise loud enough it made his head explode with pain. The pain numbed, in its own way, disrupted the thoughts, so he screamed again, to bring it back. He thrashed madly as the nurses came.
Months and years of this already. Months and years awaiting him, if he lived that long.
Dark shadows danced across his vision. Glimpses of shadow-people, built like snails, or clams, but with limbs so long there were clouds around their legs. They turned and they looked at him. They communicated in whispers that should have been incomprehensible. They spoke to him in those same whispers.
Something bigger, constantly shifting, loomed over them. It descended for him like a swooping bird, bigger than a city.
Withdrawal, A Critical Moment
“Ground rules,” he said. “Don’t ever call my mom. No matter what happens to me, I don’t want to see her. Other relatives… I have a card in my wallet. But not my mom. You can’t let them call her either.”
He felt so shitty, saying that.
“Did she do something?” Bell asked.
He shook his head. “No. She didn’t do anything. Ever.”
“Oh,” ‘Finale’ said. She frowned, eyebrows knitting together. She had a very expressive face.
“Ground rules are a good idea,” Carrie said. She had an oval face and olive skin, with straight black hair and a knee-length black dress she wore for her costume. She fidgeted. “Can I give you mine?”
“I don’t like drunk people. Or high people. I don’t want that to be a thing we do.”
“What if I go and-”
“No,” Carrie said, staring down at her hands. “If you… want to do that stuff, I can’t be around you. Or anyone else we bring onto the team. One strike, I’m gone, and I don’t ever come back. Ever, ever, ever. I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” He said, looking down at his hands. They shook a bit. “I think I can try doing that. I like you guys enough I’m willing to try.”
Carrie’s smile was a nervous one. A relieved one.
But he was pretty sure he was more relieved than she was, to have that ultimatum.
Finale, A Critical Moment
Everything shattered. The noise was deafening, metal, glass, plastic, and tools mixing in with colored liquids, powders, and everything. The table, even though it had all four legs on the floor, tipped over abruptly. As liquids mixed, they made stuff buck, kick, or drown themselves. She backed away before any of it touched her.
Oh no oh no oh no.
Withdrawal yelled from the far side of their ‘headquarters’. She could hear him running.
All of his hard work.
And he’d told her to stay put.
Balling her hands up into fists, she sucked in a breath, panicky. It was like she couldn’t tell if she was breathing in enough air, so she sucked in another, then another. The stuff kept sloshing around and moving. Way more mess than she could fix before he got back. More mess than she could fix in a day or two days.
He was going to be so mad. He was going to leave, or he was going to stay and hit her, or-
She didn’t know. But it couldn’t be good.
She hadn’t known it would be this messy. Why hadn’t she listened?
She sucked in one breath after another, until her head felt light and her chest hurt.
Stupid stupid stupid worthless! No no no.
The one thing he’d specifically told her to steer clear of, if she was going to be in his workshop at any point over the weekend. But him telling her that had made her curious so she’d decided to take a closer look.
Then she’d been busy getting a closer look and she’d forgotten the ‘steer clear’ part of it. She’d touched it, and it had jumped across the room like she’d kicked it with all of her might. Crashing into a table covered in stuff and-
She spun in place, freezing up.
He rushed up to her, and she jumped back. He reached for her, grabbing her by the wrist, and pulling, dragging her.
The door slammed, and she jumped, eyes squeezing shut.
She felt his hands at her arms, running down them. His hand touched her neck, patting at it. Checking. “Are you hurt?”
She sucked in a breath, held it, shook her head.
He pulled her into a hug. She exhaled for the first time, and the sobs came naturally with the exhalation.
He didn’t know.
She had to tell him now or she wouldn’t ever.
“It was me,” she squeaked. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“I know it was you. It had to be you or freak accident like a squirrel getting into the building. Are you okay, though? Nothing hit you? You weren’t splashed?”
Not sure what to do, she nodded, nodded, then shook her head.
He hugged her tighter. She hugged him just as tight back, her head all confused by his reaction.
“You’re going to listen from now on when I tell you not to go near my stuff?” he asked.
“Yes. Of course, yes. All the way yes,” she sobbed.
“I’m just so glad I didn’t come in to find you dead on the floor,” he said. “I was terrified.”
She nodded, face rubbing into his shoulder.
“And I’m going to lock my workshop up if there’s anything sensitive. My fault too,” he murmured, still hugging her tight. “If we learned a lesson that important without any blood shed, I think today’s a good day. Best day, okay?”
“I thought you’d hate me.”
“Can’t. No room for hating anyone,” he said. “Not good for me. And you’re the person I’m least able to hate.”
Never, not once ever, had she fucked up and felt… loved after. Not by mom or dad, not by friends or teachers. For all her life, it had felt like bad things happened, and more bad came after. Over and over and over.
For bad things to happen and for good to come after… it made the world seem brighter and better.
Her mother stroked her hair, trying to get hair to stay flat. It never did. Fixed the collar. The collar stayed put. It was a nice, new shirt, white with buttons. A ribbon tied around with a bow at the front for the girls. A tie for the boys. She had a new skirt and fancy socks and hard shoes.
“Do your best,” her mom said.
The parents left the room one by one. Only a few lingered, resisting the orders to leave while they snapped a few more pictures, camera flashes going off. Leaving her and the rest of the kids behind. Mrs. Wall stayed, but she was focused on talking to other adults.
All the other boys and girls were dressed nice. It was kind of cool, like in the fancy schools in books. She gripped her drumsticks in both hands, fidgeting, then began tapping them together, reminding herself of how the music went.
“Don’t do that,” Mrs. Wall said, pointing at her.
Everyone else had turned to look. Bella ducked her head down. I was just practicing.
Time seemed to pass impossibly slow. Distant music could be heard, but it was muffled, so she only heard the deepest, loudest notes.
Nobody to talk to. She had no friends in this class. Or anywhere, really.
Her fingers tapped against her leg. A silent rendition of the musical piece.
“Do you know what would be funny?” Jeremy said. He was talking to Paul, his buddy, but he glanced at Bella.
“What’s funny?” Bella asked.
“It would be so funny if we were all up there, in front of everyone, and one person just busted out the best solo you ever heard. Out of nowhere.”
“Free bird!” Paul exclaimed, doing the air guitar. Jeremy laughed.
“How would they react?” Jeremy asked. “What would they even do?”
“I’d do it,” Paul boasted, puffing out his chest. “But you can’t do a good solo if you’re in choir.”
“Naw. You’d get drowned out. It’s the shittiest position. Nobody pays attention to the choir.”
“It would be so funny, though. You’d have to be so brave,” Jeremy said. He looked over at Bella again.
Then the topic changed, and the boys were talking about a show she’d never heard of. She tried to follow for a bit, but gave up after a while.
Leaving her alone with her thoughts and drumsticks she wasn’t supposed to practice with. Her fingers drummed a beat against her leg, more to pass the time than anything.
She went through the entire musical piece twice before Mrs. Wall clapped her hands together.
“Class! Everyone! Quiet! On your best behavior!”
Everyone fell silent, except for Bella, who was already silent. Her hand went still at her legs. They were lined up and filed out into the hallway, where every floor shone and the walls had picture after portrait of old men, a gold tag beneath each picture.
Up a little set of stairs, to the side of a stage, where huge curtains were currently closed.
“Hurry, hurry. Look for your number.”
Bella already knew her number. She jogged up to the drums, spun the stool around to adjust the height, and seated herself, before quickly stepping down and scooting it forward. She was shorter than most of the kids.
Back straight, knees together and to the left, feet together and to the right. Drumsticks in hand.
She did a little flippy-flip, spinning the drumstick around her finger.
“Bella,” Mrs. Wall hissed. She was standing at the conductor’s spot. “Do not.”
A couple of the other kids snickered. A few of the popular girls looked at her like she smelled.
After everyone was seated and ready, Mrs. Wall looked to the side and nodded.
That nod made someone open the curtains. The lights were momentarily blinding.
Still blinding, when the curtains were done opening. Spotlights shone on the stage and illuminated the thirty of them. She could barely see the people on the other side- men and women in nice dresses and dress shirts with jackets.
Yeah. It would take someone brave to do anything extra-cool or hilarious in a place like this.
Mrs. Wall gestured at the choir.
High voices rose. Latin.
A wave of the conductor’s stick at her. She was waiting for it.
Drumsticks down. Boom.
The voices rose and fell. Slow and drawn out. As much as Jeremy hated the choir, he was good at it. They were all good at it.
Drumstick down. Boom.
Violins in, slow and quiet at first.
Drumstick down. Boom.
Then violins with voices, she liked this part. The swell. Her own chest expanded as she drank it in.
Then the pause, holding everything in suspense. Her own drumsticks rose, poised.
Everything in its order. It was so reassuring, when nothing else was. Everything in harmony.
Mrs. Wall’s hand came down, and the drumsticks came down too.
And the orchestra exploded into noise, choir roaring. The drumsticks didn’t stop moving.
Mrs. Wall gave her another glare, and it took her a second to realize why. In all of the practicing, she had picked up the habit of doing the drumstick twirl in one of the furious bits. She looked at Jeremy in the corner of her eye, and saw him grinning.
The hair her mom had tried so hard to stick down into place bounced as she drummed, her whole upper body coming down with the force she delivered the booms and thooms. Her drum teacher hated that she’d referred to them as that, but she had taught herself, listening and reading the matching sheet music, and it was hard to unlearn. She wasn’t a genius… just the opposite, she felt. But she really liked music. Her parents had encouraged it because they could put her in the garage they’d soundproofed and she would keep herself occupied all afternoon.
The music lifted her up, and she felt like she wasn’t as lonely as she usually was, a part of this.
And it would last for four minutes and then everything would go back to the lonely regular everyday. Practices and lunch where nobody would talk to her or sit with her. Every day spent waiting for the day to be over so she could play in her garage, eyes closed, and pretend she was with the others.
She swiped the length of the drumstick along her forehead because there was sweat there. If this was it, she would give her all. This was the only thing in the world she was good at.
A bit more. She soaked it in. Her classmates, her teacher, and a bunch of people in the dark with faces she couldn’t make out.
A bit more. More!
The last strike of the drum.
Her part over.
The close was a mirror of the opening, but with violin and voice switched around, the violins going high and low, the voices ethereal.
More, she thought.
She wanted it enough that she felt like she could find that bravery, that courage.
Drumsticks down, eyes closed, punching into that silence with the best she had. Improvised, not Free Bird or anything like that.
Hands gripped her drumsticks and hands, bringing a sudden stop to the moment. She looked up to see a man she didn’t know holding her.
Over there, Mrs. Wall was staring at her, aghast. The students looked horrified, stricken.
“Come,” he whispered.
Without letting go of her so she could let go of the drumsticks, the man pulled her down from the stool and marched her away. Leaving everyone on the stage.
The applause came late, after she was in the hallway beyond backstage, dulled and muted. Late like they’d had to wait for her to leave so it would be clear they weren’t clapping for her.
Her head was noise without any sense as she leaned against the wall.
“Um,” she said.
“Best be quiet.”
He let go of her hand, but when she tried to step away, he put his hand on her shoulder, pushing her back against the wall.
“What’s going to happen?” she asked.
“I don’t have an earthly idea. What even possessed you to do that?”
What possessed her to do anything? Ideas filled her up from head to toe and then she was doing the idea. She had no idea what possessed other people to not do things when they had ideas like that.
“If I was your bandmate,” he said. “I’d want to kill you, heh.”
She felt a stab of fear.
“If I was your teacher, at an event this important? I’d want to beat your ass until the crack stuck out and the cheeks pointed in.”
The fear transformed into something else. She had a hard time picturing what he described, but even trying to imagine that scene left her filled with a restless kind of uncomfortableness, one that wormed its way into the center of her head and belly, and made that stab of fear something less stabby and more constant.
She was afraid to ask, but-
“What about my mom?”
“I bet she’s regretting paying for the drum set and lessons, child.”
She wasn’t going to pay anymore. The drumset? Would she send it back? This was the opposite of what she wanted.
What would she even do?
Choked with fear, to the point it was hard to breathe, she fidgeted with her sticks.
They would take away her drumsticks when they took the drums.
She heaved in another breath before she’d even fully exhaled the other. Feeling a panicked edge, she looked around, searching for something. She had no idea what. It wasn’t like there was a magic switch she could throw that would make everything better or undo what had just happened.
“Hey, you okay?”
She wasn’t okay. If she didn’t have drums she’d have nothing and nobody. She’d have nothing she was great at anymore. She’d- she’d have day after day of waiting for the day to be over so she could drum all the stress away, but without the drumming the stress away. Just waiting and hating every moment.
If they didn’t kill her. Or cave in her butt, or whatever.
But the drums most of all.
“Kid, I wasn’t being serious. Can you look at me?”
She struggled, pulling away. If she ran-
And in the process, she saw the students from her music school filing into the hallway. Mrs. Wall was there.
“Oh my god, you loser!”
“What were you thinking?”
“Children, please, quiet!”
“She’s not listening,” the man said.
“She has issues, delays. If you’ll just-” Mrs. Wall struggled to wade through the group of kids. “Let me through!”
“Idiot!” Jeremy jeered. Even he didn’t think it was hilarious.
And behind the group, at the very end of the hallway, moving forward like a dark storm, was her mom.
Bella looked away, squeezing her eyes shut.
The thump in her chest became a THOOM like none other, and she could see out of that thoom like she could see out of her mind’s eye.
Thoom after thoom.
Big enough to detonate whole worlds.
“Bella!” Mrs. Wall raised her voice. “Look at me!”
“No,” Bella protested, pulling her wrist free of the man’s hand.
Movement and the sound from her lips. She felt vibrations and thrumming and potential, like drumsticks raised high.
She hummed to herself for a second, moving her hand like she would when she stuck it out the car window.
“No!” she cried out, with more force, swinging her hand down. She felt the impact as the power settled. Saw it like a ‘No!’ shaped shimmer that went down from her hand, like she’d thrown a snowball straight into the floor. Muted and blunt, like the head of a hammer. It didn’t feel like enough.
She faced a crowd of people who wanted to kill her. A crowd of people who wanted to hurt her. Who wanted to take away one of the only things she was good at.
She had three, and being a cape was another one, according to the others. Drumming was another, except she wasn’t allowed when Caryatid had a migraine. Then there was dancing, which she had just started, and liked only because Withdrawal liked it and it was something she could do without bothering Caryatid.
Focus, she thought.
A lot of this stuff scared her. But these were people without powers.
People without powers who had gathered up to seventy or eighty in number, pushing past the barricades and defense. Some where trying to get by to the portal or demand things ‘get moving along’. But some were meaner and uglier. They wanted to hurt her and her friends.
“Blip, boop, bosh, blip, bosh,” she said each word with emphasis. Fingers flicked out, index and middle fingers extended. She visualized throwing ice cream cones with each ‘blip’ and a snowball with each ‘bosh’.
Lining them up, keeping track of order. Visualizing…
It was very easy to visualize.
“Stand down!” Fume Hood called out.
There had been three with weapons so far. Two knives, one gun. It was scary, because there were so many of them who had slipped past the men in uniform that it was hard to make them all stop. It was the kind of mess where she could deal with two and a third would get close enough she had to physically push him away. So far, none of the ones who had gotten close had been armed, but they had tried to grab her.
“Called for backup!” the captain called out. “They said no.”
“No!?” Fume Hood asked, incredulous.
“Things are tied up elsewhere. Riots, refugees refusing to cooperate.”
“Is it a power?” Withdrawal asked.
“It’s just people, man! It’s just fucking people! The only people still in the city are the ones with responsibilities, stubborn folk, assholes, and stubborn assholes. Lo and fucking behold, they’re acting to type! Yeah I’m talking to you!” the captain barked, turning to one of the protesters with that last line.
“Bonk, bonk, bonk,” Finale said, hands indicating the target people and places with each statement. She drew in a deep breath. “Ready!”
“Hold off!” Withdrawal called.
Fume Hood was using her gas, but the wind wasn’t favorable. When it blew the gas toward the good guys, she put her hand out, created a new ball, and sucked in the gas.
Because of that, it almost felt like the wind was pushing and pulling the crowd. Wind blew toward them, that yellow-green gas went away, and the people could charge forward. Wind stopped or blew the other way, and the orbs came out.
“I’m ready!” she reminded Withdrawal.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket.
“My phone is ringing! Can I go answer?”
She kind of knew the answer already. No, she wasn’t even sure where she would go if she did.
Other people had slipped by.
“Mine too!” Withdrawal called out. “If they’re calling us both at the same time, I think we’re okay if just I answer. I can use my helmet.”
“‘Kay!” Finale drew out her voice and moved her hand at the same time. The ‘kay’ became a general wedge shape, like a triangular see-saw hanging in the air, ready to slam forward. Not too hard a slam.
Finale saw someone trying to circle around, climbing up onto the concrete pad by the building, running along it. She ran back to intercept, get in the girl’s way.
“Let me by,” the girl said. “I don’t like you guys but I don’t want to hurt you or anything.”
“That’s great,” Finale said. “I can’t let you by, but if you sit over there, we can try to get things moving again.”
“I’ve been in a car for half a day. I barely had dinner last night, I’ve barely slept, and I haven’t had breakfast or lunch because we had to pack up our food. Just let us through. Let us have food and beds. Work through the kinks later.”
“I don’t think those guys would like it very much if people came in willy-nilly,” Finale told the girl.
The girl reached behind her- knife? Gun?
“Finale!” Caryatid called out, warning her.
She activated her power. Let all of the potential become actual.
The triangular bashy ‘kay’ wave of sound slammed into the gun-wielding girl, who probably wasn’t much older than Finale. Hard enough to break ribs and maybe hurt her hand. It made her drop the gun.
The triple-bonks. She turned, making sure she timed them. Delaying, accelerating. Watching where each person was, judging how they’d move. Knocking two into each other, the third over the heap of the two fallen people.
She worked her way backward, getting about twelve good shots in before everything desynchronized. People who had been knocked out already who wouldn’t move the way she needed them to. People blasted this way and that.
“Sorry, had to!” she called out.
“Don’t apologize if it’s a gun on you!” Caryatid said, before turning around and resuming her breaker form, her face peeling back, hands shimmering in their puffy yellow floofs. “Geez!”
“Geez,” Finale said. She bent down, and she picked up the gun. She tossed the thing of bullets away.
“Peeeew,” she said, before hurling the gun itself skyward.
The impact wasn’t as great. It was best if she gave her power time to breathe. But it was a hole in the center of the gun’s outside.
“That was Antares,” Withdrawal said. “She says she has a bad feeling about the anti-parahuman stuff. Thinks it’s going to get out of control or set up something bad.”
“Y’think!?” Fume Hood asked. “Fuck me, fuck this!”
“Said she had a bad feeling in general, and I can’t say I disagree. Feels like something bigger’s going to happen. Gave us the example of the portal thing, but she doesn’t think it’s that.”
“Hear you,” Fume Hood said.
Bad feeling in general.
Yeah. Finale couldn’t help but agree. Her entire life had been a long slew of accidents and fuckups that she hadn’t been able to see coming. Her entire life, it felt like everyone else had the ability to put on the brakes or see the bad stuff coming and steer clear, while she stumbled into it. She was getting better. She had to be better, doing stuff like this. But ‘better’ for her was still pretty fucky-upy.
This, right now, felt bad. Bad like she finally realized what other people tended to feel in their guts before they decided not to do stuff.
“I have a bad feeling too,” Finale said. “I don’t even know how to put it into words.”
“Okay!” Fume Hood said. “Okay, let’s listen to that feeling. Fall back, let’s regroup before anyone gets shot!”
“Falling back!” Withdrawal called out, extra loud so others would hear. “Cheit! Bar your doors, we’ll handle this soon! Everyone else, back off, calm down!”
Not everyone could disengage as easily. Withdrawal shot his gun thing again, aiming for an area where people were especially intense, grabbing onto a cape and pulling on his costume, dragging him to the ground. The disruption of the blast let the guy in costume tear his way free.
“Antares said we should watch out for-” Withdrawal said. He stopped.
Cheit wasn’t closing its doors. It was opening them wider.
Letting a group out. A woman in a suit and black wool coat, a bunch of capes, and their prisoner.
“Her in particular,” Withdrawal finished.
That bad feeling had just gotten a whole lot worse.