One hand resting on the gun at his hip, Gilpatrick used the back of his hand to push a door open. The room was dark, the air stale. The bed looked like the frame had been made by the occupants, with a thick headboard and footboard, crosses etched into each. The bed was made. A snapshot of life here.
A rifle was mounted above the headboard. Standard issue bolt-action that the government had produced for hunting, handing out to the people going out to the fringes. Gilpatrick walked down the side of the room, checked the adjoining bathroom, then under the bed, and finally removed the rifle from the mount. He popped out the bullet that was pre-loaded into the chamber.
Credit where credit was due, the occupants had put this house together themselves, built their rough-hewn furniture, and carved out a life for themselves. As something of a consequence, everything felt coarse, here. Blue curtains with a texture like burlap, wooden furniture that had been sanded enough to remove any chance of splinters or clothing catching on it, oiled, and set in place.
Bible on the bedside table. He moved it to turn the page, and noted the square of dust-less surface left behind. No annotations, no modifications.
Turning back toward the door, he noted a paddle mounted on the wall, leather strips criss-crossing the handle for grip, holes in the wood, probably to make it hurt more. The words ‘spare the child’ were written in the spaces between the holes.
He walked over to the next room. Same furniture, but the curtains were purple, and a flower wallpaper had been put on the upper half of the walls, a corner peeling away in one spot, another spot that rippled where too much adhesive had been used. A touch of femininity in a space that afforded little. Two guitars sat in the corner, one resting on a chair, the other against the wall. There were books on the bedside table, not dissimilar to the rifle on the wall in the master bedroom. Mass produced to fill a need.
It felt invasive to enter when the space was so much more personal, but he investigated nonetheless, doing a circuit, checking a doorway to find a closet, most of the contents removed.
The dresser had a series of portraits across the top, alongside some simple jewelry. A girl who could have fit in at any high school or in Gilpatrick’s Patrol Block… who seemed maybe too normal to be in his Patrol Block. The girl pictured for what might have been a graduation photo. Her with her parents, a pinched looking woman and a stern, unsmiling man, displaying enough joy to make up for the two of them.
Spare the child, he thought. He had no doubt that paddle had been used on this girl by those people.
The last picture gave him a moment’s pause. It lay flat, like it had fallen over or been placed face-down. He picked it up- and saw what looked like a crime scene photo. A person, he couldn’t tell who or what gender, with face taking up the entirety of the shot, face swollen to the point the one visible eye wouldn’t open, mottled by bruising and flecks of blood. He wasn’t positive it wasn’t a picture of a corpse, kept among family pictures. Too much rosiness in the complexion to be a body. Probably. It took him a moment to double check, note the girl had a mole by her eyebrow that the person pictured didn’t, to confirm it wasn’t a picture of herself she’d kept.
Given the same simple wooden frame as the rest. Included among the rest, though placed so she couldn’t or wouldn’t see it regularly.
He left the room behind. The bathroom was the next room, a cheap plastic curtain held up around a plastic tub by a loop of metal pipe. The shower itself was a pipe that stabbed upward through the floor, had a bend, and a simple shower head attached. No typical shampoo or soap. Just soap as rough as the rest of the things in this house, and a nearly empty jar of what looked like bacon grease.
There were two rooms at the end of the hallway. One looked to be a guest room. The other – it would be Rain’s. A little workshop table, a bed, a bedside table, and a set of shelves with a few articles of summer clothing on them. Secondhand clothes, by the looks of it. The bed was unmade and had been for a while.
There were no closets or doors in the other rooms, so he didn’t feel the need to enter and check. He did drop down to a crouch, sitting on his ankles, to get a view under the beds.
It was only when he was done that his hand moved away from his gun.
An anxious habit of his, to ‘clear’ a space. He did it when he got home after more than twenty four hours of being away. He made a point of doing it or having the kids he trusted do it when they were in a new and unfamiliar place, situation allowing.
Nashua, New Hampshire, his squad had run into cage people- eight feet tall, thick around the chest, bearing improvised weapons, they had captured people as power sources, scooping them up, shackling them in fifty places, and using the shackles to position them, leg inside the cage person’s leg, arm inside the cage persons’s arm, head inside the hollow head, peering through the grate-like mouth. Unwilling passengers and power sources who, because humans weren’t eight feet tall, often suffered breakages to all four limbs when the cage people’s limbs bent at different points than the passengers. One of the passengers had been caught within for two and a half days, dehydrated and delirious, with severe damage to all four limbs. Two more had died.
He still remembered the sounds, and those frantic fights where they had tried to dismantle the things without hurting those within. They’d never caught, found, or heard of the Master who had created the things after the incident.
In Manchester, he had checked in regularly with Lucky Break, a kid with powers. Wards were a non-consideration according to the kid, and at sixteen he was old enough to be emancipated and independent, yet too young to take good care of himself. Then-twenty-five, Gilpatrick had tried to offer the best advice he could, while watching the kid ping-pong around the local cape scene.
At an age when many kids were still figuring themselves out, L.B. had been flirting with villains, trying his hand at being a mercenary, and doing odd jobs for odd teams. Gilpatrick had pulled strings when the kid had been brought in for questioning, had let stuff slide or pretended not to know the full story, just to stay close to the kid, because the alternative had been that the boy wouldn’t have any guidance at all.
But Lucky Break found what he was looking for, apparently. Then-seventeen year old L.B. got into a relationship with villainess Pirouette, or Pirou for short. Gilpatrick couldn’t know the woman’s age for certain, but between her visible tattoos and how long he’d known she’d had the tattoos, he was comfortable putting her somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-two to thirty-four. The start of the relationship had coincided with the end of Gilpatrick’s ability to get L.B. to listen to anything he said.
Eight months later, a forensics team was excavating L.B. from a barrel that had been filled with concrete and dropped to the bottom of Massabesic Lake. Gilpatrick hadn’t been able to finish reading the report of what had happened pre-mortem.
No knowing if L.B. had cheated his team and invited reprisal, or if it was connected to Pirou being seen with an ex of hers just weeks after L.B. had first disappeared. No knowing if there was something else he could have said, or if it would have been better for him to take the kid by the shoulders and shake him violently until he came to his senses, or scream at him, beg, or make offer of a couch to sleep on for just a day or a few hours of normal.
Or if being known to exchange a casual ‘hello’ with the guy in the PRT jacket had marked L.B. out as a rat, and doing absolutely nothing at all would have been best.
It made the dark corners of the world feel darker. So Gilpatrick investigated the corners.
He stopped at the girl’s bedroom door again, standing in it, staring out across the room at the picture. More than a moment’s pause, this time. A minute.
Gilpatrick turned. Rain stood halfway up the staircase. The boy was, like so much about this house, rough at the edges. Small, old scars, an uneven line to the nose, hair short but not perfectly even, with just a bit of fuzz at his cheeks and chin, a hint of acne. He wore his costume without the mask portion of it.
Almost the opposite of L.B., who had been stylish, polished, fragile, and carried himself like he was invincible.
“Sorry. It’s my habit to sweep an area if I feel worried,” Gilpatrick said.
“That’s a good idea,” Rain said. “I don’t think anyone’s been here for a while, but we’ll be vulnerable while we’re in the dream. It can’t hurt to double check.”
“You’re not offended I’m prying?”
Rain shrugged. The mechanical arms that were attached to his elbows gave his arms extra weight, and made the shrug heavier. “I’d be happy to get any insights. I’m still trying to figure it all out. Or even a reminder about what’s screwed up about all of this.”
“Your parents, their bible was normal.”
“Aunt and uncle. Yeah. They were hardline Fallen, but they’d go back to the actual bible as their tried-and-true.”
“How do they reconcile that?” Gilpatrick asked.
Rain shrugged again, heavy. “They just do.”
“Your sister- or cousin?”
“She packed her clothes but didn’t bring the guitars.”
“She had four, I think.”
“Mmm,” Gilpatrick grunted. “I don’t want to sound weird about my fixation on this, I know I was just staring off into space, your cousin’s room, now I’m asking a lot of questions.”
“Nah. I think you could find a hundred things to stare at and question in this house. I know I do a lot of thinking about little things.”
“I can understand your Aunt and Uncle, I think-”
“-And I think I have a grasp of who you are. But your cousin- there’s a picture on her dresser.”
Rain tilted his head to one side, then ascended the stairs. Gilpatrick stepped out of the way and let Rain enter the bedroom.
Gilpatrick watched as Rain found the framed photo in question.
“Weird,” Rain said.
“No clue what that’s about?”
“Not at all.”
It really fucking bothers me, Gilpatrick thought. It felt like that ugliness he’d gotten used to looking in dark corners for, except it sat right out there in the open. Unashamed, unabashed.
“Any ideas?” Gilpatrick asked.
“A punishment or a reminder maybe,” Rain said. “If she stayed out too late or spent too much time around someone my Aunt and Uncle deemed subversive, maybe it was a reminder of what happens to the unfaithful.”
“And they make her keep it on her desk?”
“Knowing Allie, they’d ask to get a picture of the unfaithful friend or boyfriend after punishments were meted out, and tell her to look at it and remember there are rules. Or whatever. And so she put it in a frame and kept it on her desk as a kind of middle finger to them. Because one way you deal with all of this is to accept it without flinching, or by doing the opposite of flinching, and pretend it doesn’t bother you. She was better at that than I was.”
“How is she now?”
“I don’t really know,” Rain said. “She doesn’t talk to me. She still hangs out with people from the compound. Fallen. Looks after my Aunt while my Uncle is in prison. I guess Allie’s way has its flaws, if you pretend so long it becomes your reality.”
Rain said it all without flinching. Like it didn’t bother him.
Gilpatrick was silent.
Rain picked up the picture, used his other set of hands to open up the frame, and checked the back, before shaking his head. “I don’t think I’m right.”
“It being someone she knew. Unless this predates my joining the family, and I don’t think it does. I don’t recognize this person, and I don’t remember hearing about this.”
Rain set the picture down. Pale skin, bruises, reds and purples in a pale wood frame, next to family pictures and self-portraits.
“That’s going to bug me,” Gilpatrick said.
“I get it,” Rain said, not moving from the dresser. “A lot of stuff bugs me like that.”
There was creak at the stairs. Gilpatrick turned. Victoria’s lawyer friend.
“We’re ready,” Natalie said.
“Got it,” Rain said, from his cousin’s room. “Coming down.”
Gilpatrick waited for Rain, and walked down the stairs with him. Seeing people downstairs, Rain started to pull his mask on, then decided against it.
“No mask?” Gilpatrick asked.
“No point. You’ll see.”
The living room was cast in a red light. Lookout was there, mask on. A movie played without a screen, suspended in the air above a cube that sat on the floor.
It was Breakthrough, in mixtures of civilian clothes and costumes, faces blurred out. They were in a place that looked like the photographs crews had gotten of the space beneath the cracks. Monsters very like Endbringers.
“Oh!” Kenzie said. “Gilpatrick. Should I start from the beginning so you can see?”
“I’m not sure I see the use,” Marcial said. “I’m not really understanding what I’m seeing. Objective?”
“Get to where we can adjust the data.”
“To do what?” Gilpatrick asked.
“We’ll figure it out when we get there. Depends on the situation,” Rain said.
Which sounds really confident, but amounts to ‘I don’t know’, Gilpatrick thought.
“Now tell us the tactics we need,” Marcial said.
Marcial was built more like a model than a soldier, but she had her battle scars- one earlobe was missing, her eyebrow was cut in half by a scar where hair didn’t grow, and her nose was a bit crooked, owing to an old break. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Veteran New York PRT, a squaddie who had probably clocked more hours on battlefields than any of the capes or civilians still in this compound. They would be high-intensity hours, too.
Gaymon was Marcial’s friend. In some ways he was her polar opposite, an attractive guy with a sharp nose, jawline, and lips made unattractive by a constant, slight sneer and natural glare to his eyes, wavy blond hair slicked back. No scars- Gaymon had done his years as a squaddie, graduated to a position where he hadn’t been required to carry a gun, and settled there.
Not people Gilpatrick would have chosen, had he been given the opportunity to handpick people
He recognized some of the other faces. Ten people in total. Members of the Patrol and captains of the Patrol. Diaz, Early, Bastian, Kelly, Valentin, Hanson, and Cox. He knew half of them and got the names for the other half from names printed on uniforms.
“For strategy,” Rain said, “to start with, we dream. I have no idea how that’s going to work when you have Coronas and no powers-”
“It should work,” Lookout said, walking over to the device that was situated in the middle of the living room, a laptop computer attached and sitting atop it.
“-But how, dreamwise?” Rain asked. When he didn’t get a clear response, he said, “The dreams suck. But they’re our entry point. After the dreams, stay put. I think as long as you stay in your designated area, you’re safe. We’ll all be in a room with clear separation between spaces, and what we’re wearing will depend heavily on our self image. Or the agent’s perception of what our self image should be.”
He paused, as if anticipating questions. He got none. Even the Patrol kids, eighteen or nineteen, were focused and listening.
“There will be two or three other people present. I say two or three because Cradle, a twenty year old with glasses, we killed him in the dream-space last night, he apparently ended up brain damaged beyond repair. I don’t know if he comes back. There will also be Love Lost and Colt. Two capes who are cooperating with us. Villains, but cooperative. Love Lost has been part of this particular room from the beginning. Colt was linked into it.”
“You’re losing me,” Gaymon said.
Rain kept going, “Most importantly, there will be a monster present. Our best guess is it will have emotion control powers.”
He was rambling a bit, but that was fine. The pertinent info was there. It just had to be sorted out.
“Standard protocols for dealing with emotion powers?” Gilpatrick asked, to give Rain a bit of a starting point.
“I- I honestly don’t know.”
“General practice is to use logic for emotion driven pressure,” Marcial said. “Think your way through situations when you know your heart is lying to you.”
“I mean, okay, yeah, didn’t know that,” Rain said. “But I don’t know because we’re dealing with the heavy hitters. Closer to Titans or Endbringers than anything. I don’t see that being something you can just think through.”
“Okay,” Marcial said.
“We were told this was important,” Cox said. A blonde rookie from the Patrol. “Why?”
“Okay, past the room we’re in- to go back a step, we need to get around this monster that’s guarding the space, get to the door, and we’ll find ourselves in… this space.”
Rain indicated the screen that was showing a dim replay of last night’s events.
“Once we’re there, there’s a subtle logic to the space. We navigate it, we find a key point, and then we time what we’re doing. Antares and the heroes are planning an attack. We’re doing something more subversive. It makes sense once you’re in there, and I think it makes more sense if you’re more in tune with your powers… or that part of you closest to powers, I guess. I sort of figured it out, but Antares and Damsel were good at it. It makes more sense when you’re in there.”
“You said that already,” Gaymon said, voice low, almost resentful.
“Sorry,” Rain said, without any cringe or change in expression. Most of his attention was on figuring out what needed to be shared and how. “It’s all interconnected. Everything about powers ties into this place, and, by that reasoning, this place is our chance to adjust variables, change things around.”
“What things?” Cox asked.
Same question I asked.
“We decide when the time comes. The people on the surface might be able to communicate some, or opportunities might arise if their mission succeeds. If they fail, we might want to distract.”
It wasn’t a bad answer, all considered.
Rain set his jaw. “There are tricks to moving through the space, because a part of it is interpretive. It’ll be easier to show you when we’re there than to tell you. More important is the room we’ll be in at the start.”
He paused, frowning a bit.
“The monster,” Gaymon said, impatient. “That’s as bad as an Endbringer? What are we doing about it? Are there weapons? Your powers?”
“No powers, they said,” Valentin said, his arms folded, expression serious. He was a narrow man with a pointed chin, his hair in a messy pompadour.
“You might have weapons, Tattletale did, but explaining why would take time, and we only have minutes,” Rain said. “I’m trying to balance what’s important to tell you and the possibility that meditating and focusing on the right frame of mind and self-image might arm you.”
“You’re doing a poor job of briefing us-” Gaymon said.
“Easy does it,” Gilpatrick interrupted.
“I like being armed,” Marcial said. “Talk us through that.”
Rain looked down at Lookout, who was tinkering with the box, and Natalie, who smiled encouragingly from the archway separating the living room from the front hallway and stairs.
Gilpatrick put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “We’re on your side. We’re with you in this.”
Rain barely seemed to take in the feedback, where L.B. had reacted so strongly to every praise and condemnation, brimming with sensitivity and reception. Victoria, by another stark contrast, had barely seemed to notice things that made or broke other people’s moods for the day, but one innocuous cue could see her retreating to her office.
“We should sit, get comfortable. Our bodies stay here while we appear over there as simulacra, so being comfortable will help for more than just meditation.”
“I can bring stuff into the room if it helps,” Natalie said.
Gilpatrick took his seat, next to Rain.
Had there been any argument, they could have frittered away the minutes they did have. There was none. In a respect, everyone present had become accustomed to the strange, some more than others. Crazed ‘wizard’ parahumans, minions, tinkertech, reality warping, and the inherent absurdity of pretending everything was okay when such dark things happened in dark places.
A teenage boy ending up in a barrel filled with concrete and it being shrugged off because he’d worn a mask some of the time. A woman having her consciousness transferred into the family dog and vice versa, and her tinker husband refusing to change her back. The cage people of Nashua, a woman ending up a quadruple-amputee as a consequence. The low level violence and madness of it.
“The goal is to get to a mental space where you have a weapon at the ready and that’s natural to you and your self-image,” Rain said. “To start with…”
He continued from there.
Gilpatrick put his hand to his gun. It didn’t feel like a stretch to imagine arming himself.
Marcial and Gaymon would likely have no problem either. But they, more than anything, even more than the faces in this group that he didn’t recognize, were problems.
He’d devote his focus to dealing with them, because Marcial was a ‘shoot first, ask later’ type, and Gaymon had made no secret of the fact he agreed with the anti-parahumans.
No doubt that they’d been included because they fit the criteria. They had coronas, Marcial had been dropped from the PRT shortly before Gold Morning because of it. They were trained and experienced, they were available.
If this went wrong, it would be because of them.
“…breathe,” Rain said.
“Hey mom? Mom.”
The woman put down a box, and huffed out a breath. “What?”
“If you got superpowers, what would you do with them?” The girl was young, with red hair, freckles on her cheekbones, and an Asian cast to her eyes. Those same eyes sparkled.
“I never thought about it.”
“Really? Never ever?”
“Never ever, Ever,” the woman said. To Gilpatrick, it was like his own lips were moving. His own heart beat. He looked at the girl and he could feel the uneasy love the woman had in her heart for her child.
“I think about it a lot. I’d be all wizardy, I think. Even if I didn’t have wizardy powers.”
“I can imagine that.”
“You really never thought about it?” the girl asked. She was sweaty from moving things, and nonetheless weaved through the piles of boxes and supplies with a boundless energy. “What would you do, really truly? Think about it now.”
“I suppose I’d hunt down the bad people, and I’d slit their throats.”
The girl pouted. “Seriously?”
“I’d claw into their stomachs, feel their guts hot between my fingers, and drag the contents out of the wound. Because you don’t get powers without something bad happening to you, and I don’t think there are many things that could push me that far without me wanting revenge of some sort.”
The words Gilpatrick heard didn’t line up with the movement of the lips.
“I’m interested in real answers,” the girl said, her expression not matching up with what had just been said. Bored, irritated, no hint of fear.
“I think I’d do what I’m doing now, Everlyn”
This time, the words lined up with the movements of the mouth.
“Detective work?” Everly asked.
She’s law enforcement?
Everly took that in. The sparkle was gone from her eye.
“You seem disappointed.”
“What would have to happen for you to decide you’re done? Or to move on to something else?”
“I suppose if you needed me,” the woman said. “If you got sick and needed care, I’d quit and do something else so I could watch you. Or if I got hurt on the job, which isn’t as likely as you’d think from watching television, but… could happen.”
The little girl stopped there.
“What?” the woman asked. “If something’s bothering you, I want to talk about it.”
“I thought you said things would be better, mom.”
“I know the world ended, the apartment is small-”
“I don’t care about the apartment! I’m fine with the apartment! It’s great! We’re so lucky, getting to live here, when others are in tents. I care about you! You made me promises! You swore!”
The entire apartment seemed to rattle with the volume of the shouts. Eerie.
“I’m keeping my promises, Ever,” the woman said, quiet.
“No,” the girl said, quiet.
“I haven’t had a drink.”
“I don’t care about the drinking.”
“Much. I don’t care as much,” the girl said. She was red faced now, her eyes moist. “I care about you going back.”
“To work? Ever, it’s a high-demand position, they need all the law enforcement they can get, and there are survivors who know me and recommend me. It’s why we have this apartment.”
“I don’t care about the apartment, mom!” Ever’s voice took on a higher pitch. The apartment rattled.
“You just said you liked it.”
“I just said I don’t care! I care about you breaking your promise to me! I care that you get unhappy when you work! I care that you get meaner! I care that you’re gone all the freaking time, and you break even more promises to me!”
“I won’t. I told you I’d keep my word and I will.”
“You just broke your word, mom! You said things would be different!”
“They will. Now please stop shouting. You’ll bother our new neighbors.”
“On my last day of school, my last day of school- before everything ended! You were late, dropping me off, because you worked late and you drank! And you got mad at me! And then I got in trouble with the school for being late! They made me stay after school, remember? To get my report card and diploma for my grade?”
“I remember, Ever. I apologized.”
“While my friends were happy the year was ended and talking about summer camp, I was being punished for you bringing me to school so late all the time! How shitty is that!?”
“Don’t swear,” the response was almost automatic.
Ever’s voice broke. “I don’t get a freaking choice, mom. When you bring me to school late, or when you divorce dad, or when you aren’t there to relieve the babysitter and they get pissy. I’m stuck with you, I have to go along for the ride, whatever you do.”
“That’s going to change.”
“You just said it won’t! You said if you got superpowers you would go back to doing what you did before! I thought, hoped, maybe you were just doing it temporarily, or to get the apartment, but it’s for good!?”
The entire apartment rattled. Gaps were visible in the spaces where things moved apart.
The woman turned her head to look at it all. “If you’d let me explain my rationale…”
“Explain, not discuss? Talk about it? Is there any chance, any at all, that you’d give up this job? Is there anything I can say that would change your mind?”
“I’m giving it a lot of thought that I haven’t until now.”
“But are you capable of changing your mind?” Everlyn asked. “No, don’t answer that. Change your mind, right now. Just tell me you’ll keep your promise.”
“That’s… not fair.”
Everlyn pushed on a box that was atop a stack of three. It fell, and it fell violently, the contents breaking, small plastic pellets spilling out across the floor. The crash it produced became a constant noise in the background.
The girl’s expression and posture were shame, fully aware of the mess she’d made, that she was almost begging.
The constant noise continued.
“A lot of what you were describing was the drink,” the woman said. “I hid it pretty well-”
The little girl snorted, barely audible with the background noise.
“I think you might be mistaking some of the drinking issues with work ones.”
“Don’t you get it?” Ever’s voice was soft. “I’d rather you were a drunken loser than a police detective again.”
And then she was gone, storming out of the room, nearly tripping as she stepped on an angular bit of plastic that had spilled from the box. The noise drowned everything out. A babble of voices, like the neighboring apartments were filled with people and stomping feet. Bangs. Crashes.
The woman reached down to start to pick things up, then seemed to think twice. She stood. “Ever!”
Striding into the next room. It wasn’t a room in the apartment. She was face to face with her daughter, who wore a different outfit. Two girls of similar age stood by, looking upset.
Her hand gripped her daughter’s arm, hard.
“Can we just go, or are you going to shout at me for another five minutes?” Everlyn asked.
“The chance to go was twenty minutes ago. For right now I want to make this absolutely clear, you do not tell me you’ll be somewhere and then duck off somewhere else! This is not a game and it does not win you any points!”
Ever looked at her friends, then back to her mother. She didn’t answer.
“I’m fed up to here with you! I was going out of my way to bring you here, give you the early allowance, and you run off?”
“Mom,” Ever said, voice tense. She pulled back to try and get her arm free of her mother’s grip. “You’re embarrassing me.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing! I don’t know any other way of getting through to you!”
“Okay,” Everlyn said, mollified, cringing.
“I was worried.”
“I was safe, I was with my friends.”
“There are unsavory elements around, it’s not safe for kids your age to be wandering around without supervision.”
“I get it, fine.”
“Um,” one of the other girls said. A blonde.
The woman turned to her. The girl shrank back a bit.
“I’m sorry about this,” the woman told the blonde girl.
“I should go catch my bus.”
“I’ll take you home.”
“I-” the girl started. “Okay.”
“I’m going to be late for work as it is. It’s not much trouble,” the woman said, straightening.
She looked at her daughter. She saw an expression-
Hurt. Betrayal. The little girl as the aggrieved party, now.
The moment was silent, the look unmoving, but the entire shopping mall shuddered.
They walked, one of the girls taking her leave to rejoin her parents. The blonde girl, Everlyn, and the woman.
A boom rattled the building.
People immediately began running. The noise in the background became reality. And without crossing the distance between, the woman was against the wall, in an alcove by folded tables for events, all stacked up. Holding her daughter as best as she could while people ran past. They skinned her fingers with the force they scraped by, too numerous, in too small a space.
She tried to bring her daughter closer, and she failed.
There was too much noise and chaos for anything she said to be heard.
With herculean effort, she pulled her daughter into her arms, hugging her for a moment.
There was a moment of quiet, a brief opportunity to utter a few words.
“I get it now.”
And then her daughter was torn from her arms by the pressure of bodies. She leaned hard on the stack of tables- the tables collapsed. The result was explosive, like a mousetrap snapping closed, Everlyn’s head coming down, striking a metal bar. Lip split, eyes pointing in different directions.
No light in those eyes.
The woman screamed.
They opened their eyes.
“Don’t move from where you are!”
Gilpatrick followed the instructions, raising only his head, surveying the area.
Patchwork, a gridwork of concrete, concrete, grass, pavement. A mosaic-
He frowned, looking over.
The person was… had it been Valentin? Narrow, slender, with hair in a messy pompadour.
Except his body was painted in stripes, pale, paler, and dark, hair alternating black, blond, and brown. His clothes made no sense, and the patch of room he was in was… a mess. Jumbled things piled atop one another.
Gilpatrick’s, by contrast… it looked like a parking lot, including two yellow lines. He felt like he could feel moisture in the air. From the lake. From the ocean.
Because he’d been thinking of L.B. earlier? Or because of Victoria, and the time he’d told her she couldn’t be with the Patrol anymore? They’d been close to the water then, too.
No, couldn’t get distracted.
Threat assessment, he thought, checking the other end of the room.
The ‘monster’ that had been described was slender, tall, like a blade cut in the shape of a wolf, with a gradation between blue and red, with white at the main body. It prowled, and as it did, its shape seemed to change by rules Gilpatrick couldn’t understand.
“Stay put!” Rain called out again. “Stand but don’t leave your section! If you can’t tell where your section starts and stops, just stay where you are!”
Gilpatrick surveyed the room.
He saw a red haired woman who hadn’t been at the meeting. The one from the dream? She wiped at her eye, and streaked mascara in the process.
Beside her was a girl with messy ‘grunge’ hair that Gilpatrick had seen in the video, wearing skinny jeans and a crop top, her eyes half-lidded.
And… another girl? Brown haired, shorter, younger than anyone present.
He did a headcount. Put names to people, helped by the fact that some, like Marcial, Early, and Hanson were wearing PRT uniforms with their names printed on them. Marcial held an automatic rifle, on top of the body armor she wore. A smirk crossed her face.
He was- he checked himself. PRT windbreaker, gun at his hip.
By the headcount, his best guess… “What the hell, Cox?”
The little girl took a second to look at him, eyebrows furrowed. She couldn’t have been older than ten.
“I have no idea,” Cox said.
“Your self-image is that of a little girl?” Gaymon asked.
“I…” Cox floundered, looking lost.
“I’m biracial,” Valentin said. He looked at his striped arm. “I didn’t think it had its roots that deep in me.”
The beast at the other end of the room growled, low and long.
Gilpatrick felt his heart rate rise at that, involuntary, too much of a reaction, all considered. It kept hammering even after the growl stopped.
“I was thinking about my niece,” Cox said. “When we saw the little girl.”
“Shh,” Diaz said. The man glanced over at the red haired woman. The one from the dream.
“You brought people, huh Precipice?”
“Yeah, Colt. We talked about it on the phone.”
“I know. I expected something different.”
Gilpatrick straightened, adjusting his clothes. He couldn’t say it was a fair representation of who he was or what he imagined when he imagined himself… but he couldn’t say it wasn’t either. He struggled to think of something that felt more familiar or ‘right’ to him.
This was really a thing.
“I guess this is our crash course in being parahuman,” Gilpatrick said.
“Fuck that,” Gaymon retorted. The man wore business casual. Had no gun.
“We don’t get the fun powers, but… jumping from personal crises to fights against giant monsters feels about right,” Gilpatrick said. “No offense, Love Lost, ma’am. You have my condolences.”
He saw her expression change, her full focus on the monster at the end of the room.
“Something just struck me,” Rain said. “I should have thought about it sooner.”
“Yes you should’ve,” Gaymon said, voice terse, tense.
“Shush,” Marcial told her friend. “What should you have thought of?”
“It’s an emotion manipulator. Half of you are armed. What happens if she fills you all with murderous rage? Even for a second?”
Marcial looked down at her assault rifle.
“We’re safe once we’re through. It can’t pursue,” Colt said.
“We actually never tested that last night,” Rain said.
“I feel like it’s right.”
Rain nodded, taking that simple statement at face value.
“Empty your guns,” Gilpatrick said.
“What?” Marcial asked. “Bullshit.”
“We put every last bullet into that thing. It means we can’t put those bullets in each other. We do as much damage as we can, push through.”
“That leaves us unarmed for what comes next,” Marcial said.
“It’s better than the alternative,” Gilpatrick said. “Assess our threat: we’re pretty sure it’s Master?”
“Love Lost is Master-class. That thing is what’s in charge of handing her that power,” Rain said.
“Holy shit,” Gaymon said. “Every single one of you has something like this?”
“Not quite like this. This is a fighter. It’s meant to protect the room. Others… they observe, they mess with stuff. I dunno,” Rain said.
“Every one of you capes has something sort of like this?” Gaymon asked. “Fuck me.”
“This is a chance to understand parahumans,” Gilpatrick said. “Not to move further from them.”
“We have a time limit before we all wake up,” Rain said. “The more time we have, the more we can mess with the system. Assuming we can get there.”
“Meaning shoot now?” Marcial asked.
“If you can hit that thing from where you’re at,” Rain said. “It’s a Brute, probably. That’s a classification, right?”
“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said. He was trying to support the boy, keep him level, keep him focused. His own experience with the PRT had been fighting tooth and nail against things he barely understood, like the cage people, and trying to help out the capes as best he could.
He had to privately admit that he much preferred doing the latter.
Marcial aimed down the sights of her assault rifle. “It warps as it moves.”
“It’s four dimensional,” Rain said. “The one last night got bigger and had more arms as we got closer. This one might have something similar.”
“Diddle me with a broken bottle,” Marcial said. “It can’t be as easy as pointing and shooting, can it?”
“Never, in my experience,” Diaz said.
Diaz speaking up made Gilpatrick wonder about the others.
Valentin and Cox were quiet.
Was it just a natural result of how fucked up this dark corner of the universe was?
“Master, Brute, and let’s call it Breaker and let’s assume it’s not going to un-break anytime soon!” Gilpatrick called out, raising his voice. “Emotion powers, be ready! Stay in your quadrants, we bolt as a group when the last bullet is fired! Communicate all context!”
“No arguments!” Marcial said. “Let me shoot first! As soon as-”
She bent down, reaching for her ankle. She had a gun strapped there. She smiled, turning to Gaymon-
Then turned the other way. “Red hair!”
Love Lost looked at her. She looked deranged, with the smeared mascara.
“How good a shot are you?”
“Fuck you, Marcial,” Gaymon said. “I’m not that bad a shot.”
There were a few nervous laughs around the room.
Love Lost held out a hand.
“You can shoot?”
“Better than you.” Love Lost’s voice was soft, raw and ragged, her expression deadpan.
“Ha!” Marcial laughed.
“You’re arming the villain?” Bastian asked.
“I go by my instincts in situations like this. I don’t trust Valentin or Cox when they’re this fucked up inside, most of the rest of you have guns, and something tells me she-”
She tossed the handgun to Love Lost. Then she tossed the magazine.
“-spent time at the range.”
“More than you,” Love Lost said.
“Fuck you,” Marcial said. “I’ve got two kids who I left sitting with their daddy in a tent at the edge of civilization. I’m going to trust that you’re not going to fuck me on this, ok, Red?”
Love Lost nodded.
“Just gotta get through the door again, right?” Colt asked.
“Yeah,” Rain said.
Marcial aimed her rifle.
Gilpatrick squared his stance. Stand and shoot.
Others did much the same.
“Those of you who aren’t armed, focus on escorting the kids,” Gilpatrick called out.
“Including fucking Cox?” Bastian asked.
“Fuck you,” Cox retorted.
“Ten!” Marcial’s voice was commanding.
She was like ice, her aim steady.
Gilpatrick’s wasn’t, but he could control his breathing.
Steady his aim. He scanned the thing for weak points.
Joints. Weak spots. Consistent spots that didn’t warp as much as it moved. He chose one of the spots on the shoulder, where red mingled with blue to form a shape that looked like an eye with an ‘s’ shaped pupil. His bullseye.
The beast stopped. It looked at them with a gleam in its eyes that suggested it knew exactly what was happening. Who they were, what they were doing. Like it could understand them and the countdown.
“Time your shots, you want to be empty the moment Marcial is!” Diaz called out.
Valentin and Cox were still silent, still the odd ones out, expressions cold. They paid more attention to one another than they paid to the rest of the room. Exchanging looks.
Where were they from?
His scrutiny of the pair must have been obvious, because Early commented. One of the rookies, fresh-faced, but serious. He’d seen the kid toted around by Bash, a captain in training. “Weird, aren’t they?”
Gilpatrick looked at Valentin and Cox. “Weird how?”
“Even before, Cox’s nametag-”
“It was faded. Read ‘C-p-x’,” Early said, voice quiet. “Ink or marker-”
“-painted over the ‘p’.”
“That’s the kind of thing you mention sooner,” Gilpatrick said.
Marcial opened fire, and as much as the room was vast, with fourteen or fifteen sections, the noise was deafening. They had none of the usual PRT or Patrol ear protection. No hats, nothing that muffled. And the walls did reverberate with the sound, making it echo.
And chunks began to fall off the thing. Bullets shattered it like it was made of ceramic, holes drilled in, cracks spreading, and sections falling off.
Except the sections that fell off weren’t anywhere near the part of the body they could see. Ten feet away, eight feet away. Bullets chewed into parts of it they couldn’t see while leaving the part they could see untouched.
“-Typo!” Early said, the first part of his sentence drowned out by the gunfire.
No, I don’t trust that it was a typo they covered up. That’s two bits of weird in short succession. Coincidences in this world get you killed.
Three bits of weird. Cox wasn’t flinching at the gunfire. She didn’t even seem bothered. She was supposed to be a rookie and she seemed less spooked than even Marcial.
He couldn’t dwell on it too much. Marcial was shouting over the din of the gun.
His time to shoot.
The gun fired with a force that jolted up his arms to his chest, made his head move, teeth shifting against one another. He focused, aimed, and pulled back on the trigger.
He’d timed it right. He ran out just about at the same time Marcial did.
Too much time at the range, getting an instinct about that sort of thing, while training his officers.
The silence and the ringing in his ears that came in the wake of the gunshots was their starter pistol, in an upside-down, fucked up kind of way.
The others were shouting, but with the hearing damage he’d sustained from the collective gunfire, they sounded far away.
He stepped beyond the safety of his section of the room, joined Rain. Colt was running over to stick by Rain. Love Lost was near Marcial.
He braced himself. Don’t trust your heart. Love Lost uses anger and rage, and the rule of thumb for anger has always been to wait six seconds. After six seconds, the worst of any bout of anger will be gone.
Just endure for six seconds.
The beast, pieces of it still falling away, its head bowed, growled.
Gilpatrick felt his heart leap in his chest.
Love Lost screamed, at the top of her lungs, as if she could out-scream the giant red and blue blade-wolf. It gave the thing pause, drew its attention
Bought then more running footsteps. Five to ten paces closer to the door, as the woman communicated with this thing that had given her powers.
That same thing opened its mouth, as if to howl.
Emotions surged in Gilpatrick’s chest, but they weren’t any one emotion, nor were they every emotion together.
They were emotions like words were noise. They searched, they carried meaning, and they demanded response.
One by one, they had gone down, losing their senses, sprawling to the floor. All but for Valentin, Cox, Rain, Colt, and Love Lost.
Love Lost, the fastest runner in the group, Marcial steps behind, had made it maybe twenty paces from the door. Gilpatrick was forty.
As those emotions found their root in him, digging into his heart and memories, he could connect thoughts. He could pull out fragments, and in his efforts to fight the emotions, he clung to those fragments, that logic and understanding.
Rain had said, ‘it’s all interconnected. Everything about powers ties into this place’.
‘Colt was linked into it’.
There was even the repeated focus on the day the people belonging to this room had gotten powers. Returning to that over and over again.
The beast wasn’t just emotion. It was tied into other hardware and functions. Peak emotion. Worst days and moments.
Gilpatrick felt it find his, dredging them up and bringing them to the surface.
It was a fragment of the greater puzzle responsible or partially responsible for trigger events.
The room incapacitated with an almost casual stroke, the beast prowled forward to devour them.
He saw Valentin, Cox, and Rain at the door, dragging Early, who was small and light enough to be dragged. Love Lost stood between the beast and three of the Patrol. Colt was off to one side.
Then he saw nothing except abstract images. A glimpse of a world beyond stars, and of wells of power he might not live to tap into.