It looked like the Aurora Borealis, which Presley had seen while staying at her uncle’s cabin once, but it rested close to the ground, not in the sky, and it was red. It swelled, faded, formed bands, and dissipated into wisps, radiating up from the deep cracks that had spread across the city. It gave the snow fall and the snow on the ground a rosy tint, and because it illuminated, while she and the others stood in the dark, it made the distant sections of city seem more real than the rooftop they were gathered on.
That wasn’t new, though. It was her first good view of it, and it kept getting more intense, but what had drawn their attention and brought everyone to the rooftop was the cloud of rainbow shimmers that hung over one part of the city. She’d heard about what it was, she’d seen pictures. When everyone at the Zayin settlements had still been getting set up, that same cloud had swept over them. Nobody had been able to get a message to them to warn them. They’d fled, but communication had been all over the place, a few people had been left behind, most of the others hadn’t fled far enough. The storm had swelled in size, and it had encapsulated every settlement in Zayin. It hadn’t been a large area, but it had still been mostly everyone, and it had included the portal the rest needed to get back.
Bye bye Zayin. Entirely at Sleeper’s mercy, now.
Presley really wanted to say something about how the situation there seemed an awful lot like the situation here, but people were talking, she wasn’t sure she could get a word in edgewise, and she was even less sure that it would help anything. It would just make people more scared.
Unnerved, her stomach twisting with anxiety, Presley looked away from the lights, and looked at the faces of the people around her, all gathered on the rooftop, watching the distance.
It was like a fireworks show, the way it was so dark but the distant lights shone on their faces. There was emotion, except the emotion wasn’t amazement or awe.
A woman she didn’t know began to cry. Children as young as five turned their heads, watching, as the cries became loud sobs and inarticulate words. Other adults stepped in, distracting children, or intervening, putting themselves between the younger faces in the crowd and the woman.
Some other adults. There were still others who looked like they were on the verge of crying themselves, and were only barely keeping from going over the edge. Like when a kid in a school play hurled and set off a chain of puking kids.
Except, like, not funny at all.
“Come on, guys. Let’s get inside where it’s safe,” announced a heavyset man in overalls who looked like Santa, if Santa was a trucker.
The younger kids obeyed, with kids as old as ten seeming to take some assurance in that. Parents jumped at the chance to herd their kids away from the sight. Presley hung back, glancing at some of the other older kids and teenagers.
Inside wouldn’t be any safer. This was big, and the closest thing they had to reassurance was that they didn’t know exactly what was happening.
Presley’s dad was one of the people who’d drawn closer to the woman, who was having a full-on freakout now, her kid standing by awkwardly, wide-eyed.
Presley’s mom gave Presley a sharp look, then indicated the kid, who looked big enough to be a year older than Presley, even though he looked young for other reasons. Awkwardly, Presley gave the guy the lightest of punches on the arm to get his attention, then motioned toward the door. The punch was because it was the bare minimum, least committed of all ways she could get his attention, and she doubted he would hear her if she spoke.
She didn’t really feel like talking anyway. A lump in her throat, her stomach a heavy kind of ticklish with anxiety, she stole a glance at the red glow that was overtaking the city, then pushed the door open.
The building was some survey site, three stories tall, boxlike, made of the same prefab segments as a lot of other buildings, and covered in brick-colored spackle to hide the seams. Inside, it was exceptionally boring: every single room was like the back room in the library, which had the bare minimum of furniture, where people could have meetings, or they were like the dismal little office that the vice principal had but never used.
Now it was surrounded by tents. Furniture had been moved and stacked, and three families were crammed into rooms that should have housed one family at most.
That was just for those who had their own places to go. Presley walked fast, trusting the child of the freakout woman to follow her. Past a conference room with the table pushed into a corner, sleeping bags and blankets forming a grid on the floor. The people in that room were gathered at the window, watching the city.
The kid caught up to her, his footsteps heavy. She glanced at him.
“I’m Presley,” she said.
“You’re… thirteen?” she guessed.
He didn’t look thirteen. Even if he was older, he had that vibe, a kind of softness around the edges, that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Like maybe his mom had chosen his haircut, not him. There wasn’t any product in his hair, and it was cut to a length where parts of it stuck up and parts lay flat. Or maybe he was still shopping at places kids bought clothes, not teens: sweatpants, monochrome running shoes, and a monochrome top without any branding or anything. Or maybe it was in the expression on his face, how little he seemed to connect to this situation, or how willing he’d been to go with her.
Any one of those things could have had excuses, the world was ending, it was hard to find time to get hair gel on or find a store that sold good clothes, if you even cared about that stuff. Still… blah. He gave her a sidelong glance he seemed to think she wouldn’t notice, then fixed the fringe of hair at the edge of his forehead with a brush of his fingers.
In her classes, she’d started to notice the divide between the kids who hadn’t moved on from grade school and the ones who had. Boys were especially prone to it. She really hated to admit that the more boy crazy girls were right about anything, but when they directed ninety percent of their interest at older boys… she could sympathize.
Getting stuck with an immature kid was the worst… and now Presley was walking into the big room where there was barely any room to walk for all the piles of luggage and makeshift beds, and the dopey kid was following her.
“How are you doing?” she asked. “It’s kind of scary.”
He shrugged, his expression giving away nothing.
“Do you know where your spot is? I’ve been here for a few hours, so if you need directions…?”
Maybe he’d take the hint and go away.
“Our stuff’s in the lobby,” he said. “I guess I’ll get it later.”
“Oh,” she said.
He kept following her.
“Why’d you tell me to come with?” he asked.
“My mom and dad were giving me the evil eye and pointing at you. I think your mom needs a moment,” she said. She gave him an apologetic look, both because she was preemptively shooting down any interest he might have, and because it had to be awkward.
“She’s such a loser,” he replied.
Presley wasn’t sure how to answer that.
“She hasn’t had a job since Gold Morning. She freaks out a lot. It sucks, having to be the one with his shit together.”
Mom isn’t going to give me any credit for having to put up with this guy.
Presley wanted to tell him to go on, or find an excuse, but she’d already reached the spots her family had reserved and laid claim to. She unconsciously put a hand on the back of a chair she’d used to set up the border of the space, and Caden immediately sat himself down in another chair, belonging to another family that wasn’t present.
Was it better to ignore him? She turned to her setup. Her bed was layered, with a towel on the floor, clothes laid out as evenly as she’d been able to manage as a middle layer, another towel, and then a sheet on top. Her pillow, she was lucky, was an actual pillow. She’d carried it under her arm the entire way here. Her parents had clothes stuffed into pillowcases.
Before they’d gone to the windows to look, then gone upstairs for a better view, Presley had been trying to set up her area. She’d dragged two chairs to either end of her sleeping area, and strung one line of twine between the backrests of the chairs. The twine was threaded through the sleeves of two dresses she never wore, and the dresses hung down to provide a limited curtain. She started adjusting the length of the twine, winding it around the metal bit of the chair that held the cheap plastic cushion up.
“Why are you doing that?” Caden asked.
“Does it really matter?” he asked. “Your chairs are taking up space. Just saying.”
She picked up her backpack, which was stuffed to bursting, and plunked it down on the seat. She scooted it closer to her, so the chair stood over where her feet would go, and put one foot beneath the chair, before giving Caden a pointed look.
“You’re going to hate that you did that when you kick your legs while sleeping.”
“I don’t think I’m going to sleep a wink tonight. I don’t think anyone is.”
“Then why do you have a bed?” he asked.
“Because if I didn’t I’d have no place to sit and have a moment of peace,” she told him, stressing the last part.
She stood up on her knees and unzipped her bag. Mostly it was essentials like toiletries and a spare change of clothes, and an extra layer, but there was other stuff she just wanted to keep with her, like her old phone, which she planned to charge up when she charged her current phone, so she could game if she needed distractions.
Then there was the stuff she’d pulled off her wall, slotted into the front flap. She winced as she saw how it had been bent into a curve by the bulge from the main compartment of the bag. She smoothed out the photograph she’d had printed.
Victoria, Swansong, and Capricorn on the train. Swansong and Capricorn were doing the selfless shot thing, teasing the camera with hints about their identities. She’d seen their faces though.
Seeing the photo and remembering the sun shining through the little windows in the train car was reassuring, as much as seeing Swansong was sad. By looking at the picture, she could imagine being there, back then, when things had been okay and cool, even promising. Compared to then, the only light that came from outside was ominous, alien, and she had no idea what it meant.
She studied the picture, immersing herself in it. The quirk of an eyebrow on Swansong’s part, the way her shoulder hunched forward, a little defensive. Capricorn was pretty, as boys went.
She used the stick-tack still on the back of the photo and pressed it to one button on the dress-curtain. One step toward making this crowded, noisy, bright, unhappy place a little more like home.
Caden’s seat creaked as he leaned closer, looking. She almost took the picture down in response.
“Holy shitballs. I recognize two of those people. So you’re a fangirl. I was wondering what was with the hair.”
“I’m not a fangirl,” she told Caden, bristling. “I met them. I email them and talk to them sometimes. I knew them before they were a team. I keep track of them.”
“You realize you just described a fangirl? ‘I knew them before they were big’ is hyper-fangirl.”
Presley turned and stared at the guy, not sure of how to reply. She was secretly glad she had already come to the conclusion that he was just a kid, even if he was older than her, or else she might have picked up one of the chairs and tried to clobber him.
Probably not. The risk she wouldn’t be strong or fast enough was too big, and it was tied with twine.
Even if she wanted to say something, there was a commotion halfway down the room. She looked, making sure it wasn’t an emergency. The Sleeper’s storm coming closer, or something with the red lights. It looked more likely it was an argument or a fight. People had gathered in the stairwell and the crowd at the foot of the stairs was thick enough they couldn’t get all the way down.
“Excuse me!” she heard the voice. “Excuse me!”
The noise of the sheer number of people drowned out the other words. Way more than one person for every sleeping spot. She sat up at attention, then stood, propping one foot up on the chair and trying to get to a position to see above the crowd.
The person at the other end of the hall beat her to it, getting help to climb up onto a tall stack of food supplies, all in waterproof plastic containers. “Excuse me! Hello! This is important! Thank you!”
The noise died down to a low murmur.
He was tan like he’d used a tanning bed, and his hair was blonde. She thought he might be a superhero, looking at him. He wore a shirt fancier than most businessmen would wear, still in the button-up style, and a tie he’d loosened. His sleeves were rolled up.
He spoke, his voice raised to carry across the room, “I know phones and internet aren’t working consistently and the people you’d call if you could obviously aren’t in their offices. I’ve just made the drive, as many others are doing, to let you all know what’s happened.”
Happened, not happening.
The low murmurs died out.
“My name is Eric Kingston, I’m an employee with the Wardens, and I worked directly under and with Cinereal. I need to go over some of the recent events, let you know what’s happened with the cracking, and equip you with the knowledge for what comes next. I need all of you to let me go over this before any outcry, upset, or questions. No interruptions, please keep the noise down.”
Presley looked for her mom and dad. She saw a face that might have been her mom’s in the stairwell.
“First of all, the Sleeper is retreating. He is not an immediate danger, and we will let you know as soon as we can, if that changes.”
His request for silence after his statements might have been futile. Murmurs rose to a volume, people talking over other people, to the point he didn’t seem like he could talk.
“That’s good news,” Caden said, his voice joining the babble. Presley pressed a finger to her lips.
At the other end of the room, someone rapped something hard against the cases. Mr. Kingston looked a little alarmed at first, but the effect did bring some silence.
“The Sleeper was lured to the city specifically to slow down the Titans and was used to trap the Simurgh. Some of our best minds and strategists are confident the Simurgh is dealt with.”
The noise was much louder this time, but the rapping against the plastic cases immediately cut it off.
“That’s the good news. The bad news is the red glow you’ve no doubt noticed. We’ve settled on a plan for dealing with it. Earlier tonight the Wardens put out a blanket request for aid in descending into those cracks and doing strategic damage to what lies beneath, the core of powers-”
Voices were raised, this time they were questions.
She had questions too. He’d jumped straight to saying there were answers without explaining what the glow was.
The rapping grew louder and drawn out, while Mr. Kingston stood atop the stack of plastic crates, mouth shut, waiting.
Eventually people shut up.
“The powers are rooted in another, malign force-”
“Scion!” someone exclaimed, loud.
“-We thought we dealt with it when we dealt with Scion, but the boulder he set in motion is still rolling downhill and has been for the last two years. What you’re seeing is the end effect. We do have a plan to deal with it, but this is serious. That red glow… left unchecked, this Earth and every other Earth, including the ones we know about and the ones we don’t, will be wiped out.”
The noise this time was inevitable. Shouts, exclamations, cries of fear.
Presley looked down at the photo.
“We do have a plan!” Mr. Kingston called out. “We do have a plan! Please! Listen! The hill-”
He seemed to give up at that. Waiting, hanging his head.
Some people left the room. Others made the effort to squeeze themselves in. Presley was glad she had the chairs bordering her space, or people might have edged in or started walking on her sleeping spot.
“Thank you,” Mr. Kingston said, after the volume had dropped. “The hill that this boulder is rolling down is powers, to put it in the simplest terms I can. The damage we did last night was intended as an attack on that. We’ve executed a different plan in the last hour, and capes across Gimel and the associated territories have been drugged, with sixty percent compliance. We’re hoping that rises to seventy-three percent in the next few hours.”
This time, there were no real interruptions. Maybe a babble of questions.
“There are others we can’t reach because we don’t have access to those Earths, but an imprisoned villain named Teacher is providing some assistance in giving us access to those worlds and helping us find capes who are harder to reach. That may bring the number higher. While drugged, they will dream. The dreams will be unpleasant, but… the main purpose is to pollute the source of powers and then disconnect them.”
There were several questions. One voice was stronger and more confident than others, and he might have been one of the leaders in the building, because people quieted down on hearing him speak. “You’re taking away their powers?”
“No,” Eric said. “That’s not truly possible, not on the scale we needed. The drug, left in their system, will kill them.”
This time, Presley’s exclamation joined the voices across the room. Surprise, shock. In her own case, dismay.
No. It couldn’t be.
She reached for her bag, fumbling, digging for her phone.
“No,” Eric answered a question she hadn’t heard. “Listen. This-”
Presley hit the button to make the call before turning to look, phone to her ear. She heard the ring.
“-is a datafob, it contains what you need to reverse the effects. It’s not easy, and they made it difficult on purpose- excuse me!”
Again, stupid people talked over him.
The phone rang. No answer.
“They made it difficult and they spread themselves out across multiple settlements and places to further obfuscate the answer. The Titans want that ball to finish rolling downhill.”
The phone kept ringing.
“They want the Earth annihilated, it’s part of how they breed. Like viruses. We are holding what they want, the powers, the data, hostage. We knew if it was just the capes, that wouldn’t be enough. You, humanity, civilians, are the bigger, broader safety net… or the ones to carry on. It’s up to you in the end, to choose. Wardens felt it was important to give you that choice, or else this would be tyranny.”
“Choose what?” someone asked.
“You can save them or you can let them die.”
“It’s manipulation!” someone else called out. “They’re holding themselves hostage with us, too!”
“I can promise you,” Eric said, and he looked upset and angry in a way he hadn’t when people had been shouting you. “There are capes who are prepared to die. There are capes who trust each and every one of you enough that they’re willing to put their lives in your hands, as they’ve done for you on multiple occasions, not just in the here and now. The decision wasn’t easy for any of them.”
“What if we just brought back the good ones?” asked the deeper voice from before. The leader.
“You can, but you run a risk. The queen Titan… let’s just say she has similar powers to the Simurgh. The smaller you keep the core group of capes, the easier it is for her to make a move that outplays us all. To counter this, with as many capes and civilians as we’re talking about, she’d need to make billions of moves, and that takes time, and it takes energy. We think that’s enough to trump her.”
“You’re not sure?”
“Some of our best masterminds and heroes thought this was the best course of action,” Mr. Kingston said. “For obvious reasons, they didn’t take this lightly. Listen. We’ve done a lot of tonight’s preparation by keeping our big thinkers and most capable people behind precogs, to confound her and slow her down. Right now she’s diminished, trying to bring that rock downhill and to the finish line. She’s preoccupied with the dreaming and the pollution, we hope. The most dangerous capes are in secure custody and they’ll be in secure custody when they wake up. If you wake them up. It’s up to you, we can’t make you and we wouldn’t make you.”
“Will the Titans go away?”
“I don’t know,” Eric said. “We don’t know. But that’s part of this plan. Part of why it matters if you keep the capes around or if you don’t. If you do… this will always be a card we can play in response, if there’s enough capes and enough of you willing to cooperate. Obviously a few key parahumans would hold the ‘drug’. If you don’t… the way forward will be hard. We have stockpiles of tinker equipment made for people to use… no promises on some of it, we have reams of data, everything you could hope for to track down and counter the parahumans who remained. A man named Saint has taken countermeasures against the Machine Army and is hopeful they could be an asset, but no promises. In any event, he’s not a parahuman, he has resources. But it will be hard. Whatever happens, you’ll be going through this winter with less than you had in prior winters.”
The notion of winter gave Presley a chill. The phone had gone to voice message, except the response was a crackly, “The voice message service cannot be reached. You may wish to try again, or contact your provider about changing to a different audio channel…”
She hung up. Her hands shook.
Eric went on, “Whether they were okay with this course of action hinged largely on whether they trusted you, collectively. This is about you and them.”
He paused, giving that last segment some weight.
“Others with similar datafobs are visiting the other refugee settlements. If and when you come to a decision, or if you don’t come to a decision and want to give me your input, I’ll take that back to the others. We’ll leave the data with you. Locations of capes, the means of waking them up. It’ll be up to you to carry it out. I can answer any questions now. I can give you clarifications. ”
She could hear people talking now.
Frozen, tense, she listened, and she heard the people nearest her talking about relief, hope. Concerns about the winter. Concerns that the red light was still there, even with this supposed plan.
She heard one person say something about saving lives, doing for the heroes what the heroes had done for them.
Then more people jumped in with their own answers. Rebuttals. Arguments. Anti-parahuman sentiment.
The first person didn’t speak up again, staying quiet.
She tried another number on her phone. Immediately, it blinked, telling her there was no service.
Presley stood up, picked up her bag from the chair, and nearly flung the contents out of it while slinging it over her shoulder. She zipped it and fled the room. Toward the stairs, which had cleared some. Up toward the roof.
A part of her wanted to find her parents. To act like a little kid, to plead with them to fix it.
Another part of her just wanted to make a call, to get through to these heroes who had been so good to her. Who might have been part of the sixty or seventy percent who had agreed to this insanity.
They didn’t realize what the people were like. How many people were awful, or untrustworthy, or stupid and shortsighted.
She tried again, as she made her way up the stairs. Then she tried again, at the top of the stairs. A hand brushed her shoulder and it might have been her mom or her dad. She wasn’t sure.
She reached the rooftop, and she stepped outside. Cold, but she still wore her jacket from earlier. Her ears were partially protected by the hair she’d bleached white, which now had brown roots because she hadn’t had the chance to bleach it again.
“Please, pick up Victoria. Please.”
She hit the button for the fourth time, the wind blowing around her.
The ringing started.
One and a half rings, and the person on the other end picked up.
“Hey, Presley,” the voice came through. Young.
“Yeah. Sorry. I saw the call go through, but Victoria can’t answer.”
“She’s… she took the drug?”
The voice on the other end made an amused sound. “Not a drug, but yeah. I see on my computer here that Eric made it to where you are. He just filled you in, I guess.”
“Why?” Presley asked. “There had to be other ways.”
“We tried most of them. Think of it like a sickness. We realized we couldn’t do it on our own, like someone with cancer who needs chemo, so we reached out for help. We’re trusting you. Some really didn’t and we had to deal with that, and some didn’t but came around, or saw this as a heroic sacrifice. But others, like me, I trust you guys.”
“I don’t know if we deserve that trust,” Presley told Lookout. She thought of the voices. The sentiment.
“You guys trusted us a lot, letting us do our thing even when we messed up. I definitely made some embarrassing mess-ups, believe me, haha! You gave us second chances. But listen… Presley, we love you, I love you, it’s fun getting the messages and fanart, but I’ve got like an hour of work to do and only twenty minutes to do it, maybe, so-”
“You took it?”
“Haha, yeah. I did say I trust you. I truly, one hundred percent believe people are good, Presley. I love people. I know this will be okay… and I’m not sure we have enough. The red light’s still shining and the cracks and crystallization is spreading, so I’m going to contribute my point-one percent.”
“Already done, prez. And we are going to hang out again. I’d stake my life on it.”
Presley’s mouth opened, but words didn’t come out.
“That was a joke. Imp’s rubbing off on me. Um! But okay, I’m going to patch you through, but I really, really, really have to get work done. See you later! Don’t tell Natalie what I did!”
The phone had already crackled. Now it rang.
Presley blinked several times.
On the fourth ring, this time, there was an answer.
“Natalie Matteson here. Who’s calling?”
“Presley,” Presley said, her voice tight with emotion.
“Oh, honey.” Presley could hear the noise of a car in the background.
“I shouldn’t call you if you’re driving. I didn’t want her to bother you.”
“It’s okay,” Natalie said. “I’m on my way to a settlement. My car is… turns out it’s terrible for driving on roads like these. I’m getting a ride. Where are you? Who gave the presentation?”
“E- I forget his first name. Kingston.”
“How did he do?”
“He… I don’t think people want to bring the capes back.”
“That’s just one place. Let’s hope. I’m supposed to present this to a group of two hundred people and I swear, if it wasn’t this important, I’d chicken out. I’m so worried I’ll stammer, with the stakes so high.”
“Didn’t you want to be a lawyer?” Presley asked, leaning onto the snow-dusted railing. In the distance, Sleeper’s cloud was receding.
“I don’t think I could speak in front of a judge and jury. Probably.”
Presley didn’t have a ready response, except, “Good luck.”
“Thank you. I hope I don’t need it.”
Presley thought about asking questions, stopped herself, then thought about it again, and in the re-thinking, she found herself blurting it out. “Did they all take the drug?”
“Different reasons, hon. I talked to Victoria in advance, then talked to her when she handed me the data. I think she’s spooked. She hopes for the best, but she plans for the worst. She puts a lot on herself, so she took it in the grimmest possible terms. A lot of this was her idea.”
“No,” Presley said, shaking her head.
“As for Precipice, Capricorn Blue, and Tress, I think they trust people. They didn’t see it as dying or putting their lives on the line. Or if they did, they didn’t let it show. Neither did Lookout, but she was too young, we didn’t let her.”
Presley swallowed. She almost told Natalie, but Lookout could be listening, and Natalie didn’t need distractions.
“And Capricorn Red?” Presley asked. “He didn’t get pulled along into what his brother wanted?”
“…He sided with his brother. I think it was important for him that he do that for his brother.”
“And Cryptid? What about Swansong’s sister?”
“I don’t know about Cryptid. He eluded capture. Swansong’s sister is in custody. She tried to attack Lookout, hit a projection instead. When and if she wakes up, she’ll be imprisoned. She wasn’t doing very well, toward the end.”
Presley could hear the distant rumble of Natalie’s ride working its way through snow and ice.
“What happens next?” Presley asked. She looked out at the red light, the glowing city.
“I don’t know, Presley,” Natalie said. “But I can tell you-”
The call crackled.
“Can’t hear you,” Natalie said. “The- -bye.”
“Bye,” Presley said.
She hung up, her fingers numb, and jammed hand and phone into her coat pocket, her bag heavy on shoulders sore from carrying that bag for hours, earlier.
The red glow pulsed, danced across the sky, formed patterns. When it reached certain points, she imagined she could see the distant Titans.
She’d been right. They hadn’t run far enough away, just like Sleeper and Zayin. The world was going to blow up, or the capes were going to die.
“I guess you’re going to need another team to root for,” Caden said.
Presley turned around. Caden was there. There were some other people at other points along the roof, trying to make calls. Adults, not paying much attention to her.
“Maybe basketball? Baseball?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she told him.
“I know you’re going to get over this in a few years. And by the time you’re out of high school, you’re going to be embarrassed you got teary eyed over some dorks in costume.”
She wiped at her eye, and found the moisture there. “No. That’s not it.”
“They did what they were supposed to. This is what capes are for. It’s why we kept them around.”
“Don’t use past tense,” she spoke the words through gritted teeth. “That decision hasn’t been made yet.”
“It kind of already has. It was made years ago, around Gold Morning, but we didn’t get the chance to do anything about it.”
She strode across the roof, and gave him a shove. “They’re people! People with stories, and the rest of their lives to live!”
“You’re way overinvested,” Caden said, glancing at a bearded man in trucker wear who had turned around to intervene, his phone still at his ear.
She twisted around, pulling off her bag, and bent down to unzip it.
“No weapons,” the bearded man said, before turning his head, “I’ll call you back.”
She pulled her hand free of her bag, her fist gripping clumps of images she’d printed out.
“This is Antares, and she went to hospitals to give sick kids a try at flying!” she said, marching forward, until the bearded man put himself between her and the stupid kid Caden. “Look at this- look-”
She fumbled through the pictures with numb fingers, trying desperately to keep from dropping them. If the wind took them, she might lose them forever.
“What am I supposed to look at?” Caden asked, almost taunting.
“Just… a second.”
She found it. A recent-ish picture of Victoria. No costume, no hood, and her top was short-sleeved.
“Look at the scars. Look at that. I can tell you what some of those were. She mentioned in passing she’d been shot, stopping Fallen. She’s been burned. She’s been cut.”
“Heroes get hurt, it’s what they’re supposed to do.”
“She got hurt because she fought the monsters who would gave gone after people like you and me, if they hadn’t been stopped! She- no, it’s not what they’re supposed to do!”
She dug through the photos again, and wished desperately she were more articulate. As if she could argue against this stupid kid with anti-parahuman sentiment, and represent her side better. How many other people were having this debate? Discussing this very thing?
How many of them had the close relationship with a team, or the information that she had? She’d followed Breakthrough from the beginning. They’d started small and they’d risen to the point that they were helping make plans this big work. Stupid, desperate plans, but…
…If she couldn’t convince this moron, how could anyone convince the others?
She pulled out more. One with Precipice in an old costume. “Precipice went to jail, because he was raised by monsters. He has worked hard to be a hero, since. He’s fought to be better.”
“He went to jail.”
She pulled out one of Victoria, her arm around Swansong’s shoulders. She had to take a step to the left because the bearded dude was keeping her from lunging at Caden and mashing the pictures into his face. “Swansong. Ex-villain, and she got better. She gave her life stopping the Fallen, I think it was. It was a lot. Teacher and the Fallen and others, and those guys would have won if not for people like Swansong. And it was sad and it was tragic, and Lookout, their kid tinker, she said she hurts every day because of Swansong dying.”
“A lot of sob stories.”
“No, and fuck you. This is what they’re supposed to do because it’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s what you’re supposed to do. We get better. We push forward, we give our all, even if it means reaching out to shit-breathers like you to help and back them up. They struggle constantly. Tress and Capricorn had to deal with messed up stuff, but they were good in the end. And that’s just one team-”
Presley’s dad appeared in the doorway.
“-and that’s important,” she finished, lamely, limply. She’d crumpled some of the images in her hand in her anger. Now she pressed them to her side.
“Sorry, John, was there a problem?” Her dad asked.
“No,” the bearded man said. “A fight. Passionate words.”
“You know him?” she asked her dad.
“My boss, or- my boss’s boss, I should say,” her dad said.
Presley shrank down, mollified, aware she might have badly embarrassed her dad.
Her dad asked her, “What were you fighting about?”
“Fangirl rage,” Caden chimed in.
Presley almost crumpled up the images again, and if her dad hadn’t been here, and if she hadn’t had her dad here, if she hadn’t embarrassed her dad just now, she would have shouted at the kid, threatened to push him down those stairs behind him.
“Your mom’s downstairs, Caden. She’s looking for you,” her dad said.
She was glad when Caden retreated, ducking back inside.
“Sorry for the trouble,” her dad said to the bearded man.
“No trouble. Strong feelings are very understandable, given what’s on the line. I’ll leave you with your daughter. I owe someone a phone call.”
“Actually, I came looking for you. I didn’t see her slip upstairs. They want you downstairs.”
“To keep order, they want a couple of people to speak, share thoughts. Names the community respects. You were at the top of the list.”
“Ah. I suppose I should organize those thoughts of mine. My colleague can wait for his call.”
“Do you know where you stand?” her dad asked.
“I have to admit, I was on the fence,” John said. “I was.”
Was. Past tense.
The man put a heavy hand on Presley’s shoulder as he departed.
“Your boss’s boss?”
“John Druck. He runs my company, he headed the unions, negotiated for the construction groups with the mayor, and was briefly a candidate for mayor. He might wear overalls and a jacket with oil stains on it, but he’s respected.”
“Oh,” she said.
She got her stuff sorted, and she let her father lead her back downstairs, helping her navigate the crowd of way too many people in way too small a space, gathered to listen.
She found her spot, and settled in between her mom and the photo she’d stuck to the dress. Mr. Druck wasn’t speaking yet, but she didn’t hate the woman minister who was talking about the decisions being made.
It would be a long night. Sleepless. That was much as she’d expected, but in a very different way.
The people who hadn’t fallen asleep stood at the windows. They watched.
The red was fading, growing lighter. It was hard to tell with the way the sky was changing colors, but it was overcast… she could look at the snow and see the pinkness of the light shining on it diminishing.
She held her fathers hand, firm. She wasn’t the only person who was holding someone’s hand. Everyone watched, tense, as danger faded.
“We’re getting word,” someone said. One of Eric’s colleagues that had come in with him. The voice was too loud, considering that maybe one in five people in the room were still sleeping. Others were at other windows, or were up at the roof. “The Queen Titan crumbled. Two others followed shortly after.”
“What does that mean?” John Druck asked, and he was considerate with his volume.
“It means she decided on her path,” Eric said. “She wanted the cycle to continue… and rather than fight us, us, every step of the way, the easiest way to do that is to let us carry on.”
“It should be. We should wake up our capes.”